Quinns: Today I’d like to welcome a relative newcomer to the news, it’s SU&SD’s own Matt Lees. Matt, please climb up from under the news desk.
Matt: I’d really rather stay under here, Quinns – it’s cold up there and I’m ever so toasty in my nest of chewed-up Netrunner cards.
Quinns: If you won’t come to the news, then the news will COME TO YOU
Matt: Please stop inserting stories into my mouth and face, I’ll do the news I’ll do it I will
The first of today’s news items that have been rudely placed into my mouth – it’s an expansion for Detective: L.A. Crimes! I personally poked a bit of fun about the extensively *detailed* descriptions in Detective back on podcast #83, but aside from the frankly bizarre fixation on how many corridors are being walked down and what the police are having for lunch, there’s something undeniably cool about the formula. L.A. promises profanity, palm trees, and morally-questionable activities to take part in. And so does the expansion!
The appeal of being a naughty 1980s cop is strong enough to re-pique my interest in Detective – in this setting it feels far less ridiculous to suggest that the police force runs on salad and coke.
Quinns: An expansion for Geoff Engelstein’s The Expanse board game is on the way! Doors and Corners will add five new modules to the game of area control and intellectual property-embiggenment, including Leaders, New Tech, and the haunting Protomolecule.
Will this finally convince us to play The Expanse Board Game, which is supposedly quite good but also a dismal example of Wizkids’ half-assed art direction and product design? Only time will tell.
Matt: Gosh I wish this one wasn’t a Wizkids production – I’m a gigantic fan of the TV show, and while the early episodes of the show were notably wonky, it’s really grown into something remarkably slick.
Quinns: Isn’t the show ace? I think I love every character except for Jim Holden, who is like Jon Snow on methadone. Maybe he’s better in the books?
Matt: THE BEARS ARE LOOSE, I REPEAT: THE BEARS ARE LOOSE. Everybody tried to warn Doctor HuffenBärer that the idea of a park full of bears was mad folly – there’s no way to physically contain a bear, bears are one hundred times stronger than humans, and bears do not adhere to the laws of physics. HuffenBärer’s ‘Prime Hypothesis’ implied that keeping different types of bears in separate enclosures might dampen the overall reach of their powers, but this was proven false in 1998 when his “Bärenpark” collapsed, leaving the Southern Hemisphere of the world under the vicious reign of bear we know today.
Continuing the cardboard re-enactment of this woeful saga within human history, ‘Die Grizzlies sind los!’ is the expansion to the utterly fabulous Bärenpark – a simple and deeply satisfying tile-placement game that wholly fails to depict the gross hubris and horror of Dr. HuffenBärer’s folly.
The expansion adds new objective cards, as well as a brand new type of bear called a “Grizzly Bear” that takes up a lot of room and isn’t super-friendly. Cramming in additional hairy things means that parks can also now be a whole tile bigger, and, terrifyingly for people like me who love the idea of additional complexity but tend to unravel when faced with it, you can build monorails around your park, providing you’ve placed concrete pillars appropriately. As a man who’s yet to play a game of NMBR 9 that hasn’t involved a moment where I physically scream, I’m both delighted by this and absolutely petrified.
Quinns: Being a boring man with a framed certificate in Boring, I’m more excited by this expansion’s fifth bare tile than I am for the actual bears. I personally felt that Barenpark ended just a tiny bit early. Making players fill up five park tiles instead of four should be perfect.
Quinns: The announcement of Patchwork Doodle caught my eye this week. It seems like a monument to the year 2018- a Tetris-powered roll’n’write based on Uwe Rosenberg’s smash hit Patchwork, it’s riding the zeitgeist as hard as that little metaphorical pony can go.
Players in Patchwork Doodle will take turns picking an awkward polyomino, and then everyone will have to draw that shape onto their sheet. But wait, there’s (a tiny bit) more! Players also have three skills that they can use in the game, such as slicing polyominos in half or REBELLING and drawing a completely different shape than the one they were assigned.
I tease, but I’d play the heck out of this. Oh, and speaking of roll-n-writes, if you fancy some free entertainment then definitely check out the winners of this year’s global roll-n-write game jam, all of which are available as print-n-plays. Instead of buying a board game this week, why not download a variety of free, autumn-themed games?
…And speaking of that game jam, and also tetris-powered roll-and-writes, I’ve just seen that the winner of the jam got sent a copy of Tag City, a graffiti-themed roll’n’write that got released at Essen. Look at it! I’d playtest the heck out of this. (Are you reading this, Runes Editions? Can we have a copy?)
Up next is YET MORE GOOD-LOOKIN’ KICKSTARTERS. Oh my goodness. Is the perceived wisdom that it’s best to launch your project in November? Or have the stars merely aligned into a stellar simulacra of the Kickstarter logo?
Matt: With a pitch video so cheesy that my eyes are now brie, CMON are Kickstarting Project: ELITE – their new edition of the 2016 cult hit (seen here). Players work together to “kill aliens” by rolling dice and taking actions in real-time for a hot two minutes, after which point the aliens retaliate and hopefully everyone important survives.
