A Review of Raid Boss: Part I. Unboxing, Solo Play, and First Impressions

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Raid Boss is a cooperative board game from Kickstarter that I backed in May 2019. It promised delivery in February 2020, but it didn’t deliver until just now (February 2021). Again, COVID-19 and the “Kickstarter effect” are probably to blame for a lot of the delay.

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Raid Boss is a cooperative dice and battle game for 1-4 players. Recall that it did make the #10 position on our Top 10 Anticipated Cooperative Games of 2021!   There are three main reasons I backed this game:

  1. It’s from a small publisher!  Skeleton Hand is a small group of passionate guys trying to make a game. I always like to support the little guy if I can … isn’t that the original dream of Kickstarter?
  2. I adored the art!  You can see from the front and back of the box that the art is very comic-booky, and I love that style of art!  If you know who Art Adams is, the art style kind of reminded me of him.
  3. It’s a cooperative game!  It looks like a decent cooperative game

Let’s take a look at Raid Boss and see what we think!

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Unboxing

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Raid Boss didn’t really come with a lot of Kickstarter extras: All that really came in my delivery was the box itself (see above).  Note the picture on the side of the lid (above) REALLY reminds of Art Adams: compare this to a picture of Spiral and Longshot:

Spiral and Longshot by Arthur Adams #ArthurAdams #Spiral #Longshot #XMen  #Exiles #RitaWayword #Mojoverse #XForce #SisterhoodofMut… | Art, Comic  books art, Comic art

I think that’s why the game may have spoke to me so much. Let’s take a look at what’s inside the box:

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The inside of the lid is an homage to some of the bigger Kickstarter backers (I was not in that tier).

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The rulebook is the first thing you see and full of more of the art!

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The main enemy board comes next (see above) along with some Hero cards (see below).

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The main cardboard bits are all above. They all look very nice.

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The main boards of the game are the HERO boards (see above).  There are 12 of these, giving the players a lot of choice (see below).

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The boss boards are in the same pack (see below): these are the big bad bosses the players are fighting cooperatively!

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It’s a little hard to see, but these cards are all laminated! I’ll be honest, I can’t remember the last time I saw a game with laminated cards. It seemed to work okay, but I’ve already found two cards that are sort of coming apart, so I am nervous this will be an issue in the future.

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Some of the lamination (above) is already coming apart .. a little worrisome …

Inside the box are some dice (above right) and some cards and other plastic tokens (above left). There are a lot of dice because, at the end of the day, this is a dice-chucking game.

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There is one Boss deck for each Boss in the game and a few reference cards.  That’s it for the cards: the bad guys each get a deck but the Heroes do not.

The art is nice and the cards are very readable (see above). Each deck has a little bit of unique art, but a lot of the pictures are repeated (see below).

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Stats in the game are notated with little plastic sliders (see above): Skills and Hit points.

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Like I said, this is a dice game: there’s a lot of dice (see above) but they are kind of smallish dice.  

Like I said, one of the reasons I backed this game was the art: The artist’s (Dane Miner) style is all through out this game and I really think it is very evocative of a comic book ethos.

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In general, I like the components.  The only real concern is the laminated cards: will they be an issue in the future?  I don’t know. 

Rulebook

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In general, the rulebook is a little long and has a lot of rules, but it’s fairly readable.

IMG_8327The game starts with a nice graphical list of all components: Thank you!  I was able to correlate names and all the tokens on the first few pages.   I don’t think I can underestimate how important a list like this is: if I can see all the components listed and physically correlated, it gives me confidence that the rulebook will be good enough.  This first few pages gave me confidence!

IMG_8328(Some flavor test to start the game …)

IMG_8329The next thing I expect is a Set-up … and that’s what I get.  See the picture above.  It does a pretty good job of getting you set-up for your first game.

IMG_8330  The game starts to get a little text-heavy after this (see above), but it’s still setting up a few more things in the game.  This wasn’t great, but we started on a good note, so I’d forgive this (it needs perhaps some more pictures above).

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There’s little summaries of all the cards (above and below) to help you get a sense of everything that’s there.

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I felt like I was able to read the rulebook and get going. It worked pretty well. The rulebook is long and sometimes it’s hard to find the rule you needed, but the rulebook looked good and the first few sections gave me enough confidence to jump into the game.

Solo Play

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So, the game has solo rules (congratulations on following Saunders’ Law)! The basic premise is that you ALWAYS play with 4 heroes (see above) regardless of the player count. In a 2-Player game, each player would get 2 Heroes each! In a 4-Player games, each players gets 1 Hero each! So, in a solo game, you have to play ALL FOUR HEROES! Whew! Each player has a lot of unique powers and triggers, so keeping track of all this can become quite daunting.

My first game spanned a number of nights and probably took 3-4 hours total. Some of that was because this was a learning game, but I was halfway through killing the bad guy when I died! Had I survived, I think I would have taken another 1-2 hours to play.

What Is This Game?

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If I had to describe this game to someone, I’d say it’s cooperative Dice Throne (see review here) meets Batman: The Animated Series – Gotham Under Siege (it’s made several lists here on Co-op Gestalt: see the Top 10 Cooperative Dice Games). It has the same “beat up something” that permeates Dice Throne, but the activation of abilities (with 6-sided dice) and overall environment feels like Gotham Under Siege.

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Players battle the Big Boss and slowly get more dice: about every “10 hit points” you do, another dice is released to any Hero player you like (players start with 2 dice each and should have 4 by game end).

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Each player has some special abilities activated by certain sums of dice (Tectonic plating, Cataclysm and Bulldoze above), some Talents that are always active (Juggernaut) and a once-per-turn power (Challenge). Each player is VERY different: some have healing powers, some have shielding powers, some have damage powers, but each Hero in the game is very different.

At the end of the day, this is a “beat-up the boss and don’t die” game. Each player has a certain number of hit points AND EVEN IF YOU GO TO ZERO, it’s very easy to bring back your character! Someone just has to spend their “instant” power!!! BUT: If this happens too many times (3 KOs, see below), the Heroes lose.

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You win if you can bring the Big Bad to 0 Hit points. There’s some cool little things that happen near the end game: once you are just about to defeat the big bad, you get his “Last Stand” card.

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At the end of the day, this is cooperative dice-chucking game with variable powers. It’s important to work together, and there is some strategy, but … it’s a dice-chucker.

Some Strategy

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Even though Raid Boss is a dice-chucker, there is some strategy. For example: the Positions of your Heroes (see above) can make a differemce. Your Heroes move around in Positions 1 – 4 as you play, and you control where they go! A lot of powers are actually related to the position you are in, and a lot of the bad guys deal damage related to your position. So, as you play, you may want to put the healer up front so he can heal everybody before they fight, or you may put the damage dealer at the end because he gets damage based on his position …

Other choices you make are: which powers to activate? (Do I help myself or my comrades?) Which Heroes do I choose for my team? When do I use my instant power? (You only get it once per turn) There’s enough choices in the game that there is some strategy, but … it it still just a dice-chucker.

Some Thoughts

So, I enjoyed my first play (even though I lost), but I felt like the game outstayed it’s welcome just a little. I think some of that is just unfamiliarity with the game, and I hope to get it to my game group this week to try it again. I will also say the solo play of operating 4 Heroes was rough. It worked “okay” in Set A Watch (see review here), but it still felt like too much work and Set A Watch is a much simpler dice game. It could be that the long game time was because there was so much context switch back and forth between heroes? I think it would have really behooved the game to have a solo mode with ONLY 2 Heroes. Right now, I am not sure I want to play the solo again .. it was so much work! Of course, Sentinels of the Multiverse had this problem as well (you have to play 3-4 Heroes to play solo) and once you learned the game, the Sentinels of the Multiverse solo mode was okay. Let’s see how I feel after a few more plays.

Conclusion

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I like Raid Boss: it seems like a decent cooperative dice game. The art is fantastic (if you like the comic-booky art of the this world: you know if you do or not) and this art permeates the game. The components are nice, but I do worry about the longtime viability of the laminated cards. The game is good and has some good cooperative strategy underneath it’s dicey veneer. Unfortunately,the game length seems just a little bit longer than it should be, and I wish it had a better solo mode.

If you want something like cooperative Dice Throne where you chuck dice with your friends to beat-up bad guys, Raid Boss might just hit the spot for you. Raid Boss is a probably a simpler cooperative game than Dice Throne Adventures ( reviewed here: Dice Throne Adventures is a big cooperative game with more adventure but more complexity). Give this a try and see if you like it … and help out a small publisher!

A Review of Sleeping Gods

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Sleeping Gods is a cooperative exploration and campaign game with an adventure/story book! We were just talking about Sleeping Gods last week in our Top 10 Anticipated Cooperative Games and it made the #5 spot! Well, it did arrive this week and we have been playing the heck out of it! It also arrived with an expansion: the Tides of Ruin (see below).

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Even though the box says 2-4 Players (see below), the game does have a solo mode.

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The art is very “Ryan Laukat” and this is obviously another beautiful game from Red Raven games.

Unboxing

This game is CHOCK FULL of beautiful components.  But, at the end of the day, it’s really a storybook game.  See the massive storybook below.

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The Storybook is thick and full of text and story.

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You explore map that comes out:

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This is also an exploration game: you go to locations on the map and slowly explore this world.

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There are SO MANY cards, boxes, tokens, containers.  It’s actually a bit daunting.

First Play

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Luckily, there’s a quick start guide in this book.  You can play through a walkthrough, then a few parts of the introductory scenario without having to “really” get into the rulebook. 

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Basically, you play as the crew of the ship Manticore, exploring this world.  Now, you are always playing a FULL CREW of 8! No matter how many people you have, there are always 8 characters of the crew (see above) in play.

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Take a look above at my first set-up.  You can see the map, the exploration book, the 8 members of the crew, the rulebook, the quickstart, some tokens and cards, the ship board, and a bunch of other cards in the box to the left. THERE ARE A LOT OF COMPONENTS!

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The intro scenario did a pretty good job of walking you through one game.  It wasn’t perfect: I had a few questions as I played and some of the phrasing was confusing.  I’ve said this before: after the Tainted Grail first play, I think I am little spoiled!  The Tainted Grail walk through was so good!  Don’t get me wrong, I am very glad for the Sleeping Gods walk through.  I was up and playing my first few rounds pretty quickly.   It gave me a “sense” of the game.  Unlike Tainted Grail, where I felt more confident to dive into the game, I actually felt a bit intimidated after the walk through … (foreshadowing) … there seem to be an awful lot of rules to keep track of!

Rulebook

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The rulebook is  … good enough. It’s fairly well laid-out.  It does the components on the first few pages:

It felt like the components pages could have been a little better.  There are SO MANY components to this game, and a lot of times the components page didn’t seem to describe everything.  It was fine, I got through it and the unboxing and putting it together.  It just seemed a little … incomplete. 

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I hate to say it, but the rules felt a little incomplete over all.  I think the Index (see above) is an indicator.  I went looking for all sorts of things in the index, and they were never there.  So, I ended up SO MANY TIMES just searching the rulebook for what I wanted.

