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Storytellers – Romance of the Nine Empires and Tales of the Arabian Nights reviews

Emma returns with a two-fer, kicking ass and taking notes on AEG’s Romance of the Nine Empires and Tales of the Arabian Nights from Z-Man Games. One comes out really well! The other… less so.

RNE Cover

It’s funny how synchronicity creeps up in you sometimes. In the past few weeks, I’ve played two games involving lots of words and slightly ambiguous mechanics that see you thrust into a sprawling fantasy world of dense backstory and frequent anachronism, where you must not only fight your friends, but seek glory and adventure in order to win. The main difference is, one of them was good.

First up, Romance of the Nine Empires (R9E from here on out, since that is a surprisingly long name to type) is the new (ish) CCG-but-not from AEG, and clearly takes a lot from their other foray into the CCG market, Legend of the Five Rings (hereafter L5R, or “you know, the one that isn’t Magic”). “Newish, Emma?” you say, “It clearly says ‘15th Anniversary Edition’ on the box!” You’re right, but stop talking to my reviews. It’s weird. The truth is, this is a game based on a game in a film based on a game based on L5R, and comes bundled with all the fictional backstory it got in the film, a long-running tale of tournaments and aliens and time-displaced soldiers that lets the first edition of the physical game simultaneously be the 15th anniversary. Now, if you think this sounds needlessly convoluted and confusing, you’re basically right – the game’s (enormous) rulebook sticks to the made-up history throughout apart from one small paragraph, making any sane player wonder if there’s an older, entry-level version of the game available.

While this conceit isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker in itself (I play Risk Legacy, I love alternate history), it starts to really grate when it gets in the way of the rules – for example, in the tiny paragraph explaining ability keywords (a vital piece of information hinted at nowhere else), it states that while most keywords have no in-game meaning (fair enough), some have game-changing effects not mentioned on the cards (sigh) and some are only included to ensure compatibility with the Second Edition of the game (an edition which, I hasten to remind you, does not exist). Around this point, you start to wonder if the designers were just deliberately messing with their players, and that impression grows as you start trying to learn the game. As I touched upon earlier, the rulebook is unhelpfully written at best, but the game also comes with a simplified ‘Read This First!” booklet, designed to get you set up and playing in minutes. Allegedly. It swiftly becomes clear that this actually means ‘play a dozen fractions of an actual game over the next few days of your life while you slowly wonder why you ever decided to play this game’. And I’m not exaggerating (much): not only does the quickstart booklet contain frequent references back to the rulebook, its official stance on learning the game is that players should play five training games in a row, introducing new cards and new rules each time. And I tried to do this, I really did.

And you know how far I got? Half a game.

We started playing with the best will in the world, but the rulebook was beginning to put us off within the first turn. And then we got to the combat rules, and after a solid half-hour of staring at the rulebook, willing it to reform into actual sentences and explain what the hell “declaring immunity” actually meant, the seven decks of cards, two rulebooks at 83 billion tiny tokens were back in the box and on a train headed for Siberia. (We really need to find a new way to dispose of bad games, this is getting expensive.)

TAN Cover

The other game was…well, it wasn’t R9E, which is a massive advantage to begin with. Instead, it was the 2nd edition of Z-Man’s polarising Tales of the Arabian Nights, and, as you can probably guess if you read my introduction and can count to two, I liked it. In fact, I would go further than that – it’s easily one of my top 10 games ever. In Arabian Nights, you play characters from the titular collection of stories, ranging from the well-known (Aladdin, Sinbad) to the well-known-but-not-in-a-cartoon (Ali Baba, Scheherazade) to the ‘who?’ (Zumurrud, Ma’aruf), who travel around a beautifully-illustrated map of Asia, Africa and Europe, getting into scrapes and hoping to be the first to collect their target of Story and Destiny points (earned by getting into scrapier scrapes) before returning to Baghdad. On your turn, you move somewhere according to your wealth, draw an Encounter card to see what you’ve met, roll a dice to tell something else about it, choose what you’re going to do to/with/for/around/in response to it (hint: Drink is always the correct answer), and the person on your right with the massive set of cross-referencing tables will translate all of this into a number, which he passes to the person on your left, who reads the corresponding story segment from the Book of Tales, usually describing why what you just did was a terrible idea and giving you a range of statuses and effects, from ‘Blessed’ and ‘Magic Lamp’ to ‘Accursed’, ‘Sex-Changed’ or ‘Imprisoned’ (the latter set being far more likely). Then the next person takes their go.

