A Review of Kim Joy’s Magic Bakery!

Kim Joy’s Magic Bakery is listed as a “cooperative baking card game” from Skybound. This wasn’t a Kickstarter (to my knowledge). It’s listed as 2-5 Players, 15-30 Minutes, 8+ Ages: for the most part, that’s pretty accurate.

This is a simple card game about building some neat bakery creations for a group of customers. I picked it up a few months ago, and it’s been sitting around getting played much more than I expected by all my friends! Let’s take a look at this game!

Unboxing

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I ordered this game directly from the Skybound website, but it appears to be everywhere right now (it is even on sale at Kohl’s for half price at the time of this writing: just Google it). It comes in a smallish game box (about the size of Now Boarding! from last week): see the Coke can below for perspective.

The game is mostly all cards: the components are even listed on the back of the box:

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The rulebook is very pink and very cute, but still very readable.

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But almost everything else is cards!

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As you can see above, all the cards are VERY readable, very cute, and the art is very distinguishable! This game is just adorable.

The games components are easily legible across the table: all the components have cute, distinguishing art, and all the components are labelled! It seems simple, but the fact that each type of card is well-labelled, color-coded, legible, and distinguishable by art goes a long way towards creating a good vibe on the table! There was never any grumpiness on what-was-what.

And this game is cute as the dickens.

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Rulebook

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This is a good rulebook. The font is perhaps a touch smaller than I liked, but it is still very very readable. Look, right away they show the components AND label them with a picture! (See above) Thank you! (Pay attention: Now Boarding! you should have done that).

One thing that might be daunting when you look at the rulebook is the number of pages: 24! (Not 24 factorial, just 24 with an exclamation mark for emphasis). Don’t worry weary baker, the game is explained and set-up very well in the first seven pages! The rest of the book describes the scenarios (this game has a campaign mode??!?!?), so don’t worry about the length.

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The game jumps right in with the set-up (see above): you can immediately set this up and get going. It’s got pictures, annotated notations, and a well-described set-up.

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The next four pages describe the gameplay very well: see the two pictures above. There are examples and well-written text.

Most of the rest of the rulebook describes scenarios!!

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The rulebook ends with a bang, having a quick reference on the back.

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This is a good rulebook. Well-written, easy-to-read, and lots of examples. The size can be daunting (24 page rulebook!), but most of it just gives details on different scenarios: the basic game is described well in the first 7 pages. At it’s core, this is a simple cooperative game.

Gameplay

This is a simple cooperative game that can easily be described by the front and back of the Summary cards (above). The object of the game is to bake enough “baking masterpieces” for the customers coming through your shop. Players work together as bakers to build these culinary masterpieces.

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For example, the Turtle above wants a Chocolate Bombe, and the Dragon wants Crumpets. Note that each customer tells you what ingredients are needed to build these culinary masterpieces! Some of the ingredients are simple and be used directly (the butter, eggs, flour for instance): these are obtained from the ingredients row:

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5 random ingredients will be placed out, and replaced and cycled as the players try to bake items. If players can’t find an ingredient, they can use one action on their turn to “reset” all 5 ingredients and hopefully get what they need.

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Some things needed for the culinary creations have to be made: for instance, the biscuit from the Chocolate Bombe requires Biscuits: Biscuits must be made … you can see (above left) that the Biscuits require eggs, flour, and sugar.

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There’s really not much more to the game: players need to bake culinary creations for customers before they leave the store. A customer will hang out until pushed out the of store or gets his “creation” baked!

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Interestingly, this game has 3 levels of winning: For the scenario above (pet the Kitty), getting 3 customers satisfied gives you 1 star (copper), 4 customers gives you 2 stars (silver) and 5 customers gives you a 3 stars! I’ve always liked when cooperative games have a “minor wins” and “major wins” (like Ares Expedition should): that way, you can still feel like you accomplished something, even if you don’t get the best win.

Gameplay is real simple: a customer is introduced, and players each get a number of actions to try to bake creations. Players work together, gathering ingredients from the ingredient line, baking layers (if needed) and sharing ingredients in order to satisfy the customers! You can’t always finish the creations for the customer right away, so another customer may enter the shop. You may decide to concentrate on both, neither or one, depending on the available ingredients!

The game is really simple. Grab the proper ingredients and layers to satisfy customers. That’s it.

Campaign Mode?  Scenarios!

So, this light and fluffy game has a Campaign mode!! “What?” I hear you say!  “Are we playing Tainted Grail with its giant storyline??”  (See our review of Tainted Grail Part I and Part II).  Calm down!  Although you are supposed to do the scenarios in order, the Scenarios are really just there to make game more interesting.  

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At its core, this is a VERY simple game and the scenarios just give each game a little nudge to make it more interesting.

Too Cute?

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Is this game too cute? The art is definitely cute, and my friends Sara and Teresa adored it and wanted to play it right away when I got it. In fact, we’ve played it a number of times! I’ve also played with Sam and Andrew who weren’t quite as taken with the cuteness factor.

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A hardcore gamer might roll his eyes at the art and simple gameplay. And this is a simple game: No doubt about it. It would be very easy to bring this out with any 8-year old and teach him/her the game.

Here’s the thing: ya, it’s simple. But it keeps coming out to our game table. Why? It’s an “end of the night” game when we want a simple game when we are fried. It’s a “we’re waiting got Andrew” game, when we know Andrew will be 30 minutes late. It’s easy to set-up, plays quick, and easy to tear-down. We can play this with anyone. Ya, it’s dirt simple. I didn’t think I’d like it to be honest “this is TOO simple” … but it’s charming and it has relaxing gameplay. You can play this with anyone. I’ll admit it’s no Tainted Grail, but sometimes you want a light game.

Solo vs Cooperative

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This game breaks Saunders’ Law: it has no solo mode. It’s easy enough to play as if it were a 2-Player game, with the solo player playing two hands. Strictly speaking, Kim Joy’s Magic Bakery is a hidden information game! Each player starts with some ingredients and builds as they go (see hand on lower right below)… but other players aren’t allowed to see the cards! So, a solo mode might use the Changing Perspectives idea like we did in Wonder Woman: you’d have to turn your cards over and kind of “forget” what the other hand did. Nah, that’s a lot of work for such a simple game!! That’s really not a good use of that idea.

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A better solo game might be to just have one starting hand and give the solo player 5 actions per turn … (instead of 2 hands with 3 actions per hand). The solo player has 5 actions per turn, losing an action since he has perfect information of all cards in hand. I.e., play just one player with just 5 actions (before the next customer comes).

