In this article, I’m continuing that journey by looking at the most recent four sets — from Rise of Vigil through Dawn of the Champions. I’ll be examining how they influenced the Ascension game and deckbuilding in general. In doing so, I’ll be bringing Ascension up to date — and perhaps I can repeat this exercise in another 2-3 years.
Block Three: Vigil & Darkness (2013)
Ascension fell into its scheduling stride with the release of the large-box Rise of Vigil (2013) and the small-box Darkness Unleashed (2013) which together form Block Three of the game.
These two sets also used a simple model for introducing new mechanics: a major mechanic appeared in Rise of Vigil (Energize), and then was ever-so-slightly adjusted in Darkness Unleashed, which also saw a new and related mechanic (Transformation). Continue reading →
In the last year-or-so, it seems like the surge of deckbuilding games has finally slowed down. I’m certainly still looking forward to some upcoming releases like Don’t Turn Your Back, Cthulhu Realms, and Apocrypha — and I think some bag-building games deserve some crossover attention. However, in 2013 or 2014, I could expect to play 5-10 new deckbuilders a year, and that’s no longer the case.
Fortunately for us fans of deckbuilding, there’s still a lot of interesting innovation of the traditional deckbuilding form to be found — it’s just in expansions rather than new games.
Ascension (2010) kicked off its expansions with something very important: a plan1. Rather than releasing expansions willy-nilly, the folks at whatever-the-company’s-name-is-this-week 2 decided to arrange their supplements into “blocks”, following in the footsteps of Magic: The Gathering (1993).
Each of these blocks was to consist of just two sets: one big set and one small set. They’d have coherent mechanics, and thus they’d work well together. In fact, that’s the suggested way to play Ascension: only mix boxes from the same block.
This week, NPR wrote about how the French Scrabble tournament had been won by Nigel Richards, a New Zealander who doesn’t speak any French, but who spent a few weeks studying a French dictionary. Don’t get me wrong, that’s an extremely impressive learning curve for Mr. Richards — one that I suspect classifies him as a sooper-genius. But otherwise I was utterly unshocked by the news.
You see, I learned a lot about Scrabble several years ago when I read an intriguing book about the game called Word Freak (2001), which talked about the culture of tournament-level Scrabble. What struck me most was how unlike casual play this tournament play was. Players obsessively memorized two-letter words, then three-letter words. They studied the Scrabble Dictionary to mind their Qs and Zs. 538.com famously described the results of high-level Scrabble play as looking like it’s “played in Martian”.
And that’s much of why I don’t think Scrabble is a good design.
Last quarter I played a good number of new games and had good success with them. As usual, this is my ratings of these games, which means it’s personal opinion rather than an overall assessment of whether they’re good (or not).
Eldritch Horror (2013). Although it’s only advertised as being “inspired” by Arkham Horror (1987, 2005), Eldritch Horror is pretty much a revision of the cooperative classic. Just like in the original, you have gates opening up and spewing monsters onto the board while investigators stock up on spells and items — while working to stop the Doom Track from dropping to zero and freeing the Great Old One.
With that said, this is a really well-polished revision that looks at Arkham Horror systems like monsters, gates, and money and figures out how to simplify them through abstraction and redevelopment. Much as with Caverna, I think that digging through the systemic changes is a great lesson in game design (which is why I did just that in my last article). The best change is probably in Eldritch Horror’s victory conditions. Each Great Old One has different conditions that must be met to defeat it, as revealed on special Mystery Cards. This makes every game very different; even if you play against the same Great Old One, different mysteries can come up in different orders.
Much as with Arkham Horror, the biggest problem is length. Maybe it’s shorter than the famously long Arkham Horror … but it’s still quite long. Our game took just under four hours, including teach. I’d been hoping the revision would shorten things a bit more than that! Continue reading →
Though it’s been out for about two years, I just played Eldritch Horror (2013) for the first time last month. I was quickly won over by the game, as I happily fought nameless horrors and investigated blasphemous locations. Though Eldritch Horror only notes “inspiration” from Arkham Horror (1987, 2005), I’d call it a revision — or else a “reimagination” — because this newer game rather cleverly reinvents most of the mechanics from Arkham Horror, but using a totally new design paradigm. The result is a clear evolution of design.Continue reading →
This article brings Alea thoroughly into the Stefan Feld years, when a single author dominated the large game box production. Many (myself included) consider it a new height. Not only was Feld producing some of the best serious games in the line’s history, but the medium boxes also started excelling beginning with Witch’s Brew.Continue reading →
This blog has long focused on the design of games, investigating how and why they work (or don’t). Usually, it’s picked apart existing games. However, there’s one sort of work that can offer particularly interesting insights into design: the revision. A revision can allow you to delve into a game, see what was there before, what was there afterward, and thus see how a change in design made a change in the game.
That’s why I’m going to be looking at Caverna: The Cave Farmers (2013) this week. Though it’s essentially the same game as Agricola (2007) in the big picture, it’s been revised, polished, and expanded rather thoroughly — providing lots of insight into the design process.
Please note that this article doesn’t try to be a complete list of changes, but rather is a look at the ones that are the most interesting.
The Furnished Rooms
In Agricola, each player gets a hand of occupation and improvement cards that he uses to specialize his farm. A very small set of just ten major improvements are available for all players. Conversely, in Caverna there are no individual cards. Instead furnishing tiles are available to all players, first come first serve.
Result: The change was probably a reaction to the randomness of the card draws in Agricola. If a player got lucky and got a nicely matched set of cards he could do very well, while an unlucky player with no synergy amidst his cards could lose the game before he even started to play. Obviously, having all the cards (tiles) available to everyone makes the game less lucky.