Star Realms: Are we the bad guys, Hans?

Pairs well with: pirated space-rum
Traitor-rating: 4/10 knives in the back. Direct rivalry but not too much player interference. 

P1030179.JPG
One of the expansions*

Star Realms works well as a game that you want to play again. In fact, it’s one of those games you’re keen to play again before you’ve even finished the current round. That’s either a point for or against it – you can decide.The game works this miracle by letting you see and plan enough different ways to victory, enough different cards that you want to pick and different strategies you want to use.

Star Realms is a two-player space card game.

There’s a communal pool of five different spaceships and your job is to hire them to do things for you like fight, trade or improve your authority. How do they improve your… authority? We didn’t go to the trouble of looking into it too much, but the little authority symbol on the cards looks fairly harmless, a bit imperial though. We assume the ships carry little flags and sing loyalty songs. That sounds right.

P1030161.JPG

Anyway. The number of ships you can hire depends on how much trade you have to spend that turn. How much trade can you spend that turn? Well, however much trade you’ve amassed from the ships you’ve already bought. And how many of those cards come out in the hand you play this turn.

Yep, it’s also a deck-building game. A lovely, addictive deck-building game.

There are four different kinds of ship – in the basic game, minus expansions, at least – which each come from a different alliance in the galaxy. It’s nice, because each of these card sets also has a different kind of feel to them in the way that they play, as well as just a different name and a different colour. Each kind of ship will play best with certain kinds of tactics, but not in such a strict way that there’s only one good strategy for each set.

Although the farmers of misery spend 90% of their board game lives nerding-it-up with the real-life versions, this is one game where we’re certainly qualified to give a review on the app version as well.

The star realms app is pretty good. It costs money to get anything but the basic version, which is a pretty successful tactic at luring in any unsuspecting gamers (worked on Lizzy!) and, even then, there are a whole bunch of expansions to try to milk even more from you. Luckily, though, there’s still a fair bit to keep you going, particularly for people who like to milk a lot from their games. Each campaign has a number of games for you to win, with some spiel that gets read out by a deep-voiced male who sounds like he’s describing an awful action movie. And each game itself has three achievements for you to keep busy with, and a harder difficulty if that still isn’t enough.

13509498_10153676344621161_1700842225_o.jpg

And let’s be fair, nobody here at the blog is beneath giving the app extra credit for having puns in it. Puns that seem specifically designed to just-about avoid copyright trouble. Yeah, we’re looking at you, mission against the Machine Cult called “Rage Against the Cult” and another mission called “The Empire Strikes”.

P1030163.JPG
Doesn’t look like a ram to me

We gather that not all of the people who read about our humble adventures in farming misery are British. Not even the majority of you, in fact. So instead of just diving straight into a British comedy pop culture reference we’ll have to set it up a little first.

There’s this sketch show we have called The Mitchell and Webb look. In this one scene, Webb and Mitchell are both dressed in war uniforms and making plans on the battlefield. Mitchell’s character looks concerned, and says to his friend;

“Hans… Hans I’ve just noticed something. Have you looked at our caps recently?”
“Our caps?”
“The badges on our caps. Have you looked at them?”
“What? No. A bit.”
“They’ve got skulls on them. Have you noticed that our caps have actually got little pictures of skulls on them? Hans… are we the bad guys?”

Anyway, that’s pretty much what it’s like paying attention to the semblance of plot in the Star Realms app. There’s pretty much fuck all evidence that you’re the good guys. You’re battling for territory, you’re having space fights, you’re showing the enemy who’s boss. But there’s no reason to believe you’re the good guys. No good reason why the space territory is really yours in the first place. At least, none that would hold up in a fair human (and alien) rights court. Someone needs to start talking about the merits of diplomacy, that’s all I’m saying.

13549225_10153676356766161_1622118207_o.jpg
“Kill some peeps.”

Overall, with the app it’s still difficult to resent the way that the app seems to give you a plentiful plethora of content and then slowly reveals the amount of extra bits you’ll need to buy in order to actually play it. Upon first download it looks like you have a wonderful six campaigns to play through, and a whole lifetime of fun ahead of you! Then, one by one, when you actually get round to the next campaign it’ll let you know that you have to buy the full version, the expansion, another expansion.

The app gameplay is good, and it offers a lot that the real life version doesn’t- particularly if you’re sat alone in your room with nobody else to play with. But the app ethics are a little pants.

The real winner is definitely not world peace, let alone space-peace. As usual, the real winner is board games. Over and out.

P1030165.JPG
We come in peace?

* Lizzy advises you to be wary of the Star Realms box. She and her ex tore it open when they first got it, to realise that was the only packaging. Whoops. Might be related to why you have a photo of an expansion instead.

Above and Below: Buy your cave now to get on the hermit property ladder!

Pairs well with: Local, organic, micro-brewed cider. By the barrel!
Brutus rating: 2/10. Not many knives in the back, except maybe the overly enthusiastic claiming of barrels and buildings

DSC_0602

If we were to sum up Above and Below with one word it would be ‘pleasant’. It’s fairly gentle (one to play with older kids), has minimal conflict, and is just rather nice all round. It combines many of the neat bits of town-building worker-placement games with the bonus of extra roleplay scenarios (we totally love a bit of extra roleplay!). Instead of a humiliating scrabble to feed your family (such as in Agricola) there’s a considerably less desperate scrabble to make sure everyone gets a bed for the evening, or they won’t be nice and rested for the next day to carry on work. And the game even scales down well for two players!

