TEh neu wAive – War Of The Worlds: The New Wave

I grew up listening to the Jeff Wayne musical version of War of the Worlds along with various remixes and updates thereof. Of minor note, I’ve also read the H.G. Wells book it’s based on (there is a surprising amount of ejaculation in that book. So much so that I wonder if the martians didn’t die of an STI), but who pays any attention to that, right?

War of the Worlds is some pretty cool sci-fi. Unknowable aliens come to Woking, build tripods and start wrecking the world, killing and eating humans with technology so far advanced it seemed incredible at the time (and just kind of impractical now (I know, mech walkers and massive tripods would be cool, but they just aren’t viable as military units), but heck practical, we want cool!) At the end though, the aliens were small minded anti-vaxxers who died out due to a common bacterial infection.

The New Wave is set about a decade after the initial invasion, and this time it seems the aliens have all had their jabs and are going to show those boomer aliens how an invasion is done: with flying saucers and nerve agents and frightening sounds and stuff. Their invasion ship lands on the west coast of Scotland and they’re ready to go straight away with a tripod, a saucer, and 30 health.

Standing against the seemingly indestructible martians are 30 human civilian tokens with no military and very little in the way of support. Good luck, puny humans.

I bloody love deck building games, so the idea of an asymmetrical WotW deck builder board game sold me immediately (inner voice “fooooooooool”). The Kickstarter videos were great and felt informative. However, while I’ve had really good luck with KS board games so far, this one feels like a real fail and will definitely make me think twice in future.

On opening up the rather nicely designed box, I was greeted by two manuals and two board pieces (I picked up the Irish Sea expansion, so enthralled as I was by the shiny KS presentation).

Deeper within, I found the main decks for each faction, a small set of additional cards (I think these were stretch goals), and the last few cards which go with the expansion.

Then there was the miniatures box (which, if you didn’t get the KS version, you’re expected to buy separately) which held three tripod figures, two saucers, three tanks, and two battleships. They’re a lovely weight and I almost immediately felt a deep desire to paint them, to make them just a bit more interesting.

Next there was the bag of building stands (literally just plastic holders for the building tokens, not strictly speaking necessary, but they do make it easier to tell which regions have buildings on at a glance.

Then came a bag of 31 civilians. These little green meeple resemble soldiers with rifles and bayonets (so are they civilians or army… militia… historical re-enactors?!).

Last up, one of my favourite bits of any new board game, punchboard tokens. There’s something really satisfying about poking out all the tokens in a new game.

The art looked good, I was satisfied with the pieces and so I delved into the manual and was almost immediately struck by sheer number of typographical errors. Now, I’m dyslexic and consequently, my brain will very often autocorrect things like transposed letters in words, but even I was shocked at how many typos I was seeing.

Considering how much the game was and how much time they’d spent checking and finalising during production (info which came to backers in fairly regular updates), I was pretty appalled by how bad it was. My only conclusion is that maybe they sent the wrong final document to the printers or something, because otherwise I have to wonder what the heck they were doing between completion of the Kickstarter and their announcement that it had gone into full production.

This manual also loves a gendered pronoun. Good gravy, there’s just line after line of “he/she” “his/her”. If there was ever a prime example of how clunky this language is, it’s this freaking manual. I mean, I’m glad they didn’t default to he/him as too many manuals do, but this is ridiculous. The word ‘they’ exists, it’s free, maybe try it out.

That said, I was willing to look past the spelling and hope that the game itself was good.

On setting up the board for the first time, I was further confused by the civilian tokens. They’re placed in threes in areas of the map with a specific icon. Apparently, no one lives on the south coast of England as there are about 5 regions at the bottom of the country that stand empty.

Then there was the alien setup, they get an invasion ship, a tripod and a saucer, all located just south of Ullapool in Scotland (was that deliberate?). While the board itself shows the alien space ship, you also have a token for the ship, and if you have the building stands, you have this too. Of immediate note here, it’s very obvious that the humans are at a huge disadvantage, starting with no real defences or units (the humans live here, you’d think they’d have some of this stuff kicking around, but no).

Each faction starts with a deck of ten cards, a shop of five cards (one item from which you can swap out each turn to try and get something more useful), and a deck of other shop cards. The top five shop cards are laid out, available to purchase and offer upgrades to your basic cards, buildings that generate resources or offer protection, new units, etc.

Many of the starting cards feature multiple ways to use them. UFOs can move or shoot before discarding the card, or cause double damage at the cost of removing that card from the game entirely. Humans can move a single unit from one area to an adjacent region or use the card to generate a resource for a discard, or remove the card from the game for two resources.

This mechanic of removing your starter resource cards to buy upgraded versions is really good, though your ability to do that is very much based on what you’re getting in the shop row. However, you do have to keep a close eye on what you’re removing from the game as you risk being unable to do anything useful if you burn all your attack power or resources too early or on the wrong things. Luckily, they print the number of each card type on the card itself, allowing for you to accurately consider what you have spare.

The rules state that alien units and buildings are indestructible – only receiving damage to their total health of 30. However, this means that they can just march through the humans and wreck all their things. During my first few games, I found less and less reason to build any of the resource generating structures when playing humans. This is because, unlike the aliens, human structures have a base health of only one. Consequently it’s simple for the alien saucer to just head down country by the fastest means possible and start a pincer movement with the tripod.

Oh, you’re struggling to get any kind of money? Well tough, I’ve just jetted down from the north and destroyed the thing you built last round to help with that. The thing you burnt a couple of your precious resources on. Also, bonus for me, human units can’t even damage the saucers. Meanwhile, I’ve covered Scotland in resource generating structures and am about to be able to regenerate my health each round, because of all my excess funds. Bwahahahah, git gud human scrubs.

The balance of the game is really delicate. While it is possible for people who know the game really well to have consistently close games, I’ve found playing it with someone who tries any strategy other than the intended one for their faction will be mercilessly crushed. It then comes down to who has the best luck on drawing useful items on the shop row.

While there is a mechanic which allows you to remove one shop item to the bottom of the deck and replace it with a new one each turn, if you have an unlucky shuffle, you could be waiting a while for the really useful cards to come up.

