A Review of Batman The Animated Series: Shadow of the Bat (Cooperative Mode Only)

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Let’s be clear here: there are at least two cooperative Batman The Animated Series games: Gotham Under Siege and Shadow of the Bat. This week, we are focusing on the Pete Walsh and Kevin Wilson design called Shadow of the Bat (see picture above). Gotham under Siege (see picture below) is a fantastic Batman game that made our Top 10 Cooperative Dice Games and Top 10 Cooperative Superhero Games. Gotham Under Siege is a different dice game that we will discuss again later: these two games will have some unexpected crossover!! What does that mean? Keep reading fearless reader!

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Kickstarter

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Batman The Animated Series: Shadow of the Bat (sometime called Batman: The Animated Series Adventures) is a cooperative and competitive Batman game (yes, it’s both, but we are only looking at the cooperative mode) that was on Kickstarter back in March 2020, with promised delivery in December 2020. They did not make this date: I believe they delivered in early 2022: I only know this because I picked up the game online after it delivered. The original Kickstarter price was just too much money for me to be all in, so I chose to wait until it was cheaper online! I wanted to see what the game was like before I threw $300 (!) at it.

This Kickstarter is of historical significance in many ways: IDW decided to stop making games altogether recently, and this will probably be the last Kickstarter game IDW ever does! Those of you paying attention might remember a list we had up in late 2021: Top 6 Cooperative Games To Grab Before IDW Games Disappear Forever!! Number 2 on this list was Shadow of the Bat! To be fair, we expected Shadow of the Bat to be a good game (it’s a Kevin Wilson design, one of our favorite designers), but we hadn’t actually played it yet. Let’s take a closer look.

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We are going to do this a little differently than normal, only because it took us a while to get into the game: we are going to divide this into days (really, one session per day) over which we explored the game.

Day 1: Unboxing

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On a recent trip to Denver,  I brought Shadow of the Bat with me, hoping to play it with my friends.  For many reasons, it never came out.  One reason was how big and ominous this game is!  It’s bigger than a normal box (see Coke can above for scale) and it has  quite a number of components.

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It’s got quite an array of tokens: I mean a LOT of tokens! It’s the first thing in the box!

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Look at how thick that is! There are SO MANY TOKENS to punch out.  Foreshadowing: we will have to spend an entire session/day to JUST punch out and organize the tokens.

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One of the coolest things in the box are the miniatures! There’s quite a number of them! See above.

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There are also a quite a number of terrain boards. If you think this is starting to look like a skirmish miniature game, you wouldn’t be wrong.

Underneath all the minis and terrain boards and punchouts are the cards and dice. Oh yes, this is a dice game! Each player will have a set of 3 dice and the remaining dice are “battle dice”.

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The rulebook is quite thick (we’ll take a closer look later) and the game also comes with two whole scenario books for 12 issues of set-up. The rest of the game is in the cards! See below.

The cards look very consistent with art from Batman The Animated Series.

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After unboxing the game to try and play it, I chose to wait until I got home to finish unpunching the tokens. There were SO MANY TOKENS, I knew they would just all clunk around in my luggage if I punched them out in Denver. So, Day 1 was just getting acclimated to the components.

Day 2: The Unpunching

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There are a LOT of tokens. I thought my next session would be a solo playthrough. I was wrong! I spent the entire session unpunching. See all the tokens above and below.

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In the end, I chose to punch tokens out in clumps: the rulebook describes all the tokens on one page of the rulebook, so I tried to punch out tokens in the groups specified: See below.

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You will also happen to notice there were NO CORRELATING PICTURES for the tokens. I had to kind of guess what was what. I was very grumpy at this (we had similar problems in Deep Space D6), but I did find some token descriptions in the back pages of the rulebook: See below.

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So, before you go absolutely crazy, make sure you poke your head in the back of the rulebook as you punch out tokens: quite a few of them have correlating pictures.

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In the end, I chose to store the tokens in bags in the same groupings they were described in the rulebook: I used a sharpie to write on the bags (see above) to notate what was inside. (For the record, I had to do that thing we hate: I had to count the number of tokens to make sure I had the right kinds … there still weren’t quite enough descriptions).

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This bears emphasizing: there were a lot of tokens.

After spending a few hours putting all the tokens together, I was done. Gameplay would have to wait for another day.

There are so many tokens, they almost don’t fit in the box! See above.

Day 3 Interlude: The Miniatures

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I took a brief Interlude day to just play with the miniatures. I tried a couple of stands to see how they worked:

In the end, the minis are fairly distinct and I could use the little yellow stands that came with the game.

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The minis are pretty good.

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The lighter plastic makes them easier to distinguish than the Hour of Need minis (from a few weeks ago).

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I like the minis. They work pretty well and look pretty good on the board.

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Day 4: First Solo Play

I finally got the game set-up! I even played through it. And I got so many rules wrong. But, it was good to try to get through the first game to get a sense of everything, at least of the main flow. I won, but it was a huge cheat: I missed so many rules.

Day 5: Second Solo Play, First Correct Solo Game

Okay, after an unboxing, getting familiar with the components, unpunching the tokens, playing with the miniatures, reading the rulebook, and getting a bad play under my belt, I finally played a proper solo game!  And you know what, it was fun.  It just took a long time to get there.

Rulebook

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This rulebook is pretty okay, but it feels really long (well, because it is).  I almost felt like I was reading a rulebook for an RPG!

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There’s a nice chapter listing right up front, but there is no Index: seriously? Did we not learn anything from Hour of Need ‘s lack of an index last week? Indices are critical for complex games like this. But at least this rulebook has many glossaries (se below)! So they do get points for that.

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The game is both competitive and cooperative: the rules for both are interspersed among each other, which made it a little more difficult to deal at times.

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The next few pages have components. They do commit the cardinal sin of not having pictures immediately with the list of tokens, but they make up for it by having a lot of those pictures in the glossaries and the next few pages.

There are a LOT of components in this game.

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This rulebook is pretty okay. It’s long, the competitive/cooperative sections are well-labelled, but sometimes annoying that the two sections are interspersed with each other.

The rulebook’s only real sin is not having an index. The rest of it is … okay. The rulebook tends to label things and have decent examples. This is just a big game with lots of rules, so it’s easy to get lost in the rules sometimes.

Seriously, I felt like I was reading rules for an RPG (“Rules for crouching? Smoke? Doors?”).

Solo Play

Yes, Shadow of the Bat game has a special set of rules for solo play (congratulations on following Saunders’ Law). I admit I was a little worried at first, because the scenarios I looked at always seem to a need 4 characters!! Was I going to have to play 4 characters all the time? Thankfully no.

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Actually, the real problem is that the solo mode is not called the solo mode: it’s called The Dark Knight Mode!!! Once you realize that The Dark Knight Mode is the solo mode, you are happy that it’s only two pages of extra text with few extra rules. Basically, the solo player plays the lone character Batman (only one hero). The extra rules: Batman gets to act three times during a full turn (normally, each hero character only gets to act once), gets a few bonuses on abilities, always gets an extra wild symbol, and has one extra ability card (which allows him to heal focus: see below).

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I’m always very nervous when solo modes are outside of the main flow (Marvel United has such a contorted solo mode), but the extra rules for The Dark Knight Mode were easy to understand. Better yet, these extra rules were readily notated with the extra card (see above) and and cardboard augment (see below): these two extra physical components remind the players of most of the extra rules!! And these new rules were straight-forward to assimilate into gameplay. Honestly, I was very pleased with how well the solo play was described and notated.

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Solo mode gets a cardboard helper to remind the solo player

As I said earlier, my first play was pretty much a disaster, but I don’t blame the solo mode: Shadow of the Bat simply has a lot of rules.

My second solo play went a lot better once I had a better feel for the components and rulebooks and basic game flow.

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I will say this: I had to have the rulebook open the entire time: my nose was pretty much buried in the rulebook as a I played.

I liked the solo play.

Dice Game

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Despite all the minis and rules, Shadow of the Bat is (at its core) a dice game.

Each player assumes the role of a character (Batman, Robin, etc) and each character gets their own three Action Dice. These dice dictate what actions the character can do that turn: Move, Melee Attack, Ranged Attack, Defend, sometimes both, and a Special. If you don’t like what you roll, you can spend a Focus token to re-roll dice you don’t like, but you can only do that once. These Action Dice dicate what you do on your turn: you “spend” each die to something on your turn.

If you do decide to attack something, then you roll the Attack Dice (black dice below): These decide how many hits you get.

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You get 1 hit, 2 hits, or a Defend. Like the Action Dice, you can re-roll Attack Dice by discarding a Focus.

Dice decide most things in this game.

Cooperative Play

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One of the more interesting things of the cooperative mode are the way dice work: you share one of your dice with your left neighbor and another dice with your right neighbor. It kind of reminds us of Marvel United meets Second Wonders where you “share” your Actions with your neighbors. 

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Tokens show what was shared with your two neighbors

To do that, you roll your three dice and choose 1 for each neighbor: Having decided which dice face to give to each neighbor, you then give a little token (Dice Placement Token) to your neighbors to notate what “extra” actions they get.  See below.

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Dice Placement Tokens: used to notate what dice you gave your neighbors

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What this means in reality is that you get 5 actions per turn (3 from your dice and 2 from your neighbors).

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This really reminded me a lot of a cooperative Seven Wonders or Marvel United, where you are sharing your symbols with you neighbors. This did encourage cooperation among me and my neighbors, but not as much as I expected: as a player, you are trying very hard to get your own symbols, so you are trying to decide to re-roll at the same time as your neighbors. In practice, you tend to roll in isolation and then share a symbol if you neighbor wants it! Still, it worked reasonably well.

Scaling and Player Counts

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One of our least favorite parts of this game was the player scaling for 3 players. While the solo game works great (with the player playing Batman and getting 3 initiative cards), the multiplayer game always requires 4 characters to be in play! For a 4-player game, this is perfect (as each player takes control of one character). In a 2-player game, each player takes control of two characters each: this can be daunting for beginners but at least it’s balanced. But, as we saw in the 3-Player game (above), we didn’t love the flow of one player controlling two characters while everyone else only controlling one. It felt like you had to wait longer for your turn, and the flow just seemed “off”.

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If you DO play 3 players, make sure  that the player taking control of Commissioner Gordon does NOT get the extra fourth character!  Gordon already has to deal with putting his beat cops out!! See above.  The rules already recommend the 4 characters to play: maybe they should recommend how to divvy the characters in a 2 or 3 player game?

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We have seen some games (like Legends of Sleepy Hollow, see our review here) that always require 4 characters, and that didn’t always quite work. Luckily, Shadow of the Bat has a great solo mode that avoids some of the issues Legends of Sleepy Hollow had. So: 1, 2, and 4 players works well enough: 3-Player can work, but it was by far our least favorite player count.

