What came out this year that was great? Not much. 2018-to-now the majority of board game design has pretty thoroughly descended into extremely formulaic games with three specific traits in all: very little player interaction, a focus on engine building, with a point salad at the end (again, because if you knew who was winning, you would target them, and that’s a no no these days).
Root was a breath of fresh air last year in this rather fetid tide of same-gameness. Root showed to many people that you CAN and should have constant player conflict and this won’t hurt people’s feelings and most importantly, can be extremely fun. The body of my board game collection is held up by the spine of Cosmic Encounter, Dune, Shadowfist, Eclipse, Study in Emerald, Root and now the Pax games with everything else sort of filling in niche interests for me like euros (Brass) or co-ops / dungeon crawls (Massive Darkness). Almost all the games I like the most have direct player conflict and the potential for massive hamstringing, which is in direct opposition to the current trends in design. I’m hoping the success of Root will engender more designers to build COIN style games and gamers to take an interest in Cole Wherle, Phil Ecklund and the COIN series (and offshoots).
For many people this was a tough year to get gaming in face to face, but we managed it quite a bit later in the summer and especially Fall. Due to this, not quite as many games hit the table, especially anything new. Frankly having to learn new stuff this year felt tiresome with the infrequency we got to play– we went for the meat and potatoes this year: mostly shit we already knew how to play. I only played three new games this year, and one was a new version: Eclipse: Second Dawn, Godzilla: Tokyo Clash and Fort. Fort was not my type of game at all, and we only got one play in before I traded it, so game of 2020 that was released in 2020 is definitely Eclipse: Second Dawn... which is really just an update of a 2011 game after all.
Second Dawn is good, but it’s MUCH harsher than the first edition with serious players. You get one shot for the win now that it’s down to only 8 turns, and if you have a bad run of tiles, a really bad dice run in battles, there is no chance to come back into the game– you just can’t pivot to another strategy like in the old game. Some players will like this, others will not. I will definitely need to play Eclipse more before deciding on which of the versions is better. I hate to say it because I absolutely despised Twilight Imperium 3rd edition, but I have to give TI4 a try before calling Eclipse the reigning king of 4X space games. You know, ones that can actually hit the table instead of just sitting on a shelf because they are too complicated or system-heavy to actually play.
The game of 2019 was Root, and I really played the shit out of that last year and quite a few times this year as well, we shall see if lightning can strike twice with Leder games upcoming Oath game– which looks very…. strange.
This year the game I liked most to play was Pax Renaissance, and this isn’t even my favorite Pax game (which is Pax Porfiriana of course), it’s just the one that shows off what this type of tableau and conveyor market type of game can really do. Instead of just drawing cards or chits from a cup (a la Gangland, the Great Khan Game, King of the Tabletop), you can see what’s coming and control events to some extent. This is one of the best aspects of the Ecklund (pretty much everything) and Wallace games (Princes of the Renaissance, Study in Emerald) I love the most. Pax Pamir is a solid game, but because it uses points for victory, which is very strange compared to the other Pax games, it’s out of the running for the best Pax games– still really good though.
In light of 2020, I don’t think there will be much in 2021 that can compete with existing games, hopefully there will be some surprises. Kickstarter-wise I’m waiting on Oath, Bios Mesofauna, the new edition of Pax Renaissance, Pax Viking and what will probably be another mountain of boxes mistake: Bloodborne from CMON.
2018 turned out to be a even better a year for board games than I originally thought (and the year was pretty awesome to begin with) and that’s on account of this little wargame called ROOT. I had the game on order at my local game store for quite some time, but it was sold out after the kickstarter arrived last summer. It finally came in and I’ve played four times, twice with adults, and twice with kids. Like Rising Sun, Eclipse, Blood Rage and Lords of Hellas, ROOT is one badass fucking game.
A lot of people know and have played this since it’s release last summer and for good reason. The the game has a lot of elements from many great games (GMT COIN games, Dune, Magic Realm, Fief, Armello, and a bunch more to boot) and all that got poured into a mixer and through massive amounts of playtesting, it came out quite good.
