Sunday, 17 June 2018

A board game catch-up

My home town of Colchester recently opened its first-ever board game cafe, Dice and a Slice, which allows people to try out board games whilst drinking copious amounts of tea or coffee with food. This has provided me with a fine way of trying out lots of board games without having to spend hundreds of pounds, which has been very handy. So here's a look at some of the games I've tried out recently:

Barbarians: The Invasion
Tabula Games

Barbarians: The Invasion can be best described as a death metal version of Settlers of Catan. Each player controls a tribe of barbarians competing for resources (such as iron, treasure and wood) which they can use to muster troops to pillage and ransack nearby civilised kingdoms. The tribes never fight one another, instead competing in a friendly manner to see who can cause the most murder, death and mayhem among civilised folk. Technically it's possible to win by going for economic bonuses, but the victory points you amass from this approach are minuscule compared to those resulting from carnage.

The game's big selling point is the volcano, a three-dimensional model of which accompanies the game. Each player places a figure on each ring of the volcano which determines which actions they are going to to attempt that turn. They can only place figures in a certain linked relationship to the first figure, meaning each player has to carefully plan where they are going to place their figures and what they can do to disrupt their rivals' objectives. In a nice twist, players can sometimes spin the levels of the volcano to throw enemies onto unwanted paths or achieve better outcomes. Each tribe can also build structures for bonuses, worship gods for more benefits and employ a chief with certain skills. If a tribe tires of a chief, they can sacrifice him to the volcano to get even more stuff.

After each go, the players have to either 1) appease a demon who will otherwise rain hellfire down on the tribe in its furious wrath, or 2) go to the pub and chill.

Barbarians: The Invasion is a flat-out insane game which is over-engineered past the point of lunacy and won't use one token when it can use fifteen and three cards instead. I certainly wouldn't recommend buying it - it's very expensive and fiddly - but I'd be happy to play it again if someone busted it out on a games night. Despite its intimidating size, it's a relatively fast and fun game, and worthwhile for someone who likes Settlers of Catan but feels it would be improved by having demons periodically show up.

Survive: Escape from Atlantis
Stronghold Games

Survive: Escape from Atlantis is a reprint of a game that I received as a Christmas present about thirty years ago. It's a very straightforward, fast-paced and fun game. Each player controls a tribe of refugees who are trying to escape from the island of Atlantis before it disintegrates completely. They have to escape by boat to nearby, secure islands, dodging sea monsters along the way.

It's a great game which can be surprisingly ruthless, with players unable to harm one another but they can very easily screw one another over by smashing their boats, or stealing a boat out from under the eyes of another player and so on. It may be the most fun passive-aggressive game ever made.

Taken on its own merits, this edition of the game is very enjoyable and a lot of fun. When you compare it to previous editions, particularly the 1980s original version, it does start to feel a bit skimpy. The original Escape from Atlantis had very well-detailed 3D plastic island pieces and a larger variety of sea creatures (including dolphins and octopuses) as well as allowing for more players. Survive replaces the plastic pieces with flat cardboard hexagons which feels and looks a lot cheaper. It also pulls out the dolphins and octopuses and puts them in an expansion, along with the pieces necessary to take the game to six players, which definitely feels like a price-gouging move given that this is a perfect party game or a game to play with younger players.

If you can overlook this slight cheapness (and to be fair the game is a lot more environmentally-friendly and it is a lot less expensive than other board games), this is a fun, enjoyable game.

The War of the Ring
Ares Games

The War of the Ring is, obviously, a game based on J.R.R. Tolkien's novels. The game attempts to retell the entire story of the War of the Ring, with one player taking command of the free nations (Gondor, Rohan, Dwarves, Elves, the North/Shire and the Fellowship of the Ring) and the other taking command of the forces of evil (Mordor, Isengard and Rhun/Harad).

Both sides are looking to score victory points, the easiest way of acquiring such is by conquering strongholds and cities, which is rather easier for the bad guys (whose armies are huge and regenerate after battle) than the good guys (whose armies are smaller and cannot be replenished once their initial forces and reinforcement pool have been depleted). Complicating things further is that the "good guys" are not a monolithic bloc and at the start of the game are actually very reluctant to go into open war against Sauron. Instead the good player has to expend diplomacy actions to bring the various factions into battle, which is easier said than done.

