Today we kick off a new series of mini(ish) reviews about 2 player card games that may have fallen between the cracks but deserve another…err…crack! First up is a lovely indie game from a few years back called Xi!
Publisher: Xi Cards Ltd
Designer: Chris Nonweiler
Xi is a fantasy card game that was originally designed as a CCG way back in 2011 but lacked the bottomless pit of money necessary to remain sustainable under that model. It’s also probably one of the most criminally underrated 2 player card games of the last decade.
Xi released properly in 2013 as a single set of 200 cards, sold as 4 pre-constructed decks; Stone, Wind, Ember and Aqua. In a game of Xi, you’ll command one of these powerful elemental castes and duel against the other houses to restore equilibrium to the world.
The format of Xi mirrors many other 2 player card games, I.E. you’ll summon units to the battlefield, cast spells that deal damage or buff units and otherwise attack your opponents life points until one of you is dead. Yes, these are hats that have been worn to death before, but instead of reinventing the wheel, Xi kind of fixed it.
For starters, Xi sets itself apart from its competitors with it’s main in-game resource: ‘time’. There’s no economy generating cards in Xi, instead you simply have a limited amount of time to spend from the beginning of your turn. It costs time to draw a card; it costs time to play a card; and it even costs time to save time. Indeed, you can ‘bank’ time to use on later turns, which becomes an incredibly important when you’re holding a world destroying card that costs way more than you can currently afford.
The learning curve in Xi is similarly simplified. Even if you’re completely new to the genre, you’ll master Xi’s nuances within your first game. The amount of times I’ve tried to teach ‘Magic The Gathering’, only to see the hazy look of utter confusion in my opponents eyes is staggering. Explaining phases and windows of opportunity to a new player is not only a nightmare, but it also vampires the fun out of learning a game.
Xi on the other hand, has no rigid turn structure. There’s no phases guiding your hand, telling you to perform specific actions in designated safe spaces. Much like the forces of nature Xi is themed around, reckless abandon is the new world order here. You can attack, draw a card, play a card, attack again, bank some time, draw another card or do anything you bloody like on your turn. Your only limitation is time. And crucially, Xi doesn’t waste any of yours. For example, unlike ‘Magic the Gathering’ and other games of its ilk, there’s no ‘summoning sickness’ or rule that prevents you from using a unit the moment you commit it to the battlefield. Once a card hits the mat, it’s ready to go to work. Xi is a fast, high impact, card game that leaves little room for analysis paralysis, but also gives players the freedom to express themselves with virtually endless strategic avenues.
If you’re looking for a thematic experience, you won’t be disappointed either. Each of the elemental castes have very distinct themes and play completely different from one another. Ember is all about aggression and engulfing the land in fire; Stone blocks an opponents path while building huge threats; Aqua is as fluid as the ebb and flow of ocean and can quickly shift strategic gears; Wind is as you’d expect all about trickery and making your opponent go left when they should have gone right. Again, these are very well established themes in the card game genre, but Xi adds a slight twist to the mix. Each element has advantage over another and does double damage, which is not huge deal in the basic game, but in more advanced games when you mix up your decks, this becomes yet another layer of strategic goodness you can sink your teeth into.
I know you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, but Xi is definitely an exception to the rule. The artwork is absolutely stunning. Its nothing like the airbrushed perfection you see stacked along the shelves of game shops today. Xi’s art style courtesy of Jordan Saia, has a distinct rawness which gives the game an authentic grass roots feel. Heck, the art alone is reason enough to check this game out.
Xi is a perfect fit for anyone looking to test the waters of the 2 player card game genre. It’s the very definition of ‘easy to learn, hard to master’, which not only makes it an excellent gateway game, but also, if it’s the only game you ever purchase you’ll have plenty to mull over for years to come. If you really do get tired of the 4 core decks, you can always experiment by building new ones. And when you’re done with that, you might consider buying more packs or the expansion ‘Xi Advanced’. We have yet to try it since we’re quite happy with single copies of the core decks, but ultimately, there is virtually no limits to how far you can push this game. We’re big fans of games that come in a small package but hit like a truck and Xi is tremendous bang for your buck.
Perhaps Xi never made a splash in the 2 player market because it relied too heavily on a form and theme that veterans of hobby gaming have seen time and time again, but beyond that familiar veneer, lies an incredibly fun and heartfelt card game that lets you tinker, twist and turn like someone learning how to wield a sword properly. As of the time of this post, you can still find copies of the core decks floating around online and they’re usually very cheap. If Xi ever comes up in your searches and you’re looking for an exciting kitchen table card game, we think it’s worth a shot.
For the 2nd installment of our series on 2 player card games that buck the trend, we uncover yet another indie CCG that should have received more time in the light. Enter Oligarchy.
Oligarchy was an indie CCG set in a slightly more dystopian reality than our own. If Paul Verhoeven wrote and directed a film about 2020, you’d be pretty close to where this game is aiming. As the name suggests, you are a powerful (possibly evil) oligarch and it is your ambition to crush all who oppose you on your way to complete world subjugation. Like any oligarch worth their salt, your power base is derived from (at least) 1 of 8 types of societal institutions; criminal, governmental, ecological, religious, the media, corporate, the military and the Illuminati.
Oligarchy follows the ‘Magic The Gathering’ formulae pretty closely, insofar as, you play unit and spell cards onto a battlefield area and try to reduce each others life points to zero, but of course Oligarchy’s naming conventions change to ‘characters’, ‘items’, ‘resources’, ‘incidents’ and so on. But, the main area where Oligarchy differs from the norm is with it’s economy system. Oligarchy uses the same 2 types of economy cards, irrespective of faction; namely Affluence and Influence cards. Depending on which factions form your power base, you’ll likely rely on one of these types of currency more than the other as your card engine starts to kick into gear. Going further off the beaten track, these resources don’t disappear at the end of your turn, instead you keep track of how much AP & IP you accumulate with a neat little spinner dial.
A turn (known as a Sphere) is also ‘Magic-esque’ in Oligarchy. A sphere is broken down into carefully structured but seamlessly flowing phases, beginning with the draw phase, I.E. you draw a card from your “Life Pile” (more in-game jargon), followed by the development phase where you play an Affluence or Influence card and start building your empire, which then takes you straight into the deploy phase (does what it says on the tin), and finally a turn crescendos with the ‘power struggle’ phase where you use abilities and attack your opponents Power base with characters you have in play.
Another twist in the tale comes in the form of the ‘power base’ itself, AKA your life points. Your power base represents how much respect you command within a particular faction. You may utilise as many factions as you like, as long as your total power base tallies up to 12 (which is also kept track of with handy spinner dials). Characters usually have a passive or active ability you can trigger as long as you have enough of a power base with that characters faction. So for example, if you want to use ‘Bruiser Bills’ ability, you’ll have to have a minimum of 2 power base with the crime faction.
Combat is as straight forward as you’d expect, with the active player choosing attackers and your opponent deciding if they want to throw their bodies at you in defence. However, that’s usually just the end result of a long war of attrition. The game does a really great job of showcasing the different factions areas of expertise. The base starter set comes complete with 4 different decks with variations of faction makeups. The Crime/Corporate deck uses deeply underhanded tactics; Eco/Religion deck distracts you with passive units; Military/Government has excellent fighting capabilities, while the Illuminati/Media deck controls and mills you to death.
