Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Talisman - One Silly Good Time

Last week we found ourselves in the Hobby Bunker needing a two person game. Rich stepped up and bought a copy of Talisman, 4th edition, so we could have something to play. What a great moment! I would have done the same but I had previously ordered Infinity and my impulse-buy points were all gone. Rich had played first edition back in the day and we settled down to see how to newest version held up.

Talisman is without doubt one old school game. The play takes place through moving a token around a rectangular board and seeing what happens when you land on a given space- pretty much the same as Monopoly. Each player starts the game by selecting a character. I always felt like the token in Monopoly should give you some special ability- the car should move faster or the dog could, well, that's where that plan falls apart. In Talisman your token does give you special abilities. Take the Prophetess and you can influence random events. Take the thief and you can steal from other players. Do you want to fight monsters? Then take a troll or warrior. There are more than a dozen characters to play and they have a variety of powers and advantages.

Once the players have chosen their characters they set up on the board. Each player rolls a die and may move that many spaces to the left or right. The player is likely to have to draw an adventure card on the space they land on and deal with whatever the card says. It may give the players a magical item, a faithful follower, or reveal some monster to fight. If you succeed at the challenge the card delivers you may improve your strength or spell casting ability. If you fail you may lose a "life," of which you have a finite number. After you resolve your adventure card the play moves on to the next player.

The goal of Talisman is to improve you character through these adventures until you can make your way to the center of the board and collect the Crown of Command. At this point the other players must catch the first soon or lose the game.

Rich and I enjoyed our game. I was pretty entertained as I acquired a unicorn and maiden follower for my Prophetess and then a gnome, which didn't make as much sense but was still pretty cool. Then I was turned into a toad and had to start from scratch but that was pretty entertaining as well. Through the coarse of the game we discovered hidden markets and sorcerers who would sell us armor and spells so over time we had locations we could return to to acquire more cool gear. In general we enjoyed the game's light tone and the character development that occurred as we moved along. I don't think i spent much time considering strategy, I just sat back and enjoyed the ride.

Talisman has received a bit of criticism for being very random. The adventure cards can deliver you a bag of gold or a powerful dragon. You may be forced to land on spaces that are unhelpful or even dangerous to your character. And you may struggle to get to an important space and consistently fail to roll the number required to get there. I think it's simplest to say that if a random game bugs you, just look elsewhere. If you find chance tolerable or even exciting then this is less of an issue.

Talisman is also very old school in that some of the characters may be stronger than others. It may also leave some players struggling to catch up to luckier, more powerful opponents. I think we see the same thing with games like Monopoly and Life. For this reason Talisman is absolutely not recommended for younger players who may find losing or perceived unfairness upsetting.

I enjoyed my game and I would happily play again. I see Talisman as a light and low key event rather than a competition. It absolutely has silly elements. There's a slight role playing quality in terms of watching your character develop and for me that's a bonus. The game itself is colorful and well put together. For people who are looking for an amusing way to spend some time this is a great game.

Talisman is available at most game stores, Rich got his at Hobby Bunker in Malden.

Pros: Light, cheery, full of surprises, role playing element

Cons: random nature of game means many many surprises

Beyond the Basics: You're not likely to become an "ace" Talisman player but there are some expansions to add a bit of variety

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Blue Moon - Great Game but Too Blue?

Blue Moon was released years ago. At the time it seemed like a small scale card game and in the days prior to marriage and babies I was looking for epic games that required hours to finish and involved lots of small sharp lead figures. Now I look for games that can be played quickly and don't have components that are messy or dangerous. The new world order, combined with a big sale at Fantasy Flight Games, promoted me to try Blue Moon.

I'm happy to say that this is a very fun game with a lot of depth and strategy to it. The gist of play is pretty simple. Each player has a deck of cards specific to a particular alien race. The basic box gives you two decks and you can buy addition decks separately. Through the game you draw cards from your deck into you hand and then play them on the table. The cards have a points value and if one player can't match or beat the points that the other player puts down they lose that round. One analogy might be the game of "War" if you had a hand of cards to choose from rather than just picking a card from the top of the deck.

Now given that I've disliked the game of War for forty years, why is Blue Moon any fun at all? The Blue Moon decks include a good number of cards with special abilities or effects. Further, each deck has some high value cards and some mediocre ones. Finally, each deck has cards with special abilities that can be played alongside your regular cards. Each deck has different special abilities so your game is going to change based on the alien race you're playing. The result is that a player has to decide when to use better cards, when to retreat before a stronger opponent's hand, and when to use the various boosters and support cards. Further, your game will vary based on which alien race you're playing.

