Tag Archives: strategy

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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Smoke on the Water – Brave the Elements review

BtE Cover

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Bte Disasters

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

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

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

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

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


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Wild Wood – The Duke review

The Duke COVER

You know when you’ve met someone for the first time and they ask you the terrifying question about the stuff that you enjoy doing? Then you bring up the subject of board games and they inevitably go “Oh, like Monopoly?” or they wander off down a mental alleyway to when they used to play in the Chess Club at school? That happens to me pretty regularly. Not that it’s a bad thing – I think I have my little speech down pat now about the kinds of things I like to play, and most of the time people will happily listen, then nod and walk off. Of course, those are the ones who mentioned Monopoly; they simply can’t be saved. The folks who talk about Chess though…? Perhaps they can be brought back from the edge and into the fold…

The Duke, from Catalyst Game Labs, was a roaring Kickstarter success last summer and is now available in your local store. If any of those former Chess players express even the vaguest interest in seeing what games have to offer these days, I’d grab a copy and put it down in front of them immediately. Many strategy games will claim to be the greatest thing since Chess, but the vast majority fall very short of the mark – thankfully, The Duke manages to combine many familiar elements with some new ideas that make it quite a compelling game that will be a worthy part of your collection, especially if you’re looking for a quality two-player effort.

Played out on a six by six grid of squares, each player begins with three tiles; two Footmen and the ubiquitous Duke. The tiles are double sided, showing the name and a grid of moves that a piece can do – most of the time it’ll be shifting one space or jumping, but there are also plenty that can slide the length of the board, assuming there’s nothing in the way. Once a piece has been moved, it is flipped over so the reverse side is shown, revealing an entirely different set of potential moves. Manage to land on an opponent’s tile and that piece is taken. Capture the enemy Duke and the game is done.

Of course, this would be a pretty weak game if you were just armed with those three starting tiles. Mercifully, each player is also given a bag filled with more troops that will expand your army further, all of whom have different abilities – and not just simple movements. Whether it’s the Champion who can attack adjacent tiles as well as leap over them or the General who commands other tiles to switch positions, you’re allowed to bring a new tile onto the board if you choose not to move another that is already in play – the only thing is that the new tile must be placed adjacent to your Duke. Of course, the more tiles you bring out, the more limited the areas you can move into, and on a board that only contains thirty-six spaces… well, you can work it out quite quickly that playing this game requires a delicate touch. Balance is key if you are to win in The Duke.

It may look simple, but there's a lot of thought put into every move...

It may look simple, but there’s a lot of thought put into every move… and then you mess up and hate yourself. Every. Single. Time.

A good head for planning ahead is also something of a requirement, but adaptability is also necessary. Every time you pull a new tile out of your bag, you’re never sure what it will be – after all, there are sixteen different troop tiles in there – so you’ll have to be able to work with whatever happens to appear. Where it’s rare that a game of Chess ever goes ‘off the book’ – in other words, something brand new happens that has never been seen before – I think that such an occurrence would be a rarity in The Duke simply because of the randomness you’ll get from the combination of board position and drawn tiles. That’s a very long way of saying that no two games will be alike, which adds to the replay value of this fine little game.

Also padding out the package are bonus tiles to be used to alter the terrain, a ridiculously powerful Dragon tile, a couple of flags (seriously, Capture The Flag in an abstract board game!) and even a couple of blank tiles and sticker sets that you can use to customise your own pieces. Dive into the rulebook and you’ll discover different ways to play the game and challenge even the most experienced of gamers. There’s even a couple of mini expansions available that represent characters such as Conan the Barbarian, the Three Musketeers, Robin Hood, and even some Arthurian Legends… Some curious choices, sure, but it’ll be interesting to see how they’ll interact with the already available set.

As a package, The Duke is rather nicely presented. The tiles are hardwood and feel solid in the hand, and though I had a slight issue with some of the darker set being slightly different shades, it’s far from a gamebreaker. All images on the tiles are clearly screen-printed and though I believe the original plan was to laser cut them (which would’ve added to their longevity) they seem pretty durable – certainly clattering about in their respective bags doesn’t seem to have caused any damage. The bags themselves are the only things I plan to switch out as they’re made from a very flimsy fabric that doesn’t seem to lend itself to the high quality of the rest of the game.

