Praetor

Praetor

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.

Rules

 

 

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.

Impressions

 

 

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.

Summary

 

 

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

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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.

Rules

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.

Impressions

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.)

Summary

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.

Smash-Up Minority Report

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Blue Peg, Pink Peg Minority Report is an occasional review series where I gush about games that the Pegs hate.

A good, opponent-ravaging combo can reveal itself like the elegant solution to a complicated equation. As a non-mathematician, I can attest to the satisfaction you feel when something that previously made no sense suddenly resolves itself in a way that feels almost inevitable. Smash Up! gives you an opportunity to experience that feeling – and the accompanying chance to gloat – with a straightforward card game mechanic and a dizzying variety of ways to combine factions and their thematically-appropriate rule-breaking powers.

Smash Up! is a deckbuilding game (it refers to itself as a shufflebuilding game) for 2 to 5 players, where players will form a deck of 28 cards from two of the game’s multitudinous factions. Players will compete to break bases by playing minions and actions from their hands, developing powerful offensive and defensive combos that interact with other players in a surprising variety of ways. At the time of this writing, Smash Up! consists of a core set with 8 factions, four expansions that contain four factions each (Awesome Level 9000, The Obligatory Cthulhu Expansion, Science Fiction Double Feature, the recent Monster Smash and the upcoming Pretty, Pretty Smash-Up), and a Big Geeky Box expansion that is primarily a storage solution for the cards but also contains a single new faction, The Geeks. The review will touch briefly on all the Smash Up! releases to date.

Rules

The game starts with each player choosing two factions to combine into her deck. There are a number of ways to go about this – we’ve used everything from random assignment, to a drafting mechanic, to simply choosing what we’ve wanted. Once the factions are selected, a number of Base cards will be played on the table – one more base than there are players. Players will shuffle their starting deck, draw 5 cards, and begin play.

Exemplar Action Cards (Wizards)
Exemplar Action Cards (Wizards)
Exemplar Minion Cards (Wizards)
Exemplar Minion Cards (Wizards)

Decks consist of two types of cards: Minions and Actions. In general, Minions have a power score that is counted against a Base’s breaking score. Actions have a number of effects – from modifying a Minion’s power score, to affecting how cards may be played against bases, to moving, modifying, or discarding another player’s cards. At the end of a player’s turn, each Base is checked to see if it is broken; that is, if the sum of all Minion’s power scores played on that base meet or exceed the Base’s break score. If a base is broken, players receive victory points according to each base’s scoring range. Generally, there is a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place score on each base, based on which player has the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd highest total Minion value.

If this brings a player’s total score to 15 or above, the game ends (though this may not mean this player wins – see the reference to Madness cards later in the review). If there is no winner, the broken Base is discarded and a new one is drawn. The active player draws two cards, and play then continues clockwise.

That’s it. The mechanics of the game itself are incredibly straightforward. It’s the rulebreaking mechanics of individual cards that make the game incredibly rich and dynamic.

Impressions

If you’ve listened to the podcast you know that the Pegs are not fond of Smash Up!. Well – and there’s really not a nuanced or diplomatic way to say this – they’re wrong. Flat out wrong. I first saw Smash Up! At Gen Con 2012 and was not that intrigued. I’m suspicious of deckbuilding games in general, having been burned – emotionally and financially – by Magic: The Gathering in my youth. I ended up picking up a copy as a Christmas gift for a friend, since I had read that Smash Up played well with two players and he had been looking for some two player games to play with his wife. Eventually, he broke it out and taught me, and I fell hard. I picked up the core set and the first two expansions almost immediately, and have been a first adopter of the subsequent three expansions.

As mentioned in the rules, the mechanics of the game are incredibly simple. The fun and challenge of the game comes from the factions – each of which has a unique play style, art style, and power set. This makes for a game with a massive amount of variation – there are 276 potential faction combinations across all available expansions as of this writing, so you can imagine that no two play sessions will be alike. This allows the game to scale very well – I have mostly played two players, but have logged many games of three or more players and noticed no real change in the game. Because of this scalability and the permutations of factions, this game has one of the highest – if not the highest – levels of variability out of any game in my collection.

Game components consist of the cards themselves and victory point tokens. The tokens – small cardboard discs – have art styles that match the expansion they are distributed with. The tokens in the Cthulhu set, for example, bear tentacles grasping at the number on the token. The box the core set comes in has enough slots to hold the core factions and the factions contained in the next three expansions. By the time you get to Monster Smash, you are better off getting the Big Geeky Box (or your own storage solution), though at $14.99 the Big Geeky Box is a steal and offers more than enough space to handle future expansions for years to come. The game art is gorgeous, varied, and often hilarious. Some of the factions are played straight – Ninjas and Pirates look like ninjas and pirates, for example, and the zombies look like zombies. In others, they are played for ridiculousness or camp. In the Dino faction, for example, the dinosaurs all bear lasers and mechanical armor. The new vampire expansion features characters resembling the traditional Count as well as Elvira and Blacula. In a few cases I think the theme fell flat – the Spies faction relies too heavily on James Bond images and jokes, the Time Travelers faction is a 70s theme that I guess is OK but for some reason did not click with me, and the Investigators faction from The Obligatory Cthulhu set was built entirely around Scooby Doo jokes that just didn’t work given the straight-faced approach to the other factions in the expansion.

