Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Tale As Old As Time: A Review of Call to Adventure: Epic Origins

Once upon a time, I bought a RPG system from a wargaming company – SPI’s Dragonquest – which I never actually played with any other live human (despite my role as the primary DM for my group of fantasy/sci-fi nerd high school student friends). What I did do with Dragonquest is generate characters – the system made much more sense than early D&D’s “roll 3d6 six times and hope for the best”. So, armed with percentile dice and a pencil, I happily built characters for a game I would never play.

Fast forward almost 40 years and I had the joy of playing Brotherwise Game’s Call to Adventure, which turns my lonely (but enjoyable) RPG character creation pastime into an actual game. It was one of my favorite games of 2019 – and I’ve praised it multiple times for the beautiful illustrations, the quirky but solid rune-throwing randomizer system, and the nice balance between assisting and messing with other players. 

Designers Chris & Johnny O’Neal followed up this success with an expansion based on The Name of the Wind fantasy series (yes, I’m waiting with the rest of you for the author to finally finish the last book) and a stand-alone version of Call to Adventure based in the Stormlight Archive universe (which is on my list of things to read).

If you’d like to know more about how the game system works, Dale Yu wrote a great First Impressions preview on the Opinionated Gamers website that covers all of the basics… which leaves me with more time to tell you about the newest addition to the Call to Adventure family.

Epic Origins: The Changes

Call to Adventure: Epic Origins is a stand-alone game that can be combined with the other boxes in the system for variety… but it succeeds by itself (and, in fact, is my younger son’s favorite version of the game).

There are three major changes in the game from the original – but the structure itself will be very familiar to anyone who has played the earlier games. After choosing their initial character set-up, players take turns drafting Trait cards or attempting Adventures in their quest to create a successful character. (Yes… I know – “to create a character who has the most victory points.”)

The first change is the addition of Heritage cards – this is a fourth set-up card type that in “old skool” fantasy role-playing would have been called “Race”. (This is not the time or the place for me to comment extensively on the cultural forces leading to this change – but I will note that assuming that a particular ethnic or racial background automatically leads to certain disadvantages is something I would never want my sons to inherit, even from a board game.) Each player receives a single Origin card – each of which offers some kind of positive buff or ability to their character.

The second change is the advent of Class cards (played to the middle section of your board during set-up in the same place as Motivation cards from the original game). These cards give you additional powers by feeding them Experience points… and offer an interesting set of decisions as Experience points can also be used to Journey (flip new cards into the tableau), pay for certain Trait and Feat (Hero & Anti-Hero) cards, or saved to the end of the game for victory points.

The third change is the most extensive – it’s a shift of the “main” game from purely competitive to semi-cooperative. The Epic Origins Story decks don’t have any Adversary cards in them – instead, the group of players struggle throughout the game against a single Adversary. After one player places the third card under the class deck, their next turn begins a battle with the Adversary’s “right hand”… some examples from classic sources:
  • Saruman (right hand) – Sauron (Adversary)
  • Grand Moff Tarkin (right hand) – Darth Vader (also, technically, a right hand) – the Emperor (Adversary)
  • Karl (right hand) – Hans Gruber (Adversary)
Each player battles against the “right hand” in turn order before resuming the regular flow of the game. The Adversary card is flipped to the “big bad” side. After one player places the third card under their destiny deck, their next turn begins the final battle. Each player in turn uses this last turn to take on the Adversary for potential glory (aka – “points”).

More importantly, the Adversary must be defeated by the group (by removing all of his health) or no player wins the game… darkness rules the land, the Skynet Funding Bill is passed, unspeakable horrors, blah, blah blah – Game Over. If the Adversary loses all of its health, the game is scored as normal and the player with the most victory points wins.

In addition, there is an Adversary Quest card which has an easy and a less-easy side… this is the rules that govern the basics of Adversary play and is a part of every game.

Epic Origins: Modes of Play

Epic Origins offers three modes of play: semi-cooperative, competitive, and solo play. I’ll deal with each one in turn.

