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Shifting Sands – Valley of the Kings review

VotK Box

Since the arrival of Dominion and the ensuing wave of deckbuilders, the genre has quickly become one of the most popular around. They boast a longevity that many other game types just can’t match – even a base set of Dominion will last the average group of gamers a lifetime thanks to the impressive amount of combinations that you can make from the different card groups. The expansions for games Thunderstone increase the amount of layouts to a ridiculous degree, as well as making the boxes even heavier. I defy anyone to lift my Thunderstone Advance set without ruining their back (in fact, that may be one of the contributing factors to my current spinal problems…) so wouldn’t it be lovely to have a quality deckbuilder that you could fit in your pocket? A propos of nothing, what’s this I find upon my desk? Why, it’s a copy of Valley of the Kings from AEG! How very fortuitous!

Another release in AEG’s small box line, Valley of the Kings aims to do the whole deckbuilding thing in one-hundred (ish) cards while still providing a quality gameplay experience – and I’m delighted to say that it does incredibly well. As you’d expect from the title it’s set in Ancient Egypt, and though theme is never really the strongest part of any game in this genre there’s a few things in VotK that play up to this world of tombs and mummies. The idea behind the game is that you and your opposition are Egyptian nobles who seemingly have one foot in the grave, so they need to be looking to make their afterlives as comfortable as possible. To do so you’ll need to pack out your tomb with as many luxuries as possible by collecting sets of artifacts, with larger sets scoring more points. As is so often the way, the highest scorer will be victorious.

For the uninitiated, here’s deckbuilding for beginners: Starting with a hand of trash cards (called Level I cards here), you’ll draw from an ever recycling deck in order to get gold. This will be spent to pull in new cards that are ‘better’ – worth more gold, generally. Some cards may have special abilities on them which can be used to affect your actions rather than be used for their gold value, so decisions will need to be made. Every time your turn is over, the cards you’ve used and bought go to your discard pile. When you need to draw from your deck and done have enough cards, you shuffle your discards and make a new draw pile. Some cards will allow you to get rid of others, thinning out your deck and ensuring that your stronger, more valuable cards come around more often. It’s a beautiful engine for a game, and it’s done very well here.

Valley of the Kings does simplify the genre a little, but not to its detriment. Rather than having stacks and stacks of different cards, you only get to select from a line of three when your turn comes around. You’ll find a really interesting and unique method of laying out the cards in VotK – they’re placed in a pyramid formation with the available three on the bottom line, two above them and one on the top – and players actually have an element of control over getting the cards into that lower level. Called the ‘Crumbling Pyramid’ in the instructions, cards drop down a level when one is bought or moved out of the way; so if you want the card thats on the right on the middle level, you’ll need to buy either the middle or right cards on the lower level first, allowing the one you want to drop into that space immediately. It’s a really interesting method of working out your forward planning, though with a higher player count you won’t often have the same line-up of cards available by the time the game gets back around to you.

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So, if the Middle Sarcophagus in the bottom row is bought (for 4 Gold), either the Book or Statue drop into it’s place, with the Amulet then falling into the middle row and a new card taking its place. If the Ka Figurine is bought, the Book of Gates would fall, followed by the Amulet. Simple once you get it!

 

At the end of your turn, you get to ‘Entomb’ a card – in other words, set it aside for scoring when the game ends. Doing so is an important decision… do you stash a powerful card away in order to protect it, or do you leave it out to use during future rounds with the possibility of you not getting the chance to put it in the tomb before the game ends? With only Entombed cards counting towards your score, it’s a tough call!

As mentioned, you’re looking to collect unique sets of items in order to score points – having the same items (a pair of ‘Statues of Anubis’, for example) don’t count towards your end total. Each set is colour coded and the higher the amount you have, the larger your score will be – the numbers go up in squares, so having two unique cards of the same colour brings in 4 points while seven (making up an entire set) is a huge 49, though any game where that happens will be a rare one indeed. Some cards also have a small points value that should be added to get your final total. It’s a simple scoring system that means you can total up your points pretty swiftly once the game’s over and you’ve laid out your sets. In fact, it feels like everything in Valley of the Kings has been done to make your life easy – apart from when you’re playing, of course. Despite coming in a small box, this is a game that’s a spiteful as it is quick to play. Stealing cards from the pyramid, moving them around to put them out of reach of your fellow nobles… screwing with your opponents through manipulation of the pyramid is encouraged, which is surprising in a game from a genre that is often accused of having its fair share multiplayer solitaire efforts.