Miniatures Game

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Looking at the set-up above, you might guess this is a tactical and strategic miniatures game with RPG elements. And you would be right! There are so many rules surrounding the miniatures and the map that this game reminds me of a miniatures game more than a strict board game. The game is all about moving the minis and the actions on the map. There are some items to help and some abilities, but Shadow of the Bat is really all about moving around the board tactically to beat up bad guys.

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Compare this to Hour of Need a few weeks ago (which we reviewed here): Hour of Need (see above) is very similar to Shadow of the Bat in many ways. Each player takes the role of a Superhero, the game has a tactical map, players roll dice to hit, and heroes move around beating up bad guys. This is all very similar to Shadow of the Bat! The main difference is that card play is the central mechanism in Hour of Need! There are so many ways to use/interact with the cards of the game, and you absolutely have to use the cards as much as possible if you want a chance of winning!

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Shadow of the Bat is much more about moving the minis in tactical and strategic ways … almost like a war game. Sometimes you move to be defensive, sometimes you attack, sometimes you lure other people away. There are so many rules and tokens for dealing with things on the miniatures map: crouching, smoke, doors, bombs, etc etc etc.

Shadow of the Bat is a miniatures game set in a world of Superheroes, with lots of thematic elements. Hour of Need is a very thematic Superhero game with card play, which just happens to have miniatures and a map. If you see the difference.

Choice vs Randomness

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To be clear, I like this game. I think I like it more solo than cooperative, but in general I am keeping this game.

However, here’s my main problem with the game: you roll dice to decide your actions. You don’t get to choose: the dice determine what you get to do. For a game with so many rules and so much set-up, you don’t get a lot of choice because you have to take what you get when you roll. Now, this can be mitigated by a re-roll (but only one re-roll and at the cost of the a Focus token), and you can get actions from your neighbors (but only in cooperative mode). But, at the end of the day, you may not get to do what you want. And that’s frustrating.

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For some reason, I don’t have as much an issue with this same dice system in the Reckoners: Just like Shadow of the Bat, The Reckoners only allows you to do what you roll. But there’s several differences: In The Reckoners, you get to re-roll up to three turns for free! AND you can roll in any order you want (Player Selected Turn Order) as you re-roll! AND you can always do something with your dice! AND one dice face is a future wildcard!! The dice mitigation is much much higher in the Reckoners: you can usually do something interesting. And The Reckoners is much simpler than Shadow of the Bat: it’s just a dice game that won’t last all night. Shadow of the Bat is supposed to be a much deeper game, but I feel like this dice action mechanism holds it back a little.

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And while The Reckoners has Player Selected Turn Order, Shadow of the Bat has the random Initiative Order (see above) that we saw in Aeon’s End and Adventure Tactics, where it’s possible to be completely shutout. See Seven House Rules for Cooperative Board and Card Games: Curb Excessive Randomness.

Players Choose

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Just last week, I was lamenting that a lot of cooperative games use “let the players decide” when ambiguity shows up. Shadow of the Bat uses “let the players decide” in a number of places. For one, there is no order of how the Bad Guys attack.

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Consider the map above: When the dudes with Machine Guns(above) come up in initiative order, in what order to they attack? How do they move? There’s notions of both, but especially when they are this clustered, the players will have to make a lot of edge case calls about how they move. It’s not a big deal (you get used to it and it worked pretty well honestly), but some people may really not like this.

I admit I was excited when I saw that each Bad Guy had a “preference” of who they attack! See the bottom of the cards above: the up-arrow heart means those Bad Guys prefer to attack players with the most hit points! The down-arrow heart means those Bad Guys prefer to attack lowest hit-point heroes. But just like most cooperative games, whenever there was an ambiguity, Players Choose. I got all excited because I thought, for a moment, there was a more ambitious ambiguity resolution mechanism.

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One other issue: how do we keep track of how many Hit Points each Bad Guy has? I ended up choosing to put the hit points “under” each Bad Guy, but I wish there were a better mechanism. (My friends also thought that was a major flaw).

The Arkham Horror Connection

Both Batman games from IDW are by the two co-designers of Arkham Horror Second Edition: Kevin Wilson designed Shadow of the Bat and Richard Lanius designed Gotham Under Siege.  They are both Batman games, both cooperative games, both fundamentally dice games, and both in the Animated Series universe.  Which is better?  I think Gotham Under Siege is lighter and easier than Shadow of the Bat, and  frankly it’s easier to  get to table: I think I like Gotham Under Siege better (even though it’s fundamentally a random dice game): it’s just quick and easy and doesn’t outstay it welcome.  I do like Shadow of the Bat, but it’s a much longer and heavier game.  Sometimes the randomness of the dice in such a heavy game is a little out of place.

Conclusion

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I like Shadow of the Bat, but I suspect a lot of people won’t. This feels like a big tactical miniatures game with tons of interesting rules, but the limited dice mitigation and random player order feels out of place in a game with so many rules. The randomness can just beat you down. I think Hour of Need is the better overall Superhero game: there are so many choices and upgrade paths in that game that players always feel like you can do cool superhero stuff. In Shadow of the Bat, player actions are limited by what they roll on the Action Dice. Having said that, Shadow of the Bat can be very cool as a puzzle game, where limited actions form the constraints of the puzzle (players do the best you can). Like I said, I really enjoyed this game solo.

Shadow of the Bat is a cool miniatures game that dwells on the map and tends to be less about being a Superhero game and more about being a cooperative/solo tactical minis game. I like it: it will come out when that’s what I want. Your mileage may vary.

A Mini-Review of Echoes: The Microchip

Echoes: The Microchip is the latest in the Echoes series of games. These games use sounds and sonic clues to help guide you through a mystery and/or story. These games are “one-and-done”: once you have solved them, you probably won’t play them again since you know the solution. Luckily, you can pass these onto a friend when you are done, as you don’t destroy anything as you play.

These games definitely require an app for either iOS or Android: the apps present the sounds and sonic clues to you as you play. The phones are also used (at least in this version) to scan cards.

Unboxing

The echoes games are very small: both in price and stature. Take a look at the scale compared to the Coke can! And I think I paid $10.99 for my echoes game.

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The instruction book is a fold out. Ugh. I usually hate fold outs, but this worked “okay”.

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There are two sets of cards in the game: The larger, heavier cardboard cards (see above) that represent major story points. The lighter ones are cards that fill in the story between the story points. The heavier ones have the white outline.

Overall, the components are fine: the game looks a little abstract as you look at the pictures, and you realize: there’s not too much here…

App

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The game requires an app. I downloaded it to my iOS device and COULD NOT get it to work! So, then Andrew downloaded his Android version, and it seemed to work fine. After a while, I realized that mine didn’t work BECAUSE I HAD THE RINGER ON SILENT!!! Since this is a game about hearing things, I thought it made sense to put my ringer on silent. Nope, that essentially made the app silent as well! Caveat Emptor! The app works fine for both iOS and Andrioid, but don’t forget to take your phone off of silent ringer!

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echoes requires an app

Once you have the app working, you scan cards and it tells little stories or plays little snippets for each card.

Gameplay

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This game kind of reminds me of Timeline: you have to put cards out “in order”. You listen to little snippets of sound/story on each card and then have to put some of them in order. Once you have them all in order, you have figured out the story! As you play, you put “triples” of cards together with major story point Cards and scan them—if you have the correct cards in the correct order for the major story point, you have solved part of the puzzle!

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See Sara and Teresa trying to find some triples: 3 minor cards to go with 1 major card.

If you can put all the cards in order, based on the sonic clues, you win! And you figured out what happened in “the story!” Interestingly, as you play, more and more of the story gets revealed, as you hear more and more sounds from a section you have completed. Once you complete a major story point, it plays through the whole story for that piece!

Player Count

The game says it plays solo, and I am sure it works fine. But this game seems a lot more fun with a group as you listen to clues, have discussions, and work together to put the clues together to form the story.

Conclusion

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Echoes: The Microchip was fun. It was about an hour. It was light. We enjoyed ourselves, but it wasn’t deep by any means. The best analogy I would use that it was a “sonic jigsaw puzzle”: it kept us entertained for a short period, and it was fun, but it wasn’t anything super memorable. The idea of using sound clips was novel enough that it gave us a fresh new experience.

I’d play another. So would my friends. It wasn’t great. But it was entertaining.

I’d say “play this at a convention” if you could, since it’s a “one-and-done” game, but this game really needs a room with quiet so you can hear all the sonic clues: Conventions never have quiet room!

Resolving Ambiguity in Cooperative Games

We recently reviewed Batman: The Dark Knight solo board game (see here). One thing that seemed very weird in the game was how much choice the player had to make decisions when there was an ambiguity. It really got us thinking about how we resolve ambiguities because so much of Batman lets the players choose.

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For instance, when placing a bad thing on the maps, each Location has three types of bad things and the player simply gets to choose which one! (See above). Or, sometimes you place things in a region: a region has multiple locations, so you get to choose which Location in a region! (See below: the region is specified by the little token next to the GCPD track).

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Another place where the player gets to make a choice is when choosing the events: each card has a “good thing” section (blue Detective section or red Fight section) and a “bad thing” section (yellow Event section), and you get to choose 2 cards for their “good thing” and 1 card for it’s “bad thing”: See below.

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Of these three player choices, we found the Event/Detective choice incredibly thematic! It represented a mature Batman having to make the best of a very bad situation: sometimes you have to choose to survive certain Bad things just to move forward. It was incredibly thematic for a dark Batman game.

But, the other two player choices felt … lazy.

“Hey, where are we gonna make the players put the tokens?”
“I dunno, let them decide.”
“What about the regions?”
“I dunno, let them decide”.

I am being intentionally negative about this to make a point: there is a lot of ambiguity in the game and most of the time Batman: The Dark Knight Returns chooses to let the player decide. The alternative is to make a rule system that resolves every ambiguity: in a game full of lots of rules already, you can imagine that would really weigh it down.

Marvel United: Days of Future Past

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Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is a fairly complicated with lots of rules, so maybe it let the player decide things to simplify the rules.  But there are ambiguities of this type in most cooperative games! Even the simpler superhero game Marvel United has to deal with ambiguities:  we reviewed the expansion Days of Future Past here fairly recently.

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When a Sentinel would move towards a hero and it is the same distance away on the left and the right, what do you do? In this case, there doesn’t seem to be a rule for it, so “players choose”.

Cooperative vs Competitive Ambiguity

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These ambiguities don’t seem as big a deal in a cooperative game as they are in competitive games: players can work together to come up with the best solution to the ambiguity, but in a competitive game, such ambiguities can mean the difference between winning and losing!  So, many competitive games have a much stricter rule set (hopefully) to stave off these issues, but perhaps cooperative games have a lower bar because you can always “just defer to the players in case of ambiguity?”  

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Get the errata!

