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Hunting High And Low – Amerigo guest review

The Judge returns from his training for his upcoming bout, takes to his gaming table and cracks open the latest Stefan Feld offering from Queen Games. Is it any good? Well, you’ll find out in a moment…

Amerigo COVER

Following Rialto, Bora Bora & Strassbourg, the most successful and prolific designer of his generation, Stefan Feld, is at it again. But first, a personal message…

Dear Mr. Feld,

How do I love thee’s games, let me count the ways! Oh look at your innovative mechanisms that allow me to score a veritable salad of points. Your love of quirky, randomisation devices is so cute! So, you may be unburdened by the concerns of theme? It matters not! None of that flouncy periphery! Just cold, hard, raw game! Yay!

Lots of love! Your favourite fanboy…

(Apology to the editor – I shall use less ‘!’ from now on. I promise!)

[I’m pretty sure you won’t but we’ll let it slide. Amerigo is worth it! – Michael] 

That said, Stephan Feld’s fourth and last game of 2013 (probably: who knows what magic may escape from his mysterious German laboratory before the year’s end?) is certainly more thematically slanted than much of his oeuvre. It is also perhaps both the heaviest and best entry of the 2013 ‘Feld Four’ (TM: The Judge). The game casts players as assistants to famous Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, discovering and colonising the islands of South America. Players compete by taking actions to move your ships around the large, modular map, placing settlements and expanding to take over the new world. Points are gained by planning and constructing Tetris-esque building tiles, scooping up natural resources to trade – such as coconuts, tobacco and cotton – all in the interest of scoring the most points.

The ‘hook’ that separates Amerigo from its fellow Feld Point Salads is apparent from anyone who opens the box – the presence of a large cube tower pinched from Queen Games’ successful euro-war games, Shogun and Wallenstein. In those games this tower was used to decide the outcome of battles by throwing in the troops represented by cubes and seeing who was victorious by what fell out the bottom and didn’t getting snagged up on the many shelves and compartments inside. In Amerigo, however, coloured cubes are poured inside each round, with the pool of cubes that escape revealing what actions are available for the players. Owing to the nature of the tower, cubes from the current round may be trapped away, and others from previous rounds are nudged free making offering unpredictable actions on each round.

Ludicrous dice tower is ludicrous. It's exactly the same inside as Shogun, by the way!

Ludicrous dice tower is ludicrous. It’s exactly the same inside as Shogun, by the way!

This random element can lead to amazing situations where you pour 3 white cubes in, only to have them disappear (presumably through some kinds of portal to Narnia) and a red, a green and two blues appear… Much like the dice rolling in Bora Bora or Castles of Burgundy, these results are random, though somewhat predictable. Geoff Englestein described this as ‘Pink Noise’ on a recent episode of his excellent Ludology podcast, but put simply the opportunities created will force players to adapt.

What do I really like about Amerigo? Well, the game has a certain narrative. Sailing and claiming ports around the various islands is really important at the start of the game – but less so as the areas are colonised. Building multiple settlements on an island is an obvious winning tactic – as it multiplies the available points for covering the whole settlement with buildings. The thing is, the larger islands can be really big and a heavy drain on time / resources to complete. This forces players to co-operate to complete the islands and share the points. Alternatively, you could always highjack a single port and block the filling of an island to cost a player a ton of points.

This says NOTHING about the game, but it's certainly nice to look at.

This says NOTHING about the game, but it’s certainly nice to look at.

Simply colonising the islands with buildings is fun too, offering a spatial, tetris-like puzzle where the challenge comes from making best use of your available building tiles whilst scooping up the natural resources scattered around. More so than Bora Bora and Burgundy for that matter, Amerigo is remarkably simple to learn. The mechanisms get out of the way and the actions you can select are fairly straight forward. This is not a difficult game to teach and players are able to make short, medium and long term strategies right from the start. So yes, this is more of the same point grabbing from Feld, but with a distinctly different flavour. The clever, innovative inclusion of the cube tower is an interesting and fun way of adding some light randomisation into the game’s design. The spatial elements offered by the map offers fresh challenges, and even the end-game scoring is relatively painless and obvious.

