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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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Short People – Goblins Inc. review

Darkness falls across the gaming arena. Through the curtains at the back strides a giant… a behemoth… a games monster. He is The Judge, and his word is final. Especially when it comes to goblins…

Goblins COVER

Goblins Inc. has taken its inspiration from a number of sources and, in both theme and mechanisms, sounds like it should be a great time. But it isn’t. Not quite. Lets explore why.

Firstly, if you play Goblins Inc. make sure you do with four. The game is functional with two, but has obviously been honed to be most interesting with the partnership system – more of which later. Created by those fine folks at Czech Edition Games (the home of the mighty Vlaada Chvatil) this is the debut game from Filip Neduk and has a very original and fun sounding theme. Players adopt the role of a clan of goblins who are partnered with another player’s clan to construct giant goblin-killing-robots that then duel to the death! Told you it sounded cool!

Gameplay goes something like this: Clans will draw individual special objective cards prior to the start of a round so they know what they personally want to achieve – be that destroying opponents weapons, killing their crew, being the most armoured robot etc. Importantly these MAY be at odds with your partners’ objectives – but shhhh… remember they’re secret. Teams will then draft tiles back and forth, whilst constructing their death robots (using armour / weapons etc. to prepare your monstrosity for battle) – and this feels very much like Vlaada’s own Galaxy Trucker.

Having seen their completed behemoth, players choose the objectives they want to keep – probably the ones which are more achievable based on the mess you’ve just constructed – them take turns to either steer (choose the facing for the robot and the weapons that will launch) or draft a ‘special tactic’ card which does cool stuff like adding extra armour and making your weapons more powerful.

Depending on how well the steering went, players roll dice against each other – doing damage and removing tiles as applicable (again think Galaxy Trucker) and after two attempts each of steering (or a robot is incapacitated) the round ends and players’ objectives are scored.

Players now team up with a different partner for the next round of mechanical construction and destruction – rinse and repeat for 3 rounds.

Hang on… I just read that back and it sounds AWESOMEZ! Being a consummate professional, can you all just wait whilst I go and play it again… Why did I not feel more excited about this game???

(Pause)

Ahh Yes! Got it now… It’s just a bit dull and random.

Actually, disconnected is the best way I can think of describing the game. The amount of fun promised by the premise isn’t delivered. I’d compare it with Last Will, actually, (coincidently another Czech Games product) where the ‘Brewsters Millions’ storyline sounds hilarious – and taking your Horse to the Theatre sounds amazing fun – but mechanically it cannot convey that fun. Like this, it ‘sounds’ great but is disconnected.

Don’t get me wrong, Goblins has its moments and is an original and somewhat enjoyable game. I particularly like the idea of bluff and double bluff of the objectives where co-builders of the same robot have different agendas – but this interactivity can’t compensate for the lack of engagement from the rest of the game. The puzzle you’re trying to solve doesn’t have enough variety or choice to make it satisfying. The decisions you make are so vulnerable to chance, if the dice go against you and your robot collapses you find yourself saying ‘what’s the point?’ Now this is equally true in Galaxy Trucker – but the ‘Joie de vivre’ of that design allows most players to shrug and laugh it off. That simply isn’t present in Goblins Inc.

Ultimately, Goblins Inc. has to go down as a disappointment. Maybe that’s partly my fault. My expectation was raised by the theme that promised more than the mechanisms delivered. Like Sam from Quantum Leap, my endless search for an excellent giant robot construction and combat game goes on…

(Disappears in 1980’s special effect…)

Goblins Inc. was designed by Filip Neduk and was published by CGE in 2012. Between two and four can play and a copy will set you back £32.99 from those charming folks at Gameslore!

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Thriller – Zombicide review

The Judge returns! Stuart takes a look at the Kickstarter hotness that is Zombicide. After raising over $780,000 on the crowdfunding site, they turned the game around and it’s now hitting tables around the world – but is it worth the wait?

