Frontier Stations

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Captaining a space station is hard, they say. You’ve got on-board intrigue, weird space diseases, hostile aliens and mind-bending extra-dimensional beings. While you’re facing all these threats, your computer systems are going buggy, your navigational computer has an insidious virus, and the crew that would otherwise be fixing these problems have become space-zombies.

And that’s just before lunch.

Frontier Stations is a cooperative resource management game that pits between 3 and 6 space stations with the worst day they could possibly imagine. Players work together to face threats, build out their stations, and destroy enemies, all the while watching as the ranks of hostile forces arrayed against them gather more strength each round.

Captaining a space station is hard, they say. They don’t know the half of it.

The Five

Frontier Stations is a great family co-op. It went over well with my family, a mix of experienced gamer kids and new gamer adults. However, it might be a little thin for more advanced players, and if you’re not already inclined to like co-ops this is going to be way too light for your tastes.

– The game hinges entirely on a few dice rolls and some basic understanding of probability. This makes for good discussion at the table and an almost educational experience as kids are challenged to talk through balancing risk vs. reward, who should get what resources, etc.

– As in past Victory Point Game titles, the pieces are laser cut and sooty. This remains a bit of an annoyance, but they appear committed to this particular way of producing their games. Prepare for some ashy fingers the first play.

– The game is hard without being brutal. There’s a real tension every time the die is rolled as you wait to see what Systems and Threat cards will be activated and to decide how you will respond. Because Frontier Stations is ultimately pretty short, losses don’t feel that bad, and it’s likely you’ll play a couple of games back to back until you pull off a win.

– I hope Frontier Stations has some expansions in its future. You’re going to go through the Threat decks every game, so after a few plays encountering the same threats will start feeling stale. The same isn’t the case for the Systems deck, which you may go through but will get very few chances to bring many of the cards into your station. Some card-only expansions bringing new threats and systems into the game will be welcome. Given how well Victory Point Games has supportedDarkest Night, I suspect we’ll see the same here.

Rules

Frontier Stations works under a fairly straightforward mechanic. Each round, the first player – the Captain – will roll dice: a single die for the first half of the game, two dice for the latter half. The value of the die or dice will then determine what happens over the next three phases of the game: which threats activate, which cards in each player’s space station activate, and how much currency the Captain has for either purchasing cards or destroying threats. The bulk of the game involves the players working together to construct ships which have good chances of generating the needed resources, and making hard decisions about whether to expand their stations, thus increasing the chances of generating resources later, or destroying enemies, thus reducing the need to defend against them.

Play starts by sorting the threat deck into Early Threats and Late Threats, removing 5 cards from each deck. These are placed near the central play mat. Then, players each take a Nexus card and seed it with its starting resources. Players can choose to use the standard Nexus, or either a Heavy Nexus or Light Nexus, which reduces or increases the game’s difficulty respectively. Then, the Systems deck is sorted and cards are drawn and revealed on the play mat. A player receives the Captain card, which identifies as them as the first player, gives them final decision in any arguments that may arise, and gives them the right to spend one of the players two Emergency Beacon tokens, which they can cash in at any time if they aren’t able to meet the resource demands of a particular threat.

Play is broken down into five phases: roll die, activate threats, activate systems, upgrade systems, draw new threat. For the first round of play, the activate threat phase is skipped – since there are no threats on the board – giving the players a free round to purchase an upgrade. After that, and for the rest of the game, each player draws a threat at the end of his turn and places it between him and the player on the left.

frontier chits

Each threat card in the game contains three sections: the activation number, the threat cost, and the destruction cost. The activation is a number or range of numbers that will correspond to die rolls in the game. If at any point one or more threats’ activation number(s) match the value of the die, all threats that match will activate. Players deal with activated threats by spending resources to match the threat cost. The trick is, only the player to the left and the right of the threat can spend the required resources (though some Systems cards will allow another player to spend resources on the active players’ behalf).

If at any point the players are unable to pay the threat’s cost, the game ends.

So, yeah. Yikes.

If the threat is successfully dealt with, all players may activate systems cards whose activation number matches the die roll, collecting all appropriate resources and storing them in their station. Each Systems card both generates one or more resources as well as provides storage capacity for those resources, so players must carefully balance how they gain, use, and store resources.

Then, the active player may – using the value of the rolled die as currency – purchase one of the revealed Systems card and add it to his station, this generating new resources or adding new special abilities in future rounds. Alternatively, the player may spend the currency to destroy a Threat card by meeting or exceeding its destruction cost. In either case, the player may spend Energy tokens – one of the resources generated by the station – to augment the value of the die roll.

Finally, the player then draws a new threat and play passes to the left. The dice are rolled, threats are activated, resources generated, and stations expanded. Once the Early Threats deck is exhausted, players move on to the Late Threats deck and two die are rolled instead of just one. Play continues until both threats decks are exhausted.

Impressions

Based on my experience with Darkest Night (for which, in retrospect, I wrote a harsher review than it really deserved given how much play the game continues to get – in fact, I just recently ordered both the From the Abyss expansion and theEnchanter promo hero), I was eager to try out Frontier Stations to see if it would make a good addition to my family-game, cooperative-play lineup.

