Opinions Sought: Current Kickstarter Projects

[Update: after consideration and discussion with folks who responded outside comments, I am not backing any of these. This falls under the same rubric as not pre-ordering games without great confidence in them, along with the tabletop equivalent of “wait for a Steam sale.” The attractions of the deluxe game at full price are not great, and there is nothing exclusive to be lost by waiting. Still, please do back anything you’re really excited about, although don’t kid yourself that any of these would not have been printed without that support.]

I am interested in hearing from folks who have looked at/into the following projects, because I am considering backing but indecisive about getting yet another tabletop game without having played first. I have a mixed record of that on Kickstarter, with some gems acquired early and cheap, others that I have had trouble giving away.

Dice Settlers looks like an interesting mashup of mechanics with custom dice, empire building, and technology unlocks. The basic mechanic of the game is a bag of dice that you acquire over the game (deckbuilding), which you roll to determine your options for the round. You build the map as you “explore.” Lots of variation, several interesting mechanics, but expensive due to the fancy custom components and potentially just a mess of “throw in everything” design. Or maybe it works perfectly. [RULES LINK]

Edge of Darkness looks like a hella gamer game, although probably smaller than it looks when the components are in perspective. Still, just that box looks threateningly huge. There is a lot going on there with card-building (insert sleeves to change cards over time), group deckbuilding, variable locations, and worker placement. I like most of those, but it seems like there is a lot going on here and I have not digested it all. I haven’t even read all of this one, I am just taken by the apparent scope of it. [RULES LINK]

Sorcerer City is the other game I had looked at recently, but if I never played Carcassone that much, I cannot see me playing Carcassone plus Dominion plus whatever.

My recurring theme here seems to be that these games are tossing together a lot of mechanics, and I am not sure if that is exciting or a mess. Your thoughts?

: Zubon

“Language Independent”

I frequently see games try to minimize the use of text. This expands their market, internationally as well as across ages. I frequently see games do this badly.

You can see the reasons to do this. If your game is really intuitive (and of course it seems intuitive to you, you made it!), it should need minimal explanation. How often do you really check the manual (ha!) or help files, or go back to a tutorial? Some people are more visual than verbal, or they prefer what they can see at a glance to what they can read in detail. For an international market, localization is easier if there is little to nothing to translate. You see this outside games too; witness the action blockbusters targeting the overlap of the American and Chinese markets. Transformers translates better than Little Miss Sunshine.

Kingdom is an example of not explaining what is going on, then pretending that is intended difficulty or discovery rather than weak design. You can triple the playtime of your game by making players learn through trail and error, then make them lose for errors. Kingdom Builder and Hyperborea are games that try to replace all in-game text with icons. Some of those are clear, some of them are too similar to be clear, and some are completely incomprehensible unless you already know exactly what they are supposed to mean.

Language independence is good. Elegant designs frequently need little text to support them, and it is unfortunate if your board game needs a companion book of rules clarifications and explanations of edge cases. But you cannot just take the explanations out of your game and pretend it still works as intended.

I must also see this done well, but the better this is done, the more invisible it is. You notice more when the lack of text is incomprehensible, rather than transparent.

: Zubon

[TT] Ascension Standalone Expansions

I was not enthusiastic about Ascension after a little while with it, but I have been exploring the expansions to the game, and it has grown on me. It is not exactly deep strategy, but it is a fun little game that does some interesting things.

The best suggestion I saw was to try most sets in pairs. Where most Dominion sets do pretty well all thrown together, Ascension favors having one or two sets of cards. The link there has a good guide to which mechanics pair well together. I tried throwing a bunch in at once, and the game just stops working. All of the interesting interactions and synergies stop working, because each set explores a different design space without much overlap. The unique mechanic in each set is not shared between sets, so mixing 4 or 5 just dilutes everything interesting. Continue reading [TT] Ascension Standalone Expansions

[TT] Hardback

Hardback is a deckbuilding word game. Every card is a letter; to get their benefits, you must use them in a word. Earn cash to buy more letters, use ink to press your luck, and become the most prestigious author of your era.

The deckbuilding aspect is key to winning but feels minor in play. The “press your luck” and word game aspects take on greater prominence. Continue reading [TT] Hardback

[TT] Ascension

I have been trying the deckbuilding game Ascension on Steam. Good sale, and it includes a bunch of expansions, so it seemed like a very inexpensive way to try the game. I have not tried all the expansions to see what design space the game has explored, but the first couple sets seem pretty shallow.

