Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Dead Drop: A Preview of Quick and Deadly Cat-and-Mouse Deduction

As my physical body continues to wither and deteriorate, the idea of the microgame has become more attractive. Finding an extra moment to sneak in a few games is a real golden opportunity, and Jason Kotarski (Great Heartland Hauling Co.)'s little Dead Drop has the gold, if you have the brains to snatch it before your opponent.

When this showed up in my mail yesterday I looked around the house for a suitable opponent. In my basement I found a 9 year old boy playing Minecraft. Would he have the mental fortitude to handle the Dead Drop challenge? After the plug was pulled on the Xbox, he agreed to come up to the surface for some dining table dueling.


This game is incredibly simple. Dead Drop is about Love Letter sized, including 13 cards and leaving you to find some pennies or other counters to track who has won each round. You can toss this in your pocket on the way out of the house, and the uncomplicated nature of the components mean you could certainly play this while you wait for your cheddar bay biscuits on date night.

The Central Deduction

For 2 players, the game starts with the face-down "dead drop" card along with 2 face up cards. The person to guess the dead drop first, and play the cards to snatch it, wins the round. If you guess wrong, you die. Or you are out for the round, if dealing death is unappealing to your group.

The Actions

So with certain death only a single move away, you want to be pretty sure you know the value of the dead drop before moving in.

Each player is dealt an equal share of the remaining 13 (now 10) cards. So your hand ends up looking like this:

There are a couple ways to move your cards around while subtly prodding your opponent for information.

You can swap a card in your hand with one from your opponent's hand. Similar to swinging your fencing sword lightly to gauge your opponent. It does't open you up much, but it doesn't give you much intel on your opponent either.

Or you can move in for the kill. Through a move called "Selling Secrets" you offer up 2 cards from your hand. Your opponent has to give you a card with the added value of those 2 cards if they can. So you get a lot of info immediately, but you also give your opponent a good idea of what you are hiding in your hand.

Grabbing the Dead Drop

Once you have the intel, hopefully you also have the right tools. To grab the dead drop, you need 2 cards that add up to the dead drop card (just like when you are "Selling Secrets".

This is where the bungling can occur. While you are doing your deductions, you should be keeping a close leash on the necessary cards to grab potential dead drop cards. Because if you figure it out, your opponent is probably only 1 turn away from figuring it out themselves. And they are going to actively avoid giving you the right cards.

So you decide to make your move, play the cards and look to see if you are right. If you were playing with more players a bad guess means the guesser is out for the round, whereas in our 2 player game the non-guesser just automatically wins.

Rounds were short, tense and brutal.

Yeah, but did you like the game?

I loved the game. But I love lots of games.

More impressively, my 9 year old opponent loved the game. Having cut his teeth in day care on may plays of a dilapidated Mastermind set, he was no stranger to mathematical deduction. But Dead Drop offered up the speed he needed to keep focused surrounded by the distractions of modern life.

And even more, more impressively, my wife (who initially poo-pooed the idea of playing cards with me) was soon looking over my sons's shoulder giving him advice on how best to beat me.

So Dead Drop is definitely going in my coat pocket before the next day out. It will be replacing Mr. Jack Pocket which is indeed pocket-sized but way more clunky. I have a feeling I will be playing this many, many times.

Acquiring Your Own Copy

Here is the rub. The version Crash Games sent me is a prototype. This is good and bad for anyone thinking about getting their own copy. Wednesday os when the Kickstarter goes up to pledge for your own copy. This will result in the typical kickstarter waiting game, but the upside is the cards are going to look even better than the ones I have.

And they will be printing different themes! Not only the super spy theme, but apparently a whole slew of other decks. I will certainly be looking.

These are my first impressions. If I get this to the table with more than 2 people I will certainly update my thoughts.

But here's the main idea: a lean, mean, deduction game you can fit in your pocket. I was kept on the edge of my chair using only a few simple rules. And the kid likes it too.

Until next time!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

DC Comics Deckbuilding: Heroes Unite!

The original DC Comics Deckbuilding game (referred to as ODG by me to avoid the stupid name) is awesome for a few reasons.

1) Fast to setup: you put a couple stacks of cards on the table, deal out each player's starting hand, and draw the first 5 cards from the main deck to form the opening tableau. Begin!

2) Easy to play: you will know to how to play this game 2 turns in. Play your cards, buy cards, pass the turn.

3) Non-gamers will play it with you: The process of adding up a single value (power) is easy enough to attract those who scoff at heavier games

4) Plays fast: you can knock a game out within the traditional hour lunch break many employers allow for.

Heroes Unite? Does this expansion ruin the experience or create an even better playing environment? How about neither!

Let me instead provide an unexpected alternative…what if it creates an experience EQUALLY as enjoyable as the original game that enriches the DC Deck-Building Universe as a whole?

