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Deckbuilding Expansion: Ascension, Part Four: From Elements to Ancients

Ascension Core GameAscension continues to be one of the most popular deckbuilders out there. So, following in the footsteps of my previous articles, A Deckbuilding Look at Ascension (#1), Deckbuilding Expansion: Ascension, Part One — From Chronicle to Heroes (#2-4), Deckbuilding Expansion: Ascension, Part Two — From Vigil to Champions (#5-8), and Deckbuilding Expansion: Ascension, Part Three: From Dreamscape to Shadows (#9-10),  I’m looking at sets 11 and 12, to see how they changed the game, for better or for worse, and how they ended a second era of Ascension, that had big ideas (almost) every time.


Set Eleven: Gift of the Elements

The eleventh Ascension set turned out to be a very traditional one, repeating and innovating old mechanics. As such, it turns out to be a set that can be combined with almost anything, which is nice given Ascension’s move away from the block structure.

New Mechanics — Empower & Infest. OK, Gift of the Elements does actually have some totally new mechanics, but they’re pretty minor. Empower is a keyword on cards that lets you banish a card you play when you acquire the Empower card. Infest is a keyword on monsters that lets you place them in someone else’s deck, where they take up space like a traditional Curse in Dominion.

How It Works — Infest. Ascension has always had a minor element of PvP combat, mostly focused on rewards when monsters are killed. Gift of the Elements nicely complements that with its Infest. It’s monster oriented like the PvP in previous sets, but it goes to the core of deckbuilding, because you’re trying to wreck someone else’s deck by filling it with dross.

This type of “Curse” mechanic can be quite frustrating in some deckbuilders, but it’s sufficiently bounded in Gift of the Elements that this doesn’t tend to be the case. You can only “Curse” if a specific Infesting monster comes out (of which there are 13, four of which continue moving around afterward), so you’re more likely to slightly water down someone’s plays rather than create entirely useless turns.

How It Works — Empower. And Empower can actually offset that, by giving players another option to banish cards. But it goes beyond that: it makes deck filtering somewhat easier, allowing players to focus more on the strategy of deckbuilding than the tactics of individual turns. Finally, Empower manages the trick of encouraging players to take fairly mediocre 1-cost cards. Because they tend to have the Empower keyword, they’re usually replacing an Apprentice or a Militia, so it’s still a step up.

There’s one other pseudo-new-mechanic that goes hand in hand with Empower: a few cards give additional bonuses if banished “from anywhere”. That gives players more tactical possibilities for their Empower acquisitions, and shows how nicely a design can link together a lot of minor mechanics into something that changes the overall strategy of a game.

Revamped Mechanics — Events & Transformation. Along with those pretty minor additions, Gift of the Elements also brings back two classic mechanics. Events appeared back in Block One (2010-2011), while Transformations were originally keyed off energy in Block Three (2013), then returned to be keyed off factions and honor gains in Set Seven, Realms Unravelled (2014). Gift of the Elements cleverly combines the mechanics by introducing events that also can be transformed into a card if a player pays a big sum (8 runes or 8 power) for them!

How It Works — Transformation Events. The events in Gift of the Elements have notable effects, giving free card draws, free Runes, and free Power. That’s the sort of thing you want for an adjacent game element like the events, because they’re big enough that people won’t forget them.

Beyond that, I adore the fact that Ascension figured out a third, very different way to do Transformations … but I’m not convinced it’s successful. First, the transformations are easy to forget since players are excited about buying things in the Center Row, and second … they’re really powerful. It’s great giving rewards for the tough task of getting 8 Runes or Power in a single turn, but some of these transformed cards can end the game, particularly the transformed Cetra, Celestial Body, which gives Honor for all the Honor values in the center row, something that I’ve seen score over 20 points from a single play(!). Nothing else is quite that powerful, but acquiring all the Constructs (Forgemaster Reysa) or taking 2 Honor from each player (Emri, Born of Battle), which is an 8-point swing against everyone in a four-player game, can also be pretty game changing.

Overall, Gift of the Elements is a nicely designed set that’s also quite traditional and so could easily be a great third box for new players after Chronicle of the Godslayer and Return of the Fallen. That’s a nice return to simple form for an eleventh set.


Set Twelve: Valley of the Ancients

Ascension Valley of the AncientsThe twelfth Ascension set returns to introducing notable New Mechanics — here new resources, new victory-point cards, and new keywords. Whew! None of them are particularly connected.

New Mechanics — Keystones & Temples. The new resource is the keystone. It is earned via certain cards, and like almost every other resource in Ascension is ephemeral. The first time a player gets a Death keystone, they can turn it in for the Temple of Death, which originally comes from the supply and later is taken from the current holder. Additional Death keystones while a player is already holding the Temple allow them to banish a card and take the Temple of Immortality. Similarly, the first Life keystone gives a player the Temple of Life and additional ones give them 2 Runes and the Temple of Immortality.

And the Temple of Immortality? If a player is holding it, he can Rally one Faction each turn: if they acquire a card of that faction and that same faction refills in the Center Row, they take the new card too. Ad Infinitum. (Curiously, the Temple of Immortality doesn’t use the Rally keyword.)

Oh, and all the Temples are worth Victory Points: 5 for the lesser temples and 10 for the Temple of Immortality.

How It Works — Keystones & Temples. The Temples feel like a great mechanic that just doesn’t work out. That’s in large part due to randomness. First, only about a quarter of the cards grant keystones, and they’re usually tied to a secondary requirement (like one of the new keywords or a more traditional requirement, such as killing monsters or uniting). That means that a player might find himself in a situation where he can’t practically earn one or other keystone, which is a big disadvantage.

Beyond that, the Temples create a huge, chaotic swing. There’s no way to stop another player from grabbing a temple from you, and if they do, it creates a 10-point swing for the lesser temples and a 20-point swing for the Temple of Immortality. Games are sometimes won simply on who gets to go last.

Presumably, the goal here was to create more player interaction, just like the Infest in Garden of the Elements. And, there was probably another goal of creating an orthogonal way to deckbuild, as players could now collect cards that granted one keystone or the other. But with the randomness underlying both that collection and that interaction, the result wasn’t necessarily fun.

New Mechanics — Echo. The Echo keyword grants additional special abilities on a card if there’s a card of the same faction in the discard pile.

New Mechanics — Serenity. The Serenity keywords grants additional special abilities on a card if there are no cards in the discard pile.

How It Works Echo & Serenity. These new keywords feel like they’re quite similar because they both force players to focus on their discard piles. But, they really couldn’t be more different. The Echo mechanic is both strategic and tactical. It encourages players to focus on factions (strategically), but it can also be used tactically if a player purchases a card of the faction just before playing the Echo. On the other hand, Serenity is almost pure luck. Oh, there are a very small minority of cards that can be used to empty discards, and maybe a player might occasionally need to think about when they purchase a card and when they force a reshuffle, but those are rare enough that the Serenity mechanic mainly feels luck-based (and when it’s not, it’s usually just an arbitrary set of actions to set up the discard pile correctly).

Overall, the Temples and the Keystones make this supplement feel unwieldy and awkward, let alone the huge swinginess of Temple control. They make it one of the less desirable supplements, in my opinion, which is a pity given the interesting new Keywords.

Conclusion

In retrospect, I think Sets 9-12 represented Ascension getting its feet under it as it figured out how to produce singular sets of cards. As I noted when I wrote about sets 9 and 10, they each had a big concept (even if one of those big concepts was returning to great classic mechanics) and some of those big concepts worked better than the others: Dreamscape (#9) continues to be well-loved, but War of the Shadows (#10) is usually too finicky to play in person; Gift of the Elements (#11) was a strong return to form, while Valley of the Ancient (#12) introduced new mechanics that seemed like more trouble than they were worth. I saluted the innovation when I wrote about the previous sets, but now I’m a little tired of a 50% hit-to-miss ratio.

But Ascension was also at a turning point, where they were about to return to more classic mechanics in totally new ways and then more massively renovate the game than ever before. Perhaps those next sets managed to figure out the success of the innovative Dreamscape and the classic Gift of the Elements, because they seem to be more consistently enjoyed than the series of sets from 9 to 12.

But that’s the topic for the next article.

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Co-op Case Study: The Captain is Dead — Lockdown

The Captain is Dead, which we studied two weeks ago, has a sequel, “Lockdown”, a standalone game that uses the same core system. However, whereas we thought the design of The Captain is Dead was wildly successfully (in large part due to its great theming), we found Lockdown lacking (in large part due to its difficulty).


Publisher: AEG (2018)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op
Play Style: Action Point, Adventure Game, Card Management

Overview

This sequel to The Captain is Dead (2017) reuses many of its game systems but in a new environment with new challenges. Now, the characters are being held prisoner in an alien prison, and they must steal a ship and escape before the aliens take notice of them and kill them all.

Challenge System

The Captain is Dead: Lockdown reuses the core mechanics of the original game system. After each player-turn, a new alert card causes something bad to happen. These alerts are previewable (if the Surveillance system is online) and they’re overridable (if certain resources are spent). They’re also stacked to create decay — which is to say, Lockdown contains all of the more interesting challenge elements of the original game.

There are also two major additions to the challenge system.

