Saturday 29 November 2014

New Games For Old: Modern Alternatives to... Trivial Pursuit

Another yuletide season brings another opportunity to trash a family favourite. This year our attention turns to the notoriously tedious and age-unfriendly Trivial Pursuit, the classic game which test how many pointless facts have accumulated in one's brain like the filth in Bender's neck.

Picture of gold-plated pies by Martin Stever
To be fair, my dispute with Trivial Pursuit is not to do with the questions; while they do a poor job of levelling the playing field between generations of the family, they are otherwise perfectly fine. The real problem is the board itself; it provides few genuine questions, needlessly draws out the gameplay, and creates frustration when six correct answers in a row gets you nothing, and then the next team gets pie for a single lucky guess.

Here's one cost-free suggestion to improve Trivial Pursuit: throw away the board and die, and just ask each other a pre-determined number of question cards, keeping the score on a piece of paper.

If, on the other hand, you'd like to try some genuinely new games, here's a few family-friendly trivia games for which I've already taken the bullet on your behalf. You're quite welcome.


First out of the doors is Bezzerwizzer, a somewhat-popular game originating from Germany and available for some time from The Works in the UK. The game is to commended for its bold attempts to introduce actual player agency to a trivia game, while removing the pointless die-rolling. To determine the category in which they will answer questions, players draw four tiles from a bag containing 20; they can then arrange these four tiles according to how much a correct answer will score (from 1 to 4). Thus, players can maximise the benefit of their strongest categories, and minimise the consequences of drawing a weak category. Additionally, players can swap categories with another once per round, and try to answer a competitor's question twice per round.

Picture by Virre Linwendil
All of these innovations are clear improvements on the basic trivia game formula. However, this game has a fatal flaw - the questions are just too easy. I do not say this to brag - my co-players also rarely dropped a question, even in categories of which we profess no knowledge. While the game is to be commended for its brevity by comparison with Trivial Pursuit, it will rarely exceed two rounds; the loser can often be determined by a single dropped question.

Overall, then, a bold attempt, but not one I can wholeheartedly recommend.


Next up, we have not one game but an entire franchise from boardgame mega-publishers Asmodee. Timeline consists of a number of inter-compatible tins, each containing around 100 small cards. These cards are two-sided; the side dealt facing the players shows some sort of event or notable work, while the reverse shows the same, with the addition of the date. The game begins with a single card placed with its date showing; the first player must guess whether their card occured before or after that single, seed card. They place the card, and turn it to discover the truth; if they are correct, the card leaves their hand (the winner being the first to empty their hand), and if not, it is replaced. The next player acts similarly; in this case, their card may be before, after, or in between the cards already placed. In this way, a long row of chronological events is laid down, and as they are, the time intervals become narrower; this is a game which starts easy but gets surprisingly difficult as it continues. This natural difficulty curve also allows for easy difficulty adjustment; to make the game harder, just deal larger hands.

This game has an even simpler ruleset than Trivial Pursuit; plays quicker; has easily adjustable difficulty
(allowing for handicapping of older players); and even has a measure of strategy, as the player may choose which order to try their luck with their cards. It rewards good guesswork over specific knowledge; this may be a positive or negative factor, depending on one's preferences. Although a bit of a one-trick pony (as it is only concerned with history, albeit within a variety of categories), it's not a bad game at all.

Wits and Wagers

And finally, we turn to the heavyweight of new trivia games, Wits and Wagers, winner of awards ranging from Mensa Mind Games to Xbox Magazine Editor's Choice. This game is about as far from Trivial Pursuit as you can get while still falling within the category of trivia games. The board has been replaced by a baize of odds; pies replaced with betting chips; and specific knowledge replaced with numerical estimation. To explain the latter; each question has a numerical answer, which is unlikely to be known specifically
Picture by Antony Hemme
(e.g. the annual weight of potato consumption per capita in the United States). Players each write down a guess; these guesses are arranged on the betting felt (with the median answer in the middle, giving the lowest odds); and players make up to two bets on the correct answer. Winners get chips according to the odds and their original bet; losers lose their chips (except for the two basic betting chips, which are never lost). The game plays easily (you can start playing without even explaining the rules in advance), and the betting mechanism effortlessly creates high tension, moments of elation, and groans of disappointment. As a party game, this one justifies its success.

As a quiz game, however, its not quite so easy to recommend. By its very nature, it rewards good (and/or lucky) guesswork; this helps level the playing field, but actual knowledge is devalued.


I come away from this feeling that there is not yet any good trivia board game. Combining specific knowledge and player agency are never going to be easy, but I'm sure there are better ways. Bezzerwizzer was definitely on to something, but if anything it goes too far in allowing players to play to their strengths. Perhaps a dice game, with one side per question category, a couple of rerolls, and points per question equal to the sides of that category?

My personal favourite of the games here? From a trivia angle, probably Timeline - it has scope for both specific knowledge and good estimation. In a more boisterous and convivial setting, however, Wits and Wagers is a winner.

Monday 9 June 2014

New Games For Old: Modern Alternatives to... Yahtzee

Were you ever a child? If so, were you ever subjected to the mindless tedium of Yahtzee? (The dice game, not the video game critic, that is.) The answer is that you probably were. But never fear. It gets better.

Yahtzee stands as one of the quintessential children's games of almost-pure-luck masquerading as strategy.
Picture by J Weintraub
At least such non-games as Snakes and Ladders or Candyland have the decency to be honest about their total lack of anything resembling strategy or real player agency, and so are appropriately restricted to children. Yahtzee, the game in which you roll dice, try to get whatever is most probable given your initial roll, and always take whichever result is clearly the least probable by the end of turn, is a game I have witnessed being played by teenagers and, shockingly enough, actual adults.