I have to applaud Cryptozoic for taking the less-traveled path.

A plentitude of deck builders follow up with expansions meant to expand the overall card selection and create a single mega-game. Heroes Unite is is entirely separate, including all the base game cards (Punches, Kicks, Weaknesses, Vulnerabilities) to play on its own.

Combining the Sets

Sure, after you've played out both sets, theoretically you could mix both sets together and have a giant battle royal. But it as a sign of quality I have felt no interest in doing so. And there are some issues with the way the two games are put together. These make the sets slightly different while showing just how much extra freedom starting a separate game gave the game's designers.

For example: locations in Heroes Unite take a completely different direction. Every location in the ODG had a common effect. When you play a card of a certain type (super power, equipment, etc) you get to draw a card. Heroes Unite takes the same card type synergy and implements it in a different way. Instead, you reveal the top card of your deck and see if its of a certain type (again in this case super power) and you get to draw it.

Instead of making more locations that look at more qualities of cards, we have cards that look at the same qualities and carry out the activity slightly differently.

Another big difference is the set collection aspects.

The ODG offered up 3 different collections to increase your victory points. Equipment (thanks to the Utility Belt), Heroes (thanks to Green Arrow) and Suicide Squad (which cared about copies of itself)

Heroes Unite provides slightly different, and more complex collection options. Saint Walker collects heroes while the  Sciencell collects Villains (this card is bonkers, since you are collecting villains anyway). Yarfleeze gives you extra points for just having lots of cards in your deck (another "collection" not that hard to pull off).

But then you can also collect all the Power Rings:

The ODG had a single Power Ring with a modest power, while each of these Power Rings gives you a cool ability, plus encourages you to collect even more.

So you really can't shuffle up random cards from these two different sets and hope to have a pleasant playing experience. Combining the two requires sitting down with a pen and paper. It requires at least some of the design theory that went into constructing each game in the first place.

The rulebook suggests combining entire sections of each set. For instance, using the equipment from the first game, and the heroes from the second game.

If you are anything like me, you will probably prefer to simply play each set and enjoy.

A Different Style of Play

Heroes Unite is a more complicated game. The effects are more complicated, the chains and combos are more complicated. Many, many more cards deal specifically with the discard pile. Particularly pulling cards back out of the discard pile and back into your hand. There is even a Whirlwind card (featuring the amiable android Red Tornado) that dumps your deck into your discard pile for all kinds of next-level "graveyard" shenanigans.

The scoring is just every so slightly more complicated as well. I find myself grabbing a pencil to count of points, while the DBG was barely simple enough I could do it all in my head.

After playing twenty games of both, I feel like Heroes Unite adds 15-20 minutes on to the normal play time.

And while Heroes Unite lacks the supremely overpowered Parallax in its lineup, the supervillians are still very powerful and the person who captures the first few will easily control the rest of the game.

New Superheroes

Do I come off as a hipster if I say I am weary of every single DC tie-in revolving around the founding members of the Justice League? In Heroes Unite, Superman and Aquaman and Batman and all the rest take a back seat to exploring some of the deeper super hero cuts. You get boring choices like Hawkman, Nightwing and Batgirl. But you also get interesting choices like Black Canary, Red Tornado, Shazam! and Booster Gold.

Good Job Crytozoic

So while 90% of deck builders have expansions you just toss into the original game box, Heroes Unite is a separate game allowing me to chose which experience I want to have. Both boxes can sit on the shelf with equal weight, and I look forward to the next set and seeing the DC Universe from yet another dimensional perspective.

Friday, September 12, 2014

St. Petersburg: Gathering Nobles for my Menagerie

In Saint Petersburg, you and your fellow players race to construct the famed city named after the most forward-thinking and benevolent Czar of Russian history.

Seems pretty straight forward at first, there are three different types of cards you can add to your tableau. Adding them is as simple as paying the cash (gold is the only currency here) and moving the card to your side of the table.

1) Craftsmen (Green)
These cards are almost entirely used to generate money

2) Buildings (Blue)
These cards are almost entirely used to generate victory points. These seem good to grab because the person with the highest victory points wins, per the rulebook. Makes sense to me.

3) Nobles (Orange)
These dudes do a little of both! Wow! They generate money or victory points or sometimes even both. But they seem a little overcosted, I mean a shipbuilder is 7 while a "warehouse manager" (that's a mighty low-rank noble) costs 10. More on that later.

So you take all three of these colored cards, and you build your tableau.

As a note, I had no idea what the term "tableau" meant until I first played Race for the Galaxy probably 5 years ago. I read the instructions and kept thinking "why does this rulebook keep using that fancy French word to refer to the tabletop?" But now I do it all the time. 