It definitely fits the bill.

I’ve had a few plays of it with my regular game group and my family, and thus far it feels like a better fit with the latter. It’s a remarkably difficult game; not in the sense of offering complex mechanics to navigate, but just by being a hard game to win. There’s a lot of luck involved – every round hinges on the roll of just one or two dice – though on the whole I found the game tense rather than punishing. For my more experienced game group, the game felt a little too thin, perhaps. Like Darkest Night, it strips down some cooperative game concepts to their essentials. In Darkest Night, it’s survive while you search. Here, it’s just make it to the end. Because Frontier Stations does that with relatively few choices – which Systems card do I buy? Or do I destroy a Threat instead – an advanced player may not feel satisfied with a win, and a lose may feel like the luck of a die roll.

But as an advanced family game, Frontier Stations really worked.

First, cooperative games are a great choice for us now, as we’ve got a mixture of newer gamers (my girlfriend) and kids who aren’t always big fans of losing, so cooperative games allow us to make decisions together and take the sting out of failure since we all rise or fall together. The decisions may be relatively few, but they are important, and because of the wayFrontier Stations handles threat management it’s important to discuss card purchases and consider long-term strategy with the entire group.

Second, it has just enough interesting mechanics to be challenging without being overwhelming. Resource generation, management, and storage is certainly a staple among designer boardgames, and that is the core of Frontier Stations. What’s more, the resource generation is contingent on a basic understanding of probability – indeed, each Systems and Threat card bears a row of dots that indicates how likely the card is to be activated on a roll of two dice. Players are always working together to balance out low probably vs. high reward and vice versa, making sure that there are a distribution of cards and resources around the table so that each pair of players are able to fend off their threats, and so forth. It’s mathy – indeed, you could almost argue educational – without making too big a deal about the fact.

Summary

In the end, we lost most of the games we played. That’s how it goes with cooperative games – you’re almost always going to lose more than you’re going to win. And that’s fine, because Frontier Stations engages its players well enough to make you want to dive right back in and give it another try. With Frontier Stations, Victory Point Games and Jeremy Lennert continue a trend of solid cooperative games.

Darkest Night

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Fantasy adventure games often have you going on grand adventures in the search for powerful artifacts, on the way doing battle against vicious and terrible monsters. From Descent to Legends of Andor and more, fantasy games tend to invoke the epic scale of a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, delving into great underground kingdoms or crossing vast expanses of forest on the hunt for victory.

Not so Darkest Night. This is a stripped-down experience that distills fantasy gaming to a few basic mechanics and a few core truths: The bad guy is more powerful than you, most of the world is working against you, and you probably won’t succeed in the end. The austerity of the core game is enlivened somewhat by the collection of heroes available right out of the box and in the game’s two expansions, though even with some creative takes on fantasy tropes and an interesting leveling-up mechanic the game may not have enough going for it to keep you coming back.

Rules

 

 

Darkest Night is a co-operative game in which the players work to defeat the Necromancer. The game ends one of three ways: For the players to win, they must either defeat the Necromancer in battle as, or they must collect three Holy Relics and return them to the Monastery. The Necromancer wins if at any point there are five Blight tokens at the Monastery.

When setting up the board, players have the option of using one of two formats – a cardstock, 11 x 17 board, or a thicker cardboard version that is assembled from three puzzle pieces. The board represents the locations the players will explore throughout the game.

figures

The game starts with the selection of heroes. Each hero has a Hero Sheet, which offers a short description of the hero and two different tracks – Grace and Secrecy. Grace is essentially the hero’s hit points, while Secrecy determines how likely it is that the Necromancer (or some other monsters) will be able to find you and track you as you move about the board. In addition, each hero has a custom deck of 10 powers. Within the deck are four powers marked with a symbol; of these, the player picks three as her starting powers. The deck is then shuffled and placed near the hero sheet. Over the course of the game, certain actions will allow the player to draw additional powers from the deck to augment her hero.

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Three other decks are then created – the Map deck, which will determine where enemies appear on the board throughout the game, as well as what kinds of treasures are found during search actions the players may take. An Event deck is created, from which players will draw a card each turn throughout the game. The Artifact deck is shuffled and set up near the board, creating a pool from which treasures may be drawn, and finally the various tokens representing potions, keys, and so forth are then set up.

Enemies are then aligned against you. The Necromancer token is placed in the center of the board, tokens representing various threats – called Blights – are organized near the board within reach of all players. The top card of the Map deck is then drawn and Blights are places on all locations on the board. Play then begins.

threats

The game is played in two phases: hero turn, and Necromancer turn. A hero starts by drawing an Event card, which will generally involve fighting a monster or dealing with some sort of threat, often determined by the hero’s current Secrecy or Grace score. The With an Inner Light expansion introduces Quests, which are events that will require the hero to do one or more things – generally, traveling to other locations around the board – to resolve, resulting in a treasure if completed or some nasty effect if not. Once the Event card is resolved, the hero may take one action. These are: Move one space to a new location, Hide to refresh powers, Attach a Blight token on the hero’s current location, Search for treasure, or use a Power that requires an action. Heroes in the Monastery may also Pray to heal. Once this action is taken, the hero must then defend against any Blight tokens on her space – note that defending against a Blight does not remove it from the board, only Attacking it as an action can do this.

