Saturday, February 21, 2015

BSG: Betrayal So Great

Battlestar Galactica had just come out. We were huge fans of the series, board gaming and Fantasy Flight, so buying it was a lock. In the first week we played it ten times, getting to grips with all the various rules. But there were a few minor hiccups, and one major, hilarious one.
It was a six player game. Both Boomer and Baltar were in play, so the Loyalty Deck had two extra cards. I was the Admiral, and a Cylon from Turn One. Jp was President Baltar, and after the halfway point, he used Baltar's Once-Per-Game ability to look at someone's Loyalty. He picked me. 

My deception game was over. I was outed before I could do much damage.
Jp looked at my You Are a Cylon card. He handed it back and looked me square in the eye. "It's okay guys, we can trust the Admiral."
Now, I've never had the best poker face, and it took every ounce of my being not to squee in joy. As President and Admiral, Jp and I went on to utterly destroy the humans without ever revealing, taking heat off each other as soon as someone got suspicious. We were on opposite sides of the table, two other players between us on either side, so we were devastatingly effect.
As the final blow was dealt, we stood up to High-5 over the table, and two of the other players whooped in victory as well! Everyone froze. There were four Cylons in the game. The only two humans just starred, their very souls and faith in humanity charred and blackened.
I had screwed up the Loyalty Deck. For Boomer and Baltar, I shuffled all remaining cards and added two randoms, instead of adding two "You Are Not a Cylon" cards, as the rules state. By chance, those two cards were both Cylon cards. 

Yeah, it was against the rules. Maybe it shouldn't be counted as a victory, but it was memorable, and we all still laugh about that game to this day.

Cross posted from Tales of Betrayal on Shut Up & Sit Down.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Sheriff of Nottingham

Now listen. I'm an honest guy. I've never tried to sneak anything past an offical representative of the State in my life. So when I tell you this, you should believe me. I know what you just saw, I saw it too, so I'd never try to do anything funny. Honestly. I really do have four apples in this sack. NO! Don't shake it! You'll shoot someone's eye out... Well... Crap.

In Sheriff of Nottingham, you take turns playing the titular Sheriff, inspecting the other players bags of totally legal goods and judging their honesty as they pass through you gate. The merchant players are trying to move goods through to their stands, staying safe with legal, but low value, goods, or taking risks by trying to get contraband, illegal but higher value items, into town. At the end of the game, the player with the highest value of goods and coin in from of them wins! Easy.

Sheriff of Nottingham is a hilarious bluffing game about bribery and smuggling. The core gameplay comes in the Inspection Phase, after everyone has chosen their goods, loaded their bags, and passed them to the Sheriff. At this point, players can bribe, bluff and cajole the Sheriff to leave their bag alone or open someone else's. If the Sheriff opens a bag with undeclared goods in it, the player who owns that bag must pay a penalty. However, should the Sheriff open a bag containing exactly the declared goods, then the Sheriff pays the owner for the inconvenience. Risk/reward for all involved!

It's great when you have a bag full of apples and you bluff the Sheriff into open your bag by trying a bit too hard to shift attention to someone else. Equally, it's frustrating when you realise that the Sheriff is very likely to hand back your bag, loaded with an honest-to-goodness four bread, a missed opportunity to move those two silk you've been holding for two turns.

The rules in Sheriff of Nottingham are surprisingly light, making it a wonderful starter game for getting new people into the hobby. Set-up is fast, hindered only by the massive number of cards in the deck making it tough to shuffle. Turn sequence is printed on each of the player cards, so once each phase is explained, the turn is easy to follow.

The key to Sheriff is in player interaction. Players can try to convince the Sheriff to open another merchants bag, or bride the Sheriff to leave their bag alone. There are few hard rules to this phase. You use your poker face and wits to bluff and read other players, talking as fast as you can to convince the Sheriff to open a suspect bag, or questioning a shady merchant about the contents of their suspiciously quiet bag of three chickens.

A cunning player can try to get other players to gang up on a merchant, pooling small amounts of coin from each of their purses to pay the Sheriff to open another players bag, knowing that the coin those players spend weakens them more than the coin you sacrifice. A cunning Sheriff could take a bribe from everyone, knowing that the large sum of coins they got individually vastly outweighs any potential income from the meagre contraband any individual merchant got through the gate. Oh the fun you will have!

