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Battle of the Heroes – Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game review

Confession time. I never actually watched any of the Star Wars movies until I went to University. On discovering this horrific fact, one day in late 1993, a guy I was sharing a flat with called Ian locked me in a room with Episodes IV, V and VI (you know, the good ones) and refused to let me out until I had watched all three back to back. Which I did. And I was converted, realising the error of my ways.

Now I understand the importance of the (in)actions of one simple stormtrooper who could have changed the course of history in a galaxy far, far away. I know that Han shot first (of course he would, he’s a badass). And most important of all, I have learned to hate that stupid Gungan with a fiery passion.

however, the thing that really grabbed me during that first proper viewing of the Original Trilogy were the battles in space. The howl of a Tie Fighter as it shot across the screen, the mosquito-like X-Wings coming to an end as they attempted to take down the might of the Death Star… it was incredible to see how well realised they were in a bunch of movies that I’d previously completely disregarded. And now we get to live out the experience ourselves in the rather glorious form of the brand new Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game.

Oh my. Never has so much joy come from such a small amount of plastic.

There’s little wonder why this eagerly awaited package has been snapped up quickly by gamers from all around the world. Just looking at the front of the box makes your average nerd salivate like a dog – there are two splendidly realised miniature TIE Fighters and a X-Wing right there! Look at their inherent beauty! Who wouldn’t want them? Then you open up the box, punch out a pile of tokens, grab the quickstart rules and away you go…

Fantasy Flight Games, the creators of X-Wing, have realised that the folks who play it want to get down to business in minutes. They want to be flying around the table making pew-pew noises from the moment they open the box, so you’ll be pleased to know that playing the game is gloriously straightforward. Each player chooses a vessel and a character card, each of which are marked with various stats that will affect how you play. You also grab a movement dial (FFG seem to be loving dials lately, don’t they?), a handful of tokens and then it’s time to fight.

See? Dials! Also, those things with the numbers on them are what you use to do your movements.

The objective is simple – wipe out the opponent. Select how far you’ll travel first by secretly choosing a move on the dial; some may cause stress on your ship meaning you’ll be limited in future actions, so always be aware of what you’re doing! Once you’ve moved, you get to attack as long as you’re in range of an enemy; you can fire off a few shots by rolling the custom dice that come with the starter set and they’ll do the same in a hopeful bid to cancel out your results. Do enough damage and you’ll blow them into the vacuum of space, then go on to rule the galaxy… all in around twenty minutes.

Each vessel’s card also has some special abilities that you may be able to use as well, from using the Force (of course) in order to change a dice roll, pull evasive manoeuvres such and lock on targets. Better pilots will have more abilities but the game strives to retain balance no matter who is facing off against who. Sure, pitching Luke Skywalker against a rookie TIE Fighter straight out of Empire School will generally result in a win for the Rebel Alliance, but you’ll always feel like you’re at least in with a chance.

Have a look through the forums on BGG that focus on X-Wing and you’ll see a lot of people complaining about the price. Now, I know that it’s relatively expensive for what you get and the fact that you only get three vessels does seem a little mean, but consider this; you’re not just buying a self-contained game (despite the fact that it’s perfectly playable just with this starter set). What you’re picking up is a whole new game system, and anyway IT’S STAR WARS. Of course it’s going to cost more than your standard game – is there anything out there that has George Lucas’ paws on that hasn’t gouged the fans? FFG will have paid through the nose for this license so they’ll need to make their cash back somehow.

TAKE ‘IM OUT VADER!

Thankfully, they haven’t just rushed out something to make a quick bit of turnover. The rules in X-Wing, though simple, give the game a real arcade kind of feel. Games are speedy, fun, raucous… everything you want from a battle in the depths of space. If you want something a little deeper, rules are included for larger scale battles because – you’ve guessed it – there are more and more ships due for release over the next few months. Already out there in Wave 1 are Y-Wings and TIE Advanced as well as extra standard TIE Fighters and X-Wings. Wave two promises more iconic vessels including Boba Fett’s Slave 1 and the mighty Millenium Falcon.