The aesthetic improvement in this edition is wild, transforming basic art design and gloopy-lookin’ miniatures into a box that gleams with gunmetal and pulp sci-fi nostalgia. The one rule here that pops off the page here is that every time you roll a dice there’s a one in six chance it will activate an alien that you’ll then have to move a bit closer to its objective, and then presumably briefly argue later about WHO MOVED THIS BIG GUY RIGHT NEXT TO ME, HELP
The first game was a straightforward mix of worker placement and dice combat, but with this second game in the series, I have no idea what I’m looking at. It’s certainly a much more ambitious box. Players battle monsters, as before, but also lay waste to farms, towers and walls, collect a variety of upgrades for their personal longboat, and finally there are Reavers, special hero cards which can be deployed in a variety of ways.
Quinns: We liked Champions of Midgard as a breezy game of chucking dice. Reavers is set to make it less breezy and less dice-chucky. I don’t know what to think!
Matt: Kids love to reave Quinns, it’s all about Reavin’ in 2018. Speaking of which, “travel the world and do awful deeds” is the first line of text I read from today’s final hyperlink, whispering straight into the cracks in my soul. Thousand Year Old Vampire: A Roleplaying Game is designed to be played alone, be can be played with other humans.
Fascinatingly, the core of the game is all about memories – you answer prompts that the game gives you, and the answers to these questions then fill up your diary. But, as with real life, you can only ever have FIVE memories. As new things happen, you forget who you were, what you did, what toast tasted like, and the literal meaning of the word “rollercoaster”.
It’s a brilliant premise, and very cool to see horror as the foundation for a focus on loneliness, senility, and literally being an ancient vampire – three topics to which I can personally relate. Will you hold dear your grasp on what it means to be human, or will you eat the face of a stranger whilst haunted by the extended works of Boney M? “Things will go terribly wrong in ways you could never predict”, calmly explains the Kickstarter page – bringing us neatly to our final point of order:
The Champion of the Wild is the most fun we’ve had all month. How will an ibex fare versus a shed? How far can a beetle travel down a slip-n-slide? Literally nobody knows, but it’s up to your friends to guess, and your fate is in their hands.
Fair warning: This is a small-press indie game, and stocks are low! You can order the game direct from the above link (which should have the best international shipping rates), as well as from these UK retailers.
Bolds: Moving to live in a new place is stressful, nigh on terrifying. A place where the faucets turn differently, the light switches are in odd places, and your bed faces a wholly new wall.
Well, GET READY, because Betrayal Legacy is a game about moving into a new house over and over, forever, without end. A new house where the portraits leak blood, the attic is infested with gremlins, and even the ghosts have skeletons in their spectral closets.
In this game, players take on the role of families drawn to this terrible, supernatural house. Over 14 games, spanning time from 1666 to 2004, generations of this family will uncover the terrible truth of that place.
It’s a promising setup for a Legacy game, where each new play will add or destroy cards, have you writing on the board, and make other permanent changes to the components. Like a good series of horror movies, each game has thematic ties to the last without burdening itself in consistent characterization or elaborate mythology—though it does eventually build to a dramatic conclusion.
This is not a wholly new game. It’s a smoothed over, mechanically unified version ofBetrayal at House on the Hill. It has improvements that make it far more appealing than the original game—better rules formatting and layout foremost among them.
On your turn you’ll move your character through the house, exploring and adding new locations to this sprawling mansion. As you do this you’ll delve into thick decks of cards to pick up helpful items or encounter haunted house stuff. (Not so much scary as surprising and gross, it has everything you’d expect from pulp horror: Puddles of effluent, terrible beasts, cackling devils, and indelicate depictions of mental health.) Items and events increase or decrease your character’s stats, like Sanity or Might, which are rolled as a pool of funny dice to resolve events and, more excitingly, conflicts between players.
Because eventually enough of the house’s Omen tiles will be explored that you trigger the “Haunt”. See, halfway through the game the rules will dramatically change: Generally, one player will become the traitor. That player will retire to a different room (in your actual, real-life house) with a special rulebook called the Traitor’s Tome, detailing what has gone terribly wrong this time. The other players will crack open the Secrets of Survival to read about how to make it out of the house alive.
Betrayal is one of the best, weirdest games there is for telling a horror story. The slow and spooky exploration is all preparatory, but it establishes a bespoke setup for the Haunt each time. Will the murderer strike out from the basement? Will there be an entire cult lying in the attic crawlspace? Any one of the other players could be the villain… so should you stick close to your friend, or stay as far away from her as possible? Will the arsenal of items you’ve collected aid you in defeating the traitor or speed you on your way to slaughtering your loved ones?
The game’s legacy elements are as good as any I’ve ever seen. They focus mostly on the story, adding an overarching narrative to the game and filling its piles of cards and rooms with new twists. The fun bits of narration, a whole book called The Bleak Journal and the read-aloud stories on cards, are genuinely entertaining, although some ring hollow because of how the story is structured. Clever mechanics work around the game’s ubiquitous deaths, making rooms in the house more memorable than they might otherwise be. The game’s event cards change and twist over time, adding some spice to yet another puddle of blood or spooky figure half-glimpsed. One of the most enjoyable bits is making items into heirlooms, where players claim an item so it’s more powerful for their family in future games. It’s not just a rifle, it’s Lil’ Johnny Benedict’s Rifle, remember, from the Haunt where I stood on the porch and shot you in the parlor?
