Sunday, July 31, 2005

Review: Nexus Ops

Nexus Ops is one of the newest games from Avalon Hill. This game is a sci-fi strategy combat game where 2-4 players represent companies trying to exploit an alien world. To further their aims they recruit armies of aliens and battle each other for control of the planet's natural resources.

Some have been calling this game a more playable version of Twilight Imperium. I think that's greatly oversimplifying things but the comparison to Twilight Imperium is understandable. The game is played on a series of hexagonal tiles joined to form a random board, it involves raising armies and battling one another, and it involves meeting certain objectives to gain victory points. All of these things are rather similar to Twilight Imperium. Unlike Twilight Imperium, there is no tech tree, there are no distinct player races, there is no clever role selection mechanism, and there is no diplomatic element. Also unlike Twilight Imperium, this game can easily be played in under two hours (the box claims 60-90 minutes).

The components are typical of Avalon Hill: cheap cards, lots of cardboard counters, some flimsy cardboard playing mats, some sturdy hexagons that make up the playing surface, some dice, and a whole lot of clear plastic figures in bright neon colors. The figures look pretty cool and they are easily the most interesting bits in the game. I've seen better components but these do the job nicely.

The rules are clearly written and simple to understand. This is not a difficult game to learn and most of the rules are neatly summarized on the playing mats that are given to each of the players. On each turn you spend a certain amount of resources (called rubium) to muster more units, you move your units, you resolve combat, you reveal newly explored resources, and you collect your income. At the very end of your turn you draw one secret mission card which may be played as soon as its condition is met. Each secret mission card lists some condition that you must meet in order to be rewarded with some amount of victory points. You can also earn victory points by winning battles. Be the first to collect 12 victory points and you win the game.

There's a lot to like with Nexus Ops. The game moves relatively quickly, the units are relatively interesting, and the game seems pretty well balanced. I liked how they give fewer starting rubium to the first players as a balancing mechanism to prevent them from gaining an unfair advantage. I also liked how the secret mission cards have the effect of giving each player his own set of goals. Also, since each player gets an additional secret mission card after each turn, everyone has a reasonable chance of scoring well. The game also provides a very good incentive for players to begin fighting each other right off the bat. Many games of this nature have a "turtling" problem where players tend to want to hide under their shells and amass ever larger defensive armies rather than attack; not this game. In Nexus Ops, you get points for winning battles and even if you lose a battle you gain cards that help you out, so there's plenty of incentive to keep the action going.

Combat is simple, and fast. Whenever two players occupy the same space they come into conflict. Each unit rolls a single die in a prescribed order determined by unit type: the more powerful Rubium Dragon units roll first, then the Lava Lepers, then the Rock Striders, then the Crystalline's, then the Fungoids, and finally the Humans. Both players roll simultaneously within each unit type so long as they both have units of that type. Each unit has a certain chance to hit based upon its type and sometimes the type of terrain it's on. For every hit, the targeted player must remove one unit of his choice, so a player could elect to sacrifice a Lava Leper to a Crystalline's hit in order to get a chance to attack with his Human before the end of the turn. If one player succeeds in eliminating all of his enemy's units, then he wins the game, but if both players still have units after the Humans have their go, then the battle is over and the space remains contested until the next turn. It's a simple system that works very well. Sure it's a little random, but that's to be expected with this type of game and the luck factor is hardly overwhelming. The more powerful force will almost always emerge victorious and yet the underpowered force has a decent chance of holding ground long enough for reinforcements to arrive.

If there is one big flaw with Nexus Ops, it is that with four players you can have some "downtime" issues: in other words, when it isn't your turn, you have little to do other than watch and wait. Also, I could see three player games becoming quickly lopsided while two players gang up on the third. But both of those issues are pretty common in games of this sort and neither of them is enough to ruin an otherwise fine game.

Nexus Ops isn't the best game I've ever played, far from it, but it's a fun game that I would gladly play again. It's a worthy edition to the Avalon Hill line and one that I'm happy to own and recommend. I really liked Twilight Imperium but I just can't find the six or more hours needed to play the game. Nexus Ops does a pretty good job of scratching that "galactic conquest itch" and at under two hours, it's a game that I'm much more likely to play.

