[TT] Spirit Island

The game of the weekend was Spirit Island, which I liked. Spirit Island is a cooperative game with some similarities to Pandemic, only the plague you are fighting is European colonization. You play as spirits of the land, protecting your natives and driving away the invaders who are spreading quickly and ravaging the land. Each spirit has its own powers and progression, and you can customize the difficulty with a variety of modifiers.

The theme is fun. It is basically the opposite of most things you play. Someone was recruiting players by describing it as Catan, where you play the island and hate the Settlers. The invader minis are white plastic, so you are trying to wipe out the white people. They spread faster than you can imagine, but then you are an ancient spirit of the land, slow to rouse to anger. The spirits are distinct both in fluff and crunch: Vital Strength of the Earth is your simple earth elemental, slow and defensive, while Lightning’s Swift Strike is pure offense and River Surges in Sunlight is a control-based water spirit with flooding that grows over time.

The game is both very complex and less complex than it seems. Continue reading [TT] Spirit Island

[TT] Back on the 7th Continent

Coming back around to the 7th Continent (previously), I think I’m landing on “I don’t like it.” I think it does what it sets out to do, I’m just not having much fun playing it. There are three entwined negatives for me: survival gameplay, punishing exploration, and static replayability.

Ultimately, I think the fact of the survival gameplay is going to turn me off to the game. Most games I enjoy have a foundation in building up: RPGs, RTSes, deckbuilders, all the sorts of games where you are putting together an engine and become stronger over time to meet greater challenges. There is a bit of that, and the goal is to keep yourself ahead of the curve, but it feels more like a constant stream of loss rather than a constant stream of gain, and the goal is to win before you run out of resources and chances. Instead of accumulating power and resources, you are in a race to win before you run out. I did not enjoy that aspect of gameplay.

Tied to that, the act of exploring punishes you by taking resources. It has some of that old adventure game feel: sometimes you get punished for putting your hand in the hole, sometimes you cannot advance unless you put your hand in the hole, and there is no way to tell in advance without putting your hand in the hole. Sometimes you profit, more often you get punched in the face for your trouble. That ties to the survival gameplay: keep trying things, find the path to advance before you get punched in the face too often. But since you do not know whether exploration will be required or punished this time, it creates a sense of learned helplessness. You try it, feel pleased if it goes well, shrug about the inevitability of death if not.

Which leads to the third point: players who like the game seem to like the fact that you learn these over time and playthroughs. The second time, you know not to bother with X because at best you break even. You know that you need to find Y and Z. Memorization is not a fun sort of learning. You are not learning how to play better, just which particular actions have better outcomes in fixed circumstances, and any “how” you learn is the metagame of how the developer thinks.

There are some neat things going on in 7th Continent, but I don’t think it is for me. My order included some to-be-delivered expansion content, so maybe that will change up the game in ways that will be appealing. But probably not. I think some of the reviews I had seen either embraced the survival gameplay, used an unlimited easy mode to turn it into a casual exploration game rather than survival, messed up (or intentionally changed) the rules to nullify the “punch in the face” dwindling resources, or were coming off the high of winning after X tries. Some people were really excited about going back to the first island knowing how everything worked, while for me that seems like eliminating the point of the game. It is not solving the riddle, just knowing the answer because you have heard that one before.

The 7th Continent is ambitious, but I found myself having more moments of “ugh, this” than “ooh, neat.” It is trying to capture the “choose your own adventure” and video game experience in a massive web of cards. Like the dog that plays backgammon, the amazing thing is that it works at all, not whether the dog plays well. I also played the computerized “choose your own adventure” of 80 Days recently, and had a similar reaction; at least that handled bookkeeping efficiently by using a computer, rather than giving you huge stacks of cards to work it out.

: Zubon

Non-Pejorative “Ameritrash”

The term “Ameritrash” has some pretty clear negative connotations, although I think of it as a technical term contrasting with Eurogames. Eurogames tend towards abstract play, minimal theming, low randomization, and indirect competition. Ameritrash games tend towards very strong theming, downplayed mechanics, significant randomization, and direct competition.

As someone focused on mechanics in my games, I tend to favor Eurogames and don’t mind the negative connotations of “Ameritrash,” especially having grown up with quite a few board games that were clearly being sold as tie-ins to more popular intellectual properties, with nice theming but the quality you expect from a movie tie-in video game. The Tick: Hip Deep in Evil comes to mind as my personal awakening to horrible, horrible products being sold under the auspices of something popular. (Not that The Tick was that popular, but I liked it.)

