Thursday, December 29, 2016

My Top 10 Boardgames Published in 2016

Since I try dozens of new boardgames each and every year, I thought it might be fun, enlightening, perhaps even life-altering (...) to share my personal Top 10 as the year comes to a close. 
So here are my picks for the ten best games published in 2016.


10. MICRO ROBOTS (designed by Andreas Kuhnekath, published in North America by Z-Man Games)
This little gem came as a total surprise at the end of year. The cover caught my eye and I couldn't help but buy a copy and give it a shot. You see, I'm a long-time fan of Alex Randolph's Ricochet Robot, where players compete to solve a puzzle that involves moving one of four robots to a specific spot on the board according to simple movement rules. The covers of both games are visually similar—intentionally so—and Micro Robots seemed to promise an experience akin to that of its predecessor in a fraction of the time. So does it? Absolutely.
Just one robot, simpler (but oh so clever) movement rules, and a game that plays to completion in under 10 minutes. And eminently portable, on top of everything.


9. TALON (designed by Jim Krohn, published by GMT Games)
While Eclipse had turned out to be the space exploration game of my dreams, my shelves were still lacking when it came to a great space combat title. I had tried many of them but still felt I hadn’t found what I was looking for (cue U2). Then came along Talon, with gameplay that’s best described as Star Fleet Battles with much less (and much more organic) bookkeeping. The action moves fast, fleets are absolutely manageable, and the game can be played in teams as well as head-to-head. Plus, who doesn’t like actually writing on game components?


8. 13 DAYS: THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS (designed by Asger Harding Granerud and Daniel Skjold Pedersen, published in North America by Jolly Roger Games)
I have been playing the classic Twilight Struggle for more than a decade (already!), re-enacting the Cold War with friends and loved ones. Enters 13 Days, which zooms in on a specific episode of that sprawling conflict of influence and brinkmanship. The game ratchets up the same kind of edge-of-your-seat tension that Twilight Struggle generates, albeit in a fraction of the time—and table space.


7. GUILDS OF LONDON (designed by Tony Boydell, published in North America by Tasty Minstrel Games)
A game about appointing liverymen to various guilds in a London on its last medieval legs? Sign me up. (Right?)
It’s all about managing your hand, where each card can be used to do multiple things—oh, but you have to pick just one. That sweet agony is compounded by an ever-expanding board where players vie for control of London’s most prestigious guilds (as well as some of the lesser ones, if they happen to fit into your plans…)


6. HANDS IN THE SEA (designed by Daniel Berger, published by Knight Works)
When I heard that Daniel Berger had taken A Few Acres of Snow (one of my favorite games by my favorite designer, Martin Wallace), replaced the French and Indian War setting with the First Punic War, and added a bunch of wargamey chrome, I knew the end result would be quite something. And it is.
Think deck-builder with territorial conquest, coupled with naval control, together with an economic engine, and with a little siege action sprinkled on top. Tasty.


5. AUTOMOBILES (designed by David Short, published by AEG)
A twist on the deck-building genre, Automobiles proposes a bag-building experience, where players add cubes of various colors to their pouches, only to randomly draw them afterwards and try to make the best of the results. Some cubes represent gears that move your race car forward—speed and trajectory depending on the color of said cubes—whereas others enable coveted special abilities. It’s racing at its geekiest and it’s a lot of fun. I’m surprised it has been flying so low under the radar.


4. COMANCHERIA (designed by Joel Toppen, published by GMT Games)
I was already enthralled by Toppen’s Navajo Wars, so I expected big things from volume 2 in the series. And big things I got.
A solo game about the rise and fall of the Comanche empire, Comancheria pits one fearless player against hordes of Spanish, Mexican and American invaders—not to mention a bevy of hostile tribes to the North. The AI that drives the show is lifted straight from Navajo Wars, albeit with a few twists here and there that turn clever into sublime. My favorite solo game, from 2016 or any other year.
You can real my full review here.


3. GRAND PRIX (designed by Jeff and Carla Horger, published by GMT Games)
Another iteration of a previously published system, Grand Prix reprises the thrilling engine that made Thunder Alley a favorite of mine (with 41 recorded plays at the time of this writing). This time, the action moves from NASCAR to F1, but with a game that feels more like a Formula One-themed game than an actual simulation. Nevertheless, I rate it a notch above its predecessor.
You can read my full review here.


2. STAR WARS: REBELLION (designed by Corey Konieczka, published by Fantasy Flight Games)
I know, everything and anything is labeled Star Wars these days, but this is one instance that rises above the crowd. By a mile.
It’s a game of cat & mouse between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire, with the bad guys trying to locate and destroy the pesky Rebels’ base before time runs out. The game’s got everything: epic space and ground battles, resource management, bluffing, great use of beloved characters, and components like you wouldn’t believe. Rebellion is the opposite of a quick cash grab: it sets the bar for what games based on a popular franchise ought to aim for.
If you have three or four hours to spare and don’t mind gripping armrests until your knuckles turn white, treat yourself to a game of Rebellion. It won’t be your last.


1. GREAT WESTERN TRAIL (designed by Alex Pfister, published in North America by Stronghold Games)
Last year, I was blown away by Pfister’s Mombasa, a brilliant design whose only flaw lied in a daunting learning curve. So it was with excitement but also some nervousness that I approached the man’s 2016 offering. Turns out I needn’t have been so cautious: Great Western Trail is the best new game I’ve played in 2016—and a totally intuitive experience to boot!
Each player is a rancher intent on reaching Kansas City to unload valuable cattle. This is achieved through clever use of buildings on the way there—some of them yours, some of them belonging to your opponents. Will you rush to Kansas City to deliver your cargo as many times as possible, or would you rather benefit from everything the intervening buildings have to offer so that your herd is the absolute best it can be once your reach your destination?
You’re just going to have to play it to find out. Again and again.


So there you have it, ten great games in a year that was very generous as far as new games went. (I don’t remember 2015 thrilling me as much.)

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a game waiting.



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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Lucas Land, Part 2: Welcome to Tatooine


In Lucas Land, Part 1, I mentioned an old magazine article I had penned upon my return from Tunisia, where I visited many of the shooting locations used to create the original Star Wars movie. I did manage to unearth that piece (albeit in physical form—somehow I can’t locate the 20-year-old Word file) but I was rather disappointed to find out that it dealt a lot more with the Star Wars Customizable Card Game than with the North African journey itself. It’s basically a gaming article peppered with references to the trip. And since that wouldn’t be much of a fun thing to reproduce here, I’ll dig deep into my memories and try to lift the veils of Time so that I can offer a humble summary of my Tatooine adventures, circa 1997.

