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Metal Guru – Guns & Steel review

Guns Cover

Awareness about Tokyo Game Market seems to have grown rapidly over the last couple of years, much of it probably thanks to the awesome guys at Japon Brand. Their regular trawls of the new and interesting titles that are produced in tiny amounts by the most indie of games makers at the twice-yearly event have brought us some great additions to our shelves – Colours of Kasane and Villanex are just a couple that still get regular play around here following their release at Essen 2014, for example, and many more games are on their way for this year’s Spiel. More and more folks are going to the source though, heading over to Tokyo to see what kind of things are on offer.

I’m not jealous at all.

One good thing though – sometimes folks get in touch with me and ask if I’d like to try out a game, and when I got a message asking if I’d like to see Guns & Steel by Jesse Li, how could I refuse?

A couple of weeks later, a small envelope landed on my (temporary) doorstep. Inside was a plastic baggie containing a deck of 56 cards and a rulesheet, nothing more – the boxed version of the game had sold out at TGM. Of course, having come from Japan, everything was covered in kanji and a slight air of panic came over me, but on closer inspection, everything in the game is also in English – it’s just that the print was a little smaller and I’m getting ever more blind as I grow older…

So unassuming, and yet filled with delights!

So unassuming, and yet filled with delights!

Regardless, Guns & Steel‘s graphic design is straightforward and clear, and once you know the symbols used throughout the game you’ll barely refer to the text on the cards. What’s the game about though?

Well, simply put, it’s the most portable Civilisation Building game I’ve ever come across, and it’s a very clever little bugger indeed. As you’d expect, you start off small with a handful of cards (everyone’s got the same to begin with) and are racing to evolve your own wee culture from riding around on horses to zipping around in space, collecting wondrous buildings and sites along the way that will score points. As you’d expect, the player with the highest total at the end is the winner, but Guns & Steel does that whole “you may have triggered the end of the game, but you may not necessarily win” thing – it’s very much a game of paying attention all the time, though it’s not up to the brain-melting level that many other civ games drag you too. Think of it as an introduction to the genre but don’t take it too lightly, for G&S will bite you if you don’t treat it respectfully.

Each Civilisation card in the game is double-sided, showing the Resource it can provide on one side and it’s Development on the other. The Resources are taken from each of the game’s ages (Horse, Gunpowder, Oil, Earth and Space Ages are all represented), and a large pyramid of Development cards is laid out before play begins with the three Space Age cards on top, down to seven Horse Age cards at the bottom (though there’s one less per row if you’re playing head-to-head with someone else). One Wonder card is placed next to each of these lines; these are also double sided but they don’t provide a Resource, just two time-line relevant buildings or events, each of which you and your fellow players will be fighting to get hold of as they bring in the big points. But how do you get hold of them?

As you’d expect, it’s all about spending those resources to pick up cards, and it’s here where the pyramid layout is important. You begin the game with those five lowly cards which can be used either as Developments or Resources, and each turn must be played out in the following manner:

  • You MUST play a card in front of you as a Resource.
  • You MUST play a card as a Development, but you don’t have to you use the effect on it.
  • You MAY buy one of the cards from the ones on the table
  • …and that’s pretty much it, apart from the thinking that you’ve just done the wrong thing and everyone is secretly laughing at you inwardly.

Each Development card has a cost shown on its right-hand side, but you may only purchase cards that are ‘open’ – in other words, the ones that have no other cards underneath them. (Actually, this is something of a fib – you can buy whatever cards you like in G&S, but each card below the one that you want to pick up will cost you one extra resource, meaning that things can get very expensive). As you start off with bugger all, you’ll be looking to slowly work your way through the cards and, thematically, through the game’s technological ages. Food and Iron could combine to get you a Philosophy card, the reverse of which provides a Horse resource (res-horse?). Combine that Horse with another Iron and a Knight could be added to your tableau. Collect a handful of the correct resources and you could be grabbing a Wonder. It’s a simple but beautiful system that works very well indeed where even the whole ‘pay an extra resource for a higher up card’ thing fits into the game’s theme – after all, civilisations make surprising technological leaps all the time, so why couldn’t a people who are still using gunpowder come up with the concept of a tank? Da Vinci did stuff like this every day before breakfast!

Play begins...

The birth of a new Civilisation! Or several, at least.

No civ game worth its salt would forget combat and with a name like Guns & Steel, this one has it there at its forefront – if you want it. Red cards are for attacking your opponents, and a successful battle is determined by who has the higher amount of military strength symbols in their tableau. Aggressors must be careful though, as their opposition can play cards from their hands in retaliation, so even though someone may look weak and a tempting target they could turn the tables on you – another splendidly sneaky way in which G&S works so well. Of course, you may choose a more pacifist attitude which is a totally viable attitude to take too. Once you start pulling in cards from the Gunpowder Age onwards, you’re immediately scoring points, so quiet development of your own part of the world while others all around you are losing their tempers can prove most fruitful.

