This edition of “What Did You Play This Week?” is going to be an extra inclusive, extra long edition. So everybody stretch, get some iced tea from the fridge and let’s do this.
On Independence Day my brother came over for some delicious chipotle-blueberry barbecue tofu and brought along a whole mess of board games. As they’re things that can be played, their verb qualifies them for this column. One frustrating part was that the replacement charger for the digital camera didn’t arrive in time to get pictures of the all the games, so I’m stealing a bunch of images from other reviews and linking to their blogs below. So if any of these games pique your interest, follow the links below the images to get much better reviews.
Mass Effect 2
There was no charger, but what did arrive? Mass Effect 2. Taking it out of its packaging, Kristin got ready to… wait patiently as I installed several gigs of data. But then we were ready to go… after we waited a bit longer as I made an Origin account and activated the Cerberus Network bonus content. Finally, we waited as all the DLC downloaded and installed. But then we were ready to play.
One thing that strikes you almost immediately is the vast visual improvement over the original Mass Effect. The new emphasis on keeping the player immersed smooths out a lot of the painful tutorial moments from the first game, but certain elements from the character generation process venture into the laughable. The combat has become some sort of console FPS mash-up, with an emphasis of cover based combat, reminiscent of Gears of War combined with the radially menued guns and abilities so integral to Bioshock – equipment even seems to be managed through functionally similar lockers (ME2) and weapon upgrade stations (Bioshock). The controls have gotten more complex, with most buttons having different actions associated with “press ” and “press and hold”. Guns are more in line with conventional firearms, which Kristin found to be ridiculous, but it bothered me less as I found both firearm systems equally ridiculous.
That being said, it’s not all bad, combat begins to take on a more realistic feel. The usefulness of your squad lets you tailor their strengths to the mission at hand and the ease that you can control them via the D-pad massively reduces the frustration experienced in the first game. One button enter/exit cover is well implemented and cuts out a lot of the pointless cyber-paintball mechanics from Gears of War. We wrapped up playing, when we stumbled into the plot of Blues Brothers: Cosmic Edition.
This tile-based game involves players starting on one edge of the board and taking turns to build a path in the front of their piece, trying to keep it from colliding with other players or falling off the board. It’s about planning, adaptability, and a game takes maybe 15-20 minutes long. The game is a lot of fun, with move and counter move, trap and evasion, victory and defeat. I started in on the math for how the game works, hoping to develop some sort of potential strategies and the like, but frankly after starting in on all the probabilities, I really don’t think that there are any. I think it’s you have to give your token the maximum possible number of moves and just play accordingly in a luck-driven shrinking probability space. It was a short, well fought game, but eventually Tom was able to run me off the board, while he simultaneously skated away to freedom.
The next game we played was Dominion, this one is a deck building game, where you and your opponent buy cards into your decks from the same starting point. There’s about 50 billion expansion sets, but considering it was my first time we just played the most boring vanilla version. I really enjoyed this one as it taps in to the same part of your brain as MOBA type games such as League of Legends or Dota 2. Basically the idea is this, you have pulses of resources that come in one turn at a time and the more lucky and skilled player, manages to turn that pulse into some additional resources or advantage. As the game picks up, the influx of cards and resources picks up and you’re eventually trying to “steamroll” to victory. I managed to get some cards early that let me basically sort through my deck until I found the cards I wanted, then I managed to buy some cards that gave me additional resources and actions during my turn. I was quite successful in turning a typical action phase (which is usually one card) into a chain 5 or 6 cards long. Tom took a different approach, focusing on keeping his deck tight, replacing lower value cards with a more advanced version of the same card, increasing the chances he’d pull the cards he needed, without the need to cycle through his deck. It was a well fought battle but Tom managed to squeak out a 1 point win at the last second.
King of Tokyo
Kristin then joined in the fun as the tofu baked in the oven and we played a round of King of Tokyo. This game has a Rampage-esque feel where you play as giant Japanese monsters seeking to destroy the other monsters and become the King of Tokyo. Kristin played as The Kraken, I stepped into the shoes of The Cyber Bunny and Tom chose the Meka Dragon. Where the last two games were about strategy and planning, this one was a down and dirty street fight. During the first game, I was overly aggressive and would up with far to little health to limp to any sort of victory. Kristin and Tom brawled for a little while with Tom ultimately coming out ahead. It was another short game, that had a lot of fun of a game of King of The Hill – changing alliances and strategies until one creature is hopefully left standing. I successfully wiped the bitter taste of defeat out of my mouth with mashed potatoes, sautéed beet greens, and the afore-mentioned BBQ tofu. Let me just say, it made all that losing go down a whole lot easier.
