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Look at all this stuff...

Look at all this stuff...

Growing up, I read about air combat all the time. I once ordered a catalog from the Israeli Defense Force so I could save up for one of the Kfir attack jets they were selling. The first game I got for my Commodore 64 was Microprose’s Gunship (along with Pirates (what a spectacular way to kick off my computer gaming hobby)), which modeled an AH-64 Apache in glorious 16-color 640×480, and let me fly it using an old Atari 2600 controller. I became smitten with flight sims, and have played nearly all of them.

Until recently. Modern stuff, like Eagle Dynamics’ DCS: A-10C Warthog sim, is so complex that I don’t have time to learn how to take off, let alone manage the plane once it is up in the air. It made me frustrated and forlorn.

And then along came Thunderbolt Apache Leader.

Playing the Game

Look at all this stuff…

TAL puts you in charge of a close air support (CAS) group assigned to raining death from the sky in one of many historical and fictional campaigns. You pick the aircraft. You choose the pilots. You decide what weapons to use and who to send where. It is amazing.

The most amazing thing is the amount of depth extracted from a minimal and intuitive ruleset. Each game begins when you select a Campaign card that tells you what circumstances you’re operating under and what enemies and terrain tiles will be in play throughout the campaign. Then you select a Situation card that dictates the type of action you’re involved in and grants an initial bolus of special operations (SO) points that you may use as you see fit. As you will soon find out, everything revolves around SO points, and your ultimate success depends on how well you manage them.

There is also a Special Condition deck, and you draw one card from it each day. These give you or the enemy an advantage that day, and often cost SO points if you want to activate a benefit or avoid a detriment.

Once the campaign, situation, and special condition are settled you draw cards from Assault, Command, and Support Battalion decks to determine the enemy forces you will face during the campaign. These are placed in various range bands on the board, and generally the Assault Battalions are up front while the Command and Support battalions are in the rear. Traveling behind enemy lines imposes weight and other penalties, while fighting closer to your base induces more stress in your pilots. Stress ain’t good.

Each Battalion Card has a number of enemy units printed on it. Some are tank-heavy, while others have buildings or are packed with soft targets like infantry and trucks. There’s a lot of variety, and since you must assign your aircraft to attaching one battalion at a time it is important to pay attention to their composition so you can arm them properly.

Avengers, Assemble!

First, though, you have to buy some planes and helicopters, and good luck deciding. There are two flavors of A-10 Thunderbolts, two flavors of AH-64 Apache’s, AV-8 Harriers, AH-1 Cobras, an F-16 Falcon, armed and unarmed Predator drones, and even an AC-130 Spectre (it makes things go BOOM!). Each aircraft has a service date so that you can’t use, say, an AC-130 or A-10C during the 1991 Persian Gulf campaign, so that narrows your choices a bit. Still, it is a blast to choose which aircraft will work best against your enemy. Do you take an A-10 that costs 8 SO points, or grab two Apache’s for the same cost (or one Apache and two Cobras)? The F-16 is zippy and carries just about anything, but the Harrier can hover and maybe keep out of danger. Should you budget for Predators, which don’t do much damage (if any), but make all your other planes operate far more efficiently? Do you pay for the Spectre, or … yes, you pay for the Spectre.

So after you spend a long, awesome time selecting planes, you get to pick who flies them by selecting pilots from a deck. Each one has three two-sided cards so they can level up from Newbie to Green to Novice to Average to Skilled to Ace. All of them start on Average, and you can dump levels from one to pump levels on another on a one-for-one basis. They gain a host of skills as they gain experience, including the crucial Fast (which lets them shoot and move before the enemy attacks), bonuses to point-blank strikes and/or stand-off attacks from range, etc. They all have cool nicknames and you will love and care for them and curse the sky when they go out and get themselves killed.

When you’re done buying pilots you can level them up by spending one SO point per level. This is tempting, especially if you can bump a pilot to Fast, but SO points are priceless so the decisions here are never easy.

You have your planes, and you have your pilots, so the next step is giving them destructive things to hurl at their foes. Oh, the fun you will have.

Each individual weapon is represented by a counter, and there are a lot of them. Mavericks and Hellfires, dumb bombs and smart ones and cluster ones, rocket pods, air-to-air missiles, fuel tanks and electronic countermeasures (ECM) pods. The weakest weapons, like the dumb bombs and TOW missiles, don’t cost anything but the weight they take up. The good stuff, though, comes at a price. Here you can trade SO points for weapon points on a 1-10 basis, which seems insanely generous until you realize you need to arm a lot of things that can carry an absurd amount of weapons. You don’t want to squander all your SO points here because they often come in handy in the next phase.

Once you’re locked and loaded you assign your screaming death machines to specific battalions, creating one or more missions. It’s tempting to overkill the enemy here, but often you must destroy at least two battalions per turn to meet your campaign condition, so you must get comfortable splitting up your forces and using them efficiently. You can also spend SO points now to buy Scout aircraft on a one-for-one basis. Scouts can give you additional time over your target and other advantages, and are always worth it if you have points to spare.

Kick the Tires & Light the Fires

With the aircraft assigned you begin the first mission by flipping a Mission Event card that often lets you pay an SO point to soften up an enemy or gain some other advantage (or makes you take some lumps before you get to the target).

Next you gather up the ten hexagonal terrain tiles indicated on your campaign cards and randomly place them on the board (three on top, four in the middle, and three on the bottom). Then you gather up all the units indicated on the enemy Battalion card and roll 1d10 for each one of them, placing them in the corresponding terrain tile. It seems stupid and random, but the map is so cramped and there are usually so many units on it that it often leads to interesting and challenging force distributions.

Another thing you’ll notice is that the some of the terrain tiles have ridges printed on some of their edges. These determine line-of-sight for aircraft at low altitude, and also cause stress checks for low-altitude pilots screaming over the tops of them.

Now you place the planes assigned to the mission in any of the map’s edge hexes, and it’s party time. Combat is simultaneously simple, brutal, exhilarating, agonizing, and triumphant.

First you place the loiter marker, which tells you how many turns you have to blow stuff up and get off the map before running out of gas. You get five just for showing up, but every aircraft with a fuel tank gets two more, and you can get several more on top of that from a successful Scout roll. Extra turns are particularly important for A-10s and the Spectre since they can chew up targets indefinitely with their massive guns. They also come in handy for choppers as they move so slowly they can easily get caught in the middle of the map without enough fuel to egress.

At the beginning of each turn, if you have any aircraft at high altitude (they can be either high or low), you must draw one Pop-Up counter for each of them. These either say “No Enemy” on the back or have a random unit printed there, which is placed on the map randomly. These little monsters don’t count towards the number of units you must kill to destroy the battalion, and can be a real thorn. It pays to stay low for this reason, but going high is sometimes necessary for line-of-sight or weapon firing parameter reasons, or forced due incoming fire. Note that Predators and the Spectre can fly at high altitude without forcing you to draw Pop-Up counters.

After resolving Pop-Ups you roll for enemy cover, which turns out to be one of the most critical points in the game. Enemies in cover move to the nearest ridge in their hex and are immune to stand-off attacks, which sucks, sucks, sucks. There are few things worse than loading up an A-10 with Mavericks that can hit from three spaces away, Hellfires that can hit from two spaces away, putting a pilot with a stand-off bonus in the cockpit, and watching as a clump of enemies slinks off the the nearest ridgeline and makes that pilot work up close. (This is doubly bad for planes laden with Mavericks and Hellfires, as those missiles can’t hit targets in the same hex as the firing aircraft. It’ll remind you of Iceman in Top Gun: “TOO CLOSE FOR MISSILES, I’M SWITCHING TO GUNS!”.)

