Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Review: BANG!

Emiliano Sciarra's card game BANG! has created quite a stir since it was released a couple of years ago. Since then, the game has spawned two expansions. First there was the mini-expansion High Noon, and now there's a full-fledged expansion: Dodge City. So what's all the fuss about? Well that's what I'm here to tell you.

In this first part, I'll talk about BANG! for the benefit of those who may not be familiar with the game. If you want to see the specifics about the new expansion, skip ahead a few paragraphs.

BANG! is a card game that simulates a spaghetti western shootout. Up to seven players are each dealt a character and a role. The roles (for a seven player game) include: three outlaws, two deputies, a renegade and a sheriff. A player's role determines his or her goal. The outlaws' goal is to kill the sheriff. The sheriff's goal is to kill the outlaws and the renegade. The deputies' goal is to protect the sheriff (if the sheriff wins so do the deputies). And the renegade wants to be the sheriff; his goal is to kill the outlaws and then kill the sheriff (definitely the toughest of the roles). The twist is that at the beginning of the game, only the sheriff's role is public knowledge. Everyone else's role must be deduced by their actions. So you had best think twice before you come out gunning for the sheriff. That could get you branded as an outlaw and get you killed right quick, if for no other reason than to collect the three card bounty that's been placed on your head

Unlike the roles, the character cards are public knowledge. Each character grants his or her player special abilities, such as better resistance to gunfire, or drawing extra cards, etc. The characters also add flavor to the game, since each one is modeled after a wild-west hero or villain.

A basic turn involves drawing two cards into your hand, playing cards to the table that improve your chances to hit another player or reduce your chances of being hit, playing cards to recover wounds, and playing cards that attempt to shoot other players. Each shot that hits home causes a wound. Score enough hits and the player is killed, revealing his role and eliminating him from the game. Eliminate the right players and your team wins.

BANG! is one of those games that some people really love and others, not so much. It isn't without its flaws, I'll be the first to admit. Perhaps its biggest flaw is that players are eliminated from the game one by one, leaving them to watch as the others play on without them. Also, BANG! is a rather random game. There are definitely strategies to be employed, but they aren't immediately apparent and quite often a bad run of cards can ambush the most carefully planned strategy. In some ways, BANG! is a game that plays you instead of the other way around. Finally, the rules can be a little tricky at times. Sometimes it's not immediately obvious how one card interacts with another. But in spite of these few warts, I love the game. BANG! has a fantastic theme and it's just a darn fun game to play. One of my favorite things about BANG! is how it's essentially a team game but at the beginning, players don't know who their teammates are. Also, I find that people who are new to gaming tend to pick up on it very quickly and enjoy it. It can be a great way to introduce new players to the new breed of games.

So what about the new expansion Dodge City?

Dodge City adds several things to the original game. First of all, it adds a second renegade so now up to eight can play. Then there are fifteen new character cards with new special abilities. Finally, there are forty new cards that place slight twists on familiar mechanics. For instance, one of the rules in BANG! is that one player can never have two of the exact same card in play. The expansion adds cards that are essentially duplicates of some of the original cards (most notably the Appaloosa and the Mustang) but they carry different names. This allows both to be in play together in front of the same player.

Perhaps the largest change in Dodge City is the introduction of the green bordered cards. These cards act a lot like the blue bordered action cards in BANG! (Blue bordered cards are cards that can be played to have an immediate effect, such as drawing additional cards or causing a card in play to be discarded.) The difference is that before green bordered cards can take effect, they must first be put in play in front of you. There they must stay until after the turn on which they were played. They can only be used on a subsequent turn. This has some interesting ramifications. First of all, it effectively allows a player to hold more cards in his hand, since cards that are in play don't count towards the hand limit. The downside is that while those green cards may behave as if they were in your hand, they are visible for everyone else to see. That allows your opponents to react to them or even steal them from you before you've had a chance to use them.