The game is obviously designed with semi-cooperative play (the process I outlined above) as the “main” mode of the game… and it works very well. There have been some debates on BGG about how a particular Adversary will force players to conform their characters to a particular set of attributes – but we haven’t found that to be an issue.

Competitive play works exactly the same – except you remove the Adversary, the Adversary Quest card, and any Feat cards that are Adversary-specific and simply play for the best score.

Solo play is identical to the base game… except you’re trying to defeat the Adversary by yourself. This is a marked improvement over the clunkier solo system from the original base game… and it has led to me playing multiple solo games of Epic Origins in addition to multiplayer games.

Additionally, the game comes with 7 campaign envelopes… making a loosely connected story that adds new Origin & Class cards to their respective decks as well as introducing new Adversaries. It’s not a legacy game – just a nice drip feed of elements for your opening games of Epic Origins.

Epic Origins: Other Stuff You Might Wonder About 

Some of you will complain (as you are wont to do): “Mark, you didn’t mention Roll Player, which is also about RPG character creation and pre-dates Call to Adventure by almost three years.” To which I will reply: “I’m well aware of Roll Player… and prior to Epic Origins, I’d have said it was the hands-down winner in the best RPG character creation board game for solo players. Now, I think it’s got competition.” I’d also likely add that Roll Player desperately needed the Monsters & Minions expansion (or the Fiends & Familiars expansion) to turn it into a really enjoyable multiplayer game… and that I own all of them.

Others of you will wonder why I didn’t tout the ability to convert characters created in Epic Origins into D&D 5e characters… ok, I get that. But my last game of D&D was in 2013 (and I was just “babysitting” a character for a friend who couldn’t attend the group)… and before that, I hadn’t played D&D since the early 1980s. So, while I think it’s cool that Brotherwise Games came up with a way to do this, I don’t have much to say about it. (If you’re interested, here’s the link on their website to the 5e stuff.)

Epic Origins: Final Thoughts

After seven plays of Epic Origins (3 multiplayer, 4 solo), I’m going to divide this into things I like… and things I’m less excited about.

Things I Like:

  • The introduction of Class cards
  • The vastly improved rulebook
  • The much cleaner solo mode
  • The ability to mix the games together (see this link for more information on how this works)
Things I’m Not A Fan Of:
  • Using cardboard chits for Experience points (the little plastic gems from the base game are better)
Yep, that’s it for complaints. Just the cardboard chits.

So, do you need this game if you already have the base game or Stormlight Archive? In my case, I think it’s a great addition to the system and am glad I own it – but it isn’t strictly necessary. I like the variety it adds and the quality of the design that has taken in comments from the gaming community and made the system even better.

OTOH, if you don’t own a copy of any game in this system, I heartily recommend Epic Origins as the perfect starting place. At roughly 15-20 minutes per player, this is an evocative and enjoyable chance to create a character (and their backstory), defeat the Adversary, and play a delightful game.

While my original copy of Call to Adventure was a review copy provided to the Opinionated Gamers, my copies of the Name of the Wind expansion and Call to Adventure: Epic Origins were purchased with money straight from my wallet.

The original version of this review appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Dinosaur Island: Rawr’n’Write – A (Mostly) Solo Review

It’s possible that you’ve always wanted to run a theme park… that’s certainly been the inspiration behind my two favorite computer games: Rollercoaster Tycoon & Planet Coaster. (It’s possible you may have had other dreams – perhaps shipping various goods back’n’forth across the Mediterranean Sea. In that case, it’s possible that there’s been a game or two published that right in your wheelhouse.)

But for you who enjoy the challenge of building a functioning theme park (albeit one with genetically bred dinosaurs) and who like the roll’n’write board game genre, here’s my woefully short summary and slightly longer thoughts on Pandasaurus Games’ Dinosaur Island: Rawr’n’Write.
“Welcome to Jurassic Park.”
John Hammond
Incredibly Short Summary

Two rounds of drafting dice and using them to activate actions, followed by a round of running your park.

Do that three times.