So if time machines are ever invented, I hope future me sends a message back to past me:

Tableau - an area of the table used to organize cards with permanent effects during a game. These effects commonly involve, but are not limited to, on-going special powers, game objectives, end-of-game triggers or set collection.

Back to these cards. To sum up…I acquire craftsmen as money-generators, buildings to generate victory points (important!) and nobles as a weird combination of both.

Finally, at the end of the turn you can purchase upgrade cards to replace anything you currently have in your tableau of the matching type.

So I started playing. I got beat, and I got beat incredibly bad. And I didn't even know why at first.

Here's where Saint Petersburg screws you. 

If you don't read the rulebook close enough, you might miss a little chart towards the end. You see there's also a set collection aspect to Saint Petersburg. Beyond the craftsmen and the buildings, you are supposed to be collecting nobles.

In a game with people who know what they are doing, at least half of the points of the game (like 30-40 points) are generated by counting the number of different kinds of nobles you've collected.

It would be like playing Carcassonne without knowing about farmer scoring. "Weird! Why are those meeple just out laying in the field? They aren't doing ANYTHING!"

More insidious than Carcassonne, however, the nobles in Saint Petersburg obviously do something…they pay out money and victory points just like any other card. So you don't really notice unless someone explains it at the end. By which point your tableau looks like a mile of rough road, potholes stuffed with duplicate Administrators (boy, that doesn't sound like a type of noble, either)

Whereas the guy who knows what he is doing has a world reknown collection of handsome nobles, categorized by height, smell and district of origin.

What style. What pizzazz.

The other thing they don't teach you in Saint Petersburg 101 is money management. Well, I would teach it. I would teach that one on the first day. With a refresher in a couple weeks just in case someone added the class to their schedule late.

If you start generating VP's too early, you probably converted your money into something that isn't going to easily give you much more money to continue construction.

During your first play through, when you get to the building phase to grab blue cards, just pass 'em all by. You don't need them, you need money. Every time you buy a building, that is a permanent portion of your income you can't use to generate more money.

And the most important thing in the game, the nobles, comes as the THIRD phase. You probably want to be saving some money for those, hopefully the nobles that generate money back at you.

Sometimes when you start a new game, you think "I'll just learn the rules as I go." In the case of Saint Petersburg, this is like writing a term paper and at the end of the class finding out your teacher doesn't understand the language its in. Should have probably known that going in!

So here is Saint Petersburg for beginners.

1) Collect Nobles
2) Disregard Buildings

Expert players out there probably have more to add. But since I don't know any (except for the dudes online who happily keep the info to themselves) this is what you get.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Keep on Galaxy Trucking! More Tiles, not exactly Better Tiles

Galaxy Trucker is nuts right out of the gate. I hesitated to get any of the expansions because really, how much more do you need? The original's biggest obstacle, in my opinion, is the rules you have to get through before the actual playing can start.

What's this tile do?!! How about that one?!!! INTERROBANG!

Most new board games you just explain as you go. Galaxy Trucker's insane slap-dash real-time every-hand-for-itself spaceship building free-for-all leaves little to no amount of time to spell out the finer points.

I typically give out a brief "Galaxy Trucker Orientation" and then get to business, but invariably many things get left out.

Now I journey into the lawless wasteland to explore just a few grains of the expansion Galaxy Trucker experience. Like sand in the desert, or like stars in the sky.

I will not even cover an entire expansion.

There are a few more recent reviews of Galaxy Trucker online that start right out with the Anniversary Edition. This includes not only the BIG EXPANSION, but ANOTHER BIG EXPANSION. Each of these boxes weighs the same as the base game and includes giant piles of cards, piles of tiles, and piles of boards for new ships. This is a sick amount of crap to throw at people, certainly only for veterans (which I have a few of now) and possibly only for the HARDCORE veterans (which are suitably hard to come by).

So here is the meat: we are going to open up the big expansion and just look at the tiles today. That will be enough to fully consume a blog post from tail to snout.

Firstly, the good stuff

Well check out Mr. Fancypants

Luxury Cabin

If there is one thing I don't mind it's additional money making opportunities. A Luxury Cabin sneaks a little extra money into your trucking round, while still providing a single crew member in the event you really need the help. I would pick the Luxury Cabin any day over a regular Crew Cabin, unless the Crew Cabin is set up to house aliens. Alien bonuses are huge. Plus the Luxury Cabin puts you in the clear legally and morally to cackle like Jim Backus throughout the flight. That almost sells it right there.

Could a person load up on Luxury Cabins, sit in the back of the line and still come out ahead on credits? I have not seen it yet, but look forward to the experiment. I would also like to see a ship lost in space because of a lack of surviving Crew Cabins (apart from the Luxury ones). Has not happened yet.