I’ve ordered mine already. I am *such* a child.

The X-Wing Starter Set is a pile of fun hewn from cardboard and plastic. Grab a couple of extra ships and the door opens even wider, showing you just how entertaining a tabletop skirmish game like this can be. And then you start thinking about the future, about other ships that could potentially come out, about setting up new missions and adventures to tackle. This starter box comes with a couple of small missions to attempt but imagine what kind of things could happen in the future. Personally I reckon that if FFG don’t release a large scale Death Star Trench Run set at some time in the future they’re missing a trick.

In conclusion, the Star Wars X-Wing beginner set is just that – something that will start you off on a potentially epic experience. It’s not for everyone, sure, and it *will* end up being a pretty expensive game if you insist on picking up every single thing that’s released for the system, but if you’re sensible and pick and choose the odd thing here and there, you’ll have something that offers a massive variety of play with relatively little outlay. Whether it’s a one-on-one dogfight or an epic battle to decide the destiny of the universe, this is a hell of a lot of fun – and it’s going to get even better.

The Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game is available now. Designed by Jason Little and produced by Fantasy Flight Games, a copy will set you back a shade under £30, but you can pick it up from Gameslore for £25

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Get Down Tonight – Descent: Journeys in the Dark – Second Edition review

Time to introduce another new reviewer! Please welcome Stuart Platt to the site, a guy who is not only an avid gamer but also happens to be a professional wrestler. Working as The Judge, you should expect his reviews to be fair and informed (until he pulls a heel turn, anyway). To kick off, Stuart is taking a look at the Second Edition of Fantasy Flight Games’ classic Descent. Will this remake convince fans to move over from the original or is it just a cash in? 

Ah, Descent… where to begin.  Well, how about a little context.  The coffin box of Descent 1st Edition (or D1) as it will be called henceforth, was one of my first BIG purchases after getting back into the gaming hobby. Brimming with the nostalgia of my youth – hours and hours spent huddled round Hero Quest, Warhammer Quest and Talisman – this giant box filled with plastic-goodness was almost impossible to resist – and yet the sensation was somewhat bittersweet.

Someone plays the big, bad Overlord, the others play the Heroes.  You’ve got all the monsters you could ever need, huge swathes of terrain tiles, chunky custom dice… and a play time you could knit a cardigan in.  Like an XXL cardigan.  With pockets and everything.  But the experience wasn’t what I wanted.  In fact, it just raised a few questions.

Why aren’t we just playing D&D?  Why does D1 exist? What niche is it trying to fill? Well, it’s  a board game implementation of a Dungeons & Dragons-esque fantasy scenario / dungeon crawl but in a more manageable play time?  Only it’s not.  The game is fiddly, dense and unwieldy. Once the characters get geared up with equipment, skills and plenty of cool-stuff, turns can be a monstrous, analysis paralysis fuelled exercise in min-maxing your turn.  Death is an excuse to go shopping, play sessions can be huge and progress is slow.

But the game is competitive isn’t it? For both the Overlord player and the Heroes? Except, from my experience, if the Overlord goes all out he will probably kill the heroes handily – and the line of sight / spawning monster rules (which prevent the Overlord bringing in creatures where the heroes could see them) mean that both sides are constantly ‘gaming’ what is supposed to be a romping thematic experience.

So, you may ask yourself, why have I spent the first 250 words of this review talking about D1? Well, Fantasy Flight’s Descent 2nd Edition (or D2… see what I did there?) expertly fixes all of my problems with the first edition and brings new things to the table which elevate the experience even further.

Up to five players (four heroes and the Overlord) can approach missions either piecemeal or as part of a larger campaign, complete with levelling and persistent equipment.  Our first play (with 3 heroes) saw us complete a well-designed introductory quest and the first 2-part mission in one evening!  Now for readers who desperately want to avoid spoilers, be off with you!  I don’t think knowing the outline of the first main quest will ruin the experience – but best be safe.