Ok, that wasn’t really very helpful. Let me try again.
“But if ‘The Pirates of the Caribbean‘ breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.”
Ian Malcolm
Actual Game Summary 

Each player has two different sheets in front of them – one which contains a large blank grid in which you draw your park (and areas in which to save money, roads, dino DNA, and record the purchase of various special buildings and your current security status). The second sheet is used to run your park – and is also the place where you mark various attractions (food & merch outlets + rides), hire staff, record the level of visitor excitement, and – if things go horribly wrong – the number of deaths in your park.

As I noted above, the game is divided into nine rounds – two rounds of park-building (using the dice) followed by a round of running your park.

Park Building (what the rules cleverly call an Action Phase)

The first player draws out the appropriate number of dice (2 per player + 1 more die) and rolls them. Starting with the first player, players draft a die to get whatever nifty thing is on the die (dino DNA, roads, money, attractions, security). Once all players have drafted their first die, the last player starts the second round of die drafting. 

When drafting is completed, players gain the resources from the dice they’ve drafted – and, if they’ve acquired attractions or roads, immediately build them into their park. If they use their coins and spend them to finish paying for a special building, that is built into their park as well.

Then, beginning with the start player, players assign one of their dice to the action board in clockwise order. You can place a die on top of another die in order to do the action twice… but you take the threat on the die you cover as a cost.

You can do any one of the following actions:
  • Make Dinos: spend your DNA to create up to 4 dinos
  • Raise Funds: gain 2 coins or 2 security
  • Extract DNA: gain any 2 basic DNA or any 1 advanced DNA
  • Duplicate: double the resources on the die you place here (all other players gain a single copy)… and you can’t double attractions
  • Build: build 3 roads or one attraction
Once all of that is concluded, the final leftover die gives both the resources AND the threat level on that die to every player. 

Park Running (what the rules cleverly call the Run Park phase)

After two park building rounds, players then run their parks, following the order of actions laid out on their second sheet.

  1. Attractions
    1. Stores: gain 1 random die roll for each merch location you have
    2. Rides: gain 1 excitement for each ride you have
    3. Food: gain 1 coin for each restaurant you have
  2. Staff
    1. Gain the income from each staff member – which can be actions and/or resources
  3. Dino Tour
    1. Create excitement by running a dino tour from your HQ through your buildings and roads
    2. If you end at a Park Exit, you’ll get those victory points at the end of the game
  4. Excitement
    1. Gain resources from your excitement track
  5. Death Toll
    1. Each threat not “protected” by security means one of your park visitors dies – and the death toll track has disaster spaces along it
    2. For each disaster marked off, you must lose something from your park…
      1. A dino paddock
      2. 3 roads
      3. An attraction
      4. 4 stored DNA
      5. Staff Member

Mapping Your Park 

What sets Dinosaur Island: Rawr’n’Write apart from other 2-sheet roll/flip’n’write games (like Fleet: The Dice Game or Hadrian’s Wall – which I reviewed last year) or from the previous Dinosaur Island games is the way in which you draw the map of your park as a key part of the game. 

Working with a large grid, you add attractions, dino paddocks (which can hold up to 4 dinos each), and specialized buildings… and then connect them with roads in order to create your Dino Tour route. Buildings cannot touch each other (even at the corners) and once placed are there forever. 

If a building/paddock is destroyed, it is marked out and nothing can be rebuilt on its spot.
“Ah, now eventually you do plan to have dinosaurs on your, on your dinosaur tour, right? Hello?”
Ian Malcolm
All By Myself

I’ll start by noting that only two of my eight plays of Dinosaur Island: Rawr’n’Write were multiplayer. That said, the majority of my feedback to you, gentle readers (and those who are more interested in breeding the largest/scariest dinos possible), will be about the solo playing experience.

The solo game begins with drawing five cards from the AI deck and choosing 3 of them as objectives – extra goals for the solo player to achieve to score more points.

The dice draft uses six dice… which are then narrowed to four dice by flipping an AI deck card and placing the indicated dice on particular action spots. 