First, the game is full of aliens. In fact, almost every alert adds aliens to the game. This actually tends to make the alerts much less interesting, because they’re so repetitive. There is some variety, with five different sorts of aliens, but they tend to broadly have the same effects. (For a little more variety, one of the alien types also “patrols”, moving around the board in a simple circuit.)

Second, there’s a major new tally threat: concealment. A multitude of actions (but especially killing aliens, getting caught by aliens, and hacking systems to bring them online) cause the concealment to decrease, and if it drops to zero, the aliens start shooting to kill.

Together, the aliens and the concealment effectively expand the original Captain is Dead challenge system into a full simulation, since it now has effects that are removed from the card input by one or two levels of indirection. For example, an alert may summon a patroller alien, which may then move into a room where a character is hiding, causing the concealment level to drop, and this may cause the aliens to go into berserk end-game mode. It’s a nice lesson in how to develop simple card draws into a more complete simulation by a layering of rules.

With that said, the Lockdown variant of the Captain is Dead challenge system also has some issues.

First, it’s quite fiddly. Developing a challenge system always creates potential problems because it’s players who have to play out the simulation. Pandemic (2008) and Flash Point: Fire Rescue (2011) demonstrate how to make simulations easy and playable, in large part because their simulations flow out from obvious starting points. Pandemic: Rising Tide (2017), which has the potential for water suddenly overflowing everywhere at any time, is more challenging. Lockdown is unfortunately in the latter category — not because the simulation is particularly complex, but instead because it’s poorly supported by the components. The board can be filled with aliens of all different sorts, and they mostly look pretty similar, which makes it hard to pick out the patrollers; their patrol path is also not as obvious as it should be.

Second, Lockdown is a much more difficult game than The Captain is Dead, in large parts because of the limitations that it places on actions. Though there are certainly very difficult co-ops games that can be fun, with Orléans: Invasion (2015) being a prime example, Lockdown’s style of difficulty, which not only focuses on limitations, but also makes the impending loss very obvious, isn’t necessarily one of those.

Third, the game is designed so that the difficulty can in part be overcome by relatively simple actions, and this creates preset strategies. For example, the players must immediately do something to halt the decreases of the Concealment track, or they’re doomed. In fact, the randomness of the card draws in Lockdown doesn’t feel that important in balance to the preset strategies that must be conducted, and since unpredictability and uncertainty are two primary requirements of cooperative design, this leaves the game somewhat lacking.

Challenge System Elements: Turn Activation; Card Trigger (with Preview); Simulation; Decay; Environmental & Removal Consequences; and Tally, Combat & Skill Threats.

Cooperative System

Limitations often make cooperative systems great: they can keep the gameplay from being too easy and they can help to give each player autonomy. Unfortunately, limitations can also be used excessively, as happens in Lockdown, and this can damage a game rather than improve it.

The biggest limitations in Lockdown are the aliens: they leap upon characters who are not in their starting location. The dramatically restricts the strategic play of Lockdown because players now tend to primarily do the things that they can do in their starting locations — a trend that is often amplified by the strong specialization of the characters. The result is that the players have a lot less choice: an admiral might stay in the Mess Hall to draw improvised plans, a Science Officer might stay in the Maintenance Room to research, etc. (This was certainly somewhat the case in The Captain is Dead, bit it’s even moreso in Lockdown.) The excess of aliens also means that players either have to kill aliens or teleport away to do anything at all, another major limitation!

The other big limitation in Lockdown centers on that Concealment system. It penalizes many of the strategic actions that players might want to take, such as killing aliens and hacking systems (and, as noted, moving away from a character’s starting area). If the Concealment level gets too low, then players might no longer feel empowered to take these actions that destroy what’s essentially a cooperative resource.

Overall, the limitations in Lockdown drive players to narrowly defined choices, which are weighted even more heavily due to character specializations, and in the worst cases make players feel like they can do nothing at all. Though limitations are certainly a vital element of cooperative design, when they go too far, they can start negatively impacting both agency and fun, and Lockdown trends quite far in that directions (though different players will likely have different reactions to the tight constraints).

Adventure System

Much like The Captain is Dead, Lockdown has a great adventure system, focused on evocative characters, appropriate system-actions, and a fun story. However, whereas The Captain is Dead was in danger of constraining player actions with character roles, Lockdown makes that possibility much stronger, primarily through its other limitations.

Expansions & Variants

Lockdown is the sequel to The Captain is Dead. It was released in an earlier edition by The Game Crafter (2017) before its publication by AEG.

Final Thoughts

Quite simply, Lockdown feels like it took a well-balanced system and made it too complex. The new challenge elements are intriguing additions that made the game less manageable, but the new limitations constrain the game so tightly that they remove agency.

“[The Captain is Dead] does not have the random exponential escalation effect. Instead, each card in the alert deck has a specific bad thing that happens, and there are a specific number of yellow cards, a specific number of orange cards, and a specific number of red cards. That means that the game will always escalate in a more controlled manner. In Pandemic if you happen to get unlucky with your draw, you can get really bad outbreaks really early in the game.”

—JT Smith, June 2014, “JT Smith on The Captain is Dead”, The Inquisitive Meeple, https://boardgamegeek.com/blogpost/31181/jt-smith-captain-dead

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The Betrayal Legacy Chronicles, Part Two

When we started playing Betrayal Legacy last year, I decided to chronicle the entire adventure, to detail how the game has changed over time, and how its co-op and Legacy elements worked. The Betrayal Legacy Chronicles, Part One discussed the first four adventures, while this continues this series with Chapters Four through Six. And this is going to be it, because we’ve decided that seven sessions is enough, for reasons that I’ll talk about toward the end.

Obviously, there are spoilers here for Betrayal Legacy, but each entry should only talk about the surprises up to that date.

Chapter Four: 1797 — The Haunted Furniture

The ghosts increasingly haunting the house possess the furniture this session, and we have to burn it in a fire before it kills us. We do.

In fact when we’re down to our last piece of furniture, it’s increasingly obvious we’re going to win, which is never a great thing a round out in a co-op game. Overall, we have a good time early in this game, again because of the increased length of the early game, but the fight-focused Haunt feels a bit rudimentary.

Figure 4-1: Our biggest house ever?

Co-op: We do something we haven’t before: we actually cooperate a bit before the Haunt, primarily using a special skill that allows us to somewhat select the house tiles coming up. So, we select for items and against omens, under the theory that it’s 80% likely to benefit each of us. And then we get to the haunt … and there’s no “traitor”. We all win or lose as a group. So, go us.

Mind you, the Haunt feels a bit more rudimentary than the last two, because it’s all tactical combat. However, there is a bit of depth: we can stun the furniture while fighting, then drag it to the fire, and we can also INVOKE to move it on its own. This allows some strategic work, as some players are fighting, some are dragging, and some are magically moving. But it still feels a lot more one dimensional.

Figure 4-2: We always remember the previous Omen cards, but the rest of the decks have almost no Legacy meaning to us.

Legacy: We’re back to the core Legacy play being relatively shallow, though our cooperative play helps a few of the Legacy items get to the right people. But even when we pull up events that I am pretty sure came from the results of other games, I’m not sure what they’re evoking.

Our only big surprise is finding out more about the helm, as we learn it can be used to select a player, which means that players that use its power more are more likely to be selected. That’s a pretty cool Legacy element, because it ensures those past choices have future results, which is what you really want in Legacy.

Chapter Five: 1830 — The Mirror Invasion

This time, one of our number is possessed by their mirror copy from another dimension, who then tries to assimilate the rest of the characters (or else kill them).

To a certain extent, Betrayal Legacy is starting to drag for us. The pre-Haunt play rarely feels long enough to be fulfilling, and then we descend into yet another variant of combat, and that’s what happens once again. Oh, it’s slightly different combat, as you SMASH mirror creatures to make it easier to close the portal to the mirror dimension, but it’s just variants of the same themes.

Figure 5-1: The Basement got plenty of attention this time.

Co-op: We actually spend most of our time roleplaying rather than cooperating in the early part of the game, which is a fine alternative. When we get to the Haunt it’s again tactical combat. Sadly, it’s again pretty rudimentary cooperation. There is a pair of linked actions: PREPARE, then SMASH, which you can use together to gather a bunch of mirror monsters together before destroying them … but one player can do it all, eliminating the possibility of strategic cooperation between the players. There is still some strategic play, with several players running around and smashing so that a final player can INVOKE to close the portal, but it’s still a big step down from Chapters Two and Three, which had multi-stage strategic cooperation that we thought would be the new normal for the game, but which has largely disappeared in the games since.

Figure 5-2: The Deed to the House is an example of the very weak Legacy elements in this game.

Legacy: Yes, we continue to recognize cards and tiles. We’ll probably find the new additions from this game even more memorable, because there are a few mirror-related events as well as a tile that actually gets stickered over(!). But, as noted before, it’s minor.

The major bit of Legacy in this Chapter is that we get a whole new major mechanic. That stickered-over tile, The Chasm, is an entrance to the Otherworlds, which appear as 28 new cards that we add to our box. No, we still don’t know what this means, but we’re told the next Chapter will be Part II of the game. Rules additions are a major element of Legacy games, and they can add a lot … so we’ll see what the next game brings.

Chapter Six: 1849 — The Disease

We come under attack from a disease, which sends us search the Otherworlds, because that’s the new mechanic. We maximize our health tactically, and that lets us find the cure in the nick of time.

