Friday, December 19, 2014

Animal Upon Animal - Unnatural Stacking Made Fun

"Not to go on all fours…that is the law. Are we not men?"
-- Sayer of the Law, "The Island of Dr. Moreau"

My ship, the Queen Elizabeth, sank far at sea. I and I alone, by sheer folly and random chance, found my way to a life boat before Neptune himself reached up and drew the listing ship down into his murky embrace.

After many days, both tepid water and stiff cracker rations totally exhausted, did I finally spy land and awkwardly navigate my desolate vessel towards a distant rocky shore.

I had seen only plant life during my approach. A palm tree, some gently swaying grasses transitioning to a pristine white sand beach. My lifeboat ran aground and I clawed my way to the wet muck at the edge of my salvation. I graciously thanked luck and mysterious benevolence at my landing.

It was not long, not very long at all, that I drew an audience from the native inhabitants.

First I saw a giant alligator. I was fearful at first. One snap of those huge jaws and I would be finished. In my weakened condition I had no hope of evasion.

But the mysterious reptile stopped its advance, and moments later a monkey (hidden from view until now) climbed up onto the alligator's back. Unlikely allies indeed.

Then more animals came! Another sort of lizard found room on the scaly surface. A hedgehog leapt on. A slithering snake. A huge-beaked toucan. Finally a dainty penguin found a spot near the very top.

Once I saw the penguin, I knew I was hallucinating. This wasn't a real island. I was still in the row boat, playing Animal Upon Animal. A fine way to die.

Mechanical Animals

You start with a handful of animals out of the box. The object of course is to get rid of all your animals after balancing them precariously on the back of the starting monster alligator. In many ways, the mechanics mirror the last HABA game I checked out, Rhino Hero. The pile keeps building up until you are sure it will collapse, but then usually people get a couple more animals in after that.

The player who bungles the stacking has to take all the fallen animals back into his or her hand, up to a maximum of 2 (extras are returned to the box). Which is a big benefit to folks who want to see a completed stack of animals at the end of the game. Lots of stacking games give you a hypothetical end condition, but really its about stacking until the structure collapses 99% of the time. Here you will see a pinnacle of unnatural animal transformation at the end of every single game.


Danger Die!

The die to decide the active player's action is one of the best things about the game. With this die, Animal Upon Animal shows the kind of innovation a simple dexterity game can make vs. the standard UNO-ish choices you see in a lot of kids games (skip, reverse, lose a turn)

1) 1 pip on the die (on 2 sides) - active player places 1 animal
2) 2 pips on the die - active player places 2 animals
3) crocodile - active player place one animal, but on the ground touching the crocodile and expanding the base of the animal pile.
4) the hand - Take that! Give one of your animals to an opponent and make them add the creature to the pile.
5) the question mark - It's you versus the MOB! The rest of the table decides which animal the active player has to place.

There is real thinking and strategy when you want it, but kids can also just do it without overanalyzing (if that's what you really want).

Also a Toy

Finally, for a kids game like Animal Upon Animal, you have to consider the game for its components. Not just how the game is for its rules, but how the pieces interact when used just as a toy.

Sometimes younger kids don't really want competition in their games. And they don't want to play by the rules. My daughter (who is 3) has yet to play a full real game. But she is incredibly familiar with all the animals from spending evenings stacking them. I would call that a success.

For adults and older kids (5-9ish) the game is serious business. Rolling the question mark elicits quite a lot of conversation, and building the next animal fixes everyone's attention on the pile. Animal upon Animal definitely falls under the category of a good family game to introduce to your extended family around the holidays.

Animals: Apocalypse Matrix

The Shifting Sands of Animals

Look at the way the hedgehogs lock together. Look at the way the toucan's bill fits into spaces to provide a solid lock for the layer above. Look at the way the frilled lizard grabs hold of pieces from multiple different directions.