Oh my. This is very pretty indeed. I want it. NOW.

Right, now they’ve gone… Why does D2 succeed?  Well, the quests are excellent.  Descent has always had relatively interesting objectives for the heroes – go here, kill that, collect those and the like, but the Overlord has essentially had to make do with ‘KILL ALL GOOD GUYS!’  D2 introduces opposed objectives for both – and your performance in part one will have ramifications for part two.  For instance, Fat Goblin Part One sees the Overlord’s Gobbos stealing crops, whilst the heroes try to secure them in the farm’s barn.  The more crops that the Goblins pinch, the more health the boss in Fat Goblin Part Two will have.  In game terms, this dissuades players from descending into a pure slug-fest.  There will be blood, but you can’t take your eyes off the mission objective.

Play is streamlined.  The core mechanisms remain intact but are refined: Movement is fluid – besides a simple modifier for crossing water and opposing monsters blocking passage, you can go where you want up to your Speed stat.  Line of sight is obvious – so as not to affect game flow.  To attack, players cause damage and check range by rolling a number of custom dice related to the weapon they are using.  Opposing that, new defence dice provide variable protection against attacks (instead of D1’s static numbers) and are simply implemented – tougher creatures (or better Hero armour) have more and/or better defence dice, but you can’t account for that terrible roll which always gives the underdog hope.

The other big mechanical change from D1 is the removal of the rather fiddly ‘Threat’ which the Overlord would accumulate and spend to summon creatures and play traps throughout the game.  Instead of this, each scenario now has specific rules of how, when and where the monsters come out to play – thus providing a more balanced and thematic experience.  The traps and spells are provided in the form of a deck of cards which the Overlord draws from each turn.  In a nice touch, this is customisable by spending XP generated from quest to quest – so as the Heroes level up and develop their skills, so does the Overlord.

Each of these adjustments fixes a problem from the first edition, and turns Descent into the game I always wanted it to be.  It can now be the quick, fun, one-off dungeon crawl where someone gets to play the bad guy as hard as he wants – and the Heroes will have to work well together to compete.  It can still be the sprawling, epic, 20 plus hour campaign with development, new skills, looting treasure for cool stuff and buying things at the local shops  that it’s always been but it’s now delivered in more interesting and engaging bite-sized quests that have a strong narrative through-road.

I think it’s fairly obvious from the tone of this review that I thoroughly enjoy the game.  It’s almost like Christian Peterson (Founder and CEO of Fantasy Flight) tapped into my thoughts, extracted my whims and desires and brought it to life… Actually that’s a little scary. Must change my passwords.

Fantasy Flight will make a fortune of this, and the endless expansions that will undoubtedly follow.  I’ll see you there.  I’ll be the big guy at the front of that queue, frantically waving my money.

Descent: Journeys in the Dark – Second Edition is available now and will set you back *uuuuurp* £65. It’s probably a better idea to get in touch with Gameslore who’ll sort you out a copy for £52.99 – much better! 

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Playing with Fire – Game of Thrones: The Card Game review

Like many people, I do love a bit of Game of Thrones. Sure, the books are a bit of a slog sometimes and the TV series seems to randomly add stuff while skipping other areas, but if you’re looking for a story that is steeped in twists and turns, intrigue and sheer insanity, it’s an excellent tale that George RR Martin weaves. Plus, you know… there are DRAGONS in it.

Fantasy Flight have had the license for Game of Thrones for years, releasing a gloriously complicated board game nearly ten years ago as well as a long-running entry in their Living Card Game line. Like all the LCGs that the company have put out, it’s slightly different to the rest of them, but I reckon that it’s one of the best. Continually updated since its initial release back in 2008, it’s an incredibly well supported game that has a huge following that is well deserved.