The very lovely designer has done it again. Yes, it’s not a cheap game, but it comes in a giant box that is filled with game that will last you for months – or at least until another masterwork escapes from Castle Feld.

Amerigo, designed by Stefan Feld, was released by Queen Games at Essen 2013. Between two and four people can play with games taking around an hour and a half. Expansions are also available that add even more into the game experience through the Queenies range. Should you want to grab a copy – and why wouldn’t you? You have taste! – you’ll be looking at around £50 for a copy once they become available through retail next week. Thanks as always to Stuart for his review – follow him on Twitter via @Judge1979

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I Am The God Of Hellfire… And I Bring You – Flash Point: Fire Rescue review

Time for a guest reviewer to stick their two pence in! Luke Hector has taken a look at Flash Point: Fire Rescue  to see whether it’s hot stuff or a damp squib… (apologies for the terrible pun…)

Anybody who knows me at a games club will testify that I am a big fan of co-op games. I love the atmosphere that is built up from a group of gamers working together to a common goal with the game as your adversary. One aspect that defines a good co-op game for me is the theme. A team game with no theme is just dull and boring – you’re almost willing to just hit the team suicide button and let the game win just to end the misery. You also have to be careful with an issue that cause some co-ops to get a bit of stick from non-gamers thanks to the Alpha Gamer syndrome where one person takes the leader role a bit too far and starts to dictate everything that the other players should be doing. It’s not fun and doesn’t embrace the element of co-operation between people.

My salvation, helping me to avoid both of these issues, came in the form of Indie Boards & Cards’ Flash Point: Fire Rescue. I unfortunately missed out on the last Kickstarter and didn’t get the special fire meeples and expansions for this game, but with a new expansion on the way you can expect to see everything reprinted in late 2013. Flash Point is a co-operative game for 1-6 players in which you take one of many roles in a squad of firemen and seek to rescue seven survivors from a burning house. The players must work together to keep the raging fire under control whilst locating the survivors and escorting them out of the building.

Characters have a set number of action points which are used to perform a range of actions. Moving yourself / escorting a survivor and extinguishing fire and smoke are the most regularly used, but you can also choose to open doors, chop through walls and even operate vehicles. Point of Interest (POI) tokens are scattered on the board for the firemen to investigate, all of which are face down to begin with. They can only be flipped by reaching them or using a specialist role, but often what you think could be a survivor ends up being a false reading.

At the end of every player turn, a dice roll applied to a grid system dictates how the flames spread as well as where potential survivors might be located, and the team wins by escorting those seven (out of the ten available) survivors out of the building. However should four survivors die from the fire, the players immediately lose. In addition to this, if all 24 damage cubes (used to represent broken walls that have been blown away by explosions or chopped down by firemen) are placed on the board, the house collapses killing everyone inside. And guess what? Yes, you all lose.

Possibly the best feature of this game is just how much it oozes theme when you squeeze the box. Fighting fires and rescuing people is what they make movies about and some kids dream of being a fireman and playing with the siren far too much! Story wise, the game writes itself. The brave firemen rush in and beat back the fire risking their lives to rescue helpless victims… (and pets because apparently they carry equal weighting to humans in this game). The fire is random which adds to the mounting tension and creates a “push your luck” aspect to the game whereby you don’t know whether to leave that room full of smoke in the hope it doesn’t ignite into flame or whether to take a shortcut and hack your way through the walls – even if it speeds up the collapse of the building.

The mechanics in the game make sense and feel right to how the theme is implemented. I’m not a fireman (obviously) so maybe there could be some creative license being involved, but the designer obviously did his research. The game is also very intuitive allowing for people to pick up the rules very quickly and make their own decisions, minimising the risk of an Alpha Gamer seizing control. In the Experienced game (a Family variant is included for outright beginners) players can choose from a plentiful selection of roles which vary the amount of action points  available and provide a unique special ability which either allows a special action or grants bonus actions for specific tasks such as putting out fires. All of these roles are very useful and again, thematic, though in the UK I don’t see many imaging technicians (who can scan POI’s to check for survivors) in attendance!