If you’re lucky no enemies will hide, and if you’re really lucky you’ll roll a ten and force some out of hiding. Then, if you have any Fast pilots, they can move and attack after selecting an altitude (which lasts until the beginning of their next turn).

Attacks can be made once per turn before, during, or after a move, providing a lot of flexibility. You can also shoot as many weapons during the attack as you have eligible targets, making it possible to drop a couple Rockeye cluster bombs in the hex you’re in while lobbing a smart bomb into an adjacent hex and shooting a Sidewinder at an enemy helicopter halfway across the map. The only exception to this is a cannon attack, which precludes you from using any other weapons. Late-model aircraft or aircraft flying missions with Predator drones are also Linked, letting them share targets with other Linked aircraft and mitigating line-of-sight issues.

Weapons have a single attack rating and you must roll it or higher to destroy your target. Weaker weapons have higher numbers, and the best laser-guided bomb has a rating of zero. You’re still not necessarily out of the woods, as pilots may have negative ratings that subtract from your roll, planes may have damage that does the same, and enemy tanks always get a -2 bonus. One weapon, the Rockeye, lets you roll to hit every enemy in the hex, and dropping a few of them on a mass of enemies really brings the shock and awe.

The importance of the A-10’s cannon should also be noted here. It has an attack rating of 4, giving you an 70% chance of destroying nearly anything as long as it’s a single target in the same hex. It’s a terrific mop-up weapon for late in the mission when all the good weapons are expended. Apache cannons have an attack rating of 7 but hit everything in their hex, making them great against trucks and other soft targets.

Once the Fast pilots have had their turn the enemy gets to go. Enemy helicopters that have line-of-sight to a target move one hex closer to it, and then every enemy that can hit something shoots at it. Most units can only hit aircraft in their same hex, but anti-aircraft units, helicopters, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), and a few other units can hit at range.

Hits are either light (yellow) or red (heavy). To resolve them, you draw counters with red and yellow sides and apply the damage listed on it. Some pilots have the Evasive ability, which lets them negate one light hit or turn one heavy hit into one light hit for every point of skill they have. ECM pods can also be activated to avoid enemy hits if you roll well.

Some hits do nothing at all, and others have aircraft names printed on them. If the aircraft being hit matches the one listed on the hit counter, it avoids that damage completely (this is a bit counterintuitive, but makes the A-10 and Apache much hardier since a lot of the counters that mitigate damage seem to apply to them). Most counters simply do damage. They may induce pilot stress, damage the engines, punch bullet holes in the aircraft, cause attack penalties, or outright kill the pilot (this is exceedingly rare). The worst kind aside from a pilot death is structural damage, as aircraft can only absorb so much of that before they are shot down.

After the enemy gets his licks in, the Slow pilots select their altitudes for the turn, resolve Pop-Up counters, and move and attack. When they are done the loiter counter goes down one notch and the whole process begins again.

Planes can leave the battlefield by exiting any edge hex, and should do so before the Bingo Fuel spaces of the Loiter track are reached. These force you to do fuel checks during the outbound phase of your mission, and if you miss the check the plane crashes. Anytime a plane crashes a search-and-rescue (SAR) check is resolved, and you may lose the pilot along with the aircraft. This costs you a victory point, plus, losing pilots stinks.

You also must flip a Mission Event card on the outbound leg and do what it says on the bottom of the card. Sometimes it’s a good thing, and sometimes it’s bad, but no matter what it always adds a little bit more to the story your campaign weaves.

Once a mission is done you start another one, and when all are finished you move the Day counter down a notch and start planning for the next day. Enemy Battalions creep closer to your base. You get a small allotment of SO points and can use them to remove pilot stress, patch up planes, and buy new stuff. Then it’s once more unto the breach, dear friends. Unless you’ve already blown the conditions of the campaign, which has been known to happen quite often under my sorry command.

Is it Worth Your Time?

Three main things will make or break a game for me:

Are the Decisions Interesting?

Every single one of them, and there are choices aplenty. Aircraft, pilots, weapons, focusing on close threats or going deep, spending SO points or conserving them, divvying up your forces without spreading them too thin, attacking targets in a sensible order, flying high and putting up with pop-ups or staying in the weeds and risking pilot stress, sticking with the mission or bugging out due to damage. Oh. My. God.

Is There a Clear Sense of Accomplishment or Failure?

Yes, on both a tactical and strategic level. You feel good just for putting together a nice weapons package. You feel great for keeping your pilots alive. You feel awesome for taking out masses of enemy equipment with only a few badass flying death machines. You feel awful when you fail at any of this. There is also a campaign scoring system to give you an idea of how good or bad you do overall.

If There is a Theme, is it Tightly Integrated with the Design?

There’s no real job like the one you get to do in the game, but I don’t care. Making you responsible for both mission planning and execution gives this game depth that others lack, and it all meshes together so well that the decisions regarding what simulation elements to jettison in favor of smooth gameplay seem perfect. Planes and weapons have subtle, simple differences on paper that make a tremendous difference during combat and lets them serve the same roles in the game that they do in a real war. This sort of elegant realism that doesn’t get bogged down in chrome is the mark of a superlative design.

The Verdict

This is one of the best games I’ve ever played, solitaire or otherwise. If you already know a lot about the weapons and aircraft involved you will pick it up in no time, and if you don’t this game can teach you a great deal of things in a short order. It does a great job of showing how modern-day CAS equipment has evolved dramatically in a relatively short timespan. Playing the Iraq 1991 campaign with older Thunderbolts and Apaches is completely different from choosing a modern campaign and using newer models of those workhorses, plus adding in things like Predators (which cause all planes to be Linked and all pilots to be Fast), and the Spectre  (which people on the receiving end of its guns probably assume is an angry Scandinavian god who is very upset with them) changes the whole ballgame.

I love that the combat engine is powered by a single d10. It makes percentages easy to work out when you’re selecting weapons and simplifies things a great deal. That they set things up so that same d10 randomizes everything is icing.

I also want to point out that although this game is expensive, you get some amazing components for your money. The board is designed to look like an attack aircraft cockpit and has all sorts of useful player aids printed on it. The terrain tiles are thick, and the hundreds of enemy and plane counters are clear and easy to tell apart. You also get several decks of high quality cards. While the art on most of the counters and cards is functional instead of inspiring (the fact that all the pilots look the same is particularly disappointing), you will definitely not feel ripped off when you open this depleted-uranium-shell-proof box.

I don’t know enough about modern carrier ops to find Hornet Leader interesting, but can’t wait to get my hands on Phantom Leader and U-Boat Leader to see how they stack up relative to this bit of divinity. My only regret is that I didn’t buy it sooner. Don’t make the same mistake.

400WNTTE

 

There’s a great game behind those horrific fonts and that busy background.

Anyone who dips even their little toe into solitaire gaming is sure to stub it on Victory Point Games. They make some of the best solo games, and take chances on designs that would otherwise be relegated to the dustbin of print-and-play. They also have abysmal production values versus other games in the same price range. Even with their new printer and laser-cut impossibly thick tokens their graphic design is lacking, and they still ship their games in ziplock bags.