I feel like Oligarchy had a lot of potential to grow but didn’t get it’s fair shake. It landed just as Fantasy Flight Games LCG poster child ‘Netrunner’ imploded and was prime to fill the cyber-noir gap for discerning card gamers. It even had a small competitive scene for a time! The dystopian near future is a surprisingly unused theme in the card game genre, particularly when it’s less focused on out-and-out guns blazing action, and for better or worse, card games that veer off the Tolkien path tend to be viewed with ED-209 levels of scrutiny. Oligarchy’s vision was appealing enough for some to take a chance, but for many, it’s just not a safe enough bet to start wading through the murky depths of the CCG model.
Distribution models aside, our games of Oligarchy always lead to fantastic moments. When we started to see the synergies between cards pop, we couldn’t help but instantly drop our faux poker faces and let out audible “Ohs!” And although the game has a slightly higher than average learning curve (mostly due to wrapping our heads around the games jargon) it’s also a very streamlined experience when you get down to it, with cards referencing when they can be used all along the way. So you know exactly when you missed an opportunity to play something.
All in all, Oligarchy is a decent slice of dark fun. The game dares to depict a satirical world view where there are no white knights, which is a stark contrast to the cliched narrative of most fantasy games. You’ll look at the cards in your hand and think to yourself, “You’re a bad guy huh?” And then realise the game is entirely made up of maniac Illuminati chefs, corrupt cops and car bombs. Even Netrunner posited the idea that hackers are a rebellion against evil corporations. Oligarchy just goes, “Nah. Screw em!”, and proceeds to set your house on fire with the dog locked inside. There’s an almost Charlie Brooker level of gleefully sinister social commentary about the game. If you’re a MTG fan that’s sick of the Fantasy shtick, or if you never liked MTG but want a game with a unique theme, you can’t go wrong with Oligarchy. And remember….
‘1066, Tears To Many Mothers’ may sound like an album by a Doom Metal band from Yorkshire, but it also happens to be one of the most exciting 2 player card games to be churned out of the board game mill in a good long while
Publisher: Hall or Nothing Productions
Designer: Tristan Hall
‘Tears To Many Mothers’ takes players on a tour through the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066, where the Normans invaded the English isles to claim their throne and change the DNA of ol’ Blighty forever. Personally, I find wrapping my head around medieval politics more challenging than unwinding Christmas lights while nursing a vodka hangover, but some context is useful for those of us who didn’t learn about this historic battle in primary school.
The childless King Edward the Confessor, was without an heir and had supposedly promised the throne to a distant Norman cousin, William the Conqueror. Of course this didn’t jive too well with the Saxon nobles, who had been in power since Roman times. Together, the Lords of the land started rallying behind the next most powerful person in England at the time, Harold Godwinson the Earl of Wessex. Eventually under mounting pressure from the English nobility, Harold usurped the throne upon the death of King Edward, thereby breaking the oath that was made to the Normans. And we all know what happens to oath breakers in the times of honour and destiny.
In ‘1066…’ you play either as the defending Saxons, commanded by Harold Godwinson, or the invading Normans lead by William ‘The Conqueror’. You build your army up by committing units into three formations called ‘wedges’, creating rows of steely-eyed knights, ready to crash into your foes shield wall or cavalry charge alike. However, the only thing certain in ‘1066…’ is a cruel death in a cold muddy field. Units will inevitably succumb to the constant attacks from archers and berserker axe-men, forcing a row to shift and filling the space of fallen heroes. “Once more unto the breach” as they say.
Committing cards to the battlefield is as simple as discarding a number of cards equal to the cost of the one you want to play. That might seem like you can burn through your hand very quickly, but fortunately, buried in your deck are units that generate resources while they’re in play. The more resource generating cards you have out on the field, the more efficiently you can catapult hulking knights into the fray.
But lets not get ahead of ourselves. So far the game sounds like your standard 2 player card game with players taking turns, one after another, until one of you is dead. However, the most interesting thing about ‘1066…’ is that for the bulk of it, you don’t actually fight anyone. Not one single arrow finds another mans eye for the most of the game.
Instead the game takes you through the most notable events that occurred before the battle, by way of an objective deck. Beginning with the appearance of Halley’s Comet, to William gathering support and gaining the Popes blessing, through to the Invasion of Sussex and the eventual final clash in Hastings. The game abstracts your progress through these events by measuring the strength of your units on the board. Each unit has a might and zeal value, and every round you check if you’ve amassed enough to progress to the next chapter. Eventually both sides will reach Hastings and finally meet face to face on the battlefield on that frosty October morning. THEN you fight! And oh Nelly, what a glorious fight it is. Both sides crash against each other in a melee of blood and steel, dealing damage to their respective wedges. The first side to deal 10 damage to a wedge claims it, and if 2 wedges are claimed, the game is over and a victor is crowned.
It took me a few goes to settle into this games intended rhythm. The discard a card to play a card mechanic felt sluggish at first, as I struggled to hold more than one card for most turns before passing several times just to refill my hand, only to play one more card. Not to mention that because the majority of the game is about preparing for the final fight, I found myself feeling frustrated with it’s pacing. But I quickly learned this was less of an issue with the game and more me trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
After years of playing 1 vs. 1 card games, I realised I needed to re-programme my thinking for ‘1066..’. I made the joke earlier likening this game to a Doom Metal album, but in all honesty, ‘1066…’ really does follow a narrative structure similar to a Black Sabbath song like ‘War Pigs’. It’s a slow but steady slog in the early parts, but as the energy swells and gains momentum, its starts to take shape, then suddenly it explodes into frantic, panic inducing violence. The Wedge you’d been fortifying the whole game is neck and neck with your foe, but that means you weren’t focusing on the others, and you scramble to rescue the soldiers you assigned so carelessly. Their lives are in your hands, so don’t make their deaths meaningless.
Tension is a persistent feature of ‘1066…; as it constantly asks you to make difficult choices with your hand. To an extent, the card play reminded me of Poker, insofar as the game wants you to play aggressively with your hand. You’ll often have to discard strong cards that are unplayable at that time in favour of making smaller gains, thus sewing the seeds for a long term strategy. I certainly wasn’t expecting to be agonising over which axe wielding barbarian I’d have to sacrifice to counter those damn Norman archers!
While the tension in the 2 player game is so thick you could cut the air with a knife, the solo variant is equally nerve wracking. The AI foe is often 2 steps ahead of you thanks to the games solo system which deploys units on the battlefield with relative ease. In fact, the solo system in this game is a veritable work of art, that is if you’re like me and enjoy a well designed flow chart, and let’s face it, who doesn’t like a good flow chart? The solo game in ‘1066…’ gives you a dynamic living puzzle to solve in every game, and contrary to other AI board games systems, you’re far less concerned with it behaving like another human player and instead relish the way it reveals the puzzle one piece at a time.
Medieval war games are always an intriguing prospect for me, as they invoke imagery of muddy battlefields, drenched in blood, with sword wielding knights astride great armoured steads, charging into battle. In the age of digital perfection and constant social and economic strife, the appeal of games that take you back to a simpler time when the sky was big and life was short, is perhaps at their peak right now. However most war games in this genre are either huge complicated efforts that try to simulate every aspect of medieval life or are too simplistic and lack any narrative backbone. ‘1066…’ proves a happy medium with just enough weight and complexity to scratch any armour clad players strtegic itch while capturing all the grandeur of it’s theme with 2 simple but beautiful decks. Everywhere you look in ‘1066…’ is steeped in charm and historic context, as if every card serves as the final epitaph of those depicted in the artwork. You’ll actually pause as you play, just to admire the games vision of that frosty morning in October of 1066. Luckily, Hall or Nothing games is soon to release it’s sequel ‘1565, St. Elmos Pay’ which depicts the siege of Malta, and is fully compatible with ‘1066…’ if you wanted to pit both eras against each other in some mad historical mash up. We certainly look forward to more settings from this system and will keep a very close watch.