But still... there's something to be said for rolling a bunch of dice, choosing how and when to push your luck, cursing the dice gods, laughing at others' misfortune, and having the whole thing over with in a short period of time. So which modern dice-rollers can deliver more game with (if possible) even more dice rolling?

King of Tokyo

So successful it's verging on being a mainstream game itself, King of Tokyo is the game of giant creatures attacking Tokyo and each other through with the medium of giant, or at least overweight, dice. Designed by Richard Garfield (probably most famous for Magic: The Gathering), this is a game with huge and obvious advantages over its ancestor. For one thing, the game has more variety; rather than just trying to get specific combinations of numbers, the dice of King of Tokyo are number 1-3, with the other faces depicting a claw, a lightning bolt, and a heart. On their turn, players roll six dice, then reroll whichever they choose up to two
Picture by Gary James
times. The numbers have the more familiar dice mechanics - roll three of any kind and get the number of points on that triplet's faces, with further of the same kind adding an additional point. Where it gets interesting are the other faces. While the points system provides a method of racing your opponents to victory, claws smack your opponents about - this is a game of direct confrontation, not just abstract points accumulation. You can win the game by reaching 20 points first, or by eliminating all your rivals, and each outcome is as likely as the other. Meanwhile, hearts repair that damage, and thunderbolts provide "energy" - essentially the game's currency, which allows monsters to buy cards. Some of these cards provide immediate rewards; others provide special abilities, creating asymmetry between players as well as a measure of long-term planning. These simple mechanics provide much more of a game, with a variety of possible strategies (loosely falling into points or damage strategies, but with variety in both), and replayability facilitated by the subset of cards available in each game. Expansions have been released to give further variety, each retaining simple mechanics. While still a game with a high luck factor, it combines both meaningful push-your-luck mechanics and an amount of forward planning to provide players a decent amount of agency and strategy. Plus, giant monsters.

Elder Sign

Alternatively, maybe you're tired of competition anyway. Perhaps you view dice in a different way; since their result is ultimately arbitrary, it may make more sense to compete with the uncaring universe rather than the other players. In that case, you might want to look at the range of cooperative dice games available.

Picture by Leone Fenzi
Elder Sign is one of the most popular of these. Though sometimes referred to as "Arkham Horror Lite", it really has nothing in common with its cousin beyond theme and a reliance on chance. In this game, players are racing to acquire arcane knowledge before an ancient evil awakens; they do so by completing a number of tasks, each of which require certain specific dice results. As with King of Tokyo, the dice faces are unique, but have less intrinsic meaning (the Terror symbols have side effects in specific tasks, and magnifying glasses are cumulative, but otherwise differences are purely thematic). Players can acquire objects and spells to improve their dice rolls or gain additional dice, and even have certain special effects (such as eliminating monsters, or opening up high-risk high-reward otherwordly areas). 

Players who do not complete the task on the first roll may reroll, but sacrifice a die to do so, and may only hold over a single die from their first roll; in practice, this makes it difficult to complete the task if the player hasn't succeeded within the first couple of rolls. The game has some other issues; for example, as a fulfilled task gives additional resources, but failures use up resources without replacing them, there is a tendency to "snowball" and either keep winning or keep losing. This problem is not fully solved by the game's market mechanic to buy resources. Long-term strategy plays a fairly minor role, and overall the game suffers from too many rules for the degree of tactical thinking it provides. Nonetheless it's a fun light co-op with a theme that appeals to many, and digital versions exist to try it out for the price of a fancy coffee.

Escape: The Curse Of The Temple

But Elder Sign is far from the be-all and end-all of dice-rolling cooperative games. If you want a game with tighter mechanics, shorter playing time, and a hell of a lot more energy, try Escape: The Curse Of The Temple. Here, players each have their own handful of dice, and roll them to create combinations which open up new rooms of a temple, move between those rooms, and claim the gems therein. Each time a die face is used for an action, the die must be rerolled. The more gems claimed, the easier it is to leave the temple... and the game is only won if all players successfully leave.

Picture by the author
So what's the catch? Elder Sign has an ancient evil creeping closer to awakening turn-by-turn. "Escape" has no turns at all. Players roll their dice as fast as they can; the entire game is in real time, with a strict ten minute limit. If anyone is still left behind when that time is up, everybody loses. To make life even harder, dice have "black skull" faces - roll this result, and the die is locked, useless until a golden skull is used to release it. Players in the same room can combine dice for bigger rewards, which is essential to get enough gems at higher player numbers; crucially, other players can use their golden skulls to release the dice of other players. Since a handful of black skulls induces total paralysis, this is an essential manoeuvre. The result is a madcap game of players screaming things like "we just need two more keys" or "please will somebody give me just a single gold", desperately watching the gems stack up as the timer runs down, rolling their own dice as quickly as possible while cajoling their companions. It's like the Crystal Maze, only all the players are doing the challenge at the same time, and all are going to get locked in if any one of them fails the task.

This is probably the most stressful game you will ever play. But it's also a whole lot of fun. Simple mechanics and the ten-minute time limit keep it short and sweet, accessible to beginners, but stimulating for anyone. Definitely recommended.

Sunday 11 May 2014

His Lordship Reviews: Paperback

You may not have heard of Paperback. It's even more likely that you haven't played it. A game of word-searching and deck-building, it was designed by Tim Fowers and released as a Kickstarter-only project - one I was lucky enough to find out about in time. Why would I write about a game which isn't available at retail? Because Mr. Fowers is currently funding a second printing - which, if you're quick, you might be able to jump into at

Disclaimer: The above free advertising notwithstanding, I am
Official image - box bottom
not receiving any consideration for this review. In fact, I will go further, and lay good adds that Mr. Fowers has no idea of my existence other than as an address on his former Kickstarter fulfillment list.