As was to be expected, just getting there was part of the fun.
I linked up with our intrepid guide, archaeologist David West Reynolds, in Pittsburgh before flying across the pond for a quick layover in London. It happened to be on that day that a new air corridor was being inaugurated, and with a brand new Boeing 777 to boot. So not only did the plane offer the most quiet flight I’ve ever experienced (it truly is amazing), it also had that brand new car smell to it, having never welcomed passengers before we showed up to soil its carpeted floor and leave snack crumbs all over the seats. The flight itself was uneventful, as was the next one, which took us from London to Tunis. But we still had one more hop ahead of us, in order to land deep into the heart of Tunisia. And that flight, my friends, made me feel like Indiana Jones taking off from some forgotten runway in the mid-1930s. (Not the only connection to Indiana Jones during the trip, as it would turn out.)
It was an old, rickety aircraft packed to the rafters with Tunisians—we were clearly the only tourists onboard. I could hear poultry somewhere in the back, there was some high-pitched local song playing on the PA system, and a thick, spicy smoke filled the entire cabin. When the plane ran out of asphalt and aimed at the sky, the big machine groaned under our collective weight. Not for long, however: we were to land about half an hour later, emerging from a craft bursting with foreign music, animated conversations in Arabic, and laughter. So much laughter. It was the happiest flight I’ve ever been on, the most communal 30 minutes I ever spent trapped with strangers in a tin can. A startling contrast to the high-tech comforts of the Boeing 777, which seemed very sterile by comparison.

Upon arrival, we were assigned a Toyota Land Cruiser and a driver. Both were rugged and reliable, and while the vehicle resembled something you’d see deployed on the front lines, the man behind the wheel was a warm, friendly chap who always had a good story to tell. Communications took place in French, so I found myself acting as translator for my American companions. (When I had to switch to German for one particular encounter, it wasn’t long before references to C-3PO started popping up. Reynolds still calls me TalkDroid to this day.)

Not a Jawa in sight.
Our archaeologist had already mapped out most of the shooting locations during his own, personal trek the year before, which allowed us to proceed without delay. One of the first places we came upon was the cantina. Now you have to understand that when George Lucas and his production team departed Tunisia, they left a great many things behind. Bits of set dressing, building extensions, backdrops: most of it stayed there and was repurposed by the locals. Take the cantina, for instance. The building that would become the iconic Star Wars watering hole was an adobe construction that was already there: set builders just added a small extension, built a Star Wars-looking door and threw plastic domes on top. When we disembarked from our trusty Land Cruiser, the look of the cantina was unmistakable, although the flimsy extension was long gone and so was the door; but the plastic domes had survived and were used as protective covers in the back yard. 

When we visited the troglodyte (i.e. underground) hotel in Tataouine (you read that right) that served at the Lars’ homestead in the movie, some of the set dressing was still there, 20 years after the fact. Reynolds and I had breakfast at the table where Luke ate with Owen and Beru, and we re-enacted their famous disagreement with great relish. (“But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!”) I even stood in the main courtyard, looked up at the huge circular opening, and started yelling “Luke! LUUUUUKE!” like a complete nitwit. (I would have regretted not doing it for the rest of my life.) 
Sulking at breakfast.
(Notice the set dressing in the arch above my head,
still present 20 years after shooting. The motif painted on the
ceiling was already there when the production crew arrived.)

My view of the courtyard lacked a couple of vaporators.

The exterior of the homestead was shot somewhere on the outskirts of the Sahara Desert: the mock adobe domes had been removed but the scars in the ground were still there, 20 years after the fact. So was the circular ridge where Luke rests one of his feet as he gazes longingly into the twin sunset. (I’m sad to report that only one sun shone down on us during our visit.)

Waxing introspective in the middle of nowhere.

We trekked our way to many minor shooting locations, including the cliff where Obi-Wan points to Mos Eisley in the distance, declaring it a “wretched hive of scum and villainy”—the three iron rings nailed to the rocks and used to latch the camera tripod into place were still there, patiently waiting for us. Our driver would always shake his head in disbelief when I asked him to drop us off in the middle of nowhere and come back to fetch us four hours later. But he was always on time, and no doubt surprised to find us all still alive.

Not a bad spot for Sand People snipers, don't you think?

We retraced Skywalker’s steps to the spot where Obi-Wan revives him (yes, we re-enacted that scene as well…) but Reynolds was still one location short: the exact spot where they filmed the Tusken Raider attack on Luke. We knew it had to be close by so, armed with production photos and trading cards (!), we started walking around, scanning the horizon for a peculiar break in the rocky formations. I eventually spotted it and hastened to stand right on the spot where the attack had been captured on film. As if on cue, a donkey (that must have been barely out of sight) started braying, which froze the blood in my veins for a second: the first part of its call, echoing through the canyon around me, sounded exactly like (and was indeed used for) the Tusken Raider war cry.

I emerged unscathed and we eventually made our way to Obi-Wan’s home, which is really a fisherman’s hut, just a few meters away from the Mediterranean. It wasn’t altered at all for its movie role, but was filmed using a low angle to conceal the vibrant sea frothing behind it, and make it look like it’s standing deep inside Tatooine’s barren land.

Standing in front of Obi Wan's humble abode...

... right next to the sea.

You know what? Let’s take a break here and rest our feet while we enjoy a glass of blue milk. I have to catch my breath before I launch into the infamous cantina door story and retell those Indiana Jones tidbits…



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Monday, November 7, 2016

And Now, For My Next Trick


I’ve been performing magic longer than I’ve been dating or driving. I am not alone: even in the mid-‘80s, when magic was far from the relatively mainstream “thing” it has since become, the arcane arts attracted their fair share of adepts. Back then, of course, one learned from books: teaching DVDs were but a dream, and DropBox videos would lay dormant for two more decades.
Gatherings proved equally problematic in those pre-Internet times. Whereas nowadays each and every geek can reach dedicated online fora—no matter the subject matter—in olden days, magicians were only afforded two avenues. The first was a handful of select clubs (such as the fabled Magic Castle in California) where a personal invitation was the only thing that could get you in; not the most realistic prospect for a budding legerdemain. But option 2, despite its more accessible trappings, was no less intimidating.
I’m talking about the magic shop.

Entering one of those special lairs was a sort of test. The location of magic shops was not kept secret, nor was a password or special handshake required to gain access to the premises. But the minute you walked in, you knew you were being judged. Evaluated. Weighed. Were you the tourist, wandering in as you might any other strangely inviting shop? Or perhaps the casual performer, looking for a new self-working trick to have fun with friends and coworkers? Or maybe, just maybe, you were the serious student, questing for the next move to add to your arsenal, the missing tool from your box, the final feather in your cap. Whoever you happened to be, you were welcome in there, and the old wizard tending shop would see to your particular needs.