Since a lot of us can’t meet up in person in these trying times, we thought it would be nice to shine a light on some of our favourite small box solo games. Perfect for afternoon tea while you work from home.
Onirim is not only the smallest game we’ll be writing about in this post but it’s also the oldest in my collection. And there’s a good reason for it. It’s absolutely amazing!
In Onirim you are a dreamwalker, trapped in an ethereal labyrinth, searching for 8 doors that will free you from slumber. However opening the doors isn’t exactly a walk in the clouds. On your turn you’ll play cards from your hand, forming a single row of dreamy labyrinthine rooms. The object is complete sets of three matching coloured cards, but each new card you lay down must have a different symbol to the previous one – either a sun, moon or key. If you manage to get the colours and the sequence to work, you’ll discover one of the doorways you’ll need to escape the dream world.
Getting the correct sequencing of labyrinth cards may sound tricky, because it is, but as you play cards onto the labyrinth track you’re also refilling your hand, which always gives you an option of where to go next. However, scattered throughout your draw pile are ‘nightmares’, waiting to disturb your peaceful sojourn. Nightmares eat away at the cards in your hand and deck, forcing you to discard precious pieces of the puzzle and ultimately making it more difficult to escape. There are ways of fighting the nightmares (like holding on to ‘key’ cards) but the skill is to carefully manage your hand while simultaneously digging deeper into this dreamy labyrinth.
Onirim is a perfect blend of challenging game play and addictive fun. Every game will have you locked in the dream world and you’ll say to yourself “I know how to get out!” So you’ll try again, and again, and again. Until, suddenly it all starts to click, and you will get out. Eventually. However, just when you think you’ve mastered the system, along comes a new challenge. Onirim comes packed with several mini expansions that add new layers of difficulty to the game. Now, you have to find the doors in a set order or search mystical towers and cast spells to fend off the nightmares. And when you master each of those, you can combine them all together to make a puzzle with more horrifying depth than cube in Hellraiser. The amount of punch this small box packs is utterly staggering.
Onirim is of course the game that launched the Oniverse series nearly a decade ago, which has grown to become the Studio Ghibli of board gaming with it’s whimsically child like art style and immensely rewarding puzzle solving. In truth you could take this endorsement for any of the Oniverse games, but for me, Onirim is the OG of this fantastic series and will remain in my collection for years to come.
Hostage Negotiator simulates what it’s like to be in the unfortunate position of leading a conversation with a hostage taker, and if there is one thing this game teaches you, it’s that nothing is certain in this line of work.
The action in Hostage Negotiator all takes place around a central tableau, which shows you all the relevant information you need to do you’re job. Who the terrorist is, what their demands are, how threatened they currently feel, how many hostages they have taken, and heaven forbid, how many casualties there are. You’ll have a hand of basic ‘conversation cards’ which you use to talk to the hostage taker. Whenever you play a conversation card, you roll a number of dice according to how threatened they feel. The more threatened they are, the less dice you roll and vice versa. Conversation cards have a variety of outcomes but by successfully talking with the hostage taker, you are mainly trying to calm them down – reducing their threat and increasing your dice pool – and getting them to open up – gaining you conversation points.
That last part is very important, because when a conversation is over in a round, you get to spend the conversation points you earned and buy more advanced conversation cards which open up more daring plays like instantly freeing hostages or having a sniper take the shot. Ultimately the calmer the hostage taker is the more likely future conversations will go well, and the more they open up to you in conversations the more psychological tools you’ll have at your disposal. Unfortunately, things are never straight forward in this line of work. At the end of every round a ‘terror event’ will occur which really hammers home the unpredictable nature of these situations. Even when things are going seemingly well, the unthinkable can happen. If you haven’t freed enough hostages by the time 10 terror events occur, you’ll only have one very slim chance to save the day.
Hostage Negotiator is probably the most intense game on this list. Not only is the theme extremely evocative, but you are also at the mercy of dice rolls at every turn. On the surface this may seem like a shallow luck-fest, but that is how all good gambles appear at first. Like in casino games, luck is a tool that can be bent in your favour, and at it’s core, Hostage Negotiator is gambling at it’s purist. The strategy is to improve your odds as best you can in a very volatile situation. Of course this means things can (and will) go wrong, even when it seems certain, but that is the beauty of this game. It shows just how demanding and challenging the job of a negotiator is, and I for one am quite happy to only visit the profession through this game.
Van Ryder Games has a reputation for making games that tell stories and Hostage Negotiator is no different. I’ve not played a game before or since that so closely marries theme and mechanics. When you move a meeple from the the hostage pool to the casualty zone, it’s hard to not feel like you’ve been stabbed in the heart. Conversely, when you move someone to the safe zone, you feel like an absolute hero. This game is definitely not for the faint of heart but if you enjoy a good dice with death, look no further.
Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth
Speaking of games that tell stories, ‘Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth’ by Osprey Games is a re-skin of the highly acclaimed ‘Lost Expedition’ which came out in 2017, and is (rather unexpectedly) equal parts a puzzler as it is a story game.
In JD:TCE you control Judges Dredd, Anderson and Giant of the infamous comic book series ‘2000AD’, as you march across the wasteland beyond the Mega Cities known as ‘The Cursed Earth’, in search of a person called Max Normal. Max is carrying a virus so potent it risks all life on the planet, and the Judges are tasked with securing his capture before he ends up in the wrong hands. And the wrong hands is exactly who is after him. An evil droid named ‘Satellat’ with its partners, ‘Mean Machine’ and ‘The Disciple’ are already hot on Max’s heels. As the Judges, you’ll need to catch up if you stand a chance finding Max before they do.
You’ll encounter a multitude of hazards across the cursed earth, represented by large beautifully drawn full art cards, laid in a single row across the play area. The type of hazards on encounter cards are symbolised by different icons, while their priority is denoted by their colour. Yellow icons are compulsory, red gives you a choice of hazard and blue is completely voluntary. These encounters can be anything from running low on food and ammo to bumping into a Satanic dinosaur….The cursed earth is a very weird place.
When your turn begins in earnest, you’ll encounter these cards from left to right, but the order they’re arranged is dictated by dusk and dawn setup each round. At dawn, you’ll arrange cards in numerical order, which doesn’t seem that terrible (you’ll say while peaking through your fingers) since it gives you a sliver of foresight as you lay the cards in the row. Whereas at dusk, cards are instead placed at the book ends of the row, which quickly becomes a logistical nightmare that my normal sized brain struggles to comprehend. The reason why these cards arrangement is so important is because the goal is to mitigate as much damage as possible so you don’t get squirted out the other end of the row like the last bit of toothpaste. Sometimes you’ll find precious resources like ammo and food, or best of all, a path forward to the next location, but most of the time, the Judges will become wounded, irradiated and fight their way out of encounters one at a time.