None of those twists are as significant as mid-play rules changes we’ve seen in other legacy board games, but this rightly leaves the Haunts themselves in the limelight. There’s a greater frequency of cooperative or free for all Haunts where there is no proper traitor at all, or where the traitor is a secret, which is a very welcome change. A few genuinely new things pop up—the exterior of the house is finally in play, with its own weird locations, and inhabitants of the house other than the players can exist before the Haunt occurs. The game you start your Legacy campaign with is mechanically much the same as the game you end with, though sprawling and bloated by tens of new cards and rooms and objects. And that’s good! A common complaint with some of the last few legacy titles is that they aren’t enough of a game to be good the first few plays.
It’s because of that structure this might be the first legacy game I’m actually excited to continue owning after I’m done with it. Past legacy games have advertised your own unique copy at the end as a feature, but this is the first one I’ve actually believed that claim for. It’s genuinely exciting to know that having finished the campaign I’ve seen less than a third of the scenarios that come with the game—many of which don’t appear in any version of the campaign. I know I’m going to get rid of my copy of original Betrayal and just keep my copy of Legacy—that’s my new go-to when I want to play this game.
Oh, dear, but I’ve stepped on an Omen sentence with that last one. Let me just roll the Haunt dice… okay, that triggers the Haunt… turn to page 86 in the Bleak Journal… yep… I should have expected this.
It’s Haunt 66, the mid-review turnaround.
Sometimes it’s hard to want to play this game.
Sure, Betrayal Legacy does go to lengths to fix some of Betrayal’s worst excesses. Haunts are much easier to actually implement, with clear rules for what you should and shouldn’t share with others as you play them, and there are example Haunts to easily reference if you’re confused by any rules.
Sometimes Betrayal is great, but like a stranger with a machete, you’re sometimes left asking why you invited this guy to your beach party? Because sometimes he’s just going to start killing your friends, which, believe you me, really ruins the mood. Not everyone is going to be comfortable with Betrayal’s fast and loose attitude towards player elimination.
Also, Betrayal Legacy still has whatQuinns once describedas “the most dickheaded dice in all of board gaming.” It still has those horrible little clips that go on the edge of the character cards and will inevitably slip around, or tear the crap out of the cardboard, or both.
It still feels like you’re searching for the coherent board game you’re pretty sure should be in the box somewhere… Until, suddenly, a slimy tentacle of a game rears up out of the Haunt books and slaps you with an experience that might be precisely what you were looking for, or it might not. In addition to this, the Haunt phase can—and will—draw out for thirty minutes beyond what it should, and sometimes end in victory before a single full round passes.
That early exploration, where you build a house and encounter spooky things, can be really fun. You’re opening up a bag of horrors, thrusting your hand in, and seeing what you get. Oh no! A horrible glow from cracks in reality! Hurray, a warm fireplace! But sometimes you’ve made a bunch of choices and rolled a load of dice and gotten nothing fun in return. A series of card draws just pushes you out of the game, and by the time the Haunt starts you’re doomed to failure—unable to even meaningfully participate in the game’s finale, despite doing everything right. That’s a risk you run playing Betrayal Legacy, and it might leave a very bitter taste in your mouth.
In other words, Betrayal Legacy is still a festival of random chance mediated by small choices that frequently mean nothing, and of low-key exploration punctuated by surprises, some explosive, some a disappointing fizzle. It’s a continual illusion, giving you glimpses of how this could have been the perfect game if something had just gone a little differently. It’s a kind of gambling that makes me want to keep pulling the lever just to see what combination of awful it spits out next. It’s a game haunted by itself.
Though I can’t stress enough that Legacy is much improved over the original game, it’s also more expensive, and still carries so many of the original game’s problems. It’s one of the most odd and rough-hewn games of its size in board gaming, not sure whether it’s a storytelling engine or a truly competitive experience, it ends up somewhere uncomfortably in the middle of the two. There are lots of jagged edges. Betrayal Legacy makes the bold decision to embrace those bits, knowing full well the gaping wounds it’s going to come away with.
Betrayal fills a unique niche, especially now that it has a legacy component to it. There’s no single game I can recommend over it that gives the same experience with the same theme and mechanics—but there are games that replicate parts of it. Those looking for sprawling adventure campaign with cool fights will probably be better served byGloomhaven. Those looking for one-versus-many horror will probably likeWhitehall MysteryorFury of Dracula. Those who want traitors will probably preferDead of Winter. Those who want spooky jokes about ghosts with friends will probably have just as much fun playing a few rounds ofMysterium.
If you want all of those things in one box? Betrayal Legacy is pretty much the only game there is. I just can’t guarantee you’ll have consistent, frustration-free fun with it. Though I knew every game I’d be disappointed by some aspect of playing it, I still wanted to play.
Like a naive teen going camping by a lake I was assured that, somehow? Everything would be all right.
Quinns: Like a blogging Mary Poppins, today I’m floating down from the sky to add a little magic to your life. (Don’t look up my skirt and we can both retain our dignity.)
This week’s Games News offers not one, not two, but six(!) unique Kickstarters from established designers. Some people are saying that the ever-swelling bubble of board game Kickstarters will have to pop at some point. Me? I don’t know about that, but I will say that I’ve never before seen a month where Kickstarter board games have managed to make press releases from more established companies seem repetitious and dull.
I thought that deserved a bit of a celebration. Let’s take a tour!
Pictured above is the beat ’em up-inspired Street Masters, which is currently enjoying a Kickstarter for an enormous expansion in the form of Street Masters: Aftershock.