We had decided that this would be our last play of Betrayal Legacy unless the Otherworlds was sufficiently innovative to revamp a gameplay that had gotten stale and never lived up to its Legacy potential. (Spoiler: it wasn’t.)

Figure 6-1: One last house.

Co-op: The cooperative play of this Chapter is back to the multi-stage strategy that we’ve been missing. First, players must recover reagents in the form of curses and items from the Otherworlds; then they must STUDY them; then they must PREPARE an antidote. The problem is that there’s not much cooperation other than the group’s accumulation of resources toward success. That’s because there’s no way to provide help in the Otherworlds, and once the resources are recovered, they’re mostly in the form of curses that can’t be traded away. So, players are strategically cooperating, but there’s very little of the more interesting tactics which occasionally appeared on the peripheries of previous adventures.

Figure 6-2: Our last rules addition, the Otherworlds, were disappointing (and frustrating).

Legacy: The big Legacy element of this Chapter was the introduction of the Otherworlds, and to be honest, they were overwhelming. Certainly, the addition of any new rules system is to a Legacy game’s benefit and the addition of new places to explore even moreso. So, the Otherworlds could have been the best of the best.

The problem is that they’re very punishing, often causing damage, often pushing the players ever onward, hoping to avoid the worst. Certainly there’s some good tension here, which is what you need for a horror game to work, but it’s not enough to offset the pure unfunness of being punished from every exploration.

In other words, we’d wanted to see if the Otherworlds were interesting enough to get us to continue play, and if anything, they moved the game in the opposite direction.

Final Notes

Here’s an admission: none of us were fans of Betrayal at House on the Hill going into our Betrayal Legacy campaign. We often found the original game too random, and we felt like the long turns and variable length games often resulted in some or all players never getting off their feet, and so not getting to really experience the adventurous elements of the game. And Betrayal Legacy was just more of the same.

But we’d thought that the Legacy elements of the game would help it to rise above those elements, with a long-term campaign offering the opportunity to both offset randomness and to create the longer stories that we sometimes felt denied in the original Betrayal. But Betrayal Legacy didn’t. Instead, most of the Legacy elements were confined to cards and tiles, which might or might not come up in future games, and which would likely be forgotten by the time they did. The Bloodied Room was a rarity that we really remembered every time it returned, but most of the ghosts and scares just faded away into a deck of ghosts and scares, thus denying us their Legacy.

Another problem was a lack of player agency, not just in the game itself (always a problem in Betrayal), but in the campaign. In most Legacy games, like Pandemic and SeaFall, players are driving the explorations and many of the other changes to the game. Certainly, there’s a plotted story that they’re interacting with, but they can still look at the game and the board and see the changes they chose to make. Even in Charterstone, which has some problems with simple play enforcing player tactics, players can at least see the buildings they constructed. But in Betrayal Legacy, all players can do is choose whether to mark Legacy items (which they do if they can) and whether to win or lose (but that’s scarcely a choice).

In summary: fans of the original Betrayal will like the Legacy version. The cooperative and storytelling elements are as good as they were before. But we didin’t feel like the Legacy added much to the original game, and if anything, it really underplayed and underused its Legacy elements.

So our Betrayal Legacy play ends here, alas.

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Co-op Case Study: The Captain is Dead

One of the more notable traditional co-ops of recent years was The Captain is Dead, a bright and evocative science-fiction game that followed in traditional design patterns. It’s since been followed by Lockdown (2018), which will be the topic of the next case study.

This article originally appeared on the Meeples Together blog.


Publisher: AEG (2017)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op
Play Style: Action Point, Adventure Game, Card Management

Overview

In The Captain is Dead, aliens are attacking. They’ve killed the captain and knocked the Jump Drive offline. Players take the roles of the surviving crew members. They must repair the Jump Drive so that they can make their escape before the constant waves of alien threats destroys them.

Challenge System

The challenge system of The Captain is Dead is very traditional: each turn the active player turns up a card from the alert deck. If she can’t override the alert, then something bad happens: usually characters are hurt and/or ship systems are damaged. The losing conditions are also the sort of mélange common in co-op games: if the shields are destroyed, the alert deck is expended, or the aliens are all placed on the ship, then the players lose.

With that said, there are several unique features in how The Captain is Dead manages its challenges.

  1. The alert deck is stacked into yellow, orange, and red alerts. This creates a very simple system of decay: not only are systems breaking down, but they break down worse as the game goes on.
  2. The ability to override cards from the alert deck creates real resource dilemmas, as players must constantly decide whether it’s worth scrambling for the right cards to override, or if it’s better to let systems break, planning to fix with them later.
  3. The players can preview alert cards (and thus the challenge system). As long as the external sensors are running, the players get to see the next two alerts, which increases their ability to strategically plan.

These abilities — to decay, cancel, and preview challenge events — could all be easily incorporated into other co-op designs, particularly those built around a card trigger. They’re great examples of how traditional challenge system mechanics could be expanded to improve player agency.

Challenge System Elements: Turn Activation; Card Trigger (with Preview); Decay; Environmental & Removal Consequences; and Combat & Skill Threats.

Cooperative System

The cooperative system of The Captain is Dead is almost entirely strategic. This is based on the layout of the board: players can take different actions in different places. This means that players in different locations must work together to maximize their efficiency: though one player could move around to do different sorts of things, that costs valuable actions.

This is an interesting design because it creates tactical specialization: though certain characters are encouraged to stay in certain spaces (more on which, momentarily), players can dynamically move to different locations and accrue the specialization of that location. This is very different from a standard specialization design, where specializations are inherent to the characters, and so can’t be dynamically swapped.

The Captain is Dead also contains some tactical ability to dynamically exchange skills (in the form of cards). Thanks to the Comm System, players can do this anywhere in the ship, which keeps anyone from feeling isolated even while they’re working strategically — an important element for cooperative play. Further, some player ability may improve tactical interactivity, such as the Telepath, who can borrow skills from other players at his location.

Adventure System

The best element of The Captain is Dead is almost certainly its adventure system: there are 18 different character roles and the designers did a great job of giving each one special abilities that simultaneously fit into the framework of the game’s play and still feel appropriate and evocative for the character. These abilities will often drive play and help determine where each character goes and what they do (though the abilities sometimes walk the line of giving a player too much guidance in what she should do, and thus predetermining her gameplay).

Similarly, all of the ship systems have been carefully developed so that their mechanics reflect their theming. These action-based ship systems are another of the major innovations of the game. They’re particularly strong for how they reflect the science fiction theming of the game.

There’s nothing magical or innovative in the adventure design of The Captain is Dead, but it nonetheless offers an excellent example of how to create evocative adventure systems just by carefully linking object names and object powers so that they feel “real”.

Expansions & Variants

The Captain is Dead was previously available as a self-published game through The Game Crafter (2014), alongside a few expansions. The AEG version (2017) was the first professional publication. It’s since been followed by a standalone second game, The Captain is Dead: Lockdown (2018), which was originally “episode three” on The Game Crafter.

Final Thoughts

Design-wise, The Captain is Dead feels like another member of the Pandemic (2008) family. Characters with unique specializations use action points to fight against a constant onslaught of problems. With that said, it adds depth to the classic play structure through considerable complexity in its actions while simultaneously adding color with well-themed actions and characters.

JT Smith & Joe Price

JT Smith is the co-founder of The Game Crafter, an online web site that allows designers to create prototypes or amateur productions of their games. He has released a number of small-press games through his service. This is the first professional design for both Smith and his co-designer, Joe Price.

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The Alea Analysis, Part Ten: Saint Malo (M#9), Bora Bora (#15), La Isla (M#10)

This article is the tenth in a twelve-part series that analyzes the entire original Alea line of games. For past articles you can read about: Ra, Chinatown, and Taj Mahal in Part One; or Princes of Florence, Adel Verpflichtet, and Traders of Genoa in Part Two; or Wyatt Earp, Royal Turf, and Puerto Rico in Part Three; or Die Sieben Weisen, Edel, Stein & Reich, and Mammoth Hunters in Part Four; or San Juan, Fifth Avenue, and Louis XIV in Part Five; or Palazzo, Augsburg 1520, and Rum & Pirates in Part SixNotre Dame, In The Year of the Dragon, and Witch’s Brew in Part Seven; Macao, Alea Iacta Est, and Glen More in Part Eight; and Castles of Burgundy, Artus, and Las Vegas in Part Nine.

In many ways, I feel like Castles of Burgundy, Artus, and Las Vegas, in Part Nine, marked the end of Alea, or at least the end of its (second) height. Though original games continued for a few more years, they were lesser efforts, and that’s before Alea became a house of reprints and regurgitations (as we’ll see in Part Eleven). And, we’re also moving in on the end of this phase of Alea: Part Twelve will mark the end of their classic releases, before the imprint started reprinting products with better components — hopefully resolving a long-standing issue with Alea’s releases.


Medium Box #10: Saint Malo (C-)

Author: Inka Brand, Markus Brand
Publisher: Ravensburger (2012)
Alea Difficulty Scale: 2
My Plays: 3

Saint Malo is what’s nowadays called a “roll and write” game. Players roll the dice and then write the results. But they only keep one set of results among everything they roll, so they wants an excess of a specific die face.