(All final thoughts are based on the base game and not KS exclusives, upgrades or the expansion)

Pros:

  • Great art work
  • Interesting game play

Cons:

  • Typos galore in the manual and some on a few cards too
  • Not well balanced
  • Some contrast issues with the board meaning regions aren’t always clear

Final Score: 3/10

Stars War 101 – Star Realms

If you wanted to introduce the concept of a deck building game to a sentient ball of ooze, you would struggle to find something more simple and laser targeted than Star Realms.

The whole game fits in a box no bigger than about two normal decks of playing cards, the rules come on a small pamphlet, every card is super easy to read and understand, and you can teach this two player game in less time than it takes to run an internet speed test.

Players start with a basic deck consisting of the typical currency and damage dealing type cards you find in deck builders. Currency allows you to buy cards from a shop row, damage lets you start grinding away at your opponent’s 50 authority (health points). There’s 3 types of cards you can buy: ships, space stations, and outposts. These are divided into 4 factions.

Ship cards may have higher damage or cash generating amounts than your starter ships, sometimes with a faction bonus if you play another card of the same faction on this turn. Some with a bonus if you trash the card.

Stations and outposts stay on the table between turns, meaning you are immediately generating bonuses each round, without having to glut your hand. However, if you have an outpost down, opponents must attack this before they can damage you directly.

Clock stop!

159Mb/s down and 19Mb/s up. Not bad, but streaming is occasionally unstable.

Star Realms is very simple, but that doesn’t stop it having some depth. How you build your deck is quite important. Do you go for whatever card comes up that looks strong? Do you try to stick to only one or two factions? Do you invest heavily in outposts and build a wall in front of you? Do you try to trash all your starter cards? There’s a decent amount to think about, but either way, this game will be over in 20-30 minutes. So if it doesn’t work out, you can always go again.

The art isn’t amazing, but it’s decent enough and consistent across all the cards. The faction cards go well together but still look like they belong in the same universe as other factions, and card symbols are clear and easy to understand.

If all this sounds fun, but you’d rather play with up to 4 player, try Star Realms Frontiers which is the same game with more cards.

But wait, there’s more. If you get reeeeeally into this and never want to leave, this box of simplicity can be complicated. You can throw about 13 expansions plus numerous commander decks (specific starting conditions for that commander including a unique starter deck, rules for your starting hand size and amount of authority (health)) in to beef up the experience. You can, but personally I’d use SR as an entry point and then head to deeper… space (I was going to say water and then I spiralled into a whole thing about fluid space, and then it all got very Treky and otherwise nerdy. Luckily I managed to stay on target).

Pros:

  • Cheap.
  • Quick Teach.
  • Great starter game.

Cons:

  • Not hugely replayable.
  • Not very deep.
  • I can’t count backwards with the provided lifepoint cards.

Final Score: 7.5/10

She’ll Breed, You’ll Die – Legendary Encounters Alien

I’ve talked before about my love of deck building games (see my pieces on Clank! and Clank! In! Space!) My main problem with these games though, is that my fiancee is a former ranked Yu-Gi-Oh! player and she’s an absolute badass at competitive deck building games.

Now I don’t mind losing, but I like to feel like I have a chance sometimes. With that in mind, I went looking for a co-op game that would scratch the same itch. It’s here that I stumbled across the bio-organic, acid dripping, twin-mouthed horror that is Legendary Encounters – An Alien Deck Building Game (LEA). It’s a spin on the Marvel Legendary game, set in Ridley Scott’s Alien universe and featuring characters, locations, and scenarios from the first four Alien movies. It’s suitable for 1-5 players, though you may need to play two hands or mess with rules regarding facehuggers in single player games. By all accounts it takes the ideas presented in the Marvel version and really refines it down to a more thematic experience.

LEA comes with a large and beautiful, neoprene mat, with a complex area at the top, featuring six spaces that will slowly fill with enemies. These areas fit very nicely with the theme. There’s vent shafts, a med lab, even an airlock to blow your enemy out of (should the scenario allow). If you fail to scan and deal with this disturbing horde by the time one is pushed off the complex and into the combat zone, you’ll suddenly find yourself under attack by a xenomorph or playing tonsil (or stomach(?)) hockey with a lively facehugger.

Campaigns can be put together from any three of the scenario pieces, but it’s best to try playing through each according to the movie they’re based on at least once. You’ll have a location – such as the Nostromo, and three objectives. Each objective has its own mini deck of cards which are shuffled individually, and then stacked to make the Hive Deck. From here all enemies, deadly hazards, dramatic events, and eventually – the final enemy (eg the alien queen) come forth.

In order to change the difficulty of the game, based on the number of players and their skill level, you can add additional cards from the drone deck to each of the mini decks, before they go into the Hive stack. This adds yet more replayability to the game as you never know what you’re going to get.

To go with the film scenarios, you have a set of four characters that appeared in those films. Each of the four have a mini deck of cards, and these are all shuffled together to make a barracks. As mentioned earlier, if you’ve played through each of the movies, there’s nothing to stop you just picking any four characters you like for your team. Heck, even a supergroup of each version of Ripley is a possibility (I’ve tried it, it’s pretty awesome).

Players are dealt a random avatar and given the associated character ability card to put in their starting deck of basic grunts (good for small amounts of damage or scanning the complex) and specialists (to help you buy new characters from the barracks). Games play out in about an hour, and there’s extra rules you can add in (such as good and evil hidden roles) which add even more variety.

One quick thing, I want to jam in here (because I’m not sure where else to put it) is the initial setup of the box – not individual games, the box it comes in – which is an absolute pain that the manual doesn’t do an amazing job of explaining.

When you purchase LEA you’ll receive a sizable box filled with six blocks of cards wrapped in plastic (600 cards in total), foam spacer blocks (just to keep the box in order, the playmat, a bunch of little divider cards and some additional paper to pack out the space. As you unwrap the blocks of cards you’ll likely be utterly confused. Some appear to be the same cards, in the same order across multiple blocks. Some will appear – to the untrained eye – to be identical to other cards (I’m looking at you facehuggers and event cards). It’s a big, confusing mess that can be very intimidating to a total newcomer.