Cracking open the box, you’re presented with four separate decks of cards, each representing one of the many noble houses of Westeros. This being the base set, you’re getting cards for four of the big ones: Stark, Lannister, Baratheon and Targaryen, each of which is packed out with characters and locations taken from the story. If you’ve only checked out the earlier stories, don’t worry – the base set is low on spoilers, so you won’t have anything ruined for you.

Used in the multiplayer game, there’s a lot of nice extra stuff aside from cards and tokens…

Also included is a board and six plastic statuettes, each one representing a different role in the Small Council. These are used in the multiplayer version of the game where three or four players make and break alliances over a series of turns, but the premise is exactly the same no matter how many people are playing: collect Power. The first player to fifteen Power tokens triggers the game end, and whoever has the most is declared victorious.

Each round is played out through a series of stages. Players initially choose a Plot Card that has an effect on the round, as well as stating how much gold they’ll receive, initiative they have and a “Claim Value” which comes into play later on. Cards are then drawn from your deck, then you get to spend your gold on the Marshalling phase; bringing things into play. Characters, locations, items… all of these will be used to take down your opponents and gain that all important power.

The main meat of the game comes in the next part of the round; the Challenges. Each character generally has one to three icons on their card depicting whether they can get involved in Military, Intrigue and Power challenges. Once characters are committed, they can’t be used again – a very traditional feel in card games, of course – but the twist comes in choosing which cards you’ll use… and when. Winning a Military challenge kills off opposition characters, Intrigue forces opponents to discard cards from their hands, while a Power challenge allows you to steal tokens from other players. The amount is determined by that previously mentioned Claim Value as seen on your Plot Card – forward planning can really cause some destruction if you play it right.

The mighty Ned Stark, a military man who can handle power too. No intrigue symbol means that he won’t stand for any sneakiness.

It’s this part of the game that really shows how you can tap into a theme well. Having a knowledge of the series, be it through the books or the television show, will really pay off as you see how well the characters and locations are represented. Someone like Cersei Lannister, for example, is devious as anything in the stories and is strong when it comes to clutching for power. Spies like Varys the Spider will be most useful for Intrigue challenges. The designers have been thorough when it comes to fitting the characters in the game world; when you read each card you can really see how they made the choices they ended up at. This level of attention really shows the thought put into the Game of Thrones: The Card Game – and this is only the base set.

The rest of each turn plays out in a pretty standard fashion – cards in play are restored to “standing” from “kneeling”, which is a nice touch – and power is handed out, before the whole thing begins again.

When playing with more than two, there’s an additional selection phase where the previously mentioned roles from the Small Council are chosen. These bestow bonuses on players but also introduce a further twist – some roles support others while some are sworn enemies, meaning that another level of strategy is brought in. Alliances live and die in the space of minutes; it’s the very definition of shaking hands with the left while going in with the knife in your right. Only the most devious, manipulative and sneaky player will come through in the end.

As ever, being a Fantasy Flight production, the game is wonderfully presented. Art throughout is of the highest quality, inspired by the series of books rather than the TV show – after all, it’s well over four years old. Gold and Power tokens are good, thick punchboard and the cards themselves are of great quality. The only quibble is have is that the box is a little… airy, but that’s to be expected in a game that now has so much in the way of expansions available.

Thankfully, as it follows the Living Card Game model, you needn’t invest in anything more than this first set of cards. However, with rules in place that allow for building your own decks, you could well be sucked in to picking up the occasional extra box here and there… it’s a slippery slope though, so beware!

My only negative point is regarding the rulebook which feels like it should have had the editors take a harder look at it. It can be a bit tricky to navigate your way around, using a paragraph where a sentence could do. Thankfully, there’s a vibrant community out there who have chopped up the gameplay and created useful player guides that are freely available all over the internet. Particularly useful is Roy Martin’s crib sheet from BGG – checking it out is well recommended, especially for new players.

For a stack of cards and a few bits of punchboard, it’s remarkable quite how much it manages to capture the theme and feel of Game of Thrones. It’s an experience that promotes thinking like the characters at your disposal, that requires you to play as a part of the House you have chosen. Will you be honourable or betray your friends? In Game of Thrones, it’s a very thin line you’ll dance along constantly. It’s not something you’ll want to play with those who take offence easily, but if you have a group who are willing to throw themselves into the experience, Game of Thrones: The Card Game is incredibly rewarding.

