Roll With It – Halfsies Dice VIDEO review!

Hello! John over at Gate Keeper Games sent over a bunch of his splendid Halfsies Dice for me to look at and play around with. Rather than write a thousand words about dice, I figured I’d do a video instead. So here it is. Watch it, then go check out the Kickstarter which is right here.

No money changed hands for this fine video, but if John thinks he’s getting these back, he’ll have to pry them from my wrinkly old-man hands.

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Barbarism Begins At Home – Imperial Settlers review

ImpSet

If you follow me on Twitter you’ll probably know that I’m in the middle of a move to the US. Everything is up in the air; I’m officially homeless, staying with friends as we grind through the slow process of immigration. All my stuff is in boxes – my games collection, my books, my consoles and my Mac… everything is just waiting to go across the ocean. Just before the packing, I was getting into the video game Civilisation V again and, cruelly, it has temporarily been taken from me. So sad. In the meantime, I need to get my civ-building fix from cardboard and the game collections of friends. And what have we been playing a lot of? The splendid Imperial Settlers from Portal Games, time and again.

Why so much love for it from me? Well, I enjoy any game that is based around a well-crafted engine, and Imperial Settlers really puts its focus into ensuring that everything works beautifully. With an easy to grasp set of rules, over the course of the game’s five rounds you’ll start off small with just a couple of cards and a handful of resources that are used in order to make your side the most dominant around. You’ll also begin with a long cardboard punch-out which your tableau will be built around that also lets you know what resources you’ll pull in at the start of a round from a selection of wood, stone, fruit, meeples, cards, gold, swords and shields.

Each turn you get to do one thing – and that’s it. However, while sometimes that one thing may simple like sending a couple of your dudes off to fetch some stone, depending on how things go for you, you may end up triggering a glorious chain of events that will make your opponents either look on impressed or glare at you with a barely concealed rage. It’s that kind of game, where those who are able to make their engines run smoothest will invariably come out victorious. The best way to learn how to do this, of course, is to play – just expect to get your arse handed to you in your first few plays as you try to figure out what’s going on.

Cards! Hooray. I may have forgotten to take photos, so thank you to The Innocent on BGG for this one.

Cards! Hooray. I may have forgotten to take photos, so thank you to The Innocent on BGG for this one.

Four civilisations are represented in the base game – Barbarians, Romans, Egyptians and Japan – with each of them having their own small deck of cards. Every card represents a location that’s exclusive to the civilisation but there’s also a larger central deck that all players can draw from; your personal deck is just for you, though. Every card has a cost that needs to be paid to add it to your tableau, normally a mix of wood and stone, but some also have a little house on them, meaning you’ll need to sacrifice one of your locations that’s either been destroyed (we’ll cover that shortly) or is taken straight from your hand, losing you a valuable card in a game where it can be very tricky to get hold of them.

Said cards will be one of three types: either Production, Feature or Action. Production ones are nice and straightforward: at the start of a round they add to the resources you gain but also give you them the moment you play the card. Actions need to be triggered, usually at the cost of a meeple or resource, but will generally pull in either something useful (like more meeples and resources!) or get you a few points. Features are invariable the trickier things to work with, often being the cards that serve as the links that make your turns splendidly convoluted or allow you to say “…and I score ten points off this one!” at the end of a game. The best civilisations will normally comprise of a decent mix of these card types, but it’s entirely possible to win using whatever set-up you manage to put together – really, victory falls to the player who reacts the best to what everyone else is doing.

By reacting, I really mean “attacking someone else’s locations with the swords you collect”. Two sword resources will be enough to force an opponents to flip one of their cards over, losing their precious cog in their machine that will inevitably cause their downfall (if you’ve planned it right). Shields (or meeples acting as Samurai if you’re playing as Japan) can be used to up this to a requirement of three swords (more if you stack them) but at the end of every round, EVERYTHING is removed from the cards you have in play – but you’ll have destroyed something well before then, won’t you? Oh, and you may also get bonus resources from doing this too, as long as the targeted card has a reward for razing it.

This is what you should be aiming for. This is what I generally don't end up doing. (Thanks to The Innocent again for the image.)

This is what you should be aiming for. This is what I generally don’t end up doing. (Thanks to The Innocent again for the image.)