And that's what this game is, fun! If you're looking for a fast, light game that will have everyone laughing, then Sheriff of Nottingham is the game for you. If you have a group of players that are willing to role-play a bit during the Inspection Phase, then all the better! It's hilarious to watch someone get caught with two crossbows in their bag, and desperately try to explain it away in character! Or listening to characters grow over a few turns, from honest apple-pickers to nefarious mead runners. A highly recommended game that has been hitting my table an awful lot since I purchased it. It's just so easy to get in to and you can happily play two whole games of Sheriff before moving on to other games and not feel worn out.

A few things before I wrap up here. There is a free App available for Android and Apple devices, and it is well worth grabbing and using. It includes a timer for the Inspection Phase, which is helpful, but it is great for totalling the final score. As well as adding up the values of all the goods on each palyers stands, the player with the most and second most of a good gets bonus points, with ties getting divided up among those on matching scores. The App takes care of all that math, including working out the bonus from Royal Goods and any promo cards you might have. You can update players scores each round, or wait until the end and score everything at once, as I like to do. This keeps the game moving during the bulk of play, rather than interrupting each round to add in scores.

Finally, there is one rule that is worth highlighting. During the End of Round Phase, players should draw back up to six cards in hand. Although not explicitly mentioned in the rule book, players should only draw new cards from the face-down pile, not either of the two face-up discard piles. This keeps new cards cycling into play continuously, as well as stopping players from simply drawing a bunch of goods that were confiscated that round. This rule isn't even mentioned in the official FAQ, but is stated as a rule in the excellent Watch It Played How To Play video (Link is to the moment the rule is mentioned). It's arguable then that this isn't an official rule, but having played with and without it, I will always enforce this, as it enhances the gameplay significantly.

Related Posts Board Game Review Hub

 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Legendary Encounters

Deck building games were a massively popular genre for a while among my friends. I say "genre", but really, it was just a single example. Dominion was hugely popular for many months, and several of my friends picked up one or both of the base sets, along with keeping up to date with the expansions. But as with many things in life, other interests bloomed as deck building grew stale. The last set I played from Dominion was Prosperity, and despite owning a copy of Dominion and the Seaside expansion, I hadn't played it or any other deck building game in the three and a half years I lived in Canada.

Until the start of November last.

While visiting my friend Karen in California for her wedding, her and her then soon-to-be husband Sean pulled out Dominion while we were hanging out the evening before the wedding. As soon as we opened the box, I was hit with a wash of memories; Sinead destroying us with Cutpurse and Pirate Ships; Aidan running massive, complex, deck-milling combos with Throne Room; that first time Gar brought it over, and I dismissed it because I wasn't in to Magic or that kind of game.

Before the evening was over, I was hooked back into the deck building games, and I wanted something new.

Legendary Encounters is a 1-5 player co-op deck builder from Upper Deck. Players take on the roles of Technician, Marine, Scientist or Synthetic, among others, and recruit characters into their decks to battle the alien xenomorph and complete Objectives.

Yes. You read that correctly. You battle the H.R. Giger designed, bane of Ripley's existence, sleek, silent, terrifying creature with acid blood from the Alien series of movies. And it is awesome!

Let's just get that out of the way right off the bat. This game is fantastic! I've played it twice solo and a bunch of times in multiplayer, and every game was thrilling, terrifying, nail-biting stuff. The theme is put to great use, as you really start to feel like the aliens are everywhere, creeping through the Complex, an unseen, unknown threat that is still right in front of you the whole time! It's in the room, man! It's in the room!!

Players can choose to play with set Objectives and Characters that represent a specific one of the four movies, or mix and match for an unexpected combination, like Dallas and Bishop battling the alien Clone. So far, I've only played the Alien and Aliens presets, so I haven't tried the random mix yet. Presets definintely feel like the movies they're inspired by, with characters, events and threats popping up that are familiar to fans.

A players personal deck starts with some basic cards, and buy, or recruit, new characters into their deck from a shared HQ of five face-up choices out of the Barracks Deck. The Barracks Deck is made up of four smaller decks, each representing a single character from a particular movie, so the Aliens version would have Bishop, Hudson, Hicks and Lieutenant Ripley. There are four Ripleys in the core set, one for each movie; Warrant Officer, Lieutenant, Sister and No. 8. The instructions book even suggests that you might find it fun to play a game with a Barracks full of Ripley's! I'm totally up for that!