The loss of an action is the price of perfect information for the solo player.

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The solo game idea is okay for learning the game, but It’s not great for long-term playability. The game is much better as a cooperative game. It’s a relaxing and charming baking session with your friends when you play cooperatively.

Conclusion

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I am surprised how much gameplay Kim Joy’s Magic Bakery! has gotten at my tables. My initial reaction was that “meh, this is okay: it’s a little simple” … and yet, it keeps coming out! Why? The art is charming and unassuming, the game is quick and easy to set-up, play, and tear-down, and it creates a fun little cooperative experience with your friends. I can play this with anyone: kids, adults, gamers (assuming they don’t roll their eyes), non-gamers and have a fun little time.

Not every game has to be Tainted Grail. Kim Joy’s Magic Bakery has surprised me and my friends as a enjoyable light cooperative game.

A Retro Review of Now Boarding!

Now Boarding is a cooperative pick-up and deliver game for 2-5 players by Fowers Games. This game originally came out in 2018, and it has been sitting on my shelf unopened for 3 years now. I had originally bought the game to play with my friend Robert: he’s a big airline nerd who loves any game that has a map, especially with an airline theme! See below.

I love any cooperative game, so I thought this would be a hit with both of us! Unfortunately, it sat on my shelves for years, waiting for the appropriate time to be played! Luckily, this weekend (Nov. 21, 2021) turned out to be that time!

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I honestly didn’t expect to be writing this review this weekend, especially for an older game like this. Giving a review of an older game, especially with the retro art of Boarding Now (and most Tim Fowers games like Burgle Bros 2, see our review here) has inspired us to call reviews like this “Retro Reviews!”

Components

This is a smallish game (see Coke can and pencil above for scale).  It fits into a smaller box, but there’s quite a bit packed in there!  Honestly, upon packing up the game, it almost didn’t fit in the box!  

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You can see above, the art is very retro and cute, again, very reminiscent of many of the Tim Fowers games. All the cards and punchouts are easy to read, and the board is easy to see. All in all, the components look nice and consistent. You’ll also notice there are little sandtimers: one for 2-3 player game (15 seconds) and 4-5 Players game (30 seconds). This is a real-time game after all.

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The theme is pretty well-expressed in the components: each player takes control of a pilot and has a little plane with spaces for passengers (the blue windows), engines (the grey tiles), and special routes (the red tile). This is a game about picking up passengers and delivering them around the USA, with each player building up their plane as they go.

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Overall, the game looks consistent and easy to read.   I wish the board and airplanes were a little bit bigger (see below): during the real-time step of the game, the little airplanes can be hard to move around, but in general, all the components were nice and very usable.

Rulebook

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The rulebook reminds me of all Fowers game rule books (again see our review of Burgle Bros 2): that’s good and bad. It teaches the game, but I always feel I want just a few more pictures and few more “elaborations” of rules would have helped teached the game. For example, on the first page was a list of components: the components were’t labelled, so it was hard to correlate what was what.

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We had to use the “number” of components (most of the components have a different number of pieces) to figure out which were which: this is obviously not ideal. I mean we figured it all out, but again, a little more elaboration on the pieces OR another picture would have helped.

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But, we got through the rulebook pretty quickly and into the game. There were enough pictures depicting the resources (see above) and the font was readable.

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The rulebook even had a little bit of a sense of humor: it used the little graphics like you would find in the safety pamplet (see above). This made us all laugh.

The rule book was good enough, if not great. It was fine. There is supposedly a video showing play (the first thing you see when you open the box, see below), but we didn’t use that.

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Solo Play

So, this game breaks Saunders’ Law: it has no solo mode. The game changes a bunch of numbers (number of customers, number of weather cards, etc) depending on whether there are 2, 3, 4, or 5 players. The numbers feel like they scale fairly linearly, but at 2 players, most of the numbers scaled down to 1, which, when extrapolating, would go to 0, which doesn’t make sense. Would a solo player taking the role of two pilots make sense? Maybe? The problem is that this is a real-time game, so time is critical: we found it hard enough to get one pilot’s turn done in real-time, let alone handling two! If it were to work, the game would have to allow “extra” time for context-switching between characters.

A solo mode for Now Boarding might work. I didn’t feel particularly motivated to try this solo mode: this game feels best as a cooperative game where all pilots talk and move simultaneously on their turn.

Game Play

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This is a game about picking up passengers and delivering them their final destination: you can see the customer’s final destination in big red letters! However, you can’t move fast enough to get everyone delivered, so passengers get “angry” as they wait longer and longer: note the red cubes on some of the passengers! Every turn a passenger has to “wait” at a city without service, he gets an “anger” cube! At four “anger” cubes, he leaves the game and files a complaint. If you ever get three complaints, you lose the game! If you can survive to the end of the game (delivering in the morning, afternoon, and evening) without receiving three complaints, you win! (Whenever you pick up a passenger, all their anger cubes go away because they perceive that as progress … sometimes you pick up a passenger just for anger management purposes!)

As you deliver passengers to their city, you get to keep them! (Well, you get to keep the money from their plane ticket). The guy from LAX (above) is worth $4! The great thing is that as the game goes on, you can turn in your money for upgrades! More seats! Faster plane! More routes! As you play and deliver more and more, you can make your plane better and better … which you need to, because the evening shift gets rough!

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The game is essentially broken into two alternating phases: planning and execution. During the planning phase, players take their time to discuss what to do. The execution phase is real-time—you turn the timer over and all pilots simultaneously (that’s right, simultaneously) execute their individual plans! The execution phase is frantic as you fly, pick-up and deliver passengers!! There are a few unexpected things that can happen during the execution phase (new passenger information emerges: the MIA passenger (see above) reveals where she goes), so you have to keep a level head and execute your possibly updated plan!

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The game alternates between the planning and execution modes as the game progresses from the morning to the afternoon to the evening. If the pilots can deliver enough of the passengers without too many complaints, the players win!

Real-Time

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So, this game is real-time mostly to avoid analysis paralysis! As we played, we talked a lot about how to execute our plans: we spent way too much time do analysis, but it was still fun. If we had been allowed to “adjust” our plans when the new passengers revealed their new destinations, then I am certain the game would have completely bogged down. The real-time aspect forces the gameplay to move along.