The natural comparison is between Ascension and Dominion. Ascension is a much more tactical game, based on its use of an offer row of cards rather than a fixed set of kingdom cards. In Dominion, 10 stacks of kingdom cards are available for purchase each game, in addition to six stacks of standard cards. In Ascension, 6 cards from the the entire deck are available for purchase each turn, in addition to three stacks of standard cards. In Ascension, potentially any card in the game could appear any turn, but you never know in advance which cards will be available to purchase on your turn.

This makes Ascension more tactical, Dominion more strategic. in Dominion, you should sketch a plan for the game before the first turn. In Ascension, you have no idea what options will exist three turns from now. In a four-player game, your options each round are effectively random; BoardGameGeek recommends it is a two-player game.

Ascension has fewer attacks than Dominion. The game has less interaction between players. Defeating some monsters affects opponents, but most interaction is indirect, through buying or banishing cards from the center row when you expect other players to want them.

Ascension’s dual currencies are a great response to Dominion’s victory points. In Dominion, victory point cards do nothing in the early game and are the only things that matter in the endgame. During the game, they are completely uninteresting, just dead cards. That is a catchup mechanic, as a player with lots of victory points has a deck clogged with dead cards, but that is not exactly exciting. Dominion more or less immediately set out to alleviate that with new cards: victory point cards that do other things or interact with other cards, ways to earn points without cards, and ways to remove cards from your deck but keep their points. Ascension addresses that problem from the beginning because the main use of its second currency is to buy honor points by defeating monsters. Honor points are tracked by tokens, not cards. This gives you the same need to balance cash- and point-generating cards across the game, but you are not penalized for early honor nor is the late game slowed under the weight of dead cards.

Ascension is much easier in terms of setup. Dominion starts with picking, laying out, and learning a set of cards. Lots of reading, lots of time. Ascension flips over six cards and goes. In the physical game, shuffling the single huge stack of cards must be troublesome, more so if you want to mix expansions. That is a huge stack of cards, and you are going to get unmixed lumps.

The computer version is nice in that it alleviates that problem and takes care of the bookkeeping. The Steam version is an unambitious port from mobile, not even bothering to eliminate “swipe” from text. Use of activated construct abilities is clunky, because those cards are held mostly off-screen. It takes four clicks to view, activate, and dismiss the construct. In person, you just say you are drawing a card, maybe tap the construct to show that it is used. But the computer always remembers passive abilities like construct income. Similarly, the game will give you a warning if you try to finish a turn without taking all possible options, which keeps you from forgetting to kill cultists. It also keeps giving you that warning every time you decide not to buy a low-value card or use an ability that would require banishing one of your cards.

It is not a bad game. It is quicker and easier than Dominion, and it works better with two players whereas Dominion works better with four. Maybe the later expansions shore up its weak points without taking away the simplicitly that makes it attractive to players who do not want to strategize the whole game before it starts.

: Zubon

[TT] 10×10 Challenge 2018

New thing this year: more boardgames, particularly with my wife. After accumulating many games that I rarely get on the table because they require more people than I regularly have for local gaming, I have been paying attention to what I can play with two players.

This must be measured, because we must have metrics! And achievements! The 10×10 challenge is a straightforward idea: play 10 games 10 times each. We are going to do that together over the course of the year, so 2x10x10.

So far, we are at 2×10 (Lords of Waterdeep, Voyages of Marco Polo) + 1×5 (Hardback). That’s not bad for late February. Committing to spend time together is good.

: Zubon

Spirits of the Forest

Spirits of the Forest is the next game from ThunderGryph Games. As usual, it is being launched on Kickstarter, and I am promoing them as a Founder’s Club member. I just received their last game to ship, Tao Long, although I have not had a chance to get it on the table yet.

“Learn in five minutes” seems like a good tagline. This weekend, I played Gaia Project, which is good fun but commitment to learn, even already knowing Terra Mystica.

Something I like about reputable tabletop game projects on Kickstarter is that they almost always have a downloadable PDF of the rules. I have absolutely gotten burned by paying full price for games without knowing whether I would like them, but I feel like that is my own fault in a world where I can download the rules and often a print and play version to try it out. If the rules are not linked with the game, they will be available on BoardGameGeek. Spirits of the Forest has the bonus that it (and all the other ThunderGryph games) is on Tabletopia, so I may try it out soon. I may try a lot of things on Tabletopia now that I am reminded of its existence.

: Zubon

[TT] Valletta

Valletta is a deckbuilding game with elements of city-building, resource management, and worker placement. While the feel is different, the design space is somewhere between Dominion and Deus. My friends approvingly described it as doing nothing new but doing it well. I think Blizzard’s empire is founded on that principle.

