So a while back someone asked me to share thoughts on board games I’ve played recently, and I am nothing if not willing to chat about board games every once in a while.
– Battles of Westeros is the Game of Thrones-themed variant on Richard Borg’s “not quite miniatures, not quite a boardgame” set of systems that you see in games like BattleLore, Memoir ’44 and Command and Colors. Each of the games has its own quirks, but so far out of all of them Westeros is my favorite, because for me it works better: the game is very commander-centric, so it makes sense to form your units around a Robb Stark or Jaime Lannister to get most use out of them, but it has some options for you to send a unit afield from your main armies without stranding it in a “can’t command it” zone (as happens in some of the other games). The other major upsides of Westeros compared to its cousins are that it has a system for generating essentially infinite custom scenarios out of the box, which greatly ups its replay value, and that it tends to play more quickly, I find, than the other games.
The downside of Westeros is that the basic units included in the main box are kind of boring; the Stark and Lannister infantry, cavalry and archers are basically identical to one another. Granted, your meat-and-potatoes units by definition have to show up in the main box, but a little more gravy would have been appreciated. Still, the first expansion (more Lannister units, including Tyrion as a commander) fixes this problem to an extent and makes clear that future expansions will definitely shake up the game; presumably when they gradually introduce Baratheon and Greyjoy and Tyrell and the Night’s Watch and wildlings and Martell and Targaryen forces as future expansions, the game will grow ever more diverse. And it’s certainly much cheaper than any standard minis game, and provides a lot of the same flavour that minis games can provide.
– I recently picked up Glory To Rome because it was reprinted and I figured, “heck, if nothing else it’ll eventually go out of print and then increase in value again (as it has every time it’s been printed), so even if I don’t like it I can always trade or sell it off.” However, that won’t happen, because I quite enjoy the game. It’s a complex card game with a lot of elements to it, but anybody who’s played Magic will understand the concept of “zones” (IE, different areas the cards can be, which affects what they can do). The problem for most players is the really terrible graphic design, which… well, let’s look at a card for a second.
Look at that. The title of the card is at the top. What the card does when you play it as a building (and only when you play it as a building) is in the center. What the card does when it’s raw materials is at the bottom. What the card does when it’s a “client” (citizen serving your interests) is on the left hand side. The number of coins (victory points) it’s worth when you sell it is at staggered opposite corners. And then, just because there wasn’t enough information on the card, there’s a quote by a Roman philosopher along the right hand side. That is a lot of information and it’s delivered in a way that’s honestly just terrible.
The upside is that the game is honestly really great. Every new building a player builds changes the game, and new players sometimes complain that a given combination of buildings is broken right up until they realize that the game is literally full of broken combos which all balances one another out. It requires a reasonable amount of familiarity with the cards to know which combos you should start building towards once you see your hand, of course, but this is true for any card game that has disparate elements and a common card pool, like San Juan or Race For The Galaxy. And Glory To Rome, while more complex than either of those, is still a hell of a lot of fun; it’s got more depth than either of the aforementioned card games and much, much more interactivity, which is key for me. (I tend to dislike non-interactive games. I know some people love Agricola, but Christ – it’s just sitting around and baking bread at each other for three hours.)
– Defenders of the Realm is goddamned terrible. I don’t much care for Pandemic, mostly because as a collaborative game it always seems to come down to a mathematical exercise done by the most adept player at the table, and Defenders of the Realm is a fantasy retheme of Pandemic done worse. The diseases are now hordes of monsters, see.
Now, granted, the retheme will work for some people, and the idea of sending your heroes questing about to get magical items so they can kill the monster generals (or cure the disease, in Pandemic turns) is engaging. The problem is that Defenders, apparently realizing that for some people Pandemic is too easy even at its hardest setting, decided that the way to fix this was to include a random element, which is: you roll dice to kill the monsters, and the generals’ advance towards the capital (which is the game’s clock) is entirely randomized within the deck. This means you can lose the game in seven turns or watch it drag out for seventy. On top of that, not being able to guarantee that you’ll kill monsters (cure diseases!) means that you can commit to the right strategy and still end up wasting your entire turn.
But hey, if you really want to see Larry Elmore art first used in the early 90s for Forgotten Realms products recycled in the most blatant way possible, go wild!
– I really want Zombie State: Diplomacy of the Dead to be more fun than it is. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not an unfun game, because it’s basically World War Z done up as a boardgame. The mechanics are good and the game is difficult, which is as it should be: it’s really, really hard to beat the zombies in this game and players will usually default to holding three or four of their original twelve territories: the Redeker Plan, mentioned in Z, is actually one of the ways to buy yourself time to stay alive, and that’s pretty cool. (It’s not explicitly mentioned as such in the game, but smart players will quickly figure out that baiting zombies with humans you can afford to sacrifice works.)
My problem with the game is twofold; firstly, the “virus goes airborne” clock is a bit too fast (I find the vast majority of games end that way, which doesn’t quite feel right), and secondly the title is all wrong, because for a game called Diplomacy of the Dead there’s barely any diplomacy. The idea of helping other players (or hurting them) is really kind of awesome, but it doesn’t work in this game because your interaction with other players is near-nil; other than occasionally barricading a territory so that zombies attack your neighbors rather than you, there is literally almost nothing you can do to help or hinder other players in this game.1 If the game had had more interactivity, I think it would have been a true classic; as it is, it’s a fun shared experience of watching everybody circle the drain, kind of the opposite of Agricola but with a better theme because you’re not baking bread to win the game.
- Another quibble: you have to research nukes. What the hell is that? Come on, they’re nukes. Everybody knows how to build nukes. [↩]