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Tonight Tonight – SOS Titanic review

SOS COver

In the Essen halls, amidst huge boxes filled with minis, the countless CCG booths, the big names all clamouring for your attention and your Euros, some companies play it cool. They know they make good games and all that’s needed is to show them off. It’s a Field of Dreams scenario – if you build it, they will come – except this time it’s all about the games. One such company is Ludonaute, who this year stepped up with two titles that have left many gamers quietly impressed. Lewis & Clark will be written about later – today, it’s all about SOS Titanic.

Initially, I wasn’t impressed with Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc’s collaboration based on rescuing as many passengers as possible from the doomed liner. It looked pretty enough, sure, and was well produced, but boiling everything down it just looked like another version of Patience. I can play that with a standard deck of cards, so why the hell would ask you lot to fork out more money on this? Well, gentle reader, the reason is this: SOS Titanic is really rather special.

Players each take a role of one of the ship’s crew on that fateful night in 1912. Your objective, of course, is to get as many of the passengers into lifeboats, saving them from the sinking ship and scoring your group a number of points. Being the Titanic, the passengers are split into two classes, with the posh people (who have purple backgrounds on their cards) numbered in two sets of 1-13 and the more populous second class folk comprising of two sets of cards going from 1-17. With class rules as they were at the time – watch Downton Abbey for a surprisingly accurate portrayal – the two classes shall never mix, meaning that your crew will struggle to get everyone off the boat alive.

(Minor aside: there were in fact three different classes aboard Titanic, the lowest being those in Steerage. However, the three groups were very much kept apart, and very few of those in the lower decks were actually made aware that the ship was sinking until it was too late. Most of the 1500+ lives lost were either passengers from Steerage or members of the crew. Anyway…)

The much needed lifeboats are all numbered 1, so with only four of them in the game effectively acting as our aces in the game of Patience, things will be tough. However, with each crew member having a specific ability and the presence of incredibly useful Action Cards, your task is made a little simpler. That’s not to say that SOS Titanic isn’t tough though… in the many games I’ve played, I have yet to manage getting everyone off in time.

As the pages turn, things get more and more desperate...

As the pages turn, things get more and more desperate…

“In time?”, you ask. Indeed, for the game is a slave to history, with play beginning at the moment the iceberg was struck and ending when she sank beneath the Atlantic. Represented by the included spiral bound book, you’ll slowly work your way through to Titanic’s inevitable demise as more and more compartments fill with water and with less space to work with, you’ll have fewer lines of cards to manipulate as play progresses. This turns out to be a surprisingly thematic part of the game, because as you draw cards from the passenger deck in a bid to add them to the lines (hopefully allowing you to move cards around that are already in play) each time the deck runs out the page must be turned. As these go by, the water sinks in and space becomes more limited.

Should a compartment fill entirely, the passengers within panic and flee to the next area. To represent this chaos all cards, both face up and face down, are taken from the two lines and shuffled together. All the hard work you have done to form a beautifully constructed and well ordered line is ruined thanks to the fleeing masses, so you start all over again as the pressure continues. This mechanism also prevents the often seen occurrence of getting locked out of a standard game of Patience, where you have no more legal moves at your disposal. Flipping a page or two ahead means that while the lines of cards must be shuffled, there’s at least an outside chance of the right one appearing.

Mercifully, the Action Cards will also allow you to bend the rules somewhat, diving into discard piles to pull out the right person at the right time, or re-order certain lines of passengers, but be warned – the flooding is inevitable, and the more players around the table, the less chance you’ll have to use your abilities and Actions.

Being a co-operative game, SOS Titanic works beautifully as a solo effort, but there’s something to be said for having a captain at your table to order their crew around. It’s a fantastic way to stop the issue of having an alpha player bossing others about – the captain just has to tell them to shut up! After all, the final decision goes to the one at the wheel… they’re going down with the ship, after all, much like the real Titanic crew who are shown in this game. And yes, while this game is an incredibly abstract take on a historical event, to see them all represented is a nice touch. It inspired me to dive into the history of what actually happened on April 14, 1912 and discover some of the stories from that tragic night.

