Thursday, May 29, 2014

War like an Egyptian? Kemet (2012)

Two things drew me to look at Kemet; first I am a fan of Matagot's other "dudes on a map" game, the imperfect Cyclades. Second, from reading the games descriptions on-line I suspected it may have been similar to an unpublished design I put together a few years ago. (It isn't, thank jeez)

Kemet is a boardgame of conquest and clashing gods set in ancient Egypt; each player plays a deity seeking to control the Nile Delta via warfare, magic and summoning mythical beasts. Like Cyclades players control an army of followers earning resources in order to conquer cities and temples. Kemet is a much more straightforward military game than it's Greek cousin, development is simplified and there are no favours from the gods for auction.

Like Cyclades it is a game of strategic placement and management, attempting to capture key points on the map and earn victory points. Victory points are earned from controlling locations (temples and pyramids), buying certain upgrades and for winning battles as the attacker against the other players. A player need 8 Victory points at the end of the turn to claim victory, and many of these are "temporary" as they are based on controlling certain locations on the map so fortune can shift quickly and decisively.

Each player starts the game controlling a city, within the city are spots for three Pyramids, the source of many of your godly powers. Each player has three Pyramids (basically massive d4s) each of a different colour (Blue, Red and White) which they build and upgrade as the game goes one. The rating of the Pyramids dictates which powertiles (upgrades) a player can buy with each upgrade coloured to correspond to a pyramid; Blue powers are movement and defence, Red Attack and White resource manipulation. Pyramids also become worth a victory point when upgraded to level 4, but this point can be stolen if another player conquers the space with your Pyramid on it.

Each turn is split into a night and day phase. Night phase is effectively a clean up phase, players earn mana which is used to buy powers, troops and play cards, they draw Divine Intervention card (cards that give one shot bonuses, like extra attack or movement or troops) and determine initiative. The Day phase is where most action happens, each player has five actions each turn with play alternating as players take one action at a time. Each play sheet has a number of action spaces, each can only be used once so the number of times you can perform a given action is limited. (Certain powers grant extra tokens or allow the player to use the gold space that grants a Recruit or move action) Players can Move (which allows them to start battles), Recruit (creates new troops), Buy powers, upgrade Pyramids or Pray (generating Mana).

Outside resourcing (Buying powers, Upgrading Pyramids and Praying) a lot of the game is spent manoeuvring troops to capture the various temples or assault enemy cites to grab their Pyramids. The map layout is different depending on the number of players, balanced to provide a certain number of temples and other special sites. Moving armies is incredibly dynamic in this game thanks to the ability for players to teleport troops from their pyramids to one of the many Obelisk spaces, combined with regular movement this allows players to attack from many different angles. Unlike many "dudes on a map" games (Risk, Dust, Twilight Imperium for example), Kemet punishes turtling play by heavily rewarding attacks. It is possible to do well playing the defensive game but a single critical loss can swing that strategy very quickly into a loosing one.
Combat is totally card based, each player has a deck of combat cards which he selects two from when combat starts. One is discarded with no effect (to stop card counting) and the other is played into the combat. Each has three numbers, attack, damage and defence which determine who wins a combat and how many casualties are inflicted on each side as a result. Divine intervention cards are played before the cards are revealed and often increase the numbers on the cards. When a player runs out of cards they just recycle the discards into their deck. Combat is very quick when players have the hang of it.
Players not only have troops but can summon the power of various monsters and mythical beasts to assist their armies. These are purchased as power tiles and each one accompanies an army usually enhancing it's abilities and movement. (sometimes giving other powers as well)

Overall it is a very tense game, with cards being the only real random element it still manages to stay very dynamic due to the power tiles and well designed maps. It is perhaps best with four or five players and is a very quick play once people have the hang of it. A great addition to any gaming collection especially if you are a fan of "Dudes on a map" games, very few are able to get this level of dynamic conflict whilst still giving players a huge number of strategic choices at all times.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Anatomy of a concept: Deck Building Games

I realized a while back that I do review a lot of deck builders here, probably has they tend to get a lot of play at my gaming table. I think it is also because I like the mechanic so darn much. I think it stems from a love of CCGs but a dislike of the constant collecting and buying that they often entail. (Not to mention pre game prep, deck building and the like. You can't just sit down and play, especially with new players) So in another occasional series I am going to walk through a potted history of the Deck builder and try to de-construct the concept that was oh so big a year or so ago.