The only minor nit-pick on the theme is the vehicles. Players can command the fire engine to attempt to extinguish fires on a larger scale and the ambulance represents the point where the players have to escort the survivors to. However the building is one large detached property and you have to drive the vehicles around it to reach other areas or victims, which to me seemed a bit weird. I mean, who designed this property anyway? It must be like a mansion or something! You could argue, however, that in real life victims aren’t expected to make their own way to the emergency services, the ambulance comes to them – they don’t park two streets away!

The game is all about tactical thinking because as the fire spreads randomly from turn to turn. Explosions can devastate parts of the house, turning smoky rooms into raging infernos. Each turn sees players having to assess how much time they want to devote to rescuing victims against how much should be spent putting out fires. Everything might be fine on one turn but it only takes one hazardous material to explode at the wrong time for fires and damage cubes to spawn in quantity!

When comparing strategy to tactics, I prefer a game that revolves around the latter as it forces you to think on the fly and make quick decisions. When combined with the theme in this game, the tension is constant and you can’t let your guard down. Beating the game is very rewarding as you pull that last victim to safety. Components are of high quality and are very colourful with pleasant artwork on the board and the role cards. A fully laid out board always draws a passing eye and helps to add to the theme and immersion of the game. The game can be wrapped up in less than an hour easily and there is very little downtime as the game plays out at a fast pace with a lot of player interaction.

You can tell I like this game and I cannot wait for Indie Boards and Cards to reprint the expansions later this year so I can get my fire gloves on them. The base game already has good replay value due to the double sided board (depicting two different house setups), plentiful roles and varying difficulty levels. The expansions add in multiple storeys, additional hazards and more roles/locations to boost it even further. Some people have criticised the randomness of the fire hoping for a more predictable way of implementing it in an almost puzzle style, but I honestly don’t favour that at all. A real life fire is random. You can’t predict the spread or speed of a blazing inferno; this is why firemen are at huge risk in these situations. The randomness adds to the tension and fits with the theme perfectly.

Components are of high quality and are very colourful with pleasant artwork on the board and the role cards. A fully laid out board always draws a passing eye and helps to add to the theme and immersion of the game. If you like co-operative games I highly recommend giving this one a try for all levels of players.

Flash Point: Fire Rescue was designed by Kevin Lansing and was originally published through Indie Boards and Cards back in 2011. Between one and six players can get involved, with games taking around 45 minutes to an hour. Copies can be picked up for around £25 from Gameslore. Thanks to Luke for the write up!

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Sandstorm – Kemet review

Kemet COVER

My good friend Chris O’Regen has been writing and talking about video games since pretty much the beginning of time, but he’s also got a passion of boardgaming that is unmatched by any regular human. Last weekend at our TableTop Day event, Chris showed up with a bag of games including a new favourite of his: Kemet. I asked if he fancied doing a review of it sometime. This landed in my inbox the next morning…

Kemet has a giant scorpion in it. This same scorpion can be used alongside armies to lay waste to all who stand before them. Buy Kemet. My work here is done. Good day.

I SAID GOOD DAY!. Why are you still reading this? I just told you Kemet has a giant scorpion in it. A GIANT SCORPION. Oh… you want to know about how the game plays and if it is worth your time and indeed money? Didn’t I just tell you about the scorpion? You want more? Fine. FINE!

kemet_creature_02

Kemet is an adversarial strategic combat game in which players send armies of ancient Egyptian warriors against one another in an attempt to make their mark in world of antiquity. If this sounds a teensy bit familiar to you then you may have played Cyclades, a game that is set in ancient Greece and is made by the same publisher. Unlike Cyclades, however, there is no bidding war in order to earn the right to launch attack. Instead Kemet relies heavily on timing, as the order makes their plays is crucial to their success. One miss-timed action can result in a cascade event against them that is very difficult to recover from. Even then such a recovery is reliant on another player making a similar mistake.