If you’re thinking this sounds massively simplistic, lacking in agency, and generally a lot like old-school Choose Your Own Adventure books, you’re pretty much right on all counts. However, all of these seeming flaws are converted into fantastic qualities by the crux of the game, the Book of Tales. You start to get an idea of the book’s main attributes when you pick up the game box and are reminded that paper is actually slightly more dense than wood (seriously, that thing weighs a ton), and then you open it and are confronted by a book roughly the size of your house, but containing a lot more adventure and personality. In this edition, there are over 2600 (!) entries, ensuring a different game experience every time, and that’s definitely the right word for them – experiences. I would lay a decent amount of money that, with any game you enjoy, every counter and token has been imbued with backstory and personality by the end, and Arabian Nights takes that idea and runs with it from the start. For example, in my last game, my very first move included me throwing a man into a fire on board a ship and spending the rest of the game trying to evade the law in Adrianople (a state of affairs oddly similar to getting married in this game). Sure, you just run around the board watching weird stuff happen to you, with comparatively little effect on the outcome (largely because you chose completely the wrong skills at the start – no matter what you chose, they were wrong), and that’s simultaneously the game’s greatest flaw as a ‘game’ and its biggest feature as an experience. Hardcore gamers might balk, but if the idea of getting a few friends together to go on surprising adventures and laugh/weep/swear at your horrible, horrible luck appeals to you, you need to play this game.

Like seriously.

Romance of the Nine Empires was designed by Mark Wooton and released by AEG in 2013 (not 1998). A new expansion, Arcane Fire, has just been released. Meanwhile, Z-Man Games’ Tales of the Arabian Nights is an Anthony J. Gallela (amongst others) design which was first put out in 2009. We leave it to you to decide which one you’d prefer!

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Good Morning Sunshine – Carcassonne: South Seas review

CarcSS Cover

The Judge checks out a new version of one of the pillars of modern gaming… but does it sink or swim?

Ah, Carcassonne! Like an old friend, we welcome you back to the table. Yes, you have a few flaws, and some of your mechanisms seem a little clunky now, and your vast array of expansions makes you bloated and difficult… Ummmm… Tell me again why we still like you?

Carcassonne is often cited as a gateway game, in so much as its simple tile-laying mechanisms and jolly looking artwork provide a low barrier to entry for newer players into the hobby. There will be no overview of the base game here, as I would imagine most readers of this are at least familiar with the concept and if not – stop reading this, play a game of basic Carc and come back.

[Please take this time to go and have a quick game of Carcassonne should the mood take you. You’ll enjoy it! – Michael]

Right, we’re all on the same page now. Hopefully you enjoyed placing your tiles to make long winding roads and sprawling cities. Hopefully you took pleasure from judicially playing your Meeples to capture points. And you almost certainly were disappointed when the game inevitably came down to the player who best understood and exploited the rather obtuse and unintuitive Farmer rules.

You see, Carc is great, but the points that the Farmers generate is almost always SUCH a big deal in the final scoring that it can make much of the game seem redundant. The expansions tweak this, and add more options, and many, many more ways to score – but in doing so, it adds extra complexity and cost to the base game which takes it away from being that gateway experience.

Put the lime in the coconut and break out South Seas!

Put the lime in the coconut and break out South Seas!

Enter Carcassonne: South Seas. Firstly, though the visual style is completely different (and the attractive tile art does capture that feeling of building a tropical paradise) we are comfortably in familiar territory here – though not in medieval France. Roads and pathways are built. Islands are constructed. Areas of water (instead of farms) feature Meeples happily backstroking along. The key difference – and massive improvement in my eye – is the scoring method.

So firstly, we’re gathering resources. Each finished road generates a number of shells indicated by iconography on the tiles. Finished islands offer bananas and there are fish in the water (obviously). Enclosed sea areas provide fish for the Meeple in that area. Also, any boat icon that is placed in the same water space instantly scores fish, and returns the Meeple as well.