Game of Thrones: The Card Game was first released by Fantasy Flight Games in 2008. The base set, available for around £30 (though you can get it at Gameslore for £24.99), was designed by Nate French and Eric M. Lang. A four player game can take around an hour, while a regular two player effort clocks in at around thirty minutes. Now… when you play the game of thrones, will you win or will you die?

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Fight the Power – Rex: Final Days of an Empire review

I think it’s pretty safe to say that one of my favourite interviewees on The Little Metal Dog Show is Peter Olotka. Not only is he insanely entertaining to speak with, packed out with tales aplenty about gaming over the last forty years and more, he’s also been involved in the creation of some amazing games. Most gamers will be well aware of one of the titles – the incredible Cosmic Encounter – but few will have played the other: Dune.

There’s a simple reason for this. There’s just not that many copies of Dune floating about at the moment. Having originally been released way back in 1979, it didn’t sell so well – and when it was reissued in 1984 with a Sting lookalike on the cover to coincide with the release of the film… well, in Peter’s own words, it tanked. So few sales were made, copies were pulped to make room for newer, more popular games. And yet the reputation of Dune lived on, a reputation as a game filled with alliances made and broken, of innovative combat and plain, lowdown backstabbing meanness.

And yet, a reprint couldn’t happen thanks to the Frank Herbert’s estate. They didn’t want it to happen, and so it didn’t. However, there was a way around it. The Herbert Family may own the rights to Dune… but Peter’s company owned the engine that ran the game. Leap forward in time to 2012 and now – finally – we’re able to play the game again, albeit with a few changes. Dune is dead. Long live Rex.

Transplanted into the Fantasy Flight Games Twilight Imperium universe, Rex: Final Days of an Empire is set some three thousand years before the events of TI3. Rather than taking place on a spice planet with families vying for superiority, players now control one of six races taking part in the last days of the great city of Mecatol Rex. It’s a devious battle for control where victory can be won in several ways; generally though, you’ll be fighting to take over the five strongholds dotted around the board. Working alone you’ll need three but make alliances and you’ll have to maintain dominance over more… way easier said than done, especially if you have five other players with the same plans on their mind.

Six races, but only one victor. Who will win? (Well, in this case, it was the space turtles.)

Looking at the game you may initially think that everything in it is spectacularly unbalanced… and you know, you’re probably right. However, that doesn’t mean that one race will dominate every game – each player will quickly realise that they have a special something that no-one else does, be it a way to gain influence (the game’s currency), throw overpowered tanks into battle or steal victory from under the nose of your enemies.

Gameplay is alarmingly simple, despite the fact it may not appear to be when you first crack the box open. Played over eight rounds, each consisting of seven stages, it’s really just a matter of following a list… but Rex feels like so much more than checking things off one after the other. Move around the board, collect influence, deploy troops, spend influence on cards and new units, fight… there’s not much more than that, but it’s more than the sum of its’ parts. When you settle down to play it, you feel like you’re in a war – plans must be made, strategies devised and you have to realise that you’ll be sending an awful lot of your little cardboard units to their death. Battles are brutal in these final days.

Fighting is one of my favourite aspects of Rex. Lifted wholeheartedly from the original Dune then given a shot of extra meanness, it’s a deceptively simple way of resolving battles but makes you wonder why no-one else has done it since. Any time you’re in the same area as an enemy, it’s time to muster your forces and just go for it. Each player is given a battle wheel which they turn to select how many units they’re going to use – you don’t have to use everything available to you in that area. In fact, to do so would be mad because whether you win or lose they’ll ALL be taken off the board, losing you control of that area no matter what. Each player also has five leaders at their disposal, one of which is chosen and tucked into a tab on the mini board. The chosen position denotes whether you’re playing an attack card, a defence card, one of each or nothing at all, while the leader bolsters your attack strength – assuming they survive. The cards bestow bonuses but are tricky to come by as players must bid on them blind at the start of each round and are generally only allowed a maximum of four.