Let's get to it, then. Paperback has been described as half Scrabble and half Dominion - while this is indeed good shorthand, it falls short of describing the total package. As the fine chaps at Shut Up And Sit Down observed, if you merely add half of one game to half of another game, you get exactly one-third of a game. Paperback combines its influences to create something much more than the sum of its parts.

The Game Itself

Just as with Dominion, players have their own deck of cards, from which they draw a hand, play it, and purchase new cards for their deck based on the hand they have played. The cards themselves represent letters; to play cards out of your hand, they must form a word. To help you on your way, half the starting deck is composed of wild cards (or 'blanks' in the common Scrabble parlance). The letters score points based on their rarity in the English language; the wilds score no points when played, but are the main source of score at the end of the game. Once you've played your word, its score is used to purchase further cards to be added to your deck.

Photograph, and racks pictured, by Chris Miller
Some are difficult to use, but worth good points - and, unlike Scrabble, some higher-scoring cards contain two letters to be used together. Others are simple, common consonants, but have commensurately lower scores. Additionally, many cards have special effects when played - this is where Dominion-like mechanics return to the fray. Many powers will be familiar to players of deckbuilders, such as drawing additional cards, and 'trashing' unwanted cards by removing them from your deck entirely. More unusual are the "Attack" powers which affect other players; many of these effectively provide a counter-play to other cards, e.g. by preventing those additional draws by other players. Then there are the wilds, which aren't worth any points, but stand in for any letter, and are used to determine final score at the end of the game; unlike the scoring cards of Dominion, the 'blank' effect means these cards are useful in themselves, but they can still dilute a deck.

On top of this, there are other, minor mechanics. A common vowel is available for everyone's use; this is also worth points at the end of the game, and can be acquired at the beginning of the game by making a word of seven letters or more. Once acquired by a player, a new common vowel is revealed; this requires a word of eight letters or more, and so forth. There are further optional mechanics, such as unique player powers, word lists that give bonus points for completing a word on the list, and the mythically powerful "space bar". These are really minor variants; the core of the game is in making words with your cards, and carefully selecting letters to buy which you will be using to make other words in the future.

Why is this a better game than Scrabble?

While both games involve finding words in a set of letters and/or blanks, the wider strategies of the two games are very different. Scrabble is an exercise in finding the highest-scoring placement of the various permutations of words and placings possible in a given turn (taking into account opportunities created for the opponent, keeping letters for future rounds, etc.). Such an exercise in Monte Carlo calculation is absent in Paperback - instead, when playing a word, you only need to find the highest score you can make, give or take adjustments to include desirable powers. This makes player turns faster, particularly because more advance planning can be performed; there is little game state to change before your turn arrives. Nonetheless, Paperback still achieves significant strategic depth in the card-drafting mechanic, which provokes a wider range of considerations than the relatively mechanical Scrabble. Which brings us to...

Why is this a better game than Dominion?

Picture by Bennet Rosenthal
Well, for one thing, you have to make words with your cards, rather than simply play them. This alone would make it superior than Dominion. But beyond that, the drafting itself is more interesting in Paperback than in Dominion. The need to balance cards with powers against cards with value remains, but these considerations also need to be balanced with the purchasing of wild cards, and, most challenging of all, the drafting of letters which work well with each other. Put it all together and you have a multi-dimensional card-drafting game which is head and shoulders above either of its most obvious competitors.

The final verdict: highly recommended to lovers of word games and deck-builders alike.

Friday 18 April 2014

Card-driven Light Wargame Arena: Memoir '44 vs Mythic Battles

Two games enter... only one can leave. In today's article, a game-on-game battle royale between two light war games. In the red corner we have the long-time favourite and people's champion: Memoir '44. In the blue corner, a plucky little slugger far from almost everyone's radar: Mythic Battles.

Now I like memoirs, and I like myths; but which is best? Only one way to find out... FIGHT!

The contenders

Memoir '44

Picture by Mads Floe
Memoir 44 should require no introduction. Designed by Richard Borg, it was one of the early and
most influential of the Commands & Colors light wargame series. A highly successful game from powerhouse publisher Days of Wonder, it's an attractive and accessible game primarily based on the D-Day landings. An army (pun!) of expansions has been released, and it even has a digital version on Steam.

Mythic Battles

Less well known is Mythic Battles. I shall be brutally honest and admit I hadn't heard about it myself, and only stumbled upon it by accident. It was designed by Benoit Vogt, who, to the best of my knowledge, hasn't designed anything else commercially available. Released relatively recently by another fairly high-profile publisher, Iello, it appears to have had very little marketing or support (though two expansions have been released - but not in the UK as far as I can tell).

Round 1: the field of battle

Both games revolve around cardboard battlefields with terrain entities to introduce some strategic elements. Memoir has a double-sided (shore or inland) board, split into hexes, with individual hex tiles to be added to create a varied battlefield; Mythic Battles has six double-sided boards, subdivided into squares, to be selected and arranged in a 2-by-2 fashion. Winner in this category: Memoir '44 by a nose.

Round 2: pieces on the board

This is one of the big differences, and can be dispensed with very briefly. Mythic Battles uses counters to indicate unit positions; Memoir has adorable plastic miniatures. Despite the high quality of counter art, this round is a clear win for Memoir '44.

Round 3: use of cards

Now that the trivial opening rounds are behind us, let's get into the meat of the conflict. Both Memoir '44 and Mythic Battles are card- and dice-driven games. Both use cards to select which units you move on your turn, while both use dice to determine the outcome of conflict. However, there are key mechanical differences between the two games, and they change everything.