We have played Blue Moon a number of times now and we've been struck by several good qualities. The simplicity of the rules is a real bonus. In addition the entire game may last only thirty minutes. The alien races are all very interesting and colorful and I like the idea that each one is going to play a little differently. I'm looking forward to seeing which is my favorite and developing some tricks and strategies specific to that race.

Simplicity, speed of play, and colorful components are all good things. Sadly, Blue Moon has two drawbacks. For one it may be difficult to find and you may have to order it from Fantasy Flight Games or Funagain. The second issue is a bit trickier. The artwork on the cards seems to feature very fit people wearing scraps of cloth or feathers. I'm not sure it's any more revealing than the outfits worn for beach volleyball, but do you necessarily want to buy your kids a game featuring scantily clad beach volleyball players, space aliens, or a mix of the two? The art has been a source of dismay for many parents and prospective owners of the Blue Moon game would be well advised to think about the issue before buying.

I think Blue Moon combines simplicity of play with room for strategic depth. If the game art doesn't offend then this is a great addition to the game library of older players and adults.

Pros: simple, strategic, fast, colorful art

Cons: Blue Moon has blue art

Beyond the Basics: lots of room to improve, master the various races and decks

Nice Sale at Funagain Games

I do recommend buying your games locally but Oscar Wilde says that nothing suits a long list of virtues better than an occasional vice. Therefore feel entitled to head on over to for a really impressive holiday game sale. They're letting popular and highly respected games like Dominion, Power Grid, and Carcassonne go at insane discounts. Don't let it slip by.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Holiday Gift Guide 2009

I've been musing over the various blog entries and feeling like some summary or assessment is in order. Given that both Gift Trap and Wings of War received positive reviews, is one better than the other? What's been truly exciting in 2009?

There's no difficulty in deciding the Most Exciting Game of 2009. Race for the Galaxy is overflowing with great qualities. It's simple, its components are beautiful, it has terrific replay value and you can improve your play with each game. There are two supplements that are decent values and add to the experience but you can play happily with just the basic box set. Race for the Galaxy is a beautifully designed game and has been the source of a great deal of fun across 2009.

Dominion: Intrigue (D:I) comes in as a runner up for most exciting game. D:I has an elegant set of simple rules, great replay value, and gets better with each play. I do feel that it's a little too abstract to really excite me. In Race for the Galaxy you do have a sense that you're building a galactic civilization. With D:I the play is more along the lines of "how can I combine these cards in a clever way?" On the other hand, players who love abstract games may prefer D:I for just that reason.

On the other side of the coin we see Arkham Horror. This product boasts amazing production values and is not at all abstract. You march your adventurer across a board, collect equipment, and fight monsters. My wife prefers games with stories and for this reason Arkham Horror is a favorite of hers. Arkham Horror won't take top honors because while it is fun I don't feel it's as elegant a design as Race of D:I.

In terms of Best Game for Younger Players we're faced with a bit of a dilemma. Can you make a reasonable argument for spending fifty dollars on a eurogame for young children? I have my doubts and that's why I give the nod to Gamewright's Sleeping Queens. More of an activity than a game per se, it remains fun to play and pretty to look at. Plus it delivers good times at a very reasonable price.

In terms of the younger folks I'd have to mention Max, the game in which you get tiny forest animals past a mean old cat. Max is cooperative and simple but boasts a very modest production quality. Sadly I like my games glamorous like Sleeping Queens.

Blokus is a nice game for younger players. It's priced reasonably and has good replay value. I don't see it as being quite as exciting as the Queens though, so it remains runner up.

There are certain games that are Great Games for Larger Groups. Tops on this list is Bang! This game has been a consistent crowd pleaser with every group I've introduced it to. bang! is simple, fast, fun, and involves the entire group at almost all times. Unlike many of these games it's also priced affordably.

In terms of Miniature and Tactical Games the indisputable champion is Wings of War. This game simulates air combat in World War 1 with fair realism but uses simple rules and allows quick play. In addition the miniature aircraft are just stunning. For very little money you can lay down a dogfight of a half dozen colorful aircraft on your kitchen table. Wings of War is a fabulous marriage of great production value and beautiful game design.

I was very impressed with Federation Commander, the Amarillo Design Bureau's update of the venerable Starfleet Battles rules. Federation Commander does a great job of simulating Star Trek starship combat and keeps the rules to a minimum. Still, the "minimum" at this level remains more than many players will be comfortable with and the rules could be written more clearly. This game is ideal for the older player who really, really wants to fight Klingons. Y'all know who you are.