The aim of Kemet is to score either 8 or 10 victory points, depending on whether or not the short or long form of the game is being played. The ‘short’ game can take up to 2 hours to play and the set up can take a considerable amount of time, especially when having to lay out the shop front of power cards. Thankfully it is worth it as the game is terrific fun to play, especially when you’re offered the chance to take control of a giant scorpion.

kemet_divine_intervention_cards

Play is split into two phases, titled Day and Night. During the day all of the action takes place, with players carrying out a minimum of five actions per day. At night powers are bestowed to the players and they are granted favours by the Egyptian gods in the form of Divine Intervention cards. These are modifier cards that can be played based on the icon that is placed in the bottom right hand corner of them. Some can be cast during battle, others during the day on a player’s turn and finally some can only played on an opponent’s turn.

kemet_player_card

The actions a player can take are done one at a time. These actions are defined by icons in a character card each player has. On this card is a row of numbers from 0-11 that define the amount of prayer power that the player has gleaned from the Egyptian gods. This acts as currency in the game, as almost every action carries with it a cost in prayer power. Each action is placed into a three tier pyramid and at least one action in each level must be performed by the player by the end of the Day phase.

The actions vary from praying in order to gain prayer power points through to buying power cards. These cards modify the base rule-set of Kemet significantly, to the point that players are encouraged to grab as many of them as possible in order to make themselves a viable fighting force in the later stages of the game.

kemet_power_cards

Power cards are split into three types and are coloured white, red and blue. White cards are focussed with gaining and conserving prayer power. Red power cards are offense based and blue power cards are focussed on defence. They are in turn split into 4 levels of strength, with level 4 being the most potent. Players can only buy one type of power card and once they have them it is not possible for other players to remove them. The right to buy cards is dependent upon the level of power pyramid a player have in their control. These pyramids are represented by oversized D4 dice and are placed in the cities each player has control of.

kemet_pyramids_of_power

Combat occurs when troops from opposing sides are located in the same space. Troop movements have no cost attributed to them, unless you’re transporting them from one of your power pyramids to an obelisk, which will cost two prayer power points. This manoeuvre is what I like to call the ‘101st Airborne’ attack, as it results in a player’s army appearing, seemingly from out of nowhere on another location. It speeds up the pace of the game significantly as armies can only move one space at a time, unless the player has a power card that increases their movement.

The combat mechanism in Kemet is a little peculiar as it requires no dice, instead relying on players picking from a set of six cards that have different stats on them. They all have varying levels of strength of attack which is symbolised by a sword, and the other two stats are damage and shielding. When combat is initiated, which is when a player places their army into a space that is occupied by an opposing player’s army, both players select two cards from their hand of six. One of these cards is discarded when the other is used in combat. The strength is added to the number of army units in the space as well as any modifiers from Divine Intervention cards and power cards. Damage is then compared against the number of shields on both sides, which can result in the victor’s army being wiped out, even if they won the battle!

kemet_combat_cards

This combat system does have many layers to it, as the more player’s engage in combat, their effectiveness is diminished as they have fewer combat cards to execute their attacks with. The risk-reward for this is the fact that every battle won earns a player a permanent victory point. With a reward so great, Kemet actually encourages players to interact with one another as permanent victory points are hard to come by.

You may be wondering at this point what on Earth is a ‘permanent victory point’? Aren’t all victory points ‘permanent’? Well in most games that feature a point scoring system you’d be right. In Kemet, however, points can be stolen from players if they commit certain actions. Such points are called temporary and their tokens are circular in shape, while permanent points are square. Temporary points are earned once certain territories on the map are controlled. Temples, that litter the game board, all have temporary points attached to them. It is not uncommon therefore to see these points exchange hands between players throughout the game as the control of temples are succeeded to players following the resolutions of various conflicts.

kemet_point_tokens

There is one final feature that I wish to describe to you before I head off into the sunset with my summing up remarks on Kemet. As I explained earlier, timing is everything in this game and the designers have recognised this to the point where turn order changes at the beginning of every day. This turn order is determined by the player who is the least successful at that point in the game. This affords them the chance to reverse their fortunes by placing themselves higher up the turn order and thus determine the flow of actions in that day. It’s an ingenious system that is very similar to the result of the bidding system in Cyclades, where the player who failed to bid going first in the following round.