Villainous seems to be Ameritrash done well. I have seen some of a game but have yet to play it. A friend who owns it and is also into deep strategy gaming described it as the sort of game you could maybe play once or twice as each villain, but it lacks depth and you will understand everything after a playthrough or two. Not a lot of A Theory of Fun style learning: easy to learn, easy to master. On the other hand, it clearly embraces its theming and embodies it well, with exceedingly high production quality. It may not be mechanically deep, but it does what it sets out to do. It also seems like the sort of game that could have a long stream of expansions (every Disney villain) and be a commercial hit, but I could not tell you how well it is selling. I know it is in mainstream stores like Target, not just game shops.

Do you have games you enjoy that would clearly deserve the label “Ameritrash”?

: Zubon

Conventions and Adaptations

I was playing the video game version of Sentinels of the Multiverse (in the current Humble Digital Tabletop Bundle), and it reminds me of the intro to Harlan Ellison’s script for I, Robot. Specifically, the intro notes that adapting a story to a different medium often calls for changes in the story or its presentation, because what works well on the page may not work well on the screen. Whether an adaptation is good, whether it is faithful to the source material, and whether it is faithful to the spirit of the source material can all be separate questions.

Sentinels of the Multiverse opens on the villain’s turn, which is when all the setup happens. In most tabletop games, you spend a while sorting out stacks of cards, putting together a board, something like that. In Sentinels, that is the villain’s first turn. The villain deploys robots, minions, powers, whatever. Other than that, setup is pretty much just putting the decks on the table.

In a tabletop game, setting up can be part of the game. Laying out your Settlers of Catan tiles is an important ritual. Building your board is building you world, with all the opportunities and threats it brings.

In a video game, that is just a long cut scene standing between you and the game. If the computer-controlled villain is the only one acting for the first minute or two of the game, you the player are just sitting there, watching it happen. You take damage, lose cards, whatever, without any chance for input. It is not the opening ritual that it is with physical cards; it is exactly the sort of thing you expect the computer to take care of and streamline when playing on a computer.

And an additional problem is that I do not know that you can streamline it away given the other mechanics. The “one at a time” nature of how the cards stack up can matter, and just throwing it all at the player in one pre-computed lump could get incoherent. Some of the villains are straightforward, but others have multiple, interacting effects, and it would be confusing just to start the game down 15% of your health and need to figure out what happened from the message log. A Settlers of Catan board could spring forth fully formed, and that is in fact what you want from a computer version.

The beauty of board and card games that start on computers, never having a physical version, is that they take advantage of what the computer has to offer. And I imagine some of those are now making physical versions that face similar problems in reverse.

And now we are getting recursive versions, where Gloomhaven and 7th Continent are physical versions of what would otherwise be computer games, and Gloomhaven at least is getting a digital adaptation. Yomi is another of those circuits: take the feel of an arcade fighting game, adapt it to a card game version of rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock, and then an online version was made. I cannot speak to how well any of those re-adaptations have gone.

: Zubon

Kingdom Builder Kickstarter

Long ago I mentioned Kingdom Builder, which we have consistently enjoyed. It is a good board game for both hardcore gamers and casual players, with two players or a full table. I also mentioned that we bought the “Big Box” but only ever use the base game and first expansion, because to my mind the second added more complexity than its additional gameplay were worth; I have not tried later expansions.

Currently on Kickstarter is a Kingdom Builder Family Box, which is the base game plus first expansion for slightly more than the cost of the base game on Amazon. That seems like a pretty good deal. They also have a new edition of the Big Box with everything and some bundles with other games. I cannot speak to how great of deals those are, except for the intrinsic lust for More Board Games. Which I should resist.

This is one of those Kickstarters that is more of a pre-order than a project that would not get off the ground without your help. Queen Games is established and can meet a timeline, which seems like a rarity on Kickstarter. If you back, you will almost certainly get your games before Christmas. I do not have any connection to these people, I just like Kingdom Builder and saw it at Kick the Table.

Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization

A surprise find during the current Steam sale was Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization (not to be confused with Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization, otherwise known as “the original version”). Through the Ages is rated #3 on Board Game Geek, and having never played, this looked attractive.

