Smash-Up: Zombie Robots VS Dinosaur Ninjas?!

Smash-Up: Zombie Robots VS Dinosaur Ninjas?!

Smash-Up is a thematically silly game with surprisingly complex mechanics. The base game has eight factions–pirates, ninjas, dinosaurs, robots, aliens, wizards, tricksters, and zombies–which each have their own deck. Each player picks two factions and shuffles them into a single deck, which forms their deck for the game. Decks are made up of two types of cards, minions and actions; each player may play up to one of each on their turn.

Smash Up; The Pirate Ninjas battle the Elder Thing Cultists and Cat Faeries
The Pirate Ninjas battle the Elder Thing Cultists and the Cat Faeries.

The goal of the game is to get to fifteen points. Points are obtained by “breaking” bases, which is done by playing minions whose power accumulates to the number on a given base, its break point.  The Break Point is met to exceeded by all minions at that base, regardless of controller, and when a base breaks and scores points are awarded to the first, second, and third most power at the base.  Bases may also have abilities, some of which are always on or waiting for something to happen, while others fire off only at scoring.

For as simple as the game is, with its limited actions and low randomness (at least in some aspects), it ends up leading to a great deal of planning and coordination. The choice of base to prioritize depends on your hand, the state of the game board, and the strengths and weaknesses of the factions you’re playing. Almost every minion has some sort of ability that has to be taken into account, and the actions can slightly tilt or even majorly alter the course of the game.

Of course, one can’t ignore the theme, and it is definitely an entertaining theme. It’s basically… everything.  The base set has Pirates, Ninjas, Zombies, Robots, Wizards, Tricksters (leprechauns and such faerie creatures, not to be confused with the fairy faction from one of the expansions), Aliens, and Dinosaurs.  We have two of the many expansions at the moment, one of which adds four Cthulhu-themed factions and the other which introduces four faction around a “Pretty” theme (Ponies, Cats, Princesses, and Fairies).  There are many others, and they’re still coming out.  In that way the theme is essentially “Whatever you find cool”, from popular media to internet memes.  It’s light-hearted fun, which is nice sometimes.

At first glance, this looks like it should be a simple game–only two types of cards, only one of each card per turn, a very straightforward scoring system–but when you actually sit down at the table, you find a great deal of hidden complexity. Gambling and bluffing becomes part of the game, due to trying to guess whether other players can finish bases and whether they want to do so. Almost all of the creatures have an effect when you play them and lining up the creature effects with the ones in your hand can end up a rewarding challenge.

Now, that isn’t to say that randomness doesn’t play a role; there’s luck of the draw, of course, but as with many games understanding how to engine build can mitigate it.  This means that not all pairs of decks are created equal, as some will have different synergies and native strategies.  The Wizards, for instance, provide a lot of extra draws and extra plays, particularly Action plays.  The robots have the technology to allow you to play more minions, especially weak ones.  Robot wizards, therefore, tend to chain a lot of cards together.  By contrast, Ninjas harm their enemies and appear suddenly while pirates sail around from base to base, so Ninja Pirates won’t be playing as many cards, and will have to rely on tactical motion to pick up points as cheaply as possible, likely with the element of surprise.  While many strategies are comparable as well as different, there are a few that are stronger or weaker than others.  For instance, Cat Fairies and Zombie Robots have both proved to be devastatingly powerful.  Not strictly unbeatable, but maybe not the combos you should let the more experienced players at the table have.  That said, Smash Up is a brilliant sort of ‘filler’ game with more meat and strategic depth to it than there appears to be, and that in a distinct good way.  We’re not done expanding it, because every new faction increases the potential combinations in an amazing way: With the base game, you could reasonably play every pair together in not too long.  With double the decks, though, it takes way more than double the plays to see all the pairs in action, which allows no two games to be the same.

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Seasons: Stop Stealing My Crystals!

Seasons: Stop Stealing My Crystals!

Seasons is a light-hearted game that manages the difficult balance of having comparatively straightforward gameplay while still maintaining a depth and complexity of strategy.

Seasons

You win Seasons by accumulating the most crystals (technically Prestige points, but the Crystal resource converts to these at 1:1); it’s the kind of points scoring system where the winner will almost always have well over a hundred points. Crystals can be gained by rolling the dice (explained later), but the primary source is through “power cards” that make up the majority of the gameplay.

