Summer was a nice quarter for gaming, with a number of releases really excelling. Here’s a look. Remember as always that these are “new to me”, which means that they might be brand-new releases or something a bit older that I hadn’t yet seen.
Agricola Revised Edition (2016). Yep, this is a pretty old game by now. The new edition has better rules and cleans up the cards a considerable amount, producing a more balanced game. I recommended Agricola before, and it’s only better now.
Oh My Goods! (2015). Another Lookout release. This is a shockingly dense game published as a teeny little card game. I played a number of the Abacus Spiele games back in the day, which had a similar premise of creating complex games with just cards, and I felt like they generally showed off the problems with this style of design. In contrast, Oh My Goods! entirely succeeds.
Oh My Goods! is a San Juan (2004) like design. Cards can be resources or buildings. The big change is that when you actually get the buildings out there, then you’re trying to create supply chains. With clever play you can develop a nicely interconnected tableau and bounce resources from one building to another, increasing their value as you go. Overall, supply chains are a little used but fun mechanic, so I loved seeing them used so successfully here, and in such a teeny game.
My only complaint is that this game went much longer than the 30 minutes advertised on the box, but it was a great game, so I won’t complain too much.
Lost Legacy (2014+). Lost Legacy is the sequel to Love Letter (2012) except it has science fantasy theming and it’s being released as an endless series of 16-card sets. I played five of them: Flying Garden (2014), Sacred Grail (2015), Staff of Dragons (2015), Undying Heart (2016), and Werewolf (2016). Like Love Letter these microgames focus on tactical play, as you (almost) never have more than two cards in your time at a time and must play one of them. The objective is simple: eliminate the other players or else have a low number card at the end of the game and correctly guess where the Lost Legacy (5) card is.
As a whole, these games are definite improvements over Love Letter. There’s just a little bit more depth, thanks to the fact that you have to figure out where the Lost Legacy card is. There’s also an impressive amount of variability between the various sets. Flying Garden is a relatively simple game of surviving to the end with a low number, while Staff of Dragons is a ruthless game of entropic elimination. Sacred Grail plays the most like the original Love Letter, full of careful deduction, but in a somewhat different form. Similarly, Undying Heart is eliminatory while Werewolf requires tracking cards as they move between players and the center of the table.
Personally, I liked Sacred Grail and Werewolf the most, while Flying Garden and Undying Heart were OK, and I felt like Staff of Dragons bogged down into similar play. As a whole, it’s a clever system with fun (albeit random) play and a shockingly small footprint. I’m now tempted to collect the whole set.
(Not played: The Starship and Second Chronicle.)
The Very Good
Hit Z Road (2016). I’m always surprised to see a new auction game in the modern marketplace, because auctions games are so 15 years ago. But Martin Wallace manages to design an auction game that’s true to the form while still being a very modern design, thanks to its mixture of auctions with … zombie survival!
The fact that you “win” auctions that give you resources but also may force you to fight zombies is pretty cool, especially when it’s mixed with a mini-combat system that combines resource usage and dice rolling. However, I think the resources themselves are just as important. There are three of them (bullets, gas, and adrenaline) and they can all be used as currency when bidding, but you also have to think about how those various resources can affect your combat, because they do different things there (respectively allowing you to shoot zombies from afar, escape zombies, and survive zombies). This inclusion of an auction currency with not one but three other uses is a pretty great mechanic that allows for great choices too.
I should also talk about the game’s high concept, both because high concepts are pretty rare in board games and because this one is pretty cool. The whole game is laid out to look like a board game about a zombie apocalypse created during a zombie apocalypse. So the resources are all represented by bottle caps and the auction lots are pasted onto playing cards. (Except, of course, this is a modernly produced board games, so the bottle caps representing resources are actually represented by cardboard tokens …). The result is a game that looks quite unique and gives the feel of a post-apocalyptic setting in a weird but neat way.
