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.
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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.

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.