Review: Sword & Skull

Sword & Skull is one of the newer titles to come out of Avalon Hill. It's got an interesting pirate theme and it's received a fair bit of press exposure, even garnering a front-page ad at but is it any good? Read on.

One of my goals with House Full of Games is to stock only the best titles. I would like my customers to be able to pick pretty much any game in our inventory and know that if the game description resonates with them, they can be pretty sure they're going to like the game. I'll be frank here. In the case of Sword & Skull, I'm not sure I've succeeded. Generally before I add a game to the inventory I like to play it or at least do some research on it but occasionally a new game will come out from a respected line and I'll be forced to make a decision purely based upon the pre-release hype. Sword & Skull was one of those.

Lately, Avalon Hill has been branching out a bit from their standard American style strategy games (think Axis & Allies and Diplomacy) and trying to broaden their appeal a bit. Sword & Skull seems to be one of their attempts to appeal more to the family market. It's a roll and move style game that at first glance looks a fair amount like a Pirate version of Monopoly. It has a square board surrounded by a pawn track. The spaces around the board are even color coded, making them look a little bit like the property groups in Monopoly. Cutting across the center of the board is a diagonal track which represent the caves leading to the lair of the pirate king (who you must defeat to win the game). If all of this sounds a bit to you like something Parker Brothers might have produced a few decades ago … well you're not alone.

The components are nice enough but Avalon Hill continues to do things a little bit on the cheap. There are several decks of uncoated paper cards, some plastic figures (which are nice but the plastic feels kind of cheap), some plastic coins, and a paper-coated board with the typical "American valley" that we're used to seeing from American manufacturers. It's all serviceable but nothing nearly as nice as the sturdy cards and linen-finished boards that we've come to expect from the finer German manufacturers. In other words: it's typical Avalon Hill quality. And if the game were very good then I wouldn't care.

Play involves rolling dice and moving one of your two pawns (a pirate and an officer in the British navy) around the board. Each space you land on gives you an opportunity to recruit crew members, gather equipment, or fight other players in an attempt to steal their crew members or equipment. The chief decision in the game is which of your two figures to move and, on some spaces, which card from a set you should chose. Unfortunately, most of the time, the choice is obvious and so really the game basically just comes down to rolling the dice and making the obvious choice.

Eventually you'll gather enough gold or firepower to feel confident enough to take on the pirate king. You then need to travel into the pirate's lair, beating all the bad-guys you meet along the way, and either have enough gold to ransom the ship he's stolen or have enough firepower to beat him in a fair fight. Either way, it all depends on a roll of the dice.

There are some things to like about this game. The rules are short, clear and colorful. There is no player elimination. There is a relatively high amount of player interaction (even if it does largely consist of rolling dice and stealing things from one another). There is a lot of theme. And the game is relatively short, playing in around 60 minutes. Unfortunately, there wasn't nearly enough strategy and not nearly enough interesting decisions to be made to hold my interest for very long.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Some players will enjoy this game. My 13 year old son liked it. But I have to admit that I was unimpressed and had I played it first I probably wouldn't have stocked it.

If anyone out there would like to offer a dissenting opinion I would love to hear it! Just post a reply to this review and tell me what I'm missing. Please!

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Review: RoboRally

For quite some time now, the only way to get a copy of Richard Garfield's RoboRally has been to find a used copy and beg the owner to part with it. Generally that meant going on eBay and paying a hefty amount. Well all of that has changed now that Avalon Hill has released their new edition of the game. There have been a few minor changes, mostly for the better, but the new edition is still basically the same great quirky game.

So what's it all about? RoboRally is a zany race where robots zoom across a factory floor trying to reach a series of checkpoints while avoiding obstacles and each other. The clever part is that instead of moving the robots directly, players must program their robots several moves in advance and then hope that when their robots execute the programs all goes according to plan. Here's how it works.