After hearing about this game on the excellent So Very Wrong About Games podcast, I’m super excited to don my favourite bandanna, call up some friends, and beat up some bad dudes. Coming from veteran designers Adam and Bradey Sadler (who previously worked on Descent 2nd edition and the beloved Warhammer Quest Adventure Card Game), Street Masters is a co-op game where, in the manner of Gloomhaven, players each pick a character and use a unique deck to battle their way through fixed stages.
No, it doesn’t have the hype or epic scale that defines Gloomhaven, but it does look significantly sillier, which I’m very much up for. In fact, Matt and I will be getting dressed up and playing it on our next Twitch stream on the 8th Nov. I can’t wait. How many bandannas can two men wear? We’re going to find out.
We can say this about Druid City Games: They put together some good-looking packages.
The world of Tidal Blades: Heroes of the Reef requires almost as much explanation as the game. The work of husband and wife team David Forest and Lina Cossette, Tidal Blades offers a colourful, tropical fantasy world where crocs and salamanders live in harmony with humans. But oh no! Aquatic beasties are constantly emerging from the waves to wreak havoc on these settlements, and it’s the job of the Tidal Blades – basically moist heroes – to keep society safe.
As for the game itself, oh my gosh. The core of the game is worker placement, with everyone carefully selecting which action they want to do (and deny to their opponents), but… well, rather than explain everything, I’m going to just copy some of the Cones of Dunshire-like writing from the Kickstarter itself.
“By competing in Challenges you will increase your hero’s Traits, allowing you to… pull off wild Stunts… and unveil asymmetrical Character powers.”
“Advance on the Champion Board by competing in front of the Elder Tidal Blade, showing off your watercraft-manoeuvring skills on Lamara and killing Monsters.”
“Master the use of shells too strategically alter the time-continuum and reattempt your bad rolls.”
Perhaps most excitingly, the deluxe version of the game comes with squishy fruit tokens. Is this the harbinger of a new fad? Will all board game components be soft and pliant by 2020? Watch this space.
2 player, radically asymmetric game Skulk Hollow asks an important question. “What if the hero in Shadow of the Colossus was a gang of foxes?”
In other words, one player in Skulk Hollow plays an enormous stone titan (represented on the main board by a merely large wooden token), and a second player controls a team of foxes hell-bent on clambering up the thing’s legs and hacking away at its joints. Excitingly, foxes who climb onto a titan are then placed on a second boardso you can track precisely where on its body they are, a board which gets swapped out depending on which titan you’re playing.
Frankly, Skulk Holllow’s Kickstarter outlines a game so wildly inventive that (as with our recent review of Root) I can’t quite believe that it’ll be the sort of robust experience that this site can recommend. But with such lovely art and a playtime of under an hour, I’ll be elbowing people out of the way just to try it.
Cloudspire is (as yet!) the most successful of these Kickstarters, having slurped in almost half a million dollars from 3,000 eager backers.
From Chip Theory Games, the publisher & designers who brought us the startling plasticky Too Many Bones, Cloudspire is a hex-based strategy game inspired by MOBA video games like League of Legends or DoTA. Players will send stacks of “minion” chips marching out from their respective bases (with powerful chips perhaps hidden below a weak one on top of the stack), construct towers (as in tower defense video games), and even issue moves to special hero chips that can unearth resources or join in fights.
All of which might sound fairly cookie-cutter for a video game, but in a board game it looks fascinating and exciting. Throw in some curious production decisions and some unique factions and you get something that looks dramatically different while using a very stable foundation. Very cool!
We were able to help lots of publishers to film little preview videos for their games while they were at SHUX, and one of those games is the heavy eurogame Barrage, which is currently doing very well on Kickstarter.
Set in a Teslapunk re-imagining of the 1900s, Barrage tasks players with building hydro-electric power empires. The art and components look gorgeous, and the designers – Tommaso Battista and Simone Luciani – couldn’t be more well-established, being the minds behind Tzolk’in, Marco Polo, Grand Austria Hotel and more.
The two mechanics being showcased by Barrage both get me hot under the turbine. First off, water will trickle trickily down the top of the board to the bottom, generating power only for the players who have power plants in the right position on the board’s various runnels. Second, each player’s personal board will have a special wheel that “locks up” your resources when you assign them to tasks, only eventually releasing them after enough rotations of the wheel.
And, in my favourite extravagance since Tidal Blades’ squishy fruit, the deluxe version of Barrage will be tiered like an actual (very slight) hill for the water to flow down. SUCH EXTRAVAGANCE! Truly, when future generations excavate the board games of the 2010s, they’ll be like “Dang, these people had some cool-looking board games.”
Paul might not have gotten along very well with anti-colonialist co-op Spirit Island in his review, but lots of people think it’s the best thing since sliced… uh, colonists. Anyway, while the first expansion added two playable gods and one new colonial power, so that the features list reads (and I still find this hilarious):
Sharp Fangs Behind the Leaves
Keeper of the Forbidden Wilds
This second expansion adds so many itty bitty weird things that I have absolutely no idea what I’m reading about. Still, it’s probably good news for Spirit Island fans.
That’s it for the Games News this week! Phew. So, what have you lot been playing while we were away?
Last month I posited a model for decision making in games that divides decisions into three parts: action selection, action execution, and action resolution. That article also discussed a variety of popular methods for choosing actions. However, that’s just the start: once you’ve chosen an action, what do you do with it?
Phase 2: Action Execution
The action-selection phase of decision making took a broad view of player actions, asking the question, “What category of actions does the player take?” However, even after a player has selected a type of action, there’s often more choice to make: how exactly does the player implement (“execute”) the action, within the scope of the current game position?