Where the theme shines is in the unique mechanics each faction brings to the game. I have been pleased and surprised at how much variation AEG has gotten out of such a simple set of mechanics, and how each faction manages to pull off a set of powers that fits perfectly with their theme. The Wizards, for example, have cards that allow them to play additional actions and minions, allowing them to build powerful combos given the right partner faction. The Zombies, as you might imagine, simply keep coming back – once killed they are easy to retrieve from the discard pile and get back in play. Pirates are mobile, swinging from base to base. The Bear Cavalry are masters at moving people away from them, while the Aliens are master of beaming people to them. The Cthulhu expansion introduced a Madness card mechanic that can reduce the effectiveness of an opponent’s deck while also threatening to reduce end-game scoring (a player loses a point for every three Madness cards in their hand, deck, or discard pile, which can result in a player ending the game with 15 points but still losing by the time Madness is figured in). The Monster Smash expansion introduces Power Tokens – essentially, using victory point tokens to assign power bonuses to Minions – but each of the four monster groups uses and moves these tokens in interesting ways entirely appropriate to the faction. Spies allow you to look ahead at you and your opponents’ draw decks, Time Travelers move cards between the draw and discard decks, etc.  This is not a comprehensive list of all the factions, but it should give you a sense of the variation that exists.  The designers have done a pretty good job of making sure each faction has its own flavor and mechanic so that it doesn’t feel like a reskin of an existing faction, and without adding much in the way of new components to the game. It makes integrating new factions a breeze while adding new play styles to the game.

For the most part, any faction can work with any other faction, though there is a spectrum to how effective any combination might be. I believe Robb’s experience with the game is soured by having played one of the very few combinations that are broken – he had combined a faction that required the player minimizing the number of cards in his hand with a faction that worked best when hand size was maximized, so he was never able to play effectively – but these kinds of interactions are few and far between and, in my mind, offset by the equally occasional truly brilliant grouping.

If there is a major downside to the game is its presence on the table. Organizing and keeping track of factions on each base and modifications made to minions can become messy. In our game, we create snaking lines of minions, one overlapping the other to conserve space, that extend from each of a base’s corner. Sometimes during play the cards get bumped, causing them to get hidden. Minions or Actions with ongoing powers can be difficult to keep track of if their card text has to be covered by another card, and with 3+ players each base will have multiple lines of minions extending from them that can eat up a lot of table space. I’m sure we have miscalulated points or missed using a power because of this.

While the Big Geeky Box is a great deal if you intend on sticking with the game for the long term, I was very disappointed to see that the faction included with it – the Geeks – is a Geek and Sundry licensed product. I think the most interesting part of Smash Up is when it plays around with themes and genres, and the Geeks just feel awfully specific to me. I worry this indicates Smash Up may follow the route of Munchkin – a game I have learned to loathe anyways – opting for licensed properties that require you to understand them and get the “in-joke” to enjoy the game. That said, the Geeks do utilize a pretty interesting mechanic – they make significant use of interrupts, blocking other players’ plays and canceling their cards – with one exception: The Felicia Day minion.  Her power causes all minions in play to move to her base, and it smacks of an “OH MY GOSH LOOK ITS A GIRL!” vibe that feels a bit insulting to me. Women in gaming have it hard enough, and when one of the most prominent women in geekdom is assigned a power that boils down to “isn’t she so pretty?” it feels objectifying.  Perhaps I am reading too much into it, but it just rubbed me a bit wrong – I am raising a gamer daughter, so I am a little more sensitive to how women are portrayed in games. Also, that power kept routing my path to victory on several games in a row, so perhaps I’m just bitter.

This is a very kid-friendly game. I’ve played quite often with my girlfriend’s son and he can be pretty brutal. The basic mechanics are easy to pick up, the art is friendly and humorous, and it’s just an all-around fun game to play. Indeed, some of its flaws in terms of mechanics are overcome by this fact – regardless of whether a faction combination is working or not or is effective against an opponent. Deploying your army of Giant Ants and Cyber Apes against your opponent’s Shapeshifters and Aliens just feels good, even if their powers don’t work all that great together, and the games are short enough that you can dive right in to the next round with a new combination without feeling like you’ve wasted a lot of time on a dud.

This is not a game where you can build a grand strategy, though, carefully crafting a deck of well-balanced powers. It is difficult to build an engine, as Patrick says; basically, you’re stuck with the engine you’re given, and you just need to chug along and enjoy the ride.

Summary

Smash Up! is light, irreverent, occasionally hilarious, and sometimes frustrating, but I have yet to play a game I didn’t enjoy. Its excellent artwork, well-crafted themes, and smart mechanics keep the game fresh every time you play, and its variety and reasonable game time will make sure you don’t stay away for long.

