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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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The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples