Frontier Stations

Frontier Stations CoverFrontier Stations Header

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.


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.


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.


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.




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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 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.




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.)

Progress Player Board 2
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




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.




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


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.




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.

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.


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 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.


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.



Praetor Header 3

In Praetor players take on the role of what amount to city planners in order to (historically Praetors served as either military or civic leaders, during this game you focus upon the development of civil as opposed to military capacity) expand the Republic. This is performed by assigning workers to either build certain city features or activate the features in order to develop capacity. However, what makes Praetor unique is the fact that each of these workers become more efficient and powerful the more that they are used, until such time as they become so skilled they are able to retire and live out their lives in relative ease (except of course for when they are pressed into forced service through those pesky labor camps). The player that is able to best exalt the glory of Rome through the creation of the most buildings and monuments, is named Praetor Urbanus and the winner of the game.




Game play commences with each player receiving an individual player board and three dice, turned to 1, 2 and 3 respectively. Each players morale is set to 0 and their starting score is set to 10, 9, 8, etc. depending upon each players starting player order. The starting city tiles are then laid out, with the market, work camp and imperial outpost tiles in the middle and a gold mine for each player laid out on the periphery (the starting layout and number of city tiles will vary depending upon the number of players). The remaining city tiles are laid in a face down stack and city tiles equal to the number of player plus one are revealed. A stack of Imperial Favor tiles is also laid, face down and the top Imperial Favor tile is revealed. Each player places one of their markers on one of the gold mines. Each player also start the game with 10 coins, four wood (orange), three stone (grey), two marble (white) and one weapon (black) cubes.

On their turn each player may either place a worker on a tile to gain a resource or action; activate a special action tile; build a city tile by placing an active die upon the tile, paying the tile’s construction cost and placing the tile adjacent to another tile; or pass.

Most tiles are triggered by placing a worker die upon them. If the tile was built and therefore controlled by another player the player using the tile must pay the controlling player a use cost in order to use a tile. There are some tiles that do not require a worker (special tiles which have a grey background). Unlike the other tiles these tiles may be activated by each player; however, no player may activate these tiles more than once during a turn. The tiles perform different functions and the power of some tiles increases when activated by a more skilled worker. In other words, some tiles create more resources if they are triggered by a worker die with a higher value. Generally speaking, production tiles create a number of resources equal to the value of the die placed upon them.

The actions available vary wildly; however, the actions available can be roughly summarized as follows: producing each of the resources; selling and buying resources; converting resources; increasing moral; increasing victory points; training citizens in order to convert them to workers; hastening training, meeting Imperial Favor in order to gain victory points that increase in value as more demands are met and pressing retired workers into service.

When building a tile a player may select from the face up city tiles, place one of their available worker die upon (value is irrelevant) and pay the production cost. The player then get points equal to value of that tile and places one of their markers upon it. Each tile may be used right after it is built (by another player since the active players turn is over once the construction is complete) but as noted above its use will require the player that uses it to pay the builder the activation cost.

In the example below, white would pay blue one coin and then receive, one marble cube (white). Black would pay white one coin and then receive, two coins. Finally, black would pay two wood cubes (orange) to the bank and construct the stone quarry, receiving four points at that time (a base of two, plus a point for each of the green plaza tiles that matched the tile that he laid). Later, blue played upon that tile and paid black one coin and received three stone cubes (grey).

Pretor Example 1

After all players have passed or used all of their active workers, the board clears and all workers that triggered a red action tile or built a new tile advance in experience (the die face is changed to the next highest value). If a worker reaches a value of six that worker is retired and the player that controls that worker immediately gain victory points, with more points being awarded if the worker retires earlier in the game.

In the example below, both of black’s dice would advance to five, since one was on a red space and the other was used to construct a tile. Likewise, both of the white die would advance to six and retire, with the white player immediately scoring twenty-four or sixteen points, depending upon whether they retired in the first or second era. Additionally, because white constructed the labor camp he was able to use one of his retired workers to gain moral at the Coliseum; however, he did have to pay black three coins for the privilege. (Note, a die is not placed in this space in order to use it and it may be used by all players that that pay the price of one weapon cube (black).) Finally, though blue would be able to covert a citizen to a novice for free, his die would not advance since it was on a blue work space.

