A Review of The Initiative (plus Alvin’s Secret Code!)

The Initiative is a cooperative board game for 1-4 players that came out this year (2021). It’s a campaign game about code-breaking and adventure: each player takes the role of a kid from a group of friends. The group of friends have “discovered” a board game (that makes this a meta-board game, as it is a board game about board games) that leads them on a crazy adventure of discovery!

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This is a campaign game with legacy elements: some things will change permanently as you play through the game, but it’s generally a campaign. The main campaign lasts about 14 game plays (or at least, that’s how long it did for us). After you are done with the main story, there are still scenarios to extend the life of the game.

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Most games we played lasted about 20 minutes, even though the box says 30-40 minutes.

Unboxing and Components

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The main book is called a “guidebook” more than a rulebook. Like a lot of legacy/campaign games, you are instructed to only look at the first few pages: the book above notes to read only pages 2-5!

Like I sad, this game is very meta is a lot of ways: you are playing a game called The Key inside this game of The Initiative. So, the guide book will be the guide for The Initiative, but the rule sheet (above) describes many of the key concepts for The Key.

The cardboard punch outs aren’t anything to write home about: they are pretty ordinary (see above).  They are readable, which is the most important feature, but they don’t really “stand out” as phenomenal pieces.

The main board is a double-sided affair (see one side above). This board defines the rooms IN THE INTERNAL GAME The Key, but, it is the main game board overall.

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There are a bunch of cards inside the box (see above), with the larger cards (on the right) being the scenarios, some SECRET cards (top) that you unlock as you play, and the main cards (brownish, left) being the main player cards.

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The centerpiece of the game is the little plastic stand with little plastic flip-up windows: it almost works like an Advent Calendar! You put the scenario cards in there and it presents the puzzle to solve!

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Each player plays a “kid” character with special abilities in the game. The “kid” is highlighted on the right of the card, and the special character that “kid” plays in the The Key is on the left of the card. It’s more confusing to talk about than to play: it really is simple once you are in the game.

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This game isn’t going to win any awards for prettiest components, or best color palette, or best pictures. The components are very readable and functional. The game DOES do a good job of differentiating between the kids (rendered in a comic booky art style) and The Key (rendered in a corporate art style). Overall, I liked the game components, and they worked just fine in the game, but they just weren’t particularly pretty.

The Guidebook

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One of the more interesting parts of the game is the Guidebook (see above) that sets-up and guides the kids’ story. As you play, you are told to read certain pages of the Guidebook … which are rendered in a comic-booky style! This is the kids’ story (the main characters) and the Guidebook reveals their story! At certain points, the Guidebook tells you to play The Key and solve the next code.

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The kids narrative is the main story of this campaign game, but The Key is the (meta) game the kids are playing in The Initiative!  Honestly, that sounds a lot more confusing than it is.  You track what the kids are doing “in real life” and then play the game (The Key) to advance the story.  It really does flow pretty easily.

Alvin’s Secret Code

I recently reconnected with a friend of mine, and we both discovered our love of the old book Alvin’s Secret Code by Clifford B. Hicks. Alvin’s Secret Code is a book about a bunch of kids who discover the world of code-breaking and cryptography (sound familiar?) Without too much hyperbole, it’s one of the most influential books in my life: it awakened a love of cryptography (solving codes). It also demonstrated IN A KID’S BOOK how to do cryptanalysis!

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Near the end of the book are many more techniques to encode/encipher things!

You can even see my little scribbles in my old book.

This book was a “textbook” for me (as a second grader) on how to break codes! It was and still is one of my favorite books of all time.

The Initiative

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If Alvin’s Secret Code is a book about kids solving codes, then The Initiative is the equivalent board game about kids solving codes! I felt like I was reliving the adventures of Alvin and his friends as I played The Initiative. Without burying the lede, I loved this game! All the lessons I learned from Alvin’s Secret Code entered into this game and I couldn’t wait to play every week! For a few months, me and my friends would play two games a session, about 30 minutes each. Some sessions would be a little longer if the codes were harder or we were unlucky that week.

Gameplay

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The gameplay itself is about moving around an environment and gathering pieces of information. Pieces of information are usually a letter from the puzzle (strictly speaking, a “map” of one letter to another, so one piece might reveal multiple parts of the cipher).

On each player’s turn, they can only do one of 4 things (see above):

  1. Intel (flip a token to see what a letter is)
  2. Gather (use the token to decode one letter of the puzzle)
  3. Run (move to a room to Gather)
  4. Regroup (clear an action).