And that’s it – otherwise, it’s the same game system… minus the hate drafting and grabbing actions to cut off other players, of course.
“Life finds a way.”
Ian Malcolm
Final Thoughts

This is not my first Dinosaur Island rodeo – I’ve played both the original game and Duelosaur Island (the two player game) multiple times – but I don’t own either of them. They are both games I’m happy to play but don’t need to have in my collection. (I have not – yet! – played Dinosaur World.)

In my ever-so-humble opinion, Dinosaur Island: Rawr’n’Write is the best of the bunch. I really like the freedom inherent in drawing the layout of your own park, the straightforward variety of 3 different special buildings and 3 different specialists each game, and the not-annoying simplicity of the solo system. In addition, the game has a relatively small footprint for a game with this much going on, making it much easier to play on a coffee table or hotel room desk.

My solo games average between 35-45 minutes each which does not out stay its welcome. Multiplayer games (remember: I’ve only played 2) clock in between 60-90 minutes.

The iconography is clear – and in case it isn’t for you, the rules have an excellent explanation of the many of the individual building and specialist cards as well as the back page of the rulebook having an icon summary.

My one complaint is a constant from all three of the Dinosaur Island games I’ve played – the amber-colored dice. It’s not just that they’re amber-colored, though… it’s the clear acrylic/amber design of them that makes them difficult to read across the table, especially when you’re looking for threat dots. It’s not as big of an issue when playing solo, but it’s been a problem otherwise. I’ve found that playing on a lighter surface tends to help.

With that one caveat, I’d recommend Dinosaur Island: Rawr’n’Write to fans of roll’n’write games, solo players looking for an interesting challenge, and those who are still looking for a game about running a theme park that they enjoy.

This review originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Gaming: Activity -> Hobby -> Obsession

Yes, this is my game room/home office.

As we all bask in the glow of post-Essen coverage, I bring you this classic post from my personal blog (written because the game I was supposed to be reviewing that morning had not yet arrived… though the USPS promised that would happen sometime that week. They came through - finally.)

More accurately, the progression could be stated:
  • our family owns a copy of Monopoly, Scrabble and a couple of decks of playing cards
  • our family owns all of the above plus some mass-market kid games, Apples to Apples & Sequence
  • our family owns all of the above plus some “high end” kid games from the “educational” toy story that have this funny red pawn on them
  • our family owns all of the above plus a copy of Axis & Allies and The Settlers of Catan
  • our family owns all of the above plus some of these newfangled cooperative games (like Pandemic) and a couple of games with cool plastic miniatures
  • our family owns all of the above plus just bought shelving to store all of our games that we’ve recently bought after discovering BGG
  • our family owns all of the above plus has taken out a second mortgage on our house to finance a trip to Essen
  • our family owns all of the above plus it’s about to be featured on an upcoming episode of Hoarders
  • I refuse to answer where I fit on this chart on the grounds that it may incriminate me.
Here’s what inspired this… my good friend & gamer buddy (and fellow member of the OG staff), Jeff Myers, blogged about this topic in a different way – his When Does Gaming Move From an Activity to a Hobby? post is a lot of fun to read. (I actually feel kind of bad about hijacking the theme of his post… but the link I have for it doesn’t work any longer, so I’m giving him props and attention this way!)

He included a quiz…

Do you keep track of your plays? If you also keep track of who was playing and who won, then give yourself a star.

My answer back in 2014 (when the original post was written) was: Yes… and no. (Well, not any more. Unless I’m at a gaming event where I’m playing a lot of games, so keeping track of that helps me remember stuff later.)

Thanks to the excellent BGStats app on my phone, it’s now Yes & Yes.

Have you gotten excited about a game before it was published? Give yourself a star if you have translated a game into English (or whatever) because you didn’t want to wait.

Yes… and yes. A lot of times. (My profile picture includes three games which I translated from German to English.)

Have you ever purchased a used boardgame? Give yourself a star if you’ve participated in a math trade.

