Top 10 Cooperative Games With a Sense of Humor!

A lot of cooperative games have very dark and depressing themes: “Work together to save the world! Or everybody dies! AHHH!” (In fact, that’s exactly what we did to make Lost Ruins of Arnak cooperative last week!) We wanted to point all those cooperative games where a “sense of humor” permeates the game. What do we mean by that? Something that makes you laugh! As you read the rulebook, as you play the game, you notice little touches that tickle your funny bone. It may be flavor text, or the way a rule is expressed, or just some picture that make you giggle and not take the game (or life) too seriously.

To be clear, these are all real games (some heavier than others), and not just excuses for jokes!

10. Dungeon Lords

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So, we are cheating a little bit here:  Dungeon Lords is ONLY cooperative if we play with our rules from our Top 10 Games That Can Be Played Full Cooperatively.  This would probably be further up the list if the cooperative rules were better fleshed out.  (Hint, hint, Rich).   Dungeon Lords has one of the funniest rulebooks we have ever read, the art is silly and evocative, and the games mechanisms and cards reinforce this sense of humor.  The funniest bit in the game: the Dungeon room where, for 2 imps and a food, you can create another imp—we call this “The Romantic Dinner Room”.

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9. Far Away

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This is further down the list because, although the sense of humor pervades the rulebook and the box and the components, its not quite as prevalent as we start playing: it’s a pretty heavy game.  We reviewed the game here  and it also made our Top 10 Cooperative Space Themed Games.  Overall, the game has an almost dark sense of humor!  My favorite joke: 

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Overall, this is a heavier game (see below) that uses a sense of humor to keep it from being too much.

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8. CO-OP: the co-op game

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CO-OP: the co-op game is a silly game where Hippies of all generations come together to stop Mondo Mart (which is nothing like MegaloMart or Walmart) from taking over the local CO-OP.   The rules encourage you to embrace the hippie vibe of the game and roleplay your characters.   The cards have funny little flavor text at the bottom,  but the best part are the ridiculous things you can buy at the shop such as 103% Dark Chocolate, Chaka Reversers, and the game itself (yes, you can buy CO-OP: the co-op game  in game).  It’s a silly but fun light-hearted co-op.    It also made our Top 10 Cooperative Games of 2017.

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7. Unlock: Squeek and Sausage

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Squeek and Sausage is an Unlock Escape Room game (we’ve reviewed a few of Unlock games: Unlock Epic Adventures and Unlock: Star Wars).  This particular universe, with a silly professor who has “doomed us all”, has been so popular that he has spawned two more Unlock Escape Room Games: A Noside Story (from Unlock: Secret Adventures set) and Professor Noside’s Animal-O-Matic (from the Unlock: Mythic Adventures Set).  Squeek and Sausage is still my favorite, as it introduced us to this hilarious world.

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6. Agents of SMERSH

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I was a kickstarter of the very original Agents of SMERSH back in 2016!  (And I am kickstarter on the reboot in 2021 as well: this is a neat game).  This is a storybook game (as it made our Top 10 Cooperative Storybook/Story Telling Games), where players roam around a world map trying to find and take out Dr. Lobo before he can “destroy the world!”.  But, this game is very much a love-letter to the silly 70s tropes of Secret Agents and James Bonds. The text that comes out in the storybooks is very action-packed, but still has decisions and a sense of humor. This game also made our Top 10 Cooperative Games “Off The Beaten Track”.  

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5. Spirit of 77

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This game almost didn’t make the list, because it’s a Role Playing Game rather than a board game, but the game is cooperative. It is also THE MOST RIDICULOUS GAME I HAVE EVER PLAYED.  In a good way.   We reviewed it here, and tried to explain how the game naturally encourages a sense of humor with playlists, twists, and other mechanisms.  The game is strongly dependent on the group itself having a sense of humor, so you have to make sure your group is in the right frame of mind.   I look forward to further plays with silly thing like Bigfoot jumping over 30 Ford Pintos in a Dodge Pacer.

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4. Forgotten Waters

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We initially reviewed Forgotten Waters here, but the game has just gotten better and better for us!  It’s a silly, pirate themed Adventure game with a great story!  It has some really silly jokes dressed up in an App that makes it that much more thematic!   Forgotten Waters made our Top 10 Cooperative Storybook/Story Telling Games, our Top 10 Cooperative Swashbuckling Games, as well as our Top 10 Cooperative Board and Card Games of 2020.  It’s a real fun game that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but still has a lot of good choices.

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3. Scooby Doo: Escape From The Haunted Mansion

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Scooby Doo: Escape from the Haunted Mansion is essentially a Scooby Doo themed Escape Room game.  The players, as a group, take the roles of the Scooby gang.  Each character has their own “verb” they apply to objects throughout the Mansion: Fred can investigate, Velma can research, Scooby can smell, and welllll, Shaggy can eat.  That’s right, Shaggy will frequently just pop things he finds around the Mansion into his mouth and try to eat them!   There’s a fun mystery to solve, and the interactions in the game are pretty hilarious.  This game really brings in that sense of humor from the Scooby Doo cartoon.   This game made our Top 10 Cooperative Creepy/Spooky Games as well as our Top 10 Cooperative Detective Board and Card Games!

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2. Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger

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This is probably the lightest cooperative game on this list, but maybe the funniest by itself!  It made the number 2 spot on our Top 10 Cooperative Storybook/Storytelling Games because of how easy it is to play and how ridiculous it is.  You can pick this up at Target for fairly cheap, and also play online fairly easily (see our Top 10 Cooperative Games You Can Play Online).   It’s a pretty simple story game, but the stories it tells are just hilarious and your choices do kinda matter!

 

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1. Cantaloop

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Cantaloop may be my game of the year for 2021! We reviewed it more deeply here. This game has the best sense of humor I have ever seen.  Jokes, throw-away and essential, permeate the game.  The art style is silly and works with the game.  And yet, for all the humor and silliness, this is still a fantastic point-and-click adventure game masquerading as a board game!  One of many throw-away jokes: “What’s the best time of day? 6:30 hands down!”  

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A Cooperative Mode For Lost Ruins of Arnak

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In last week’s entry of Co-op Gestalt, we discussed the Lost Ruins of Arnak, a 1-4 Player Worker Placement/Deck-Building game that is a competitive “get-the-most-victory-points” game. Some of my friends have loved this (beautiful production, lots of choices) and some of my friends hated it (too fiddly, bad online implementation, the “disparity of experience” problem). The conclusion of last week’s blog was simple: The Lost Ruins of Arnak needs a cooperative mode to help bring in the detractors.

So, I put my money where my mouth was. I mean, this is a cooperative games blog after all. Included somewhere below is a cooperative mode for Lost Ruins of Arnak. It’s only 18 cards and a page or two of additional rules.

Cooperative Mode

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The cooperative mode adds two new sets of cards:

  1. 14 Shadow Creatures Motivations
  2. 4 Character Cards

The basic premise is that the players must work together to defeat some Aliens threatening the Earth! From the Introduction:

Some strange, shadowy creatures have been spotted in major metropolitan areas across the globe! These strange creatures, dubbed “The Shadow Creatures” have been dealing chaos, havoc, and damage everywhere they appear! What do the Shadow Creatures want? What are their motivations?

With the world in chaos, major governments have shared all their intel on the Shadow Creatures. Synthesizing this collective intel, the world’s top researchers have gleaned that the Shadow Creatures have some connection to the Lost Ruins of Arnak. But what is that connection?

The answer lies nears the site of the Lost Ruins of Arnak! The researchers must travel there to find the answer! Using research, exploration, smarts, and a little luck, the researchers will work together to discover the Shadow Creatures motivations and the appropriate response!

Can the researchers figure out the Shadow Creatures motivations before time runs out and the Earth is destroyed? Can YOU help them?

To win the game, players must together discover and satisfy the Shadow Creature Motivations to save the Earth!

At the start of the game, the players choose two Motivations cards (called Characteristics in the original 3×5 card version) which will set the victory conditions for the game.

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At the end of the 5th round, the players must collectively be able to satisfy BOTH conditions to win the game. The rest of the game essentially stays the same, but all the victory points are unused as the Shadow Creatures Motivations (see above) take over for deciding victory points. No one cares about victory points when saving the Earth.

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There aren’t any rule changes, but a couple of additions:

  1. Players can share resources at the start of round
  2. Players can do “research” to flip the Shadow Creatures Motivations up early.

The Shadow Creatures Motivation cards are face-down at the start of the game: they get flipped face-up at the start of rounds 4 and 5.   It can be too late to do what’s necessary, so there are mechanics for “Researching Motivations” so you can flip the Motivations earlier.   See the picture below for the original rules for how Researching Motivations work.  The full rules are available in the PDF at the end.

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Essentially, players cooperatively have to choose when to use resources to build engines or research motivations.  This is one of the things the players will have to discuss!

Characters

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One of the things the cooperative mode adds is a unique character card for each player.  Why?  Firstly, because variable-player powers in cooperative games tends (for me anyways) to make co-op game more fun!  Do you want to play “MoneyBags” Thad or “Sky-King” Cooper or “Deal-man” Kerns or “Inspirational” Allison?  More fun!  However, more importantly, the addition of variable players powers helps balance the game:  the Research Motivations actions costs extra resources and by giving characters extra resources, we are preserving the original balance from the original game. 