Once all heroes have completed their action, the Necromancer goes. In a five-player game, the fifth player controls the Necromancer (along with some other special abilities); otherwise, a player is tagged to execute the Necromancer’s actions. First, the Darkness track is advanced by one or more, depending on the presence of certain Blights on the board. Then, the Necromancer moves. A die is rolled and compared to each hero’s Secrecy score. If the roll is greater than the Secrecy score, the Necromancer moves one space closer to that hero, or the closest hero if the Necromancer detects more than one. If no heroes are detected, the Necromancer follows a path as indicated on the game board, corresponding to the number rolled on the die. At the end of the Necromancer’s turn, a Map card is drawn and a Blight is placed on the Necromancer’s current location as determined by the Map card. Control then returns to the heroes, and play continues.

Searching is the key action heroes will need to take. Via searching, they can find keys that will help them unlock the Holy Relics needed to defeat the Necromancer. They will also find treasures and other items that will give them combat bonuses and special effects throughout the game. Of particular importance is the ability to gain new powers. Occasionally, a search will result in a treasure or effect that allows the player to draw a new power from her power deck and put it into play immediately.tokens

Powers are what make each hero unique. Most heroes have a starting power that gives them some sort of basic combat ability; the rest of the powers will vary wildly from hero to hero and can effect everything from movement, to healing capacity, to searching bonuses, and more. Powers are used a variety of ways. Sometimes, the power just gives the player a bonus and is not exhausted; more often, the use of a power requires it to be exhausted, in which case the power cannot be used again until the hero uses a Hide action and refreshes all exhausted powers. Careful management of powers is extremely important in Darkest Night, as poor planning can leave a hero stranded without the ability to defend himself or aid his companions.

As noted above, to win the players must either defeat the Necromancer in battle or find three Holy Relics and return them to the Monastery. Holy Relics are also needed to fight the Necromancer, as the Necromancer can only be defeated on a roll of 7 on a six-sided die, so heroes will need the attack bonus conferred by a Holy Relic in order to succeed on this roll. Holy Relics are obtained by searching for Keys at various locations around the board, and eventually cashing in found keys for a Relic. At the same time, the Necromancer us moving about the board generating Blights. If any effect would cause a Blight to be generated at a location that already has four Blights, that new blight is instead generated at the Monastery. In this way, the heroes have very difficult choices to make throughout the game. With only one action available to them, they can either fight Blights to remove them from the board, or Search for keys to unlock Holy Relics, but not both. Any time spent not fighting Blights means more opportunities for these Blights to overrun the Monastery, but without searching the heroes will never have the tools needed to defeat the Necromancer. Teamwork and careful planning are critical to victory in this game.

Impressions

If you skip ahead to the tl;dr part of this review you will note that The Five are overwhelmingly negative, which is unfortunate since the game probably deserves better than that. The things that are bad about it are glaringly bad, so I think it’s fair to point them out, but they are ultimately pretty small things that don’t compromise the overall game. They’re like splinters in that web of flesh right between your fingers – tiny, but painful beyond their size and tough to ignore.

Despite some of the flaws with its components, the overall presentation of Darkest Night is gorgeous. The art is really well done across all aspects of the game, from the hero sheets to the Event cards to the little cardboard tokens. The overall look of the game is dim and gritty, definitely a dark fantasy theme – this is a game that screams struggle from the get-go. The laser-cut tokens are problematic and unnecessary, but I give Victory Point Games credit for attempting an extra level of quality in their game pieces; unfortunately, the effort just didn’t succeed. I do enjoy the quiet ritual of opening up a new game, popping all of the pieces from their cardboard sheets and organizing them into their little bags or whatnot, but the additional step of needing to clean the soot from the edges of each laser-cut token was an unnecessary and unpleasant step.

Darkest Night is hard. That needs to be said up front. The game will begin to work against you quickly. The Darkness track will mount, increasing the ability of the Necromancer to hurt you. Meanwhile, Blights will be popping up across the board like fat earthworms after a soaking rain. All the while, every turn sees your heroes harried by the results of Event cards, facing zombie hordes and other monsters that will sap your ability to face the Blights aligning against you. Against all this, each hero can only do one thing each turn. It can feel like a slog, trudging step by heavy step against the Necromancer. If you win the game, it is an ecstatic feeling, a real sense of having overcome the odds. If you lose, however, that loss seems inevitable, and that is where the game gets a little rough.

There are other games in which the enemy is stronger than you. Arkham Horror is a favorite example that comes to mind. InArkham Horror, however, the players have a lot of choices to make each round, and the events taking place at the various locations throughout the city are varied enough that a kind of narrative builds up over the game. Darkest Night has none of this. It is, as mentioned earlier, a distilled experience – more a game of stamina than exploration. Arkham Horror may beat you up, but at least you get to escape through the woods every once in a while and have some hope of getting free. DarkestNight is more like being strapped into a chair and punched. If you can sit through the abuse long enough, you may come out the victor, but everything before that is just going to hurt.