Pre-history: Collectable and Customizable card games.

Love it or hate it, Magic: The Gathering changed gaming as a whole. Not just card gaming; but roleplaying, boardgaming and computer games as well. No genre of gaming was left untouched by the 1993 release of the world's first collectable card game. The now simple concept of allowing players to construct the deck of cards they played the game with created a vast number of possibilities for game play just out of the (albeit imbalanced) core set. Naturally it was a huge hit and a flood of other games using the same collectable design followed.
As the tides of CCGs rose and then subsided other games using elements of the constructable mechanic emerged. 2002's Scarab Lords is one of the earlier designs to use the deck construction concept outside the CCG, allowing players to buy cards between matches to improve their decks. Another design by Reiner Knizia that incorporated these elements was 2004's Blue Moon, which was sold as ready to play decks that could be broken up to create custom decks. Fantasy Flight games very much had that concept in mind when they switched from producing CCGs to so called Living Card games. Effectively CCGs that had fixed sets of cards to expand the game rather than randomly sorted packs.

The boom of Deck Builders over the past few years is down to one game in particular; 2008's Dominion, a game that I referred to as "too clever by half" after my first play. Dominion took what a lot of people enjoyed about CCGs, building decks, and made a game of it. Players start with a very basic deck and would play hands of cards to buy new and better cards, adding them to their deck as they go on. In what would become a pattern for the whole genre Dominion has a small number of fixed cards available and then a series of random cards to give each game played a difference in style and strategy.
Just like Magic, Dominion inspired a number of other games and the Deck Building game quickly became a major game archetype. Dominion forms the first flavour of Deck Builder and most of the early ones follow it's lead with a few new mechanics added to the basic shell. Dominion is at it's heart is a very simple game whose dynamics change with the introduction of a new set of 10 random cards available for players to buy. Normally the optimal deck build is apparent very early on and players move towards that in their play choices. The games created that immediately followed Dominion tended to add a few more random elements to gameplay. Thunderstone for example is structurally the same game, except it replaces victory cards with a dungeon full of monsters which players need to defeat to score points. The monsters are a random element, they are introduced to the game via a dungeon deck and often have negative effects on players. (And tend to replace Dominion's Attack cards in functionality) Some of it's resource mechanics are more complicated, there is a division between Hero cards, Equipment and events but essentially you build combos from a series of card pools.

2010-The Ascension of the Deck Builder
The biggest change in the core mechanic of the Deck Builder happened in 2010 with the release of Stoneblade's Ascension: Chronicles of the Godslayer. Ascension made a major change to Dominion's core game play, 10 random decks were replaced by a large "centre deck". This centre deck would make a certain number of cards (6 in the case of Ascension) available to purchase/defeat but rather than being from a certain number of fixed stacks these cards could be any card available in the metagame. The cards that are available each game was no longer a known quantity for the players as any card could appear, and many cards would not. This created a game with a lot more on the fly deck building than Dominion, in many ways reminiscent of popular Draft formats from CCGs.
The Ascension "Centre deck" style Deck Builder has quickly become the dominant style with many of the games created during the boom period (2011-2012) for the genre using Ascension as a base. The difference between the two styles tends to cut along the old Euro vs American games lines, Dominion being taken as more serious and strategic and Ascension more random and wild.

Most of the Deck Building games produced tend toward Dominion or Ascension in varying degrees, which has caused the genre to loose steam over the past year. There have been a few games however that have attempted to do something more, successfully or not, with the mechanic. Possibly the most notable in my opinion is Nightfall, a very odd ball game to say the least but once you come to know it a very clever one. Nightfall is essentially a Dominion like game, save that is adds two unique features. First it is one of the few Deck Builders that has proper player vs player combat, second the random cards included with the game are added using a draft mechanic. The Draft mechanic involves each player being dealt a certain number of draft cards, selecting one and then passing the hand around selecting a new one each time. The selected cards become the cards available for purchase during the game.
The second outlier is FFG's attempt to enter this genre, the "I wanted to like it so much" Runeage. Runeage is basically Dominion with scenarios and little variety, it is unique in that it tries to give players Asynchronous starter decks and have more objective based game play. It sadly fails despite some nice purchase and discard mechanics, the core set is like many of the FFG small boxes too small. The deck construction opportunities are quite paltry as well as you generally buy from a few stacks of cards unique to your race and three (or six if you have the expansion) neutral stacks that are fixed by scenario. It seems to lack the random interactions you get from other Deckbuilders, so sadly Optimal deck build is Optimal every game unlike Dominion where the value of a card is based on the other cards that are available to combo...

