How Do You Detect an Alpha Player?

Previously, we have discussed the notion of the Alpha Player in this article on The Alpha Player “Problem”:

Have you ever played a co-operative game in which one player takes over, telling everyone else what to do? That player makes other people feel unimportant as he co-opts (pun intended) the game. This is the Alpha Player Problem: someone who simply takes over the co-operative game and makes it less fun for everyone.

Today we look at the idea of the Alpha Player from a more objective point of view: How do we know we have an Alpha Player in our midst? 

As we discuss Alpha Players, we also need nomenclature to refer to the other players playing with the Alpha Player: Beta Player(s) seems be the natural term.  

We’ll take a little tour through some video game literature first.

What Makes a Toxic Environment?

What makes an online video game into a toxic environment? There is an article this year in IEEE Spectrum (see link here) heralding a result published this year in the IEEE Transactions on Games called “Bad Vibrations”: Sensing Toxicity From In-Game Audio Features. See a link to the paper here. There are a number of related papers cited in the Bibliography for more information.

The Idea

The idea of the article is interesting: by monitoring online chat forums of video games (Overwatch in particular) in real-time, the researchers hope to spot “toxic” interactions. The idea of “toxic” is, of course, open to interpretation, but there is a more formal definition comes from the this paper:

N. A. Beres, J. Frommel, E. Reid, R. L. Mandryk, and M. Klarkowski,
“Don’t you know that you’re toxic: Normalization of toxicity in online
gaming,” in Proceedings of CHI ’21. ACM, 2021.

Generally, “toxic” means negative social interactions tending to alienate. To research the topic, the researchers apply a variety of AI, statistical, and machine learning techniques to data they collected. Interestingly, the very notion of what makes an interaction toxic is very subjective. According to Frommel:

“Differentiating what individuals perceive as toxic or not is a big challenge in this context when players accept such toxic language as the norm in their communities or use language that others may consider as toxic without malice within their friend group. Furthermore, these norms differ among various gaming communities”.

The paper discusses some of the criteria they used, both negatively and positively correlating toxicity.

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The paper notes highest metrics of toxicity (see table above) are negate and differ categories, which as summarized from the paper:

Words within the differ and negate categories had some of the strongest positive associations with toxicity. This could be because words of differentiation and negations are used more frequently in argumentative contexts or confrontations.

In the other direction:

Similarly, toxicity had a negative association with the tentative words (tentat category), which might be used in more careful and considerate communication that avoids confrontation, and less in toxic communications

The paper talks about approaches, tentative conclusions, and further directions for research in this area.  It’s quite interesting. 

Toxicity and the Alpha Player

The “Bad Vibrations” paper got us thinking more about the Alpha Player in board games. There are a number of questions that the toxicity discussion brings up with respect to the Alpha Player Syndrome:

  1. Can we Identify the Alpha Player from Externals only?
  2. Is Alpha Player Syndrome a type of toxicity? Or is it something else?
  3. Can we apply some of the techniques of the “Bad Vibrations” paper to find Alpha Player Syndrome?
  4. How do the in-person Alpha Players relate to the online Alpha Players?

Audio Externals

The first question that came to mind when I was reading the “Bad Vibrations” paper: Can we detect an Alpha Player using only “external” information?  If we are involved in a game with an Alpha Player, we typically know it because of how the game flows: our agency is taken away from us by the Alpha Player.  (In this situation, we are looking mostly at in-person games).

But, could someone looking in on a game externally notice the presence of an Alpha Player?  “Externals” in this context means simple objective criteria that can be understand without having to understand the conversation(s).  For example, some audio externals might be: word choice, the timings, periods of silence, the tone, the volume of the conversations.  Some visual externals might be mouth twitching, shaking, eyebrow movement.  If we look only at the externals, can we detect the presence of an Alpha Player?

What are some audio externals that might indicate the presence of an Alpha Player?

  1. Short, curt, word choice.  My experience has been that a game with Alpha Player(s), other players typically keep responses short and curt so as to not engage the Alpha Player.

    Some counterexamples might be: (a) teaching or (b) quiet players.  For (a) one player may be teaching trying to get a lot information across, thus most responses would be short.   However, a good teacher would tend to engage and encourage questions.  Perhaps short, curt word choice would simply be the example of a bad teacher.  For (b) a group of people may simply be contemplative: they  are quiet and thinking and prefer short, curt interactions.

  2. Disparate Time Talk. If one player talks quite a bit and the others don’t, does that indicate the Alpha Player?

    Again, the teaching scenario might be the counterexample to this.   Also, some cooperative games have the notion of first player or captain, and the captain tends to talk.  If we can note that the person talking tends to rotate as the game plays, that would suggest there’s no Alpha Player.  If  however, the same person talked through the whole game, that might be an Alpha Player.  Or just someone who likes to talk.