In short, Valley of the Kings is a wonderful little thing. It manages to present the whole deckbuilding thing to you with a tiny table footprint and a small box, but would it replace the copies of Dominion, Thunderstone Advance or (ahem) Tanto Cuore that sit in my collection? No, but it certainly deserves a place on the shelf as a fantastic accompaniment. AEG are doing some great stuff with this new small box line, and I hope that they continue to do so in future. Designer Tom Cleaver has shown that you don’t need a huge box to present a game that has a big feel to it and he’s done an excellent job within the constraints presented to him. I look forward to seeing what he and other designers come up with for future releases in this line.

Valley of the Kings was released in 2014 by AEG. Designed by Tom Cleaver with art by Banu Andaru, between two and four players can indulge in being Ancient Egyptians through the medium of cards. Games will take you around thirty minutes (including setup and breakdown) and a copy will set you back around £15 from the folks at Gameslore. Get yourself a copy today and keep it in your gaming travel bag!

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World In Motion – Fußball-Fieber review

FF Box

When I was a kid, I didn’t have a lot of time for football. Don’t get me wrong – I knew of it and read an awful lot of Roy of the Rovers comics round my friend Lee’s house. I recall there was an ace story when the titular Roy led his remaining teammates to freedom after being kidnapped by some people in some unnamed land, and that was after they’d all been involved a major plane crash that killed most of the team. The actual playing of the game though? Not really that interested, especially when Roy Race was shot by a mystery assailant and people were trying to find out whodunnit.

Another reason I didn’t like actually playing: I always ended up in goal which was awful because (a) I had a terrifying fear of getting a ball to the face which would smash my glasses and (b) if you were in goal, you’d been picked last, and I was always picked last because I was bloody awful at the game, mainly down to (a). I still am, and that’s probably down to me ending up in the library instead of on the playground as much as I could. There was one time of year though, a time when I totally threw myself into the game – perhaps not playing, but definitely hanging around the people who knew everything about the sport. Those three or four weeks leading up to the start of the new season were great because all of the football magazines like Shoot! and Match gave away League Ladders.

I had this. I HAD THIS.

I had this. I HAD THIS.

I didn’t give a damn about their proper use – no tracking the ups and downs of a season for me! Instead, I would waste hours (and I mean waste them) playing a ridiculous game where, using all of the printed team banners, I would enact imaginary knockout competitions. Drawing sixty-four teams from a tin, a mix of Scottish and English club sides involved in a cup competition that even now would never exist in real life, I would write them all carefully down in a notebook then roll a six-sided dice to see what the score would be. The winner would progress, the loser returned to the tin, and I’d keep going on and on until there was a winner. Ludicrous match ups would occur, with minnows like Alloa taking down the then all-powerful Liverpool down in a 6-4 thriller. I found one of the notebooks the last time I was back home and shook my head at the stuff I got up to as a kid.

Now, I play ‘proper’ games. Now I waste my hours in a much more productive way, and while I never truly fell for football like so many of my friends did, I’ve certainly got much more of an appreciation for the game, especially when the World Cup is doing its thing. Of course, at the time of writing we’re right in the middle of the 2014 event and Brazil is showing the world how to expertly ignore near countrywide poverty in order to spend all the money on hosting a tournament. Meanwhile, I have gone into my biannual obsessive mode, keeping an eye on stats and numbers and watching as many matches as possible.