There are so many little things that put Imperial Settlers head and shoulders above other Civ style games; you can boost your Production by making deals and tucking cards upside-down atop your tableau. You can wreck cards from your own layout if you’re short of resources. You can use meeples to go grab stuff too. Basically, the game puts an incredible amount of control into your hands – you do what you want to do, either focusing on your own buildings or eagerly eyeing someone else’s. Each civilisation feels and plays very differently, but all it takes is reading through a few cards to check up on what special buildings they all offer and you’re immediately up to speed.

No messing – Imperial Settlers is a bloody brilliant game. Ignacy Trzewiczek has created a simple game which still somehow manages to give the players a huge amount of strategies when they’re creating their own little dynasties. It’s a lovely game to look at with a cute graphic style throughout – seriously, the dumpy little buggers that are seen all over the cards are ace, and there are lovely details throughout, my personal favourite being the weeping family on the Ruins card… I am nothing if not cruel. Everything in Imperial Settlers hits the right buttons for me – it’s a streamlined work of greatness which, when I get to play it, is just so bloody pleasing that I want to bring it out again and again. When I get to the US, this will be the first game I buy – oh yes.

Imperial Settlers was released in 2014 through Portal Games. Between one and four can play (because yes, there’s a single player version of the game built in which is also excellent) with games taking around 30-45 minutes. Yes, not only is it great, it doesn’t outstay its welcome! A copy will set you back £35, though you can get it for under £30 at Gameslore. There’s also an expansion called Why Can’t We Be Friends which I’m yet to try out, but reports from other, more experienced players say that it’s well worth getting. So yes. You should do that. Oh, and follow designer Ignacy Trzewiczek on Twitter! Do that too!

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Glory Box – Vault Wars review

Vault Wars cover

I don’t watch that much TV – most of the time Netflix is babbling away in the background with some strange movie or other – but I do have something of a weakness for a little show called Storage Wars. The premise is simple: people bid on abandoned storage lockers in immense warehouses, having only had a cursory glance at the contents inside. Whatever they find inside is theirs to do with as they please, but most sell what they discover and many of the people on the show seem to make a reasonable living out of it, even is what turns up most of the time is crap.

The main thrust of the show, of course, is when something is found that is collectable or valuable – of if the buyer’s really lucky, both. A good score can set them up for ages, and in an industry where hundreds of dollars can be thrown away on a few crates of nothing on a seemingly regular basis, that’s very useful indeed. The show even spawned a not-very-good game of its own but Floodgate Games have taken the theme and amped it up somewhat. Vault Wars is currently on Kickstarter, and it’s one of the finest auction games I’ve played in a long time.

A thematic sequel to their also excellent Epic Resort, Vault Wars is all about what happens when fantasy heroes go off to battle monsters… but don’t come back. There’s a lot of stuff hidden away in their lockers and if there’s no-one to claim them, the island’s denizens throw them open for anyone to buy – as long as you’ve got the funds, you could pick yourself up some rather interesting items. There’s also the risk of buying a lot of junk, true, but you’ll have a bit of information before you put your money down.

Up to sixteen different vaults are available, and before play begins there’s a drafting round where players choose the ones that will be used in the game. You also start with a bit of money, of course, and a couple of ‘Aspiring Hero’ cards – you get a bonus at the end of the whole game, but only for one of them. Think of them looking to get hold of some useful gear so they can go on their own adventures, only at a bargain rate. If they manage to turn up a fistful of jewels in the meantime, even better!

At the start of a round, players choose one of the vaults from their hands. Each one of these will skew the way the auction for that round will work and some can even be claimed as items to add to your collection. In order from lowest to highest, players take turns being the Auction Master but before the fun starts we need to give out a little information about what’s in the current vault. The Auction Master pulls some cards from the Items deck, as decreed by the vault card, and gets to look at them all – they’re the one selling it, after all. You’ll then flip cards face up, the amount of which is also on the vault card, then pass the remaining ones around the other players. They get to randomly check out some of them so they have a little information about what they’re potentially going to buy… and then the battle begins.

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One of the 16 Vaults in the game – the red chest shows the contents, yellow how many get revealed, and blue is the Peek number. Rules for the auction are below!

The first bid is made by the Auction Master themselves, but after this they have no involvement in the round. Any rules on the vault card itself must be followed, but generally the normal bidding process is followed; you can either bid higher or choose to pass. Should everyone pass, the highest bidder hands their money over to the Auction Master; however, if they happen to win with their opening bid, the money goes to the bank. It’s pretty easy to run low on funds in Vault Wars, but thankfully at the end of a round you can sell some of the items you’ve picked up to get a bit more ready cash – but what kind of stuff can you find?