I normally don’t like real-time games that much. In competitive games, any rules that you miss or misread in realtime can cause resentment, or fights, or accusations of cheating. At least in cooperative games, everyone is in the game together! If there’s a problem in the real-time phase, it’s easy to say “Hey can we stop the clock real quick and figure out this rule?” That’s easy to do in a cooperative game, but a lot harder in a competitive game, especially in a competitive crowd.

Having said that, this game is a “soft” real-time game: there’s only one small part of the game that’s real-time (the execution). Other games, like Space Alert (which we talk about here in our Top 10 Cooperative Space-Themed Games) spend much more time in the actual real-time part of the game: we’ll call those “hard” real-time games. In Boarding Now, the real-time piece is only there to keep the game moving.

The real-time “mostly” works: it does it’s job. But, we found that 15 seconds was a little too short in a 3-player game: many times, the smallness of the board or airplanes or cards actually got in the way of playing a few times. Luckily, the fix is pretty simple: just give yourself a little more time. We tended to give ourselves just a few more seconds after the timer ran out.

Are we cheating by adding just a little more time? Strictly speaking, yes! My friends and I chatted for some time about this: we’d rather stay in the spirit of the game and enjoy ourselves rather than be slaves to a harsh rule that makes us not want to play the game! The object of the game is to have fun with my friends! If a minor rules modification (add a little more time) makes us keep the game rather than toss it, I’d say that’s ok. If you recognize the purpose of the real-time is to keep the game moving, then we are staying in the spirit of the game. Besides, we’d argue that the extra time was needed to overcome the slightly too small board and pieces.

Conclusion

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At the end of the day, it was worth the wait of 3 years to play with Robert! Robert (left) and Jeff (right) are both big airline nerds and had fun playing this. They both want to play again! The game also has a nice upgrade path during play: it’s fun to upgrade the plane (making it faster or bigger) as you play! And you pretty much have to upgrade, or you won’t be able to handle the rush of passengers in the evening!

The airline nerds (Robert and Jeff) liked this game. As a cooperative games person, I enjoyed this game. Overall, this was a fun experience.

Even if you don’t like real-time games too much, if the theme or cooperative play entices you, give Now Boarding a try! The real-time is just a small part of the game designed to keep it moving: it’s not a central game mechanism.

This is a fun cooperative game which really encourages collaboration and discussion.

A Review of Set A Watch: Swords Of The Coin

Set A Watch: Swords of the Coin is a cooperative stand-alone expansion for the original cooperative game Set A Watch. We liked the original game quite a bit: it made our Top 10 Cooperative Dice Games! It’s a dice game where, even if you roll poorly, the special powers on the character cards allow mitigation.

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The expansion, at least for me, just delivered from Kickstarter a few days ago (today is Nov 6th, 2021).

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The Kickstarter delivered with an expansion (just more cards, we won’t really discuss here) and a nice little playmat for the monsters.

At the end of the day, we really liked the original Set A Watch: see our previous review here. These days, I am more reluctant to get expansions for games because I have to remember how the original plays before adding the expansion! Luckily, this expansion is (a) standalone (so you don’t need the original) as well (b) simple new rules. The new rules this expansion adds are pretty simple, so it was easy to get back into.

Unboxing and Components

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The box is smaller with a nice a nice magnetic clasp.

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The main board is on the inside  of the lid!  It’s magnetic clasp doesn’t quite stay flat (see above), but it’s pretty neat looking and still works (despite not being completely flat).

The dice are one of the centerpieces of this game: this is, at its core, a cooperative dice-rolling game!  The dice are nice and easy to read!  (The original Set A Watch had dice that could be harder to read with black ink: it’s good to see they fixed this in the new game).

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Probably the second most important thing in the game are the player boards: the game comes with 6 different characters (see above), each with very different powers AND dice!  Each character will take 3 dice as their main dice: See below!

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The final main components are the cards: Notice how nice and linen-finished they are!

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First are the character power cards: each character gets 5 character power cards (only 3 of which are active at any time): See above.

To win the game, the players need to make it through the woods and travel through 9 locations: each location (see above) has different effects.

Continue reading “A Review of Set A Watch: Swords Of The Coin”

A Review of Rescuing Robin Hood

Rescuing Robin Hood is a cooperative deck-builder game that came from Kickstarter. It was originally on Kickstarter back in December 2020. It delivered about 3 days ago (Oct 27th, 2021) even though it promised delivery in August 2021, but given the state of shipping today (with COVID inspired delays), 6 months late is not that bad.

Rescuing Robin Hood is a cooperative deck-builder game for 1-5 players, Ages 10+, and the playing time is 20 minutes per player. I like that the gameplay is measured per person: that feels more realistic than most games: This playtime rating was fairly accurate, if a bit undermeasured.

Although this is strictly speaking “a deck-building game” (see our Top 10 Cooperative Deckbuilders), this has a different enough feel that it’s not just a straight up copy of Dominion or games like that. Rescuing Robin Hood has its own “spin” on the deck-building genre which we’ll see below.

Unboxing and Components

 

The components for this game are very nice: see above! The art and art-style is all consistent with a “slightly cutesy” vibe (yet not so cute it is distracting).

The game comes with a letter from the publisher (see upper right of picture) that basically says “Thanks” and suggests that the best way to learn this game is using a you tube video. (SPOILERS! That’s how we learned the game! )

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The first thing inside the box is the Character Guide (see above).  

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The art is that cutesy art: all the characters (villagers that you recruit) to your deck are described above.

As cool as this is to see a little “flair”, THIS IS 32 PAGE LONG and only describes the characters!!

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We all kind of looked at it for a second, said “neat, but that’s too much flavor text” and tossed it back in the box. SPOILERS: I haven’t really looked at it since I opened the box. I mean, it’s cool, but it feels a little like a waste: no one is ever going to read 32 pages of backstory for the the 80 villagers!

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The rulebook is next (see above). We’ll discuss it more below.

At the top were 2 sheets of cardboard tokens: the tokens are very readable, if not gorgeous. These tokens are nice and big and easy to handle (unlike the tokens in Disney Sidekicks which were so tiny). The big cardboard scene (The Big Oak) is just a place to put Villagers you will recruit (“Go wait for us by the Big Oak Tree”). (Note that I kept the Cardboard Skeletons after punch out to help keep the rulebook flat and the cards “locked” in the box: I do this ALL the time!! See here: A Defense of Keeping Punchout Skeletons)

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The insert is actually quite nice and everything fits in there very well (both pre-game and post-game).