I looked online and couldn’t find a video to help with this so I made one of my own, but according to one comment, even this didn’t completely clear things up for people. The problem is that the same art (and even description at the top of the card) is used on multiple cards, belonging in multiple mini decks.

You’ll need to identify the characters, and group them by which crew they’re associated with (designated by a symbol in the top left corner) and then separate them into each character (all of Lt. Ripleys cards will go in one pile, but you’ll probably want them in the box near to the mini decks for Hudson, Hicks, and Bishop).

Once characters are sorted, you’ll move your attention to the avatars and unique abilities for each of them, and finally flick your eyes down to the very bottom of the cards. You’ll notice some have a scenario name along with a number, then there’s hatchery deck (facehuggers and chestbursters), drone deck, strike deck (damage markers), as well as good and evil agendas.

Once all these are divided up, you should have a good grasp on everything and how you want to put it back in the box. It’s a big ole task, made even bigger if you chose to sleeve everything (which I recommend as these cards are a little flimsy and prone to scuffing.

In the last year or so, this game has been coming out a lot more than Clank! Partly because even with the expansions, Clank! never seems to have as much variety game to game, and partly because I just enjoy the co-op nature a lot more. Even if one of us dies with a chestburster ripping through us, on the living room table, if the other one makes it to victory, I still count that as a win. The thing is, we’ve kind of ‘solved’ LEA at this point. We’ve not even come close to losing in some considerable time. As such, we tried things like adding extra objectives to our campaign (we ended up massively OP by the end), and we tried playing only higher level objectives (we were still winning fairly easily). Nothing quite worked.

With this in mind, I looked around online to see if there were any house rules or similar, that could help us get some more challenge out of the game. What I came across was the first expansion box. The first thing most people online seem to say about this box is it is HARD. Bingo, just what I want.

A few days later 400 new cards arrive and need sleeving and suddenly I’m recalling how unhelpful these blocks of cards are, as they come from the factory. Additionally, the box contains a mini playmat (for someone to play as the Alien Queen Mother), more dividers, and more of those foam blocks.

As well as two new locations and their associated objectives and scenario decks, there’s a hard mode for all locations and objectives (including the 4 from the base game), a deck and avatars for a Queen Mother player (pro tip, feed her fish, she’ll choke on a bone. At least, that’s how it worked with the British QM), new player avatars, new types of strikes, new good and evil agendas, new characters to flesh out the barracks (there’s two extra characters for each crew (movie) and an Ellen Ripley deck, which has cards spanning each of the crews, so good for making sure you have representation of each when building custom barracks), and three decks for soldier aliens.

Even on normal difficulty, the new scenarios are nails hard. On our first playthrough with the evolution scenario, I took two huge strikes which finished me off one turn before we defeated the final boss. That said, the game had been pleasantly challenging all the way through. This may be because of the new matrix for setting up your hive decks by adding drone cards, or because of the new soldier aliens. These decks are numbered 1-3 and one from each is placed into each scenario mini deck, before they’re stacked to make the hive. They’re much stronger than their drone deck counterparts and keep the challenge up throughout the game.

I would definitely recommend Legendary Encounters – An Alien Deck Building Game to anyone who enjoys deck builders or just the Alien franchise. For anyone who’s played the base game to death and found the best strategies, I’d definitely recommend the first expansion as it adds a huge amount of replayability and a whole extra mode (though that’s best played with more people than the current lockdown will allow).

Pros:

  • Lots of replayability
  • Multiple rules variants to change up play
  • Expansion adds even more variety, challenge, improved setup, and a whole new, nails hard playmode with the Queen Mother.

Cons:

  • Initial setup of the box is a poorly explained chore that can be extremely stressful.
  • Queen Mother mode is so difficult that even the manual proposes that you treat it as a score attack game and don’t expect to win it as humans.
  • Solo play is best done with either homebrewed rules or playing two hands.

Final Score:

Base Game: 7/10

Expansion: 8/10

Coaled – Brass Birmingham

In my ongoing quest for games of weight and substance I’ve recently succumbed to the choking soot of Brass Birmingham. Set between 1770 and 1870 Brass Birmingham sees you and one to three friends take on the roles of early industrialists in the Black Country.

During the first part of the game, players take turns to build canal routes and factories across the English midlands. Cards showing a location allow you to build industry there, while those showing a particular industry allow you to open up a city on your network (somewhere you’ve built connections to) to this wonderous new trade.

The game scales well with more players, having marked cards and tokens showing which are to be used depending on player numbers. The more players, the more the region opens up. Initially the map is bare, only a few markets open for trade of specific goods, usually with only one area willing to buy anything sent their way. Each town or city will be willing to be home to certain types of industry, meaning you can only make pottery there if there’s a space for that tile.

This part of England was named the Black Country due to the soot that covered the industry-heavy region (or the 10m thick seam of coal close to the surface) and Brass Birmingham is also powered by these little ebony cubes (I assume they mine it out in cubes, Wikipedia wasn’t clear on that, but it would make it easier to stack if it did, so I’m going to assume the game is fully accurate in its depiction). Coal will be almost as important as currency in the game, being required for a majority of industry buildings.

Speaking of which. Each player has a playmat, showing the types of industry they can build, with each type coming in multiple levels. Build all your level one textile factories, and you can move on to the next level. The strategy here comes from working out what will be worth the most points to you during the game’s two scoring sections. However, to sell goods such as pottery, textiles, and manufactured goods (they’re just ominous boxes, the kind you’d fill a warehouse with and then hide the ark of the covenant in. It’s entirely possible that an industrialist from Dudley is the one hiding the ark from nazis) you’ll need to be connected to a market via a chain of canals, as well as plenty of that great industrial lubricant: beer!

You want to sell that pottery, down in Oxford? Best have some beer about, perhaps available from the town itself, perhaps from an opponent’s brewery. It’s one thing to get things down on the board, but to really get anything out of them, you’ll need beer available, to get it to market. Because… reasons.