All told, I can’t recommend The Duke highly enough. Yes, there are limitations – it’s strictly for two players, some people may disregard it due to its highly abstract nature, and it’s quite a pricey little package – but if there’s a gap in your collection for a quick-playing strategy title, this one should be on your list to investigate. Long live The Duke!

The Duke was published by Catalyst Game Labs in 2013. Designed by Jeremy Holcomb and Steven McLaughlin for two players only, games will take you around fifteen to thirty minutes. Should you desire a copy – and who wouldn’t? – you can get one from Gameslore for £23

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Fields of Fire – Lords of War review

OvD box front

One of the highlights of the UK Games Expo this year was an ace little card game from a brand new start-up called Black Box Games. Anyone who attended the show will undoubtedly recall their imposing stand and team of ridiculously helpful folks who would pull anyone passing in for a quick introduction to their new game, Lords of War. At the time only one set was available, Orcs vs Dwarves, but following the release of the follow-up box (Elves vs Lizardmen) and the announcement that they’re now getting into distribution channels, it’s high time we had a proper look at the game here on The Little Metal Dog Show.

Even before cracking open the pack, you may notice certain similarities to another card based strategy title, Summoner Wars from Plaid Hat Games. Sure, base sets come with two pre-built decks of opposing factions and the whole thing is played out on a paper playmat, but this is no bandwagon-jumping rush release. Lords of War has been in development for years and you’ll notice quickly that this is a very different beast.
Strictly for two players, your aim is to fulfil one of two winning conditions – either wipe out your opponent’s five Commander characters or kill off twenty of their troops. First to do this claims the victory, and while it may initially come across as something of a challenge to achieve either of these objectives, once you’re on the battlefield things do move at a fair old pace. Beginning by placing your opening cards on pre-selected spaces on the included playing field, the two opponents play out their turns in a very specific order.
First up, you must play a card to the field from your hand of six. Each of the cards will show how they can get involved in combat, either with a bunch of arrows pointing in some or all of the eight surrounding directions (used in hand to hand fighting) or a symbol showing which spaces will be affected by the unit’s ranged attack. As usual, things are better illustrated in picture form…

So, the Orc Ravager attacks any cards to the front as well as having a little offensive value to the right. Meanwhile, Ivor the Mad not only has plenty of melee attack options, he can also perform a pretty spectacular ranged attack for 5 damage.

Lords of War has one VERY important rule to follow when it comes to placing your card (called Deployment in the game) – whatever you choose to put down MUST have one of its attack arrows adjacent to an enemy unit. Once you’ve made your decision, you resolve the attack by removing any cards in play that have a lower defence number than what you’ve just played. For example, say an arrow marked as a 4 is pointing at an enemy with a defence of 3 – that opposition unit will be removed. However, if you’ve played your card in a spot that happens to be targeted with, say, a catapult that’ll do 5 damage, your unit is knocked out too.
Combos are also something to keep an eye on – multiple cards attacking a single unit, particularly useful when you’re trying to take down some of the more impressive cards in Lords of War. Consider the fact that some of the stronger generals have defensive values of 6 or 7, mastering the strategies behind getting more than one unit to beat down on more powerful enemies is essential.
Once you’re done, you draw back up to six cards and play continues until one of the two winning conditions is met. As you can probably tell, with the rules ensuring that you’re always on the attack, this is a game with a lot of back-and-forth activity. Aggressive play isn’t just enraged in Lords of War, it’s bloody essential, so it may not be a game for those who prefer to play passive, thoughtful affairs. However, if you’re in the market for a quick blast, a half-hour of beating the hell out of your opponent, it comes well recommended.
Lords of War may initially strike you as a very straightforward game, and while I agree that the rules are a piece of cake to understand, getting to grips with them is merely scratching the surface. Each card you play, each decision you make is vital – a wild placement of a unit could end up costing you dearly and see you struggle to make a comeback, or perhaps even lead to you losing entirely in the space of a few turns – quite surprising considering the size of the box. It demands a lot more thought than some games ten times the size and four times the price, but one thing you won’t need to consider is whether to grab a copy or not – your answer should be a simple yes.
Lords of War was designed by Nick Street and Martin Vaux and is published by Black Box Games. The original set, Orcs vs Dwarves, was released in 2012 with the latest pack – Elves vs Lizardmen – coming out in July 2013. Two players can face of against each other, but there are also rules for games for between three and six players available from the Lords of War site. Pick it up direct from there of your local game store, where a set will cost you around £12.

