The Tallest Tales – The Adventure Zone – Bureau of Balance

So, there’s me, Mittens the rogue, and Laurak the wizard, right. And we’re in this creepy cemetery, fighting off a swarm of rats, while having a dance-off, but it’s okay, because you know me, I’ve got this unique and distracting odor, plus I’m good with an axe. Before you know it, things have escalated beyond all sense and Mitten’s ex shows up with this arcane riddle she’s got to answer before we can get on with destroying this bone throne.

*swig*

Right, it’s your round pal. When you get back, I’ll tell you about the time we ran into this sarcastic specter while trying to win a talent show.

If you’ve ever wanted to knock out a low-seriousness fantasy roleplaying campaign in under two hours, you could do a lot worse than the rules-light role playing game in a box: The Adventure Zone – Bureau Of Balance.

Loosely based on one of a bajillionty podcasts by the McElroy Brothers. It’s designed for 2-5 people and takes 60-90 minutes to dungeon crawl through. There’s no maps, no hefty tomes full of rules, only one type of die, and very little maths. Setup is pretty simple, players take a character sheet based on class (warrior, rogue, wizard, bard, or priest) and answer a few questions about that character (there’s prompts on the back of the sheet to either steal from or just get ideas about who your character is). There’s also space to name their adventurer and even draw a mugshot for posterity.

That’s it! No rolling stats, no picking up gear, no deciding on which pack is best for your adventure. All the numbers come printed on your sheet and they never change. Warriors are good against monsters. Wizards are good against magical challenges. The point of this game is not to worry about numbers so much as to tell a fun story together.

Now, to the adventure itself. Forgoing the common use of a Game/Dungeon Master player typical of most role playing games (thought there is a team leader who is in charge of gently nudging play forward), BoB sees this role taken by small Challenge Decks. One to represent a villain and their minions, the next a relic of power, and finally a location for it all to take place. The game includes a number of each so you could be after the Lich who wants the Ring and hangs out in the Tomb, or the Cult after an Idol on a Train. All of the decks are playable with each other meaning you can get an awful lot of replayability out of this box. Besides, playing with different groups, who knows how they’ll interpret the story in their own way.

Each deck includes 10 cards, each with a scenario and a few numbers. There’s a big number at the top of the card, this represents the score the players need to beat that round. To the left and right, there may be an arrow, which includes a modifier number for the card in that direction. For example, Reliving Your Biggest Mistake, includes +1 to the left, this could make the Swarm of Crawling Hands (usually only a 7) up to a difficulty of 8 (as I said, it’s very simple stuff).

Below the numbers are the card’s name, and below that there may be symbols, denoting the type of encounter this is (monster, spooky, magic, etc). Next is an all purpose box for prompts, and special rules. Some will include effects that remain as long as the card is on the board, others will grant bonuses if you can explain some story aspect of the card (what does something look/smell/taste/sound like?) during your encounter with it. At the very bottom, there’s a skull with a number, showing how much damage it will do if you fail your encounter, and another showing the value of treasure you get for defeating it.

Which brings us to Fantasy CKostCo (it’s legally distinct for the board game) cards. If you’ve earned three loot, you can grab yourself an item card from the deck. It could be Railsplitter, an axe that gives you an ongoing bonus against monsters and a bonus when you help a friend fight a monster; or some very adorable Slippies of Haste, which give you a bonus against monsters and traps. If you’ve got the deluxe edition of the game, you’ll get an adorable slot-together model of the Fantasy KostCo to hold your cards, but it doesn’t seem to stay together very well (at least ours doesn’t) and you’ll regularly end up with cards flying everywhere (save yourself $20 and get the standard edition).

You’re not allowed to hold more than two item cards, but there’s a really nice mechanic, whereby if you earn enough to get a third item, you can immediately give one to someone else on your team, meaning that even if one player hasn’t managed to get any loot themselves, they won’t be underprepared as you move on through your adventures.

If you’re playing more than two players, the last thing you’ll need to do is add a surprise card to each Challenge Deck, to be uncovered once you’ve got past the first four cards. These surprises are helpful friends who will aid you in your quest. They even get their own little space on the board to hang out in, until the next surprise comes along to take over.

So, the board is set, the quest is planned(ish) and the party introduce themselves (and show off their stick figure art of a wizard gnome), time for adventure. On a turn, players chose one of the three challenges to take on, work out how much strength they have (based on the numbers on their sheet, plus any bonuses from items or surprises), tell the story of how they’re going about this quest, ask for assistance from another player (if they don’t think they can beat the challenge alone), and finally roll their dice.

I forgot to mention the dice in this game. They’re big enough to concuss someone if you are the type to throw things when you fail a roll (please don’t, and maybe get some help for your anger issues). While they look like standard twenty-sided dice, they actually only feature the numbers 1-6 (three times each), as well as a big X for an epic failure, and a Bureau of Balance symbol for a critical success.

Anyway… roll the die, add it to your total strength (including any modifiers for items or help from your party) and if it’s higher than the challenge rating, you win and you get that card.

The story ends once two of the challenge decks are exhausted.

If you’ve got people who are really able to go with the flow and can whip up some silly detail about their challenge, you can get some really fun group storytelling. Even if you’ve got one fairly quiet player, you can still get a fun story together, thanks to the cards themselves and the way the game wants you to interact with it. I’ve had some fairly difficult games with this box (and more than a few adventures that got really horny), but never one that didn’t get at least a few good belly laughs.

The Adventure Zone – Bureau of Balance probably isn’t for hardcore Pathfinder or D&D players, but if you’re looking to experience a rules-light, no-DM, co-operative story you can play in an evening with no prep, you could do a lot worse than this. Perhaps a good introduction for getting friends into the world of role playing, without scaring them away by making them read a 300 page player manual first.