I mean, we saw all sorts of issues with the rules in Cantaloop: Book 2 (from a few weeks ago, see here): it desperately needed an errata for a scene, and the review discussed the many ambiguities in the programming puzzle rules!

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This is where I gave up: E2. I stopped caring

Are ambiguities something that just permeates cooperative games because it’s easy to just defer to the players?

“I dunno, let the players choose”.

Seems Wrong

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I’ll be honest: it just seems wrong to me to let the players choose ambiguity resolution in many situations! I think that’s why the choices in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns bothered me so much. The players want to win, so they’ll probably choose the ambiguity resolution that will help them the most! And that seems wrong to me! The game should be fighting and providing an engrossing experience!

It “takes me out of the game” to have to resolve some ambiguity decided by “letting the players decide”. For example, imagine the light saber duel between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: the movie stops, and Darth Vader turns to the audience to ask “Which way should I turn?” Nope. Nope. Nope. Let the Villains fight me, however flawed their logic!

The Sidekick of Interest (SOI) Mechanism

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One trend I have noticed is that more cooperative games are starting to use (something like) the Sidekick of Interest mechanism to help disambiguate! In Sidekick Saga, whenever a Bad Guy has choice to attack two Heroes and they at the same distance, the Sidekick of Interest chart helps to disambiguate!

Consider the example below:

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Who does the Bully Attack?

In the example above, if Shadow Walker and Black Bird are the same distance from the Bad Guy, who does the Bully Attack? Answer: consult the SOI Chart!

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A 4-Player Game of Sidekick Saga

According to the SOI chart above, the Shadow Walker is “more interesting” and becomes the target!

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Black Bird became more interesting!

Later in the game (after Black Bird becomes more interesting by taking out some Bad Guys), Black Bird becomes the favored target in the wake of an ambiguity!

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The Gang is on the same Location as two Sidekicks: who do they attack?

The SOI mechanism is resolution mechanism for “who does the Bad Guys attack” when there is ambiguity.

Forgotten Waters

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Forgotten Waters has made so many of our Top 10 lists: Top 10 Cooperative Games with a Sense of Humor, Top 10 Cooperative Swashbuckling Games, Top 10 Cooperative Storybook Games, Top 10 Cooperative Games of 2019 and more! Forgotten Waters has a mechanism almost exactly like the SOI chart: The Infamy Track! The players are pirates working together on a Pirate Ship, but each pirate has to go in some order they place themselves on the storybook!

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The Quartermaster Board (see above) has the Infamy Track which is JUST like the SOI chart! The players are ordered left to right. The players can do silly things in the game to go up and down in infamy, but it’s really just a fun disambiguation mechanism! What order do players place their pirates on the storybook? In the order spelled out on the Infamy Track! (Infamy and Interesting even start with the same letter I!)

The Legends of Sleepy Hollow

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Legends of Sleepy Hollow is a cooperative game from our Top 10 Anticipated Games of 2022 that we reviewed here! This incredible thematic game is all about fighting weird sleepy hollow creatures on a map! See below.

Much like Sidekick Saga and Forgotten Waters, Legends of Sleepy Hollow has a notion of a SOI chart! In this case, it’s called simply the Attack Priority Chart. See below.

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The mechanism is used the same way as the SOI chart: if two good guys are at the same range, which do the bad guys attack? The only difference is that the Attack Priority chart is static for a scenario, i.e., it doesn’t change for the entirety of the scenario. Every new scenario has a different Attack Priority Chart! But it works just like the SOI chart in every other way.

Static vs Dynamic

The fact that the SOI chart and the Infamy Chart change as you play makes them dynamic!  In Sidekick Saga, every time a Sidekick takes out a Bad Guy, he rockets to the top of the SOI chart!

Bad Guy 1: “Hey!  Did you hear??? Blackbird took out Hacker Noir!”

Bad Guy 2: “What??? Oh that does it, I am going after him now if I get a chance!”

Although this dynamicism makes the game exciting and strategic as you have to think about WHEN you should take out a Bad Guy, it is slightly fiddly to maintain the SOI chart: players are sliding tokens left and right all the time.  Forgotten Waters dispels some of this fiddliness by assigning that job exclusively to one player: that’s the Quartermaster’s job!  Legends of Sleepy Hollow sidesteps the fiddliness issue completely by simply not having moveable tokens at all!

It’s really just a tradeoff.  A dynamic SOI chart is exciting and strategic, but potentially fiddly.  A static SOI chart is much less fiddly, but at the cost of some excitement and strategy.  Of course, the lack of a SOI chart is the simplest solution, but at the cost of taking players out of the game.

Conclusion

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I am excited to see more games using the SOI Chart mechanism!  I really don’t like it when cooperative games (especially ones where I am fighting bad guys) make the “players choose” in ambiguous situations!  I feel like the “players choose” resolution mechanism is anti-thematic and takes the players out of the game.  Hopefully we’ll see more games use mechanisms like the SOI chart in the future!

And hopefully companies won’t lazily just use “player choose” as a default mechanism when they don’t know what to do to resolve ambiguity.

Appendix: I Really Do Like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns!

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I really do like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.  I think the design embraces the player choice on purpose, and it is very interesting to have so many places where players choose.  I think it’s an interesting design choice.  And it works much better in a solo game.

It’s just that it was so weird it got us thinking about these issues.

A Review of Hour of Need

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Hour of Need is a cooperative superhero adventure game for 1-4 players (5-6 with expansions). It was the #1 entry on our Top 10 Anticipated Cooperative Games of 2021! That should also tell you how late this game is: it just arrived earlier this week (Wednesday, May 18th, 2002) after promising delivery November 2020! So, this is pretty late: about a year and a half! It’s still better than the 5 year delay on Sentinels of Earth Prime (which we reviewed here), but we were very happy to finally get this!

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All-in for Hour of Need!

Long term readers of this blog know I love cooperative Superhero games (Marvel United has been grabbing our attention a lot lately: the Days of Future Past and Fantastic Four expansions in particular), so when Hour of Need came up on Kickstarter, I went all in and got everything. We’re mostly just going to look at the base game, but we will show (in the Appendix) some of what came in the other boxes.

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Hour of Need is a game by the Sadler brothers, who did Warhammer Quest Adventure card and Heroes of Terrinoth! Those two games topped our Top 10 Cooperative Fantasy Flight Games so we were very excited to get another one of the Sadler Brothers games (Hour of Need) to the table.

Unboxing

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There base box is pretty big.  See above with reference Can of Coke.

As we unbox, we see the two books on top: the Rulebook and Issue Guide.

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There’s quite a bit of content here:

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Let’s take a look at some of this up close!  It all looks pretty cool!

Rulebook

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This Rulebook is … okay.  I was able to learn the rules from this book, but there were some problems.

The first 8 pages were exemplary: It started with a tiny overview and with a list of components and pictures correlating those components:

The next two pages have a nice overview/anatomy of most cards: I would have preferred this later, but this still worked here:

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Next comes a Set-Up picture: That’s great!  A two page spread with set-up on one side and picture on the other.  I wish they have labelled the picture with letters/numbers corresponding to the steps, but that didn’t get in the way of me getting everything set-up.

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Next comes a discussion of the board, annotated with some great descriptive text.

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The first 8 pages were great: it was exactly what I wanted and needed to get going.  The rest of the rulebook makes some fundamental errors, unfortunately.

Take a look at further pages above: there is a lot of text!  There aren’t many pictures or annotations that could really be used to spruce up the explanations.

Another problem was the use of Comic Book font for some rules:

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I think Comic Book font is thematic and good for cards (it helps solidify the theme during gameplay), but in a rulebook, I think it’s a mistake.  The rulebook for Oblivaeon made this same mistake.  What’s even weirder is that Hour of Need MIXES the fonts!  Some rules are are in a more traditional font (see right page above) while some rules are in the Comic Book Font (page left above).

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Another mistake was putting critical rules in the parenthetical boxes. See above: it lists the rule for flipping the Scheme cards which we didn’t see our first couple of playthroughs! Generally, parenthetical boxes are outside the “main flow “of reading, so you might “skip” it thinking it’s just a further elaboration.  Nope!  This was a critical rule!  I understand wanting to “emphasize” a rule, but the boxes (like above) are kind of outside the flow.  Unicornus Knights had this rulebook problem (putting critical rules in parenthetical boxes) in their first edition rulebook (see discussion here), but they fixed that in their second edition rulebook  (see discussion  here)  by incorporating the critical rules into the main text flow.

My final complaint, and this is the biggest, is the lack of an index.  I had so many questions as I played, and I had no way to look up rules without having to search the whole rulebook.

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I want to be clear: I learned the game from the rulebook, so it was ok.  But it was harder than it should have been.  Some of my complaints (like the font and parenthetical boxes) are minor issues that are perhaps more personal opinion.  But the lack of annotated pictures and lack of a complete index really did make the game harder to learn.

Miniatures

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Some of the minis

The minis for this game are pretty good.  These minis are a little smaller than some games (like Tainted Grail which has bigger minis), and they aren’t quite as detailed, but they are pretty good.  Above are the good guys and bad guys.  Below are some Lackeys for the Bad Guys.  

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The Lackeys of Dowager are on the top row, and Lackeys for Curtains on the bottom row.

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You can see the scale of the miniatures: that’s the good guy Guerrilla (above) with the Coke Can just behind it for reference.

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The minis for the Good Guys

You can see the Good Guy minis a little more close up … (above) and the Bad Guy minis (below).

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The minis for the Bad Guys

I’ll have to admit that I had a little trouble correlating the minis to the good guys and bad guys: I had to use the first pages of the rulebook to make sure I got them right:

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The only problem I have with the minis is that they are smaller, so it’s harder to see the features across the table! Frequently, I would mess up which character was which. I really wanted some way to help distinguish them.

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If you look behind Guerrilla, you’ll see some colored disks for the bottoms of the minis! But those aren’t for the main Heroes or Villains! Those are ONLY for the Lackeys, which come out much less frequently! An old principle of computer design is to “optimize for the common case”. In this case, Heroes and Villains are on the board more MUCH MORE than Lackeys, so maybe we should be using those for the main characters instead. If I were to redo this game, I would use the colored disks for the Heroes and Villains and some minor mechanism for the Lackeys! Something like …

  • Each hero gets a different color.  Maybe the hero cards should be somehow keyed to those colors?  I understand that the primary colors are used for other things in the game (peril spaces), so maybe a different palette for the heroes (pink, cyan, purple, orange).  Something that is visually distinct so I can make them out across the board!  (EDIT: After some scrutiny, I am thinking Majesty gets some flavor of orange for her Orange hair, Guerilla gets metallic green for his green/Army motif, Micro Man gets cyan/light blue as it matches his costume, and Slide gets either silver or dark red for her costume?):
  • The Villain gets black.
  • The Lackeys keep their primary colors (since the cards are already keyed to those colors).
  • The Minions get grey (if you have the Kickstarter extras): grey for bad, but not totally bad.
  • The Bystanders get white (if you have the Kickstarter extras): white for innocent

Although I liked the miniatures, the game board looked like a sea of grey with the minis on it. I frequently got confused as to which mini was which. See below.

