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

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

Controversy

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

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

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

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Unboxing

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Let’s see what’s in the box!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rulebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Overall, fantastic rulebook.

Gameplay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solo Mode

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

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

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

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

This was a very good solo mode.

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Cooperative Mode

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

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

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

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

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

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

Replayability

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unboxing

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

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

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

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

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

Rulebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solo Rules

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

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

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

Adventure Decks

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

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Or ACHIEVEMENTS:

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Gameplay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Can you survive to the end of the story?

Problems

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

A Review of Cantaloop

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

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

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Unboxing … or “Book Opening”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Rulebook … or just the Book!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trigger Sheet (Matrix)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cut Scenes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gameplay

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

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

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

Help System

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sense of Humor

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

This sense of humor was a refreshing change.

Critical Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four Adventurers

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

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

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

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

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

Too Grindy

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

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

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

Silence

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

We proposed this change:

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

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

Reflections

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

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

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

Video Game

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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