New to Me: Spring 2017 — So Much Co-op!

I’ve co-authored a pretty extensive book on the design of cooperative games. (It’s currently seeking a publisher.) As a result, I’m usually quick to suggest a new co-op game hit the table … and a lot of them did this Spring. Sadly, I thought most of them were bad!

in any case, this is my listing of new-to-me games played this Spring. As usual, they’re evaluated by my personal likes, not their intrinsic quality. 

The Very Good

Kingdomino (2016). This Bruno Cathala game is a short and simple filler. You essentially draft domino-tiles, with your draft order based on the quality of your last tile: the better the tile you pick, the later you’ll go in the next draft!

The object is to build your tiles (which depict terrains and victory point multipliers for those terrains) into huge groups to score maximal points.

There’s not a lot of complexity here: you take a tile, your place a tile. Nonetheless, the game is a lot of fun and places very nicely fast. This may be because I always like creative games of this sort. However, there’s also just enough choice to keep the game interesting. It’s a fine little filler. (In fact, it almost made my great listing.)

Master of Orion: The Board Game (2016). This is a Card Game really, not a Board Game. And to be honest, it’s not very original. You use cards to generate resources, then you use those resources to build cards. There’s a little more going on than that, as you can attack other players, you can contract an ambassador, and you can trade your resources. But the heart of the gameplay is pretty staid resource and card management.

So, why does Master of Orion: The Card Game rate near the top of Very Good? It’s got great, colorful theming. The play is very tight with you never having enough of any resource you want. It offers the opportunity to build engines and walk down different paths of development. It plays quickly. And that’s all packed into a short, simple game.

My first game unfortunately had an anticlimactic end when one of the alternate endgame conditions suddenly got triggered. I’m hopeful that’s not a common problem, but if players were watching for it more, it would be less problematic.

The Captain is Dead (2017) — Co-op #1. This is a new AEG version of a game that was previously self-published through The Game Crafter by one of the co-founders of The Game Crafter. It’s an action-point-based science-fiction co-op game that feels like a lot of others in the genre. Bad things happen to your ship, and you try to fix them using limited resources, while at the same time working to fix your Jump Drive, which will let you win the game. Despite that sameness, it’s my one good co-op from the quarter.

Where the game really excels is in its colors and theming. The actions are all beautifully themed and there are almost twenty different roles, each of which has powers that feel appropriate. As a light but evocative co-op, this is pretty terrific … but don’t expect it to add a lot to the field. (Oh, and the co-op works fine, with lots of tactical cooperation balanced by lots of personal agency.)

Near & Far (2017). This adventure game has a nice bipartite play structure: you either lounge about town collecting a variety of resources or else you go out adventuring across the wastes. The core mechanics are very tight, which is of course what you want. You never have enough coins or gems or food or hearts or movement, and so you’re always struggling to figure out how to get everything simultaneously. Yay.

However, the real strength of the game is an its evocative theming and setting, something that the designer has apparently developed across several games. You get fun characters and objects, but the best theming is in the “quests”, which you read aloud from a book, then determine which skill roles to make. The write-ups are short and quite often funny. They’re really quite delightful.

I also loved the “map”, which may be the coolest game board concept I’ve ever seen. The maps all come in a book, and you just flip open the book to the map you want to play, and away you go. Because they are all in a book, there are a lot of maps.

There’s apparently also a “campaign” version of the game, which allows you to give characters keyword attributes and presumably advance through all the maps. I suspect that would be a lot of fun for long-term play.

Ascension: Gift of the Elements (2017). Yep, yet another Ascension set. In many ways, it’s much less ambitious than recent sets, like Dreamscape (2015), which introduced a whole new deck of cards, and War of Shadows (2016), which gave cards dark and night values. The mechanical innovation of Gift of the Elements is quite simplistic in comparison: there’s more ability to trash cards, which goes hand-in-hand with the fact that you can dump worthless monsters into peoples’ decks.