Root is definitely the hotness now on BGG and the second printing is likely going to sell out. I’m amazed that people on BGG like this one as it is a brutal wargame for most factions, and totally in your face (much like Dune) right from the outset. What’s more, it has PHASES of turns rather than the typical 2-actions and then play passes to the next player that’s very popular right now (for good reason). Maybe the era of thousands of shitty co-op games, or games with little to no interaction while you build your own little economic engines is starting to be over. One thing I felt while playing is if you like this, I think you could like Advanced Squad Leader quite a bit…
The core element to Root is that the factions are so very different it seems at first that you are playing a different game on the same map, however, your goals will conflict with nearly everyone else’s goals almost all of the time. As the factions are very different, you may not like playing as some of them, which could interfere with your enjoyment of the game. Here are the factions (that I’ve experienced) and which to pick based on what type of person you are. The conflict between the Marquese de Cat and the Eyrie is the central conflict in Root so I would pretty much always have one or both of those in a game, but it’s OK not to like nor play either of them ever, as long as some of your friends like them.
Marquies de Cat: This is the Atreides of the game, or the human Imperium in Warhammer 40k– they have taken a savage fucking beating from all the other factions in the games I’ve played, and it seems like they can get nullified completely mid-game with no chance to win. However, they have a lot of options for how to proceed and have very strong area control early game. Play them if you like building stuff or being in the thick of the fighting all the time. I’ve played them three times and find that they are easy to play, but VERY difficult to do well with.
Eyrie: This is the super-aggressive faction, (think Tyranid swarm) but glass jawed. The other players can see what you are planning and act accordingly. Play them if you like to just wreck shit (mostly the Cats) and play an all-out-war faction. While they can be hamstrung and they are the only faction that can loose victory points, If they get rolling, they are very difficult to stop.
Woodland Alliance (i.e: the ‘loafs’): These guys remind me of the elves in a bunch of other games. Few warriors on the board at one time, none at the start of the game in fact, but can hit all over the place and are costly to attack. They can score a lot of points, yet are very fragile to disruption and interdiction. Play if you like to play the quiet game until such time it’s no longer time to be quiet and if you like to punish people that attack you and gain from it.
Vagabonds: Rather than an army or faction, this is a single dude wandering around the forest. There are a bunch of different vagabonds you can play with as well. I’ve been in games with the Tinker, Wolf and the insane Pumkincat-thing. Some of them have crazy effects (the Possum…wow.). Some vagabonds are helpers, some are basically serial killers. Playing the Vagabond is ‘adventure’ mode with quests for the win OR Fist Full of Dollars/Yojimbo style where you can work with or hurt various factions in the game to score points, then go hide. Frankly, with newer players, the Vagabond has the best chance to win since they are left alone FAR too long and too often. In a few of the games, the vagabond was very peaceful, but in one, it destroyed a third of the shit on the board by the end. Play this if you like to sneak around, don’t want to bother with area control and possibly get really good at destroying the other faction’s armies. Root would just be a war game without the Vagabond, and I think it REALLY shows how cool the design of the game is to have a faction that is so incredibly different from the others like this.
I haven’t had a chance to play as the Riverfolk Company or Lizard Cult yet. Out of the factions, I like de Cats the best so far personally, likely because everyone attacks me in every game anyway and playing them is a big ass come at me bro with bells on.
While I recommend the game, one thing to note is that Root is a wargame, like the excellent Lords of Hellas, it rewards aggression and is highly interactive, the opposite of something like Brass or Ticket to Ride.
We’ve gotten a couple games of Lords of Hellass and I have some initial thoughts. This is one of those hero/RPG/PVP/Conquest war game type of games and one that comes off at first as a total mess of subsystems, but is an enjoyable whole.
This game gets some love initially from me as I had a summer where my buddy Dan and I played through this old Apple game called “Return of Heracles” where you take on the role of various Greek heroes and heroines and try to complete quests. We would run until our hero got killed and then the next guy would take up the mantle and try to make a run. I had some attraction to this game since it was announced, but didn’t get in on the kickstarter and stuff (way too many kickstarters….).
Subsystems is the name of the game when you sit down to learn and play Hellass. Your hero has their own powers, you can fight with your armies, you can fight monsters with your hero, you can complete quests with your hero, you can build monuments with your priests, and so on. It’s a lot to learn, and not all of it is easy. Take your first game and call it a learning game right from the outset. I know a lot of people are heavily competitive and want to win all games, even to the point of withholding information from other players the first time they play in order to win. See below* for how to win your first game of Hellas without having to learn many of the rules.