Hold up! “Opponent’s brewery”?! Yep, things you create, such as coal mines, iron foundries, and breweries create resources, these resources can be used by anyone on the same network. If you can trace a line from your factory to the market and a source of beer, you can use that beer to sell your goods. Good for you, but also good for the brewery owner (or mine/foundry owner). You see, once all of a resource on a tile runs out, it gets flipped and the owner immediately gains an income benefit and that tile gains value in the scoring next section.

Here’s where some strategizing comes in. Do you build that brewery as your second action on your turn, risking that your opponent will use it and leave you without the vital beer you need to sell your own wares? Or do you play it safe and build another canal? Biding your time until your next turn when you can brew beer and immediately sell your goods. Thereby causing a chain of flipped tiles as you use up your beer and sell off your goods (money, money, profit, textiles, industrialist swag, etc).

As mentioned earlier, the first part of the game is all about canals. However, the age of moving goods by water is fast approaching its end. Once the player deck has been run down, the age of canals comes to an end and those aquatic conveyances become nothing more than useless, flooded trenches full of shopping trolleys, used condoms, and middle class hippies living on barges with pretentious names (both the barges and the hippies). Furthermore any of your industry tiles that are only level one, are now as obsolete as minidiscs and have to be removed from the board along with all your carefully built canals.

This means that half way through the game, things can essentially reset. Especially if you haven’t managed to get any of the second level structures down. Suddenly the board is quiet again and you’ll have to build up from scratch, with shining railways now connecting each centre of industry. Those trains will need more coal so you’d better make sure there’s a good supply nearby, or you’ll have to buy from the market.

Besides certain locations on the borders of the map being markets for various types of goods, there’s also the coal market. By building a link to the coal market, you can buy and sell coal. Should you need some of these blessed black cubes, but find none on the board, you can buy from the market. As the market empties out, the cost rises to meet demand. However, should someone build a coal mine which is connected to the market, when there is such demand, they sell their coal on. This immediately earns them money at the going rate, and brings them closer to flipping the coal mine and getting some sweet sweet scoring benefits.

Our first game of Brass Birmingham ran to about 2 hours (plus 30 mins of watching a YouTube tutorial), but subsequent games have been closer to 90 mins. While there’s a lot of options for what to do on your turn, the game can move pretty swiftly. It’s only when you get down to the last few cards of the era that decisions can get really tough and you really need to think hard about not only what is best to do, but what can be done with limited options.

Overall the game is really interesting and a really fun puzzle to work through, but with no definitive answer, meaning that thanks to the random elements, there’s a lot of replayability.

Pros:

  • Surprisingly small and snuggly filled box.
  • High quality components.
  • Reversible player and main boards so you can enjoy day or night aesthetic variants.

Cons:

  • It’s a tough teach and I highly recommend watching a tutorial and even a playthrough to fully understand all the rules.
  • There’s only 2 possible women you can play as (though admittedly there weren’t many female historical industrialists to choose from).

Final Score: 9/10

Passionate Pieces – Azul: Summer Pavilion

Most players who develop more than a passing interest in Dungeons & Dragons (other tabletop RPGs are available) will find they develop a habit of collecting the shiny click-clack maths rocks. I mostly play online, but already have four full sets of polyhedral dice and three sets of Fudge dice.

You just get sucked in, and before you know it the targeted marketing is everywhere. Do you want ones with blood splatters? Liquid glitter cores? Heavy, metallic dice with rainbow edges? Novelty, oversized D20s? How about a D30? (for what?!) Or a D100? C’mon, percentile dice are for losers, get the real thing. Super strong, mains powered, dice with bonus clit sucking action (give it time)?

Nerds like tactile plastic apparently. We gather these prizes to us like dragons who are really into hydro-carbons. Unff. However, this can get really expensive. Therefore today, I’m going to talk about a lovely box of cardboard and sexy, sexy plastic that is very reasonably priced, beautifully weighted, wonderfully finished to a smooth shine, in a range of pleasing colours. Today, we discuss Azul: Summer Pavilion.

Summer Pavilion is the second of (currently) three Azul games, designed for 2-4 people. This time around, players take turns to draft tiles from a number of “factories” (they’re cardboard discs). They can take as many of one colour from a factory as well as a single tile of the wild colour for that round, if it also shares a factory (the number of factories used will depend on the player count). Now you have tiles of your own, tiles to fiddle and fondle and make patterns next to your player board as your wicked opponents take their opportunity to touch other tiles (they should be yours, all the tiles should be yours to feel and fondle).

Each factory starts with four beautiful tiles and any unclaimed after the first choice are moved to the centre of the play area. Even at this early stage, strategies can start to form. Do you want to take tiles from the next factory, or take from the middle? Will taking from one factory put enough of a single colour into the centre that it becomes an irresistible bounty of blessed tiles for the next, covetous player?

Once all the factories, and the centre are clear the first player (the one who drew from the centre first in the previous phase) will place a tile on their board. Boards are separated into seven coloured flowers, each divided into 6 numbered petals (alternatively, there’s a junior version of the game, just flip over the board and use any colour to fill any flower, two games in one). To place a tile on their board, players must pick a colour, and decide how many tiles of that colour (or the current wild colour) to spent in order to place one down. For example, spending two tiles allows the number two space to be filled, with the second tile being placed in a box (to be recycled back into circulation later).

Once everyone has placed all their tiles (or stored up to four of them for the next round) the factories are refilled from the bag, and the next round starts. This is a precious time, where you have your hand in a bag full of these glorious tiles and you can feel them cascading over you, filling you with absolute pleasure.

As the six rounds progress, the wild tile changes and the bag becomes more empty. When it’s finally drained of its precious contents, all those tiles in the box are placed back in.

Been having trouble finding the colour you want because it was all coming out at the beginning of the game? Now may be your chance to complete a set.

Scattered around your player board are a number of symbols. If you place tiles to completely surround these, you’ll be allowed to take 1-3 tiles (depending on the symbol) of your choice from the centre of the score board. This is the only time that the player order for placing tiles actually matters (get in early, take those high value purples, crush that tile touching tyrant). Spaces are then immediately filled from the bag.