Players are building a city with those results, filling it with buildings, goods, people, and the inevitable city walls — which altogether gives Saint Malo some nice variety over typical city building games where you’re only concerned about the structures.

The individual builds of Saint Malo also have some interesting variety, as each of the different write-types has different rules for what it generates. For example, with a high roll a player could generate lots of goods or city walls or a really good church or one of several different high-value people.

Strengths: Write and More

Saint Malo contains some interesting and innovative design elements, but unusually for an Alea game, they don’t feel like they were developed that well. It’s much more run of the mill in the world of roll-and-write games.

A Variety of Building. Classic city-building games focus on buildings, whether they be industrial, commercial, or residential. Saint Malo instead lets players build both structures and peoples. That’s a clever addition that could make a city building game even more evocative. Unfortunately it’s only partly successful in Saint Malo. That’s in large part because the game is very abstract. Meanwhile, the differences between people and buildings, which could have made them feel more evocative, instead tend to be confusing, such as the fact that people and buildings have different definitions of adjacent.

A Bit of Freehand. Saint Malo’s freehand drawing is similarly a great idea that’s not fully developed. Players draw not just buildings (and people), but also resources like wood and coins. Freehand drawings could create really interesting possibilities in a roll-and-write game, but they’re not used to particularly good effect here.

A Bit of Survival. In Saint Malo, players constantly have to increase their defenses against pirates by building walls and recruiting soldiers. This creates some good tension in what could otherwise be a pretty staid gameplay. (But once again, I have to question its success, since it drives players to constant tactical wall-building and soldier recruiting, without a lot of strategy required.)

Weaknesses: Write and Less

Unfortunately, Saint Malo doesn’t even hold up to the typical strengths of the roll-and-write genre, and then is further let down by very problematic components.

Forced Tactical Play. As a dice game, Saint Malo is somewhat unforgiving in how it forces players to go down certain paths. If you roll matched dice faces on the first (of three) rolls, then you’ll like keep those matched results and try to roll more of them. You could certainly make a strategic decision to reorient to something else that’s of critical importance (usually city walls), but it has to be quite important, because you’re creating a disadvantageous situation whenever you roll on with fewer matched results.

Monotonous Rolls. The fact that you always want to roll lots of one type of die is also quite monotonous. There’s just no variety like in other die-rolling games, where you might want fewer of a result or matched results or something else entirely.

Bad Components. Unfortunately, Saint Malo is entirely let down by its components. There’s some sort of bad interaction between the wet-erase markers and the linen-textured board, so that anything you write tends to bead up and slowly fades away during the course of the game. Given the run-of-the-mill design of the game itself, this is a pretty gamebreaking problem. Which is a darned shame, because Alea tried to produce components that were superior to the pencils and notepads found in most roll-and-write designs, but apparently they didn’t test out the final results.

Comparisons:

The Castles of Burgundy (#14), Bora Bora (#15), and Control. Just prior to the release of Saint Malo, Alea produced Stefan Feld’s Castles of Burgundy (#14). Bora Bora (#15) would soon follow. Both of those games centered on player-focused die rolls, which determined what the player could do on a turn, and they’re sufficiently superior to Saint Malo that it really fades beside them. A lot of that is about control. Certainly, there’s some opportunity to change the die results in all three games, though paying coins in Saint Malo is quite expensive compared to using workers in Castles of Burgundy. However, those other games also offer far more choices than in Saint Malo. For examples, in Castles of Burgundy, even if you’ve got a die roll that you don’t like you might have multiple placement options, multiple purchase options, and/or the possibility to sell goods. And you can just take more workers if you really don’t like the roll. Conversely, in Saint Malo you build what you’re told to by the dice, with a little choice among people if you choose a people roll, and not much choice beyond that. Certainly, this is a repercussion of Saint Malo being a smaller, shorter, and less involved game, but Saint Malo also has a lot less choices.

Roll and Write and Design. This  would be Alea’s only roll-and-write design until Castles of Burgundy: The Dice Game (VS#4). As such, you have to compare it more widely to the roll-and-write designs in the rest of the industry. Again, Saint Malo stands out for how constrained it is. Compare it to the groundbreaking Roll through the Ages, where you definitely want very high sets in some results (particularly goods), but you’re happy to have a mix, to build neat new stuff and feed your people alike. Or, compare it to Railroad Ink, which embeds its creativity in the unique track designs that each player creates. In comparison, Saint Malo feels very narrow.


Large Box #15: Bora Bora (B)

Author: Stefan Feld
Publisher: Ravensburger (2013)
Alea Difficulty Scale: 6
My Plays: 3

Six in a row for Feld, before Alea started heading off in other directions for the scant remnants of their large-box series.

Bora Bora is a game of … well, everything on a Pacific island. It uses a core mechanic of dice-enabled actions to allow players to expand across the island, collect tribe members, trade for resources, build temples, and create priests. Oh, and there are second level actions that allow players to tattoo men, collect shells, purchase jewelry, and complete tasks. Whew!

The most interesting thing about the dice actions is that they’re constrained by what other players do. Players can get blocked from their actions or forced to take them at a lower level if other players got there first.

Strengths: Another Intriguing Look at Dice

Back to Stefan Feld, and we’re getting much more clever and interesting use of dice play.

Clever Diceplay. The use of dice to control the actions is quite clever. The higher the value of a die that’s placed on an action, the better the action is. But, a die must be lower than every other die placed on the action to date! This creates a great balance, where neither high rolls nor low rolls are the best, which offers some great control of the game’s randomness. It also creates a mechanic that’s not quite role selection (which tends to entirely limit other use of a role), but instead is a much more nuanced variant.

Multiple Paths to Victory. A lot of Feld’s games offer a lot of different paths to victory. Here, you can build your temple, expand across the islands, build your tribe, complete tasks, and collect jewelry. However, unlike many other Feld games you really have to stick to your path to win Bora Bora, which means that players are less likely to play the field and more likely to have a very unique experience each time they play. This is in large part due to the end-game scoring bonuses that you only achieve by “maximizing” each of these paths: such as collecting as much jewelry as possible or getting to every space on the island. A player has to really focus to achieve each of these goals by the end of the game. If he’s too unfocused, he’ll just miss the victory bonuses, to his deficit.

Good Depth. Hand in hand with that, there’s some strong depth in Bora Bora. Not only are there several paths in the game, but each is full of different options, giving a player a lot of choices and also a lot of variability from game to game.

Weaknesses: The Definition of Spaghetti

With that said, Feld’s games have a tendency to be abstract and unfocused when it comes to victory conditions, and Bora Bora is no exception.

Complex & Fiddly. The vast number of systems in the game result in a game that’s very complex. The worse of it is that the various systems tend to work in different ways, creating confusion for new players. For example, the god cards refill as soon as you draw, but the tasks, men, and women only refill at the end of the round, and the jewelry is all laid out at the start. Or, the land bonuses are gained immediately when you expand and the god cards are usable as soon as you get them, but the mens’ tattoo and the womens’ shells only are received when they’re activated with a trade action. Certainly, this type of mechanical variety is found in games, but when it’s married to a game as complex as Bora Bora it becomes problematic.

Unfocused Scoring. And with all of that variety, there’s also a scoring system that’s the definition of spaghetti scoring. There’s some scoring within the game, when you score fish on the fly, build temples, or have extra trading actions, some at the end of each round, when you score status, priests, and tasks and when you activate certain men and women, and some at the end of the game when you score gods, fish, and jewelry, and when you earn bonuses for tasks, jewelry, temple building, island expansion, and tribe expansion. Certainly other Feld games grant points for a vast variety of things, but this one feels particularly unfocused.

Grossly Busy Graphics. Alea did a commendable job of trying to print all the information you need to play on the boards. The main board is somewhat ugly, but mostly successful. The player boards, on the other hand, went sufficiently overboard that they detract from the usability. This is in part because there’s unnecessary stuff here (like a list of all the men/women tiles) and in part because there’s stuff that would have worked better on a double-sided reference card (like the list of gods and the end-game score). By jamming everything into one blindingly garish graphic, Bora Bora ensures that players won’t be able to easily pick out the important stuff (like the trade actions and the fire bonus).

Comparisons

The Castles of Burgundy (#14), Bora Bora (#15), and Dice-Based Play. I’ve always considered Bora Bora to be Castles of Burgundy’s less successful younger brother. (Why do I consider it less successful? Well, obviously it is, sales-and-popularity-wise. Just look at all the Castles variants, or if you prefer BGG’s ownership stats, which say that 5x as many people own Castles.) But in retrospect, I think that’s a somewhat simplistic frame. Yes, they’re both games where dice empowers actions, but Castles is all about hitting specific numbers while Bora Bora has a very different system of rolling high numbers to maximize choices while rolling low numbers to maximize ability to actually take those choices. Beyond that, I think that Bora Bora is both a much more complex game (though Alea rates them at the same difficulty level) and it’s a much less unified game when compared to the core mechanics of acquiring and placing tiles in Castles. In fact, it’s really a totally different game that just looks similar because of those dice actions.

Bruges & Directed Play. In some ways I find more similarities to the card-driven Bruges (2013), one of Feld’s most successful games not published by Alea. Certainly, Bruges feels very different from Bora Bora since it’s a quicker, medium-weight game. But they both seem to take the same approach to their multiple paths to victory. In both games it feels like you have a frightening amount of freedom at the start of the game, but the further you get into the game, the more directed your play is, because you’re largely forced to continue down the path you’ve taken if you want to achieve victory.

