Thursday, December 30, 2004

Review: Munchkin

Munchkin isn't just a game. Munchkin is a phenomenon. With roughly a half-dozen best-selling expansions, Munchkin has built a huge following. It's one of our best selling games.

I first heard Steve Jackson's name mentioned as the man who invented GURPS, the Generic Universal Role Playing System, a competitor to Dungeons and Dragons. That role playing pedigree, coupled with a wry sense of humor, has germinated and flowered to give us the behemoth that is Munchkin. The other guilty party here is John Kovalic, the cartoonist who pens the fantastic web comic Dork Tower, which has crossed over into many print publications. His whimsical cartoons adorn the cards of most of the Munchkin installments.

One of the keys to Munchkin's success is that it pokes gentle fun at the culture that has sprung up around role playing games. Those of us who remember dragging our theives, clerics and wizards down into deep dungeons to recover the cursed wand of +5 firebreathing will immediately relate. The game is packed with monsters such as the Level 9 Lawyers, the Level 6 Shrieking Geek, and the Level 14 Unspeakably Awful Indescribable Horror. Items to be found include the +2 Boots of Butt-Kicking, the +4 Swiss Army Polearm and the dreaded Potion of Halitosis.

Game play is pretty simple. There are two decks of cards, the door deck (with a picture of a door on the back) and the treasure deck (with a picture of, you guessed it, a pile of treasure on the back). Your starting hand consists of two cards from each deck. On your turn you kick in the door to the next room; or in other words, you draw a card from the door deck. That card could be a new race or class which you can use to beef up your character, but it's more likely to be a monster which you must then fight. You use the cards in play in front of you (which represent your gear and character attributes) combined with your level to attempt to defeat the monster. If you are strong enough, you defeat the monster, gain a level, and collect some treasure cards (the amount is dictated by the monster you defeat). If you aren't strong enough to defeat the monster, you can enlist the aid of your fellow adventurers, for a price of course. If you still can't beat the monster, or if they won't help you beat the monster, then you must turn tail and run away. If you fail to escape, you suffer the penalty listed under the "bad stuff" portion of the monster card. The other players, and you, can play cards from their hand (usually magic potions and spells) to beef up the adventurers or monsters as they see fit and thus affect the battle. There are also curses and other random silliness that can affect the game in almost any way imaginable.

Munchkin is funny, there's no denying that. The illustrations are whimsical and sometimes downright hilarious. Unfortunately, once the humor wears off, there's not much of a game here. The game is terribly random and in some ways it just doesn't work well. For one thing, it suffers from a bit of a runaway leader problem. At the beginning of the game, your character will be so low level that it has to run away from almost everything, but as your character gains levels and gear, you'll become so beefy that you can take on almost any monster in the deck. At that point, there is little that your opponents can do to stop you. Because the deck is shuffled, there is nothing but luck to dictate whether you get a wimpy level 1 monster or a unstoppable level 20 juggernaut. Also, there are certain cards that seem like a lot of fun but in practice, just don't work. For example, there is a wandering monster card that lets you bring a second monster into a fight. Unfortunately, in order to play it, you have to have a second monster card in your hand. The problem is that the way the game works, you are extremely unlikely to ever have a second monster card in your hand, since almost any time you draw a monster from the deck, you are obligated to fight it yourself.

I'll be honest. I don't particularly care for Munchkin. It's far too random for my tastes and once the jokes wear off, there just isn't much there to make me want to play the game. I got a good chuckle reading through the cards but I just don't enjoy it as a game. On the other hand, my thirteen-year-old son just loves the game. And it is one of our best selling titles so obviously there are plenty of people out there who disagree with me.

Review: Formula Dé

Start your engines! See if you can negotiate the hairpin turn, wind it up into the straight, draft your way to the lead and cross the finish line first. Watch your tires and make sure that your brakes don't fail or you might find yourself decorating the side of the track. I'm talking about Formula Dé, a classic game from Eurogames Descartes that simulates formula one auto racing.

The game comes with a large double-sided game board that represents two real race tracks (one on each side) from the formula circuit: Monaco and Zandvoort, Holland. The tracks are detailed and colorful, hand-illustrated tracks that faithfully capture the cultural flavor of their locations. They're a joy to look at and they make a perfect backdrop to this very attractive game.

Also in the box are ten little plastic formula one racers, each about a centimeter long, in five colors, and ten little plastic wings which attach to the cars so that each car can have its own distinct color scheme. There is a set of colorful, special polyhedral dice, some cardboard "dashboards" and associated paper sheets to track your car's stats, some colored pawns that serve as gearshift knobs, and a pencil.

Formula Dé is a dice rolling game. On your turn, you roll a die. The number rolled dictates how far your car travels. Your principal decision is which gear you wish to be in. Each gear is represented by a different die and has a different range of possible distance values. Higher gears use larger dice and therefore have a larger range of possible outcomes. Also, the dice don't all have uniform number distributions and the numbers don't all start at one, dice for higher gears start at higher number values.