At the end of your turn, you can ship those resources out by claiming a boat token (four of which are always face up on the table) for the points they offer. Churches (or cloisters) are replaced by market tiles which, when surrounded by other tiles, allow you to score a boat token of your choice. At the end of the game, you get 1 extra point per 3 resources that you are yet to spend.

And that’s it! Simple as that. No convoluted maths. No complex farmer scoring. Just total up the points on your boats and the highest score wins.

The pieces in South Seas are lovely. Beyond the aforementioned tiles, there are nice, tactile wooden shells, fish and bananas to grab when you claim the appropriate resources. Iconography is clear, simple and visible from the other side of the table. Everything is crafted to make it a pleasurable experience to play – and it is.

South Seas – part of the ongoing ‘Carcassonne Around The World’ series – reboots the original base game and would now be my ‘go-to’ perhaps even before Ticket to Ride, to introduce non or newer gamers to our lovely hobby, and for the grizzled veterans amongst us, this provides the best type of nostalgia. In fixing the scoring and diffusing Carc down to its purest elements, South Seas is a great time, in less than 40 minutes, that plays really well for between three and five players.

Designed by Klaus Jurgen Wrede and based on the multiple award winning original, Carcassonne: South Seas is available now! Get yourself a copy from Gameslore for £23, then be sure to follow Stuart “The Judge” Platt on Twitter as well!

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Episode 68 – Essen 2013 Day Zero – The Show Before The Show!

In something of a turn against what I’m used to when attending events in the UK, security at the Messe for Spiel 2013 were utterly delightful and allowed me access to the show floor before it opened to the public. This first episode of the Essen 2013 Specials is a compilation of interviews from the world’s biggest games show on the final set-up day. A quick apology – my mic was playing up throughout the day so the sound is somewhat fuzzy but I hope that the quality shines through!

Links…

Direct Download – http://littlemetaldog.podbean.com/mf/web/wxzh7/LMD_Episode68.mp3 (also available through iTunes, of course)

Dennis and Rainier from TF-22 – http://www.tf22.de/

From Japon Brand we have Simon Lundstrom and Seiji Kanai (Seiji Kanai!) – http://japonbrand.gamers-jp.com/

Ludicreations’ own Iraklis – http://ludicreations.com/

Konstaninos Kokkonis from Artipia Games – http://www.artipiagames.com/

The Z-Man himself, Zev Shlasinger – http://zmangames.com/home.php

Designer of CV from Granna, Filip Mulinski – http://www.granna.pl

Owner of MAGE Company, Alexander Agrypolous – http://www.magecompany.com/

R&R Games owner Frank talks about their new games – http://www.rnrgames.com/

The Portal Legend! Ignacy Trzewik – http://portalgames.pl/en/

One episode down, three (possibly four!) to go…

 

http://zmangames.com/home.php

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Love Machine – Neuroshima Hex review

I finally got my hands on a copy of Neuroshima Hex a few weeks ago and was pretty shocked to discover that it was originally released way back in 2006. Based on the long running Polish RPG Neuroshima, it’s set in a post-apocalyptic world where technology has run amuck leaving humanity trying to live from day to day while avoiding the murderous machines. Think of it a bit like Terminator mixed in with Mad Max and you’ll get the picture.

Neuroshima Hex is a war game abstracted into the extreme where up to four factions strive to defend their HQ for as long as possible while still being as aggressive as possible. The different armies each have their own abilities and skills, The Outpost being the last of the good guys, attempting to keep humanity going through guerrilla attacks. The Hegemony are their flipside, valuing strength and throwing themselves into close combat as they struggle for power. Moloch, the big bad of the piece, is the machine based army responsible for wiping out most of humanity and looking to finish the job, while Borgo is the leader of their mutant offspring that wants to grab power for itself.

Each player begins with a stack of hexagonal tiles, taking their HQ piece and placing it on the board which is made up of nineteen hexes. Around the outside of the board numbers count down from 20, representing the “health” of your base – should this hit zero, you’re out. At the start of each turn, a player draws three tiles from their stack and must immediately discard one. You may then play them or hold on to them for a future turn, but the most you’ll ever have available to you is two per turn.