The Five

Smash Up! makes a great two player game; indeed, I have played it almost exclusively with two players and have never felt the game wasn’t as robust as it could be. It scales up well in terms of play, though beyond three players the physical space the game can take up, and its corresponding fiddliness, can get in the way.

This is one of the best values in gaming. You don’t get a ton of factions in the core set but what you do get can fuel a remarkable number of variations. AEG has done a great job on the expansion front, generally releasing two 4-faction expansions a year that come in at roughly $15 a pop. In fact, before I finished writing this review they had announced “Pretty Pretty Smash Up” for March 2015 . The expansions have been a bit uneven, but they have been consistent in terms of timing.

This is the stuff of geek dreams. Pirates and Ninjas vs. Zombies and Aliens? Man Eating Plants teaming up with Bear Cavalry to take on Elder Things and Time Travelers? Picking your factions is half the fun of the game, even if it turns out that they don’t end up working that well together.

Smash Up! is ultimately a pretty light little game – good for novice gamers and playing with kids, or for when you don’t have time to get into anything too deep. However, I’d love to see the concept explored in a deeper way somehow. There’s a light touch on these various bastions of nerd culture that would be fun to explore as a strategy game.

I think I understand why Robb doesn’t like this game, but I honestly don’t understand the hate from all the rest of the pegs. I have another couple of gaming friends who also don’t like the game on a deep level after only a few plays. This seems to be something that you either like or you don’t – it doesn’t appear that multiple plays either cause you to warm up to it, or to become increasingly annoyed with its flaws to the point of putting it away. Ultimately, I think its the theme that carries it, not the mechanics. If you’re charmed by the theme, you’re going to be pretty forgiving. If the theme doesn’t really do it for you, or you’re less compelled by a game’s theme, I think its (in my opinion few) flaws will be a turn-off.

Review written by Honorary Peg, Jeremy Holmes

Ladies and Gentlemen

Ladie and Gs Logo
L&G Header
Ladies & Gentlemen is a game about women buying clothes. If that sounds sexist, don’t worry: it isn’t. It’s important to know that, while in Ladies & Gentlemen competing teams are comprised of one Lady and one Gentleman, in the end it’s the ladies who do all the work and determine the winner. The Gentlemen have a role, of course, but their success in the game is based almost entirely on luck, involves little long-term strategy, and exists entirely to support the Ladies. Even if a Gentleman messes up doing his one job, it’s possible that his Lady – if she’s clever, strategic, and just a bit devious – can still pull off a victory in the end.

Wait. Maybe the game is sexist. Just not in the way you think.

Ladies & Gentlemen is a set-collection game for 2 to 5 teams of two players each. Teams compete over six rounds of three phases each, with each phase involving actions performed simultaneously by the Gentlemen’s side and the Ladies’ side. Over the course of the game, the Ladies will collect cards representing various items of clothing as well as one or more Servants, each with their own victory point scores as well as end-game scoring bonuses. Meanwhile, the Gentlemen will participate in a tile-flipping game to collect resources and sell them for cash that is used to purchase their Lady’s cards at the end of each round. At the end of the sixth round, victory points – here called Elegance points – are calculated (with extra cash on hand useless except in the case of a tie) and the most elegant Lady at the ball is declared.
Rules

Before the start of the game, the play area is set up with a Ladies side and a Gentlemen side, with team members facing each other across the table. Each team is separated by a cardboard storefront placed on a plastic stand, one storefront for each team. Facing the Gentlemen, the storefront displays an industrial building of some kind; facing the Ladies, a boutique shop. Each storefront is designed in one of five primary colors, and the Lady will collect a set of carboard tokens and a wooden meeple matching the color of the shop in front of her – the tokens are used during the game to identify where the Lady intends on shopping on each of her turns, while the meeple identifies which shop is the Lady’s favorite. The Ladies will sort and shuffle three decks of Wardrobe cards and a deck of Servant cards. Then each Lady takes a number of Artisan cards equal to the number of Ladies in the game. These cards will be used each round to determine the number of Wardrobe or Servant cards the Ladies will draw for each store. Finally, each Lady draws a Servant card, which she keeps hidden from both her Gentlemen and the other Ladies.

Ladies Setup
Ladies Set-Up Orange Player

Meanwhile, the Gentlemen will shuffle and deal a Contract card in front of each of their storefronts. Contract cards represent groups of resources that can be cashed in for special financial and victory point rewards. The Gentlemen will also draw a Current Market card from a deck, placing one face-up near the play area and discarding the rest. The Current Market card sets the price for individual resources that will be sold during each game round. The Gentlemen then take five random Resource tokens for each player and shuffle them face-down in their play area. They will also take three Number tokens – numbered 1 through 5 – and mix them face-down with the resource tokens. Finally, the Gentlemen each receive $500 cash and a free resource token worth $100 according to the current market card, chosen randomly from the remaining stock. Play is ready to begin.