JD:TCE is an extremely challenging and intriguing puzzle. The game is essentially a gauntlet run through a harsh and unforgiving wasteland, and you have to make sure the Judges don’t hit too many rocks on their way down the hill. Lining up the cards in such a way that you aren’t dead by dawn is a Kasparov like quandary in itself, but fortunately there is a knack to it. Once you get used to the layout each round and which cards are the most dangerous, you start to see the signs, like a safe cracker carefully listening for pin tumblers to drop. Practice, memory and a dash of luck, are the main herbs in this spicy dish.
Although the puzzle IS the core feature to this game, one of the most striking things for me was how every card tells a story. The hazards on each encounter all make complete sense and often steer the player towards which direction they should take. You may stumble upon a wounded triceratops, but do you spend valuable ammo to put it out its misery and spend the time to prepare its remains as food, or do waste no time at all and move through it? That narrative cohesiveness and entertaining tasks gives this game just that extra bit of je ne sais quoi that makes it a solid gem. Do yourself a favour and get this one. Don’t think about it, just do it. It’s usually cheap and at the time of writing this review, it’s available from Osprey’s website for less than a tenner. So it’s a no brainer if you ask me.
Zulus on the Ramparts!
Some days I just get this hankering to play a war game. I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself a war gamer, but there is something incredibly alluring about their serious tone and beige colour palette. Lucky for me ‘Zulus on the Ramparts’ is a casual war gaming delight and could fit on any soloists shelf.
ZotR retells the story of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift in South Africa in 1879, which to this day, is one of the most successful defences in military history. To give a little context, the British had just suffered a massive defeat at Isandlwana, the first engagement of the Anglo-Zulu War, with nearly 1400 casualties at the hands of a Zulu army numbering of over 20000 warriors. The surviving troops retreated to nearby Rorke’s Drift, a mission station manned by 150 British troops and lead by Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead, and alerted the makeshift base that a contingent of Zulu Warriors was heading their direction. Deciding to stay, the British began fortifying the station with bags of corn around the perimeter. There they waited for the Zulu forces. The Zulu warriors were made up of 4 attacking groups, known as iButho’s and comprised of some 3000-4000 fighting men. With the Zulu forces vastly outnumbering the British, the attacks began in the late afternoon and didn’t cease until the early hours the next morning with the British managing to keep the the Zulu’s at bay by sticking to their guns (quite literary).
ZotR is one of Victory Points Games famed ‘States of Siege’ titles, which is a gloriously straightforward tower defence system. You’ll reveal tokens at the start of your turn that tell you which of the Zulu forces – the loins, chest, left or right horns – will move towards the centre of the mission station, and you must spend your turn performing actions like forming a reserve company or fetching ammo & water for the troops, while also firing a volley of attacks at the Zulu’s ranks by rolling handfuls of dice. Attacks that connect either drive the Zulu forces back or reduce their numbers. However, it only takes one iButho to break the back of the British forces. If any of the iButho’s make it to the Zulu Victory token in the centre of the board, the British lose. If on the other hand, the British can withstand the constant barrage of attacks until the relief column arrives in the morning, they will have survived as they did in real life.
This is a super exciting game that has a tremendous amount of card playing depth bubbling underneath its dice chucking surface. The main British protagonists – Lieutenant’s Chard and Bromhead – have such a marvellous synergy it’s hard not to cheer them on like they’re wrestling tag team. Chard helps you dig deeper into the deck and gets troops out FAST, while Bromhead is the go getter of the two and lets you commit more actions during your turn. The card play is so good in ZotR, I’ll often opt to play it over bigger games like Arkham Horror the card game. ZotR can be brutal at times, but thankfully the game comes with a slew of bonus cards that give you more defensive options. These are entirely optional so if you prefer the historically difficult version then you won’t be disappointed.
As a person who only flirts with war games on occasion, ZotR is perhaps one of the sweetest deals for casual players since the story is one for the most straight forward. You don’t have to worry about country spanning maps or moving hundreds of troops or complex military strategies or the socio-economic aspects of certain territories. There’s none of that. ZotR is a very easily digested story that invites the player to learn more when they’ve finished, which is exactly what I want from a war game – A compelling story that makes you want to discover more about a culture in a different time and place. A true gem in my opinion.
Venom Assault is a cooperative deck building game inspired by everyones favourite Real American heroes, G.I.Joe . Up to 5 commandos take on the role of ‘Freedom Squadron’ and must assemble crack teams of super soldiers to thwart the diabolical deeds of a terrorist organisation known as ‘Venom’.
You’ll start a game of Venom Assault by selecting one of the twelve gloriously shlocky missions that come in the box, each mimicing a different episode of the Joes 80’s cartoon show. As you’d expect from a Saturday morning kids show, missions are appropriately bonkers, with a decent side helping of fun. You’ll do everything, from searching the globe for the DNA of ancient warlords, to collecting parts of a weather manipulating machine. However, which ever mission you choose, you’ll inevitably end up fighting armies of evildoing snake soldiers in a kaleidoscope of red and blue laser fire. YO JOE!!..err I mean…Freedom?
If you’ve never played a deck building game before, they kind of work like this – players start out with a small deck of relatively basic cards, and as the game progresses, you’ll upgrade your deck by purchasing more powerful cards from a central tableau on the board, opening up new possibilities for play. Venom Assault follows this formulae to a T. You’ll begin the game with a deck of fresh faced recruits & commandos and spend ‘recruitment points’ each turn in exchange for elite, thousand-yard-stare, star-spangling, super-soldiers, ready to dispense freedom one shell at a time.
Once you’ve drilled your troops into shape, you can then plan your attack on Venom. Choosing one of the Joes, I mean Squaddies, from your hand as the ‘combat leader’, while the rest provide ‘support’, you’ll launch strikes against various land, sea, air and arctic locations around the globe.
Of course Venom isn’t going to idly sit by while you take an eagle sized dump on their evil plans. Just like their cartoon counterpart, Venom has a variety of colorful characters, each with their own distinct abilities. And that’s just the named bad guys. Venom also has access to an army of faceless goons, which they’ll happily throw at you during missions.
Turns in Venom Assault are broken out into phases and focus heavily on tactical card play. You’ll be going back and forth against Venom, playing cards and performing actions, eventually arriving at a point where you think you know the current ‘sitrep’…but you know what they say? “Knowing is half the battle”….the other half is extreme violence.
Combat itself is pretty quick, but just like the Joe cartoon, it’s less of a well coordinated military strike, and more of a ‘pew-pew-pew fest’. Hopefully something gets hit! Spoiler, no one in the cartoon ever got shot. You roll a number dice equal to your crack teams combat value and check if enough shots landed to take out the Venom Leader. A hit is successful if the die is equal to or higher than the Venom Leaders defence rating and you eliminate the target if you score hits equal to the Venom Leaders health value. If enough shots found their mark, you vaporize the Venom Leader and earn a reward card with a powerful once per game effect. If not, the Venom Leader stands triumphant and cackles at Freedom Squadrons impotent assassination attempt.
However, as is customary in the coop genre, the game will constantly try to derail your mission with random events. Every round, the first player draws a card from an event deck, some of which are favorable for Freedom Squadron, but more often than not they’ll do something bad like boosting the Venom Leaders stats or restricting recruitment that round or limit what type of terrain you can fight on, but most importantly, they also progress Venom’s nefarious plans with ‘Venom Strikes’ events. If Freedom Squadron hasn’t reached the goal stipulated on the mission card by the time 5 Venom Strike cards are revealed, they only have one more shot at glory. Otherwise it’s game over.