Maybe this isn’t such a bad thing.

I have never felt quite as satisfied with winning a game as I have with Darkest Night. Because it is so raw and brutal it ends up being much more of a thinking game than it first appears. Since actions are so limited, you can’t afford to waste one. Players must carefully coordinate their heroes and plan actions out a few rounds in advance to the extent possible. In this, a two-player game of Darkest Night can feel somewhat like cooperative chess. Unlike Arkham Horror, which my game group has regularly invested 5+ hours into before losing in the end, Darkest Night is only going to take you a little over an hour no matter if you win or lose, so a disappointing loss doesn’t come at the end of a massive investment of time. Darkest Night is a sprint, not a marathon.

In this Darkest Night may have limited appeal. Personally, I do not mind games that are stacked against the players. Games that aren’t fair can often be thematically appropriate: the Great Old One isn’t supposed to be easy to beat, the zombie hordes aren’t supposed to be easy to escape. I derive a certain amount of (possibly masochistic) pleasure from the struggleof a game like this, so Darkest Night can be very satisfying in this regard. In games that are fair, winning is not only possible, it’s likely with experience, skill and planning. In Darkest Night, even these may not help you in the end.

The game is all player interaction. There is no way a single hero can carry this game. Moves are going to be planned and powers coordinated constantly throughout the game. As to variability, the game has a ton. I have mentioned the range of heroes you have to chose from, and even with all my plays of the game I don’t think I have gotten all the heroes to the table. Further, it’s unlikely that when playing a particular hero you’re going to get all that hero’s power to table during a game, meaning the capabilities of even the same hero will change from play to play. In addition, the Artifact cards – which can bestow powerful bonuses on your hero – are hard to collect. I don’t believe I’ve drawn more than ten of these cards across all of my plays, so most of what’s in the deck remains a mystery. Despite the austere mechanics of the game, all of these elements mean that play is going to feel very different from game to game, and can require radically different strategies to succeed.

From a mechanics perspective, this is an easy game to play with kids, even those younger than the 13+ recommended age limit. It’s a great game for teaching cooperation and planning, and where adults may find the lack of decision making frustrating, kids may appreciate the narrow focus. However, the game art can be pretty dark and monstrous, so some younger kids who may be sensitive to scary images should avoid the game. Plus, because the game is so brutal, kids who haven’t yet learned about to be good losers and enjoy the experience of playing the game may find the losses discouraging.

Summary

Darkest Night presents a tough challenge to gamers used to the epic scale of a swords-and-sorcery fantasy game. Victory can be rare, but all the more satisfying because of it. If you’re the kind of person who, after being knocked to the ground during a fight that obviously wasn’t fair, gets right back up and challenges your opponent to a rematch, Darkest Night may be your game.

The Five

Let’s talk game value. The base game is available from Amazon for $49, and the expansions are $15 and $19 each at CSI when they’re in stock. I bought the base game and one expansion at Gen Con in 2013 at Gen Con premium prices. This is too expensive for this game. The components include two formats of the same small board, a lot of cards, and a number of laser cut cardboard pieces. The boxes for the core game and the expansions are generic red boxes inserted into slipcases. The artwork ranges from good to gorgeous and the rulebook is nicely done. However, no where in this collection of components can I figure out where a $50 base price tag is justified. Indeed, some of these elements – such as the slipcased boxes – suggest some cost savings that don’t seem to be reflected in the price tag.

The laser-cut pieces are intended to add to the game’s quality, but they’re just an annoyance. Laser cutting allows the shape of the pieces to me more reflective of what they’re representing. Magic bottles are bottle-shaped, for example. However, the laser cutting means the components are ell edged with soot that must be cleaned off (via an included napkin); plus, the custom cutting made it difficult to pop the pieces out of their sheets, often resulting in a mangled component. I can see what Victory Point was trying to do here, but they would have been better off sticking with die-cut square tokens that didn’t require the extra work.

The collection of heroes in the core game and across the expansions are great, creative, gorgeously rendered, and unique. I was impressed how Victory Point Games was able to introduce mechanics for each hero that reflected the hero’s theme, all using some basic dice management ideas. Not only are the heroes individual powers interesting, the ways heroes interact with each other can be a lot of fun to explore. I suspect there are some combinations that can break the game – either for or against the heroes favor – as some games I played with some combinations of heroes felt radically unbalanced. Nonetheless, this is the strength of the game, if you like the core game the expansions are an absolute necessity for the fun of experimenting with the additional heroes.

The game plays 1 to 5, but I highly recommend with 2 players, each playing two heroes (in a 5 player game, four players control the heroes and one player controls the necromancer). A hero’s turn is so extremely limited in the number of actions it can take, at one player a hero I suspect each turn would feel unsatisfying, and yet the overall game length would be increased. At two players, it felt like I was getting to make a sufficient number of decisions, and the game was a pretty management time.