Each player will have a band of Merry Men, and the “sum” of their stats is kept track of using the tracker boards above.

Just about everything else in this game is cards: at the end of the day, this is a deck-builder.

The Villager cards (left side) are what the players decks are made of. The Sheriff’s Gards (on the right, in lue and red for medium and hard) and the enemies the Villagers are fighting in the game.

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Each player takes on a “leader” role (like Maude Lindsey, left) and the final villain to fight is the Sheriff (right).

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Depending on the number of players, there are some cards that describe the set-ups: the game balance is definitely achieved in how many guards you fight depending on the number of players on these cards!

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The Villagers are white cards: some them can draw tokens (Thomas Cooper above gets a Scouting token when he is played).

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The game gets harder as you play: note the red guards can have much higher stats (upper left of card) than the easier blue guards! If you look closely, you can also see the linen-finish as well.

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This game also has really nice summary cards (see above). Once we got into the game, we found most of our questions were answered on the summary cards.

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Overall, this games has great components: the art is charming and evocative and consistent. The cards are easy to read and handle. The game looks really nice out of the box!

Rulebook

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This rulebook is good: easy to read and well-organized.

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The first page describes the main objective of the game, and the next page jumps straight to components! Easy to read and get into.

The next few pages (see above) describe the components and the layout of the cards.

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Then comes the set-up: it has (like many good rulebooks) a description and picture. See above.

Overall, the rulebook was easy to read, the fonts were large and legible, and the organization was well thought out.

We liked the ruleboook, but the truth is … we didn’t learn the game from the rulebook! We learned it from a video! I did come back and use the rulebook to learn the solo game, but when I needed to look something up in the rulebook, it seemed like it was pretty easy to find.

Good rulebook.

Solo Games

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Rescuing Robin Hood comes with not one but two solo modes! Gasp! That’s right! They follow Saunders’ Law! Twice!

  1. Multi-Band Solo Mode:  Pretty typical way to play solo, simply have the solo player play multiple characters (and play normally alternating between characters).
  2. Single-Band Solo Mode:  Only play with one character!  You don’t reset at the end of days 1 and 3, you preserve Jolly and Brawn between turns, and you “double” your stats in the final challenge (Day 5) to make-up for only having one character.

How well did they work?  

Single-Band Solo Mode

The Single-Band Solo Mode is a nice way to learn a lot of the mechanics of the game. Basically, use all the set-up of a two-player game, but only take one character! Usually, every day has a lot of set-up and tear-down, but the Single Band Solo Mode simply has the single character/band keep the same set-up on days 1 and 2 (and then days 3 and 4). You learn quicker how the deck-building mechanism works in this game, and well as how the combat mechanism (fighting the guards) works, without too much set-up and tear-down. I was excited to have a single character mode …

.. until I got the end-game. Even though I only have all my stats “doubled” in the end-game, some how they seem to have forgotten that you only have two actions on your turn! In the 2-Player game, you would have 4 actions, which would “barely” be enough to win. I really believe the Single-Band Solo Mode is broken!! It seems almost impossible to win.

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Maybe there is a simple house-rule (the solo player can take 4 actions on the last turn) or something like that, but it almost feels like they didn’t really playtest this mode!

This solo mode put me a in a foul mode: this felt unwinnable. I do believe this mode is broken.

However, I liked this game enough to give it another try. So, I play in the other solo mode ..

Multi-Band Solo Mode

The Multi-Band Solo Mode is a much smoother game, but it has a lot of maintenance as you play! Normally, when you play a multiplayer game, each player operates their own character, and helps with the Day to Day Maintenance. Not so here! There are a lot of cards that come out!

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This makes the game “more work” as you play, but the game seems much smoother. The game does seem winnable and more fun.

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Solo Mode Discussion

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The Single-Band Solo Mode is broken without some house rules (the last round has 4 actions instead of 2), so I’d stay away from it. I am not quite sure what the best house rule is for balancing the Single-Band Solo Mode. I really wanted to like the Single-Band Solo Mode, because it’s a lot less work to play.

The Multi-Band Solo Mode is the way to play solo: I just wouldn’t play more than 2 characters or the Day-to-Day maintenance may become overwhelming. Even so, the solo player will be doing some work to keep the solo mode going, but it was fun.

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Here’s the thing: I think the Single-Band Solo Mode might be the best way to learn the game! Maybe just chop off the fifth day? Or maybe the game could embrace the broken ness! Something like …

FOR YOUR FIRST PLAY: Have Maid Marion play as a single character using the Single-Band Solo Mode. “Maid Marion thought she could Rescue Robin Hood by herself, she even made it to the end, but when she tried … she realized she needs more compatriots!” Now that you know how to play the game, use the Multi-Band Solo Mode from now on to play!

Gameplay

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This is a very simple deck-builder: you start with 8 Villager cards, and use 4 Villagers on Day 1 and then the other 4 Villagers on Day 2. Similar for Days 3 and 4. And finally, you only use 4 “choice” Villagers on Day 5!!! Depending on how many Villagers you save from the guards (see below), you and your compatriots will choose which villagers to keep and which to cull. In other words, there’s an automatic culling procedure built-in to the game.

To save a Villager, you have to defeat all the guards in front of them: See Above! There are 7 Villagers to save, each with a different number of guards in front. Every Villager you “save” goes to the Big Oak, where they will join your Merry Band on the next day (this is the deck-building part: you are making your deck of Villagers better by recruiting the ones you save).

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Every time you want to defeat some guards, you can use one of three abilities: Wit (blue), Stealth (green) and Brawn(red). Wit (the blue book icon) is a push-your-luck mechanism, where you try to defeat as many guards as you can as long as your Wit is greater than the guards! Above, Amabel and Alice could together defeat the first swordsman (Wit of 4 vs 4), but if they continued to the next guard, they would lose, as the next Swordsman would add 5 more Wit to the guards.

Stealth (green), is similar to Wit, except you get to choose which guards you want sneak by. (Wit is right-to-left only).

Brawn (red) is an all-or-nothing mechanism: you turn over ALL guards guarding a Villager and you HAVE to battle them all! (Both Wit and Stealth have some measure of choosing) So, you had better hope your Villagers can take them all!

There’s also “Jolly” which is allows you to “up” your abilities by a a few. Amabel (above) gives 4 Jolly, so even if she spent all 4 to up her Wit she STILL couldn’t have defeated the final Swordman (but almost!). Jolly must be spent before the checks are made.