The Hive deck represents the aliens in the base. Similar to the Barracks, the Hive is made up of smaller decks, this time each one related to an Objective in the current game. Again, each of the movies has its own set of three Objectives that are built around key scenes or events in the movies. Unlike the Barracks Deck, I'm not going to give an example of what's in the Objectives deck, or the related Hive deck, and I'll explain why in a moment.

Each turn a card from the Hive deck is placed facedown on the rightmost space in The Complex. If there is already a card in that space, it gets moved along the Complex to the left, opening up a space for the new card. All cards in the Complex travel in this fashion. Should five cards already be in the Complex, then the leftmost card drops down into the Combat Zone when a new card is added. If it's still facedown at that point, it now flips to reveal what it is.

Character cards in your hand provide abilities, but also Recruit Points and Attack Points. Recruit Points are spend to purchase new characters from the HQ. Attack Points can be used to scan rooms in The Complex. When you scan a room, you flip the Hive card there, and it can then be attacked on this turn if you have enough remaining Attack, or a future turn.

The players win if they complete all three Objectives and lose if they all get killed.

Legendary Encounters is a great game to play solo or with friends. My first two games were solo, something I rarely do, but I wanted to learn the rules ahead of teaching others. I actually really enjoyed playing it by myself. It works well, though I don't have a lot of solo play experience to compare it too. My other games included three and four player ones, and all those were great! In the first multiplayer game, one of our players got facehugged early on, and ended up with a chestbuster. That promptly killed him, so we broke out the Alien Player deck and let him have a go at that. It was vicious. He destroyed us. He was terrifyingly powerful, and we struggled to stay alive for as long as possible, by it was a futile effort.

Although it plays mostly as a full co-op game, Legendary Encounters also allows for an Ash-inspired hidden traitor mechanic, where one of the players might be working for the Company. Fittingly, when we tried this, the player playing the Synthetic turned out to be a traitor! He won, but just barely. It was an exciting game right up to the last players final action.

The best feature of this game so far is in the Hive Deck. During set-up, aliens from an additional Drone Deck are added to each of the mini Objective Decks, one for each player, so in our 4-player games, we had four extra aliens in each of the three mini decks, for a total of 12 additional threats! The Drone Deck has all sorts of monsters within, and the Hive is already filled with terror. Which brings me back to something I touched on briefly earlier.

DO NOT LOOK THROUGH THE HIVE DECK IN ADVANCE!

Don't read through the cards when you open the game for the first time. Don't look at them while you're setting up the game for play. Don't rob yourself of that thrill. It really is something else, something unlike anything I've ever experienced in a board game before. It's an amazing feeling when you flip a Hive card in the Complex and find something utterly new, or uncover something with no explaination of how you can deal with it, so it just sits there, slowly crawling along The Complex towards the Combat Zone. You have to trust in the game that you're not utterly screwed. Or maybe you are, and that's fine. Maybe you've been playing the game like a board game, where Characters are just resource cards to be used and discarded, and suddenly Legendary Encounters makes you pay for your hubris. Amazing!

Everything about Legendary Encounters is polished. The machanics are clean and clear, while allowing for exciting combos from both players and the Hive. The art is good overall, though noticably shifts from flat, comic book styled cards to something much more detailed and better painted, like a comic book cover piece. Card layouts are clear, apart from the affiliation logos, which I feel could have done with being made just 50-75% larger. The box is huge, leaving loads of space for expansions, and includes foam blocks to fill that space and stop cards from falling around. They also included divider cards for clearly separating all the mini decks that make up the game, which is much appreciated.

And then, finally, there's the play mat. I'm not gonna lie, one of the top reasons I picked this up was for the playmat. I had heard good things about the game, but the play mat pushed me over the edge. It is gorgeous! It's designed to be in the center of the table, laying out all the various decks, discards and locations. More games need to take this path over a board where possible. I do love my playmats.

Related Posts Board Game Review Hub

It Was All A Dream

I am utterly convinced I wrote a New Year's post for this blog, reviewing the first post from 2014 and looking at how I did during the year. Unfortunately, I can't find that anywhere, which is a bit annoying, as it was a long enough post, and I don't feel like trying to rewrite it.