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Solo Mode

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The cooperative mode essentially adds a couple of new solo modes to the Lost Ruins of Arnak! The cooperative mode scales from 1 to 4 Players, so you can play solo by playing the cooperative mode with one player controlling 1 character. For a harder solo mode, a solo player can control 2 characters in the cooperative mode.

Alpha Version

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So, directly below is the PDF that describes version 1.0.0 of the cooperative rules. This is the Alpha version of the rules: they work, we’ve play-tested them, and we like them, but there are still some rough corners. We are releasing this partly so we can get feedback. Was any Motivations too easy? Too hard? Do certain actions require clarification?

Lost Ruins Of Arnak Cooperative Mode (PDF)  Version 1.0.0 

Please feel free to send us email at returnfromsubroutine@gmail.com.

Conclusion

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I’ve really enjoyed my competitive and cooperative plays of The Lost Ruins of Arnak. Hopefully, the addition of the cooperative mode will bring in some of friends who didn’t like the original game.

Exploring The Lost Ruins of Arnak and The Disparity of Experience: Why We Love Cooperative Games

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We will having our next RichieCon 2021 very soon (see here for previous RichieCon 2019 and RichieCon 2018 highlights)! This is our yearly (modulo last year) event where we get together and play games for two to three days at the Rec Center at the top of the street! This year, we have people coming from all over! Tucson AZ! Las Cruces NM! Phoenix AZ! Madison WI! Fort Hayes KS! It’ll be fun to get together with friends I haven’t seen in a long time!

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Unfortunately, my friend Nevin can’t join us this year, so he went ahead and sent me an early birthday present for RichieCon 2021! The Lost Ruins of Arnak! (See above). This is a hot new Euro that’s currently up for the Kinnerspiel des Jahres 2021 award and it won the BoardGameGeek Medium Game of the Year for 2020! I love the theme (kind of an Indiana-Jones-exploration thene) and I think it would be great for the “hot games” table at RichieCon 2021! So Nevin, in all his magnanimity, went ahead and gifted a copy of Lost Ruins of Arnak to RichieCon 2021! You’ll note that this is not a cooperative game, it’s a stone-cold Euro. So why are we talking it in this cooperative games blog? Keep reading dear reader …

Components

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I think one of the reasons this game is up for the Kinnerspiel is because it looks so nice! The components and art are fantastic! See above and below.

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The art on the cards, board, and locations is downright gorgeous. The plastic components (arrowheads, gems, tablets) are top-notch quality and fun to manipulate. Overall, the game looks gorgeous on the table.

Solo Mode

The solo mode is pretty good: it’s how I learned the game. There’s deck of about 12 cardboard cards (see above) which basically are the deck of a second “automated” player. There are very special rules for what the automated player’s cards do: you basically alternate turns between the automated player deck and your “normal” turn. The solo player plays like a normal player would, and the automated player usually blocks spaces and take resources/spaces before you can sometimes. The automated player represents another player “blocking” you.

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If you look online (see above for web site), you’ll see there is a Solo Campaign available to play as well. I haven’t played it yet, but you can either print out the solo campaign or play online with it.

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Overall, I enjoyed the Solo mode okay. I didn’t love it, but it really did teach me the game.

In Person vs. Online

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So, at this point, I’ve played 1 solo game in person and 2 4-Player in person games.

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I have also played 2 4-Player online games on BoardGameArena (see above). The experience has been very interesting. Simply put, people who have played Lost Ruins of Arnak in person have liked it, and people who have played it online have not. One of the players even said he think he’d love the game in person, but he hated the BoardGameArena implementation. Me and someone else played both online and in person, and we liked both experiences.

I think that because the game is so big and sprawling, Lost Ruins of Arnak can be fiddly and intimidating online: you’ll notice that BGA had to squish the whole board into a small computer screen that you have to scroll a lot (Recall that most online games seem lesser games if you have to scroll too much) . But, if you play in person, you can see the whole grandiose board and focus easily on the areas you need to.

I think the lesson here is simple: play Lost Ruins of Arnak in person first, and then, if you like it, then try it online. Once you know the game and like it, the BGA implementation is good. My experience has been that people don’t seem to like this game if they are introduced to it online.

Disparity of Experience

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So, after each play of the game, I asked people what they liked and didn’t about the Lost Ruins of Arnak. One of the things that came up is a criticism of many games: “Anyone has played the game more has an advantage”. I trounced my friends online (I didn’t mean to: it’s hard to keep track of points until the very end) because I have played more times than them. This led to discussions of “This is like Lords of Waterdeep: I’ll never play that game with Kurt because he’s played like 100 times and he just destroys us! It’s fun, but I don’t like to be destroyed!” Games like this suffer from a disparity of experience: the more experienced players (at that game) tend to beat soundly the less experienced players. It’s not like me and my friends have to win, but it’s usually no fun to watch someone do so much better and take away options (especially in worker placement games like Lost Ruins of Arnak and Lords of Waterdeep).

It’s pretty clear that half of the people I played Lost Ruins of Arnak with will probably never want to play this game again. The disparity of experience (both the first game and future games) really soured them to the game.

(I guess you could argue it’s my fault that I soured the game to my friends, but it was clear to everyone in my group that this was just a first play/learning game. The point was that me and Teresa both had an advantage as we had played more than them. And as long as we all play this game together, we will continue have that advantage. On the same note, I will never play Lords of Waterdeep with Kurt because our disparity of experience is so wide).

Why We Like Cooperative Games

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And this is why we like cooperative board and card games: they don’t tend to suffer from disparity of experience nearly as much as competitive games. Even if one player has played a cooperative game significantly more than the other players, everyone is a cooperative game can usually still participate and contribute! It’s a group effort and you can still feel empowered contributing to the shared victory or commiserate with your friends in a shared loss. Either way, all players are part of the group.

You can still have Alpha Player Syndrome, where a cooperative game can be co-opted by an aggressive player, but this is orthogonal to the disparity of experience problem. An Alpha Player tends to be an Alpha Player regardless of their experience. As an example: I remember teaching my friends a game and we had playing for about an hour. The Alpha Player walked in, and after after 10 minutes, started telling us what to do! He didn’t know all the rules AND he had never played before. The Alpha Player is just an Alpha Player. But usually the problem is pretty easy to solve: don’t play with Jerks. (There are other ways to mitigate Alpha Player Sydrome: see here for some suggestions).

Conclusion

You may or may not like Lost Ruins of Arnak: you will probably have a decent idea of your interest level after reading this. The solo mode in the physical board game is good for learning the game, and there are even solo campaigns (online) to extend your solo experiences! I strongly suggest playing the physical board game in person first to get the best experience! The online experience on BoardGameArena is decent, but that online experience seems to have soured many of my friends on this game.

Unfortunately, Lost Ruins of Arnak definitely suffers from the disparity of experience problem, which tends to make certain groups of people dismiss it. I think the disparity of experience problem does go away over time, but it’s definitely something that will sour certain people (as I definitely saw). The solution is obvious: we really need a cooperative mode for Lost Ruins of Arnak. EDIT: So we made one: see here

Top 10 Cooperative Space-Themed Games

This week, we’ll take a look at our favorite fully cooperative games that are space themed!  As per Saunders’ Law, we’ll address if there’s a viable solo mode included in the game!

Honorable Mention: Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition

Solo Mode?  Yes, included with the game

The entire inspiration for this week’s list is Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition!  It’s a very good game overall, but it’s cooperative mode is limited (see last week’s review of Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition).  It’s still worth picking up for the cooperative, solo, and competitive games as a whole, just not for JUST the cooperative mode. 

10. The Daedalus Sentence

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Solo Mode? Yes, included with the game (scales well with the original rules).

The Daedalus Sentence is a very cool looking game with a “toy factor!”  It has concentric rotating rings that presents a prison from which the players must cooperatively must escape!  

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The setting of the game reminds of the prison from The Marvel movie Guardians of the Galaxy!  Although I liked this cooperative game (which had some Player Selected Turn Order and a cool setting and some cool aliens), my friends didn’t like it as much as me (see our review here) which is why it makes our number 10 spot!

9. Far Away

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Solo Play? Kinda, sorta, if you use our Changing Perspectives idea

Far Away is a very strange cooperative game for ONLY two players which we reviewed here.  It’s about a team of two space explorers who have landed on an alien planet to explore.  It has some interesting and difference mechanics for limited communication, but playing the monsters can be a little difficult.  Overall we liked the game, but it’s so hard to get to the table because it was really only for two players and the rules are a little complicated.

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8. Xenoshyft: Onslaught

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Solo Mode?  Yes, built-in.  This game probably works better with multiple players.

We liked Xenoshyft enough that it made our Top 10 Cooperative Deck-Building Games here!  It’s a deck-building game for 1-4 players, but it really works best with more than one player, as players really do work together well.The game very thematic as Space Marines fighting aliens.  It’s also extremely hard, as you truly have to embrace the culling of your deck to do well, which is why it’s only in the number 9 spot.

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7. Space Alert

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Solo Mode?  Yes?  But the game plays better with multiple players.

Space Alert is an real-time cooperative board game.  This is an older game (from 2008) and it comes with a CD!  Players listen to the CD and in real-time, players place cards to perform certain actions … and they hope they are doing them in the right order and at the right time!  Then, you “replay” you actions and you how well, or hilariously, how poorly you did as a group!   