I’ve always loved those exotic places, but it took me a while to grasp the exact reason. Many other establishments sold items I was excited about. Why did magic shops hold me spellbound in that regard? It eventually dawned on me that these surroundings made me feel like a kid all over again. Everywhere I looked, amazement waited, barely contained. A new mystery to solve, a new world to explore, a new question to answer… And I know it’s precisely what keeps calling to me, after all those years.

Over the course of my magical studies, I’ve come across quite the array of spectators. I know all the types: the easy-going guy who just enjoys the show, the girl who won’t stop screaming in excitement, the broody kid who wants you to fail, the know-it-all who calls the shots in advance, the guy who feels insulted because he can’t comprehend what he’s seeing, the pleased grandfather who wears a smile as big as his hat, the grandmother with a hand to her chest who looks like she’s about to faint, the alpha male who fumes at seeing his girlfriend melt at your fingertips—it takes all kinds. But I have to say that the vast majority of spectators are on the magician’s side and genuinely want the experiment to succeed: they understand it’s a little collaborative lie we’re telling ourselves, and that it functions best when everyone is onboard.
Similarly, I’ve encountered a wild variety of magicians, from the smug performer who assumes an air of superiority at being the only one in the room with any knowledge of what’s really going on (or so he likes to think), to the shy illusionist who almost apologizes when something out of the ordinary happens (which it’s supposed to!). Again, I’m happy to report that most magicians are a friendly bunch whose only desire is to entertain in a mystifying way.

To my absolute delight, I have found myself performing in several different settings. In a darkened corner at a fundraiser for a friend’s theater project (where a passerby ripped the deck out of my hands, looked at one of the pasteboards and shuffled it back in with the others, before handing the whole mess back to me and daring me to find his card); on a bumpy cab ride en route to Heathrow airport (during which bad lighting conditions both helped and hindered everything I did); at a large wedding in San Francisco (a completely improvised affair at the request of the groom, and one which was met with such enthusiasm that it derailed the proceedings and earned me the eternal wrath of the wedding planner); as part of actual magic shows (it does happen!); in the middle of an open-air market in Tunisia (where I was dragged from one stall to the next—with live chickens flying and clucking out of the way—so that I could repeat my demonstration for a friend or a relative); in multitudes of friends and family gatherings; and so on.

Now there is no denying that I enjoy the art of magic as a whole, but close-up magic holds a special place in my heart—and my hands. To me, magic has always been about the connection with spectators, and there’s no better way to connect with them then a close-up performance. The impossible happens right under the onlookers’ noses, sometimes directly into their hands: they are part of the event in a very personal way. I have specialized in card manipulation, always with a completely ungaffed deck: no shenanigans, no secret thing added or taken away, no special cards. Pure manipulation and misdirection. Not because I look down on special apparatuses—many of which are incredibly clever and allow for mindboggling miracles—but because I like to use a borrowed deck of cards, or else give mine away after I’m done. People actually enjoy this: their cards have gone through “something special,” and/or they walk away with a magical souvenir most of them will cherish for years to come.

So what does all of this add up to? The simple fact, I guess, that people from all walks of life, in all sorts of situations, will usually react the same way when presented with an entertaining demonstration that they can’t possibly explain. Their brains will look for a solution in column A, then in column B, maybe in column C (where all the clutter accumulates), and realize there’s none to be found. What they’re witnessing can’t be filed anywhere. And at that moment, that truly magical instant, their mouths will part in a toddler’s grin and their eyes will light up like those of an infant witnessing the world for the first time. Something ethereal will emanate from their features, something profound and beautiful. It’s there for just a second, but it (almost) never fails to show up. No matter where you are in the world, no matter whom you’re performing for. It’s there.
And I am hopelessly addicted to that unique something, that primordial look in their eyes. Like a vampire on the prowl for human blood, I keep performing magic to stimulate that response, so that I may quench my special kind of thirst, if only for a little while.
(At the same time I feel a bit guilty because everyone is busy looking at me: I’m the only one who gets to look back at all of them and take in that luminous glory.)

Living legend Paul Harris often refers to magic as “the art of astonishment,” a phrase that sings in its exactness. People are not just puzzled: they are SO puzzled that they revert to a state when everything was still new and full of wonder.

So the next time you see a magician at work, sacrifice your own enjoyment for a moment and look at the person next to you—especially towards the end of a trick. That is where the true magic happens.


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Thursday, October 13, 2016

A Legacy Apology



Destroying boardgame components is a stunning new trend adopted by thousands of enthusiasts who, not that long ago, frowned over a dog-eared card and scowled at a Pepsi-stained board.
How the hell did this happen?
Boardgames have a come a long way since the turn of the millennium. Where they mainly used to exist as unsophisticated wargames (like Risk or Axis & Allies) or variations on the roll-and-move model (such as Candyland, Chutes & Ladders or Monopoly), they are now so varied in concept and execution that it’s getting difficult to keep track of it all.
Nowadays, boardgames cover a myriad of themes and employ a dazzling array of mechanisms to create fun and excitement at the gaming table. Some of the best-selling titles of the past decade involve establishing railroad networks in various parts of the world (the Ticket to Ride series), running a 17th-century farm and trying not to starve (Agricola), working together to stop deadly viruses from spreading all over the globe (Pandemic), and producing and shipping goods during colonial times in the Caribbean (Puerto Rico).
(For the uninitiated, it’s worth mentioning that none of the above games use dice in any way, shape or form. New boardgames definitely don’t play the way they did 20 years ago—but that’s a topic for a different blog post…)

However, for all their newfangled twists and original backdrops, today’s games share one crucial characteristic with their ancestors: they reset at the end of each and every session. You set up the game, play it to its conclusion, and then break it down and put it back in the box, where it’ll wait in that inert state until someone begins the cycle anew. Sessions will unfold differently depending on random set up elements and decisions taken by the players, but the game always starts with an empty board, in a sort of virginal state. Unsoiled.
But all that is slowly changing, thanks to an unassuming game released in 2011.

Ironically, the game that shook up the established order came from Hasbro, a toy maker not known for innovative gameplay (thanks to tired games—Clue, Risk, Operation, etc.—endlessly refitted with the hot intellectual property of the moment). But that is where designer Rob Daviau conceived of a game that would NOT reset at the end of every session. A world that would evolve with each run-through and offer players an ever-changing landscape.
Of course, the idea of “campaigns” wasn’t a new one in the boardgame world. You would play one session and the results of said session would influence the next one, and so on (usually through changes in set up to reflect, for instance, lost combat units or gained resources). But what Daviau was proposing went way beyond some inter-session bookkeeping: he wanted to physically alter the components of the game. Forever.

And so was born Risk Legacy, another entry in an ocean of Risk variations. But that one was different; that one was crazy. Sure, the game used the basic Risk mechanisms and offered yet another setting (sci-fi warlords vie for Earth domination) but it came in a box with sealed packages and envelopes, together with strict instructions as to when to open them. Players were invited to select a faction that they would play throughout the entire 15-session campaign, and then write their names on the faction cards. Using a permanent marker.

That first act of desecration was already too much for many gamers, who simply refused to take part in such atrocities. But the madness was only getting started. The game, among other things, allowed for cities to be conquered, burned to the ground or fortified. And so the conquering, burning or fortifying player was required to use one of the many stickers provided with the game, and apply it to the board to denote the city’s new status. We’re not talking Post-It notes, here: those are stickers that never, ever come off. That city got destroyed? Well it’s destroyed. For all eternity.
… in your copy of the game, that is. Because the group next door, who’s also playing its own campaign of Risk Legacy, will most probably not go through the same motions your group did. So different cities will get different treatments. Different factions will acquire different technologies (note it on your faction card!). Sealed events will happen at different moments and affect different elements of the game, and so on. In the end, each group winds up with a completely personalized copy of the game, an extreme level of customization achieved through 15 sessions of pure exploration. Not only do you not have access to the full roster of game components when you first start out, but even the rules evolve over time, with holes in the rulebook being filled with stickers that modify the way the game is played.

Risk Legacy quickly found its audience, and it was only a matter of time before other legacy-style games saw the light of day. Daviau himself designed a sequel of sorts, once again picking up an existing design—the aforementioned Pandemic—and giving it the legacy treatment. In Pandemic Legacy, Season 1 (which strongly hints at a possible continuation of the storyline), two to four players get together to fight the spread of deadly viruses. And it feels pretty much like your good old Pandemic—well, perhaps apart from naming the characters you decide to play and logging the date of each session on their cards—until the shit hits the fan. Things spiral out of control, characters die (yes, rip that card to shreds and throw it away), heroes emerge from the wreckage (new characters to choose from!), a new, deadly virus makes a dramatic entrance (time to alter that rulebook), special missions become priorities (it almost feels like we’re playing a different game!) and so on, for a campaign experience that spans 12 to 24 sessions, depending on your level of success at the end of each run.

Was it fun? You bet. The experience ranks among the highlights of my long and distinguished career as a boardgaming geek, and it showed me that boardgames can tell gripping, edge-of-your-seat interactive stories to rival movies, videogames and those page-turners that keep you awake all night.
(Come on: I remember my group finishing a session of Pandemic Legacy past midnight and immediately launching into the next one, even though we all had to get up and go to work just a few hours down the line.)
Will we play with our Season 1 box again? No. While the game does permit further sessions—you just keep playing with your customized game, even though your actions no longer contribute to an ongoing storyline—it has essentially run its course. We keep it archived and look at the resulting board from time to time, like a worn out diary that speaks to turbulent times and obstacles now overcome.
Will we buy Season 2 if it ever comes out? Only death would prevent us from doing so. Maybe.

Many of my gamer friends have shied away from the legacy experience. They can’t begin to imagine altering and even destroying game components, nor can they accept the fact that after the campaign is over, you don’t really want to play the game again, and you can’t sell it or trade it. It’s done.
But it’s all worth it. Not a single doubt about that.

Your typical, serious boardgamer will have a collection numbering in the hundreds, and will play each game in that collection, on average, a dozen times over their lifetime. (And I’m being generous here. A handful of titles will get played to death—I have racked up more than 300 sessions of Combat Commander—while others will sit on the shelf, unplayed for years.)
That’s fine: say you paid $50 for a new boardgame and play it 10 times with two of your friends before you move on to other, shinier titles. Assuming that each session lasts about an hour, the cost of the game breaks down to $5 an hour. For each person, that becomes $1.67 per hour, which is about as cheap as you can possibly get when it comes to entertainment.
So what if you play Pandemic Legacy only 12 times? (That’s the bare minimum of sessions required to finish the story, if you and your friends are the best players in the universe.) The game will still compare favorably to the rest of your collection. (My trio—composed or hardened boardgamers already very familiar with Pandemic—had to struggle through 17 sessions to get to the end, loving every second of it.)

I understand the initial aversion to physically altering game components. But trust me, it’s part of the fun. Knowing you can’t go back and use that character again no matter what the rules say (because he’s in the trash now!) really ratchets up the tension and makes the experience all the more tasty.
And memorable.

Of course, more legacy games are coming out now, but not as quickly as one might imagine. They are massively complex to design, especially if they’re not adapted from an existing game: you first have to design a fun and solid game, and then throw in a story arc that offers exciting twists and turns without derailing the gameplay you spent so much time fine-tuning.
And once again, Rob Daviau is leading the way, with his completely original Seafall releasing this month. No need to ask the question: yes, I’ll be tearing cards and putting stickers in my rulebook and writing stuff on my board like a maniac as soon as I can get my hands on a copy.

I wouldn’t want all of my games to be legacy contraptions. But going through one of those babies each year?
I could live with that.


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Monday, October 3, 2016

Boardgame review — Grand Prix

This One Goes to Eleven


Designers: Jeff Horger, Carla Horger
Player count: 2 to 11
Publisher: GMT Games





After the enthusiastic reception of their first racing game, Thunder Alley, designers Jeff and Carla Horger announced that the next title in the series would be Grand Prix. Whereas the original had tackled NASCAR, the encore would take on Formula One racing. And although the first title had taken years to attain publication, its successor would cross the finish line in record time.
Clearly, fans were hungry for more.

At first glance, the two games are so similar that one might reasonably believe that Grand Prix will feel like nothing more than a special scenario for Thunder Alley.
But that assumption would be wrong.

Grand Prix can accommodate up to 11 players (!) around the table, each controlling a team of two cars—which means that those cars add up to 22 rumbling machines on the track. And thanks to neutral cars, that number never goes down: for each missing human player, two neutral cars are thrown into the mix. In some cases, neutral cars can be activated by any player; in others (with 2 to 5 players), a subset of those neutral cars is assigned to each player.

On your turn, you can activate one of your two cars, or a neutral car assigned to you, or one of the neutral cars not assigned to anyone. This is accomplished through the play of a movement card, out of a hand that varies from 12 (in a two-player situation) to just three (when a full complement of 11 players are competing).

Those cards display movement points that range from 4 to 9, in four different varieties. With Solo movement, the activated car moves on its own along the track. With Leader movement, the activated car will take along for the ride all touching cars behind it. With Pursuit movement, the activated car will “push” all touching cards in front of it. And then there’s Line movement, where touching cars both in front and behind the activated car will move together.
Many cards sport a short paragraph of text, where special restrictions—or advantages!—are highlighted. Most cards also indicate what sort of wear the activated car incurs, from tire wear to transmission trouble, and everything in-between. Wear markers influence the condition of each player car (neutral cars ignore wear) and too many of them will slow down even the most tuned of engines. Unattended, they can even lead to the vehicle’s ultimate demise.