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Admittedly, some of the problem here is that I used the Kickstarter extra: minis for bystanders and minions: (You might say they put the mini into Minions … hahaha. I’ll see myself out).

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This Kickstarter extra adds more grey figures. So, there are some solutions to distinguish the minis:

  • Paint the minis. Some people love doing this: it’s not for me.
  • Go on Etsy and find 25mm colored miniature bases (I found one site that would fulfill the order and get 30 bases of the colors I mentioned, but it would be about $27)

Out of the box, it can be hard to distinguish the characters. It caused me consternation when playing: I am strongly considering the Etsy solution to get some bases!

Hybrid: “Best of Breed”

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Hour of Need is a modern cooperative Superhero game, taking elements from many Superhero games (cooperative and non-cooperative) that came before it: Marvel Champions, Sentinels of the Multiverse, Sidekick Saga, Batman The Animated Series: Shadow of the Bat, and even the older Heroes Wanted game!

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Hour of Need and some of its “influences”
  • Individual Threat Area: Each player having his own Threat Area is straight out of Marvel Champions
  • Modular Deck System (MDS): The MDS is essentially the cardplay from Sentinels of the Multiverse: the cardplay and basic structure of the game mirrors Sentinels of the Multiverse closely
  • Hex-Based Movement: Not that hex-based movement is anything new, but I remember the board, with all the peril tokens and problems, being reminiscent of Heroes Wanted.  The board also had some overlap with Batman The Animated Series: Shadow of the Bat
  • Attack and/or Solve: On your turn, you can Attack or Solve much like Attacking or eliminating Threat Tokens from Marvel Champions.
  • Story: Much like Sidekick Saga and Batman The Animated Series: Shadow of the Bat, there is a story that helps guide the play.  Marvel Champions has also attempted with their expansions (such as the Rise of Red Skull expansion which we reviewed here) with limited success
  • Dual-Use Clue cards: Much like Sidekick Saga’s Lead cards are dual-use, the Clue cards in Hour of Need are dual-use.
  • Exploding Dice: The Sadler Brother’s also used exploding dice in Altar Quest
  • Dice for Combat:  Interestingly, a lot of modern super hero games don’t use dice for combat: Sidekick Saga, Sentinels of the Multiverse, Marvel Champions all use deterministic combat based on cardplay. Batman The Animated Series: Shadow of the Bat does use dice for combat, as does Hour of Need.
  • Hidden Villain: The Villain remains “hidden” until the players reveal him somehow.  In Sidekick Saga, you have to work through the Protection Hierarchy: Hour of Need has a simpler mechanism combining with the SOLVE mechanism.
  • Types of Cards: Sentinels of the Multiverse and Sidekick Saga have Ongoing and One-Shot hero cards, Hour of Need has (resp.) Constant and Instant hero cards.

Overall, I think Hour of Need represents a hybrid “best-of-breed” approach, incorporating some of the best mechanisms from modern superhero games.  The question is: how well does it do amalgamating all these different systems?

Steep Learning Curve

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As you might guess from the previous Hybrid: “Best of Breed” section (which lists many of the mechanisms and influences of the game), this game is hard to learn because there’s a lot to it! The learning curve for this is very steep! I had to play Hour of Need three times (twice solo and once in a group) before I got all the rules right! There are so many rules, so many conditions, so many little devices, that this game is very daunting to learn. To be clear: I have previously played and loved all the games Hour of Need is based on! And I still had all sorts of issues getting through this!

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One of the major problems is that the flow is interrupted in a lot of places. The game embraces Player Selected Turn Order (PTSO) (which we love: see our post on PSTO here), but that can mean it’s little harder to see “who’s next” and the flow isn’t necessarily clear. (To help mitigate that, Hour of Need does have 2 Action tokens per player). Also, when a player finishes his second Action, he immediately have to deal with his Threat Area, regardless of the fact that other people still need to go. The flow of control gets interrupted frequently: once you get used to it, it’s not so bad. Unfortunately, as you are learning the game, the context switching overhead of all the flow control changes just really throws players for a loop! Frequently they ask “Wait, what? What’s next? What are you doing?” That jump really affects people learning the game because it throws them out of the flow.

Another major blocker for learning the game is the rulebook.  While this rulebook is not bad, it’s not great.  Never have I ever seen a rulebook as in need of an Index as Hour of Need (The obvious joke, which I chose not to make, was “It should be called Hour of Need of an Index!“.  But I like the game, so I don’t want to make some stupid joke like that.) There are so many things I wanted to look up as we were playing (“Wait, what’s a cunning ploy icon?”  “Where is showdown described?”), but without a good index, I have to search the rulebook linearly for terms!!! (And didn’t find them sometimes …)  There seem to be a lot of terms that are consistently used, (which is good: the nomenclature does seem consistent), but those terms really need to be defined in a Glossary or cross-referenced in an index … or both??  Why not a Glindex  in the Rulebook: A cross between a Glossary and an Index which defines the terms and indexes further elaborations of those terms in the rulebook???  That would really go very far in making this game easier to learn.

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Between quite a number of rules and mechanisms, many jumps in control flow, and the lack of a good index, this game is very hard to learn. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn it, (as I was able to), but you might find yourself very frustrated. After my second game (where I still hadn’t gotten everything learned), one of my friends said “Ya, I don’t need to play this again. Too any rules.” That was an ARGH moment.

I think this game really needs a First Play Starter Guide much like Tainted Grail’s exceptional First Play guide (which we discussed here) or Sleeping Gods First Play Guide (which we discussed here). I mean, the game does suggest a first scenario::

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But given the complexity of this game, that little blurb above is not enough!! A First Play Starter Guide would help you learn the game, guiding you though the rough edges and more confusing rules! It would have gone a long way towards making the learning experience more palatable. I mean, it took me three games to get it. Most people probably won’t be that patient to learn the game.

Gameplay

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Hour of Need shares quite a bit of DNA with Sentinels of the Multiverse (which we reviewed here).  The basic gameplay structure is just like Sentinels of the Multiverse:

  1. The Villain plays first: it plays card(s) from its deck
  2. Heroes each play a card(s), perform some actions, draw a card
  3. Environment (or Issue) plays card(s) from its deck

And each hero deck feels very much like a Sentinels of the Multiverse hero deck: you get a deck, and start with 4 cards.  Each player has a certain number of hit points (as indicated on their hero).  If you “blinked”, you might think you were playing Sentinels.  See Majesty’s first set-up of her deck below.

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There are even Instant and Constant types of cards (much like One-Shot and Ongoing cards)!  

And this is where the game diverges.

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Each Hero gets two actions: some actions are used when you play a card:

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The little action token in the bottom right tells you it costs an action to play this card

Otherwise, you can also use actions to DRAW 1 CARD, MOVE, PLAY 1 ACTION CARDS, ATTACK, or SOLVE. Every hero gets two actions.

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There’s a MOVE action because you must move around a board! See above.

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There’s a straight up ATTACK option you can do if a Bad Guys is nearby and has hit points: See Dowager above with 15 hit points, and I’ve already done 10 damage!

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To deal with this Bad Guy, you need to SOLVE (rather than ATTACK)

The WidowMaker above has to be dealt with using “brains and finesse”, and using your SOLVE ability.

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Each Hero has Hit Points (in red circle ), ATTACK power (in yellow explosion) and SOLVE ability (in pink bubble): See Majesty’s abilities above. Majesty is good at ATTACK(3), but not so good with the SOLVE (1).

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Those numbers (3 for ATTACK, 1 for SOLVE) refer to how many dice you get for a roll! Now, these dice are very interesting, because every die gives you a success of some sort: The plain explosion gives you one SUCCESS, the mask gives you one FOCUS (which you can spend in a future dice roll to turn a mask into SUCCESS), both (SUCCESS and FOCUS) and a BURST! The BURST is really cool because it gives you a success, but then allows you to keep re-rolling that die! You can keep re-rolling that die as long as you roll more BURSTS! It’s theoretically possible to roll 100 SUCCESSES with one die … it’s not likely, but it could happen. These are called Exploding Dice. (Important safety tip: the dice do not actually explode)

To defeat the WidownMaker, you need 4 SUCCESSES (SUCCESSES persist, so it can take more than one turn to defeat him) as you SOLVE. To defeat Dowager, she’s down 10 hit points, so you only need 5 SUCCESSES.

This Exploding Dice is the main mechanism for resolving the two main activities in the game: ATTACK and SOLVE.

There’s a lot of other interesting ideas in the game: Heroic Feat Icons, Scheme Spaces vs. Scheme Panels, Showdown combats, Bystander Rescuing, Ally Cards, Clue Cards, Crisis Cards, Issue cards, Focus Tokens, Revealing the Villain, Issue tokens, and more! There’s just not enough space to go over all the ideas in here!

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The basic idea: move around the map, ATTACK bad guys and SOLVE problems with Exploding Dice on your way to cooperatively taking out the VILLAIN! If you defeat the VILLAIN, you win!

Storytelling Optional

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The game really does enforce the idea of story more than most Superhero games: there are Issue Cards (see below) and an Issue Guide (see above) which together presents a story. At the end of each round, an Issue Card (below) comes out which advances said story: these cards are typically more for in-game effects.  The Issue Guide (above) typically augments the story with more flavor text.

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Issue card area

While most of the issue conditions and story come out on the cards (see the issue area above), the Issue Guide also helps in two ways: (1) giving clarifications and (2) Story Moments.

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See the Issue Guide (above) open to the current issue: The right hand side of the Issue Guide presents text that the players may “optionally read” called Story Moments. The left hand side (in yellow) offers clarifications to rules on the cards (most of the issue’s rules are on the cards that come out: See below for some more Issue cards).

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Hour of Need was interesting because it offers these Story Moments as “things you MAY read, but don’t have to!”.

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Some gamers love the storytelling elements in games, and some gamers hate those elements. My game groups tend to prefer “extra exposition” of the storytelling game, but I thought it was interesting that Hour of Need gave players a choice!

Solo Play

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Solo play works well in the game: Thank you for following Saunders’ Law! See above for a solo game set-up. You can play just one Hero and that solo experience is simple and works well: There’s no need to play multiple Heroes (unless you want to, but that’s more for experienced players). So your first play can be simple as you only have to learn one hero.

There’s a three mechanisms for scaling the game to the proper number of players:

  1. Some decks (like the Villain deck) need cards removed that say “1P” on them.  You’ll have to go through the deck at Set-Up time and get rid of certain cards
  2. The number of “Villain Cards” that gets drawn during the Villain turn is the number of players:  Each player has to take a villain card. So, at the start of a 3-Player round, the Villain gets 3 chances to act. In a solo game, there’s only one Villain card per round.
  3. If there’s ever a little “Player Icon” on a card, you have to multiply that attribute by the number of players. See Dowager example below.