I’ll keep buying their stuff because I love it, but it’s nearly impossible to organize because you can’t tell at a glance from looking at a stack of ziplock bags which game is which. I considered putting them all in custom boxes, but that’s a lot of printing and takes up a lot of room. Then I found a binder and some plastic page sleeves that I’d used on some business projects in the past. I put the bagged components from one of the games in a few page sleeves, put the map and rules in a pocket inside the binder, and I’d found my solution. Half-inch binders work great for everything I’ve put in them so far, and they sit nicely on a shelf.

The binders I buy have clear plastic pockets so you can insert a custom cover and spine, so I hit the Internet, gathered up some freely available materials (I am not an artist or illustrator. At all.), and put some covers together. Here are the results:

HaggisTitle

Haggis is one of my favorite card games. It’s like a two- or three-player version of Tichu (another favorite), only without the partnership aspect. I was so excited to hear it was getting an iOS release, especially after enjoying the excellent Tichu app (from a different and better developer).

Let me tell you everything you need to know about this app: It has no multiplayer support. None. Not even pass-and-play. That’s bad enough that you should balk at it no matter the price, but they went and sealed it by implementing one of the sorriest AI opponents of all time. I’ve never lost to this game. Often I’m done beating well before it gets to 50 points. And I am by no means an expert Haggis player. I’ll go ahead and review it, but save yourself some time and skip the rest of this and the app until they get around to adding multi or a decent AI.

Playing the Game

The main goal of Haggis is to get rid of the cards in your hand as quickly as possible (a la Gin, Tichu, or Gang of Four). There are other layers of strategy at work, though. You can bet 15 or 30 points at the start of every hand that you will go out first, and your opponent gets them if you are wrong. You also get 5 points for every card left in your opponent’s hand when you go out, which adds up quickly if you can find some killer combos to dump your hand in a hurry.

The big thing strategy-wise, however, is the bomb. Every player gets a Jack, Queen, and King at the beginning of each hand that are worth 3, 4, and 5 points, respectively. The only other cards in the deck that are worth points are 3s, 5s, 7s, and 9s, which are worth one point each.

Normally you take a trick by playing a higher-ranked combo than your opponent, ranging from single cards to enormous straight flushes. You have to play the same number of cards and type of combo as your opponent, making it very important to get the lead if you have a big combo that you don’t think they can follow. But these big plans are held in check by bombs, which are combos that can take any trick. The smallest bomb is a 3579 of different suits. Next is the JQ bomb, then the QK bomb, and both are topped by the JQK bomb. The real terror is the 3579 of one suit, which beats everything and is a great way to conserve your JQK for use as wilds.

The fact that all players begin with JQK makes for some delicious and agonizing choices. It is always tempting to weave those wilds into a huge combo, but if you don’t have a 3579 bomb to back it up with you leave yourself wide open to an opponent using their JQK to bomb your big play or a future one. It’s like a big, awesome game of chicken to see who will blink and use a wild card first.

But the most interesting thing about bombs, and one of the design elements that make this one of the best cards games ever, is this: When you bomb a trick, you get the lead but your opponent gets all the cards you just took.

This is huge. Imagine your opponent bombed a trick with a QK (adding 9 points to it). Do you let her have it and take those points, or do you put your JQK on it and get the trick but hand her 9 points back plus another 12 from your cards (and points from whatever 3s, 5s, 7s, and 9s are in the trick)? Clever bomb play can turn a bad loss into simple stalemate or a big win. You have to outguess your opponents, and you have to outplay them. Two qualities all the best card games have.

Crapp

So how does the app handle all this? Wonderfully, in terms of aesthethics and interface. The physical card game has gorgeous and simple art that is retained here, and even though it doesn’t support retina displays everything is perfectly clear on both my iPhone 4 and iPad 3.

Card management is stellar. You can’t arrange them individually, but you’ll never want to thanks to the included sorting options. Press a button and it arranges them in ascending order by suit. Press it again and it arranges them in ascending order by value. The former is perfect for finding runs and 3579 bombs, and the latter is perfect for finding pairs, three-of-a-kinds, and four-of-a-kinds. Better still, if you find a bomb or other combo you want to keep separate from the rest of the hand you can select those cards and press a retain button to pull them all off to the side. My god, it is a thing of beauty.

Game over. Note the computer got nearly half its points from this one final hand. Pathetic.

But then you play and it all falls apart. The AI sits passively as you rid junk singletons from your hand, setting it up for a can’t lose power play. It uses its wild cards frivilously, handing you a bomb advantage. It uses its pairs conservatively, giving you leads no sane human would ever let you have. It is a sucker, and a fool, and hapless. The only tension to be had comes from making 30-point bets without looking at your hand first, and also letting the AI rack up a triple-digit score before you start playing. It is a joke.

And there’s no multiplayer. I know I’ve already said it, but it bears repeating. The developers have said they might add it later if the single-player game sells well enough, which is about as backwards as thinking can get.

This is a brilliant game misrepresented by a brain-dead app. It deserves better, and so do you. Buy the physical version and don’t spend time or money on this until they let you play with other people or program an AI that doesn’t remind you of the time you had to play checkers with a three-year-old.

DawnZeds

Victory Point Games’ States of Siege series is all about checking the progress of really bad things coming at you from a variety of directions. Can you imagine a system better suited to simulating a zombie apocalypse?

Neither can I.

Playing the Game

Dawn of the Zeds has the chintzy components VPG is known for, only they’re slightly less chintzy than some of their other releases I’ve played. The cards are a bit thicker, the art is a bit more involved (though most is computer-generated and I don’t care for it), and it comes with a nice big pile of chits and markers. This game is begging for the company’s recent Gold Banner treatment (better paper and much thicker counters), but when a game is this good I’ll take what I can get. And what I got is highly functional.

Everything happens on an 11×17 map with Mountain, Forest, Suburb, and Highway tracks that all converge on a central town. Each track has some named spaces that provide combat and other bonuses, along with villages containing helpless Villagers and Civilian Units that can fight. These far-flung units can’t move at the beginning of the game, but unlock as soon as they meet the zombies face-to-face. After that the Villagers turn into Refugees that try to flee to the city center, and the Civilian Units come fully under your control to use as zombie feed as you see fit.

A few Civilian Units begin under your control in the Town Center, as do four Heroes. You get to choose one Hero and then draw three random ones, and other Heroes sometimes appear as the game progresses. They all have multiple special abilities, move much faster than Civilian Units do, and often are better in combat than even the largest Civilian Unit. The tradeoff is that Civilian Units can absorb up to four hits before being removed from play, and they can potentially re-enter the game. Heroes can absorb only two hits before dying, and death is permanent for them. With the exception of Villagers/Refugees player units can never stack with one another, so it takes some strategy to position Civilian and Hero Units where they will do the most good.

To put this in perspective, Zed Units soak up six hits before being removed. Oh, and two Zed units can also stack to form a Zed Mob that combines its strength values. I hate it when that happens. So will you.

The Heroes are varied and interesting. Many excel at hand-to-hand or gunfire attacks (the two types of combat), and some have Forager abilities that are crucial for obtaining supplies and ammo. The craziest is a dog named Pickles that can’t fight but can co-exist in spaces where Zeds are (useful for scavenging in choice areas later in the game) and can bark to keep them from moving towards town. Pickles is also lovable. (We love you, Pickles!)