Picture by Kelly B
Memoir '44 allows each player a hand of cards, most of which indicate a section of the board (centre or left or right flank) and a number of units within this section you may activate this turn. Theoretically, this should give rise to a careful game of hand management, as you weigh up holding your best cards to make a devastating strike when your opponent wanders into range, or to move now and try to take strong positions or eliminate key units. However, for me, it doesn't seem to work that well. Two crucial flaws undercut this strategic element: one is that some cards are just stronger than others, and the other is that both players are drawing from the same deck. Your next card (and your opponent's next card) is just as likely to be strong or weak, irrespective of the card you just played; in other words, if you played a weak card to preserve stronger cards, you are just as likely to pull another weak card to replace it, while your opponent might throw down power-cards and draw strong ones in their place. Yes, I understand the principle of regression to the mean, but there aren't enough draws in the game for that sort of averaging to come into effect. While the game sometimes gives you a reason to hold onto specific cards, it just doesn't provide sufficient pressure to force you to play sub-optimal cards in the hope of your hand improving in the future.

Mythic Battles takes a very different approach. Each player has individual decks, which are constructed from cards representing the units in their army (different units contributing different numbers of cards); each card allows the specific depicted unit to act when played. As with Memoir, players have hands of cards to choose from in any given round; however, hand management is actually a real mechanic, as you may choose to discard cards in return for power points, but at the price that these cards may not be available when you need them. You may also use "Art of War" cards to select a card you really need right now from your deck; this comes with a cost too, however, as these Art of War cards may alternatively be used to activate multiple units on a single turn. Since you know what's available in your deck, and you made the choice of what would be in it in the first place, card usage involves compelling decisions. Which cards to use this turn? Which units would be better used next round? Is it a good idea to discard for power points, or will you need that card in the foreseeable future? Do you really, really need to use an Art of War card to pull a specific unit card?

I don't mind that the Memoir '44 card draw is sometimes frustrating. I mind that it doesn't really give rise to compelling decisions, particularly compared to Mythic Battles. This crucial round is a clear win for Mythic.

Round 4: use of dice

As previously stated, both games use dice to determine the outcome of combat. Memoir '44 uses a simple, clear system; you roll dice (depending on unit type and range), and the icons clearly indicate hits (by target type), misses and forced retreats. Mythic Battles uses a slightly more complicated system; number of dice is variable based on unit and health, and are numbered 0-5. 5s "explode" (i.e. roll again and add), while any non-zero dice can be discarded to add one to the value of another dice (potentially making it explode). Hits are determined by the number of dice which, at the end of this process, have a value above the target's defence (which usually requires values of 5 or more). Comparing the two systems, Memoir '44 is easier to teach and understand, while Mythic Battles feels less arbitrary; more dice (from higher attack value) are stronger, but outcomes are generally less "swingy" than Memoir. This round goes to Mythic by an edge.

Round 5: units

This is probably one of the biggest areas of difference. Memoir '44 ultimately doesn't make that much
Picture by Dave Slater
of a distinction between units. It's based primarily around infantry and tanks; the latter have advantages at range, and have some other bonuses such as the overrun ability, but ultimately there's not all that much to distinguish them. A close range attack rolls three attack dice, irrespective of the unit type or it's health; a single infantry can do as much damage as a triple tank. Elite units have minor bonuses, but units never feel all that different (except, maybe, artillery). Yes, the system is simple, but in this reviewer's opinion, it's gone too far.

Mythic Battles, by contrast, makes unit differences one of its strengths. Players select their own units with a simple point-buy system; each unit has difference values for close attack, ranged attack, movement, health... and special abilities. Wonderfully, as units are damaged, they lose (beautifully illustrated) cards from each unit's mini-deck", revealing the next health level with different capabilities; damaged units actually act differently in this game, and the way that's handled is elegant and simple. It just has every conceivable advantage over Memoir. The only criticism I would make is that the unit special abilities are perhaps too much; each unit has around 3 or 4, and each needs to be looked up in the rulebook (effects are not printed on cards). This is particularly over-the-top since many special abilities are nearly identical, and could really be reduced to a much smaller number. Limiting each unit to one or two unique abilities, and printing them on the cards themselves, would probably have worked better. Nonetheless, despite perhaps a little too much complexity, this round is for Mythic Battles.

Round 6: multiplayer

And now Memoir '44 gets back into the fight. Mythic Battles multiplayer is pretty much limited to just playing a slightly larger, wider game in teams. It's not that much different from the one-on-one game. Memoir, however, delivers some fantastic ideas when it comes to multiplayer. The Overlord expansion allows vast battlefields with up to eight players battling it out, not just as a bigger version of the normal game, but as a chain of command, with a commander who controls the hand and distributes cards to their subordinates. While I confess I haven't played the Overlord game, I can clearly see the potential. It's not just more of the same - it's a whole different game with a unique dynamic. This round goes to Memoir.

Round 7: replayability

The final round is the most difficult one to judge. Memoir '44 has a host of expansion options - however, the starting box only has so many scenarios, and not nearly enough unit differentiation. Mythic Battles, while not offering much variation in terms of defined scenarios (it has a "campaign book" of scenarios, but they're really an extended tutorial), has wider replayability in the box thanks to much greater variation of units and the point-buy system. While this is a bit of a chalk-to-cheese comparison, Mythic Battles has the edge on replayability based on the contents of the basic box.

The judge's decision

Counting the round-by-round statistics makes it look like this was a close battle. It's really not. Both
Picture by the author
these games fundamentally revolve around cards and dice; both these categories go to Mythic Battles, particularly as regards card mechanics. There's no doubt in my mind that it's the better game.

That said, there are two exceptional situations in which I would go with Memoir. One is with newcomers to modern boardgaming, who want a war theme; while I would ordinarily go elsewhere for a gateway game, Memoire is simple and approachable for someone who really wants battlefield strategy. The other exception is in team play - that's a clear win for Memoir '44. Otherwise, quite frankly, I would actively avoid playing Memoir '44; I find it too arbitrary without anything like enough strategy for something that purports to be a wargame, even a light one. By contrast, I think Mythic Battles is a work of quiet genius. If you can find it, get it.