Trajan & Sub-games. The other Stefan Feld game that’s most often compared to Bora Bora is Trajan, which is his other most successful non-Alea game. The main similarity here is the vast number of mostly unconnected systems within the game. In fact, the various things you can do in Trajan are so unconnected that you could practically call them sub-games.


Medium Box #10: La Isla (C+)

Author: Stefan Feld
Publisher: Ravensburger (2014)
Alea Difficulty Scale: 2
My Plays: 2

Stefan Feld invades the medium box series! Not that La Isla is much like Feld’s other Alea games.

This is a game of animal capture, where players place explorers on a board around animals and capture them when they’re surrounded. Players score animals when they capture them, when they increase their values, and at the end of the game. So it’s really all about the animals.

The actual gameplay comes primarily through cards, which can be played to provide special powers, to grant resources (which are necessary to place the explorer), and to increase the values of animals. You draw three cards, and you play each in one of these three manners.

Strengths: Great Cards

So what makes La Isla an interesting game? It’s all about the tactical card play.

Clever Cardplay. The heart of La Isla is its card play. Each card can be played for one of three purposes: to grant special powers, to generate resources, and to score animals. Even better, the mechanics of the game require the players to draw three cards, then decide how to allocate them, with one card put into each sort of usage. This innovative style of play creates a lot of tension and hard decisions. Each turn, players have to prioritize placing their figures to capture animals (which requires resources), scoring for existing and future animals, and gaining special powers which might grant resources or victory points. Thus, La Isla is a constant juggling act.

Nice Card Variety. A game of placing figures around animals to capture them could be pretty simple (and more on that momentarily). La Isla maintains its variability through a variety of special powers. The special powers on different cards help to drive the game in different ways, making each one feel quite different.

Potential Engine Building. There’s just enough variety among the cards to allow some actual engine building, where a few different cards can complement each other, allowing for more efficient play. But, La Isla has a particularly nice twist on engine-building play: it requires players to usually replace one of their special-power cards when they play a new one. Much as with the game overall, this creates a balance between tactical efficiency (where you might grab resources or points of the moment) and strategic play (where you try to create an engine that will benefit you for many turns).

Weaknesses: Production Problems & Simplistic Play

Alea has always produced games with strong mechanics and weak production. In fact there were production issues with each of the other games in this article. And, it’s even more the case than usual for La Isla, where production issues drag down the gameplay.

Horrible Icon Reference. The downside of all of these special cards is figuring out how to use them. As with many Eurogames, La Isla depends on icons for this purpose. They’re OK, but they require reference to figure them out for the first game or two, and La Isla does an awful job of referencing these icons. There are just two references for four players, and one is in English and the other is in German(!) — so make that one reference. And it’s not organized in a way that makes it easy to look things up. I don’t usually complain about this type of production issue, but the icon reference issue of La Isla has a notable, detrimental effect on any first time player’s gameplay, which might assure there’s not a second play.

Poor Theming. The theming of La Isla is also really light. You expend cubes to place explorers around animals and when you surround them, you capture them. Cards give you powers that are represented iconically with no theming of their own. This type of abstraction was much more common in eurogames a decade ago, and it’s definitely gone out of style now. It makes it pretty obvious that you’re pushing cubes around in a pretty arbitrary way.

Meanwhile, the gameplay itself cleaves toward a simplicity that curtails the game’s replayability.

Core Simplicity. The core gameplay of La Isla is pretty simple. You manage your resources, you surround animals, and you do your best to win out in competition with other players. The cards provide enough variability to give the game some legs, but ultimately this doesn’t have the depth of much of the Alea catalogue.

Real Randomness. The core gameplay of La Isla is interested in part because it’s about controlling randomness. You get three cards and you decide, among them, which power you want, which resource you want, and which scoring you want. Some special powers can allow even more control, for example by allowing a player to draw more cards or to use one color of cube as a wild. With that said, there can still be  large disparity among players, with some getting exactly what they want and others never getting either what they want or the luck-controlling special powers. This may be OK in a game of La Isla’s length, but it straddles the line.

Comparisons

Rum & Pirates (#10), Notre Dame (#11), In The Year of the Dragon (#12), Macao (#13), The Castles of Burgundy (#14), Bora Bora (#15), La Isla (M#10) & Feldisms. As the seventh Stefan Feld game for the Alea line, La Isla marks the point where Stefan Feld had produced almost a quarter of the line(!). With that said, this is unlike any of Feld’s other entrants. It’s not just that it’s lighter than the rest of Feld’s games (though it is), but it’s also that it’s cleaner. It’s a pretty notable comparison even to Rum & Pirates, a similarly light game, but one that had lots of complex, interconnected (and random) systems. All of Feld’s Alea games tend to be dense and complex and full of intertwining systems, so La Isla is a real change, with a minimal set of actions that don’t allow strategies beyond how you undertake each action.

Bruges & Clever Cards. La Isla may be the most similar to (once more!) Bruges (2013), published by Hans im Glück just a year earlier. Both games depend heavily on multi-use cards. The difference with Bruges is that the cards have six(!) different uses (one special power use and five standard uses based on card color) and that players get to choose how to use each card individually, rather than being constrained to make three specific uses of cards each turn. A full game of Bruges is only a bit longer than a full game of La Isla, but the increase in play depth is notable.


Large Box #16: Puerto Rico (reprint)
Medium Box #11: San Juan (reprint)

And here we come to what I consider the real downfall of the first phase of Alea, in 2014 when they started retreading past glories instead of breaking new ground. This resulted in reprints of Puerto Rico (2014) and San Juan (2014) with better (color) graphics and expansions included. Certainly, they’re nicer editions, but they also took up development and production space that could have gone to something new.

However, I think that Alea really broke their sales model by putting new numbers on the reprinted boxes: large box #16 for the new Puerto Rico and medium box #11 for the new San Juan. Rio Grande had already shown a profound lack of understanding of Alea as a collector’s series by infamously leaving the #9 off of the Mammoth Hunters box, but perhaps they thought it didn’t matter because there were several early Alea games that never got an American printing. But now Ravensburger in Germany destroyed their own collector’s market by creating additional numbers for two of their games. So collectors either had to keep two different copies of two games (and doubtless some did) or else they had to have a gap in their collection. And I can tell you: having a gap in your collection makes it that much easier to not fill it with all the games. The various gaps in the American run made it possible for me to unload the games that I didn’t like, starting with Fifth Avenue (2004). In fact, Saint Malo and La Isla are going out of my collection as soon as I finish this article.

So, thanks Alea and Rio Grande?


Medium Box #8.5: Las Vegas Boulevard (expansion)

The other way that Alea reflected their past glory beginning in 2014 was with their first single-game expansion, Las Vegas Boulevard (2014) for Las Vegas. I wrote about it previously in the last article. This of course followed the multigame Treasure Chest (2009) expansion, which I wrote a little about in a few “Alea Treasures” articles.

And that was Alea in 2014, heading toward a rather disappointing end to their original line, as they spent a few years regurgitating old games, sometimes in interesting new forms, before they rebooted the line entirely … with better looking editions of their most successful classic games.

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Co-op Case Study: Oar Else!

When is a co-op not a co-op? When it subverts its own framing. Nonetheless, there are lessons to be learned in this competitive game.

This case study originally appeared on the Meeples Together blog.


Publisher: Flatcar6 Studios (2013)
Cooperative Style: Faux Cooperative
Play Style: Card Management, Take That

Overview

Oar Else! is a competitive game overlaid by the façade of cooperation. Players are marooned on a lifeboat. They can play paddle cards to get the lifeboat to shore, bid for food in auctions, and play attack cards on other players; if the lifeboat is rowed to shore, the player with the most oars and food wins. However, a player can also go overboard to strike out on his own and then wins based on his own personal goals.

Challenge System

The first clue that Oar Else! isn’t actually a cooperative game is the lack of any challenge system. Though players draw cards every turn, none of them are bad. Further, there’s no chance that the players will fail to reach the shore. This removes any tension from the question of whether players should cooperate or not — and means that there’s not even a survival focus on Oar Else!, despite the theming.

Cooperative System

The decision point as to whether a player should cooperate to help the lifeboat get to shore or go it alone should be a superb one. In a true co-op game, it could work very well, as each player constantly decides whether to become a traitor or not. However, in Oar Else! the idea of cooperating is totally subverted.

There are a couple of reasons for this.

First, as already noted, there’s no chance to fail. As a result, there’s nothing that encourages players to cooperate.

Second, there’s actually no chance to win cooperatively either. If players finish in the boat together, then one of them is still a winner, based on the play of rowing and food cards.

As a result, the cooperate-or-not decision actually becomes a purely competitive decision, where a player decides if he’s more likely to win by tricking the other players into getting him to shore or if he’s going to have to go it on its own.

Oar Else! ultimately shows the importance of framing within a game design. If all the players who got to shore together were said to win jointly, with a best winner declared, that’d feel very different than the current situation, where there’s an absolute winner.

Final Thoughts

Oar Else! contains a great idea for cooperative gaming: the decision to cooperate or compete, which is reconsidered by every player every turn. Its own design undercuts this decision by neglecting challenges and by disallowing true cooperation. Still, the idea could be adapted for true co-op gaming and could result in some interesting, innovative designs.