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Each player has 4 cards from a bunch of different “suits” (see above). The idea is that a player can activate an action ONLY IF they can play a card that’s higher than one already played! So, to do an action, you have to carefully plan your use of cards as an individual and a group. This is a hidden information cooperative game: players can’t share what cards have, but players can say “I have some high cards and midling cards” and phrases like that. I am normally not a fan of hidden information in co-ops, but it didn’t seem like a problem for us.

The gameplay itself isn’t particularly engaging: but it’s the act of choosing what clues to go after that’s important! Cryptanalysis is all about playing the odds! Usually, players can’t reveal all the tiles, so it’s the tiles that they reveal and don’t reveal that are the interesting decisions of the game! The card play just gives you a way to explore that state space.

For some people, this card play is the weakest part of the game. The 4 Squares Review of The Initiative gave this game 6-6.5, but I think they are missing the point. Discovering which letters/clues are important are the critical and fun decisions in the game: the mechanism is just a means to an ends. Honestly, it’s a easy mechanism to understand, it’s easy to get into, and doesn’t detract from the main idea … which is to codebreak!!!

As me and friends played the campaign, I looked forward to every gameplay. I had an amazing time playing this game.

Secrets and Surprise

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I have to be very careful here: this game has lots of secrets and surprises scattered EVERYWHERE throughout the game!! Some of what made this game so much fun (and something I looked forward to every week) were all the little “surprises” we found as we we were playing. This game wasn’t just a linear “play this game to conclusion”: as we played, we had to think about outside the box (sometimes literally) and pay attention to EVERYTHING we saw! As much as the game was about code-breaking, it was also about PAYING ATTENTION. Sometimes, the important things we glean in cryptography are little tiny patterns or clues we notice because we PAID ATTENTION TO EVERY LITTLE THING. Again, this game really captures that spirit of cryptography. In many ways, there was an element of Escape Room games here as well.

There are some really fun and fantastic things that happen as this game progresses.

Some Criticisms

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Although we played this game non-stop for months, I have been sitting on this review for some time. Why? Because we lost in the endgame, and I wasn’t sure if it was just us or the game. After some deep thought, I think the final end game felt a little unbalanced. Me and my group did really well as we played though the campaign, winning 13 out of 14 games! The final endgame, unfortunately, was horrible!! We got trounced, and it wasn’t even close! It was heartbreaking after investing in these characters for months! I mean, that’s the sign of a good game: we invested so much that we felt depressed after losing. But, I still think the final game was perhaps a little too hard or too lucky. Maybe luck went against us: the final game(s) did introduce “more luck-based” mechanisms, and that luck really backfired on us. Honestly, we’ve talked about replaying the final game, but we were so depressed, we haven’t been able to muster the spirit! If this game had a second edition, I would want slight rebalancing of the final game.

Another criticism is that the game is pretty bland looking. I think it’s thematic: there are two art styles (one for the kids and one for the Key meta-game) and they have to co-exist well, so I think scaling back the art style and graphic design is GOOD: we don’t want them to mismatch too much. Besides, the game and all its components are very readable. But ya, maybe they could have looked nicer.

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Finally, I think the card play mechanism may be viewed as too simple for some hard-core gamers, but I think that they would missing the point. This game is about cryptanalysis: this is about playing the odds, making informed decisions, paying attention, noticing little things: that simple card play mechanism does not detract from those activities. Better said, the card play doesn’t get in the way of the funnest parts of the game!

Conclusion

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If you love code-breaking, I think you will really love The Initiative. The story that unfolds over the campaign is interesting, the code-breaking was fun, and the little surprises that showed up along the way really made this a fantastic experience! As me and my group played this over few months, I looked forward to every play of the game. Despite the endgame, this is probably one of my favorite games of 2021: I’d give it a 9 out of 10.

I think maybe some of the reason I loved this game so much was because it reminded me of Alvin’s Secret Code: a book about kids solving codes! If you want to introduce your kid to the world of cryptography: get them Alvin’s Secret Code to learn about it, and then get The Initiative to experience it!

Top 10 Cooperative Board and Card Games With Apps!

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There’s a fairly new breed of board and card games, where an app on a phone or tablet (or sometimes computer) provides content for a physical board game! To be clear, the board or card game is unplayable without the app! Note that this is not the same as playing the game online … the physical boards/cards still sit in front of all the characters around a table!! (See a very different lists here for that: Top 10 Cooperative Games You Can Play Online). This hybrid experience uses an app to augment a physical play of an in-person physical board game. Although some people don’t like apps spoiling the “purity” of their board games, apps augmenting games are here to stay. Over the past few years, there have been enough games released that we can can make a list of cooperative games that fit this bill. Today, we take a look here at the Top 10 Cooperative Board and Card Games with an App!