Attached to Town Center are a Hospital and Laboratory. Only Heroes with a Science special ability can be assigned to these. In the Hospital they can heal wounded Heroes to bring them back into play at full strength, and in the Lab they can conduct research to make healing easier, invent a Super Weapon, and ultimately discover a cure for the zombie plague.

Zeds appear on the ends of the four tracks leading to town and shamble down them towards the Town Center. It might seem like a good strategy to put everyone in the Town Center to concentrate your power, but if any Zed Unit steps into that square the game ends in a loss immediately. No fights. No special cards. Just THE END. Your job is to hold them off until the National Guard arrives to bail you out.

This happens by working your way to the bottom of an Event Deck. At the beginning of the game you mix the National Guard Arrives card in with some other cards, put them on the bottom, and put the rest of the deck on top. The rest of the deck is mainly Event Cards, but is also seeded with special Zed Cards designed to make you cry. The worst of these, naturally, is the Braaaaaiiiins card, which moves all Zed Units at once. Any Zeds that win fights as the result of this get to fight again if another player unit is adjacent. And again if another one is. Etc. If one of these chain attacks hits at the wrong time you can lose the game much faster than you ever thought possible.

There is also a deck of Fate Cards. This contains some helpful stuff and some awful stuff. Really awful stuff. Fate draws are tense and cause some huge power swings.

Event Cards drive the game. At the beginning of each turn you draw one and it determines how the five phases of each turn play out.

First, there’s the Refugee Movement phase. If any Villagers have been turned into Refugees you move them closer to Town Center. When they get there you can either move them to a refugee camp (providing a better ending if you survive to the end of the game), or equip them and use them to heal a few existing Civilian Units. There are also VIP Survivors that sometimes enter the map and provide a special bonus if you manage to shepherd them to town, and a gang of Raiders that move fast and will steal your supplies and ammo if you don’t kill them.

Next there’s the Outbreak phase. The map has an Infection Level track that rises for all kinds of reasons, including hand-to-hand combat with Zeds and refugee units entering Town Center. If the current Infection level is equal to or less than the number printed on the Event Card, an Outbreak is triggered and bad things happen fast. First you reduce the Infection Level by 5 (OK, that’s good), then you make a Fate Draw and execute its event (this can be good or bad), and then you add a full-strength Zed unit to the track indicated on the Fate card. This Zed appears at the Chaos Marker closest to Town Center, or the closest Village if there is no Chaos Marker, and often immediately triggers hand-to-hand combat.

I haven’t talked about Chaos Markers yet. These appear in named spaces that Zeds land in or pass through. They block player unit movement and require any unit that enters to waste a turn getting rid of the marker. They also tie into a lot of event cards, causing worse things to happen if they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. You will come to hate Chaos Markers.

After Outbreak is the Consume Supplies phase. You begin the game with a random amount of these, and can increase them through Foraging. Full-strength Civilian Units (Heroes and weakened Civilian Units don’t count) are counted and checked against the number on the card (unless the card outright tells you to consume or not consume), and if there are more of them than the number you lose one supply. If you don’t have enough you must apply one hit to any player unit on the map. This problem obviously becomes less pressing as the game progresses, but by then you have bigger problems to worry about.

After that it’s the Zeds phase. The Event card lists what tracks the Zeds move on that turn, and sometimes gives them an extra burst of speed. If they land on a space with one of your units hand-to-hand combat begins. If they land on a fleeing Refugee those Refugees are eaten and the Infection Level increased by 2.

Finally there’s the Actions phase. This is where you finally get to Move your units, erect defensive Barricades (this requires two supplies), remove Chaos Markers, Forage for ammo and supplies, conduct Research, Heal units, and fight. Only you won’t get to do all those things because there are never enough action points to do everything you need to do. Using them wisely is critical.

Those are all the basic phases, but each Event Card also has some event text at the bottom that applies during one of those phases. Often the event provides special benefits to the Zeds, but sometimes they give you extra resources if you have a unit in the right space at the end of your turn or otherwise benefit you.

Combat is simple. You compare the strength of the attacking unit to the strength of the defending unit and apply combat shifts (for terrain and other bonuses) to determine what column to use on the combat chart. Then you roll 2d6 to see what row you use on that chart. This tells you how many hits the attacker and defender take, and which unit retreats after hand-to-hand combat. In gunfire attacks you consume one ammo to do the same thing, but use a fixed column based on the attacker’s Strength, attack an adjacent enemy, don’t take hits, and the defender never retreats (except under special circumstances).

That’s it. Survive until the National Guard arrives and you get to check your level of victory to see how things turned out for humanity thanks to your efforts. Or die.

You will usually die.

Is it Worth Your Time?

I look for three main things from the games I play:

Are the Decisions Interesting?

A lot of this game is dealing with what the Event and Fate Cards throw at you, but the choices you make to do that are always interesting. Even the initial Hero pick sets the tone for the entire game, as you can go with a combat-heavy badass like the Sheriff, or guarantee that you’ll be able to do some research by choosing one of the wimpier scientist heroes.

Once you get a feel for the decks your choices become less random and more strategic. You have a better feel for the odds of horrific Zeds cards coming up, or the odds that a particularly hairy bunch of Zeds will move the next turn and ruin your day if you ignore them (NOTE: The odds of this are always 100%). You also know what kinds of benefits you’ll receive and can plan around them instead of wasting actions on things you get for free.

And trust me, you never want to waste an action in this game. Even when the Zeds hit the fan and your units are being consumed like franks at an MLB game, you always have too many people and too few options. The game does a good job of keeping you on the edge of your seat, head-down, scanning the map to see what sacrifices are acceptable.

Is There a Clear Sense of Accomplishment or Failure?

This depends on what you want to get out of this thing. Obviously you either hold out until the National Guard swoops in or you watch everyone get turned into the living dead, but a lot of what happens is outside your control. You can try to mitigate your bad luck but the dice guarantee that your planning seldom pays off (FRIGGIN’ DICE).

If you can live with that and care more about reacting to what an emergent narrative throws at you, this is your game. Dawn of the Zeds tells a different story every time, and it is always interesting, even when you’re losing. Maybe especially when you’re losing.

Here’s an example: In every game I’ve played I’ve ended up with Captain Piazza on my team. She is astounding on paper because she can hit Zeds up to three spaces away, and she always uses a fixed column on the combat chart instead of having to use her relatively weak Strength. Theoretically this will let her whittle down even the biggest Zed Units as they cover the distance between them and the business end of her sniper rifle.

Only she never hits anything. Ever. In my last game with her I threw more snake eyes than I’ve ever thrown in every game I’ve ever played combined (minus Risk). Despite her supreme suckitude I managed to burn through enough events that I knew the National Guard would show up at any second, and my only concern was a full-strength Zed unit with an strength of 8 that was parked two spaces from Town Center.

My only other units were too far away to help. Looking down, I remembered that I had picked up an explosives card via a Fate Draw. This applies 1d6 hits when Zeds wander into it, so despite her ranged advantage I sent Piazza one space towards the Zeds to set the charges.