Pros:

  • Easy to pick up
  • Nice artwork
  • Lots of fun

Cons:

  • Can experience difficulty spikes
  • Not very deep
  • Deluxe edition feels unnecessary

Final Score: 6/10

Going For Goldberg – Steampunk Rally Fusion

In 2015 teams of inventors first donned goggles and took up their welding torches in card-drafting, dice-rolling race game, for 2 – 8 players, Steampunk Rally. Then Orin Bishop looked upon this complicated box of delights and cried “more!” And so, in early 2020 a Kickstarter launched for Steampunk Rally Fusion.

SRF takes all the gameplay of the original and adds new courses, new types of dice, new inventors, new vehicle parts, new boosts, event decks, crowd challenges, and a solo mode. Due to how I backed, this review covers Steampunk Rally Fusion – Atomic Edition, which neatly puts both versions of the game in the same box for an absolutely huge experience.

Initially the contents can be a little overwhelming. There’s gold silver and bronze parts, as well as boosts for both editions, a staggering number of inventors, and enough dice to square up to a copy of Chip Theory Games’ Too Many Bones (including the new fusion dice which are beautiful 2 colour d6 numbered 4-9). However, once you’ve got through your first few turns, it will all come clear.

The aim of the game is to race along a modular track and make it as far over the finish line as possible. Along the way you will be adding various parts to your vehicle to propel you onward, damage your opponents, or generate resources to help you do that other stuff.

Players start by picking an inventor and taking their associated starting vehicle part. They then arrange them so that valve symbols on each card are matched up. All parts that are attached to these wild machines must include an unbroken line of valves going back to the cockpit. Luckily you can rearrange these mechanical monstrosities on the fly (or roll, or hover).

Each round sees players draw a card from each of the three parts decks and one from the boost deck. They then take a card and pass their hand on to the next player. Bronze parts have valves one all four sides so are mostly about expansion; silver parts help you gain and multiply dice, as well as converting dice to different types; finally the gold parts are mostly about movement. It is a race after all.

When drafting cards, players can either attach them to their craft or sell them off to gain dice or cogs. Meanwhile boost cards can also be sold or kept secret, to be used later for benefits such as extra cogs or damage to opponents.

With the draft down players can get moving (there’s another phase but I’ll come back to that). Time to roll all those dice you’ve generated and start placing them around your vehicle to get moving, raise shields, or make attacks. Here cogs can be spent to either raise the value of a die by one or reroll it.

Most machine parts will give you some reward based on the value of the die or dice you add. For example, inserting blue dice with a total value of 15 into a part which grants one forward motion for every five points will grant you three movement.

Some things to consider though. There are some areas of terrain that will damage you if you’re unable to raise enough shielding or move smoothly. For each point of damage you fail to defend against during the race phase, you’ll have to remove a part of your machine. If your final part explodes, you’ll be sent to the space behind the player in last place and have to start your vehicle from scratch.

With the race phase over and damage done it’s time to wipe down your engine (ooh-er) and get ready for the next round. All unused dice are put back in the supply and damage counters are reset. However all spent dice stay in place. Sadly this means you’re going to have to find a way to clear them out if you want to use that part again. This is where the vent phase comes in.

Following the drafting phase, players can spend a cog to remove two pips of value from any die (or split the points across two dice). Once they reach 0 it can be removed and the slot can be freed up to use again.

Eventually someone will cross the finish line. However, this isn’t about who finished first, it’s who got furthest over. As such a final round is played out and whoever is furthest over the line at the end of that round is crowned the winner. Although it’s probably like golden goggles instead of an actual crown, because, you know, steampunk.

Well, that’s it, race over, nothing more to see.

But wait, there’s still more stuff in this dang box. Check out optional extras like secret projects. At any time during the race phase you can add a run of dice in any colour to add a point to your total for each die spent this way. There are powerful bonuses for activating your secret at 4, 8, or 12 points. However, you only get one shot, so if you use it early on with only 4 points, there will be no chance to get use of the full 12 point bonus.

There’s trap effects and a special effect deck for some spaces on the Machu Picchu track. On the Mars course there’s canals which require either two movement from the same vehicle part or one smooth movement, as well as tripod cards which affect all players on red track spaces. There’s a solo mode where you’re aiming for a high score to beat in future games. Lastly there’s challenges such as crowd pleasing spaces and various locales to trade cogs for dice and vice versa.

For a fairly standard sized board game box, Steampunk Rally Fusion – Atomic Edition packs a huge amount inside. That said, for the right price either edition on its own would be plenty to be getting on with.

The manual is clear in describing each phase of the game. However I did find it a little difficult to make decisions as to what I should be taking or selling on my first few drafts as fitting all the information from the manual into actual play proved difficult. That said. After playing a practice round, everyone found it clicked and we were able to start over with a proper understanding.

On the subject of learning, there is an official video on Roxley’s YouTube channel, however the over the top acting and voices made it quite difficult for me to follow. Your mileage may vary (especially if your vehicle explodes on the way).

Steampunk Rally Fusion – Atomic Edition is a really fun game with so much in the box that no two games will ever be the same. It’s fun to look at the ridiculousness of your creation laid out before you and the fact you’re never completely out means that there’s always a chance to make a comeback.

Pros:

  • The consistency of card art means all the parts flow together in really fun ways
  • Great fun
  • The fusion dice are so pretty

Cons:

  • Found some blemishes on a couple of the normal dice
  • Initial learning curve can be a little overwhelming
  • The vac tray takes up a lot of space that could have been better used as components can feel squeezed in after initial box setup.

Final Score: 7/10

A Wretched Tome – Cthulhu Wars: Duel

9th of April 2021

My Dear Tatos,

I write in haste to warn you. A tome has come into my possession by means of our mutual orange friend. At first I perused with deep interest, but the more I read, the more I found my grip on reality slipping from me. Indeed as I read a passage aloud to my nearest companion, she found herself overcome and fell into a dark, comatose state and did not rouse for many minutes after I had ceased, such was the confusion in these pages. Its words spoke so much of what was not contained within the box of eldritch symbols, with which it had been acquired. It spoke of horrors yet to come. Horrors that would twist our current thinking. Thus did it seek to ruin our minds and defeat our mortal bodies. I warn you to make yourself safe and not engage with these artifacts, lest you possess the strength of gods to survive this mental anguish.