Because Anglo-American games tend to degenerate the action-selection phase, often having just one type of action (move a chess piece; move a war-game unit; play a card; decide whether to buy a property), they tend to place most of their choice in the action-execution phase. In contrast, eurogames might have a fully featured action-execution phase, or they might have a degenerated action-execution phase where there’s no choice once the initial action selection is done. One of the reason that some people don’t like worker-placement games is that the action-execution phase can be degenerated: once you’ve decided to take a specific resource, translate a specific resource, or take some other very specific action, you often don’t make many additional decisions. (But sometimes you do: the build-fences action in Agricola offers a fine example of worker-placement action selection leading to “spatial choice” action execution.)
There are two broad ways to look at action execution: as a simple and abstract choice or as a decision that links the front-end decision mechanic to the back-end game mechanic.
Model 2a: Execution Choices
The core question of an action execution is obviously “How do you apply the category of action that you’ve selected?” Often, there are multiple choices. In Tigris & Euphrates (having chosen to place a tile from your hand) you must decide both which tile to place and where to place it; while in The Settlers of Catan (having chosen to build something from the menu) you must decide both where to place it and how to pay for it.
There are a number of common sorts of execution choice:
Construction Choice.A player can choose one of several things to build. Though these building choices might have been part of the initial action selection, as was the case in The Settlers of Catan, they can also be individual execution choices, such as in Puerto Rico, where you take the Builder role, then decide what to build. This is closely related to Purchase Choice but usually has costs in resources and is themed as literal building.
Exchange Choice.A player can choose one of several things to exchange and/or they can choose one of several things to trade for. A trading game like The Settlers of Catan offers very freeform exchange choices, as player swap` resources in a free-wheeling way. However, exchange choices can also come about as a single player’s choice of what to do with a resource-management engine (such as in Century: Spice Road where players swap one resource for another) or in a formulaic goal-completion game (such as in Splendor or, again, Century: Spice Road, where players must exchange specific resources for victory points).
Expenditure Choice.A player can decide which resources to expend. This can crossover with Token Choice (if they’re expending a token) or Exchange Choice (if they’re swapping the resource for something else) or Purchase Choice or Valuation Choice (if they’re just expending currency).
Obstacle Choice. A player can choose a specific obstacle to try and overcome. For example in Near and Far a spatial choice is often dependent upon an obstacle choice: whether a player is willing to face bandit on the road.
Opponent Choice. A player can choose a specific opponent to attack or duel in some way. This is the most common in take-that games where players directly play cards that affect other opponents or in wargames (though there, the opponent choice is often subsumed by a region choice). Because of the problems that naked aggression can cause, some games like Cosmic Encounter and Epic Spell Wars instead regulate opponent choice through random card draws or dice rolls.
Purchase Choice. A player can choose a specific thing to purchase with their in-game currency. This might be a simple purchase with a currency-themed resources, such as when a player spends Item Points to purchase equipment in D-Day Dice. More frequently, it’s a choice to bid on a specific item in an auction game, which links to a Valuation Choice. When a purchase is instead made with resources and is building-themed, that’s a Construction Choice.
Region Choice. A player can choose a general region on a board. He might move troops into the region in Risk or airdrop majority-control markers in El Grande. Alternatively, he might link a Construction Choice to a Region Choice by deciding where he’s going to build something. This is usually a subcategory of Spatial Choice.
Spatial Choice. A player can choose any space on a board to do something. This is usually more variable than a Region Choice because the options are more open, like deciding where to place a road in The Settlers of Catan or where to build a railroad track in Empire Builder.
Token Choice. A player decides between one of several tokens. This could be closely linked to a Construction Choice as in The Settlers of Catan where a player decides which Tokens (resources) to use in order to build, but it could also be the choice of a card to play, a tile to place, or a resource to expend.
Valuation Choice. A player decides the valuation of something, usually by making a bid for it or offering it for sale at a certain price.
Model 2b: Mechanic Models
Truthfully, though, players and designers don’t often think about execution choices at this granular of a level. That’s because the choices are often predefined by the type of mechanics that are being used in the back end of the game.
These back-end mechanics are the ones at the heart of a game’s design: the cogs and gears that define how actions are executed and what that execution does to the various components of the game. They include mechanics like auctions, majority control, resource management, and adventure elements. Whereas front-end decision-making mechanics like simultaneous selection, deck building, and card drafting are usually abstract and bloodless, back-end mechanics are more likely to be evocative and colorful.
This idea of front-end and back-end mechanics cleanly fits into the model for decision-making: front-end mechanics are focused on action selection, while back-end mechanics are focused on action resolution. Action execution thus forms the interface between the two.
Figure 5. The two sides of mechanics.
Of course, back-end mechanics might be degenerated too, particularly if one of the more advanced systems is used for action selection. Dominion theoretically has a pair of back-end mechanics: card execution (which is pretty simple reading of text) and race-track scoring, but neither is that notable. However deckbuilding wargames like Asgard’s Chosen, A Few Acres of Snow, and Tyrants of the Underdarkall show how games with deckbuilding front-ends can still have fully featured game back-ends — in this case using either area-control or majority-control mechanics. It’s generally possible for a game to have two sets of fully featured mechanics, supporting the beginning and the end of the decision making process.