Prateor Exmaple 3

Players then must pay one coin for each active or retired worker (in some cases more coins must the paid) to feed their workers. For every worker that the player cannot feed they lose one space on the moral track, which will either award or deduct points from the player’s final score at the end of the game. Players then advance training workers one step, or turn workers that were on the final stage of their training into a value one active worker.

In the example below, the white player has three active workers and one retired worker. So, white’s feeding cost will be four dollars. He is also at the two point space on the moral track. If the whiter player only had two dollars during the upkeep phase, his moral would degrade to zero moral. Additionally, white’s novice worker would advance one more space through his training and would become and active worker (that would have to be fed) during the next upkeep phase.

Praetor Example 2

Finally, the face up city tile tableau is refreshed and a new Imperial Favor tile is revealed (with the old one being removed from the game).

Play then recommences with the lowest scoring player going first, the second lowest scoring player second, and so forth.

Once the final city tile or Imperial Favor tile is revealed the game end is triggered. The last round proceeds as usual. Thereafter scores are totaled with players gaining or losing points equal to how high they have proceeded up the moral track as well as point equal to the face value of their active un-retired workers. The player with the highest score is the winner of the game.




During my initial plays of Praetor while impressed by the mechanics I was very concerned about balance. Games tended to be run away victories for a single player and I was very concerned about the run-away leader problem.  Typically when that happens, I have no one to blame but myself and, not to be too blunt about it, neither do you. But this does not change how deflating it is to realize halfway through a one hour game, that you have no competitive chance. However, after repeated plays I came to realize that this experience is not typical of Praetor. To the contrary, after a few plays, and some proper early instruction, most of my game plays were tight and wonderfully tense affairs.

In light of my experience I would commend to you the following advice. First, it is imperative for players to gain access to production facilities, i.e. wood, stone and marble. I have played and won games where I did not have ideal production capacity, but being unable to produce at no costs can make engine building very difficult. Second, the gray tile spaces are incredibly powerful and if one player has control of all of these tiles they will be at a remarkable advantage. Be sure to deny access to these tiles to a single player, regardless of the cost. Finally, tile familiarity is very valuable. Before play it is helpful for the players to know how many tiles of each type will come out during the game. During early plays you should allow time for the players to look through the tiles that will be available during that game (more tiles are used for larger play counts) before they are randomized.

This brings us to the review proper.

The first notable feature of Praetor is its components. The art work, unique to each tile type, is visually arresting and fairly clear. Moreover, the iconography is very clear and easy to understand, making the game, language independent. The tiles are durable and properly sized. I first thought that they may be too large to fit on most tables during larger games; however, this concern has not yet been realized. While the game can spread out over a substantial part of most gaming tables, I have not yet had a problem with the spreading play mat encroaching upon player spaces. It remains possible for the tiles to extend in long irregular tendrils, because to the plaza scoring mechanic (which will be discussed in greater detail momentarily) tile placement tends to be centralized, making the playing space fairly compact. The dice are not remarkable, but they are serviceable, especially since they are placed and not rolled.

The game play is intuitive and elegant, making for fairly rapid turn progressions. Little touches, such as the game’s dice placement conventions, make for easy upkeep and limited downtime. Moreover, while none of the game mechanics are innovative in and of themselves, the manner in which they are combined and employed makes this game fresh and unique. For example, leveling up workers is a previously employed mechanic, but combining this with the retirement of leveled up workers as well as the fact that not all spaces cause workers to level up makes this game unlike any other I can recall. Likewise, while the construction and control of action spaces by players is a tried and true game mechanic, combining this with action spaces of varying costs, values and utilities makes this mechanic feel fresh. And while many games tie tile placement to scoring opportunities, the plaza scoring mechanic where more points are scored when the colors of the corners of the tiles are matched to adjacent tiles, is a slight but significant innovation.