Scoring is pretty simple, placing a lone tile is one point, tiles placed next to an adjoining tile get a point for each they’re slid sensuously in next to. Completing a flower of a single colour (or the central flower which can use any colour) will grant you an immediate bonus as shown on the score board. Additionally, filling every space marked with a one, two, three, or four will gain you a progressively more valuable bonus at the end of the six rounds.

Azul SP is a fairly quick game, and can be completed in about 20-40 minutes, depending on player count. Ultimately though, you probably won’t want to play with other people, you’ll want to strip naked, draw flowers on yourself with eyeliner, and feel the glorious tiles against your flesh, the way nature intended.

Pros:

  • Tiles sound lovely as they swish around in the bag, awaiting your touch.
  • Feels delightful against your skin, each touch of tile sending shivers of pleasure through you.
  • Very reasonably priced.
  • Surprising level of strategy, especially with higher player counts.

Cons:

  • How dare you suggest these tiles aren’t perfect.
  • I will destroy you if you touch my precious tiles.
  • The player score markers are brown, white, grey, and black. Lack of vivid colour means I often forget who is who.

Final Score: 10/10

Fixing Nigel – Pandemic On The Brink

Previously on Pandemic.

“Without wishing to be rude, what actually happened was that the elite gamer of the group basically played all four roles and the rest of us pushed things around as we were told…

“(a ball gag and lockable mittens can be very helpful in this respect)…

“There’s a lot of choice and as the game is cooperative, the table is free to discuss the best strategy (except Nigel, he’s wearing his gag because he knows what he’s done)…

“Pandemic is very well regarded, and rightly so, it’s a lot of fun and with the adjustable difficulty, can have a lot of replayability, but it is a puzzle, which can be solved. This is why players like Nigel (who’s been moved to a cage in the corner, for good behaviour) can get a bit overbearing with a group of new players. They get less “here’s what I think we might need to be doing between us” and more “you go here, via here, cure this and on your next turn do that. You, meet them there, give them that and then fly over here” (but for a fee, such players can be retrained).”

And now, the conclusion…

*roll titles*

I mentioned a fee for dealing with your overbearing players. I propose that fee could either be a talented Domme, or simply a copy of the first Pandemic expansion: On The Brink.

On The Brink adds extra epidemic cards, so you can play the standard game on an even harder mode, a virulent strain challenge (replace all the epidemic cards with much nastier ones), a mutation challenge (which adds a whole extra disease to conquer), and a bio-terrorist challenge (ripping one player away from the co-op fun to take on a hidden role game, spreading a fifth disease across the globe). The box also includes petri dish containers for all five colours of cubes, new roles, new events, extra pawns for the new characters and a pad of pages for the bio-terrorist. There’s also blank role and event cards, so if you want to homebrew a new card, now’s your chance to get creative.

The petri dishes are a really nice touch, that were an unexpected, but most welcome addition (I ended up borrowing them when we played Pandemic Legacy as they’re a nice bit of extra immersion). The new characters bring with them new skills, none of which feel unbalanced compared to the original game. There’s also the option of a sticker to go on the board to indicate the new disease type, or a card that does the same job. It’s up to you whether you’re willing to put a sticker on your original board.

All of the cards in this expansion feature a small symbol so you can separate them back out if you choose. Honestly though. I moved the new insert over to the base game box, tossed the original, and now house all of the components in a single box (shelf space is limited these days so it’s nice if I can get more on without adding an extra box).

On The Brink solves the issue of power players controlling the game in several ways, firstly, they won’t know all the new issues that may arise. So while they have some transferrable skills, they should find themselves much more uncertain. If that still doesn’t stop them, you can take the manual’s advice and just make them play as the bio-terrorist (or, as I said, a Domme with reasonable prices), that should keep them from “helping you out” (playing for you).

The virulent strain challenge makes one of the diseases particularly nasty. A new set of epidemic cards replace the originals (there’s up to eight, so you can play on legendary difficulty with this one too). These new cards add additional negative effects to each epidemic drawn, making the heart drop moment of an epidemic all the more intense.

In the mutation challenge, you start with two cards sitting in the infection discard pile and three related event cards mixed into the player deck. While the danger of these new events can be a bit hit and miss (one only has an effect if there’s already two mutant strain cubes on a city), the cards in the infection pile bring an unparalleled level of chaos to the board.

Normally you can get a grip on what is likely to come back around in the infection deck. However, once these mutation cards start coming out, you’ll be pulling cards from the bottom of the deck to add a cube of the new strain to. Suddenly there’s a lot more variables and things can quickly go wrong. This is all the more concerning since there are less purple mutant cubes than the four classic disease flavours. Now you’re rushing all over the world as the extra cities join the Wheel! Of! Disease!

The purple strain can be treated as per normal treatment rules, and is cured by handing in any 5 city cards at a research station. While this can sound easy, you’ll want to avoid using up or discarding too many cards of each colour as you could find yourself unable to cure one of the original diseases.

Finally we get to the bio-terrorist challenge. They get a secret sheet to work on and hatch their nefarious plans. Their moves are hidden from the other players (think Scotland Yard) and they only declare their location if they happen to be in the same city as another player or if they take a flight action. The bio-terrorist can place down purple disease cubes in cities as they pass or spend cards from their hand to infect remotely. While this player can be captured, there are mechanics for them to escape, so it’s not a complete game over.

While it’s theoretically possible to mix and match some of the new modes, I really don’t recommend it unless you’re an absolute sadist.

Pandemic – On The Brink pumps a huge amount of extra gameplay into the base game while providing you enough space to pack everything into a single box. If you’ve played Pandemic to death, this is your chance to resurrect it.

Pros:

  • New play modes add tons of replayability and variety.
  • New characters are well balanced.
  • The new insert allows this and the base game to fit tidily into a single box.

Cons:

  • Not every single role needs their own coloured pawn. It makes more sense for each player to just remember what colour they’re playing.

Final Score: 10/10

A Sense of Control – Pandemic

Why review Pandemic?! It’s been out years and everyone who’s played a modern boardgame either has it or has played it. It’s like the modern Monopoly, kind or essential. The reason: I like boardgames, I like writing reviews, I’m trying to get better at writing reviews. So strap in it’s time for an outbreak.