She got the job done, and my next Event Card draw moved the big Zed pack smack into her. Piazza is hopeless in hand-to-hand combat, but she has a trick up her sleeve. When Zeds move into her space she can roll 1d6, and if she gets the right number she applies one hit to them and retreats one space. She got it. Then the explosives went off. I rolled a six. KABOOM! No more Zeds. The next draw would have moved them into Town Center. Then the National Guard showed up and I told Captain Piazza she was now a Major, but that I was commandeering her sniper rifle and never wanted to see her again in this brave new world we had forged together.

Each game overflows with little anecdotes like these. I love them. If you don’t, run. Run as if there’s a zombie horde at your heels.

If There’s a Theme, is it Tightly Integrated with the Design?

With one exception, most definitely. It’s really neat to play a zombie game at this macro level, where you’re managing large groups and individual heroes. Actually, “really neat” doesn’t do this design justice — it’s flippin’ amazing. You don’t so much play this game as you write and direct your own epic zombie TV series.

The exception I mentioned is the stacking limitation for Player Units. There is every reason thematically to let Heroes stack with the larger Civilian Units, and for Heroes to stack with Heroes, but here it is verboten. I’m sure it would throw off the balance, but I’m considering experimenting with a house rule that lets you stack Heroes with one Civilian Unit, using its reduced strength side or cutting its FV in half (rounded up). Or maybe the solution is to give heroes special abilities and bonuses that only apply when they’re with a Civilian Unit or another Hero Unit. However it’s done, it just makes sense to have heroes enter a group and contribute their special heroness. Especially for Pickles. Why a dog can’t coexist in a space with anyone she wants to (Pickles is obviously a she) boggles the imagination.

The Verdict

This is a very different zombie game. Instead of focusing on a handful of heroes holding out or fleeing to relative safety, Dawn of the Zeds gives a bird’s eye view of an extended community dealing with the apocalypse. Combat is quick and brutal. Heroes are powerful but brittle. A cute and lovable dog barks at Zeds and brings you lots and lots of precious, precious ammo. Weak units you decided to write off to buy some time throw back massive zombie mobs against all odds. Characters you’ve come to rely on fumble miserably at a critical moment and are eaten. It’s like playing a season of The Walking Dead, but in an hour or two.

My only complaint is that there aren’t enough Heroes. Those that are included are great, but replayability would benefit greatly if you weren’t always stuck with the same cast. Of course, there are fan mods for that. And an expansion on the way.

Mr. Johnson just oiled his double-barrel boomstick. Bring it.

Here's my version.

Here's my version.

Here’s my version.

Sometimes I like to sit around and just think about how awesome Nemo’s War is. Like right now.

Note that my love for this game may be tainted by my bias for the source material. I wouldn’t recommend that you read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea if you haven’t, because it turns most modern mortals away from sci-fi permanently, but the core story is phenomenal. Unfortunately Verne’s obsession with science in general and ichthyology in particular obscures the brilliance of the tale of Captain Nemo and his “guests.” Many of the chapters read more like a sushi menu than a gripping tale of adventure.

Here’s the one you get in the ziplock bag.

But forget all that. Nemo is one of the great anti-heroes of all time, waging his one-man war of utterly mad vengeance. Alternately gambling with his crew and suffering immensely when they are hurt or killed. Obsessed with science, but sailing in perpetual self-imposed exile. Targeting civilian ships, then scooping treasure from the ocean floor to help the poor and oppressed break the shackles of imperialism. Rescuing shipwreck victims only to permanently imprison them on his vessel so they won’t reveal his secrets.

And what a vessel. The Nautilus is one of the most amazing, wildly imaginative creations in the pantheon of sci-fi. A nigh-invulnerable submarine packed with wondrous technology. Capable of astonishing speed and punching holes in massive ironclads, yet furnished like a Victorian palace. It is the headspring of Steampunk, for better or worse, and Verne conjured it more than 150 years ago.

How could anything other than a paragraph-driven game capture all this?

Let me show you.

Playing the Game

I even made a stylized Nautilus miniature out of Sculpey. Can you tell I fetishize this crazy game?

I was underwhelmed when I opened the ziplock bag this game ships in, just as I am with all of Victory Point Games’ other excellent yet underproduced releases. Everything plays out on an 11×17 unmounted board that contains a map of the world’s oceans and several player aids. It is full of useful information but cluttered, and after playing on it a few times I ended up making my own graphical redesign.

The map has a Time Track with 52 spaces (representing one week each), a Notoriety Track with 33 spaces, and a Liberation Track with 10 spaces (though flipping its marker to the +10 side gives it an effective 20 spaces). There is a Sunken Ship grid, a Salvage Track for captured ships, and a place to put Collected Treasures. There are also three resource tracks. One represents Nemo, and the other two represent the Crew and Hull of the Nautilus.

The map is divided into six areas (W. Pacific, E. Pacific, S. Atlantic, N. Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Indian Ocean) that each hold one Treasure and various numbers of random, face-down enemy ship counters. Lines connect them to one another, and normally it takes one week to move between connected areas, but some have a symbol indicating it takes an additional week.

“I am the law, and I am the judge! I am the oppressed, and there is the oppressor! Through him I have lost all that I loved, cherished, and venerated–country, wife, children, father, and mother. I saw all perish! All that I hate is here!” – Captain Nemo

At the beginning of each turn you roll 2d6. If the numbers are different you place two more face-down ships from a Ship Holding Box in the indicated areas. Each area can only hold a fixed number of ships, and if they ever all fill up the game ends in an immediate loss.

If you roll doubles on the initial roll you place a Treasure in the area labeled with that number if it no longer has one. You also check for Imperial Pushback by comparing the number that came up twice to the current position of the Liberation Track marker. If the number on the dice is lower, you must move the Liberation Track marker back one space.

Finally, the marker on the Time Track has a 7+ side and a 10+ side. If this initial roll meets or exceeds the number currently displayed you flip the marker to its 10+ side if it isn’t already there and draw an Adventure Card (if it’s lower, you flip the marker to its 7+ side if it isn’t already there and don’t draw a card that turn).

Adventure Cards trigger events that happened in the book, and most involve passing a test by rolling 2d6 plus whatever modifiers are listed on the card. Passing generally gives you victory points, Treasure, special actions, or other bonuses, while failing often hurts Nemo or the Nautilus.

“It is not new continents the earth needs, but new men” – Captain Nemo

After resolving the initial roll you can take one Nemo Action. The simplest is a Move, which lets you place the Nautilus in an area connected to the one it is already in.

A Rest/Repair lets you automatically repair the hull of the Nautilus or roll to restore one crew. A Refit lets you spend Salvage Points (captured ships) to add new capabilities to the Nautilus. Both types of actions cost 1d3 weeks each time you do one, and they can’t be repeated two turns in a row.

Nemo can also Search for Treasure if one is available in that area by rolling 1d6 and consulting a chart. Treasure is placed randomly and face-down, and some have numbers and are worth that many victory points, while others are labeled Wonders and count differently for scoring. A few also trigger special actions.

Incitement is another option. Here you commit one Treasure you have with a number on it, roll 1d6, and subtract 5 from the final result. You then move the Liberation marker that many spaces and lose the committed Treasure.

Finally, you can start a brawl.