Kraftwagen (2015). Matthias Cramer’s Glen More (2010) always had a nice central mechanism, with its time track that let you trade off between important actions and more turns. However the tile-laying backend was a bit fiddly. I like it, but I don’t love it. Five years later, Cramer returned to his time track with Kraftwagen and it’s for the most part a nice upgrade.
The time track has one big innovation: some spaces give you two or three actions, which just creates more tension in whether you jump far ahead or not. Sadly, it also has one setback: there’s no longer any reason not to take every action that you can. Still, on balance it’s an improvement.
I also find Kraftwagen’s backend more elegant than Glen More’s. Imagine that you took Martin Wallace’s Automobile (2009) but polished it down to its simplest, most elegant kernel. You’re still making specific sorts of cars and passing them out to buyers, but it’s all simple, not tough. This isn’t to deride Automobile in any way. It’s a nice game for folks who love the heavy economics, but if you’re looking for something lighter, but still concerned with the supply and demand of automobiles … this is it!
Tyrants of the Underdark (2016). Take Ascension (2010), but instead of using your Power currency to kill monsters in the center row, instead use it to advance troops through the Underdark. The combination works quite well. On the one hand, you’ve got Ascension’s proven mechanisms of suited deckbuilding drawn from a random allocation of cards. However, the area control of the Underdark is where the game really excels, because it’s a distinct and interesting subgame.
I also enjoy the D&D theming, though sometimes it goes too far, such as with the names of the drow cities which are unspeakable tongue twisters. The game’s other major problem is with its component design, especially the purple color scheme, which is purple and also quite purple. Despite some development and production problems, this game is worth playing.
Agricola Family Edition (2016). Apparently, it was the season of Agricola, because Lookout Spiele also produced a new Family Edition. It’s largely the original game, but with some simplifications, such as a tile-based system of fields and pastures, not unlike what was done in Caverna (2013). There’s also some simplification of the setup, with all the later actions coming out in the same order. However, the biggest change is that all the cards are removed, which means no more minor improvements or occupations.
As a more serious player, I like the Revised Edition much better, and would almost never play the Family Edition. I feel like the loss of the cards just takes away too much strategy. However, I could certainly see why this would be a strong option as a simpler game for more casual players. I’m less convinced it would be good for families (or really, for kids, as this box drops the minimum age from 12 to 8). The lack of hidden information probably means that children could be coached more easily, but this is still a tough, dense game.
Ascension X: War of the Shadows (2016). You have to give the Ascension folks points for making sure every supplement is quite different. They’ve actually ratcheted their variability up even more with their changeover to big-box-only releases. This new set has two big innovations; multi-cost cards and a light-dark dichotomy.
The multi-cost cards are entirely meh. You pay both Power and Runes and you get a card that’s extra good. Frankly, I think it allows for sloppier deck building, but I don’t have a big problem with it.
The light-dark stuff is the bigger expansion. Basically, every card is now marked light or dark; you constantly track what’s in the center row, and some cards that you play might have special powers depending on whether there’s more light or dark cards out. I thought this was going to be a nightmare to administer, but they cleverly adjusted their game board to help make the balance of cards more obvious. However, there’s just not enough ability to control the balance for this to be a really nice strategic element. Instead, it’s a bit of chaos and perhaps an infrequent bit of tactics. It’s not bad, but it’s also not as great as the Dreamscape of the previous set.
Tiny Epic Kingdoms (2014). Remember Eight-Minute Empire (2012), which implemented a Civilization-style game in eight minutes (per player). Tiny Epic Kingdoms is the same idea, but pushed over toward 4X gameplay. It’s mainly about gathering resources, using them to improve a few tracks and perhaps fighting a little bit with your opponents.
The gameplay is simple but works pretty well. It centers around a role-selection mechanism like Puerto Rico (2002), though it felt like there was a little less opportunity to hose people by taking roles at the wrong time (for them). It was a good enough engine for a short little game of this sort. The thing that I really liked about it was the variability between the fantasy-themed player-races, each of which had special powers that you picked up as you improved your magic. Overall, a nice bit of fun for 30-45 minutes.