I first played Matt Leacock’s Pandemic with some local boardgame friends who’d borrowed it from a family member. They’d been playing it an awful lot (if the record sheet of wins to losses they were storing in the box was anything to go by) so understandably, they were very good at directing people on the best moves to make.

Without wishing to be rude, what actually happened was that the elite gamer of the group basically played all four roles and the rest of us pushed things around as we were told. Victory, hooray (/s). Even so, I could see where the fun was in the game and wanted to give it another try some time.

One person power playing is a known problem with the game and something you’ll just have to negotiate with your gaming group (a ball gag and lockable mittens can be very helpful in this respect).

Pandemic sees you take on one of several roles as you work together to fight four diseases which are breaking out across the globe. Each role has their own, unique abilities such as needing less cards to find a cure for the disease or being better equipped to treat affected areas.

The main board shows a map of the world, with cities linked, mostly to their nearest neighbour. Areas of the world are divided into four colours, representing the four diseases that will appear. Players start at a research station in Atlanta with a hand of cards, each showing either one of the major cities, or an event which grants them a single use ability which can be used at any time.

During setup three cities are drawn from the infection deck to receive three disease cubes, three more to receive two cubes, and a final three to receive a single, lonely cube (all alone in the world, just wishing for friends. Is that so wrong?). These nine infection cards are put into the discard pile and wait patiently for their chance to come again (and again).

On your turn you may take four actions. These include things like travelling along one of the connecting lines to a neighbouring city, discarding a city card to travel to that location, fast travel between research stations, build a new research station, treating the disease in your current city, etc. There’s a lot of choice and as the game is cooperative, the table is free to discuss the best strategy (except Nigel, he’s wearing his gag because he knows what he’s done).

At the end of each player’s turn, they draw two new cards from the player deck and a number of infection cards based on the current infection level. Those cities are infected with a single cube of their colour.

Scattered throughout the player deck are a number of epidemic cards (boo! hiss!) depending on the difficulty level agreed upon during setup there could be up to seven epidemics. When an epidemic comes out the infection rate goes up, and a city is drawn from the bottom of the infection deck which will receive a maximum three disease cubes. This is added to the infection discard pile which is shuffled and put back on top of the infection deck and only the infection phase happens. If your luck is particularly bad, you may find that city you just filled to the brim with disease coming straight back up and causing an outbreak (instead of adding a fourth cube, add one cube of that colour to each adjoining city).

It’s important to get as much board coverage as possible, to treat diseases that are getting out of hand and prevent a possible outbreak (you can only afford so many of these). That said, because of the way the infection cards cycle around, you can get a good idea of which cities are most at risk and which can be left a little longer.

If a player has five cards of a matching colour and happens to be chilling out at a research station, they can trade these in for a cure. Once you’ve cured all four diseases, you win the game (hooray! (not sarcastically this time)). Winning though, anyone can manage that (except me, the first few times I played solo). Let’s talk about losing: If the player deck runs out, you lose! If you get too many outbreaks, you lose! If you need to add a disease cube of a certain colour and there’s none left in the stockpile, you lose! If you look at the game funny, you lose! (at least I think that’s my issue).

Pandemic is very well regarded, and rightly so, it’s a lot of fun and with the adjustable difficulty, can have a lot of replayability, but it is a puzzle, which can be solved. This is why players like Nigel (who’s been moved to a cage in the corner, for good behaviour) can get a bit overbearing with a group of new players. They get less “I’ve noticed these areas are in peril, perhaps we should think about that” and more “you go here, via here, cure this and on your next turn do that. You, meet them there, give them that and then fly over here” (but for a fee, such players can be retrained).

Pros:

  • Simple design.
  • Easy teach.
  • Can be very addictive.

Cons:

  • Can be “solved”.
  • Can bring out the worst in some players.
  • Some of the events feel considerably weaker than others.

Final Score: 9/10

Come back next time for some thoughts on the first expansion: On The Brink

Pretty Wrong – Stuffed

Stuffed first caught my attention on Kickstarter, and like most boardgames I’ve kickstarted, it actually arrived (woo!). The biggest pull is the amazing artwork, which admittedly isn’t the best thing to base a purchase on (no shit Janey!).

The component quality is amazing. The custom dice have nice art and a really nice weight. The card art is incredible, the box opens like a story book which is held shut with a magnetic clasp, there’s enough space to have sleeved cards in there, and the vacform tray is very nicely designed to show everything off.

The plot of Stuffed is… *makes slightly embarrassed noises*. Luckily, it’s not well conveyed in the game itself, which is probably for the best because it’s a massive yikes once you put in the context of some of the cards. Those who were destined for great things, but fight their destiny, waste their talents and let time slip away, fail at their purpose. Their vice leads to the penalty that they become adorable, but troubled stuffed animals.

This is the only time ‘vice’ is brought up, usually the game talks of burdens (or rather, birdens). So what does the game consider a vice or a personal failing that sees you damned to the plush realms? Hatred – sure, addiction – makes sense I guess (if you completely ignore the underlying issues of addiction), self pity – I… suppose, regret – shaky ground, fear – what?!, broken – huh?, depression – oh do fuck off.

See at this point I just want to shake the designers and ask how they didn’t see the problems here. These ‘vices’ are mostly just mental health problems. You made a game where if you had mental health problems from anxiety, to depression, to trauma, to anger issues, and so on, you’re doomed to be punished for that in the next life. You done goofed. You’ve done a bad job, game designers *baps on nose with a newspaper*.

Why didn’t I notice this in the Kickstarter? Because the plot and the birdens (get it? They have birds on) weren’t shown together. Indeed, the use of the birden cards is considered an alternative play style (more on that later).

I genuinely think that if Certifiable Studios had framed it as: those who had, through their own failings or lack of bravery, failed to do the things that really mattered to meet their destiny, and then changed the titles of each birden, that this all could have been avoided.

Stuffed sees you trying to complete a mission by putting a dedicated team together and gathering the necessary supplies to complete it. That’s it, no need to blame people who have mental health problems. Just adorable stuffed animals (some of whom happen to be mercenaries) going on a quest together. Even with the birden cards in play, you can read it as “we came together as a team, and overcame those birdens”. They simply had to avoid framing them as vices or personal failings.