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This game took over our game groups for a short time in 2009! We even talked about playing it at work during lunch (Jeremy, remember that?).  It seems to have gotten lost in our collection, but it’s still a real fun cooperative real time game set in a Space Station.

6. Star Wars: Unlock

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Solo Play?  Yes, but like most escape room games, more heads are typically better!

We reviewed Star Wars: Unlock! The Escape Game here  and enjoyed it!  It’s an Escape Room game set in the Star Wars universe and comes with 3 star spanning adventures in the Star Wars universe!   You have to download an app to your phone to play, and then consult the cards in the game to move forward.  (Note, the Star Wars: Unlock has its own app which is separate from the original Unlock games app).

Playing Star Wars: Unlock!
We don’t want to give away too much, but the game gives you that Star Wars/Space experience in three Escape Room style games!

5. Star Trek Panic!

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Solo Mode?  Yes.

This is a reimplementation of Castle Panic, a simpler cooperative tower-defense game, usually used a introductory cooperative game for kids.  Star Trek Panic ratchets up the complexity just a little bit and delves into the Star Trek theme!   In Star Trek Panic, Klingons and Romulons are attacking the Enterprise and their attacks whittle down the shields.  The game has stills from the original Star Trek (Kirk, Spock) and the explosions on the shields are so thematic (see below)!  Even though this is a retheme, this really embraces the Star Trek (space) theme really well!    

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4. Star Trek: Frontiers

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Solo Mode?  Yes, built-in

Star Trek: Frontiers is a re-imagining of The Mage Knight game in the Star Trek universe.    We reviewed it here!  It really encompasses the Star Trek of the Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: The Next Generation universes.  Star Trek: Frontiers is a big cooperative game (well, Cartman Cooperative) where you explore, fight, and make lots of tactical and strategic decision!  It’s a little hard to get to the table because it’s big and has lots of rules, but it really does embrace the space theme.

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3. Rising 5: Ruins of Asteros

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Solo Mode?  Yes

Rising 5: Runes of Asteros is a cooperative space-themed game for 1-5 Players.  It’s basically cooperative Mastermind, using an App to handle access to the hidden information in the game.  This is a simpler game that only takes about 20 minutes!   It’s one of the simpler games on this list, but it’s very easy to get to the table.  The art of Vincent Dutraite is fantastic and makes it easy to pull out and play with your friends!  We did a review here and really enjoyed it!

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2. The Crew

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Solo Mode?  No.

The Crew is a cooperative trick-taking game for 2-5 players: It’s a hidden information game, where players try to accomplish missions together in the course of a trick-taking game.  The space theme is a little weak, as it’s still a trick-taking with some “spacey” graphics (see below), but the game is very good!  It won the Spiel Des Jahres award for best game in 2020!   

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I have the original physical copy of the game, but I’ve only played one game of the physical copy by myself to learn the game!  I’ve played 99% of my games on BoardGameArena!  Having the physical copy has been very useful for teaching the game BEFORE we play on BoardGameArena, but the online version has been one of the “goto” cooperative games my online games group!  It’s been really fun.

1. The Captain Is Dead

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Solo Mode?  Yes, one comes built in, but we think we have a better one here!

There was no question what was going to be the number 1 Space-Themed game on this list!  The Captain Is Dead is a fantastic game which we discussed in 3 separate blog entries (Review: Part I, Solo Rules: Part II, Final Thoughts: Part III)!   It’s one of our favorite solo games, it also happens to be our “goto” cooperative game for 5 players!  It also works well at 2-4 player counts!  The Captain is Dead is a cooperative game set in a something-very-much-like Star Trek universe!  Players work together to get the Warp Drive working, while keeping the ship from being overrun by Aliens!

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The game is a very fun, just a little bit silly (as it makes fun of the Star Trek tropes a little bit) but one of my top 10 favorite cooperative games of all time!

A Review of Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition (Solo and Cooperative Modes Only)

I didn’t expect to be writing this post so early. I was a Kickstarter backer of the Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition back in March 2021. I picked up this game originally because it promised a solo mode and a cooperative mode! And that’s all we’re looking at here (since this is a cooperative games blog after all). So, Stronghold games promised delivery from the Kickstarter in September 2021. But I got one early. But not like you’d expect.

Controversy

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As of yesterday, June 20th 2021, Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition was available at Target (see above). When I picked it up, it was $39.99. A lot of people from the Kickstarter were VERY upset that the game was available from Target BEFORE it was delivered to Kickstarter backers. The rationale is something like: “We helped back the game with our hard-earned dollars, shouldn’t we be put first?” There is also some grumpiness because Stronghold only told the Kickstarter backers A DAY BEFORE the Target release. A lot of Kickstarter backers have stated that they would have been a LOT more forgiving if Stronghold had been more up front about this.

If you look at the current ratings of Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition on BoardGameGeek, you will see a LOT of ratings of 1.0/10.0. This is a “civil unrest” way for Kickstarter backers to show their displeasure. At the time of this writing, the rating is all the way down to 5.1/10.0. (There are also some people who give it a 10.0/10.0 just to balance the 1s). We’ll take a look at the game and see what we think, orthogonally to the controversy.

There are differences between the Kickstarter version of the game and the Target version. See the graphic below (directly from the Kickstarter) for differences. I can’t comment on these differences until September (when I receive my Kickstarter version), but I can say the Target list seems accurate.

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Unboxing

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Let’s see what’s in the box!

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The rulebook is of SUPER high quality paper (linen paper) just like the Canvas rulebook. The paper quality is really nice! (If you look closely above, you’ll see some of the texture).

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There’s a nice quickstart guide (see above). Perhaps more importantly, it discusses the difference between Terraforming Mars (the big board game) and Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition. A lot of people will probably be coming to the table with experience with Terraforming Mars, so this really helps!

The Player Boards (see above) are just cardboard sheets: this is one of the bigger differences between the Target version and the Kickstarter version! The Kickstarter version will have dual-layer boards, with indentations so the cubes don’t move around.

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The cardboard tokens and nice and readable (see above).

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And the rest of the game (the majority of the game) is cards and cubes (see above). They all fit nicely in the box.

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The cubes are nice, if nothing super special. The resource cubes are nice in that the copper cubes (representing 1 resource) are smaller than the silver cubes (representing 5 resources) which are smaller than the gold cubes (representing 10 resources). That’s a nice touch that’s make it easier to “make change” in resources as you play.

But, of course, the focus of the game, the major component, are the cards. There are really nice linen-coated cards (see above and below).

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If you look closely above, you can see the linen-coated cards. And look at how nice the cards are! Easy to read! Very colorful! Consistent art and consistent layout! One major complaint of the original Terraforming Mars was that the art was very inconsistent and something not great. Ares Expendition does NOT have this problems. These cards look great!

Weirdly, the dividers and the player summary card are NOT included in the rulebook summary of components? But they are very nice!

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Overall, the components are absolutely fantastic. The art on the box is really nice! The art on the cards is amazing and consistent with the rest of the game! Perhaps the only complaint someone might have is that the player boards are too easy to bump and cubes go flying … oh wait, that’s why the Kickstarter version has dual-layer player boards…

Rulebook

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I don’t want to focus too much on the rulebook, except to say it’s fantastic! It’s a very high quality paper! It’s very nice to the touch.

The font is big and readable. The components page lists the components AND shows their pictures. Very easy to read! See above!

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Right away, the game discusses the card layout: see above. (Recall, a minor complaint about The Phantom: The Card game was that the card layout was near the end of the rulebook where it was less useful). Right after we see the components, and they are fresh in our minds, we can correlate what’s on the card with what was JUST in our head/hands!

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This is always a tricky line: Do you discuss the game components first or the game set-up first? If you show the game set-up first, you know how the components fit together in context of gameplay. If you show the components first, you get an idea of what the components are before you get too far. Both ways can work: I personally tend to prefer Set-Up immediately after the Components list, but the way Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition (discussing components before Set-Up) works very well in this rulebook. I also remember this way working really well in the rulebook for Code 3.

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Again, everything is easy to read, the font is big, and the Set-Up is very clear!

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So, halfway through the rulebook (where the staples are), we finally start discussing Gameplay. You know? This technique of Components picture, Components exposition, Set-Up, then Gameplay worked really well.

This was a great rulebook! It was easy to read and easy to set-up. Ironically, I don’t think the game needs the “Quick Start Guide” set-up pamphlet because the rulebook is great for your first time! But, I can see the “Quick Start Guide” pamphlet being good for later plays when you already know most of the rules.

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Overall, fantastic rulebook.

Gameplay

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I want to touch on the gameplay elements a little before we discuss the solo modes and the cooperative modes.

Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition is a cross between the original Terraforming Mars (the big board game) and Race For The Galaxy.

The original Terraforming Mars is essentially an engine-builder game where you are buying cards and resources to help terraform Mars. This game, Ares Expedition, keeps that feel!

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See above for a set-up! You start with some cards you can buy, and these cards help you get plants, MegaCredits (MC or money), heat and more cards. Just like the big brother, to win you have to:

  1. Raise the heat of Mars to an acceptable level
  2. Add enough oxygen to Mars (planting Trees and other methods).
  3. Add water to Mars (via lakes)

You need to do ALL THREE in order to win.  The cards you buy give you an engine to “add heat”, “grow plants”, “get bucks” and all sorts of other tools which you use to terraform Mars.  By the end of the game, you have will a huge tableau of cards representing your engine!  See below!