As someone who has spent a fair amount of their life sitting at a table stacking Settlers of Catan pieces while waiting for his turn to come around, I can really appreciate the artistry of the pieces and just how awesomely they stack together. In typical HABA fashion (from what I've seen so far) quite a bit of thought went into the design of these wooden animals and stacking always elicits new surprises.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

DC Comics Deckbuilding: First Look at Forever Evil

Forever Evil, the name says it all.


One of the marvelous innovations in Cryptozoic's release plan is making all of these different versions completely intependent of each other. This has allowed me to play many games of each version and enjoy the unique aspects of each. The designer (Matt Hyra) gets to really go off the rails, in completely different ways, for each game without having to worry about how the changes interact with what's already out there. I'm sure there ARE people who dump all the cards together, but those people are W-R-O-N-G. It is not the "Ultimate Throwdown" trust me.

The first big change, the one everyone already knows about, is players are now super-villians and the goons you defeat are actually Earth's Mightiest Heroes (wait, those are the Avengers, I have no idea what JLA's tagline is). 

In my first game, playing as Black Manta, I have to say…Black Manta had probably his best day ever among the surface dwellers. When you've bagged and tagged Flash, Superman, Batman and Constantine you feel like a pretty good super-villian. Unfortunately Aquaman evaded me…he wasn't even in the deck!

Initial setup. Good grief, who bumped these cards! Notice the crazy Bizarro Power super power.

The Places We've Been

In the first 2 games, Locations were allowed to have a common mechanical theme. in DC Comics "TOG" you drew a card when a condition on the table had been met. In Heroes Unite you reveal a card, and if its the type the location is looking for you draw it. Forever Evil goes different and has Locations not draw cards at all. They don't even share a mechanical theme this time around! A few cards allow you to trash specific types of cards, others give you bonuses depending on the types of cards you have in play. There might be more that do completely new things

Victory Point Chips

Taking inspriation from whatever Dominion expansion that was, Forever Evil makes it possible to acquire victory points without being attached to cards. Now certain cards give you a victory point whenever a certain action is done or condition met. A prime example is Forever Evil's version of Heroes Unite's "Manhunter".

Manhunter gave you more power depending on how many additional Manhunters were in the discard pile. Forever Evil has the Royal Flush Gang. The Royal Flush Gang gives you VICTORY POINTS (whoo whoo!) every time you play more than one Gang from your hand during a turn.

By the end of my first game, Firestorm was a: Punch, Vulnerability, Communication Device, another Punch, Blackgate Prison, Power Girl and Man Bat. All of these cards triggered when I played my last Firestorm.

Firestorm Fever

Two of the most complex addititions to the deck involve the DC Hero Firestorm. Both Firestorm and the equipment Firestorm Matrix remove the top card of your own deck from the game. In the case of Firestorm, this removed card becomes part of the text on his card. So every time you play Firestorm, he adds another card to his collection and gets a little more powerful.

Firestorm Matrix is a little different. Cards removed by Firestorm Matrix are placed in front of you in a special zone. Any of these cards you can get the effect of once during your turn. 

Finally, the cards removed with Firestorm still count to your victory point total at the end of the game, while the ones removed with Firestorm Matrix don't, because it says so on the card.

Sound complicated? It is! I'm not sure I personally would have added something as "completely different" as these 2 isolated cards. But they do not break the game, and down the road (10 games or so) I'm sure they will feel perfectly natural.

Sifting through piles of cards

Forever Evil continues Heroes Unite's movement towards more cards to affect other zones other than "in-play" zone. Now, in Forever Evil, it matters what cards are in the destroyed pile. Cards like Power Ring want to see heroes, and give you extra power for every dead hero in the pile. "Super Heroes" like Superman and Batman (who you've captured and forced to do your bidding?) actually pull out super powers and equipment from the destroyed pile for you to use.

Even though I love being able to pull my own cards out of the discard pile and put them back in my hand, I can see why its an annoying mechanic. One of the most annoying parts of Heroes Unite is waiting for your opponent to finish digging around in his discard pile for the right combo of power-maximizing cards. Forever Evil takes it up to 11 by having you dig through your discard pile, sometimes your opponent's discard pile, and of course now the destroyed cards pile.