For example, Notice Dowager’s Villain card below.

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It has a 5P for the SOLVE: this means it takes 5 SUCCESS per player to SOLVE this problem. In the solo game, that just means 5 * 1 = 5 Total. (This is very reminiscent of the HERO Icon on Sentinel of the Multiverse cards for scaling).

I’ve played several games solo and had a great time. The solo rules are “easy” to integrate into your solo play, as they are just part of the main flow! Once the game is set-up and the 1P cards are eliminated, the game just plays normally. And it’s fun! Playing only one Hero works great: You aren’t overwhelmed by having to run multiple Heroes!

Cooperative Play

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Cooperative play works: but only if someone really knows the rules well, especially when teaching. This game can bog down too much if you don’t know the rules. I hate to say this, but I lost Sara after we played a cooperative game. The game just appeared to be too much: too many rules, too many mechanisms, too much.

All I can think was that I did a poor job explaining it to her and lost her, but I thought I knew the rules well enough to explain them. Apparently I didn’t.

Teresa, on the other hand, had fun.

Why I like This Game

There’s a lot of complexity in the game: so much, that I almost stopped learning the rules once. It took me three plays to get the rules right, and along the way I lost a player who said she doesn’t really want to play the game again.

But once I internalized the rules, once I understood all the choices I had along the way, I was in! There’s so many ways to be heroic: Do you save the Bystanders? Do you solve the mystery? Do you beat up a Minion or Lackey? And every choice seems to have some kind of reward on the form of Clue cards:

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Succeeding at a task in game (vanquishing a bad guy or solving a riddle) gets you a clue card: these little rewards are multi-use cards to use later: do you want the ability on the card? Or do you just want more dice later? This just allowed me to be more heroic later: I got to choose when I needed to be heroic! I liked that I had that choice.

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The exploding dice were a bit of surprise to me as well: I’m surprised how much I liked them given that I prefer deterministic combat of games like Sentinels, Marvel Champions, and Sidekick Saga. I loved that these dice were designed to always gave you some kind of success, even if it’s just a “future” success (in the form of a FOCUS token)! I also loved the BURST which could allow you to keep rolling! Every so often you get on a roll (pardon the pun) and just really roll well!

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I like a lot of choice in trying to get stuff done. I realize that some people will find “all-the-ways-to-get-stuff-done” overwhelming! And to be fair, I was overwhelmed by my first few games. But I was able to get to a point where I had internalized the rules so I could enjoy the game. I felt like a Superhero, exploring the map, attacking bad guys, solving problems, saving Bystanders, and having to make those hard decisions that Superheroes make.

Sentinels Replacement?

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Has Hour of Need replaced Sentinels of the Multiverse for me? No, Sentinels is a lighter game (I never though I’d call Sentinels “light”) and Hour of Need is a more of a complex experience with a story and more strategic choices. When I want lighter game, I’ll play Sentinels. When I want a longer experience, I’ll play Hour of Need.

Replayability

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Once major problem is that Hour of Need only comes with 4 Issues to play through, 4 Heroes, and 2 Villains: this can limit replayability. Luckily, there are a number of expansions already available. See Appendix A at the end for more elaboration on expansions.

Conclusion

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Hour of Need is a modern cooperative superhero game, representing a hybrid: “Best of Breed” approach, incorporating mechanisms and ideas from a lot of cooperative superhero games. But this approach has created a very complex game with a steep learning curve. The rulebook needs some reworking (and it really needs an Index), but it can teach the rules: it will just take you a while to get through them. Once you have the rules internalized, the game flows really well. And the gameplay offers a myriad of choices: it really makes you feel like a superhero!

After all is said and done, Hour of Need is a contender for my Top 10 Cooperative Games of the Year! But probably only for me. This is a game which I really can’t recommend to everyone. If you think you’ll like Hour of Need, even after all my discussion of complexity and modern cross-breed mechanisms, give the game a try. Realize that some of the people I played this with don’t really want to play Hour of Need again (because of the complexity), but others in my group seemed to really like it.

If you are looking for a game that takes Sentinels of Multiverse (SOTM) and expands on it in story, strategy, and choices, all while keeping SOTM base flow, Hour of Need is a great pick. But if you find Sentinels of the Multiverse to be fiddly (like some of my friends), there’s no way you will like this: Hour of Need turns the fiddliness and complexity of SOTM up a notch.

The base game of Hour of Need doesn’t have a ton of replayability (there’s only 4 Heroes, 4 Issues, and 2 Villains), but if you do like the game, there are several expansions: See the Appendix below.

Appendix A:  Kickstarter Expansions

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All-in for Hour of Need!

There’s quite a number of boxes of extra content.  Let’s take a look below.

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Gem and Ice (above) is a standalone expansion (yes, you don’t need the base game).  It comes with 2 new Heroes, 2 New Issues, and 1 New Villain.  With this expansion, you can play the base game at 5-6 Players.  This includes a new board, new minis and a new issue guide.

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Judge and Jury (above) is a standalone expansion. It comes with two new Heroes, 2 New Issues, and 1 New Villains.  This includes a new board, new minis, and a new issue guide.

The Jade Kid (above) is a new Hero.  She comes with 2 minis.  I believe she’s a Kickstarter extra.

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Redemption takes some of those Villains (One Liner from Judge and Jury, and Curtains and Dowager from the base game)  and turns them in Heroes.  There’s 3 decks and 3 new minis.

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The Stretch Goals Box includes a new Villain (Acrid) and a new Hero (Fault) plus some minis and cards.  The minis are cool because they are clear and clear green! 

Altogether, that’s 4 + 3 + 2 + 2 + 1 + 1 = 13 Heroes, 4 + 2+ 2 =10 Issues, and 2 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 5 Villains. That’s enough content to keep going for a while!

A Review of Paint The Roses

Paint The Roses is a light cooperative deduction game for 2-4 players. This was on Kickstarter back in November 2021. They promised delivery in April 2022, and you know what? They almost made it! I think I got my copy a few weeks ago in early May 2022. Given how many Kickstarters miss their delivery dates by months and years, I am going to count this as a win! Good job Northstar games!

Paint The Roses is a tile-laying game set in the world of Alice in Wonderland. We are seeing a lot of these lately: there was Wonderland’s War, and the cooperative Dice Placement game Automated Alice which we liked (see review here), and some others on Kickstarter.

Unboxing

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This is the deluxe version of the game with plastic tiles.

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The little plastic tiles are super nice. See below.

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Each tile has a color (rose color) and shape (heart, diamond, club, spade).  This two pieces are what players will be matching/guessing.

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The little plastic container contains both the tiles and some minis (!) and clue tokens.

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The red queen chases us around the board trying to chop our heads off.  The bunny represents points in the game where the queen accelerates.  We (as a group) are the little painter.

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The queen “chases us” around the board (see above).  Whenever we pass the the bunny, the queen speeds up and adds a rose (which increases her speed by one!).

If the queen ever catches us, we lose.  

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We win if we fill the garden with roses without dying.  See above for a full garden!

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During a turn, we get to choose one tile: the 4 choices are placed in the offering.

The board is truly nice, with indents to place the tiles (see above).

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Below the tray and boards are a bunch of cards and pads.

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Most of the cards above are expansions.

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The other main cards are the “queen’s whim” cards. See above.

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The cards are all nice and linen-coated (see some of the reflection above on the whim cards).

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SInce this is a deduction game, the game also gives you some pads to take notes with. See above with more whim cards.

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Overall, the component quality is very high, and this looks good on the table.

Rulebook

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Well, there’s sort of two rulebooks.  There’s the base rulebook (above) and the expansions rulebook (below).

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We’ll come back to the expansions later.

The base rulebooks is fine: it does what we expect, components, set-up, how to play pretty nicely.

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Overall, I had no trouble learning the game form the rulebook.  

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The rulebook evens ends with a player’s aid.  Yay!  The game doesn’t have a summary sheet per se, so this back of the rulebook was nice.

Basic Gameplay

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The premise is that players are gardeners and must paint the roses in the garden to match the mad queen’s whims! Each player has a secret “whim” card which represents one thing the queen wants in her garden! But players (as fellow gardeners) can only obliquely communicate, lest they anger the queen!

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See above for a whim: the queen has told me she wants to put a red rose next to a red rose!

This is a limited communication game: each player can only communicate by putting out their tiles and then putting clues down. The choice of tile and number of clues are the ONLY pieces of information that a player can communicate on their turn!

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After putting down my red rose tile (see above) and putting my purple clues out, the other players guess what the whim was. The number of clues tell you how many things you matched on the tiles around you. (I made an error: there should only be 1 clue above, as there was only one red rose adjacent to the tile I put out). After that, the players try and guess what the whim was! In this case, if the players guess red rose/red rose, we get 3 victory points!

Solo Play

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There is no solo play in this game (in spite of Saunders’ Law). To be fair, since this is a hidden information game (with the whims hidden), it’s hard to make a solo game. We did try the Changing Perspective’s Idea (see here for more discussion) and it kinda worked. I played solo as a two-player game, keeping two whims. The two player mode has a few changes (see below).

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Using “only the information on the board”, I alternated between players, trying to guess what the current player’s whim was. This means I have to “pretend” I don’t know what the whim is and ONLY USE THE INFORMATION ON THE BOARD. The problem is, this becomes very mechanical and you have to calculate the odds quite a bit: “In this configuration, there is a 1 in 3 chance I can guess the whim: each of the three possibilities is likely!” So, I’d pull out a dice and roll: a 1-2 is option 1, 3-4 is option 2, and 5-6 is option 3. If the odds were ever better than 50% for possibility, I would just guess the more likely outcome. 50% or under, I’d calculate the odds and roll a 6-sided die. (Note: no die is included with the game).

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Unless you really like computing the odds yourself and rolling, you probably wouldn’t like this way of playing. I could see this as being a good way to teach “how to compute odds” (for younger kids), or at least practice “computing odds”, but I suspect most most people wouldn’t really enjoy this way of playing.

Anyways, this game doesn’t come with a solo mode. This was just me trying something to learn the game so I could teach my friends.

Cooperative Play

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The game works much better as a cooperative game! At 3 and 4 players, the game really does seem to work well! I struggled a little with the 2-Player game (because it has weird rules to try to scale it back), but it worked ok. I think this game is probably best at 3 or 4 players.

Most games start with just trying to guess from the basic clues given, then more and more negative information tends to sway the players.

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Negative and Positive Information

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It’s very easy to play this as a light game: “Oh these are my clues, here’s what I guess!” … and make it a light simple game. You can also make it as complicated as you want by noticing both negative information and positive information! By positive information, I mean “what information is gleaned from a tile choice/tile placement”: the direct information that follows from that choice. By negative information, I mean the “indirect information that is gleaned from tiles not chosen and tiles not placed”. If a player does not play a tile, that can be as much information as the tile the player chose!

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Or, where does a player play a tile? If they had played a tile in one place it’s telling, but they played ELSEWHERE, it would have been more telling, so they must have the other one! This game can be a deeper deduction game if you want … or not. If the group you are with really wants to “go down the rabbit hole” (ugh, did I really just make that joke) of noticing which tiles/spaces weren’t played, this game can become much deeper.

The game lasts about 20-35 minutes: 20 minutes if you play light, 35 minutes if you play deep.

Expansions

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So, this game comes with 9 (10 if include the Caterpiller expansion from the Kickstarter) expansions! I’ll be honest, I think this is a little ridiculous. Paint The Roses is a very simple deduction game that sings because of its simplicity. These expansions are all over the over place from different designers (some big names too) and they change up this game in different ways, but just a little.

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I tried a couple, they were ok. They added a little more randomness, but they added some fun new cards. I mean, we liked the expansions ok.

In the end, If Paint The Roses were my favorite game, I can see enjoying the expansions as a way to add life to the game. Or, this could be a good game for a couple: they can go through the whole game over a few months, with each expansion bringing new life! Theses expansions provide a conduit to play new content in a familiar environment.

In the end, I think most people will probably ignore the expansions and just play the base game. But maybe I’m wrong.

Conclusion

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A Winning solo game

Paint The Roses is a nice cooperative deduction game with beautiful components that I can recommend.  It’s not great, but it’s very enjoyable.  It’s easy to bring this out if you just want a simple 20 minute game.  It’s also easy to bring this out as a  more complex game (35 minutes) for  game groups that wants to follow up on both positive and negative information.

If you find you love the game, you’ll find there are many many expansions that come with the game, but I don’t see most people playing them: they will probably only be for people who resonate deeply with the game.

Top 10 Cooperative Dice Placement Games

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One of the cooperative mechanics that seemed to stand out this last year was the “Cooperative Dice Placement” mechanic. Quite a number of cooperative games in our Top 10 Cooperative Games of 2021 use Cooperative Dice Placement as a main mechanic! Note that this is a little different from our Top 10 Cooperative Dice Games: those are “generic” games with dice as the main component. The games on this list (cooperative dice placement games) use dice as “workers” to perform actions, acquire resources, or fulfill missions. Players work together and place dice to get stuff done! (Note that some games from our Top 10 Cooperative Dice Games “kind of” fit this description: we chose to not consider real-time games and ones that aren’t quite dice placement).

Interestingly, Board Game Geek doesn’t have a “Dice Placement” Category for games: the closest category is “Worker Placement With Dice Workers”, but that’s a more limited view of Dice Placement.

10. Assault on Doomrock

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Assault on Doomrock is a cooperative adventure game about fighting and leveling up adventurers.  The dice placement is used for combat (a main part of the game).  This is an adventure game with lots of exploration and leveling up, but it’s not purely a cooperative dice placement game.  The cooperative dice placement is used as the combat mechanism: dice are placed to activate abilities. See below.

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I have only played the edition above (I believe that is the second edition): it was a bit long and a bit random, but I still enjoyed it.

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At the time of this writing, the Ultimate Edition is on Gamefound and I am currently backing this new edition! I am hopeful it will fix some of the problems and move this further up the list!

9. Star Trek: 5-Year Mission

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This is a really light game.  The component quality wasn’t great, but the game was simple and fun.  Dice are placed to fulfill missions:

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This felt like a game we could play with gamers and non-gamers.   We enjoyed it enough and would pull it out for non-gamers.  But the component quality and simplicity keep it down near the bottom of this list.

8. One Deck Dungeon

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One Deck Dungeon is a cooperative game for 1-2 players.  Dice placement is used to defeat the monsters in the dungeon. See below.

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This is fairly light and simple game which has had a lot of expansions and additions.  It’s pretty fun!

7. Deep Space D6: Armada

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Deep Space D6: Armada is a cooperative dice placement game set in an “almost Star Trek, but legally distinct from Star Trek” universe.  The game has great components and looks fantastic on the table.

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Dice are rolled and placed to activate abilities and regions on your ship.

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It’s a bit of a table hog! The game has some minor problems, but with a few house rules, this game really shines!  See our review of Deep Space D6: Armada here to see if this is right for you.

6. Dice Throne Adventures

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Dice Throne Adventures is an expansion for the original one vs. one Dice Throne game.  The expansion adds in the ability for  a party of adventurers work together to explore and fight monsters on the way to the big bad boss.

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Players use dice to activate special abilities for attacks and defenses: strictly speaking, you don’t “place the dice” on a specified space, but you can only use each die once and you still need to “place the dice” to notate it has been used.  So, we’re going to call this Dice Placement: Come at me.

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Take a look at our review here to see if Dice Throne Adventures is right for you. 

5. Endangered

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Endangered has a very tumultuous history in my game group.  Some people love Endangered, and some people hate it!  The people who love it point to the amazing production, gameplay, components, rulebook, and game presence! See below.

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The people who don’t like it get too involved in the game and say “there’s something depressing about failing as the creatures die!  And the game can be too random!”.

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Take a look at our initial review of Endangered to see if this is something you might like.  The production is amazing and the game looks good, but the randomness might scare you away.  This was originally higher on our list, but got pushed down by the next entry.

4. Automated Alice

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Automated Alice is a curious game, on so many levels!  Me and my group struggled to learn the rules (the rule book isn’t great), but once we did, the game seemed much more fun than expected.  This game was actually a lot lower on this list originally, but the quick game play and simple play style (once you know the rules) elevated this light-weight dice placement game:  my group has taken a bit of a shine to it.

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Players place dice to try to fulfill missions on cards: once a mission is done, a card has a special ability which can be used later.

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Take a look at our review of Automated Alice here to see if this is something you would enjoy.

3. Intrepid

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Intrepid was a Kickstarter game that I found really fascinating: it’s uses Dice Placement mechanics to run a space station.  The game was surprising cheap, considering how great the components are:

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The solo game needs some work to fix, but the game really shined as a cooperative experience. It also took up an entire table!  It’s huge on the board!

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I liked this a lot more than my friends, which is why it’s only #3, but take a look at our review of Intrepid to see if it’s something you would like.  It also made our Top 10 Cooperative Games of 2021!

2. Roll Camera!

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Roll Camera! was a bit of a surprise that it was so good!  The game has a great rulebook, a great sense of humor!  It also worked really well as a solo game.  Take a look at our review of Roll Camera! to see it’s something you would like.

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All of my groups embraced this game: it was surprising how universal it was.  The idea of making a movie seemed to engage everyone, and the dice placement mechanics were interesting.

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The game looks great, plays great, has a great rulebook, and just seemed to engage all my playgroups.  It also made our Top 10 Cooperative Games of 2021!

1. Roll Player Adventures

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In our original review of Roll Player Adventures, I couldn’t recommend this for a solo game, as there weren’t enough dice mitigation mechanics.  But after playing the cooperative group game, there was no question what dice placement game would be #1! My group and I have been enjoying this game thoroughly: so much so that it made our Top 10 Cooperative Games of 2021!   The story is engaging, the components are fabulous, and the art is gorgeous. 

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I might call this a storybook game with a dice placement mechanic, so this could also make our next Top 10 Cooperative Storybook Games list.  

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A Review of X-Men: Marvel United Days of Future Past

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The expansion (not stand-alone) Days of Future Past

X-Men: Marvel United Days of Future Past is an expansion that requires Marvel United or X-Men: Marvel United to play. See below: one of the games in the bottom row is required to play Days of Future Past (you probably want the X-Men version). It probably also makes sense to have characters from the X-Men: Marvel United expansion (top left) for more thematic characters.

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Bottom row is required to play top row

This was an expansion to the gob-smackingly large set of Marvel United expansion games that appeared at my door step about 3 weeks ago. See our previous blog entry on this here. Two weeks ago we reviewed The Fantastic Four Expansion and really liked that. Let’s take a look at this one.

Unboxing

In some ways, this is a very light expansion. It only comes with one new hero, Logan, and one new Master Plan villain, Nimrod.

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Logan’s Hero deck
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Nimrod’s villan deck and Thread Deck

In other ways, it’s also a very heavy expansion: it comes with the giant sentinels and rules for them.

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The game feels pretty minimal:

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The rulebook for this a 4 page leaflet describing all the new rules.

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There’s also a very scenario specific matte:

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The insert is pretty great and holds the amazing minis.

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There’s some extra challenge cards and a few extra tokens.

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Token identify the sentinels: each one os distinct and numbered

Overall, this looks nice and consistent with the original Marvel United.

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Interestingly, this feels both underwhelming and overwhelming at the same time: only 1 new hero and 1 new villain, but the sentinels are so large and daunting!

The Minis and Maxis

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When are miniatures mini and when are they maxi? The miniatures in this game are pretty phenomenal. Those Sentinels are pretty daunting on the table, especially in front of Logan!

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The Hero Logan s just a “future” version of Wolverine who’s not “old”, but “battle-hardened”. (He takes one less damage when he takes damage).

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Nimrod is the “more sophisticated” Sentinel/Bad Guy that you have to take out to win.

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The Sentinels themselves are just amazing minis? maxis?

If you look closely, you’ll see that each one is numbered: they are distinct and can have distinct abilities in challenge mode.

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Each Sentinel has different abilities in Challenge mode

One of the things we discovered is that Sentinels were made to pick up the heroes!! Take a look at the rule for Sentinel III (see above) and the picture below! That’s so cool!

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These Sentinel minis/maxis are just great.

Days of Future Past

During the early 1980s, Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and Terry Austin were producing some amazing content for the X-Men. A few issues earlier, we had seen arguably the best X-Men story ever: The Dark Phoenix Saga. A few issues later, they introduced us to Days of Future Past in issue #141. See above. Although a lot of people associate this title with the 2014 film of the same name, issue #141 was where this was introduced.

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Days of Future Past Part

In this two part story, Claremont/Byrne/Austin brought us to the past, as Kitty Pryde inhabits her future self’s body (Kate Pryde) to see the devastation the Sentinels have wrought in the future. The Sentinels are a huge part of this story as they (spoiler) destroy the future X-Men. See above for the two issues.

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Interestingly, Nimrod (the more sophisticated Sentinel) doesn’t make his appearance until 1985 in issue #191 at the very end.

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So, even though The Days of Future Past doesn’t strictly include Nimrod, it still makes thematic sense. Logan is the future battle-hardened self, the Sentinels are the imposing Bad Guys that you must defeat before Nimrod comes out, but Nimrod is the final Sentinel you must defeat to win.

Solo Play

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For solo play, I decided to play as a two player game playing two Heroes. (as I’ve discussed many times: the solo mode for Marvel United is not as simple as it could be, so it’s better to just play two Heroes). From a story sense, it seemed to make sense to play Logan (from this expansion set) and Shadowcat/Kitty Pryde (from the Marvel X-Men expansion).

