While my esteemed colleagues at the Opinionated Gamers have found much to love in the joys of the classic 2 hour + Euro, I want to extol the virtues of the mash-up game… those wonderful & odd moments where a designer/publisher has shoved chocolate into my gaming peanut butter & made “two great tastes that taste great together.” (I’ll also say some nice things about some other games that don’t make me want to reference candies and/or ancient TV ad campaigns.)
When you combine the dungeon crawling joys of Descent: Journeys in the Dark with the flicking goodness of Carabande… then subtract 3+ hours worth of playing time – voila! you have Catacombs. It’s a one hour romp through a dungeon with combat resolved via wooden discs.
There are so many ways this could have gone horribly wrong: out-of-balance player and/or monster powers, items that ramp up adventurers too quickly, making the game too long, etc. That a first-time designer & publisher managed to avoid all of those traps is a miracle – an extremely playable miracle!
I can NOT wait for the expansions. (Yes, there are two different expansions promised right now. I have goosebumps.)
Matt Leacock lifted his own basic design for a “smart” game engine from Pandemic (a wonderful game in its own right, especially with the On The Brink expansion added) and combined it with the stunning art from the computer game Myst… and this year, we’ve all been transported to a island stocked with treasures yet ready to pull an Atlantis & disappear into the sea.
OK, so the art isn’t really from Myst - but it certainly reminds me of it… and the cooperative puzzle of figuring out how to abscond with the four treasures before one of a number of different things goes horribly wrong is edge-of-your-seat fun.
Two other things I need to mention about Forbidden Island:
- because of the short (30 minutes or so) playing time & open hands, this is a great family game – I’ve played it with kids as young as six years old
- this is probably the best gaming value for the money to come down the pike in a long, long time – the components are beautiful AND sturdy… and for a price point cheaper than many card games!
Heroscape: Battle for the Underdark
Amongst the sadder bits of gaming news this last year was the shuttering of the venerable Heroscape franchise. For long-time fans (I literally own at least one of every Heroscape item published), it was a time of mourning & gnashing of teeth.
It was also a very good year for Heroscape to go out on… what with the Battle for the Underdark Master Set & three waves of D&D-based figures coming out. The last gasp of this “war at the end of time” was to attempt to cross-pollinate with Dungeons & Dragons… which, while it may not have saved the game, gave us some of the best new special powers & scenarios we’ve had in a long time.
Yes, yes, I know, Heroscape fans – I’m supposed to hate on the borrowed sculpts and the weird choice to change the base size for the last wave, but I just can’t muster the energy to do that right now – I’m having too much fun playing with the excellent character designs & the adventure mode of stringing battles together.Space Hulk: Death Angel – The Card Game
Space Hulk is a classic Games Workshop miniatures combat board game (with nifty modular board design) that lifts the aliens from well, “Alien”, and puts hordes of them up against a couple of squads of heavily armored Space Marines. Carnage ensues. Death Angel simply takes this theme and adds a cooperative element (while cutting about $80 bucks off the list price.)
Once you figure out how to play the game (made more difficult by a spectacularly bad rulebook), this is a great little card-driven system that captures the nail-biting tension of Space Hulk. Fantasy Flight has even published a couple of small expansion decks to add even more variety to your desperate adventures.
The one dissonant note thematically is the Space Marines blissful lack of awareness of their ultimate mission – while I haven’t tried it yet, I’ve wondered if the final card should be revealed at the start of the game.
Tannhauser: Revised Rulebook
When I played the original U.S. release of Tannhauser back in early 2008, I enjoyed the alternate history theme & the Pathfinding board mechanism that makes checking LOS easy… but the rules were kind of a mess, with some real problem areas that begged for serious development. So, even though I knew this was “my kind of game”, I was scared away by “good luck, you’ll need to house rule ad infinitum to fix this” nature of Tannhauser circa 2008.
So, earlier last year when Fantasy Flight finally announced that they had revised the rules so completely that they were publishing a new rulebook, I sat up & took notice. One math trade later, I had a copy of the game in my hands to go with the aforementioned rules… and Fantasy Flight had a serious customer on their hands. (It’s no surprise that the guy who owns every expansion set for Heroscape & Memoir ’44 would do the same with Tannhauser.)
Here’s what I like about the game: it combines a compelling thematic world (an alternate history universe where the First World War never ended & the armies utilize alien technology harvested from the Roswell crash and occult items harvested a la Raiders of the Lost Ark), a simple combat & line of sight system that makes game play fast-moving, and a wide variety of characters & weapon packs that make each game a different experience. It plays well as a 2 player game… or with multiple players (up to 10) with each person controlling a single character. And it doesn’t hurt that it has pre-painted minis – that stuff is like catnip for me.
This is “Hellboy” (theme) meets “Halo” (game play)… and it works like a charm.
Unmashed – But Still Terrific
This is a great 30 minute 2 player card game where your decisions can vary the speed & direction of the game. This Mafia-themed recruiting romp is a sweet variation on the current deck-building card game wave we’re all experiencing (and which I am not particularly enamored of.)Fresco
Possibly the best marriage of theme & game mechanisms since Thebes… and a worker placement game that doesn’t make me want to run screaming from the room. (Fresco is, by the way, the most Euro-y game on my list. I’m not hating the Euros – but some of the highly touted new stuff leaves me cold.) I also like the way the included expansions can vary the complexity without damaging the purity of the base game.
The Glaziers expansion goes 2 for 3 with one expansion feeling completely unnecessary (the Wishing Well) while the other two add some very interesting twists to the game.
Memoir 44: Breakthrough/Winter Wars
OK, so the actual game came out in 2004… but the two expansions released for Memoir ’44 this year took the game in a new direction – a real breakthrough! (Yes, the pun was intended – mea culpa.)
With the Breakthrough expansion maps, Jacques David and Richard Borg (and Days of Wonder) managed to create an expansion that added tactical and strategic depth to Memoir ’44 without adding undue complexity. By adding a Breakthrough Command deck to the Winter Wars expansion, they added more fluid movement to compliment the expanded playing area – an excellent combination. (Happily, the rest of the expansion is also quite good.)
Rivals for Catan
As a long-time fan of the original game (The Settlers of Catan Card Game), I was pretty excited when I read that Klaus Teuber was rebooting the card game to both streamline the game play & the playing time. The big question was, of course, could he do it successfully? In other words, could he keep the sprawling “build your kingdom” feel of the original game while smoothing out the rough edges of the design?
The answer is “yes.”
Simply put, I think The Rivals for Catan is a splendid re-design of a game I liked a lot but seldom got to play. By reducing the playing time & streamlining the rules, the game is not only more playable for those of us who enjoy it but also easier to teach to new players.
What the rest of them said.
Seriously, I like the game a lot, but I am not wasting precious mental energy trying to come up with a new way to describe/praise the thing.
- Hey Waiter!
- Pocket Battles (Orcs vs Elves)