DSC_0625
The camera’s focus on cider is definitely not entirely based on ourselves.

The setting is gentle fantasy – after being unceremoniously ousted from your home, your family settles in a new land and proceeds to build a nice village. Each player has a separate family, making the game a little too insular for some (you’d have a hard time ruining someone else’s play time), though there are some shared and limited resources like buildings which drive the competition. Hire workers, build houses, harvest resources. All pretty straightforward.

Beds, oddly, are the main resource you need to keep an eye on, as they only come with certain buildings. Pretty sensible, really. In your village there’s none of this bullshit you see in documentaries about rural settings with poor working conditions and sleeping on hay on the floor. In Above and Below, the workers get their very own double-bed with proper sheets and an excellent mattress. Cushty stuff. Don’t say I don’t treat you well, workers.

No cushty bed? No work the next day. Pretty amazing employment rights. This even goes for

DSC_0616
Bob, spending ages trying to find the round token before realising it mean the round token. 

people who don’t get a bed two days in a row. You’d think they’d have just spent the day lazing around in other people’s beds, while everyone else is adventuring, building, working. But if they do then they keep pretty quiet about it, and continue to remain too tired to work until they finally get a shot in a proper bed.

The one exception to the rule? Cider. If you get your workers a barrel of cider, a couple of them are going to share a bed. We’ll leave it to your filthy imagination as to why that is the case, but it also raises important questions. What if only one person in the double bed has cider? Is Gary always going to be sick of Devin turning up drunk and ruining his night’s sleep? Would the game be improved by a mechanic that generates new villagers after a ‘cider night’ occurs? … probably not.

Aside from the excitement of the bed-mechanics, you have many of your decent but run-of-the-mill worker placement activities. Build things for more resources, do things for resources, acquire more workers to do more things and build more things for more resources.

One of these activities stands out, however. Exploring! As you might work out from the title, you can build your village in two different ways: above, and… below! Before you can build below, you need to explore some of the exciting caverns that twist around underneath your village. With the help of a plucky band of explorers and a giant roleplaying book! Huzzah!

This is where the game bridges the gap between regular Agricola-type worker placing and some more roleplay-heavy story-based game. For each adventure, a story is randomly selected and one of your adventuring comrades will read you out some exciting spiel about your journey underground. Maybe you’ll bump into wizards, rescue some captives or discover your spirit animal!

For all that questing is an essential part of the game, it does feel very disparate from the ‘main’ task of village-building. It’s plenty of fun though so it’s hard to feel too sad about that.

And, like any good game with a roleplaying twist, the game allows you to add as much flavour

DSC_0624
The cider is important both in the game and in playing the game.

as you like to the adventures you read out. The written down adventure will tell you the choices that the explorers face – usually involving various difficulties of dice-rolling dependent on the party you’ve chosen to take on the journey – and the rewards are listed in the book, but how the adventurers acquire those rewards is up to you.

Your friends can add any extra layer of plot that they like, on a scale of Briony to Bob. Where a Briony might end an adventure with “Great! You conjure up a mushroom, now you have a mushroom”, a Bob will give you an elaborate plot with sympathetic characters, motives and backstory. Briony only plays adventures, she doesn’t make them.

Unfortunately for Briony, her lack of roleplaying skills also somehow extends to sucking at playing them. If there is a demon to accidentally be let loose on an unsuspecting village, Briony is the one who will open that cage. If there is a pig to be rounded up, Briony will fail in every method of capture from luring with treats to singing a special magical pig song. When she finally resorted to lassoing the poor creature by the neck the farmer was singularly unimpressed.

“WHAT! What do you mean, ‘minus one reputation’? I helped the farmer! Just because I didn’t have enough points on me to know a damned pig song!
“Yeah, we’ve all been there, bro.”

Briony’s reputation, in fact, got so low that her reputation marker couldn’t go down any further. People had zero good to say about Brionytown. Those clowns just go around hurting people, releasing demons, cursing everyone. Stay clear away, folks! Unless you want to trade or have a nice house. Maybe she was just building up a fancy gated community after all…

DSC_0605
So fancy!

Lizzy “Always The Cylon” on the other hand earned an excellent reputation among adventurers of the world. Everything she explored turned into reputation gold! Not points, mind you, but at least she had some serious respect amongst the fictional communities.

Above and Below, as well as doing a pretty good job of crossing over two different board game genres, ticks several other boxes as well. The art is clean and gorgeous, the characters aren’t bland meeples but are cards varied in race, gender AND species.* And there are just about enough ways to earn points to keep it pretty interesting. You get points for buildings, there’s an interesting points scale for different kinds of resource, and there are points for reputation. It’s just right to get the players having to think carefully about what they’re doing.

DSC_0603
There is even, as ever, a Briony-a-like character.

And, most importantly for the Misery Farmers, it has enough story-telling flair to distract from just being a point-machine game. There are some games that are fun, but that everyone knows Lizzy is going to win. Scoville, Euphoria, Liguria, for example. Above and Below is, praise the cardboard gods, not one of those games! QUICK, DISTRACT LIZZY WITH ROLEPLAYING! SHE’LL FORGET SHE HAS TACTICS!