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Notice (see above) the engine of the solo player with so many cards helping out.

Now, this may sound a lot like the original Terraforming Mars, and it is.  Here are the “official” differences:

The biggest difference is that each player only gets to execute one “phase” of the game per turn. There are 5 phases:

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On your turn, you “choose” one of the phases to do (Development, Construction, Action, Production, or Research).

When you choose a phase to execute, ALL PLAYERS get to execute that phase, but YOU get an extra bonus during that phase! For example, if you select Development, every player can buy and play a green card, but YOU get a discount on how much that card costs!

If this sounds familiar, it should! It’s essentially what Race For The Galaxy does! (And to a lesser extent, Puerto Rico). In the original Terraforming Mars game, you played all phases. But, by making this “phase” breakdown, PLAYERS CAN PLAY SIMULTANEOUSLY. This can really help speed up the game! The original Terraforming Mars can take 3-4 hours to play a full game! Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition drops to an hour (in real life, it took us 1.5 hours in a 2-Player game) because of this simultaneous play.

In general, this is an engine-building game with some simultaneous selection. It moves fairly quickly, even with players who tend to be analysis paralysis players.

Solo Mode

So, one of the many reasons I backed the Kickstarter was that this includes a solo mode. To win, you have to terraform Mars in a timely matter (you only have a certain number of turns to finish the terraforming). See rules below: it’s just one page in the very back of the rulebook.

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The main difference between normal play and solo play is that there is a “dummy” hand of phases. This means the solo player usually gets to execute 2 phases per turn: the phase the player selected and the phase the dummy hand selected.

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In the picture above, the “dummy” hand has selected the Production round and the solo player has selected Development.  Thus, on the solo player’s turn, he gets to do Development (with the bonus, because the solo player selected it) and then Production (without the bonus, because the dummy hand selected it).  The only real maintenance for the solo player is to shuffle the dummy action phase hand every 5 cards! In general, there’s not a lot of maintenance!  This makes the solo game flow pretty quickly, or as fast as the solo player wants.

I found the solo mode easy to understand, easy to play, fun to play, and a great way to learn more about the game.  There are even different difficulty levels as you get to know the game better!  

This was a very good solo mode.

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Cooperative Mode

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Really, the main reason I backed this: It has a cooperative mode! Unfortunately, the cooperative mode is a little lame for two reasons. First of all, the cooperative mode ONLY plays two players! Second of all, it is a “reach a victory point” level to win. You still have to terraform Mars completely to win in the cooperative game, but you also have to have a shared score of 80 victory points. See rules below.

Like the solo game, you only have a certain amount of time (15 rounds in this case) to terraform Mars! The mechanism for countdown is a little wonky: you have 27 “copper cubes” and 3 “unused player color cubes”. At the end of the turns, both players take a cube: if a player takes a copper cube, it goes straight to the MC (money), if a player chooses an “unused player cube”, the two players can trade a development card instead. When all cubes are gone (15 rounds), it’s the end of the game. If you have terraformed Mars AND gotten 80 shared victory points, the 2 players win! Otherwise, they lose!

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Even with the wonky countdown mechanism, the cooperative mode worked pretty well. In the game above, you’ll see that Mars was terraformed, but with only 64 Victory Points, so it was a losing game. I really think there should have been a gradation in winning:

  1. A “major win!” You terraform Mars AND got 80 shared victory Points!  Your team terraformed Mars in style!
  2. A “minor win!” You terraform Mars, but not enough shared victory points.  Your team succeeded, but Mars still needs a little more work
  3. A Loss: You didn’t Terraform Mars!  Um, sorry.

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In general, the cooperative mode worked well enough. We lost, but we think we knew some of the things we needed to do to play a better game: Mainly, make sure EVERY PHASE, both players need to be doing something useful! A few times during the game, one of us chose a phase that wasn’t mutually advantageous to BOTH players.

It was still a little lame that the cooperative mode only worked for 2 players.

Replayability

The core of Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition was the deck of development cards. See the huge deck above! To win, you tend to need to get a very large tableau going:

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You can see how BIG the deck of development cards is in the picture above!

Between 10 different corporations you can play and the HUGE deck of development 180+ cards, there is a ton of replayability here. After I finished playing both the solo and cooperative modes, I and my friend were still thinking about ways to have done better. I lost my first few solo and cooperative game, but I still wanted to play more!

I will also bet you $10 that Stronghold is planning expansions for this.

Conclusion

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Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition is a card game in the Terraforming Mars universe that is significantly shorter than the original Terraforming Mars game! It’s quicker to play and it also looks better than it’s original big brother. The solo mode is very good, but the cooperative mode needs some work: there really should be cooperative rules for all player counts of the game. If you were thinking of getting this game JUST for the cooperative mode, I’d say there are better cooperative games to get. If you where thinking of getting it for solo and cooperative modes, then I’d say that’s the tipping point! The solo and cooperative modes combined make this worthwhile to get. Now, if you factor in the competitive mode, then I’d say this is a no-brainer to get! Overall, Terraforming Mars:Ares Expedition is a fantastic game with fantastic components and a fantastic rulebook.

Some people love the 3-4 hours games of Terraforming Mars. Some peop;e don’t. If you love the gameplay of Terraforming Mars, but not the time commitment, Terraformform Mars: Ares Expedition might be a good compromise for you.

It will be curious to see if the controversy of the Kickstarter game and the Target deal adversely affects the game’s reception. It’s too bad that controversy had to exist: this is a good game.

A Review of The Phantom Card Game, Part I: Unboxing, Solo Play, and First Impressions

The Phantom: The Card Game was a cooperative game on Kickstarter May 2020, and it promised delivery in December 2020. It’s now June 2021, and I just got my copy a week or so ago. Apparently, there was some hold up on shipping for the US, but the EU backers got there’s a while ago. Regardless, 6-7 months late for a Kickstarter doesn’t even raise an eyebrow these days, most people are just glad it’s not a year late!

The Phantom: The Card Game is based on the IP of The Phantom, a masked hero with no powers who fights crime! It’s set in the jungles of Africa in the made-up country on Bangalia, with the Phantom typically befriending natives and protecting the jungles. The Phantom is a legacy hero, with the mantle being passed from generation to generation. See the Wikipedia page here for more info!

The Phantom has been around for a loooong time (since the 1940s) and is a golden age super hero!

Unboxing

The Phantom: The Card Game is essentially a card game with a bunch of tokens and player boards (and a rulebook, see above and below).

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The tokens (above) are “resources” that are needed to get stuff done in the game: cards can only be bought with resources, but cards can be traded in for resources as well. The game is all about the balance of buying cards and resources as necessary.

The box is mostly full of cards (see above) and an insert. Honestly, the insert was pretty terrible. It was all beaten up (see above) and the game was brand new!

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In general, the game is a card game with tons of cards! See above. Note that the cards are NOT linen-finished (unfortunately). Most of the cards in the game look like the above: a comic strip panel at the top, and game text at the bottom. It looks like the Phantom comic scenes are probably drawn from some archives of the original strips? The comic style is “reminiscent” of comic books and strips from the 40s and 50s.

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Overall, the game has “good enough” components: the cards could be linen finished, and the insert could be a lot better, but the cards and tokens are thematic and easy to read.

Rulebook

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The rulebook is … okay. It has a weird cover (see above), but at least it puts important information on the back cover (see below).

The first few pages do what we expect: show components:

The Set-up description and set-up picture are there, but they are separated on two different pages. Not a dealbreaker, but I really like having the set-up picture (see below) available while I am reading the set-up description!

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Honestly, they could have gotten rid of the weird leather cover, started the rules on the first page, and then the set-up description and set-up picture would have been on opposite pages of the rulebook for ease! Well, at least the set-up is fairly easy and the picture is pretty good.

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The rules are in a good, big font and easy to read (see above).

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Continuing the theme of “I wish this rulebook were rearranged”, I wish the card anatomy descriptions were more up front. It’s more near the back after all the rules have been described. I had some trouble learning the rules the first time, and I think moving this up front would have helped a lot. To be clear: the card anatomy is very helpful!

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The rules (see above) are fairly complete but pretty text heavy. Luckily, it’s fairly easy to read (with just a few omissions which we will discuss).

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The rules were good enough for me to learn the game. The font and layout was easy to read. Overall, I think the rulebook needs a reorganization, a few more pictures, and some more rule elaborations. The rulebook was … ok. I learned the game without getting grumpy.

Solo Rules

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So, this is 1 or 2 Player game. It feels more like a solo game overall. You can play either as the Phantom or Diana from the Jungle Patrol (see cover):

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Both Diana and The Phantom has separate and distinct decks that make up their character. The cooperative game is just alternating between the two characters. The game “feels” more like a solo game.

The Phantom deck has a little mask in the lower right corner to distinguish it from Diana’s deck. In general, all the are numbered and have symbols to differentiate them.

Adventure Decks

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This game is a campaign/light legacy game! You have three adventures included in the game (see above), and you have have sub adventures as you try complete one! At the end of an adventure, you will upgrade your deck and make it better for the next game. Upgrades come in the form of new cards from LOOT:

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Or ACHIEVEMENTS:

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Gameplay

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On your turn, you draw up to three cards (see above). You can either play a card from your hand to your Play Area (tableau) or you can discard a card to get a resource. (You can also initiate combat).

