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LM2

LM2Here are some clues. Can you can guess what game I’m talking about?: It’s cooperative. Evil forces darken the land, and a group of powerful heroes has banded together to fight the seemingly ceaseless tide of wretchedness. The heroes all have special powers and move from area to area on a map. The forces of evil swell each turn, spilling into another area if they are left unchecked too long.

Did you guess Defenders Of The Realm? I would have, but I’m talking about Darkest Night, a new title from Victory Point Games that takes full advantage of their new printing equipment and sudden focus on outstanding production values. This is a company that just a few months ago unapologetically sold games in ziplock bags that used components that looked like they came from your home printer. Not anymore. Their new Gold Banner titles like this one have print that is so inky it looks embossed, ultra-thick counters that are custom-cut by a laser, and silky full-sized cards. And they have art. Real art. Real, gorgeous, big league art. I spent a lot of time in the past pimping out my copies of their games, but now I can just open the box, play, and marvel at how great something from such a small company can look.

SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED

LM7Normally prepping a board game for play is a simple matter of punching and organizing some chits, but these awesome components have some drawbacks. For one, the pieces don’t pop out of the sprue with gentle pressure the way I’ve seen with some other Gold Banner titles. Most of the chits must be twisted out as if they are made out of plastic instead of cardboard, leaving bits of flash on the sides that must be shaved off. Getting some of the smaller custom-cut pieces out intact is tricky, and I had to use a paperclip to apply pressure to the spots where they were attached to get them freed without damage.

The worst offenders are the Key tokens, which are tiny and cut into a skeleton key shape. After mangling one using the paperclip technique I solved the problem by ripping the cardboard sprue surrounding them, which got them all out quickly and intact. Keep some glue handy so you can paste down any paper that inevitably separates.

Once you get the chits out out you have a bigger problem to solve in that the laser cutting process covers their edges in black soot. A napkin is included to wipe them down (VPG is well aware of this unfortunate manufacturing side effect), but come prepared with some dry paper towels and wash your hands several times during the tedious cleaning to avoid making the faces dingy.

Everything looks great once it is punched and cleaned, and the player tokens even have little stands to serve as crude miniatures on the map.

Speaking of the map, both paper and mounted versions are included in the boxed game, and while the mounted map is superior it comes cut as a three-piece puzzle. This means there are seam lines where the pieces come together, but they aren’t distracting during play.

LM6

PLAYING THE GAME

Darkest night pits your heroes against the evil Necromancer. You can win by killing the Necromancer, or by collecting three Holy Relics and returning them to the Monastery area. Killing the Necromancer is problematic because you can only hit him if you roll a 7, and the game uses 6-sided dice. Fortunately Holy Relics add +1 to the highest die of the hero carrying one. The problem is that each hero can only carry one Holy Relic, and getting your hands on them is a chore.

You lose the game if the Monastery area is ever overrun with Blight tokens. These represent the minions and powers of the Necromancer, and every area other than the Monastery starts with one already there. If an area ever has four Blight tokens and a fifth is about to be added, it is added to the Monastery instead. If the Monastery is ever about to receive its fifth Blight token, the heroes lose.

LM4No matter how many people you play with the game always begins with four heroes facing off against the Necromancer. These are chosen or dealt randomly, and include an Acolyte, Druid, Knight, Priest, Prince, Rogue, Scholar, Seer, and Wizard. Each has a small player mat with tracks indicating their starting Grace and Secrecy, and they come with their own deck of ten unique Power Cards.

Grace and Secrecy work much like hit points and stamina do in most games. Many Powers are activated by spending Secrecy, and Most of the bad stuff in the game reduces Grace. Unlike many games, heroes don’t necessarily die when they run out of either of these resources, and in some ways they get stronger when they bottom out because they can no longer lose those resources when something bad subtracts them. On the other hand, they become extremely vulnerable because the Necromancer hunts down heroes with low Secrecy, and heroes with no Grace can be killed by certain monsters and events (or the Necromancer himself). One of the bad effects that can happen to a hero is a Wound (represented by a skull and crossbones symbol), which kills a hero when applied unless they spend 1 Grace. No Grace? You’re dead.

The Power Cards give each hero a nuanced and customizable role to play, and unlike many cooperative games some are useless at Attacking and are designed to mainly be support for other characters. The Priest is a prime example, and is best used as a mobile support base for a frontline fighter. Some are also better at Evading than Attacking, which helps them avoid damage and conduct searches even when there are threats present in their area.

CANDLES IN THE WIND

The basic flow of the game is simple: Heroes take their turns in any order they wish, and then the Necromancer takes his turn and makes their lives miserable.

On a player’s turn they lose 1 Secrecy if they begin in the same area as the Necromancer. If they are in the same area as the Necromancer and have zero Secrecy the Necromancer attacks them. The hero must Attack by rolling a 7 on a d6 (better hope they’re holding a Holy Relic) or Eluding and rolling a 6. If they lose either of these they receive a Wound. If they stand their ground and succeed they kill the Necromancer. If they successfully Elude they simply don’t take a Wound.

Then if they are in any area other than the Monastery (where all Heroes begin, and where the Necromancer can never go) they draw an Event Card. These are 99% nasty, and generally force your hero to Attack or Evade a monster, roll a die to see if bad or less bad things happen to them, or just make you flat-out lose resources. The Event Deck is not your friend.

After the Event is resolved the player can take one Action, including:

MOVE
The player moves to an adjacent area and gains 1 Secrecy. That’s it.

HIDE
The hero stays in the same area, refreshes any Powers that may be exhausted (through use or an Event), and gains 1 Secrecy.

ATTACK

The hero Attacks a Blight token in the area, rolling 1d6 (unless they have a Power that provides a bonus) against the Blight token’s Might score. These range from 4-6, so they are difficult to hit without using a lot of Powers, and most trigger nasty repercussions if you don’t manage to kill them. This can also be selected to Attack the Necromancer, but you can only kill him if there are no more Blight tokens remaining in his area (and you roll a 7 using a d6). No matter if you win or lose, you lose 1 Secrecy for taking this action.

SEARCH

Each area has a Search target ranging from 2-4, and if you hit that number or higher on a d6 you get to draw a Map card and see what you found. Each area has better odds of coughing up certain items (which are clearly marked on the map), but you can never be sure what you’re going to get.

One of the most important items is the Key, as you need three of those to recover a Holy Relic. Treasure Chests and Supply Caches are also nice, as the former lets you draw one card off the top of the heroes Power deck while the latter lets you draw two and keep one, increasing the hero’s abilities and flexibility. Bottled Magic can be discarded after an Attack to roll three more dice, Vanishing Dust can be discarded after a failed Elude roll to make it succeed, and Waystones are used to instantly transport a hero anywhere while giving them 1 Secrecy. There are also powerful (and rare) Artifact items, Forgotten Shrines that provide 2 Grace, and Epiphanies that let you search your Power deck for any card you want.

This all sounds great until you go searching for Keys and get a string of Power cards or other stuff that you don’t need. That said, there are some Powers that make Searching less of a crapshoot.

PRAY

Any hero at the Monastery (or in the same area as the Priest when he has a certain Power) can Pray by rolling 2d6 and gaining Grace for every die showing a 3 or higher. This action also refreshes all exhausted Powers.