In short, Through the Ages is a streamlined version of Civilization as a card game. It is a better Civilization than most editions of Civilization. I could just stop there: if you like Civilization and are willing to trade the territorial control element for having a satisfying game in a quarter (or less) of the time, buy this.

I have not timed my solo games closely, but this does not seem far from the tabletop game’s estimate of about 1 hour per player. This seems to play more quickly than the physical car game because the computer takes care of all the bookkeeping. This is exactly what you want from a computerized version of a board game, and it goes further to have a revised ruleset intended for online play. That’s nice.

Through the Ages plays out in cards and tokens. You get so many actions per round; you can improve that with technology or changing governments. You can use those actions to increase your population; to build or upgrade your farms and mines (production); to build urban buildings that provide science, happiness, and culture; to build a military; to build wonders (like in Civ); to change leaders; and to draw cards that help you do all those things. You build a tableau through the ages, as your cards give you different types of buildings from different ages. Later age versions are better but more expensive.

That card acquisition is a drafting mechanic that is the means of indirect competition. You can spend actions to get cards. Cards become cheaper over time, just a few turns. You can spend more actions to get it now and make sure you get it before someone else does, but then you have spent your actions to do so. Maybe you are a republic that gets many actions, so that’s fine, or maybe you are toughing it out with a monarchy this game. Maybe you invested in military actions, which is another card set used for direct competition.

Through the Ages has the core Civ gameplay elements. There is a technology tree, and here you can skip around it rather than being tied into a predefined chain. There is a military race. There is bidding for colonies. The economy always feels very tight, because you always want to do more but you can only do so much given your population, actions, resources, cards, etc. You can invest to get more, but then your actions for that turn were mostly investing, while other people are cashing in on their lesser investments.

Through the Ages has a satisfying beginning, middle, and end, and you can play a solo game in a reasonable amount of time. I am led to believe that multiplayer takes much longer, as humans deliberate about decisions, but it should be quicker than either the physical version or actual Civ. And as I said, it is a better Civ than most versions of Civ.

: Zubon

Tang Garden

Our friends at ThunderGryph games have successfully launched another Kickstarter project, Tang Garden. It has the unusually nonviolent theme of building a garden.

I have not studied up on the game because (longtime readers will remember) I backed their first game at the “send me a copy of everything you ever make” level. So I have an obvious ulterior motive in wanting to see them to well. And they are, in fact, doing well, looking like they could reach 1000% funded in their first day. Stretch goals are falling about as fast as they can post them.

One thing I like about their Kickstarter projects is that they make it easy to see if you would like the game. Rules are posted in PDF form, as is the norm. But then they also have electronic versions on Tabletopia and Tabletop Simulator. Nothing helps decide whether you would like a game like playing the game.

They have had the usual project management and shipping schedule problems that most Kickstarter games have had. They are getting better with practice, I think, or at least getting more realistic estimates.

: Zubon

Game Length

Knowing how long a game lasts dramatically affects your strategy and investment. I was thinking about this in the context of the first time you play a board game with win conditions rather than a fixed number of turns, but it applies broadly across games, and now that I think of it even more broadly across how much of yourself you are willing to invest in anything based on how much future you think it has. But back to the game context.

Some games have a fixed duration, in terms of time or turns. You can watch the clock count down in a football game. In many Eurogames, the winner is whoever has the top score after X rounds; you will have exactly X rounds every game.

Some games have win conditions. Reaching those sooner can be a powerful strategy. Your first time(s) playing, you do not know how long a game typically lasts, so you play at a non-apparent disadvantage because you do not know when to pivot from building up to cashing in.

My example of the weekend was my first game of Dinosaur Island, which is fun. One player at our table had played before, and he had a runaway victory, cashing in on objectives while the rest of us were building up for the endgame. We played the “medium” length game, and it lasted four rounds. Even the winner was surprised about that. It seems safe to say we would have played differently had we realized that investments had so little time to pay off.

I have generally favored games with win conditions over fixed numbers of turns, because the number always seemed too arbitrarily game-like. The game lasts three seasons because the game lasts three seasons. But it does have the advantage of putting everyone on even footing and letting you know in advance when the endgame is coming.