Honorable Mention: Descent: Legends of the Dark Edition
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So, Descent has a sordid history for me. At the end of the day, I hated the 1st and 2nd Editions of Descent because they were one-vs-many games! One player played the “DungeonMaster” (DM) trying to kill the rest of the players. Here’s the thing: I hated that. It reminded me too much of early Dungeons and Dragons games with a vindictive DM trying to kill the players. And that was never fun. And the rules for Descent were too complicated. And because of the one-vs-many nature, you couldn’t question rules without creating a hostile environment. I really despised the game. When I heard there was to be a 3rd Edition (well, not a third edition per se, but a new version) that was fully cooperative (where the app took the place of the DM), I was in! Unfortunately, Descent: Legends of the Dark has been very divisive: some people love it, some people hate. it I didn’t love it myself, but it’s so interesting in a different way, it needs some recognition on this list. Take a look at this review by Tom Vasel of the Dice Tower to see if you might like it: this is a very thorough and well-thought out review which might help you decide if you like it. Another interesting review from the Shut-Up and Sit-Down people paints it in a more negative light.

10. X-COM: The Board Game 

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X-COM The Board Game is probably the oldest game on this list (but see #9): it’s an older Fantasy Flight game that you can’t seem to really get anymore.   This is a cooperative, real-time game about researching tech, protecting locations, and completing missions with your team.  The game has a push-your-luck mechanic as you decide how much to roll and re-roll as well.  This game was surprisingly fun, given that it was a little bit of a bear to get into.  In the game, there are 4 positions which must ALWAYS be populated, which makes it difficult to play at most player counts except for 4.  Players “commit” resources during the real-time phase, and then you “resolve” the resources with some dice-rolling (researching, protecting, missioning).  Real-time, resolve, repeat.  

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The rules are almost all in the app, which we all agreed was not the best decision, as it was sometimes too hard to look up rules.  Even though this is a real-time game, we chose NOT to play real-time as the game was more fun if we could just slow it slightly; luckily, the game allows you (in certain modes) to “pause” as you play.

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We didn’t love the game but we liked it! It was a bit random (because of the push-your-luck dice mechanic), we didn’t love the rulebook but we liked how it walked us through the game.  We probably wouldn’t play it strictly real-time, but we still had a lot of fun playing.  All of those caveats are why it sits at number 10.

9. Stop Thief!

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Stop Thief is a game from Restoration Games, resurrecting the old Parker Brothers game from 1979.  (Yes, you read that right, 1979!!) The original game was a one-vs-many game, where one player played the thief trying to get away from the other players.  The thief moves around the board “in secret” (hidden movement) stealing stuff, and it’s up to the other players to try to deduce where the thief is and (as a team) stop him!!! The newest incarnation uses the app to run the thief so the game can be played fully cooperatively (if desired: the original mode is available as well).  This hidden movement, press-your-luck game, and deduction works pretty well as a fully cooperative game.  The app is kind of cool because it uses sound to give “clues” about how the thief is moving.  It’s a bit light and it plays in about 20 minutes.

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8. Last Defense

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Last Defense is a light, cooperative real-time game I got at Target for under $20 (I think it was $15 on sale). The app and the game are very colorful.  Unfortunately, the app didn’t seem to get the margins right on my ipad, so some of the graphics were cut off.  

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This was an “end-of-the-night” game: it’s simple, only takes 20 minutes (as you explore the board in real-time and gather tools).  The app is used mostly for “announcing” where monsters attack the city, but it definitely is thematic and really contributes to the mood of the game.  

Last Defense has some problems (only 2-6 players: no solo mode) and the app could be better (needs updating), but for the price, it’s a pretty fun light real-time cooperative game.

7. Escape Tales

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The Escape Tales games are three separate Escape Room games that use an app to help you you through the adventure(s).  Each of the adventures is fairly hefty (about 3 game sessions to play) and kind of dark.  The app is necessary, but it generally isn’t too splashy: it just helps tell the story.  (There were a few cool puzzles here and there in the app itself).  The app generally helps you manage the state of your game.  We reviewed Escape Tales:  Children of Wyrmwoods here and really did like it. Most of the time, you want the app on your iPad (for real estate reasons), but I was able to use just my phone.