Mostly, you’ll pick Junk. Actual cards called Junk that will disappoint you greatly, these will fill up your pile of items that you claim from the vaults. I’ve managed to bid up some huge collections, take the cards, sure that I’m getting an handful of awesome… and get nothing but a stack of crap. Junk does have a use – you can use (a lot of) it to pay some rather hefty storage fees at the end of each round in lieu of gold, – but most of the time you’ll be looking for sets of armour that comes in Dwarven, Dragon and Elven flavours as well as different Gems. The more of a single Gem type you collect, the more points you will get at the end of a game. There are also Artifacts that bestow pretty useful abilities which will be fought over, especially in early rounds.

Of course, you may be broke but not want to get rid of your valuable items! Thankfully, payday loans are available on the island and a quick visit to the Loan Shark will get a bit more money in your pocket. The only trouble is that you must take a Corruption Token too, guaranteeing negative points when all is said and done. In a game where money can become quite scarce early on, choosing whether or not to bite the bullet and lose a fair chunk of points is a big decision – really, you should be looking to play carefully and conserve funds but all it takes is one person at your table to decide to play fast and loose with their cash… then the table can easily go full tilt (in a good way – after all, what’s an auction game without at least one round where things are bid far beyond their actual worth?).

I’ve found that many auction games are affected by the people you’re playing with, moreso than any other genre out there, but Vault Wars is certainly one of the best. Things are tempered by having each vault play out in a slightly different way, and having them come out randomly means that you really need to plan when they’re revealed at the start of a round. Players who want to blow through their money are discouraged from doing so with the joint risk of not only losing points but also potentially picking up a load of junk. It’s one of the most well balanced releases in the field of auction-based games, and certainly as enjoyable as my current favourite, For Sale.

However, where For Sale is a simple, straightforward affair, Vault Wars is a bit more complex and requires planning, forward thinking and no small amount of bluff. Designer Jon Gilmour – probably best known for his epic Dead of Winter from Plaid Hat Games – has scaled things back somewhat for this new game, but it’s no less entertaining and is tight as anything. The game also looks cool, using the same artists as its big brother Epic Resort, but even playing with the prototype version of the game has been a bloody wonderful experience. The end release can only be better, especially the deluxe version that comes with metal coins that are on the KS page.

Yes, it's a render, but it's a pretty render.

The Final Game (Yes, it’s a render, but it’s a pretty render.)

In short, Vault Wars is an absolute bloody pleasure. An hour of roaring at friends, accusing them of deception, while all the time you’ve been lying through your teeth as you scrabble for every coin and every point available to you. All this for a mere $20? It deserves a place in that bag that you always keep by the door, stocked with games for emergencies – everyone has one of those, yes? Just as long as when you get the game you don’t leave it in a vault on some paradise island. Throw your money down, now. You’ll have more fun with this than your First Season DVD of Storage Wars, that’s for certain.

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Bombtrack – Railways of the World review

RotW Cover

The Judge returns once again, this time not to check out something brand new, but to look to one of Eagle Games’ biggest sellers instead! Fancy some old-school networking? Time to pick up a copy of Railways of the World – if your back can handle it!

Gamers, as a breed, are always being swept along in the continual, unending, irresistible Cult of the New. Myself included, by the way. I’m not only a registered, card carrying member – I also have a commemorative t-shirt and have started the fan club. I love new games, as do my gaming groups, so I don’t get as many opportunities to revisit some of my favourites as perhaps I would like.

There are exceptions. Terra Mystica is an evergreen and so is the subject of today’s review – Railways of the World.

When discussing this classic “pick up and deliver game” it’s almost a cliché to begin comparing this with Age of Steam and Steam – they’re all from to the same original Martin Wallace design, after all. However, I haven’t played either of those, so in a refreshing break from tradition, they shan’t be mentioned again!

What I do know is that Railways of the World is my second favourite logistics game. (Roads and Boats is best. Review to come…) Simply put, players take turns constructing track to connect cities together and deliver goods cubes from their random starting location towards a destination city. There are a few interesting wrinkles – you have to pay money to build anything and you begin with zero cash. Until you start scoring points, your income each round is also zero, and to gain points you have to deliver goods on your track. You see the problem?