It would seem that the age of the Deck Builder maybe on the wane, Dice pool games seem to be taking over the new hawtness position with game companies. They are an important genre though as many games have started using the mechanics popularized in Dominion. City of Iron, Blood Bowl Team Manager and Starcraft (Sadly out of print) are great examples of the concepts of the deck builder adding to a more traditional board or card game. With luck someone will develop a build along the lines of a "third way" to bring some life back to the genre. Only time will tell and with Board gaming that could be a month or a decade away.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Big Space Games: Eclipse

Eclipse is a euroeqsue take on the popular space empire building game that has existed almost as long as modern strategy boardgaming. It made quite a large splash when released in 2011 bringing with it comparisons with another big space boardgame, Fantasy Flight's big box flagship Twilight Imperium. While the games share many similarities on the surface, at their hearts they are two quite different takes on the space empire builder. Which one is superior? Well that depends on what you like in a game ultimately, both have their distinct style but Eclipse is the definite geek favorite of the moment ranked #7 on the charts. (That makes it the seventh best game in existence at the moment based on the rankings system of Boardgame geek.)

Comparing the two games is a little like comparing Star Trek and Babylon 5, two giants that have many similarities but quite different hearts. The classic aspects of the Big Space Game in my opinion can be divided into a couple of categories which each game focuses on in different measure: Exploration, Politics, Economy, Conflict, and Technology. The classic Cosmic Encounter for example gives the player Politics and Conflict in good measure but is weak in the other areas, Race for the Galaxy has Economy , Tech and Exploration but almost no inter player politics or conflict. (I know expansions do change this, but this holds true for the core games at the very least) TI is a great game of Technology, Politics and Conflict. It has an OK Economy element and an optional exploration element. (Not a very popular one I might add as it greatly lengthens play time) How does the new popular kid on the block fare? We shall see.

Eclipse contains on it's surface some elements of TI and of many BSGs, hex based star system maps, fleets of ships, tech trees and race sheets. It defiantly owes a lot to TI, which is funny as TI in it's third edition borrowed very heavily on some Euros like Citadels for it's non liner turn order. Eclipse starts like TI with each player controlling a home system set up around a central hub system. Unlike TI the rest of the universe is hidden and ripe for exploration. The Race sheet and it's many tokens is very much the center of play for each player, using a very innovative economy mechanic to track each players expansion. As players take actions they use control tokens which increase the end of turn cost of maintaining their empire, players can take as many actions as they like in a turn but it becomes more and more costly. Actions include movement of fleets, exploration, researching or upgrading your ships. Not only that but players must use control tokens to control star systems, making a larger empire more and more costly. Resources come in three types (Money, Research and Building) and your empires totals are cleverly tracked using a population track, from which you remove population cubes and add them to conquered planets each one increasing you rating the that resource.
Most of the rest of the game springs from these very nice central elements lasting a fixed number of turns and being decided at the end by totaling victory points. But how does Eclipse go when it comes to the 5 elements of the BSG? Well lets break that down below.

Exploration: The big plus for this game is it's exploration mechanic. The universe is laid out much like TI, a central hex with two rings around it. The outer most ring contains the homeworld of each player, the other hexes outside the center are taken from a random stack of tiles and are facedown with their contents hidden. As players explore they explore these face down tiles or explore outwards drawing tiles from a stack of extra tiles dealt at the start of the game. Not only that, players can reject tiles and add them back to the stack in favor of possibly getting a better one, making the exploration element less luck based. As the game goes on you truly lay out a universe that is unique, placing tiles and their wormholes to restrict movement or give access to certain other players.Exploration is rewarded as well, there are worlds to be found, exploration tiles that grant bonuses as well as points for controlling some systems.