When I think of deck building games, titles like ‘Dominion’ or ‘Ascension’ are the first to come to mind, and in many respects, ‘Venom Assault’ stands equal with these titans of the genre. However one of my pet peeves with deck builders in general, is that quite often the flow of the game is so frenzied that you very quickly ignore a games theme and start looking at the board as nothing more than a series of transactions. In that sense, Venom Assault takes a bit of a slower approach. Not only does the coop structure of the game lend itself quite well to as a slower burn, but also the economy in the game is so finely balanced that you’ll rarely buy or retire more than one card on your turn. In most deck building games, efficiency is the ultimate goal, so having extra phases and machinations in the way is usually not ideal, but in Venom Assault it works really well. The game constantly asks wants you to give it more consideration. Should you take this card? Is this the best target to attack? Do we stand a better chance if we work together or can we just go for broke?
If efficiency is the meat and bones of the deck building genre, then customising your deck is its soul. Here is where I think Venom Assault is an absolute triumph. The card play and synergies between the Freedom Squaddies really makes it feel like you’re building an elite team of super soldiers. One player might take on the roll of the “blizzard team” and tackle Venom in the Arctic regions, while another can be the vehicle specialist with the “big-guns”, or maybe you like the death-like certainty of a team of ninjas. All doable and more. Quite often deck building games overlook this element or it’s simply reduced to collecting cards of a certain color, which is fine from a mechanics perspective, but weaving theme into your deck makes it far more likely that the game will see lots of play.
It’s not all rosy though. Although the team building is exceptional, encounters with Venom Leaders can feel a bit anticlimactic at times. In most situations if you fail at combat, nothing really happens. You’re just kind of…stopped. Normally I wouldn’t have a problem with that, but in some games you can be smashing your head against an absolute wall of an enemy, over and over again and get nothing out of it, nor suffer any ill effect. However, this is completely different on more difficult missions, where losing a battle could lead to forced retirement of some of your Squaddies, or just wreck your hand before you even get to fire a shot. Fortunately there is enough variation in the missions that everyone can find something to enjoy. For me, if I’m going to lose a fight, I’d much rather have my heart torn out, than just have some dude dressed as a snake stand in my way.
Of course it would be remiss of me not to point out that the real attraction to Venom Assault is it’s theme. If you were a cynical person, it would be easy to dismiss ‘Venom Assault’ as a cash grab that skirts close to plagiarism, but that would be flat out wrong. Venom Assault is a celebration of 80’s & 90’s action cartoons. As mentioned already, the mission cards follow story arcs of the G.I.Joe cartoon and even have references to more obscure cartoons like “The Inhumanoids”. Nostalgic tributes seep off of the event cards which are filled with memorable moments from the cartoon. A personal favorite is the line on one card “We all go home or no one goes home” from the animated Joe movie, which is to this day one of my favorite movie quotes of all time. Venom Assault is an excellent example of fans pouring all the love they have for an IP into something that everyone can enjoy. It may be a little rough around the edges at times, but sometimes, it’s enough to be reminded what it was like playing with toy soldiers in the back yard on a sunny Saturday afternoon. If ‘Venom Assault’ can do that for an hour or so every now and then, it’s totally done its job. As of writing this review, the expansion ‘Villains & Valor’ is soon to be released, otherwise it’s not hard to track a copy of this hidden gem down.
Now that the long wait for the 2nd season of Netflix’s ‘The Witcher’ is well underway, you might be asking yourself “what the hell am I going to do in the meantime? Play the video game? Read the book?” Well actually, yes. Both of those are pretty good options…But there is another!
Back in 2014, Ignacy Trzewiczek, famed designer of ‘Stronghold’, ‘Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island’ and ‘Imperial Settlers’, underwent the trial of the grasses and brought us ‘The Witcher Adventure Game’.
In ‘The Witcher…’ you take on the role of one of the main characters from the books – the stoic dwarf, Yarpen Zigren, everyones favourite Sorceress, Triss, the silver tongued bard, Dandelion, and of course, the Butcher of Blaviken himself, Geralt of Rivia. The goal of the game is to complete a set number of quests before your opponents and come out on top with the most points. In order to complete quests you’ll travel to locations across the Northern Realms gathering different types of ‘leads’ – either combat, diplomacy or magic – until you’ve amassed enough to convert them into ‘proof’ in support of your main quest. Characters discover different types of proof at different rates. For example, Geralt is proficient at combat, so he’ll be able to cut down the ‘Oakbeast of Kaer Morhen’ and be home in time for second breakfast, while Dandelion practically leaks charisma, and is able to easily find diplomatic resolutions for quests.
On your turn you’ll take up to 2 different actions – moving, resting, investigating, developing or performing a unique character action. As you quest across the board, you’ll build your character up with new abilities from their own personal development deck, and use your characters unique action to power these abilities. Geralt has access to signs but also needs to take time to brew potions; Triss learns powerful spells that she must first prepare; Dandelion pays an army of associates from his busking ability; and Yarpen has a trove of weapons, items and armour that he divvies out to his troupe of dwarven dragon-slayers.
But of course what would the Witcher be without monsters hey? Combat is done by rolling your characters ‘hero dice’ and checking if you landed enough hits to defeat a monster, while at the same time, rolling enough defense to avoid damage or any ill effects. Just like the video games, you’ll battle your way through everything from bears and bandits to Striga and Leshen, but each character has slightly different methods in doing so. Geralt, being the bane of all monsters, pirouettes his way through most creatures like a Catherine wheel of death, while Dandelion adopts a more defensive strategy by hiding behind members of his retinue. Triss works well in bursts and can disintegrate enemies with ease but only if she spent the time prepping her spells, while the plucky little Yarpen can swing both ways as a murder hobo or as an eloquent diplomat and avoid danger all together.
When you aren’t knee deep in Alghoul guts, you’ll also need to contest with ‘foul fate’. As the gears of war grind the Northern Realms to dust, unfortunate events will plague its towns and cities. If you happen to end your turn in a location that is dealing with a problem, it becomes your problem. By travelling to Wyzima, you might find yourself in the middle of an angry mob or maybe a group of spies thinks you’re snooping around. On rare occasions, you might get lucky and ‘nothing happens’. Such is the nature of the winds of war.
Players travel across the beautifully lush board, questing and slaying monsters like you might in many other adventure games, but a key reason you might have been interested in ‘the Witcher…’ is to experience a rewarding and epic fantasy story. Any adventure RPG board game based on an IP like the Witcher (which can have quite confusing lore at times) is bound to run into accessibility issues for non-fans, and in my experience, the best story heavy games are those that don’t over complicate things with complex narratives. ‘The Witcher…’ does an excellent job of giving players a glimpse of it’s dark gothic fantasy, albeit in Nekker sized chunks, and never leaves you feeling totally bewildered. That being said, ‘The Witcher…’ does share a familiar issue with many other games of its ilk. There is no mechanism that threads any of events together, so the narrative can feel more random than a jumble sale at a church fete. One minute you could be have food poisoning, next you’re fighting off a flock of harpies, then suddenly a blizzard sweeps over the land. Given the pedigree of Trzewiczek’s other more mechanically meticulous work, this might feel a little unexpectedly loose. I’m less bothered by those technical details since the best aspects of the Witcher lie in the grim atmosphere and not in point by point plotlines.