But with that said, Gift of the Elements feels like a nice back-to-the-basics version of Ascension. The cards feel fairly classic, but with enough variety to be interesting. It even revisits two of Ascension’s more innovation expansions: events and transformations. And they work together: the events can be transformed, which is pretty cool.

So, though not earth-shattering, this is a very solid new set.

The Good

Pergamon (2011). An older-but-goodie game of set collection that has several interesting mechanisms. The goal is to collect sets of artifacts, but they’re not standard sets: they’re made up of tiles, each of which shows half of two artifacts. You try to put together a string of matching artifacts to put on a show, but it’s made more difficult by the differing quality of artifacts, the upcoming bonuses, and of course the desires of the other players.

The rest of the game is simple economics: you have to earn money to buy the tiles. This is done by an interesting mechanic where a slightly unknown amount of money is laid out each round, and then each player chooses a position on a track that trades off selection order, selection variety, and money. There’s a bit of press-your-luck on both sides as you’re betting on what other players might take on one side and how much money there might really be on the other.

Overall, Pergamon is strong in large part for how innovative it feels. This isn’t just a retread of old euro-mechanics, but instead a set-collection and economics game that is pretty different from what’s in your collection. On the other hand, it also shows its age: this is a lot more abstract than most modern euros.

Troyes (2010). Another game that I’m way behind playing. This is a dice-based resource-management game. You roll dice, and then you use them to build stuff, to take control of various spaces, and to take actions. The dice-rolling and usage is reminiscent of The Castles of Burgundy (2011), actually out a year later: you get to take some actions specifically on the dice you roll, though other actions require you to total good sums.

The thing that impresses me the most about Troyes is its excellent dice control: you get to manage your luck by paying the coin resource to buy dice from other players or the influence resource to change your own die rolls. You can further control dice rolls with certain actions.

The rest of the game is a little more mundane (and a little too mathematical), but this is still a nice game that will probably stay in my collection as a complement to Tournay (2011).

Orléans: Invasion! (2015) — Prosperity Variant. The core play of Orleans: Invasion! is the eponymous co-op variant, and I think it’s well-worth buying this expansion for Orléans (2014) for that alone. But the game also has two other major variants and some solo play. Prosperity is the other multiplayer variant; it slightly changes the play of the original competitive game.

And it’s basically OK. It offers a major new action, the Carpenter, which also provides a major new way to earn points. I think that the original Orléans suffers a little bit from players needing to do a bit of everything. So, it was nice to have a new path-to-victory, which will let players spread out a bit more. But, I could do with it or without it. I’d be more likely to play with it with a regular group and less likely with new players.

Saga of the Northmen (2016). A majority-control game in a tiny little box. The gameplay is pretty simple: you play cards, you place cubes in the associated regions, and you draw cards. The twist is that there are actually two levels of majority control. If you win a Norsemen region, then you can send those cubes on to neutral regions and fight for the plunder there. And it’s all all-or-nothing, which really feels like the Northman way! Things are many even more tense by trade route cards which encourage you to take over certain Norsemen regions and neutral regions simultaneously. All-in-all, there were a lot of levels of play in what I thought was going to be a short, simplistic game. Still, it’s sort of abstract and old-school too.

Portal of Heroes (2015, 2017). This card game is an AMIGO release, just rereleased in the United States by Mayfair. It’s a pretty simple set-collection game. You acquire fairy tale and fantasy heroes, then you collect numbered cards needed to “activate” them. Most of the characters give you victory points when activated, and many give you special powers as well, adding a bit of an engine-building aspect to the game.

Overall, this is a simple and simplistic game, but the set collection is tense and the special powers are funny. It’s a nice filler, and probably one that works better with fewer players (which reduces the chaos of gameplay).

Phalanxx (2016).  Bernd Eisenstein has a gift for designing games that are innovative and nonintuitive in the best possible ways. That’s produced some very interesting games, some weirdly uncomfortable games, and some that just don’t work. Phalanxx falls somewhere in between, but trending toward good not bad.