When I was playing Darkest Night, I played it on a tear – a couple of games a night, a couple of days a week. It was short enough that back-to-back games were possible, and the variety of heroes made the game experience radically different each time. Once I put the game away, though, I haven’t had much of an urge to break it out, particularly since I’m rarely playing two-player games these days. It’s probably time that I take another shot at it, but the compulsion to do so just isn’t there.

Progress

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Progress Header

In Progress: Evolution of Technology (“Progress”) players manage a hand of cards in order to develop technologies as they progress through three (and four with the Modern Age expansion) eras. The player that is best able to balance their many scoring opportunities and produce the most advanced technologies is the winner of the game.

Rules

 

 

At the start of the game, players draw five or more cards from the Era One deck (players going later in starting play order draw more cards) and use these cards in order to take two of five available actions, namely: discovery, research, quick draw, shuffle and draw or straight draw.

The first action is discovery, and this actions forms the backbone of the game. Through the discovery action players can place a card from their hand into their active technology tableau. Cards are placed into the tableau buy paying their discovery cost, through either previously placed technology card, discarded technology cards, progress tokens or a combination of the three.

In the example below, the medicine card is being played. This technology card as a cost of three science units and two culture; however, the science cost can be foregone in the player seeking to discover medicine has already discovered mathematics and the culture cost can be foregone if the player has already discovered burial. Here the player has already discovered mathematics so the science cost can be ignored. But since he has not discovered burial he must pay the culture cost. He does so by discarding the poetry card, which has a knowledge value of 1 (knowledge is wild) and exhausting a knowledge tile he obtained earlier during the game.

Progress Buy Example
A example of how a player may discovery a technology

Once a technology is discovered its rewards are granted immediately, except for victory points which are supplied at the end of the game. In the example above, he was able to move his scoring token up one space on the population track. He will also gain one victory point at the end of the game.

Other rewards the players can obtain for discovering technologies include advancement up the player’s ability track or the receipt of science, engineering, culture or knowledge tokens that can be retained and used to fuel future discoveries. Notably the tokens are refreshed after every turn, so they can be used over and over.

In the example below, the player has gained a culture, a science and an engineering token and moved two spaces up the action track; so for the rest of the game he will take three action per turn instead of the initial two. (The player has also advanced one space up the population track, gained two end game victory points and triggered one of the era ending events.)

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An example of how a players placed technologies may impact their abilities

Players may also place technologies under development. This is done by placing a technology card face up beside the player’s active tableau and placing four, three or two black development token on top of the card, depending upon how far up the research track the player has advanced. Thereafter, the player will remove one token from the card at the start of each round and will place it into play without paying any cost at the start of the round when the last development token is removed. Once a technology is developed it goes into the players active tableau and the player is awarded all benefits associated with the card, just as if he had discovered it.

Progress Player Board
A example of a tableau with a technology (crop rotation) under development

Player may also quick draw off on any deck that is in play, including face up discard decks. During a quick draw, the player draws a number of cards equal to the number affiliated with his advancement up the quick draw deck and discards a number of card equal to his related discard number, i.e. 2/1, 3/1, 4/2. A player may instead, shuffle a number of discard piles into the active decks and blindly draw an equal number of cards from those decks. As with the quick draw number, the number of cards the player may shuffle and blindly draw using this action equals that player advancement up their shuffle and draw track.

Finally, a player may blindly draw three to six cards off of the draw deck, provided this is their last action and they discard down to their hand limit of five to eight, with each of these limits depending upon how far the player has advanced up their draw and hand size limits.

After a set number of cards identifying an era symbol are revealed had put into play the next era’s deck is “opened” and cards may be drawn from that deck. Once all of the decks have been opened and a set number of cards marked with a gaming ending symbol are put into play, the game ends and final scoring begins.

Players are scored on how high they have advanced up each of the tracks on their personal player board, how many victory cards they have played and how high they have advanced up the political, population and military track. Players ranked higher up the track score more points than those ranked lower. After all scores are tallied the player with the highest score, is declared the master of technology and the winner of the game.

Progress Score
A scoring example

Impressions

 

 

Progress, is a finely crafted game, starting with its impressive art and components.

While largely utilitarian, the components serve their function well and make game play easy and efficient. For example, all of the individual player board feature cuts out in which the tracking tokens nestle neatly, making it unlikely that these tokens will slide off of their mark. Additionally, the icons on the cards are clear and distinct making it easy to track progress and scoring.

The game also comes with five player guides (flowcharts actually) that, though difficult to discern at first, become very helpful once player become familiar with the game. These player guides provide quick reference to the number of cards of each type within the deck as well as the various cards that combine to produce more advanced technologies. This tool, though necessarily large in game where usable player space will rapidly become a rare resource, is essential for players hoping to play the game at its highest level. Knowing development prerequisites, discovery rewards as well as card distribution will help players maximize the utility of the powerful develop action and plan routes to easy late game discoveries.

The components actually reflect the game play very accurately, which is easy and efficient. While the tactics of Progress are involved, the game mechanics are easy to grasp. The only facet that may prove difficult for some player to grasp are the options that can be used to discover new technologies, but a few examples should clear up any confusion in short order.

