[TT] Battle Sheep

Battle Sheep is an abstract game of territorial control themed around sheep. The visuals and theme are cute and light. The play is surprisingly cutthroat.

The entirety of the rules fit on an index card, so this is an elegant game getting a lot of distance out of very simple mechanics. A full game with four players takes about ten minutes, so your investment is low. It is simple enough to teach anyone but has surprising strength for serious gamers.

The whole game is assembling a pasture (so it is not identical every game), starting with a stack of sheep on the edge, and dividing a stack each turn. When you move sheep, they carry on in that direction until they hit something (an edge or another sheep). Your goal is to occupy the most space in the pasture, preferably herded together. That’s it. That’s the whole game.

How does this give rise to interesting decisions? The main one is how many sheep to take or leave each time you split. You want to box in your opponents while avoiding being boxed in yourself. You can project a lot of power all at once, but that also means most of your sheep are headed right next to an opponent who could be countering you. Project too little power, and opposing sheep will just walk around you.

The game is quick, simple, competitive, cute, and strategic. The components are high quality. I have never heard anyone describe this as a “must play,” but I stumbled on it and found that it beat my expectations. The next game up that night was the much more highly rated Istanbul, and I found myself thinking, “but is all this added complexity worth it?” Battle Sheep does a lot with very little.

: Zubon

[TT] Munchkin Shakespeare

Munchkin Shakespeare is Munchkin with lots of Shakespeare references. If you like either or both of those two things, this is for you.

When I think of Steve Jackson Games, I think of Ogre, GURPS, and Illuminati. I think of hardcore gamer games with niche appeal. And then they published Munchkin, which apparently pays for everything else they do. If you are not familiar with Munchkin: it is a casual, humorous card game, distilling fantasy RPGs down to “kick open the door, kill the monster, loot the room, stab your friends in the back.” It is light, but it is entertaining. There are now several dozen versions, some of which have more than a dozen expansions. They cross all genres and frequently cross over with other games. This is SJGames’s equivalent of Monopoly (except that Monopoly is kind of horrible).

Munchkin Shakespeare had a successful Kickstarter, so much so that they made a deluxe edition. The deluxe Munchkin games come with decorate bits that add fluff but no crunch, primarily a board. People seem willing to pay more for bigger boxes and a board than for decks of cards you could store in a sandwich baggie. The board is genuinely useful for tracking levels. (If you ever want a safe Kickstarter campaign, Steve Jackson Games is good for that. Unlike folks making their first game, they have been doing this for almost 40 years. They deliver what they say they will, on time, even stretch goals extend the project. These are professionals.)

Our friends liked Munchkin Shakespeare over the (few) other sets they have seen. It has the usual mechanics, refined and clarified over the course of a decade. The humor is good, with lots of bonuses for literature majors. It is entirely appropriate to pause the game for a soliloquy. You might fight Two Bees, or the more dangerous Not Two Bees. You might wield the Slings and Arrows of outrageous fortune. And those are just the first Hamlet jokes that come to mind. Many of the jokes are obvious or explained, others are left as Genius Bonuses.

It’s fun.

: Zubon

Early Endgame

What I have often found dissatisfying about the tabletop games Pandemic and Agricola is that the endgame starts now. If you do not start with the end in mind, you will do badly.

A usual plan in games as in stories is to have a satisfying beginning, middle, and end. In games, that often means a bit of feeling out the game and exploring the space, seeing how the variability came out in this game, with some balance between rewarding exploration and early specialization. I feel like Pandemic and Agricola are games that require almost immediate pursuit of long range plans to be effective, otherwise you get behind necessary curves and realize you needed to be planning ahead several turns ago, in a game with not that many turns per player. Commenters: care to recommend other games that do this well or badly?

In a competitive game, accelerating the endgame can be a strong strategy, although it can be taken to absurdity. Most games that allow an early rush to the finish have an easy counter to it, so there is the standard rock-paper-scissors of early rush, balanced defense, and immediately building for the late game. Is calling for “no rush” games still a thing, for people who want paper to be the only option? I remember Blizzard discussing that in Starcraft balance, explicitly considering an early rush a legitimate and risky strategy, so no they were not nerfing scissors. (Pandemic is cooperative and Agricola has a fixed length, so perhaps this paragraph is just digression before the topic comes up in comments.)