Fortunately, debt is your friend. Loans (or bonds), can be taken to provide a cash influx to get you started – but may never be totally paid off. Once you take this cash (bestowed upon you by an Age of Steam-era payday loans company) [You said you wouldn’t mention it! – Michael] you are indebted to pay £1 per bond after every round of play. That millstone around your neck may have been an attractive charm to begin with, but by the end of the game, you’re lugging around a significant chunk of Stonehenge.

Does this sound stressful? Good, because it is – the positive kind of stressful though. You could play slowly and build up your infrastructure in a fiscally conscientious manner – were it not for the competition of your other players. Acting like gold hungry ’49ers, players will be scrambling to be the first player to deliver the limited number of cubes, identify profitable network routes, and hoping they can get it done before someone gets in the way.

RotW Play

This is all great fun, satisfying, challenging and a giant, ever-changing puzzle. It also looks gorgeous. Railways has been over-produced within an inch of its life. Rail links are marked with brightly coloured, detailed, plastic trains. The timer for the game is the number of cities that have been emptied of cubes. How should we mark these? A cardboard chit? Or a giant plastic water tower? Yep! It’s the latter. The boards also deserve special mention as they are attractive, graphically clear and HUGE. Currently available are Europe, Great Britain, Canada, Mexico and the East and Western US. You can also choose to play a transcontinental variant by putting the East and West maps together, though for this you will need to hire a small village hall or community centre (not included.)

Any negatives? Well, the random card draws of “cool stuff” or specific, point giving tasks are deliberately overpowered and can give you a huge boost – particularly at the start of the game. That said, the auction for turn order at the start of each round deals with most of those problems. “Taking that card would be great, but how much is it worth for me?” is a question that often comes up. Bidding the right amount at the right time to claim these is another key part of the race to victory.

The game claims it plays up to six, depending on the map. Ordinarily, games that say this are dirty, little liars and force players into lengthy, painful experiences. Railways, because of its micro-turns, is actually very good about preventing downtime and is great (though quite different) with all numbers of players. Play Europe with five or six and you have a super tight, cutthroat, knife fight in a phone box. Play The Western US with two and you could conceivably never meet each other.

I love Railways of the World. It is challenging, highly competitive and most importantly a whole heap of fun. A few steps up from Ticket to Ride, not as long or complex as the 18xx series – Railways hits the sweet spot for me, and guarantees a place on my collection, not least as an immovable object standing in the way of the irresistible force of the cult of the new.

Railways of the World is currently published by Eagle Games. Designed by Martin Wallace and Glenn Drover, it was originally released back in 2005. Between two and six players can get around the table, but be sure that it’s a bloody big one! Thanks to The Judge for his write-up, and be sure to follow him on Twitter today!

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Computer Love – Black Hat review

Black Hat

Back in the eighties, if you were to mention the word ‘hacker’ you’d generally be met with a blank face and a “huh?” response – unless, of course, the questionee has recently watched one of the greatest films ever, WarGames. Now though? Everyone knows about hacking – hell, even my mum knows about it, because we had a discussion about it when we went out for lunch recently. Hackers take down Sony’s PlayStation Network on Christmas Day and it’s a major worldwide news story. In this era where the technology is ubiquitous, the internet is a modern day Wild West where the good guys are doing their best to keep DDOS attacks from taking down their sites. The folks on the other side, meanwhile, have nothing but having fun on their minds…

And what better theme to build a trick taking card game around? Coming soon from Dragon’s Dawn – the guys behind the expansive Elite-on-your-tabletop Phantom LeagueBlack Hat puts you in the role of one the internet’s bad guys, though we’re looking more at the kind of folks who use the Hollywood operating systems seen in movies like The Net and Hackers than someone with a fully working knowledge of Linux. The aim is to be the best of your group at pulling protected information from hidden systems, while also screwing over your fellow hackers wherever possible. But how does it all come together?

Like the excellent Diamonds from Stronghold Games, Black Hat is a trick taking affair that has a little bit more on top. Rather than shiny gems though, Black Hat comes with a board that looks like it comes from a control panel in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Paths are laid out all over said board, with each player having two pawns representing their current state and arrows linking different spaces. Each spot has a score that will be earned at the end of each round; most are positive, and in a game where the lowest score at the end will win, you can be sure that the few negative spaces will be fought over.

Some examples of the cards you'll get in Black Hat. The art's pretty sweet throughout, actually - nerdy, techy style.