Politics: Eclipse has a small amount of politics and diplomacy outside the normal table talk. TI's council mechanic is probably a more complex political game but Eclipse has a very neat trade pact/alliance system. It even has a traitor mechanic so that the last person who breaks a treaty is punished with negative victory points.

Economy: As noted above the economics of the game are very elegant and are a very nice base that rest of the game is built upon. The economics is mostly self management but there is a limited trade mechanic as noted above. This technology and exploration is by far the games shining elements.

Conflict: The conflict element of the game is perhaps it's weakest, conflict occurs but the nature of the game makes it a calculated move that only occurs between players once or twice a game. Most conflict is between players and the NPC ships belonging to the ancients that appear on the map while exploring. Combat is a dice fest that is mostly dominated by technology and fleet size, and there are some point rewards for warfare. The lack of any hidden objectives tends to suck some of this element out of the game, conflict is usually very rational and once people are happy with the amount of points they have gained via war they generally stop fighting.

Technology: Sci fi game fans love the tech, and while there is no big set tech tree the highly granular nature of tech in this game makes this element another winner. Techs are randomly dealt onto a tech board and purchased by players in any order they like, having more technologies from one area will make future ones cheaper. The big thing is that this system also allows players to customize their ships, upgrading elements of ships by ship class adding armour or weapons or better drives. Ships have powerplants that restrict what can be used so it really is a game of building spaceships in great detail.

Overall? A great game. I have some predilections against some of the more Euro elements as I like some surprises in my BSGs, but it is a classic and fast playing when you have a group of experienced players which is a big advantage over TI. As I have mentioned a couple of times, the core of the game is very very elegant and strong, the different races also are quite balanced and are mostly just tweaks on the basic economic system. In particular the number of moves you get per action (ie. Number of builds, number of upgrades, number of ship moves per action) is modified which make each race feel very different to play without special powers or exceptions to the rules.
All in all a highly recommended Big Space Game, a must if you enjoy this style of game.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

After a short absence; Ascension: Darkness Unleashed!

Apologies for the long absence, life and the other blog sucked me in for a little bit. I plan this new review as well as an update to the "Set-it-up:Ascension" article incorporating the new expansion. Reviews of Eldrich Horror and more Zombicie are in the works :)

Ascension: Darkness Unleashed

There has been some internet griping about the newest block of the very popular game Ascension, with criticisms of the powerlevel of the cards and the increased randomness of the energize mechanic. Rise of Vigil was the base set of Stone Blade (was Gary Games) entertainment's 2013 "block" of their deck builder Ascension. See here for an overview of the gameplay of the Ascension series in another review. Rise of Vigil added two linked mechanics to the game revolving around a new resource called energy. The first were treasures, which stack under cards in the center row and are awarded when the card "protecting" them is acquired or defeated. Treasures are a very basic card that provide one energy and one card but are worth 0 point, each player starts a game in this block with one energy shard treasure in their deck in addition to the normal starting deck cards. The pay off for these shards is the energize ability on the new cards, energy accumulates on your turn like runes and strength but is not spent like those resources. Instead it builds up and triggers effects that have an energize value on their card, so if you build up three energy on your turn any card with an energize effect of at most 3 will get it's additional effect. Energy shards were the principle way to get energy, though it was also generated by some heros and construct cards as well; the random distribution of the treasure cards brought Rise of Vigil a little bit of criticism from reviewers who already see Ascension as a more random model of a constructable card game. (Although it has possibly spawned more mechanically derivative games than dominion ever did)
Darkness Unleashed is the expansion set for the 2013 block and like "Return of the Fallen" and "Immortal Heroes" it seeks to develop the mechanics introduced in its main set to allow more complex interactions and strategies. It also gives us a new mechanic based on the energize mechanic of Rise of Vigil, transforming cards. Transformed cards are improved versions of cards that are upgraded using the energize mechanic, so when you activate the energize effect on one of these cards you remove it from the game and replace it with its transformed version. Stone blade have helpfully provided two versions of these cards, one set double sided so you can just flip them when using backed sleeves, the other is a set of single sided versions. This helps make the new mechanic a little less stressful logistically.We also get a new type of treasure, Dark energy shards. Theses are good for game balance (same as normal energy shards but allow every player to banish one card when they appear in the center row) but I did find them a little bland, would have liked to see more done with the treasure mechanic.
Darkness Unleased also tries to address some of the issues with Rise of Vigil, in particular the run away victories that could occur due to a player getting a lot of energy plus a lot of cards that use energize. Almost all the cards in this set have energize effects or provide energy, creating a lot more opportunity to take advantage of this mechanic. Likewise they have brought in some row clearing cards to help deal with the "center row glut" that Ascension is prone to near the start. The Ravenous Gorph from "Return of the Fallen" was always good for this and the new Lich monster card banishes every card sitting on treasure performing this role admirably. There are some other nice techie heroes such as a redone Arha sensei (my fave card in the whole game) called the Arha Mentor and lots of energy exploiting constructs to bring Mechania back into vogue. 
This set seems to reign in the excesses of Rise of Vigil a little, with more complex cards that allow good combo play rather than the blind luck of picking up a ton of energy shards and then getting a Tablet of the Dreamer or Oziah; Judge of Logos...
If you *really* didn't like energize/treasures as a mechanic I doubt this will change you mind enough to make you want to play this block. Overall it isn't quite as smooth and balanced as the 2012 block (Storm of Souls/Immortal Heroes) which IMHO remains the best way to play Ascension. Darkness Unleashed is basically useless without Rise of Vigil, you can play two players with it alone but it's cards are too dependent on the new mechanics to work without it's big brother set.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Back to Waterdeep!: The Scoundrels of Skullport