RETRIEVE A HOLY RELIC

This one is simple: Discard three Keys to pick up the Holy Relic in an area. As mentioned, a hero with a Hoy Relic gains a +1 to their Attack roll, giving them a chance to kill the Necromaner. Alternatively, three Holy Relics can be dropped off at the Monastery to complete the ritual that wins the game.

Any hero carrying a Holy Relic loses 1 Secrecy at the beginning of their turn. If they pass the Holy Relic to another hero, that hero immediately loses 1 Secrecy.

LM5ACTIVATE POWER

Some Power Cards are Actions, and instead of selecting one of the preceding actions you can activate the one on a card instead. Some of these are instant and repeatable each turn. Others are more powerful and are exhausted (flipped upside down) and unusable again until they are refreshed. Yet others are persistent and assigned to heroes until deactivated. That last category of Power Actions is particularly important for certain heroes like the Knight, who can make Oaths that provide a certain bonus until they are fulfilled (and hurt the Knight if they are not fulfilled). The Wizard has Runes that are activated to change the meta state of the game, while the Druid can shift through various Forms that provide bonuses until he shifts out of them.

BAD TO THE BONE

Once all the heroes have basted the land in their weaksauce, the Necromancer does his thing, which is destroying them along with the world they’re standing on.

First the Darkness Track goes up by 1. Every time it hits a tens digit the Necromancer gains in power, and a lot of Event cards become nastier if Darkness is at a certain threshold when they are drawn. Each time it would go past 30 a Blight is added to the Monastery. This is a good time to concede.

Next a die is rolled, and if it exceeds the Secrecy of a hero that hero is detected and the Necromancer moves toward him or her (unless they are in the Monastery, where they are undetectable and where the Necromancer can never go). If no hero is detected the die is rolled again and the Necromancer is moved according to die faces printed on the exits in the area he’s currently in. Sometimes he stays put.

After movement a Map Card is drawn and tells you what Blight to add to the area where the Necromancer is standing. As mentioned, if a fifth Blight is about to be added to any area, it goes to the Monastery instead.

And don’t forget: If any hero is in the same area as the Necromancer and has zero Secrecy, the Necromancer attacks them at the beginning of the hero’s Event Phase. This can work to your advantage if you’re prepared.

That’s it. The heroes take their turns again, then the Necromancer goes, and so on.

IS IT WORTH YOUR TIME?

I look for three main qualities when judging games:

ARE THE DECISIONS INTERESTING?

They can be. There is always Blight to take care of, or Secrecy and Grace to restore, or Keys to find. Getting the right items in the right hands or the right Powers assigned to the right heroes can be crucial. There’s also a decision to be made regarding when to worry about Secrecy and when to shed it to lure the Necromancer, but that decision is often made for you by Events and Blights.

Darkest Night is a pressure cooker where trouble builds slowly but steadily before exploding, and figuring out the best way to keep the lid on is an interesting exercise in compromise. As with most cooperative games, much of the strategy revolves around getting the heroes to work together efficiently. Items must be passed around, heroes must be healed, and if you end up trying to kill the Necromancer it often takes a coordinated attack to clear the area of Blights so you can take a stab at him. It also takes some planning to keep everyone in the field as long as possible before they must turn tail and run for the sanctuary of the Monastery.

There’s a lot of risk-taking, but much of it stems from the tedious crapshoot of Search and Attack Actions. Search is by far the worst offender, especially when looking for Keys. It’s frustrating to take hits from Events turn after turn looking for a Key when all you get for your efforts most of the time is a series of 50/50 shots that have a chance of giving you something completely different that what you seek. I don’t understand how waiting for a coin toss is supposed to be fun.

There are Powers that bend the Search odds in your favor, and Powers that make combat much more interesting, but getting them is another example of waiting your turn while praying that the dice gods and the card gods favor you.

My main beef with the game is often heroes can’t do much on their turns. Movement eats up a full Action, meaning you are forced to suffer any end-of-turn effects from Blights where you move. Want to Search? Roll and your turn is over. Same thing for Attacking. And if things don’t go your way, you wait until everyone else and the Necromancer has their turns before getting to try the same thing all over again.

IS THERE A CLEAR SENSE OF ACCOMPLISHMENT OR FAILURE?

As with most cooperative games there is a clear sense of frustration and impending doom. There are rarely enough heroes, resources, or Actions to put out all the fires the continually pop up. Heroes with low Secrecy also tend to be the ones that have taken hits to their Grace, meaning the Necromancer often hunts down those least able to handle him. Sometimes the best option is to have a hero lose Secrecy on purpose just to get the Necromancer off of someone else’s back.

Succeeding at this game mainly feels like a matter of luck. It’s easy to figure out what to do, but difficult to get the dice rolls you need to do it. I don’t get the same sense of “I did it!” accomplishment out of this that I get out of a game like Thunderbolt-Apache Leader where there is more granularity in what the player controls, and more easily calculated odds that help guide decisions instead of dictating them. This is trait nearly all cooperative games share, however, and when playing with others the main fun to be had is in planning and strategizing as a group. You obviously don’t get this social aspect when playing solo, and it suffers for it.

IF THERE IS A THEME, IS IT TIGHTLY INTEGRATED WITH THE DESIGN?

The game tries hard to tell you you’re obtaining fantastic Powers and legendary items, but mechanistically it feels more like collecting a bunch of simple modifiers. It brought to mind Lords of Waterdeep, where a bunch of colored cubes are used to represent fighters, wizards, rogues, and clerics, but you have to remind yourself not to call them oranges, purples, blacks, and whites. This problem could have been mitigated by using custom dice with symbols instead of generic six-siders with pips, or via a more complex combat system, though I’m guessing it won’t be an issue for most people.

The heroes are awesome. They all have a distinct flavor, evoke the tropes of the classes they represent, and have some interesting Powers that can combo well once you get them going. I wish they had given each one a unique name instead of using generic classes, but similar games like Defenders Of The Realm have nothing on Darkest Night when it comes to diverse, interesting characters to play.

Secrecy is another thing they got right thematically. Grace works much like hit points, but Secrecy is neat in that losing it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes you want to lurk in an area undetected, and other times you want the whole world to know you’re calling out the Necromancer. This is much more strategic and nuanced than the typical stamina stat.

THE VERDICT?

It’s amazing to see how far Victory Point Games has come so quickly. Despite the soot issue, the boxed version of Darkest Night fits right in with games put out by much bigger publishers, and the new component quality is phenomenal by any standard. I wish more thought had been put into the rulebook layout, as headers are difficult to distinguish from the rest of the text because they all use the same font, but it only takes about half a game of fumbling around before you can put the rules aside and rely solely on the included cheat sheet.

LM1As for the gameplay, it turned out not to be a compelling solo experience. The company’s switch to full-size cards mean that they take up a ton of room on the table (despite containing little information), so managing four heroes by yourself quickly gets out of hand. Planning with others accounts for a lot of the fun in all cooperative games, and you don’t get that when playing alone unless you are far, far crazier than I am. It’s also easy to bump Grace and Secrecy counters when playing by yourself in a cluttered environment. This wouldn’t be a big deal if you were only managing one hero but is frustrating when you’re trying to keep tabs on eight tracks spread across four player mats.