I tend to be a strong strategy gamer, and there are certainly times that I like being reward for immediately being goal-oriented, but I do like a bit of wiggle room for exploration and unfocused fun, and it feels like a nasty surprise on the other players who were not starting their endgame plan on turn two. It feels a lot like games that give you lots of options, but on the highest difficulties only one or two of them are really viable. In a competitive game like Agricola, you can just play with people who are also content with somewhat lower scores and we all play in that league. In a cooperative game like Pandemic, we all lose if someone is not on the ball, so it leans towards the degenerate problem of one player effectively making the decisions for everyone.

: Zubon

[TT] Cultists of Cthulhu

I played Cultists of Cthulhu, which is in the vein of Betrayal at House on the Hill or Arkham Horror. If you clicked the link, you know I was not a fan of Betrayal, but I kind of wanted to be (I am told the second edition is better). I was hoping that Cultists would be a better version of Betrayal. I did not enjoy it much.

Like Arkham Horror, Cultists is a much longer game than Betrayal, about two hours. Like Betrayal, it has multiple scenarios, although far fewer and with the traitor role known (to the traitor) in advance. There is more strategy and gameplay than Betrayal’s interactive story, but there can also be a lot of randomness. Like the first edition of Betrayal, the first edition of Cultists has unclear rules with ambiguities and misprintings. It does not have a lot of rules, but enough to make your first game(s?) clunky rather than elegant.

We just did not have a lot of fun, which is about as big and simple an indict as I can give a game. The game felt cumbersome, slow, and little under our control, even for a first playthrough. In retrospect, some of that was a rules misunderstanding. The rules as written are susceptible to that and could use a bit more editing. With only five scenarios in the game, they could have playtested a bit more to check for obvious edge cases.

What were our big negatives?

  • There were apparently no monsters in our scenario, and it was unclear what was supposed to happen with the one tentacle that spawned; we walked around it without it ever touching anyone.
  • The stars mechanic became completely irrelevant after the cultist was revealed.
  • The cultist found her experience completely unsatisfying because her reveal just gave her a cool gun. Which blew up on the first roll, slightly damaging her and not damaging any of the heroes.
  • Two unlikely dice rolls swung the game.
  • One of our players was colorblind. The cards use red, green, and blue icons to indicate what is going on. Ouch. Even for those of us not colorblind, the shades of blue and green could be mistaken for each other in low lighting.
  • Our scenario had a misprint. Instead of the Elder Sign, it showed “G” (“good”). Small thing, but again, there are only five scenario cards to proofread. There were also ambiguities in the scenario, as the rules say a scenario ability can only be used (successfully) once, but ours required using it three times. So is it only that one that could be used three times?
  • Characters can die and get stuck watching. Did I mention that a game can run two hours? The cultist’s goal is to kill the academics, so we should expect at least one academic to be sitting out at least a third of the game, with more players having nothing to do as the game progresses.

We liked the atmospherics, the variety of characters to choose from, the several options you had each turn, and the feeling that you had some control over your destiny. We had a good time accusing each other of being cultists. We were amused when thematic elements came together, like the fellow who drew a shotgun and trenchcoat.

Maybe it would play better on a second playthrough. But I played with random people at a board game party, so unless I take to playing this with a regular group, it is usually going to be someone’s first time on a multi-hour game. I cannot say that I can recommend the game at this point. I welcome others’ experiences in the comments.

: Pietro

Crowdfunding Projects

Kickstarter seems to be the on deck circle for most new tabletop games, and we have not had a thread in a while to discuss projects there. What are you watching? Comments are open.

I am watching several but have yet to commit:

  • Dead Man’s Doubloons is the latest from ThunderGryph Games. It is a game of pirates and treasure, where you keep playing as a ghost ship even if your ship is sunk. The rules are online if you want to read through. Pretty, but does its complexities resolve to elegance?
  • A Touch of Class is a small book of D&D classes from EN5ider. It looks fun, but I don’t have a 5th Edition game going or on the horizon.
  • Gloomhaven is going to a second printing. This is a premium gamer product, a $100 box with a living campaign. This video is a good explanation of why that is awesome and maybe not for you. I don’t have a group together to make a thing like this work, even if I think it looks pretty cool.
  • The City of Kings is a smaller take on a cooperative PvE campaign. Another cool, 5 kilogram box of stuff I cannot imagine getting on the table very often in the near future.

Thoughts on these or other games that yet lie in our future?

: Zubon

Proximate Goals

My wife and I played Agricola and Lords of Waterdeep in quick succession, and I must pass along her observation: Lords of Waterdeep benefits strongly from having short term goals. Both are worker placement games, but scoring is radically different.

Agricola scores everything at the end, and everything is in play. You get a penalty for everything you did not do, a penalty for every space you did not use, and a variable number of points for each of nearly a dozen things. It is a complex balancing game, and it does not pay off until the game is over. Your long term plans could come together perfectly or be scuttled in the last round, sending you scurrying for Plan B or C. In many ways, it is the epitome of eurogames, where it is not over until it is over.

Lords of Waterdeep instead gives most of its points out as you go through the game. You get a few victory points for a few actions. You complete quests, each of which has a set cost and reward. You are not plotting out a goal ten turns from now and working backwards through reverse induction. There is still the big kicker of points at the end when you reveal your lord and get the quest bonus, but there is a feeling of progress along the way and of achieving small goals all the time.

Agricola is a strategic game. Lords of Waterdeep is a tactical game. The basic strategy of Lords of Waterdeep is to complete quests where you get bonuses, where the major sub-strategy question is to go for fewer, bigger quests or more, smaller quests (tip: “more” is usually better, especially at lower player counts). That’s about it. In a five-player game, you have only two actions for half the game, and you work on a much shorter time horizon.

Agricola definitely has appeal to the hardcore strategy player. Lords of Waterdeep tends towards a broader appeal with its playstyle and simpler rules. (And I have a friend promising to show me Caverna soon.) This seems backwards for their themes. Farming games have broader thematic appeal than Dungeons and Dragons, and farming has a seasonal reward cycle while I expect the lords of Waterdeep to be working grand schemes that only pay off after decades.

: Zubon

Countless Generations Unfulfilled

This weekend, I was in the mood to play a worker placement game. The question dawned on me with rising horror: how many generations now lie buried and insensate, gone to their biers with a nameless ache because worker placement games had yet to be invented?

Have you ever gone to the kitchen, in the mood for something, but nothing looks quite right? You are hungering for a dish that does not yet exist. The plant that would placate your eager taste buds has yet to evolve. And there you stand, wondering if a little more mayo would do the trick.

When you are bored on a Sunday afternoon in the long, dark teatime of the soul, those hours are stolen by your need to do something that does not yet exist, for a career in a field requiring another century of technological advance.

And there lies your bier, wondering whether you took the time to play a worker placement game.

: Zubon

[TT] Upgrade Kits

Under the heading of “cool but impractical”: Meeple Source sells game upgrade kits. Replace the standard meeples that come with your tabletop games with pretty, custom ones. Now, you know that I love pretty, custom meeples, but generally under the idea that you buy one really nice set and use it for everything.

Meeple Source takes that in the opposite direction, in the way only a fanatic can really indulge in. If you are a hardcore player of a particular game, I can see buying a set. If you play Agricola every week, it could be nice to get pretty resources or farmer families. They won’t take up much more space than the circle tokens, and let’s be honest, the Agricola tokens for wood and clay are annoyingly similar. But replacing everything would cost $77, and the game itself costs $49 on Amazon (as I type this). The Lords of Waterdeep upgrades cost 3.8 times the game itself (and lock you into the theme of the game). My favorite example is Tiny Epic Kingdoms, where you can get a custom set of 112 meeples for 5.5 times the cost of the game itself. Also, that would be way bigger than the box itself.

I am not saying the prices are unreasonable. About a dollar for a custom meeple, or a quarter for a resource, does not seem like much given costs of production and running the shop. I have some of their meeples, because I think they are cute and neat (and some work nicely for multiple purposes). It’s cool stuff if you want to pimp out a game for the premium nerd experience. And by the way, Tesh’s latest Kickstarter for metal steampunk meeples is in its last week, if you want to be more cool but less custom.