Flatcar6 Studios

Oar Else (2013) is the only game designed by Jason Fleming, Bob Heubel, and Julia Huff and the only game released through Flatcar6 Studios.

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A Bagbuilding Look at The Quacks of Quedlinburg

Ten years (and several months) after the release of Dominion (2008), I declare the deckbuilding era of eurogaming dead. Oh, Dominion and Ascension (2010) are still putting out expansions, and Pathfinder ACG (2013) just got a big new edition, but the biggest recent successes have been Star Realms (2014) and Clank! (2016), both several years gone now. They just aren’t making them like they used to.

With that said, I’m thrilled to see continued innovation in the subgenre of bagbuilding. I suspect these games are cheaper to make than classic deckbuilders because they don’t require the huge set of cards, and so they’re helping to keep the intriguing deckbuilding mechanism alive in a slightly different form. So in what I suspect will be one of my final articles in this long-running look at the rise and (now) fall of deckbuilding games, I wanted to take a look at one of the newer bagbuilders, The Quacks of Quedlinburg (2018) — which to my disappointment turned out to have nothing to do with ducks.


The Game

The Quacks of Quedlinburg is a bag of making potions. You start with a bag of explosive white ingredients, plus a little bit of green and orange. You make a potion by drawing those ingredients from the bag one at a time. You’re trying to make a potion with a high quantity of ingredients, but if you draw too many white ingredients, your potion will blow up, so it’s a game of pressing your luck, as you’re trying to get lots of stuff into your potion without drawing too much white.

Once you’re done, you get to earn victory points and buy new ingredients, based on how good your potion was (and whether it blew up). New ingredients not only help to water down those explosive ingredients in your bag, but they also can give special powers, either when the tile is drawn or at the end of the turn.

Using cards to define the tokens.

On Physicality. The big advantage of the original deckbuilding genre, of course, is that cards can have lots of room for text on them, designating special powers that might be quite complex. That’s why deckbuilders took off. Dicebuilders and bagbuilders need to figure out other mechanisms to designate how things work because you can’t find much text on a die, token, or cube. Orléans (2014) resolved this by putting all the rules on the game board, but Quacks instead uses the same methodology as Quarriors (2011) and Automobiles (2016): the powers are on supplemental cards that are laid out in the middle of the table to explain the other components. This allows for variety, as the cards can be changed out (much as is done in those other games), and Quacks takes full advantage of that, listing out four sets of colored ingredient powers that can be used in the game.

The Good

Press Your Luck. The biggest innovation of Quacks is obviously that you’re not just drawing a set hand of cards, but instead drawing until you stop, with the goal of avoiding the bad results (explosion!) along the way. This nicely shows that there are still fundamental ways to change the basic rules of deckbuilding (and offers a very different sort of gameplay, while still building on the evolving designs of deckbuilders from the last decade).

Controlling Your Draw. Hand in hand with that, Quacks offers stronger ways to control your draw than just about any other deckbuilder out there. You can reject draws, you can choose among multiple ingredients, and you can even return previous draws to the bag — if you use special colored ingredient special powers.

A Bag of Bad. Most deckbuilders start you off with subpar cards, discs, or cubes. A few even have some useless cards in their initial decks. But, Quacks goes a step further by putting explosive ingredients into your bag that are just bad. This creates an interesting variant of the standard deckbuilding gameplay where your goal isn’t to make a great deck, but instead to try and figure out how to offset the badness that’s implicitly a part of it.

Building a bag to build a potion.

The Interesting

No Killer Combos! Most deckbuilder games either randomize sets of cards (ala Dominion) or else individual cards (ala Ascension). This means that the gameplay often centers on killer combos, where the strategic goal is to figure out which cards work together well, then to pounce on them before your opponents. Quacks seems to have taken the opposite stance. It carefully segregates its ingredients’ special powers into sets, with the idea being that you play with only powers from one of the four sets at one time. Further, these sets seem to purposefully minimize the killer interactions between cards. Thus, the game isn’t about the perceptiveness of spotting (and utilizing) killer combos but instead a more standard type of strategy, where you take one of several routes to victory and try to push harder than your opponents. (Will players just randomize the cards outside of these sets, stepping away from this interesting variant? I suspect so.)

The Bad

Exhausting Draws. By the last several rounds you could easily be drawing a few dozen ingredients, and this gets a bit exhausting — so much so that you have to have rests between drawing. It’s just too much of a good thing, like those turns of Dominion where you end up playing and drawing several hands full of cards — except that it’s every round at the end.

Strained Simultaneity. Theoretically, Quacks is played simultaneously, but that’s built under the assumption that people won’t be looking around to see how their opponents are doing. If players violate this, then the game instead moves to a strained simultaneity where players draw their ingredients one at a time, as someone yells “stir” again and again. In addition, this is theoretically the required gameplay for the last round of play. It can make the exhausting draws of the later rounds even more brain-numbing.

Obvious Imbalance. Every deckbuilder has to fight with the problem of the rich getting richer. A good deck is just going to produce better turns than a bad deck. This problem seems to be notably magnified in Quacks for several reasons. Part of it is that you’re offsetting bad ingredients in your bag, and part of it is that you’ll usually draw most of your ingredients on each turn. But the thing that makes the growing power imbalance of Quacks really obvious is that players go head to head each round, comparing their brews. So you know if someone is killing everyone else every turn. It’s sufficiently problematic that I’d be very cautious about repeating that mechanic in another deckbuilder. Quacks tries to offset this with a heavy-handed (but relatively elegant) balancing mechanic based on rat tails on the score board, but even that’s not enough to give players a fair shot if someone is pulling ahead.

Conclusion

The Quacks of Quedlinburg is an interesting design primarily because it moves so far away from the standards of bagbuilding (and deckbuilding) design, in large part due to its draw which isn’t based upon quantity, but instead on risk. A lot of the deckbuilders that I’ve written about just make small, incremental changes to Dominion’s primordial deckbuilding formula, so it’s always great to see something that goes further afield — and that’s been a particularly notable element of the whole bagbuilding subgenre, I think because the dramatically different components really encourage innovation.

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Co-op Case Study: Pathfinder ACG Core Set

One of the exciting new releases of 2019 is a pair of new supplements for the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core Set and Curse of the Crimson Throne. Together, they notably renovate the original game.

This article was originally published on the Meeples Together blog.


Publisher: Paizo Publishing (2019)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op
Play Style: Adventure Game, Campaign, Deckbuilding

Overview

The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core Set is the lead product for the revamped Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (2013). Paizo hasn’t been calling it a second edition, but it really is — albeit, a somewhat compatible second edition. As with the first edition, the Core Set mixes deckbuilding and adventure gaming with cooperative play. Each game, players explore decks and (usually) capture a villain, and over multiple games they improve their characters as part of long campaigns — now running 10 to 26 games rather than 30+.

Challenge System

The challenge system in the Core Set is identical to that in the original Pathfinder ACG. Players explore locations represented as decks of cards while racing against an “hourglass” timer. If they can close enough locations to corner the villain before the timer runs out, they win.

With that said, the challenge system in the Core Set feels a lot harder. That’s not due to any changes to the challenge system itself, but instead the resulted of new limitations placed on the game’s cooperative mechanics.

Challenge System Elements: Exploration Activation; Card Trigger; Timer; Campaign; and Combat & Skill Threats.

Cooperative System

In the original Pathfinder ACG, characters faced challenges that could be defeated by the roll of dice, with dice being added to a pool based on the play of cards. Each player could only play one of each type of card, for example one weapon, one armor, and one spell, but collectively the group could play as many cards as they wanted. Practically, this meant that the active player played the core cards for a challenge, such as weapons and most spells, but if other players thought the challenge was important, they could pile on “blessings”, each of which added one or two more dice to the pool.

In the Core Set, the entire group is now limited to just one card of each type, with the exception of some cards that can be played “freely”. This purely mechanical change creates a huge new restriction on cooperation. Previously, support was widely possible with some geographical limitations (though blessings could be played without restriction, other cards and some powers could only be used by local characters or in some cases, remote characters), now there’s a simple quantity limitation that makes a big difference in the game.

This new rule is paired with a general reduction in power in the game. Many of those blessings, which used to provide two dice of support in specific circumstances, now provide just one. In addition, some of the more overpowered characters have been toned done. Those these “nerfs” aren’t explicitly cooperative limitations, they do nonetheless limit a player’s ability to help his fellows, albeit in an almost invisible way (since it’s just the way the powers and cards work).

An inevitable question here is: does making a game more difficult make it more or less fun? The Captain is Dead: Lockdown, another recent co-op sequel, demonstrated a situation where the updated game’s limitations were so restrictive, and so limited player agency, that they reduced enjoyment in the game. The Core Set’s limitations are much less extreme, and so less likely to go down this path.

Interestingly, while restricting its cooperation for shared tasks, the Core Set also introduces a new type of serialized cooperation. A new mechanic called “avenge” allows a player to immediately face a challenge that a local character failed to overcome. This is clearly meant as a balance to the reduction in simultaneous support. And, it’s a neat balance because it can grant players extra opportunities to succeed at a challenge, even if each individual attempt is now harder.