Gentlemen Setup
Gentlemen Set-up (Note Middle Tokens will be face down)

Over the course of the game, players may interact with each other and with other teams with certain limitations: Ladies may not reveal to their Gentlemen their Servant cards, and Gentlemen may not reveal precisely how much money they have. Innuendo and clue-giving is encouraged if done so in-character. This is where the roleplaying aspect of the game comes in: team members must communicate to each other – Ladies, about their general set-collection strategy; Gentlemen, about their financial limitations (or lack thereof) – without giving precise details. In addition, Ladies interact with each other to misdirect the other Ladies in regards to their own strategy (generally based on the bonuses provided through the Servant card), or to suss out the strategy of their rivals.
Each of the six game rounds consists of three phases: morning, afternoon, and evening. At the end of the sixth round is the Ball and end-game scoring occurs. The goal of each team is to have the highest number of Elegance points at the Ball. The vast majority of the Elegance points come from the Ladies Wardrobe cards, with special bonuses coming from her Servant(s), though in some cases a fulfilled Contract from the Gentlemen may add additional points to the final score. To score, a Lady must have a Dress – if she arrives at the end-game without one, she loses her Servant card. In addition, most – but not all – of the Wardrobe cards belong to one or two of the three designers; at end-game, a Lady can have no more than two designers in her wardrobe. Finally, she can have no more than one item in each category – dress, coat, hat, gloves, etc. Cards that duplicate categories or don’t meet the designer requirement are discarded before scoring begins.
Each game phase happens simultaneously for the Ladies and Gentlemen. At the start of the Morning phase, the Ladies will select what each shop has for sale. Each Lady will select one of her Artisan cards to place, face down, in front of her favorite boutique – the boutique that matches her color. Each Artisan card will identify both a card category (jewelry, accessories, and clothes, or servant) and a number. After all cards have been placed, the Ladies each turn their Artisan cards over and draw a from the appropriate deck a number of cards matching the number of the revealed Artisan card. She will choose one card to reveal, placing it face-up on top of the selected cards, and placing those cards back in front of her favorite shop. Each shop should now have a small pile of cards in front of it with either a Wardrobe or Servant card visible. Ladies leave the Artisan card they played at the beginning of the round in front of the shop – these will be returned back to the Ladies’ hands in later rounds. At the end of the round, each Lady will choose a Visit marker – a token representing each of the available shops – for the store she wishes to purchase from and hides it in front of her. This ends the Ladies’ actions.
Meanwhile, the Gentlemen need to collect tokens from the stock exchange. At the start of a signal given by one of the Gentlemen, each player will begin flipping over resource tokens. Their goal is to collect three Resources and a Number token. The Resources will be sold during the next round to fulfill contracts and earn money, and the Number tokens will determine turn order for both Gentlemen and their Ladies. Turn order can be crucial both for getting to a contract before another player, as well as for the Ladies being able to get to certain items from the store of their choice before their rivals can buy it out from under them. All the Gentlemen will flip over tokens simultaneously with one hand. When a token is revealed they can choose to keep it – placing it face-down in front of them – or leave it face-down in the stock. Once a Gentleman places a token in front of him he may not return it to the stock, and once he finds and chooses to keep a Number token he must stop searching for other resources immediately, even if he has not met his maximum of three. This means a Gentleman may sometimes sacrifice resource collection in order to assure an early turn order – possibly at the recommendation of his Lady if there is a certain item she has her eye on that a rival may also be seeking. Once each Gentleman has a Number token, the phase ends.
At the start of the next phase, the Afternoon, the Ladies reveal their Visit markers and take the cards from in front of their selected boutique. If two Ladies have selected the same boutique, the Lady whose Gentleman has the lowest turn order goes first. She will select one card and pass the deck to the next lady visiting the same store, in turn order. That Lady then passes the cards to the next Lady visiting the same store, or back to the first Lady, who may then select another card from the pile and pass it on again. Play continues like this until there are no cards left or the Ladies do not wish to select from the remaining cards. If a Lady is the only player to visit a particular boutique, she may select as many cards from that boutique as she wishes. Cards not chosen during this round are placed at the bottom of their respective decks. If a Lady’s favorite boutique – the one matching her player color – is not visited by any players this phase take note: the revealed card may be purchased by that Lady at a discount during the next phase of the round.
As the Ladies are selecting their cards, the Gentlemen cash in their resource tokens. They can do this by either cashing in the tokens for cash based on the values stipulated by the Current Market card, or they may cash in sets of tokens that match one of the Contract cards displayed at a storefront. In the latter case, the first Gentleman to fulfill a contract will receive a bonus of some sort – usually a financial premium, but sometimes the bonus will include an Elegance points option. At the end of this phase, the first Gentleman to fulfill a contract will claim the card for the end-game bonus; until then, each other Gentleman may also use his collected Resource tokens to fulfill the contract, though he will not receive the premium. As Resource tokens are cashed in, they are returned to the box. Gentlemen are not required to cash in all their tokens this round – any tokens not used are kept for the next round.
The final phase of the game, evening, is where purchases are made. Each Lady will pass to her Gentleman the cards she selected in the previous round. A Gentleman now have three options for each card: he may purchase it, paying the listed cost and passing the card back to their Ladies; he may refuse it, placing the card at the bottom of its respective deck; or, he may defer purchase, paying $100 to pass the card back to his Lady. She will hold on to it until the next day when she will have the opportunity to present it for purchase again. In addition, if a Lady’s favorite boutique received no visitors, the revealed card may be purchased for half the listed price. During this phase, roleplaying can be important (and at its most fun) as Gentlemen try to allude to why they may or may not pay for certain cards, while the Ladies hint at why certain cards might be vitally important to purchase. At the end of this phase, each Lady reclaims her Visit markers and passes her hand of Artisan cards to the Lady on her right. At the end of the third turn, each Lady should have been passed only one card; at this point, she will also claim the Artisan cards from in front of her favorite Boutique to replenish her hand. The Gentlemen will return their Number tokens to the stock and replenish the stock so that there are again 5 resource tokens per player (note that the rulebook has an apparent conflict here; see my comments in the Impressions section of this review for more details on this). Contracts that were honored this turn are returned to the bottom of the deck or claimed by a Gentlemen, if appropriate, and replaced by a new Contract from the deck. Contracts that were not honored will receive a $100 banknote, which can be claimed if that contract is fulfilled in the future. Play the moves to the next turn; or, if this is the end of the sixth round, scoring occurs and the most elegant Lady at the ball is announced.
Impressions