The maths is all sorted, cards are revealed and leaders are potentially be wiped out. Finally, whoever has the highest value is declared the winner, removing all the enemy’s units (and however many they committed themselves)… perhaps. Because here lies one of the many twists that Rex has to offer: traitors. Players are given cards at the start of the game that are kept secret until you want to reveal them in battle. It’s a one-off, but very much worth it; the opposing leader is revealed as working for you, wins you the battle immediately and is then removed from the game permanently, presumably executed for heinous crimes…

The casualties of war plus a bloody big fleet of dreadnoughts.

There are so many great things about Rex but the best are invariably those moments that you’ll talk about for weeks to come, where players find themselves pulled into the world and become part of the story. The aforementioned reveal of a traitor, or just about managing to evade the carpet bombing of the Sol Offensive dreadnaughts. There’s an insane joy from all players when the Xxcha (aka: Space Turtles) reveal that they predicted the winner before the game even began – apart from the person who has just had their victory squashed at the last moment, of course.

Rex: Final Days of an Empire is filled with the big moments that I love to find in a game – much needed considering you’ll be playing for a good three to four hours. Yes, it’s a long game, but you’ll find that you’re not stricken with too much downtime and will generally have a blast as you desperately strive for supremacy.

As usual, being an FFG production, it’s built to an almost ridiculous quality. It’s a very heavy box that’s packed with loads of stuff but I did notice a couple of issues developing even after only a few plays. The leader tokens and battlewheel boards are already showing signs of a bit of wear from being slotted into position and I don’t see a way of stopping that from getting worse. The rulebook also has a couple of errors in it – nothing that detracts from the game, but certainly stuff that I’d expect to be picked up through proofreading. Aside from those (admittedly niggly) points, it’s a well put together package. Art throughout is beautiful, though that board does give me a bit of an Arkham Horror vibe…

Of course, the game is what’s important, and I’m delighted that I’ve finally got to try out Peter and Co’s design, albeit in a different setting with a few tweaks from the original. It’s a truly great game, one that feels like you’re part of an experience when you’re playing, and I recommend it with only one caveat: you MUST play it with at least five players. If you can, the maximum six is even better, but if you’ve only got four or less people available? LEAVE IT ON THE SHELF. You’ll be missing out a whole chunk of game. Rex is all about the interaction between the people around the table and with fewer players it just doesn’t feel the same. Save it for when you’ve got a full set of people – you won’t regret it.

Rex: Final Days of an Empire is released through Fantasy Flight Games. Designed by Peter Olotka, Jack Kittredge and Bill Eberle with additional development by Corey Konieczka, John Goodenough and Christian Petersen. It handles between three and six players (but you’d better not play with less than five or I’ll be furious) and will take about three hours for a full game experience. The RRP is £49.99 but you’ll find it at Gameslore for a much more reasonable £40.99. And it’s well worth it.

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Game On – Blood Bowl Team Manager review

 

 

 

Matt is back with another epic review, this time the deck-builder based on the Games Workshop classic Blood Bowl. Have Fantasy Flight played it right? Will Matt be bowled over? (Sorry.)

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When I first heard that Fantasy Flight was going to be exploiting its licence for Games Workshop properties by doing a Blood Bowl deck-builder I was wildly excited. I haven’t yet found a deck building game that’s interested me greatly, in spite of being impressed the the cleverness of the concept, and it seemed such a natural fit for the theme. Well, many months later the game has hit the shelves and it’s not looking much like a deck-builder at all but something rather different. Fantasy Flight sent me a copy so I could find out myself whether the transformation has done it any good.

It’s just occurred to me that reviewing a card game which is supposed to be about a fictional game and in which players play player cards representing fictional players in said fictional game could get confusing fast. You’ll have to bear with me here.