Power cards are, for the most part, played by paying a cost in energy tokens. Energy tokens come in the four classical elements: air, earth, fire, water. A power card will have listed its cost in energy tokens (and/or crystals—yes, you can have to sacrifice points to hope to gain more points later) which must be discarded to play that card, and you can only hold up to seven energy tokens. Energy tokens are gained through rolling the dice. Each season will have different access to the elements; for example, in Winter, the dice will commonly give Water and/or Air, uncommonly give Fire, and never give Earth.  There are always two common elements (one of which was common last season and the other which was inaccessible last season), one uncommon, and one inaccessible. This different availability has a second function: transmuting. Transmuting an energy token means discarding it to gain crystals, and the value gained from transmuting changes based on the season. A common element for that season will give one crystal per token, an uncommon will give two, and an inaccessible will give three.

Each season has a different set of dice; each die has a different set of faces, and the rewards can be some combination of +1 to summoning gauge, one to two energy tokens, one to six crystals, the ability to transmute energy tokens that turn, and drawing an extra power card. A game uses dice of each color equal to players plus one, and the table will essentially run a secondary mini-draft every round; the first player rolls and picks one die, then the next rolls the remainder and chooses one. The last player will choose one of two and the last one will determine how many months forward the game will go; each face has a number of dots between one and three, and the dots on the face of the non-chosen die will be the number of months that pass. There are three months to a season, so the game can be as short as twelve rounds or as long as thirty-six (mathematically averaging around twenty-four).

The first part of Seasons, the shortest part that determines the flow of the rest of the game, is a draft. For those unfamiliar, drafting is a process where a player selects one card from a set and passes the rest on; the cards circle around, with each player taking one at a time, until they’re all claimed. In Seasons, each player starts with nine cards and therefore ends with nine cards, but the draft lets you shape an overall strategy. After the draft, you have an additional choice to make. The game is divided into three “years” of four “seasons” each. Three of your cards will make up your starting hand, three will be reserved for the start of the second year, and three won’t be accessible until the start of the third year. It’s important to look at both the effects of the cards and their cost when deciding what cards to set aside for which year; for example, fire is only really accessible in the second half of the year, so if you have more than three good early-game cards it might be best to push any fire-heavy ones into the year 2 stack. It’s also important to note that you will be penalized for any power cards you don’t play, so you have to plan your strategy around playing out everything in your hand. Ideally, with the draft mechanic, you should have something of a strategy going into the main game, but again because of the draft, not every card will contribute well.

Despite the complex-sounding setup, the gameplay is quite simple. In a round, each player rolls the dice as described above. Starting with the first player (which rotates every round), each player performs the actions on their die, plays cards if they can afford it and want to, possibly uses the activatable abilities of their cards if any have them (most don’t), and then ends their turn. There are few enough options that turns move quickly enough that it can be difficult to remember who’s first player, which means the players stay engaged and no one gets bored. At the same time, the necessity of playing for both the short and long game, combined with there still being multiple decisions to make each turn, means that

A word of caution deserves to be mentioned about the cards. The beginner’s deck (using about half the available cards) follows the overall pattern described above, but the limited number of cards means that it’s easy to anticipate being able to get specific ones and that strategies can become repetitive. However, adding in the rest of the cards for the ‘advanced’ deck creates its own problems. A couple of the cards in the beginner deck have negative effects for other players, but there are enough additional ones—and nastier ones—in the advanced deck that, with the wrong deal, the game can end up less about pushing forward and more about dragging your opponents back. Because of these cards, and the fact that all cards in the opening deal end up having to be played, it’s best to consider carefully whether you want to upgrade. Still, many of the ‘advanced’ cards have more interesting effects and the game can feel more engaging with the increased competitiveness.

Final Thoughts:  This is a very good game.  It’s one of our top choices to seek out an expansion for, though, because the more cards that are available the more the game becomes one of adaptation to the deal rather than card counting and math regarding the deck.  The “advanced” cards go a long way to helping this but are unfortunately dense with effects that… well if this were Magic: the Gathering they’d be called “Stax” cards but here I guess you’d call them “Negative sum” cards in that they cause more damage to the progress of others than they help their owner.  I think the most problematic example is the Arcano-Leech, which, should it arrive too early, can lock players out of laying down any power cards for turns.  It’s not a bad card to have in the game, it’s just irritating when two of them are the first two cards played.