Moreover, Praetor’s balance is exceptional. After many plays, I have discovered multiple paths to victory. Moreover, the balance of benefits against foregone opportunity costs is exceptional. As a general rule, the types and number of resources that are required to build a city tile are commensurate with that tile’s utility or value. Obtaining certain spaces may be of great benefit to players employing one strategy, while of much lower benefit to others. Furthermore, because players can receive substantial income from their competitors when they construct and control certain city tiles, putting together an efficient game plan relies upon knowing not only the tactics that you intend to employ, but also the tactics that your competitors hope to use.

Because of the way that tiles are bought and used, player interaction is significant. Throughout the game, players are trying to gauge when they should use certain spaces, hoping to beat their competitors to certain key spaces while putting off other actions for as long as possible. For example, cagey players will delay building certain city tiles until later in a round so that they have more plaza scoring opportunities and so that their competitors will not be able to use that tiles effect during the current round. Additionally, it behooves the players to keep their resource stores robust, so that they are in a good position to obtain some of the game’s more valuable city tiles, once they are revealed.

The game’s variability and related replayability is also above average. The number of tiles used differs depending upon the number of players and while the tiles are categorized by era (with more expensive and valuable tiles coming out during the later era) the cards are randomized within their respective eras, making each game experience unique. Moreover, the order in which the Imperial Favor tiles come out can significantly alter game play. While these tiles have not been discussed in great detail in this review, they can be huge point makers and their acquisition may be hotly contested during some game plays. Moreover, because the game provides so many opportunities for victory, the tactics employed by competitors will significantly impact game play. Notably, it is difficult to challenge a competitor for victory along the same path. Put another way, if two players try to use the exact same tactics during a single game, chances are they will both end up losers. As a result, players need to continually assess and reassess the game conditions, changing tactics as conditions require.

Praetor can be purchased for $39.00 at most online retailers (miniature market, coolstuffinc.) and can often be had for less than this amount. Given the number of plays you are likely to enjoy as well as the depth of each game play experience, this is a fair, if not a remarkable value.




Praetor is a game that will grow in your esteem, the more that you play it. The design is fluid and intuitive and game play is engaging throughout. When playing with experienced game players you will find that end game point differences are tight and game play is competitive. Though Praetor employs familiar mechanics it does so in a innovative way that makes the game play experience unique. A wonderful design and production by a young and promising publishing company.

The Five



While Praetor plays well with three to five players it is less engaging with two players. During my early game plays, my two player games were utter disasters. I was beaten by 40 points each time. While I am ok with losing, and losing big, this game play experience was brutally disheartening. It is harder to keep another player’s actions in check in the two player game and if certain tiles come out at certain times, one player can gain an insurmountable lead. While I have become more adept at preparing for these eventualities, in the two player game luck continues to play an outsized role in determining the winner.

I found that Praetor shines after you become familiar with it’s key mechanics. As noted above, I would encourage you to give new players a few tips before their first play. By avoiding certain pitfalls you can make game play far more enjoyable. In the same regard, if you find early plays of the game daunting I would encourage you to muster through, preferably with two or three other players of comparable skill. Your investment of time and energy will not be wasted.

The game provides for asysmetrical powers as a game play variant. While this option does improve variability, the adjustments are slight and I tend to prefer playing the game in its traditional mode. That said, these differing powers do confront the players with new challenges and are worth uses on occasion.

While the rules are generally clear and well written they are plagued by some ambiguities. For example, one of the spaces allows a player to gain points equal to their progression up the moral chart. However, it is not clear if the player gets points equal to the number of spaces that the player has advanced up the tract or the value of the points described upon the tract (the values increase at more than a 1 to 1 ratio). Moreover, if a player goes to that tract to block another player and the have negative moral values, must they lose points? We have come up with our interpretations of this rule and they seem to work. NSKN Games has a fairly impressive and useful website and would encourage them to add an FAQs section to the site for the clarification of these and similar questions.