And then there are the games – tabletop ones, I mean. Of course, translating any sport to home play is a nightmare at best – generally you’ll find that designers will take the more abstract route with a lot of dice rolling or almost ignore the sporting aspect totally and take a more business type approach (see another game of my childhood called Soccerama). I recently received a copy of Fußball-Fieber from the designer, Pierre Viau, and rather than go down one of these well trodden paths, it’s doing something rather different as well as inspiring a few wanders back to the past – hence the rather rambling nature of this write up.

A quick to play card game that emulates this year’s World Cup, you choose a team from the thirty-two qualifiers and attempt to guide them through the group stages of the event. While there are rules to play through an entire tournament, the focus of the game is just those first three matches that can make or break a country’s spirit – see England’s performances this time around, wiped out after two matches.

Two Player game in progress - thanks to Pierre Viau for the image!

Two Player game in progress – thanks to Pierre Viau for the image!

All teams are graded – the likes of Germany and Brazil getting 4s, the smaller teams such as Australia and Honduras only 1s – and also split into three sets: A, B and C, just to ensure that things will be nicely mixed up. There’s a little bit of handicapping to ensure that all selected sides are equal and then each player is then dealt their own group – the three teams that they will face – as well as a card saying in which order they’ll take them on. Actual Groups of Death can take place which is hilarious where only one player is dealing with some monster teams while everyone else is just facing the likes of Spain (topical reference!).  Next up, you’ll receive a card that tucks in underneath your chosen Country that will be used to show your score.

Last, and most vital, are the cards that you’ll use to get yourself through these three matches. Despite them all being in German, they’re very simple to understand thanks to lovely, intelligent design decisions – cards that effect other cards have the same images printed on them, for example – and your main focus will be on the modifier in the top right corner. Playing a card on your current match (or on any other player’s, as all they all take place at the same time) though in general you’ll be looking to add good ones to your game, bad ones to everybody else’s.

So far, so simple. Of course, there has to be a twist to make things a little more meaty, and in Fußball-Fieber it’s all about limitation. You see, you only get eight cards to get through the whole group stage. Admittedly, you do have to +1 Jokers that bring that hand up to ten in total, but those eight randomly dealt cards will be all that stands between you and qualification.

Play is also very simple. Each time the turn comes round to you, you either play a card from your hand or choose to pass. Playing is as mentioned, just putting a card on your current game or that of another one in progress, then having the affected player slide their score card up or down depending on the modifier. Passing, surprise, sees you skip out for that turn, but you can jump back in if play gets back to you. The match only ends when all players sat at the table decide to pass, bringing that round of matches to a close.

Scores are checked, results noted (3 points for a win, 1 for a draw, nothing for losing – don’t forget the goal difference, that can get quite important) and play goes on to the next match. Before that starts, you may choose to discard two of your cards in order to draw a couple of new ones, just to perhaps open up your options a little. Of course, by that point you may not have the cards to trade in as you might have used them all during your first match – it’s very easy to get involved in what’s essentially a war of attrition with another player, throwing cards at each other and then ending up in a 0-0 draw. Like any shrewd international manager, you must decide what is best for your team at that moment in time. Do you sacrifice a win in order to let someone else spend another of those valuable cards so you can turn the tables on them in an upcoming fixture? Or do you answer their attack , playing a card now but potentially leaving yourself open to getting truly stuffed later down the line?

For such a small, quick game, there are a surprising amount of tricky decisions to make. As the three matches progress, you’ll be looking at the points that have been racked up (along with that goal difference) and having to react to that as well as what’s happening right in front of you on the field of play. Add in the rather ingenious idea of some cards hanging around, causing you misery and requiring multiple plays to get rid of them and their undoubtedly heavy penalty and you’ll have a game that makes for a very enjoyable half an hour.

Problems? Well, it’s only available in German, but the English rules translation is excellent and freely available. You could use a crib sheet, I suppose, but with each card represented by clear imagery I don’t really see it as entirely necessary. In all honesty, my only major issue with Fußball-Fieber is the art which is… well, it’s rather special. I realize that licensing the kits and everything would’ve made the game prohibitively expensive – after all, FIFA do like to take their cut – but some of the shirts that the artist has come up with are a wretched sight. The worst thing is undoubtedly the players themselves though, who look like they’ve escaped from an early nineties copy of Guess Who; they would be better served staring at you from an identikit photo on the evening news of a hunted criminal.