What makes Progress work is the depth of choices that it offers. Every play has possible consequences and potential rewards. Players can tailor their strategy to both to the cards that they draw and their competitor’s moves. And, if they want to be successful, they must. At times, the game will suggest a limited set of viable options to the careful player. However, these choices are not so limited that the game ever seems to devolve to auto pilot. To the contrary, even when the choices are limited, no one choice is optimal. As a result, the game rewards the attentive gamer, but it also requires players to occasionally make bold decisions.

The games is also engaging throughout. Though players will perform several actions at a time, except during the late rounds, turn order typically rotates fairly rapidly. (The game will slog down during late rounds while player are “mathing out” their options, but this is typical of games of this sort and in my experiences, by that point, players as so engaged in the emerging endgame, delays rarely become tedious.) Moreover, players will want to watch their opponent’s plays as the cards revealed by one player will influence the moves made by another. Additionally, since the players can draw from the discard pile, keeping track of where cards fall within the stack can be important. In other words, the game never feels slow, boring or tedious; which cannot be said of many other civ builders.

The game does have some quirks, including an immediate endgame that can feel deflating to those players unable to take their final actions. Moreover, the game does involve a good deal of luck. I have had games where one player obtained a vast majority of the best cards at incredibly precipitous times. But this is not what I would describe as a problem with the game, just a reality with which the player will have to occasionally make peace. Usually every player will get one of two lucky draws and one or two garbage draws per game. Moreover, when all the game is played out over four, instead of three eras, the balance of good to bad luck becomes, predictably, more balanced.

The game also has uncommon variability, especially for a card game. When one considers that Progress consist of three (or four) large decks of cards, these decks contain limited repetition and the game can easily hold two to five players (the game does have a solo variant; however, I have not yet given this variant a try) the possible variations are immeasurable. Moreover, card draws dictate game style, so most players will be forced to employ a different tactic each time that they play.

In sum, the game continues to feel fresh and challenging even after many plays.

Finally, the games implementation of theme cannot be ignored. One of my favorite things about early plays of Progress was discovering not only the technologies, but their interesting prerequisites. For example, philosophy derives from an alphabet and musical instruments and atheism derives from education and modern art. The game is intelligent and carefully crafted. As a result, the theme pervades in a game that could, if designed by less skillful hands, be flat, abstract and lifeless.

I have yet to win Progress, and I have played it numerous times, at all player counts. While this is not an uncommon development, what is less common is my continuing desire to regularly get this game to table. Anyone who knows me knows I love the new, and while I am not one to shy away from a challenge, I often find that after five or six losses, my vigor can wane. That has not yet happened with Progress.  And this speak volumes about the enjoyment I derive from playing it.

Summary

 

 

All in all, I would describe Progress as an impressively designed game that deserves broader distribution. It should be said, that not all of my game partners share my enthusiasm. None of them dislike the game, but some suspect the game can be “solved”, an assertion with which I vigorously disagree. I have seen many different tactics lead to victory and just as many lead to bitter defeat. Regardless, I believe most players will get many enjoyable and challenging plays of this games under their belt before settling into a preferred strategy.

The Five

 

 

Progress was the product of a successful kickstarter. Unlike other kickstarters, the publishers included all of the stretch goals within the base game which has become available at retail. I commend them for this decision, as it give the base game more depth and variability. The game comes with a fourth era (which we have taken to playing every time) and a number of expansions. We have not discussed the expansions in this review; however, they are worth using and add  slight wrinkles to the game that help keep the game fresh. None of them add significantly to the game, but all are worth exploring.

I really enjoy how fluidly the game plays. There is something very appealing about a game where all of the parts seem to fit. Progress is such a game. The balance seems perfect and the choices are occasionally grueling (in a good way), but every action creates new synergys  (that’s right middle managers, I said synergy) that open up new game play opportunities. Being a generalist is not an ideal strategy in this game (since that this the tactic I tend to use, and as noted above, losing seems to be my fate when it comes to this game) (and to be fair, many other games). Players have to identify a tactic that they want to employ and use it until game conditions demand otherwise. This appeals to me as a gamer (which is not to say I am good at it, see above). I like games where players have to set goals, obtain them, re-asses, set a new goal and so on. Progress seems designed so that players are encouraged to do this.

As noted above, Progress does have an immediate end game trigger and some of the people with which I have played this game, identify this as its principal failing. I take a different view, if players are aware of this possibility they should keep track of the approach of these conditions and structure their game play accordingly. This facet of the game gives Progress a modest, “press your luck” element, that I tend to enjoy.

This game can take up a surprising amount of table space. While the designers recommend that players stack their cards as shown in the examples contained above, this mitigates but does not solve this problem. Add to this the presence of sizable player sizes and players may need to take out small leasehold in order to play this game without feeling cramped. The point being, though the style of this game is suited to cafe play, its footprint is not.