The card drafting followed by dice drafting is a very interesting system, in that there are still random elements (especially the dice rolling) but the player is given agency at every step along the way.  Combined with many cards that help to reduce randomness without eliminating it, I feel like that this is a model (though not necessarily a mechanic) that more games could adopt.

Settlers of Catan: Negotiation, Dice, and Problems with a Classic

Settlers of Catan: Negotiation, Dice, and Problems with a Classic

For many, Settlers of Catan is the first modern-style board game that they play.  As a gateway to the hobby, it’s done a world of good rehabilitating folks who think board games began and ended with the Milton Bradley and Parker Bros classics that most households and child-care facilities probably had a copy of somewhere but don’t hold up to anything resembling standards.

The basic gameplay of Settlers is centered around the five resources: wood, clay, sheep, wheat, and stone. Players trade in specific sets of these cards to build roads, build towns, upgrade towns to cities, and buy special cards that can earn them extra victory points. Towns are one point, cities two points, and victory is achieved at ten points.

Catan
This layout is White’s to lose, and White will lose it if no one rolls a six.

The acquisition of the resources is the main problem with the game (from our point of view). Firstly, the layout of the board is random. There are a specific number of tiles of each resource, but their relation to each other is randomized and it matters a great deal what tiles are adjacent to each other; towns are placed at vertices (adjacent to three tiles, since Settlers uses hexagonal tiles) and give resources based on all tiles at that vertex. Second, each tile has a number from 2 to 12 assigned to it, and these numbers are assigned at random. Tiles only give resources when a player rolls that number (though it doesn’t matter who rolled the number, only that the number was rolled) so if a board has one stone tile with 2 and the other 11, it’s going to be very hard to acquire stone that game. Because of these three levels of randomness, it’s difficult to maintain any given strategy; it doesn’t matter how good your plan is if the dice never give you the resources you need.  You can reduce some of the randomness in setup by using one of the “standard” deals from the rulebook, but doing that also removes a level of tactical decision-making, so it really ends up being a wash for the game.

Now, don’t get us wrong — randomness in games can be a good thing.  Cards, dice, and other mechanisms for creating outcomes over which the player doesn’t have 100% control add spice to a lot of titles.  However, there is an issue with too much random and the wrong kind of random.  Good randomness is typically iterative and represents a forking decision point — you have three paths in front of you, but Monty Hall barricades one of them with the dice leaving you to pick between the remaining two.  The randomness in Catan is more sequential, and rather than pushing what directions you can go all too often functions as a red light/green light for going anywhere at all.

Which brings us to the probably most polarizing aspect of Settlers of Catan: the negotiation.  Settlers of Catan is a game in which you are largely free to trade your resources with other players, and will have to do so to succeed.  Few indeed are the burgeoning empires with all the income they’ll require to hit 10 points.  However, this runs into a massive roadblock with one fairly simple fact of life in Catan: in the end, there can only be one winner.  This results in an endgame featuring a common problem we’ll call the Whack-a-Mole Effect.  Essentially, the Whack-a-Mole effect occurs when the set of all other players seeks to harm, hamper, or refuse to cooperate with a “winning” player because, quite simply, said player winning would make them lose.  It truly becomes Whack-a-Mole when multiple victory threats are established, and table politics break down into a sequence of attempting to spite whoever is up right now (like trying to hit whatever mole has reared its head in a game of Whack-a-Mole).  The Whack-a-Mole effect can be seen in any competitive game with negotiation or direct player interaction, and so is often a component of good games, but certain games provoke it more and in more detrimental forms than others.

Now, because the worst things you can typically do to your fellow players in a game of Settlers of Catan are establishing trade embargos and placing the Robber, it’s not the worst example of the Whack-a-Mole effect in gaming.  Games like Munchkin and Cosmic Encounter, where the active player’s position can actually be damaged by the behavior of non-active players, lay it on a little heavier.  However, Catan, while not nearly as much the subject of our ire as either of those other games, shares one problematic trait with them: thanks to the Whack-a-Mole Effect, the “Endgame” takes far more real time and engenders more hostility than it probably should.