On each of your turns you are allowed to stay in the same gear, shift up one gear, or shift down from one to four gears. If you shift down more than one gear, you over-rev and you pay a penalty. Shift down two gears and you give up a fuel point. Shift down three gears and you give up a fuel and a brake point. Shift down four gears and you give up a fuel, a brake, and an engine point. Run out of points and you may be out of the race.

The catch here is the corners. If the track were all straights, then you'd just keep shifting up until you get to sixth gear and then you'd stay there, but of course it isn't. Corners are tricky because they require that your car finish its movement a certain number of times in the corner. A gentle corner may require that you "stop" in the corner only once. A nasty hairpin may require that you "stop" as many as three times. (Of course you aren't really stopping, you're just finishing your movement at a given point on the track.) You can choose which line you take through the corner and the line you choose can greatly affect where you finish your movement, but the line choices are limited and when there are other cars ahead of you things can get very crowded. This is a simple mechanism that actually works surprisingly well. It manages to reward fairly realistic behavior: running all-out in the straights, heavy braking into the corners, and accelerating through the corners so you can be in a high gear as you enter the next straight.

If you overshoot a corner, you must pay a penalty. This is where the "dashboards" come in. For each space that you overshoot a corner, you must cross off a tire wear point. If you cross off your last tire point you spin out. If you go beyond your last tire point you crash and quit the race. You can also apply brakes to avoid disaster. Every point of brake you apply reduces the distance you must travel by one. Run out of brakes and you are completely at the whim of the dice.

There are also advanced rules that apply weather effects, different types of tires, drafting rules, pit stops, and multiple lap races.

In addition to the two tracks that come in the base game, there are a whole host of expansion tracks available. If you've got a favorite formula one track, odds are pretty high that you can buy a representation for use with Formula Dé.

I really enjoy Formula Dé. It's got a very pleasing blend of strategy and luck, leaning a bit to the lucky side of things. It's light and enjoyable and it does a fine job of capturing the basic feel of auto racing. For Christmas this year, I gave a copy to my sons. I figured it would be well received but I was astonished by just how much they liked it. My thirteen-year-old is constantly begging me to play with him, so much so that I'm finding it very hard to convince him to play anything else. If he's not playing it with someone else, he's playing it by himself. I'd call that a successful Christmas gift!

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Review: Fearsome Floors

Fearsome Floors is the recent English release of Friedmann Friese's 2003 hit, Finstere Flure. I first played the original German version of this game several months ago and I've been eagerly awaiting the new English release, brought to us courtesy of Rio Grande Games.

In Fearsome Floors, players each control a group of people trapped inside a fiendish dungeon. They are all at one corner of a large pillared room. The exit is in sight on the far side of the room. Unfortunately, there is also a large, rather stupid monster lurking in the room as well. The monster would like nothing more than to sink his fearsome fangs into the foolish foreigners. Your task is to help as many of your people escape as possible, and to be the first one to do it.

Inside the box you'll find a very attractive game board, several colored wooden character disks with attractive full-color stickers that go on either side, several sturdy cardboard floor tiles, and enough punch-out cardboard pieces to assemble one of several different three-dimensional monster figures.

The way the game works is very simple. Each player has a set of colored character disks. Each disk has a white number (1, 3, 4 or 5) on one side. The other side has a black number (6, 4, 3, or 2). Both numbers on each disk add up to seven. The numbers indicate how many spaces each character can move on a given turn. Characters can move up, down, left or right and can even change direction during their move. You move your character up to the number of spaces shown on the disk, then you flip the disk over to indicate that it's already been moved that turn and to reveal the number of moves that character will have on its next turn. Each player takes turns moving a character until all the characters have been moved. Then things get interesting.

After the characters have all been moved, the monster moves. Players turn over a tombstone shaped tile that indicates how many steps the monster will take that turn. Then the monster moves following a very specific set of rules. Each time the monster takes a step he looks in front of him and to the sides (but never behind). If he sees a character to either side, then he turns to face that character and takes a step, otherwise he continues straight. In the case where he sees two characters, he moves toward the closest one. If two characters are equally as far away then the monster becomes confused and continues straight. If he strikes a character then the character is eaten. During the first half of the game, characters that are eaten get to start over, but during the last half of the game they're gone for good.

Players who are clever will take advantage of the way the monster moves and lure him into a path that will cause him to eat their opponents' characters. In fact, the most satisfying aspect of this game is finding a way to position your characters so as to make the monster move in some way that your opponents didn't anticipate.

Adding spice to the game are a number of obstacles such as stone blocks, slippery pools of blood, and teleporters which affect the way the monster and the characters move. These obstacles are positioned differently at the beginning of each game and can even be pushed around and moved during the game which means that no two games need ever be quite the same.