This is pretty important for Pathfinder ACG, because under the previous system, a bunch of players all adding a lot of support to an important challenge could (and would) make it a near certainty, destroying the tension that’s so crucial to cooperative games. However, if players instead take on challenges serially, but with more limited support, the group still has a good chance of eventually overcoming the challenge, but there’s now opportunity for failure before success, which is a great model for tension in a game.

(To put it another way, by the old mechanism the players might give themselves a 95% chance of completing the challenge, while by the new mechanism, they might have a 75% chance on a first try, then another 75% chance on an avenge try. The overall odds are almost 95% either way, but the latter is a lot more exciting.)

Adventure System

Pathfinder ACG always had a strong adventure system, but the new Core Set demonstrates how to push that sort of evocative story content even further. That comes in large part through the “Storybooks” that now accompany each campaign. Previously, story had been summarized in a few tight paragraphs on a card, but now the players can read a page or so of story, including dialogue. After each game, there’s also additional text describing the dénouement.

However, the improvements to Pathfinder ACG’s adventure system go far beyond simple story text. The cards depicting characters, locations, opponents, and treasure were always evocative, but they’re now improved. Locations, for example, have traits such as Underground, Urban, and Wild that can trigger specific effects. Each adventure also has a Danger such as “Rescue” or “Collapse” that presents a potentially recurring challenge that is appropriate to the story. In both of these cases, the adventure system has been improved by using Traits and card types to tie cards together to create more evocative results. Finally, many cards have had their effects rewritten to feel more appropriate to what they are and what they should do; this last bit is sort of black magic for adventure card game design, but cards usually become more evocative the more distinct they are.

Expansions & Variants

The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core Set is theoretically compatible with the four major sets and the many class decks that came before it. However, there are sufficient changes to balance, to graphic design, and to rules that it may be better to play it with other games from the revamped PACG line, which currently means Curse of the Crimson Throne (2019), the first full-length adventure path for the updated game system.

Final Thoughts

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core Set retains its innovative design, but has been cleaned up and polished. The biggest change is certainly to the challenge level. The new Core Set offers an excellent example of how to notably change the challenge level with a minor rule change; it also demonstrates how cooperation can happen in different ways, each collectively or serially.

“The major impact it has is to cut down on the situations where a group could unload nearly their entire hands at a key moment. What we were seeing is that large groups could, with a little planning and effort, reliably drop this sort of massive card play on key checks, so much so that they were frequently removing the tension from these dramatic points. With this small adjustment to the rule, plus the ability to sidestep it when we want to with the freely exception (it’s used by a LOT of cards), we were able to leave in the option for overkill while restoring much of the tension to those key dramatic moments.”

—Chad Brown, “Core Principles: Encouraging Teamwork in the Pathfinder ACG”, Paizo Blog, https://paizo.com/community/blog/v5748dyo6sgl5

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New to Me: Spring 2019 — Sequels at the Top

My gaming has changed this year, due to the much-lamented demise of my old gaming community. My new groups seems to have gelled around slightly lighter play than the medium-weight games I prefer, and thus I’ve had a few more misses this time around. But I’ve also played some very enjoyable games in the last three months, most of which were sequels in one way or another. As usual, this list rates games based on my personal enjoyment as a medium-weight gamer, and they’re games I personally haven’t played before, whether they’re truly new or not.

The Great (“I Would Buy This”)

New Frontiers (2018). This is the fourth iteration of the Race for the Galaxy system, following Race for the Galaxy (2007), Roll for the Galaxy (2014), and Jump Drive (2017). This one is obviously the heftiest of the games, though it outweighs super-filler Race for the Galaxy by just a little bit.

As usual, you’re building developments, settling planets, and shipping goods to earn points. This new game goes back to the core role-selection play of Race for the Galaxy, which means that you do these things by selecting actions, and then other players get to take slightly less powerful versions of those actions. That’s a nice return, because Race for the Galaxy dramatically fell out of favor in local play as extensive expansions poisoned the game through too much complexity, then Roll for the Galaxy basically fired it. I love Roll, but its gameplay is quite different. Still, this isn’t quite the classic Race system. For example, you now have to have both settlers and money to settle a planet.

Much of New Frontiers’ expanded gameplay is reminiscent of other members of the “role civilization” family. For example the new settlement action (where you either collect the settlers you need for settlement or actually do the settlement) feels like it’s drawn from the deckbuilder Eminent Domain (2011). The biggest callbacks are to the father of this whole family of game design, Puerto Rico (2002). Many of these callbacks are mechanics that reduce randomness. For example all New Frontiers developments (Puerto Rico’s purple buildings) can be freely selected for building, while its planets (Puerto Rico’s plantations) are drafted. Even the extra-VP nine-point developments (Puerto Rico’s double purple buildings) can be freely selected.

I had thought this game would be too repetitive with the original Race for the Galaxy, but it’s got enough variance to keep it fresh. Nonetheless, it’s really amusing to see it called “the Race for the Galaxy board game” when there’s no board. Still, there are lots of tabletop components, like a player display. Maybe too many, because the whole game is somewhat overproduced and definitely too big. I’ll very likely keep this one, but the box size makes it questionable despite the great play.

The Very Good (“I Would Keep This”)

Roll for the Galaxy: Rivalry – The Orb Game (2019).Meanwhile, the older iterations of the Race system are still receiving supplements. In fact, I was thrilled when I heard there was a second expansion for Roll for the Galaxy (2014), one of my favorites of recent years. But when I learned it was a huge expansion that cost $80 and was so big that it wasn’t likely to fit in the organizer in my gamebox, it dropped off my to-buy list. Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure the price is fair for the components. (Basically, the designers explain that it’s three supplements in one.) I just have little interest in paying more for an expansion than the original game; I think it’s a serious misstep in marketing and sales. Sadly, my first play of the expansion didn’t change that decision.

We played “The Orb Game”, one of the two major variants in the new game. And, it’s a pretty neat and innovative expansion. Each player gets a special alien yellow “orb” die at the start of the game. They roll it each round and get special bonuses: a reassign, a scout, or an “orb improvement”. That last bit is what makes the expansion so innovative. It’s literally a dice building game, because you can improve the alien orb by popping out its faces and replacing them with better, more powerful options. There are several different paths you can take, giving you a huge variety of options, and the ability to design an orb that matches your overall strategy. This is brilliantly linked into a new phase, which is designated by “$”s, which already appear on a few of the dice: you can now spend those “$”s to improve your orb. Though I do find the huge plastic “orb” dice overly clunky, the mechanic nonetheless is a nice addition that adds a whole different level of strategy the game. Great for advanced players, and easy to incorporate or not, as should be the case for expansions of this sort.

(We also played with new tiles from the expansion, which are hard to make out in the game overall, but this type of expansion is almost always great. I wish a set of just new tiles had come out, but I often feel that for games of this sort. Expanding tiles or cards adds variety to a much-played game, which I want, while new rules tend to add complexity, which I often don’t. If fact, we didn’t play with the Deal Game, the other major variant, as the game owner thought it would drag the game down, and said that many reviewers seemed to agree.)

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core Set (2019). Pathfinder ACG second edition is mostly like Pathfinder ACG first edition, though I wouldn’t mix them together because of variations in the card design and the game balance. The game’s a little harder this time, which is probably a benefit because first edition was usually too easy (but enjoyable despite that). I also like the new sales model for PACG because you can now get a full game for an additional $50, rather than having to buy five $20 sets. I hope that helps the game to return to a high level of success.

With that all said, I have one notable issue with the packaging of the Core Set: there aren’t enough cards. Oh, the rules cover it by putting in extra “boons” that you can’t permanently acquire during the first few adventures, but in many ways that just multiplies the problem, because now it feels like some of your turns are worthless, when you draw cards you can’t keep. And I’m pretty sure we’ll be tired of constantly seeing those same boons by the time we’re done with the Core adventure path. There is a solution for this all: mix in some class decks and then ignore the rule that says to mix in the higher levels of boons. But right now you’d have to mix in cards from first edition class decks, and though they’ll work, it definitely wouldn’t be my preference. In any case, that’s what keeps the previous Great game from being anything more than Very Good in this first outing. I’m pretty sure when I get to play the supplemental Adventure Path, Curse of the Crimson Throne (2019), I’ll be back to my Great ratings.

The Good (“I Would Enjoy Playing Your Copy of This”)

Forum Trajanum (2018). Stefan Feld certainly seems to enjoy his Roman-themed games, though I’d say that having two games with Trajan in the title is just asking for trouble.

This one is a card-drafting city-building games. You randomly draw resource-generating tiles, pass one to an opponent, then choose one to play. After you collect your resources, you can then build, and the buildings have repercussions: either giving you more resources or giving you the ability to score points primarily through sending followers to the capitol. Actually, the game’s pretty hard to explain because of its intricate connections between different actions, which are quite innovative.

There’s a lot of thoughtful depth in this game, and the opportunity to make strong moves or bad moves. I think that if it played fast it’d be pretty great — and there’s good opportunity for that, since you’re just collecting one set of resources than building one thing each turn. But it’s easy to get wrapped up in the complexity, and if that happens the game drags. So, I’m rating this “Good” at the moment, but it could be “Very Good” if it played more smoothly with more experienced players.