Was it a dream? Was it something I wrote, but forgot to save? Did someone in the Official Internet Content Supervisation and Authorisation Offices decide it wasn't written well enough?

Whatever happened, it's gone, making this sham of a post my first post of 2015. Whelp! Let's get on with it.

2014 was awesome for us! We went on a very cool holiday in Whistler mere days after discovering Claire was pregnant, so it made the whole thing much more special! We got our Permanent Residence status in July, and we've both been working, playing and creating throughout the year!

Claire took up sword fighting this year as her new passion. She's gotten herself some armour and a big freaking sword! She's gotten super fit, and can do crazy things like handstands at seven months pregnant! She recently did an archery class, and has a new focus for her love of medieval weaponry. I, meanwhile, still go swimming, and recently have been putting in 75 - 100 lengths a week, sometimes hitting 40 lengths, or a kilometer, in a single session. My personal record in a single session in 2014 was 52 lengths! I almost died.

2015 is going to be the start of a whole new era for us. Our Spawnling is due some time in March, so we're super excited for that! Everything has been great so far. Claire didn't have any morning sickness in the early stages, and was still sword fighting up to January. She only really started to show in late January, and now has a wonderful baby bump, one that shifts, moves and kicks outward all the time, waking her, or generally annoying her at work.

I'm still drawing and working on a cool personal project at the moment. I've been collecting a set of impressive markers for my art, and they've been a huge encouragement to draw more, not only because I spent the money on them, but also because they make my art so very cool! I'll be drawing more in 2015, and posting as much as I can. Claire has also been creating, having gotten a sowing machine just before Christmas. She made blankets and bibs for the Spawnling, and has plans for more.

The coming year, or the eleven months that are left in it (Sorry) are going to be awesome, exhausting, terrifying and awesome. I'll try to post more often!

 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Unpub Mini Vancouver

I love playing boardgames. I hope by now that's obvious. I love finding new ones or rekindling my love for old ones. But discovering new classics before they're even on the market is a rare and wonderful privilage, and last weekend I had the joyous opportunity to disscover not one, but several of them on the same day!

Unpub Mini Vancouver was a one day event organised to allow local game designers show off their prototype games, and a chance to have them playtested by a whole lot of new people outside their usual circle of friends. One of my regular gaming buddies, Chase, brought along his game, Berlin Noir which I've played several times and seen go through various iterations over the last few months. Another of the prototypes there was from one of the organisers, Marcel, who brought For Greed or Glory, a game I played at Terminal City Tabletop Convention earlier this year. With so many others on offer, I didn't play either of those, but luckily I'm friends with both, so technically I can pester them to bring their games over and play any time I want.

I arrived at the venue, Magic Stronghold around 11:30am, and there were already a few people playing various games. I was trying to be there by 10:30, but got utterly lost on the way. Apparently, they moved recently, so, while Google Maps dropped the pin on the current location, when I asked it to route me to the store, it took me to the old location. I just didn't double-check, blindly climbing aboard the indicated bus! Anyway, I got there eventually, and with more than enough time to game!

The first prototype I played was Town Builder, by Eric Raué, who happened to be the other organiser of the event! This is a drafting card game, where players collect and construct buildings in a town, competing over projects and materials for the top score.

One of my favourite touches was in the layout. This game was visually beauitful, with wonderful, colourful card art, and fantastic, clear card layout. Each card serves a dual purpose of both building and material. If you want a card as a building, you take it and lay it sideways to represent that it's under construction. But every card can also by materials to construct your projects, repersented by the material icons at the base of the card. If you want a card to be contruction materials, you take it and place it upside down under a project you're currently building. The materials icon is upside down in relation to the rest of the card, but rightside up when it's used as a resource! Genius! The only game I've ever seen have a similar design feature is the original Cheapass Games The Big Idea. I loved it there, and I love it here.

The art on Town Builder, by Fillipe Martin, is gorgeous. Eric claims there's still a lot to be done, but apart from one greyscale card, I loved how the rest looked on the day. The difference between "complete" and "nearly complete" seemed to be in object definition, with completed cards having buildings and elements outlined in sharp, clean lines. "Nearly complete" had this soft, almost impressionistic feel to them, a slight haze that made the scenes depicted into a dreamy, summer day. I really liked that style, but I can also see what Eric is looking for.

