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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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.

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.

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.

Forbidden Island: Escape Together or Drown Alone

Forbidden Island: Escape Together or Drown Alone

Forbidden Island

Forbidden Island is our first example of a kind of game that generally has people split: the cooperative game. In co-op games, the players are pitted against the rules of the board. There’s no winner; either everyone wins together or everyone loses.  Some people really enjoy the genre, others are quite against it, and more don’t really ‘get’ that it’s a thing that exists since cooperative games have only recently been growing in popularity. We both like this kind of game but Steffanie especially prefers being able to enjoy a gaming experience without the pressure of having to try to beat other players.

In Forbidden Island, the players are explorers who’ve landed on a mysterious island in search of fabled treasures. Your goal is to get those treasures and get off the island, but you have to be fast–the island is sinking out from under you!

Each game is slightly different, as the island is made up of tiles that are dealt out at random; the tiles are flipped between “normal” and “flooding,” and get removed completely if the ocean overwhelms them. There’s a deck of island cards with one card representing each of the tiles. At the start of the game, some island cards are flipped up and those tiles are flipped to “flooding.” If an island card is drawn for an already-flooded tile, then both the tile and the card are returned to the box, leaving you both with less space to move and with fewer cards in the island deck, making it more likely that later tiles will sink.

Each player gets a different role with a special ability, but aside from that, the turn sequence is fairly simple. A player gets three actions, which can be to move from one tile to an adjacent one, to flip their tile or an adjacent one from “flooding” back to “normal,” to hand one of their cards to a player on the same tile, or to turn in four cards at a color of temple to get that treasure.  The maximum hand size is five, which ends up being a large part of the difficulty; you can’t work on multiple sets at once, and it’s time-consuming to transfer cards between players in a game where time is your enemy.

After a player goes, it’s the game’s turn. The player is dealt two player cards. If you’re lucky, both of them are treasures or helpful cards. If you’re unlucky, one (or in rare and extra-unlucky cases, both) will be a Waters Rise card. When the Waters Rise, you increase the Waters Rise meter, causing there to be more cards played from the Island deck, and then reshuffles the Island discards and puts them back on top—if you haven’t fixed those tiles, you’re risking losing them now! Whether or not the waters rose, you then deal out a number of cards equal to the Waters Rise meter from the Island deck (between two and five, depending on your chosen difficulty and how many times it has increased), and either flip or remove those tiles, depending on whether or not they were already flooded.

It’s nearly impossible (and quickly becomes strictly impossible) to keep up with the rate of the island flooding. Fortunately, that’s not your actual goal. You win by collecting all four treasures, getting all players to Fool’s Landing (a helicopter pad), and playing Helicopter Lift to escape. You lose if any of these become impossible: if both temples of one color sink before you get that treasure, if any player drowns, or if Fool’s Landing sinks. You also lose if, as mentioned earlier, the Waters Rise meter reaches the top.

For some reason, possibly its small size, Forbidden Island’s card deck seems particularly spiteful. Like many co-op games, it can go from “under control” to “we’re all doomed” in a single turn, but Forbidden Island has a frustrating tendency to not just do that, but do it multiple times per game. Part of what contributes to this is the distribution of the Waters Rise cards; in genre-cornerstone Pandemic and many of its imitators, this kind of card, the one that accelerates the rate at which you lose, is divided more or less evenly in the deck — say, one somewhere in each quarter if there are four, and the deck is never reshuffled, but in Forbidden Island, it’s completely random and has a nasty tendency to come back in a deck that’s perilously thin because players are holding on to cards in later shuffles.

The game can get tense, especially in the late game, but at the same time, it’s a fun kind of tense, with the players madly scrambling about to get the cards to the right people and places to claim the treasures. It is very similar to Forbidden Desert, Pandemic, and several other games, but Forbidden Island is probably the shortest of the lot with some of the simplest rules, so if you think this style of game might be your cup of tea, this is a good one to start out with.

Fairy Tale: Do I Go for Dwarves Riding Dragons or Seven Faeries?

Fairy Tale: Do I Go for Dwarves Riding Dragons or Seven Faeries?

Fairy Tale

Fairy Tale is a fast-paced card game centered around “drafting.” For those unfamiliar, drafting is when you choose a card from your hand and pass the rest to the next player, and do so until all cards have been chosen.

In Fairy Tale, you get five cards for each of four rounds, and play three of those five; the goal is to combine your cards to get the most points. It has a slight sabotage element as black cards will force players to flip over cards, rendering them useless, but for the most part it’s just about trying to get the cards most beneficial to you while denying your opponent the ones most beneficial to them. It can get very competitive, but the games tend to be short enough that the competitiveness isn’t bothersome even to easily-stressed Steffanie.