There are obviously many dozens of different back-end mechanics available in games, but following are some of the most popular eurogame mechanics, with examples of how they link to more abstract execution choices. These links are the most common: a great way to extend an existing mechanical category is to incorporate less common execution choices.
Adventure Games. Roleplaying derived board games can cover a lot of ground, but they tend to be about individual characters questing around some area, fighting adversaries, and recovering loot, in service to some larger goal. Common Execution Choices:Obstacle Choice (what monster to fight), Spatial Choice (where to move); Token Choice (what powers to use).
Area Control. Classic wargames focus on players fighting each other to control territory. Common Execution Choices:Construction Choice (what troops to build); Region Choice (where to move troops).
Auction.The classic eurogame category of auctions is simply about paying some amount to get something. Common Execution Choices: Purchase Choice (what to buy); Valuation Choice (what to pay).
City Building. Although city-building games are often a subset of Resource Management games, they also have unique design elements, focused on building out grids of interconnected neighborhoods. Common Execution Choices:Purchase Choice (what neighborhood to buy); Spatial Choice (where to place a tile); Token Choice (which tile to place).
Civilization. Civilization games are another pretty big category, but they tend to have four major elements: resource-management, trade, technology advance, and warfare. As such you can look at the Area Control, Resource Management, and Trade categories for some of the numerous choices available in this sort of game, while the technology advancement gameplay has a view execution decisions of its own. Common Execution Choices:Construction Choice (which technology to advance), Expenditure Choice (how to pay for technologies).
Combat.Although many combat games are Area Control, you can also have personal combat games such as Magic: The Gathering or Epic Spell Wars where you’re fighting a more personal war against your opponents. Common Execution Choices: Opponent Choice (who to attack); Token Choice (what power to use).
Connection Games. The train game is the best-known sort of connection game, but the category can include anything where you’re trying to link up things on the board, including pipe games and more abstract classics like Twixt and PÜNCT. Common Execution Choices:Purchase Choice (what connections to buy); Spatial Choice (where to place connections).
Majority Control.The euro-take on Area Control usually involves markers being placed in a region, then ownership being determined by who has the most markers there. Unsurprisingly, its choices are a lot like those in Area Control, except there tends to be less of a concept of troop differentiation. Common Execution Choices: Region Choice (where to place troops).
Resource Management. Perhaps the most popular category of euro-design, resource management involves players generating resources, transforrming them, and ultimately using them to build things that generate special powers, victory points, or both. Common Execution Choices: Construction Choice (what to build); Exchange Choice (what resources to swap); Expenditure Choice (what resources to spend); Spatial Choice (where to build).
Trading. Another classic and simple mechanic, trading simply involves swapping things with other players or the game system. There are games that are entirely trading, such as Res Publica, but more often it’s part of a larger game, such as The Settlers of Catan. Common Expenditure Choices: Exchange Choices (what to swap); Opponent Choice (who to swap with).
There are certainly other ways that you could classify the player choices that occur within action execution and there are certainly other execution options for the mechanical styles listed here. There are so many different options because action execution represents the guts of decision making in games, where there’s the opportunity to have really far-ranging choices.
However, it’s important to remember that action execution is just the middle part of what can potentially be a three-part model for decisions: first, players decide upon a category of action, possibly using a sophisticated front-end choice system; then they execute that action, probably making decisions defined by the needs of a back-end game system. This all leads to the third phase, where the action is actually resolved by that back-end system … which will be touched upon very briefly in the third and final article on this series, before looking at case studies of popular games under the microscope of this model.
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Huge thanks to everyone who took part, and for Efka of No Pun Included for acting as Twitch’s supreme commander. Our live stream will be back in a couple of weeks on the 8th of November, with Matt and Quinns whupping some punks in a game of Street Masters. See some of you there!
Meeples Together is continuing to crowdfund on Kickstarter. It’s already blown through its first stretch goal, which adds a case study for Matt Leacock’s Forbidden Island to the book. We hope we’ll also be able to talk about his Forbidden Desert too, as our fourth stretch goal.
We wanted to add those two extra case studies to the book because they show the continuing evolution of a specific style of play that Leacock debuted in Pandemic. However, Matt Leacock is the main co-op designer of our time, and that means he’s branched out into other styles of co-op games as well. One of those is Thunderbirds, which we’re happy to discuss here as another bonus case study.
This article has been crossposted from the Meeples Together blog, which focuses exclusively on cooperative game design. There will be some original Mechanics & Meeples content next week (and afterward the Meeples Together and Mechanics & Meeples articles will interweave.)
Publisher: Modiphius Entertainment (2015) Cooperative Style: True Co-Op Play Style: Action Point, Logistical
The players take on the role of Thunderbird agents, who race around the globe in their Thunderbird machines to defeat the schemes of the Hood before it’s too late. However, Thunderbirds agents must deal with ongoing disasters as well! If they don’t, they’ll lose the game!
The challenge system of Thunderbirds comes in two parts, following a standard cooperative pattern that splits threats: disasters must be solved so that the players do not lose, while schemes must be foiled so that the players can win.
A disaster appears nearly every turn, based on the draw of a card. Players have a few turns to solve each of these problems. The longer a disaster is around, the closer it gets to the end of the disaster track; if it reaches the end, the game is lost.