Saturday 29 March 2014

Lord of the Rings:Nazgul - the Wallenstein mashup variation

 Dear friends, in my last missive I laid out my case for Lord of the Rings: Nazgul. Today, I suggest a way to make an unfairly maligned game better still. It does, however, require a rather special item; the cube tower from a copy of Wallenstein (or, failing that, Wallenstein's Japanese retheme, Shogun; not to be confused with the Milton Bradley game Shogun, now known as Ikusa, which gave Lord of the Rings: Nazgul its auction mechanic).

Essentially, this variant simply switches the cup and its cube-drawing mechanic with the more exciting tower-drop of Wallenstein. Not only is this mechanic more physically compelling, but also allows faster combat and greater potential for unexpected outcomes.

Play the game exactly as usual, with the following changes:


Optionally at setup, seed the tower with a few Free Peoples Armies (returning any that fall through to the supply). I would suggest 2-3 per difficulty level you are playing at above Easy. This will have a small effect in adjusting starting difficulty.


In general, battles are treated normally, except that the entire location is determined at once using the cube tower, and cubes stay in the tower between rounds (rather than the cup being emptied again).

As normal, all players present at a location decide how many troops they will commit to the ensuing battle. These cubes are taken from the players' army trackers. Players must always commit their Nazgul cube, if they have it. Select cubes for the opposition as normal (i.e. leave Free Peoples Armies and Hero trackers where they are, and pick a number of cubes equal to the respective positions on the track). Select Heroes using cards as normal, and remove cubes of Free Peoples Armies if the total Terror of Nazgul present is greater than Valor of the Heroes.

Now, instead of placing cubes in the cup, throw all cubes into the tower. Thus, in this variant, draw limits mean nothing, and contributing Nazgul fight simultaneously. Cubes which fall through to the tray are treated as if they had been pulled from the cup. Follow damage assignment as normal with these cubes.
This battle didn't go particularly well for those plucky Nazgul

If some Nazgul cubes become stuck in the tower (and they probably will sooner or later), then some Nazgul will not be available to be returned to players. Those cubes which do fall through and are present belong to the players in the battle according to this turn's play order; i.e. if the second and third player this round have contributed to the battle, but only one Nazgul cube has fallen through the tray, then it belongs to the second player. The Witch Lord takes lowest priority. Cubes stuck in the tower thematically represent Nazgul and monster packs drawn away on other minor tasks at the bidding of their dark lord, and will return at some unexpected moment to take the heroes by surprise. Just because a player is without their cube, that does not prevent them sending their armies to a location to battle as normal; the only restriction is that they won't be able to enter a Nazgul cube into the battle.

If there are more Nazgul cubes present than players (which is entirely possible, particularly when there are Nazgul cubes stuck in the tower from previous battles but only a single Nazgul in the current battle), then the extra Nazgul cubes belong to whoever is at the battle but currently without their personal Nazgul cube; again, if more than one player qualifies, then precedence follows the current turn order. For instance, in a four-player game where players who are currently first and third in the turn order are without their Nazgul cubes, a single excess Nazgul cube belongs to the player first in the turn order. The third player will have to wait a little longer for their cube to re-enter play. If there are more Nazgul cubes that players present at that battle, then the extra cube(s) belong to those not at the battle in turn order priority; these have sneakily sent their forces to one battle but made a surprise appearance at this one (thus reclaiming some of the glory they will have lost while sojourning in the tower). Again, the Witch Lord takes lowest priority. A player entering the battle as an extra Nazgul cube contributes battle damage as normal, and receives favor as normal (despite not having sent any armies). Thus those who lose their Nazgul cube, and hence have been at a disadvantage, will have some of that disadvantage repaid when they return. If all players have their cubes, then the extra cube represents the return of the Witch Lord, who will now be available again.

More player armies may leave the tower than entered it; these contribute their damage as normal, and also become available if they survive; thus it is possible to end a battle with more forces than you started with (as forces which had previously gone AWOL make surprise attacks on the field of battle). If more cubes of the "good guys" fall out then went in, then that's fine too. Damage is given to Free Peoples Armies as normal (i.e. on the track on the board); extra "good guy" cubes do not need to be killed (but do contribute their damage to the Nazgul forces).

If more Heroes fall out of the tower then went it (and hence there are more Hero cubes than cards), then you must provide further Hero cards (from hand or from the deck). These Heroes are immediately added to the battle; their Valor has no effect, but Hero Calls still function as normal and can draw one more Hero to the battle. As with extra Free Peoples Armies, these extra heroes do not affect the number needed to defeat the area (Hero cubes are still tracked on the location track), but do contribute their damage, and priority order for taking damage follows the normal rules combining all Heroes present.

This battle went rather better.
Once the damage done by both sides has been calculated from the cubes present, Hero/Free Peoples Army tracks are reduced as normal; slain player army cubes are returned to the supply. Favour and VPs are split among all contributing Nazgul irrespective of their level of contribution (rounding up if uneven, as normal), though they must have contributed at least one cube to the battle (which may include their own Nazgul cube).

Nazgul cubes are returned to their owners, as indicated above. Surviving player armies are placed back on player tracks. If more than one player has contributed to the battle, cubes are divided evenly between contributors; first split Orcs, then Trolls, then Mumakil. Do not round up; only the cubes surviving are available. Players may negotiate, with all final decisions being made by the contributor who is nearest the beginning of the current turn order; however, no player can have more than one cube than the worst-off player. Once one player has a cube, they may not take a second until all players present have received at least one, and so forth.

Redraw actions

In case of game effects which cause redraw actions: pick up any cubes which are in the tray, and throw them back into the tower, thus redoing the “draw”.