Yours in peril,

Jane

Cthulhu Wars: Duel is an asymmetric, area control game, from Petersen Games, for two players which takes about half an hour. It’s a game that wants you to know that while it does attempt to be an affordable, streamlined version of the half ton of glorious coloured plastic that was Cthulhu Wars, there will be expansions. Rather than explain the game you’ve purchased Duel’s manual is a cosmic nightmare of clarifications, citations and explanations for Great Old Ones who aren’t even out yet.

Why bother just letting you know about the game in front of you and moving on when you can drive your players to their own special Lovecraftian loss of reality. Why put in an example of a rule that is always true if this box is all you own, when you could throw in a paragraph about how this other Old One (you don’t know them, they don’t go to school here. They’re from… er… Canada, but don’t, like, check or anything because they’re shy… probably) can totally do things differently.

When I looked on YouTube for information on how to play, most of what I found was people telling me what the game isn’t. It’s not Cthulhu Wars. People seem to love telling you how it’s similar to or different from the beast that spawned it, but don’t seem to care if you’re coming in fresh (because CW is a ridiculously decadent plastic fest (as many good Kickstarter games are) and you can’t afford it or justify the shelf space).

I spent 2 hours reading the manual and it’s full of unnecessary bullshit that caused me to really struggle with what is actually a very simple game. So simple in fact that I would recommend you start with the reference sheet on the back of the manual as well as your player mat, and only use the manual itself for clarifications and picture examples of what things are called.

CW:D takes place in four phases and as many rounds as necessary (4-5 seems to be the average). First up the Action Phase: if you’ve got power, spend it to move, fight, open gates, deploy or capture cultists. Then comes the Gather Power Phase where you’re awarded power based on how many cultists you have on the board, any opposing cultists you’ve captured, how many gates you control, and any gates that are currently abandoned on the board. Next you decide who the first player is, based on who has the most power now. And finally it’s the Doom Phase where you can perform a ritual for some power to generate more Doom and a token with a secret amount of Doom.

The winner is whoever has the highest Doom score and the game end is triggered either when someone goes over 30 Doom or when so many rituals have been completed that you move to Instant Death.

That’s it, two short paragraphs and you’ve got the gist of the game. What else is there? Well, there’s player mats, spell books, cardboard standees of your various horrors plus discs to represent your cultists, and a map board to shuffle your units around on.

When you realise that the world wraps around horizontally (like Asteroids), you’ll understand how little space there actually is to claim, but claim it you must if you’re to gain the power you need to bring about your preferred version of the end of the world.

On your player board you’ll see a clear explanation of your various units, including summoning costs, attack power (number of dice to roll for them) and any special abilities. On the right side of the board are 6 slots with various conditions that must be met. Once you meet one of these you can select one of your spell books to activate into that slot, to give you an advantage for the rest of the game. The order you choose them is entirely up to you and gives you some nice strategizing to do as the game goes on.

One nice rubber-banding technique is that if you run out of power before your opponent, you can push up the decay counter by one space. This means that they’ll have to pay whatever the current decay cost is before taking any further actions, which is a great way of stopping one player absolutely running away with things early on.

Apart from the abysmal manual, the other massive downfall of this game is its combat. Combat power is based on the type and number of each unit you have on the battlefield. Different units have higher combat scores, meaning you can roll more dice. There’s no rerolls, nothing that can mitigate a bad roll, you just get your number, roll that many dice, and work out if you’ve actually done anything to your opponent. A six is a kill, four or five is pain, everything else is worthless.

Once both players have rolled, You can assign your opponent’s damage to your units as you see fit. With kills returning units to your pool (to summon again) and pain causing units to flee to a safe, adjacent space, but leaving them alive. While it’s simple and clean, it’s a type of randomness I detest in area control and war games because a few bad rolls will absolutely ruin you.

While I had an okay time with Cthulhu Wars: Duel, I felt it could have done with a more concise rulebook, and some way to mitigate the randomness of dice rolling. Whatever else it is, it’s short, so ultimately not very offensive (apart from how it’s based on Lovecraft and no matter how the current fan community tries to pronounce certain words these days, they were intended to be racist as heck, so there’s that.

Pros:

  • Affordable
  • Decay mechanic helps keep players score closer together.
  • Minimal plastic components

Cons:

  • Poorly written manual
  • Basic dice rolling
  • Lacks depth

Final Score: 6/10

Just Call Me Garfield – Bargain Quest

It’s not even noon when I look up at the sound of some young and too-eager stranger smearing their face and fingers over my shop window. They will pay for those greasy streaks, let there be no doubt. That holy sword has suckered in more experienced “heroes” than this.

As they step inside I plaster on my expert customer service smile and prepare to shake them down. “Good day to you friend. What brings you to my humble shop on this gobin-ravaged morning?”

“I seek arms that I might wipe the ignoble dark-dwellers from this fair village. Pray tell me good shopkeep, how much for the holy blade displayed inst thine window?” they reply.

Of course they’re a cleric, the pretentious tone always gives it away. Well, that and the overly ornate book of vague bigotry they can’t seem to put down.

“Oh, it’s a beautiful item, laid in my care by Sister Illumination Piety. Alas, it is not for sale.”

“Blast!… I mean, alas. Then have you ought else I might use in my noble quest to defeat the goblin chief and free this village from oppression?”

I look them up and down, using my finely honed eye for the weight of a purse and estimate they’ve got, at most, 15 gold.

“Fear not, noble warrior, let me show you this fine holy symbol, set here by Sister Peitiy’s (less well-funded) forbear, Sibling Luna.” I hand them the necklace I’d picked up as a free gift with my last bulk weapons order.

“Truely, I feel the presence of our divine Mistress emanating most powerfully from this item. I must have it.” They’re almost salivating, it’s kind of weird.

“I’m afraid the price is quite high, due to it’s noble provenance.” I reply, glancing down as I fear that if they catch my eye I’ll just piss myself laughing. Hold it together. “Tis 15 gold. Alas, I could not part with it for less.”