To sum up, SOS Titanic has surprised me in the best way possible. I expected little from the game when I first opened it up, but find myself going back to it time and time again as I try and do better, to get more passengers onto their lifeboats and beat my previous score. The highest numbered passenger on each of your four lifeboats are added together to give you and your crew a final score, and with a current high of only 38 it would seem that there’s plenty of room for improvement in our house. It’s a light gaming experience but one that I will happily recommend, and I’d like to see the team at Ludonaute applauded for putting together something that manages to feel both familiar and new at the same time. Now, time for one more go…

SOS Titanic was first released at Essen 2013 by Ludonaute. Designed by Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc, between one and five players can attempt to save as many passengers as possible in games that take around thirty minutes. Copies of the game are available in the UK – Gameslore are selling it for £12.49 – and it will soon be available in the US. More information on the game is available from the Ludonaute site.

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Supersonic Rocket Ship – Space Cadets: Dice Duel guest review

 

SCDD Cover

The Judge is back! From Outer Space! We just walked in to find him here with that glad look upon his face! He’s been playing Space Cadets: Dice Duel and seems very happy indeed…

I love games. All sorts of games! From meaty, “variations on a theme” Euros to dense, thematic Ameritrash, I enjoy most of what I play – though increasingly I am no longer surprised or unexpectedly thrilled by a new game. It either meets my expectations, or it doesn’t. *Sigh* So let’s face it – as an experienced and battle weary gamer, is there anything left to truly excite and astound like in those early days of discovery? *Knock Knock* Oh, it’s the Engelsteins… do come in!

Space Cadets: Dice Duel has rocked my world. Taking the frantic real-time dice rolling seen in last year’s fun, co-operative romp Escape: Curse of the Temple, and the theme of designers Geoff, Brian and Sydney Engelstein’s own Space Cadets, Dice Duel is a small revolution in game design and, perhaps even more impressively, some of the most fun you’ll have at the gaming table this year.

Players team up in two’s, three’s or four’s and face off against each other in a starship dogfight to the death. Each player is given a distinct role within the battle – be that taking control of sensors, loading the missile tubes, manning the tractor beam and shields, or just trying to guide this unwieldy toaster through space whilst avoiding meteor showers and sensor-blocking nebulas!

Now this isn’t an X-Wing and a Tie Fighter zig zagging through space. Like the original Space Cadets, this feels more like Enterprise-esque starships cruising into position to unleash an unstoppable barrage of missile fire. This may suggest a leisurely pace, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The best way to describe play is a quick sample of what the game feels like.

With a name like Dice Duel you'd expect a bunch of lovely custom dice... and here they are.

With a name like Dice Duel you’d expect a bunch of lovely custom dice… and here they are. Shiny, tempting and totally inedible.

So, we have 3 players on Team Little Metal Dog – let’s call them Michael, Steph and Judge just for arguments sake. Judge is the engineer, so he is responsible for rolling normal 6 sided dice and allocating the rolls to the various departments. So we start… he rolls three ‘5’s (which relate to the Helm station) and passes them to Michael who is in charge of steering the ship. Judge wanted to send power to shields, but rolled no ‘4’s so he picks up the remaining dice and rolls, and rolls again until he gets a ‘4’ – which he passes to shields – and now a ‘2’ which goes to Steph who is on Sensors.

At the same time Michael – having received three 5’s for Helm, remember? – picks up the three helm dice and rolls (and rerolls) until the arrows on the dice point to where he wants the ship to go. Locking in the dice to his display allows the power dice (the normal D6’s) to be returned to Judge in engineering who can roll them immediately and re-allocate. Steph takes her Sensor dice and rolls some target locks – necessary to make sure your missiles have the range to hit their targets – and uses three ‘1’s from engineering to roll and load up a missile in tube 1. The enemy ship is fast approaching. Judge checks the range, and the missile, and shouts ‘FIRE 1!’

For the first time in several minutes, the game stops. The players catch their collective breath, and the launched missile crashes headlong into the enemy hull! That’s a direct hit! Let’s hope they can’t return fire. And the chaos begins again…

So what is amazing about this play experience? Well, the simple “keep rolling dice until you get what you need” mechanic that was so much fun in Escape is even more so because of the ever changing board situation. This requires players to change plans on the fly and react to the position and offensive / defensive set-up that the opponent is using at any particular moment. And it is moments that matter. Several times have I seen the command to “Fire” be issued, only for the target ship to have completely moved out of range, or dropped additional dice into shields to repel the attack literal moments before the order was issued.

In addition, the sense of camaraderie evident in the best co-operative games is here in abundance, particularly as the opposing threat isn’t the game itself, or a fear of being overrun by small red cubes. It is your friends (now enemies) sat opposite with a glint in their eye and a sense that somehow they’re more organised and better equipped to win this duel than you and your teammates.

Might not look much in photos, but once SCDD kicks into action things get VERY frenetic.