When marketing this game, the team at NSKN Games describe it as the best part of civ builders, the tech tree, in concentrate. This is a precise description of Progress’ nature and appeal. For some reason, the theme of this game clicked with me, right away. As a gamer who always choose a trip to EPCOT over a trip to Disney World as a child (I grew up about an hour from both) a game that focuses upon technology, is always my groove. This game has cool technologies that are represented through attractive illustrations AND a flow chart. What well heeled geek wouldn’t love that.

The aforementioned review derives from a copy of the reviewed game which was provided by the publisher, free of charge.

Top Promoter

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Top Promoter HeaderThere are games that are tense enough that by the time you finish them you are as sweaty and exhausted as Rocky Balboa at the end of his famous run through Philadelphia (though it’s unlikely you’ll have been cheered on by as many children). In some gaming groups, the victor may be as bruised and bloody, and the losers as reviled as a pummeled Dolph Lundgren.

Top Promoter is not one of those games. And that’s fine. I mean, who wants to end a game that beat up, no matter what side of the victory line you fall on?

Rather than Rocky Balboa, Top Promoter puts you in the role of his manager, assigning a roster of fighters in a range of weight classes to a series of bouts in cities across the world. As a promoter, sometimes you have to put up a lesser fighter against a more bruising opponent so you can save your best boxer for a higher profile match in a city that will pull in the cash. It’s a bit mercenary, but everyone knows the business of boxing is every bit as brutal as what goes down in the ring.

Rules

 

 

Players begin by selecting a deck of fighters and actions. There are five decks in the game, each containing an identical distribution of cards, differentiated only by color. A number of Location cards, equal to the number of players minus one, are laid out in the main play area. Players shuffle their decks, draw six cards, and play begin.

Decks consist of two kinds of cards – fighters and actions. Each fighter has a weight class, a Popularity score, a dice stat, and a hometown. In addition, some fighters have a Knockout score – a special dice combination that can be rolled for an instant win and a premium cash award during the bout. The small number of action cards can be played either as fighters are being assigned to bouts, or after bouts have begun, depending on the card.

fighter example
Exemplar Fighter Cards

 

The Action Cards
Exemplar Action Cards

At the beginning of a round, each player selects a fighter from their hand and places it face down in front of them. Once all players have selected a card, the fighters are revealed. Play order is then determined by the Popularity scores of the revealed fighters – highest Popularity going first, and then advancing in descending order. Players will then assign their fighters to a a bout at a location, keeping in mind that fighters receive a one-die bonus for fighting in their hometowns. Placement of boxers are limited by a few conditions: players cannot pair their own boxers against each other, they have to assign their boxers to bouts of the same weight class, and they can’t assign their boxer to a new bout if a location already has a boxer of the same weight class open. A location can hold three bouts, and each bout consists of two fighters. Once a player assigns a fighter to a city, she can play one of a small number of action cards that do things like swap location cards or move the bout her fighter was assigned to higher in ranking. In some cases, it’s possible that a player may not have a location to assign their fighter because there is no open bout in their selected fighter’s weight class, probably because another player filled a bout ahead of them. In this case, their fighter is simply discarded and play continues.

If at any point an assigned fighter causes a location to have three full bouts, the fight immediately commences at that location. Resolution of bouts begins with the bottom-most pair and proceeds upwards to the Main Event. Players receive more rewards the higher up in position their match is $1 million, $2 million and $3 million respectively.

Combat is very simple. Players roll a number of six-sided dice equal to the Dice Stat of their fighter, with a couple of modifications. They may play a Superior Training card with will add a die to their roll. As mentioned earlier, fighters competing in their home towns also receive a bonus die. After each pool of die is rolled, victory is determined in one of two ways: 1) Players arrange their dice in descending order and compare rolls, one player comparing their highest roll to their opponent’s highest roll, until one player beats their opponents’ score. or 2) A fighter with a knockout stat rolls the particular combination of dice needed to complete their knockout.

To illustrate: player one has a dice stat of 3x, while player two has a dice stat of 2x. Player one rolls 3 dice, while player two rolls 2. They then compare rolls. Player one rolled a 4, a 2 and a 2, while player two rolled a 6 and a 1. In this case, player two wins the bout with their roll of 6. In another case, two fighters each have a dice stat of 4x. Player one rolls a 6, 5, 5, and a 3, while player two rolls a 6, 5, 4 and 4. Comparing scores, the players see their their highest roll, 6, ties. Their second highest rolls, 5, also tie. The third highest rolls – the third round of the bout – sees player one with a 5 compared to player two’s 4. Player one wins the bout.

Only a handful of fighters have knockout capabilities, and the combinations that result in knockout are pretty straightforward: three of a kind in one case, a consecutive run in another, and a Full House on the third. If a fighter rolls their knockout score – regardless of the value of their dice – they win the bout.

An example of a night of fighting is contained below. In the first fight, Myers wins in two rounds, since in the first round he and Big Mouth both had fours, but in the second round Big Mouth had no die and lost. In the second match, Sledgehammer rolls an extra die, which would seem to spoil his KO chances and cause him to lose the match; but extra die only count if they contribute to a KO, so he beat New Kid in a knock out. Finally, in the main event, the purple Wily Veteran lives up to his name and plays a drug test card on his opponent, who roles a 1 and loses the bout.