A pretty good hand to draw. This was before Man-Bat had been absorbed into Firestorm's ability

Pass your cards

Finally the part I thought I would despise, but instead love. A couple cards in Forever Evil allow you to pass cards from your hand into the discard pile of your opponents.

The reason behind the negative feelings is because it echoes the decidedly brain-dead "passing parties" seen in previous sets from super-villians such as the Joker and Brainiac. These otherwise cool Super-villians were saddled by a mechanic that took too much time and effectively did nothing in 99% of situations.

Cards such as Mallet in Forever Evil speed up the process (and make it seem like its actually DOING something)  by making the action asymmetrical. Only YOU are passing cards, and you get to pass one card out of your hand into the deck of your enemy. This is much more like destroying, and I was able to quickly move a punch or vulnerability from my hand into my opponent's discard pile and I got nothing in return much to my satisfaction.

Bizarro Hate Game

I was extremely pleased to see a return for Bizarro, who really didn't get a fair shake in the original game. There is a Bizarro super-villian you can play as, and special Bizarro themed super powers that actually hurt the person playing them. I loved the theme, but don't know if these cards are any good or not because neither of us were Bizarro. If you aren't Bizarro, they look absolutely terrible. So that will have to wait for another day to examine.

Bad Guys, Good Game

The theme of this game is excellent. You FEEL like a super-villain in many subtle ways. First, acquiring victory points feels like you are getting more powerful independent of your minions. Destroying cards and getting more powerful also feels very villainous. After the first play though, I want to give it a bunch more goes to see what else comes flying out of the stack. Next time hopefully I will get the opportunity to stock up on Bizarro Cards.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Finding Balance in Rhino Hero!

What is that? Is that a rhino climbing up the wall? INDEED! 
-- Rhino Hero Rulebook

The Pleasure of Stacking an Untrustworthy Structure

There is a basic level of fun before Rhino Hero even turns into a game. How often can you say that? At its most basic, the game starts as a card house. People already build card houses as an activity, because its deeply satisfying. The lizard part of your brain likes it. Each new layer of a card house almost subconsciously attracts the vested interest of every adult and child in the room.

The very setup of Rhino Hero works as an attractant, to even those people (perhaps in your extended family) who might turn their noses up at anything resembling Settlers of Catan.

But then you take the "framework" of a traditional card house, you add a few simple mechanics and you get Rhino Hero. Believe it or not even more addictive.

Everyone's Roof is Someone Else's Floor

Each player starts with a hand of cards, and by getting rid of all your cards you indeed win the game. Getting rid of cards is a grueling process because each card is a roof, and to add the roof you first have to build the walls using someone else's roof…which is now your floor.

Templates for wall construction come in all monstrous varieties. The nicest ones are shaped like a box. The meanest ones are a single wall in the center, shaped like a > sign. The most uncertain (you don't know how they'll behave) involve a crazy layout of walls finally punctuated with Rhino Hero, the demon prince of wobbly card towers, lurking somewhere on the card.

Flashy Powers on Every Corner

A close look at some of the roof cards shows most of them have some kind of special power. These powers tread a lot of familiar ground, and I'm not entirely happy with them.

From Left to Right:

1) Reverse: just like in Uno, Reverse makes the turn order go the opposite direction. According to the rulebook, this does absolutely nothing if your game just has 2 players.

2) RHINO HERO! This is the awesome one. When you play the Rhino Hero, the next player in line has to, in addition to building his/her room, also move the Rhino Hero meeple. Fishing your fingers into the gently swaying building structure of the tower to grab this guy and move him to a different level sets off all sorts of warning bells both from you and the audience of other players. This moment is where the wheat is separated from the chaff.

3) +1: makes the next player draw a card. Also somewhat boring, and basically lifted from Uno (or Crazy Eights or whatever).

