New to Me: Winter 2017 — The Card Games

I was happy to see a number of actual 2017 games hit the table this winter. Quite a few of them were, surprisingly, card games instead of full board games. As usual this is a list of games that are new to me, and and as usual this listing ranks them by how much I personally like them, as a medium-weight eurogamer.

The Great

The Dresden Files Co-op Card Game (2017). I’ve actually been playing this one for over a year through numerous prototypes, the designer is a friend, and I love the Dresden Files novels, so caveat reader. But with all that said, I honestly love this game.

DFCO is a cooperative game where you have a case laid out for you as an array of problems: cases to solve, foes to fight, obstacles to overcome, and advantages to take. You have to figure out how to work through the cards that have been laid out, in order to defeat enough foes and solve enough cases to win the game. The co-op play comes through the facts that you’re jointly working on this puzzle and that you’re using a joint pool of resources to take your actions. This design is really unique among co-op games, and gives it much of its original feeling.

I also like the variability of the game: how the cards are arranged each game really changes how the game plays, and that’s multiplied by the fact that there’s a different deck of cards for every Dresden Files book (with the first several in the box, and then expansions providing two more books each). Then, that’s multiplied even more by the fact that you can play different characters in different games, each with notably different powers.

Finally, I also like the fact that DFCO plays in 30-45 minutes, which is quite short among substantive co-ops. I’ve sat down and played it twice in a row multiple times, which is a real rarity for me.

Jump Drive (2017). Take Race for the Galaxy (2007) and hone it down to its simplest core. Each turn, you pay cards to play developments and planets into a tableau and they generate victory points and cards for future rounds. Though rather simplistic, the game works thanks to the ability to build up good combos of cards — generating either victory points or military might as you build up your tableau. The amazing thing about all of this is that the game plays in just 15 minutes or so. It’s a microgame like Battlecruisers (2016) and other recent releases, but it uses the simplest mechanics from Race.

I do have some concerns about Jump Drive’s replayability, as the cards don’t have much complexity and that means the variability is ultimately limited. But, if Lehmann puts out a Jump Drive 2 next year, that concern will quickly be alleviated.

Was Race for the Galaxy too hard? Or do you want a similar filler? This is it!

The Very Good

Valley of the Kings (2014). An older deckbuilder from AEG that focuses on set collection. I feel like I’ve seen most of the game elements before, but they’re all innovated just enough to be interesting. The random cards available for purchase are cleverly arranged in a pyramid, which is well supported by the gameplay. The ability to filter cards out of your deck is an integral part of game scoring. And it’s there that the set collection really shines, because you’re trying to filter out your good-quality, expensive cards, because they end up being worth the most (if arranged into appropriate sets).

I think it’s well worth picking up this tiny deckbuilder as a good, short game. I’m not writing more about it now, only because I have a full deckbuilder article in the works.

Machi Koro: Bright Lights, Big City (2016). To start with, this is just a standalone variant of Machi Koro (2012). Nothing particularly new. But, the ways in which this variant have been constructed have all resulted in a superior game. First, the cards are a mix of the cards from Machi Koro and its two expansions, theoretically providing a “best of” set. Second, the cards are nicely sorted between 6- rolls, 7+ rolls, and purple cards (with new backs), to provide better balance in the game. Third, the new “22” landmark, the Moon Tower, helps to keep the game flowing by letting you roll three dice and pick the best two, which very nicely prevents end-game stalls.

These changes are all clearly for the good, resulting in a better base game. So if you don’t have Machi Koro, this is where I’d suggest starting. However, if you already own Machi Koro, the question of whether to buy this is harder. If you’ve just got the base game, it might be worth trading up. If you’ve got the base game and some expansions, you’re probably already committed to the old game.

Oh, and there’s new art too. It shows things at night instead of day. Meanwhile, the quality of the card stock is a little lower than I’d like. Still, a good revision of the original.

The Good

Noir Deductive Mystery Game: Black Box Edition (2015). Noir is a hard game to rate because it’s actually more of a game system than a game, with the Black Box Edition consisting of six different games. And it’s got components that are underwhelming, full of really minimalistic line art.

Of the games, several are fairly simplistic games of action and deduction. You have a grid of cards, one of which represents you. Certain actions can only be performed adjacent to your cards, but they imply where you are. You can move around cards on the grid to keep things hidden (and to move where you are). The mechanics here are clever, but not exceptional. We played Spy Tag, which uses this model, but there are also three cat-and-mouse two player games. I’d rate any of these as “Good”.

Two of the games break this mold. We played Heist, where a team of Thieves are trying to outsmart the last player by breaking into four safes before he captures them all. It brought the gameplay to a whole new level because now the thieves are trying to figure out who their fellows are and attempting to carefully coordinate their actions while not giving too much away to the police. This was really excellent play that was enthralling and worked well as a team. I thought Heist was definitely a “Very Good”. There’s also an FBI vs. Mafia game where the group is broken into two equal teams. I think it’d share some of the same good characteristics, but without quite as intense of cooperation.