“Strike, mad vessel! Shower your useless shot! And then, you will not escape the spur of the Nautilus.” – Captain Nemo

Fighting is simple. The Nautilus can Stalk an enemy, which gives +1 to its combat roll but ends the turn whether the target is sunk or not. Alternatively, it can Attack an enemy with no bonus and continue attacking if that target is sunk. This is a good way to clear out ocean areas quickly, especially early in the game when the ships are weakest.

The Nautilus can attack a face-up target or flip a hidden target. Some targets are civilian vessels with no defenses, and the Nautilus rolls 2d6 against their defense value. Other targets are warships, and they have an attack value to go with the defense value. The Nautilus first rolls 2d6 to see if it gets above the attack value. If so, the warship misses and the Nautilus rolls 2d6 against the defense value. If not, the Nautilus loses one random Nemo, Crew, or Hull resource before it gets to counterattack.

These tracks serve another purpose. During combat, when the Nautilus fires on an enemy, you can bet one of these three resources to add one or more points to the combat roll. If you hit the target you don’t lose the resource you bet. If you miss, you lose the resource you bet. This is bad because most resources get worse as they take damage, and you are granted victory points for keeping track levels high (or lose victory points for letting them get too low). Most importantly, if any of the three track markers ever reach the end, you immediately lose the game.

Aside from a few event cards, there is one other way to modify rolls. In the book Nemo rescues Professor Pierre Arronax, the Professors’ steadfast assistant Conseil, and a feisty harpoonist Ned Land. He lets them live, but on the condition that they never return to civilization again. These skilled captives are represented in the game by three tokens that can be discarded after a roll to boost its results. Arronax adds 2, Ned Land adds 1, and Conseil allows a re-roll. The downside is that you then throw their token in your Captured Treasure pile and they count as negative VP at the end of the game. They are for emergency use only.

Once all these modifiers are applied and the dice are rolled you check to see if you meet or exceed the target’s defense value. If not you gain +1 Notoriety, the target stays where it is, and your turn ends. If so you hit the target, gain Notoriety equal to the number of skull-and-crossbones symbols on it, and can choose whether to sink it or capture it.

Sunk ships are placed on the Sunken Ships track and generate bonus points at the end of the game. Up to four captured ships are placed face-down on the Salvage Track and do not generate extra points, but can be cashed in for extra adventures or permanent ship upgrades. The latter are very important for surviving the tough ships that appear late in the game.

At the end of any Nemo Action the Time Track marker advances by one and you begin a new turn.

“God Almighty! Enough! Enough!” – Captain Nemo

So you sink or capture ships, gather treasure, and liberate the oppressed. What does it all mean? Well, that depends.

One brilliant element I haven’t mentioned yet is Nemo’s Commitment Track. Captain Nemo fought his own expansive and vengeful mind as much as he fought his imperialist foes, and this is reflected by the four different motives of Explore, Science, Anti-Imperialism, and War you can choose for him. Scoring changes dramatically depending on what you select. Ships sunk by a Nemo with a Science motive count far less than they do when Nemo has a War motive. Wonder tokens count far more when the motive is Explore than when it is Anti-Imperialism. Everything shifts, and you must shift with it depending on how your turns play out.

The big twist is that if the Nemo marker hits its fourth position on the Nemo Track, you must immediately commit to one of the four motives. You can’t change it for the rest of the game, and must work desperately to pick up points that will do you the most good.

Another brilliant element I left out is that the stakes are raised as the game progresses. Ships at the beginning are weak, and only truly awful rolls will keep you from sinking them with impunity. This raises your Notoriety, though, and once it hits 14 a group of more powerful ships is released. At 26 another really bad bunch appears. At 33 all warships get +1 to their attack value, which doesn’t sound like much but thanks to the bell curve of 2d6 gives them a real edge.

More groups of ships come in when the Time Track hits 16 and 28, and there are some particularly nasty ships that enter the fray due to Adventure Cards. The seas fill up relentlessly, and you must clear them just as relentlessly to avoid losing the game due to full oceans.

Is it Worth Your Time?

There are three main elements that separate good games from bad ones for me:

Are the Decisions Interesting?

Yes, yes, a million times yes. There’s room for some overall strategy, but you must modify it based on treasures and ships that appear, good or bad rolls (especially bad rolls), and Adventure Cards. Keeping a low profile is important if you want to avoid adding tough ships to the ocean, but you must fight to keep the oceans clear and obtain enough salvage to add critical Nautilus upgrades. Of course, every ship you salvage denies points at the end on the Sunken Ships grid. But maybe that doesn’t matter much because of the motive you committed to. Decisions, decisions…

Much of the tension in this game comes during combat or when rolling for Adventure Card tests. Deciding what resources to gamble, when to gamble them, and when it is critical to discard Arronax/Land/Conseil is a delicious exercise in risk management. Sometimes you have to throw up your hands, put everything on the line, and kiss the dice. Just like Nemo did.

Is There a Clear Sense of Accomplishment or Failure?

You can get hosed by the dice in this game, but your decisions factor mightily into the final outcome. Often what feels like a minor risk or a safe victory point grab is a rolling pebble that triggers an avalanche of disaster that could have been avoided had you been more sensible early on.

There is a complete scoring system at the end, and you can cross-reference the results there with an epilogue sheet that provides a narrative of how things turned out for Captain Nemo and the gang. The game plays out like a storyline, so having this final bit of closure is much more satisfying than tallying up a clinical score.

If There is a Theme, is it Tightly Integrated With the Design?

I’ve never played a board game that does a better job than this one at translating a piece of literature into a series of interconnected and compelling game mechanisms. The Event Cards are ripped straight out of the book. There’s the Arabian Tunnel, which served as Nemo’s shortcut between the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean, and does the same thing here, letting you play a card at a critical moment to seriously reduce your travel time. Ned Land throws temper tantrums (one of which lost me a game). A Giant Squid attacks. Nemo discovers (and claims) the South Pole. Finally, there is The Maelstrom that ended the book, and can end your game before the Time Track is complete. You can even play a version where you stack the deck in the order things happened in the book. So amazing.

And then there’s the rest of the game. Powerful warships are released as the world becomes wise to Nemo’s anti-imperial plans. Treasure can be used to liberate oppressed natives. The crew and hull get weaker as they are gambled away, while Nemo actually lends more support to rolls as he becomes increasingly unstable. The theme is the game. Brilliant.

The Verdict

Can you tell I love this? It’s always refreshing to see a solitaire title from VPG that doesn’t use the States of Siege model (which is also a great system), and this one is an absolute masterpiece. Chris Taylor somehow managed to incorporate all the best parts of the amazing source material while eliminating the boring parts and exploring interesting aspects the book only hinted at. He made a solitaire game with multiple fail states and multiple win conditions, guaranteeing replayability.

Nemo’s motto was “Mobilis in Mobili,” which loosely translates to “moving in the moving element,” or as I prefer to think of it, “being chaos in the chaos.” It’s a motto perfectly suited to Nemo’s mind, which was as wild and alien as the oceans his beloved Nautilus traversed. It’s also a motto perfectly suited to this wonderful game, where time and attrition constantly work against you, and constant motion and action are the keys to victory. If you love solitaire games, don’t miss it. And if you love Jules Verne, buy it yesterday.

Now if you’ll excuse me there’s an expansion I haven’t even tried. Time to get working on another review…

“So it was a sad day I spent, between my wish to regain freedom and my regret at saying goodbye to the marvelous Nautilus…” – Professor Aronnax

Looks great, plays ... meh.