4) Skip A Turn - Skipping someone's turn has never been very fun, especially for kids. But kids have just learned to accept it. Adults gnash their teeth.

5) Play 2 cards: I really like this power because it adds a little bit more strategy. Once you've got a group of seasoned Rhino Hero players who know how to build card towers, you can actually rat hole a 2X to the very end of the game and hopefully actually go out.

Rhino Hero is saved by the fact that these cards really don't have a lot to do with the overall game. You can even play without the cards doing anything special (only make sure to keep that Rhino Hero in!).

Ultimately this game is all about the stacking, and the amazing chaos lurking just barely at the threshold every time you gently set another card down on its perch.

The Excitement of the Room

Rhino Hero gets people worked up. You take your turn and all your opponents are suddenly your audience.

Rather than the strict rule set, this is more about the emotion. Emotion, but unquestionably ruled by the strict dictates of physics. Wobbly tables, sudden intakes of breath, loud noises they all play a part in the end game.

Compact enough to fit in your work bag. I've armed myself with Rhino Hero for whatever the future of social engagement holds for me.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Jape the Television

There is a lot of talk about theme lately. I got a chance to think about theme while deer hunting a couple weekends ago. While I seldom encounter deer, I did hunt down a great novel, Philip K. Dick's The Man who Japed.

I've said it before...I love Avalon Hill's classic TV Wars.

But something I have always wondered…what would TV Wars look like nowadays? And I don't just mean the mechanics of the game, what about the theme?

Because people don't watch TV is the same way they watched it during the "Rating Wars" and "Sweeps Week" programming eras. There are certainly more than 4 major networks, and most people don't have to wait for specific time slots to watch the particular shows they want to watch. You can usually even catch up with entire seasons of shows without any consideration to what the other channels are running at the same time.

Unless you do a historical theme set in the 70's-80's, but to tell you the truth its kinda been done…TV Wars LIVED IT.

I know of 2 different games currently in production to try to revive the "ratings war" style of TV Wars. One is Gil Hova's Prime Time, the other is by Elad Goldstein, also called Prime Time.

The Man who Japed isn't really a dystopia. People seem to have rights, even though Morec (which stands for The Moral Reclaimation) is kind of a dump.

The protagonist in this book writes "packets" which as the story goes along you realize are television scripts. Multiple semi-indenpendent agencies write these packets for sale to the government-run TeleMedia arm of the government. Who then produces them and thus educates (because television is for education!) the masses.

So in Morec-style TV Wars, each player would produce scripts.

Then there would probably be a judging phase where TeleMedia purchases whatever shows it thinks it needs.

But then, the fun thing about The Man who Japed, there is a phase after that where all the players get to annoyomously accuse each other of moral impropriety.

Because one of things Morec does to keep its values in power is allow each citizen to tattletale on other citizens in a weekly block meeting. Transgressions might involve swearing, or fornicating (outside of marriage), or excessive leisure.

In our game, the morals planted in the scripts themselves could be subverted and reinterpreted to make any of the other players look like they are trying to corrupt the system (which they probably are).

The world of Morec also seems pretty fair, in a twisted sort of way. 8-legged robot recorders called "juveniles" are always on the prowl to record people's transgressions. People can make all sorts of accusations about your conduct, but the only accusations to hold up in these block meetings involve evidence gathered from these spider droids.

Thus the morals of the packets can be debated, since there is little evidence of intent when it comes to an idea. In the story there is much discussion over a packet the protagonist writes about a colonist who plants a tree and it dies. The dead tree might mean the futility of human existence, or it could be a lesson to keep your treasure close to the moral center of the universe...Morec.

There are facist brown-shirted thugs called "Cohorts," however these guys are played for almost comic relief, and they certainly don't seem to be very good shots when it comes down to avenging slights on the founding father of the movement. I'm sure we can find a way to fit them in as well.

Anyway, there are very few sci-fi-ish board games out there that don't involve space ships. I like the idea of the Man who Japed, and I'm going to pin it to the wall in the back of my head for future reference.