: Zubon

[TT] The 7th Continent First Impressions

The 7th Continent is “a solo or cooperative ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ exploration board game,” in which you play a cursed explorer returning to the eponymous continent. It is a game of exploration and survival. It is expensive and comes in a big box with 1000 cards. If you want to know more, you could look at the original Kickstarter campaign. I backed the expansion Kickstarter campaign after hearing good reviews of the original.

This is the first time I have ever sleeved a game. That seemed like a good idea for a game that is expensive and not found in stores. In retrospect, that was probably overkill; sleeving the commonly used cards (a few hundred) makes more sense, although this provides protection against beverages and casual damage. As I mentioned, this is not as easy to replace as a set of Dominion cards. Even more than just seeing the stacks of cards, you get a sense of how many cards 962 really is when you sleeve every one of them.

My first impression while playing was “why is this not a computer game?” The mechanics are something that computers do well. The “choose your own adventure” approach is something known well in computer games, a solved problem. Making it a game rather than a “choose your own adventure” book adds gameplay mechanics, but replicating that with cards is unnecessarily complicated. It is really neat, but it seems like an expensive luxury. It is an $80 board game that could be a $20 computer game. The way that the cards work is neat, but doing this with cards seems like a lot of effort just to do it with cards. And I love me some cards, but I also like offloading mechanics on computers.

The mechanics really are not that complicated. But your first playthrough has that effect where you check the rules more or less every turn, which slows things to a crawl. Every terrain card has multiple things going on, and some of those “things” also have several things going on, so it takes an hour for a new player to explore the first island even though it is very small. You feel like you have gone through a lot, and you also feel like you have played through four cards in an hour.

My other big impression is that the game has limited replayability because of the exploration factor. Like going through a deterministic computer game or a real “choose your own adventure” book, once you have gone through it, you have gone through it. Card 10 will still be card 10 if you play again. There will be differences based on other cards that randomize and which skills and items you have available, so your path will differ, but once you have seen something you have seen it. If you have a good memory, you are following the path from before, using physical cards for the equivalent of “click everything once to see what happens,” minus skipping purely negative things from your previous run(s). Most things I have encountered so far could be variably good, but a few are just unambiguously bad, and the only variation is how badly you are hurt for checking all the options on a card. Something feels wrong about going through a game and just knowing “that’s a trap, avoid it entirely,” although the game is almost certainly balanced around a bit of that expectation.

That presents a different question of longevity and replayability. When it takes multiple hours to play the game (5-12 for a first playthrough? I haven’t logged that many hours yet), and there is a permadeath mechanic, some of the longevity comes from failing and starting those hours over. I am not saying that the game should be a cakewalk with a guaranteed victory your first time through, but there may be grumbling about “thanks for playing for six hours, everyone dies, want to play again?” And if that is how you get 20 hours of play from the first curse, because it took you a few tries, that’s … suboptimal, especially if the early game is known and the first hour is just going through the motions and seeing what items you have this time. Plus spoilers you have in your head or on the team.

So far, not a great return on investment in terms of gameplay. It has been okay but clunky doing all of this with cards, combined with an aura of doom because you don’t expect to win your first time out. The journey had better be worth it considering the time and cost involved. The game and word of mouth suggest that I should keep going, see how the first playthrough goes as I get closer to the end and get quicker with the rules, and write up some second impressions. Not yet impressed.

The game has a save state “just like in a video game” that lets you pause between play sessions, because few people play for 5-12 hours at a time. I paused at a point where that looks exploitable, so I can keep refreshing a fishing card to refill my action deck. The game mechanics seem to encourage this, while the spirit of the game seems to push against it. I perhaps should not be happy that I was attacked by a bear while fishing, but it was really helpful because bears have a lot of meat.

: Zubon

Correcting Errors

I have previously mentioned tabletop games’ publishers and their eagerness to help their customers and fellow gamers, even at cost to themselves. Today’s example comes from Serious Poulp, publishers of Kickstarter smash The 7th Continent. Production inconsistencies led to some cards having a different shade on their back (effectively marking the curse cards in the deck) and some being cut up to 1mm differently in size. Neither is a huge difference, but gamers notice these things, as you might if you spent more than $200 on a card game. Their response:

After a lot of consideration and discussion we have taken the decision, in coordination with Panda, to reprint ALL the cards for the “second edition” core box as well as for the upgrade packs provided to Veteran backers.

So yeah, here’s another copy of that $80 game you bought, because the first one had some cosmetic flaws.

: Zubon