There are two different overall types of tile – Units and Actions. Units are the ones that will fight on your behalf. All you need to do is place them on the board and wait… Looking through the tiles in your army, you’ll notice that there’s a fair few symbols to get your head around but don’t fear; you’ll understand them pretty quickly. Attacking will either be melee (signified by a short, stumpy triangle) or ranged (a much longer, thinner one). If you see a net on your tile, it immediately stops any tile the net is pointing to from doing anything. A cross means that your unit has toughness and can take more than the usual one hit. There are even some tiles that bestow boosts to adjacent units, but there’s one thing you really need to pay attention to: the all-important Initiative number.

Every unit that’s able to attack has an Initiative rating and once the fighting starts you’ll see how important it is to consider them. Working from the highest number downwards, all units will attack at the same time – all 3s could go first, then 2s and so on until you get to the bases which are ranked at 0. After each Initiative phase, any units that are destroyed are removed from the board immediately – see why you have to pay attention now? A poor placement could mean that your well prepared plan falls apart in no time at all…

The Actions are much simpler to get your head around, being that they’re one off events that you trigger by discarding the tile. Some are unique, but most of the time you’ll see actions that allow you to move units, push them back or – most important of all – start battles. Throwing one of those into the mix will set off the chain of events that will see countless tiles on the board getting removed. You can also start a battle by filling the board up, so don’t get too attached to any units as it’ll be rare that they’ll actually last more than a few turns!

Artistic! (Photo by blakstar from BGG)

Depending on how many people you play with, Neuroshima Hex can feel like totally different games. With two it’s filled with tense, almost chess-like decisions and small moves; everything feels significant and you’re constantly looking for a chink in your opponent’s armour. Three and four player games are much more chaotic and are often joyously ridiculous – when you see that battle tile get flipped and all of a sudden fourteen tiles immediately disappear from the board, you’ll break down into fits of laughter more often than not.

This latest edition has space on the board for the placement of more tiles (perfect if you’re looking to introduce a fifth or even sixth player into the mix – there are expansions that allow for this) and rules for setting up scenarios. There’s a vibrant community online who create whole new groups and set-ups for other players to experience, so be sure to check them out. The game is nicely produced – the only minor downside is that I’d say the art on the tiles is functional rather than gorgeous, but in all honesty you’ll be concentrating on the icons more than anything else. Every faction also gets its own player board detailing exactly what tiles they’ll be getting which is very useful indeed.

Despite being really easy to get into, I have a feeling that Neuroshima Hex isn’t a game for everybody. When there are a lot of tiles in play it can become something of a brain burner as you attempt to work out exactly what Initiative level each unit is at and in what order things will happen on the board. You really need to think ahead as much as you can, reacting to what the other players are up to and thinking as tactically as possible, so if you enjoy that kind of game experience I’d thoroughly recommend it. Just don’t sit around the table to this one if you know the kind of people who get riled when their long-planned strategy doesn’t pay off! You may well see a table get flipped…

Neuroshima Hex was designed by Michal Oracz and works with between two and four players. The English language version is published by Z-Man Games while Portal handle the original Polish version. Games will take a maximum of an hour (and are way shorter with only two players). If you fancy a copy, get on over to Gameslore where you can pick one up for £32.99.

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That Woman’s Got Me Drinking – Vinhos review

For a man so adept at handing out six-packs of whoop-ass, The Judge has a lot of time for some pretty hardcore Euros. Stuart Platt steps up once again to discuss Vinhos, a game of wine production through the medium of cube pushing…

Vinhos has a reputation amongst even established and grizzled Euro-gamers as somewhat of a monster to learn and teach.  Yes, this game is not short of mechanisms.  Yes, this does feel, at times, that you are simultaneously playing 3 pretty weighty cube shufflers as if you were a grand-master level chess player.  Ahhh, but once you get up to speed and the variety of interlocking gears begin to make sense, you reveal a challenging, competitive and exciting journey into Portuguese wine production.