Part of it is that, in our experience, the whack-a-mole style vendettas start earlier in Catan.  A few good rolls, or a setup that extends your road network quickly, and suddenly you are public enemy #1, at least until something goes well for the next mole in question.  Threat reassessment can be a fairly arbitrary occurrence so if you happen to be the mole to be whacked due to an ephemeral roll of the dice, the loss of the ability to trade will often linger and outweigh the boon you received.

And really, with the setup of Settlers of Catan, there wasn’t all that much the designers could do to mitigate this.  Games can avoid excessive Whack-a-Mole, even in an outright combat-positive game, by including mechanics that players behind can use to rubber band (lowering variance and making most players feel like they’re still ‘in it’ with their own strategy), by obfuscating proximity to victory or strength of board position at least somewhat (which Catan attempts with the VP-granting Development cards, though they’re rarely sufficient given, as mentioned, that Catan enters the “Whack-a-Mole” phase somewhat early), by providing players with a degree of self-sufficiency so a player who has pulled significantly far ahead can actually end the mostly ‘decided’ game barring a major upset (very hard to get in Catan, thanks to the randomness as well as the setup), by having a main or alternative endgame condition that is inevitable within reasonable game time (so you can’t just keep whacking moles forever), or by any number of other mechanisms or combinations of mechanisms.

Catan, however, wears proudly the consequences of its nature as a Negotiation-heavy game.  It’s possible that for some groups, this could even be a positive feature, those less inclined to look solely for their path to victory and more interested in wheeling, dealing, and taking whatever route profitable trades opens to them could have a better time with it, but I feel like those same people would want to have more assurances of their investments paying off than Catan’s 2d6 resource generation permits.  But for us?  The negotiation aspect tends to fall flat because it’s too core to the game without actually being implemented in an interesting, core fashion.

Yet after all this, is Settlers of Catan a bad game?  Well, no.  Not really.  As a gateway game, it serves its purpose.  It’s easily understood and even potentially won by people who aren’t used to modern board games.  It’s simple, without being problematically simple or simplistic, and it can provide a satisfying experience as you spread your towns and grow them up to cities across the board.  It just has some faults we find with it that mean that while we will play Settlers of Catan if it’s requested, we won’t generally be eager to bring it to the table ourselves anymore.

Yggdrasil: Fighting Back Ragnarok

Yggdrasil: Fighting Back Ragnarok

This game has the frustrating distinction of being difficult to acquire. Apparently, while the first edition had a tiny print run, the second edition had a print run that had some sort of distribution deal fall through, meaning not a lot of copies ever made it into the hands of gamers.  We don’t know the specifics of this, but what we do know is this:

XKCD Google Search
Source: https://xkcd.com/1334/

 

It took until the 11th page of Google search results to find a copy of the 2nd edition of Yggdrasil for sale, in about two hours of checking dead links and online storefronts with the item listed but a stock of 0.  In the end it came from a game store (or possibly board game cafe) in Canada liquidating extra stock.  Maybe the web has organized this better since or my Google-fu was weak.  As of this writing, BoardGameGeek doesn’t know of any copies up for sale in North America and only two in Europe with the price amped up to 150 euros.  So if there’s a point where this review makes you want to go out and find this game… write in to Ludonaute asking about any plans for a reprint, because right now you’ll sooner find a NM/M Beta Black Lotus, an IBM 5100, the secret ingredient of the secret ingredient soup, or a fist full of hens’ teeth gathered under a blue moon than a copy of Yggdrasil.

With that said, it’s on our top favorite games, so if you do find a chance to play it somewhere (or should the stars align and you actually find a copy for sale), seriously consider it. Part of it is the sheer beauty of the visuals. The board, cards, and rulebook all have very high-quality art, and it’s just enjoyable to look at (which is good, because you’ll probably be there for a while). It’s a cooperative game, which raises it several ranks due to Steffanie favoring it, but it’s a much-remembered and much-enjoyed game even beyond the two of us.