Assault of the Giants (2017). A giant-sized war-game, full of huge miniatures. It’s actually got quite a few clever mechanics too, including a “deck management” system like Concordia (2013), where you play through your hand until you decide to reset it, a “quest” system that keeps the game flowing, and a lot of individual theming for the different players, each of whom takes on the role of a race of giants.

The game does run a bit too long as a whole, but the short card-based actions do a pretty good thing of keeping everyone involved, so it doesn’t drag. Overall, it’s a pretty good war-game, with lots of nice euro-mechanics, but nothing that knocks it out of the park. I think it’ll be well-received by folks who enjoy the D&D theming.

Kaiju Incorporated (2017). Another new design by my friend Eric B. Vogel and so another one that I’ve playtested for quite a while — since it was a game about rebuilding San Francisco. It’s basically a logistical game of building up funds from buildings in order to purchase buildings. Think of it as Machi Koro (2012) without dice, but with giant monsters.

The core of the game is a decision on which card to draft, then whether to purchase it or discard it to generate income from your existing buildings. That income is the heart of the game’s other dilemma, because it gives you not only cash, but also Eureka points and Kaiju points. Eureka points can give you victory points … but Kaiju points put you closer to an attack by the next awful monster.

The game’s a bit slow for me personally. I don’t like being rewarded for my patience, because I don’t have much, and you need to have lots of it, as you spend turns quietly generating money. (Ironically, this is pretty similar to the Fate Point system in DFCO, but I find it much more interesting there, because it’s part of a vital group dynamic.) In any case, if you don’t mind a bit of patience play, and especially if you love kaiju films, this is a fun release.

The OK

Fabled Fruit (2016). First up, this is essentially a worker-placement set-collection game. You move your token between different spaces each turn to take their actions — or alternatively to buy the cards if you’ve collected just the right fruit formula. That’s a neat little twist on set-collection and worker-placement alike, that keeps things simple, but offers some nice depth.

Second, it’s a Legacy (“Fable”) game, where the gameplay changes over time, and I have to say that I find this mechanic pretty shallow. As you buy cards, they become unavailable for future games, and instead new cards come out. Meanwhile, a very simplistic score system adds up points across multiple plays. Frankly, that’s not Legacy to me. It’s just playing a game with infinite rounds, one at a time. And you have a whole big box of cards that you’re mostly not using.

I suppose that if you had a regular group who liked to play a short filler at the start or end of the game night, this might allow for some fun variety over time. But it’s really shallow compared to the true Legacy games.

Space Station (2013). An older Chinese game. It’s an abstract: you lay out space stations in three sizes. Smaller ones in combination let you jump up to bigger ones, and when you start touching your opponent’s ships, you can take them over. Call this one Blokus (2000), but with the ability to take over pieces.

I’m not a big fan of abstracts, but this one almost won me over anyway. A lot of that is the totally open placement of the pieces. There’s no grid, just a big circle limiting your outermost expansion, and that type of freedom really opens up a game. As an abstract, it’s also pretty clever, but it’s success will probably depend on what you think of the category.

Saboteur: The Duel (2014). So how do you turn a team-based hidden-roles game where you’re trying to ensure the success of a team into a two-player race for the gold? Saboteur: The Duel contains all of the path building of the original, but it introduces some new tactics with doors that can keep your opponent out of your paths and ladders which can get you in. The result is a fair-enough game of tactical play, but it doesn’t have the surprise of the original. I suspect that conversion was just too daunting for the result to be great, but if you really love the original, this might be a nice substitute when you don’t have enough players.

The Meh

Qwixx (2012). Another older game. This one is a dice-rolling game. You roll a handful of multi-colored dice, everyone gets to make use of the white dice, then you get to make your own combo of a white die and something else. When you do, you fill in a number on a colored track that goes from 2-12 or from 12-2.

The mechanic is a clever variation of the more formulaic play of many dice games, but the one game I played had a very troublesome end-game, where everyone was waiting around for unlikely “2”s or “12”s or getting dinged if they didn’t show up. I’ve been told this usually doesn’t happen, but as the game dragged on and on, it still made me leery of repeating the experience. (If that was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, then this is actually a Good game, but if it happens every few games, then it’s borderline broken.)

3 thoughts on “New to Me: Winter 2017 — The Card Games

  1. I’ve been reading about Dresden Files for a while now, but your article is the only one that’s made me consider taking a chance on it. Everything you mentioned below “very good” I’ve never heard of and probably won’t be searching for. But when a “best of” list is made and I can find one game on there that catches my eye I appreciate that. Thanks.

    • My “great” games typically match those I’d eagerly buy (which reminds me to buy Jump Drive!), and the “very good” are those that I’d eagerly play and consider buying. So, I definitely agree (though as I said, I’m prejudiced).

      I played a three-hand game of “Fool Moon” last night, the second book. We played very strongly and were sure of victory coming into the final turn, but we still only managed a one-point win. A slightly better roll-out at the end would have given us two, a rarity!

  2. In Qwixx, if a player gets their fourth “ding” the game ends. I appreciate this feature because it keeps the endgame from stalling. Either someone gets that lucky 2 or 12 or the game ends on penalties.

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