Difficulty comparison

By comparison to the standard game rules:
  • Battles move faster as there is no draw limit; I initially thought this would make the game easier for the players, but...
  • Nazgul do tend to spend some time in the tower (and the Witch Lord will frequently be unavailable); with the addition of the surprise Heroes, these changes more than compensate for the quicker battle resolution.
  • Generally, this variant is "swingier" and more random, and also I would say is more difficult.
So there you have it. If you are lucky enough to have access to both a cube tower and a copy of Lord of the Rings: Nazgul, have at it, and see if you find it improves the game as much as I have.

Sunday 9 March 2014

In Defence Of... Lord Of The Rings: Nazgul

Lord of the Rings: Nazgul, published by Wizkids (no comment), is a game which attracted a startling level of opprobrium for such a high-profile release under a beloved license. This game is not intended to be a review in the traditional sense, and I will only cover the game's structure itself in the briefest of ways. Instead, this article will address the major areas of complaint... and suggest why the game might be worth your time after all...

The game itself

Picture by the author
Lord of the Rings: Nazgul (henceforth LotR:N) is a "semi-cooperative" game wherein each player
takes the persona of a Ringwraith, simultaneously striving to frustrate do-gooding heroes while competing for the favour of the great lord Sauron.

This is not a simple game, but I shall try to be brief. Player Nazgul must bring themselves and their armies to the battlegrounds of each of three threads of the Lord of the Rings saga, trying to eliminate the armies and heroes of the "good guys" at a variety of Middle Earth locations. Each round also presents a number of smaller mission cards, providing optional battlegrounds which may or may not be worth the focus of the players.

Players then enter a blind auction, highly reminiscent of the auction system of the old MB Gamemaster game Shogun (now known as Ikusa, I believe). Players use the "favour" they have accumulated in a variety of ways; these may be non-competitive (e.g. buying new army units), "winner-takes-all" (e.g. the bid to decide turn order), or auctions where there are consolation prizes for those who do not bid the most (e.g. bidding for Cards of Power).

With their forces and other assets arrayed, players then deploy to the various battle areas and mission cards available this turn, and do battle. Combat is a bit too complex to detail here, but in brief, the Ringwraiths and their armies will face blue cubes (representing generic Free Peoples armies) and white cubes representing "heroes". Players must deploy a Hero card they will face for each white cube present. Each player will have at least one Hero card drawn from the deck which he/she may play to the battle they are attending... alternatively, if players do not fulfil the Hero requirement from their own hands, the gaps are filled by Heroes drawn blind from the deck. Nazgul may then deploy a number of their own armies to the battle, filling a cup with cubes for all units present on both sides. Players then blinding take cubes from the cup, such cubes and their allegiances determining units lost in the battle. Winning provides favour, victory points, and removes Heroes defeated from the game. As the game progresses, the Nazgul may gain and lose power (personally, by advancing or reversing their Clix dial, and by the armies under their control).

There's plenty more to the rules, including an advancing One Ring track which will cause the players to effectively "run out of time" (due to certain hobbits depositing a certain item of jewellery in a certain volcanic mountain) and thus all lose the game. If all stages are completed before this occurs, the winner is whomever has acquired the most victory points by winning battles, defeating Heroes, and completing quests.

The problems

Now that you have some idea of the game, let's address some of the most-raised complaints.

The semi-cooperative aspect doesn't work

One complaint raised is that the semi-coop aspect (working together to beat the game, while trying to undercut each other for favour and victory points) doesn't make thematic sense; i.e. that the Ringwraiths of the stories don't have sufficient individuality, or otherwise would not compete on a personal level. I'm not sure I accept that argument myself; the Nazgul have personal histories, and there are plenty of examples of Sauron's forces working for personal gain. Sauron himself started out as the conniving servant of a greater power, as I vaguely recall. Ultimately, this comes down to a subjective take on the underlying material; you may disagree, but I see no reason why Nazgul wouldn't compete to become first among the Dark Lord's servants.

Our plucky Ringwraiths. Picture by the author.
The other argument under this heading is that the semi-cooperative aspect doesn't work mechanically. While there are competitive games which include an "everybody loses" clause which may kick in if players slow one another down too much (Chaos in the Old World springs to mind), such games generally make such an outcome a fairly remote possibility. LotR:N has a higher requirement for cooperation; big battles will not be won without players working together. This problem comes down to a difference in gaming group; if your group is likely to "get" that this is a game of working together while conniving against each other, rather than a game of constant competition, you'll probably be fine.

If, on the other hand, your group is likely to be too aggressive, the game provides an alternative right there in the manual; the fully cooperative mode. As a pure cooperative mode, this thus allows solo play (with handling of multiple characters). I confess that this is my preferred way of playing. In any case, one cannot complain too much that the semi-coop mode is flawed since a fix is on the back of the manual.

The artwork is terrible

Well... yes. The board itself utilises a number of circles to keep track of the starting and current
Even less pretty than it appears in this photograph. Picture by the author.
disposition of the forces of "good", overlaid on a map. Quite frankly, to borrow the vernacular of our American cousins, this board looks like ass. A nicely detailed map, with simple indicators of starting forces and the direction of travel to each zone (and maybe colour-coding of each of the three overall regions of conflict) would almost certainly be preferential. The circles really add nothing of value, and just makes the whole thing look awful. It smacks of a nice idea which should have been discarded on testing.

Cards themselves are illustrated with screenshots from the films. If you really, really like looking at the films, that may be fine for you. I think most would agree that some proper artwork would have been preferable. The Clix figures don't help either; while I accept there's only so much you can do to produce five figures shrouded in black robes, they're still pretty disappointing.

So... no defence for this section. The artwork is terrible. I can only ask that you persevere.