On each turn, players are dealt a hand of nine cards. Each card contains a single instruction that causes the robot to move. There are cards that instruct the robot to turn left, turn right, turn around, go forward one space, go forward two spaces, go forward three spaces, and go back one space. Players select five cards from their hand and place them face down in the order they are to be executed. The other cards are not used and will be discarded at the end of the turn. Each player then simultaneously reveals their first card and moves their robot as indicated by the card. Then the second cards are revealed and executed and so on through the fifth cards. In cases where turn order matters, cards are executed in order of the priority numbers listed at the top of each card (larger numbers go first).

That's confusing enough but where things get really interesting is that after each card is executed, players check to see how their robots react to the board elements and the other robots. Robots can push other robots and if your robot gets pushed you may find it going way off course. What's worse, the board is littered with conveyor belts, gears, pushers, laser beams and pits, all of which affect any robot that happens to come into contact with them. Stand on a conveyor belt and your robot will be whisked along with the conveyor. Stand in front of a laser and your robot takes a point of damage. Fall into a pit (or off the board) and your robot dies. Each robot also has a forward firing laser. If your robot steps in front of another robot then it takes damage.

Taking damage affects your robot's ability to think. Normally, players are dealt nine cards each turn but for each point of damage you've received, that number is reduced by one, limiting the number of instructions you have to work with. Things get really interesting when your damage reaches five or more. At five points of damage, your fifth register (card position) is "locked" and you're only dealt four cards. That means, whatever instruction card is in that locked position remains there from turn to turn and cannot be changed. You'll just have to make sure that the previous four instructions work well with the fifth. Each point of damage beyond that locks another register and reduces the number of cards you're dealt. Take a tenth damage point and your robot is dead.

When a robot dies, it's removed from the board and it loses one "life point". On its next turn it reenters the game at its latest checkpoint with two damage points. Checkpoints are scattered across the board so dying isn't necessarily as bad as it might seem. In fact, it's bound to happen one or two times during the game. But don't die too many times. If a robot loses all of its life points then it's out for good.

The playing surface is constructed from a set of modular boards and plastic flags that can be combined however you like. The game comes with a few suggested courses but you're free to make up whatever crazy course you like. One word of warning though: start small. The more boards and the more flags you use the longer the game will take and I've seen games where people got too ambitious and ended up making the game go way too long. It's almost always better to keep the board small and crowded. Save the big layouts for later, once you've got a feel for the game and understand the consequences.

Those who are familiar with the original 1994 edition will notice a few changes in the new edition. The double-sided modular boards are still there and for the most part they're the same although the layouts have been tweaked a bit. Instead of all robots starting at the same point, there is now a thin starting board that contains separate starting spaces (or starting gates) for each robot. This allows the elimination of the "virtual state" rule that many players found confusing in the original edition. Of course there's nothing to prevent you from using the old rules if that's what you prefer. In fact, overall the rules for the new edition seem to be streamlined and simplified just a bit. The rules are mostly the same as I remember but they seem to be explained a little better. Also, each player now gets a handy playing mat that contains a turn summary as well as spaces for the registers and spaces for recording damage and life points. The new playing mats make it a snap to remember when registers are locked, when board elements move, etc. The new edition also comes with a 30 second sand timer which can be used to encourage players to "stop thinking already and just choose your cards!"

One change for the worse is that the lovely pewter robots from the original edition have been replaced with squat plastic robots that aren't nearly so cool. On the plus side though, the new robots each sit on a base that has a pointer to clearly mark "front". In the original edition, players often had a difficult time distinguishing which direction their robot was facing. I really wish that they had molded each robot in its own color but instead they chose to paint them all with the same silver metallic paint, making it a little hard to distinguish one robot from another. That's nothing that a little paint can't solve though and if the previous edition is any indicator, plenty of people will come up with clever paint jobs for their robots.

All in all, I'm quite happy with the new edition. I never actually owned a copy of the first edition myself (I was introduced to the game after it had gone out of print) so I was particularly happy to finally have the chance to get my own copy of the game at a reasonable price. I like the new rule book and I really like the new player aids. Those who have never played the original are in for a real treat. Two metallic thumbs way up!

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Review: Through the Desert

Through the Desert (by Reiner Knizia and recently re-published by Fantasy Flight) just may be the world's best "lunchtime board game". Let me explain.