“Be silent then, and takest mine coins, for though it is all my worldly wealth, it is vital in my quest to eradicate evil.”

“Wouldst your holiness care for a bag?” I respond, pocketing the gold, faster than you could blink.

“Nay, I shall wear it now, and always.” they reply, striding out out the door, glowing with pomposity.

Bargain Quest is a 2-6 player card-drafting game of capitalism in a fantasy village by Jonathan Ying. It plays in about 45 minutes and has some delightful artwork. Players take an individual shop board, which comes folded in half and showing what the shop front would look like. Upon opening it up you will find your display area, places to put any upgrades and employees as well as a reference chart showing the round order.

During setup players will lay out a stack of three monster cards (escalating in difficulty) as well as a number of hero cards equal to the number of players. Each hero card shows their class and abilities, but more importantly, how much money they have to spend in your shop.

Starting with the supply round, players reveal the next monster plaguing the village and are dealt 4 item cards face down. They then take one item and pass their hand to the next player until everyone has drawn their 4 items.

Next comes the display phase where players take an item and which they hope will entice a hero in. The item with the most hearts displayed on it will get first dibs on which hero will shop with them. However, this item cannot be sold so you’ll need to make sure you have something you can actually sell these adventurers when they are drawn in. Furthermore, the items will have symbols which denote the class they are appropriate for. Both items and heroes may have multiple symbols and those with more symbols will usually have more money to spend.

Are your items good enough to guarantee that paladin popping in? Or do you hedge your bets and ensure you have enough choice if you end up with the fighter?

Once everyone has selected a display item these are flipped over and the shopping phase begins. Based on who’s display had the most hearts players take in an appropriate hero. If none are left, players may take whoever’s left over (if you’ll excuse me a moment, I need to go and cry out some childhood memories of the picking of sports teams).

With shoppers brought in, it’s time to relieve them of their funds in exchange for any appropriate goods. The thing to consider here is if you can outfit them sufficiently to take on the current monster. Even if they don’t defeat it, they may come back with additional funds for you to help them dispose of.

At last it’s on to adventure. It brings a tear to the eye, seeing a young wannabe hero heading off to fight evil, carrying a sword you’ve covered in your shop’s branding. This wouldn’t be a tabletop fantasy game without a little randomization though, so heroes receive a card from the adventure deck. This could be a bonus to attack or defence, or even some extra gold they found on the way to the dungeon. Alternatively, it could be a spot of bad luck that gives them a debuff for the run.

Each player now takes a turn to strike down the terrors of the dark. The monster cards show special actions such as stealing gold from heroes before the shopping phase, or robbing a players store at the end of the round. They also include their strength and toughness. Hit them hard enough to score a hit and that’s a point for the player that kitted them out. However, if they’re not armoured sufficiently, they’ll be returning to town in a body bag (well, probably a hempen sack, if they’re lucky).

If, after all players’ heroes have taken a swing at the enemy, there are an equal number of hits to players, then that enemy is defeated and surviving adventurers will receive a handsome reward. If the enemy still lives, they get a smaller reward and a bonus point for their player. After which, they return to town, tossing their old equipment in a ditch on the way. Because those items are just “sooooo last encounter”.

Expired heroes are replaced with a new one drawn from the deck and returning heroes will have to make the most of the money they have.

As day draws to an end, it’s time to look at upgrading your store. Purchase extra display space, extra storage or even workers to help out around the place.

Last thing before bed, you may pack away an unsold item into storage. This could be something from your window (keep it aspirational for that paladin, eh?) or something from your hand.

And so it goes, day in day out, until the final monster is defeated and the village is free. Woo! The winner is the player with the most points (with bonuses for extra gold in your till).

There’s 4 different monsters of each of the three levels so there’s plenty of opportunity for replayability there. Additionally there’s a huge item deck to work through as well as a good number of heroes to send on their adventures. The art is charming and the components look lovely. That said, during my first play session, I noticed that all the cards were starting to curl. It’s not particularly humid or damp here so I’m at a loss as to why they were curling like foil valiant Magic: The Gathering cards within an hour or so.

Pros:

  • Beautiful art
  • Fun gameplay
  • Lots of variety in the items

Cons:

  • Cards quickly started curling once opened for the first time
  • Can feel a little too random with small player counts
  • Capitalism

Final Score: 7/10

Snug As A Bug – Patchwork

Quick note: I’m reviewing the Chr***mas edition of Patchwork, because that’s what came in my Zatu new release box at the end of November. However, I have a lot of trauma around the holiday so I’m just going to call it Patchwork for 99% of this review.

Patchwork is a charming little puzzle game by Uwe Rosenberg for 2 players and takes about 30 minutes to play. Like a lot of Rosenberg’s games, there’s plenty of poliminos to place (I won’t kinkshame, I love a bit of Tetris myself).

Each player takes a 9×9 quilt board, a matching player token, and five buttons as their starter funds. The spiralling time board is placed in the centre of the table and the polimino patch tiles are randomly placed around it in a circle. Next players locate the 2×1 tile and place the marker token ahead of this in a clockwise order.

The first player will pick one of the three patches ahead of the marker to take. They then move the marker to that position and pay for the tile, which has a cost in time and buttons. Buttons are paid straight to the bank and time is paid by moving along the time track, the number of spots shown on the tile. The player who is furthest back along the track will always be next to select a patch to sew.

This leapfrog method really helps to balance out play. If someone gets in a lucky position and gets a high value patch, they may find themselves waiting to move ahead while their opponent gathers up smaller tiles needed to fill in awkward gaps. It forces you to look ahead at the rest of the board, as well as considering the three tiles you can choose on your current turn. Set up just right and you could position yourself ideally for several turns.

Patches come in various sizes and shapes and some will show one or more shiny gold buttons. The time board also shows buttons at various points along the route and passing these will allow you to score based on the number of gold buttons shown on patches you’ve already sewn to your quilt.