Yes. Yes. (I’m still very proud of my $5 copies of Tumblin’ Dice & Betrayal at House on the Hill.)

Do your children understand the term Meeple? If you do not have children, then get some and come back to this post in five years. I’ll wait….. Good. Wow, you look like crap. Parenting is hard. Uh huh. Tell me about it… Yep. Give yourself a star if you own a Haba game.

Yes. Yes. (Is having a professional reviewing relationship with Haba USA for a few years worth an extra star?)

And does my children having their own collections and teaching other people board games count for more stars? (Granted, one is a college student and one is a senior in high school… but I like to think I shaped/warped them.)

Have you ever watched a video or listened to a podcast about a boardgame or tabletop games in general? Give yourself a star if you’ve been in one.

Yes. Yes. (I’m proud to have been a guest on BoardGameSpeak, Garrett’s Games & Geekiness, BoardGamesToGo, The Dice Tower… and The Dice Steeple.)

Do you own more than 50 boardgames? If you have more than 200, then give yourself a star.

Yes. Yes. (200 was a line I crossed 15+ years ago.)

Look at your bedside table. Are there any rules to a boardgame or RPG? Give yourself a star if it’s not the first time you’ve read them.

No…. though if Jeff had said “work space”, it would be Yes.

Have you ever played a game and then thought to yourself that it would be even better if those little wooden cubes were actually shaped like ships or sheep or grain? Give yourself a star if you have created specialty bits out of Fimo or other material.

Yes… and sort of. (I’ve replaced or added bits to a number of games.)

My newest quirk is finding better organizing systems for games… and with that, a shout-out to the folks at FoldedSpace as well as another friend and gamer buddy named Jeff who helps me out with 3D printing stuff. (Note: Jeff Leegon has recently started a business doing some nifty stuff with hi-tech machinery for gamers & others… which you can check out at Tennessee Native Goods.

Can you name five games by a single game designer? Just one game designer, not a game designer that is unmarried. That would be weird if you knew which game designers are married or single. That’s just creepy, seriously. Give yourself a star if you have a copy of a game that is signed by the designer.

Yes… for at least 20 designers. Yes (Starship Catan and The Starfarers of Catan – both signed by Klaus Teuber.) And a Race for the Galaxy card signed by Tom Lehmann.

Could you easily spend an entire day playing games? Give yourself a star if you already know what you’ll be doing for International Tabletop Day.

Oh yeah. And yes.

How did some of my faithful readers fare on the quiz?

This post originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Reconstructing My Faith: Flywheels, Smokescreens, and The Medicine

I spent my formative years growing up in Orange County, California... pre-"The O.C." TV show and before the area became as culturally & ethnically diverse as it is today. I went to a middle-class/upper-middle class public high school that was 70%+ white students, with Hispanic & Asian students forming the rest of the cohort. Race wasn't a forefront issue in my mind - I knew being racist was wrong, but I didn't have to deal with many situations in which it was an issue.
Michael Emerson cites research that shows “Whites tend to view racism as intended individual acts of overt prejudice and discrimination.” According to this individualist view, “Groups, nations, and organizations are not racist; people are. Second, to be considered racist, the person must classify a group of people as inferior to others, and then whatever they say or do must result directly from that view. That is, they must mean for their actions to be racist for them to actually be racist. Third, racism is equated with prejudice (wrong thinking and talking about others) and individual discrimination (wrong actions against others). Finally, because of the other components of racism’s definition, if a person is a racist it is a master status, a core identity of who the person is, not just some passing act. In short, it defines the person’s essence.” (Interestingly, this individualist definition of racism is even more strongly held by white evangelical Christians than by other whites.) from a discussion guide on racism published by Baylor University's Center for Christian Ethics
Grappling with systemic racism didn't happen for me until I was actually doing ministry. For all of my positive experiences in church, serving churches brought me into my first exposure to virulent racism: the godly Sunday School teacher who sat on her front porch and calmly explained the "curse of Ham" to me, surprised by my rejection of this horrible false doctrine; the church I served that had an "unwritten rule" that the Family Life Center would close if local African-American students came by to play basketball; the fellow youth minister whose incredibly successful 5th quarter events were shut down by the deacons because the wrong color of students were being saved and baptized.
Most people of color, on the other hand, give a structuralist definition. “Racism is, at a minimum, prejudice plus power, and that power comes not from being a prejudiced individual, but from being part of a group that controls the nation’s systems. So while anyone can be prejudiced, only whites can perpetrate racism in the United States, for they hold and have always held most of the power in American institutions.” from a discussion guide on racism published by Baylor University's Center for Christian Ethics
I've found the following quote from Skye Jethani to be really meaningful in my own struggles to explain and understand this difficult topic.
I find it helpful to think of institutions as flywheels. A flywheel is a device that stores and dispenses energy. Consider a potter’s wheel. A person puts energy into the wheel by pumping a peddle with her foot. This irregular energy input is then stored in the wheel which dispenses the energy evenly over time by spinning the clay even after the potter stops pumping the peddle. Likewise, when we build organizations, governments, or institutions, they store up our values and dispense them over time—sometimes even over generations.