Looks great, plays ... meh.

Nobody knows the true origin of the famous Duck Test, but I like Douglas Adams’ version best:

“If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family Anatidae on our hands.” -Douglas Adams in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

I thought Aether Captains: Clockwork Cabal was a game. It looks like a game. A beautiful one. A single deck of stunning cards that transforms into a player mat and a random map and a little adventure. It quacks like a game, with a pawn going here and there, and cubes moving every which way. But it is not a game. It is not even a entertaining pastime.

Playing the Game

Looks great, plays … meh.

The object of Clockwork Cabal is to obtain the 6 parts of the Antikythera Device before 60 hours have passed. This requires running around a map formed randomly from a City Sector Deck and overcoming challenges that require Health, Strength, and/or Knowledge. You begin the game with 6 Health, and if it ever goes to zero you lose. Then you roll a 12-sided die and use that number for either your starting Strength or Knowledge, and the difference between that number and 12 for the remaining attribute. A clever timer card is used to track the hours that have passed, and another is used to track pieces of the Antikythera Device.

To begin the game you place a Society Hall card from the City Sector Deck on the middle of the table. This has a special ability that lets you gain one Health for every two hours you spend, or one Strength for every one hour you spend. You can do this every time you return to this card.

There are black arrows on each side of the Society Hall card showing all the directions you can travel in. You choose one, flip a card over from the City Sector Deck, and place it adjacent to Society Hall in that direction. You can then move to the new card or stay put, but either choice uses up an hour.

Some of the City Sector cards are simple map pieces with black arrows pointing in two or more directions, and you can move off of them to keep expanding the map. Others have Key symbols printed on them, and if you obtain a Key you can travel between any two cards that have a Key symbol and lose only one hour. To get the Key you must travel to the map card from the City Sector Deck that has The Amber Market, where you can spend two Health and two Knowledge for it. The market also lets you purchase The Lens for three Health (this lets all Knowledge tests require one fewer Knowledge), and lets you exchange Strength for Knowledge.

What you’re really looking for when running around the map are cards from the City Sector Deck that have Cog symbols printed on them. These let you draw a card from a separate Location deck. A lot of these cards are events or challenges that require you to spend Strength, Knowledge, hours, or Health. Some give you bonuses and are laid on top of the Cog card, changing the arrows that appear on it (which can cut you off from cards you need to get to. Some do things like rotating a City Sector card, also changing the arrows. Six of them, though, are pieces of the Antikythera Device, and if you overcome the challenges printed on them you claim that piece. Get all six before you die or time runs out, and you win.

Is it Worth Your Time?

I look for three main things when assessing games of all types:

Are the Decisions Interesting?

Not at all. This is a game where things happen to you, not where you make things happen. You have to decide what direction to move in, which ultimately may have consequences, but they are unforeseeable. You also must decide when to regain Health and Strength, or when to get things at the market, but these decisions often are obvious. Overcoming challenges from the Location Deck, including the ones with pieces of the Antikythera Device, requires no thought or skill at all. You reduce the attribute called for, or roll the 12-sided die and win or take your lumps. One of the most frustrating things in the game is the sixth piece of the Antikythera Device, which you get if you roll a 6, 9, or 12 on the die. That’s it. I don’t know how repeatedly rolling and moving a time marker down the track until you achieve a goal is supposed to be entertaining, and likely never will.

Is There a Clear Sense of Accomplishment or Failure?

While you can obviously win or lose the game, it doesn’t feel like you actively played a role in either outcome. You move around and either run out of time or get killed or win. There’s no way to feel like you played smart or stupidly since the decision-making is so light and the randomness factor is so high. My immediate reaction after winning my first game was, “that’s it?” After playing several more times it became clear that that, indeed, was it.

If There’s a Theme, is it Tightly Integrated with the Design?

From a graphic design perspective this is a triumph. It’s gorgeous and does a great job of evoking its steampunk setting. From a game design perspective this is a disaster. If you’re supposed to get some sense of exploring a city, being ambushed by the bad guys, solving mysteries, and obtaining something of extreme value, the mechanisms all fail. There is a vague sense of exploration since the city unfolds at random, but Location Cards often change the map arbitrarily. Fighting bad guys requires reading what you’re supposed to do and doing it instead of strategizing and implementing a plan. You don’t discover pieces of the Antikythera Device, you run smack into them. And when obtaining a piece of it requires nothing more than adjusting a few stats or making a series of thoughtless rolls that you can’t modify in any way, you might as well be playing any other solitaire game.

The Verdict

In computer science, a corollary to the Duck Test is this layman’s version of the Liskov Substitution Principle:

“If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck but it needs batteries, you probably have the wrong abstraction.”

Clockwork Cabal is the wrong abstraction. It isn’t a game. It needs modifiers. It needs to let players be more proactive than reactive. It needs a design instead of a script dictated by a random number generator. I had high hopes because it looks like a supermodel, but it turned out to be a vapid one. There’s no need to waste time with this when there are so many better solitaire games available (some from this same designer).

Do not open this until you've read the FAQ. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

Do not open this until you've read the FAQ. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

I should have known better.

See, I can’t stand Pandemic. I understand why so many people like it, and that it is a solid design, but the core gameplay of everyone working together to put out fires never did anything for me. It felt like going through the motions (with those motions often controlled by other people at the table). So it’s really all my fault that I thought Defenders of the Realm would make for an interesting solitaire experience, because for the most part it is Fantasy Pandemic.

Setting it Up

Do not open this until you’ve read the FAQ. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

The first thing you should do before even opening your copy of Defenders is download some player aids. The rules that come with the game are not organized well or written clearly, and it’s nice to have a cheat sheet with some of the basic and easily-forgotten rules on it while you’re learning. Then get the official FAQ, because it clarifies some vague rules and introduces some important new ones. To give you an idea of the importance of this, the FAQ is longer than the rulebook.

Once that is done go ahead and open that enormous board. Then shake your head when you realize how much space went to waste on it. Normally when a designer is given this much room to work with they throw players a bone and put in spots for draw and discard piles, add a turn order summary, and insert other useful bits of info. Not here. Instead everything is designed to go around the edges of a gargantuan board that only has areas printed on it. Fortunately, what’s there is clear and functional. I’m not a big fan of the art in this game (and actively hate the fonts) but that’s subjective so who cares and let’s move on.

Now you get to pick your characters and be pleasantly surprised. These are not the little squishy novices you begin most fantasy adventure games with, but heroes worthy of the title. They all have incredible abilities and are deadly right out of the gate. They need to build up and work together to take down enemy generals, but can turn minions into a fine mist from the very first turn. Each begins the game with a fixed number of action tokens that also serve as hit points. Most of the things heroes do require flipping over an action token, so losing them when wounded dramatically reduces a hero’s options.

Next you put down those generals I just mentioned in the far-flung corners of the map. Each has a special power that comes into effect when you try to kill them. They also move on a fixed path toward the central town, although there are some special cards that can knock them back. Here’s why you must fear them:

The Orc general commands wimpy units (you hit them when you roll 3+ on a d6) that reproduce like rabbits on speed. He also moves towards the central city more frequently than do the other generals. He’s tough to kill because he has a lot of health and causes every 1 you roll to negate hits on him.

