Review: Gloomhaven

I’m usually quite resistant when it comes to new & shiny and when I first heard about Gloomhaven, I shrugged it off as yet another Kickstarter hype. However, the more I read about it, the more intrigued I became. When I finally watched the review on Shut Up & Sit Down (which, incidentally, is one of the best video reviews I’ve ever seen) together with K., we both looked at each other and decided: we want this game! I have to admit that I also had a hidden agenda: we’ve been playing D&D with our nephew, but I was really tired of being DM, so I hoped that this game would supplant D&D and get us back to gaming with the kid more often.

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After lugging it home from the local games store – the box weights around nine kilo – K., the nephew and I opened the box and sorted the contents. There really is a lot in there! We were especially fascinated by the sealed stuff – things that you only unpack when certain conditions are met during play.

Gloomhaven is basically a glorified cooperative dungeon crawler. It is also a legacy-style game: The game itself changes permanently when you play it. For example, when you unlock a new scenario, you put a sticker on the map. This, of course, reduces the replay-value, but as the game is designed to take around 100 game session to complete, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem – it will keep you occupied for a long time to come.

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At the core of the game is a card-driven mechanic: Each character has a unique set of action cards which can be played to move, fight and do all sorts of cool special actions. There are no dice – again, each character has his or her unique deck of combat modifier cards. The interesting thing is that those decks can be changed by adding or removing cards, so the probabilities will change with the development of the character – something that would be hard to achieve with dice.

Apart from the single scenarios, which seem to be more or less dungeon bash games, there are also all kinds of events during the travels and in the city of Gloomhaven itself. Together with the branching paths of the scenarios – a finished scenario may unlock two or possibly more other scenarios – this really comes as close to giving the feel of an RPG as a board game without a DM might get. The designer himself compared it with a chose-your-own-adventure book, and this seems about right.

We’ve played three games now. During the first, we where quite overwhelmed by the cards and their interactions, and I already became a bit nervous if this is the right game for us. However, during the second game we already got the hang of it. Gloomhaven is often called a Euro game because luck doesn’t play as big a role as in other dungeon crawlers and knowing when to play the right combination of cards can be the key to success. As a matter of fact, this is not something I usually enjoy, as I prefer a more spontaneous and narrative style of play and get bored by the meticulous bureaucratic planning required by some Euro games. However, when we played it, it worked fine with our style of gaming. Admittedly, after our first abortive try we chose the lowest difficulty setting, which is much more forgiving. And as we are more into it for the story and the crazy action than for the puzzle-solving, we will keep it that way until we are proficient with our characters.

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That Gloomhaven manages to convey a sense of narrative after no more than three games does say something about this game. The branching scenarios as well as the event cards create unique decisions that almost from the outset help to define the group and the characters. Will you be reckless? Will you just do the jobs offered or will you stick your nose into things that shouldn’t concern you? Will you be kind to people you meet, or will you prey on them? Such is the stuff stories are made off.

If you want a unique gaming experience and if you have a dedicated group of two to four players who enjoy an RPG experience without anyone wanting to do the hard work of DMing, I can highly recommend Gloomhaven.

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7 Games That Changed My Life

Now that you have clicked on this, I can correct the title to a more laid-back version, like 7 games that had a profound influence on me. But who knows, some might even have changed my life!

1. Scotland Yard

scotland-yardOur family had always played board game. However, this was the first game I played that wasn’t like any traditional game I knew, like chess or Nine men’s morris or even Monopoly. It was asymmetric! And playing it produced a story! When playing as a detective, I had to cooperate with my fellow detectives to catch the criminal, and when playing the lone criminal, I could imagine myself as a mastermind, deceiving my hunters and eluding them by moving through the city. And what city it was! I really learned my way around London by playing this game.

2. Die Fugger

Fugger_Animation2Were there better games for the C64? Sure. But this trading game was the one we came back to time and again. I remember the summer holidays when my brother and I would ride our bikes to a friend’s place and spent the afternoon playing Die Fugger. It showed me that I’m fundamentally a social gamer: even computer games are much more fun when played with friends.

3. Space Marine

spacemarine1989eThe Christmas I found the box of Space Marine (and of Adeptus Titanicus) under the tree – it must have been 1989 – probably really changed my life. This game made me into a miniature wargamer and showed me that gaming can be a hobby. It unleashed my creative side: I painted the figures, I built terrain, I devised all kinds of wonky scenarios and campaign ideas and I even wrote a short story set in the 40K universe. And of course I had hours of fun playing against my mate’s orc horde.

4. GURPS

BasicSet3rdEdI’ve played RPGs once or twice before I got GURPS around 1990. However, with GURPS, it became a constant in my life. GURPS became the focal point for a group of people who probably wouldn’t have found each other without it. It created friendships, provided a welcome escape from a dreary school routine and showed me that with RPGs, there are no limits – every world is open to you.

 

5. X-Wing

swx01_sampleAfter school, I took a long break from gaming. Due to a series of events, I started to re-connect with my nerdy past and came across this game. Fortunately, my girlfriend was also interested, so I bought it on a whim. When I played my first game, it felt like coming home. However, X-Wing also showed me how far miniature wargames had progressed since I left them: it’s beautifully produced, the rules are elegant and the game is very thematic. But best of all, my partner K. liked it, starting a shared journey into gaming that has been a fun and rewarding experience for both of us.