We boardgamers are predisposed to the disease of shiny stuff.  Like magpies, no matter how many gems and trinkets we layer our nests with, there are always many more to distract us.  Exclusive Essen promos.  Expansions.  Limited Editions.  These are nectar from the gods for the unfortunate collectors amongst our number.

Kickstarter is therefore an almost unlimited source of this sickly sweet wonderfulness.  This phenomenon combines a pre-order system, an advertising campaign and a wonderful game-unto-itself where we, as a community, can all join together behind a common cause to ‘get this thing made!’ and revel in the excitement as the totals increase and bonus stretch rewards are lathered on.

Zombicide is one such successful campaign that captured everything that makes Kickstarter such a great idea for board game publishers everywhere.  This includes flashy components (in this case loads of quality miniatures), a popular theme that scratches an itch not totally covered elsewhere (Zombies!!! and Last Night on Earth are just passable) and a roller-coaster of momentum – bolstered by continual stretch goals.  So you’ve pledged $100 for the game… How about JUST another $10 for custom dice.  Or more tiles… and how do you expect to get by without Uma Thurman from Kill Bill?  Or Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction?  Or Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory? And so it goes on…

Yes, they did a character based on Sheldon from TBBT – behold, Dave the Geek!

This wonderful journey / descent into hell (delete as applicable) has resulted in me now owning a shiny ‘Abomination’ set of Zombicide with loads of extras.  The ‘Kickstarter Game’ was great fun, but this wouldn’t be the first highly successful campaign where the product was awful – Miskatonic School for Girls anyone? Fortunately for me, for Cool Mini or Not and for Kickstarter itself, the game is fantastic.

Zombicide is a fully co-operative game where 1-6 players adopt a role from a variety of colourful characters all trying to survive a zombie apocalypse.  Players are represented by detailed plastic miniatures – often caricatures of popular culture icons or comically exaggerated stereotypes – and each have specific powers which will need to be efficiently utilised to survive the endless assault from a ravenous zombie horde!

Nine full colour, double sided tiles make up the game board – with 10 suggested scenarios included, many more to download and a PC-based custom editor to make your own – there is NOT a lack of material to play through.  The signature of the game, however, are the dozens of zombie models that flood the board and add to a genuine sense of pressure as their numbers multiply and yours dwindle.

The mechanics are pretty simple – and similar to the equally fun Flashpoint: Fire Rescue – in so much as individuals have a limited amount of action points to spend each turn.  These are used to move, open doors, attack zombies, search for additional weaponry and collect the mission specific objectives.  As players fight off the horde and collect objectives, XP are earned.  Once certain ‘level-up’ benchmarks are achieved, new abilities open up to that character which – in turn – increases the stuff that can be accomplished on each activation.  HOWEVER… the level of the highest player indicates the difficulty level of the spawning horde.  More zombies;   Tougher zombies; and perhaps worst – FASTER “28 Days Later-style” ZOMBIES!

The game is pretty tough – as we have come to expect from co-ops – and players will die.  Just two bites and a player is eliminated.  Theoretically this could happen early in a 2 hour game, though I am yet to see it myself as kindly survivors have always jumped into the firing line for their colleagues. I do feel that this sense danger and threat is a necessary deterrent for splitting up the group too early and the level of vulnerability increases the tension of the play experience.

This review, as ever, is all about my personal opinion from my person experiences and I would heartily recommend Zombicide.  Having played with Ameritrashers, hard-core Euro-fans, super casual gamers and even those who HATE co-operative games, no one has had a negative experience with the game.

Let the games begin!

This is, though, a ‘play experience’ first and foremost.  I can’t imagine deep strategic debate / arguments on BGG about how to maximise your play.  A common complaint of co-ops is the Pandemic argument that one person solves the puzzle and tells everyone else what to do.  My Zombicide experience has seen a natural leader come to the fore, but more as a chairperson – bringing debate to a close – never to the detriment of the play experience, and certainly not to the point where others were not having input.