We had a great time. Briony turned out to be the winner after setting up an effective income-based infrastructure which resulted in fancy buildings and piles of resources, while Bob and Lizzy wasted their time having pointless and stupid fun adventures. And so finally Lizzy lost a game, Briony eventually earned back a little of her reputation and Bob learned that her spirit animal is a fish. The real winner, as always, is board games.

DSC_0638
We got so excited about Lizzy not winning that we forgot how to fist-bump!

*In some scenarios you can gather extra party members. These include a robot, a lady made of tar, and a cat. The cat is particularly fun because if given any task it has a 1 in 3 chance of just… not doing it. That is exactly how cats do.

Star Wars the Card Game: Luke, use the phase!

Pairs well with: Blue Milk and Rhuvian Fizz, according to Wookiepedia.

Traitor rating: 10/10. This game is straight up you and your opponent ruining each other’s lives and dreams through the medium of small printed cards.

DSC_0555

Briony has recently been involved in a pub quiz. It wasn’t any old pub quiz though, it was the University of Southampton’s Rock and Metal society pub quiz. Having been a member for the full five years of her University life she knew exactly why most people would be caught off guard and end up with a score of -27. Rocksoc pub quizzes have very sporadic rounds which can be worth different values of points, either for getting the right answer or for getting it monumentally wrong. The questions follow no logical sequence and often feature dubious rounds, for instance the ‘decipher the name of the metal band from the logo’ or ‘recognise the fewest pop artists’, which confuse a lot of folk. It is a proud traditional that has certainly gotten out of hand over the years, making regular pub quizzes look like a basic pre-school maths test.

This year however, there was a welcome edition of Star Wars trivia. Despite having a team who were 75% blind drunk and regularly absent during and between rounds, Briony’s team managed a cool 9/10* in this segment. This was in fact the best score they got for the entire quiz and later prompted the old** Star Wars card game to be played over the following weekend.

DSC_0561.JPGStar Wars: The Card Game is a two-player deck building game. It is set loosely during the height of the Empire’s control in a way that allows the different card affiliations to have beef with one and all of the others at the same time. Although not plot-specific, the decks will feature characters, places and events that occur during the novels, films and general Star Wars universe.

It’s almost like we’re in control of our own Star Wars adventure, guys! … Guys?

 

The game comes with four pre-made decks: the Sith, Imperial Navy, Rebel Alliance, and the Jedi. Each deck will feature cards with affiliations from their respective force sides. There are affiliations in total (but some cards may be neutral or without an affiliation). These are: the Sith, Imperial Navy, Rebel Alliance, the Jedi, Scum and Villainy, and Smugglers and Spies.

DSC_0566.JPG

Obviously there are now several million expansions and other decks to pad out these beginning few, but the game works excellently just with these basic four. Mmmm, tasty vanilla decks. One player will play the light side of the force which may use either the Rebel Alliance or Jedi decks, which are formed of cards from the Rebel Alliance, Jedi and Smugglers and Spies affiliations. The other will play the dark side using either the Imperial Navy or Sith decks, which are composed of cards from the Imperial Navy, Sith, and Scum and Villainy affiliations.

Now, because this is a card game there is going to be a lot more cards. Like, a lot. Unit, enhancement, event and fates cards will be included in your deck and enable you to do some other stuff other than playing Chewie to entertain the moral of your troops. But why would we want to do anything other than that, you ask?

DSC_0558Units cards, like Chewie, are used for attacking and defending in engagements and may also contribute to balancing the force (don’t worry, we’ll come back this like Han Solo comes back to bars). Enhancement cards do what they say on the tin – play the card to do or get a better thing, or to improve existing cards. Event cards are sudden effects which are played directly from the hand instead of having to be placed in the play area first. They usually cost resources or cancel effects of other cards. Finally, fate cards are similar to event cards but usually have more powerful effects. You can only play these during a certain phase, and when used correctly can be a game-changer***.

During the setup of the game you will firstly, and rather obviously, be excited by seeing your favourite characters being played****. Secondly, usually later on in the game after staring at your cards for so friggin’ long in a vain attempt to make some sort of plan, you’ll be excited by how awesome the artwork is.

DSC_0564
Look at that rulebook art. LOOK AT IT.

 

DSC_0557During setup you’ll also pick and layout three objectives. These are what the game is really all about: each player will be trying destroy their opponent’s objective cards. A light side victory requires the destruction of three objective cards (even though more may be played throughout the game). A dark side victory occurs if the death star dial advances to 12. This is a dinky little clock which will advance once per turn, and twice if at the beginning of the turn the dark side of the force is more powerful.

DSC_0562
My job is to annihilate, but while looking cute.

A player’s turn has many phases. In the rule book this is listed as 8 or so phases, with very specific things you can do within them. Sometimes you can only even take part in a phase if it is your turn, for example. When in doubt it’s safe to assume that you’ve just progressed to a phase you have utterly forgotten about. At the beginning of turns there is a re-fresh phase (removing old tokens), draw phase (drawing cards into the hand), and deployment phase (play cards from the hand into the play area for the cost of the card). After these there is a conflict phase.

Pew! Pew, pew!

The attacking player (the player’s whose turn it is) can choose to use cards in their play area to attack. Their opponent can choose to defend with cards in their own play area, or not to commit at all. Defending results in deadly exploding space battles with lots of fire and casualties and screaming and an epic soundtrack*****.

DSC_0560

If you manage to kill, damage, or immobilise all of the defenders you can take a stab at the objective cards. More powerful objective cards can only take a few damage tokens before they are destroyed, whereas weaker ones may be able to take more. Deal some damage to the cards, and then your little rag-tag army will fly all the way back home to your own play area.

DSC_0559The force struggle phase happens at the end of each turn, in which players commit cards to the force. Whoever has the most committed points to the force means that for that round, the force will be changed to their side. Committing cards to this however means being unable to use them in the later stages of the round.

 

AND THEN IT ALL HAPPENS AGAIN. Until one of you wins, or you get so wound up at all of your cool cards being killed off that you give up and set up a nice game of Tobago instead. This regularly happens to Bob who finds the stress of the game too much to bear, which always ends with her throwing the remnants of her deck in Robot Boyfriend’s face.

If there is one thing that Briony has learnt from this game it’s that she is not qualified to single-handedly bring peace to the universe through military might. This makes her a little bit sad as someone who plays a lot of turn-based strategy games, but also a little bit glad that she won’t ever have to apply for the job ‘resource manager of the Empire’, because boy does that look like a stressful job utterly void of job security.

DSC_0571.JPGIn conclusion the game is very well thought out and balanced. The art, and range of characters and cards are excellent. It is a constant struggle from beginning to end, but once you get better at it it feels like you have the might of the Empire emanating from your very being. Unfortunately, like similar deck-building games such as Magic the Gathering, it’s going to take a while for you to get really good, kid, and until then you’ll need to be prepared to loose a lot. But it’s ok, even the best Jedi loose sometimes.

 

 

*They still argue that the last question was in fact correct, and they should have gotten full marks. Scruffy looking nerf herders… *mutter, mutter*

** It’s actually a fairly recent release of much older games. Everyone loves having a whole range of games from the same universe, right? Fortunately it is much better than the original.

***A phrase that gives most board-gamers an apprehensive feeling. You can just feel the traitor scale edging up already.

**** Shouting ‘Yoda! I call upon you to defend my honour!’, or ‘Jabba the Hut – I CHOOSE YOU!’ never gets old.

DSC_0569.JPG

*****It definitely only ends with you counting up some numbers and maybe giving them a couple of damage tokens. Actually killing a card is pretty exciting. And by killing I mean taking a small piece of coloured card off of the board and back into the discard pile.

 

 

Spirits of the Rice Paddy: May the rains be ever in your favour

Pairs well with: Sake, or another spirit derived from rice.
Brutus scale: 4/10 for the dickery-to-other-players scale

DSC_0417

Sometimes rather than jostling for attention with a review of a big-name high-flying board game it’s nice to settle in with something which might have been criminally overlooked. Something clever, attractive, and strategic. Spirits of the Rice Paddy is such a game.

Briony bought it in anger during Essen Spiel 2015. She had queued up for an hour for the chance to buy one of the last three copies of a game of Burano, and had walked away empty handed. Instead of saving the large amount of money she would have splurged on Burano, she instead decided to angrily stomp around the convention halls looking for the prettiest box. Rounding a corner, she encountered Spirits of the Rice Paddy and fell in love with the art. She watched it being played for about 20 seconds before resolving ‘Fuck it, and fuck the board game gods. I’m taking a risk and buying whatever the hell it is’.

Fortunately, she does not regret that decision to this day.

Other people do, however. Pat, Briony’s angry punk boyfriend, finds this game particularly annoying and difficult. Everyone else isn’t really sure why this is the case, as rice isn’t the most challenging of crops to grow (it just needs a lot of water) and it really hits the spot when you’re hungry and want 1000 of something.*

DSC_0393

Spirits of the rice paddy is set in Bali, and you play the role of a rice farmer. You own a plot of land that may be sectioned off into paddies in order to grow your rice and earn some tasty, tasty victory points. Fear not though, brave rice farmer, for you will also have a hand of cards which represent certain Balinese gods which give you a little helping hand.

We assume these are real gods from the local culture, but we are too lazy to check and instead are more taken with imagining what powers we would have as Balinese gods –

‘I would totally be like this snake guy, but with legs. My power would be to give all of the snakes legs.’

‘So… a lizard?’

‘No.’

‘Well I would be better than your limbed serpent – I’d have the head of a dragon and the stomach of someone who really likes eating rice. That way I can judge which rice is the best and reward whoever grew it, while still maintaining my fearsome appearance.’

‘I’d still be myself, but, you know, I’d eat less carbs.’

DSC_0406

The game begins by dealing a hand of gods, selecting one, and passing them clockwise. You build up a hand of four cards, which you play in an order of your choosing once at the beginning of each round. Classic card-drafting stylee. The god’s power is in affect as soon as it is played, and the number in the top right hand corner then dictates the turn order. Gods with higher numbers go later, but have more powerful benefits. It turns out its very tricky to get the balance of numbers right as each number adds to the ones from each previous round, meaning that you can’t get away with playing one high card among three lower cards.

Each player has a board representing their own plot of land in which to grow rice. You can hire hard-working meeples to do jobs like plant and harvest rice, and to build walls to form paddies. You can buy livestock (oxen or ducks) to remove rocks and pests. Both of these guys are pretty important to build up functioning rice paddies.

DSC_0402

You begin the game with one small paddy – in order to be able to grow rice you will need land enclosed by walls, with an entrance gate, an exit gate, and the all-important water. Actions follow an order on the right of your board. At the beginning of this phase you allocate all of your meeples and livestock to the part of the chart you would like them to do. Then, when everyone is happy with allocation, all players go through each job step by step together.

The amount of water in a round is dictated by turning over a rain card. The water then collects behind the water gate of the player with the lowest-numbered gods. Only some actions may be completed without water in your paddies (for example, removing weeds). Then comes irrigation. The collected water flows through the first player’s paddy, and remaining water passes on to the next player.

At this point you begin to see why the number of your Gods is so important.

DSC_0404

Often the amount of water varies, and players can be left with half-filled paddies (which are useless), or even completely empty paddies (which are useless-er). Once you have managed to plant some rice in a watered paddy, there is no guarantee that pests or rocks can ruin that rice. Rain cards, more frequently in the later stages of the game, bring plagues or… just rocks. This means that if you have several paddies growing rice to be harvested next turn you’ll still have to drain the water, remove the pests, and then re-water before you can harvest well.

Over time we stumbled upon a good tip for rain card pests and rocks; the rain card sometimes allows you to allocate the pests and rocks yourselves. As long as you have a certain number somewhere in a paddy the rain gods are totes appeased. This means that if you leave a small paddy intentionally empty, you can allocate all of your nasty things there and it fucks with your strategy a little less.

DSC_0416

Once all of the jobs have been completed by all players the actions phase ends and the market phase commences. Amazingly, selling is uncompetitive (you stock your own market on the left of your board) which is fairly rare for these sorts of games. You can hire more labour and livestock for your majestic rice empire… *cough* which may currently more resemble a plague-ridden paddy of horrors and only produce only one bag of rice every two turns *cough*…

DSC_0407

During the beginning of turn five another deck of gods will appear. With divine intent. These gods are much more powerful than the starter pantheon, and can help you do much more – especially if you tailor your final stages strategy to their powers. There is one small twist however, as in the final stage of the game all rice you harvest and subsequently sell is worth practically DOUBLE however much it was previously worth (some of the best gods will allow you to add even more to that).

‘Move aside, lower carb-consumption god. I now have ‘wipe everyone out with my rice empire’ god. His name is Monsanto, and I have a lot of rice.’

Overall, the game is beautifully designed. The gods bring a nice setup to the beginning of each round, and boy do you learn fast that you either play low-ass numbers, or select gods which provide you with water themselves. The progression of the game is something we enjoyed as well, as it really gives the feel of time moving along in the mountains for the farmers (after years and years you learn to grow better, and gain more favour with the gods, and your children don’t starve). The only downside we found was that at the very beginning of the game, each player will be given a starting conditions card at random. Some of which seemed to be massively unbalanced – we had one person starting with 5 walls, and someone else starting with three walls, extra meeple, and a wad of rice. To combat this though we just took out the ridiculous cards and made it a little more even.**

DSC_0415

Aside from this, we are really looking forward to seeing what other games Philip duBarry produces, and strongly hope that there will be more cute pest pieces and pretty drawings.

*With apologies to Mitch Hedberg

**We assume that this is because the game is in rather early stages (there are still some grammar mistakes and inconsistencies in the rulebook).

T.I.M.E. Stories: Sherlock Holmes meets Groundhog Day

Pairs well with: A nice cup of tea to help you think.
Traitor Rating: 1/10. It’s a co-op game, but accidents do happen…

What with it being Halloween and all, you might think that we at the Misery Farm would have prepared something special for you. After all, we are three alternative-type ladies and Halloween is basically Christmas for goths.

Well, we don’t. At least, not something especially spooky/Halloween-y. Sure the scenario we’ll be reviewing is set in an insane asylum and there are a few cases of [deleted] as well as terrifying [deleted] to be dealt with but it’s not, as such, a horror game. What this game is, is excellent. Bob cannot remember the last time she enjoyed a game so much on so many levels. The problem is trying to review it without giving away any spoilers, but we’ve done our best. This review is of the base game and introductory scenario, and all specific references and photos should be of game parts already explicitly mentioned or shown in the rulebook. If you spot a rogue plot point then let us know asap and we’ll shut it down.

painting
We can’t tell you what this girl’s painting, or why that guy is wearing a plague mask but… yeah.

With all that said, on with the review!

TIME Stories is a co-operative exploration-slash-puzzle solving game. If you’ve played games like Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective (which, by the way, is possibly one of the greatest puzzle games of all time), Tragedy Looper, or even an old school ‘GO TO LOCATION’-type MUD game then you’ll be acquainted with the format. TIME Stories perfects the genre in board game form. It’s a tabletop RPG with combat elements, it’s a strategy game, it’s an item-collecting, clue-solving meta-gaming puzzler. Most importantly, it does all these things well. Now, before we get going you should know that this is a scenario-based game. Essentially you buy the base game (which comes with an introductory scenario) and all subsequent scenarios must be bought as expansions. This has led some people* to declare it a waste of money and clearly a scam. They are wrong. It is a beautiful game and well worth the cash. Just don’t play it with two people. You want it to be a team experience.

P1020953

You play as a time detective. It’s probably got a fancier name than that but that’s basically what you are. You live in the future where time travel has totally been invented but people keep fucking around with it, creating time anomalies that threaten to break the space-time continuum and kill the whole wide universe! Luckily you’re part of a noble special-ops firm dedicated to going back in time and fixing the problems before they happen. Each game scenario is one of these time adventures.