Regardless, this is a bloody charming – and occasionally surprisingly cutthroat – little game. It may be a pain to get your hands on it but I’d suggest grabbing a copy from Amazon.de if you’re in the market for a speedy, accessible filler. There are also rules in the box to play out a full tournament, but I think it’s best to keep this one short and sweet. In fact, I’d suggest that this would work great with a younger audience, especially if they’re hitting that football mad period that all kids seem to experience. For me though, I enjoyed playing Fußball-Fieber, not just because it’s a splendid little game, but because it brought me on a journey back to some happy memories of my childhood. Might have to hit up eBay now and see if I can find some League Ladders…

Fußball-Fieber was designed by Pierre Viau and published by Kosmos in 2014. Between two and four can play with games taking around half an hour. Copies of the game can be picked up from your friendly local game store (in Germany) or from Amazon.de for a mere €7 – get one in before the final!

 

 

 

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Smoke on the Water – Brave the Elements review

BtE Cover

If you’re unaware of games design wunderkind Miles Ratcliffe, you should probably rectify that pretty quickly. After first coming across him and his game Medieval Mastery at the UK Games Expo a couple of years back, I was equally impressed and jealous at how well he’d put together his first design (which he also self published through his own company, Chaos Publishing). We bumped into each other at this year’s Nuremberg Toy Fair where he was toting around his follow-up release, a game that happens to be hitting Kickstarter now.

Brave the Elements, first of all, feels a lot more well rounded that his first game. He’s taken his time in getting this new one out and it feels like that’s been well spent. The prototype copy I was sent over had no art to speak of and the rulebook had none of the story and fluff that generally give games their settings, so that gave me the chance to really get into the game, but the basic theme is that the players act as powerful priests, looking to control elemental forces to take down their opponents’ buildings. Alternatively, spies can be sent in order to infiltrate and score points by settling into those same buildings, and after a set amount of rounds (dependent on the number of players), highest scorer wins.

The whole game is card driven (though there is a little dice rolling, which we’ll cover shortly), with each player beginning with four location cards that are specific to their chosen starting element. With each location granting special abilities, you’ll find that you’ll be dealing with advantages and problems from the very start of play, but you’ll generally find that things become quite evenly balanced within a round or so.

On the subject of rounds, each one is split into sections, with all players doing the first part before moving onto the second and so on, until everyone has completed the sixth and final part of the turn. Initially, everyone will draw up to six cards and then play locations out before them, one by one, until everyone’s got at least five set out – of course, if you have five or more, you won’t be able to add anything to your tableau, but that’s one of the ways the game keeps balance between everyone.

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Certain locations have special elemental biases and abilities, but it often doesn’t bode well if you focus on a single one! Everything’s got a weakness…

Next up, it’s time to perform actions – just one per player – then a series of infiltrations take place. This section of the round is where you’re looking to steal other players’ locations from under their nose; check the defence value on the card you have your eye on then roll the dice, and if you’re equal to or higher you claim the location as your own and take the card. Followers can add to your roll, making this theft easier, but they’re only added if you attempt to infiltrate and fail – so, basically, perseverance pays off. You also score points for followers that you bring home, so failed rolls aren’t necessarily a bad thing!

Step five of each round is one of the more entertaining parts, where it’s time to conjure up some disasters. If you’ve got the cards in hand, you can attempt to destroy a couple of enemy locations, but doing so will use up your cards. “But I get six at the start of each round?!” I hear you say. Well, yes, but with that option to carry cards over from round to round, you don’t want to be wasting them on a relatively weak location – forward planning and holding onto certain cards can really swing things your way as the game progresses. You also can use them defensively against the attacks of other players, so holding on to them can often be a good call. The final part of each round brings in the points for locations that you control, then you swing back on to the start again unless it’s game end; in that case, it’s a matter of totally up various tokens that you’ve received and the values of locations.

Bte Disasters

Ahhh, disasters! Hurl one at someone, boost it with some extra cards just filling up your hand and blow the opposition away!