Yggdrasil

In this game, you are playing as the Norse gods at Ragnarok, trying to hold back the evils threatening to overwhelm your world. The victory/loss of the game centers around the six “enemies”: Loki, Hel, Surt, Fenrir, Nidhogg, and Jormungandr. The game board has nine “worlds” (expanded on later) and the enemies are in Asgard. Asgard is divided into four zones, each with two spaces. If five enemies get into the second zone, three into the third, or one into the fourth, the players lose. Enemies move based on the enemy deck (which has a set number of each enemy’s card in it); the enemy cards will also cause the enemies to do something bad to the board or players, often worse if the enemy has progressed to a later zone.  Spending one of your own actions in Asgard lets you commit tokens and roll the game’s custom die (with faces 0-0-1-1-2-3) to attempt to defeat one of the enemies. This is more difficult the more zones the enemy has advanced, and success will only push the enemy back a single space. Victory is a war of attrition; you win if you haven’t lost at the end of the turn when the enemy deck runs empty, no matter how progressed the enemies are, but simply staying alive that long can be easier said than done.

The other eight worlds (and the actions you take by playing on them) are Alfheim, or the World of the Elves (take one Elf token), Vanaheim, the World of the Vanir (move a token along a special track), Midgard (have the Valkyries search bags for Viking tokens), Svartalfheim, or the World of the Dwarves/Dwarven Forge (acquire or upgrade weapons to help fight the enemies), Jotunheim, or the World of Giants (kill Frost Giants), Muspelheim, or the World of Fire (clean the Midgard bags of Fire Giants), Niflheim (trade any number of tokens with another player), and Helheim, or the World of the Dead (put 5 Viking tokens into the Midgard bag of your choice). You get three actions a turn, which can be spent on any of the nine worlds, but you can only play on each world once in a turn.

Vikings are the mainstay of the game; a Viking can be spent to add +1 to a combat before you roll the die. The target numbers for defeating an enemy are 5/6/7/8 depending on which zone they’re in—which sounds easy until you look at the die and realize its faces aren’t standard; they’re 0/0/1/1/2/3, giving an average result of barely over 1. Elves are more powerful—they can be spent after a die roll instead of before—but they’re slower to acquire and the number in the game is only players+1.

The gameplay ends up being a delicate dance. Squandering resources to try to beat back the enemies at the beginning means losing the staying power for the endgame; hoarding them early can result in an enemy getting too far ahead to handle. Since the game goes until the enemy deck is depleted, it doesn’t change length much based on player count, and while it can get exhausting, it’s very satisfying to flip the last card and see that you’ve successfully held back the end of the world.

For those looking for advice on how to beat the game, here’s what we’ve learned from our personal experience.

  1. Don’t gamble (when you can avoid it). The die is your enemy; it has a 1/3 chance of giving you nothing and only a 1/3 chance of giving better     than a 1. We tend to treat the die as “the number of elves we save” and pay enough Vikings that Vikings+elves+bonuses gives us the needed number, no matter the die roll. Remember that actions are a resource as well, and that wasting Vikings not only wastes the time gathering them but wastes the turns restocking and cleaning out bags as well. On that note…
  2. Don’t panic. The further an enemy is on the board, the fewer cards they have left in the deck. That isn’t to say you should ignore the enemies, but the first few turns it’s better to play long-term: build up to level 3 weapons, accumulate tokens, clean out the bags, and maybe throw a few die rolls at the third point…
  3. Kill the giants. Don’t wait for them to get flipped up; burn through the giants’ deck as fast as possible, killing them off the top before they have a chance to be a problem. Not only does this make Loki useless, but the runes formed by killing a full set of giants are incredibly powerful. We’ve never had a game where we finished all four runes and still lost the game.
Timeline: Drop Trivial Pursuit and Never Look Back

Timeline: Drop Trivial Pursuit and Never Look Back

Most of the time, when we buy a game, we’ve either played it first or researched it heavily. Timeline was an impulse buy at a convention and we’ve never regretted it. It’s very portable–it comes in a sturdy tin less than six inches square. It’s dead simple–“place the cards without looking at the backs” is essentially the only rule. Older people have something of an advantage as they’re more likely to know historical details, but that makes it a good learning tool, and anyone is capable of “I never knew that!” at any moment. There are numerous versions—Inventions, Discoveries, and Americana, to name a few—so anyone can shine, and they can be shuffled together if a single version gets too boring or easy.