In fact the narrative isn’t really the focus of this game. Despite being story ‘heavy’, ‘The Witcher…’ is not a story ‘driven’ game. It’s there for you to immerse yourself in the world of the Witcher, but the game is much more akin to a race. Maybe not a sprint, but definitely more of a cross country hike. Sure, you’ll be zipping from town to town collecting leads like a medieval Colombo and the floor is made of lava, but the strategy is to find the path of least resistance. Often you’ll need to clog up your own actions with foul fate tokens, which makes the next time you want to use that particular action far less desirable. You’re constantly reassessing your plan and part of the skill is making contingencies for the best moment to rid yourself of any negative effects so you can glide on to the next location.
Another major decision point in the game is choosing quests. When you start the game or finish a quest, you always gets a limited choice of what quest to do next. Whatever you choose, you’ll need to gauge if it will: A. let you finish first, and B. net you the most points. The more difficult the quest, the longer it takes but the more points you earn, and vice versa. This is somewhat reminiscent of ‘tickets’ in ‘Ticket to Ride’, but instead of defining the route you take for the whole game, it just lets you know where you need to end up and how much proof you’ll need. How you spend your time getting to that point is up to you. If the story and actions of the game do a great job at conveying the bleak futility of the Witcher, this freedom of movement gives it a sense of calm. You build your character at your own pace, quietly working towards your goal, while savouring the grim atmosphere along the way.
‘The Witcher Adventure Game’ may be a bit of a black sheep in Ignacy Trzewiczek’s portfolio. Some players found it too solitary for their tastes, and those who were expecting a slick Euro-fantasy in the vain of ‘Lords of Waterdeep’ were also let down. The real strength of the Witcher, be it the video games, books or TV series, is the different stance it takes on well established ideas, and ‘the Witcher Adventure Game’ captures that ethos perfectly. The game is an absolute delight to look at and serves as a fantastic entry point for those unfamiliar with the White Wolf, while players who relish in the lore and absorb it like autumn sunshine, will be satisfied beyond expectations. At the very least, it’s worth a try as it’s available on digital formats for a couple pennies.
Beat ’em ups have been a corner stone of the video game medium for decades. There’s nothing quite as intense as slogging it out with your friends until one of you is a pulpy, bloodied sack of bruised flesh. Digitally at least. If only you could do the same in a board game.
Since their rise in popularity in the 90’s, games like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Super Smash Brothers, Tekken, Samurai Showdown and so on, became the best games to test your might (pun intended) against other players. You had to employ all the strategy and dexterity of a mutant ninja to be considered the ultimate fighter. Board gaming has sort of circumvented the genre all together, unable to capture the raw energy of coin gobbling arcade cabinets. That’s not for a lack of trying though! Here are a few choice cuts for a quick punch up between friends.
Luchador! Mexican Wrestling Dice
“Rules? Rules were made to be broken. LIKE YOUR NECK!!! OOOOoohhhh YEEAAAHHH!!!!!” Luchador Mexican Wrestling Dice by Mark Rivera burst out of the gates back in 2013 and up until then, I don’t think there ever was a proper wrestling game. Not unless you consider this proper. In which case, I’m sorry…so very, very sorry. You and your opponent take on the roles of Lucha Libres vying for supremacy of the squared circle and of course, there can only be one victor.
This game is dead simple. You get 4 dice which allow you to hit, block and counter your opponent. But beware! If you’re an over zealous roller and your die falls off the board, sorry bub, but it don’t count. In fact, one of the strategies you’re meant to employ, is to actually lay the smack down on your opponents die and knock them out of the ring. Once you’ve grappled enough, if you were able to sneak a hit through, you get to roll the damage die and see just what kind of pain you’ve inflicted on your enemy. Drop kick, chair smash, table slam, choke hold you name it, it can happen. If you’re extra lucky and you manage to squeeze two hits through while the referee isn’t looking, you can roll the Lucha die, which has a 50/50 chance of doing massive damage with a high-flying move, or hilariously injuring yourself and losing a valuable die in the next round of steamy man grabbing.
The funnest part of the game is if you’ve weakened your opponent enough and you have the chance to pin him or her. They have to make saving throws on the count of 3, by rolling enough blocks or counters. EVEN BETTER THAN THAT is if they managed to roll 3 identical block or counter results in one go, they reverse the pin and the attacker finds themselves at the bottom of a fresh can of whoop-ass.
This game is a treat and an excellent opener to get the blood pumping on fight night. Make no mistake though, just like actual wrestling, you NEED to ham it up. Seriously. It’s in the rules. When you’ve pinned someone, you’re encouraged to shout out the countdown, “1….2…….3!!!!!” If you’re playing a tag match with 4 players, once you roll a successful tag, you have to actually physically tag your partner in. If not, it’s illegal. It’s those kind of touches that make the game pop out and come to life. That being said, if you prefer something a bit more diverse, you can always play the advanced rules where each Wrestler has individual strengths, weaknesses and can even unleash a killer combo. Oh! Did I also mention that the 2nd edition comes complete with a 3D wrestling ring? Yeah, I thought that might impress you. We only have the orignal flat board and it serves us well but the real deal ring adds another level of visual deliciousness that is quite frankly impossible to beat. If you’re a fan of wrestling get this game. Heck! If you’re a fan of fun get this game.
“Step right up, Step right up folks! For tonight’s contest of manliness, two pugilists take to the ring for the heavyweight championship. Come see the sweet science of a gentleman’s sport. Step right up, step right up!” Back in old timey town, the number one way to prove yourself as an honourable fellow was to test your mettle in a good ol’ fashioned bout of fisticuffs. Knockout, released by Victory Point Games and designed by Frederic Moyersoen, is probably one of the most colossally underrated games of the past decade.
In Knockout, each player squares up in the center of the ring, draws their hand of 8 cards and waits for the sweet chime of that beautiful bell. Ding, ding. What happens after that is so elegant you would think you’re at a Bolshoi State Ballet recital. You take turns playing cards, either attacking or defending, pressuring each other to the point of exhaustion, until there is just nothing left you can do except eat some knuckle sandwich. So what do you do when you’re getting wailed on? You suck it up, and take some more. That’s easier said than done though.
The object of the game is to knockout your opponent (HINT: It’s in the name), but it’s getting there that’s the tough part. In your hand of cards you’ll likely have a selection of offensive maneuvers, like a straight punch, a cross, a jab and the almighty haymaker, but you’ll also potentially draw up some defensive cards, like move, parry and counter. When a player uses an attack card, the defending player must react with a card of equal or higher strength in order to avoid getting hit. If you can’t, you take a hit and your hand size gets reduced by 1, meaning when you do get a breather and can draw back up, you’re going to have less scruples about you and won’t be able to fight back. Luckily though, both parties need to draw up frequently to stay in good shape and prepare for the next flurry of fists. All it takes to win is landing 6 good hits, but you wouldn’t believe how tricky that can be against one of these wily boxers. If you survived the first round, the weakest player receives a “pep” card at the beginning of the next and this can turn the tables quite dramatically.
I think Victory Point out did themselves with this one. A gentleman’s game of bouting that is as beautifully simple as it is lighting fast. The balance of the card play creates a genuine feeling of bobbing and weaving, going toe to toe with someone. However the game is not merely a functional “take that” card game. It has one of the most visually pleasing aesthetics I have seen on a board game. Everything about it captures the grit and raw energy of old school boxing, while avoiding the crass and brutal tropes of modern sports games. I am absolutely dumbfounded as to why this isn’t the crown jewel of Moyersoens career.