The concept behind Blood Bowl is simple yet devilishly endearing: it’s a supposed sport, a little like a no-holds-barred, ultra-violent version of American Football played by fantasy teams in Games Workshop’s Warhammer universe. The original board game on which this card game is based is a highly-regarded classic in GW’s range and, given it’s wacky subject matter, manages to be a surprisingly cerebral game. But it’s limited to two players and the aspect of the game that everyone idolises above all – league play, where you manage and gradually improve and grow the same team over repeat seasons – is such a time-sink that most Blood Bowl players have only scratched its surface. As a fan of the original game one of the first things I wanted to find out from Blood Bowl: Team Manager was whether it might manage to fill in these gaps. It starts out well – the card game plays 2-4 and, it scales pretty well. To my surprise the two player game works well, three is best, and four turns out to be a little over-long but perfectly playable. So strike one for Team Manager for giving us a multi-player fix of fantasy football.

The Set-Up. That's a lot of cards. But then, it is a card game.

The game isn’t especially complicated but you need to read the rules carefully and follow the game turn procedure carefully else you can run into trouble. Each player starts with a deck of 12 cards representing their team members – there are six different teams to choose from, each with different strengths and weaknesses. Each turn a headline card is chosen which either represents a high-stakes knockout tournament or an event which affects all the players for that week only. Then a number of “highlight” cards are turned over, each one of which represents a particularly exciting or decisive moment of a match. Players then draw a hand of six player cards and take it in turns to play one card into a highlight or a tournament, using classic Blood Bowl skills such as block, cheat or sprint as they do so in an attempt to grab a ball counter and tackle players already assigned to the highlight or tournament. Once all cards are assigned the total value of the cards are added up – ball possession gives extra points and tackled players have lower value – and the winner claims rewards in terms of power ups, new players or fans. After five turns of this the highest fan total wins the game.

At first I was pretty dubious about whether this was going to work terribly well in thematic terms. It just seemed a bit feeble, reducing entire games to “highlights” and whole tournaments to a single card, and then only using a fraction of your available players each round. I was wrong. It’s a genius idea that works brilliantly. The idea of a momentary, but vital, game highlight which only involves a few players is an awesome way of abstracting down a whole game and whole team into something that can be resolved in a few minutes and thus keep a lid on the playtime to a manageable 20-30 minutes per player for the game as a whole. And all the cards are cunningly designed, well chosen and illustrated with a variety of well executed and delightfully brutal artwork to suck you into the theme. Highlight cards such as “Unnecessary Roughness” and “Rolling Cage” convey the flavour of the sport to a tee, and most also carry amusing snippets of fictional commentary to get you into the right frame of mind – these are easy to miss but are totally worth reading out as the highlight cards are dealt to add to the atmosphere. As it turns out, tackling and injury is rather more common in the card game than the board version and Blood Bowl:Team Manager sits closer to the line between abject chaos and careful planning than its more demanding big brother. Indeed I always felt that the strategic nature of the board game sat awkwardly with the chaotic nature of the sport it was supposed to simulate. So on the whole, bizarrely, I actually found Team Manager to be more thematic and atmospheric than the board game. Strike two for the card version.

Very pretty. I'm feeling covetous.

Laying down players from your hand onto highlights our tournaments is a fairly straightforward process. You need to look at the relative ratings and skills of the players you’ve got in your hand and assign them in a tactically sensible order. This can get a bit fraught late on in the round as players begin to run out of cards: you’ll have decided by this time which match-ups are must wins for you and you want to assign your cards appropriately, but you’re unlikely to be sure what the best play is because of unknown factors like hidden cheating tokens and, unless you’re going last, what other players have remaining in their hands. This can lead to the tactics of the game feeling more involved than they actually are, and analysis paralysis can creep in, rather pointlessly since you can’t really make good decisions based on hidden information. Personally I feel it’s more the long-term strategy where the game really shines in terms of choice. You need to learn to make the best use of your teams’ strength and minimise its weaknesses, being aware of the specific upgrades it can get from its own special deck. And after the first round when you’ve started to collect specific and generic upgrades you can choose and play into match-ups that maximise your ability to use and collect points from those upgrades, whilst at the same time trying to foil your opponents from doing the same thing. All in all the game strikes a very good balance between strategy and tactics, and randomness and choice, giving stronger players and edge whilst still offering luck-based leg-ups for the inexperienced. However to get the most out of the strategy everyone needs to keep a careful eye on what upgrades everyone else has, and to this end the game procedure includes the slightly bizarre but important ritual of reading out your new upgrades at the end of each round, a necessary annoyance that slows the game down and spoils its pace somewhat.