Timeline

Each card has two sides which are almost identical—both have the same image and the name of the event/invention/whatever the theme of the set is. The difference is that one side has the year the event occurred and the other does not. The cards are dealt out with the year face-down, and players have to place them in the timeline (get it?) correctly relative to the other cards before flipping to see if they guessed the right time bracket. Wrong guesses are discarded and the player who placed them draws a replacement, while correct placements go into the timeline and are not replaced, so the timeline only grows (and gets harder) when someone guesses right.  The first player to empty his or her hand wins, with sudden death in case of ties.

The events can range from “The Formation of Earth” (hint: it’s at the start) to “Invention of the Violin” (hint: good luck…) so victory can sometimes just be a matter of getting easy cards; of course, what’s easy varies from player to player; expertise in certain subjects or time periods can turn a monster of a deal into a piece of cake or vice versa.. Overall, it’s a great little travel game, plays fast, has a high player cap, and can be genuinely educational while still being entertaining.

Betrayal at House on the Hill: You Never Know What’s Around the Corner

Betrayal at House on the Hill: You Never Know What’s Around the Corner

Let’s lead with this: This game is Steffanie’s absolute favorite (so this is going to be even less objective than normal). The game design is good, it’s paced well, it’s neither too long nor too short, the setting is engaging despite being cliché, and they built in an element to maximize its replay value.

Betrayal

Betrayal takes place at a haunted house that you, as the players, are investigating. There are six character movers with six associated character statistic tiles, but the tiles are two-sided with different statistics on each side, essentially giving you twelve instead. The game has a minimum player count of three for reasons that will be explained in a bit. In the first half of the game, you explore the mansion. Moving through the doors causes you to draw a tile at random (or at least semi-random, some tiles have to be on specific floors) to represent that room. Sometimes you draw cards and/or have to make a skill check. The dice for the game are odd—they only have numbers from 0 to 2, meaning each die has an average of 1 instead of 3.5 like a normal six-sided die. Of course, higher numbers aren’t always better.

The game has three decks: Event, Item, and most importantly, Omen. There are exactly 13 Omen cards, and each time one is drawn, the player who drew it has to roll six dice. If the total is less than the number of Omen cards drawn, which on average happens at the seventh Omen, then the second half of the game begins—and that’s where it really picks up.

Betrayal is a cooperative game, and as the title suggests it’s a traitor co-op, but it has a unique twist on the mechanic—the traitor is not determined at the start of the game the way it is in most traitor co-ops. The game comes with fifty scenarios for the second half of the game. Which scenario you get depends on what Omen triggered it in what room, and the traitor’s identity is entirely determined by the scenario. Often it’s the triggering player, but it can be the player to their left, the one with the highest in a statistic, the one with a lowest in a statistic…you get the idea.

It’s impossible to describe the second half of the game because it plays out differently based on the scenario, but there are some similarities. It starts with the traitor player leaving the room and reading the information about the scenario from one booklet, while the rest of the players read from a different booklet. It’s entirely possible for each side to not know the victory condition for the other side, or at least not how they accomplish that condition. After the non-traitor players agree on their strategy, the traitor is called back and turns begin again. The traitor player will often be trying to kill the other players, directly or indirectly, or will at least win if the other players die even if that isn’t their primary goal, but usually they have a different way to win and/or monsters to help them combat the other players. The non-traitor players usually have to make specific skill checks in specific rooms that may not even have been played at the time the second half begins, so the exploration of the house still continues, just with a frantic edge as they try to stay at least one step ahead of the traitor.

It’s the scenario aspect that really makes this game unique and keeps it fresh. It’ll take quite a lot of games before you start getting repeats of the same scenario, and unless you’re playing those games close together you may well have forgotten how to win a given scenario. Betrayal at House on the Hill may be “just” a haunted house, but it’s a haunted house you won’t soon forget.

(The creepy, old-timey radio in the corner crackles to life.  A strange, deep voice echoes from it.  These must be Austin’s Subversive Comments!)

Betrayal at House on the Hill may be Steff’s favorite game of our collection, but I’ll let you in on a little secret: It’s a better experience than it is a game.