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Don’t get me wrong, I learned the game from the rulebook.  It’s fairly easy to read.  I just think the rulebook skimps on a lot of edge conditions.  For example: when it describes the combat (later on), it seems like it just describes “the basics” of the rules and puts all the elaborations of the rules in the examples.  I’m all for great examples (which the game has), but instead of actually explaining a few rules it simply deferred to the examples … “Here: this will show you how it works: I am not going to try to describe it”.  For instance, I felt like the “slashing” element of combat was poorly described.  I had soooo many questions about how it worked, but the rules were minimal.  I sorta gleaned how “slashing” worked in the examples.  You might say, “Why are you complaining!! You understand it now, right?”  Yes and No. Because I got an operational definition of the rules, but that doesn’t help me internalize what the ACTUAL rules are: it’s just how they are applied in the few examples.  An operational definition takes up more intellectual capacity than a simple abstract explanation.

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In the end, what killed this game for me was how many times I said to myself: “Argh, where is that rule?”

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I learned the rules.  The rulebook looked good.  I could play the game. 

Solo Game

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Not sure why the box says 2-4: The game very easily sets-up as a solo player.  The solo player takes control of all 8 crew members.  The main scaling difference is that the ship board has two sides: one side for 1-2 players, and the other for 3-4 players.  This just controls how many resources (usually command tokens) you get per turn. See below.

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What is this game?

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At its core, Sleeping Gods has four main elements:

  1. It’s a campaign game: the game keeps going.  You can’t really just sit-down and play a one-off session easily.  You have to continue the story where you last left off.
  2. It’s a Storybook game, where you explore the world (on your ship, using the map) and read from a Storybook, either overcoming challenges or engaging in combat.
  3. The crew overcomes challenge
  4. The crew engages in deadly combat

As the game unfolds, the players move around on the map, take encounters from the storybook, and either engage in a challenge or combat.

Challenges

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The challenges are fairly straight-forward: you get a difficulty and type: say you need SAVVY 5 to overcome a puzzle.  You commit some of you characters: each one you commit gives you +1, but it costs FATIGUE (too much FATIGUE and you are useless).  Draw a card: if the cards + your SAVVY extra is over, you overcome! Otherwise something bad happens.   The card above shows a 6, so we didn’t actually have to commit any crew members to help! 

At the end of the day, the cards you choose are numbered from 1-6, so it’s essentially like rolling a 6-sided die.

If you spend too much FATIGUE, your crew becomes useless and you have to head back to port wasting time.  If you spend too little FATIGUE, the challenges will overwhelm you and the FAILURE EFFECTS will start to catch up with you. 

It can be a bit daunting to figure out when you should spend FATIGUE and when you shouldn’t. 

And it’s soooooo slow to heal fatigue unless you have gold ….

Combat

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Combat is this game is very interesting.  When you fight, you “slash” and do damage across the grid at the bottom of the card: it’s an “abstract” representation of the body! So, if you do, say 4 damage, you have to put all damage in adjacent squares.  It represents the “continuous motion” of an attack, which is real interesting!

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You can see the results after a few attacks.   You can “also” hit the neighbor too!!  If you want, you can do damage to an adjacent monster on an adjacent square! It’s as if your “slash” started at one monster and ended on the other.  

I have to admit, I’ve never seen this before!  I thought this was a real original idea!!  I kind of liked it!

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As combat happens, you “pass off” the combat to one of your comrades: once you have spent all 4 of your combat tokens, the monster (if still alive) may attack.  There’s even an interesting idea that you can “spur on” your comrades and give them plusses as well!  See the token below?  If she hits the monster and “damages” a diamond square on the monster, she can pass her token (which gives +2 to hit) to her next comrade!

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Combat works like challenges: you have to overcome their difficulty to hit and do damage: again, think of rolling a 6-sided die.

Although I like the “slash” idea, it wasn’t very clearly explained in the rules.  And after doing combat a few times, I felt a little drained.  Combat is a lot of work.

Quests

The core of the game is the quests and the exploration.  As you explore the world, you’ll get quest cards that help direct where you go next.  This is BIG WORLD with a lot of quests and a lot of things to explore.

Why I Don’t Like This Game

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I have been playing Sleeping Gods many times over the past week.  I have left it set-up on my table so that I could go play every few hours.  Every time I played, I would grumble to myself and say “I hate this game.” Why?

  1. Randomness.  There is too much randomness.  There’s randomness in the Fate flips (it’s equivalent to rolling a 6-sided die), there’s randomness in the event deck (What evil thing do I have to deal with?), there’s randomness in the storybook.  Every turn, randomness just pours down on you.  There are ways to mitigate some of that randomness, but the cost is often too high (see Scarce Resources below)!  I can’t tell you how many times I just “took” the event without even trying because the costs just seem so high. 
  2. Not enough Choice.  When you go to do your 2 actions on the ship board, you have four choices.  But do you?  I did market choice maybe once (because I never had enough gold, see Scarce Resources below) and Port just a couple of times: but you can ONLY do those two actions if you are on a space with a market or port!!! So, 99% of the time,  you just travel or explore.  It costs fatigue if you want to go more than 1 space at a time, and many times spending the fatigue wouldn’t matter if you rolled low!  And then, exploration brings up a random event which usually beats you up literally or figuratively (see Randomness above).  I wanted/needed a “rest” action, or “hunt” action or anything that would have help me plan more.  (You can sorta get the first action, but you can’t do it again).
  3. Scarce Resources. In the hours and hours I played, I never once felt like I had any surplus of resources.  I was ALWAYS just barely scraping by!  My most sensational moment was when I beat a demon and got 5 gold … which I think HAD to spend ALL OF IT back at port to heal the five party members who were dead/close to death.  There’s other ways to heal, but they are all so slow!!!   The command tokens allow you to do things, but they were always so scarce!  A random encounter would beat you up (“Hey, you get bit by a snake. Take a venom.”), and then you’d spend your command tokens just to deal with the repercussions of that event.  I would have an encounter and get beat up, and go back to port, spending almost ALL of my resources to get my crew back up to snuff.  I never felt like I was doing even thing but barely keeping my up.
  4. Work.  This game felt like work.  I felt like I was doing my taxes.  I was hoping that feeling would go away after a few hours of playing and familiarity, but no, it didn’t.  There were always so many tokens to keep track of (command, fatigue) and 8 characters (!) to manage and ability cards and the ship board and the event deck and the adventure book and the so many little rules.  The game has so many little fiddly rules to keep track of: this is why it feels like doing taxes: “I need a command token which I get next turn, but the doctor had command tokens already on his board so I have to clean his board so I can heal the snake byte, but only if I have enough command tokens.”  Every action seemed to have so many preconditions and governing rules, it just felt like work keeping track of all it (consulting the rulebook and just following up and managing the tokens).
  5. No Stand Up Moments.  I played all the way through the first  event deck.  There were no stand-up moments where I cried “Hurray!”  Even after beating the demon, I just sighed inwardly because I knew I had to heal my crew, and it was going to cost everything I had.  I just always felt like I was barely keeping afloat: I did not have fun.
  6. No Sense of Humor.  This game is very serious.  That’s fine and dandy, but the lack of a sense of humor just reinforces how much this game feels like work. 

This game is not for me.  I don’t like living in this world.  I like games where I can do some planning and try to do my best to mitigate the randomness. Sleeping Gods is just too random for me. All I did was keep the randomness under control to keep a steady state, but there was very little growth.  I realized I was done with this game for good when it completely discarded all the ability cards I had installed onto my characters at the end of the first “round” (first time through the event deck)!  I had scraped and struggled to install even a few abilities, and it just took it ALL away without warning.  And this kind of thing happened ALL THE TIME.   I felt like I made no progress and I was frustrated. I had no fun.

Conclusion

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Sleeping Gods is a beautiful game with beautiful graphic design and beautiful components. The First Play book is good (although not quite as good as Tainted Grail), allowing you to get into the game quickly. The rulebook is decent/”good enough”. The world created by Ryan Laukat shows a lot of care and imagination!! The storybook, which explores this world, is chock full of neat little vignettes that are fun to read. A lot of people on BoardGameGeek really like this game: if you go here and see, it (at the time of this writing) Sleeping Gods has an overall rating of 8.8/10. A lot of people (in their comments) even say this is Ryan Laukat’s best game!

I personally do not like this game and plan to sell it as soon as possible. It’s too random, there’s too little choice, the resources are too scarce, the game feels like work, and there’s no stand-up moments that make me emote. BUT: I am in the minority here! Please temper my reaction with other reviews you might find on BoardGameGeek.

If you are looking for a Storybook game, look instead to the Top 10 Cooperative Storytelling/Storybook Games for alternatives! You’ll notice that I do recommend another Ryan Laukat game in there: Near and Far! If you want a completely silly game with a sense of humor where you don’t care if it’s too random (because you just like living in that world), I would recommend The House of Danger.

Top 10 Anticipated Cooperative Games of 2021

The dumpster fire that was 2020 delayed publication of a lot of games! I have about 20 games in the queue that I am really looking forward to being delivered in 2021. Here’s my Top 10 cooperative games that should be delivering in 2021! All of them are Kickstarters and most of them are pretty late … but arguably that’s just the 2020 effect (or is that just the Kickstarter effect?). Each game includes a Kickstarter link, the original promised delivery date, and a summary of the game (from the Description section of BoardGameGeek).

(Dis)Honorable Mention: Onimaru
Late pledges are open. Continue to follow P&P's Facebook page and the updates here for notifications! https://www.facebook.com/PenguinandPandaProd/?ref=oniks

Kickstarter link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/penguinandpanda/onimaru-0
Promised Delivery: Sept. 2019
Summary: Onimaru (Japanese for “demon circle”) is a fully cooperative game where you and your allies take up arms to defend a village against otherworldly invaders. You will win the game if you are able to destroy the three villainous Oni. However, if you fail to do so within the predetermined number of days (rounds), the Gate will remain open forever, and all of Japan will succumb to the shadow!

This might be the first Kickstarter I have backed where I might not get anything.  The game originally promised delivery in Sept. 2019, and at the time of this writing (February 2021), there is still nothing and it doesn’t look promising.  We’ll see: I hope this game still delivers in 2021, but I really doubt it.  The art looked so cool, and the theme was interesting for a cooperative game.

Game Layout

10. Raid Boss

A Tabletop Cooperative RPG Battle for 1-4 Heroes in the fantasy-punk world of Incarnate.

Kickstarter link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/skeletonhand/raid-boss-a-dangerous-cooperative-battle-for-1-4-h-0
Promised Delivery: Feb. 2020
Summary: Raid Boss: Incarnate is a 4-player cooperative boss battle designed to feel like an MMORPG dungeon encounter with all of the teamwork, strategy, and collaboration, but none of the endless grinding! You control a Hero with a mechanically distinct and heavily themed set of abilities. Each Hero has an Assist that can be used at ANY time — including other players’ turns! Gather your team to face off against stalwart, quirky, and skill-testing Bosses that come equipped with their own special deck of cards.

Raid Boss is a cooperative game that comes from a very small publisher. I love the art and these guys seem to have a lot of passion for their game. So, even though this is about a year late (they promised delivery in Feb. 2020), it looks like the arrival of my game is imminent! Once we get this, you can be pretty sure we’ll do a review of it!