The use of a track for these game-losing disasters is interesting: it’s really no different from any number of games (like Pandemic) that trigger a loss when a certain component runs out (in this case: when the eighth card is placed), but it displays this loss condition in a visceral way while simultaneously providing a visual listing of problems that the players may deal with. It’s a prime example of making choices obvious through great “menu” design.
Schemes in contrast are selected at the start of the game, but only the next one is revealed at any time. Though the players must defeat the schemes to win, they’re not just markers of victory; they can also be dangerous. That’s because the schemes are arranged along a “Hood track”, which the villainous Hood slowly advances along though certain disaster-card draws, certain die rolls, and even player choice — much as Sauron advances in the foundational Lord of the Rings (2000) co-op. If the Hood reaches an unfoiled scheme, the game is (once more) lost.
However, the Hood track does more than just mark another advance of Doom. The Hood track are contains hidden events between the schemes; when the Hood reaches an event, it activates, causing various problems for the players. This is a nice feature, because it interweaves the big problems with small ones. It also introduces uncertainty: though the players can brace themselves for an oncoming event, they’ll always be surprised by its precise (random) result.
Though the Thunderbirds challenge system often feels dangerous — like there’s impending danger that must be overcome — there’s not a lot of decay in it. Things can get temporarily bad if the Hood gets near an unfoiled scheme or if a number of disasters stack up, but there’s never a sudden ramp-up, and if the players overcome the current problems, everything is back to normal.
Despite the cleverness of both the disaster and scheme tracking, Thunderbirds generally has a simpler and more forgiving system than Matt Leacock’s Pandemic games.
Challenge System Elements: Turn, Action & Random Activation; Arbitrary Trigger; Interrelated Systems; and Skill Threat.
The challenge systems in Thunderbirds are countered through logistical play. They require getting the right machines and the right characters to the right locations and then either making a die roll (for disasters) or expending resources (for schemes). Logistical requirements of this sort are a natural fit for cooperative games because they tend to focus on divided puzzles — a popular co-op pattern that requires players to figure out how to get resources that are split up among the team to the right places. Thunderbirds’ schemes create even more cooperative depth because they need those resources to be moved to different locations, requiring players to actively working together at different places on the board.
The movement system of Thunderbirds also creates some interesting cooperative puzzles thanks to the Thunderbirds machines. Players can jump from one machine to another over the course of a turn. Because some of the machines can seat two or more characters, this means that a player will frequently be joining with another player, as they move together in a single machine. This creates great tactical opportunities and also gives players the ability to work together for a time before once more branching off.
Leacock’s classic co-op Pandemic (2008) just touched upon the adventure game space through its use of unique character powers. Thunderbirds dramatically expands on that. Each character has a unique power, and each of them can accumulate bonus tokens that given them one-time abilities. Each of their Thunderbird machines has unique characteristics too.
Once again, it’s the machines that really stand out as an innovation. By giving characters two adventuresome characteristics, one of which is permanent (the character power) and one of which can be traded around (the machine powers), Leacock adds orthogonal depth to his adventure play.
By now, Leacock clearly knows what he’s doing when he’s designing co-op games, as Thunderbirds was his six major effort following Pandemic (2008), Forbidden Island (2010), Forbidden Desert (2013), Pandemic: The Cure (2014) and Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 (2015). It’s no surprise that Thunderbirds makes good, polished use of some classic mechanics like a bipartite victory-vs-loss threat structure and a card-based challenge system.
However Thunderbirds also has some nice innovations, primarily focused on the famous Thunderbirds machines. They allow for a new sort of movement-based cooperation and also add to the depth of the adventure play. As such, they show how one little addition to a co-op design can add a lot.
“I’ve become more conscious about elements that can make cooperative games better. When I designed Pandemic, I was doing this all instinctively. Now, I actively work different play patterns and mechanism into my designs upfront.” —Matt Leacock, Interview, Mechanics & Meeples (March 2015)
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At 7pm UK time, 2pm EDT, I’m going to be playing Memoir ’44 against our viewers. We’re going to set up the cameras so that you can see your hand of cards, and every space will have a grid reference. Then, everyone can suggest moves in Twitch chat, Efka from No Pun Included will then pick the most popular suggestion, and stream director Chris Bratt will make the move and roll the dice. It’s a bit like a Rube Goldberg machine specifically designed to cause me pain?
Eric: As a teenager, one summer I decided I wanted to learn all of the trick taking card games, a genre that I found strangely fascinating (I suppose this tells you a lot about me as a teenager and the rural midwestern world of the United States where I grew up). I learned the rules for Spades, Pinochle, and Pitch. I sort of learned how to play Bridge. I at least read the rules for Whist and Euchre. At the end of the process, though, I found myself feeling confused. In theory, I knew that the variations between these games should excite and engage me. In practice, I was at a loss to differentiate one from the other. None of them could really hold my interest.
That is probably a strange place to start my review of Games Workshop’s newest offering, Kill Team! A re-release of a variant of Warhammer 40,000, the game’s big selling point is its size. Unlike the sell-your-car-budget armies of its larger cousin, in Kill Team each player uses a small band of 5-20 miniatures to do battle in a space designed to fit on a kitchen table. As I’ve played around with it, though, I find myself at a loss as to what to say.
Kill Team is, at the same time, an exhausting incremental iteration on a tired system… and the best thing Games Workshop has released in years.