I first played this game with six players: two women, four men, and two couples. When it came time to choose roles, the choices were obvious: the women became Gentlemen, the men became Ladies, and the couples were thus split up. If it gives you any idea how much fun the game is, simply settling into our new gender-swapped roles involved so much laughter that it took a while to get through explaining the rules of the game. It only got better from there.
The components are pretty basic. There are several decks of cards sporting lush, cartoonish artwork representing the various clothing items the Ladies are competing for. The various cardboard bits are solid and brightly colored. The game uses paper money, which I am not a fan of, but there’s relatively little handling of the money throughout the game, which should extend its life. On the whole, the game oozes candy-colored fun, which is in keeping with its overall theme. That said, the price range of $26 to $32 seems a little high. This feels more like a $20 to $25 game, though with a lower range of $26 that’s quibbling.
I found the rulebook a bit difficult to manage. In a handful of places, rules seemed to contradict each other. For example, during the set-up the rulebook says to select and mix up 5 resource tokens per gentleman to make up the stock. Remaining tokens are placed in the box – a phrase that has always meant, in every other game I’ve played, that they are removed from the game. During a later phase in the game, Gentlemen will cash in their tokens to fulfill contracts and make money – here, the rulebook also says to discard the resource tokens to the box. Yet, during the end turn phase the rules state to make sure that there are five tokens per Gentlemen, and that if there are no more tokens to put in the stock, players are to “mix in those that were put to one side.” Does that mean to pull tokens that were discarded into the box? Then why not say that, or rather than telling players to discard into the box, tell them to form a “supply” pile? I think this may just be a matter of defining terms, but it left us wondering if we were playing right.
In terms of variability, there is not much going on here. Other than the the randomness of the clothing cards that come out over the course of the game, its going to play pretty much the same way each time. The variability comes from the interaction among players and the dynamics of each team. The roleplaying element of the game adds a little bit of variability as well – an ambitious player might flesh out their “character” for each game and indulge that role – but this is entirely dependent on your play style and not something built into the mechanics of the game.
Because I’m a family man, I like to consider a game’s appropriateness for children. Ladies and Gentlemen is a tough one. Despite its irreverence and florid art style, the game still pivots on exploring and exploding gender roles. Even with as light a touch as the game has here, it may be too subtle for younger kids to grasp. That said, the basic set-collection and tile-flipping mechanic is straightforward and accessible, and this could probably work as a family game – I just think it may lose a little of the bite that makes it fun to play. However, since it is a team game, Ladies and Gentlemen may shine with actual couples – I think our Pegs might all get a kick out of it, and I can already envision Robb struggling to find the perfect hat to go with that designer dress he just snagged on sale.
Ladies & Gentlemen straddles the line between party game and gamer-game. The play is fast and fun, and the roleplaying element encourages a ton of player interaction, mostly good-natured trash talking among the ladies. At the same time, the set collection task undertaken by the ladies is a bit more involved – both within a single round as well as over the course of the game – than the average party-game player might be prepared for, even though a veteran gamer might find it simplistic and a bit tedious.
The roleplaying element is fun, but it also serves a strategic purpose, as bluffing and distracting your opponents are key parts of the gameplay. I’d say this is the kind of game you break out at the end of a long day of gaming, or perhaps as a palate cleanser between heavier games. The fact that it can play so many people is a benefit – particularly in my game group, where we occasionally have large enough crowds to necessitate splitting into smaller groups, Ladies & Gentlemencan be a way to pull everyone back together again briefly. I’d put this in the category of Masters of Commerce (aka Panic on Wallstreet) – probably not a game you you gather specifically to play, but a nice one to have on hand. The game is also pretty compact – both in terms of what you get in the box as well as the table space needed to play it – which makes it something you could take on the road easily.
Summary