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There are also some tokens to help out the characters: Scout allows players to look at Guards before they fight (to see if they have enough before they fight), The food tokens can be discarded to give +2 to ANY ability (or saved until next round for a +1), and finally prayer can be used to reveal and move Guards around … or two prayer can get rid of ANY guard!

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The game proceeds until Day 5 when you try to Rescue Robin Hood! If you can make it into Nottingham Castle (see above), through the first and second like of guards, then you win! You save Robin Hood! If you are very lucky, you might still have enough energy to take out the Sheriff of Notingham …

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Robin Hood joins you and MAYBE you can take the Sheriff (he increased all your stats by 8). Probably not … I’ve played a number of times and I have only gotten enough to even try the Sheriff of Nottingham once, and I still couldn’t do it.

First Play

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My first play was a 4-Player game with on one of my game groups (then I went back and played solo).  The intro letter gives a link to a you-tube video that was pretty good for teaching the game!

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We watched the video, paused as we set-up, watched some more, and didn’t really need to look at the rulebook at all! I think the Summary Cards and Video were enough to teach the game! I strongly recommend using the video to learn the game! It really worked well, even though we tried a 4-Player game as our first game!

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Cooperative Play

This game does a very nice job of encouraging cooperative play (mostly)! The fact that the Brawn and Jolly stats will carry on to the next player strongly encourages players to talk and try to figure out how to take out the most guards! The first few players may use Wit and Stealth to take out some guards, saving up the Brawn for a final run against the last rung of guards! It actually seemed fairly thematic as well, because Robin Hood’s Merry Men would probably opt for the attack as the final measure! It was fun to talk about how we could use our stats AS A GROUP to take out the most guards.

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The only problem was that we got some analysis paralysis near the end game, and even got grumpy with each other! Although this sharing of all information was very useful, it did lead to some grumpy “analysis paralysis” moments. It was only once or twice, and mostly we had a good time playing. Just be careful of the “analysis paralysis” elephant in the room!

Too Many Cards

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There were Too Many Cards and Too Much Maintenance! That 4-Player game was overwhelming! There were so many cards on the table (see above), the maintenance was daunting! (We even saw a preview of the “too many cards” problem in the Multi-Band Solo Play) My friend Andrew pointed out that he thinks this game needs to be “cut-in-half”: half the cards, half on the statistics! There were just … too many cards.

We still had fun playing, but we all felt that the number of cards, especially in a 4-Player game, seemed daunting.

We wonder if they could have tightened up the game (by “cutting it in half”) a little.

Minor Win/Major Win

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Remember, you win if you Rescue Robin Hood! But, as an “optional quest”, you can go after the Sheriff of Nottingham! This would have been better phrased as “Rescuing Robin Hood is a minor win, but defeating the Sheriff is a Major Win!” Labelling it as an optional quest seemed… disenchanting. “Oh, we’ve already won, why do we have to go after him”? I would have preferred the idea of a minor win (“Ah, we saved Robin but didn’t get the Sheriff”) because it’s still a win, but it emphasizes the “we didn’t get the bad guy”.

We discussed this Minor Win/Major Win idea on the cooperative mode of Ares Expedition.

Sense of Humor

Although this is a “serious” deck-building game with real mechisms, Rescuing Robin Hood  does a have a bit of sense of humor.  See the cards above?  How long before you can figure out the silly phrase for each?  I can’t tell you how many times we just started giggling as we played.  “Why are you laughing?  “Get it?  Dot Yoreis?  Dot Your i’s” 

See our Top 10 Cooperative Games With A Sense of Humor for more games with a flair for the funny.

 

Thoughts

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This game has been in heavy rotation for the past week. Me and my group have a lot of thoughts

  1. It’s perhaps a little too lucky. It would nice if there were just one more mechanism to mitigate luck. Any easy House Rule would be “You can spend Jolly on a 2 to 1 conversion to add to an ability AFTER you have flipped a card!” That way, you can still mitigate a real bad card using Jolly. That would have gone a long ways towards mitigating some of the luck in the game.
  2. “Too Many Cards”: The game seemed balanced and it does work, but Andrew especially just wondered if you could “cut the game in half” (half the stats, half the cards) to make the game have fewer cards and less maintenance.
  3. The card art is very charming and Teresa especially gave it an extra point because of the art
  4. There’s quite a bit of math as you add up stats as you play. I didn’t have a problem with it (nor did my friends), but be aware it could be an issue. You could also look at this as a way to help people sum easily in their head …

Ratings:

  1. Andrew.  5.5/10 I liked it, I would play it again, but I think there were too many cards 
  2. Sara. 6/10 I liked it and would play it again.  The card art really is charming
  3. Teresa. 6.5/10.  I liked it and would play it again.  I would even suggest depending on the “mood” I was in, especially if I wanted the cute art
  4. Me: 7*/10.  If you jettison the Single-Band Solo Mode (or make it only the first play), and add a house rule for Jolly to be spent 2-to-1 for post-card flips, it is a 7/10 for me.  Otherwise, it’s probably a 6 to 6.5

 

Conclusion

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Rescuing Robin Hood is a charming little deck-builder for 1-5 players. The art and components for the game is very evocative and fun, and the silly Villager names accentuate that fun. If you jettison the Single-Band Solo Mode (or make it the First Play) and add a House Rule to be able to use Jolly in a post-card flip, this game gets a recommendation from me. Without it, the game is a little too random and a little too frustrating, especially with all the cards and maintenance in the game.

The How to Play video (discussed in the insert and rules) for learning the game was a nice touch, and it really did teach the game well.

My friends and I had fun playing: hopefully, you know enough about this game to decide if it’s right for you or not.

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)?

A Review of Roll Camera!

Roll Camera! is a cooperative dice-placement game for 1-4 players (ages 10+) lasting about 45-90 minutes.

This game was originally on Kickstarter, but I didn’t pick it up there: I saw a copy of the game and it looked real interesting, so I went looking for it! The only place I found it was funagain.com and was luckily able to get the Clapper box edition:

As ridiculous as it sounds, the Clapper box version got us “into” the game: I can’t tell you how often we would open the box and say “Action!” with the little box (see above). At the time of this writing, the clapper version is sold out, but you can still get the standard edition.

Unboxing

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This game has really cute art with a … bean theme? The name of the company is Keen Bean …

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The components are very high quality! From the Clapper to the insides. The game is packed very nicely in the box (see below)

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The main components come out easily (see above).