For the last several months, a group of friends and I have been playing games together during our lunch hour. There are five regulars among us but on any given lunch hour one or two may not be able to make it. It's a somewhat unpredictable crowd since we all have responsibilities that may keep us from gaming one or two days out of a week. So we're always looking out for games that work equally well with 3-5 players. Through the Desert fits the bill perfectly.

It's also nice to have a game that lasts about 30 minutes or so. That gives us time to eat our lunch, set up the game and play, and still have a little time left over to put the game away and either gloat or complain about how it went. Again, Through the Desert is perfect here.

And of course since someone (usually me) will be carrying the game to lunch, it's nice if the box be comfortable to lug around. Again, Through the Desert is perfect. The box is on the smallish side (about 8"x6"x2") but packed solid with bits. Just right for lugging to the lunch room.

Ah but is it any fun? Well it wouldn't be the perfect lunch game if it weren't fun to play now would it!? You bet it is!

Rule number one with Through the Desert ought to be: "Don't eat the camels." The box is packed tight (and I mean really tight) with nearly 200 little plastic camels in yummy pastel colors. They look suspiciously like mints but I can assure you that they aren't really edible. They sure look tasty though!

The game is played on a board covered with hexagons. The board represents a section of desert surrounded by dry mountains. Randomly scattered about the board are watering holes and six oases. The object of the game is to claim territory with your camel caravans.

At the beginning of the game every player gets one camel in each of the five pastel colors and a set of camel riders in their own (non-pastel) color. The riders clip on the back of the camels and are used to distinguish which camel trains are yours and which are your opponents'. Each player takes turns placing their camel riders on the board, thus claiming their starting positions. On subsequent turns, players place two camels on the board to extend their camel trains. You can place camels of any color so long as they extend your camel trains and they don't cause two like-colored camel trains to merge. In other words, you can't place a peach colored camel in such a way as to cause your peach colored camel train to merge with an opponent's peach colored camel train.

Players earn points in several ways. First, whenever a player places a camel on top of a watering hole, he collects the watering hole chip and the number of points (1-3) shown on that chip. Second, if a player causes her camel train to connect to an oasis, she earns five points. Third, if a player builds a camel train in such a way as to enclose an area of the board (one with no other camels in it) then she immediately scores any watering holes and oases in the area and also scores one point for each hex in the area. Finally, at the end of the game, players are awarded ten points for having the most camels in a color. (For instance, if I have more camels in my peach caravan than any other player, I get 10 points.) Players who tie for the most camels in a given color are awarded five points each.

Through the Desert has a lovely blend of strategy and tactics. The initial camel rider placement is highly strategic as it claims your initial territories and sets up your scoring potential. On any given turn there are always agonizing tactical decisions to be made. Do you spend your turn continuing to enclose an area with your peach caravan or do you place a couple of lavender camels to prevent your opponent from enclosing an area with his lime caravan? Do you spend an action and connect to that oasis right now or do you play somewhere else and risk the chance that someone might prevent you from connecting on a subsequent turn? The game is full of decisions like this and it's one of the things that makes this such a great game.

This is one of those games that belongs in every gamer's library. It's a true classic and you owe it to yourself to pick this one up. But remember: Don't eat the camels!

Monday, July 04, 2005

Review: Shadows Over Camelot

Shadows Over Camelot, by Bruno Cathala and Serge Laget, is the latest game from Days of Wonder.

In the few years since its inception, Days of Wonder has earned a reputation as one of the world's premier game publishers by producing one lavish, first class game after another. Each of their games boasts dazzling artwork and overproduced pieces that are a joy to play with. Shadows Over Camelot is no different. Inside the heavy square box you will find several high-quality linen finished game boards. The master board depicts Camelot, the Round Table, the lists where players can tilt with the Black Knight, and areas representing the frontier and coastline where the Picts and the Saxons are poised to invade. There are also three smaller quest boards that depict various other quests, such as the quest for the grail, the quest for Excalibur and the quest for Lancelot's armor. Topping off the luxurious boards and high quality cards with their dazzling artwork are the figures which are simply spectacular. There are figures for each of the seven knights in the game, as well as figures representing various quest articles, Saxons, Picts, and siege engines.