Ladies and Gentlemen is a lush, light, and laughter-inducing game that would be a great way to start or end a long day of gaming. It involves a fair bit of light roleplaying, so shy players beware, but if – like me – narrative games are a big part of your collection, this is one to consider.
The Five
 
 

  • Immediately after the end of one play of the game, one of the Gentlemen players, Craig, turned to us, the Ladies, and said, “I had no idea what you were doing over there.” This seemed thematically appropriate.
  • Do not underestimate how quickly you will fall into stereotypically period gender rolls. Early in the game, I noticed that one of my rival Ladies had bought a dress that without the imprint of one of the game’s three designers. “Look at her,” I said to the other Lady. “She probably bought that one right off the rack. She’ll never be able to show her face at the ball in that.” This statement fell horrifyingly naturally from my lips. Of course, despite my cattiness, her (his) team won.
  • As is the case with some set collection games, there is a decent amount of luck involved in Ladies and Gentleman. I played a fairly strategic game – carefully maximizing sets of designers and the bonus points from extra servants – and yet still lost to a team who seemed to play more randomly. For some players, this could be frustrating, though the game is light enough and entertaining enough that having a carefully crafted strategy exploded doesn’t hurt that bad.
  • The challenge of the game is supposed to be the demands of the Ladies conflicting with the limited resources of the Gentlemen. Yet, I found that the Ladies didn’t really have an issue buying the items they wanted, which contributed to victory being more a matter of the luck of the draw. However, I earlier mentioned the confusion we faced regarding how resource tokens are managed, and I have a feeling we missed something there – the game feels like resource tokens should become more scarce in same way, making it harder to earn money over the course of the game. If that’s not the case, it may just be that we got lucky, but I’m skeptical.
  • Ladies and Gentlemen may have some of the best packaging I’ve seen in a game. Rather than a flimsy plastic insert that mainly takes up space, it has compartments made up of thick cardboard walls that are decorated in an art style consistent with the game. The box uses space efficiently and the snug fit of the lid keeps the various tokens and cards from getting rattled ans shuffled around without the need for bags. This was a nice little bonus.

Review written by Honorary Peg, Jeremy Holmes

Shinobi Wat-Aah!

Shinobi Title
Shinobi Header
Most board gamers have games within their collection, in which they find uncommon enjoyment. Those games that you will play regardless of the hour or circumstances, which you readily recommend, which you recount in the fondest of terms. For me, Shinobi Wat-Aah is one of those games. While my gaming partners enjoy Shinobi Wat-Aah, there is no doubt that my affection out paces theirs.
I disclose this affinity so that you may view my impressions, with that awareness and temper your buying decisions accordingly. Simply put, I adore this game. I love playing it. I love looking at it. I love talking about it. I may qualify as a Shinobi Wat-Aah evangelical. So gather around children and hear the good word.

 
 
Players in Shinobi Wat-Aah take on the role of clan lords, invoking the aid and support of competing clans, ninjas and spirits, to wrest control on the Moon Kingdom from the waning emperor and protect the land and its citizens from the shadow beasts that threaten to overwhelm the fading light. Players start the game with eight cards (7 cards for the first player) and a ninja token, which will be used to track each player’s corruption. The game also consist of a draw deck and a discard deck
The basic mechanic of Shinobi Wat-Aah is extraordinarily simple. Each player draws a card (or cards) from a draw deck, plays those cards out into their tableau in clan sets which consist of 1 to 4 cards and take actions affiliated with the cards played. The more cards played within the set, the more powerful the action that you can take. Alternatively, players may supplement their clans by playing additional cards of the appropriate card types within already established clan sets or by playing a single Yokai card to an established clan set, triggering the action affiliated with the played set or card. Players must also discard one card after each turn. The game ends when the first player has established a fourth clan.
However, this basic rule set is substantially impact by various rules and tactical decisions that the players may take. First, since hand sizes can be depleted quickly and replenished slowly players may opt to “take corruption” in order to refill their hand. Corruption is taken by blindly drawing a card from the draw deck, showing it to the other players and taking a number of cards from the deck equal to the initially drawn cards face value, plus two. So a player that draws a card valued at two will draw four cards from the draw deck for use in this and future turns. However, the card that was initially drawn will go into the player’s corruption deck and that players final score will be deducted by the sum of the cards that are within the players corruption pile at the end of the game.
Additionally, no clan set may consist of more than four cards. While there are wild Ronin cards that may be used to supplement the size of the number of cards laid during a turn and the power of the action taken, these cards are valued at one, so they reduce the final value (or potential value) of the set. Similarly, the more powerful Yukai cards also have low values. Therefore, players must balance the power of the actions taken against the potential negative effect that playing such a card may have upon their final score.

Exemplar Clan Cards (with wild Ronin)
Exemplar Clan Cards (with wild Ronin) (click to read card text)

This brings us to the games scoring mechanic, which like game play in fairly simple. Each card has a differing value ranging from one to eight. Typically, cards with more robust powers have lower values and vice versa. For example, cards from the Spider Clan which allow a player to destroy either a card or a clan (depending upon the number of cards played) of an opponent have a value of 1 or 2; however, cards from the Bear Clan, which has no affiliated power, all have a value of 6. Player’s scores are determined by summing the values of all cards within their tableau and subtracting the sum of the cards played within their corruption deck. The player with the highest score is the winner.