Play is clear and fast, with almost no downtime between your turns, even in a 4-player game. The whole game took a little over 30 minutes to play, even with having to explain the rules to two new players. Players draw two cards from the central face-up cards per turn, so you can decide to start a new project, or work toward completing a current one. It's worth noting at this point that it's a whole lot of fun to steal a building another player wants, just to throw it away as a resource for one of your own buildings!

But what's Town Builder like as a game? Honestly, it's great! I mean, Eric says it needs more polishing, and I'm sure he knows best, but I loved playing it as is. We all ended very close to each other in the final scoring, even though I was playing a 4-player game against the designer and another designer who had played a few times before. I got an awesome combo right at the end, triggering, if I recall correctly, four cards and completing two buildings! It plays fast, borrowing a gameplay mechanic from Bohnanza. The game ends when the discard deck is resuffled twice. The first play through the deck is the longest. When the deck is shuffled once, players already have a lot of cards out of it in play, either as buildings or resources. The second shuffle is a bit smaller again, and everyone knows the end is coming fast, so completing buildings becomes a top priority.

With a 30 minute playtime, Town Builder is a fast, fun drafting game that is easy to learn and beautiful to look at. I'll definitely be keeping an eye on Kickstarter next spring for this one, and I'll be letting you all know about it when it comes up!

The second game of my day was the even faster real-time co-operative monster masher, World Defence Force, by Adrian R. Walker. Players work together to trade and swap coloured cards in order to build up a stock of single colours to buy attack cards from central, shared piles in three minute rounds. At the end of each three minutes, whatever monster is showing on the Monster Deck takes its frustrations out of the Population Deck, eating a bunch of them and diminishing the players options. With only 100 cards in the Population Deck at the start, it's pretty devestating to watch 20 of them get munched on, then another 20 three minutes later and then another 15!

World Defence Force is frantic, but less stressful than something like Escape The Curse of the Temple, which can feel overpowering at times as players talk over each other and all continue to act simultaneously. In World Defence Force, players take actions individually, going clockwise around the table in standard turn order. Every turn is "Draw a card, discard a card, swap a colour set with an Attack card, if possible, and draw back up to five cards", all of which can be done fairly quickly, and planned, roughly, during other players turns. If one player takes 20 seconds to make a decision, that affects the time for everyone, but most players turns are over in less than 5 seconds.

The card design in World Defence Force is super clean and clear, something I really love. Each Population card is just a big block of colour in a thin boarder, and Attack cards are similar colour blocks with number printed big and bold on them. Each colour has its own unique pattern as well, which is just visual flavor, but really appealed to me during play. I wonder if Adrian has tested the patterns for colour-blind players, or if it's just a neat feature? Ensuring the patterns are visually distinct without the colours would certainly broaden the reach of this game.

World Defence Force was a blast to play. We had six players, including the designer and three others who had played a version of it before. Only myself and one other were totally new to the game. I certainly had a good laugh playing it as it stands, though there was a lot of discussion after about adding additional mechanics. I kinda like it for how clean it is, though additional, optional, mechanics might be nice once you've started to master the basic version. Another winner in my book, but there seems to be a while to go before we'll see it pop up on Kickstarter. There was a lot of blank monster cards, and Adrian is looking into options for the round timer. Maybe an app?

After breaking briefly for some lunch, The Shrine, by Shad Millar and Jay Cormier was the third game I played at Unpub Mini Vancouver. This is a strategy game where players place cubes on a 4x4x4 play space. Each cube is one of four colours, and has either two or three symbols out of an available four, with the same symbol on opposite facing surfaces. So some cubes might have two dots, two squiggles and two X's, while others might have four X's all around, and two squares on opposing faces.

Players chose one cube to play from four revealed cubes out of a big bag of possibilities, placing the cube in the playspace. Cubes placed on top of or next to other cubes must have matching touching faces. When a player places a cube they gain resources of the colour they placed and any touching cubes. Those are used to buy cards that count toward victory.

Once all the cubes are placed, the number of each symbol facing upwards on the final tower is counted, defining that symbols value. Only those sides facing up count toward victory, not the ones exposed to the sides. Then that value is multiplied by the number of those symbols on the cards you have, giving you the score for the symbol.