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scenario specific mat

If you look at the set-up from the player mat, you’ll see you can play 2 Heroes and the game scales down to that: this just means we’ll have one less Sentinel (we won’t have all 3 out).

Here’s Logan and Kitty’s cards:

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All set-up, my solo game looked like this:

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Although not 100% thematic to Days of Future Past, Kitty also has Lockheed with her (as there was no “Kate Pryde” hero to play). Lockheed allows extra actions away from Kitty, as an independently controlled figure that can’t be harmed (I think).

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The solo game plays, in many ways, like the main game: you have to defeat all the Sentinels before Nimrod can come out.

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Up until Nimrod comes out, there are no Master Plans coming out, just the Heroes with the Sentinels having their own special rules. Once Nimrod comes out, then the standard Master Plan starts.

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In the finale, Logan and Kitty took down Nimrod on the same place they took out the Sentinels! You can still see the Sentinels corpses on the location!

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You’ll notice the story board looks a little weird until Nimrod actually comes out.

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Overall, the solo game was very satisfying and seemed well-balanced (which will talk about in a second).

Strategy vs Tactics

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The base game of Marvel United tends to be more tactical, as you have to make decisions based on random events as they come up during play. Some villains offer more strategy as you have to think in advance, but Days of Future Past adds some very interesting strategic decisions.

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First of all, the Sentinels actions are based on the last two Hero cards! See above! There is no randomness when activating the Sentinels! They just use the same actions you did (in order on the cards). In other words, when you act, you give the Sentinels their turn as well! There’s no randomness there! They do what you do (well, see the summary card above).

For example, if these were the two cards up so far to the storyboard, then the Sentinel attached to Kitty would move twice: one for Logan’s move symbol, one more for Kitty’s move symbol. Then (because the last card has a special ability), Nimrod’s Villainous plot goes up one!

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What tends to happen is that the Sentinels start following you around! When you move two, they can move two and follow you! It’s like a game of chess trying to figure out what you should do so as to minimize what the Sentinels can do! The main difference is that you can execute the symbols in any order, but the Sentinels are constrained to using the symbols in the order they appear.

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Somehow, this seems so thematic! The Sentinels are just robots that tend to copy what you do … but as a mutant, you can try to out-think them! This mechanic is so interesting, thematic, and surprisingly difficult! Sometimes, it feels like all a Sentinel does is undo your turn! So, every choice you make is strategic: what you do sets-up not only your comrade but your opponent.

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A Winning game!

Another strategic element is when to bring out Nimrod: if you bring him out too early, his Villainous Plot chart advances more quickly and that can cause you to lose unexpectedly! But, if you bring Nimrod out too late, the heroes won’t have enough turns to defeat him! So, you have to balance when you kill the last Sentinel vs bring out Nimrod!

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And don’t forget the Threats! Sometimes, your long-term decisions will change based on which Threats you can take out!

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Overall, Days of Future Past adds more elements of strategy than I have seen in Marvel United so far: the fact that your choices are used by the Sentinels against you is such an interesting, thematic, and strategic element!

Cooperative Play

The cooperative game worked really well .. but it did seem harder than the solo (as 2 heroes) play. Having said that, the amount of communication in cooperative play was very important: since my heroes symbols dictated what the Sentinels would do, we have had to chat a lot more about our actions. At least for my group, this did not seem to grind anything to a halt: there wasn’t an Analysis Paralysis. What we saw in our games is that we chatted and strategized about what to play.

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One of the things that really made the game shine was how we seemed to really used our special powers to make stuff happen. Logan would often end in a Location with a Sentinel just so he could take the damage (since he just ignores the first damage) for another player. Cooperation! Perhaps our best choice was using Dr. Strange (with his time gem)! We were able to keep Nimrod’s Master Plan under control because Dr. Strange could see the next Master Plan card, and this would help us figure out what to do! Again, more strategy!

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In the end, we won, but it was close. See the picture above, where you can see the points where we take out a Sentinel. Overall, this was a challenging but fun battle.

Nature of this Expansion

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This is not a “add more content” expansion: the Days of Future Past expansion fundamentally changes the way the game is played. We no longer have a control panel or missions: we completely skip that aspect of the game and the Sentinels start the game in play and you can immediately damage them. The randomness of the Master Plan is deferred until later, as you deal with set mechanics of the Sentinels: they do what you do! Gone is the “okay, let’s deal with threats and slowly wait until we can beat up the bad guy“. Nope! You immediately make important choices: do I get rid of Sentinels ASAP? Do I deal with threats so the Sentinels aren’t as bad? And when do I kill the last Sentinel to force Nimrod out?

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This expansion changes the nature of Marvel United: it can’t really be applied outside of this set (but see below). When you play with this set, you are playing a different game. Days of Future Past makes Marvel United into a more strategic game, a longer game, a more complex game, and a more challenging game. I probably wouldn’t recommend this expansion until you were pretty comfortable with the base game. To re-emphasize, these changes are limited to only this one scenario: fighting Nimrod and the Sentinels.

Sentinels Challenge

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Sentinels challenge cards

You can, if you really want to, add Sentinels to any game of Marvel United.

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Each Sentinel has different abilities in Challenge mode

The rules seem to imply that you take any base game and can add all three Sentinels, using the rules (above or on the cards above) to activate them. There seems to be a lot of questions around this, and it seems like it would make the game too hard? I frequently barely win my Marvel United games, so adding three Sentinels seems a bit much. I don’t know: you can add these to any game according to the rules, but it just seems like a prescription for too much challenge and complexity. So, I haven’t done it yet, and frankly I have no desire to.

Conclusion

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X-Men: Marvel United Days of Future Past is currently my favorite way to play Marvel United. This expansion takes a fairly tactical game and makes it more strategic, challenging, longer, and more complex … all in a good way! The original Marvel United game is arguably too light for a lot of gamers, but I think the addition of Days of Future Past would interest a lot of hard-code gamers. The fact that that Sentinels actions are not random, but based on what the players do is both thematic and interesting! I would argue this mechanism is probably the best addition to the game.

I strongly recommend Days of Future Past.

A Review of Cantaloop: Book 2 (A Hack of a Plan)

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Cantaloop: Book 2. The second book in a trilogy of point and click adventure book games

I reviewed Cantaloop: Book 1 (Breaking Into Prison) back here and absolutely loved it!  It made the top spot on our Top 10 Cooperative Games of 2021

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When I heard the newest book was due to come out, I made sure to preorder it as soon as possible!  It arrived a few weeks ago and I finally got a chance to check this out!

Get the Errata!

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If you have the First Edition, Conversation B needs a replacement page. Make sure you get that before you play!  I did!  I printed the extra page out and put in in my book.

See more information here: https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/2839863/english-typo-warning

Unboxing

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This is pretty much like the original Cantaloop: 3 pouches with 72 cards total, another larger pouch with the map, combiner sheet, progress checkoff, and the red acetate.

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The game also includes a sheet of “progress point” that you need to mark off (E1, F1, G2, etc) to show your progress through the game.  The first thing I did (well, the second after I printed off the errata) was copy the progress sheet so I could play this again without harming the original sheet.

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I made a copy of the progress sheet so I didn’t dirty the original!

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As you can see, this is one of those games that uses the red acetate to “reveal” text in the sheets.

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The book itself is full of “hidden” clues you will have to reveal as you explore.

Overall, the game looks consistent: it has a silly sense of humor and the art and components belie that as well.

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Introduction and Gameplay

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So, this is a “point-and-click” adventure book game.  What does that mean? See the text above for one view, but essentially, you explore, talk to characters, try to do things and combine objects to get stuff done.  In this game, exploration and talking means turning to a page and following the rules there.

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The red acetate keeps most secrets hidden, but the game warns you to be careful.  In general, the rules get you playing and understanding the mechanisms right away.

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Trilogy

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This is Part Two of a Three part story.  If you haven’t played the original, you don’t HAVE to, it just makes the story make more sense.  I have played the original about a year ago (so I forgot a lot of it), but once I started it playing, it all came back.  I also didn’t need to have played the original: it just makes it easier to get into the story.

Much Like The Original

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Cantaloop: Book 2 is very much much like Cantaloop: Book 1. Seriously: you can take a look at our original review of Cantaloop here and almost everything we said still applies: it has a sense of humor, the art is consistently silly through-out, there’s a lot of page turning, there’s a lot of looking at text through red acetate, and there’s a lot of puzzles … some easy, some hard.  Generally, it’s great!

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One thing I want to give props to! One of my only complaints of the first book was that I thought the paper quality wasn’t great: I was afraid I’d tear the pages as I turned through everything so much.  The newer edition has better paper quality!  This is a great improvement because you turn the pages so much!

But how’s the game play?

A Dirty Secret

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I originally compared Cantaloop to the Monkey Island series of video games back in my original review (see here).  This analogy seems even more apt in light of the new Cantaloop: Book 2.  Why’s that you ask?  Because I have a dirty little secret about the Monkey Island series!  As much as I think the first Secret of Monkey Island is perfect, and as much as I adore the first 90% of the sequel LeChuck’s Revenge, I hated the last 10% of the game.  A lot of Ron GIlbert’s games seem to do that do me: I love the first 90% then hate the last 10%.  In Psychonauts, the first 90% of the game is exploring an interesting world populated by some fascinating kids, but the last 10% is just a joystick buster. No fun! In LeCheck’s Revenge, the puzzles in the first 90% are great!  The last 10% is so frustrating as LeChuck randomly just resets you back to a save point over and over and over and over …

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Too many programming actions

And I had the a problem with Cantaloop: Book 2. I hated the how the ending played out. The game sets-up these more and more challenging programming puzzles: players uses some cards to move “things” about a virtual world—they program the movement. The first 8 or so puzzles are fun and challenging, but then it just stops working as a mechanic.

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This is where I gave up: E2. I stopped caring

The initial idea is interesting: set-up all these programming puzzles to move further along in the book! See above. The first few are fun, the next few are challenging, and then … you just get tired of them. The last 90% of the game was miserable because that’s all the last 90% was: these programming puzzles. And they had stopped being fun. I stopped caring and just “solved the puzzle” using the hint (well, even worse, I just cheated and assumed I moved forward). I want to say it was puzzle E2 that I stopped caring.

Problems With The Programming Puzzles

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There were several problems with these programming puzzles in the game.   At its core, these puzzles were just “put cards in order to move pieces to solve a puzzle”—they kept building and building and building on the basic premise to make it harder and harder.  This build-up wasn’t an issue per se, but there were several problems around it.