Once every car has been activated, the turn is over. An event card is drawn, its effects applied—ranging from a change in weather to a catastrophic crash—and each car is afforded the opportunity to pit, which allows for the removal of wear markers. (A specific subset of neutral cars is always forced to pit, depending on the event drawn.) Then a new turn begins, and so on, until three laps have been completed. Points are assigned to the cars that finish in the top 10 positions, and the team with the higher combined score is declared the winner. 

PRODUCTION

The game ships with four tracks printed on two double-sided, six-panel mounted boards.
Those are heavy, but a charm to race on. The box also holds two decks of cards (movement and events), administrative markers, wear markers, thick car tokens with rounded corners, and 11 team sheets use to track the condition of player cars.

I have to say that the tracks in Grand Prix look a bit better than their Thunder Alley counterparts. The colors a slightly more vibrant, and there is something naturally more exciting in the snaking subtleties of an F1 track, as opposed to the flat perspective of a NASCAR oval.

The car tokens—with their depiction of the recognizable F1 silhouette—are easy to handle except for one thing. Since a car is flipped over after it’s been activated, each token has a side with a light background, and another with a dark background. That way, it should be easy to figure out at a glance which cars have yet to move. But whereas Thunder Alley went for a white side and a black side (which makes playing options obvious), Grand Prix goes for an arguably more stylized light gray & dark gray option that unfortunately doesn’t introduce enough contrast between the two sides of a car token. Things gets worse with neutral cars, whose background adopts a hachured pattern to set them apart: this further blurs the distinction between the two sides.
You do get used to it, but there’s no excuse for the extra work to which players are subjected while planning their moves. Even under ideal lighting conditions, players often check with their opponents to make sure they’re not overlooking a car they could activate. (“So 22, 1, 14 and 99 have yet to move, right?”) 

RULES

While the rulebook in Grand Prix is a little longer than that in Thunder Alley, the game is just as simple to play. (I can typically get newcomers up and driving in 10 minutes.) And if you’re already familiar with Thunder Alley, a few adjustments are all that’s necessary to get you going with Grand Prix.

For instance, the four types of movement work the same way in both games. However, in Grand Prix, when a car that’s displaced laterally would end up going off the track, it moves one space forward instead of backward.

Pitting is different—and simpler—in Grand Prix. Each wear marker sports a number (from 1 to 10) that indicates how many spaces a pitting car has to move back in order to get rid of said marker. Done.

A special marker makes an appearance in Grand Prix: the close call marker. Each time a car displaces another car laterally, it gains such a marker. A close call marker is not a wear marker and so doesn’t really affect cars… until an event comes up that punishes the car with the most close call markers. Basically, the car that takes the most risks might end up paying for it. By comparison, lateral displacements were the meat and potatoes of Thunder Alley and incurred no penalty at all.

One major change here is the weather, although one might argue that it’s presented in a rather abstracted manner. A race normally begins with dry weather, which can change to rain (and eventually back to dry) through some event cards. Accordingly, different tire types may be employed: soft, hard or rain tires. In accordance with standard F1 rules, each player car is obligated to pit at least once to change tire types; apart from that, players are free to install tires on their two cars as they see fit. But rain and hard tires don’t do anything: only soft tires allow a movement bonus after the play of a card (and then the tire marker is flipped to its used side, and needs to be replaced in order to be used again). Hard tires only exist to force players to use different tires (essentially without a bonus) for part of the race, as per the rule highlighted above. A change in weather urges player cars towards the pit in order to get new tires. Should you refuse, all you get are one or two close call markers (or the occasional tire wear marker), and that's it. Scot-free.
It works well and is easy to explain, but I will admit to missing the tire subtleties present in other racing games.

Another new feature is the concept of the safety zone, which is deployed when a minor incident occurs. The safety zone is a corridor 11 spaces long—five in front of the affected car, five behind—where cars must move in a single lane and cannot pass each other. The safety zone is lifted at the end of the turn.

The rules do a great job of teaching the game and acting as reference material when the action gets underway. Some imprecisions and minor omissions will annoy sticklers such as myself (Are neutral cars affected by a change in weather? Can you simply refresh soft tires or are you forced to switch to a new tire type?) but they are few and far between, and common sense will usually take care of things. 

FUN FACTOR

Grand Prix is a metric ton of fun. If you’re any kind of boardgame racing enthusiast, this one is definitely worth a pit stop.

Safety zones, tires and weather, as well as some of the event cards and the way cars are affected by lateral displacement are all elements that do feel like F1 racing, albeit in a superficial way. Wargamers often refer to some games as being “war-themed games” rather than actual wargames, and I’m tempted to use the same construction here: Grand Prix is an F1-themed racing game, but not really an F1 simulation.

That’s not a bad thing in itself: I think Grand Prix is an astoundingly fun racing game, and one that I’m looking forward to playing again and again. It rewards strategy a little more than its NASCAR brother, and bad stuff seems to happen to those who actually went looking for it (expect perhaps for the Serious Crash event, which will wipe out anyone who just happened to be driving next to the car with the most close call markers).

I also think the game works better as a two-player contest than its predecessor. In Thunder Alley, a two-player game involves only 12 cars (six per player), and really feels like a tug-of-war. My cars against yours.
In Grand Prix, no matter the number of players, you always have 22 cars crowding the track. And the neutral cars—especially those that either player can activate, which is the majority of them in a two-player scenario—can really mess things up. In a good way. They also introduce additional opportunities and risks when it comes to timing: do you make use of that neutral car now, or do keep it in reserve for a super play a couple of moves down the line… if your opponent hasn’t decided to use it for himself?

PARTING SHOTS

If you’re not expecting a Formula One simulation and accept the abstractions and simplifications inherent to the system—not a hard thing to do, believe me—Grand Prix offers a racing challenge to rival the best of them. As a Thunder Alley fan (40 sessions as of this writing), I would go so far as to say that Grand Prix sits one position ahead of its big brother on my “to play” list.

And it bears repeating: Grand Prix has a feel all its own, and is not at all just a Thunder Alley clone.

Now, if four tracks aren’t enough asphalt to satisfy your high-octane ambitions, you already have access to more: the four Thunder Alley expansion tracks, released last year, have alternate F1 trajectories already baked into each NASCAR oval. In fact, the tracks of both games (12 in total, counting the expansion pack) are compatible with either system.