6. A Tale of Pirates

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A Tale of Pirates is a cooperative real-time pirate game that made our Top 10 Cooperative Swashbuckling Games!  I had originally gotten this game for my friends Charlie and Allison as a birthday present, and I fell in love with it after playing it!

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The app is fantastic, maybe the  best one on this list, as it is easy to run, easy to read, and plays thematic music as you play!  The game has amazing table presence (people will stop by and ask “What are You Playing?”).   There’s also an ongoing adventure for the pirates, which Charlie and Allison have finished because they loved this game so much!  Players take timers (this is a cooperative real-time game) and use them to “do things” on the pirate ship (load cannons, get cannonballs, scout, etc) and “new things” unlock as the adventure unfurls.

5. Rising 5

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Rising 5 was an early review (see here) we did here at Co-op Gestalt:  We liked it enough that it made our Top 10 Cooperative Space-Theme Games!  This is basically cooperative Mastermind (the old board game) with a beautiful redesign (see the Vincent Dutraite art above and below) and the app is giving clues to you.  With the app, you can play solo as well.

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One of the nice things about this game is you CAN play without the app, but then one person has to play the clue-giver (as per original Mastermind).

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4. Mansions of Madness: 2nd Edition

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Mansion of Madness: 2nd Edition has a sordid past with me (which I talk about in my Top 10 Cooperative Fantasy Flight Games as well as my Top Cooperative 10 Creepy/Spooky Games), but we have started playing it every Halloween along with Arkham Horror: 2nd Edition!  Mansions of Madness is a cooperative adventure game where players explore an area, with the app guiding them to set-up pieces as they explore.

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The app does a great job of walking you though a spooky scenario, with appropriate music making it even more creepy!  (NOTE: Journeys in Middle Earth would probably also be here as well, as Mansions of Madness and Journeys in Middle Earth are two Fantasy Flight app games with a lot of similarities.  If you made me choose, which you have, I would choose Mansions of Madness because the theme is so strong).

3. Chronicles of Crime

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In this family of games (essentially all detective games), players use the app on their phone to scan QR codes on cards and locations to study items, investigate locations, question people, and explore the world.  It’s a simple app mechanism that the Chronicles of Crime family of games has used to very well.  This game made our Top 10 Cooperative Detective Games and was quite a hit at RichieCon 2021.  The thing is: there’s a number of themes, depending on what appeals to you! 

  1. Scotland Yard?  Try the original Chronicles of Crime!
  2. 1400 and something like The Name of The Rose?  Try the standalone game: 1400: Chronicles of Crime!
  3. Noir?  Try the standalone game 1900: Chronicles of Crime or the Noir  expansion (which needs the original game)
  4. Archie Comics?  (I am not kidding here)  Try the Welcome to Redview expansion (which needs the original game)
  5. The future?  The standalone game: 2400: Chronicles of Crime is coming out soon!

2. Forgotten Waters

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Forgotten Waters is a fantastic cooperative storytelling game, where the app helps guide you through a (somewhat silly) Pirate Adventure!  The app (well, really a web-site) has voice-acting and sound effects that really escalate the storytelling experience.   Rather than reading from a storybook (like older games), all the story is in an App, and it is read to you!!! Players work together as a crew of Pirates searching for Big Whoop!  (Or was that Monkey Island II?… Forgotten Waters and the Monkey Island games share a lot of silly pirate DNA).  They sail the seas, search islands, and have adventures!  Forgotten Waters is so great,  it’s made numerous lists here: Top 10 Cooperative Swashbuckling Games, Top 10 Cooperative Storybook/Storytelling Games, and Top 10 Cooperative Games With a Sense of Humor!

1.  Unlock!  Escape Room Games

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At the time of this writing, there are 27 Unlock Games (see above).  These are little escape room games where an app (with some physical cards) guides you through an adventure. The original games came separately with one game per pack (and you can still get some of them that way), but now they come in packs of 3 (with three different games per pack).  The reason this game is the number one is because how much the Unlock games have pushed the envelope!  In 27 games, they have tried a lot of interesting things in the app!  Without any spoilers (because there are 27 games), I have seen: Shaking the app, listening to the app, blowing on the app, tracing on the app, talking to the app, passing the app!  The list goes on of all the things you can do in the app!  And some of my favorite escape room game experiences have been Unlock games with the app.  These games are fun puzzles that you can play solo or with a group!