The upper left corner is the resource cost of the card, the upper right corner is the reward if you just discard this card. If this reminds you a little of Marvel Champions, you are not wrong. (Recall we reviewed Rise of Red Skull expansion here and Ant-Man expansion here). The difference is that you get an actual token that you can keep between turns! (In Marvel Champions, you can ONLY use cards you currently have to play).

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As you play, you build up your character: you get some tokens out (see 4 tokens above on the Player Board) and get some allies and items into the Play Area (see cards to the right of the player board). Again, like Marvel Champions, you can tap items and allies to get things (initiate combat, get more resources, get rid of bad cards, etc). The more cards in your Play Area, the more you can do on your turn, so it behooves you to get stuff out quickly.

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This wouldn’t be a coopearative card game without a “bad news” deck of some sort. In The Phantom, it’s called “The Destiny deck” (see above). You draw one card from the Destiny Deck per turn: this both advances the story and makes bad news for you!

While you are playing, there is always a goal or some part of the story to participate in. To help balance difficulty, there are 4 levels of difficulty: EASY, NORMAL, HEROIC, or MYTHIC: When you reveal story cards (Iike below and above), you will choose the appropriate level, based on your difficulty.

In general, the gameplay is pretty well described in the rulebook:

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The game is all about the delicate balance of when to fight, when to put out allies, when to get rid of imjuries, when to discard cards for resources, and when to fight!

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Fighting is initiated with a SKULL TOKEN (you can discard the above card to get a SKULL TOKEN).  After you discard a SKULL token, you can tap some of your allies to help you and get plusses on damage, and then do a card check.  Draw a card and if you get a SKULL or DIAMOND (from left of card … the one above does) you get a +1 damage for each one!   You are allowed to distribute damage as you like:

So, the above only has 1 hit point, so you can just do all 2 damage (Base +1 plus the +1 for the card check) and take out the wolf.

If you don’t take out the enemies, they will do an injury to you! For each enemy active at the end of your turn, you take one injury!

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Can you survive to the end of the story?

Problems

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Besides a rulebook reorganization, I think there are some things that really need to be addressed.   In my plays of the game, I make some assumptions to move forward in the game, but there are some issues.

  1. How much damage do enemies do?  If you haven’t killed some of the enemies in the destiny row, how much damage do they each do?  It’s not clear at first, but EACH ENEMY DOES EXACTLY ONE INJURY.  Each player has 10 injury cards at the start of the game.  Flip EXACTLY one over (this wasn’t clear) and add it to your character.  (You can get rid of the injury at the start of your turn, but you can’t “refresh” any allies or items …)
  2. Destiny Cards: What does “Shuffle Into Deck” mean? At story points,  some of the destiny points are unclear if you keep old enemies or wipe them fresh or keep old destiny cards.  The very first Destiny cards make it clear what happens when new story points come up, but later ones are very unclear.  Do I keep the destiny line?  Do I keep all the old cards in the Destiny deck?  Some better descriptions on the story cards would make this a lot clearer.  Something like “keep all old destiny cards”.
  3.  How do Card Checks work?: The card check description makes it always sound a card initiates a card check, but a discarded combat token can initiate it as well.  This needs to be clarified.
  4. What is a COMMON ENEMY?  Some of the enemies that come up in Destiny are labelled.  It was unclear what a COMMON ENEMY was?  
  5. What are The Loot and Achievements?  If you are playing the cards in order (and you are the first time you play), you don’t realize that (a) you are supposed to get LOOT for every enemy you kill (b) there are ACHIEVEMENTS throughout the game that give you better cards.  You ONLY see these cards AT THE VERY END!   They should be some of the first cards in the deck!!!  After my first play (and even my second play), I had completely forgotten about them.  THESE NEED TO BE SOME OF THE FIRST CARDS REVEALED FROM AN ADVENTURE.

There’s a lot of comparisons here and in other reviews to  Marvel Champions.  One of the things Marvel Champions does right is having a first play (with lots of pictures) and a separate “text only” rulebook which describes and clarifies points.  I don’t necessarily think we need that here, but the rulebook needs another pass with more examples and clarifications.

Conclusion

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The Phantom: The Card Game is a cooperative or solo super-hero card game set in the world of The Phantom. I liked this world and this game! It reminded me a lot of Marvel Champions, but with a little more story. I also liked the idea of being able to get tokens for resources so you could save resources between turns (unlike Marvel Champions). The art was a little old-school comic-book style, which is a bit distracting in the modern era, but it was very thematic for game play. What was best about The Phantom: The Card Game was also it’s Achilles’ Heal: the stories are interesting and thematic and fun, but they are limited! This game is strongly in need of more content! The rulebook also needs some more love. Besides these complaints, this is a good game.

If you liked Marvel Champions but wanted more story, The Phantom: The Card Game might be something you really like. Although it’s not quite as polished as Marvel Champions, the story in The Phantom: The Card Game really shines through. What I wanted from Marvel Champions: Rise of Red Skull (see review here) was more a more interactive story: it was The Phantom: The Card Game that finally gave it to me!

A Review of Cantaloop

Cantaloop is a weird game. It’s labelled (see above) as an Interactive Adventure, but what does that mean? It reminds me of a LucasArts “point-and-click” adventure (like Monkey Island) more than any other board/card game I have played. It’s essentially a solo game, but you can play it cooperatively by having your friends play with you offering suggestions to solve puzzles … much like an Escape Room game (like Unlock or Escape Tales which we reviewed here and here).

The premise of the Cantaloop is that you are trying to recruit a “gang” to help you pull off a revenge heist. One gang member you have coerce from a Jazz club and the other gang member you have to liberate from Prison. If that sounds like this is a dark and brooding game … IT ISN’T!!! This is one of the silliest games I have played in a while (in a good way), but Cantaloop is a thoughtful game in that it presents challenging and interesting puzzles to solve.

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Unboxing … or “Book Opening”

So, this isn’t a board game in a conventional box. It’s a book (in shrink wrap) that you have to open! Once you open it up, you see what you get: essentially a book with a few extra components in the front cover: see below.

The components are in some boxes and a flap attached to the front cover.

There are 60 cards over 3 pouches (all labelled cleverly 1-60, see above). The rest of the components are in a pouch under the cards: a map, a postcard, an “trigger matrix” and .. a decoder. The pouch is “labelled” (see above) so you can see what’s in there.

The pouch (see above) is a little cumbersome to get to: you have to force it a little.

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Most of the content of the game is in the book itself: the pictures, the text, the story. IMG_9168

You’ll see that pages (on the right) are physically tabbed so that you can turn to the appropriate section with just a quick motion. Need to get to “07”? It’s easy to just pull the tab and turn the book to that page.

Arguably, the most important piece of the game is the little red “decoder”. Don’t lose this! (We’ll see why later)

Overall, the component are decent: they are kind of cartoony, but that fits the vibe of the game.

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The Rulebook … or just the Book!

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The book itself is the rulebook: the rules are in the first few pages.

The rulebook starts off with a description of the game and a list of components.  It also very clearly delineates when you need to STOP READING as you peruse the rulebook: see below.

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Incidentally, I loved the veiled reference to Monkey Island as ape archipelagos (see above): Longtime readers of this blog know that we love Monkey Island (and even put it in our Top 10 Swashbuckling Cooperative games), so this immediately put us in a good mood that this will be a game we like! The component list is lame, but since there are so few components, it’s not a big deal.

The first few pages of the rulebook are a tutorial that takes you through the main mechanisms in the game. It’s a nice tutorial! One of the main ideas of the game is that you will be leafing through the book going from Location to Location (like a point-and-click adventure game): on the left will be some “hidden text” and on the right will be a giant graphic depicting the Location. The Location will be annotated with numbers and letters that will be used to “look” and “investigate” the location (using the text on the right). See the Location 1 below: text on the left, graphic on the right.

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To keep the text “hidden” so you don’t accidentally see anything you are supposed to, all the text of the game is “hidden” in garbled red letters that can be decoded using the red decoder: See the hidden text below …

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… and then how easy it to read once you use the decoder!

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Note: you can read the text ONLY that you want to. If you squint, you CAN read the garbled text above it, but if you are playing honestly, you only read what you are supposed to.

And the game is all about exploring this world! Looking at pictures, correlating items and pictures to figure out what text to read!

Probably the hardest mechanic to get use to is how “items interact with the world”. Each item has a left and right side which numbers/letters on it. You “line up” the items to see if you can use them together.

In the example above, you are using the magnifying glass to look at the cigarette lighter (“look cigarette lighter”).  If this is a legal activity, there  will be a text blob with that label (in this case r5p5:  r5 from the cigarette lighter, p5 from the magnifying glass) you can decode.  IF IT IS NOT SOMETHING YOU CAN DO, there will be NO corresponding entry.   

What makes this feel like ad Adventure game? Even if combining two items doesn’t make sense, there is typically still a text entry. The game might yell at you (seriously) or make a joke or some oblique reference. Like the old LucasArt adventure games, “clicking” on everything usually reveals something!