Alternately, on your turn you can move to the position directly ahead of your opponent on the time board. In this way, you earn a number of buttons based on how many places you travelled. As such, you never have to worry about running out of funds to buy more patches. However, that time is always ticking down and empty spaces on your board will cost you two points each at the end.

Speaking of which, the game ends when one player makes it to the centre of the time board. Final scores are based on the number of buttons you have earned minus any deductions for uncovered areas of your quilt. There’s also a bonus of seven buttons for the first player to fill a 7×7 area on their quilt.

While Patchwork could seem like a simple game for kids that you could easily dismiss, it has the potential to be not only a spacial awareness puzzle, but a mind game with your opponent about when to move forward, when to take a tile based on how long it will take you to sew, and when to just dive in and grab a patch that will give you a regular income of those shiny gold buttons.

The tiles and boards are a lovely thick cardboard, the tokens are all wood, the box isn’t excessively large, it’s a lot of fun, easy to teach, easy to set up and tear down. I have really enjoyed my time playing this game and look forward to getting the review photos out of the way so I can just change the box to say it’s the Unicorn Dance Party Edition (it’s a far superior winter festival. Don’t @ me).

Okay, time to grit my teeth and just get on with mentioning the differences between this and the standard version of Patchwork.

This festive edition features gold buttons instead of blue, the colours are a bit more vibrant, the patches look more like wrapped gifts tied with string (to heck with trying to wrap most of these shapes!), the marker token is a red pine tree shape and the other tokens are gold and silver… oh, and it comes with a T shape cookie cutter (for some reason. Maybe gingerbread. Sure, let’s say gingerbread).

Pros:

  • Fun.
  • A little deeper than it looks.
  • Vibrant colours.

Cons:

  • It’s got the word Chr***mas in the title.

Final Score: 8/10

Most Non-Triumphant – Bill & Ted’s Riff In Time

I made the mistake of looking up when the first Bill & Ted film came out and now I feel really old. How in glob’s name did they manage to get a sequel made in 2020?! Yeah, it’s been 29 years. Keanu Reeves is heading towards 60. Nostalgia bucks are big bucks I guess. Anyway, we’re not here to talk about movies, we’re here to talk about related board games. *sigh*

Bill & Ted’s Riff In Time from Warcradle Studios is very much like the 2020 movie, Face The Music. It’s alright. Didn’t hurt anyone. It passed the time. It was nice to look at the art and go “oh yeah, it’s them” (and then “this game has a minis expansion, doesn’t it”, to which the answer is yes, of course it does). All the artwork is of the painted minis, but without the expansion, you’ll be pushing cardboard figures in plastic stands (with the exception of the player minis) around. It’s designed for 1-4 players and takes around 80 laborious minutes (not that time should really matter when you have a time machine, right?).

The basic plot is that there’s all these rifts opening in time. This has caused personages of historical significance to wind up at places and times they really don’t belong. It’s up to Bill, Ted, Elizabeth, and Joanna to jump into their time booths (for the sake of the game they have one each, I guess they’re just giving them out like free samples these days. Hey future people, where’s my damn time booth? I’m British, so I guess it’s a phone box with a missing door that’s been smashed to crap and smells like stale piss and hepatitis. Plus, it’s probably stuck at a lorry park/lake in Kent, we’ll move on eh) and go put things right.

Each player picks a character who will have a special ability such as swapping their riff card or extra movement. They then get dealt out two objective cards and choose one to keep. These are personal missions you can complete to gain additional abilities going forward and will involve things like doing some repair work on multiple rifts, or having a particular character with you and travelling to a specific location. They’re then given one additional objective card, which you get as a free ability for the game, with no need to complete it (Excellent! *air guitars like a pro*).

To set up the board, you shuffle the location discs and place them in little divots on the board (which reminded me of Pokémon Master Trainer). Next you shuffle the location cards and place the personages of historical significance standees. Finally place the player minis in San Dimas and shuffle up the riff deck.

At this point in play, it’s your last chance to turn back, but you’re here for a review, so I guess I have to keep going. I do these things for you. I hope you appreciate it.

On your turn you draw a rift card and perform whatever action it demands. This could be something as simple as advancing the rift counter on your location; something bad, like advancing the rift counter on 5 separate locations; something annoying, like advancing a particular location’s rift counter and then transporting you, or even all players there. This can leave you feeling you have very little agency if you draw a lot of them in a row. There are like five Excellent cards in the riff deck that actually benefit you, but it’s a big deck so you don’t rely on them turning up when you need.

Next, players roll up to four action dice from their pool and perform actions based on what luck has brought. You do get one free re-roll, but after that, you’re probably on your own. There are four colours of dice, most of which show the same icons in differing amounts. There’s Move which allows you to travel through the circuits of time to connected locations; Interact which allow you to pick up characters, drop them off, or start repairing rifts in locations that have already had their correct personages of historical significance dropped off; Excellent which can be used as any other type of action; and Bogus which will cause you to raise the rift counter on your current location (or the San Dimas counter, if it’s already at its limit).

At the start of the game all locations are set to level 5, except San Dimas, which starts at whatever the player count is. Early on you’ll probably feel like things are a little dangerous as you will most likely feel like riff cards are seeing you constantly raising levels and really struggling to do anything to mitigate the gaping holes in freaking time!

As you pick up personages of historical significance (yes, the manual insists on using the full title every damn time) they will grant you temporary boons and/or banes while they’re travelling with you. Usually adding a blue die (mid-tier) to your pool and a move, interaction, excellent, or re-roll action to use each turn. Some of the more wild characters, like Genghis Khan, will add black Bogus dice, which you have to roll as one of your four each turn. These only have Bogus actions or blank sides. As such, it’s best to get these characters on a swift pick up and drop off service or risk a major bummer each turn.

Riff In Time (and yes, I was regularly tripping over riff and rift while playing this game, because both words come up so often) is a game of three parts. The early panic of trying to get things under control can feel kind of desperate, the solid mid-game where you’re starting to get into a rhythm and build your dice pool, and then the plodding, pedestrian final phase where you’ve got everything well under control and it’s just mopping up the last people and places.

