A Deckbuilding Look at Don’t Turn Your Back

Don't Turn Your BackI haven’t talked about a new deckbuilder all year. As I’ve previously written, I think that’s because the genre has peaked. So I was happy to get my Kickstarted copy of Don’t Turn Your Back (2015), by Eric B. Vogel, because it gives me a chance to return to a topic that has often filled this blog in recent years.

I talked with Eric about the game in February, but now that it’s out I can talk more about my own experience with the game — about how it expands the field and where it has troubles. I should note that Eric is a friend of mine, and I playtested the game several times in 2014, so take what I write with the appropriate amount of salt!

The Game

Don’t Turn Your Back is a deckbuilding/worker-placement game. You buy cards and filter cards like you’d expect, making the best deck that you can. However, the game’s use of those cards is unusual. Instead of just playing them and taking their effects, you instead place cards on specific areas of a game board, each of which has limited spaces. Doing so produces specific results: Continue reading

Anatomy of a Game: Catan

Catan 5e Box CoverMayfair Games recently released their fifth edition of the Settlers of Catan (1995) — now just called “Catan”. Even if you aren’t impressed by the fact that Mayfair has produced five major iterations of the core game, you have to be impressed that Catan Gmbh reports that over 18 million units of Catan have been sold. That’s a lot of games!

To celebrate the newest edition of the game, its 20th anniversary, and perhaps most importantly its continued success, I’ve decided this week to take an extended look at what makes Catan great. I’ll be examine the game’s major systems, the rules underlying them, and the emotions they create. Continue reading

Deckbuilding Expansion: Ascension, Part Two — From Vigil to Champions

Ascension Core GameTwo weeks ago I took a look at the first four Ascension sets, examining the mechanics of each.

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: Rise of VigilAscension 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

Deckbuilding Expansions: Ascension, Part One — From Chronicle to Heroes

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 Core GameAscension (2010) kicked off its expansions with something very important: a plan 1. 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.

Continue reading


  1. Better than the cyclons.
  2. It’s Stoneblade Entertainment.

Talkin’ ’bout My Degeneration

Scrabble FridgeThis 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.

It’s a degenerate game. Continue reading

New to Me: Spring 2015 — Resources & More

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).

The Great

Eldritch HorrorEldritch 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

Anatomy of a Reimagination: Eldritch Horror

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