One of my favorite features of this game is the speed with which it plays. This is not to say that game play sessions will be short. With four or more players, game play tends to run 90 minutes or longer. However, the turns tend to go quickly, with one exception. When players go to the market game play can slog down considerably. Notably, there are no limits upon how many resources may be bought or sold, so shopping visits can be lengthy. I have found that allowing a player to shop while other players go forward with their moves may be warranted on occasion. While I have played once or twice when players took an inordinate amount of time with their turns, these are players that can take twenty minutes to complete a turn in King of Tokyo, so I do not count these delays as a fault of the game.

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

King’s Forge


KF Header 2

I would like to start this review by stating that I think Nick Sibicky is a really cool guy. I had the pleasure of meeting this musician turned game designer and immediately thought to myself, “I wonder if this guy would like to have a beer?” He was exciting, exuberant, highly intelligent, gracious and interesting. The more we talked the more I admired him and I have no doubt that he will soon be designing games that will make us all sit up and take notice. King’s Forge gives us a glimpse of this potential, but, in my estimation, does not fulfill it. It comes close, but I am confident that there are better things on the horizon for this young designer.

Do not take this as a rejection of the game. It is actually very well crafted and infused with some novel and enjoyable elements. It is a very fun game, far superior to many, many other titles, but in the end it seems incomplete. The game lacks the balance and engagement required to make it a title that will endure more than a dozen or so plays. It does what it does well enough, but after more than ten plays, I found the rewards that it offered did not adequately compensate for the challenges it presented. In other words, it is a game I wish someone else in my game group owned and which I only played on a few occasions. I enjoy playing it more than I enjoyed owning it.


The game play of King’s Forge is not very complex. However, I would not have known that from my first review of the rulebook. This is not to say the rulebook is poorly written, but it is not clearly written. Each of the steps are described with adequate clarity and helpful illustrations are supplied, but the rulebook does not have a brief summary of the games central actions before the detailed discussion of the game’s components. One is provided mid-way through the rules, but this was too late for me. I would have found the game easier to comprehend had the summary been provided earlier. The rulebook could have also highlighted some of the basic concepts more precisely. For example, the rotation of dice from the forge to supply could have been described with greater clarity. I would not describe these are significant failings, but it did make getting the game to table for the first play a little daunting, at least for me.

The game takes place over several rounds that are made up of two phases, the gathering phase and the crafting phase. During the former phase you use dice within your forge pool in order to obtain more dice or special powers. During the later phase you use dice from a separate supply pool in order either craft weapons or devices or steal weapons or devices crafted by your competitors during that rounds craft phase. The goal of the game is to craft four weapons or devices before the other players.

Each player starts the game with five metal dice (black dice) within their forge. Within the common play area is a deck of eleven gather cards, nine to thirteen craft cards and four dock spaces. Four of the gather cards are revealed along with three of the craft cards, which are sequenced from easiest to make to hardest to make.

At the start of their turn the players either take a gather card or place their dice upon a dock card space. Both the gather cards and the dock spaces have two available action upon them. Only one action can be used on the gather cards (and typically only by the player that draws it) while both of the actions can be taken on the dock space (though only by one player per round). Player will be required to place the appropriate dice in the required quantity in order to trigger the card or spaces effect. Some of these dice will merely be locked up for the turn during which they were used, both other will be surrender to the stock at the end of the round, during the clean-up phase. The player than takes any dice produced by the card and places them in their forge supply.

A new gather card is then revealed (if one was taken) and the next player takes a desired gather action as described above.

Exemplar Gather Cards
Exemplar Gather Cards

This continues until one player passes. This player gets a bonus of either a token that allows them to increase the value of two of the dice rolled during that player’s craft phase by a factor of one or a free metal die. After either all of the craft cards are claimed or all other player’s pass the game proceeds to the crafting phase.

During the crafting phase players roll their pool of supply dice (which are separate from their gather or forge dice) and use them to make one or more of the available good within the crafting tableau. Each crafting card features an item and the cost of production, with the cards that come out later in the game being harder to make than those that appear early in the game. The cost of production is shown in dice of up to four colors and roll values. So, The Battle Ax of Valor (one of the objects that is harder to make) requires: three black dice (metal) one valued at four or higher, one valued a five or higher and one valued at six; one green die (wood) valued at four or higher; one red die (jewels) valued at four or higher and one blue die (magic) valued at four or higher.