Kill Team is very much a riff on a familiar tune. Its grandparent is the new 8th edition of Warhammer 40k (see my review here), a pretty good game that is a substantial improvement on its predecessors while still failing to innovate in the ways found in other rules systems. Spawned from that mold are its parents, Necromunda and Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire, both aiming for the smaller scale of skirmish battles. If you imagine the incestuous spawn of such a family tree, using the miniatures from the more popular 40k universe, you’ll have a very good idea what’s on offer here.
Because of these close family relationships, I won’t rehash the discussions of basic rules. Anyone really interested to know what I think can read the above review. Instead, let’s note a few things that make Kill Team at least somewhat unique.
One is the activation system. In some miniatures games you have long turns where each player moves all their troops and then the other player responds; others use alternating activations where each player moves a single model or group. The former allows for grand strategic visions but results in huge swings and downtime. The latter creates a more responsive and tactical feel at the cost of overall planning. Intriguingly, Kill Team fuses the two. Movement is done en masse, but the actual combat alternates between models. This creates a unique texture to turns where you have to plan in the big picture but remain flexible as specific models might well die before you get to use them. In my plays of the game so far this has been my favorite element, giving a real sense of risk and reward.
The other change, which I feel more mixed about, is the updated cover system. One of the goals of Kill Team is clearly to make terrain matter. Given my love for the terrain-dense tables of Infinity (the review that started my career with SU&SD!), I applaud this effort. The constant need to crouch down to get a model’s eye view, hugging walls and peeking around corners, creates an immersive experience.
Unfortunately, in practice the way the game accomplishes this goal is by having cover that simply makes it harder to hit models. This, joined with a similar penalty from long range and the narrow likelihood of actually wounding someone means that shooting often feels like you’re spraying your opponents with nerf pellets. Some of this is intentional, trying to force models into hand-to-hand-combat, but it also means a whole lot of rolls ended up boiling down to “Can I roll a 6 on a d6?”
I could note other small changes. There is a “scouting phase” before the battle begins that allows for tactical cleverness. An advancement system allows limited leveling of some characters within the context of a campaign. There is a new approach to morale, and… look, a deep analysis of the rules is missing the point. Instead, in what follows I want to explain two conclusions I had coming out of my games of Kill Team: why I struggle to be excited, but why I would still (yes!) recommend this game to certain players.
My total lack of exhilaration is really tied up in my love of not just Warhammer, but miniatures games as a whole. Games Workshop has turned a corner as a company, communicating with its customers and pursuing products they want. As a result, they have been posting record-breaking profits and won a great deal of good will from the community, including me. That said, as I pored over the manual for Kill Team and set up for my first game, I couldn’t help thinking “When will this end?”
Just over a year ago, the 8th edition of 40k came out. Since that time GW has unveiled the aforementioned Necromunda and Shadespire, plus a new edition of Age of Sigmar, their fantasy ruleset. Kill Team just came out, and already the drums of advertising have begun beating for Adeptus Titanicus, yet another take on the far future’s grim darkness. That is six games in one year. For those accustomed to board gaming this might seem reasonable, but miniatures games have always rested on the idea of long-term play. Without such a return on investment, the cost in terms of money and time is hard to justify. Even a game like Kill Team, much more affordable than some of those offerings, will probably run you close to a hundred dollars for models and hobby supplies, nevermind the terrain you’ll probably want to make your table come to life, or the time to paint it all. The starter box, while a good deal, is $130 and still doesn’t quite make a full two-player collection.
All of this is made worse by the fact that these games are so similar. My biggest impediment to learning the rules of Kill Team was getting them confused with its cousins. There is just enough variance to force me to flip through the manual, trying to keep straight how wounds or cover or turn structure worked here as opposed to another offering. It left me wishing Games Workshop would be willing to introduce something truly new into the basic structure of the game. It also left me wondering whether GW might be creating a market glut that will hurt them in the long term.
However – and this is a massive however – I think Kill Team might well be a game I would recommend to you if you are looking for a first miniatures experience.
The appeal of tabletop wargames has always been broader than just rules. There is the intimate joy of painting a model, the satisfying thrill of seeing a warband you slaved over charging across the tabletop, and the immersion of storytelling supported by the massive Warhammer universe of novels and video games.
Indeed, Kill Team seems to understand that it isn’t primarily selling a clever ruleset. Take, for instance, the army lists in the manual. Not only are there stats for various soldiers and weapons for each of the sixteen starting factions, there are also several pages of backstory and random tables to determine things like your soldiers’ names and person quirks that have no bearing on gameplay. If you want to try painting some miniatures, Kill Team is backed up by the best lines of sculpts in the hobby bar none:
Perhaps this is what Games Workshop appreciates and I don’t. They consistently market their games as a lifestyle rather than an evening’s fun. From their fiction arm to their “three ways to play” in every rulebook, they try to stress that the rules have always been secondary to the activity of taking little people you painted and shoving them at each other. For someone already involved in other miniatures games, Kill Team feels superfluous. I don’t know why I would play it. For someone uninterested in the lifestyle, it likewise fails. Unlike some miniatures games (look out for my upcoming review of Gaslands), nothing in Kill Team would make me tell my non-miniatures-obsessed friends “you have to play this!”
When I consider someone on the fringe of the hobby though, a teenager like I once was at the game shop or someone into board games who would love to try their hand at painting a little band of Orks or Necrons, Kill Team represents the best possible point of entry. You can buy the starter box, or just the rulebook and some Space Marines, and play a pretty good game with excellent support and backstory. Which isn’t nothing – it just means its not for me.