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King of Snake – Hydra review


It’s safe to say that I am not the biggest fan in the world of abstract strategy. I like theme in a game! I like complicated stuff and millions of bits! However, one thing I’ve always wanted to do here on littlemetaldog.com is give everything a try at least once, so if a game is put in front of me It Will Get Played. Them’s the rules! I’d like to think that I can put aside my meh-ness towards a genre of games and see good stuff in everything I play – after all, who knows, I might find something that I enjoy! And goodness me, what’s this? A game that’s made me think that not all abstracts are terrible? Blimey.

Hydra is a two player game built around simple rules with a single objective – to create a single continuous line across the playing surface with your tiles. Each player is given twenty eight tiles in their colour – three Heads, four Tails and twenty-one Bones – which you’ll use to wend your way over the play surface. One will work their way from North to South, the other will go from East to West, but (as you’ve probably worked out) there’s an issue. At one point, the players’ lines will have to cross over somewhere – and it’s here where the game gets really quite tricky and mean.

You see, the three different tile types allow for different placements, and it’s getting to grips with these that will see you ending up the winner. Heads are the most versatile, allowing your next placement in any of the four orthagonal spaces next to it. Tails are useful should you need to turn a corner. Bones, meanwhile, are the simplest of the tiles, only allowing for the creation of straight lines.


In this example, the Light player uses two Bones to move from the bottom of the board, a Tail to turn right, another Bone then a Head.

Each turn will normally see you placing a single tile on the board, either at one of the edges you’re trying to link or off a piece that is already on the board. You also have the option of flipping an already placed tile which can be retrieved at the end of your next turn, or not placing anything and flipping two instead. The playing area, a seven by seven square, quickly gets very busy and the two lines will quickly collide but only a Bone tile can be crossed. Heads and Tails tiles are ideal for blocking your opponent’s plans then, but there’s a literal price to pay: using then will require you to discard tiles from your pile which will quickly limit your options. For every Tail used, you’ll discard three tiles; for every Head, it’s four, and you’ll only be able to reclaim these spent tiles by flipping and removing the played pieces from the board. It’s an ingenious idea that really balances the game out – sure, you could put a load of the more powerful tiles on the board, but you’ll go broke quickly, and it’s in fact impossible to traverse the board using only Heads and Tails. 

For such a small game with simple rules, there’s an awful lot of opportunity for cruelty in Hydra – which is probably what makes it appeal to me despite my normal lack of affection for abstracts. Having played it a fair few times now (and lost every single match) I’m developing an appreciation for the game, recognising where I went wrong and what I could have done to  fix errors I have made during play. Actually figuring out how to win hasn’t quite clicked yet but I feel that will come with time in this game that rewards considered thought and multiple plays. The more experience you have with Hydra, the better you’ll become at recognising openings and options and the more pleasurable your gameplay will be.

While it’s not converted me entirely into the fold of full-on loving abstract strategy, I’ve come to realise that I’ll happily go back again and again to the genre if I’ve got the right game in front of me. Hydra is a well developed little affair that has some neat ideas – plus did I mention that the wooden box collapses down to create the playing surface? It’s these little touches that make me want to put copies of the game in front of others and demand they play with me, if only because I could possibly beat a total newbie…

Hydra is a self produced design by Simon Dangerfield. The game will be launched officially at this year’s UK Games Expo in Birmingham over the weekend of May 25th to 27th. For more information, contact Simon via email: simon@talltree.co.uk


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