A concern for some is that you can get a copy of Defenders Of The Realm for about the same price as Darkest Night, and there is enough overlap thematically and mechanism-wise that I suspect most people will opt for the former. Defenders comes with loads of colorful miniatures, an enormous map, and other goodies that make you feel like you’re getting a pretty nice bang for your buck. While the components in Darkest Night are great, they don’t hold up to what you would normally get for that kind of money. (Do note that every single thing in Darkest Night is made and assembled in America, and very few game companies can make that claim.)

Despite all my comparisons to Defenders Of The Realm in this review, Darkest Night is by no means a lazy or copycat design. It’s nice to get a game where heroes have so many unique abilities, and where obvious care went into deciding how those abilities would synergize while still representing each class well. The Blights are also varied, and there are loads of them, giving each game an entirely different flavor and story arc depending on where they show up. Replayability is through the roof since there are so many hero combinations to try out and so many random factors at play. The developers also provided many variant rules, including one where a fifth player controls the Necromancer.

I hope Victory Point Games finds great success with this well-done foray into more traditional and family-friendly fare. Darkest Night didn’t work out so well for me as a solo game (nor did Defenders Of The Realm, if you want to read that review), but I can see it being a hit with coop game fans looking for a new fix. Here’s hoping it gets the exposure it deserves.

PL1Splash

“Tell the Vietnamese they’ve got to draw in their horns or we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age.” –General Curtis LeMay

DVG’s Leader series is unique among solitaire designs for combining low complexity with separate strategic and tactical phases. Instead of focusing on a complex simulation of one thing at one level, it lets players manage a campaign, outfit their unit for a particular mission, and then play out that mission on a separate board to see if their planning paid off. You can get a better sense of this by reading my review of Thunderbolt-Apache Leader, which turned out to be one of my favorite solitaire games of all time.

After playing that I was itching to try Phantom Leader, which is set during the air war in Vietnam. This is a complex period to capture in a game, particularly one as boiled down as the Leader series, but DVG simply nailed it. Each campaign weaves a rich narrative that incorporates the politics of the time, the various challenges faced by the Air Force and Navy, and lots and lots of ever-evolving planes and weapons. I am stunned by how well this sprawling game works on the iPad, despite some bugs and interface issues. (Note that it doesn’t work the iPad 1 at this point at all.)

PLAYING THE GAME

“It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” –Unidentified Army Major, cited in a report about the bombing and shelling of Ben Tre

The best way to describe Phantom Leader is to combine a review with a session report and walk you through a campaign mission, detailing my decisions as I go so you can get a sense of some basic strategies. Campaigns can begin in 1965, 1967 (Rolling Thunder), or 1972 (Linebacker), and you can play as the Air Force or Navy in Short, Medium, or Long games. I’m going with the Air Force in 1972 because I want lots of toys to play with. Unfortunately the enemy gets planes and surface-to-air missiles in this period to offset my fun. If you’re new to the game, go with 1965 to cut down equipment choices and make mission planning easier.

TALLY HO, SQUADRON LEADER!

“The truth is you never do get used to the SAM’s; I had about two hundred fifty shot at me and the last one was as inspiring as the first. Sure I got cagey, and I was able to wait longer and longer, but I never got overconfident. I mean, if you’re one or two seconds too slow, you’ve had the schnitzel.” –General Robin Olds

The first order of business is choosing a squadron. Planes are represented by cards that vary depending on what military branch and time period is selected, and include the following:

  • A-4 Skyhawk
  • A-6 Intruder
  • A-7 Corsair II
  • F-4 II Phantom
  • EA-6A Electric Intruder
  • EB-66 Destroyer
  • F-8 Crusader
  • F-100 Super Sabre
  • F-104 Starfighter
  • F-105 Thunderchief (including Wild Weasel variants that specialize in anti-missile attacks)

Each plane has inherent values for the types and amount of weapons it can carry, along with an inherent pilot that has a Skill level, Stress values, a Cool level, a Speed value, and air-to-air and air-to-ground attack bonuses or penalties. The Skill level reflects the overall experience of the pilot, and can improve as he completes missions. Pilots incur Stress from flying missions and taking hits, and their Stress values determine how much they can accumulate before they become Shaken or Unfit for duty. The Cool level determines how much Stress is reduced when the pilot doesn’t fly a mission. Speed is critical, as Fast pilots shoot before the enemy, while Slow pilots shoot after the enemy. The attack bonuses or penalties are straight-up numbers added to or subtracted from die rolls made when attacking enemies.

Since I have MiGs and radar-guided SAMs to worry about, I need a good mix of planes that complement one another. I get two Skilled pilots, and take Mad Dog in his F-105 Wild Weasel as my first pick. He’s a bit brittle when it comes to Stress, but should make up for it with his incredible +3 in air-to-ground attacks, his Fast speed that lets him shoot first, and his ability to carry AGM-45 missiles that are custom-built to knock out deadly long-range SA-2 SAM sites.

There are only two other Skilled pilots, and they are in versatile F-4 Phantom IIs that can carry a useful mix of air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons. F-4s during this period also had internal cannons, unlike earlier models that relied solely on air-to-air missiles for self defense and lost a lot of dogfights as a result. Here the choice is tougher. Both pilots are Fast, which I love, but Robin has no attack bonuses while Splashdog has a +1 in air-to-air and a -1 in air-to-ground. Robin handles stress a bit better, but I see that if Splashdog is upgraded from Skilled to Veteran he becomes a beast, gaining 1 Cool and nearly doubling his ability to handle Stress. I decide to go with Splashdog, and then use similar criteria to select four Average and two Green pilots to round out the squadron.

One interesting choice is Bat in an EB-66 Destroyer. This plane carries no weapons, but will let me ignore in-mission Events if I roll a six or higher on a d10. Events add a lot of flavor but can be devastating, making the EB-66 a great plane for dodging disaster. It also can be added to any mission for free, not using up a combat plane slot, and any of my planes flying in the same area with it get a -1 to enemy attack rolls. Bat is a no-brainer as far as I’m concerned.

In the end, I have five F-4 IIs, two F-105 Wild Weasels, and the EB-66. One more thing I can do before locking them in is spend SO (Special Operations) points to bump pilots up by one Skill level. SO points are precious, and you only get a handful to play with in the short campaign, so using them sparingly but wisely here is key. Pilots in short campaigns also don’t fly enough missions to level up via experience points. Just remember that SO points are also used to give you better target choices, in-mission refueling so you can carry more weapons to distant targets, and special weapons that hit harder and more reliably than the freebies do, among other benefits.

There are several things to look for when selecting pilots to upgrade, and one of my favorites is when it changes them from Slow to Fast. Phantom Leader is unforgiving, and pilots who can shoot things before they are shot at gain a tremendous edge. Another thing I look for is how upgrading impacts their ability to endure Stress, which accumulates quickly during missions and can keep your best pilots out of the war if it gets out of hand. Often one pilot level can double his ability to bear Stress without breaking down, letting you reuse him several missions on a row. Finally, I look for bumps in attack bonuses and Cool points, but these rarely change dramatically.