Kings Forge Crafts
Exemplar Craft Cards

Once a craft card is completed a new card comes out and if the player can construct that card, they may. Once the active player has crafted their last weapon or device, play within the crafting phase rotates to the next player who can either craft one of the cards in the crafting tableau (as described above) or steal a card from an opponent by matching that players dice placements (in color and value) plus one. So as long as one die is one value higher a player may steal a preceding player’s crafted card (the dice of the player whose card was stolen goes back to that player’s forge, for use in a later round).

Many card powers and tokens can be used to adjust dice values. So it is conceivable that a value of some of a placer’s dice may exceed six. It is important to note that while adjustments of dice values up to six endure throughout the round, values over six last only until the end of that player’s turn. As a result, players can only do so much in order to protect their crafted weapons or devices from being stolen.

After all of the players have crafted, stolen or passed the players cycle their dice pools. First, all dice that were used to either craft a tool or trigger an effect that requires the consumption of dice are returned to the general supply. The players then move dice from their forge to their supply and dice from their supply and their gather cards to their forge. So players are constantly managing their dice pools so that they retain enough dice on their forge at the end of their gather and craft phases so that they have enough supplies to craft during future rounds.

Exemplar Player Action
Exemplar Player Action

The players then place their crafted weapons or devices into their claimed stock (claimed craft cards can no longer been stolen) and turn in all of their gather cards. The gather cards are then shuffled and stacked and the top four gather cards are revealed to form the tableau which is available at the outset of the next round. Finally, the first player marker is rotated to the left and a new round commences.

Play continues like this until one player has crafted four items. The current round then proceeds to its end and any players with at least four crafted items compare their craft hands. The player that has crafted the most items wins. However, if two (or more players) have crafted the same number of items then the player that crafted the hardest, i.e. highest valued card, wins the game.


Notwithstanding to implied tone of my introduction, I enjoyed this game. The components are very nice. While I have heard some complain about the shape of the undersized dice used in the game, I did not have this problem. All of the dice in my version of the game were well manufactured and balanced. The card art is also very appealing. The lines are clean, the color palate consistent and pleasing to the eye, the images evocative. While I find that the tuck boxes are redundant (there is really no reason to keep the dice sorted) they are well constructed and durable. The card stock is fine and the matte finish makes them easy to read, even from across the table. Moreover, the iconography is clear and the card text is adequately sized and the fonts are legible. This is a lovely game to look at. (Note: Everyone will want to be the bat. Just resolve yourself to that and choose to be the savage fighting dolphin.)

As I stated at the outset, it involves some novel elements that intrigued and pleased me. In particular I thought the multiple ways in which the dice could be used made for interesting choices. In fact, I thought the gather phase of the game was a complete pleasure. I enjoyed using different spaces in order to either obtain more resources or maximize my role potentials. I enjoyed the fact that the game comes with a number of gather cards and only four of them will be used in every game. I enjoyed how each gather card could be used in different ways. I enjoyed that occasionally players will be required to essentially discard a large number of dice in order to obtain the game’s rarest elements, jewels and magic. I enjoyed the tactics involved in deciding when to cut your gather phase short so that you will have enough dice within your supply pool to craft. I enjoyed the process of obtaining a specific card to block an opponent. There is no doubt that the gather phase is the game’s best crafted and engaging element.

And then came the crafting phase. Before I start, I want to clarify, I have played this game many, many times, with many different players. While every iteration of the game did not descend into the frustration that taints my view, many did. Put simply, the crafting phase is too hard. Now, I am fine with a difficult game. I actually knock a game far more quickly if the game is too easy. But difficulty that cannot be managed or adequately mitigated is a problem.