Lords of Waterdeep achieved high praise around my table and here when I reviewed it a while back. It is a regular attendee on my weekend sessions at the gaming table and now it has an expansion.
Actually it has two in one box, Scoundrels of Skullport adds a couple of optional modules to the game as well as an extra player expanding the game to six players as promised in the original.
Now my biggest criticism of the core game was the box, and Wizards have provided a proper boardgame box this time with a tray to keep all the new components. The components match the quality of the original game and despite some claims on Boardgamegeek of printing differences these seemed minimal in the copy I have brought.
At the most basic we get a new player colour; Grey and an extra agent token for each player to allow for a longer play variant included in the expansion. Additionally there are also "caravan" tokens, intended to be used to represent 5 of a particular adventurer type and free up cubes from the cube pool. Almost preempting by "set-it-up" blog series the expansion elements are presented in two nice modules that are intended to play individually but can be used together. Each module introduces a new expansion board and set of cards, these new cards are shuffled into the existing quest, lord and intrigue decks.
The first module is "Undermountain" and it leaves much of the original game intact game play wise. It introduces some more powerful quests and intrigue cards as well as ways to gain more adventures at a small tactical cost. In this case it is through placing tokens on board locations, enabling the next person to play an agent at that location to pick up the resources left and add them to their pool. The new board adds a couple of neat new options, a space that grants two intrigue cards, one that allows you to play an intrigue card and gain a quest and a space that allows you to gain a different combination of adventurer cubes. The gameplay is similar to the core with a few more options for players to do on each turn.
The second module is "Skullport" and introduces a new resource; corruption. Unlike the other resources corruption grants negative points at the end of the game, how much the penalty is depends on how much has been taken by all the players during the game. The new board features spaces that give corruption in return for large resource rewards, usually twice that of the normal board spaces. All the corruption tokens are kept on a track, as the track empties they become worth more and more negative points; managing both your corruption tokens and the track becomes important. New buildings, quests and intrigue cards give, remove or manipulate this new resource and one of the new lords gives you points for corruption held at games end.
The modules are each designed to work by themselves but can also be combined, from my playgroup's experience so far the two expansions work best if used in a large game. (Specifically using the longer play variant in the Skullport rulebook) In smaller games (2-4 players) there are simply too many available spaces to play agents on so one of the core game's best tensions is very heavily diluted. The themes of the separate modules are strong enough, and largely work via the expansion boards, that they do not get too badly diluted when mixed together.
Both modules add to the game a bit of extra tactical complexity, the new rules are not cumbersome and work in an intuitive fashion. This is still the same game as it was, and a great game at that, each module simply presents another set of cogs that the players must address in order to succeed. Just like the core game the only fault I could find is a production/graphic design fault, the expansion symbol is hard to see on the building tokens and as it is important to some of the new lords it can affect game play. Lords of Waterdeep expanded is at its heart the same worker placement game as it's original incarnation, the new bells and whistles are very nice and Skullport is probably my favorite of the two.  (6 Players also awesome :) )