The Shrine is interesting, because when we played it, both myself and the other player in our two-player game thought we had broken it very early on. My opponent had a lot of dots on his cards, so for him, dots had a high value. With three dots facing up early on, he simply built three towers of four cubes straight up, guaranteeing him that high score right off the bat. I couldn't place cubes fast enough to block him by creating voids. Voids are created where two blocks facing each other with a single space between have different symbols on their facing sides. Because all cubes have the same symbols on opposing sides, this is an impossible to fill space, so a void cube is placed in that space, blocking the symbol on the cube beneath from scoring.

However, by the end of the game, we realised that the benefits of that strategy were somewhat deceptive. While my opponent built straight up, he left me to fill out the base layer, stacking it with symbols that were of benefit to me. While I lost in the end, his dots netted him significantly less than my squiggles, because hight doesn't count for anything during the scoring. I had seven squiggles facing up. With my six squiggles on my cards, I scored 42 points in one go. Had I played a bit better, I could have won, while allowing him to waste his time building his towers.

I really enjoyed The Shrine, and would love to play it again a few more times. I'm not sure if there's any problems with the mechanics, because I got so distracted by what seemed to be a huge issue while we were playing, but turned out to be seemingly balanced on the whole. It's certainly a fun game, and a level of strategy I can get my head around. It's in no way basic, or simple, but it is clear and easy to learn the core mechanics of, while the strategy emerges through play.

Finally, I wrapped up my long day of gaming playing a game I wanted to try since before I walked through the door. I first saw Sloops!, by SĂ©bastian Bernier-Wong and Peter Gorniak back in March of this year at the first annual Terminal City Tabletop Convention. Back then I simply didn't have the time to play it, as I was playing so many other games over the one day I had. So when I heard it would be at Unpub Mini Vancouver, I put it at the top of my list of games to play. So it was with just a smidge of irony that Sloops! became the last game I played of the day.

Sloops! is a game of naval combat with a worker placement element for drafting an action deck and gaining resource tokens. The turns are divided into two phases, an Island Phase and then the Sea Phase.

The worker placement mechanic is during the Island Phase, when you place crew around the island. All players take turns to play theier three crew one at a time, and then purchase cards that go into your deck. Unlike a lot of deck building games, purchased cards are first placed into your hand, rather than your discard pile, so that you can immediately use them in the next phase.

The Sea Phase is all about moving your ship and dealing damage, awarding victory points. Cards are played from hand to maneuver your ship or fire cannons. Damage is dealt with cannon blasts or ramming other ships, or rocks if your hand of cards really sucks. Ramming damages both ships, but only awards a victory point to the aggressor. Each time a ship takes damage, the player gains a Damage Card into their deck, which has no ability and just clogs up your later hands. The game ends when all the Damage Cards have been distributed.

As we started our 4-player game so late in the day, I didn't get to experience a full game. We cut it short, playing out three or four full rounds. Still, that was enough to know that Sloops! is a hilariously fun game. The theme is really well implimented, and feels like a core part of how the game plays, rather than a skin wrapped over some mechanics.

The worker placement element is great, with lots of choices and decisions to make. Do I want to claim a card I can't afford first, hoping I can claim the required resources with the next two crew members, leaving me open to being blocked by the other players? Do I spend a turn pooling resources for the next turn? Did I forget to grab some Cannon resources, meaning I now hold a Fire Cannons card I can't use? Yeah... yeah... I totally did. Dammit.

The Sea Phase is the action part of the game. Players play cards to move their ship around the ocean and islands, hoping to draw near other ships and wreck havok. We had great fun pulling along side each other, unleashing a hail of cannon shot, and then parting ways in a most gentlemanly fashion! There was a lot of ramming ships as well, with some player turns ending up as a series of ramming and being rammed.

Everyone had a lot of fun playing this one, and laughter at the table was an ongoing and regular feature. Turns are very clear and straight-forward, aided by the division of elements into the two seperate phases. Despite the two phase turn, Sloops! plays very fast. Players only have three crew to place on the island, and the Sea Phase is just a matter of going around the table as players play cards from their hand and move or fire their ships. I look forward to getting to play a full game of this in the future, and watching how it grows and develops, mostly in terms of components, which are mostly stand-ins for now.

Given that there was a wide selection of games on offer at Unpub Mini Vancouver, I'm delighted to be able to report that I really enjoyed the four that I played on the day. It probably helps that most of those games are well into their development cycles, and, though still evolving, they each have a solid grasp on where they want to be.