The Demon general has tougher minions (you need 4+ on a d6) that must be dealt with quickly because they quickly cause Overruns that I’ll discuss later. He moves fairly frequently, and has a special power that requires you to roll a die for each card you spend fighting him, discarding a card for each 1 you roll.

The Undead general has tough minions (4+ on a d6) that cause extra wounds if a hero ends a turn in a space with them. He moves infrequently and has a special power that negates all of your heroes’ special powers when they fight him.

Finally, there’s a Dragon general who serves as a sort of end boss. It and its minions are only hit on 5+, and its special ability lets it fully heal if you don’t manage to kill it in one turn (other generals typically heal one wound per turn if you don’t kill them).

When the generals are in place you can put down the Hero deck. Most of the cards in it correspond to a general and are discarded to roll the number of dice printed on the bottom of the card against that general. They also have symbols on the top that let heroes use various forms of movement if they discard that card. Normally heroes move one space per action, but a horse symbol lets them move up to two spaces, an eagle symbol lets them move up to four spaces, and a magic gate symbol lets them either create a magic gate at the location printed on that card, or can be discarded to travel from one magic gate to any other.

The Hero Deck also contains Special Cards. These are not misnamed. Heroes don’t gain any equipment or other treasure in this game, but Special Cards give them one-shot abilities that are lifesavers. The only downside to them is that when they are used they are removed from the game and never shuffled back into the deck, so if you squander them early you’ll have a serious challenge to overcome later in the game. Use wisely.

There’s also a Quest Deck, and it was kind of a letdown. Heroes are only on one quest at a time and may never decline the one they are on to draw a new one. These often require visiting a certain spot (or series of spots) or killing certain types of enemies, at which time a special ability is triggered. These are nice to get when you manage to complete one, but wiping out minions and drawing hero cards to prep for battles with generals takes up so much time that quests rarely seem worth the effort unless you happen to end up where you need to be. Particularly late in the game when your enemies become more powerful. A lot of them also rely on successful dice rolls or you get nothing at all, turning them from a mere distraction into an outright gamble. Maybe I’m missing something, but I wish these would have been integrated into the game better.

Finally, there’s the Darkness Deck that works in conjunction with a war progress track. Early in the war you draw one of these per turn, and they add new minions to the board and/or trigger general movement. As you kill generals you must draw more of these cards at the end of each turn, increasing the chance that generals will advance. This is bad, because if five minions or one general ever enter the central city you’re defending, you lose.

Playing the Game

Your heroes begin the game in that central city. On most turns they expend their action tokens to move, initiate combat with minions and/or generals, and fulfill quest conditions. If they are in the central city or any inn, they can use up to two actions to check for rumors. To do this they name the color of one of the generals, then draw two Hero cards. They keep any Special Cards or cards that match the color they called, then discard the rest.
Another thing heroes can do is try to cleanse corrupted land, which stems from a brilliant mechanism cribbed from Pandemic. There it is called the Outbreak, and here it is called the Overrun. A main rule to remember is there can never be more than three minions on any area, so when you are about to add a fourth you instead drop a crystal on that space and then place one minion of the color you were about to place in each adjacent area. If a minion added from an overrun would cause another overrun, you must add a crystal to that area as well.

The number of minions added via Overruns obviously stinks, but the crystals are even worse. These taint the area they are in, and when all the crystals are used up you lose the game. Areas can be tainted more than once, so clusters of units must be broken up to prevent crystals from appearing and reappearing. Also, precious actions must be taken to cleanse tainted areas if overruns start getting out of hand. The Demon faction is particularly vexing in this regard, because they cause an overrun taint the land when you add the third Demon to an area instead of the fourth. This land will be tainted again if there is an Overrun, so you have to clean up quickly.

As with all good co-op games, this adds up to a lot of tension. You can’t ignore hanging out in town and checking for rumors because it takes a lot of cards to bring down a general. You can’t ignore minions because even if they aren’t a threat now their potential to trigger Overruns and corruption is devastating. You can’t ignore the weaker general because he moves more often than the others and will take over the central town. You can’t leave your heroes too spread out or they won’t be able to team up to kill generals, but you can’t keep them clumped up or they won’t be able to deal with all of the problems that must be solved.

Is it Worth Your Time?

Please bear in mind I’m reviewing this from a solitaire perspective. If I had to play a co-op game that doesn’t have a traitor mechanism I’d likely choose this one, so if it seems like I’m savaging it in this review it’s only because there are so many other fantasy adventure games that better suit my preferences. That said, there are three things that matter to me most when I assess games:

Are the Decisions Interesting?

Yes. Each hero has enough actions that doing one or more of the things they need to do often isn’t a problem, but just as often there are two or three other important things they are forced to ignore. Do I get cards to contribute to an attack on a general or fish for a Special Card miracle? Do I attack these minions that are close to the city, or those minions that could trigger a nasty Overrun? If I move to complete my quest, can I still get where I need to be at the end of my turn? How can I best use my special abilities? All of these are things you’ll ask most turns, and rarely are the answers straightforward.

Is There a Clear Sense of Accomplishment or Failure?

Absolutely. The clock is always ticking. In the short-term, you feel like an idiot for allowing an Overrun and a tactical genius for preventing one. Taking down a general is tense and feels great when you pull it off (and horrifying when you don’t). Taking down all four feels like a miracle.

I’m editing this in, but forgot to point out that two of the things that killed this game for me are that there is little sense of accomplishment when you kill minions, and none when you fail quests. Wiping out three minions and getting nothing in return other than a sense of relief feels empty relative to most adventure games where you’d get experience and treasure. Failing quests is completely arbitrary and feels that way.

If There’s a Theme, is it Tightly Integrated with the Design?

Very, though it is the most generic of all generic fantasy (the Heroes don’t even have names, just typical trope designations like Dwarf, Elf, etc.). It generates a great feeling of dread as minions pop up all over the place and generals advance inexorably towards their target, and a great feeling of heroism when you smash through enemy forces or eliminate a general from play. Just keep in mind that the scale of this game is larger than many others. You feel more like a champion leading vast armies than a lone adventurer killing and looting their way to glory and fortune.

The Verdict

This is a nice design that is suited to solitaire play, but the lack of character development over time throttled its appeal for me. Heroes start strong but only get better in two ways. They can get Special Cards, which are used only once, and they can deliver the finishing blow during a fight against a general. The latter act grants them the Slayer title, and lets them kill that general’s minions without rolling to hit them for the rest of the game.
That’s nice, but when playing fantasy adventure games I prefer the approach games like Runebound and Prophecy take where characters are rewarded for killing things, gaining levels, permanent abilities, and powerful equipment that indicate progress and allow for crazy combos. I like quests that provide guaranteed rewards and aren’t sideshows and/or crapshoots. I like maps that are more than just a series of abstract color-coded generic locations. I like to be surprised by the monsters I fight and the challenges I face.

Most of all, I value variety. I bought all the Duel of Ages sets just to have an insane pile of characters and equipment to shake up games. I admire Omen: A Reign of War for including fifty dramatically different unit cards instead of going with umpteen copies of a few things.

Defenders of the Realm is epic, but abstract. Elegant (despite that FAQ), but unsurprising. It has its whammy moments, like drawing just the right Special Card and just the right time, or having a carefully laid plan shattered by an unanticipated avalanche of Overruns, but for me they don’t make up for the tepid slog surrounding those thrills. It’s a good game, just not for me.