Might not look much in photos, but once SCDD kicks into action things get VERY frenetic. Prepare for shouting! Lots of shouting!

Ah, your teammates. They’ll not let you down. Except for that time when Steph loaded the missiles in the wrong end of the ship. Or Michael completely ignored me and put our shields on the port instead of the starboard! And those mistakes – which are completely unavoidable in the stress and bluster of Dice Duel – can be the difference between success and failure.
And yes – each missile that penetrates your shields feels like a punch to the kidneys. Yes – the glory of imploding your opponent and scattering their atomised corpses across the galaxy is a genuine stand up and high-five moment. Ultimately though, anyone who gets a group together to play Dice Duel is a winner – because they get to enjoy one of the highlights of the year, and a truly unique gaming experience.

Space Cadets: Dice Duel was released by Stronghold Games at Essen 2013. Designed by Geoff and Sydney Engelstein, four, six or eight players can get involved in this true battle for the ages. Games take around thirty minutes, so somewhat shorter than the original Space Cadets. If you would like a copy, head on over to Gameslore where one will set you back £33. A total bargain for such enjoyable, raucous entertainment!

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Staring at the Sun – Forbidden Desert review

Forbidden Desert

So, pretty much everyone in the whole world of gaming is aware of Matt Leacock’s excellent Forbidden Island, his (slightlier) child friendly take on the award-winning Pandemic. Everyone is aware of the simple approach to co-operative gameplay, the beautiful production values (especially those treasures!), the tin box… it not only plays well, it’s visually sumptuous too, undoubtedly a great game to draw newbies into the fold. Now Matt is back with a sequel of sorts, but instead of the ever rising water being your enemy, it’s now the sun that will destroy you – if you’re not careful.

Forbidden Desert takes a few elements of the original game, sure, but this is no simple cosmetic follow-up. Like any good addition to a series, some ideas are developed and new concepts are introduced to create a whole new game that truly feels like a step up. Yes, it’s still a co-op, but you’re going to have to do an awful lot more work if you’re going to survive the harsh sun and constantly changing landscape. Things are getting an awful lot tougher on those shifting sands…

The story sees your team – each of whom have their own specific skill – crashlanding in the desert that gives the game its name. Stranded miles from anywhere and with only a limited amount of precious water, you’re collectively looking for the components of a mythical flying machine that is your one chance to get out alive. Just digging in the sand to find the pieces won’t do you any good though – you need to actually hunt them out in a ‘discover the co-ordinates’ kind of fashion.

Forbidden Desert BITS

Each turn gives you an amount of actions to perform; moving from tile to tile and flipping them over (so far, so familiar), but there’s plenty of new stuff to do as well. Sand markers pile up, covering tiles and making them inaccessible – any more than two on a space means it can’t be moved on to, but they can be removed at a cost of one of your actions. Once a space is free of sand, you can reveal what lies beneath. This could be a useful contraption, a one-off card that could get you out of a scrape or a tunnel opening that protects you from the sun and lets you move quickly around the board.

What you’re really after are the pairs of tiles that reveal the location of the flying machine parts. Flipping these will show the row and column for each of the bits, and when both are face up the part is placed on the board, which can then be picked up for an action. Get all the pieces, find the launchpad and you escape from the misery of the desert! Except it’s far from that simple. Because you’re contending with the sun, remember?

At the end of end of each player’s turn, the game gets a go at destroying you. Cards are drawn equal to the current Sun Level, and most of the time this will show a bunch of tiles that will be moved and have sand added to them. Some cards increase the Sun Level, meaning more sand and more trouble for you and your colleagues, as well as seeing you need to drink from your very limited water supply. This can be refreshed with the discovery of an oasis, but believe me – water is a very precious resource and will often be your downfall.

Forbidden Desert is very good indeed. It’s far from easy to win, even starting on the lowest difficulty level, but each play is an entertaining ride – even if it does feel like the game is totally screwing you over sometimes. Each play creates its own story, a tale of survival in the face of near impossible odds, and actually managing to pull off a victory against the Desert feels like a spectacular achievement. The production values are on a par with its older sibling, especially the brilliant build-it-yourself flying machine which is MASSIVE and awesome (like, actually awe-inspiring. Kind of.).