Whatever my experience was, it's clear that Vancouver is home to some incredible board game developers, and I look forward to adding many of the games on display at Novembers Unpub Mini Vancouver to my shelf in the future!

Related Reading: Check out Loaded Dice's review of the event and what they thought of the games they played in their Recap post.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Cosmic Encounter

Some of my favourite games are the ones that encourage a lot of player interaction throughout the game. BattleStar Galactica is filled with discussions of trust and traitors. Bohnanza is all about trading and negotiating for better deals. Resistance is entirely built on agreements and lies. Your only chance of winning co-operative games like Pandemic, Forbidden Desert and Elder Sign are based on the players working together to maximise their team's potential.

In Cosmic Encounter, players form and disolve alligences to gain colonies in a bid to expand across the galaxy. Players start with five home planets in their own system, and a random alien race from a massive stack of possibilities. The objective is to gain five foreign colonies among the other player's home systems.

Gameplay is actually fairly basic. On each players turn they draw a destiny card that directs who they will attack. Then both the Attacker and Defender, collectively refered to as the "main players", declare if they will accept allies. They can be selective with their choices, or simlpy declare that they're accepting help from all sides. Starting on the Attackers left, the other players then choose who they will ally with, based on invitations, or opt to sit this combat out if they're unsure of the results. Allying with a successful side grants rewards, the most important of which is a colony if the Attacker wins. Because of this, players will generally ally with the Attacker early on, but once a player is close to victory, they usually stop recieving Attacker ally invites. We'll come back to this in a minute.

Once allies are all declared, the main players play an encounter card face-down in front of them. This modifies the attack value granted by the ships committed to each side, and can reinforce a victory, flip a seemingly hopeless fight, or initiate negitiations. Once these are revealed, other cards can be played in to affect the final outcome, adding to values, cancelling deals, zapping cards and more. Even alien race powers can often activate at this point. Unless otherwise stated, at this stage, anyone can play cards, evevn if the player isn't directly involved in the battle.

If the Attacker wins, she and all her allies gain a colony, destroying the Defender and his allys, sending their ships to the Warp, a zone in the centre of the board from which ships can be recovered for future roles. If this was the Attackers first attack, they then have the option of a second attempt, starting by drawing a new destiny card to see who they will attack. Thus, they can potentially get a maximum of two colonies in a full turn.

If the Defender wins, all the Attackers and her allies go to the Warp, while the Defenders allies get to claim rewards. The Defender gets nothing, except the glory of a planet defended.

And that's it! Every turn is "declare attack, declare allies, play an encounter card, resolve encounter". It's pretty straight forward, but the immense joy of Cosmic Encounter is in the player interaction, and the huge variety of alien races on offer.

The core box comes with 50 races, each with their own unique rules and play style. That alone allows for a huge number of possible play variations, meaning that you'll rarely see the same set of aliens vying for victory. But each expansion adds between 20 and 30 new races, so that, at the time I write this, with all the expansions, I have a total of 165 alien race to chose from! It is so much fun watching races interacting with each other. No two games are ever alike. Some races make small changes to the base rules, while others can be more dramatic, even affecting other players actions. Alien races are sorted into three colours; Green, Yellow or Red. This represents their overall difficulty, though in my experience, most regular boardgamers will be able to just right in a play with any of them. Really, red aliens just have a slightly more complex ability, or one that requires the player to keep track of things during play. Most of the wording on the cards are clear and it's easy to understand how they effect the gameplay.

The other aspect that really changes every game you'll play of Cosmic Encounter is the level of player interaction. Players are constantly discussing who they and the others should ally with, the benefits of joining one side or the other, the effeect of another power on their turn and more. Discussion and debate takes up the majority of the playtime in Cosmic Enounter.

Do you ally with the Attacker and gain a colony yourself, but allow him to gain one too? Do you even invite allies as the Attacker, knowing you're giving them a colony out of their turn? Do you invite allies, knowing that you're going to lose, but hopefully hurting others in the process?

While you're trying to make these decisions, other players are negotiating for power. How confident is the Attacker in his hand of cards? If I help you now, will you help me later? No, but I won't help her either!