We have reviewed a few of the Unlock games here and here.

A Review of Backwoods

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Backwoods is a cooperative bag-building, exploration game from Kickstarter back in August, 2020; it promised delivery in July 2021 (about a 1 year later). I received my Kickstarter copy about Sept 20, 2021, so it was a few months late. A few months late for a Kickstarter? That’s not bad, especially in today’s shipping climate!

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The back of the box (see above) show Backwoods for 1-4 Players, ages 14+ and plays in 1 to 2 hours. My experience with the game make me feel like this info is accurate.

Unboxing

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Backwoods is in a smaller box (smaller than a Ticket To Ride box, abut half the size), but it’s pretty full of stuff.

The most important card in the game is the summary card above: it outlines how the game flows and what the rules are in each phase.

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The rulebook looks like a survival/bird manual.

Included with the game was this very pretty little “woodsy” card. It didn’t really have a purpose (except to be art), but it did set the mood for the game: we are out in the backwoods! I almost feel like it might have made a better cover to the game.

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There are a BUNCH of punchout tokens: most of these are for the grab bag: this is basically a bag-building game; you will build and fill your bag with resources as one of the main mechanisms.

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I have the Deluxe edition which has dual-layer boards. These are really nice and easy to read and use!

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All the boards represent the same info, but there’s a different graphic on each board (see above). These boards are used to keep track of abilities and some key stats for each character. This is probably my favorite component in the game: they are linen-finished, dual-layer, and easy to use.

The rest of the box holds the cards, cubes, dice, and remaining tokens. See above.

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Another main component of the game is the bag itself: see above. This is a bag-building game!! You put the cardboard tokens (to the right in the picture) into the bag: The bag is big and easy to put your hand in to pull stuff out/put stuff in.

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The cards are all very well-marked with their type: see below. (I really appreciate that) They are also all linen-coated! The text is always big and easy to read. See above. I really really appreciate this feature!

The card art is a bit inconsistent and odd. The regions have a different flavor than the pioneers than the items than the night cards. It’s all “kind of” the same theme, but there seems to be an odd inconsistency to the art.

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The cubes (above) are used for the dual-layer Character board. The dice (below) are used for Skill checks.

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The final, pretty nice wood tokens are used to mark Locations.

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In general, the game looks and feels pretty nice. About everything is linen-finished which really adds a nice touch to the initial feeling of quality.

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It looks pretty nice! There’s a lot here for a smaller box.

The Rulebook

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This rulebook is really not very good. I sometimes rate rulebooks by how many times I yell “Grr!” when reading. This was at least a 5-“Grr!” rulebook. (Roll Camera, by contrast from last week, was a “0-Grr!” rulebook and one of the better rulebooks I’ve read in a while). I struggled greatly with this rulebook.

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The rulebook looks like it might “bird-hunting” manual (see above) which is quite thematic. And at the end of the day, “most stuff” is somewhere. But, it was a struggle.

Problem One: What’s the theme? What am I doing overall? The first few pages DO NOT DESCRIBE what we are supposed to be doing from a high-level persepctive!! Most rulebooks start with that! The only place I found it was on the back of the box:

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Problem Two: What were some the tokens? Page 2 does show the tokens (see below), but some tokens were no accounted for. (The brown tokens that seem to correlate to some of the animals .. what are they?)

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Problem Three: Where the set-up picture? I expected some sort of set-up picture in the Starting Out, but there wasn’t any.

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I did find a set-up picture, again, on the back of the box! … not in the rulebook where most rulebooks show them. (And I didn’t find the picture below until my third time playing).

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Problem Four: What am I supposed to be doing? How do I win? Immediately after Set-up, it jumps into the scenarios. And doesn’t describe “Freedom Mode” (which is what the “first set-up” is described with).

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Am I supposed to play Just A Scratch first? Freedom Mode (alluded to in the Set-up)? If you look all the way at the VERY END of the rulebook, you find some description of what you need to do to win:

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So, notice that the Freedom mode is described on the LAST page of the rulebook, as well as adjustments for the number of players. Shouldn’t that have been all at Set-Up?

Problem Five: Just poor organization. And not a lot of pictures, if any. I struggled reading anything.

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Overall, you can figure out how to play the game from the rulebook (well, mostly, see below). But this rulebook almost made me toss the game on the scrap pile.

After playing a few times, I found a “How To Play” set-up on the website. https://mosthighdesign.com/backwoodsgame/resources/

I wish I had known about that beforehand.