Kemet is as well built as it is designed; In other words, it’s excellent. Each of the player’s armies are not only a different colour, but they also differ in form. A nice little touch that again was found in Cyclades. The oversized D4’s act as a nice piece of tactile paraphernalia to the game and also maintains an appropriate level to the Egyptian theme of the game.

kemet_creature_01

Similarly the figurines of the creatures are well made although not of the same scale to the armies. If they had been made in such a way the armies would have to shrink or the creatures grown to stupidly large proportions. All of the figures have been daubed over with a splash of wash, which while a nice effect, does reduce the possibility of being able to paint them. This is not like Cyclades where the monster figurines can easily be painted. It’s a minor quibble, I grant you, but with many game fans being a creative lot, the removal of the opportunity of being able to paint figures easily is a little irksome.

As you may have gathered from this review I really like Kemet. It is a fantastic game that always has new players walking away from with a smile on their face. It takes the recent innovations in tabletop game design and brings them all together into an amazing game, with little to no down time for players and a pace that starts off fast and is maintained right up to the end. It’s not uncommon to realise a player has manoeuvred themselves into a position of certain victory, unless their opponents work together to head them off at the pass, just to prolong the game!

It also has a giant scorpion in it. I may have mentioned that in this review, I can’t remember though.

Kemet was first released by Matagot at Essen in 2012. The game was designed by Jacques Bariot and Guillaume Montiage and caters for between two and five players, with games taking between 90 and 120 minutes. Should you want a copy – and after reading Chris’ write up, why wouldn’t you? – Gameslore will sort you out one for £44.99. Thanks so much to Chris for the review! 

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Lovestruck – Great Heartland Hauling Co. review

Heartland COVER

Time for a guest post from one of our American cousins! The charming Eric Leath – also known as @Full_of_Chit on that there Twitter – has been in a great big convoy across the USA! Kind of. Here’s what he thinks of Dice Hate Me Games’ newest offering, The Great Heartland Hauling Co.

Growing up in Ohio for the past 28 years, I’d like to think I’ve had my fair share of agrarian experiences: Milking goats, stepping in cowpies, running through cornfields, etc. Even then, however, there was one thing I never got to check off my list. I never got to sit in a big rig and experience the joy and wonder of the open road. Some of my friends’ fathers were truckers, and upon returning home they would regale us with stories of far away lands and cities with ridiculous names.

From mundane trips to Boring, Oregon to dodging raindrops in Spunky Puddle, Ohio to experiencing Intercourse* with a trailer full of pigs (*Intercourse, Pennsylvania that is; don’t get any ideas) there was simply something about travelling from coast to coast and city to city that seemed enthralling.

Now, thanks to designer Jason Kotarski and Chris Kirkman of DiceHateMe Games, you too can experience a little bit of that Big Rigger rigor with Great Heartland Hauling. In this game you—as you might have guessed already—take on the role of a trucker, picking up and delivering 4 different goods [Cattle, Pigs, Soybeans, and Corn] to towns across the country.

Pile up! Oh no!

Pile up! Oh no!

To start, a grid of cards is laid out on the table (more players, more cards) and populated with 5 cubes of its native good (i.e. one of the aforementioned crops or animals). On a player’s turn, they will take 3 actions:

1.) Move across the heartland. This may be done by playing gas cards from your hand to move a maximum of 3 spaces. If you don’t have any gas cards, you’ll need to spend some of your hard earned cash to move. A trucker never rests, and your clients don’t take excuses. It should also be noted that you can’t stop in a city in which another player is located, nor can you stop at the Distribution Center (the middle card of the layout), so blocking certain areas of the board can be a good strategy.