The Yokai Cards
The Yokai Cards (click to read card text)

While the game, when played this way, is a curious and tactical gem Shinobi Wat-Aah truly shines when played in what is referred to as the “Grand Master” mode. In this hyperbolically named game mode, game play is spread out over three rounds. After each round of play (in other words, each time a player places a fourth clan and scores are tallied) ninja tokens (shaped like tiny shuriken) are given to the players, with more tokens being given to the players that finished higher than the others. Additionally, the player with the lowest score from the prior round will receive either a special power that will persist for the entire next round or a chance to look at one of the Boss Monster decoy cards (discussed below).
Each player may then place one or more tokens, in turn, on different spaces on a common player board. After placing their tokens, the players may get to take certain actions, depending upon their token placement. The actions include taking a card that gives that player a special and secret single use power that they can employ at some time during the next round or looking at one of the three dummy decks that surround the player board.
You see, in Grand Master Mode a single Boss Monster is placed in the center of the player board. After three rounds of play each of the players will confront the Boss. However, the game only includes five Bosses, so by peaking at each of the dummy card (or Boss cards that have not been placed in the center of the player board) the players can deduce, or at least make an informed guess at, the identity of the Boss that they will confront at the end of the game.

Grand Master Mode Set-Up
Grand Master Mode Set-Up

This is significant because each Boss fights differently. In order to fight the Boss, players must place ninja tokens upon the face down active Boss card. Some Bosses require the placement of a precise number of ninja tokens in order to earn points, while others require the placement of a minimum number of ninja tokens in order to avoid losing points. By knowing who the Boss Monster is not, a player can make an educated guess as to who the Boss is.
After three rounds and the placement of the final ninja tokens, the Boss is revealed and Boss combat scores are resolved. Thereafter, players receive point bonuses for the number of ninja token placed by each player (10 points per token placed on any space other than the final Boss) and the player with the highest score is declared the winner.
Impressions
 
 
Ok, I love this game, you get it. But this is not a blog (well, I guess technically it is a blog, but it’s not a “today I ate soup, me feet hurt, do they still make TANG, I used to like TANG” blog) it is a review site that seeks to let you know enough about a game to make an informed decision about whether YOU will like it.  So let’s end the hagiography (I get it, this use of this word is not precisely correct, but it fits) and get down to the brass tacks (so that you know, that was one of my grandfather’s favorite phrases, and for that reason alone I love it) (ahh crap, this IS that type of blog).
The appeal of Shinobi Wat-Aah is its ability to use simple mechanics in support fairly complex gameplay. This is not to say that this game is heavy, while it has hidden complexity, players will not ponder their decisions for several minutes, but this game favors players that look beyond the obvious moves and plays. During initial plays, players will likely work to string together larger combos in order to maximize their powers, and there is no doubt that there is value in making these plays. However, when and how to employ clan powers can be an important tactical decision that will give more thoughtful players an advantage during the vast majority of plays.
Because game (or round) ending conditions can be triggered fairly quickly, players need to balance out using actions to build hand size against playing down cards with high values. Moreover, sometimes a player can gain a greater benefit from playing a clan’s lesser powers twice, rather than playing its more robust power only once.
Moreover, clan powers synergies can help shape a player’s tactics. While powers don’t combo, certain powers interact with one another better than others.
For example, powers which allow players to dig into the discard pile (the Crow Clan powers), interact well with powers that allow players to destroy an opponent’s clan (the Spider Clan power). Likewise, powers which allow you to force an opponent to take one of their clan’s back into their hand (the Toad Clan power) interacts will with the power that allows you to trade hands with an opponent (the Fox Clan power).  These are just a few examples, discovering new ways that powers can be played best in tandem will make each game play a unique and rewarding experience.
There are many, many ways to play and win Shinobi Wat-Aah. Deciding which tactic you will employ depends upon the cards that you draw, the clans that other players play, the cards that other players discard, the pace of game play, and the values that you and you opponents are able to accrue. Each of these variables will differ from game to game, and even after dozens and dozens of plays, I still find myself discovering new paths to victory or confronting new challenges.
This complexity is compounded by advance game play options. While the player that wins the most rounds is at an advantage to win the game, savvy game play can make up the difference for a player that started slowly. Choosing and carefully deploying the special power card(s) obtained between rounds can give a player a substantial advantage during later rounds. Additionally, how a player deploys their ninja tokens matters. Though this facet of the game provides fewer options, it does require players to respond to the actions of their opponents and take certain risk in order to succeed. Admittedly, the scoring in the advanced “Grand Master” mode of play involves more luck than the card play facet of the game. However, this luck can be mitigated if players makes responsive and well thought out choices.
In addition to rewarding and engaging game play, this game is thematically rich and beautifully constructed. The various clans are costumed in a way that invokes their token animals and their powers are thematically related to the roles assigned to their token animals within Japanese lore. The game is very carefully researched and pays fine homage to Japanese folk tales and the denizens that haunt them. The yokai cards are actually personifications of spirts that will be immediately recognizably to any fan of Japanese folk lore. The Kappa water spirit is a whimsical interpretation of this mischievous creature, while the ominous Yurei is clearly influenced by the evil brat from The Ring (remind me to tell you a story about the night I saw that movie sometime, it involved a broken florescent light, a dark haired woman and me screaming like a little girl) it also bears a resemblance to the subject to the late Edo period painting, The Ghost of Oyuki.
As a student of folk lore, I enjoyed these thoughtful touches. However, one does not have to have knowledge of the source material in order to appreciate the care that went into selecting the figures represented within the game. Illustrated by one of the industry’s best young talents, Naiade, the images on the cards are active, colorful and evocative. Just like his drawings of familiars and relics in Seasons, Naida’s representations of the various clan members makes the game play more engaging and world building that he and the designers have undertaking more immersive.
This game also plays well with diverse groups. I have enjoyed plays with my son as well as my play groups. The game plays differs slightly depending upon the number of players; however, game play is enjoyable with all player allotments. Moreover, the game’s compact size and easy set up makes it suitable as both a filler and a game night feature. The game can be easily found and bought for less than $30.00 and at that price it is a great value. I have played the game many, many times and still look forward to getting it to table.
Summary
 