Obviously, this game is themed around the rich Arthurian Legend and the theme is very well done. I've always loved the legends of King Arthur and from an early age I've devoured many related books so I was quite pleased to note that the game remains as true to the legend as can be, given that there is no single source for Arthurian legend and the canonical Arthurian books all contradict one another on one point or another. This game takes place just after Lancelot has given in to temptation and subsequently been exposed as Guinevere's lover. Lancelot has left the round table in disgrace and Arthur's court is in chaos. Arthur and his knights must keep evil at bay or their idyllic realm of Camelot will crumble and fade into the ages. So they embark upon a series of chivalric quests to bring honor and glory to Camelot while checking the forces of evil which seek to undo all that they have done.

Shadows Over Camelot is a cooperative game where the players compete as a team against the game itself. There have been a few similar games (Reiner Knizia's Lord of the Rings comes most readily to mind) but this remains a pretty unique style of game and Shadows Over Camelot does it very well.

At the start of the game, each player assumes the role of one of seven of the knights of Camelot: Arthur, Kay, Galahad, and so on. Each of the knights has a unique special ability which can aid the group in their various quests. If they cooperate with one another they may succeed in protecting Camelot from the gathering evil. But there may be a traitor in their midst. Along with a knight, each player is dealt one loyalty card from a small deck of eight. One of the eight cards is a traitor card, giving each player a one in eight chance of secretly playing the traitor.

The object of the game is to fill the round table with swords. Black swords are awarded as penalties for losing a quest. White swords are awarded for winning quests. Once all twelve spaces on the round table are filled with swords, and if the majority of them are white swords, then the knights win. (Ties are always bad in this game.) If there are ever seven or more black swords, or if there are ever twelve siege engines surrounding Camelot, or if all the knights are killed then the game is over and the knights lose.

Each player's turn consists of two phases. The first phase is called the "progression of evil" phase. On this phase a player must either draw a black card, put a siege engine around Camelot, or give up a point of health. The black cards are all bad and typically advance the evil side of one of the many quests.

The second phase of a player's turn is the "heroic action" phase. During this phase, the player must execute one of a list of heroic actions. Heroic actions include: moving to a quest location, playing a white card to advance a quest or aid your fellow knights, taking cards into your hand (if you're at the round table), fighting off a siege engine, or playing a set of three like cards to regain a health point.

When you first play the game, one thing will be readily apparent: this game is hard to beat. Until you get some feel for what quests to focus on and when, your noble knights may find themselves in deep water. The game advances at a merciless pace and unless you cooperate and focus your efforts, you will surely lose. If you are unlucky enough to have a traitor in your midst then the game will almost certainly be even harder. Now you not only have to worry about the diabolical game, you also have to contend with the possibility that there is someone secretly working against you.

The game is advertised for 3-7 players and it works reasonably well with any of those numbers. However, you should be aware that the fewer players you have, the harder the game becomes because, while the black cards come out at the same rate no matter how many players are in the game, more knights means more special abilities and more white cards to choose from, since each knight starts with a hand of several. Furthermore, while more knights means more likelihood of having a traitor in your midst, it also means that there are more loyal knights to mitigate the damage he causes. This game is at its most difficult when there are only three players and one of them is a traitor. In fact, if you choose to play with three players, I strongly recommend that you use the special three player rules described at the end of the rule book, that way the good knights at least have some slim chance of victory. My experience is that the game really shines with five or more players but it's still quite fun with three or four.

One nice side effect of the game mechanics is that the game progresses at the same pace no matter how many players are in the game. Adding players doesn't lengthen the game, it merely lengthens the time between each player's turns. And since it's a cooperative game, even when it's not your turn, you'll be very involved because you'll be offering suggestions and helping the others decide what course of action the knights could be following. Also, late comers can easily join in the fun by choosing one of the unused knights, taking one of the unused loyalty cards, and jumping right into the game.

Once again Days of Wonder has a hit on their hands. This is a well tested, polished game with lovely pieces and stunning artwork. The theme is tightly woven throughout and while the game is very easy to learn, it's quite difficult to master. The cooperative nature of the game makes this game ideal for parties. And the length (slightly over an hour) means that it should be relatively easy to get it to the table. I can't recommend this game enough. It's a solid home run.