It’s a game that’s hard to explain. You have cards, which you can play by meeting a variety of conditions. The requirement system is unique and my favorite part of the game. You also have dice, and they’re used for a variety of purposes. They can benefit you by giving you starting money and meeting card requirements, but they can also penalize you by making it harder to take actions on your turn. On your turn, you take one of four actions. If you rolled too low, then you engage in dice manipulation, while if you roll higher you get to add troops to the board and play cards.

As a whole, Phalanxx feels like a challenging (and interesting!) tactical puzzle. You’re constantly working to manipulate your dice and resources so that you can play cards. That works very well. But the game also has several issues. The board combat in particular is troublesome: if the leaders pounce on the losers, the poor get poorer, while if they instead fight their competitive opponents then they set up a weird back and forth where no one wins.

I think there are a few different great ideas in this game, but I’d need to play it more to be convinced they really gelled.

The OK

The Colonists (2016). This is a bulky and complex resource-management game. It doesn’t really do a lot new for the resource-management sphere: you move a pawn around to select actions, generally gathering resources and using them build buildings, create improvements, and engage in diplomacy. There’s some engine development and some clever tactics.

Despite that basic (but large and complex) resource-management structure, The Colonists does stand out in another way: scope. The game can be played over up to four eras, with new technologies and more complex rules appearing as the game goes on. This is quite exciting: you can really develop both your little town and the overall world over the course of an extended period of play. I love the creativity and the evolutionary growth.

The catch is that “extended period of play”. The game box says 30-240 minutes. I think it’s more like 1-8 hours, with one hour being a two-player game spanning one era and eight hours being a four-player game spanning four eras. If I could sit this in a corner and play out an era with my friends every few nights, this would be a pretty amazing game. But I can’t see playing it for the full length in one sitting, and I think the one-era play is somewhat less satisfying. So, it’s probably got a somewhat limited audience, but if you’re that audience, it’ll be the best game ever.

Broom Service: The Card Game (2016). As ridiculous as it sounds, this is the third variant of the Witch’s Brew (2008) system: a card game variant of the board game variant of the original card game. It uses the same classic system of playing cards bravely or cowardly, but this time around it’s a set-collection game. You’re trying to build large sets of specific colors and/or sets that match special goal cards. There’s nothing wrong with this game, but it’s simplistic without much new or interesting in it either.

Personally, I rate the three Witch’s Brews games in order by their box size: this new card game is the least, while the board game Broom Service (2015) is the best.

Cosmic Kaboom (2016). This is a pretty basic flicking game. You flick discs around to hit planets and earn cubes. When you have enough you earn a bit cardboard ka-boom that you flip to destroy planets. After you’ve destroyed one or more planets, you’re back to earning cubes again. The player who destroys the best planets, while not having his own destroyed, wins.

There’s not a lot of depth here, but as with any good flicking game, it’s a lot of fun. You can have bad flicks, good flicks, or even run the table. And this sort of excitement is usually what makes a flicking game worth playing.

The Meh

Masmorra: Dungeons of Arcadia (2017) — Alliance Rules, Co-op #2. This is a very well-produced adventure game that is otherwise quite simplistic. It comes in competitive or co-op variants, although the co-op seems mainly like an afterthought. Which is a pity, because that’s what I played.

Each character has very nicely detailed characters with fun special powers and there’s also a good dice-rolling system which determines if you can move, attack, defend, or magic. (It’s what I call an icon-based action-point system.) You explore a dungeon which is revealed over the course of the game. There’s a lot of evocative stuff here. Yet somehow it manages to fall pretty flat.

I think that’s because you get to the actual gameplay and it’s quite simplistic. You explore largely identical rooms. Monsters appear. You fight them. You get experience and level up. Then next turn you do more of the same. The leveling up and expansion of your character is cool because it introduce new die-rolling opportunities, but the rest of the game feels like a grind. It’s way too long with way too little happening. I suspect the competitive rules will be somewhat more fun than the cooperative rules, but the cooperative rules just didn’t excite.