Finally we're left with Role Playing Game of the Year. I remain disappointed that the rpg publishers seem disinclined to produce introductory level games. One exception is the admirable The Zantabulous Zorcerer of Zo. This game delivers simple rules, a fun setting, good accessibility to younger players, and accompanies it with generous background material. It's a model for what an introductory game should be like, not to mention a game that more experienced players will enjoy as well.

I found Starblazer Adventures to be another game well suited to beginners. The rules are comprehensive and the product is an awesome value in terms of the content it delivers. The fact that it exists without a clear game universe (unlike, say, the Conan, Star Wars, or Ghostbusters role playing games) may create a slight challenge for the person running the game unless they are pretty familiar with science fiction concepts. Happily, there seem to be plenty of moms and dads who know the difference between Tardis and Star Destroyer and so for them Starblazer Adventures is a good option.

The majority of these games are available in local stores like Pandemonium Books, Hit or Miss Games in Lexington, or Complete Strategist in Boston. If not immediately available they can be easily ordered. I say keep the business local, most of these store owners care deeply about the hobby and are great resources if you have further questions.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Ghost Stories- Cooperative Supernatural Action

Ghost Stories is a cooperative game based on the movie genre of Chinese ghost fighting. For much of the American public this is about as obscure as you're going to get and that's a shame because the films and the game have a lot to offer.

Readers looking for some background in this entertaining field should consider movies like Chinese Ghost Story or Mr. Vampire. In a general sense these stories usually feature a cast of exorcists who use taoism to fight and banish various supernatural beings. This may involve the use of martial arts or certain magical substances- special grains of rice, magical scrolls, or special bells play a role. The movies assume that you understand why sticky rice repels the undead or why placing a scroll on a vampire's forehead will cause it to stand frozen in place. If you choose to just accept everything you see at face value rather than wonder "what's the deal with the rice?" then these films are outrageously fun.

In the game of Ghost Stories the players take on the roles of taoist ghost fighters. Your job is to protect a village from a relentless flood of ghosts and eventually defeat their leader, Wu-Feng. Each player has their own turn. During a given turn the ghosts are first given a chance to appear on the board and then may haunt part of the village. In the second half of the turn the play may move their figure around the village and attempt to banish one or more ghosts. If the players can banish all the ghosts and their leader then they win the game. In several cases players will have to act together to succeed, sharing gear or teaming up.

Ghost Stories adds drama and strategy through a number of details. There are a wide variety of ghosts which may appear and each has some special ability. Some ghosts are easier to banish than others and some may require the players to band together or share equipment. There are four ghost fighters in the game to choose from and each has a different set of special abilities as well. Finally, the evil spirit Wu-Feng will have different abilities in each game. The game delivers good replay value through the random assortment of foes and abilities to deal with.

In addition to replay value Ghost Stories has a number of other positive qualities. Firstly- banishing ghosts is fun. Working together is fun. Working together to banish ghosts is thus especially fun. For a certain group of players working together and using kung fu and magic to banish ghosts is just crazily outrageous fun.

Multiple reviewers have also agreed that Ghost Stories is hard. So hard to win that players are better off concentrating on the fun factor of banishing as many ghosts as possible rather than winning per se. This is hard to assess- we want to win in general but if we know we're not likely to then is it just as fun to play hard and see how far you get, only to try harder next time? For a lot of players that's a good time but for the player who wants to win on the first try Ghost Stories will be a frustrating time.

Speaking of frustrating, it appears as though the rulebook has been translated through several languages. I feel pretty experienced in rules reading but these were tough. After a few read-throughs I did get the ideas and it's not like the game is very complex, it's just that the rules are poorly explained. Further, there are plenty of items ("tao dice," "Qi tokens") whose purposes are not immediately apparent from their names. Be patient, their use is actually fairly simple once explained.

The second caveat to Ghost Stories is in its choice of language. Players are told they are banishing ghosts back to hell. The ghosts themselves have fairly spooky names like "flesh devourer" or "hope killer." This may be troubling for some parents who find that type of verbiage inappropriate for their homes. As an aside, the same warning extends to the films- they have sequences that are hysterical but also some spooky or sexual scenes- please preview before having your teens watch them.

I personally liked Ghost Stories. I like cooperative games and this one really has the players working together to accomplish their goal. The genre is one I'm fond of and the game really captures the spooky and silly flavour of it. Most parents have a sense of whether their children will say "fighting Chinese ghosts and zombies using magic? Count me in!" For those families this is a great product.

Pros: cooperative, exciting, great subject matter

Cons: terrible rulebook, spooky language may not be for everyone, esoteric subject matter

Beyond the Basics: good replay value and several supplements.