Consider the U.S. government. The founding generation “pumped” their values into the Constitution and created a system of government that respected individual rights, freedom of speech, religious liberty, and limited government. Over 200 years later, the system they created is still “spinning” and shaping the lives of over 300 million people. Of course, a flywheel can also store and dispense evil values over time which is why the Constitution had to be amended to end slavery, recognize African-Americans as full citizens rather than 3/5ths of a person, and give women the right to vote.

Once we see human institutions as flywheels, we can see why the current debate between personal and systemic evil is misguided. It’s not a matter of either changing hearts or changing systems. It’s entirely possible to have individual hearts healed and transformed by the gospel, and yet still have centuries of evil energy stored up within the systems we’ve created. Left unchanged, these flywheels will continue to dispense evil far into the future and hurt many people. Likewise, only changing evil systems isn’t sufficient if the people overseeing those systems are still pumping the evil and injustice of their hearts into the flywheel. Rather than fighting about hearts or systems, Christians who care about injustice and loving their neighbors should desire to overcome evil with good no matter where it resides.
The problem for me personally hasn't been a temptation to racist behaviors... it's been a temptation to pretend that the hard work of healing was accomplished during the Montgomery Bus Boycott or on the Edmund Pettus Bridge or with the election of President Barack Obama. It's that same inclination that seems to drive some evangelicals to militantly oppose CRT (whether or not they can define it) and attempt to ban or censor teaching about racism in America. 

Look... opposition by followers of Christ to discussing CRT (critical race theory) is a smokescreen that winks at racism (and doesn’t actually deal with CRT in any meaningful way.) Our brothers and sisters of color deserve better than a half-baked statement cooked up by six white seminary presidents. And if someone needs recent evidence for systemic racism, just look at the NFL finally backing away from “race norming” in settling claims about concussions.

The denomination I grew up in (Southern Baptists) has repented via resolution after resolution of the pro-slavery roots of its founding. Now, regardless of our denominational commitment and/or our proud non-denominational stance, we who declare the love of Christ must stop taking steps backward in the name of false unity. We must stop pretending that the hard work of fighting for civil rights magically fixed the problem and we can simply rest on singing "Jesus Loves the Little Children" at VBS. The Gospel is for all nations (Matthew 28:19)... more specifically (though it's hard to be more specific than "all") "every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages" (Revelation 7:9-10)

And that includes me... speaking truth in love.
In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Extra credit reading from David French: Structural Racism Isn't Wokeness
Extra credit watching from Phil Vischer: Race in America & Race in America (part 2)
Extra credit watching from John Amaechi: What Is White Privilege?