Some examples of the cards you’ll get in Black Hat. The art’s pretty sweet throughout, actually – in a techy NetRunner style.

Players begin each round with ten cards in hand that can be numbered anywhere from 1 to 13 (though there are also a few Jokers in the deck that count for any value). One player will start the round with the special double-sided Black Hat card taking one of their hand spaces, telling everyone that they’re the person holding on to it – the only piece of open information in the game. The lead player lays a set of however many of the same number cards they wish – two 4s, for example, or four 9s – and yes, a single card can count as a set. The other players follow on in traditional trick taking fashion, either playing the same amount of cards but with higher values or getting rid of a single card from their hand. As always, whoever has the highest takes the trick… unless someone around the table throws down the Black Hat card as part of their play.

FullSizeRender (1)

Apologies for the slightly moody action shots – we were playing in the pub, and it was dark. Still though, ATMOSPHERE. I was yellow, by the way. And I did very poorly indeed.

In this case, things turn on their head. The round goes upside down, with the lowest value winning the trick instead – whatever the lead player goes with, whoever has the lowest value equivalent wins. Now, while they’ve won that trick, there’s a problem – they’ve made themselves public and must take a penalty in the form of some cards. It’s a little convoluted but I’ll try and explain it as simply as I can; essentially, they have two options. First, you can either take all of the cards played that round, or second, you take the Black Hat and the same amount of cards as played by the lead that round. Either way, it can end up quite the punishment, as every unplayed card has a points value of either 0, 1 or 2 that will be added to your total at the end of each round. In a game where the lowest final score wins, a bad decision with a Black Hat round can really end up screwing you over.

At least one good thing comes from winning a round, whether it involves the Black Hat card or not – you get to move one space along the board. Divided in two, your pawns will progress from server to server, getting ever closer to the Critical Files space that, when reached, will end the game. Only one pawn may occupy each space (apart from the starting spots, of course) so should someone be in the next space as designated by the arrows on the board, you get to leapfrog them. Should another player be on one of those rare negative point spots, you also have the option of moving them along instead, but there’s always that hard decision to make – help yourself or harm someone else?

To add to the replayability of the game, cards are included that cover four spots on the board and alter the routes you can take. Without these, your path will be relatively clear; however, with the different cards in play, things get really nasty really quickly. Brutal 5-point spots appear all over the place and more areas pop up that lock your pawns in place. Remember, you score points at the end of each round, so being stuck somewhere that’s going to pull in a lot of them in a game where you definitely don’t want that to happen is definitely A Bad Thing. These new cards really change the flow of play, and it’s fun deciding different ways to use them – fancy a game that’s utterly horrifying to start with and then turns into a desperate race to the safe haven of some negative points? We’ve got that for you. Perhaps a game where everyone’s trying to gently pick their way through a digital minefield without getting punched in the face? That too. Awesome.

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Same time, slightly better shot. Note the pathways give you a fair amount of options as you work your over the board, but with only one pawn allowed in each spot, you’ll speed across in no time meaning games of Black Hat never outstay their welcome.

Thing is, it actually *is* rather awesome. Black Hat is a lot of fun, certainly up there with the previously-mentioned-and-equally-splendid Diamonds, and discussing it with my fellow players led to the group consensus that it actually fits into the theme too. As with any trick-taking game you’re looking to be a sneaky bastard – like what a proper hacker does – and you’re trying to do leave behind as little evidence of your activities, which is nicely reflected in the scoring system (and the fact that you’re trying to screw over everyone else by ensuring that they’re stuck with the Black Hat at the end of a round).

I really like that you get to scale the game to whatever level you like to as well. Sure, the engine is exactly the same each time – you’re always playing with the trick taking element – but the layout of the board with its different spaces really does give you new journey. The plain board is great for beginners or those who don’t want to get too nasty when playing, but the simple addition of a couple of those route-changing cards soon puts paid to any thoughts of being pleasant. It also gives a nice, escalating path to the game, so you can start on a relatively chummy footing and soon move up into terrible, wretched, full-on nasty backstabbing incrementally. And isn’t that just what we want in life?

Black Hat was designed by Thomas Klausner and Timo Multamäki and will be on Kickstarter soon. Between two and six people can play with games taking around 40 minutes, but I’d recommend that you get as many around the table as possible because – as with any trick taking game – it’s all about interaction and swearing at people when they ruin your plans. Honestly, though, this one gets a definite recommendation. Go back it when it launches.

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