Despite the game’s subsystem madness, I enjoyed it quite a bit, and if two of my friends didn’t own it already, I would definitely pick it up. It is very very ameritrash, in your face and not coop at all, which is refreshing. Nor is the game a false-Ameritrash game like Scythe (a Keyflower-like Euro that looks like an ameritrashery war game). You must compete against the other heroes and their armies, often directly. There is a lot of shit all over the table, cards, miniatures, tokens but it’s nothing like say Warrior Knights (from fantasy flight, not the GW version). Yet the game is not super long, which is a massive plus.
The Gods are well worth mentioning. They are these awesome multi-part monument miniatures that you slowly build over the course of the game to give your hero level-ups when your priests go pray. You MUST build these and get priests to level up. Priests are tied to the number of temples each player controls on the board. This set of mechanics allows people that are into the war/area control part of the game as a strategy to stop others who are trying to level up their heroes in order to take on monsters and quests for the win.
On the flip side, Quests, when completed, allow the heroes to take over parts of the board for free! There is some nice interplay between the sub-systems, and you cannot just go all-war in the game (unless it’s your first time playing).
All in all, Lords of Hellas is pretty crazy to learn not due to the overall complexity or individual complexity of the systems, but due to the amount of subsystems there are. The game won’t be super easy for new players to get into vs experienced players, but it gets a big fuck yes from me because of the theme, the miniatures, and the gameplay. I have a soft spot for games that feel like a mess like this (ie Dungeon Degenerates) where players have TONS of options and nothing seems optimal, but are actually pretty tight when you learn the game. We’ll see how Hellass stands the test of gaming time.
*to win your first game. Take Laconia (Sparta) as fast as possible, grow a ton of hoplites and go for the area-control win. Other players will be goofing around with the other parts of the game (hunting monsters and doing quests, making statues) that you should be able to pull out a win in turn 3 or 4.
The big ass the Others Box was waiting for me when I got home from GENCON (pretty nice timing there) and I’ve played four times now with three very different groups of people. I know some that read this may not have gotten their kickstarts– I’m sad for you, truly I am. That waiting SUCKS ASS!
I was the SIN player three times, and played as Faith agents once. This is not a review (won’t review a game unless I’ve played it at least 10 times), but some feelings about the game and it’s mechanics, both because I do not normally like this style of game generally, and because it is a MONSTER. The Others will draw you in with it’s beautiful art (Adrian Smith), solid graphic design and cool miniatures, but does the gameplay match the aesthetic quality that it’s worth buying? I think so, but it’s not for everyone. Unlike Blood Rage, which is one of the best board games ever made, not everyone on the planet will like The Others.
What is the game like? One side plays as the Faith agents (the Xmen) and one player plays as a SIN (Cthulhu). The game is played on a small, fully revealed map filled with monsters. The Faith player has to complete a mission tree to win the game, and the SIN player has to kill off most of the Faith team (4 kills out of 7 members). The missions involve killing certain monsters, rescuing people or gaining objects. Each ‘story’ has an initial mission, then other missions after the first one is completed that the players can choose from. This is complicated further by a type of story: Terror, Corruption or Redemption, which determines the type of bad stuff that happens during the game.
How does it play? Unlike Dead of Winter where players have their own objectives, there is no real need to have multiple people playing the Faith team. The Others is essentially a 2-side, 2-player game. However, managing all the Faith team members can be a chore and just like in an RPG when planning an ambush or get-away, multiple heads are better than one. I think the game is best with three (two Faith players controlling two Faith Agents each, one Sin player), BUT, if you only have one friend to play with, The Others will be JUST FINE.
I’m going to compare the game play itself with Descent and Advanced Heroquest, which are similar to The Others in that you have a GM that is trying to kill the players. Descent though, while fun, is a mass of details, a total mess of counters and tracking all this shit everywhere. AHQ is a random dungeon crawl that can really drag with the totally random map. The Others stands on the shoulders of Decent, Doom the board game and Advanced Hero Quest in that it strips out all the bullshit you don’t need present in those games. Especially as the SIN player where you control all the monsters and events, it’s surprisingly easy to run and play. The Faith players, mechanically, have it very easy as well and can concentrate on WHAT they need to do and not crap on their sheet.
Faith Agents can take 2 actions in a round and actions, like the new XCOM, consist of moving and attacking or attacking and moving, with ‘attacking’ being replaced with ‘cleansing’ when needed to put out fires or destroy corruption. n The board is full of hazards, so moving around can be costly– no move is done without careful thought (unless you are the guys that demo’ed the game before I did at Gencon, as you were not putting any thought in).