Other than someone having difficulty with the concept of drafting, this game isn’t difficult to learn, either in gameplay or in strategy. There are only really three strategies for scoring (that can be combined): exponential (a card type that scales to X squared: 1 of the card is worth 1, 2 are worth 2 each so total 4, etc.), paired (one card type is worth 3, with a second being worth 3 times the number of cards of the first type), and high points (cards worth a flat 6 but that turn a member of their own faction, including themselves potentially, face-down). If that still sounds complicated, don’t worry–it’s very obvious once you’re reading the cards.

That is not to say, though, that Fairy Tale is too simple — there is enough strategic depth, in the very nature of drafting if nothing else, that the game actually has some staying power, and the Black cards complicate strategies. Similarly, while the best ways to score points are the geometric sets, cross-faction partners, or big-point cards, a combined arms strategy is often needed to win the game: you can’t rely on getting nothing but Baby Dragons so you have to make the best use of the cards you do get.

For those desiring even more layers, there are an extra few cards that are “Advanced” cards.  They allow the game to support up to five players instead of four, add a new mechanic called the Hunt (A pre-emptive offensive flip), and feature cards with alternate scoring opportunities such as having the most of a particular faction or card type, the latter of those features being marked but unused in the base game.

As is often the case, since the game is physically small (though I believe more recent editions have a larger box for shelf presence), it also tends to play quickly, and it’s not uncommon at our gaming table play Fairy Tale two or three times in a row.

Miskatonic School for Girls: Cackling Madly Is in the Rulebook

Miskatonic School for Girls: Cackling Madly Is in the Rulebook

Whoever came up with a game concept of having an all-girl boarding school run by the monsters and villains of H.P. Lovecraft? It sounds ridiculous, and it is, but that ridiculousness is part of the fun.

Miskatonic

Miskatonic is a deck-building game, where each player has their own deck that they buy cards for to improve–but unlike most deck-building games, you also buy negative cards for your opponents, and the weight of the negative cards starts to outweigh the benefit of the positive ones as the game goes on. It becomes a struggle to stay sane (20 starting sanity, 0 loses) while hoping your opponents’ decks fail them first.   Each turn you’ll draw five cards (starting with whatever is in your purchase pile), use them to buy a Student for yourself and a Teacher for the opponent on your left, and then put any teachers in your hand into your classroom, where you’ll flip up one card from the top of your deck for each, hopefully getting students strong enough to fend them off.

The game doesn’t take itself seriously–like the title says, the rulebook actually instructs you to cackle insanely when you lose certain amounts of sanity–and the artwork varies from silly to sinister while staying light-hearted. Despite being elimination, players are rarely sitting around for long; once someone goes down, the other players are usually in precarious positions and will only take a couple more rounds. The average player can enjoy it on its own merits, while fans of the Mythos can laugh at students like “Charlotte” Ward and Keziah Mason and teachers like Crossing Guard Dagon and Headmaster N.R. Lathotep.

In general, the play experience is one that has a good pace to it: In the early game, sanity loss will be minor since players can’t buy the best cards, resulting in a lot of minor advances, Substitutes (Filler, 0-cost teachers for your opponents that are rather trivial to defeat) or Transfers (The same, but for students).  As players build up their generation of Friendship and/or Nightmare points, each card potentially having production of both but only being usable for one or the other on a given turn, the better students and more potent teachers begin to enter circulation.  The key to Miskatonic’s flow, however, is the simple fact that your student is never going to be as good for you as the teacher the House right before you handed you was bad.  That is, your deck was never better for your survival then it was at the start of the game (When it contained no teachers) and the purchase of students serves, largely, to attempt to slow the rate at which you hemmorage sanity.  Often, decks reach a tipping point where they have too many teachers that are all too powerful, and the sanity loss starts coming by the bucket load.  As such, despite being a player elimination game, it’s usually over VERY shortly after the first House goes stark raving mad since everyone else will either be on small numbers or primed to end up that way.

Overall, I’d call Miskatonic School for Girls a light game.  It is far less fiddly than traditional deckbuilders, the core decision points being what to buy from column A and what to buy from column B.  Which is not to say that the game doesn’t have its complications: the plethora of special abilities on the cards, particularly “Pre-Class” abilities of students that you may use when you draw them.  Further, Locker Cards, Pet Teachers (Teachers you draw when trying to fight teachers; they don’t help but you get to send them to someone else’s discard pile), and events can bring actual strategic thinking into the mix.  Still, it’s a game we can play with the somewhat less game savvy on a fair level, which you can consider either in the game’s favor or against it depending on what you’re looking for.