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Set-it-up : Ascension

<Updated 20/12/2013: Added "Darkness Unleashed" to the list and a more complete overview of the 2013 block. 
When one gets to collecting and playing boardgames there is a thing that game companies do to both delight and enrage us. They release expansions.
As I have discussed earlier, I suffer slightly from being a completest, I do like to have every option for a game I can get. However, the gaming gods do not make all expansions and game options equal and some games have so many expansions it becomes impossible to play them with everything at once. (I'm looking at you Arkham horror)
So I am conjoining my usual reviews with a occasional series on options and game modes for certain games with the hopes, dear reader, of outlining what each one does for a game and what happens when you add or remover certain variants. 

The first game on my list is Stone Blade entertainment's (once Gary games) Ascension (insert subtitle here). Ascension is a deck builder that I have already reviewed here , and currently has five sets with a sixth on the way. (as well as a smaller learn to play set)  It is a regular attendee to game sessions as it is fast and fun, as well as being very easy to teach. There are a lot of options as to how to play and moving towards expansion six it is becoming truly unwieldy to just "shuffle all the cards together" and play.

Lucky for us Stone Blade designs and releases the game in CCG style "blocks" that consist of a base set and a smaller expansion set that are designed to be played together. All of the sets are cross compatible but the blocks introduce new mechanics that compliment one another. The easiest way to buy and play Ascension is by sticking with one of these defined blocks, owning the base and the expansion that goes with it gives you all you need for up to six players.
So first let's look at the three Ascension blocks and see what they offer:

Block #1 Chronicle of the Godslayer/Return of the Fallen

Old school Ascension one would say. Most players seem to have cut their teeth on this setup either playing the physical card game or the IOS version. Godslayer is the simplest to teach and probably gives each faction in the game the most straight forward themes that are quite well balanced. Lifebound is a little weaker without Return of the Fallen as it tends to play very slow, and enlightened is generally a support faction in this configuration of the game. The only additional mechanic introduced via expansion is the concept of "fate effects"; card effects that occur when a card enters the center row that affect all players. This is the basic Ascension experience, fun fast and not too complex.

The to-be-released Ascension: Apprentice edition seems to be a re-release of the Godslayer base set for two players. (With new art and easier to read card faces)

Block #2 Storm of Souls/Immortal Heroes.

Storm of Souls introduces a couple of extra mechanics atop the core concepts of Ascension. First is the idea of Trophy Monsters, these are monsters that when killed are placed in a player's play area and can be banished to the void for a one off effect. (Immediately or on a later turn) Second are events, seeded in the center deck are five events that change game play in a certain way when they appear. Events remain in play in their own special place in the center row until replaced by a new event or banished. The third ties the previous two together, the new always available card "Fanatic". Fanatic is a trophy monster that can be discarded to gain an effect based on the current event, like "Cultist" it is always available and each player can hold one Fanatic trophy at a time.
Immortal heroes adds a couple of complimentary mechanics. First are the persistent trophies; Trophy monsters who have a constant affect on the player when killed. As well as more events, Immortal Heroes adds the concept of Soul Gems to the game. Soul Gems are basically a reward deck separate from the main center deck and features many cards from the first game block. When you defeat certain monsters and play certain cards you get to draw one from the soul gem deck. You then can discard the gem to gain its effects. (You discard your soul gems at the end of the turn so it is encouraged that you use them)
This continues the very combo centric aspect of this block; Trophies, Soul Gems and Events grant the player some more complex choices and the ability to create more complex chains of effect than before. The set also codifies a couple of abilities from the first set with traits; these being Unbanishable (card can't be banished from the center row, it needs to be purchased or defeated) and Unite (a trait that appears on Lifebound cards that grants extra effects if you play more than one Lifebound card in a turn)
Defiantly a more complex game but for gamers who want some more meat in their Ascension it is also perhaps the most fulfilling. The game play is still fast but the number of decision points for players is increased which somewhat mitigates the random aspects of the center deck.
Currently my favorite way to play and available for both the physical version and the IOS version.