Set-Up

A picture of set-up (again, on the back of the box) goes a long way towards seeing what the game looks like. Once you see the game set-up, you forgive some of the grumpiness of the rulebook because the dual-layer board and linen-coated cards look nice on the table. For future generations, above is a picture of set-up!

Solo Play

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See a picture of a solo game, a few rounds in.

Luckily, the game has a solo mode (thank you for following Saunders’ Law): they basically just slightly adjusts the abilities for balance.

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Once you FIND the solo rules (on the VEEEEERRY last page), it’s a decent way to learn the game. I think you really to need to play the game solo before you present this game to anyone: it’s too much to try to learn this in real-time with a group because the rulebook is so bad. I have to admit that I was pretty grumpy with my solo game, but once I presented the game to my friends, it flowed a lot better BECAUSE I had already suffered through the rulebook.

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See a losing game (above).

After playing the game a few times, I think the solo game is significantly harder than the cooperative game because you can’t do quite as much per turn: a solo player will have to take 3 events before he can build three things (as he can only only build once per turn, so three turns have to pass), but a 3-Player game can build 3 times with only one event (in one turn). I think that is a correct assessment of how to play, but again, the rulebook isn’t clear.

Exploration

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The game is all about trying to stay alive while you look for the Fort (at least for the first “Freedom Mode” scenario).  Once you make it to the Fort (see below): you win!

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You can go out to a few Locations and can either (a) Scout it or (b) just head in there blind. It’s a simple explore mechanism, as you just flip a card (orthogonally) next to you from the Regions deck:

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When you are all done, you have explored a number of Regions which is kind of neat.  And each region has very different characteristics.

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By the end of the game, it’s kind of a cool little map you’ve set up. And every region has different explore effects.

Gameplay

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The most important piece in the game is the map above: it gives a VERY nice summary of how the game flows.  The little owl marks which “phase” of the game you are in, and a nice summary in on the edges of the card.  This card, this card saved this game from the scrap-heap: It’s a nice summary that can at least get you in to the game without HAVING to keep your nose in the rulebook. 

At it’s core, this is a bag-building game and resource management game.  To win, you need to find the Fort (usually), but along the way, you need food and water (and other things) to survive. You can get that food and water from the bag (see opportunity below) or trying other actions in the game (fighting animals, events, etc).  For example: If you defeat the “Barred Owls” below in combat, you get 2 Meat (lower left on card).

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You can place items in the bag for 1 opportunity (see lower left of player board) or pull from the bag for 2 opportunity.

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You can also use resources in the game for building items:

The fire above can be built for 1 WOOD, and it’s imperative, especially in the early game, as it allow you to fight hypothermia.

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There are TONS of ITEMS in the game. I didn’t realize it until the end of my first solo game, but building items is KEY to winning the game! You can choose ANY item in the deck to build, as long as you have the resources!!

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In the different phases of the game, you explore, build, heal, and fight as you look for the Fort. There are sort of two sets of Bad News cards (this is a cooperative game after all): The Events Cards feel like Choose-Your-Own-Adventure cards, and add an element of “adventure” to the game: The results can be good or bad, depending on what you choose.

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The Night cards, on the other hand, are more like the traditional Bad News cards in cooperative games: something bad happens.

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In general, the game flows through a bunch of days where you explore, build, heal, choose, and end with a Night card. Continue until you’ve found the Fort!

Religion

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One of the elements of the game is religious “Christian faith”. It is an optional rule, but the game acknowledges that 1800s in the USA was typically settled by religious (often Christian) settlers. I didn’t have a problem with this rule, because it felt thematic: in my USA History classes, it was very clear that a lot of Christian Settlers had come to the US for religious freedom during the early parts of American history. So, I didn’t have a problem with it.

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My friends, who tend to me more religious, had more problems with it. They argued that it was perhaps reductive to their faith (reducing Christian religion to just mechanisms with the Faith attribute) and some characters (like the Indian princess character) would probably have a different flavor of faith. So, rather than pigeon-hole the faith as “Christian” mechanism in the game, maybe it should have been handled more generically than the very Christian way it was dealt.

I don’t think anyone was offended, and it didn’t get the way of the game, but we all imagined some people might have a problem with the “faith” part of the game. Luckily, the “faith” rules are optional, but you should be aware of them in case it might rub you the wrong way.

Cooperative Play

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As a game, Backwoods worked better as a cooperative game than a solo game. We all worked together and made decisions about what Items to buy (an essential part of the game). The solo mode is essential for learning the game, but I think you would pull this game out to play it cooperatively more than solo.