Still not enough? The Horgers have stated that the next title in the series would be a Mad Max-style of gladiatorial racing, with armored cars and shrapnel galore.

In the meantime, get driving!



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Monday, September 19, 2016

Lucas Land, Part 1: First Contact

My first “real” job, not yet quite out of college, was that of web writer for starwars.com.
I would go on to live through many adventures during my two-year tenure at Skywalker Ranch—starting with actually getting there.

Back in 1996, a game company called Decipher Inc. decided, for the first time, to run a world championship event for their planetary hit, the Star Wars Customizable Card Game.  Stripped down to its underwear, Star Wars CCG involved players assembling a collection out of random packs of cards, then using said collection to construct a deck of their own invention, before sitting down in front of an opponent armed with his own deck, and finally pitting both contraptions against each other. Players would draw card after card from their decks, deploying to the table a whole roster of characters from the movies, launching them in starships and vehicles on a myriad worlds, and have them attack left, right and center until one player ran out of cards and was forced to bow out of the match. The game sported the very best images culled from Star Wars movies that I’ve ever seen grace any product, with a wickedly addictive game growling underneath it all. No wonder players from every corner of the world flocked to it. And in the summer of ’96, Decipher decided to invite them all to a big fight.

Decipher’s plan called for “regional qualifiers” to be held all over the world, with the intent of flying regional winners over to the US where the final confrontation would take place. As an already established organizer of local tournaments in Montreal, I got a call from Decipher one morning, asking if I’d agree to run one of Canada’s two regional qualifiers. Of course, that meant forfeiting my own opportunity to participate, which gave me—and no doubt most of the other regional organizers—pause. But Decipher knew how to soften the blow: when the world champion received his ultimate prize (which had not yet been announced at that time), the organizer who had run the regional qualifier whence the world champion came would receive the exact same recompense. I hesitated a moment before caving in and agreeing to organize my end of the bargain.

My regional qualifier was a big success, with a sizeable turnout and few logistical problems—and inevitably one guy emerged victorious after a gruelling series of hard-fought cardboard battles. That man then went on to compete in the final tournament and, wouldn’t you know it, ended up winning the first title of Star Wars CCG World Champion. And so it was that the morning after the final showdown, while I was barely out of bed, Decipher rang me up with the big news. (This was 1996, remember: it was rather complicated—if at all possible—to look up the results on the web.) We had a short, polite conversation, and I remember being happy, most of all, that a Montrealer had walked away wearing the crown. Then the Decipher guy on the phone reminded me that because I had “produced” the eventual world champion through my regional qualifier, I was entitled to the same grand prize as the winner himself: an all-expenses-paid trip to Tunisia, to visit the actual shooting locations used in the making of A New Hope, the original Star Wars movie.
Words failed me.
For a Star Wars fan of my ilk, this was the Holy Grail.
(And speaking of the Holy Grail—well, I guess that’s a story for another day.)
That very unorthodox tour was to be led by archaeologist David West Reynolds—as close to a real-life Indiana Jones as you’ll ever meet—who had himself rediscovered most of the 1976 locations during a recent expedition to North Africa. (It’s worth mentioning that Lucasfilm itself had lost track of most of the now iconic shooting spots; back then, almost nobody thought the movie would amount to anything worth chronicling.) Nowadays, with the help of a few articles written on the subject—including one of my own—fans can (and many, indeed, already have) retrace George Lucas’ steps from one Tunisian sand dune to the next. But back in 1996, that hallowed trail didn’t exist: we were about to blaze it.

And so it was that about six months later, I found myself landing in Tunis, not far from the remains of ancient Carthage. I’ll have to see if I can dig up that old piece of mine, written back in the day for the now-defunct Scrye Magazine. As I recall, it was a fun and effervescent account of the whole trip, including many references to the card game that had made such folly possible. (Scrye was a gaming publication, after all.)  But for now, suffice it to say that the more time I spent with Reynolds, our intrepid, bullwhip-carrying guide (I kid you not), the more I discovered that we had a whole universe of personal traits in common, in addition to a shared obsession with Star Wars. We were getting along splendidly and I soon reached a tipping point where I felt as if I had just unearthed a long-lost brother (on what amounted to an archaeological dig, no less!). Reynolds soon expressed similar feelings, and we found ourselves looking warily at our eroding schedule, wondering where and when we’d find an opportunity to get together again once the expedition was over. It was “friendship at first sight,” an instant connection we couldn’t simply abandon.

And then, one evening towards the end of our trip, Reynolds—who had been hired as web editor by Lucasfilm just a few months prior—let out a handful of words that changed my life: “You know, you’re exactly the kind of guy I’d need at the Ranch.”

It would be almost two years before I got The Call.
But what a call.


You can read Part 2 here.



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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Of Ice and Men

So I’m a hockey fan.
Don’t laugh or shrug or roll your eyes—this is serious stuff. Let me explain.

What I am not, in this case at least, is a stats geek. I do enjoy the charms of statistics when they highlight an outlier, or underline the utter improbableness of a given event. Numbers tell their best stories when they have a few plot twists poking out of their average bag. But who scored how many goals in what number of minutes on ice? Not my cup of tea. And I rarely drink tea.
What I am not, also, is an admirer of a particular team, or someone who goes nuts about specific players. Which is not to say that I don’t have a favorite team: after all, I was born and raised in Montreal, where rooting for any team other than the Canadiens—if you happen to root for anyone at all—is grounds for banishment. I learned to walk both in the shadow of the Rocket and in the blinding glare of Guy Lafleur, lost in the endless space between numbers 9 and 10, listening to uncles argue ad nauseam about one of the myriad aspects of their obsession, and always thinking that when I grew to be their age—a terrifying prospect—logic dictated there would be an exceptional Habs player wearing the number 11. (I was right.) Now, while I would not dare deny there are some players whose work I especially enjoy to watch, I don’t feel attached to them the way most self-proclaimed hockey fans might.
No. What I love about hockey, what I savor with my eyes and ears and even my nose when I happen to stand where pucks are being passed and shot and stopped, is the game itself: a masterpiece of design and refinement. 
Let’s not delve into the rules themselves, as that endeavor alone would yield an entire book—as it already has, many times over. (All right, I will permit myself a curt mention of the blue line, which generates a multitude of delightful situations. The way such a simple concept manages to sire a whole universe of outcomes boggles the mind.) Rather, let us peek at the bare bones of what makes ice hockey the game it is today. For an outsider, armed with nothing more than a cursory knowledge of the various articles that regulate the game, hockey completely mystifies.

It is played on a frozen liquid: a country pond, a frosted street between two houses during winter, or even, as is the case in most professional contexts, an artificially refrigerated surface. Two groups, each six men strong, take to the playing area with steel blades attached to their shoes. Such contraptions allow them not only to better navigate the frozen terrain, but to reach speeds unimaginable in any other man-powered sport. For hockey is a game of speed—as any player above the age of 30 will painfully attest. 

