A Deckbuilding Look at Star Realms

Star RealmsStar Realms (2013) is a science-fiction themed deckbuilding game that rather uniquely is built for just two players — which is certainly a different way to create a small deckbuilder, as opposed to the variable play models used by Pergamemnon (2011) and Zeppelin Attack! (2014). However, you can play Star Realms with more players by buying additional decks of cards.

The Game

Looking at the deckbuilding tree of design, Star Realms is most clearly a descendent of Ascension (2010) — which is unsurprising because they have a designer in common. Both games allow for the purchase of cards from a random selection of just a few that are available at any time. They’re also both heavily suited and they both feature cards that are left on the table: constructs in Ascension and bases in Star Realms.

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El Grande & The Art of Majority Control

El GrandeEl Grande (1995), by Wolfgang Kramer and Richard Ulrich, is one of the foundational games of the eurogame genre. I still try to play it at least once a year, but I’ve never written an in-depth discussion of it, so I wanted to take the event of this year’s play to talk about it a little bit.

The Majority Control

At heart, El Grande is a majority-control game — or really, the majority-control game that defined much of what followed in eurogames. You place cubes into regions on the board and you try to have just enough to beat your opponents. It’s a simple recipe of efficiency mixed with risk-reward.

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A Deckbuilding Look at Zeppelin Attack!

Zeppelin Attack!Zeppelin Attack!, by Eric Vogel, is a deckbuilding game that I have a personal connection to, as I gave playtesting comments on it from its earliest days. It’s also published by Evil Hat, who is currently running my Kickstarter for Designers & Dragons. So, take what I say here with a grain of salt — but I do find it an interesting and innovative deckbuilding design.

The Game

Zeppelin Attack! is a game of fighting zeppelins. You build a fleet out of your flagship and other zeppelins, and then you use those zeppelins to launch attacks and deploy operatives. The card-based direct conflict of zeppelin-to-zeppelin attacks makes Zeppelin Attack! a very different sort of game from the multiplayer solitaire that’s the basis of much of the deckbuilding genre. You even get points when you cause another zeppelin to “retreat” (die in flames!), making the conflict an important element of the game.

As you’d expect, there’s card buying too. Currency in the form of “Fate Cards” can be used to buy new cards from piles of Attack cards, Defense cards, Operatives cards, Attack Zeppelins, and Operations Zeppelins. The big catch is that the Fate Cards go away when you use them! This isn’t the infinitely renewing currency of most deckbuilders, but instead a uniquely expendable resource that must then be reacquired. Continue reading

Designers & Dragons

Designers & Dragons: The '70sSadly, I missed publishing a new Mechanics & Meeples article again this last Monday, but there’s been a good reason for it. I’ve got a live Kickstarter going for Designers & Dragons, my 4-book history of the roleplaying industry, and it’s been eating up my free time like you’d expect a hungry dragon to do.

If you enjoyed the short historical tidbits I’ve written on the board game industry, I encourage you to take a look, as Designers & Dragons was a model for those articles. More generally, if you’re curious why small hobby companies rise and fall, and how roleplaying publication intertwinces with wargame publication, eurogame publication, and miniatures gaming, Designers & Dragons is a rich source.

The first book, Designers & Dragons: The ’70s is particularly good in this area. It talks about the rise of fantasy and science-fiction board games and of the minigames (with a focus on Metagaming Concepts), and it also talks about how miniatures led to roleplaying games (in the TSR article). Continue reading

Not Necessarily a Deckbuilding Design

DominionOver the last few years, I’ve written about deckbuilding games pretty extensively. However, in that time I’ve never actually stopped and defined what the term means. After all, in the genre’s earliest years, you knew a deckbuilder when you saw it. Thunderstone (2009), Ascension (2010) and (especially) Tanto Cuore (2009) were all obviously Dominion (2008), with some different rules and a different facade — so they were de facto deck builder games.