Wallpaper-Terminator-robot-T-800-photo
‘Sounds familiar!’

The problem is that while you can go back in time to a location, you do not necessarily know what the problem is going to be or how to solve it. You have to follow clues, question suspects, and basically behave like the nosiest PI ever hired.

P1020965There are a few other minor *cough* challenges.  Firstly, your body does not go back in time with you. Instead, your consciousness inhabits a local ‘receptacle’ (unfortunate human) which you control like a hideous meat puppet. In the first scenario, Asylum, you are sent to investigate an old-timey mental asylum. Unfortunately the only bodies available to you are those of patients, and patients are not usually given free run of the sanatoriums where they have so thoughtfully been placed. Your consciousness also suffers from whatever debilitating mental condition has had them incarcerated in the first place, such as crippling [deleted] and hideous bouts of [deleted]. Sometimes you can turn these to your advantage, however, with careful use of [deleted] and doses of [deleted]. Choosing your receptacle wisely in a way that helps the team is part of the game for sure.

P1020960
Some nice people.

The second problem is that it takes a vast amount of energy to both send you back in time and keep you there. As such you only have a limited amount of time to complete your mission, otherwise you get transported back to the future (hey-oh!). Exploring, moving, taking actions, etc. all use up valuable time, and if you don’t solve the problem in your allotted time then you get in trouble with your superiors. Luckily they are quite willing to send you back again to have another crack at it. The aim of the game is to try and fix the temporal anomaly in the lowest-possible number of runs. The faster you do it, the more points you get and thus earn some [deleted].
P1020961Of course, if you finish the game quickly and efficiently you miss a lot of what it has to offer. This game has loads of branching paths. Not so many that it becomes heavy and messy but enough that to explore every aspect would definitely be a challenge within the time frame. Bob was sceptical at first, expecting that the format of ‘do and then re-do’ would simply turn into a game of ‘follow the leads as efficiently as possible, rinse, repeat’. This would suck, and probably result in a quarterbacking** problem. Luckily, TIME stories is actually very good and neatly side-steps this issue. Each run was completely different both in storyline and format.

The first run was a game of exploration. Talking to people, making mistakes, and collecting P1020962whatever clues we could. Two red herrings and a violent [deleted] later, we found ourselves back in the future, being reprimanded by our commander (confusingly also named Bob).  The second run revealed a whole new, previously unsuspected line of clues. There are layers to this game, man. This time we went deeper, coming so close to the end and then… promptly causing a temporal anomaly. Whoops.

By this time nearly 4 real-time hours had passed, and we needed to stop. This was when TIME Stories traversed from ‘fun’ to ‘incredibly well thought-out and borderline-genius’ in Bob’s eyes. The creators know that you might not have time to play a 6-hour game in one sitting, but that you also won’t want to lose your place in your scenario. As a solution, the box comes with what is essentially a manual ‘save game’ set-up. You can carefully place your receptacles, clues, and various tokens and whatever in special little holsters in the box, ready for another go at a later date. The board even clips in so that everything is kept in stasis. Absolutely shitting brilliant.

LOOK AT IT
LOOK AT IT

Our final run had to be efficient, business-like, yet not forgetting to visit any necessary locations to gather important clues and items. We completed the game with not a single death on the team and in good time, which earned us a decent rank and… you’ll have to find out what else for yourself. But you should know that it’s so cool Bob almost died.

P1020966
We highly recommend you keep notes!

We are very excited to play further scenarios. Unfortunately, currently only The Marcy Case (a period drama set in 1992) is available, but future instalments should be out soon. Additionally, there is something to be said for playing the same scenario twice with different friends, just to see if they uncover more of the game than you did, as well as all the myriad ways they might fuck it up.

So many ways to fuck up and die.
So many items, so many ways to fuck up and die.

* Including Misery Friends who shall remain unnamed but who are pictured in our previous post.

**For those not down the lingo, this is when someone (usually a more experienced player) basically takes charge in a co-op game and tells everyone else what to do. It’s pretty irritating.


Pictures this week are by Bob. Which is why they’re terrible.

 

Misery Farm On The Road: Essen Spiel 2015 Day 3 First Reports

Our third Essen report comes from the well-rested Lizzy, who, on the way out to get some dinner on Night 2, accidentally fell asleep instead and so is actually pretty well-rested. Incredibly rare for a board game convention, where sleep is normally a very limited resource, only available when you’ve run out of beer and are waiting for Messe to open its doors to you again.

As before, Bob is playing social media guru and is live-tweeting our trip to Essen, check it out. She bought a data plan for her mobile and is going mad with it. Mad! Also if you’re hungry for even more Essen, Lizzy and Briony wrote up the first reports for days one and two.

We’ve also started racking up a bit of ammunition for a ‘Disappointing Games of Essen 2015’ post, which is in the works. If you’d like more of anything else, let us know in the comments! (Or twitter, facebook, to our faces…)

Right. It’s Saturday morning, you’re full of Walnussplunder and Butterkuchen… go!

Day 3 Game 1: Scythe

DSC_0153_Fotor

If there’s one game that Lizzy ‘didn’t even bring a spreadsheet’* Miseryfarmer was hyped about, it’s this. Scythe isn’t available yet, it isn’t even up on Kickstarter until next week! But it comes from a pretty solid background of previously beautiful kickstarted games, of which Euphoria is probably the most memorable.