Normally, you are combining items with your Location, but sometimes you need to “connect” two items together. If you try to combine two items in your inventory, you have to consult the pamphlet that comes with the game (rather than the Location in the book):

Overall, the introduction to the game serves as a tutorial and does a great job explaining and showing the rules in operation. The mechanism to combine items/Locations is a little wonky, but walking through the tutorial made this very clear how the game mechanisms work.

I have raved about how good the Tainted Grail tutorial is to getting you going right away: the one included here in Cantaloop might be better. It showed you what you CAN do as well as what you CAN’T DO (by giving you funny text if you do something wrong). I was up and going right away in the game. This was a great rulebook/introduction.

Trigger Sheet (Matrix)

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One of the more fiddly mechanics in the game is the Trigger Sheet or Trigger Matrix (see above). This isn’t a legacy game, but if you don’t make a copy of the sheet, you will ruin the only copy of the Trigger Sheet so people can’t play the game later. I just got a piece of paper and wrote down “triggers” that I hit as the game went.

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What are triggers? They represent you making “progress” in the game! For example, if you combine the batteries and the flashlight, that turns on the flashlight and trigger event H3: you then mark off that H3 on your trigger sheet. (There isn’t actually a flashlight in the game: this is just an example). Later in the game, your text might say:

B3EF: If H3, then read F2D2. Otherwise: “It’s too dark, you can’t see”

F2D2: You can see a light switch on the wall.  Lame.  I didn’t need the flashlight.

In other words, when you do stuff, the Trigger Sheet notes progress in the game. By the end of the game, most of your Triggers should be marked.

By the way: LEARN FROM MY MISTAKE: you probably should make a copy of the Trigger Sheet and use that … my little piece of paper made it hard to see what Triggers I hit.

Cut Scenes

One my favorite parts of point-and click-adventure games are the cut scenes, when you interact with people you find in the game.  For example, in Monkey island, the interactions with Mancomb Seepgood are hilarious as well as informative!  (See below).

Let's Play Secret of Monkey Island - Part 1 [Guybrush meets Mancomb] -  YouTube

In Cantaloop, the game simulates these cut scenes by going to a particular section of the book (all tabbed out with letters) and following a dialog between two characters.  

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Of course, depending on Triggers, your interactions will change … you can only see the interaction above if you have hit Trigger C7.

This little touch, the cut scenes, just adds a whole new level to the game for me: it really gives the game personality and story.  

NOTE: Locations Tabs are numbers in the game, and Cut Scene Tabs are Letters.

Gameplay

We have to careful here: I don’t want to give away too much. The picture above shows “what are you dealing with” as you play: you’ll have your items (on cards) in front of you, your Inventory chart, and the Location you are currently at. You’ll typically have a bunch of text to read when you visit any new Location, and then you start trying to figure out the puzzles as you go. (“What happens when I combine the bread with the batteries? Anything?”) As you do stuff, you will mark off triggers, read new text, and discover new locations. And lots of jokes Many, many, many jokes.

It took me about 8 hours to get through the whole game. It felt very much like a point-and-click adventure game! Some of the puzzles I got right away, some of the puzzles were a result of “what happens if I combine these items”, some puzzles came to me later as I was exploring, and some puzzles I had to get help on (see later below). I would make manic progress for a while, then get stuck for a while … JUST LIKE AN ADVENTURE GAME. I have played a number of the adventure games in my life, and that’s just the ebb and flow of an adventure game. This captures that ebb and flow perfectly.

This game is all about searching the world of Cantaloop and exploring and combining and solving.

Help System

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In the olden days of the original Secret of Monkey Island, (see above) if you needed help in the game, you had a 1-900 telephone number (1-900-740-JEDI) you could call to get help.  I am not kidding here: see below!  It even cost 75 cents a minute!  (This comes from the rulebook of the my Amiga Secret of Monkey Island game!)

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The original Monkey Island was released October 15th, 1990, well before the internet had blossomed.  There were newsgroups and other things that were uncommon to many people, but nothing like the internet today.  (In Monkey Island 2, they even made fun of the 1-900 help line by having Guybrush call it).

Luckily, you don’t have to deal with a 1-900 help line in Cantaloop!  There is a help section in the back of the book based on Triggers in the game: 

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It’s a little messy to get help: you have to look at the Triggers (above) in order until you find one that you HAVE NOT Triggered!  The game assumes THAT TRIGGER is where you are stuck (since you haven’t marked it yet).  From there, it tells you which number hint to read (using your decoder): see below.

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The help system worked for me: it was a little clumsy looking through the Triggers for “the first Trigger you haven’t crossed off”, but most of the time it helped me move forward.  They even have Tip #1, Tip #2, and Solution so you don’t have to read the solution straight out if you just want a nudge.

Most of the time, the Help System worked fine, but once or twice it pointed me to a hint that didn’t make sense at first.  It’s not the best help system I have found (I think the Unlock or Exit games probably have the better help systems), but this one worked well enough.   I didn’t have to call 1-900-740-JEDI to get hints.

Sense of Humor

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Cantaloop has  a sense of humor!  There are SO MANY JOKES littered throughout the game!  Sometimes it’s just a straight up joke when you look at something, sometimes it’s a joke when you combine things you can’t REALLY combine, sometimes it’s a very oblique reference!  Be warned, the game has some slightly adult content and some jokes and language  were more adult than I expected!  But, any 13 year old on the playground has heard the language and would probably laugh/get most of the jokes. 

This sense of humor was a refreshing change.

Critical Thoughts

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I brought Cantaloop with me to the mountains on vacation and played it there. More than I few times, I heard “That looks like a lot of work” from people as I played: I paged through the book, I tried to combine cards, I read text, and I made notes. And you know what? They aren’t wrong! Playing this is a lot more work than other Escape Room games. Unlock and Exit typically have smaller worlds, as they tend to be just 1 hour typically. Cantaloop, which was an 8 hour game for me, there was a lot more stuff to remember and track of! But I say that’s a GOOD THING! The game is interesting enough and long enough to last 8 hours! I was engaged the whole time. Again, I experienced the same ebb and flow as an adventure game! I occasionally had to “walk away” so I clear my head and come back later to the puzzles with a different perspective. I honestly can’t imagine playing this game over one session: It probably took me about 6 sessions to finish the game.

I want to talk about what they got right in the physical components:

  1. The binding of the book.  They got this right.  Since the game is all about paging through a book, a lesser or more constricting binding would have soured the game.  I never ONCE thought about the binding, which is a sign they got it right.  It was easy to page through the book and get to the section I needed.
  2. The tabs of the book.  They got this mostly right. To make a section of the book easy to get to, the book had physical tabs so you could immediately open the book to the section you wanted.  I say “mostly” only because they would have slightly better with either a “color coding” (for emphasis) or more “reinforced” tabs (I felt like I might tear the page once or twice).  This is a very minor complaint: the tabs worked great.
  3. The decoder strip.  They got this mostly right.  It worked, but as I played the little plastic got more and more scratched up.  It still worked the whole game but it got slightly harder to read as I played.  I think it might have been better to have 2 decoder strips: an extra in case the other gets lost or scratched up.

My only major negative is that you get “tired” of reading the hidden text with the “red decoder”. You have to have a very well lit environment to read the red text well, and sometimes your eyes just get tired of the red.  I don’t know how to fix fix that, after all it is the main mechanism of the game, but the red text got to me a few times and I just had to quit for a while. 

To be clear: the game is hard.  That can be a negative or a positive, depending on your  point of view.  But, if you are signing up for an 8 hour puzzle-laden experience, expect there to be some difficulty.

Conclusion

Cantaloop is a candidate for Game of the Year for me! I loved this game! The puzzles were interesting and innovative, the plot was engaging, and the sense of humor was ridiculous! The physicality of the game never got in the way of playing: all the physical components were thoughtfully produced to make the adventure flow smoothly. When I was playing Cantaloop, I was engaged and having a good time. When I finished a session, I found myself still thinking about the puzzles and jokes! I would even retell the jokes to my friends! There were, of course, some frustrations (as any adventure game has), but the help system (for all it’s wonkiness) was good enough to keep me from getting stuck.

To this day, I still play The Secret of Monkey Island all over again every few years because I like living in that world! (Even though I have seen all the puzzles) Monkey Island is silly and fun but with interesting puzzles. I think Cantaloop falls into that category of games. The sense of humor and the interesting puzzles make me envy my past self: my past self gets to play this for the first time all over again! Hopefully, I will forget a lot of these puzzles so I can play it again fresh in a few years. Even if I remember a lot of the puzzles, I still look forward to playing again because I enjoyed living in the world so much!

Luckily, there is a sequel planned! Cantaloop is Part I of an ongoing adventure …

A Review of Tainted Grail, Part II. Final Thoughts.

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You’ll notice here at Co-op Gestalt, we sometimes split a review into two parts:

  1. Part I: Unboxing, Solo Rules, and Unboxing.
  2. Part II: Final Thoughts

We frequently don’t do a “Part II” for several reasons:

  1. We can’t get it to the table with more people.  The “Part I” represents me getting and playing the game solo for get initial impressions.  Sometimes, I can’t get my game groups interested in a game, so there’s no new info for a “Part II”.  This isn’t a bad thing, just a fact!  There are so many tastes and people that sometimes a game just doesn’t get to the table after my initial run through.
  2. There’s no need for further impressions.  I may get it to the table, but my impressions don’t change.  There’s no substantial changes, so I let the initial “Part I” review stand.