Top: Hero Tokens, Bottom: Various Game Tokens

9. Burgle Brothers 2

The crew is back for even crazier co-op heists! New challenges trying to take down a string of casinos in broad daylight!

Kickstarter link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/fowers/burgle-bros-2-the-casino-capers
Promised Delivery: May 2020
Summary: Welcome back to the escapades of the Burgle Bros. This time the team is trying to take down a string of casinos – during the day! They will have to dress-up (or dress-down) to go unnoticed in the crowds at the Casinos. Security here is even tighter – Bouncers chase down any suspicious commotions.

The original Burgle Brothers was quite a hit in my game groups. The newest one promises more of the same but in a Casino heist (a la Oceans 11). The game originally was supposed to deliver in May 2020, but it should be shipping any day now. Look for a review soon!

A game of Burgle Bros. 2: The Casino Capers in progress!

8. Deck of Wonders

A solo (and co-op) legacy card game where Fate herself has stacked the deck against you.

Kickstarter link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/dennisfuria/deck-of-wonders
Promised Delivery: Nov. 2021
Summary: Deck of Wonders is a solo-first expandable card game with legacy elements. It captures the feel of games like Hearthstone and MTG, but in a solo/co-op format. The object of the game is to defeat the various Villains that challenge you for the Deck of Wonders by turning their own spells and minions against them, while enlisting the support of magical creatures and powers of your own.

This is strictly speaking a solo game, but I just loved the art and the idea of a solo legacy game was very intriguing! This plans to deliver in Nov. 2021 … let’s hope it does!

Deck of Wonders on the table

7. The Shivers

Work together in this mystery pop-up Role-Playing Game for 2-5 players, exploring a spooky mansion filled with hidden secrets!

Kickstarter link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1666522852/the-shivers
Promised Delivery: July 2021
Summary: The Shivers is a truly one-of-a-kind tabletop experience that features the magic of hand-crafted pop-ups, combined with just the right amount of spooky puzzle-solving mystery and role playing.

How can you go wrong with a game with the tagline: “Solve escape room adventures in a spooky house built with pop-up sets!”  The idea of an escape room with pop-up components sounds so neat! And a mystery to boot!   This plans to deliver in July 2021 and I am really looking forward to this one!

The new full-color prototype model of the Private Library!

6. Incoming Transmission

Flat-facing box cover for Incoming Transmission! On Kickstarter now!

Kickstarter link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/magicmeeplegames/incoming-transmission-16-bit-deduction-family-boar
Promised Delivery: May 2019
Summary: In this co-operative futuristic board game for two or more, one player takes the role of Mission Control, and the others take control of a Cadet stranded on a heavily-damaged space station set to self-destruct. You will need to use wits and cunning to interpret the instructions as they will not be delivered in order! Figure your way through the objectives before time runs out!

I have been waiting for this game for quite some time: it promised delivery in May 2019. They have been staying in touch with the backers, so I think this game will still deliver pretty soon. It sounds like an interesting co-op, moving your little cadet around the 5×5 modular board.

New updated tiles!

5. Sleeping Gods

Sleeping Gods Final Cover

Kickstarter link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/953146955/sleeping-gods
Promised Delivery: May 2020
Summary: In Sleeping Gods, you and up to 3 friends become Captain Sofi Odessa and her crew, lost in a strange world in 1929 on your steamship, the Manticore. You must work together to survive, exploring exotic islands, meeting new characters, and seeking out the totems of the gods so that you can return home.

By the time you read this, Sleeping Gods will likely be at my house! It’s a beautiful game by Ryan Laukat (who did Near and Far and Above and Below). This cooperative game is billed as “Voyages of the steamship “Manticore” and her crew on the Wandering Sea“. It’s a storybook and exploration game with the wonderful art of Ryan Laukat.

Game Setup (from Sleeping Gods Kickstarter Page)

4. The Isofarian Guard

A 1-2 player narrative driven boardgame featuring a fully voice acted storyline and musical score powered by Forteller!

Kickstarter link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/skykingdomgames/the-isofarian-guard
Promised Delivery: Dec. 2020
Summary: In The Isofarian Guard, you will travel throughout the cities and wildernesses of Isofar on a beautifully illustrated world map, fight off enemies using a unique and highly customizable battle system, and use your wits to talk your way out of sticky situations. As you forge important alliances, opportunities will arise for you to craft stronger gear, gain new powers, and step into the destiny you were called to.

This game is running a little late: it promised delivery in Dec. 2020. I’ll be honest that the art really enticed me into backing it, but the promise of voice-acting and an exploration game and the gorgeous art drew me in. The game is billed as: The Isofarian Guard is a Solo/Co-Op narrative driven adventure board game for 1-2 players. I am really looking forward to seeing how this one works and looks!

A battle with a Falmund Scout

3. Townsfolk Tussle

Townsfolk Tussle Box Art - Sneak Peek edition

Kickstarter link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/townsfolktussle/townsfolk-tussle
Promised Delivery: Sept. 2021
Summary: Townsfolk Tussle is a co-op boss battler for 2-5 players. In each game, your goal is to take down four unique Ruffians, each one tougher than the last! You’ll build up your townsfolk with gear, explore Eureka Springs, and concoct unique strategies to take down even more unique hoodlums.

This cooperative game just looks so quirky, I had to back it! The art is very unique among most board games and kind of looks like the animation style of Steamboat Willy (the cartoon from the 1920s that introduced Mickey Mouse). The game promised delivery in Sept. 2021, so let’s hope we can see this before the end of the year!

Mid Fight Phase Layout - Will Barlow

2. Freedom Five: A Sentinels Comic Board Game

A cooperative comic book adventure game created by the award-winning designers Richard Launius & the Sadler Brothers.

Kickstarter link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/arcanewonders/freedom-five-a-sentinels-comics-board-game
Promised Delivery: Nov. 2021
Summary: Freedom Five: A Sentinel Comics Board Game is a co-operative strategy game in which 1- 5 heroes race to protect their home city and its inhabitants from an onslaught of villainy from Baron Blade and his criminal cohorts. Each player must master their character’s unique abilities to manage multiple crises throughout the city of Megalopolis. Assemble your friends to face standalone challenges, or mix it up and adventure through a series of campaign comics in which you will gain rewards ⁠— and new threats ⁠— each session.

This is a re-implementation of Defenders of the Realm, which is in itself a re-implementation of Pandemic! The Superhero theme and component quality have me very excited! I’ve always really liked Defenders of the Realm and Pandemic, so I hope this new version is the next evolution of those mechanics. There’s not too many pictures of the game yet, but I am very excited for this!

Legacy Resin Print

1. Hour of Need

Hour of Need - Cover Art

Kickstarter link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/blacklistgames/hour-of-need
Promised Delivery: Nov. 2020
Summary: Hour of Need is a cooperative game of comic book action for 1–4 players (or up to 6 players with available expansions). Designed by Adam and Brady Sadler, Hour of Need is the latest installment in their line of Modular Deck System (MDS) games. Set in an original world inspired by modern comic books, Hour of Need puts players in the roles of diverse heroes attempting to thwart dangerous villains from carrying out nefarious deeds!

I really enjoyed the Sadler Brothers design of Warhammer Quest: The Adventure Card Game, and I am excited to see this Super Hero game. It shows promise and may well enter my Top 10 Cooperative Superhero Board and Card Games the next time I update the list!

Gameplay mockup

A Review of Canvas

Canvas was a Kickstarter that funded in May 2020. It’s a very light competitive game for 1-5 players about creating some paintings with cards. It’s a victory point game where the player with the highest number of victory points wins! I actually received this game sometime ago, but I haven’t had a chance to get it to the table until just this week! I also discovered that the game has a solo mode when I opened it up (so I really should have gotten to it sooner).

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So, why are we discussing a competitive game in a cooperative game blog? A number of reasons:

  1. Canvas has several(!) solo modes
  2. There’s an implied cooperative mode (we’ll discuss the Saunders’ Law Converse)
  3. (Spoiler) It’s a really great game!

Let’s take a look at this wonderful game!

Unboxing and Components

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This game is, frankly, just gorgeous. The cover is a piece of art meant to hang on the wall … seriously! The back of the game even has a little place for a hook! (See below) So, if you run out of space for all your games, you can hang this game on the wall. Really.

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Since I was a Kickstarter backer, the game came with some Kickstarter exclusives. This is a victory point game, so one the of the extras was extra scoring cards for the end game.

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Other Kickstarter bonuses consisted of wooden tokens for the ribbons and wooden easels for the mini-paintings the game (shown below). There were also a few more clear painting cards (not shown) which got shuffled into the deck.

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Although the wooden token are really nice, the punch out cardboard tokens are really nice too (see below).  This lead to a funny moment in the unboxing where my friends had zealously punched out ALL the cardboard, and then realized we didn’t need them … so they then proceeded to UNPUNCH the tokens!  (That’s why there a few discontinuities below).  Honestly, you don’t NEED the wooden tokens (because the cardboard tokens are VERY THINK and VERY NICE), but they are nice to have.

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The main component of this game, and the main reason I got the game, was the clear cards (Remember how much I loved the clear cards in Kingdom Rush?). The game comes with a whole pile of clear cards called Art Cards:

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Take a look at just one in isolation: It’s so nice!

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You can see several of these cards (below) laid out on the nice little cloth mat. This cloth mat is really nice and notates clearly where everything goes. The fact that the spaces are WHITE makes it really easy to see what these clear cards look like. The clear cards just beautiful!

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Each player gets some inspiration tokens (the little palettes, see below) these are used to help you select which Art cards you want. You can go as deep as you want into the line of cards (left-to-right), but you have to put an inspiration token on every card you skip. This mechanism might feel very familiar to people who have played Century Spice Road or Century Golem.

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There’s really not too many more components. There’s the background cards (below): Notice that they are sleeved? The sleeves actually come with the game! Each background card must be sleeved!

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Why are the background cards sleeved? Because that’s how you build a painting! You put three clear painting cards (Art Cards) into the background sleeve to form a painting! The painting below uses the far right background above. And then the easels are for “displaying” your painting!

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There’s some cards for the scoring criteria (at the top of the cloth mat below). And the rulebook. And that’s about it for components!

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This game is just beautiful and has some of the nicest little components I have ever seen. It’s gorgeous!

The Rulebook

The rulebook is well done.  This sounds weird to say, but the rulebook feels good!  It has a”texture” to it, so when you start handling it, it feels kind of nice.  I know, that’s weird to say.  Look at the picture above, and you can almost see the texture.

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The rulebook starts with a quick overview of what’s in the game and the art cards. Interestingly, they chose not have a components page up first. I think this still works because the components are covered by the bottom of the box and the back of the box.

The next page shows a nice set-up:

This set-up was super clear and we just jumped right in!  The rest of the rules are pretty straight-forward.

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The scoring is a little confusing the first time you play, but the rulebook goes through some examples of how to score (see above) and does a real nice job explaining the finer details.  We discuss that more below. 

The last page of the rulebook shows off not one but two solo variants!  We’ll discuss those too!