Badass tiger-lady
Badass tiger-lady

The game is pretty popular already. Bookings to try the game are at a premium, and a lot of people are being turned away, even with testing limited to an hour at a time.

Because it’s in such early stages, the pieces aren’t quite done yet. Lizzy’s hawk lady came without a hawk, the shiny pile of coins were apparently not in their final form and some of the pieces were definitely the wrong shape. The hawk lady’s yellow ‘stars’ happened to, for example, look exactly like yellow lightning bolts from Euphoria. Funny, that.

The game comes with the most beautiful art of mechs and a fallen Eastern Europe, and you can tell. Everything about it so far is beautiful, and you know the rest will be too.

We got a fair idea of gameplay during the hour’s test and, luckily, it seems to be exactly what you want for a game that looks like it does. It comes with building, expanding, fighting, resources, colonising, rising to power. We cannot wait to play it some more.

"You guys may have more points. But are you riding a bison? Didn't think so."
“You guys may have more points. But are you riding a bison? Didn’t think so.”

Day 3 Game 2: Codenames

DSC_0154_Fotor

The hall was already damn busy by the time we were looking for a second game, but before long Bob enthusiastically dragged us over for a quick game or two of Codenames.

Codenames is another one of those games that you end up only trying because of luck or the insistent recommendations from people you trust. Bob is often trustworthy and persistently insistent, so we cast our doubts aside and sat down.

You only need to take one look at it to figure out why we might’ve been a bit sceptical. The box is awful, and one of the dark figures on the front even has a speech bubble coming out of it which says ‘word game’. Word game? Really? Is that how low I’ve stooped during rush hour at Essen?

DSC_0155_FotorWe’re reassured that Shut Up and Sit Down themselves describe it as an excellent game with a terrible box. And it turned out to be just that! It’s a word association game, but in the best way possible. There are spies, competition and mocking. There’s a slightly dodgy two-player mode for it as well, but we strongly recommend you try it with four or more, for better making fun of the other team when they think that the clue “wedgie” matches “plane” rather than, say, “pants”. You know who you are!

Day 3 Game 3: Between Two Cities

DSC_0162_Fotor

To our surprise, we soon ended up bagging a seat at our second Stonemaier game of the day for Between Two Cities. The game’s novelty is that you’re building two cities, one on either side of you, but each city is being shared by a person on either side. Your lowest-scoring city is the one which gets you all the points at the end, so victory ends up being a bit of a balancing act.

DSC_0160_FotorIt’s good, and it has a satisfying level of simplicity and quickness as well as a having potential for good level of strategy and tactics. To play it feels a bit Suburbia crossed with Mad King Ludwig crossed with Seven Wonders. Which is fine by us! A perfectly reasonable game, and one of our number left with a copy in their bag.

(They did pay for it, we’re not using our blog to just let out confessions of theft.)

Day 3 Game 4: Titan Race

Another smaller game, in which you each play a hero riding a monster. Three laps of the racetrack wins! You may die a few times, and also blast some enemies into some lava. Simple stuff, some dice rolling and some mild fun.

Also contains a character called “Cthooloo” which is definitely the first time any of us had seen it spelled that way.

Not the winner.
Not the winner.

A little bit telling was that when we were choosing characters, the rules explainer advised us that Cthooloo wins most of the time. Oh! How much is most of the time? Erp, 90%?

Cthooloo won our game as well. Is this a flaw, or is it secretly actually an amazingly accurate representation of the mighty dark lord Cthulhu?

Probably the former.

Day 3 Game 5: Conquest Stratego

This final game was another case of a last-minute choice based on glimpsing a free table in the distance. Conquest Stratego is based off another game, Stratego, which thanks to our excellent research and journalism skills we can tell you almost nothing about.

DSC_0168_FotorWe can, however, tell you about Conquest Stratego. CS is a game of battles, a bit reminiscent of Risk, but without dice rolling. Instead of dice rolling your pieces have a range of numbers from 1-10 and, bar a few exceptions, the highest number wins.

The game has one neat little mechanic which we’ve not yet seen before, which is to have these strange little capsules for each of your pieces, designed so that only you, at one end of the table, can see what your number is. This actually worked better than we’d hoped, which is probably also how we’d describe the game as a whole. Not that bad, but wouldn’t personally buy it.

As always, the real winner is board games. As day four dawns, your  brave journalists are heading out for one last morning pastry for the final day! Wish us luck.

Guten gamin’

*Bob brought so many spreadsheets for Essen board games. Cumulative cost was the scariest column.

Skulls and Roses: The lesser known 80s band

Brutus Rating:  2 knives in the skull out of 10. There aren’t really a variety of options for easy dickery to your opponents beyond the regular subterfuge.
Pairs well with: Pint of ale from a tankard.

6D-41-149_Fotor

The ratio of complexity of gameplay to complexity of strategy can be a good basic indicator for how good a game is. A lot of really good fun can be found in a game if it has some fairly basic steps and mechanics, and is fairly easy to learn, while also leaving room for a relatively more detailed, complex and developed strategy. Less fun can be had, sometimes, for a game that has a lot of detail in the play but not so much wriggle-room for thought-out plans for victory.