For this game I see that upgrading Junior in his F-4 II dramatically boosts his Stress rating, so I dump 2 of my 11 SO points into him. Vapor in his F-105 Wild Weasel also gets a Stress rating bump, along with a ground attack bonus of +2 and a Cool point, so I promote him as well. That leaves me with 7 SO points for putting out fires during the campaign.

Party time.

LINEBACKER: DAY 1

“We seem bent upon saving the Vietnamese from Ho Chi Minh, even if we have to kill them and demolish their country to do it.” –George McGovern

Before getting down in the weeds, it’s important to note that overall campaign progress is tracked in a Player Log with tracks measuring Recon Points, Intel Points, Politics Points, and Victory Points. This translates into an overall Evaluation score which begins at Dismal and (with any luck) gradually works its way to Great as you blow things up and bring your planes and pilots back intact.

Each day of the campaign is broken down into Pre-Flight, Target-Bound, Over-Target, Home-Bound, and Debriefing phases, each with their own sub-phases.

STAY ON TARGET!

“The Air Force comes in every morning and says, ‘Bomb, bomb, bomb.’ And then the State Department comes in and says, ‘Not now, or not there, or too much, or not at all.’” –Lyndon B. Johnson

The first phase of Pre-flight is Target Selection. A number of cards equal to your Intel score are drawn (2 in the beginning), and if the Politics number on them is lower than the current number in the Politics track of the campaign you can fly the mission. The Aircraft rating tells you how many planes you can assign to it, the Data section has information about how many Sites (randomly-drawn enemy chits) and Bandits (randomly-drawn enemy planes) defend the target, and how many hits the target can sustain before it is destroyed. Special rules for the mission are detailed on the bottom of the card, and rewards for completing the mission are listed in the number Victory Points, Recon Points, and Intel Points you receive.

If you don’t like any of the missions, you can spend 2 SO points to activate Recon Priority and draw a few more. This sounds like a waste, but as you lose planes or pilots are incapacitated due to stress you may need to fish for missions that require fewer assets to complete.

I drew a Barracks, which is well-defended beast that requires 8 hits to destroy and nets me 1 Victory Point, 2 Recon Points, and 1 Intel point if I complete it. The alternative is a Search And Rescue mission that requires me to kill 8 infantry chits in 6 turns to gain 3 Victory Points. Killing infantry is easy, and that’s a lot of loiter time relative to the 4 turns I would have to hit the barracks, so I eagerly accept the noble duty of helping a downed comrade-in-arms.

Range to target is something else to keep in mind when selecting missions. A map is displayed showing where the target is, and distant enemies cut down on the carrying capacities of assigned planes as they have to load up on extra fuel to get there. It is possible to pay 2 SO points to activate Tanker Priority and negate this penalty during the Arm Pilots phase, but it isn’t a decision you should make lightly.

Once the mission is selected Sites are placed according to the rules on the card. Normally they are drawn randomly, but this mission calls for 2 infantry on each edge of the target, so they are plopped down on the target map at this time. This is an area where the iPad version has a tremendous edge over the board game because fishing 8 infantry chits out of a random draw pile isn’t fun in the real world.

LOCKED AND LOADED

“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” –Kilgore, “Apocalypse Now”

Now comes one of the most fun and satisfying parts of the game: Arming your planes. This is another area where the iOS implementation shines, as sorting weapon chits in the real game is a nightmare. They have two different weapons on each side, and there are loads of them, so fiddling with them stinks. Here everything is laid out neatly, and weapons a selected plane can’t carry are crossed out so you won’t waste time considering them.

There are tons of death-dealing toys to choose among here, especially in 1972. Air-to-air missiles include the AIM-7 Sparrow that can hit targets 2 areas away, and the AIM-9 Sidewinder that has a range of 1. There are dumb bombs and smart bombs (though the latter cost SO points). There are inaccurate rockets that are great for suppressing attackers and preventing incoming hits. There are cluster bombs and napalm, which are devastating against soft targets (just remember that using napalm costs you one point on the Politics track the first time you use it each mission). There are AGM-45 long-range missiles that are only good against SA-2s surface-to-air missiles, and AGM-62 and AGM-12 missiles that allow for stand-off attacks against all sorts of things if you want to spend SO points on them. Finally there is an ECM (Electronic Countermeasures) Pod that lets the carrying plane roll a d10 during an incoming attack and ignore it if it rolls a 6 or higher. 50/50 odds might not sound worth it, but every edge you can get in this game adds up.

You can move the weapons panel out of the way to look at the target area and get a better idea of the strike package you want to create, but in this case it isn’t necessary. I’m attacking a bunch of soft targets that can only hit my planes when they fly at low altitude. I also know I have 6 turns to take out 8 targets in 4 areas using 3 planes, so although I have a little wiggle room I want to make sure I’m taking pilots and weapons that have excellent chances to hit.

First I add Bat in his EB-66 because he doesn’t count against my plane limit and he might help us get through nasty event cards (or he might do what he usually does and roll ones and twos and make us wonder which side he’s on). I can also keep him at high altitude where the grunts can’t reach him, so barring any calamities he’ll be 100% untouchable. (Of course, Phantom Leader has a knack for creating calamities out of calm, but that’s a feature, not a bug.)

Mad Dog’s F-105 doesn’t carry any bombs that can be safely launched from high altitude, but he’s Fast and has a +3 ground attack bonus so he’s an easy pick for this mission. The target is far enough away that all planes lose 1 point of carrying capacity, taking him from 6 points to 5. It isn’t worth the SO points to add Tanker Priority just to get that point back, and I can only attack one enemy chit at a time so taking weapons that generate multiple hits isn’t as important as it would be if I was attacking a fixed target. I give him 2 cluster bombs that hit on 4+ due to their bonus against soft targets, which means they will hit automatically when Mad Dog’s ground attack bonus is factored in. Then I add 1 Mk.84 that will hit on 2+ with his bonus, and 2 Mk.82s that will hit on 3+ since Mad Dog is such a badass. Lovin’ those odds.

I pair Mad Dog with Vapor, another Fast pilot flying an F-105 who has a +2 ground attack bonus. I give him 4 cluster bombs that will hit on 2+, leaving no more cluster bombs or napalm for my remaining pilot.

Not that I’ll need them. The two F-105s could clear the map all by themselves, but I’m hedging my bets with Junior, a Slow F-4 pilot who will fly high cover in case any bandits somehow show up, and who will carry some ground attack weapons in case the Thuds somehow blow it. I give him an AIM-7 Sparrow and an AIM-9 Sidewinder that will each hit on a 5+ thanks to his +1 air-to-air bonus, and give him 2 rocket packs that can hit targets one area away on a 6+ thanks to his +1 ground attack bonus. I shouldn’t splurge, but I also invest 1 SO point in a GBU-12 guided bomb that is launched from a safe high altitude and will hit automatically in case he desperately needs to mop something up.

The idea here is to send the F-105s in as a pair, with each of them flying in low and nailing both units in each area before they have a chance to react. The F-4 will approach from a different side, engage bandits if any pop up, and trail the F-105s in case they miss a target. The EB-66 will fly with the F-105s to help them shake off attacks if they miss a target.