The cube-pulling mechanism is weak

I'm not sure I understand this criticism. The game features a "push-your-luck" mechanism involving both how many armies you put in the cup, and how many you pull from it. Pulling blind from the cup has a reasonable amount of tension. Sure, perhaps replacing cubes with dice would provide more excitement (a la 1812: The Invasion of Canada and its cousins), but you'd need a hell of a lot of dice for big battles. That would be fun; but the cube-pulling mechanism is at least unusual. Honestly it's hard to feel strongly on this point. I call it a draw.

The game is just ludicrously overpriced

Yes. Yes it is. The RRP for this game is, I believe, £70 (or it was at time of release). Having five Clix figures is going to inflate prices, but by comparison, the mighty Mage Knight contains four Clix (albeit of the same sculpt), plus four excellent hand-painted figures, plus a range of components which are clearly superior to those of LotR:N, all for an RRP £20 less. There is no excuse for this price point, particularly considering the terrible artwork. So many games with broadly similar component requirements, yet superior actual components, exist with considerably lower price points (Cyclades, Wallenstein, etc.).

However, the market has realised how insane this RRP is. I myself bought my copy, new in shrink, for the princely sum of £17.50. That's less than some card games. And yes, it has certainly provided a decent return on investment at that price. Even given the defensive arguments in this article, a person would be crazy to purchase this at full price; but a bit of shopping around could make this a totally valid purchase.

So why should you play this game?

The above comments are intended to mitigate some of the criticisms of the game. In themselves, they do not provide compelling reasons to play this game (unless you are a Lord of the Rings completionist). But there is one very good reason to play this game:

This game is not a cube-pusher. It is a reverse-deckbuilder.

Those dreadful "heroes". Choose your battles wisely.
Picture by the author.
While this game includes a number of mechanisms (blind auction, push-your-luck on cube deployment, etc.), most of the real strategy revolves around the Hero deck. The heroes are the real threat in any battle, and before the battle, players must decide whether to place the Hero card(s) they have into the battle, or to draw from the deck. If the hero they hold is strong, they may wish to avoid it and chance the draw; on the other hand, if there isn't much to the rest of the hero army and the player is feeling strong, they may deliberately play the Hero in the hope of defeating them.

Why run the risk? Because any heroes that are not defeated are shuffled back into the deck, while those that are defeated leave the game. As time goes on, the Nazgul become stronger (on average), but so too do the armies of the enemy. If you do nothing but take easy options, you run a serious risk of thinning out the deck such that only strong heroes remain, producing an impassable blockade on your progress. Choosing when to fight the tough heroes, and thus thin the deck in favour of weaker enemies, is key. Ultimately, that Hero deck is the real enemy, and working out how to thin it is the real strategy of the game. This isn't the cube-based wargame-lite it seems to be; it's a reverse-deckbuilder.

There are other games that involve playing against enemy decks; for instance, the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game has decks for each location faced, but these are small and work in a rather different way. Thunderstone Advance uses an enemy deck, but enemies largely leave and are dealt with one-by-one in a unidirectional fashion. I cannot think of any other game which utilises a large, constantly-reshuffled deck, thinned over numerous rounds, as the AI enemy. LotR:N offers an unusual mechanism in a much-loved setting. I wouldn't describe it as an overlooked classic, but if you have any interest in deck-based games, want to play something a bit different, enjoy the theme, and can find it at a reasonable price point, you really should consider this game (though I recommend starting with the fully-coop variant, even if you are planning on using the semi-coop variant in the long run).

And finally...

This is the first of a two-part article set. In the second, I will outline a variant I have been using which adds both excitement and strategic variation to the cube-oriented mechanisms. Watch this space...

Sunday 23 February 2014

Board Games For... Travellers

The first shoots of spring are threatening to burst through, and with them, the first embers of the wandering spirit are kindled for the ardent traveller. The highest slopes still hold the potential for skiing, while Paris approaches its springtime. Long journeys, however, demand distractions that are both portable and sustainable. Presented here are those that return the greatest diversion in the smallest package; since they're so small, I can justify discussing five alternatives rather than my standard three.

Since these must provide the most play in the least volume, I have applied the following exclusion criteria to the list:

  • They must be small - not much bigger than a couple of decks of cards, so they can fit in and be accessible from a rucksack pocket. Regrettably, this excludes some of my favourite portables; Jaipur, Citadels, Skull & Roses, I must bid you all adieu.
  • They must be of a type which sustains repeated play. That doesn't mean that they must necessarily have great depth, merely that players can get several matches on a long journey without boredom. It is at this point that games such as Zombie Dice leave our selection.
  • Finally, they must be playable on public transport, ideally on no more than the tray of a train or aeroplane, without any pieces that would be easily dislodged by movement. This excludes anything with standing pieces, as well as games which cover fair bit of space despite coming in a small package (e.g. the excellent Hanabi).
With these restrictions in mind, my suggestions are as follows:

1. Coloretto 


One of the simplest card games in modern gaming is also one of the best. Less that two packs of
Picture by the author
cards produce a suprising amount of gameplay. On your turn, either draw and place a card from the deck, or pick up cards into your score piles; once you've picked up, you can't get any more until everyone has picked up. Try to collect three colours; if you collect too many different types, they score against you. The rules can be grasped in moments, and a game rarely takes more than 20 minutes. Nonetheless, for a simple game, it frequently throws tough choices; do you place cards that you want together, and risk an opponent taking them? Do you poison an opponent's well with a card they don't want, at the cost of losing it yourself? Do you cut your losses and take a part-filled row, or gamble on the turn of the next card? Simple rules, nothing but cards, but plenty of lighter gaming fun to be had.

Players: 2-5
Game duration: around 5-10 minutes per player
Best for: non-gamers, groups including children, those too tired for more demanding games.
Not so good for: serious gamers seeking tough intellectual challenges.
Recommended source for UK buyers at time of writing: I would recommending getting the anniversary edition from Amazon; the superior art of the anniversary edition is definitely worth it, and even though this version has German instructions, you can just find and print the English version.