Ok, major glaring issues addressed, time to talk about gameplay.

Players take turns rolling 8 custom dice to earn money, gain advantage cards, gain loyal companions and specialists, or hire mercenaries. Each ally (and the player’s avatar) allows you to spend a die with a matching symbol to manipulate one or more dice. The avatars always allow you to spend one paw symbol die to re-roll any number of other dice. Others may ask you to spend a leaf to modify one of the dice to your favour. It’s this ability to re-roll and modify dice that takes a lot of the frustrating randomness out of the game (which is always a risk with dice rollers).

Loyal allies only require you to spend the correct symbols from dice in order to join your team, but specialists will also want you to spend gold to recruit them. Whereas mercenaries may even want you to part with your advantages as part of their cost. Luckily you can trade in three matching symbols for a coin or four for an advantage card (unless you rolled birds, those pesky birdens ruin everything). Advantages can be played for various benefits such as a free re-roll, an additional resource, to modify a die, etc. Some may even be played as allies in their own right.

As you progress through the game someone will eventually hire a mercenary. Once the first one is hired a new, pink die goes into the mix. This is rolled with the other dice on each player’s turn and should it land on a symbol matching a merc in play, their current employer gets a benefit. That could be extra gold, to steal gold from another player, to manipulate one of the current player’s dice, remove dice from the current player, etc. However, they wouldn’t be truly mercenary unless you could do the most devious thing, and just hire them straight from whoever hired them last, instead of from the pool of available companions.

Basically that’s the base game. The mission will have a description like “Break the curse and wake up the sleeping town of Totta”, but what it requires is (with a single exception) the same thing: have 2-4 teammates, 1-2 must be a mercenary, then spend 5-6 resources (dice of the correct type and possibly some coins or an advantage card). Once that’s done, that’s it, quest complete, game over.

That said, there is a rules variant which tries to bring in some of the plot, but even then only loosely. At the start of the game, each player can be dealt two birden cards (*angry hisses at birden cards*) depending on the card they will have different requirements in order to overcome them – such as spending 4 coins to rid yourself of anxiety, or dealing with your personal issues by hiring two mercenaries (sounds serious), or dismissing a teammate (who is not a mercenary) to rid yourself of depression (as someone with clinical depression, I can assure the designer that pushing your friends away is not how you deal with it). Once both your birdens are removed, you can complete the mission. It’s pretty flimsy but stops people rushing to the end game. Even so, you’ll probably be done in 20-30 minutes.

Stuffed has such beautiful art (even when it’s being kinda dark), but the story and the flavour of some of the mechanics really let it down. It feels like they had someone with incredible talent design the cards and then they just spitballed the plot while drunk and high. A real shame, and the reason I’m not that interested in Certifiable Studio’s next Kickstarter project. My advise is, if you’re going to play it with friends, let them know the rules and then put the manual away.

Pros:

  • Amazing art.
  • Custom dice have nice art and a lovely weight.
  • The box opens like a story book.

Cons:

  • The game treats mental health problems like personal failings.
  • Doesn’t really tie all it’s concepts together very well.

Final Score: 6.5/10

Seeing Red – Flamme Rouge

To look at Flamme Rouge, you’d think it was a child’s puzzle with some little toy bicycles on it. It’s a few Hot Wheels, a Care Bear and a tin of home dried mint leaves (don’t ask) away from looking like something I’d have loved as a kid. That said, the front of the box shows enough awards to make it worth a deeper look.

Flamme Rouge is a race game for 2-4 players (you can add 2 more with the expansion). The game board is double sided and modular, meaning that you can get a lot of different layouts from these parts. The pieces of the board (and the player boards) are made of super thick and weighty cardboard and popping these out was one of the most satisfying punchcard experiences I’ve had in a while.

Setup is pretty simple, the game comes with 5 route cards which show you how to lay out the pieces and which way up. Players then take turns to put their bikes in the starting area. The inside lane of each square counting as being in the lead.

Each player gets two cyclists – a sprinteur (slow, with occasional bursts of speed) and a rouleur (who keeps a more steady pace) – as well as two decks of cards – one for each of their grumpy bike boys (seriously, all the cards make them look really miserable).

Players will draw 4 cards from one of their two decks, pick one to play, and then lay it face down next to their player board. The other cards get put face-up on the bottom of their deck. Then they move on to the other deck and repeat the action. It’s this incomplete knowledge of what the other cyclist’s cards are going to be that can really ramp up the tension, and make or break your strategy.

Once everyone has picked their cards, players go in sequence from the race leader, turning over their cards and move the number of spaces shown. The played cards are removed from the game, never to be seen again (I think they get taken out and shot, or something).

Next comes the slipstream section. Starting from the last racer, players check the number of empty spaces between them and the cyclist in front. If it’s only one space the racer(s) move up and fill the gap. This then forms a block and the process starts again. If there’s only one space between that block and the rider in front, the whole block move up to fill the gap. And so on until everyone is either bunched up in a pack, or too far apart to benefit. Any riders who find themselves with an empty space in front of them after this process takes an exhaustion card (only 2 movement) and add it to their deck.

Because of this, it’s not advisable to get too close to the front of the pack as you risk exhaustion, but if you don’t, it’s very hard to try and pull ahead. As such, you can find yourself sticking in the pack for most of the race, only daring to sprint at the last minute. That said, if you’re saving all your high value cards for the end of the game, you could end up with one rider drawing a hand of just these cards, long before you’re ready. Meaning they’re forced to go flying by, flicking the v’s at opponents as they speed past. Sure, they’re way in front now, but they’ll be picking up exhaustion and looking pretty silly if the others finally catch or overtake.

As you move through your deck, it’s easy to get a grasp of roughly what’s in there, so you can plan ahead to some degree. Once the face up cards you’ve been recycling hit the top of your deck, it’s time to shuffle and move on. Suddenly those exhaustion cards you picked up are in the mix and you’re at risk of having a handful of low value cards when the pack pulls away.