  3. Volume.  How loud are conversations?  If you can isolate all the verbal responses of the players, does the volume tell a story about the Alpha Player?
  4. The word OKAY.  How does someone say OKAY?  An engaged player might use a happy O-K.  A frustrated player might have a O-K like Eeyore (minor third between O and K).  A very short K might be indicative of frustration.  A thinking OKAY might be an elongated  OKAAAAY.  The same grumpy OKAY would be OKAAAAY (but with grumbling underpinning the AAAAY).   Again, a short curt OK might also be to try to disengage from the Alpha Player.
    It would be interesting to see how the word OKAY is spoken correlates to the presence of an Alpha Player.  I suspect a strong correlation.
  5. Word choice: much like the negate and differ categories from the “Bad Vibrations” paper, certain types of words or phrases, might  indicate the Alpha Player presence. 
    On the Beta Players side, I suspect phrase like “Can I go please?” would indicate someone’s frustration.  “I got  it” or “whatever” might indicate someone is trying to assert their own independence, but it might depend on how it’s said.
    On the Alpha Players side, “If you do this…” might be a phrase coming from the Alpha Player, or “we’re going to lose unless…” or “just do this…”.   I suspect assertions of the game state or suggestions all coming from one player might suggest an Alpha Player.
  6. Tone: Can we detect a condescending tone from an Alpha Player? Can we detect frustration in Beta Players?

There are certainly many other criteria we might discover.  What have we missed? None of these by themselves would indicate the presence of an Alpha Player.  For example, many of our examples detect frustration. Perhaps a game is just hard and everyone is just struggling to learn the rules: they are frustrated with the game in general.  But if a singular player tends to stand out in our external detections as different, perhaps there is concern they are the Alpha Player?

 

Subversive Toxicity and The Alpha Player

Does the  Alpha Player produce a type of toxicity or is it something different?  Taken the extreme, I think an overbearing Alpha Player is absolutely toxic and would show all the signs of toxicity.   My experience with Alpha Players is much more subtle though:  many games with an Alpha Player just feel bad without showing all the signs of toxicity.  I think a better term might be subversive toxicity.  

Consider the bad experiences of a game with an Alpha Player: they cause issues that tend to subvert the cooperative game genre:

  1. Cooperative Game Detachment. Many people don’t like cooperative games because they have only played cooperative games with an Alpha Player: they think all cooperative games have the Alpha Player Problem and refuse to play them. “I hate cooperative games! They always have some jerk who wants to run everything!”
  2. Specific Game Detachment: A particular game may be marred because of an Alpha Player.  “I love Pandemic, but I can’t play Clone Wars Pandemic because I had such a bad play!”
  3. Specific Person Detachment.  A person you may like, but who tends to Alpha Player, may cause you to never want to play games with the person. “I don’t ever want to play with them again!”

This is subversive toxicity because the cooperative game with an Alpha Player breaks people apart rather than bringing them together.  Arguably, the entire purpose of cooperative games is to bring people together.  If an Alpha Player causes future negative repercussions for others, that subverts the entire purpose of cooperative games.  

Techniques

My own inclination is to look into this Alpha Player Syndrome with in-person games.  Online games are a different creatures (see next section). I think some of the ideas of the “Bad Vibrations” paper are applicable here, but they are much harder to measure with significant data without recording gaming sessions and doing complicated post analysis.  The online games are easier to measure because all the data is in the chat and available to download from online: it’s easy to analyze that.  

An ideal experiment would be to set-up recordings (with everyone’s permission of course) at a Convention: record cooperative game sessions, and ask people (both the participants and people watching) in a questionnaire if they thought there was an Alpha Player in the game.  I think to “mask” the objective, this question might be hidden in longer questionnaire (so as not to bias the findings: “Hey! They are looking for the Alpha Player!”).

Once we had the recordings of the gaming sessions, we could transcribe and get the audio externals.  There might be some visual externals as well, depending on how it was recorded.  With the transcriptions, we might be able to apply some of the techniques of the “Bad Vibrations” paper.

In-Person vs Online Alpha Players

There are a lot of places online to play cooperative games: Board Game Arena, Tabletop Simulator, and Tabletopia to name a few.  It would interesting to try these same experiments online. It has been my experience that we don’t use the online chat with those systems, but rather play over Discord or Zoom.  Depending on how you look at it, I would expect either dramatically more or dramatically fewer instances of Alpha Players.

  1. Play with Friends.  If I am going out of my way to organize an online game, I won’t tend to invite people who I don’t want to play with.  I won’t invite Alpha Players: I suspect far fewer Alpha Players.
  2. Playing with Strangers: The computer interaction tends to dehumanize people, so it’s easier to tend towards an Alpha Player.  I expect far more Alpha Players.