Each player is required to handle the central component of the game—a frozen disc of vulcanized rubber (how I love that thermal antithesis)—with a long and slender stick, erstwhile made out of wood, but now a lighter carbon fiber instrument. (And with a much higher propension for ill-timed, game-defining explosions.) Mind you, nothing prevents players from touching the puck with any part of their anatomy, and such an occurrence will rarely result in a punitive setback. But the stick, that strange appendage which, by all laws of nature, should be tripping up players left and right, especially considering that a dozen of those long branches are being waved around at any one time, between the legs of fast-moving men balanced on a sheet of ice!—that stick counterintuitively enables juggling feats that would remain otherwise impossible. Like a veritable magician’s wand. So much so that a player sans stick finds himself stripped of his powers and might as well head back to his team’s bench. Which he often does.

Hockey action is also completely enclosed, insofar as gravity does its job. Pucks will rise above the boards on occasion, but on the whole, stoppage occurs at a low frequency. I remember witnessing plays that went on for more than 10 uninterrupted minutes, whizzing from one side of the battlefield to the other. As a kid, I always marvelled at the fact that, unlike other sports where the goal was to carry a much-coveted object into the opposing team’s scoring area, hockey didn’t grind to a halt just because someone missed a pass or shot wide of the net. The game’s limits weren’t abstracted through lines painted on the grass: they existed in the physical world.
They were frikkin’ walls.
On one hand, that enclosure evoked a certain sense of security, like an old friend holding you tight; there was something comfy about a Sunday night game of hockey. On the other hand, the same barrier created a concentration of speed, energy and, yes, sometimes violence, in that it would push the gladiators back into the arena, rather than letting them escape their fate, even for just a moment. 

Hockey doesn’t wait—for anything, or anyone.
The game moves so fast that even referees become a liability, oftentimes unable to glide out of the way of a speeding puck, or player, or both. Many a game has seen its ultimate conclusion altered by the mere presence of an official in the right/wrong place, at the right/wrong time… and that’s just the way the puck falls. No take backs, no apologies. Just play the game.
The sounds alone are enough to make you snap to attention. Steel blades biting into the ice during a boost of acceleration; the dry slap of the frozen puck as it lands on a teammate’s stick, almost like a twig broken clean in half; the cringe-inducing, hollow wham as a player becomes another’s airbag in a contested corner; and, of course, the volcanic eruption, the drown-the-howls-of-the-mother-giving-birth-in-the-next-room sonic blast that accompanies that little black disc finding its way behind the goaltender. Especially the one wearing the wrong color.

At the end of the day—for it is the time when such things fade out—the clock is reset and the scoreboard blanked out, ready for the next skirmish. Spectators file out and let the building go back to sleep, as if nothing at all had taken place there. Even the intricate lines drawn into the ice by zigzagging blades—an electrogram retelling the complete history of the match—is erased by the smooth action of the Zamboni, leaving in its wake a glistening, anonymous surface. A blank page, awaiting the morrow’s ephemeral tale.

For all its meaninglessness, the game of hockey remains, to me, an enthralling, fast-paced spectacle that never fails to mesmerize. It’s an experience that builds upon its own repetition, with the completely avowed intention of resetting itself when the season—and the season—ends. Because ice melts when winter goes into hiding, right?
The Bard might have written that life is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” But I’m sure he was thinking about hockey. And loving it.

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Saturday, June 11, 2016

Wargame review — Falling Sky

The Gauls Feared Only One Thing...


Designers: Volko Ruhnke, Andrew Ruhnke
Player count: 1 to 4
Publisher: GMT Games


Without fail, the term “counterinsurgency” conjures up modern images of armed conflicts. Late night TV coverage of one war or another in the Middle East, a social uproar somewhere in South Africa, a civil war in some ancient part of the Eastern Block—what these events all have in common is that they took place in modern times. Indeed, too many of them are still happening right now.
And that’s what GMT Games first tackled when they brought their COIN series of games to the table: drug cartels in Columbia (Andean Abyss), guerrillas in Afghanistan (A Distant Plain), Fidel Castro’s own brand of counterinsurgency (Cuba Libre), and the absolute quagmire of an operation that was the Vietnam War (Fire in the Lake). The fifth title in the series opened the door a bit wider, as designer Harold Buchanan offered Liberty or Death, which deals with the American Revolution against Britain.
In 1775.
This suggested that “counterinsurgency,” as a wargame simulation concept, could see applications outside of our immediate time frame. But just how far could that model reach back and still feel accurate?
How about the year 52 BC?

Falling Sky recreates the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar, and showcases the mighty Roman army as well as the native tribes that resisted the Roman advance, sabotaged their efforts, and fought back at every turn. The conflict unfolds on a beautiful map of what we would noawadays call France (mostly), where one player wears the Roman red, and three more embody the Celtic Arverni (led by Vercingetorix), the Belgae (under the guidance of Ambiorix) and the more or less pro-Roman Aedui. The game is playable with a full complement of opponents, or with just the one, in which case automated bots (complete with decision flowcharts) handle the missing human controllers.

For the COIN virgins in the audience, a quick overview of the system is in order. 
The engine runs on a deck of event cards with the opposing faction colors lined up at the top, in varying order. At any given moment, two cards are visible: the one for the current turn, and the one for the next turn. On each card, the first faction listed at the top gets the option to act first, performing either the card’s historical event or one of its own faction actions. If that faction decides to pass (or if it’s unavailable because it’s acted on the previous turn), then the next faction in the row gets a shot, and so on until up to two factions have acted.
An important notion here is that for each card, the action of the first faction dictates the options left open for the second faction. Generally, if a faction plays the event, then the following faction will have to perform one of its actions, and vice-versa. Also, some actions are different from faction to faction, while others are the same. For instance, in Falling Sky, all three of the Gallic factions have access to Rally (get more warbands to the board!), March (move your warbands across the board!), Raid (steal resources from your opponents!) and Battle (crush the enemy!)—while the Romans can resort to Recruit (their own, snobbish version of Rally), Seize (because Raid doesn’t sound imperial enough), as well as March and Battle. There’s also the possibility of throwing a “special ability” into the mix under certain circumstances, and those vary greatly from one faction to another. Let’s list just a few: the Aedui can Suborn (replace enemy pieces with their own), the Arverni can Devastate (which starves armies and seriously hinders the Romans), the Belgae can Rampage (scare away opposing pieces), while the Romans are allowed to Besiege (which automatically destroys a citadel—a very painful experience for anyone at the receiving end).