There’s been a lot of debate regarding the level of strategy and tactics in the game and I think that’s partly down to the different nature of the teams. Games involving aggressive teams that do a lot of tacking (which involves dice rolling) and cheating (which involves hidden counter draws) are going to owe a lot more to randomness in deciding the outcome than those which don’t, and if it really worries you then you can always play up the goody two-shoes teams to minimize it. But it’s interesting to note that the design goes to some lengths to allow in some randomness but minimise its impact. If you’re tackling a weaker player there’s a paltry one in thirty six chance of knocking down your own player instead, and if you look carefully at the cheating tokens, some of which cause a player to be removed or to gain two power, most of them actually add zero or one power so are unlikely to be game-changers. But they do add a fantastic element of tension and uncertainty to what could otherwise be quite a dry and analytical game like its big brother often is, without having a major impact on balance. Personally I’ve found the staff upgrade deck to be the biggest culprit in skewing games – some of the rewards you can get from it add big fan payoffs, and many of those are, in turn, dependent on you being lucky in drawing other cards such as a certain number of star players with a particular ability.

This is an especially important issue with this game because it’s at its best when it’s played in a fast and furious manner, and yet it positively encourages you to sit and work stuff out. If you play it quickly then the rapid pace suits the subject matter and no-one minds terribly if, once in a while, the dice or the cheating tokens leap up off the table and kick you in the face. If you analyse the hell out of it, which you certainly can by toting up the star players on each side of each match-up and carefully sifting through your hand and your upgrade cards and working out the probabilities of what’s likely to happen on each one if you play that player just there and use this match-up action then you’ll be there a long time and the game will last ages and everyone will end up hating everyone else and the game as well. But the good news is that it’s perfectly possible to both play quickly and in a properly tactical manner, it just takes a little experience (about two games’ worth). You might at first think the game is slow, or just a dice-fest, depending on which way your group defaults when you first play it. Stick with it.

They're no Gouged Eye but the All-Stars are a decent second favourite.

The game structure is supposed to be like a season of Blood Bowl. You play matches and a couple of big tournaments and tot up the score. You acquire star players and new staff and your team gets better. It’s fun and worthwhile and the gradual upgrades add to the options and the strategy on offer but one thing it doesn’t do is manage to convey the theme on a meta-level. In other words there’s no great sense of gradual improvement and, especially, there’s no sense in which your original player gain new skills and abilities. This is partly down to the star player decks which either give you generic, faceless “freebooter” players that replace your existing players or named star players that can come from any properly aligned race – so an elf team could end up with human or dwarf stars on its roster. That can be tweaked a little with house rules if it bother you but it doesn’t help a lot. Basically, when it comes to the crunch, this isn’t going to be a substitute for those longed-for Blood Bowl leagues we all planned and anticipated and which collapsed after two matches.

But still, Blood Bowl: Team Manager checks two of the three “want” boxes I had lined up for it when it was delivered into my greedy hands, and checks them with considerable style. And it’s an excellent, fun, medium-light game in its own right so perhaps I shouldn’t insist on comparing it with the board game quite so much. Keep it fast, keep it loud, and you’ll have a ball.

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Matt Thrower is a fighter, not a lover, and can be hunted down on Twitter like the dog he is: @mattthr

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