Other negatives?  Well, it’s not cheap – but the value is right there in the components.  In addition, the ‘experience’ nature means that it won’t be played every week – e.g. you won’t finish it and find yourself desperate to try a new strategic approach.  That said, Zombicide will stay in my collection as a fun, dirty, thematic and somewhat Ameritrashy co-operative experience that plays best with a drink in one hand, and a group of friends around you.

Zombicide, designed by Raphael Guiton, Jean Baptiste Lullien and Nicolas Raoult, was released through Cool Mini or Not in 2012. Copies are trickling out to Kickstarter backers at the moment and the game will be available through retail stores some time in the Autumn.

 

 

 

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B(l)eat Surrender – Sheepland review

The Judge returns! Everyone’s favourite gamer/pro wrestler (seriously) has been looking at beasts of an ovine nature (sheep to you and me) in one of Cranio Creations’ latest releases. Beware – this is a pun-filled extravaganza. 

Much of your first impression of Sheepland (the new strategy board game by Cranio Creations) are gained through the bold, cartoony sheep artwork, the cool looking chunky wooden ‘Sheeples’ and an early note in the very clear, full colour instruction manual – under the ‘Set-Up’ section.

The most recent player to caress a sheep is the First Player and takes the First Player token.”

So this is going to be a light, quick game – suitable for children – but with not ‘enough’ to engage the serious board gamers amongst us, right?  WRONG! Sheepland is a proper strategic and tactical challenge with some nice player interaction and a little luck.  In fact, this is one of the most thought provoking and fun thirty minutes of gaming I’ve played in ages.

Thematically, the players adopt the role of shepherds coaxing their sheep from pasture to hill to forest, towards the lands that they ‘own’ with the intention of setting up end game scoring.  The lands are split up into 5 different terrain types and each player is given a random, secret starting tile related to one of these terrains.  Each player will therefore score $1 at end game for each sheep located in that terrain type.

Going round in order from the first player (the now famous sheep caresser), each shepherd spends three action points to move around the board, laying sheep-blocking fences as they go, luring sheep from one adjacent region to another and purchasing additional scoring tiles.

Anything else? Well, the mysterious ‘Black Sheep’ (worth two points at the end of the game) randomly travels around the board via dice roll, but that’s pretty much it rules-wise.  So does very simple to understand equate to a simple game?  Like the sheep in wolf’s clothing, there is depth in them thar flocks… (too many metaphors? OK, I’ll move on.)

I herd this was good OH GOD HE’S GOT ME DOING IT NOW.

Why is this game really cool?   Well, firstly it’s very short.  The stack of 20 fence tokens is a timer – so every Shepherd movement (of which there MUST be at least one per turn) counts down towards end-game.  This heightens every move you make and allows players to control the pace of play.  Should you push the end game?  Am I in a winning position? Have I bleaten the competition? Also, as money (including starting money) means victory points, ewe have to make a judgement call every time you pay – either to buy a tile or move your shepherd.  Is it worth it?

Components are great – chunky wooden sheep shuffling across the board give an instant overview of which region is doing baaticularly well.  The brightly coloured board is also very clear and nicely designed.

Any negatives? Well, perhaps players who suffer from crippling analysis paralysis should be avoided as these seemingly simple decisions have broad ramifications – but that applies to most real life situations beyond sheep-herding board games. Sheepland will be travelling with me to all of my game nights over the next few months as a perfect filler title and it’s also something I would happily play three to four times in a row to explore different strategies.

This has flown somewhat under the radar since its release and the game deserves a big audience.  Wool you enjoy it? I certainly think so.

PLEASE NOTE: Puns are the funniest form of comedy and anyone who disagrees is wrong.

Sheepland is a Cranio Creations production and was released in 2012. Designed by Simone Luciani and Daniele Tascini, between two and four players can get involved with games taking around thirty minutes. If you’re after a copy, expect to pay between £25 and £30.

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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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