However in recent years that visceral definition has become less clear because deckbuilders have both proliferated and become more varied. It’s part of what I see as a four-step process.

  1. A game with an innovative mechanic appears and knock-offs mostly copy the game; they’re similar enough to feel unoriginal, but different enough to not seem like a total rip-off. Examples: AscensionThunderstone.
  2. Games continue to use the original, innovative mechanic, but vary more widely, and as a result a genre appears. Examples: Eminent Domain, Quarriors.
  3. The genre matures and the innovative mechanic becomes old hat. At this point this mechanic infiltrates other sorts of game as one part of a larger whole. Examples: A Few Acres of Snow, Copycat.
  4. Further variations appear that are so different that it now feels like the original mechanic was largely an inspiration. Some of them may vary enough that they actually are a brand-new mechanic, which might create knock-offs, genres, mechanics, and inspirations of its own.

And so the evolution of eurogames continues. Continue reading

New to Me: Spring 2014

It’s been a light quarter for my gaming, with me missing something like 6-9 of my regular gaming sessions. Still, I’ve got eight “new” games to talk about, running the gamut from awesome to (too much) meh.


The Great

PathfinderPathfinder Adventure Card Game (2013). The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is an astonishingly innovative deckbuilding game, primarily for the complex ecosystem of cards that it creates — one that carries on from one game to the next. The idea of a cooperative game that continues from session to session is also pretty rare, and it’s done quite well here: the whittled down deck of cards that you carry from game to game is very meaningful.

The rest of the gameplay is a bit more pedestrian, with random card draws and random dice rolls allowing you to accomplish tasks via a simple task resolution system. Still, it’s nicely put together and it’s just dripping with evocative theme. I was jazzed to continue playing it after my first adventure, primarily to see my character grow over numerous sessions of play. I racked up a total of six games over the quarter. Continue reading

The Alea Analysis, Part Five: San Juan (S#5), Fifth Avenue (#9), Louis XIV (M#1)

Over the last few years I’ve slowly been updating, expanding, and revising my series of articles on Alea games. If you’d like to catch up, you can read about: Ra, Chinatown, and Taj Mahal in Part One; or Princes of Florence, Adel Verpflichtet, and Traders of Genoa in Part Two; or Wyatt Earp, Royal Turf, and Puerto Rico in Part Three; or Die Sieben Weisen, Edel, Stein & Reich, and Mammoth Hunters in Part Four.

This article brings Alea into the mid ’00s with a look at the transition from their old Small Box series to their new Medium Box series. It covers San Juan, Fifth Avenue, and Louis XIV.


Small Box #5: San Juan (A+)

Author: Andreas Seyfarth
Publisher: Rio Grande (2004)
Alea Difficulty Scale: 3
Other Articles: Alea Treasures #1: Louis XIV & San Juan (9/10), San Juan Review (7/04)
My Plays: 37

San JuanSan Juan returned to the gameplay of Alea’s prize-winner, Puerto Rico. On your turn, you pick a role that everyone benefits from, and you try and use the benefits of that role to build production buildings and special-power buildings that will ultimately earn you the most victory points. 

Strengths: Innovative Cards

San Juan’s biggest innovation and its biggest strength lies in the the idea that cards can be used either for what’s printed on them or just as a resource. Generally, I find it an amazing idea. First, it notably decreases the effect of luck in a card game, because you only care about what’s printed on about a quarter of your cards, meaning that you have a lot more choice than you would if you used every card. Second, it introduces a lot of variety to the game, because on a given play you’ll only see a small number of the cards in actual use; it may be many, many games before you’ve played everything.

San Juan built upon this strong basis by adapting the basic roles of Puerto Rico to its new card paradigm. Now, many of the roles focus on different ways to draw cards: through selfishness (the Prospector), through overdrawing and discarding (the Councillor, who also includes another mechanism for reducing the luck of card draws), and through a more complex production-sales mechanism (the Producer and the Trader). It’s an excellent example of simultaneously innovating and holding onto classic play. Continue reading