During the crafting phase, dice rolls are essential and in most instances high roles are required. Of course there are many ways that players can ensure high roles. Increase your supply dice pool size, obtain special powers, or obtain tokens that let you adjust your die values upward. However, in a four player version of this game, obtaining enough of these abilities in order to sufficiently reduce the luck factor is hard, if not impossible.

You see later in the game, many of the weapons or devices you will be able to craft require a number of red or blue die and obtaining these resources is very costly. Fine, having a rare element is an appropriate game feature. However, even after I became very adapt a optimizing my actions during the gather phase I was able to obtain three or four blue dice, at the most. Of course, there are tradeoffs in this, namely a smaller pool of metal, or wood, or jewelry dice. Moreover, it is difficult to cycle all of these dice into your supply pool at one time, and often the results that must be rolled for these or other dice are quite high. So if you are able to get the right dice into your supply pool and trigger a number of actions that let you increase your rolls, the probably of making a roll that yields you nothing remains very high. And then, you have to spend a turn (unless the astronomer, a card that lets you roll almost all of your dice during the crafting phase, is in play and available to you) getting your store of dice from your forge to your supply. If this happens several times later in a game, the frustration level can get very high.

This is compounded by the fact that the margins of victory in this game are pretty thin. If you are playing with competent competitors everyone will gain craft cards, within a turn or two of each other. As a result, the race to the fourth craft card (and victory) often comes down to a single player’s lucky roll. In the end, while your choices can keep you in the game, whether you win the game very often relies upon luck.

What frustrates me most about this is that it is a problem that my instincts tell me could have been fixed. Far be it for me to propose alternatives, but there must be some modest alternative design choices that would give this game a better payoff. And I say this as someone that has won this game a number of times. In other words, these are not just sour grapes. (Moreover, I am not very good at most games. I have made my peace with that. I am not going to downgrade a game because I am bad at it. If that were my tendency I would probably hate some of my highest rated games, some of which I HAVE NEVER WON!) (Note: I need to lie down for a minute.)


King’s Forge flirts with being a great game, it truly does. It has interesting interaction, through action denial and the ability to steal crafted weapons. If scales nicely as the game goes on so that players can take actions that produce early intermittent success. It handles two as well as it handles four players. It has good variability across multiple plays by way of the interchange of available gather and crafting cards. It has some fun wild card options like the cemetery die that causes all did of a certain result to be removed from active play. But where it matters the most, namely making victory feel like it is earned, it falls down. And for that reason, while I enjoy this game, I would advise most people to carefully weigh out whether they want to add it to their collection. This is not to say that it is a game to avoid, but it is not an “insta-buy”. Do your due diligence, watch some game play videos and consider this review (both in its praise and its critiques) before making a final buying decision.

The Five

Every time I have played this game, the end game came down to one player (in some instances two) obtaining their fourth craft object while every other player had three craft objects of their own. For some this would be evidence of solely this game’s balance, and it is. However, the final result often arose out of one player being able to make roles that others could not. As noted above, this sometimes made for an unrewarding final game result.

The components of this game are remarkable, the game comes with an anvil figure that marks the first player. This component is solid and well crafted and is an example of the care and detail that went into making this an appealing and tactile game experience. From the art to the card stock, everything about this game’s construction screams quality.

My favorite part of the game was the gather phase. I very much enjoyed using new cards to increase my inventory of crafting materials and crafting options. Furthermore, the tactics involved in selecting actions was interesting and engaging. Sometimes deciding what actions to take and when was central to either maximizing your powers or block an opponent out from taking an optimal action. Additionally, the fact that only a certain number of gather cards were used in each game, increased its variability.

Tuck boxes. Anyone who is familiar with Game Salute knows that they love to use tuck boxes and while these tuck boxes were of high quality and easy to use, they did not fit into the game box very well and seemed somewhat superfluous.

Because of randomness, the craft cards which are used during a specific game will vary wildly. This makes the challenge of a specific game also vary wildly. I found that the games that were the most satisfying for me were those in which there was an even mix of easy and hard cards. I have taken to house ruling the game so that half of the cards were drawn from the easier craft cards and half of the cards were drawn from the harder craft cards.

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