Stasis Chamber

You go to sleep, confident you'll wake up at your destination, fully resting hundreds of years later and ready to start a new life. If you would have picked up that trade paperback scifi collection at the spaceport bookshop, you would have known Stasis Chambers typically deliver you directly into the Maw of Hell. The best you can hope for is to be covered in slime. The worst is arriving in a new reality  entirely, millions of years in the future, living in a zoo with slug beasts or something. Is it reality, or are you still dreaming in your stasis chamber? You will never know. I really hate that.

These blissful, ignorant sleepers are the dudes who are going to be first in line pounding ineffectually on the locked doors of the nearest vacated (but still sealed) Luxury Cabin. Sorry guys, that's economics for you!

That said, in actual game play this is the tile you want if you see a big abandoned ship ahead. Many times using just the base game tiles players run really short on crew members near the finish line and all the abandoned stations and space ships just get passed by. Stupid Slavers! Well after the Slavers chain up all your awake crew, you can now thaw out some more. Provided there is at least one awake human left to push the thaw out button.

Reactor Furnace

Certain tiles always get left on the table at the end. People always avoid the simple connector pieces if they can at all help it. But other oft-snubbed tiles are the battery-powered super lasers and engines.

The certified pro ship builder in my household usually doesn't go near them. Reason is they take battery power, requiring another support tile elsewhere in the ship. And after a couple of meteor fields and pirate attacks, battery power becomes dangerously depleted.

The Reactor Furnace adds value to those battery powered pieces of gear by letting you burn a cargo block for just a little more battery juice to keep them going. Hopefully its crap cargo, not an expensive piece (but you will have to decide based on the circumstances).

Turning up the Reactor Furnace during ship building makes you reevaluate the board in a good way, easily taking on tiles others have set aside and taking your ship in a new direction. I'm always happy to see it!

Indestructible Plating

So many times your ship feels indestructible. You build really well, with rows of lasers in the front, engines in the back, and all kinds of useful goodies in the middle. All the pieces gel together incredibly well. But then one stray meteor sneaks in on the first adventure card and clips off your forward most laser tile.

Of course, every other meteor from then onward is going to come sneaking in through the very same hole. Not if you have Indestructible Plating!

While the plating doesn't really balance anything else out, I do like having the option there. Plus the tile is incredibly easy to teach. Stuff just bounces off!

More good stuff: previous types of tiles mushed together or used in surprising ways

All of these tiles are brilliant. They don't require too much more explanation, giving you the same benefits as the base game only in different combinations. I am seldom let down turning up a cargo/battery combination tile.

Other favorites include the lasers shooting in multiple directions. Ideal for meteor protection on the corners of the ship.

Finally the icing on the component cake…the gun engine.

Somehow I did not take a picture of this awesome piece in action

Finally, we reach the tiles I am not so impressed with.

The Bottom of the Barrel

Shield Boosters, Cannon Boosters and Engine Boosters. All kinds of Boosters.

After a couple of plays, these 3 tiles are getting left in the box. Making sure they are attached to the right components, along with paragraphs of rules to explain, combined with the sacrificial nature of these do-hickeys makes them a no-go.

Consider the cannon booster. If I attach a cannon booster to an existing cannon, I can overload the cannon once to get a boost in my shooting rating. With the side-effect it blows up my cannon. There must be a lot of option-weighing before you make this decision. Maybe you should blow up your cannon if it will help you more in the long run. Like escaping those Slavers. But having to explain all this at the tail end of an already long Galaxy Trucker tile explanation sucks. And don't forget to tell them it has to actually be hooked up to the cannon in question!

And when you move to the engine booster, then you have to start all over. Because its true the engine booster also destroys an engine when used. But does it give you more engine strength? No, no it does not. Instead you "go plaid" like in Spaceballs and skip an adventure card entirely. What is the fun in skipping adventure cards? How about we just suffer through all the adventure cards like we are supposed to.

The opposition would argue these tiles are for the more experienced players, who would enjoy considering the different options on using their booster or not. So I will continue to create more experienced players and in about 5 years I will pull these booster tiles out again and give them another go. Who knows what may happen over strange eons. The slug beasts might really like them!

The Tile Collector

Having the expansion adds a bunch of tiles to the game. An almost unmanageable amount. The expansion offers up a new rule: to deal out 25 random face-down tiles per player, ensuring there's a very limited supply of components to choose from.

My family hates that rule, and it slows down setup (already kind of a drag) even more. I think you're even supposed to swap out the randomly drawn tiles between each stage of the game…which is crazy talk. Right now, leaving all the tiles in while taking out the booster tiles creates a nice selection everyone is going to be happy with.

If I play it 2 player it will be either with my son or my wife, neither of which situations creates a competitive atmosphere requiring random tiles.

If I change my mind…hey that's another blog post! Mind…get changing stat!

And of course at some point I'm going to dig out the Evil Machination/Rough Road cards. But until then the galaxy ahead is rough enough.