THE WILD BLUE YONDER

“Think about us flying a Navy plane, carrying World War II bombs, a gun sight in front of my face not as good as the one I had in P-38s, and going up there to bomb some railroad yard. We’ll face a sky full of flak, missiles and MiGs, but don’t worry about it because I’ve got it on good authority that none of this is happening.” –General Robin Olds

Finally we arrive at the part where all that meticulous planning either blows up in our faces or pays off. After wheels-up an Event Card is drawn. These have three Events, with the top one used if planes are Target-Bound (which they are now), the middle one used if they are Over-Target, and the bottom one used if they are Home-Bound. I draw AAA Site, which gives the enemy two free attacks against random planes in my flight. On a 3-5 the pilots add 1 Stress, on a 6-8 the plane is Damaged, and on a 9+ the plane is Destroyed. Attacked planes can negate the attack by discarding one air-to-ground weapon chit. Hoo boy.

This might not be too bad because I have my trusty EB-66 along to provide the potential to ignore the event, right? Wrong. It turns out I accidentally de-selected him when I was prepping my flight (which is easy to do), and this exposes one of the great weaknesses of this implementation versus the board game. There is no going back at any point. If you accidentally choose the wrong mission, pick the wrong plane, load the wrong weapon, or do something really dumb like leaving your EB-66 in the hangar, you have to live with it. In the board game I’d just slap myself in the forehead and undo the mistake, but here you get what you get. I asked the developer about it and he’s working on a back button for the mission prep phases.

The Event puts Vapor in the crosshairs of a Zu-23-2, and there’s no way I’m leaving his fate to chance. I discard one of his awesome cluster bombs and he’s safe. The enemy slaves their gun to Mad Dog next, and he gives them a middle finger in the form of a Mk.82. These guys haven’t reached the target yet and they’re already down two bombs.

The next phase lets you send planes home if any were damaged in the Target-Bound event, but there’s no need for that so I press on to the Place Aircraft phase. The mission area has the target card in the middle, surrounded by 4 Approach Areas that are further surrounded by 6 Pre-Approach Areas. I drag Mad Dog and Vapor to the north Pre-Approach Area at low altitude, and put Junior in the west Pre-Approach Area at low altitude so he can fire off some rockets.

With everyone in position, I move to the Over-Target Event and get a bit of a break with the AC-47 Spooky card. This lets me roll a d10 at the start of every turn and destroy a random site on a 6-8 or a site of my choice on a 9+. With any luck it’ll make up for those lost bombs, especially since I have extra turns to benefit from it. Since the turn is about to begin I make my first roll of this campaign and get a 4. Figures.

Speaking of rolls, the dice use a physics-based system that sounds like a cheap marketing tactic but is thoroughly awesome. They skitter across the screen just like they would on a table, often rocking up slightly on one side before settling on another. Many iOS board game translations lose the feel you get when throwing real dice and respond more like spreadsheets, but this does the best job of simulating that bit of board gaming bliss of any iOS conversion I’ve played.

Back to the mission, the game has skipped ahead to the Slow Pilots Attack phase, leaving the Fast pilots and enemies out of the loop. I don’t understand why it did this, but it may be a rule I’ve overlooked or some sort of bug with the AC-47 card. I only have one Slow pilot, so Junior’s F-4 targets an infantry unit in an adjacent away. Planes can only fire at one target per turn, but can launch as many eligible weapons as they want to at that target. I’m tempted to shoot both rocket pods at once to have two rolls to hit with, but am feeling lucky and select only one. Junior fires, needing at least a 6 to hit, and he rolls a 9. Sorry, Charlie.

Now it’s the Aircraft Move phase, which is one of the few letdowns of this game. In Thunderbolt-Apache Leader your planes must move forward each turn and maneuver around a hex grid, which works great and feels great. Here you can move each aircraft to one adjacent area per turn, or just leave them sitting where they are as if they have the hovering capabilities of a Harrier. It feels cheesy and undynamic, especially considering the high attack speeds most of these aircraft had in the real war. You know all those Vietnam movie scenes where a flight of jets rockets in at a critical moment and unloads nine hells worth of napalm before screaming off over the horizon? You don’t get that sense here, and I vastly prefer the way TAL handles it, even though I understand that it works at a smaller scale and with (mostly) slower aircraft.

I leave Junior where he is so he can get off another rocket attack, and move Vapor and Mad Dog into the north Approach Area, where two juicy targets await death as long as the game doesn’t force the Thuds to skip their turns again.

The AC-47 rolls a 3, proving himself useless, so it’s on to Turn 2. The game now lets my Fast pilots attack, so Vapor pickles off a cluster bomb. Normally it needs an 8 to hit, but with +4 against soft targets and +2 for Vapor’s ground attack bonus we’re only looking for 2+. He gets an 8, and another target is toast. Mad Dog follows up with the same attack against the other infantry unit, and needs a 1+ to hit. This is a real nail-biter. And thank God for that +3, because he rolled a 1. The North Approach Area is now clear.

But there are more bugs afoot. The game has skipped right past the Slow Pilots Attack phase and into the Aircraft Move phase. Junior didn’t get a turn. This is getting aggravating, and I’ve never seen anything like it in any of the half-dozen campaigns I’ve played so far.

Mad Dog and Vapor move into the east Approach Area, and once again Junior stays where he is. The AC-47 whooshes in like Solo and Chewie are manning (and wookieeing) the controls, rolling a 9 that lets me kill any target. Based on these turns getting skipped I kill the remaining unit in the west Approach Area, clearing it for Junior.

Turn 3 begins, and I’m in the Fast Pilots Attack phase. Mad Dog and Vapor repeat their pattern from the previous turn, with the former rolling a 10 and the latter rolling a 3. I have 3 turns left and only 2 targets remain in the south Approach Area. Now I’m really regretting spending that SO point on that laser-guided bomb, but hindsight will do that to you.

Once again the Slow Pilots Attack phase is skipped for no apparent reason, but I’m not as upset now because Junior didn’t have anything to shoot at anyway. It’s time to go to the Aircraft Move phase and set up for complete overkill in the south Approach Area. Mad Dog and Vapor move into it, and Junior moves to the Pre-Approach Area next to it so he can launch some rockets and get into position to drop a laser-guided personal greeting if something awful happens.

Han and Chewie have moved back to a galaxy far, far away, as the AC-47 rolls a 4 and misses completely. That takes me to Turn 4, where Vapor lobs his last cluster bomb, hitting with a 6. Mad Dog follows up with his last remaining bomb, a Mk.84, which will hit on a 2+ thanks to his sweet, sweet +3 ground attack bonus. He squeaks it out with a 2, and the Target Destroyed notification pops up. Nice work, gents. Everyone got at least one kill, and nobody got a scratch.

I end the mission and enter the Home-Bound phase, where a final event card is drawn. It is Show Of Force, which lets me move the counter one to the left on the Politics track. It is also completely irrelevant as that counter is already as far to the left as it can go. Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, I suppose.

At last, I get to the Debriefing phase, where I am reminded the target is destroyed and I get 3 Victory Points. Next the pilots get an experience point for going on the mission and another one for not losing a plane. This doesn’t even come close to leveling them up, but eyes and sticks and all that.

After that each pilot receives stress based on the value in the target area where the mission was flown. This amounts to +2 stress for all involved, but Junior and Vapor only get 1 each because they have a Cool value of 1. At this point you can spend SO points for Priority R&R to alleviate some stress, but that isn’t at all necessary right now. On to Linebacker: Day 2.