When we get a review “Part II”, it’s usually because we want to add to our initial review.  For example, we still loved Marvel United after the initial review, but we wanted to talk more about the cards and components (and give out trophies) in Part II.  

So, with that in mind, we head into Part II (below) of our thoughts on Tainted Grail.  See initial Part I review here!

Four Adventurers

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So, myself and three friends started playing Tainted Grail over the past 3 or so months. We’ve probably put about 40 hours of investment into the game, playing the first 3 scenarios. We had a rough start in Scenario 2 where we explored poorly that cost us a bunch of time.

The game flowed pretty quickly when we were playing. There was a lot of concurrency going on:

  1. Sara and Andrew would go hunting to get us food.  They would be fighting “green” monsters to get food for the party.
  2. At the same time, Rich and Teresa would go exploring and try to advance the story.

This worked okay, as the game moved a little faster with this paralleism, but Andrew and Sara got tired of hunting and they wanted to hear more of the story! And that’s fair! The story has been really good and the writing has been great!

Here’s the problem: I could tell my group was getting burned out.

Too Grindy

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In the words of the great Andrew: “The game became too grindy”. After scenario 2 seemed to just go on and on and on, we decided to try some rules to make it less grindy.

  1. Let the Menhirs stay lit longer.  The Menhirs are a sort of timer that keep certain parts of the world open.  If the Menhir “burns down”, that part of the world is unexplorable until you relight it.  We spent WAAAAAY too much time keeping the Menhirs lit as we explored.  By default, the number of turns a Menhir is lit is something like 9 minus the number of players.  We just maxxed it out at 9.
  2. Move the Hunt along.  In order to stay alive, you need to hunt and get food.  This because a major grind because you usually fight a ton of “green” monsters to keep alive.  We decided, rather than fighting to get food, we just get 2-3 food and completely ignore the combat.  
  3. (Spoiler).  Somebody comes after you.  We ignored this after game 2 because it was SO MUCH maintenance.

Now, with these changes, Andrew and Sara were more engaged as the story (the best part of the game) was being enjoyed by everyone: Sara and Andrew were no longer “stuck” grinding for food.

Silence

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My friends came over after we were (mostly) done with Scenario 3. “You want to move on?” Silence. Even with the changes we proposed, nobody wanted to play. “Even with our changes, it was STILL too grindy! I want to d of the combat and stuff, but the exploration/story is the best part. I want to do more of that!”

We proposed this change:

  1. The Menhirs simply don’t expire, but you can’t have more than 3 on the table at once.

Even with that change proposed, I couldn’t get my group interested in playing again.  My group was done with Tainted Grail after 3 Scenarios.

Reflections

The best part of Tainted Grail is the story and the want/need to explore the land!  We all agreed that the writing and tendriled subplots were interesting and fun to explore.  In the end, getting there wasn’t fun. In Part I of my review, I wasn’t sure abut the Combat/Diplomacy system.  It was definitely new and interesting setting up a combat .. almost like a story panel!  In the end, it wasn’t that great.  You only get three cards at the start of combat to use, and then get one when you are done.  Andrew pointed out “There didn’t seem to be enough choice”.  Granted, your deck of cards gets better as you advance, so you can make choices, but it felt tedious after a while.  Combat and Diplomacy were necessary evils to move forward, but they weren’t “fun”?

I reflect back to Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) games I have played where I loved combat!  In D&D, you have so many choices, ways to work with your party, imaginative ways to help each other, imaginative ways to fight!  So, I definitely like the idea of combat, like in D&D, but I think we felt like our choices in Tainted Grail were too limited.

Your group may love the Combat and Diplomacy mechanics in this game!  If you do, this is the game for you.  My group grew tired of all the Combat and Diplomacy mechanisms needed to advance the story.  If there had been one fifth of that, I think we’d still be playing.  We really did like the story.

Video Game

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There is a digital version of Tainted Grail available on Steam!  I am wary and optimistic at the same time!

  1. WARY: If digital version of Tainted Grail is too hard, you can’t scale it back like we did the board game!  One of the great things about board games is that you can control/modify the rules and play as you find fun.  The digital versions tend to just have a few levels and you are stuck with those rules, even if you don’t like them.  
  2. OPTIMISTIC: Video game combat is well understood and much less plodding.  If the Combat and Diplomacy has been streamlined in the video game, or simply just made cool with a joystick, maybe combat and levelling up will be a lot more fun!

I haven’t played it yet, but backers of the original Kickstarter can get the free Steam code in Update 50 to try it out.

Conclusion

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So, I got 40 hours  of gameplay out of Tainted Grail.  That’s actually pretty good!  I payed about 99$ (US) to get a lot of gameplay.   That’s a lot more than some games!  I feel like I got my money’s worth, even if my game group stopped early.  What did I get?

  1. One of the best “First Play” tutorials I have ever seen!
  2. A ton of cards (see above) and content!
  3. Beautiful miniatures!
  4. An amazing story!

What do I think you should do?  Learn from my group’s mistakes!  Play this game, but play with an eye towards simplifying gameplay (using our suggestions previously in the review) and reducing grind.  Concentrate on the story and enjoy the writing and subplots as much as possible.  Don’t burn out your group with grind!

Am I going to keep this game?  I think it was an 8 or 9 out of 10 when I first started, but it sure has fallen: how apropos for a game called “The Fall of Avalon“.   It’s probably a 6 or 7 right now, but  I will keep it and try to finish the game solo.  Who knows, that solo play might elevate the game back up.  I might just keep Tainted Grail just to read the adventure book without all the Combat and Diplomacy … the writing and story were that good.

 

 

A Review of Magda: The Solo Card Game

Madga is solitaire only card game that was Kickstarter back in October 2020. It delivered to Kickstarter backers just (well, to me at least) yesterday: March 24, 2021. It promised delivery in July 2021 … yes, it was 1.5 months early! Huzzah to the makers!

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As a Kickstarter backer, I also got a little cloth patch (see above). Neato!

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The back of the Box

The reason I picked up Magda was because of the art and the theme.  I do like the art and the theme! See above.  It also happens to be a pretty quick game: only 15 minutes (although I have had much shorter games, see later below).

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I was a little surprised how small the box was (see above for scale)!  Luckily, the cards are the same size as the box, so the cards are bigger than you expect.

  

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Let’s take a look at this weird little solo card game …

Components

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The game is all cards! See above. The cards look really nice and I do like the art. The cards are all easy to read (see below). Unfortunately, they are not linen-finished: this is unfortunate because you handle the cards quite a bit (especially the player cards).

You can see from the cards that the game looks kind of creepy … and it is! You are travelling in space, trying to get home, and the jealous computer Magda is trying to stop you! Overall, the components look really nice: this is why I got the game.

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Rulebook

The rulebook is a quad-fold pamphlet. I usually hate pamphlets, but I gave Agroplis a pass on this because it was a nice little rulebook. Unfortunately, the Madga one isn’t nearly as good and it suffers from being a pamphlet.

I will admit the rulebook does a decent job with set-up: I got going right away on that! It was pretty clear how to set-up the game.

The object of the game is explained fairly well, as is the basic gameplay. But this is where a lot of questions start: how can I lay out the travel cards? Do I need one travel card per planet? Can travel cards cascade? Do I have to put them out a certain way? There is some more discussion in the “gameplay tips and notes”, but I feel like that should be covered HERE IN THE RULES (not tips).

Above, you can see the discussion of how Magda plays.

I should give props to this pamphlet: the text is big enough to read, it uses colors well to emphasize points, and it shows necessary pictures. And you can get going with it. Like I said, I was up and playing the game pretty quickly.

So, the graphic design is good and its fairly readable, BUT the rulebook just doesn’t cover any edge conditions or anything beyond the most basic questions of ruleplay! I had some questions about gameplay:

  • Do you have to fulfill a mission ONLY off the arrows from that part of the manifest card?
  • What does the topology of the travel? 
  • Why are there so many travel cards?
  • Does the planet matter?

I made it through and was able to play a few games, but I had to guess on a few of these things.

The rulebook was okay: the design and readability were good, but it didn’t discuss some basic questions I had: some rules seemed to be missing.

Set-Up

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Initial set-up is real easy! You set up three queues of cards (for good or “pilot” cards), a deck of Magda cards (or “Bad News” cards), your ship (with a stern and bow), and your initial Manifest which describes the three missions you must complete to win.   It looks pretty nice: see above.

 

The manifest (see above) is the most important card in the game: it tells you what your 3 missions are! In order to win, you must complete all 3 missions and then go home (playing the HOME card to the middle). Each mission is made up of a planet, mission, and asset. If you can place all three together (as described on the manifest), you have completed a missions! The planets, missions, and assets all come from the Pilot deck or one of your three queues.

Whenever you play a planet, mission, or asset down, you have to play a Magda card and see what her reaction is. She’s the bad guy: her cards are the “Bad News” cards: see below.

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Gameplay

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To play, you cycle through your Pilot deck, either placing a card on the board or in one of your three queues (see above). You can always choose to play the top card of a queue instead of the top card of your Pilot deck. Usually when you play to the board, a Magda card comes out, so you don’t want to do that unless you have to! You get cards into your queues hope for the cards you want.

The game moves quickly and is usually over within 15 minutes.