Of course, online sessions would be much easier to record and transcribe.

Conclusion

What makes an Alpha Player different from a Beta Player?  And why do we dislike the Alpha Player?  Fundamentally, the Alpha Player takes away our agency in a  cooperative game.  Detecting loss of agency is quite difficult from an experimental point of view, but we presented  some thoughts on some external ways to detect the Alpha Player.  Did we miss anything?

Although the immediate frustrations of a game with an Alpha Player are annoying, the subversive toxicity is much worse: it can turn people people away from a specific game, from cooperative games altogether, or (worse) from other people. In a future article here at Co-op Gestalt, we hope to come up with ways to curb, mitigate or even cure (?) Alpha Player Syndrome: this is much harder topic than just measuring the presence of an Alpha Player.

 

A Review of Paperback Adventures: A Solo and Cooperative Word Game

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Paperback Adventures is a solo and cooperative deck-building word game. It was on Kickstarter a while ago, and I just received my copy recently (early November 2022). The campaign promised delivery in Feb 2022, so it was about 9 months late.

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This game is weird in that if you get the core game, YOU STILL CAN’T PLAY IT! There’s a disclaimer on the back of the core box (see below), but I worry it’s still not prevalent enough!!

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In order to play the game, you need the core box AND a character box: see above and below.

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So, for the kickstarter, I went full in and got the core game, all 3 character boxes (Damsel, Plothook, and Ex Machina), and the playmat. It’s good to get all 3 boxes because at least one of the cooperative modes requires all three character boxes.

Let’s take a look and see what this is!

Unboxing The Core Box

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Paperback Adventures is mostly a card game, with a few extra trinkets: see picture above with Coke can for scale.

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It has a very nice but simple plastic insert that holds all the cards: see above.

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The rulebook is decent (we’ll discuss that more below).

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In the game, you will be fighting Lackeys and Bosses: this is a game about doing damage to bad guys. The lackeys/bosses are on larger cards like above and below.

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When you defeat a Lackey or Boss, you get a Reward: see the Rewards cards above (even better, you get to choose which side of the Reward card you get!)!

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A nice little plastic insert is included for holding the Lackey/Boss card. The outer edge for tracking 4 things: hit points (orange marker), hexes (purple marker), boons (yellow), and “current bad guy action” (blue). The little metal tokens for tracking look very nice.

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This is a deck-building game, where your hand is made up solely of letters. In the game, you will spell words with the letters in your hand to make things happen. The core game comes with only two types of letters: Boss/Lackey vulnerability cards (the yellow cards above) and Penalty cards (red cards above). each Boss/Lackey has a vulnerability which is always a vowel: basically, you always get a free vowel from the vulnerability. The Penalty cards are letter cards that can clog your deck (every deck-builder has the idea of wounds or bad cards that clog your deck). The main letter cards will come from the character box.

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The core game includes McGuffin cards which help the players. McGuffin is a literary term … If you don’t know what a McGuffin is:

Mc·Guf·fin
/məˈɡəfin/
 
noun
  1. an object or device in a movie or a book that serves merely as a trigger for the plot.
    “the McGuffin in this intriguing comedy is an unpublished novel by a young writer killed in the war”

The idea is that you can earn McGuffins as you advance in the game. Each McGuffin has very special “powers” that help you. The purple or Boss McGuffins are better than the plain ones, as you have to defeat a Boss to get one.

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The red McGuffins are ones you can buy (those are double-sided and you can choose which side) or get in other places.

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One thing that’s kind of cool is that the game comes with sleeves! Most deck-builder games probably should be sleeved (since you handle the cards so much), and this one just comes with them. The letter cards get the really nice blue typewriter sleeves, and the other cards in the game get clear ones: see above.

One thing that struck me as weird initially is that the cards are linen-finished even though the game comes with a complete set of sleeves. I was originally not sure why they made this decision, but I think it’s because the way cards upgrade: When you upgrade a card in your hand, you take the card out of the sleeve and flip it around, so you still handle the cards! I suspect that’s why the cards are still linen-finished even though the game comes with sleeves.

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Let me be clear: these letter sleeves are some of the nicest sleeves I have ever seen included with a game. That are very nice, fit well, feel nice (they aren’t too slippery) and really are classy. See above.

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There are some other cards (like Items, which you can buy to help you) and Plot Twists (purple cards to help you).

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The game has really nice components (modulo one one issue, which we’ll talk about later)!

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The game even comes with some upgrades! After you defeat a Book 3, you can open the envelope above! (Note, the game even includes enough sleeves for the secret cards that get upgraded!)