RINSE AND REPEAT

“Some people just wanted to blow it all to hell, animal, vegetable and mineral. They wanted a Vietnam they could fit into their car ashtrays.” –Michael Herr, “Dispatches”

The above represents one day of a campaign, and the three that are left in this Short one all proceed in the same basic fashion. This play-by-play covered the most boring mission possible in this game–one where pretty much everything went right. You missed out on the parts where most targets are heavily defended and can absorb an ungodly amount of hits, and where MiGs show up at inopportune times to fill your planes full of holes, and where event cards murder you. You didn’t have to watch helplessly as the pilots accumulated stress from evading waves of enemy attacks, sometimes making them catatonic in the middle of a fight. You didn’t see planes get shot down or the rescue missions that ensued, where the fates of your pilots are left to the mercy of a heartless d10 roll. You were spared the agony of drawing targets that require a squadron of planes to attack when you only have a handful of pilots fit for duty, no SO points left to buy them the weapons they need, and the universe is out to get you. You also didn’t get a taste for how differently the three campaigns and two branches of the military play out due to variations in available equipment and eligible targets.

Phantom Leader doesn’t mess around, and I love it for that.

THE VERDICT

“I seriously doubt if we will ever have another war. This is probably the very last one.” –Richard Nixon

This game ain’t pretty, and it ain’t easy, and it has some bad bugs, but overall it’s a triumph on the platform. It’s a solitaire design so there are none of the AI issues that plague many other iOS board game conversions, and no need for network multiplayer. The computer handles all of the miserable chores that detract from playing this game on a tabletop, letting you focus completely on the fun parts and the rich narrative this game weaves as a campaign runs its course. You will come to love your pilots even as they routinely let you down. You will find yourself frantically tapping away at insane hours just to see what happens next. You will feel compelled to tell stories about your adventures to people who will look at you as if you have just been possessed by the wandering spirit of a nostalgic Vietnam-era squadron leader.

Or you will hate it. And I imagine most people will. It is rough around the edges and difficult to learn (especially if you know next to nothing about the equipment used by the Navy and Air Force during the Vietnam air war). The design is ruled with iron fists by a pair of d10s that often seem like they are conspiring to inflict as much agony on you as possible. There are lots of weird little bugs (that are actively being worked on, but still), interface quirks, a hopeless tutorial, and a general lack of polish that could have made this an absolute standout game on the platform in every regard. Instead we have to settle for it being one of the best straight-up board game conversions in the App Store.

There has been much squawking about the price point, which I can kind of understand due to the general insanity of the App Store, but mostly consider to be a textbook case of what happens when you cast pearls before swine (even if this pearl is covered in grit and a bit misshapen). If you like the subject matter even a little, can appreciate action that requires brains instead of reflexes, and don’t mind having some dice tell you a story $15 is a pittance for this game in this format. Give DVG your money and enjoy one of the best things that has ever happened to the iPad. (Well, every iPad except the first one. Hope they fix that soon.)

“Come you masters of war / You that build all the guns / You that build the death planes / You that build all the bombs / You that hide behind walls / You that hide behind desks / I just want you to know / I can see through your masks.” –Bob Dylan, “Masters of War”

AF1024

Good things come to those who wait, but better things come to those who wait just a bit longer. I intended to review Alien Frontiers for iOS soon after its release, when it was fuzzy due to lack of Retina support and worthless due to a bad AI and no network multiplayer. Fortunately for all involved the developer patches his apps faster than I write reviews, and the latest 1.1 version is a must-buy.

PLAYING THE GAME

Alien Frontiers is a combo area control/worker placement game that uses dice instead of meeples for the workers. The goal is to score more points than your opponents, and the main way to do this is to place colonies on an alien world divided into eight areas. Each colony landed is worth one point, and if you have more colonies in an area than any opponents you score an additional point for controlling it. Controlling an area also grants a special bonus that the controlling player can use on their turn.
Players start with three standard six-sided dice and one Alien Tech card that lets them bend the rules in a particular way (more on those later). On your turn, you roll all your dice and then place them in various orbital facilities surrounding the planet. There are eight of these, and three of them involve placing colonies while the rest let you get more dice, Alien Tech cards, or resources in the form of Fuel and Ore. Fuel and Ore are needed to activate the orbital stations that place colonies, and Fuel is also used to activate Alien Tech cards.

Getting more dice is important because it lets you visit more orbital stations on your turn, and also because certain dice combinations are needed to visit many of the stations. For example, the Colony Constructor lets you immediately place a colony if you pay three Ore, but you have to place three dice with the same value there to activate it. Similarly, the Raiders’ Outpost lets you steal resources or cards from other players, but you need three dice in sequence (like 1,2,3) to place them there.

There are limited slots at each station where dice can be played, and whatever you play stays there until your next turn, so it is possible to block other players from using a station. Good examples of this are the Terraforming Station, which lets you sacrifice a die with a six showing to immediately place a colony, and the Lunar Mine, which lets you collect one Ore for each die you place there, but each die has to be equal to or higher than the highest die already placed. Putting even one six there dramatically cuts down on your opponents’ chances to use it while you are waiting for your turn. Planetary bonuses cut down on the number of resources you need to activate an orbital station or Alien Tech card, or let you use a station in a different way than it is normally used.

The aforementioned Alien Tech cards provide a final twist, adding a layer of tactical and strategic depth. Most can be activated each turn by paying a fuel cost, and do things like let you flip a die to its opposite face, remove an opponent’s die from one of the orbital facilities, or let you use a planetary bonus from an area that someone else controls. You can also discard one of these each turn to activate a more powerful one-shot effect. These often let you manipulate the map, moving or swapping colonies, or placing force fields that change the rules for colony placement where that field is located.

As soon as any player places their last colony the game ends and final scores are tallied. Typically it is a tense game that provides plenty of options to mitigate bad dice rolls, and while I don’t like it as much as Kingsburg (another dice-based game), it is easy to learn, enjoyable, and generally plays quickly.

SO HOW’S THE iPAD VERSION?

I wouldn’t have recommended this game at all in its initial iOS implementation. The AI often fought with itself, leaving the map wide open for consistent blowouts by the human. It rarely placed colonies, preferring instead to gather resources and mess with the player through raiding. It also did extremely silly things, like placing dice on stations it didn’t use or even skipping its entire turn. Many people also complained about the lack of Retina graphics, which was understandable considering how much information is crammed on the screen, but the game was fully playable without them and was in all respects other than the AI well-coded.

Now that 1.1 is here, there’s no reason to hold off. The developer has been proactive about soliciting advice from the community regarding AI fixes, which were incorporated in the patch. The improved Pirate AI is now biased against the player, and while it doesn’t cheat, playing against even a pair of them is brutally difficult. They focus on getting their colonies down and getting in your face. They still aren’t great at using their Alien Tech cards as efficiently as possible, but there are so many permutations involved with those that they would cause an AI coding nightmare for anyone. All I know is that before the patch I had games where I beat the AI by 7-10 points consistently, and they often had 3-5 colonies left to place when I got my last one down. Now if I play against two Pirates the scores stay close throughout the entire game, and there is always a real chance of losing. That’s good enough to keep things interesting, though I feel the Pirate AI should be tweaked a bit more to focus on expanding into empty territory before attacking human-controlled territory. Playing against one Admiral AI and one Pirate is a decent compromise while I await the next patch.