2.) Next, you’ll need to pick up or deliver goods. To do this, play a card that corresponds to the good you’re picking up or delivering. If picking up, put the cube in the designated area on your scorecard and proceed to step 3. If delivering, take the cube from your truck, place it on the city card, and move your score marker up the appropriate amount of spaces. You may also pick up a non-native good, but that’ll cost you a bit extra (i.e. 2 cards per cube rather than 1). Considering the maximum capacity of a card is 8 cubes, and it might very well be in your best interest to pick up some non-native goods.

2b.) At times in the game, you may find your engine starting to get gunked up a bit. In this case you may pay $1 to discard as many card from your hand as you desire. Think of this as an Oil Change or a Fuel Injector boost/flush.

3.) Finally, refill your hand to 5 cards. Additionally, check to see if anyone has hit the score threshold (ranging from 30 to 50 points depending on the number of players). If someone has, all other players get one last turn before the game ends.

Mercy sakes alive, looks like we got ourselves a convoy!

Mercy sakes alive, looks like we got ourselves a convoy! *pulls cord*

If this were the entirety of the game, it would be a pleasant experience, though admittedly not one with a lot of replayability. Thankfully, DHMG has packed the game with enough horns and mudflaps (the trucker equivalent of bells and whistles, I’m assuming) to keep gamers occupied until their next well-funded Kickstarter game is delivered. First is the Badlands add-on, which expands the game to a 5 player experience and augments the base game with 2 extra cities. These cities are placed on the outskirts of the initial layout; while they don’t have any native goods, they make up for this shortcoming by having payouts for 3 goods rather than the normal 2. On top of this is the Truck Stop inspansion, which allows players to stop on certain cards and pay an amount of cash in order to gain various special powers such as Ethanol (use corn as fuel) or extra fuel or cards in hand.

If that weren’t enough, each of the city cards in Heartland Hauling is double sided, which allows for an advanced variant that introduces Closed Roads, Weigh Stations which charge for trucks over capacity, and Toll Roads that nickel and dime inefficient travelers. Truthfully, the only bad thing about all these different ways to play is that the game box can barely fit it all.

But enough about the components and how to play; does all this extra “stuff” equate to a good game? To that, I can give an unabashed “Yes.” The game scales well from 2 to 5 (our 2P games even seem to be more cuththroat than our 5P experiences) as well as from novice to experienced gamer due to all the accoutrements thrown in. I’ve had the opportunity to play with 2,3,and 4 as well as with the Truck Stop, Badlands, and Advanced Routes and I can truthfully say that I enjoy all of the options. While there wasn’t a lot of blocking in our two player game, the optimal pick up and drop off combos caused sites to reach the 8 cube capacity quickly, meaning we had to then analyze what the second best option was or how to utilize non-native good pick ups to our advantage. 3 and 4 player games, on the contrary necessitate not only a Plan B, but often times a Plan C, D, and E. It’s also not written into the rulebook, but there’s a certain level of social diplomacy one can garner in the game as well. Players can swindle a deal for “if you go here now, I’ll stay away from this area of the board.” Knowing Mr. Kirkman’s love of social games, I bet he’s smiling as he reads this.

Mind you, this game probably won’t do anything for those looking for a super-heavy pick up and deliver game (e.g Merchant of Venus and its ilk), but virtually everyone else should find something to enjoy. There is a modicum of take-that due to players blocking certain areas of the board or loading a city up to capacity, but it never feels especially spiteful. Likewise, there’s enough to the base game without Badlands, Truck stops, or advanced variants, that you won’t grumble (much) over teaching the game to newcomers.

Overall, Heartland Hauling is a welcome addition to the Dice Hate Me Games family. It’s accessible yet deep, and should provide hours of fun for you and your convoy. As they say around our table when playing this game: “Go Pig or Go home.”

The Great Heartland Hauling Co. was designed by Jason Kotarski and released by Dice Hate Me Games in 2013. For more information, check out the DHMG site! Also, don’t forget to follow guest reviewer Eric Leath on Twitter if that’s your kind of thing. Thanks to him for the article!

 

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