Mystic Vale (2016). Take a deck building system and turn it into a game where you instead change the cards in your deck as you play. AEG calls it “card crafting” and makes it work using transparent cards, like Gloom (2005), but places the transparencies in card sleeves so that they’ll stay together when you shuffle up your deck. There’s also a bit of press-your-luck gameplay that feels like it was deprived directly from Flip City (2014), but works a bit better here.
The actual gameplay is a simple purchase system: collect enough mana and buy some cards, or collect sets of symbols and buy other cards. It actually may be a bit too simplistic, but it may also be necessary for the complexity that arises from crafting a card out of up to three parts.
Overall, innovative and … OK.
Costa Rica (2016). A simplistic game of press-your-luck and set collection. You explore the interior of Costa Rica to collect sets of animals, with different terrains being more or less dangerous. Then, you choose to either take your finds or to give the other players the opportunity.
The game’s biggest problem is that pressing your luck when exploring rarely seems to be advantageous, which is a bit of a problem for a press-your-luck game. (Pressing your luck in deciding whether to keep what you found fortunately works better.) In any case, this played pretty simply and the shared find mechanism kept everyone involved. I enjoyed it more on a second play, where players played much faster, letting the simple moves just whizzed buy. As a whole it’s probably better suited for families and other casual play.
One Night Revolution (2015). This is basically a remake of Ted Alspach’s excellent One Night Ultimate Werewolf (2014), using the theming of The Resistance (2009). It also embraces the idea that there are two sides in The Resistance and uses that to modify the way the special role cards work. Whereas Werewolf gives you a role that incorporates both your side and your power, Revolution separates those out, giving you a side and also a power that varies based on which side you’re on!
Though it’s an intriguing variation, it adds a lot of confusion to the game, and I didn’t find the extra levels of logic very fun (“If you’re an informant and a reassignor then you made someone else into an informant, but if you’re a rebel and a reassignor then you just swapped two peoples’ roles, but if you’re an informant, maybe you lied about being a reassignor …”). It still took us quite a while to figure out what had happened after we revealed everything! This might be a game for really advanced One Night Ultimate Werewolf players, and they’d probably figure out the several variations in time, but for a more casual player, it just left me spinning.
The Grizzled (2015). A fairly simplistic co-op game where your object is to not play cards in the same suits as the other players — except that you have very little choice about what cards you can play. Despite that, The Grizzled somehow manages to make it feel like your choices were actually meaningful and thoughtful.
Despite the fact that the game mainly plays you, this is a tense co-op, and probably a pretty good one for new players because it’s pretty easy to play as well.
Masterpiece Mystery!: Motive for Murder (2015). This game has a very interesting core mechanic. You lay a victim tile down in the middle of the table, then you connect suspects to it, building motive off of their relationships. The tiles are set up very cleverly, to allow for a multitude of relationships, and the color text is really delightful. A lot of semi-abstract games have color text that gets ignored, but this one has color text that you really want to read and enjoy, to see what relationships it reveals.
On the down side, the production is very muddy, with a cacophony of information and a bad choice of fonts. The gameplay also tends toward the random side, with card play causing big swings in gameplay that verges on take-that at the time. Still, the innovative mechanics and the mysterific theming both make for an interesting game.
Lumberjack (2002). Yep, this is a pretty ancient game, but I just played this early Moon and Weissblum design for the first time. It’s a pretty simplistic game where you take logs in various colors, either building or scoring when you do. Obviously the object is to score more efficiently than your fellows. It’s quite abstract in a way that euros aren’t so much any more and it’s wholly dependent on second guessing what all the other players will do.
The physicality of the game was a bit annoying, because you build the logs into a tower to limit what’s available on any turn. And, if you’re clumsy oafs you might just knock that over. And then maybe knock it over a second and third time in the same game.