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A combat example

 

Awards are then assigned to the victors. A player may receive bonus awards for a number of conditions; for example, a Slugfest – a bout that goes on for several rounds – will cause the victor to receive additional dollars, while knockouts results in a premium and underdog boxers – boxers who have a smaller dice stat than their opponents, even if a Superior Training card or hometown advantage results in that boxer having a higher dice pool – also receive a bonus upon victory.

When the last bout is fought, boxers are discarded to their players’ discard piled, the location card is discarded and a new location is drawn. If this results in the last location card being drawn from the location deck, the game is over and players compare their total cash to determine the winner. If not, play continues to the next player in the round until all players have taken their turns. Hands are replenished to six cards, and play begins again.

Impressions

Top Promoter is a bright, exceedingly light game that manages to emulate a kind of bloodless boxing that, frankly, works just fine. This is not a game about the grueling, brutal, exhausting sport of prizefighting. The art emphasizes this with colorful cards and cartoony fighters, none of whom I can recall bearing a single bruise or laceration. It may be a boxing game, but it’s certainly family-friendly.

The game plays quickly, and even though there are some decisions to be made when selecting a fighter, it is not a tough decisions and as the game moves forward that decision – due to a shrinking number of fighters and actions in a player’s hand – will become less critical, so there is little chance of the game hanging up due to analysis paralysis. There is some light strategy involved in terms of selecting one’s fighter each round and deciding where to assign that fighter, but mostly the game comes down to luck.

Top Promoter reminds me, superficially, of both Smash Up, in the sense of assigning cards to a location until that location resolves, and King of Tokyo, in that victory ultimately comes down to rolling a pool of dice. I emphasize the superficial nature of that comparison, though; to the extent that it compares to either, it is certainly a much lighter game.

Player interaction is decent. Obviously, players interact during the boxing matches, and there is some interaction when players assign their fighters to bouts, with minimal jockeying for position at locations. As the game proceeds, it becomes more likely that players will be fighting to assign their boxers to qualifying weight classes to avoid having to discard a card, but even when this happened I felt it was more luck of the draw than player strategy.

Variability is nil, and even if expansions were planned I have a hard time imagining how they could change the game much without adding entire new rules sets. Unlike Smash Up, location cards do nothing other than give a hometown bonus for fighters – they don’t provide any special rules or bonuses – and neither do fighters. That said, not every game needs to feel different when you pull it off the shelf – it’s OK to have something consistent and straightforward.

As a family game, Top Promoter is one I would recommend. The light strategy is enough to challenge most kids into the skills of planning their moves as well as some basic hand management, but victory still mostly comes down to the luck of the die, so each player – regardless of age – has a decent chance at victory. That said, the game comes in at $35 and can be purchased directly from Game Salute at their website, or via Amazon.com. While it’s a fine game, $35 is too high a price point given the components – some cards in an oversized box, dice, and cardboard tokens. If you can get your hands on this for $20 or $25, it would make a fine addition to your family game night collection.

Summary

Top Promoter is quick, easy to pick up, light without being empty, and a lot fun. It’s not going to tax your brain, but as a warm up before the main match of a night of gaming it’s a fine game to have on hand.

The Five

For players of a certain age, Top Promoter will immediately invoke memories of that NES classic, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. The homage may not be intentional, but it’s effective nonetheless. In this, Top Promoter joins the ranks of other nostalgia-invoking games such as Boss Monster and Attack at Kemble’s Cascade, though without the 8-bit artwork that makes the homage explicit.

Other reviewers have expressed frustration with the combat mechanic in the game, which involves each player rolling a pool of dice and the victor being determined by whichever player rolled the highest value die. I was rarely as frustrated, in part because it’s unlikely that the boxer’s pool size will be separated by more than a die, and thematically its appropriate that every once in a while the underdog beats the big guy.

Game Salute is notorious for their tuck boxes, and Top Promoter is no exception. The box is probably twice as large as it needs to be, designed as it is to hold six tuck boxes, each of which is about three times as large as it needs to be. Unless there are ambitious plans for expansion of the game, this feels like a lot of wasted space, as the whole game could probably fit in two of the tuck boxes.

When I initially wrote this, I claimed that each deck was differentiated only by color, and that otherwise the art is the same for each of the five groups of cards. I later reviewed this and discovered I simply wasn’t paying attention – while the power range for cards seems to be the same for each deck, and there are some cards that are identical in each group, there are also some unique cards, with unique artwork and fighter names, in each deck as well. The fact that I didn’t really catch this on my couple of playthroughs suggests I need to increase my powers of perception, or that the game art doesn’t really draw much attention to itself.

I was a bit skeptical of the theme at first – almost all the games on my shelf are fantasy, sci-fi, or horror themed – but warmed up pretty quickly. Top Promoter trades the deep mano-a-mano combat one might expect from a boxing game for more of a strategic fighter management game (it is Top Promoter and not Top Boxer after all) with a quick dice mechanic to handle eliminations. It’s a fine entry, but certainly leaves room for other games to explore a more tense, blow-by-blow exploration of the theme.