Victory is just five colonies, and can be shared by more than one player. If you're on your Attack turn, are you willing to share victory with the Red player? Is he willing to take a shared victory over going it for himself on his turn? It's all about tenuous verbal agreements that don't have to be upheld.

In a game where victory is a point based system that is clearly visible to all at all times, the endgame can drag out, as no one is willing to help the player in the lead. It happens in Monopoly and Settlers of Catan, and it happens in Cosmic Encounter as well. As stated earlier, once players get close to victory, they stop recieving invites. But in Cosmic, this only serves to keep everyone together, such that, at the end of the game, we've often had all the other players with four colonies apiece. Also, as mentioned, shared victory is always an option, so good negotiations can offset the slow endgame with a powerful, unstoppable alligence of races.

There are problems. Victory can sometimes come simply because players have spent all their cards stopping the others before it gets to your turn. With all the powerful cards in the discard pile, you can win by attrition. That being said, a sure victory can be snatched away at the last moment, as has happened to me several times before. It all looks great until your opponent Morphs your Attack +40, or another player steps in and Cosmic Zaps your alien race ability.

Overall, I love Cosmic Encounter. Games range from 45 minutes, where the last player in turn order didn't even get a chance to act as the Attacker, to three hours of back and forth negotiations, as players gain and lose colonies, and races combo off each other in interesting and complex ways. Finally, Cosmic is also one of the few games I own where I completely love the expansions. While each one does add some new components, like space stations, new decks or or additional tokens, it's the extra races that are most fun, and those are worth paying for alone.

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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Making Babies Is Easy, Except When It Isn't

Yesterday I announced on this blog about our impending end to free time and peace of mind. It was full of joy and happiness.

But as so many people will tell you, that's not always how it goes.

What some of you might not know is that Claire and I have been trying for this for about two years, and during that time we've had some painful close encounters. At least twice, we think we lost an embroy at around the five or six week mark, and every month that went by without even the hint of a successful fertilisation was another month of hope crushed.

When I was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease in October of 2012, Claire and I agreed to accelerate our plans a bit. By then we were married four years already, when most couples would already have a few kids. But we had moved to Canada and were still settling down. We hadn't even applied for Permanent Residency yet, and our long term security was not entirely steady. But I felt like I was suddenly on a clock, like this diagnosis put a timer on how much time I have left to potentially be a good father[1].

So we talked about it. We looked at our finances and our lives as they stood. It's said that there is never a perfect time to have kids, and if you're waiting for that, you'll go on waiting. We were in a good place, and so it made sense to try.

Over the last two years we've had moments of hope and moments of despair. There were times when we thought it might just be destined not to be. But we had each other, and for that, I am eternally greatful. Claire has been amazing through everything, not just in relation to the pregnancy, but my diagnosis, work, the fact that Prometheus is such a terrible movie, the Permanent Residency process, everything.

What changed that brought us to this point? Mostly, once again, that's on Claire. Last February/March, Claire took up swordfighting as her hobby and main form of exercise at Academie Duello in downtown Vancouver. She loved it, and started doing it three nights a week. Then, around June, she went to see a naturopath, specifically one related to diet and lifestyle. She had been having some stomach issues around eating certain foods, so, after a few tests and trials, Claire changed her diet, cutting out dairy and gluten. The naturopath recommended some suppliments, and changed the type of folic acid Claire was using to a fast absorption one.

Before the end of July, Claire announced that she was pregnant. We went to Whislter for a vacation at the start of August and had a blast, driving ATV's and spending a day relaxing in an outdoor spa resort.

Since then, we've just been following the growth of our little Spawnling via an app on Claire's phone. It's grown from a lemon to an avacado to a turnip and beyond.

If you're reading this and currently trying to get pregnant and it isn't happening, take heart. Sometimes these things need to take time. Try a new activity. Try a new diet. Talk to us. Talk to the professionals. Ask for help. You're not alone, and you never will be.

It has not been easy to get to this point, but it's been worth it.

[1] It's very important to note that I no longer think like this. I did during the first two weeks and now and then during my lowest times in the first six months. But since then, I've come to honestly believe right to my core that very little has changed, and it won't for a long time. There is no timer, no clock ticking down over (or inside) my head. Life was amazing even before the pregnancy, and is only getting better. We landed a science vessel on a comet flying beyond Martian orbit yesterday. I am living in a golden age, and my own little bubble of life and living glows brightly.