Thoughts

First off, I love the art style. The Mission, Planet, and Asset cards (see above) remind me of the covers of old-style Sci-Fi paperback novels. And the art is very evocative! The art of the Magda cards (or “Bad News”) is just creepy!

The rulebook could be better, but it at least does a good job explaining basic gameplay. You can muddle through the edge conditions and play.

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Unfortunately, the game is pretty random. Take a look at the card above: if you just happen to play this as your last card, you lose!!!! It doesn’t matter what you did the rest of the game. And, unfortunately, a lot of the Magda bad news cards are just as unforgiving:

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In my first game, I lost because I had the therapist out and the “She Messed With My Head” came out. I just lost! It was very unsatisfying.

The amount of randomness in this game might drive you a little crazy. Sometimes it’s just no fun, as all you can is play cards, and there aren’t a lot of ways to mitigate the Magda cards: You can get one of the 4 good cards in play, and you can “cap” mission-triads to make sure Madga can’t affect them. But that’s kind of it: you don’t “really” have a lot of choices in the game.

After my first few plays, I was almost done with the game! It was too random! Not enough choice, and not enough ways to mitigate the Magda cards. I was almost ready to be done and give this game a 3.

However, read on.

Strategy … of a Kind

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See above for a winning game. Was this all luck? No, but there are two things working in your favor:

  1. There is no penalty for going through all your Pilot cards!  Once you do that, you simply take all three queues back up, shuffle them, and start another 3 queues!  WHAT THIS MEANS: if you want a card, simply keep cycling through the deck until you find it.  In other words, there’s almost no reason for the three queues, you can find the 3 cards you want (Mission, Planet, Asset) by just cycling through the deck.   
  2. You can figure out what card is on the bottom of the deck when you cycle!  As you cycle through your deck, you can figure out (by process of elimination) what the very last card is.  WHAT THIS MEANS:  When you need to cap a deck to keep Magda from ruining a Mission/Planet/Asset triad, you can predict what the card is!  When you uncap to try to win the game, you WANT to play the cap card, otherwise you have to play 2 Magda cards!  To avoid that, you can simply force the cap card to be what you want (by cycling through the deck a few times)!

With those two realizations, you can play a winning game and at least mitigate a lot of randomness.  In fact, the very first thing you should do is cycle through the deck and get all 4 “good” cards out:

Basically, you can either spend your first turn “cycling though the deck” to find the 4 cards … or just put them out at the start of the game. Remember, this works because Magda doesn’t play any bad news cards until you play something (Planet/Mission/Asset) to the middle .. . you can cycle your deck infinite times looking for the cards you want without repercussions.

Once you put all this together, the game is a little more playable, but it’s more work as you “cycle” cards. By getting the 4 Good cards out, you can decide when to use them, you can decide when to cap and what to cap with, you can decide which missions to go after. When Magda deals you some randomness, at least you have some choice.

It sort of reminds me of variants of Solitare when you cycle through your draw pile … “I know there was a Queen in there…”

Conclusion

This game is just okay at best. Using the observations from the section above, you can do some things to mitigate the randomness of the game. Unfortunately, there’s still quite a bit of randomness, and it can be infuriating. I will say that I do like the art, and Magda has the advantage that the game is simple and short. A lot of people don’t care if a game is too random as long as it is short: I am not one of those people, but you may be! Is that’s the case, maybe Magda will be for you.

I could see playing Magda to pass some time.

To be clear, Magda is a game and it is playable and I would play it again. Compare this The Umbrella Academy which is unplayable and I never want to see it again. But, if you are looking for a fun, thematic, small solo card game, either take a look at our review of The Dead Eye or one of our Top 10 “Small” Cooperative Games for better recommendations.

Cooperative Exploration: A New Way To Learn Games?

Beyond the Sun, Rio Grande Games, 2020 — front cover (image provided by the publisher)
My friend and I wanted to learn a new board game the other night. Spoiler Alert (see above): It was Beyond The Sun. The guys at Shut-Up & Sit Down recommended this in one of their silly videos, so I wanted to check it out.

There seem to be three standard ways to learn a game:

  1. Read the Rulebook.  For me, this is the method I use 99%  of the time
  2. Watch a Video: You-Tube has tons of people showing “how to play a game”.  It’s not usually my preferred way, but a lot of people like to watch videos about how to play. 
  3. Have Someone Teach You The Game.  This is probably the easiest way, as someone learns the game and teaches everybody else.  (Historically, this has been in person, but I’ve recently been taught some games over Discord/Zoom)

My friend Junkerman and I had … other ideas.

Board Game Arena

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I called my friend Junkerman last Tuesday.

“Hey, you wanna play Beyond The Sun?  It’s now online at Board Game Arena.”  (See Screen shot above)
“Sure.  Meet you there in a few.”

After floundering around and logging into Board Game Arena, we also got on Discord so we could chat while we played.

“So, do you know how to play?”
“Nope, do you?”
“Nope.”
… silence …
“Let’s try it anyways!”

So, we read some really crappy minimal rules on  the site (there were videos and PDFs of the game, but we chose to eschew them) to get an idea of the game.  We still had no idea what we were doing.

“Let just start clicking and see what happens!”

Let’s Just Click On Things!

D E N N I S K . C H A N

Here’s the thing, Board Game Arena enforces the rules of the game strictly. So, it’s not a “free-form” scenario like TableTop Simulator can be. If you can “click” on something on Board Game Arena, this means it’s a LEGAL click, so you can do it! With Board Game Arena only letting us click on things “legally”, we just starting clicking.

Hilariously, it took us 10 minutes (I am not exaggerating) to start our first turn! (Hint, the basic actions are in the middle of the screen and really tiny. Ya, that’s our excuse). We just started clicking and hovering over things … Board Game Arena does a “really nice” job with showing rules when you hover over game pieces.

So, over the course of two hours, we tried to click on things, we hovered over things, we just explored! Our goal was NOT to win, but to figure out the game together!!

“Hey Joe, why don’t you attack me and see what happens!”
“Oh ya, I should attack you. I wonder what happens to my ships if I fail?”
“I dunno? Let’s find out!”

“COOL! The leftover pieces go the the black hole! Cool!

I think the funniest moment was when we realized “the grey blobs” on the cards (that we turned over) were UPGRADED spaces!

Post Lockdown Playing Priorities! | Board Games | Zatu Games UK

“See the grey blob next to PSIONICS RESEARCH (see above)?”
“Ya.”
“I think we can go there!”
“Really? Those grey blobs weren’t decoration?”
“I think they are new actions we can do!!!”
“Boy, are we dumb.  We could have been doing those new actions for the past hour!”

After about 2 hours of screwing around, we had an idea of the game! We had to be patient with each other: “What do you think this does?” “I dunno.” We had to click on things and just randomly try stuff. Board Game Arena was our teacher and our enforcer: we could only do things it would let us!

Cooperative Exploration

COOP COVER FINAL ART sized all

So, I came up with the phrase Cooperative Exploration to try to describe how Junkerman and I learned the game. Basically, because it sounds a whole lot better than “we just clicked around and saw what we could do”. Honestly, this as the funnest I’ve had learning a game in a LONG time! It was fun to laugh at each other: “What are you doing? I dunno?” “What’s that leaf thing? I dunno? Oh! I see it!” It was fun to just explore the screen and hover. It felt like Junkerman and myself embarked on an expedition to explore and fool around in this online world of Beyond The Sun. What works? What doesn’t? What does this do? It was a blast: a cooperative adventure exploring the world of Beyond The Sun.

We joked that we should have live-streamed our adventure: we were pretty stupid at times, and we thought other people might enjoy laughing at us because we were laughing at ourselves! I’ll be honest: I felt a little like a little kid again. I didn’t care if I won, I just wanted to figure out “this world” we were in! It was a freeing experience NOT being shackled to a rulebook! We just let Board Game Arena be out teacher and enforcer.

Precedence In Deep Learning 

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As crazy as it sounds, there is some precedence for Machine Learning techniques using exactly this same idea: “Just try clicking stuff”.  This paper out of Carnegie Melon shows how an AI learned how to play DOOM using only the raw pixels on the screen.  The AI was trained by letting it “try stuff” and using the pixels on the screen as results to guide further exploration.  The AI plays thousands of games, keeping track of results of “try stuff and see what happens” in the pixels of the output.

It’s the same idea as our Cooperative Exploration, except that the AI tries stuff over many many many games to train itself. I suspect if Junkerman and I tried stuff over a million games, we’d be as good as the AI too …

Conclusion

Beyond the Sun set up for 2

I realize that Cooperative Exploration is probably a bit snobby of a term, but it captures (for us anyways) a new way to try to learn board and card games.  If someone put the physical board game Beyond the Sun in front of me, I think I know enough to play it from my Cooperative Exploration with Junkerman. 

I seriously recommend trying the Cooperative Exploration idea out with a close friend: it’s a hilarious, fun, and freeing way to learn a new board game.  I wouldn’t recommend this idea too many people, though.  You want someone you can laugh with and at!  You need to be patient with each other!  You will be making mistakes and you have to be with someone you feel comfortable making DUMB mistakes with! (Seriously, it took 10 minutes for us to find something in we could click on at the start of the game.  Boy, did we feel DUMB!).  You will also be laughing at yourself, so have a sense of humor!  

This was one of the funnest adventures I’ve been on a while.