This isn’t meant to be a perfect recipe for board games, of course. Sometimes you want to just sit the heck down and let the board game adventure and some luck take you wherever you’re headed. Preferably to victory. Other times you want to get really deep into the nitty and gritty mechanics of a game and work for your delicious glory that way.

Guest reviewer of the day: Lily the dog
Guest reviewer of the day: Lily the dog

But the play-complexity-to-strategy-complexity formula can still be replicated in a lot of games, including some of the smaller and quicker ones. A good small game is often one that you pick up quickly, has maybe a limited amount of possible ‘moves’, but still lets you develop some excellent strategies for exactly how to play. One of these games is the topic of our review today!*

Everyone present have a skull? Check. You're ready!
Everyone present have a skull? Check. You’re ready!

Skulls is a great game for everyone. After all, everyone has a skull. It’s also pretty damn simple, but you get to develop sneakier and better tactics the more you play.

You’re a member of a biker gang. That’s right, time to whip out the old leather or denim jacket and… I’m not sure, start making motorbike noises and talk about how you miss the feel of the wind in your hair? Presumably that’s what bikers do. You’re competing to become what the rules call the supreme leader. Apparently, biker gangs are run just like North Korea. You learn something new every day!

6D-41-90_FotorEach player in Skulls gets a bunch of circular beer mats with your biker insignia on one side (Which gang are you in today? Panthers? Eagles? Snakes? Weird cow-skulls?) and three of them will have a rose on the other side, the fourth will have a skull. They also get a nice square beer mat with a skull on one side and rose on the other.

Once you’re done with the formalities of pretending to mistake some of the ‘cards’ for actual beer mats and getting yelled at by the person who owns the game, then you’re ready to begin.

6D-41-148_Fotor

It’s a short game, and it’s a game of bluff. Everyone takes turn placing cards down in front of them (insignia side up, or the bluff part won’t be very effective) and definitely remembering whether you’ve put down a rose or a skull. Eventually one person will decide that instead of putting down a new card they’ll ‘bid’ on how many circular beer mats they can turn over without finding a skull. The trick is, whoever wins the bid (and therefore actually has to attempt to do so) will have to start with their own beer mats first, and starting from the top. Getting it right will lead you halfway to victory (counted by flipping over your square beer mat) and the penalty for getting it wrong is a good mocking and removal of one of your four cards, making it more difficult for you to play. (Particularly if you lost four times… having no cards makes it very difficult to play indeed)

It's actually unclear whether it says 'panthers' or 'punthers'
It’s actually unclear whether it says ‘panthers’ or ‘punthers’

So what you DON’T want to do is forget that you put down a skull and then knob yourself over by bidding as high as possible. Unless you’re trying to lure everyone else into a false sense of security with your incompetence so that you can sweep them all away in the next few rounds. The brilliance of this game is that shit like that can actually happen, and maybe even work!

It’s all about trying to trick everyone into thinking you’ve got a rose when you’ve got a skull, and into thinking  you’ve got a skull when you’ve got a rose. And this isn’t just done by plain old conversation: “Hey you should definitely pick my card. I’ve just put loads of roses down. OR HAVE I?” because, you know, that would be silly. It’s also bluffing through your actions. Bidding really high to convince people that you do have roses, just to have the bid snatched away from you at the last second (just as you’d planned!) so that the winner of the bid will pick your card, convinced that you wouldn’t have done that if you’d had a rose, only to fall down crying when you flip it over to reveal your cunning bluff. TAKE THAT, RICH! YOU NEVER SAW IT COMING! WHO’S YOUR DADDY?

SKULL! GOTCHA!
SKULL! GOTCHA!

It’s also a very reactive game. Because it fits in that part of the collection for small games, ones that you can fit between other games or when you’re busy, and ones that you can play anywhere because it doesn’t have many pieces, you’ll find yourself just intending to play a quick round of it before you start up the Battlestar Galactica or the Eldritch Horror and then realise, an hour later, you’re all still in the kitchen desperately trying to stop Sophie from getting a fourth victory in maybe six games.

You can play it anywhere!
You can play it anywhere!

“AHA! Well, Will clearly has a rose because he tried to encourage us to pick his cards”

6D-41-130_Fotor“AHA! Rich definitely has a skull because he was pretending to deliberate, and there’s no way he would have actually been deliberating about bidding higher than five at this stage because that would be MADNESS, so he must have been pretending to deliberate to trick us into thinking that it would be an option for him and to trick us into thinking he has a rose!”**

“Just… never trust Sophie, guys! She’s going to have a skull, she always has a skull! She…. NOOO!”

The spurt of victories from Sophie was quite the surprise. We actually started to wonder if she’d been playing the really really long game, faking incompetence in previous games just to finally show her colours as a ruthless bastard in Skulls and Roses.

All in all, the developed bluffery from Skulls and Roses makes for a great small game, and ranks it pretty well in the ratio of complexity of play to complexity of strategy. Sophie may have played us all for fools but, as always, the real winner is board games.

And Lily the dog.

This review doubles as an educational piece about how difficult it is to take photos of dark dogs in light rooms.
This review doubles as an educational piece about how difficult it is to take photos of dark dogs in light rooms.

*You’d bloody hope so wouldn’t you, or else what have we been rambling on about for the last few paragraphs?

** Take our word for it, this paragraph definitely makes sense to Skulls and Roses aficionados.

Credit goes to our photographer friend for, of course, the photos. Huzzah!