This will NOT be a detailed breakdown of the rules – as the required length would be dull, dry and would eat up poor Mr. Fox’s bandwidth in no time.  Instead, I refer you to a very good Geeklist at BGG – http://boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/59669/vinhos-how-to-play-list – which helped me get a good grip on things from a rules perspective.  My article is all about why Vinhos is worth the considerable investment of time and effort to learn and explore the game.

So, we’re wine producers based in Portugal (hence ‘Vinhos’) and over the space of six years / turns (making just twelve actions in total) we will produce wine, selling it both locally and to export markets. We then present the best of our wares at Wine Shows to generate money and, ultimately, victory points.  The most points after the third show wins the game.

Gameplay is based around the movement of your action pawn around a 3 x 3 grid, with each space providing a different aspect of the process. It could be selling goods, enlisting experts or production – to increase the quantity, quality and therefore value of your wines as they are generated each turn. Placement of player’s pawns and the turn marker as it moves around the grid affect your move.  Nothing is blocked, but it costs money (given to the player who’s in your way) when moving to an action that is already occupied.  In addition, moving more than one space on the grid costs you as well. These deterrents don’t sound like much, but they WILL change your decisions – in Vinhos, money is pretty tight and is not to be wasted.

The game is full of difficulties.  This isn’t a negative, these are difficulties in the same manner as having to feed your family in Agricola – it’s all part of the game.  Reflecting life, one of these is dealing with the bank.  When you sell goods, the money is transferred to your bank account.  The more in your account at game end, the more Victory Points you gain.  Great!  However, you need cash in hand to do anything – so you have to spend an action doing banking!  Your twelve actions throughout the entire game are precious.  Having to spend AN ENTIRE ACTION at the cashpoint can be a killer but you’ll probably have to do it, and you have to plan for it, and hope that others don’t do it when you need to.

This is the end of a two-player game. TWO players. It looks like you need to buy a second table if you have three or more…

I haven’t even mentioned the mini-games that involve exporting & investing, let alone the Wine Show mechanism could easily be a game unto itself. It involves comparing your selected produce against specific requirements of the judges to generate bonuses, get Victory Points and unlock special abilities.

So there’s a lot going on – but does it all work together, and is it fun?  To answer that properly, I will compare it to another heavy Euro I recently played called Pret a Portér [which I’ve reviewed here – Michael]. On a surface level, it’s pretty similar.  Both have unconventional themes (Wine / Fashion), both involve a fair amount of cube and chit shuffling, and both have a ‘show’ format for which you need to produce and prepare.  Except I found that Porter was painfully dull; it was the most transparent example of cube pushing for cube pushing’s sake that I have ever played.  That theme felt tacked on and abstract.  All the disparate mechanisms felt completely separate and disconnected from the main game.  The flip side of that coin is Vinhos.  Even though there is a huge amount going on, once you get past a 30 minute rules introduction all of the elements fit together because – both mechanically and thematically – the game makes sense.

Like Agricola (which I consider the perfect example of theme teaching the game as you play – “why do these white cubes multiply at the end phase? Oh, they’re breeding sheep”) all of the elements work together.  You buy vineyards to produce more wine.  Wineries are built and enologists are hired to make the wine better etc.  Ryan Sturm (our fellow Dice Tower Network member) presented an excellent piece on using schemata to teach games some time ago – and he could easily have been talking about the learning process in Vinhos.  The game realises there is a lot to get through and the theme makes that process a thousand times easier.

In terms of gameplay, Vinhos is a triumph. I found that each game is filled with ‘O.K, I’d do THIS differently next time’ moments.  Even as a relative newbie, when you find yourself in the pits of despair as you’ve miscounted your money and you feel like you’re wasting one of those oh so precious turns, you also feel like you’ve learned – and you’ll have fun doing it.

So get past any pre-concepted notions that this will be a dry, humourless experience.  Take my advice, buy yourself a good vintage, pop the cork and sit down to a cultured, full-flavoured gaming experience that is Vinhos.

Vinhos is a Z-Man Games release from 2010. Designed by Vital Lacerda, between two and four players can attempt to conquer the world of wine in around two to three hours. If you’d like a copy, it’ll set you back around £35 from the good folks at Gameslore.

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