: Zubon

[TT] Deceptively Simple

I recently learned to play Inis and Lords of Waterdeep. These are both strategy games, gamer games in that they come with rulebooks instead of a page of instructions. Despite the number of pieces and pages of rules, these are both surprisingly simple games to learn and teach.

Lords of Waterdeep is the clearer example. This is one I hesitated to learn because (1) themed tie-in games are usually crap; (2) anything with that many moving pieces must be over-complicated instead of elegant, right? I mean, it comes with a 24-page rulebook! But no, the actual rules of play are about 2 pages of the rulebook. You could get by with the reference page on the back of the book. Those 24 pages are mostly explaining setup in detail, reprinting text that is on the cards, and fluff. Maybe they thought D&D gamers insisted on a rulebook. If you have ever played a worker placement game before, this is ridiculously simple, with only two agents to place in each round (with max players).

And the fluff is pure fluff! We had one player explicitly refuse to learn which cubes were fighters or rogues or whatnot. “They’re orange cubes and black cubes.” And he is right! Give me some backing and an artist, and we can re-skin this game to any theme. I walked someone through how you would re-skin this as My Little Pony: Crusade for Canterlot.

Inis is a bit more complicated, but again the rules of what to do each round fit on a page. The rules there are more complicated, in that the rulebook has a dedicated column for reminders, clarifications, and explanations of edge cases. That was a little bumpy for first time players, wondering if we were missing something or if the rulebook effectively had errata.

Here, the fluff fits the game well. It is not Blood Rage levels of perfectly merging fluff and crunch, but the game mechanics tie in to the theme of Celtic competition for rulership. There are battles and bards and blood feuds of the clans.

A primary means of simplifying the rules is putting them in-game on the cards. All the action in Inis is in the cards that you draft each round, and Lords of Waterdeep does the same with having your worker placement info on the board. Inis adds a lot of text in its epic cards, as Lords of Waterdeep does with its intrigue cards. There is a downside to this, in that players are stopping to read mid-game, which can drag out turns and kill momentum. The upside is that you can teach everyone the game in a few minutes and get them rolling. Players tend to tolerate having lots of cards to read much better than getting a 10-minute block of instructions. This does give some advantage to return players, because they know what is in the deck, but it also gives new players the joy of, “Whoa, you can do that?” when cards come up. It feels like the early days of Magic the Gathering, when we thought anything could be in the cards.

Fun games. I enjoyed both, albeit with one play of each. Inis seems like a stronger and deeper game for dedicated strategy gamers, whereas Lords of Waterdeep is simple enough to loop in non-gamers. It’s D&D theme, however, probably reduces that general appeal, but it makes it good for your more casual gamers who like the theme but may not have the attention span for long rules.

: Zubon

Pitch Deck

Pitch Deck is a fun concept for a party game, on Kickstarter now, but I don’t think it will age well. The idea is to match a company with a new product and explain why “Soylent for Juggalos” is going to be the New New Thing that everyone should invest in. It is vaguely like Apples to Apples, but everyone gives a pitch for their answer.

I think that sounds kind of fun, maybe you don’t. I do not see it aging well because lots of those companies are going to stop existing over the next five to ten years. A fair number of them you’ve never heard of, because everyone’s “everyone knows” differs. This was written by some folks in San Francisco, which goes a ways towards explaining the variety of recent tech start-ups but the conspicuous absence of major corporations or middle American consumer products (and the notion of having a game about elevator pitches for startups). I would be amused to see how the implications of some of these change over time; in recent memory, MySpace was THE social media hub and eBay was an auction site.

Have you seen that effect in other games? If you have an older copy of Trivial Pursuit, some of the answers have changed over time, and some major celebrities have changed to “who?” Playing Apples to Apples with the next generation gives lots of those moments like, “Who’s Michael Jackson?” I don’t know how well Cards Against Humanity has aged with aggressively edgy references to people who were politically relevant in the five minutes the game was published.

If you are interested in giving the game a look or test run, there is a Creative Commons print and play download available.

: Zubon