Card Games That Dared: Part 2 – Oligarchy

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.

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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.

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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.

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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….

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The Beat ’em Up Special

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

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“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.

…Round 2…FIGHT!!!

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“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.

…Finish HIM…

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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….

….FATALITY….

Coup…How good is your poker face?

‘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.

coup 2Even 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

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

A2The 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.

A3However 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…

image(2)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….

image(9)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.

image(1)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.

image(8)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.

Welcome to “We Die a Lot”

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Hello and welcome to the “We Die a Lot” blog.

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.