In addition to these basic rules, some of the track layouts include hills. While entering or going up an incline, you can’t move more than 5 squares. So if you’re 6 blocks from the bottom of a hill you can’t move onto it with a card showing 7, you’ll have to finish your turn early, before you start the climb. If you played that 7 on the way up, you’d only get to move 5 spaces.

Furthermore, as you fight your screaming muscles to push on up, you get no slipstream benefits and as before, if there’s a gap ahead of you at the end of the round, you’re getting exhausted.

Conversely, if you start your turn on a downward slope, all cards are treated as a minimum of 5. Meaning you may be able to spend away your exhaustion cards for far more than they’re worth.

Because the decks are so small, you’ll find yourself moving through them very quickly, especially late game (if you’ve managed to avoid too much exhaustion). This limits your options in really fun and interesting ways. There’s a reason one of the awards on the box is from Mensa.

While a game of Flamme Rouge isn’t exactly long (30-45 mins at most) it’s a lot of fun and there’s every chance your table will be up for setting up a new track and going the extra kilometer.

Pros:

  • A well paced race game.
  • Deep enough that even seasoned gamers will enjoy.
  • Modular board means there’s plenty of replayability.

Cons:

  • The game comes without anywhere to store cards, so they just rattle around the box.
  • Could do with some more course cards as 5 single sided cards seems a bit of a waste.

Final Score: 8/10

Warm, Wet, and Breathable – Terraforming Mars

Lately I’ve been craving some more heavy weight boardgames. Much as I love a game we can knock out in 30-60 minutes, I’ve been wanting something more in depth. Having looked around for recommendations, I’ve been pointed in the direction of Terraforming Mars by Jacob Fryxelius.

Huge corporations are sending people off to Mars, in the hope of bringing warmth, water, and a breathable atmosphere. So this is your chance to get in on the dusty, red, ground floor.

The first thing you’ll probably notice about Terraforming Mars, is the sheer number of cubes. There’s 5 bags of cubes in each player colour, some chonky white cubes, and then bags of gold, silver, and bronze cubes to use as money. Next up is the massive number of cards and the art thereupon.

The card art for this game is an amazing and alarming mix. It’s like someone just used google images and hoped for the best. It’s mix of what looks like stock photographs and… interesting art. Ultimately it does the job, but there’s no real consistency through the deck. Additionally, the print on the cards is a little fuzzy and the card stock is flimsy. This is another game that feels like it needs to be immediately sleeved or risk it melting on a particularly humid day. As so much focus goes on the cards throughout the game it really feels like a poor choice to have put so little care into the finished product.

You’ll start your martian adventure by dealing out two corporations to each player, they then pick one and this will determine their starting funds and any ongoing bonus they may get throughout the game. Alternatively, new players can pick a beginner corporation which gets a set starting amount, but has no other bonuses during the game. These basic corps can be played with the standard ones, so no worries if you’re introducing a new player to a group of veterans.

Next up you’ll be getting some of those cards I mentioned earlier, beginners get 10 cards for free, normal corporations will get 10 to choose from, but will have to pay 3 credits (they’re called mega Euros, but that’s a bit wordy) for each card they wish to keep. Once everyone’s made their decisions about their starting hand, play can begin.

Each player huddles over their own resource board, here they carefully monitor their income and supplies of various commodities such as money, steel, titanium, plants, energy, and heat. These boards take up a lot of focus, but once again, the quality of the components really let things down. They’re shiny rectangles of cardboard, which you constantly place and remove various cubes on throughout play. Keeping the income tracking in place is vital, but one sharp knock on the table and it could all get shifted around. Unless everyone has a good memory, you could be looking at basically calling game over.

If you look online, people have made various solutions, from phone apps, to perspex overlays, but none of these are really satisfactory. What’s needed is a little bit more love on the components, to give us something more akin to the Scythe player boards, those little divots are perfect, and stop things going completely tits up if, 2 hours in your friend accidently kicks the table while getting up to answer the door to destiny (bloody destiny, always calling at inappropriate moments).

Players may take one or two actions, be that playing cards from their hands, paying for various actions shown on the main board itself, using special actions on already played cards, using their unique corporation actions, etc. As you can see, there’s a lot to do on your turn, lots to think about. Is now the time to start building cities, or do you want to focus on raising your titanium income, so you can afford more space projects? What if you wanted to start cranking out power, which you can turn into heat and ultimately start raising your terraforming rating by warming the planet?

Ultimately, your goal as a group is to raise the temperature of the planet to a balmy 8 degrees, increase the level of oxygen in the atmosphere, and to create 9 glorious tiles of ocean. Once these challenges are completed, the game ends.

On an individual level though, you’ll want to make sure that you’re raising your own base score (in the form of a terraforming rating, usually raised by building oceans and forests) and to lock in victory points, which are calculated at the end of the game. Victory points are mostly found on the cards you play, but there’s also the opportunity to claim awards (Do you have a bunch of cards in your hand? Have you completed enough building projects? Have you build 3 cities?). While there are 6 different awards that can be funded (for the knock down price of just 8 credits), players can only fund 3 of these during the game. Once they’re gone, they’re gone and with them a further 5 victory points in the end game, so get them while they’re here (FOMO! FOMO! FOMO! Bend yourself to capitalism! Do iiiiiiit!)

Gameplay can last up to about 3 and a half hours for a couple of first timers, but settles down to 90-120 thereafter. Terraforming Mars is deep enough and thoughtful enough to keep you engaged during that time, without risking boredom and gameplay moves fairly swiftly (as long as everyone is paying attention). While I absolutely love the gameplay and just want to keep diving back in (and maybe investing in some expansions), I really wish the components (particularly the player boards (flimsy and potentially a game ending risk), the cards (flimsy) and cubes (which aren’t well finished)) had enjoyed been better made. It’s natural to wonder where your £50-£60 is going when you look in the box, my only conclusion is that it’s licencing for the art, but still, that poor quality has lowered my final score. If you see it on sale, definitely grab yourself a copy.

Pros:

  • Good, weight to gameplay.
  • Very replayable.
  • Fun.

Cons:

  • Lack of consistency in the art.
  • Flimsy and badly finished components.
  • Very expensive to feel this cheap.

Final Score: 7/10