6. Pandemic

220px-Pandemic_gameWhen I stopped gaming, cooperative games were virtually unheard of. So I was quite surprised when I first played Pandemic. However, I liked it very much and it introduced me to what became one of my favourite type of games. It also gave me a great gateway game to introduce friends to the joys of boardgaming.

 

 

7. Sharp Practice

SP2-Cover-smallI played the odd historical game before I discovered Sharp Practice, but Sharp Practice made me into a historical wargamer. It led me to doing in-depth research and, like nothing since Space Marine, inspired  my creativity. It’s my longest running favourite game – I’ve been playing it regularly for five years now and I can’t see myself losing interest anytime soon. It also got me to think about games mechanics and gaming and history and the relation between those more than any other game I know.

 

So, do you have games that changed your life or that had a profound impact on you?

Review: XCOM: The Board Game

Last week, Sigur introduced Virago and me to XCOM: The Board Game. In contrast to my mates, I’ve never played the computer game, but when I was a kid, I avidly watched the British TV series UFO, which seems to be the inspiration for the world of XCOM.

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XCOM is a cooperative game where the players take to role of the staff of an international organisation defending the earth from aliens. To start with, I have to say that the artwork is not my style. I was a bit surprised by the dark and serious tone, as I expected more of the cheerful camp of the TV series. But then again, contrary to what I might wish this is not an adaptation of the TV series. I like the look of the models though, and Sigur’s paint job transformed them into stunning playing pieces.

The innovative and (for me) new thing about the game is that it is app-driven. That means that an app is taking the role of ‘game master’, pacing the game, declaring events and helping to resolve them. I was first pretty sceptical about such as set-up, as I enjoy the tactile element of tabletop games and wasn’t sure if I wanted digital devices to intrude into this.

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When you start a game, you first have to choose a scenario and a difficulty level. Each turn is divided into two parts: a real-time phase were things happen (declared by the app) and an evaluation phase where you see if everything you did actually works out. This is a similar mechanic to Space Alert; however, this is also where the similarities between the two games end.

In XCOM, there are several roles for the player to take: there is an Operations Chief, who distributes the funds needed for every action, there is a Captain, who choses missions and sends out soldiers, there is a Chief Scientist who organises research and finally the Commander is responsible for space and air defence.

The interesting thing about this game is that the roles are not only very distinct, they also force you to really concentrate on your job. Conversely, you have to rely on your fellow team members to do their job, as you usually don’t have the time and the information to help them in their decisions. This leads to a kind of tunnel vision, which probably models pretty well how large organisations function. With a good team (and our team was good!) this is also a mode of cooperation that seems to agree with me much more than that of Space Alert, where each action has an immediate influence on each other’s actions and you have to coordinate basically everything all the time. However, the drawback is that player interaction is rather limited, and player interaction is what usually makes cooperative games fun as well as challenging.

Nevertheless, thanks to its strong theme and the interesting mechanics, XCOM is a fun game. With the real-time element and the clearly defined roles it is also unlike other cooperative games I know. I’m sometimes still flabbergasted by the variety of good coop games out there!

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In the end, the only thing I’m still not completely comfortable with is the app: While it works well in the game and is not intrusive, there still remains the fact that, in a couple of years, the game will no longer be playable. I still don’t like this idea. But I guess this is a topic that would deserve its own blog post…

Review: Lee’s Invincibles

I recently discovered a series of board wargames called Blue & Gray. They are published by Worthington and cover a range of American Civil War campaigns. Now I always wanted to play a more operational-level game, but – as you probably know – wargames of the hex-and-counter variety somehow put me off.

Those games looked nice, quick and simple, though, so I decided to pick up a copy of Lee’s Invincibles, the game that covers the Gettysburg campaign.

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The game uses point-to-point movement, so no hexes! Instead, there are places connected by roads or railroads. The playing pieces are blocks. Each block represents one corps for the Union and half a corps for the Confederates. Each player also gets cavalry, which can be used for screening actions and a commander.

The game is rather simple: Spending action points, each player may activate and move a certain amount of blocks each turn. If a block moves to a location occupied by the enemy, a battle is fought. There is a simple battle resolvement mechanic, basically consisting of rolling dice and inflicting hits on the opponent.

We’ve now played two games. For the first, I stepped into the shoes of Lee and failed miserably. I managed to get split up pretty early and K. defeated me in detail. In a final epic battle at Baltimore, she managed to surround the rest of my army and obliterate them.

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In the second game, I took the Union. K. advanced swiftly and managed to cross the Potomac pretty early. However, as the Confederates have to split up to gain victory points, this time I could defeat her in detail. We ended the game when it was clear that the Confederates would have no chance to achieve their victory conditions.

The game is nice, but I’m not completely taken by it. First, it seems to be really hard for the Confederates to win, but this may be down to us being inexperienced in the game and not applying the right strategy. What irks me more is the more or less constant fighting: as far as I can see, for the Union it pays off to attack as much as possible. This leads to battles at every corner, which does not seem to be very plausible historically. Changing the ‘to hit’ roll to 5+ instead of 6 might be worth trying, as it would make battle more decisive and players would have to be more careful about entering a fight. Also, we both agreed that the cavalry screening action seems too weak; we may add +1 to the screening value of the cavalry.

Still, Lee’s Invincibles is a nice and compact game and great if you fancy something simple in between. We’ll certainly keep trying out strategies to win with the Confederates.