Attack on Titan (2017) — Co-op #3. The first of two co-op games that my groups refused to finish because it just dragged on and on. This one is a pretty simple tactical combat game that has pretty cool tactics as you leap up through the air to reach the ever-greater heights needed to kill the giant you’re fighting. It’s all based on rolling dice and getting various icons which enable different actions. (Yep, that’s another icon-based action-point system.) It’s got some pretty good cooperative play too, as you need to coordinate where characters are, what dice results everyone receives, and what the group “tactic” is (which allows for a super-special result if people are positioned just right).

The problem is, that at least for the Destructive Titan we were fighting against, you can tread water turn after turn after turn. The players damage the titan; he heals it all. The players get into perfect position to kill the titan; he knocks them all down. You can play really defensively, which just makes the treading water worse. This type of never-ending play is a particularly bad problem for a co-op, because it’s not pushing the players toward loss, but they’re not moving toward victory either.  Different titans have different abilities, and it appears that some of the others are more likely to move the game along, but this guy was borderline broken, at least for the style of play of the folks at the table.

We gave up the game about an hour in. It’s likely the titan would have eventually triumphed, maybe on the next turn, maybe in 30-60 minutes more.

One other co-op problem: the titan (evil overlord) player has limited choices, and so probably won’t have as much fun as everyone else.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer: The Board Game (2016) — Co-op #4. The second Buffy game with this same name. The difference is that 16 years later, cooperative games have become very popular, so this one is a co-op. Sadly, it’s not a good one.

On the plus side, Buffy nicely abstracts down its system, providing for some pretty simple play. You slay vamps and demons to protect “townies”, you collect a couple of cards to kill a monster of the week. You lather, you rinse, you repeat.

The fatal flaw of the game, and it really is pretty fatal, isn’t even its cooperation: it’s the “luck” system. As I’ve said before, there’s nothing long with luck if it’s controlled. But, it’s not controlled here. Whenever you fight a monster of the week or a big bad, you have a 2-in-3 chance of winning, determined by the totally random draw of a card. There’s no way to increase your odds, no way to reroll, no way to spend extra resources. It’s just a flip of a (three-sided) coin. You might as well be playing Candyland for the amount of control the players have in these crucial confrontations.

Yes, my impression of this game is affected by our very bad luck. But we were starting to get disgruntled pretty early on, after the third time we failed to kill the monster of the week. And the odds of that are just 1/3*1/3*1/3 or 1/27, which is about 4%. Having every 25th game be that initially frustrating is a bad design (and we only got more frustrated over time). We finally gave up on this 40-60 minute game after more than two hours of play had gotten us to the point where we’d be halfway done with a good card draw. Then we gave up. (Afterward, we learned that the card draw would have failed, meaning that we really did still have two-thirds of he game to go, though we probably would have lost before the six or seven hour mark that we were trending toward.)

There’s also a lack of tension and a lack of overwhelming decay; as in Attack on Titan, this can keep you treading water. There was also a simplicity of play that often left us feeling that we had no particularly good actions. Oh, and the rule book was not good.

It is great to see so many co-op games coming out, but bad to see so many poor designs.

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2 thoughts on “New to Me: Spring 2017 — So Much Co-op!

  1. I have, for years, really appreciated this column and your work in the gaming space. Thanks for all you do – sharing this material. We don’t always agree (Buffy I like as a gateway game, and its luck mitigation comes from sending mutliple characters in with the same solutions, i.e. redundancy. Not a great mechanic, but… it’s a light game.) but I often find triggers in this blog that make games I would normally ignore interesting (Near and Far sounds cool, and I have already walked by that game at least six times on the shelf without any interest at all… now I may be picking it up.)

    Anyway, between this and Designers and Dragons – your contributions to the industry are secure. And, as an owner of the entire area line, I love that series of columns, too. Thanks.

    • Thanks much for all the kind words, Christopher! (I definitely walked by Near and Far too. There’s something about its box that’s just very plain. It might be the monochrome palette.)

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