Block #3 Rise of Vigil/Darkness Unleashed
The newest block and possibly the most controversial at the time of writing. Rise of Vigil and Darkness Unleashed introduce a couple of new concepts and many more high powered cards using those concepts. Vigil takes the game back a little to it's roots a little, retaining the trophy monster and fate options but discard events and soul gems, and bringing in two new ones. Treasures are cards that, when they enter the center row, have another card placed on top of them; effectively guarding the treasure. When the guarding card is purchased or defeated you add all treasure it was guarding to your deck as well. The only treasures in the game so far is the "Energy Shard" that allows you to draw a card and gain an energy when played and the Dark energy shard from Darkness Unleashed that has a fate effect that allows each player to banish a card. What is Energy you ask? It is the new resource that Vigil adds to the game. Energy is gained by playing cards that provide energy but unlike runes and strength it is not "spent", instead when you reach gain energy you can activate card effects that require that much energy. (So its a threshold rather than a resource to spend) To facilitate these new card abilities each player has an energy shard added to their starting deck. Energy is not normally used to buy cards but to activate extra abilities on cards in your hand and center row.
Darkness unleashed also introduces transforming cards, cards that can be swapped out of your deck for more powerful versions when you energize them enough. The energize mechanic brings in a little more randomness and some very powerful cards and combos are possible.

Option #1 Mix up the sets
The Block approach is all well and good but there is always the option of mixing up the sets to create a unique game play experience.  You can include as many sets as you like in the center deck, all of them if you like. (Though this makes a deck of over 500cards) Things to bear in mind; as you add in extra sets the mechanics of each set become diluted which does affect how they play, this is particularly important with the Energize mechanic from Rise of Vigil. (In fact the rules suggest a number of energy shards to add to the deck based on the number of sets being played) Darkness Unleashed in particular is affected by this as almost every card centers around the energize mechanic.
Playing odd mixes of set can be fun though. Return of the Fallen is a great set to combine with almost any of the other sets; it's cards are well balanced and it introduces some cards that add a lot to any game. Ravenous Glorph for example is a great card to have as it clears cards from the center row when it comes out, helping prevent setups with too many expensive cards slowing down the game.

Option #2 Promos and changing the card mix
Stone Blade release and have available many promo cards on their webstore. They are usually quirky fun cards that you can mix into your center deck. This idea can be expanded however by introducing individual cards from other sets to the "block" you like to play with. This approach requires a little experiment, but if there are cards your group likes to have in the game why not add them? With heroes and constructs I'd recommend maybe trying add the same number from each faction so the mix doesn't get too messed up. Cards I happen to like in the game are the Glorph (see above), the Arha Sensei (great strategic deck management), Askara of Fate, the Hadron Link Device etc. The objective here is customizing the game a little to suit your group, I know people who HATE the Rat king promo (as it effects the whole center row) for example so I generally don't add it. (I happen the like the little guy)

Option #3 Variants
There are a lot of center deck variants knocking about, boardgame geek is probably the best place to go.  I generally play the game fairly straight though our group has experimented with extra center row slots for large games with mixed results.
Variants address a number of issues people have with the game, usually the "monster mash" clog of powerful monsters that sometimes happens early game. Going back to my play group's example, we used the event slot to host a card in 5+ player games, the slot would be filled as normal until an event appeared and then it was business as usual. (unless the event was banished, then we filled it from the center deck as normal) The issue we were addressing was the increased randomness in large games which make it difficult to plan as the center row will generally totally change between your turns. An extra card gave an extra option which fixed this a little and the slot would go away as the game moved on and players had more tailored decks.
Generally I find variants hard to balance so tend to avoid them unless I finding a minor aspect of a game that doesn't work with a particular play group. Changing rules is a fine art of balance, but sometimes necessary to suit new players (like playing open handed) or large groups.

That's it, hopefully that gives you a good overview of the ways that Ascension can be played and what each option actually does for the game.
Till next time.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Dogfights! - X-Wing

Dogfights, honestly who doesn't love them? I have been an unreasonably big fan of a little game that used to be called "Wings of War" (now Wings of Glory thanks to Nexus going out of business and being reborn as Aries games) for a very long time. That game (a card game at first but then they produced miniatures for it) depicted World War I and World War II dogfights using a novel preplanned move system. This system used a deck of cards, each plane having access to a different deck depending on its maneuverability rating. The cards represented all of the possible maneuvers that aircraft could make and were played simultaneously in secret by the players, who would then reveal them and resolve the move. Then everyone gets to shoot at each other should they manage to get a fire arc on an opponent. (Tricky esp in the WWI version where you plan three moves ahead!)