The new character cards are very interesting. In fact, some of them are down-right alarming. Some of the abilities seem quite powerful compared to the originals and you may want to be careful about how you mix them with the others. For instance, there is one character whose special ability is that instead of drawing two cards at the beginning of his turn, he may choose to take into his hand any one card that is in play. (Can you say "goodbye Volcanic"?) There's another character who is immune to all cards with a diamond on them. (That's a fun one but everybody always forgets to check for diamonds before they play, leading to major confusion.) But those are nothing compared to Pixie Pete. Pixie Pete only has three bullets (health) instead of the more common four, but he draws four cards at the beginning of his turn instead of two. This can make him nearly invincible as in no time you'll find that nearly every defensive card in the deck will end up in his play area. In our group, we've decided that this is really too much and we've changed his ability to draw three cards instead of four. You may want to do the same.

All in all though, I have to say that I'm quite pleased with Dodge City. For me it's breathed new life in the game and I'm quite eager to play it again and again. It's still BANG! with all of the same warts and a couple others tossed in; but then again it's still BANG! with all of that great theme and quirky fun. It's a blast to play. I heartily recommend it.

Oh by the way. In case you're wondering, all of the cards in the Dodge City expansion are clearly marked with a buffalo symbol. So it's very easy to separate out the expansion cards if you later decide you want to play with just the original cards again.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Review: War of the Ring

War of the Ring is the latest game from Fantasy Flight.

As of this writing, I've only played a single game (but see below) and this game DEFINITELY requires more than one playing before I'll feel comfortable writing a real review so this is really just a first impression and I'll try and keep it brief.

My first impression with the box contents was: "Wow! There's a ton of stuff in this heavy box! And it's really pretty!" The production values are incredible. This is a huge epic of a game that is filled with over 200 miniatures and a gigantic board whose main feature is a lavishly illustrated map of Tolkien's Middle Earth. The figures are absolutely gorgeous. I only wish they'd used hard plastic like Days of Wonder uses in their games instead of this softer stuff. But that's a very minor gripe.

The other minor gripe I have with the figures is that it can be rather difficult to tell them apart. Not impossible but difficult. I plan to solve that problem by color coding the figures' bases so I can quickly tell one nation's armies from the next. The Shadow armies are all red and the Free People's armies are all blue, so that's not a problem, but it can be pretty hard to tell at a glance which soldiers are Rohan's and which are Gondor's.

Compared to some, this is not a simple game. The rules are relatively complicated and the way they are written in the rulebook makes them seem even more so. While the rulebook is clearly written, it's a bit on the long side. The authors have divided the rulebook up into clear sections and they have made a point of carefully spelling out every little nuance that might apply to each of them. The result is that you often have the same rule repeated in several sections. This makes the rules a bit longer than most people might feel comfortable with. Once you actually get in there and start playing the game and you start to become familiar with how things fit together it all makes sense and it actually becomes very easy to play, but at first it seems pretty daunting. You may need to read the rules several times before you feel ready to play the game. There is a "quick start" version of the game which some may find useful but frankly the real game is much more satisfying and I'd recommend that most experienced gamers just dive right in. You may wrestle with the rules a bit at first but it shouldn't take long to figure it out.

This is also a pretty long game. The first time you play it you'll probably want to set aside at least five hours because it takes a while to get the board set up and go over all the rules and the game itself is probably going to take well over three hours. Our first session lasted well over four hours including the setup time. But I would expect subsequent playings to go much faster and while it was long, it was never dull.

It's too early for me to say how balanced the game is but if our game was any indication, it's very well balanced. In our game, Sauron was one turn away from a military conquest before I managed to throw the One Ring in Mount Doom. It could have very easily gone the other way.

I especially liked how well it captures the feel of the trilogy. The objectives and capabilities of the Shadow Forces are very different from those of the Free Peoples. Sauron's got an endless supply of military troops and it makes the Fellowship's position feel truly helpless against his might. In our game I felt like I was desperately clinging to my last strongholds, playing for time in the hope that Frodo would succeed in the nick of time.

Finally, the game is advertised as being for 2-4 players. While it's true this game can be played with three or four players, it's really best with two.

So to sum up:

Long Game (over 3 hours not counting the rather lengthy setup).
Best for 2 players but not bad with 3 or 4.
Lovely bits!
Rules are a bit daunting at first but just dive in and you'll get it.
Seems really well balanced.
Really captures the feel of Tolkien's epic.
Loads of fun! Can't wait to play it again!