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This was a good rulebook.  It was easy to jump right in. And did I mention that the rulebook feels good too?  Oh, I did? Oh ok. I’ll stop.

How to Play!

My first plays usually involve me doing a solo play and then teaching my friends. Since this was a competitive game, I figured I had to wait until I had a small group together. So, this game languished on my shelves for a few weeks until some friends came over … and then I found out the game had not one but two solo modes! D’oh! I could have been playing all along! Ah well. The game is very simple: on your turn, you do one of tho things: (1) Take a Card or (2) Build a Painting. And that’s it!

If you (1) Take a Card, you take one of the clear painting cards (Art Cards) from the tableau below:

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Once you take an Art Card, all the other cards slide left and you add a new one to the end.

You can take any Art Card you want, but it may cost you. If you take the first card (the leftmost card) , you can just take it for free! If you take ANY OTHER card, you have to put an “inspiration” token (the little palettes) on every card to the left of the card you want! So, you can usually get the card you want, but it costs you more “inspiration”! Note that you only start with 4 “inspiration” tokens! In the picture above, the two leftmost cards have inspiration tokens … if you took one of those cards, you also get the inspiration tokens as well.

You can usually build a painting whenever you want, but when you have 5 Art Cards, you MUST build a painting on your next turn. Having 5 Art Cards “forces” you to build.

Once all players have built 3 paintings, the game is over.

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We mentioned earlier that this is a victory point game: you get victory point by meeting certain “criteria” for your paintings and getting little awards (see the colorful award tokens below each picture above). At the start of the game, you place out 4 scoring criteria at the top of the cloth mat: these are your criteria!

Up close, the scoring criteria tells you two things: (1) What’s the criteria for getting a ribbon (2) At the end of the game, how many victory points do you get for your ribbons.

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For example, the “Proximity” criteria above tells you that you will get a ribbon (green ribbon, because it’s on the green space) if you have the two symbols next to each other on your painting. (There are actual names for the symbols, but none of my players ever cared: they just looked at the symbols themselves). So, how many green ribbons would the picture below get?

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We would get 2 green ribbons for the painting above because we have two pairs of those symbols adjacent!

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At the end of the game, you collect all the “like” ribbons (see above) and add up the corresponding numbers! For example: since I had 3 green ribbons, I would get 8 points for proximity criteria.

Whomever has the most points wins!

First Play

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My gaming group ADORED this game! We had so much fun playing! It was easy to set-up, easy to play, and relatively easy to score. (It took a second to get the scoring down, but the rulebook had examples that explained it really well). We totally hammed it up when played too!

Today I am unveiling a new MASTERPIECE from the mind of genius of Terrrrezzzza.  Behold my brilliance! Today the art world shudders!

Sara said immediately after we played: “I want to get a copy!  This game is awesome!”  This game was an immediate hit for my group!  We all loved the components and  the look-and-feel of the game! We loved the simplicity of play!  We loved unveiling our art!  This is a gateway game almost anyone would enjoy.

Solo Play

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For such a simple game, it’s surprising Canvas has two solo modes! The first solo mode (Painting with Vincent) is a good intro solo mode with more randomness. The second mode (Solo Puzzle) is a little more like a solo puzzle. In both cases, you try to get the best score you can, and compare it to the scoring criteria at the bottom (see picture above).

The first solo mode is a more “random” game, as you play against Vincent (Vincent is just you as a second player). Vincent, however, just eats up random cards on the Art Card tableau between your turns. As a solo player, you throw Vincent’s inspiration tokens and spends them to take cards like a normal player: all face-up inspiration tokens get spent left-to-right to take the one remaining. If Vincent has no inspiration left, he simply takes the leftmost card. Basically, you play Vincent like another player, but he randomly chooses cards.

The second solo more is a little more puzzly, as you play by yourself. The major difference is that any cards that you SKIP when taking an Art Card are REMOVED FROM THE GAME. Thus, your act of choosing cards further to the right will cause all cards to the left to go away, so you must be careful.

All in all, both modes were fine. The first solo mode is probably a good way to learn the game. The second solo mode has more “meat” and will probably be the way to play the game solo once you know it better.

Saunders’ Law Converse

You have heard us mention Saunders’ Law many times in this blog. See here for original post. Essentially, it says “If you have a game with a cooperative mode, designers should really should put a viable solo mode in“. Usually it’s easy to add a solo mode to a cooperative game by just having the solo player play two characters, but in the presence of hidden information, this can be hard (see discussions of Changing Perspective and How to Play a Cooperative Game Solo). But what about the converse?

The converse of Saunders’ Law would say “If a game has a solo mode, designers should really put in a viable cooperative mode“. Does this seem plausible? If we have a game with a solo mode, can we play it cooperatively? It seems like most of the time, you probably can! For example, Nemo’s War (which we reviewed here) essentially adds a cooperative mode by having each player take turns playing the captain and going around the table. It’s a simple idea. Can we apply this to Canvas?

Absolutely!  If we play the solo “Puzzle Mode”, we can simply go around the table with each player taking a turn in the solo game.  The players are all talking together and collaborating, but instead of just one player taking all the turns, the players alternate!  Of course, if there are any disagreements about which cards to play, it’s always up the player whose turn it is.   (Heh, I can imagine the “current painter” token being a little paintbrush)

Thematically, I would liken this to a group art project, where everyone is contributing to creating the art piece together.

EDIT: A more common term for playing a solo game with multiple people is “Solo Multiplayer”.

A Few Minor Problems

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The easels are cool for showing off your painting, but sometimes they have trouble standing up.  My friend Sara said you can probably get much better little easels a Micheal’s or you favorite craft store.  Since they were a Kickstarter extra, you may not get them anyways.   If you just get the retail version, maybe go to Micheal’s: having the little easels was VERY THEMATIC and it was fun having a place to show your paintings!  (Also, the easels don’t fit in the box)

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As cool and awesome and amazing as the clear cards were, they seemed to scratch VERY EASILY. I’ve only played a smallish number of times now, and the clear cards are already starting to get a little scratched (see above). I think what this means is: be careful when you handle the cards. Don’t scrape, and be very careful when shuffling. I worry the cards will look crummy and scratched after too many plays. Just be careful. EDIT: Also be aware that EVERY CLEAR CARD has a little plastic wrap on it to protect it!! You may or may not want to take those off … they offer extras protection, but make the cards less clear.

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One final worry: the criteria cards can be confusing. It would have been nice if the rulebook listed all the criteria cards and had a longer “English” explanation rather than just one sentence. We usually puzzled them out, but some of the criteria are confusing. EDIT: Upon looking at the back of the criteria cards, I found my “English” explanation … worry for this withdrawn!

These are all just minor issues and don’t hold the game back.

Conclusion

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Holy Cow, this game is awesome! Everyone loves it, the components are amazing, and it is fun. The theme is well-executed and the game flows so well. And it looks beautiful on the table. There’s even two solo modes (one to learn the game and the other for a challenging puzzle)! These solo modes can be reimagined to run as a cooperative mode, and I think the presence of a cooperative mode extends Canvas‘ age range! I can imagine young children wanting to play this game, and the cooperative mode (Saunders’ Law Converse), would make it easy for parents could play Canvas cooperatively with their kids.

This is an amazing gateway game that’s beautiful and fun. The gameplay maybe too simple for hardcore gamers, but the game is charming and will entice most people of all ages, even non-gamers!

This game was a huge surprise that’s it’s as good as it is.

A Review of Kingdom Rush (Rift in Time), Part I. Unboxing, Solo Play, and First Impressions

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Kingdom Rush came onto Kickstarter some time ago. I hemmed and hawed about picking up this cooperative tower defense game, but in the end, I didn’t back it. There were so many goals and expansions it seemed like backing it would just be so expensive for a game I knew nothing about (and it didn’t really grab me). So I ended up passing on the Kickstarter … I didn’t back it all. It just seemed like too much money. Fast forward: Kingdom Rush delivered to its Kickstarter backers in late 2020 (November? December?) and a number of reviewers seemed to give it a good review. Tom Vasel liked it enough (see video here) and the coopboardgames.com made it their number 8 cooperative board game of the year for 2020!

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Well, CoolStuffInc had just a sale on Kingdom Rush just this last week for like $35 or so. Hm: I thought it was worth $35 to try this out!! So I grabbed some birthday and Christmas presents for my friends (yes, I get a lot of my friends board games as presents, so sue me) to get my order to $100 (for free shipping). It arrived today (Feb. 6th, 2021)! Let’s check out Kingdom Rush (Rift in Time), a cooperative tower defense game for 1-4 people!

Unboxing

This box is actually quite big! For $35, I think I got a really good deal! Opening up, I was a little disappointed to see how much empty space was at the top of the box:

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I assume all that extra space was for all the Kickstarter stuff I didn’t get.

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The game has some stickers for a “legacy aspect” (to denote how far you got in the campaign). You don’t have to use them to denote your progress (pencil and paper work fine if you don’t want to finalize your game).

The rulebook is right there at the top of the pile: it has a lot of art and looks good (but see our Rulebook discussion later)

The Scenario book is next in the box: Kingdom Rush comes with 10 Scenarios in the base game.

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There’s even a little map that shows how the Scenarios unfold (see below). You’ll note that the map describes ALL the scenarios in ALL the expansions and base game. If you end up really liking this game, there appears to be a ton of content. For now, the base game comes with 10 scenarios.

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Underneath the books are a bunch of cardboard sheets: there is a lot to punchout in this game!

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Below, you can see the cardboard sheets divided into (a) landscape (b) spells/powers (c) generic tokens and (d) polyominal tokens. The polyominal tokens are the basis of the game: you’ll be placing those tokens on tiles to do damage!!

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It’ll take you a while to punchout all the tokens.  I want to say it took be a good hour or more.

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Unfortunately, the game didn’t come with too many extra plastic bags, so I ended up having to go find some extra to help me rebox (at the end).

There’s still a bunch of stuff under the cartdboard bits: cards, minis, plastic trays, some clear plastic cards, and player boards: see below.

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The minis are held down by some cardboard inserts to make sure they don’t move much in the box.

The minis do lot pretty good. I’m not a minis guy (so I don’t know minis that well), but I liked them well enough.

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The player boards (5 total) are stored over on the left. Interestingly, they unfold and kind of remind me of the Dice Throne character boards (see review of Dice Throne Adventures here).

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The boards look nice unfolded, but they were kind of stiff and stayed open: i.e., they didn’t stay flay too well.

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The character boards still look very cool. It’s also clear that every character has a “color” associated with them WHICH IS VERY CLEAR! I like this, because it makes it blindingly obvious when some other components belong to that character. I remember being a little frustrated with the color choices in Tainted Grail (see here), but luckily this doesn’t have that problem. The character card (below) is used to help you notate when you’ve “activated” your character on the board.

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There’s some helper cards (1 for each player). I am always a fan of these, but these were just more a reminder of certain icons. There is a very tiny player summary on each character boards, but I really wanted a TRUE summary card, especially since the rulebook kinda sucked (foreshadowing). I’ve found that a good turn summary card can carry a crummy rulebook (it saved Code 3: see here), and I am sad to say there’s not a great turn summary card for Kingdom Rush, just an icon summary.