The OK (“I Am Willing to Play This if You Ask”)

The Quacks of Quedlinburg (2018). This innovative bagbuilding game focuses on drawing ingredients from a bag to make a secret brew. You’re primarily trying to increase the quantity of your brew, but many of the chips have special powers, which will improve your brew or your game position in various ways. The catch is that the gameplay is ultimately press your luck: if you draw too many of the wrong ingredients, then your potion will be ruined.

Though I like the core gameplay of Quacks, and though I think it nicely innovates the bagbuilding subgenre, I also feel like it wears out its welcome. By the end of the game, it feels like you’re pretty endlessly drawing ingredients. Still, it’s a nice light game, and the special powers of the ingredients help to give it some depth.

Tortuga 1667 (2017). A hidden teams game: some people are British and some are French, and they’re each trying to move gold into their own vaults, but the Flying Dutchman can win if he keeps things balanced. There’s some very clever design here, in that there’s a lot of room for plausible deniability: players frequently place secret cards into “auctions”, but they only have limited options, which might not include what they really want to do, and additional cards can add chaos to the mix.The problem is that at some point you have to really declare a side (and it might be on the first turn!) and that always feels like a weakness in this sort of game.

Meanwhile, there’s just not a lot of depth to the gameplay. Often, your actions are really minimal. You might look at cards .. so you can play one next turn; or you might move to a rowboat .. so that you can get to a ship on the next turn. Or, you might just randomly play a card. This is all probably great for parties and casual play, and it certainly has more depth than Bang! (2002) and The Resistance (2009), so if that’s your cup of tea, give this a shot. (It’s just not my cuppa.)

Fuji Flush (2016). A Friedemann Friese card game. It’s got quite a clever play mechanic: you play cards, and players with lower value cards that are still out have to discard and redraw. But, if you play the same value card as someone else out, those cards sum up: so a second “5” would knock out a “9” and a third “5” would knock out up to “14”. Only when a card or set survives back to the first player of that set do the players get to discard those cards without redrawing, reducing their hand size and putting them closer to winning the game. There’s probably some clever play here, but for the most part it’s really random, based on everyone’s draw and is fun mainly because you get to constantly screw all of your opponents, and revel in doing so.

The Meh (“I Would Prefer Not to Play This”)

The Chameleon (2017). A deductive word play game. A grid of words is laid out, which all have a common theme (like “authors” or “musical instruments”). Some dice are rolled to determine which word is selected, and everyone knows which word that is … except one player, the chameleon. Everyone then chooses a clue (another word) to represent the word, and the object is to figure out which player was the chameleon, presumably because he choose a bad clue … except if he’s found out, the chameleon can still win by figuring out what the real word is.

I feel like the first part of this puzzle is barely a game: not knowing the actual word, the chameleon has to select a clue that’s either really generic or obscure or just weird. It feels very arbitrary (and is even rougher on the chameleon than most word-guessing games of this sort). The second part of the puzzle is meanwhile very clever, because it requires all the other players to choose slightly bad clues, so that they don’t make the real answer too obvious. It’s a thoughtful balance, but not enough to make up for the non-game-ness of the chameleon’s choice.

Mind you, I’m really not the audience for this game, with its social components, and the way it really puts players on the spot. I saw some players who hated it (primarily for being put on the spot) and some who loved it (presumably for the intense social play).

The Captain is Dead: Lockdown (2017, 2018). The original Captain is Dead (2014, 2016) was an evocative science-fiction co-op that did a great job of integrating that science-fiction theming into pretty traditional cooperative mechanics. This sequel game, Lockdown, repeats those core mechanics, but sucks all of the fun out of them. The main problem (I suspect) is that the designers wanted to create a much harder co-op experience, but in doing so they created a game where the players actions are so constantly limited (and the player gains are so constantly reversed) that what the players do is often entirely pre-defined. And there’s there’s a required strategy, where you must pick up the right technology at the start of the game to make victory possible. The result is a real the-game-plays-you-experience, but even more problematic than most because the apparent randomness of the game gets subsumed into this required gameplay.

Beyond that, Lockdown is just not that fun because the difficulty makes everything seem entirely hopeless (or else the required strategies make it seem really easy, or so I’ve been told) and beyond that the core challenges are really repetitive (an alien appears; then another alien appears; then a different sort of alien appears …).

I’m not done yet. The game is further crippled by one of the worst professionally produced rulebooks I’ve ever seen. There’s no order of play, and instead you have to try and figure out how things work based on examples and inference. At least a few rules we just had to guess about based on how the previous game worked, and whenever we got to a special case, we knew there was no way the rules would cover it. (And speaking of components, the alien tokens are murky and almost impossible to distinguish from each other, which is yet another major flaw when you have a board full of them.)

Two and a half hours in we finally threw up our hands and gave up. No one had any fun.

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Co-op Case Study: Just One

The SdJ nominees for 2019 were announced last month and were full of entrants of interest to co-op fans. The traditional SdJ award, which runs pretty light nowadays, nominated Just One (a true co-op, sort of) and Werewords (a hidden traitor game). Then the heftier Kennerspiel award nominated Detective (another true co-op). It was a great year for cooperative play.

Could any of these games join the ranks of past co-op and teamplay winners like Exit Das Spiel (2017 KdJ), Codename (2016 SdJ), and Legends of Andor (2013 KdJ)? We should know next month. In the past, the SdJ hasn’t been that friendly to co-ops, with some true greats like Pandemic, both Pandemic Legacies, T.I.M.E Stories, Space Alert, Shadows over Camelot, and Lord of the Rings getting at best participation prices, but the last few years suggest that might be changing.

So here’s a like at one of this year’s nominees, Just One, and what makes it great too.

This article was originally published on Meeples Together.


Publisher: Repos Production (2018)
Cooperative Style: True Co-op
Play Style: Word Guessing

Overview

Players write clues to a mystery word that the active player must then guess. But, they can only use one word for their clue, and if anyone duplicates their clues, the copies are all thrown out.

Cooperative System

Word-guessing games, including well-known ones such as Charades (1800s), Pictionary (1985), and Barbarossa (1988), generally differentiate themselves by how they limit player communication. In fact, the genre tends to define the “directed communication” mechanic: limited communication acts as the core of the gameplay and is directed through a specific medium such as acting, drawing, or clay modeling. Like the ever-popular Taboo (1989), Just One directs its communication through talking, but puts limits on that conversation: as the name of the game suggests, each player writes a clue that’s just one word. This is fairly typical for the genre: Codenames (2015) is another recent game with a similar single-word limitation, though its gameplay is very different.

Word-guessing games are usually team games where players use various directed means to induce their teammates to say a specific word. The first big cooperative innovation of Just One (2018) is that it’s instead a true co-op. Players run through 13 cards and then earn a score based on how well they guessed. A chart in the rules classifies the scores from 13 (“perfect score”) to 0-3 (“try again”), but as with more scoring mechanisms of this type, it’s not that evocative. However, a perfect score is a real (but tough) possibility, so most players will measure their success by how close they cleave to that ideal.

The other innovative element of Just One’s cooperative system is the amount of individual player agency it creates, totally removing any problem of Controlling Players while simultaneously eliminating the issue of Free Riders: everyone has to contribute, everyone does so on their own, and everyone’s contribution is important.

This comes in two parts.

First, each player has to individually choose a word as a clue. Then, there’s the possibility for this choice to be a success or a failure. If a player chooses the same clue as someone else, they failed, because all those identical words are eliminated. Conversely, if they were able to write a distinct, unduplicated clue, they saved the day, and if those picked a clue the nicely complements what other people wrote, even better.

Second, the active player has to guess the mystery word. There’s obvious pressure here, because the active player can be the hero or the goat, based on whether he guesses right or wrong. And, because of how the other players selected their words, there’s always going to be ambiguity — another great element for cooperative play. Just One makes this choice even tenser by giving the active player the opportunity to skip a word if they don’t feel confident: the group loses one point if the active player skips, but two points if he guesses wrong! This brings the personal responsibility up to a whole other level.

Minimal Challenge Elements: Round Activation; Card Trigger; Directed Communication; Tally Scoring

Expansions & Variants

Just One was previously published as We Are the Word (2017), in a smaller, French edition.

Final Thoughts

Most word-guessing games include cooperative systems, but they don’t tend to be that innovative. Technically, Just One’s conversion of typical team play to true co-op is innovative, but the introduction of a simple scoring system is a pretty minimalist way to enable cooperative play. Just One is much more notable for the high level of agency and responsibility it creates for both clue givers and word guessers. Every co-op game would do well to answer the two questions that Just One knocks out of the park: how can each player be empowered to make their own, individual contribution to the game? And how can those individual contributions obviously either succeed or fail at helping the group?

Ludovic Roudy & Bruno Sautter

In 2010, Roudy and Sautter founded Serious Poulp, a small-press French game company. They began publication with the two-player Steam Torpedo: First Contact (2011), but they found their biggest success more recently with the publication of the choose-your-own-adventure cooperative exploration game, The 7th Continent (2017), which raised a record-breaking seven million dollars for its upcoming What Goes Up Must Come Down (2019) expansion.


This was a game that we happily stumbled upon when it was put on the table during a local gameplay night (at the late, lamented Endgame, bastion of gaming in the Bay Area for almost two decades). We didn’t think to take a photo, so this one is courtesy the Repos Production and their Just One press kit.

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