Ultimately Riff In Time is… fine-ish, I guess. It’s easy to teach, easy to play, doesn’t require much in the way of strategy, but is ultimately quite a hollow experience. The manual spends too much time trying to be late 80s/early 90s cool and could have been simplified without really losing anything of the theme. The standees are of that design that doesn’t really grip the cardboard so won’t chew it up with continued use, but ultimately can’t always be picked up by the card part, as the plastic base just falls off. It’s fun enough for two thirds, but fails to stick the landing. It doesn’t stand up well against other modern board games and so just like Bill & Ted Face The Music, it feels about 20 years too late to be fully appreciated.

Pros:

  • Dice feel pretty decent.
  • Board art is nice, clear, and colourful.

Cons:

  • Feels like a movie tie-in board game from 1991.
  • Lots of empty space in the box.
  • The central location marker for San Dimas never seems to sit properly on the board, making it easy to knock and change the value it’s pointing at.

Final Score: 4/10

This Is The End For You – Pandemic Legacy Season 0

At the start of this year I had the idea to start playing some legacy games to keep us occupied during lockdown. My fiancée and I have since played all three Pandemic Legacy games (it’s a false sense of control during an actual pandemic). I didn’t have the foresight to take photographs of the first two before we started playing, so this review is for the most recent game – Pandemic Legacy Season 0.

All pictures are from a box fresh copy of the game so this is nothing you won’t see the moment you open the box from new, additionally I think I’ve kept this review as spoiler free as possible.

When you first open the box, you’ll be greeted with the usual dossiers (like the world’s most intimidating advent calendar), manual, legacy deck (actually two in this game, plus an operations deck that you will have to fish cards out of periodically), player pieces, board, cards, and 8 sealed boxes. There’s also a debrief book which uses paragraph numbers to feed you plot according to whether you pass or fail certain challenges in the game.

If you’ve never played a legacy game, some of this may need explaining. The legacy deck is basically your automated game/dungeon master. You unwrap the deck and start drawing from the start end. It will provide you with your objectives, plot beats, new cards to be put in other decks, and potentially whole new gameplay elements. Once you’re done with an objective for the month, you tear it up and throw it out. Your game is now changed forever. At various points you’ll add stickers to your passports, the manual, and even the board. These games are typically only able to be played through once and then all you have are (hopefully) wonderful memories of this experience you’ve shared.

Season 0 takes place back in the 60s, in the midst of the cold war. You’re a group of fresh-faced, newly qualified medical professionals, pulled into the CIA in order to stop a deadly bioweapon (apparently it’s easier to make a medic into a spy than to send a spy to medical school). You’ll get a cute little passport where you’ll hold your three identities (one for each affiliation – allied, soviet, and neutral), a card with a long list of possible actions (with space on the back to add more as the game progresses), a player pawn in your choice of colour, and off you go into the world.

Your first big choice will be picking a character head to represent you. You’ll be adding your choice of hair, hats, scarves, dresses, shirts, facial hair, and more later, but first you get a profile picture for all of your alises. There’s been some attempt to have some variety in skin tone, but I found when it came to hair, there was only one option for natural hair for a black character. Pretty shoddy when you have potentially two people playing black characters and each having three alises (come on Z-Man, you can do better than this).

Much like base Pandemic, you have a player deck containing cities of the world (accurate for the time period) which will also include any funded events (single use bonuses). You may recognise the threat level, which increases as you pull escalations out of the player deck, and a big map of the world as your board.

The first noticeable difference is in the threat deck. Like Pandemic classic you’ll be drawing from this deck and adding pieces to the board in the city that they show. However, as agents aren’t single-celled organisms given to mitosis when they have enough friends around, they don’t outbreak quite like diseases when you have to place a fourth one. Instead, you place an incident marker on that city, draw a card from the bottom of the threat deck and read the little text box for instructions. This could be nothing in a game that’s going well, an effect that doesn’t apply. On the flipside though, you might end up causing a chain reaction that will lose you the game.

I’ll give you an example: The game is going badly, you’re on your sixth outbreak (they’re called incidents in PL0). You draw a card from the bottom of the deck and it tells you to put an agent on every city with an incident marker in Asia. You have one, but it already has three agents. So you add another incident marker to that city and pull another card. Joy, this time you have to add an agent to a city in North America with an incident token. That city would also get an incident token, but there’s none left, so it’s an immediate game over. Now, that didn’t actually happen in any of our games (we had some really bad combos, but not that bad), but it’s entirely possible for things to badly snowball.

I should clarify that not all of the threat cards say to add agents, some say to remove safehouses from a region, some say to remove cover from players in a region.

On top of all this, during the game end phase, you’ll be adding surveillance to any city with an incident token. If you start your turn in a city with surveillance you will lose that much cover on your current alias (unless there’s a safehouse).

Losing cover is like taking scars in PL1 & 2. You scratch off panels under your current alias to reveal a symbol. It could be nothing, it might be the loss of a card from your hand, it might be that you take a liability (permanent downgrade on that alias), or you may just have to burn that alias entirely. No more Ms Definitlynotaspyovic, she’s gone. You’ll have to go on using those you have left. This could leave a player unable to complete certain types of mission at all, putting more pressure on the others.

Another big change is that you can’t just fly between safehouses as you could with research stations. This immediately limits your board coverage, especially in a two player game. There are visas which can be bought with game end upgrade points, but this will only get you to the city you name on the visa.

To fill in the gaps in your ability to get around so easily, you can trade in 5 cards of a matching affiliation at a safehouse in order to build a team (they’re these adorable little vans (you’ll have to imagine they have “perfectly innocent florist van” painted on the side)) these teams can be moved around using player actions. End your turn with one in a city matching its affinity and your team will clear all the agents out during the mop up step. It can be really helpful to get a van rolled out in an area that keeps popping up agents like espionage whack-a-mole. Just drive it around the problem cities and you won’t have to go there personally for a while. It’s very satisfying when it all starts working.

As with previous PL games, there are objectives each month. While these will have completely new cards each time, they fall into a few basic categories.