Apocalypse Universe: Galactic Arena by Storyception Games is a gladiatorial space fist-fest, fresh off the presses from their succesful Kickstarter campaign. You have a choice of 10 different galactic combatants, each with their own special abilities and strengths. Before I get into the game itself, it’s worthy to note that Storyception have put in a tremendous effort at building the world for Galactic Arena. Every character has a thoroughly fleshed out back story and if you take the time to read them, it really elevates your appreciation for the characters.
Now on with the game. Each character has an array of stats ranging from defence, attack, health, actions, initiative and most importantly, special abilities. Before combat commences, players have to customise their fighters. So you can tailor your champion to be as slippery as an eel or a full-blown homicidal maniac hell-bent on murder.The kicker is you never know who you’re up against or how they may be kitted out for the fight. To add to the immersion, the game comes complete with giant iron gate DM screens from behind which you will prepare your fighter. As you wait for the gate open, you know exactly how Russel Crowe felt in that movie. As you become a veteran of the Galactic Arena you’ll learn what are the most effective skills to choose from and best combos to utilise, but until then, you’ll probably just mount your plasma cannon the wrong way.
Why Galactic Arena feels more like a fighting game than say a turn based strategy game, is because of its length. It’s fast, aggressive and very, VERY brutal. All the planning in the world wont save you from the short sharp shock of a quick decisive defeat if you’re caught dawdling around the arena. Your opponent WILL come after you, and you always want to be applying the pressure. The fun really comes in when you get to know your fighter a bit more and you start doing the right things to bait your enemy, forcing them to waste actions, hopefully giving you enough edge to splatter them on arena walls. For that reason bouts can be as quick as 10 minutes, which is perfect for a 2 out of 3 style match. We recommend using the draft rules where you choose 3 fighters as a team but face off 1 on 1. If you chose the 3 on 3 match you’ll get a bit more length out of the fight, but I find it’s easier to focus on one fighter at a time. All in all, Galactic Arena feels very much like the Board game iteration of classic arcade fighters, at least in the sense that the game places heavy focus on the characters. The rest of the game plays out in typical action point on hex grid type fashion but like a say, it’s the fighters that make this one special. They all have unique abilities and you’ll probably pick the ones that you identify with the most. Maybe you like the strong guy, so you’ll pick the mutant with four arms, maybe you like the “duo”, so you’ll pick the guys that are closely matched, the assassin, the ranger, etc. There are lots to choose from and a mega ton of variation within those choices. Top marks to Storyception for their debut effort. We’re looking forward to more.
Hopefully we’ll see a few more games emerge that suit the fighting game genre, there’s almost certainly a ton out there that I don’t know of. If you do, let us know! Until next time….
‘The Resistance’ is pretty much an institution in board gaming by now. Thats just a fact of life. If you turned over a rock in the desert, you would find a table of neurotic board gamers shrieking in a high register “I’m not a SPY!!” So when Indie Boards & Cards announced back in April on Kickstarter they were reskinning the original Coup with a Resistance theme, we came running like a crack addicted bullet train. Well the time has come, and its finally arrived.
As the government starts to collapse around you, up to six players seek to take control by influencing key figures in a political poker game. Each person is dealt 2 cards, the Duke, Ambassador, Captain, Assassin or the Contessa. These cards represent officials that you have leverage with. You’ll take turns claiming you have favour with one of the aforementioned characters, using their powers to get money, kill your political opponents or gain more influence, all in the aid of funding your coup d’ etat. However, any of your opponents can contest your supporter, and if you are caught trying to take advantage of the situation without the favour of your claimed political figure, you lose influence. On the other hand though, if you DO have the support you claimed to have, your challenger looks like a fool and he/she loses their influence. Once you’ve lost both of your supporters, you are out of the game and need to take a seat on the losers couch with Sarah Palin. Ultimately though, just like a sword fight between immortals, there can be only one. The last back-stabbing politician standing wins.
One of the cool side effects of ‘Coup’ is it fleshes out the narrative that ‘The Resistance’ started. In the latter you witnessed events from the perspective of freedom fighters in a corrupt dystopian future, whereas in ‘Coup’ you get to see how high rollers do business. The next time you finish 5 or 6 games of ‘The Resistance’ you won’t have that hollow feeling of a bad come down anymore. Now you get to see the other side the story. While the grunts are fighting the good fight destabilizing the status quo, others are ready to step in and seize control in these opportunistic times.
Even if you’ve been living in a cave for the last 4 years and you’ve never heard of ‘The Resistance’, ‘Coup’ is a sublime game by itself. Its wickedly fast, super tense and just oh so exciting. When you’re holding on to your last card and the turn is going round, you’ll be frantically scheming trying to ready yourself for your next move. You’ve decided to bluff holding the Duke, which will gain you the 3 credits to pay for the Assassin that you are actually holding. Its finally your turn, you try to sneak those precious credits in unnoticed. As your fingertips just touch the prize, you think “YES! I’ve done it. No one will suspect a thing”. You start to slink the money towards you when you hear the challenge from across the table, “Like Hell you’re the Duke! I’ve got the Duke”. You can’t show weakness but your backs up against the wall, inside your screaming, “WHAT AM I GOING TO DO???” You play it cool, time to show them what you’re made of. “Are you sure you want to make that call?”, a cold look of steel about your face, but really your legs are like jelly jumping castles. Your challenger hesitates, not wanting to lose their last card in a rash decision. He begins a retort but you cut it short, “Fine, just means one less of you I need to eliminate”. You reach for you card confidently, ready to flip it over, it’s do or die anyway, then you hear the withdrawal, “Alright. Take the money…this time”. You think to yourself, “Yes! A life-line. Now all I have to do is…”, the person next to you chucks 7 credits your way, “I’m couping you. You’re dead”. Your head drops between your chest and the table erupts into laughter. This is the sort of entertainment you just can’t put a price on. ‘Coup’ is an absolutely awesome game. Get it or you’ll get left behind.
Android is a murder/mystery story building game set in the dystopian future city of New-Angeles. Mega corporations run the sprawling network of the city, which your investigator needs to navigate, gather information from and try to solve the murder.
In my humble opinion, Android is probably the most underrated game in the history of documenting things & calling it “history”. Alas, I am but one man though. Where ever you look on the net that reviews things made out of cardboard, it gets tagged with that dreaded “so-so” review score. Fans love it because of the setting and story, but those that hate it scream from the rafters about the mechanics. Mostly I think it’s a big misunderstanding about the point of the game. I can’t blame them though. Before its release Fantasy Flight really pushed the role play and mystery solving angles on this game. Which I’ll admit, sounds like an intriguing prospect and is indeed what caught my attention (Who wouldn’t want to see a Sci-Fi Noir, D&D and Clue hybrid?) but that’s not really how the game pans out. You’re never actually trying to find out who the murderer is as you already know this from the start of the game. Well, that’s not quite right either. Actually you have possible SUSPECTS that you’re trying to pin the murder on. This is probably the biggest point where people start to jump off the Android ship. People were expecting a “whodunnit” story game that plays out as you go gumshoeing along, somewhat along the lines of Arabian Nights or Agents of SMERSH; instead they got a highly strategic puzzler. I for one love that! And here are a few reasons
The game possesses such varied mechanics that interleave with one another. Each layer adds different strategies you can employ to win the game. Firstly you can attempt to pin the murder on a suspect by mounting evidence against them, or as. While your detective chases up leads around New-Angeles, you have the option to uncover evidence. Don’t worry; you won’t be shouting obscenities at each other just yet. That’ll come later. You’ll take a token from the evidence pool and place it on a particular suspect involved in the murder case. Depending on the value of the token, it’ll determine if the suspect is innocent or guilty. Usually, the point of the game where derogatory utterances begin is when a player places evidence on a suspect, and you refer to the 2 “hunch cards” you were dealt in the beginning of the game, one showing you a guilty suspect the other an innocent citizen, and of course, said player is building a case against your innocent hunch. Or at least who you believe to be. After all, you’re only going by your ‘dick’ instincts.