We decided to go with a second round of King of Tokyo, with Kristin and myself having a bit of an unspoken understanding between Kristin and myself that we had to stomp Tom into the ground at any cost. This round was a lot more fun, as not only did Kristin and myself have a better understanding of the rules, but also a lot of the “power-up” cards came in to play that changed the rules of the game. Tom grew an extra head, Kristin was wailing on us with an ankylosaur-style spiked tail, and my parasitic tendrils let me steal power-ups from other characters. Nevertheless, Tom managed to run out the game clock, occupying Tokyo until he had over 20 fame points, making him the de facto ruler of Tokyo. For those of you keeping track at home, this brings the score to: Tom 4 – Everybody else 0. This would have to change in the near future.
This game is weird. I knew going in to it that I was going to have a really hard time. All of the cards used in this game have some fairly abstract, well painted pictures on them. The player whose turn it is selects a card from their hand, places it face down and then names a word or phrase that is the clue for selecting that image. Then each of the other players select additional cards that approximate that theme. All the cards are placed face up and then the other players register their guesses as to which was the original card. If everybody gets it, then the clue was too specific and the player gets no points. If nobody guesses the right card, the clue was to vague and nobody gets it, also no points. If the player and only a portion of the mob achieve some sort of mental connection and guess the right card, then both parties share the points. So it’s a game of being specific without being to specific, which is that vast grey area that I’m not particularly good at exploring.
The game went along, Kristin and Tom trading points back and forth, me well bringing up the rear. Every clue I gave seemed to either be way to specific (everybody guessed, no points), what I thought was obtuse (everybody guessed, no points), or secretly encoded information that I knew only one other party knew (other person guessed, no points). I understand that this game is about art and beauty and abstract connection, but for me it was swirly stuff on paper that I apparently blurted out. Things were pretty close, but Kristin’s ability to pick the winning card almost every time gave her the slight edge to overthrow the previous board game despot. Scorecard: Tom 4, Kristin 1, Me 0.
So still smarting from exercising things like empathy and connection, we moved on to Cartagena, which is a game inspired by an actual jailbreak that occurred in 1672. That being said, the game doesn’t quite seem to capture the same mood as a pirate jailbreak, but strikes the feeling of the worlds deadliest party game/free climbing the side of a cliff face. The point of the game is to navigate your team of 6 guys through a winding tunnel to the boat at the end. Players play a card with a symbol, and move their player to the next unoccupied symbol. This allows strategy to form as occupying or not occupying various symbols lets you slow your opponent and accelerate your own guys. The only way to draw more cards is to have a unit drop back, which combined with the previous mechanic creates a good bit of push-pull between resources available and ground covered. All that being said, I didn’t much care for this one. Where all the other games gave you a better sense of controlling your own destiny, this one just encouraged you to play the best you could and hopefully you might just get the cards you’d need to pull off a win. That being said Tom won this one putting our loss counter to Me: 6, Kristin 2, Tom 1. I was the clear favorite.
The final game we wound up playing was Pandemic. Earlier, I compared Dominion to a MOBA style game. And while I’m sure it’s been done to death, I’m going to be 4,012th person to compare this game to Left 4 Dead. Rather than playing against each other, you and your friends play together against the game. Whereas L4D has the Director AI, figuring out what and when to throw things at you, the game uses the somewhat random nature of the Player and Infection decks to generate conflict and drama. One thing I’d say the game does much better than Left 4 Dead is that it offers each of the characters a special ability that helps define a subset of priorities that keeps them from butting into their teammates and makes them feel special, rather than only giving choice of gun as differentiation. You and your crack squad of disease fighters start off in Atlanta, Georgia then run around the world trying to keep various disease flare-ups from taking over. Tom was the Dispatcher, who focuses on moving the right people to the right place, Kristin was the Scientist who is the best at generating cures, and I was the Operations Expert.
A few word about the Operations Expert. His special power consists of building research stations, something that most players can do, provided they have the right card. That’s it. The other four characters can zip characters across the map willy-nilly, cure all disease in a city in one go, generate cures 25% faster, etc. I was a disease fighting carpenter. So we did our best to drag Nextel Benny across the finish line, and we wound up falling short one or two cards before the end. In spite of the handicap and playing on easy, we cleared three out of four diseases, then promptly lost. It’s a fantastic game, but based on my experiences I think I would probably just take the Operations Expert out of the deck, even if I was playing the second edition of the the game.
So for those of you keeping track, that brought me to a grand total of 7 games lost. In spite of that, I had a really great time playing all of these games. My least favorite were Cartagena and Tsuro as they had a little too much randomness and not enough skill to their gameplay. My favorite two were Dominion and Pandemic, maybe because of their close correlation with video game mechanics and that they did a better job with them than their electronic counterparts. Dixit. Well, Dixit is something really great, but I’m almost completely certain that it isn’t for me. It was Kristin’s favorite game by far, but to me it was completely alien. King of Tokyo felt to me to be on the edge of greatness. The lack of differentiation between the monsters and the lack of a guarantee that the power-ups would enter the game left it just shy of great. Tom told me that there’s an expansion pack that fixes some of these problems, giving monster specific powers that activate on certain rolls and giving themes to the powers of each monster. But we’ll have to see.
That’s it for, “What Have You Played This Week” so comment down below to let me know what you’ve been playing and any thoughts you might have.