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The little yellow plastic insert has the rest of the components. You can see the player boards are easy to read (and even have “spot” highlights to make it look a little nicer). Under the player boards are …

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The cards and dice (and the spinner) and in the rest of the box. All of the cards and components are easy to read and very thematic with beans making movies. (Not a sentence I thought I’d utter very often).

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The cardboard punchouts are mostly the bluish locations are for “set pieces”. There’s also some blocked pieces, and a … a bean.

The rulebook is linen finished and really easy to read.

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The spinner maintains two important notions in the game: the schedule (how many turns the games lasts) and the budget (how much money you have to shoot):

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The spinner is easy to set-up: when you turn it over, you see how to set the difficulty:

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The cards are very nice and linen finished.

Overall, the components for this game are lovely, consistent, and easy to read.

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I was pleasantly surprised how cute and how good the components were!

The Rulebook

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The rulebook is very good: it’s linen-coated! It is also incredibly thematic … it looks like a script with typewriter font! Luckily, that typewriter font is easy to read: see below.

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The rulebook follows the format of all good rulebooks: Overview (above), Components (below) and then Set-Up (further below).

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The next page (above) lists components: easy-to-read and easy-to-correlate pieces. Note the use of color to help distinguish pieces and cards.

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The Set-Up is easy to read and is well-notated. I had no problem setting up the game.

I freely admit our first look at this rulebook was intimidating: it has 22 pages!! (24 if you count back and cover). We were going to play at the end of the night, but we were too tired and intimidated to try.

Here’s the thing: this was a very good rulebook. There’s a lot of text, but it’s well-written and has enough pictures to illustrate it’s points.

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I read the rulebook and didn’t struggle at all. It’s a little long, but once you learn the game, it’s easy to teach others and you don’t really need the rulebook except for a few questions.

Great rulebook: linen-finish, big-easy-to-read font, and lots of illustrations. The rulebook looks more intimidating than it is, but it’s quite good.

Solo Game

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This game adheres to Saunders’ Law: it has well-stated solo rules! See the little blurb above! Once you learn the core rules, there’s just a minor change (discard 2P+ cards).

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The game is easy to set-up and play solo. I was able to learn the game well enough to teach multiple game groups. It’s also pretty fun solo.

Gameplay

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Roll Camera! is a cooperative dice-placement game.

On a player’s turn, they roll the dice and place them on the board, activating actions to help the movie to get made.

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To win the game, you need to film 5 scenes and have either a quality movie, or a movie so bad it’s good! You need to do this before you run out of time and money. The little meter at the right edge of the board represents the film’s quality.

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The worst thing you can do is make a mediocre movie, so if you do film 5 scenes, the quality needs to be out of the pink zone in order to win.

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In order to film a scene, you need to put out some set pieces (see above) and place dice appropriately on them.

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To film the above scene, we need some set pieces on the middle of the board with the dice (rotated in any way except mirror image):

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Note that we can only place dice if there are “blue” places on the set. Above, we have filmed the scene!

In general, the spinners have the basic flow of the game:

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The problem cards go at the top of the board and “mess with you” (like most cooperative games, it’s the Bad News deck):

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See above for sample problem. There are several ways to deal with problems, usually involved with placing you dice on space. The earlier you get rid of a problem, the easier it is to deal with.

Special Powers

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So, every player in the game has special powers depending on their role.  This goes a long way towards making this game more fun.  For example, I played the Cinematographer, and he can spend just 1 CAMERA die to discard any problem (the Cinematographer is a “problem solver”): can also turn any die to a LIGHT or CAMERA (at the cost of another die).  Each player has very different powers!   

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I wanted to point out that the player summary cards are specific to each player: this is fantastic! Usually, player summary cards are generic and describe the game, but Roll Camera! is specific! *Applause!* I think more cooperative variable player power games should do this!

Player Privilege

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And … each player also has a “Player Privilege”. This is a meta-game ability that has NO EFFECT on the gameplay but makes the game silly. The Director (side A above, side B is a different player privilege) “may request that other players express their emotions more theatrically”. This is a TOTALLY RIDICULOUS thing that you will either love or hate. Another example, in one game, the Production Designer made us all wear stupid hats:

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You know right away if you think this is the greatest thing ever or the dumbest thing ever. It really depends on the group.

Sense of Humor

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This game is a real and it is a challenging cooperative dice-placement game, but IT IS SILLY.  It probably would have made our Top 10 Cooperative Board and Card Games With a Sense of Humor if we updated it today!   The art is silly (I didn’t know that Beans could make a movie):

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The Player Privilege obviously contributes to the silliness of the game: I had to wear a hat too …

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To be clear, this game is silly. But it is still a challenging game! Roll Camera! is much more than a party game, even though the art might suggest otherwise. In fact, I’d say this is about as difficult as Intrepid: another cooperative dice–placement game we reviewed a few weeks ago, but Intrepid “looks” harder because the theme is more serious (running a space station). Roll Camera! is a serious dice-placement game of the same caliber as Intrepid or Endangered (another cooperative dice-placement game we reviewed here).

Cooperation

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One thing Roll Camera! does really well: it keeps everyone involved when the Production Meeting happens. Generally, most players will call for a Production Meeting on their turn (it only costs one die of any symbol) and 2 other players can put ideas out!

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Each player starts the game with 3 ideas: see above! They are very powerful but allow you to make tradeoffs, depending on where you are in the game:

People!  We are running out of time!  We are in dire need of some extra time to film!! Does anyone have any ideas on how we can do this?  I have one involving monkeys … does anyone have a better idea?

When a production meeting is chosen, all players have to figure out if they should be involved (“Nah, none of my ideas help with time”) or not, and then 3 people share ideas during the Production Meeting!! The active player then chooses an idea!!

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This mechanism is clever because it allows all players to be involved, even when it’s not their turn (the active player rotates around the table). We found that this mechanism was critical to making this game fun and cooperative! It really promoted cooperative play.

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Making Movies

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This game is all about making movies!  You might think “Oh, this only appeals to people who want to make movies” or “people in the film industry“.  Not at all!  None of my friends are really film people (they are Engineers, English Majors, Teachers, Anthropologists, and Math Majors) but they all enjoyed this game.  It’s not a niche theme.  

One of the best parts of the game is interpreting your movie when the game is over:  See my first film above!!  It was a movie about a man who poisoned someone (scene 1), killed the victim (scene 2), has a confrontation with the family about the murder (scene 3), went to a clown birthday party (scene 4) and then finally went to the victim’s funeral (scene 5).  How does the clown birthday party fit in??  That’s what makes this game great!  