Common Hymnal:

The Medicine

There's a sickness here that threatens to divide us 
And we're all afraid to say its name out loud
But, Lord, I know that you can heal us of this virus
So, we need you, we need you right now

There's a darkness here that's dangerous and aggressive
It getting harder every day to shake its power
But, Lord, I know that you can free us from oppression
So, we need you, we need you right now

Cause we don't know what to do
So, we turn our eyes to you
We've run out of words to say
But if you come and have your way
You can save us from ourselves
Before our wounds hurt someone else
We need you now

What does it mean to have compassion for another?
How can I claim to love a God that I can't see?
If I can find the will to harm and kill my brother
Cause he neglected to look like me

I can speak the words of men and songs of angels
I can give all my possessions to the poor
But if your love can't move the mountain of my hatred
Somehow, I missed you, and I need you so much more

Monday, November 14, 2022

(The Grapes of) Wrath of the Lighthouse – A Solo Game Review

Once upon a time (well, in 2010), there was a post-apocalyptic tableau building game from Poland that garnered a good bit of attention. And some expansions.

This review is not about that game.

Over the years, the designer/publisher decided to take a fresh look at the design and reimagine it for a new generation of gamers. I own that version (and a number of the expansions).

This review is not about that game, either.

In the interregnum between the two post-apocalyptic games, the same Polish company released a fluffier-looking take on the original game that added individual player decks/civilizations and opened up the game space a good bit. And, no surprise, it had expansions.

This review is not about game #3… but we’re getting closer.

A couple of years after the release of the new & improved version of the “dark future” game, the civilization game spawned a new offspring… taking the civilizations north, reducing the destructive interactions, and actually increasing the strategic game space. Once again, I own that game (and pretty much all of the expansions.)

This review is not about that game… until it is – because Wrath of the Lighthouse (the subject of this game review) is a solo campaign for the Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North.

And I like it.

A lot.

Note: the original game was 51st State… later updated and improved by the 51st State Master Set. (Not mentioned: there’s a new big box version with more content about to deliver in the next few months.) The “fluffier-looking” game is Imperial Settlers… and the company that made all of this possible is Portal Games.

Take off… to the Great White North!

For those who haven’t played Empires of the North (or haven’t played it solo), let me give you a quick (and not entirely complete) outline of how the game works.
  1. Choose your civilization… thanks to the expansion boxes, the original 6 civilization decks found in the base game have been joined by 8 other decks with a variety of new twists & turns.
  2. Lay out your Basic Field cards (resources you produce) and draw five cards from your deck, keeping three to start the game.
  3. Take 5 workers/citizens, 2 ships, and the resources from your Basic Fields.
  4. Set up the “rondel” of actions randomly (it’s not really a rondel, but bear with me on this one) as well as the Island board (with two face-up islands of each type: Nearby & Distant).
With all of that in place, the (solo) game begins… and you have four game turns to hit the scoring objective of the scenario you’ve chosen. You spend resources to build cards from your hand into your tableau – many of which give you more action options; you use your two action markers on the “rondel” to trigger specific actions – which could assist you in building, recruit more workers, and even send one of your ships off to the Island board to pillage or conquer. In the process, you score victory points and (hopefully) build an engine that lets you keep rolling along to victory.

Your final score is determined by the victory points you’ve earned over the course of the game, plus one point for each card in your tableau, one point for each gold coin, and one point for every two resources remaining. There is likely to be other ways to score that are based on the solo scenario that you are playing.

The base game comes with a booklet of solo rules and scenarios (four of them!) and there are other official & unofficial scenarios available. There are a couple of simple twists to the solo game:
  • Events: after drafting cards at the beginning of each turn, the player uses numbered chits to randomly select an event from the solo scenario.
  • Action costs: at the end of each turn, flip the actions on the “rondel” with your action markers on them over to their solo side… which imposes an additional cost to take that action during the next turn.
Here’s what I wrote about playing Empires of the North solo for my last solo gaming update:
While I’m a big fan of 51st State: Master Set, the dark apocalyptic tone makes it a little tough to get to the table sometimes. Add that the solo module for it is not enjoyable and it hasn’t seen much play in the last couple of years.

This frustration led me to Empires of the North, the cleaner, friendlier, and more coherently put together cousin to 51st State and Imperial Settlers. The two player game is quite enjoyable… and so is the well-thought out solo mode. (And the plethora of expansions just means you have lots of options in how to try each solo scenario.)