Nearly everything else about the transition to iPad is fantastic. The interface is cramped but packed with information and easy to use. There is no tutorial, though the game is easy to learn just from playing and reading the included rules. As far as I can tell all the Alien Tech cards are now working as they should (there were a few bugs with them in the initial release). There’s an Undo button that lets you rewind stupid mistakes or mis-taps that should be standard on all iOS board games. Everything is now rendered gloriously on the iPad 3 thanks to full Retina support. And you get all this for the absurdly low price of $5.

THE VERDICT

The developer has promised to add network multiplayer, and based on his community involvement and coding skills I would now believe him if he said the next version would beam real Wonka bars to your iPad. Even without it, this is an easy recommendation for fans of the game or newcomers who want to learn how to play it. The AI is now challenging, it’s a beautiful pass-and-play implementation, and the price is frankly ridiculous. I can’t wait until it gets more multiplayer options, but until then I’m content with fighting those damned dirty Pirates. If you have an iPad, get this.

NOTE: This game was part of a successful Kickstarter campaign that hit some terrible snags at release. Developer Clint Herron bought hundreds of redemption codes to send to foreign backers, but those supporters were not able to redeem them. If you live in the US and want to buy this, I urge you to contact Clint and pay him directly for one of those codes. He got screwed over by Apple pretty badly and deserves better.

1024IMSCOUNTERS

“General, I have been a soldier all my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments, divisions, and armies, and should know, as well as anyone, what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arrayed for battle can take that position.” -Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet, when ordered by General Robert E. Lee to attack the center of the Union line at Gettysburg

Longstreet was as right as his beard was awesome. The Confederate assault he referred to and commanded, which came to be known as Pickett’s Charge, turned out like Midway did for the Japanese in WWII. After its failure (and the fall of Vicksburg in the west that same month), the Confederates remained on the defensive for the remainder of the war.

This charge would be a difficult and pointless action to simulate, so it’s good that designer Hermann Luttmann made no attempt to do so when creating In Magnificent Style, the first title in Victory Point Games’ Death Or Glory series. Instead he made an interesting press-your-luck system that captures the desperate feel of a suicide run but has just enough chrome to constantly remind you that this is Pickett’s Charge. There’s Emmitsburg road. There’s the Angle. There’s the stone wall and sneaky ambushes and Rebel Yells and smoke and death and miracles and glory.

In short, there is chaos, so if you demand a modicum of control from your games, close this browser window immediately. Some consider this Confederate Can’t Stop, and while it has a few basic similarities to that Sid Sackson classic there’s plenty more here for both dice game fans and Civil War buffs.

THE COMPONENTS

Normally I don’t discuss components much, but this deserves special mention. Victory Point Games has a reputation for being long on gameplay but short on production values. Opening the ziplock bags the company distributes its products in, one is confronted by unmounted maps, dull colors, ugly counters, and mediocre art that really make it hard to get other players interested in these great little games.

Fortunately for all of us, VPG just bought a new printer and a new laser cutter for its counters, and uses both to produce its new Gold Banner line. In Magnificent Style is part of that, and the quality is phenomenal. The map looks great and is clearly marked without looking cluttered. The rule book has bold colors and jet black text. And the counters. Oh, the counters. They are at least twice as thick as what you’re used to playing with and seem more like wood cutouts than paper. The only downside to the new production methods is that the laser cutter leaves scorch marks on their faces and soot on their edges. The former problem is always there (and actually seems fitting for this game), but the latter problem goes away in time. You’ve simply never seen counters like this before, and you will love them.

PLAYING THE GAME

“We all moved off in as magnificent style as I ever saw, the lines perfectly formed.”- Confederate Commander John T. Jones

In Magnificent Style takes place on a 9×9 grid, with one Confederate brigade starting in each column below the grid facing off against one Union brigade in each column above the grid. Confederate brigades start with 10 strength, and Union brigades start with 5. The Confederate brigades also get a Rally marker, which stays behind as they move forward and factors into all kinds of events, including how far a brigade retreats and how much damage they take from enemy fire. When a brigade is activated to move you can instead move its Rally marker up to its current location, which prevents the brigade from activating again that turn but solidifies their position. Deciding when to move the brigade and when to halt and let their Rally marker catch up are the main decisions you make throughout the game.

The grid is subdivided vertically into three sections with three brigades each, representing a division. Each division has one general assigned to it (Pettigrew on the left, Trimble in the center, and Pickett on the right) that can be attached to any brigade in his division, then reassigned to another brigade within that division each turn if you want to. Generals confer benefits I’ll discuss later.

The map is also divided horizontally into three sections, with a green zone at the bottom of the map, a yellow zone in the middle, and a red zone at the top nearest the Union positions. In general the green zone is safer than the yellow zone, which in turn is safer than the red zone when it comes to resolving events during the game. Some areas of the map, like Emmitsburg Road, are obstacles that slow down your troops, while others serve as cover or kill zones.

Your job, if you haven’t divined it already, is to get your brigades to the other side of the map, breach the Union line, and capture their positions. Ideally you kill the enemy before you get there. If not, it’s time to fix bayonets and pray that God is not a Yankee.

Advancing is straightforward. Each turn you can activate each of your brigades in any order you wish. After activating a brigade you roll 2d6 and compare the results to a movement chart that has 36 possible outcomes, comprised of 8 different types (some things I haven’t discussed are referenced here, but hang in there, it’ll all make sense soon):

Advance (12/36)
This is the most common result statistically (unless you’re me). The brigade advances one space (unless it is advancing into an obstacle) and then activates again.

Heavy Fire (8/36)
This is bad. The brigade can either take hits equal to half the distance to its Rally marker (rounded up), stay put, and activate again, or it can fall back to its Rally marker (taking no hits) and not activate again. Either way, you must also draw and resolve a Union Event marker.

C’mon Boys! (8/36)
Now we’re talkin’! The brigade moves forward one space, even if there is an obstacle in their path, you get to draw and resolve one Confederate Event marker, and the brigade activates again.

Light Fire (2/36)
Bad news. The brigade takes one hit, doesn’t move, and activates again.

Determined Advance (2/36)
Here you get a choice. The brigade can advance two spaces (one if it is moving into an obstacle) and activate again, or you can move all three brigades in the division one space (as long as they aren’t moving into an obstacle) and activate the brigade again. Both these options are much more valuable than they sound on paper.

Against The Wind (2/36)
A mixed bag. The brigade takes one hit, moves one space forward (taking a second hit if its moving into an obstacle), and you draw and resolve one Union Event marker and one Confederate Event marker. Then the brigade activates again.

Rout! (1/36)
Snake eyes. An unmitigated disaster. The brigade takes hits equal to half its distance from its Rally marker, and then both it and the Rally marker are moved back to their start space. The brigade does not activate again, and you must draw and resolve one Union Event marker. This will make you cry if it happens when you are on the verge of breaching the Union line.