I must admit that I was somewhat surprised when I saw that Guns & Steel wasn’t in the Essen 2015 line-up for Japon Brand – to me it feels like the perfect match for them. It’s portable yet deeply satisfying to play. It’s simple to get your head around but lends itself to a higher level of thought that you may initially consider. Sure, it’s not the prettiest game on the shelf, but its stark graphical style means – to me, anyway – that you get to see the information you need quickly, and frankly I rather like the way it looks. This game means business, no screwing around. Set it up, improve the lot of your people, and reach for the stars – or, in Guns & Steel’s case, the International Space Station at least. And all in around thirty minutes? Publishers should be biting off Jesse Li’s hand.

Guns & Steel plays with between two and four people with games taking around twenty to thirty minutes . Designed by Jesse Li, it’s available now through the guys at Board Game Bliss in Canada, and according to the game’s translator (the splendid Desnet Amane) there’ll also be limited quantities soon on the BGG Store in the near future. Best of all, the guys will be making their way to Essen 2015, so you’ll be able to pick up a copy there too. And you should. You really, really should.

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It’s Not War – TactDecks review

I’ve been thinking about miniatures recently. Sitting on one of my bookshelves, guarding nothing in particular, are a bunch of about 20 Space Marines that I picked up a couple of years ago from a charity shop. Not that I have anything to play that utilises them. They just sit there, ready to attack. They look pretty cool, it must be said – whoever painted them did a pretty good job – but they’re never going to be used because miniature gaming utterly terrifies me. The games themselves appeal but the investment of time and money means that stuff like Warhammer 40K is pretty much out of my reach.

What I was looking for was something that provides the strategy without having to hand over my first-born child. The excellent Summoner Wars scratches that itch very well, of course, but you should always be on the lookout for new things and that’s where Soiree Games’ first release comes in. TactDecks is an entirely card based tabletop strategy game that is as large or small as you wish – the only limitation is the space you have to play. You’re still using a grid system, except it’s now essentially in your imagination…

The Starter Set is more than enough for two players to face off in a low-level skirmish and really gives you a good feel for the game. Of course, if you’re looking for something a bit bigger, two Starter Sets will allow for full scale battles, but I’d recommend going for the pared down introduction for your first couple of tries. There are several different card types in TactDecks, some of which you use as your representatives on the battlefield (the Characters who also have talents and skills to utilise in-game) or stuff to manoeuvre around (Obstacles). There are also Collect cards (a single card on the field that your opponent can grab to gain an advantage) and the all-important Event Deck, of which there’ll be more in a moment.

Armies of (roughly) equal value are chosen – each character has a points value, as is traditional in these skirmish games – and the field of play is built up using the Obstacle cards. The objective is to be the last man standing, but this kind of game is open to all kinds of different formats – I tried out a Capture the Flag variant that worked rather well, for example. Turns follow a set series of steps that players work through together, beginning with drawing Reserve cards that grant special abilities (and spells if you happen to be using someone capable of magic) then dealing with what the game calls the Primary Phase – basically moving all your characters and resolving any attacks. Once both players have done this, it’s time for the Tactical Phase – all characters are activated once again, except this time you now have a choice of either move or attack. It’s here where you really need to get thinking; do you go for a second attack on your opponent but risk leaving your Character open on the next turn, or do you skulk back out of range and try to draw the enemy towards you?

As the game is entirely card driven, the random element is provided by the aforementioned Event Deck. The deck acts as a way to break ties for initiative but is mainly used to apply a modifier to attacks (which are worked out in a very simple fashion, your Attack rating with the modifier minus your opponent’s Defence score – more than zero and it’s a hit). Considerations must be made for the Event Deck cards which, despite your best plans, can utterly wreck you – total misses are common occurrences, but many come with an extra instruction to complete that may potentially soften the blow.

A couple of negative points now, albeit minor ones. TactDecks isn’t exactly the most attractive game I’ve ever played. I know that a lot of gamers demand beautifully sculpted pieces and detailed artwork from their purchases, and I’m afraid to say that TactDecks falls a bit short on that. The printing on the cards is also a tiny bit fuzzy, but you must consider that this is the first edition of a new game from an independent one-man operation. Look below the aesthetics and you’ll be rewarded with a very good little game.

TactDecks ain't the prettiest game, but she'll still kick your ass.

TactDecks is miniatures gaming stripped down to its barest bones, simplifying and streamlining a genre that can often be quite unnerving for beginners. It’s a solid gaming engine that is accessible enough for new players to get their teeth into but also worthy of attention from more experienced gamers who are looking for something that plays quickly but isn’t ephemeral. For a comparatively small entry fee you’ll get a game that has a huge amount of potential. Should the bug truly bite you, there’s also a selection of character expansions available to add a little more to your experience. TactDecks works well as an entry point into a more strategic gaming mindset and deserves to be investigated.

TactDecks was designed by Eric Etkin and was first published in 2010 by Soiree Games. At the time of writing it’s not available outside the USA, but if you visit the game’s website at TactDecks.com (or their Facebook page) and drop Eric a message, I’m sure that he’d be able to provide you a copy no matter where you are. And at US$22, how can you go wrong?


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