What’s best about Forbidden Desert though is the feeling of progression from the Island. Though the basic tenets of the games are similar – club together using different roles in a bid to win out against the game – it really comes across as a step up from the original, and while you don’t need to have played the first one it’ll certainly be a little easier to get into should you have had some previous experience. Not to say that the new release is impenetrable – in fact, it’s still a gloriously family friendly game – but it does introduce a few new concepts that first timers may find a bit strange and off-putting. Persevere though; it’s well worth the time spent getting newbies used to it. As for experienced gamers? Well, you’ll get plenty of challenge out of it – just because you’re a veteran of the Twilight Imperium wars that Forbidden Desert will go easy on you. It plays out in around 30-45 minutes too, so it’s a near perfect filler – just don’t go in thinking that this is a mere kids game.

Forbidden Desert was designed by Matt Leacock and was released in 2013. Between two and five can play, and you can pick up a copy for a shade over £15 from Gameslore. Seriously, that’s a bargain.

 

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Crossfire – Hanabi review

Hanabi COVER

The 2013 Spiel des Jahres is announced next Monday (July 8th) and I’m pretty sure that the winner is going to be a tiny wee game from Antoine Bauza called Hanabi. While he’s previously won the Kennerspiel with 7 Wonders, he’s never taken the big prize – however, this little co-op card game about putting on a fireworks display truly feels like it’s got what it takes. Hanabi should, by rights, end up on Game of the Year lists all over the place when 2013 draws to a close. It’s honestly that good.

From the off you realise that Hanabi does things a little differently. Years of muscle memory and instinct are cast aside from the moment you pick up your cards, as you never actually get to see what you’re holding. Plenty of mistakes will be made when players pick up a new card and glance at it, destroying the whole idea behind the game – but you soon learn to be careful, sliding the card across the table and diligently adding it to your hand. Your collective task is simple – to create five lines of cards, numbered one to five, in five different colours – and the explanation of how to play takes mere moments. Eight tokens sit on the table, white on one side, black on the other, and it’s these that drive the game.

Each turn, you get to choose from one of three options. Flipping a white token to its black side lets you give some information to a fellow player – pointing at cards they hold and saying “these cards are yellow” or “this card is a 2” is the order of the day. What the player does with these details is entirely up to them, but generally they’ll be shuffling their cards around in a desperate bid to remember everything that they’ve been told throughout the game so far. Rotating a card, holding is sideways… whatever system you use to recall what you’re holding is legal, as long as you don’t look at the faces.

Option 2 is to discard a card you hold. Flipping a token from black back to white lets you throw a card from the game, never to be used again, but this can be both a blessing and a curse. You may well think you know exactly what you have in your hand, but there have been countless times when I’ve seen people get rid of something that they could have used. Sure, it buys you back another chance to pass around some more information, but there’s little more gutting than seeing someone chuck away a valuable 5 card. With the ten cards in each colour divided unevenly (1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 3, 3, 4, 4 and 5), keeping track on what you can viably discard without ruining your team’s chances is vital.

These are the cards that will infuriate and delight. Also, you'll notice that they've been designed with colour blind gamers in mind. Always a nice touch.

These are the cards that will infuriate and delight. Also, you’ll notice that they’ve been designed with colour blind gamers in mind. Always a nice touch.

Your final choice is to simply play a card to the table, either starting one of the five colour lines or adding to one already begun. If you are correct and the card is legal, excellent! You add to your collective score, hopefully making your way ever closer to the maximum 25 points that can only be attained by getting all five 5 cards in play (my best so far is a healthy 19 – not bad, but not so good… plenty of room for improvement). Should you manage to play an incorrect card, you anger the gods who send a lightning bolt your way as they fight to ruin your show; three of them and it’s game over.

Sharing of information, playing or discarding cards… that’s all there is in Hanabi. And yet, despite its simplicity, there is so much tension and pressure to deal with it ends up feeling like more of a challenge than fifty cards should be able to provide. You’ll find that you never really have enough information to definitely guarantee everything you hold in your hand. In fact, focusing solely on that is a quick route to losing the game for your team. Sure, you need to do your best to remember what you’ve got, but must also consider what your friends have as well as what’s been played or removed from the game. Hanabi swiftly becomes a high pressure situation where you find you’re second guessing yourself constantly while praying the other people around your table don’t take what you’ve said in the wrong fashion.

It’s the information sharing that truly makes the game enjoyable. Seeing someone point out that a player is Very Specifically Holding A Useful Card That They Should Probably Play Soon, only to have them annoyingly hold onto it while trying to help out others is so gloriously frustrating… there’s no game like it. The looks of anguish that flash across players’ faces as they desperately try to recall what they were told three rounds ago are hilarious, and the feeling of satisfaction when you actually manage to successfully add to a line is unmatched. Such a huge amount of gameplay in a tiny package is a great thing to behold – and that’s not even the whole story.