Conclusion

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In the end, Backwoods strikes me as a cooperative bag-building version of Paleo! Paleo (a cooperative game that won the 2021 Kennerspiel des Jahres which we reviewed here) is all about managing resources and building the necessary things to survive. Backwoods has a very similar feel to Paleo, but Backwoods uses a bag-building mechanism to help manage resources. If you enjoyed Paleo’s resource management and exploration “feel”, I suspect Backwoods would be a game you might enjoy.

Some of the art and graphic design of Backwoods rubbed my friends the wrong way: they seemed to think that the art and graphic design seemed inconsistent (see above). Also, the rulebook definitely needs a major reworking (needing significant re-organization and rewriting), but once you have played the game a few times, however, the rulebook issues are less pronounced. The cooperative game is better than the solo game (as the solo game seems perhaps too difficult), with some interesting decisions made as a group.

My friends seemed to think that Backwoods needed more development and would give it a 5/10. I liked it more than they did, but I see their point. The game has some really neat ideas and the gameplay does flow pretty well once you get into it, but be aware of the potential issues (art, graphic design, rulebook, faith rules) before you buy: hopefully you can get a good idea of all that from this review.

A Review of X-Men: Marvel United. Part I-Unboxing, Solo Rules, and First Impressions

X-Men: Marvel United is a cooperative super hero game where each player takes the role of an X-Man! Players work together to take down a bad guy! This was a Kickstarter back in May 2021. This essentially the same game as Marvel United (which we reviewed in two parts: Part I here and Part II here), but with characters from the X-Men Marvel universe (instead of the Avengers). To be clear, X-Men: Marvel United is a standalone game which can be played all by itself, but it also expands the original Marvel United.

My copy arrived October 1st, 2021 (see above). This isn’t widely available just yet: as part of the Kickstarter, I could spend an extra $10 to get the base game delivered early. I normally don’t like to do the Phase I/Phase II shipping in Kickstarter, but I was very excited to get this!

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By the way, is this X-Men: Marvel United or Marvel United: X-Men? Reading left-to-right on both the front of the box and the back of the box, it looks like X-Men: Marvel United, but the little text above the UPC symbol implies that maybe this is Marvel United: X-Men “formally” inside the system? We’ll be calling in X-Men: Marvel United because, you know, left to right.

Unboxing

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What’s in the box?

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There’s a little pamphlet with a code, which my phone immediately went to! It went to a web site with some extra content: see here (basically a downloadable achievement book, rulebook, and super villain book). The rulebook is immediately under that (the same size as the box).

The rulebook has the same art as the cover. As an aside, I didn’t originally like the “chibi” style art of the game, but it has really grown on me.

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There are two sheets of cardboards tokens: the ones of the left are mostly actions you can “save” between turns (Punch, Wild, Heroism, Move), while the markers in the right sheet are for thugs/civilians (top), Crisis tokens (middle) and Damage tokens for bad guys (bottom). The card is pretty thick and punched out very easily.

The game has a very nice insert! There’s a little plastic cover that holds down the minis so they stay in place: see above.

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The minis look really nice and are color-coded for your convenience! The blue ones are the heroes, the orange ones are villains (which were RED in the original Marvel United?) are villains, and the purple minis (Magneto and Mystique) can be either a hero or a villain, depending on the scenario! This is very thematic for Magneto and Mystique because sometimes the X-Men would team up with those Villains to “help” the mutant cause!

This is one of the reasons to get this game! The minis are very nice!! You get Juggernaut and Sabre Tooth (villains), Magneto and Mystique (villains or heroes), and then the X-Men proper: Wolverine, Storm, Cyclops, Professor X, Beast, and Jean Grey (Marvel Girl, but the game calls her Jean Grey).

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These little minis are SOOO thematic and cool looking! See above for some close ups!

The rest of the game is either little cardboard sheets (with stats) or cards. The cardboard sheets feel a little thin and cheap, but they look good. For example: the Villain Cards:

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Each Villain has a Villain Card which describes their gameplay effects.

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The game contains 8 city Locations in the same thin cardboard (see above) : you get to choose 6 per game that you put in a circle. These are different locations than the original game. The Villain Dashboard is also in this thin cardboard.

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To be fair, the Kickstarter allowed you the opportunity to upgrade some of these thinner components, but some of these base cardboard cards feel a little cheap. I guess this is the price we pay for getting X-Men: Marvel United in the mass market stores! (At least, I think this will be available at Walmart like the original Marvel United …)

The rest of the game is in the cards: they are NOT linen-finished, but they are otherwise nice and readable and have nice art.