  1. It’s too hard to look back and see the “last set of rules”.  Because Cantaloop is all about the red acetate, you have to look back and re-read the rules again—and that’s annoying with the red acetate.
  2. The rules are NOT on same pages as you are playing. Every time, the rules are NOT on the same page as your playing, which means if there are questions, you have to page BACKWARDS and disturb your board set-up (you have to put pieces on the pages).  The rules needed to be either (a) on the same viewable pages or (b) on a separate sheet you could refer to
  3. The rules were poorly specified.  I attempted to reverse-engineer and figure out what the rules were FROM the solutions.  The rules for the programming puzzles should have been better specified.  After seeing how many questions I had and directions I couldn’t decipher, I didn’t want to try to solve it! There were too many rules to get wrong! (I  attempt to fix some of that in the rules clarifications below).  There was no FAQ.
  4. The mechanism grew tiresome.  There were 14 of these programming puzzles!  That same type of puzzle over and over grew very tiresome.
  5. The state space is huge.  By the time you get to the later puzzles, the amount of ways the cards could be played together is enormous, and you just have to stumble your way into the right solution.  There might be some intuition, but generally the solution is to “keep trying over and over”
  6. The pieces of the puzzle are fiddly and maintenance-heavy.  In order to keep trying over and over, you have to do a lot of maintenance: get one wrong rule or forget a movement, and invalidate your solution which involved moving so many pieces around.  It was agony in the later ones to have to move so many pieces

All together, I stopped caring about solving the programming puzzles at about checkpoint E2.  

Rules Clarifications

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I spent an entire morning going through the proposed solution (from the back of the book) to the E2 puzzle. There were so many questions I had about how things worked that I had to reverse-engineer the solution. Presented below is what I think the under-specified rules are (based on the solution given by the book) what the interpretations for these rules are.

  1. Do Tracers start ON the board or OFF the board? Although this seems like a silly question, take a look at the notation: the tracer could start OFF the board, with it’s first movement being to appear in the space it’s connected to. The Tracer could also start ON the board, so when it moves, it moved away from its first space. This question makes a difference of 1 extra space, and that can be huge.
    The Ruling: Tracers start ON the board. See picture above. I think that was clear from the solution.

2. Do you have to use all of your cards?

The rule, somewhat obscured by the notion of elegance (some of use believe that fewer lines of code are more elegant), is highlighted in the picture above.

The Ruling: You always have to use all of your cards! It’s very clearly stated.

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3. Do Tracers obey Bridges and Gates? I am not sure, but based on my running the puzzle solution, I think they respect bridges but ignore gates? At least that’s what running the puzzle solution seemed to imply.

The Ruling: Tracers respect bridges but ignore gates. I think? Not clear?

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4. How do Tracers handle ends?

It seemed to not come up once you get the rules right, but I think if a Tracer hits the and and can’t move, then it just turns around. Still needs to be specified I think.

The Ruling: Tracers turn around: they move one space in and one space out.

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Too many programming actions

5. The tracers, on every turn, have to MOVE (M), DETERMINE DIRECTION (D), REORIENT THEMSELVES. (R) In what order does this happen? This is a huge deal which I spent an hour trying to make sure I understood. You need to understand this! The real question: when you move tracers, do you MDR or DRM?

If you MDR, then the above is the interpretation of the movement for the Tracer. (M) Move in the direction of your orientation (straight-up), (D) Determine direction to move (straight-up), (R) Reorient arrow in that new direction.

If you DRM, then the above is the interpretation for the Tracer. (D) Determine direction to move (to the right), (R) Reorient (to the right), (M) move to the right.

It makes a BIG DIFFERENCE, right? After running through the solution, the answer is clear: MDR. I am actually pretty sure on this: I ran through this solution over and over.

The ruling: MDR (Move in the direction of the arrow, the Determine where you’ll go next move, then reorient in that direction). Pretty confident in this.

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6. How do the Tracers follow the dotted lines?

The ruling: it seems that moving over the lock allows you to move. Veru unclear, but it didn’t seem to affect my play. So I’m still not sure.

There were TOO MANY QUESTIONS for me to even hope I got the rules right. I had to reverse-engineer the solution to this to even have a hope of getting this right. The book really needed many more clarifications, pictures, and examples of how things worked … maybe some cards showing this?

It was after this I sort of gave up. The rules were poorly stated, so I felt like I had no chance of getting the puzzles right anyways, so I stopped caring for the programming puzzles.

Where Does That Leave Us?

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Cantaloop: Book 2 (A Hack of a Plan) was great … right up until I hit programming puzzle E2. It was the 8th programming puzzle, and I was just getting tired of the programming puzzles. By the time I got the E2, I was “done” trying to interpret the poorly stated rules. Luckily, those puzzles come near the end of the game: The only thing left in the game was 4 more programming puzzles. So, to finish up, I simply “pretended” to do them and then I moved on, reading text as I went.

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And the end game had some interesting story fragments that re-engaged me: I want to see what happens in the next book!!

There is an easy mode in the game, but it’s not clear it would have skipped the last 4 annoying programming puzzles. If this were a video game, I would have looked up the solution on the internet and just finished off the last 4 puzzles just to get to the endgame and the conclusion.

So, I still care about the characters Hook and Fly and Alice and what happens to them. I do want to get the next Cantaloop book. So, here’s my recommendation for you:

  • If you want to solve ALL the puzzles, make sure you look online for a FAQ or clarification before attempting them.  I admit that a lot of my “I stopped caring” was because there were too many things underspecified.  Find out all the rules, then maybe those puzzles will be more fun!
  • If you want a lighter, more fun game, solve everything up to programming puzzle E2, and then just ignore the final 4 programming puzzles: pretend you solved all the programming puzzles as you go so you can see the end game.

Let’s be clear: except for the last 4 or 5 programming puzzles, I had a great time playing this!  There’s a lot of that fun that came with the point-and-click adventure solving!  All the humor and fun of the first Cantaloop was still there!  The programming puzzle pieces will easily be the most controversial pieces of this game: you know right away if that is something you will like or not.

Conclusion

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Cantaloop: Book 1 (Breaking Into Prison) made the Top Spot on my Top 10 Cooperative Games of 2021! I gave it a 9 out of 10! I was very excited to get the next book Cantaloop: Book 2(A Hack of a Plan). I freely admit that I was disappointed by this somewhat: the programming puzzles had many problems and ended up detracting from all the goodness that is in Cantaloop: Book 2! If you want the super hard programming puzzles, make sure you find all the proper FAQs and clarifications before you attempt them. Otherwise, ignore all the programming puzzles after E2 and just concentrate on all the goodness of the rest of the game.

If we take Cantaloop: Book 2 as-is, I’d probably give this a 6/10. But, if we ignore the programming puzzles after E2 and just enjoy the rest of the story and experience for what it is, I’d give this a 7.5/10. There is a lot of humor and puzzles to like here.

I am still looking forward to Cantaloop: Book 3. Book 2 won’t make the top spot of my Top 10 Cooperative Games of 2022 (like Book 1 did in 2021), but Book 2 will still make the Top 10 overall. Weirdly, Book 2 could also make my Top 10 Disappointments of 2022 at the same time it makes my Top 10. I hope that makes sense.

Review of Marvel United: Fantastic Four Expansion

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As we saw in last week’s blog, I recently got a ton of new Marvel United content! There was way too much to go through, so I thought I’d tackle it in pieces. This week, we’ll look at Marvel United: Fantastic Four: this is an expansion: you must have either the X-Men: Marvel United set (which we reviewed here) or the base Marvel United set (which we reviewed here and here).

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(Don’t worry, this blog won’t be taken over by Marvel United, we’ll have some Top 10 lists and other reviews coming soon!)

Unboxing

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This box is about the same size as the the original Marvel United box (but a little thinner). There’s no new instructions, but a little pamphlet that talks about what the expansion adds.

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This shows the components on one side … (see above)

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And some rules/explanations on the other side. Note that this set adds two new very interesting things. First, it adds The Takeover Challenge, which basically allows you to make the game harder if you think it’s too easy … we haven’t played it because we usually barely win! More importantly, it adds the Fantastic Four Card which is a new way to encourage cooperation. We’ll discuss that more below.

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There’s 4 new Locations (see above), 2 of which have bad effects even if you defeat the challenge on them …

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The Doombot tokens are “Doom’s thugs” and have special rules. The KO! tokens allow for representation when a hero is KOed.

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The inside of the box holds the rest.

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There’s two new villains: Super-Skrull and Doctor Doom! (although Dr. Doom can also be a hero … what you say? Can’t you imagine Dr. Doom teaming up with the Fantastic Four to fight Galactus?)

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The minis and cards look really great: they are kept in place pretty well by the insert.

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The minis themselves really pop, especially with all the different colors.

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All in all, the game keeps with the Marvel United traditions and looks pretty good.

Solo Play

I played a solo player game using just the characters and locations in the Fantastic Four box. I think the only thing I used from the main box were two other Locations and the tokens. I suspect, for this box, everything is balanced and play-tested pretty well for things in this box. So, for my review, I am really only looking at this box’s gameplay: Trying to combine this with all the other Marvel United content would be an explosion of combinations.

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For my first solo game, I played The Human Torch and the Silver Surfer.

And I chose to play against the evil Dr. Doom!

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I mean, these minis look pretty awesome on the board.

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In the end, my Heroes were victorious, taking advantage of the Silver Surfer’s Cosmic Awareness and Johnny’s Nova Blast. The threats made Doombots just appear everywhere: I almost lost a number of times as the Doombots threatened to overwhelm me.

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The game still works great solo: Doctor Doom adds a nice wrinkle to the equation. I still have no desire to play using the “official” solo rules: the solo character running two Heroes seems to work best for me.

Cooperative Play

So, one of the coolest new features of the Fantastic Four Expansion is the cooperative Fantastic Four card: see below.

When members of the Fantastic Four play certain Teamwork cards, they add tokens to the card: later Teamwork cards can then execute all tokens that used to be on the card! Early Teamwork turns are lame, but later Teamwork turns are awesome!

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You can see above, after a lot of previous Teamwork cards, the Fantastic Four card allows a member of the Fantastic Four to do so much! This card only works for the Fantastic Four heroes, but it really does promote teamwork for the FF: “I’ll play this okay card on my turn to add a token, but it will make the later turn for my comrade awesome!”

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In the final turn, Sue Storm (aka the Invisible Girl) played a Teamwork card! It allowed to her so many actions! She moved, moved, and punched, punched, punched, taking Dr. Doom down!

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The cooperative play seemed a little more pronounced in this session of Marvel United, as the Teamwork cards really seemed to promote “do a lesser action on my turn to promote an awesome turn for my comrade”. The only problem is that if you play one member of the Fantastic Four, I think you want everyone else to be a member because this Teamwork power is so awesome and ONLY works with the Fantastic Four.

Conclusion

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If you like Marvel United and you like the Fantastic Four, this is a great expansion. The Teamwork cards really inspire cooperation, the minis are Fantastic (no pun intended), and the new Villains and Locations add more to a great game.