The big bad Bosses that you fight also have miniatures and some cards describing their behavior.  They are pretty cool looking, especially Lord Blackburn!IMG_8059

I’ve got to give a shout out to the clear cards in the game.  I love clear cards!  These are used in the game to notate where players can place their towers (this is a tower defense game after all). 

I couldn’t figure out what the little wooden soldiers were for until quite a bit in (they are used to help stop the bad guys from moving).

There some more cards we’ll see in the playthroughs, but overall there are a lot of really good components! The game looks really nice: see below!

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The Rulebook and Scenario Book

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I had a lot of problems with this rulebook. Almost all of the games I’ve learned here at Coop Gestalt, I’ve learned myself just by reading the rulebook. This was the first time in a very long time that I had to go find a you tube video to help me learn the game: I ended up with this one from Lucky Duck games.

The rulebook starts out well: it shows all the components on the first few pages (hint: turn the page, there’s more components on the next page):

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This worked well. I always like having a list of components while I am unboxing: it makes it a very visceral experience as I correlate physical pieces with the pictures from the components page. This made me very happy, especially seeing all the cool components in the game. Next, almost all modern rulebooks head into set-up. We don’t. We get redirected to another book, and this is where things starts to go wrong.

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You’ll notice above, I have two book open now, the rulebook and scenario book. And we start talking about general set-up. I had to re-read this page a few times to get what I was trying to do. There WAS NO INTRO SCENARIO. After playing Tainted Grail last week, I think I am spoiled: Tainted Grail has one of the best “get up and start playing right away” books I have ever seen, so coming into this, I was a bit overwhelmed. It seems to just “jump” into things without explaining a lot. I had to go back and forth between the rulebook and the scenario book multiple times to figure out the set-up. It felt very non-linear and frustrating.

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This General set-up is just FILLED with words without any pictures! The best set-ups show a picture with annotations. This “generic” set-up frustrated me. I still didn’t get it, so I had to turn the first Scenario I would play and look at that:

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Finally, some pictures! But really compressed on a page. So now, I am flipping between the main rulebook, the “generic set-up” on the pages before, and the Scenario picture itself! No! I think this was when I started looking for a you tube video.

Why does this rulebook frustrate me so much? I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I played.

  1. I don’t like the font choice. A “comic-book” all-caps font my be thematic, but this font isn’t expressive! I find that reading a lot of text in this font is draining. (Recall, I had the same problem with the rulebook for Obliveon). Fonts on cards should absolutely be this font. Rulebooks should be a soothing fonts, especially if you have to consult it a lot.
  2. There seem to be a lot of walls of text in the game. A first look of the rulebook would seem to indicate a lot of pictures, and sure there were a number of good pictures. But there just seemed to be so many “walls of text” that didn’t help explain anything. The solo rules would be a good example: no pictures! As would the portal rules.
  3. Pictures that WERE there were poorly referenced. For example, the scenario book refers to “difficulty” and “stars”, and there is sort of a chart on the page, but what does it mean? It doesn’t actually seem to refer to the chart, you just kind of have to realize it correlates, sorta.
  4. Some rules, especially for solo weren’t explained well or at all. According to the rulebook, the only way to upgrade your towers is to pass them. It’s very clear in red font:

    Yet, that is IMPOSSIBLE in a solo game (there’s no one to pass cards to)! And it wasn’t discussed in the solo rule section. I went ahead and assumed that you could “pass to yourself” and update any towers I didn’t use.
  5. Frustration with the first play. Too much non-linearity. I have played 100s of board game and read 100s of rulebooks, and I was especially frustrated with the jumping around so much in a game I knew nothing about.

A very simple example: when do I turn up my hoardes to see what’s there? There’s no mention in the rulebook. The video guy just said “ok, let’s turn up the hoard cards and see what’s there”. When am I supposed to do this?

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Kingdom Rush needs a few things and I think the game would be a LOT better.

  1. It need some player summary cards: those would have helped a lot and maybe answered some of the questions I had with game flow.
  2. It needs a “first play” that shows you more step-by-step how to set-up and play the first time, a la Tainted Grail.
  3. It needs another pass at the rulebook with a different font.

I guess you could say this is a Kickstarter rulebook. It really put me in a bad mood and I almost gave up on this game.

Set-Up and Solo Game

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First try at set-up (above).

So, the game does come with a solo game mode (yay, Saunders’ Law),  but the changes to make the solo game aren’t expressed well.  You basically play one character (I am playing Malik, see above) and play the game normally.  There are 3 other changes in the book, but I  didn’t get what they meant until I read the book and watched the video a few times.  Basically, (a) you can use one of the other characters in the game as a “one-shot” when you really need it (b) Your towers can  come out on 2 of the 3 colors, (c) something else.

Admittedly, the solo mode works pretty well once you understand it, but it’s just so hard to get to that point.

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Remember, this is a tower defense game!  The players have a “tableau” of towers (see above) they can buy/upgrade during the game!  I ran out of space, so I had to put this tableau off to the side.  When you start the game, your character sheet describe which towers you start with:

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Note, Malik starts (in a 1-player game) with the 4 towers (bottom right): Mage, Footman, Archer, and Artillery (see above).  The game seems to very good at scaling which towers you get, based on the number of players. 

As you play, you can upgrade your towers (by passing cards to yourself or your teammates) or buy new towers (using crystal).  Defeating the invading hordes gives you more crystal. 

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You place your towers on the little points (see the “clear cards” we discussed earlier?) In a solo game, you can only use 2 of the 3 colors as tower spawns. In the picture above, I chose green and purple (and couldn’t use yellow) for tower spawns. Not that each tower has range and directionality! What are we trying to do? Cover all the enemies of an enemy tray with damage! If we do that, we have defeated the tray of enemies and that tray goes away! How do we do damage? With the polyominal pieces!

In the picture above, the 3 enemy trays in the column have all enemy spaces covered! So, they will be defeated at the end of the turn. The enemy tray on the upper right still has 3 goblins uncovered, so it will stay in play!

How do you win? It varies per scenario, but in Scenario 1 you simply must defeat both Portals (see more discussion of the portals below). You lose if your “hit points” goes to 0 or the Portals cross the exit (the exit is right next to the hearts above).

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You can see the “enemy” spaces better (above). Note you can also see Malik getting his hands dirty! You characters actually come out on the map and fight WITH the towers! So, to win you will need to place the right towers, use your characters to do special damage, and make sure you keep the enemies in check. You have to destroy the Portals to win, but you also have to make sure you aren’t overrrun with other enemies.

An “A-Ha” Moment

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In my first game, I had a Portal about to leave an exit. If it escaped, I lost. I was trying to figure out how to place my towers so they could do damage: I had to cover 6 enemy spots in the Portal (see above), but my polyominal tiles couldn’t be placed in such a way as to cover ALL enemies! Nooooo!!! “I’m going to lose!”

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… until I realized I could use my “one-shot” extra hero to help me! Remember; this is one of the modifications for the solo game: you can use a hero as a one shot to come in and do damage! With that realization, I had to use my extra (purple) hero! And I was able to stop the Portal!

This was my “A-ha!” moment. Up until now, I was pretty grumpy with the game (as you may have figured out), but at this point, now that I had been playing a few rounds, understanding the game and putting everything together, I saw how the game played out. And all of a sudden, I was having fun! This little “A-ha!” moment turned the game around for me.

Conclusion

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This game is probably too complicated for what it is. The rules aren’t explained well, and there are a lot of rules. I am glad I didn’t go full in on this. I think $35 (or a little more) might be just about the right price point for me for this game. As grumpy as I was with the rulebook, the whole game turned around for me at my “A-ha!” moment. I had fun and I’d like to play this again.

If you think this cooperative defense game sounds fun, check it out, but I would strongly recommend watching the Lucky Duck video to learn the game. Be aware that the rulebook isn’t great and your first play through will be very frustrating. (I had to actually leave the room and come back I was so frustrated)

I’d recommend checking this game out if you can find it for under $40. Maybe you’ll love it and want to seek out all the extra content. Or maybe you’ll find the base game to be enough as a satisfying cooperative tower defense game … if you can get through the rules.

A Review of Tainted Grail, Part I. Unboxing, Solo Play, and First Impressions

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Tainted Grail was on Kickstarter quite some time ago (December 2018).  Tainted Grail is a cooperative campaign game with exploration, combat, diplomacy, and a rich story (it has a story book) set in the world of Arthurian legends.  The world is not the “happy” Arthurian world of Camelot! Not that the story of Arthur is happy, but Tainted Grail is a dark game centering on a world where Avalon has faded.  IMG_7657

I had essentially only backed the base game of Tainted Grail  (which, by default,  came with some great Stretch Goals).  I had not read the fine print, which indicated that there were two Waves of shipping: Wave I (shipping to backers sometime in in November 2019) and Wave II (which JUST came to me in mid January 2021)!  Even though I only ordered the base game, the Stretch Goals box wasn’t ready, so they deferred the Stretch Goals box until Wave 2.  If I had paid something like an extra $10 (?), I could have gotten the base game shipped back in November 2019.   I hadn’t paid close enough attention (my fault) to this shipping scheme, so I just got (mid January 2021) all my Tainted Grail stuff!

Before I get into this, you have to understand there was a little grumpiness here: a lot of reviewers had proclaimed Tainted Grail the “game of the year” for 2019: as a Kickstarter backer who didn’t see this until just now … I admit being a bit grumpy it took sooooo long to get to me.

Unboxing Extra Content and Stretch Goals

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I showed my friends the box it all came in (see the Coke can for scale). They joked it was a Clorox box! (Big and heavy, just like a Bleach box. Side note: if you are ever moving: get bleach boxes! They are built to handle heavy loads! Back to your review …). What’s in the box?

Oh ya, I had gotten some minis: The Monsters of Avalon: Pretty cool, but not strictly necessary: they will be monsters that augment the game when you go into combat. See below.

And this was the reason I had to wait: the Stretch Goals box.

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And you know what?  It was worth the wait … I think.  Inside the Stretch Goals box was essentially as much stuff as the original game! It has two campaigns (Age of Legends and Last Knight), which includes two new storybooks and tons of new cards and new miniatures!  It’s almost like getting two new games!

We still aren’t to the main box, because we got a surprise box! In here was basically just an art book for the next game and a little almanac/art book for Tainted Grail. There were “nice”, but I don’t know how much I’d use them. Still, always nice to get more!

As cool as all the extra content is, let’s take a closer look at the Base Game.

Unboxing the Core Game

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The base game box is pretty big. The first thing you see when you open it is the getting started pamphlet!

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What’s this?  The “Start Here” booklet promises to get you up and running in the game in 1 hour!  We’ll take a look at how it does below!  Let’s take a look at what else is in here. The rulebook is next:

 

Then the Exploration Journal (this is, after all, a Storybook game). It’s quite thick!

There’s some “save sheets” because this is a campaign game.

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And some “letters”: there’s one of these letters addressed to each member of the party!

Underneath all the books and paper, we start getting into the meat of the game. Each player will take the role of a character: you can see the character boards here and a Stretch Goal (an alternative character named Niamh: the game is still only 4 characters, but she offers an alternative).