The trump card for the good player is the Fellowship. Each turn the good player can move the Fellowship secretly closer to Mordor with a very clever hidden movement mechanic. The evil player can expend resources to search for the Ring, but these are resources which will not be available for battles elsewhere. If the evil player does nothing, the Fellowship will eventually reach Mount Doom and destroy the Ring and thus Sauron, winning the game no matter how many victory points the evil player has amassed.

This gives rise to an interesting asymmetric game of choice and consequence. Both players have to decide how much effort to expand on either moving the Fellowship or hunting them down, as the actions expanded on this may also be sorely needed to move reinforcements to Helm's Deep or Minas Tirith, or rally the elves of the Grey Havens to reinforce the Shire against an orc army out of Angmar. This is all somewhat familiar, and indeed a similar system was later used by Fantasy Flight Games for the excellent Star Wars: Rebellion.

There is additional complexity to the game as well: both players have access to Characters (aka "Leaders" as seen in Rebellion) who have powerful abilities. Gimli can rally the Dwarves - arguably the good faction least likely to get involved in the war - to battle, whilst both Strider and Gandalf the Grey can level up (to Aragorn and Gandalf the White, respectively), becoming more powerful and adding new abilities to the fray. Evil has access to characters like Wormtongue, who can effectively paralyse Rohan with his poisoning of the king's ear, and the Witch-King of Angmar, who is a powerful general and opponent, but whose very arrival will rally all of the neutral nations to war.

The War of the Ring is a long and deep game, and I wouldn't want to review it further until I have a few more games under my belt. But so far it's a fascinating game with a lot of different strategies, presented with phenomenal artwork and amazingly detailed miniatures. The main negatives I'd say so far is that the miniatures need to be much more clearly differentiated from one another: finding a reinforcement unit for a particular nation in the heat of the moment can be far too difficult.

Memoir 44
Days of Wonder

I've spoken previously of my enduring enjoyment of Axis & Allies, which tackles WWII from a grand strategy perspective. Memoir 44 takes the opposite approach, tackling a single battle from the conflict at a time. Each battle has different terrain, objectives and forces available to both sides, both in terms of units (usually infantry, tanks and artillery) and command cards.

Memoir 44 uses the "command and colours" system used by Battlecry, Battlelore and numerous other titles, and is very simple. On each turn, each player can play a single card. This card will allow for a certain number of units to be moved in a certain part of the battlefield (either of the flanks or in the centre), usually allowing them to move and attack. For each enemy unit completely destroyed, the winner gains a victory point. Depending on the scenario, 4 to 6 points are needed to win. Additional points can be gained from seizing and holding strategically important chokepoints on the map, like villages or bridges.

The result is a game of strategic punch and counter-punch, with units taking damage and pulling back (to avoid total destruction and giving the enemy a victory point), or sometimes brave charges being mounted to allow your troops to rush into pointblank range to inflict heavier damage on the enemy. The focus here is a fast-moving game - the game has a faster turn-around than almost any other modern board I've played - where you can get battles done in under 20 minutes. The game is so fast to set up and comes with so many battle scenarios that you'll find yourself usually playing 3-4 battles in a single session, and you can string your battles together into campaigns.

Memoir 44 hits that sweet spot of being both streamlined and elegant, but allowing for an immense amount of complexity and depth (resembling that other Days of Wonder classic, Ticket to Ride). There are enormous numbers of expansions for theatres like North Africa and Russia (availability is spotty at the moment, though, with even the base game out of stock on Amazon UK but still available in shops) and optional rules for aerial bombardment and naval assaults, but generally speaking the game is fast, fluid and easy to understand, whilst being tricky to fully master. In that sense, it's the perfect board game, and definitely one of the strongest games I've played.

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vacuouswastrel said...

Ahh, Escape from Atlantis. It's simple and repetitive, but still surprisingly fun - and yes, wonderfully passive-aggressive. (partly because there's a lot more threatening-to-kill-the-other-player's-pieces than there is actually killing-the-other-player's pieces). From my experiences with a young relative: it continues to entertain the youth of today. It's deep enough to be slightly different each time and allow a bit of strategy, but not so deep it actually requires serious thought or time.

I note, though, that you've got your board there set up the way we usually set it up - i.e. against the rules. At least in the original, the rules specify that the island has to be built up regularly in concentric circles of beach, forest, mountain, and central peak. But we never play like that - it's more fun to have it a little more random (and if you let people take turns placing the land pieces, it adds another level of strategy).

MrSquiggles said...

Very cool. Bravo Colchester!