2. Mr Jack Pocket

Picture by kdsz
The closest thing on this list to an actual board game, Mr Jack Pocket could best be described as Hide-And-Seek: The Game. Tracing its lineage back to such classics as Scotland Yard, this is an asymmetric game where one player acts as the eponymous Mr Jack, who is trying to keep his identity hidden until time runs out. The other player controls Sherlock Holmes, Dr Watson, and the ever-adorable sleuthing hound Toby, as they try to identify which suspect is really Mr Jack. Both players manipulate the nine tiles which make up the game board, as well as the positions of the detectives, trying to either see or conceal the suspects on each tile. The random factor on this game is fairly low; it is very much a game of anticipating and neutralising your opponent's move. Attractive pieces and tight battles of wits makes this a wonderful game for those who find the combination of spatial manipulation and psychological duelling compelling.

Players: 2
Game duration: 15-20 minutes
Best for: strategists needing a quick fix, fans of Victoriana, hiders, seekers
Not so good for: any more than two players, casual gamers
Recommended source for UK buyers at time of writing: Gameslore

3. Love Letter


One of the most successful of the new breed of so-called "microgames", Love Letter consists of
Picture by Casey Lynn
merely 16 cards, a few cubes to keep score, and a delightful velvet pouch to transport it all in. Like Coloretto, this is another easily-grasped card game; unlike Coloretto, where all information is open, Love Letter is all about concealment and bluffing. The game plays quickly and simply; you have a hand consisting of a single card, and on your turn you draw from the pile.You must then discard one of your cards to return to a single-card hand; its special power will activate when discarded. Some cards allow you to eliminate an opponent by correctly deducing the contents of their hand; others allow you to eliminate them in other ways, gain information, or protect oneself. Players are attempting to woo the Princess by getting a letter to her through the persons represented by the cards; the winner is whoever ends the round with the highest-rated card, or whoever is the last person not exposed. Each round is short, and luck of the draw is definitely a factor, but the game still delivers lots of bluffing and deduction in a small, accessible package.

Players: 2-4
Game duration: around 20 minutes
Best for: honestly, pretty much anyone you would want to play a game with. I've yet to find someone who didn't find it accessible and fun, with its easily-grasped but compelling psychological gameplay.
Not so good for: Killjoys who find the theme off-putting or the game "too dependent on luck". These people just don't know how to have a good time.
Recommended source for UK buyers at time of writing: boardgameguru

4. Hive Pocket

Picture by Markus A
Back to more serious strategy games now. Hive, and it's travel-friendly Hive Pocket version (which is the same game with smaller pieces and convenient travel pouch), is a serious game which clearly shows chess in its DNA. Unusually for an abstract game based on pieces, rather than cards, there is no board; instead, the lovely ceramic tiles are both pieces and board. On each turn, a player either places or moves one of his/her pieces. The aim of the game is to surround the opponent's queen bee, while protecting one's own. The game is smaller and quicker than chess (due partly to the much more fluid piece movement), but many of the same tactics are present; play is heavily reliant on trapping the opponent's pieces to prevent their movement, while keeping one's own pieces in play and jockeying for openings to move them into aggressive positions. Personally, I'm not a fan of chess, but I find Hive's more rapid pace and tighter spatial elements much more enjoyable.
Players: 2
Game duration: 20-30 minutes
Best for: Strategists; reformed chess-players; entomologists; anyone who would enjoy beautiful, ceramic tiles.
Not so good for: Casual gamers, arachnophobics.
Recommended source for UK buyers at time of writing: Amazon; German version again, so you will need English rules again if you get that version.

5. The Resistance/The Resistance Avalon


And finally, we head into social gaming for our last pick. Derived from the classic "Werewolf" (and
Picture by Nuno Sentieiro
designed to evade that game's player elimination and narrator requirements), The Resistance is a game of bluff and misdirection for entire groups of people, with gameplay focused on social interaction rather than cards or pieces. Players represent a resistance cell fighting valiantly against an oppressive regime in a totalitarian future; however, some of the players are secretly spies, doing their best to serve the government and maintain order in the face of anarchist extremists. Spies know who other are, but genuine members of the cell have no idea who anyone is. Players take turns to try to form mission teams; if their team is voted acceptable by the group, those on the mission then perform a secret ballot regarding the mission's success. If the team pulls together and all vote for success, then the mission will indeed succeed; however, if a viper in the nest votes for failure, the mission is a loss. The teams race to win best three of five, with player's roles only definitively revealed at the end.
The result is a game of bluff, deduction, and above all, wild accusation. If a mission fails, the saboteur could be anyone. Do you the trust the team leader? Or do you think they are genuine, but you don't trust their proposed team. Is the team leader choosing his companions so as to frame them in the case of a failure? Why is that person so determined to accuse you of being a spy? Is it because they're the real spy? Or are they a fellow spy, trying accuse you to either gain the trust of the group, or make the group trust you instead? Half an hour of debate, accusations and lies ensue. Well, no lies from me. I'm telling the truth. You're the one who's lying because YOU'RE A FILTHY SPY GET HIM EVERYBODY

(There is also The Resistance: Avalon, which is the same underlying game with the addition that players receive Arthurian roles with special powers, as in most versions of Werewolf. I haven't played it, so can't comment directly, but if I had a choice, I would by the Avalon version.)
Players: 5-10
Game duration: around 30 minutes (relatively unaffected by player number, as the game has a 5-turn limit irrespective of player number)
Best for: Friends travelling together, social gamers, dirty-dealers
Not so good for: The compulsively honest, the quiet carriage of the train
Recommended source for UK buyers at time of writing: The Resistance at boardgameguru, and the Avalon version at iguk.