First up acquiring unknown targets. During setup you’ll need to go through the player deck, take out all the cities of a given region, shuffle them up, remove 1-3 of them and put them face down under the objective card. The rest are shuffled into the player deck before you start getting it ready to deal out. In regions like South America, this may not be so bad. 3 cities you need to target, there’s only 5 total and you get one in your starting hand, so you know most of the information you need. However, you will need a team in each city in order to acquire all of the targets.

With known targets, it’s a bit different, the city is printed on the objective card, get a team there, do the thing.

There are a couple of other mission types later on, but these two will turn up again and again, in various forms. With the consequences for complete or even partial failure being more or less catastrophic.

Speaking of partial failure, that is totally an option now. Whereas previous games in the series had you either fail and retry a month or succeed and move on. Season 0 lets you experience partial success. Complete one objective, but fail the others. That’s a partial failure. Try not to worry, off you go to next month. “But the horrific potential of what we failed to do last month?!” “The world is tough kid, you can’t always save everybody”. It’s really harsh and on at least one occasion had us asking if we shouldn’t just play to lose entirely so we could try again, rather than risk doing some of a thing and having to move on.

It’s not just complete missions either. Sometimes you might be asked to acquire targets in two cities, but only have the vans to get to one with the player deck about to run out. If you acquire the single target with the van you do have and the other one isn’t completed in the same turn, it’s gone. Sorry about that, but mission completed (technically).

There’s something about partial successes that make the game feel incredibly stressful some months. You’ve potentially got three missions, involving at least 5 different cities and some other goal, you were unlucky and got an escalation on the very first draw of the game and the incidents only spiral from there. Everything is on fire and you have to make some very tough decisions about what you can and cannot achieve. Hopefully you can live with the consequences.

While I agree with the designers that you could play this without playing the others, I feel that a lot will be lost as it makes frequent, off-hand references to events from the other games in the series.

One thing that I was asked a lot when I started playing was “is it uncritical of the CIA”. A reasonable question for a game set during the cold war. Since spy fiction set in that period is full of “aren’t the US great and those soviets are the most one-dimensional, dastardly, evil, mustache-twirling villains” tropes. Without going into any detail or spoilers, I can confirm that there is potential criticism of all factions (I won’t clarify the “potential” in that sentence because spoilers).

Overall, this was a great wrap-up to the Pandemic Legacy series. It’s still recognisably Pandemic, while being very much its own game. The plot of our story was great, and we looked through the rest of the material postgame to see how else it could have gone. We were really happy with how the plot expanded in other directions. Furthermore, it’s also the first in the series that we’ve felt like you could actually keep playing some of the objective types once the game is over (YMMV, if you’ve ended up with surveillance everywhere that may not be an option for you).

Pros:

  • Familiar yet unique gameplay.
  • Great story.
  • A fitting end to the trilogy.

Cons:

  • Not enough natural hair options for black characters.
  • The colours are very muted and it can look very bland before you get a lot of agents on the board.
  • Incidents have the potential to snowball.

Final Score: 9/10

A Deeply Satisfying Box – Lords of Waterdeep

I’ll get to the game in a second, but first off I have to address something incredibly important about Lords of Waterdeep. The box is hugely satisfying. Everything has a place. Things not only fit there, but can be retrieved easily. This is easy to get out, helpful during play and a joy to pack away in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever found with any other game. It’s an impressive feat to make even the cleanup a joy.

Lords of Waterdeep a worker-placement game for 2-5 players, and plays in about an hour. It’s set in the Forgotten Realms universe, which you may know from Dungeons & Dragons. This is a city of intrigue where Lords hatch plots for political power, manipulating the citizenry with hidden strings.

I enjoy worker-placement games immensely, and LoW takes that formula and expands it in a really interesting way. At the start of the game, there are basic locations you can visit to gain money or intrigue, acquire details of quests, hire adventurers to meet in a tavern to send on those quests, and build new locations to expand the city.

New buildings are given the mark of the player who purchased them and each will grant them a benefit when the building is used by anyone (including themselves). This can create dilemmas for other players. They want to gain a bunch of wizards for a particular quest, but doing so will aid you in completing parties for your own quests.

Once you’ve recruited enough of the right types of adventurer, you can send them off and complete your quests. This could have simply a victory point benefit, an ongoing benefit, or it could be one of the two types of quest that your secretive Lord gains a benefit for at the end of the game.

If you send a representative to the harbour, you can play an intrigue card from your hand. These may grant you extra adventurers or some coin to grease the wheels of your various schemes. Many of these will not only benefit you, but also your fellow players (though there may be a cost to those that want to ride your coattails).

The game is played over eight rounds. At the fifth round everyone gets an additional meeple to play during future turns. By this time there will be enough new buildings that they have space to be placed. It’s all very well balanced. Once the final round is over, you add your Lord’s bonus points for completed quests to your total victory points and declare a victor (and then you pack it away and the box itself brings you further joy. Or maybe that last bit is just me).

This game is beautifully finished. The board is nicely illustrated (if a little lacking in colour), but in such a way as to still be very clear about key information. The cards are printed on really nice stock, all the art, from the box to the manual, to the cards is not only lovely, but consistent. The cubes are a nice size and weight, the money is heavy card stock, and the meeples are a good size and very pleasant colours. For a game this reasonably priced, it’s a top quality product.

Pros:

  • Really fun.
  • Plenty of replayability due to the amount of content.
  • Beautiful quality.

Cons:

  • Due to the background colour, quest cards aren’t the easiest to read.
  • The main board could do with some more vibrancy.

Final Score: 7/10

Mental Gymnastics – Manifold Garden

NB: I was provided a review copy of the game.

I like weird shit. I’ve always liked weird shit. The dreamy, trippy, and impossible. Optical illusions, infinite landscapes, hyperbolic environments. A few years back I was singing the praises of Antichamber (nope, I checked the Steam page and that was released in 2013. What even is time anymore?!). I had an absolute blast, even if it took me nearly a year to finish, because I just didn’t understand one of the puzzles. Today though, I want to talk about a game far more beautiful, but no less logically confusing – Manifold Garden by William Chyr Studio.