Fearsome Floors is forty-five minutes of fantastic fun for a family of two to seven players. It's extremely easy to learn and it will appeal to players of all ages. The horror theme is given a very light-hearted treatment that is more silly than scary. It's a hit with my family and I'm sure it will be a hit with yours as well.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Review: Carcassonne: The City

Carcassonne: The City is the latest game in the Carcassonne family. Like the others before it, this game revolves around drawing and placing tiles, placing followers (I'll call them meeples from now on) and scoring areas. This time, players are building the city of Carcassonne itself including residential areas, roads and marketplaces and, in a rather interesting change, constructing the walls around the city as well.

One of the most obvious things that sets this version apart from the others is the pretty wooden box that it comes in. Inside you will find two very nice cloth bags, 75 very sturdy cardboard tiles, the usual assortment of meeples in four colors, twelve ornate wooden towers, a wooden city gate and seventy wooden wall sections. All of the components are top notch. This game looks and feels like something special.

Those of you who have played any of the other Carcassonne games are probably thinking, "OK, that's all well and good but aside from the pretty pieces, why would I want to buy this game? Is it a different game or is it really just more of the same?" Well, I'm happy to say that it's actually quite a different game; albeit a very familiar one.

As in other versions of Carcassone, on your turn you must draw a tile, place it and then decide whether or not you wish to place a meeple on that tile to claim one of the landscape areas. The different areas are roads, residential areas (similar to fields in the other versions) and markets (similar to cities). But the tile placement rules have been simplified a bit and this takes a bit of getting used to. This time, the only requirement is that roads must meet (similar to Carcassonne: the Castle). Markets and residential areas can be placed next to each other. This relaxing of the placement rules results in some interesting issues. For instance, now it's entirely possible to complete a market with only one tile.

The rules for placing your meeple have changed a bit as well. Unlike in other versions, you are not allowed to place a meeple in a completed area. That means that you can't place a tile to complete a road and then put a meeple on that road and take him back for a quick score. This changes the dynamic more than you might imagine because it forces you to really think twice before playing a meeple.

Scoring is a little different as well. Roads score one point per tile until your road is at least four tiles long. Once your road is four tiles long or longer it counts two points per tile. This means that roads are more valuable in this game than in other versions. It also means that there is a huge incentive to end someone else's road for them before it can grow too long.

There are three types of market in the game (indicated by a small sign and the color of the market tents). Whenever you complete a market, you count up the number of tiles and multiply by the number of different market types to get your score.

Meeples placed in residential areas must stay there for the entire game (just like farmers in the original game). Residential scoring is simple. Residential areas simply score two points for each market next to them. This is much simpler than the confusing field scoring rules from the original game.

Now if that were all there were to this game then I'd only feel comfortable recommending it to people who don't already own one of the other Carcassonne games but there's more. The city walls add a whole new dynamic to the game. Here's how they work. At the beginning of the game, the tiles are divided into three sets. While the first set is being played, the game proceeds as normal, with player drawing tiles, placing tiles, and scoring where they can. But during the second set, things get a little more interesting. Now, whenever a player plays a tile that triggers a scoring by completing a road or market, players begin adding to the wall. The first time this happens, the first player places the city gate wherever he likes (on an outside tile edge of course) and each other player adds one wall segment to either side. After that, each player adds one segment to the wall any time a scoring is triggered. Once the third set of tiles is reached, players place two walls each for when a scoring is triggered instead of one, accelerating the pace as the end game is reached.

The walls add some interesting twists to the game. First of all, they prevent the city from growing by blocking off tiles (which can also potentially cause an area to be completed and scored). They act as a bit of a timer because if the walls ever close the game is over. More importantly though, they give the players new scoring opportunities. Any time a player places a wall, he may also put one of his meeples on the wall as a "city guard". That meeple now watches over the row of tiles perpendicular to his wall segment. Some of the residential tiles have public buildings and historic buildings on them. Each public building under a guard's watchful eye earns that player two points. Each historic building earns three! So as the game progresses, players begin to have a real incentive to move their meeples from within the city on to the city walls.

Also, after wall segments have been added to the wall, the player who triggered the action may place one of his towers at one of the wall endings, scoring one point for each wall segment between his tower and the next tower or the city gate (whichever is closest). This creates some interesting tension as players must decide whether or not it's worth it to extend the wall too far in a particular direction.

I am really quite impressed with this game. It plays quickly and it adds a lot of tension and variety that doesn't seem to enter into the other games. If you are looking to purchase your first version of Carcassonne then this would definitely be a good choice. Although the $50 list price ($30 at House Full of Games) is twice as much as any of the other versions, the luxurious wood pieces and box justify the additional cost. If you do own another version, then I would recommend this version only if you already like Carcassonne and are looking for something similar but slightly different. Personally, I really like Carcassonne and I was quite happy to add this version to my collection. I think there are enough changes here to justify yet another version.