Now, where do the elements come into play? Well, each building is designated one of the four – Fire, Earth, Wind or Water, as are the various destructive Disasters that you can hurl at everyone else. These can also stack up – choose a card, then flip others in your hand sideways so they act as bonuses, adding yet more power to your attacks.  The defender can attempt to save their location by rolling a pair of custom dice, using the icons that appear to cancel out those on the attacker’s initial card. If you don’t roll the right icons, you can get rid of cards from your hand to make up the missing elements – but again, ending up with no cards in your hand can leave you open to even more attacks.

After playing through Brave the Elements a few times, I was really impressed with how well balanced the game was. Sure, it’s a pre-press version but even without the art, I really enjoyed the experience and loved the nastiness that quickly exploded on our gaming table. This is not a game for those who just like to turtle up and look after their own stuff – aggression is necessary if you’re going to get anywhere in this one, but at least if you fail when attacking someone else you get to put one of your followers on a building. Not only does this make things easier to steal the location, you also pull points in for the action, so get up in everyone’s face from the very beginning!

With only a small amount of rounds per game, the action can get pretty fast and furious with locations moving around the table and getting wiped out as disasters take hold. Players who take offense at being picked on need not check this one out – you will hate it – but for those who enjoy strategic light to middleweight games, Brave the Elements deserves some time on your table.

Brave the Elements is currently on Kickstarter, with the campaign running through to June 18. Designed by Miles Ratcliffe, it’ll be released through Chaos Publishing next February. I’ve checked out some of art on the KS page and it looks great, really pushing the whole ancient mythical empires theme. Between two and four players can get to the table with games taking around an hour. Get yourself a copy for £18 and support this truly talented designer!

 

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Long Train Running – Yardmaster video review

Yardmaster COVER

We’re aiming to do a bit more video stuff here on Little Metal Dog, so here’s one right now – a look at Steven Aramini’s Yardmaster which will be hitting Kickstarter soon through Crash Games. A quick playing card game where players are looking to build one of the huge trains that travel across the US transporting carfuls of goods, here’s a runthrough of the rules and some thoughts on the game.

Thanks for watching!

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After Hours – Time Barons review

Time Barons COVER

I think it’s pretty clear that I have a rather large passion for games, no matter whether they’re on my table or on my screen. One of my great favourites – and currently just about the only thing that I’m playing on my Vita – is a game called Spelunky. I have put countless hours into both that version and the one available on the 360, constantly pushing further and further into the game’s four randomly generated worlds. Thousands of games have been played, the vast – and I mean VAST – majority of them ending in abject failure. I’ve completed Spelunky only four times, and that’s doing it the comparatively easy way. There are a huge amount of secrets hidden inside that bloody game, and I still find myself going back again and again. It is awful, brutal and wonderful, and it all came from the mind of a guy called Derek Yu.

Now Derek is back with his first foray into the world of tabletop games, a co-design with another first timer, Jon Perry. It’s called Time Barons and it’s currently available over on The Game Crafter. Oh, and it happens to be one of the greatest two-player games that I’ve ever made.

There are many good games that are brilliant for two: Agricola ACBAS, Le Havre: The Inland Port and Balloon Cup all spring to mind immediately, but Time Barons has swiftly raced to the top of my list of games to play when there’s just two of us at the table. It too is awful, brutal and wonderful, and I bloody love it.

The story is that you and your opponent are the titular Time Barons, shady folks who manipulate the world to turn things their way and gather followers – after all, even secretive Illuminati types like to be recognised for their deeds. Those followers are pretty disposable though, and you can be sure that you’ll be wiping plenty of them out before the game is done. Each player begins with ten followers and a single Homeland card sat down in front of them, with four numbered decks (Roman numerals, we’re being classy here) in the middle which contain a selection of card types – we’ll cover those in a moment. To vanquish your opponent, you’ve got to do one of two things: either entirely wipe out their followers, or have more followers than them when the I, II and III decks have been depleted. As you may expect, this is one of those “simple objectives with deep gameplay” affairs that I hold so dear to my heart…