 
If you are looking for a game that is likely to surpass your expectations, Shinobi Wat-Aah should find its way to your wish list. I am surprised that this game has not attracted more attention and received more critical acclaim. While I am told that it has been a success for iello and Purple Brain, I have heard few reviewers responding to as strongly as I have. I confess to adding it to my collection on something of a whim. I have been informed that expansions are being considered and I sincerely hope it finds enough success to support these aspirations. While the game has laudable variability already, I would enjoy seeing new clans, powers and game play variations.
The Five
 
 

  • As reflected in my review, Shinobi Wat-Aah’s greatest asset is its hidden complexity. There is something special about a game that can be taught in less than five minutes but which provokes knowing smiles from players as they slowly discover interesting and unique play styles. Shinobi Wat-Aah facilitates that type of discovery very nicely. While the game is not nearly as complex as several other cards games I could name, it is balanced and structured in a way that will allow players to employ new tactics, some of which will work and some of which will not.
  • Shinobi Wat-Aah is a wonderful game for families. While the game has some nice take that mechanics that children will love to employ against their parents. However, none of these tactics are powerful enough to decimate a player. This is an important feature in family games as being utterly destroyed by a single play can be very disheartening to young children. Shinobi Wat-Aah strikes a nice balance in this regard, making the game interactive but not overwhelming. My children regularly beat me at Shinobi Wat-Aah (and if I were to be honest, most games). Though, unlike some games were children are on equal footing with their parents, this is not due solely to luck or randomness. There is something about the race element of this game that children seem to grasp intuitively. My children (as well as other children with whom I have played this game) are adept at triggering the game’s end conditions quickly, so that players who are building up their hand for a large scoring opportunity are often caught flat footed. While the game has mechanics that can be used to tactically extend gameplay, young players have an uncanny ability to stymie these efforts. I sincerely find myself struggling to stretch the game out long enough to obtain victory when playing it with young gamers. While I am often successful in this effort, my children are able to out think me often enough that their ability to succeed at this game is sufficient to keep them always coming back for more.
  • The world building in this game is extraordinary. I am proud to say that this game has served as an access point for me sharing some of my favorite Japanese folk tales with my son. I have bought more than one (ok, more than five) books on Japanese folk lore as a direct result of having played this game. A game that can open up opportunities for learning is a special and rare thing and this game should find its way into most collections for no other reason than this.
  • All right, let’s talk about the name. I initially hated the name of this game. I resented being required to say the “Wat-Aah” every time is asked someone if they wanted to play it. I recognize that the name of the game is indicative of its whimsical nature, and I have since embraced the title. But still, I think the name was poorly chosen. Maybe I am just horrible up tight and unduly pretentious, but I was turned off by the title and bought the game in spite of it. I suspect that others may resist buying this game for this admittedly idiotic reason. If you too have ignored this game for this reason, push past it and give Shinobi Wat-Aah a try. (For the record I think the name is properly typed as “Shinobi WAT-AAH”, but I can only go so far. Baby steps, friends. Baby steps.)
  • The multiple play styles add substantially to this game’s accessibility. Usually my thoughts about multiple play styles are fairly cynical. It seems to me that for most games, various ways to play equals no fun ways to play. I feel that in most instances, game designers provide variations because the game, as designed, doesn’t work as it should. This is not the case with Shinobi Wat-Aah (much like Blue Moon, another game that I enthusiastically recommend). The different game styles accommodate different player needs. If you are looking to play a game that is short, you can play in the basic “Grasshopper Mode”. If however you are in the mood for a game play experience that will take longer and require the players to make more tactical decisions, you can play in the full mode. I continue to play the game both ways, depending upon my time constraints and mood. As a result, I find that play Shinobi Wat-Aah much more often than I otherwise might.