I’ve been trying to go back and play some of the simpler solo scenarios with the more complicated decks, which has been a lot of fun.
Take off… it’s a beauty way to go…

With that spotty but helpful overview out of the way, let’s get to the real reason you’re reading this – the Wrath of the Lighthouse solo campaign.

The box includes 55 new campaign cards:
  • Location and Follower cards
  • a Crop Event deck
  • a Naval Event deck
  • a deck of Special Fields
There are a bunch of tokens and tiles to make play easier, along with some wooden special worker pieces. Also included are 2 double-sided progress sheets to keep track of your campaigns… and there’s a way to print more.

Finally, there is both a rulebook (which contains some “choose your own adventure”-like paragraph information for each scenario in addition to the rules for the campaign) and a scenario book with 15 different scenarios. According to the publisher (hello, Igancy & friends!), there are 50 different story branches available utilizing the components in the box.

Why is the number of lighthouses on the coast increasing? Why do the people so strongly oppose the cathedral being rebuilt? And those seas constantly assaulted by storms…

Game description from BGG entry
Coo, loo, coo, coo, coo, coo, coo, coo!

Because of the story-driven nature of the campaign, I’m hesitant to try & give a lot of details about the story and/or the scenarios. So, what follows is a broad brush picture of the campaign design.

Simply put, you are attempting to find the end of the story… but lose three scenarios and your adventure is over. (My personal campaign is five scenarios in… and after two rather bitter losses – one of them a real nail-biter, I’ve managed a solid win, a “hold on with my fingernails” win, and a crushing victory to keep the story going.)

The set-up and design of the scenarios I’ve played so far is a bit more complicated than the solo scenarios found in the base game… but I expected and welcomed that in order to tell a more interesting story. I’ve been impressed with how many of my rules questions have been answered in the rulebook – with so many scenarios and odd situations, it’s a sign of solid development work that the rules do such a good job of clarifying terms and application.

Most of the scenarios have additional special actions you can take, using action markers from non-player colors to mark using them. In some case, they can be used each turn… while others are once per scenario actions that are marked by putting the action marker with the “X” side up.

The progress log is used to track wins, game conditions (which affect how various “choose your own adventure” encounters and special actions are resolved, event deck composition, and set-up changes (due to your success and/or failure).

I’m a professional, eh?

As I said above, I’m five games into the campaign using the Ulaf (Viking) clan… and whatever happens from here, I’m going to be a substantially better Ulaf player going forward, as dealing with everything the campaign throws at you with the same deck is educating me on the combos, strengths, and weaknesses of my clan.

But the real question is – am I having fun? The answer is an unqualified YES – I’m really enjoying the blend of story and solo scenarios. The challenge level has varied (I’ve only felt ‘comfortable’ with one scenario, partially due to the set-up changes I’d “earned” due to my sub-standard play on the first couple of scenarios) and I can see hints of even loopier scenario designs coming.

If you are (a) a solo gamer, and/or (b) a fan of Empires of the North, I can heartily recommend the Wrath of the Lighthouse campaign. I’d encourage my solo gamer readers to give Empires of the North a try (again, I’m a fan of the solo system Portal designed)… and this would be a great way for non-solo gamers with a copy of Empires of the North on their shelf to try solo gaming.

Simply put – the Portal Games crew set out to build a (solo) board game campaign that tells a story… and stuck the landing. (They did not pay me to reference the books Ignacy wrote – I threw that in there for free.)

Note: the section headers are references to the classic Bob & Doug McKenzie skit done with the assistance of Rush’s Geddy Lee… and which I intended as a nod of the base game but mostly just to amuse myself. Want to know what the heck I’m yammering on about? Try this.

A review copy of Wrath of the Lighthouse was provided by Portal Games… but the Empires of the North base game box and all four expansion boxes and the extra solo scenarios and the Treasure Islands I bought with my own gaming budget, thank you very much.

This review originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.