However you need to keep hunches secret for as long as possible. If your opponents find out who you’re building a case against/in favour of, they might employ “Humanity Labor” to put hits out on your suspects. Once there are 3 hits on a suspect, he/she is dead, removed from the game and potentially lost a player a ton of precious victory points. That’s not the only cuss inducing method in your quest for evidence though. There are also these nasty little tokens called “alibis”, which as we all know from day time soap operas, seriously derail the plot line. Alibis have the power to “reverse” evidence, as well as synapse with your brain, forcing you to shout out random portmanteau expletives. Subsequently, the word “funt” now adds colour to many more situations in our daily lives. Thanks Android! Surprisingly though, building a case against a suspect isn’t the most important thing on the board, although it is a really fun part of the game. Back and forth bluffing will potentially have you offload evidence on one suspect as each player battles for their hunch card, only to have him eventually assassinated! Meanwhile, the unsuspecting mining clone ‘Mark Henry’, sits with +1 point in his case file, making him the guilty party and netting another player 15 valuable victory points.
You could also try your hand at resolving your characters “plot cards” as a means to gain VP. When the game begins, each player is given a plot card that instructs them what to do in order to progress onto the next stage of the plot. This could be anything from discarding player cards to choosing how you are going to fight. Basically, as you journey around New-Angeles you will do things. Doing things will get you “baggage”. Which is sometimes good…
Raymond enters a seedy club on the south side of town. He feels the eyes of every patron scanning him up and down. They’re wondering if Raymond is going to kick up a stink and nose around in things that should maybe be left well alone, or is he going to just be the predictable jaded alcoholic cop that he is and take a seat at the bar. You play one of your “light” cards. “Hey, didn’t you fly in the 21rst division?” Ray cuts through the tectonic beat of the clubs sound system and turns to the sound of the voice. He sees someone vaguely familiar to him. It’s an old war buddy he used to fly with. Rather than make a fuss or drown his sorrows at the bottom of a bourbon alone, Ray pulls up a seat, places his order with the waitress and begins to reminisce about the good ‘ol days. The guy gives Ray a free “dropship pass” and Raymond gains 1 GOOD baggage for entering a “nightlife” location during this plot line. Sweet. – (This was actual gameplay by the way)
On the other hand though, sometimes baggage can be bad….
The bioroid Floyd overrides one of his prime directives in the hopes of getting a deceitful lead on the case. You play one of Raymonds “Haunted by the Past” cards. By now Ray has had a few too many drinks anyway. He barely manages to stand himself up with some semblance of dignity and stumbles into the clubs bathroom where the music is less deafening. After splashing some water on his face he takes a long deep gaze at his reflection in the mirror. The voice in his head starts to murmur as it normally does. The memories come flooding back and all of a sudden Raymond can’t breathe. A hand reaches out to help, “Hey buddy, you okay?” In a panic Raymond lashes out and starts throwing punches. Flailing in a drunken stupor like an unbalanced spinning top, and then darkness. The next thing Raymond sees is his own two feet staring back at him, as he slowly realises he’s waking up in a dumpster in the alley out back. He gains 2 “bad baggage” for fighting like a chimp. Bollocks.
Fantasy Flight made no secret of Android being a story driven game, which comes to much woe for players who just aren’t into roleplaying (or a bit rubbish at it), but that’s fine. No problem. You can delve into the cards text as much as you like or just go straight into what the cards actions are instead. In the end, you’re trying to score your plot cards with a positive amount of baggage to get the maximum amount of victory points.
Even if you’re not a storyteller kind of group, there is a THIRD way to play (and possibly the highest scoring yet most understated in the rules). In the top corner of the board is a puzzle board, and instead of placing evidence on a suspect after following a lead, you have the option to uncover a piece of the conspiracy. What this means is that you are trying to build links between some of the corporations in the game with the current murder case. “There’s more to this case. I just know it. Someone else was involved.” You place a puzzle piece down and try to connect a continuous line between the corporation spaces on the outside of the puzzle. Unlocking these can fundamentally change who will win the game. Sometimes a space grants that a certain currency token count towards your victory points or maybe it affects the results of plots, or maybe you get to place a hit for free, or maybe…There’s a lot of options here and having a good look at the puzzle will greatly improve your chances at winning. Not merely because of the links you’re trying to uncover, but also because there is a second dimension to the puzzle…yup, you guessed. That’s right, bingo…No, really. It’s bingo! This can net you a whole mess of points, but if you focus too much of your time on trying to uncover the conspiracy, you’ll have no time to chase any real leads on the case and your left holding a crumpled, sweaty bunch of newspaper clippings, with indecipherable hieroglyphics hastily scribbled on them, trying to convince the commissioner that it’s all connected to lizard men, screaming “Can’t you see?!?! There! It’s in the numbers! It’s so obvious!”
Whoever is the best at managing these three criteria and scores the maximum amount of score wins the game. I cannot stress though how interwoven these areas are. Things you do in one area might affect another. Each action you spend completing one area leaves your guard down on another, opening the door for another player to take advantage. There is still a bunch of details I could still go into, like each characters special abilities that you need to manage, the process of paying for card play, the movement system, just trust me, this shit is deep. It’s massively competitive, extremely strategic, complex in its subtleties and is as heavy as a cake eating convention.
Therein lays its main points of criticism though. Yes it’s a big ‘ol fat ass of a game, but just like Jabba-the-Hut, it has an endearing quality. The people, who enjoy this game, will almost always say it is a masterpiece. I understand where the criticism comes from though. Android is like a pink elephant in the board game world. Not in the sense that it sticks out (Because that’s impossible when your hash-tag is #Android) but rather it’s both a fascinating & unique creature, as well as clumsy & frustrating. As much as I didn’t want to talk about the theme since it’s the most obvious draw of the game, I will say that I think it’s not the theme in itself that people love, nor is it the mechanical elements that give the game colour, it’s the fact that the game needs to be played or approached as if it were a giant dystopian rubix cube. For us it’s HOW the mechanics are played out in relation to each other that makes it fit so well with the theme. The world of Android feels rich and therefore should be interacted with in a complex manner. If there was a stripped down version with streamlined rules, the glue that holds it all together would start to disintegrate and the experience would just fall apart. Despite its caveats you can net yourself a copy on Amazon for nearly NOTHING!! It would be foolish not to give it a go….and X-mas is around the corner.
We’ve been playing board games together as a group since 2012 and have hundreds of game nights under our belts. We want to focus the blog on reviewing games that often get overlooked. There is always going to be something better out there but we want to give these games a little time to shine.
Thanks for your support and I hope you enjoy your stay.