So far, all COIN games have involved four factions. But Falling Sky introduces the concept of a neutral faction that can possibly affect all others: the Germanic tribes. The Belgae can sometimes manipulate them to do their dirty work (through one of the Belgic special abilities, Enlist), but most of the time those guys will just mess around on their own. Keep an eye on them.

The game’s deck sports 77 cards. Five of them are Winter cards, seeded semi-randomly into the deck, and which essentially trigger a housekeeping round. When a Winter car pops up (signifying the end of a year), the Germans go haywire and steal and attack everything in sight, while the other factions must prepare for the cold season. This means that Gallic warbands need to relocate to friendly tribes or citadels—lest they risk not making it through the winter—while Romans legions and auxilia must relocate along their supply line (if it still exists…) or else pay to maintain forces in place. And that ain’t cheap. Especially in a devastated region.
If, at the end of a Winter round, a faction has attained its own, individual set of winning conditions, they win! Otherwise the game continues. When the last very last Winter card has come and gone, the game ends anyway and the one faction closer to its goal is declared winner.

WAR PRODUCTION

As with all previous COIN titles, Falling Sky ships in GMT’s “reinforced double deep box,” a large, armored thing that keeps every little piece safe. And there are a lot of those: 200 wooden pieces, with cardboard counters galore. The cards are their usual, thick slabs, which makes them capable of enduring hours of abuse, if a little tricky to riffle shuffle. The (mounted) mapboard is pretty—not quite the showstopper served up with Liberty or Death, but the thing offers more eye candy than the standard, functional, and a little drab board found in each other COIN opus. I like a board that stops passersby in their tracks and forces them to inquire about the game, and the one that ships with Falling Sky does a nice job of it. It’s interesting to note that the board is much smaller than what COIN veterans have come to expect: indeed, it shares its diminutive dimensions with the Cuba Libre board. Ah, but it achieves this through subterfuge, in that each faction’s holding box (where unused pieces are temporarily stored) exists as an external rectangle of cardboard instead of residing in a corner of the map. It makes no mechanical difference, but it can trick the unwary gamer into believing that Falling Sky will consume less table space than most of its older brothers. Just don’t put away that Ping-Pong table yet.

Then there are the player aids, and those are legion. (I couldn’t resist the pun. I’m not even sorry.)
Four foldouts feature information relevant to all four playable factions; two more foldouts sport decision flowcharts for any non-player factions in your I-don’t-have-enough-friends games; two additional aids detail the sequence of a Winter round, as well as highlighting the nasty stuff those Germanic tribes have in store for you; and one last foldout outlines even more rules for non-player factions, plus the whole battle procedure (a little difficult to grok at first, but ultimately very smooth and logical).

A 32-page rulebook and a 48-page playbook round out the package. But don’t panic just yet: there’s no need to study all of it before you jump into your first game. Which doesn’t mean it’ll be a cakewalk.
Read on.

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

I’ve written this before about other entries in the COIN series, but it bears repeating: the game is not complicated, but reading the rules can (almost certainly will) be overwhelming. This is because half the rules—eight pages out of 16, in the case at hand—consist of lists of procedures. And that makes for a pretty sedate read. (“The Aedui can do this, or this, or this, or even that. Then the Arverni can do this, or possibly this…”) Otherwise, the core system is very simple.
So what I always do when I’m teaching a COIN game to new players (or having them prepare for their first game) is explain (or ask them to read) everything but the actions and special abilities of each faction. You can read the action titles in bold (Rally, March, Raid, Battle…) to get a very general sense of what everyone will be doing, but otherwise, skip that section. You’ll be reading and re-reading all of that from the player aids anyway, even if you read them in advance, because that stuff is hard to learn unless you’re doing it as you’re reading it. So you might as well absorb everything else about the game—turn sequence, what happens during Winter, winning conditions—which amounts to eight pages when it comes to Falling Sky.
Trust me: read those eight pages, sit down with the extremely well done foldouts, and let it fly.

The playbook offers another path to enlightenment, and that’s its detailed tutorial, spread out over 16 illustrated pages. You’ll also find non-player examples in there, as well as design notes and strategy tips. All of which becomes very interesting… once you have a couple of games under your belt. At the very least.

FUN FACTOR

I’ve always enjoyed COIN games, but have usually felt like I was standing just on the edge of that great expanse we call cluelessness. Even in the case of what is usually considered the simplest of the COIN series, Cuba Libre, I never felt that I was in total control of my faction, nor that I could totally wrap my head around the possibilities afforded my opponents. I was having a lot of fun, but perhaps not always completely understanding why—if that makes any sense. I might be because too much time would elapse between two sessions, allowing understanding to seep through the cracks and evade all accumulation; but whatever the case may be, my next move was always a source of nervousness.
With Falling Sky, however, everything became clear. Stupefyingly so. It is because repetition, across the entire COIN lineup, finally managed to crack that thick skull of mine? Possibly. But some of my opponents also commented on the fact that Falling Sky felt clearer than its predecessors. There’s less of a guerrilla, free-for-all feeling, for one thing: front lines tend to establish themselves with more contrast, crisscrossing the board the same way alliances are forged and torn asunder throughout the game. Perhaps making actions essentially identical between all four factions lightens the number-crunching burden a bit. But whatever the case may be, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Falling Sky as an entry point into the COIN system. (For the curious, Fire in the Lake is the last one I would recommend as a first foray.)

PARTING SHOTS

I will go out on a limb and state that Falling Sky is my favorite COIN game so far. (I was previously really in love with Fire in the Lake, and I haven’t played Liberty or Death yet.) It’s a really meaty contest between four players, and once you get past the first few learning sessions (where downtime can wear out the most resilient among us), the game just sings.

Two final notes.
Don’t underestimate the Aedui. At first blush, the blue faction appears weak and somewhat less exciting to play. They don’t have a leader (along with the associated unique power that other factions enjoy) and they come to the fight with a smaller contingent of units than everyone else. But their Suborn special ability is possibly the most powerful in the game, and some events really give them the high ground. In the end, the Aedui are a bunch of underhanded bastards; they may look like anything but a threat… until it’s too late.
Also, don’t underestimate the complexity of running non-player faction. Those are sophisticated AIs, and it is worth nothing that no two factions “think” alike. So familiarity with one flowchart doesn’t mean anything when it’s time for the next bot to act. I still have some scars from my very first session of Andean Abyss (the first COIN title), when I sat down to play the game solo. What can I tell you—I was young and foolish. Listen here: solo is NOT a good way to learn the game. An unfortunate state of affairs, perhaps, but very true. I’ve found that two bots was about as much as I could handle and still find the overall experience agreeable.

Other than that, grab a few friends and sit down with a COIN game. You’ll thank me later.


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