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These character sheets are pretty nice: notice how they are dual-layer!

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Inside the box, you see all the main stuff! The miniatures, the dice, some plastic components and SO MANY CARDS!!!

 

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The miniatures are quite nice:

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Here’s one close up:

And again to emphasize: SOO MANY CARDS!  Also note that are slots to store cards: we’ll find out later that a lot of those slots are to “save” your hand between chapters in the campaign.

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There’s some plastic components as well: the red markers you see will be used for marking most things in the game.

Here’s some of the cards unpacked:

Let’s take a closer look at the board again. Note that the main board comes out!

Overall, the components in Tainted Grail are just FANTASTIC (as are most Awaken Realms games are).

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First Play

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So, Tainted Grail hits it out the park for your first play. There’s a lot of decks, but you don’t need to unwrap ALL your components just to try it out! There’s a 4 page pamphlet that takes you through the game and it only takes about an hour!

As we have said many times, the best way to learn a co-op game is to learn the game as a solo player and teach it to your friends (see Saunders’ Law entry here).  And that’s what Tainted Grail does as its first play! First, you choose one of the 4 (5 with stretch goals) character to play: I choose Boer.

Then you set yourself up with that character! A lot of the set-up is actually on the character cards themselves:

The red markers are used for just about any demarcation in the game. For the characters, they are used for your attributes (on the left and right sides) and your Energy, Health, and Terror (long column on left side of card). The game is essentially split into two parts: 1) “Stuff you do during the day” (like exploration or movement) and that costs Energy and 2) Combat or Diplomacy (which consumes your Health and maybe Terror). These will be replenished by eating food (at the very bottom of the character sheet above).

The FIRST PLAY rules are very clear how to set this up! The FIRST PLAY also sets up your world: these are oversized cards that connect to each other (ala The 7th Continent or Etherfields).

As you explore this world above, the FIRST PLAY takes you through a sample Combat and a sample Diplomacy, both coming from the encounter cards (each of the colors denotes a different type of encounter).

When everything is all set-up for your first play, the board should look something like this. Note the special Combat and Diplomacy decks for the character on the left and right side!

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As you head into the game, you also start looking at the Exploration Book (remember, this is a campaign game with an ongoing story in the Exploration Book!)

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As you explore and move on your first day, you read the Campaign book (above). One of the first things you do, after moving is get into a combat!! The FIRST PLAY walks you through a Combat very well: it actually notates the first Combat card for you!

For Combat, you take some cards from your Combat deck and play them left to right, letting the Monster attack after you play a few cards for the round. Damage and effects happen because the little squares on the edges “line up” (see below).

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As you are in Combat, you do damage trying to get 4 damage in this case to win (see above). If you win, you get the loot (in this case, some food). As you are fighting, you will probably lose some Health and maybe some other stuff.

The other type of encounter in the game is Diplomacy. Diplomacy is handled similarly to combat (putting out cards left to right), but in this case it’s a “tug of war” of wills trying to get the red cube to the top of the Affinty Track (see below).

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During all of this play, there are three Summary cards which are absolutely indispensable:

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These cards are two sided and summarize the day phase (when you explore and move) and the Combat or Diplomacy (when you engage as the result of an exploration or other).  These are very useful and I am so happy they exist!

After about an hour, you get to move, explore, read from the Storybook, encounter some Monsters and right (Combat) and try to sway a guard (Diplomacy).   The game really walks you through this first play so nicely!

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See above for most of the FIRST PLAY!

Honestly, this was one of the best first plays I ever had.  It was so easy to set-up and play through! The FIRST PLAY book made it so easy to get a sense of the game.  After my first hour playing Tainted Grail, I felt like I understood the game!  And I hadn’t even gotten to the rulebook yet! 

Rulebook and Unwrapping

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It’s weird to talk about the Rulebook AFTER playing once through already!  (That’s how good that first game is, you don’t have to refer to the rulebook).  The rulebook does most of the things you want a good rulebook to do: A nice intro components page:

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I have to admit, I spent a LOT of time on this first page as I unwrapped all my cards (I only needed a few for the FIRST PLAY).  So, I feel like I was on this page for almost 1 hour as I unrwapped and correlated cards.

There were a few things I didn’t like: the cards are notated with single letters for G=Green, B=Brown, U=Blue, R=Red, Y=Grey.   Um, these were weird colors to pick, AND the letters they chose were weird, AND the colors on the cards weren’t actually that pronounced.  It was hard to tell the cards apart!    See the card below … that’s Green (ya, I know it looks yellow).

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Once you get the decks separated, it’s not too big of a deal, but it cost me at least 10 minutes as I tried to sort/distinguish the cards. These seemed like some weird choices that weren’t very “distinctive”. See below (with 4 different piles for the 4 different “colors”).

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Something else that wasn’t apparent: you know that FIRST PLAY deck we had for our first game?  It kind of looks like its separate from the game BUT NO!  You need to fold all those cards into the main game!  A little sentence somewhere would have helped!!  For example, there are 30 purple encounters.  But the components say 31 … wherre’s the other?  OOOooooh, back in the FIRST PLAY deck!  Any kind of notation would have helped: 30 PURPLE ENCOUNTERS + 1 FIRST PLAY or something like that would have gone a long way!

From here, the rulebook is fine. It elaborates on a lot of stuff we saw in the FIRST PLAY. The rules are fairly straight-forward, if a little “boring” because we feel like we have seen all these rules already! One complaint I had was the the Index felt incomplete: I liked that they HAD an index, but the two or three times I tried to use it, my lookup wasn’t in there. (Do you know what a charge is? Neither does the index!)

Overall, the rulebook was good. It could use a better Index and maybe slightly better explanations on the component page, but it worked. I didn’t have any major problems.

A Little Deeper

After playing through the FIRST PLAY, I wanted to get a sense of how the Campaign really worked. There’s a lot more to set-up and handle when you are playing a real game, but the FIRST PLAY really gave me the confidence that “THIS IS EASY!”.

I played Chapter 1 of the Fall of Avalon Adventure. The rules were fairly evident. The storybook was engaging.

The game wasn’t much harder to get into after that FIRST PLAY. As a I played, I marked off some stuff on the save sheet, then had to put my cards back in the box for the next play. The save system was fairly easy.

I just wanted to make sure my FIRST PLAY wasn’t a fluke: nope! Playing the real campaign game isn’t that much harder than your first play.

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Although, it does take up more space as you need to have your notes! You’ll notice I have my Exploration Book off to the side since I ran out of room!

Thoughts On The Experience

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The writing in this game is good.  It feels very evocative!  The storybook just seems to really hit it out the park.  I have heard that they hired “real authors” to write the story, and it shows.  The writing really augments the experience.

I have been enjoying my experience so far.  The game is immersive, as the art and writing and components are just so top-notch.   The save system seems to work very well, so it’s easy to put away and come back.  There’s an ‘experience’ system, so you can make choices on how to upgrade your characters as you play: it seems like you always some kind of interesting choice for upgrades near the end of the chapters.   Like Etherfields, this is also a deck-augmentation game (as you make your Combat and Diplomacy decks better).

The game is a little fiddly as you adjust Health, Experience, Food, etc etc etc, but it’s just the nature of RPG-like games: there’s usually a lot of stats to update.

The Combat and Diplomacy systems are unique.  I don’t know if I love them yet, and I feel like the rulebook doesn’t “quite” explain it well enough, but I have been pushing through.  I like the idea of cards moving left to right, and matching symbols to invoke powers/abilities, but I have had a number of questions.  This system is a little clunky until (I think) you get used to it.

Conclusion

I can see why some reviewers called this their game of the year.  There’s an interesting story that’s unfolding.  The writing is excellent.  The components are first-rate.  The art is thematic and evocative.  All of these elements make a very immersive game.  

There are still a lot of rules to deal with to play this game, but that FIRST PLAY set-up gives you so much confidence that it feels easy to jump into the game!  I wish all games had a FIRST PLAY that worked that well! 

I am curious what I will think of the Diplomacy and Combat systems over time, because they were the only thing I wasn’t 100% sure about. But those systems was different and interesting.  

Overall, I really like this game.  I look forward to playing all the way through The Fall of Avalon and see how it goes!  I may even try to play with my friends!  Solo play works really well in this game, so I don’t need to … 

 

A Review of The Umbrella Academy Card Game

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The Umbrella Academy is a Kickstarter that came out in mid 2020.  I typically like SuperHero/comic themed games (see my Top 10 Cooperative Superhero Board and Card Games), so I backed this one. The art looked pretty good.

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I’ll cut to the chase. This game is terrible. Out of the box, the game is unplayable. I played one turn and just lost.  There weren’t any choices and I didn’t draw any decent cards.  Disgusted, I put the game away thinking I did something wrong: maybe I’ll try again.  At that point, the game sat at a 1 or 2 out of 10.

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Out of the box rules: the Umbrella Academy game is UNPLAYABLE

I looked here at the ratings on BoardGameGeek and saw a lot of 1/10 ratings. It wasn’t just me.   But someone did mention that there was an updated rulesheet on the BGG site. So, on BoardGameGeek: here’s the updated rules. See below, accessing the NEW rules on my computer.

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This time, I made it through 2 turns before I died.

The game looks decent: it evokes the theme of Umbrella Academy pretty well. See some pictures below.

The game is essentially cooperative War:  you just get cards and play them. You have almost no choices: you have to move left to right, you have to play a card, you can’t hold onto cards to try to beat a later foe.

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Like WAR, you either beat the villain or not.  (IF you tie, there looks like a cool tiebreaker, but it’s too little too late at this point).  It has player elimination (always a red flag), and if all players die (by going to hit points), the game is over and the players lose.  

This game feels horribly underdeveloped.  I’ll give an example: you use your Player Card moving up and down on a track to notate your hit points.  A fine mechanic I’ve seen in other games.

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BUT, you are supposed to “rotate” your player card 45 degrees if you use your power … so now, the same card that’s notating your hit points is rotated … which line is it on? It’s not clear now! (See below)

How did no one notice this (above) in playtesting?  This doesn’t work! It’s at best fiddly and at worst confusing!

So, the art (see above) brings the game up at puts it at 2 or 3/10.  It’s unplayable out of the box and almost unplayable with the updated rulesheet. It’s just a bad card game that aspires to be cooperative war (but fails).

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I was hoping The Umbrella Academy might be a nice light weight cooperative game for me and my friends.  If you looking for a lightweight cooperative game, I’d recommend either Heroes of Tenefyr (see here, although some of my friends didn’t like it) or No Nu Kuni (see here): both are lightweight.   Heroes of Tenefyr is kind of like cooperative war in the guise of a dungeon crawler, but it feels like things happen, you have some choices, and it’s very cute.  Ni No Kuni is like a entry level cooperative resource game where the theme might really bring you in.  Both of those games are playable and significantly more fun than Umbrella Academy.