The mechanics of Betrayal are a mixed bag.  They do what they set out to do, but sometimes they don’t run the way you would want a game to run.  Because of how damage and checks work, there are some haunts that, once revealed, it can be literally impossible for one side or the other to win.  I don’t just mean that they have a massive skew, I mean that even doing the math, with perfect dice rolls, this particular “deal” was unwinnable.  That’s not something you typically want to see out of a game!  Yet there’s a reason this doesn’t matter: because at the end of the day, Betrayal at House on the Hill isn’t supposed to be a crunchy, mechanical game where the decision of what to do on your turn is always important and impactful.  It’s supposed to be a Horror Movie Simulator, and to the experience of simulating a horror movie, game balance is a far distant secondary concern.

The most important part of enjoying a game of Betrayal at House on the Hill is to read the cards and, in the end, the entries from the Traitor’s Tome and Secrets of Survival out loud.  Have the most theatrical person who would logically deliver such lines do the reading. Let them ham it up, deliver the story slowly.  If you look at a card, put it down silently, and say “Okay, give me two dice”, roll them, and announce that nothing happens or “I take some damage” you probably won’t enjoy yourself the way you will if you (and those around you) actually narrate the text you’re given.

And, when played that way, Betrayal at House on the Hill is an excellent experience.  It does exactly what it sets out to do, and simulates that horror movie with suspense building as our heroes explore the seemingly haunted house, only to be shocked by the sudden twist reveal of probable betrayal and possible death.  It doesn’t matter if the heroes literally can’t survive the toxic, caustic atmosphere of the Alien World the house has been teleported to long enough to send themselves back to their own dimension. It’s a horror story; they can struggle and ultimately fail and die at the hands of the villain.  Similarly, if a high-school sweetheart decked out in magic armor with a holy spear can carve through demons and destroy their master like a hot knife cleaving butter, that’s OK too.  The heroes win, the story is the important part more than the outcome.

As such, while this is Steff’s favorite game and Austin still enjoys it, it might not be a game for every group or every game night.  It is not a replacement for a meaty co-op or a many-versus-one dungeon crawler.  It’s really it’s own thing, and you should know better than us who would enjoy it, and who might not.

Seventh Hero: Why Would You Change The Name?!

Seventh Hero: Why Would You Change The Name?!

A quick rant first off: This was originally released in Japan with an anime inspired art and theme, then released in other territories by AEG as Seventh Hero, which is the version we have, and has now been re-released by AEG and Iello as…Rent-A-Hero. Why?! Why would they change the name?! Sure, it’s a light game, but that doesn’t mean it has to be silly, and the Japanese Edition art and AEG Seventh Hero art are at least pretty to look at while the art for Rent-A-Hero is rather…bad, to be blunt. If you decide to pick up this game, we recommend going with the Seventh Hero printing if you can.

Seventh Hero

With that done, let’s talk about the game. Seventh Hero is, at its core, very simple. The deck has “hero” cards number 1 through 7. The first player to get 6 out of 7 down in front of them wins. However, the rules make that more challenging than it sounds; you don’t simply play cards in front of you. A player starts by flipping over the top card of the deck, which will have a rule—for example, “Any odd-numbered card.” The player then chooses a card from their hand that matches that rule and places it face-down. Each other player, in order, has a chance to take that card or pass on it before it returns to the first player, and if it returns to the person who played it, that player has to take it. This creates a strong bluffing element, as if you accidentally take a copy of a card you already have, you lose both of the cards. Because of this, it’s surprisingly easy to come back from behind and win; the closer to victory you get, the greater the odds are that a random card is one that will hurt you instead of help you.

The game isn’t purely luck and bluffing. There are two ways to mitigate the randomness. The first is that you can “buy” hints about the identity of a card being passed around. You show a card from your hand to the player passing a card, and they confirm or deny whether the card shown matches the face-down one. This is best saved for late-game when you have to be cautious, since every card out of your hand is fewer cards to send around the table later. The second way to mitigate randomness is that each card has a different ability, ranging from “draw two cards” to “look at the wandering hero.” You can only use each card ability once, so make sure you save those uses for when they count!

Overall, we find Seventh Hero a good light game. It plays quickly once everyone gets the hang of it, with most of the delays being when someone is trying to calculate the odds of a card hurting or helping them. Its mechanics leave it less “left in the dust” than many other games we’ve played, it has a good balance of luck and skill, and the difficulty curve is low enough that even a new player can easily win.