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There are 8 Hero decks: one for each hero!

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Each Villain also has their own deck (see above).

There are also some cards for a 1 vs many mode (the Super Hero and Super Villain cards), some “Challenge” cards (which make the game harder), and some goals for heroes to move forward (the first three are the same, the Cerebro one is new).

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Overall, the same looks really nice. The lack of linen-finish on the cards and the cheap cardboard boards are a minor criticism of a game that looks and feels very thematic! At the end of the day, those little minis are probably what sell the game!

Rulebook

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This is a fine rulebook. The Intro page has a nice intro with a good table of contents. See below.

The component page is great! See above! (Everything is easy to correlate and collate).

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The set-up works fine as well (a little texty, but it has some goods pictures).

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I feel like the set-up should have spanned two pages and ONLY been set-up, but in the interest of saving space (and maybe a few more pages), the set-up is condensed a little bit! Again, probably the product of a mass-market game. Note! The winning and losing condition is right up front!!!

This is a fine rulebook. I didn’t really have any major problems.

Set-Up

The game looks good set-up: See above for a 2-Player (which was actually a 1 player) set-up.

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Wolverine is one of the characters being played: shockingly, he has a lot of attack! The player starts with 3 cards to choose from.

As the game progresses, players will be putting out their cards in a tableu representing the history of actions: here’s a starting tableau after a few turns (notice the villain starts):

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And here’s a tableau after a full game!

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The game needs a lot of space available for the little history/tableau, so just be aware and preallocate the space!

Solo Play

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The game follows Saunders’ Law and comes with a solo mode, so that’s great! Here’s the thing: The X-Men: Marvel United solo mode has the same problem as the original Marvel United solo mode: Too much intellectual overhead! The Marvel United solo mode is the canonical example of a game that tries too hard to have a solo mode: see previous discussion here In “How To Play a Cooperative Game Solo?” The essence of the problem is that there are too many exceptions to the main rules (which are fairly straight-forward): see the half page of rules for just the solo mode above! It’s very daunting!

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Here’s the thing: the solo mode of “let’s just play two X-Men and alternate between them like a 2-Player game” works great! It’s much simpler, it’s easier to get into, and it’s just as challenging! (The game above ends with a loss to Magneto). There aren’t a half page of exceptions to look up: you just play the game as it’s intended with normal rules.

The game above was SO FUN even though I loss! Play two-handed and ignore the solo rules.

Cooperation

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One of the best elements of the game is how it encourages cooperation between the X-Men: when a character plays a card to the tableau, he plays the symbols on his card, PLUS the symbols used by his compatriot on the previous turn!

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After Wolverine plays, Professor X plays a card in which gets to MOVE and be HEROIC, but also gets the two ATTACKS of Wolverine on his turn! On Wolverine’s next turn, he’ll get the MOVE and HEROIC …

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In order to win, players absolutely have to work together and discuss which cards to play so they can leverage each other’s symbols!

Extra Stuff

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The game also comes with a special one vs. many mode (which can expand the game from 1-4 players to 5): One player plays one of the villains, with the rest being X-Men heroes trying to take down the Villain! The Villains and Heroes get special cards for this mode: see pictures above and below.

Conclusion

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X-Men: Marvel United continues the trend of Marvel United: it’s a fun cooperative superhero game that should have made our Top 10 Cooperative Superhero Games! The only question is: do you like the Avengers or the X-Men better? If you like the Avengers, you should get the original Marvel United. If you like the X-Men, you should be picking up X-Men: Marvel United. They are both stand-alone games and work just fine is isolation.

Should you get both? Only if you want more content! Arguably, the original Marvel United is a little limited since it only has 3 Villains, so adding X-Men to this adds a lot of content! You get 4 new Villains and 8 new Heroes, which gives you a lot more combinations to try! How would Captain America and Wolverine fare against Mystique? How would Ant-Man and the Beast fare against Ultron? (Wait, wasn’t Beast an Avenger AND an X-Man?) All the team-ups you always wanted to try, you can!

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I like Superheroes, and I really like X-Men: Marvel United. Granted, it’s a simpler game, but I still enjoy it. My only question now: will X-Men:Marvel United make my Top 10 Cooperative Games of 2021 (see 2020 games here) or my Top 10 Expansions to Cooperative Games for 2021 (see 2020 expansions here)?