A Review of Dice Throne Adventures (the cooperative expansion for Dice Throne)

Dice Throne Adventures is an expansion for the Dice Throne series of games.  This expansion turns Dice Throne into a cooperative game for 1-4 players.  The original Dice Throne is a competitive, dice-chucking, 1 vs. 1 game, where each player takes the role of a mythical character trying to defeat the other player.  The cooperative expansion has the players explore a world and fight big-bad bosses together!  Essentially, Dice Throne Adventures takes the core Dice Throne game, and throws the players into a party working together to defeat the Mad King and his minions!!

Introduction

So, in March 2018 (quite some time ago), my friend Sam and I played Dice Throne (Season 1) at Dice Tower Con West in Las Vegas. I usually don’t like 1 vs. 1 games, but the game was pretty, and I had heard good things about it. We checked it out from the Dice Tower Con library and gave it a go, and you know what? It was fun! It was pretty to look at, easy to learn, and easy to play. There were fun decisions along the way, and we got to chuck a lot of dice. Sam and I enjoyed it enough that it was one of my favorite memories of that Dice Tower Con West 2018!

Kickstarter

Based on my good impression of the game with Sam, I went full in (“Legendary Collector”) on the Kickstarter for Dice Throne Adventures back in August 2019. The “Legendary Collector” pledge included everything (and I mean everything) for Dice Throne: Season 1 (rerolled), Season 2, expansion packs, stretch goals, a dice bowl, miniatures, cards sleeves, and a play mat. But the real reason I backed it: it added a cooperative expansion to the game called Dice Throne Adventures (this is a cooperative games blog after all). As you can see above, there’s a lot of stuff! It was possibly the biggest box of stuff I have ever ordered!!

The big box arrived a few days ago, and I have spent the entire weekend getting into this!

Continue reading “A Review of Dice Throne Adventures (the cooperative expansion for Dice Throne)”

Sentinels Comics RPG Review

Sentinel Comics: The Roleplaying Game – Starter Kit, Greater Than Games, 2017

So, this is a review of both the Sentinels Comics RPG Starter Kit (see above) and the Sentinels Comics Core Rulebook. I picked up the Sentinels Comics RPG Starter Kit a number of years ago, but it sat unopened! It remained in shrink-wrap because I couldn’t find a group here in Tucson who was interested. So, when the main Sentinels Comics Core Rulebook (see below) went on Kickstarter, I had trouble justifying getting it because I still hadn’t opened the base game!

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Luckily, I found a group to play!  Right now, we are currently playing the Sentinels Comics RPG on Thursdays (over Discord) and it’s a blast!  It’s a fun and easy RPG to get into.  The Starter kit has premade characters and makes it VERY EASY to get into the base game!  See below for one of the premade characters!

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The character books describe in just a few pages how to play. I was impressed at how easy it was to get a character going! If you want to make your OWN characters, that’s what you need the main Core Rulebook for!

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Sentinels Starter Kit? Easy to get going quickly. My friend CC, who has been GMing the game for us (and has the Core Rulebook) has played and run a lot more games of Sentinels Comics than myself, so I’ll let him take over!

Sentinels Comics Core Rulebook

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The Sentinel Comics RPG Starter Kit came out in 2017.  It showcased the core gameplay of this new superhero RPG system, included SIX adventures, and offered several beloved characters from a popular card game as playable heroes.  Now, three years later, the core rulebook has finally been released.  Has it been worth the wait (and the $60 price tag)?

I can say, unequivocally, YES.

Let’s look at this book from several perspectives:

Art

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The Sentinel Comics RPG Core Rulebook is easily one of the most beautiful hardbound rulebooks I own, and I’ve owned many over the years.  This book is a thing of beauty.  Full-color superheroic illustrations from many artists, evoking comic panels from many genres, time periods, and art styles fill the book from cover to cover.  Some pieces are better than others, naturally, but rare is the page that doesn’t have an evocative illustration of a hero looking heroic or a villain looking villainous. Greater Than Games did not skimp in this area, and it shows – the book is a pleasure just to flip through.

Graphic Design/Layout

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But what about the layout and presentation?  There are a lot of great affordances in the layout of this book. One very clever element is the fact that each chapter is color-coded, and the edges of each page is tinted to the associated color.  Not only does this make it very quick to find your way through the book when flipping through it, but you can also literally see the chapters when looking at the closed book from the side, allowing you to open the book very close to where you need to.
Another innovation I appreciated was in some rules presentations.  Many of examples of game mechanics in action are provided, and not just inline in the text – instead, they are pulled out and illustrated as comic panels, where each player is speaking to each other with speech balloons, expressions, etc.  This makes reading the rules a pleasure, and is very good at driving home the salient points of the rules. Another example of this is the character creation summary, which is, again, presented as a series of comic panels.  The book is absolutely steeped in the theme, which drives excitement and brainstorming. My only gripe with the graphic design is that the body font chosen has a quite thin line weight which makes it slightly harder to read than it might otherwise be, but they chose a large enough font size for it that it’s not really an issue.

Content and Presentation

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There is a LOT of content in this book.  The book consists of six main chapters (plus an introduction, appendices, index, etc.).  The first main chapter is “Playing the Game”, which contains a full summary of all the rules you need to run the game.  The short version of this is that it’s solid, workable, and trim, but for more discussion on this, see Gameplay, below.

The next section is support for creating your own superheroes.  This is almost certainly what a lot of players are looking forward to with this game, and it doesn’t disappoint.  There are three methods presented for creating a character – a “guided” method, a “constructed” method, and a “secret third option”.  The guided method is for players who don’t have an idea of the hero they want to play yet, and it prompts them to roll dice to suggest options. What’s really clever about this is that it doesn’t just assign the hero as you go; instead, it’s more of a rubric for giving players a few options to choose from at each step.  I’ve made some really fun heroes with this method, creating cool concepts on the fly.

For players who have a concept for the character they want, there’s the “constructed” method.  It uses the exact same system that the “guided” method does – the only difference is that instead of rolling to get some options, you just, basically, choose the option you want.  Simple, straightforward, and entirely compatible with the other method.

The third “secret” option is for players who are already familiar with the game, have an idea outside the bounds of what the above two options can do, and want to work with their GM to make the hero they dream of playing.  With that option, they just build the hero directly.  Between these three options, just about any player can arrive at a hero that is suited just for them.

The next section of the book is the “Moderating the Game” section.  This is a large and well-presented chapter with GM-facing rules, advice, and other materials.  This section talks about how to run the minions, lieutenants, villains, scenes, environments, etc., as well as giving advice on how to wring the best action scenes out of the system.  I felt this section hit the “sweet spot” of being detailed enough to convey what it needed to, concise enough to be accessible, and fulsome enough where it needed to be to give insightful advice for improving the play experience. Definitely a good read for both novice and experienced GMs.

The remaining three chapters are adventure content.  The “Archives” chapter contains a lot of pre-made heroes and villains to populate your game world with, and the “Adventure Issues” chapter contains two adventures to challenge your players with. But the star of these chapters is easily “the BullPen” chapter, which offers solid, easy-to-follow, flexible rubrics to help GM’s create action scenes.  I was truly impressed with how well-supported creating adventures is in this game; the algebra of balancing and presenting an action scene makes designing your own adventures a snap, even on the fly!  There are concise, easy-to-follow rules for creating scenes, enemies, villains, doomsday devices, environments, etc., and it’s all accessible and approachable in ways that I haven’t really seen in a lot of RPG’s.  It won’t take much experience with the game before you can quickly create adventures with little trouble and have a good idea of their difficulty and complexity at the table.

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So…how does it play at the table, then?

I’ve been very pleased with this system.  I’ve played Champions, Mutants and Masterminds, and many other games, but this is the first system that really managed to capture the feel of comic book style superheroics for me, and it did it with a simple, straightforward, and accessible system that’s both easy to teach to RPG newcomers and crunchy enough for veterans.

The genius of the system is that it doesn’t even try to model the specific effects of each super power.  The problem with games like Champions has always been that superheroes, by definition, break the rules of reality, so trying to effectively simulate a world where heroes naturally breaking the rules of reality becomes very fragile.

Sentinel Comics RPG solves this in a very clever way that eliminates the complexity.  All actions heroes take are classified as one of five things: attacking, defending, boosting, hindering, or overcoming. These actions abstract the in-fiction behavior enough that it gets out of the way while still providing “teeth” to the players’ decisions and tension on the clock as villains enact their plans.

Attacking and defending is about dealing or preventing damage, and are quite straightforward.  Attacking with fire uses the same system as attacking with martial arts or a laser; the differences are handled at the fiction layer.  This allows the player to “skin” those attacks however they like.  If you want to attack that robot by jumping on its back and twisting its head off, you can do that.  If you want to attack that robot by melting it with your fire powers, you can do that.  And because this all happens at the fiction layer, there are no complicated rules about those weird edge cases that will inevitably come up; your GM handles deciding things like whether your fire powers work in a vacuum or underwater, or whether your psychic blasts work on those AI robots.

Boosting and hindering is about making things harder or easier for your allies and enemies.  At first glance, this seems like a minor option, but at the table, it truly shines.  This is the mechanism that turns a group of individuals into a superhero TEAM.  Again, this is a simple system that is “skinned” based on the player powers.  You might hinder that robot by telekinetically wrapping it in chains, or dominating it with your arcane eye, or creating ice under its feet.  All these do is create story-relevant bonuses and penalties, but they are significant ones, often meaning the difference between defeat at the hands of the villain and victory using clever teamwork.

Finally, overcoming is the catch-all problem-solving mechanism for anything else the hero does, such as rescuing innocents from a falling building or disarming the villain’s doomsday device.  Anything that doesn’t fall under the other actions becomes an overcome, and the players can skin their approaches to problems – and even what problems they want to solve – however it makes sense in the fiction. The power of this was driven home for me the first time I ran a session of the game.  A player playing Absolute Zero, a cold-based character, saw the bad guys fling an innocent civilian from high up.  The player said, “I use my cold powers to create a deep snow bank for them to fall into!”  And it just WORKED.  There are no rules for falling damage, catching things, using cold powers to break falls, etc.  It’s just “overcoming a problem” – if the player can imagine a comic panel showing the hero solving that problem, they can go for it!  Creatively using their powers like this is baked into core of the system, and it feels spontaneous and versatile. Once the action has been chosen, there’s a very simple system for rolling for success.  Each hero has a list of powers and qualities, each associated with a die size.  The hero chooses one of each type, and then a third based on their current health, and roll them.  For instance, Absolue Zero above might have chosen his “d12 Cold Powers”, “d8 Creativity Quality”, and “d8 Green Zone for Health”.  The player then rolls those dice, putting them in order. Most effects look at the result of the middle-valued die, but some hero special abilities let you do more, such as attacking with your Max die, or attacking multiple targets with your Min die.

The result determines the outcome.  In the case of attacking and defending, the roll is simply the damage – an attack just causes the result as damage, and defend defends that amount from the next attack.  For boosts and hinders, every four yields another +1 or -1 on a future die roll.  And for overcomes, the value determines whether the overcome is successful or not, and whether or not it creates a “twist”. Knowing when to boost, hinder, attack, or overcome is the core strategy of the game, and it is fiction-first, making it easy for players to reason within.