On To Washington! (1/36)
Boxcars, baby! This is fireworks and beer and donuts and sports cars and various other hedonistic things best not mentioned on the Geek. You get two choices. One is to move two spaces (one if advancing into an obstacle), move the Rally marker up to the brigade, draw and resolve a Confederate Event marker, and activate again. The second is to move all three brigades in the division one space (unless they move into an obstacle), move all their Rally markers up to them, draw and resolve a Confederate Event marker, and activate the brigade again. Moving the Rally marker up like that during a turn provides a tremendous advantage because it mitigates the effects of bad movement rolls and bad Event markers. This is especially true if the brigade moved several spaces before rolling this result.

This is already a neat system, but there’s more.

THE CHROME

“Looking up the valley towards Gettysburg, the hills on either side were capped with crowns of flame and smoke, as 300 guns, about equally divided between the two ridges, vomited their iron hail upon each other.” -Confederate Brigadier General Evander M. Law

Civil War battles were chaotic, and this action was particularly so. A massive pre-charge artillery bombardment by both sides covered the battlefield in swirling smoke, and was fought at long enough distance that the Confederates had no idea how successful their effort had been (it was wholly ineffectual, even though they were chewed up by the Union guns during the exchange). Advancing troops fired almost blindly in the general direction of the Union line, ignorant to where their bullets struck.

This confusion is elegantly conveyed in the game by placing face-up Fire markers on Union positions hit by artillery or infantry attacks. The strength of Union brigades is reduced by one for each fire marker on it, which reduces the amount of hits they dish out when certain Event markers are pulled. As the Confederate troops advance the markers are revealed (one by one if the advancing force is in the middle of the map, or all at once if it is close to its objective), and their effects are applied. Sometimes they result in hits, permanently reducing the strength of the Union brigade, but often they resolve as heartbreaking misses that have no effect. A few Fire markers also have special effects that suppress or otherwise hinder a Union brigade for the remainder of the turn.

I don’t know if any other game uses this system, but it is perfect for a Civil War fight where troops might lay down enough fire to keep their opponent’s heads down but not actually kill many of them. It models suppression and the general inaccuracy of Civil War equipment surprisingly well for being so simple and easy to track.

The Event markers referenced above also add a lot of flavor to the proceedings. They are large counters with Union-related events on one side and Confederate-related events on the other. Drawing a Union Event marker may trigger an artillery bombardment in one section of the grid, cause Union troops to fire, kill Confederate generals, or even model historical events that happened during the actual fight. Confederate events generally do favorable things for your side, including letting you move brigades, fire at a Union position, attack with artillery, use smoke for cover, and call in reinforcements. There is a huge pile of these counters, and they are just what the game needs to increase verisimilitude without increasing complexity.

Finally, there are the General markers. As mentioned, each division has one general that can be attached to any of its three brigades, and on your turn you can flip the general to his Used side to get an advantage. They can add Fire markers to attacks, help get more reserves, provide a bonus in bayonet combat, and reduce the effects of Morale Checks caused by some Union Event markers.

You also get to invoke the power of General Lee once per game and call on Longstreet twice per game. The Lee marker prevents all brigades from retreating during an entire turn, and provides a potentially game-changing advantage if you manage to save it until your brigades are on the verge of overrunning the Union positions. Longstreet lets you transfer strength points between two units in the same division and is great for shoring up a weak brigade before a final assault (or creating a brigade if one is shattered completely).

The problem with using either of these generals is that on the turn they are on the board they are vulnerable to Union Event markers that kill generals, and losing either of them immediately negates their bonus and costs you dearly during final scoring. (Take it from me, the guy who watched Lee prevent a brigade from routing at a critical moment just before Lee took a minie ball between the eyes.)

WINNING THE GAME

“General, I have no division.” -Confederate Major General George Pickett, responding to General Lee’s request to position his division to repel a feared Union counterattack after Pickett’s Charge

If you somehow manage to get one of your ragged brigades to the Union lines and then roll well enough to get them onto a Union position (which are considered obstacles), bayonet combat begins. This is determined by a dice roll modified by relative brigade strengths and other variables, and is as bloody, brutal, and decisive as it bayonet combat historically was. You only have five turns to get as many of your brigades on Union positions as you can, and then you get victory points based on their remaining strength and any generals you have left. If you manage to take four or five consecutive Union positions you get a big Breach bonus, and if you can get six you get an even bigger Breakthrough bonus. I would wish you luck, but I don’t like to waste wishes on lost causes.

IS IT WORTH YOUR TIME?

I look for three main things in my games:

ARE THE DECISIONS INTERESTING?
They are agonizing, but not necessarily interesting. This is a reactive system where you are forced to roll with the punches instead of a proactive system where you can plan and strategize, ao actual decision making is simple. Should you keep pushing the brigade, or stop and regroup? Do you want to concentrate an artillery bombardment or spread it around? Is it best to shore up a single brigade to increase its odds dramatically in bayonet combat, or leave things as they are and hope that two brigades eke out a victory? Is it time to bust out Lee or Longstreet? Random dice rolls make the outcome of all of these choices a crapshoot, so ultimately the results of your decisions are more interesting than the decisions themselves.

Some people won’t like that, and I’m normally one of them, but here it works. It arguably does a better job of simulating what it’s like to be a general than games with thick rulebooks and meticulous detail accomplish. Generals play the odds until they are forced (by circumstances, orders, or ego) to gamble and hope they don’t crap out. That’s this game in a nutshell.

IS THERE A CLEAR SENSE OF ACCOMPLISHMENT OR FAILURE?
There are several paragraphs in the back of the rule book that let you know how you did based on what score you achieved. This adds a nice bit of closure, but the game is so random that I never feel I deserve much credit for the victories I achieve. Oddly enough, I take full personal responsibility for my many, many failures. I give this game props for providing some insight into why Lee and many other great generals also felt this way.

IF THERE IS A THEME, IS IT TIGHTLY INTEGRATED WITH THE DESIGN?

As tightly as it can be for such a light game. The Event and General markers do a good job of presenting the particulars of this battle, and they dovetail with the surprisingly good combat model to help make you feel like you’re commanding Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg instead of A Random Assault on a Generic Location.

THE VERDICT

I was really worried when I bought this that it would be far too simplistic and random to hold my interest. Instead its simplicity made it easy to learn and play, and its randomness served the theme far better than I thought was possible. It seems indefensible as a game, because really all you do is roll dice and pull a lot of random event chits. But I dare you to try it and not cheer your brigades on, feel crestfallen when they are pummeled, and be elated when they manage to punch through the Union lines against all odds. I triple dog dare you.

The only thing I fear for is replayabilty. There’s a lot of randomness, just as there is with Victory Point Games’ States Of Siege line, but playing those is like experiencing an epic book while In Magnificent Style plays out more like a brief excerpt. It’s not like you can make new plans or try out new strategies since everything is so tactical and dice-driven. I’m having a blast with it now, but wonder how many times I can watch the same units march straight into the jaws of death before it gets stale.

I suppose there’s only one way to find out. Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…

“Well, it is all over now. The battle is lost, and many of us are prisoners, many are dead, many wounded, bleeding and dying. Your Soldier lives and mourns and but for you, my darling, he would rather, a million times rather, be back there with his dead, to sleep for all time in an unknown grave.” – Confederate Major General,George Pickett, in a letter to his fiancee written after Pickett’s Charge

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.

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.