In Valletta, you are helping to build the capital city of Malta. You accumulate resources to build buildings, which provide you new cards to play. New cards give you more resources, manipulate resources, or award victory points. Your goal is to combine buildings that synergize, build as well and quickly as possible, then end with the most victory points.

There are several high quality design decisions in this game.

  1. Valletta has less complexity than it seems at first because of commonalities between buildings. The buildings are each in categories, so once you understand the categories, there is less mental weight to carry.
  2. Valletta has a good balance of rewarding specialization and rewarding diversity. Mass resource accumulation is a good approach, but resource buildings produce the fewest victory points directly, and each resource synergizes only with itself (and you generally need all four). You might get better synergy from branching into resource manipulation or direct victory points, which may require different resources.
  3. When the endgame is triggered, players reshuffle their decks and discard piles, then play through the whole thing once. That is a great mechanic for preventing the common situation where you got something cool but never get to use it because the game ends. You will always get to use every card at least once.
  4. Valletta balances large and small decks by the same means. You can eliminate cards from your deck, producing efficient turns and letting you go through your deck more times. And then the endgame starts and you get fewer turns because you have fewer cards. The big, inefficient decks get to trundle on for extra turns at the end. Do you want more turns or better turns?
  5. Gameplay is quick. Each turn is playing three cards, and each card is simple. The synergy is not more complex than counting.

This is not the best game that I have played recently, but it seems solid and consistent. A feature that different people will call a “pro” or “con” is that there is a substantial “turn zero”: all the cards are laid out at once, and you can spend a while staring at them all to understand your options this game. You might have 30 options, so being able to see a good strategy across them (and adapt when someone else sees the same one) is a skill to develop. It is the sort of thing I did not much like about Agricola, but it seems less overwhelmingly necessary here. You can play pretty well just fumbling through, so long as you have some strategy.

: Zubon

The game doubles as a promo for Maltese tourism, including an ad in the rulebook.

Terra Mystica Tiers

I played Terra Mystica for the first time this weekend. It was fun, a very dense game. It made me think of Settlers of Catan crossed with Seven Wonders, except that there is no uncontrolled randomness: no dice, no hidden cards, just player choices. The headlining feature is that it has 14 asymmetrical factions. Having read a bit online, most people agree that the factions are imbalanced. They just disagree on which factions are weak or strong.

There are some consistencies. Many people argue the factions are balanced enough, so it does not matter below competitive play (and there are balancing methods there, since you can start with more or fewer victory points). Most ratings have some overall similarities: Darklings and Mermaids are strong, Giants and Fakirs are weak. Then you start seeing radical differences in assessments, some of which are backed by data, and some of the data seems conflicting (which should diminish at larger sample sizes). Grabbing the first few examples I found on Google: are Cultists “worse than terrible” or the winningest faction? Or darklings were mid-tier those statistics but #1 in this larger pool of statistics. I see Alchemists ranked both in the top 4 and the bottom 4. Or this thread is a good example of divergent opinions being professed with or without support.

The answer I favor after a lot of reading is “it depends,” which has more nuance than you might think. Like Smash Up, some factions do better or worse with more or fewer opponents. Some do better or worse against particular other factions or combinations of factions. Some do better or worse on particular maps, or with particular bonuses in the game. Some are more straightforward while others require unusual strategies or expert play. Some factions will be better than others given your usual play environment. This is especially true if your usual play environment includes people who consistently pick the same faction or strategy and are particularly good/bad. I am convinced that most cries of imbalance in games can be traced back to who is the best player in your gaming group and their play preferences. That differs, so different players see radically different results on whether a game favors or penalizes combat, quick expansion, or a particular branch of the tech tree.

Which is not to say that there cannot be imbalances. Maybe one degenerate approach is particularly strong, or it is easier to excel with a certain strategy, or a configuration that favors X is more common. One of the fun rankings is those links is about how resilient the faction is: some are situationally powerful but often weak, while another might be a consistent B across most options. Of course, given that Terra Mystica is a game with all information available at the start, reading the board and knowing which faction to pick (and factoring in others’ picks) is an expert-level skill. See also players who refuse to think about team composition in League of Legends or switching to counters in Overwatch.

This can also poison data-driven rankings. The strongest faction could easily come out ranked mid-tier because everyone knows it is the strongest faction, so the weaker players flock to it as a handicap, and they still lose. Meanwhile, expert players both know their situational strategies and recognize those situations, so some of the weaker factions can rack up wins punching above their weight. When someone makes a weak pick, you rarely know if they are too bad to know better or too good for you to see their reasoning.

: Zubon