Fantasy flight games at one time published Wings of War in English and have retooled the system into what they now call "Flight Path" and released it using the incredibly lucrative Star Wars license they acquired in 2012. It is now fully a miniatures game rather than a card game with optional miniatures and a number of system refinements and tweaks make the game a little less Euro historical wargame in feel. It is also sold much more like a miniatures game, with a core set and individual ship packs.
The core of the game is the same, but X wing uses a number of clever dials rather than decks of cards. Each type of ship has a dial, a maneuver is selected from the dial each turn which dictates the type, speed and direction of the ship's movement. The maneuvers are also colour coded, with difficult maneuvers marked red and easy ones marked green. (Normal maneuvers are just white) When making a red maneuver a ship gains a "stress" token, while it has a stress token it cannot make additional red maneuvers or take actions (see below) . Stress tokens are removed by taking green "safe" maneuvers, each one removing a single stress. (It is uncommon to gain more than one stress at a time)

The basic movement engine being the same as Wings of War/Glory, X wing develops shooting and ship abilities much further than its historical cousin. Each ship has a card that presents its stats, firepower, hull, shields and agility as well as a number of actions it can take. Each ship also has a number of versions, each depicting a different pilot; ranging from the lowly academy graduate to the most skilled aces. (Like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader for example) Each pilot has a skill rating that basically becomes the ship's initiative score as well as some special abilities and optional upgrade slots. (more on that later) The Pilot skill score determines when a ship moves and when it shoots. No longer is movement simultaneous, starting with the lowest pilot skill each ship moves and can take one action that it has on its card. Actions represent each ship's special capabilities and include things like Focus (which helps improve die results), Evade (adds defense successes) or Barrel roll (lets the ship make a short sideways move).

After all the moves and actions are taken, ships get to shoot at each other in reverse order of Pilot skill. Yes this means a skilled pilot can shoot down a rookie before the rookie can shoot back! Unlike Wings of war where shooting was handled with a deck of cards or counters, X wing uses a set of eight sided dice. Two types of dice, defense dice (green) and attack dice (red) marked with symbols representing hits, dodges and crits. The attacker rolls a number of dice equal to their attack rating (with an extra one if at close range) and totals up the hits. The defender then rolls defense and cancels one hit per dodge they roll; the excess is inflicted as damage. Each die also has a focus result which count as a success if the ship discards a focus token (gained via the focus action). Damage is then absorbed by shields (one shield is discarded to cancel one damage) and the remainder is dealt as damage cards to the target. Damage cards are dealt face down for normal hits and face up for critical hits; with the critical hits having special effects on the target. Ships that have a number of damage cards on them equal or higher than their hull are destroyed.

The game play is very fast, even with large numbers of ships on each side aided by the dials replacing maneuver decks. (Also the removal of some of the more exotic maneuvers in the original game) The base set also comes with a few scenarios that can be played in place of a standup dogfights and they are mostly quite fun. (Also they are designed to be played with the contents of the starter box or with designed squadrons)
The game is very much a miniatures game, I wouldn't recommend it to people looking for a standalone game as it requires some additional purchase to get the most out of it. (If you want a dog fight game that plays out of the box, Wings of War base set is my recommendation. Sadly out of print.) The base set includes two TIEs and an X-Wing, plus all of the counters and cards needed to use them. That's enough for your first few games but the individual ship packs are recommended to get the most out of this great game. The ships all have point values and the ability to host one or more upgrade cards (Featuring things like Proton torpedoes, astromek droids, skilled pilots etc) ; this allows you to balance sides and build highly customized squadrons of ships. Currently there are two waves of expansion ships for the game; featuring Y-Wings, TIE interceptors, the Millennium Falcon and Slave I. Each pack comes with a single ship figure and all the cards needed to play with it.
If you don't mind the financial outlay and the expandable nature of the game it is terrific, fast and free wheeling but strategic enough to be interesting. The models are pre-painted and look awesome and all the components are at FFG's normal high standard. Not one for casual gamers though.