Each turn, you have three actions to spend on getting the upper hand over the enemy. Cards each have a cost in their top right corner, using up those valuable points quite quickly, but you’ll need to get them out if you’re to build your empire and gain more and more followers. Most of the time you’ll be playing Sites down in front of you, many of which have abilities that can be used if you have a set amount of followers sat on that specific card. With more Sites come more options, so it’s often a good idea to spend an action and Relocate your followers to build up powerful attacks that will take down your fellow Time Baron’s own Sites. Each one has a defensive Integrity that, when met or exceeded, destroys the site and anyone sat there, so there are plenty of opportunities for aggressive back-and-forths – after all, this is a game where ruination is key and any damage that is done also results in lost followers.

Oh, Plague. You're such a great card. Attach it to a busy Site and watch the followers die one by one...

Oh, Plague. You’re such a great card. Attach it to a busy Site and watch the followers die one by one…

The other card types are relatively straightforward. Events are one-offs that aid you or harm the other player, while Reactions protect you from something nasty happening during your opponent’s turn. The final type, Attachments, are a great addition to the game that bolster the powers and abilities of the Sites that are currently in play – and not just your own. Some drain an enemy Site of followers through a plague or sabotage the usage of a Site’s ability, and it gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling when you throw one of these out onto the table to screw over your opponent.

I’ll admit that the Time element of the game is somewhat tenuous, but it sort of makes sense to the story. Each of the four decks represents a different era, the first being solidly Medieval, working up through the ages to the tiny but spectacularly overpowered Futuristic deck IV. Three of the decks are actually unavailable to you at the start of play – actions must be spent to level you up and unlock the decks for use, the action point cost being the level you’re moving up to, so two actions to get to II and three to III. Of course, with only three actions per turn, you’ll need to build an engine that gives you extra actions if you’re ever going to hit the dizzy heights of drawing cards from that heady Level IV stack. One thing to recall though; you may draw from any deck that’s your level or below, so your play area is always gong to be a glorious mish-mash of followers dotted about buildings from various eras. Sure, you might have a load of hi-tech gear at your disposal, but there’s nothing wrong with battering down your opponent’s shiny Robotics Lab with some well placed old-school Catapult action.

Catapult vs Doomsday Laser though? Hmmm. Maybe it's time to reconsider your options...

Catapult vs Doomsday Laser though? Hmmm. Maybe it’s time to reconsider your options…

I can’t quite put my finger on why I enjoy Time Barons so much, but I think it’s mainly down to the range of options that are available to players each game. Every time you play it feels like a tiny little war, and it’s incredibly well balanced considering that this is coming from a pair of first timers. While the cards through the ages do get progressively stronger, you don’t necessarily have to engage in an arms race for the more powerful items – it’s entirely possible to win the game using only cards from the first deck, laying into your opponent with brute force. All told, it’s a very impressive example of quality game design.

It’s also a nicely put together package. The Game Crafter has had some issues in the past with quality, but in the last couple of years they’ve really pushed to improve their products and Time Barons is an excellent example of this desire to make better stuff. Derek’s art style exactly the same as seen in his much-loved Spelunky, and the cards are laid out clearly with easy to follow instructions and symbols that mean you’ll rarely have to refer to the rulebook for clarification. I believe that it’s still up in the air as to what’s going to happen with Time Barons, whether the guys are going to look for a publisher or go down the self-publishing route via Kickstarter, but whatever happens with the game I firmly believe that it should remain pretty much untouched. I’d probably change the art on back of the cards but aside from that it’s a beautifully constructed game that looks good and plays brilliantly.

Simply put: But This Game Now. You honestly won’t regret it.

Time Barons was designed by Jon Perry and Derek Yu and was released through their own label, Quibble Games, in 2014. It’s only for two players with games taking around thirty minutes, and is only available from The Game Crafter. The game will set you back $20, though the cards-only version is also available for $10 – just remember that shipping from TGC can be horrifying. Any publishers out there looking for a truly excellent two-player game – you need look no further.

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