You see, there’s another set of ten cards in there too. This multicoloured group can be used in a couple of ways, either making your life easier or much, much trickier. Your game can be simplified by using them as wild cards where they act as any colour you like, or you may choose to ramp up the difficulty by using them as a sixth set. Whether you’re looking to simplify things (especially when playing with younger gamers) or feel like a bit more of a challenge, it’s great to see that you have options.

Oh yeah, and you can get the whole thing for under seven quid. A soon-to-be award winning game for a pocketful of change is not to be turned down – Hanabi should be sitting on your shelf right now.

Hanabi was first released as Hanabi and Ikebana in 2010. Designed by Antoine Bauza, the English language version is due for release by R&R Games this summer (though this review is based on the German language ABACUSSPIELE edition). Should you want a copy – and if not, why not? – you can grab them from Gameslore for £5.49. Get in on it before it truly hits the big time!

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Waterline – Hooyah: Navy Seals Card Game review

Hooyah COVER

There are, of course, plenty of war games out there. Whether you’re pushing blocks around an abstract looking map or commanding vast armies of painted miniatures on a three-dimensional landscape, your choices are vast and often – for noobs like me anyway – somewhat daunting. Maybe I’d be better off with a card game? Something like… I dunno… Hooyah: Navy Seals Card Game perhaps?

Designed by industry veteran Mike Fitzgerald (the same one of Mystery Rummy fame), Hooyah puts you and your fellow players in the roles of Navy SEALS tasked with covert missions that need to be completed quickly and quietly in order to keep the free world ticking over nicely. Considering that this essentially boils down to a rather simple set collecting game with a few pretty interesting twists in the rules, that’s quite a bold claim to make… so how does it work?

As it’s a co-op, you can play as part of a team of up to four. A mission is chosen for your elite squad to tackle and characters, each of whom have special abilities and bonuses fostered by years of training, are doled out along with the requisite amount of health tokens. One player is required to take the Lt. Commander role, essentially acting as the team’s leader which I found to be an interesting design decision. A games group can suffer from the issue of having an Alpha player, someone who tries to push others into doing what they think is best, but in Hooyah it’s positively encouraged. Yes, you need to work together, but having someone leading from the front is vital in this game where speed is of the essence.

Missions are made up of ongoing stages, referred to in game as Operations. Cards are flipped from the mission stacks that show what you will need to play collectively in order to pass the Op; for instance, if you’ve got a Blue 3 and a Yellow 2, you and your fellow SEALS must get that amount of cards on the table to progress. While that may sound easy, you must also consider the fact that you are limited by a pretty cool mechanism that I originally thought wouldn’t work at all. The game, you see, is timed – but not in any conventional way.

Hooyah STUFF

When the cards for the Op are revealed, you total the numbers and turn the included timer dial round to that number – when a new player gets to take their turn, the counter is clicked down one space. On hitting zero, the game isn’t done; you’ll just end up losing an awful lot of health and should one of your squad have none left… well, that’s when you lose. It’s a lot trickier than you first think, but you do at least have some advantages in the face of such a challenge. The strongest is the ability to Roll Call – only the Lt. Commander can do this, but it’s the only way you can share information in Hooyah. Each player gets to say how many of a certain colour they can contribute to the current Op, and if the bossman thinks the team have enough to go through it successfully, you can do so.

However, to inject some uncertainty into the proceedings, Events will pop up and hamper your progress, so even if you your elite team have the necessary requirements you DEFINITELY will not get through your encounters unscathed. The further into the mission you get, the less time you’ll have to play with and the more likely you’ll be unable to complete the final section. To make it even harder, the last Op of the mission takes place immediately after the fifth one with no time to regroup or draw cards – it’s a lovely way to balance the game out but ensure that you’re constantly going to be challenged.

The whole thing is produced to a high degree and is well worth handing over your money if you’re after a slightly different co-op experience. While I’m not one to go in for the bombast you’d normally associate with the Navy SEALS and combat in general, I still found the game an enjoyable diversion that – thanks to being pretty straighforward to understand and playable in under an hour – never stays around too long. With plenty of options to tinker with the game and increase or decrease the difficulty as well as the inclusion of solo rules, there’s a surprising amount of value in this package. I’d put it in that “end of the night game” category, a perfect way to wind down after an evening of more competitive endeavours.

Hooyah: Navy Seals Card Game was designed by Mike Fitzgerald and was released in 2012 by US Game Systems. Between one and four players can get involved and games will generally take you around an hour.

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