Conclusion

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I think Roll Camera! is a surprise hit! I have played it solo, and with three very different game groups, and frankly, everyone loved it! However, it really depends on the game group. All of my game groups have a sense of humor but they still play complicated board games! My game groups were able to appreciate the dichotomy of the serious, challenging, cooperative dice-placement game in direct opposition to the silliness of Player Privilege, Bean art, and crazy Idea cards of Roll Camera!

The production (no pun intended) of this game is tremendous, with a Clapper box, linen-coated cards, spot-coated boards, a linen-coated rulebook, and very cute art. The game looks like it might be a party game, but it’s not! It’s a difficult and challenging cooperative dice-placement game where the cooperative nature really is emphasized by the production meeting mechanism.

In the end, you will know if you will like Roll Camera! from this review: if the silly nature of the game makes you roll your eyes and think “that looks dumb”, then Roll Camera! is not for you. But, if you like the cooperative dice-placement idea and the silly nature seems like a benefit rather than a detriment, then I think you would really like Roll Camera!

As it is, I am pretty sure Roll Camera! will make my top 10 cooperative games of the year 2021!

A Review of Aliens: Bug Hunt

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Introduction: Growing up, my friend CC used to love the Alien and Aliens movies! I remember him seeing the theatrical release of Aliens many many times! CC loves cooperative games as much as I do, and he loves Alien/Aliens, so he seemed like the perfect person to review Aliens: Bug Hunt for us! This is one of three cooperative Alien type games out now!

Game Overview

Aliens: Bug Hunt is a cooperative game for 1-4 players which pits the players, as marines, against a growing horde of Xenomorphs as they attempt to enter an infested facility, complete their missions, and escape before they are overrun.

The Marines

Each player controls a “squad” of three characters, including one named character from the movie (like Ellen Ripley or Bishop) and two unnamed “grunts”. These characters can take wounds and be killed, and they also get “depleted” when they fire on aliens (or other effects cause it), which prevents them from taking some actions. The named characters all have special abilities, and there are more named characters than there are players, so you can “mix and match” teams for different play experiences.

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At the start of the game, you randomly draw three missions for the squads to try to accomplish. The marines win if they complete the three missions and escape. The missions are very simple in structure; each mission simply requires finding and claiming three objective tokens on the map. After you have completed each mission, you get three uses of a special ability it affords, so it helps to strategize which mission to complete first. As with the named characters, there are many more than you use in a single game, so randomizing these missions adds some variety to gameplay.

The Gameplay

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The gameplay itself is fairly straightforward. On your turn, you have three “movement points” to spend to move your squad around the modular tile board, and then you can take one action. It costs one “movement point” to move to an adjacent tile, unless there’s a barrier, in which case it costs two, and you usually can’t move out of a tile with aliens in it. If you move into a new, unexplored tile, you simply reveal the tile, add the aliens and objective markers shown on it, and end your movement.

There are only four actions your squad can take:

  •  “Breach” a barrier between two tiles so that it only costs one movement point to move between them.
  •  “Shoot” at aliens in your tile or adjacent tiles, by depleting one or more squad members.
  •  “Claim” an objective token in your tile and add it to a mission card.
  •  “Reload”, which refreshes all your depleted squad members.

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Combat is exceedingly simple. The Xenomorph aliens are represented as dice placed directly on the tiles as you explore. To shoot at an alien, you just roll its die. Some characters can shoot at more alien dice than others, so you typically only deplete as many squad members as you need to shoot at all the dice. Your baseline unnamed grunt can shoot at two aliens, with named characters deviating from that based on their role (for instance, Bishop cannot shoot at any aliens, but has other capabilities to make up for it). Depending on the outcome of the alien die roll, and whether you are shooting at the alien from the same tile or an adjacent tile, the alien is destroyed, survives, wounds you, or moves.

Gameplay turns are driven by a deck of cards. Each player has several cards in the deck that, when drawn, indicate it is their turn, so you do not know what order your squads will act in. There are also alien cards in the deck; when they are drawn, they increase a counter that causes new aliens to be spawned into the map, causes them to move and attack, and sometimes causes other effects, such as a “facehugger attack” that forces each squad to deplete a character or suffer a wound.

That’s about all there is to the game. You lose if the aliens overrun the complex before you can complete your missions and escape. You win if they don’t.

Pros, Cons, and Tradeoff

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* PRO: Interesting onboarding. The way you learn this game is quite well done and evocative. Each of the four players has their own bifold that explains about a fourth of the rules, themed to a command position like Communications Officer. Each player is responsible for teaching and enforcing the rules on their bifold, which distributes the gameplay responsibilities and engages everyone in learning the game. If fewer than four are playing, the game recommends a setup, but of course each player has more overhead then. I played it solo, and it was fine, though, because none of the elements are very difficult. The rules are well-explained and clear. (The only down side to this approach is that when playing solo, you’re having to switch between different bifolds to reference rules, but honestly, the game is simple enough that it’s barely a problem past the first few minutes of the game.)

* PRO: Atmosphere. The art on the cards and tiles was evocative. The modular board that gets revealed as you go felt like you were really exploring a dark, mysterious facility. The minis looked nice (I imagine they’d be worth painting, because there are only four and you could reinforce the color coding by painting them with their relevant colors). The cards that spawn aliens into the complex are themed to the motion tracker devices, which was a particularly evocative design touch. And of course all the named characters are included, so you can play your favorite characters from the movie.

* TRADEOFF: Mission Variety. As mentioned above, there are far more named characters and missions than you use each game, which adds some variety between games. And the game board is a matrix of tiles that get shuffled for each game, so the layout changes with each playthrough. That said, there’s not exactly a LOT of variety here; they are different only by degrees, enough to make a small mechanical difference, but not enough to be particularly memorable or change your playstyle much. For some, it might be too little customization, but for others, they might appreciate different variations without making the game overly complex.

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* PRO: Small shelf footprint. There’s a lot of “spread” to this game and yet it has a very small shelf footprint. The game box has custom-molded trays for all the minis, the cards, the tiles, the dice, etc., and it all fits in the box comfortably. (Not sure if it would all fit as well with sleeved cards, but I suspect it would be fine.) I’d say it packs much better-than-average than most games I’ve seen; I’d expect this game to be a larger box from looking at the components. Despite that, setup and tear-down are quite quick. This is a very convenient game to store and play.