On the GM side, there are a lot of affordances that make running the game a breeze.  There are three “tiers” of enemies – minions, lieutenants, and villains.  Minions and lieutenants have simple core rules with ways to customize them; each is represented by a die size, like a d6 Ninja or a d12 Tyrannosaurus, along with a few tactics and special ability notes.  These are exceedingly easy to run, allowing you to very quickly model even a large number of enemies fighting the heroes.  Villains, on the other hand, are statted out much like heroes, and are more complicated, but they use the same systems that heroes do, and are straightforward to run as a result.

Overall, the game feels very streamlined and quick, which is perhaps the number one reason it is able to capture the feel of comic-book action: minimal down time.  Turns go quickly, and everything is abstracted to let players imagine their own fictions, which lets the heroics and dreadful reversals come forward with very little to get in the way.  It’s exceedingly slick and easy to run.

But best of all, the fiction-first flexibility allows you to be as superheroic as you want. One of my players had made a character who was a psychic ghost with ties to the Lord of the Dead.  In their first episode, they encountered a horde of robots, which I had ruled were immune to their psychic attacks.  In a regular game, this would shut that hero down, relegating them to being support at best for the fight. Instead, the player asked if that hero could attempt an overcome action pull the entire scene into the Land of the Dead so that her psychic emanations could affect the robots.  I said I’d allow it, and their overcome check succeeded, so I just described the sky turning blackish-green, the temperature plummeting, and everything turning into shadowy mirages of their mortal counterparts.  It was a great moment that evoked those double-page spreads in comic books which give real spotlight moments to a hero.  Mechanically, it was dead simple to run, didn’t skew the balance of the game, and the system didn’t break a sweat to support it, delivering a massively cool moment that felt like true comic book drama!

Downsides
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I have heard a few down sides to the game for players, and I would be remiss not to mention the ones that I think are fair criticisms.

First, there is a concept in some scenes of a “scene tracker”.  This tracker goes from green to yellow to red, and this, combined with the heroes’ personal health zones, determines which special abilities they have access to.  Early on, when they’re healthy, they can only use the “green” abilities, which are generally the weakest.  As the scene progresses and gets more dire, they also gain access to the “yellow” and finally the “red” abilities. One can reasonably object – why can’t my hero just do the red ability first?  Do they not know how to do the thing?  It’s a fair criticism, but I haven’t found it to be much trouble at the table.  Mechanically, it ensures that the stakes ramp up and the action has a better feel.  So many of my Dungeons and Dragons fights feel overwhelming and hard at the start and feel like we’re “just mopping up” at the end, which is exactly opposite to what it should be; action scenes should drive toward climaxes.  This system achieves that, but it’s fair to say that it does it in an artificial way.  Whether this bothers you or not probably depends how much you let it intrude on your collective fiction.

Another criticism I’ve seen leveled at the game is that it doesn’t have much in the way of character advancement.  You’re not going to be “leveling up” and getting exponentially tougher and going on tougher and tougher adventures as you advance.  While there is a sort of “experience” system in place, I can see why this would be a deal-breaker for someone who really likes advancement.  You’re not going to slowly turn into a god.  More like, you become a veteran superhero over time, getting more and more adept at using the powers you have.  (There are also mechanisms for totally re-building your character, for those story arcs where heroes transform drastically, but they’ll be of similar power.)

Again, while this is a fair criticism, I feel like it comes with a major advantage, too: you don’t have to start out as a wimpy superhero – the whole “fight rats in cellars to gain XP” thing.  Right out the gate, you can play America’s Finest Legacy or the Sun God Ra, and be powerful and capable and take on the arch villains, which is kind of how it should be.

Some players unfamiliar with the Sentinel Comics universe may feel hesitant, as it is based on the rather extensive existing lore of the Sentinels of the Multiverse card game and the Sentinel Tactics board game.  There are a lot of heroes with long back stories that appear in the game materials, including the Starter Kit.  This can be understandably intimidating to people new to the franchise.

Luckily, familiarity with the “Sentinel Comics” lore is not required.  Anything you need to know about any given hero or villain in an adventure is minimal and provided in the adventure content, and can almost always be conveyed to players using their analogues in DC or Marvel.  “Legacy? Imagine Captain America with the powers of Superman instead of a shield.”  And the system does not require the Sentinel Comics universe; it would work perfectly fine for a GM to set the adventures in their own universe design.

Finally, I’ve heard some people feeling a little lost in creating some of their more-out-there superhero concepts.  Often, though, this is a case of perhaps taking the powers list too literally.  There’s a lot of freedom in the game to skin your powers, and really, all you need to do is get “close” to the power you want, and it works fine.  It does take playing the game to understand that, though, so I’d recommend playing at least one session with the pre-generated characters in the Starter Kit before trying to make a character – it’s a lot easier to understand the character creation process once you’ve played.

All told though, I struggle to come up with much in the way of criticisms of this game.  None of the three criticisms above have derailed us from playing and having a good time, and even the people who brought up the above criticisms still said they enjoyed the game quite a bit.

Conclusion

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Sentinel Comics RPG advances the art of superhero storytelling in RPG’s.  It’s fun to play and a breeze to GM, with plenty of support material for players wanting to make their own heroes and GM’s wanting to make adventures to challenge them.
In short, yes, the three years were worth the wait.
PROS:
*  Solid, accessible, evocative superhero action.
*  Versatile hero creation for random or envisioned heroes.
*  Quick gameplay with fiction-first flexibility.*  Streamlined affordances make GM’ing a breeze.

CONS:
*  Not much in the way of character advancement.
*  Some artificial throttling of hero power for purposes of tension-building.
*  Pricey at $60 MSRP (PDF may be cheaper, and you can try the Starter Kit for free).

(As of this writing, the core rulebook is not released; my copy was a KickStarter copy, but the book should be available as PDF and hardcover on the Greater Than Games store sometime within the month.  In the mean time, the Starter Kit is free to download to get started, which will easily last you six full gaming sessions.)

A Review of the Ant-Man Expansion for Marvel Champions

Ant-Man, the Marvel Champions expansion, came out very late in 2020.  It adds the Scott Lang Ant-Man to the roster of Marvel Heroes you can play in Marvel Champions.  Although I have been strictly collecting all the Marvel Champions expansions, I have only played the heroes that I really like so far!  Ant-Man is one of my favorite characters and I can say I liked the Scott Lang Ant-man before it was cool!

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I picked the original Marvel Premiere #48 (see above) back at my local paperback shop back in March 1979!! (You might ask “Rich, how can you pick up the issue in March when it came out in June?” At the time, Marvel and DC’s “release dates” were about 3 months ahead of time: the explanation I got from someone in a Comic book store is that there was a “race” between Comic vendors to make their comics look “newer”: at some point, the date on the cover drifted to 3 months in advance!)

I loved this incarnation of Ant-Man! It was the culmination of John Byrne on Pencils (who was VERY HOT drawing the original X-Men about the time of the Dark Phoenix Saga), Bob Layton on Inks (who was VERY HOT on Iron Man), and Dave Michelienie (who Layton worked with on Iron Man). This was the dream team for me! Bob Layton’s inks were always very clean. In fact, when I first saw this page from the Marvel Champions manual, I thought, “Is that from the Iron Man 123 or so with Layton inking?”

Not quite, but it definitely had that vibe (see below).

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It turns out the first appearance of the Scott Lang Ant-Man was Marvel Premiere #47! I had missed that issue, so I had to go hunt it down at the paperbook shop (ya, there weren’t a lot of specialty shops for comic books back then). In fact, I remember getting a lot of Comic Books at the Menaul Book Exchange back then.

The Scott Lang Ant-Man is very similar to the Ant-Man Marvel Movie, but the Scott Lang Ant-Man of Marvel Premiere is depicted as smarter and less of a comic foible. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Ant-Man movies, but the current direction of Ant-Man was a little more comic than the original.

Oh, but you want me to talk about the expansion, right?

Ant-Man Expansion

Ant-Man: Marvel Champions is a small expansion with just one blister pack.

The coolest thing about Ant-Man is that he has three forms! Scott Lang (alter ego), Ant-Man (tiny) and Giant-Man (giant)! See below for the normal Ant-Man (tuny mode)

And see above for the Giant-Man form! Notice that it’s twice as big as the normal cards. It’s actually a jumbo card folded in half (see below).

Basically, the Ant-Man form is good for foiling schemes, the Giant-Man form is good for doing damage, and the Scott Lang form is good for healing (like most Marvel Champions forms). This “jumbo card” is actually a pretty cool gimmick! My favorite part of this new system (most heroes only have hero and alter ego side) is that switching to one of the new forms causes things to happen as well! It’s very thematic that when Scott becomes giant man that he does a damage AS HE GROWS! Scott defeats some scheme AS HE SHRINKS. I thought this was thematic for the character and his powers. (Pictured below, Ant-Man growing and attacking!)

Ant-Man’s Deck

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Ant-Man’s deck is pretty typically (Allies like Hank Pym Ant-Man):IMG_7552

.. but he has also some cards that only apply if he’s giant or tiny form!

 

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For example, Giant Stomp (above) only works if you are in Giant mode and Hive Mind (above) only works if you are in tiny mode. Again, very thematic!

Of course, Ant-Man’s obligation is Cassie-related (Cassie is the reason Lang stole the suit in the beginning):

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And his nemesis that can come out is YellowJacket.

Some Extra Rules

Each of the single hero packs comes with a neat little poster on one side (see above) … and new rules on the back (see below).

The rules tell you how the 3 Modes work (you can switch from any mode to any other mode, but you can only do it once per turn (like normal switching)).  They also introduce a new rule called TEAM-UP! Now I poured through the Ant-Man deck 3 times before I found exactly one card that has the TEAM-UP keyword.

It was weird to me that so much space was devoted to one rule on one card, but I suspect we will be seeing more of this keyword.

Set-up And Gameplay

Set-up is real easy: there’s not too much “new” for Ant-Man: his default deck sets-up like most heroes.

Once the game gets going, Ant-Man plays easily. It’s fun going to Giant size (see above) and causing havoc just by changing size! Throughout the game, I went back and forth between Ant-Man (tiny) and Giant-Man (giant) quite a number of times! A Side Scheme comes out? Go to Ant-Man (tiny) size to get rid of the scheme! Then go back to Giant size to beat things up! And occasionally Scott form to heal.

Ant-Man is a good generalist. He can do a lot of damage in Giant form when needed or reducing the threat of the scheme in tiny form. I really enjoyed that I felt like Ant-Man could take on any situation and still do something. He was fun to play! It was a real joy switching between modes all the time!

Conclusion

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So, I have been quietly collecting everything for Marvel Champions (and reviewed and looked at The Rise of Red Skull here). Here’s the thing: I haven’t played all the characters! I have really only played the characters I tend to like in the comic books: Captain America, Spider-man, and Ant-Man. I suspect a lot of people will only get Ant-Man if they actually like the character! He’s a minor character (with his own Marvel movie, sure) and probably not super popular.

I enjoyed my plays with Ant-Man! He’s a good generalist with a fun twist with the different modes and size-related cards. He’s easy to play, with not too many surprises, but still fun.

If I had played this a little more before 2020 ended, Ant-Man would have made the Top 10 Cooperative Expansions of 2020.