First off, I just want to say, this game is pretty as heck. You can tell it was developed by an artist. Imagine all the flat walls with splashes of colour that were seen in Antichamber and then soften down the bright whites, turning down the saturation of the other colours. Make it all more soothing to the eye. It’s a delight to look at.

Most of the game takes place on structures hovering in space. Look off to the distance and you might even see the platform you’re on from the other side. Jump over the edge and you may land on the area above you. It’s this endless looping that allows you to navigate to places otherwise out of reach. Need to get a block to higher ground? Take it off the edge and glide in from above. Sometimes it’s quite soothing just to jump into the void and take a look at the area from multiple angles as you fall past. You might even spot the solution to a puzzle in a hidden tree or a tiny set of stairs.

Apart from the way the world wraps, there’s also the game’s main mechanic of gravity manipulation. Click on a wall, that wall is now the floor. Long corridor to walk down? Just find a pillar, click on the side, and now the far end of the hall is the floor, you’re there in seconds.

Using these two mechanics together the designers have crafted hours of puzzles to bewitch and befuddle. Each building on something they’ve already shown you, or silently taught you as you explore. Oh, you’ve seen a red block, and you know you can only move it while gravity is correctly oriented to it? What if now it was half red and half blue, well now it falls in two directions. It’s obvious to work out and even if it isn’t, it takes moments of experimenting with gravity to discover how it works. Now you just have to work out where you actually want said cube.

The game isn’t that long, but I think it’s the perfect length to not outstay its welcome. From the initial lessons of “turn the world to explore new areas”, to “this is a button”, or “place cube here”; right the way through to “redirect water”, “freeze water by moving gravity”, “use frozen water to hold a giant tetromino in place” everything is quite elegant. Sure, some parts are just for looks, but none of it feels wasted. Indeed, look from the right angle and you might find that what looked like scenery is a whole other area to explore.

At the end of each area you are given a tesseract to plant which will grow into a tree as the world shifts around you before opening up the way ahead, into the next set of puzzles. The visuals in these end of level areas are stunning, fractal-like geometries moving and shifting, a feast for the eyes (especially if, like me, you really love psychedelic art).

All told you can complete Manifold Garden in about 4-6 hours, depending how well you manage to keep your spacial orientation in a world where gravity keeps shifting. It’s everything I’d hoped for in the Nintendo Indie Direct videos that have trickled out over the last few years.

If you like games like Antichamber and Portal, this is almost certainly for you. No spoilers but the end is absolutely stunning and usually something I have to lick tiny stamps offered by old hippies in festival fields in order to experience. And like that, something I look forward to doing again, once a little time has passed.

Pros:

  • Beautiful level design.
  • Stunning visuals.
  • The perfect length.

Cons:

  • You might need some advice from YouTube to get through the last level.
  • That one level where you have to find a tiny set of stairs leading to a door on a huge, towering structure.
  • I could have gone another 15 minutes on that ending to be honest.

Final Score: 9/10

Manifold Garden is available now on Steam for Windows and macOS as well as PS4, Switch, Xbox (including Series S & X), and iOS

Pleading Snack Meats – Carrion

If you watch my livestreams (twitch.tv/janeiac) you’ll probably know that I’m a *little* bit obsessed with tentacles (they’re just good cuddle friends). So it’s no surprise that when Devolver Digital announced Carrion was coming, earlier this year, I got tagged in the post by an awful lot of people (thanks everyone).

Carrion sees you take on the role of a lethal ball of teeth and tentacles as you try to escape from a scientific facility. As you go you’ll be eating scientists and soldiers, destroying mechs, solving basic puzzles, gaining new abilities, and getting freaking lost.

There’s a few different types of enemy scattered around the base. First the scientists (usually unarmed, always delicious), there’s soldiers (protected by shields, treat them like BBQ wings and toss out the armour once you’ve eaten the good bits), mechs (like a crab, you have to tear off all the armour to get to the delicate meats inside. Careful though, their claws (chainguns) will mess you up in seconds), and finally there’s autonomous drones which can be annoying in large numbers (taste bad and shoot you, best avoided).

The movement feels incredible either with a controller or keyboard and mouse. As you move in a given direction, your beast will throw out tentacles to pull themself along. Grab humans with your gory appendages, before moving them closer to consume them and gain additional mass. It’s just so natural and (at least during the early game) makes you feel really powerful and dangerous.

This is where the game shines. There’s a few sections where you just click. You move swiftly, back and forth, dropping from a vent and taking out multiple screaming, pleading snack meats. You cut a swathe across a room leaving nothing but viscera in your wake. It’s glorious.

But then you start to explore and the exhilaration vanishes. The game contains no map function (I get it, why would a tentacle beast have a map) so you either need to be making notes yourself – taking you away from the game – or just bumble around until you work it out. I regularly found myself lost for 20 minutes or more at a time, cursing the decision to have the roar function only point you towards save points and not towards your next target. It would be a simple fix and still stay within the logic of the game world.

This oversight is a real shame, because it takes a solid 9/10 game and knocks it down a lot. I spent the final hour of my playthrough wandering round and round in circles, growing more and more frustrated, because I didn’t seem to be getting anywhere new (I actually needed to go back to the beginning zone, an area I’d previously assumed I just couldn’t find a single secret from and that’s all that was there, so had given up on. Turns out this area couldn’t be completely cleared until the end). I really hope the team makes a sequel that’s a bit more user friendly and respectful of player’s time because there’s definitely an amazing game that could be made in this engine.

Pros:

  • It’s a single gimmick game that doesn’t go on too long (bar getting lost).
  • An amazing power fantasy.
  • Glorious tentacles!

Cons:

  • Lack of map leads to frustration.
  • Failure to deal with mechs correctly will see you starting a room over and over again as they cut you to ribbons in about a second.
  • I’m just going to say the lack of signposting again.

Final Score: 5.5/10