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* CON: Unnecessarily tedious exploring. Exploring the facility involved moving into a tile to reveal it, and then spawning aliens there. Since you can’t move when there are aliens where you are, you generally have to fight those aliens. If you don’t kill absolutely all of them, you’re stuck there again. This felt a little tiresome, because you never really had strategy for which direction you go. It also meant that you’re always fighting them in close quarters, which made some of the named character abilities seem largely useless (e.g., Vasquez gets to target +2 aliens if there are no aliens in her tile, but that was only rarely useful). I think I would have liked it better if you enter a tile and it reveals the adjacent ones, or if an action could reveal multiple tiles by “calling up complex schematics”, so that there were some strategy to how you proceed through the complex.

* TRADEOFF: Shallow actions. Quite often, you didn’t really have a choice what to do. If an alien is in your location, you can’t move. If your entire squad is depleted, you can’t do much unless you “reload” as your action. The rest of the time, you move into a location, shoot the things there, someone grabs the objective token if it’s there, and repeat. I would have liked to see more variety to the action, but again, this setup keeps the game simple and streamlined. For some users, this might hit the complexity “sweet spot”.

* CON: Tile variety lacking. You build the complex map as you go, but the tiles all look similar except for barriers. Apparently, this entire facility is just a bunch of corrodors leading to other corridors…? It seemed like a missed opportunity to bring in some locations from the movie, like the med lab, atmospheric processors, ventilation ducts, etc.

* CON: Missions are same-y. Every mission is completed the exact same way: find a room with the icon on it, and spend an action there to collect the icon. When you collect three, the mission is done. Whether you are “finding Newt” or “repairing water purifiers”, you’re just doing the same collect-a-token action, which wasn’t very evocative. I would have liked to see some variety here – perhaps hand in hand with variety in the tiles. “Destroy the sample: Find the medical lab, collect a token, and take it to the incinerator.”

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* CON: No Alien Queen! That’s right, the star of the show, the Alien Queen, simply is nowhere to be found in the game, despite it being the big image on the outside of the box! That struck me as a bit of false advertising – fans of the Queen specifically might feel bait-and-switched here. It’s a shame, really, because the game also feels like it could benefit from a “boss battle” climax; once you have got your missions done, it’s just a matter of running out the door, and a showdown with the Xenomorph Queen would be a fun way to end the game.

* CON: Also: No egg chambers! No chest-bursters! No cocooned colonists! No duplicity from Burke! Facehuggers and Newt only show up as flavor text on cards, and only if you happen to draw them. While the game does get in a lot of fan-favorite elements from the movie, there are some very notable omissions. This is almost certainly a concession to keeping the game simple, so maybe it was the right call on balance, but if you’re looking for an immersive Aliens experience, it falls down a bit in this area.

* CON: Inaccessible to colorblind players. The game relies on identifying many elements that are distinguished exclusively by color. There’s a “red” squad which you can only distinguish from the “green”, “blue”, and “yellow” squads by looking at the color of the ring on the mini or the color of their board or the color of their action card. Colorblind players might have a difficult time playing this game for that reason.

* TRADEOFF: Small tiles. The tiles are small enough that sometimes they cannot easily accommodate everything on them. One squad can fit comfortably on a tile, but all four squads cannot, especially if you also have several aliens, breach tokens, and an objective token there. (Perhaps the size is why they didn’t attempt to add specific locations.) Larger tiles would be nicer on the table, but the small tiles have one distinct advantage: they kept the shelf footprint small. For me, it’s a tradeoff I’m happy to make. It is seldom a problem during play, and it’s not like the game runs off the rails if a mini overlaps an adjacent tile a bit; it’s easily manageable.

* TRADEOFF: The game seemed easy (but maybe swingy?). My squad got in, completed all three objectives – saving Newt, restarting the water purifiers, and getting detonators – and got out without any casualties on the first try. I did not face significantly more challenge in my second game. I don’t mind cooperative games that are on the easy side if they have a good atmosphere – I’m content to relax a bit and enjoy the story and experience. And for young or inexperienced board gamers, this might be a spot-on difficulty. But I could see other gamers being a little disappointed at the lack of challenge. Also, the tile draws and attack rolls seem like they could drastically affect the overall difficulty of the game; finding your objective tokens near the entrance would make the game much easier than if they’re all bunched up at the far end. The way the game works, the aliens accelerate coming out over time, so I imagine some games end up with aliens overrunning the marines if you have to explore all the way to the back of the facility. So it seems like the game could swing fairly drastically between being easy and difficult. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it might really impact your first impressions of the game, which in turn can dictate how often it gets to your table.

Assessment

For me, the gold standard “Alien Board Game” experience is Task Force Games’ 1980 classic, “Intruder”. Intruder was a solitaire game that was essentially Alien with the serial numbers filed off. I found it on sale in a game store years after it was released and picked it up on a whim, and instantly loved it.

Despite being over 40 years old, “Intruder” still holds up. The production quality is quite poor compared to “Aliens: Bug Hunt”, with its folded paper board, little square cardboard chits, and a stapled rulebook that all come in a plastic baggie. But this modest game surprisingly manages to get in more story beats than “Aliens: Bug Hunt” does. Intruder has varied locations (like a specific engineering bay, where you can go to jury-rig flamethrowers, a freezer where you can try freezing the alien, etc.). The alien is terrifying and scary – you don’t know how weapons affect it (if they do at all!) until you try them. And it lurks hidden around the station, growing stronger while you hunt for it with your motion trackers. You use the terrain geography of the space station and motion trackers strategically to try to locate and confront the creature, and it is tougher than the aliens in “Aliens: Bug Hunt”. Etc.

So “Aliens: Bug Hunt” had an uphill battle for my affection. Sadly, it doesn’t quite live up to “Intruder” and failed to unseat it as the king of Alien games in my collection.

But it’s still a nice little game, and I will give it props for the things it does right. It’s far prettier on the table, easier to teach, more streamlined to play, and easier to win. And though I love “Intruder”, I can’t pull it out to play with friends on game night because it’s a solitaire experience.

The bottom line is that I would be happy to play “Aliens: Bug Hunt” with friends, which ultimately means it’s a thumbs-up from me; it evokes enough of the movie to be fun, is simple enough to get set up and playing quickly, and creeping through corridors fighting Xenomorphs with your smartguns is almost never a theme I’m going to decline. It’s not going to give the full “Aliens” experience, but it’s more than enough to scratch the itch. And it all fits snugly on your shelf.