The SINS player can only react to an Agent’s move/attack, and can only effect that acting Agent and none other, so there is a dynamic risk reward there. We’ve had multiple games where a hapless agent went in to complete a mission knowing she (looking at you Morgana) would immediately be swarmed and killed.
Faith characters consist of the following:
That’s it! The Xmen… I mean Faith agents can pick up items that add a few special effects (mostly just more dice) but running a single Faith team member or ALL of them at once is no problem as there’s not too much to keep track of.
There are four ‘classes’ (Bruiser, Shooter, Fixer, Leader) that equate to your standard thief, tank, caster, buffer and you must have two of each class and one leader to make up your team. Each agent breaks a rule in the game in some way and there are a LOT of them. Six full teams (Alpha, Beta, Delta, Gamma, Omega, Sons of Ragnarok) exist with all the expansions and a group of extras that can be a full team themselves. That’s just under 50 agents…lots of asymmetry for you there.
As SIN, you have a bunch of other stuff to deal with, but it’s not super complicated. You move the monsters and play little trick cards and remember the effects of your SIN on the game and the Apocalypse card. Probably the most complicated period is the end game where there could be members of the Hell Club, the Avatar, Controller, Abominations and Acolytes all on the table with multiple Apocalypse cards out to remember effects from. All in all, I feel that it plays REAL SMOOTH either side with very few burrs.
Play itself is exciting, with nearly every agent and monster move making a ton of difference. There’s very few slough-off plays for either side where nothing happens. Due to the Apocalypse track, the Faith side is always pushing ahead as it gets much unpleasant for them about turn 3 on.
Overall I would describe the play of the game as fairly fast and clean, with the only lags being when Faith players discuss what to do next, which they should and need to do throughout the game. Like games with an antagonistic GM, such as Fury of Dracula, it can be tough as SIN not to fuck up and accidentally hand the players the win, but ever game seemed fairly close.
The game takes about 3 hours for a single story. I think if we play more games, this will get shorter and may even hit between 1-2 hours.
Lastly, The Others has a lot of stuff out for it with it’s initial release, the box it came in dwarfed the Blood Rage box which I now keep in a massive pelican case so I can take it to work gaming club, people’s houses and stuff. I’ve humped that fucker 2 miles walking in mid-winter from the bus stop and that wasn’t fun. The Others has even more stuff– a mountain of miniatures and boxes. What should you buy? What should you not buy until you’ve played a bunch of games and know your group likes it?
The base set is FINE to start with, but get extra dice if you can. +3 for both sin and faith dice is really essential. You can play through the entire seven stories with just this set. It may be better to do this with just the Alpha team so Faith players don’t go insane with choices of Agents until they know what the fuck is going down.
Most of the expansions are additional Faith team members and the remaining seven Sin boxes (5 others). All five remaining Sins have a box with two types of miniatures and the cards that go along with them. Given multiple plays, your players may be able to put together a Faith team that can deal with your normal Sin choice (say Pride or Sloth that come in the main box) so you have a ton of choices to shake that up. For simplicity, I have run Pride every time, which is a good learning tool to punish the players for going alone about the city, but I’m ready for LUST or SLOTH next.
Faith boxes have full teams that you can jump in with that likely synergize with each other in some way. Most of the big Faith team boxes have extra stuff, like monsters (Hell Club members mostly), new city tiles, more cards or the dice bags. I would say get at least one of the team boxes, probably Sons of Ragnarok biker gang (7 characters, no other bullshit so it’s probably cheaper than the other boxes) or the Beta team. I did not get the Delta or Gamma team addons and I’m not regretting it at this point, but I may. Gamma is probably the team I would get next.
The Apocalypse box adds an 8th story into the mix with massive miniatures. You can probably wait on this until after you’ve played all the stories in the main game.
For those of you looking to pair down your collections and not buy massive games there’s a LOT of boxes of stuff with the Others to fill your shelves and unless you are going to replace Descent + expansions with this game, you may need a larger board game purge to fit it in your house!
There you go, after unpacking a lot of this massive CMON kickstarter and playing a handful of times, that’s what I think of the game. Bottom line is, I was worried that I would not like the game as I do not like Descent very much (why I kickstarted Massive Darkness I just don’t know…) and The Others was better than I thought it would be.