Rulebook

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This rulebook was pretty good, not great. The text-to-picture ratio is large (all that text is a little daunting when you page through the rulebook), but the pictures that are there are good. I feel like this was a better rulebook than the Burgle Bros 2 rulebook, so Tim Fowers rulebooks are getting better!

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One minor complaint is the component list has no correlating picture: see above. Sigh: this slowed down my learning of the game. I would have love a full-page spread putting names and pictures of components together. However, the rulebook does have some notion of first play (“first journey”) and even highlights that “first journey” changes in a cyan color (see upper right on page above). This “first journey”does help ease you into your first game.

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The game does set-up right: it shows a picture and annotates the picture with each step. This was great …

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… and even though the set-up spanned multiple pages, the NEXT page had the updated picture! See above. That was great! The rulebook was constrained to being smaller, so this was a great compromise to set-up spanning multiple pages! You can also see the “first journey” cyan-colored text block (right) above.

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The anatomy of some of the components had a nice annotations: see above. It reminded me of “hovering” over a web page and getting further elaborations (“bubble text”).

The rest of the rulebook was pretty text-heavy (see pages above), but in general it was pretty good.

One major complaint is that I had to open the character box in the middle of opening the core box when following the set-up instructions: I would have preferred some better way to to do this: “Open the Character Box and let’s look inside before we begin!” … or something like that.

I had some other complaints: I had to hold the rulebook open (it didn’t really stay open by itself), the components list didn’t have a correlating picture, and there was a lot of text later in the rules. But the game had pictures when it counted, examples when needed, and even referrals to web pages with FAQ for edge-case rules.

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The rulebook was fine.

Character Box Unboxing

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That’s right, I have to do a second unboxing because I need to have a character box to play with the core box! I chose to play my first game with “Plothook“: See above.

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Most of the cards for your deck are in this box.  All the stuff in the Core box are “some cards” you play with.  The majority of the cards you use (at least for your hand: remember, this is a deck-building game) are the 60 Library cards come from this character box.  You can see a component list on the back side of the box (above).

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Your character is on the big card (“Plothook“) and describes some of the special powers.

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You can see more of the high-quality sleeves for the letter cards.

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Honestly, I can’t rave enough how great these sleeves were.

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The character box also comes with some more McGuffins and Items (for more variety) plus a character plastic holder for the character card (with more metal tokens). Oh yes! And some more “Top Secret” cards to open if you beat Book3 Boss!! See below.

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The components look really neat for the character, and very consistent with the core box.  I like how the character box and associated items are color coded to make sure the character insert is a different color (purple) than the main bad guy color (orange).

Some Component Complaints

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There are two problems with the components: one major and one minor. The major one is that the cool metal markers don’t work well in the plastic slots! See above, as the marker doesn’t fit! Sometimes it fits, and sometimes it doesn’t! Sometimes it stays, sometimes you have to work to fit it in! Sometimes it won’t even stay in!

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I ended up just “lightly settling” the metal marker in the slots: see above. This works, but the metal markers are very precariously just set in the slot. This workaround unfortunately makes the game more susceptible to “knocks” to the game table. I think if the metal markers fit consistently into the slots, this would be a cool system! I love the metal markers and think they pop on the table. But they don’t work very well.

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I was able to make the markers work and play through some games, but they didn’t work well: it was very deflating given how cool they look.

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Another more minor issue is that some of the cards aren’t marked for which box they came from! For example, you can see the “Plothook” icon on the Cursed Ring card (above), so you know that item belongs in that box. But the other Items from the same box were NOT marked in anyways! The same was true for the McGuffins … you didn’t know which box they came from! There was no marker!!!

It’s weird because some cards and marked and some aren’t. I understand it’s “cool” that the Items and McGuffins are interchangeable in the game, but if I want to reset back a character to his own box so I can try another character in isolation, I have to be careful with my cards, or find a list of cards online to help me reset them. This was a minor complaint.

Word Game

Don’t be fooled by all the cool looking cards and components: at its core, Paperback Adventures is a word game like Jumble or Scrabble. In Jumble, you spell words with the given letters. In Paperback Adventures, you spell words with cards from your hand: the length of the word and character of those letters causes things to happen in the game! Words Have Power!

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At the start of your turn, you get 4 cards to form a word with: there are lots of other places letters come from (The Enemy Vowel Card, a Wild, A Letter You Want), but your essential cards come from your hand. Above, I spelled “TEAR” … and you’ll notice all the little swords and energy symbols to the right of the card. This word TEAR does 5 damage and renews 1 energy! The top card of the hand might also activate: in this case, “Barrage (6)” (which means if I have a word of 6 cards, I activate the Barrage effect: since the word is only 4 letters, I do not activate it).

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But the way you splay the word changes what it does! If I splay the same word to the right, I get different symbols and effects! In this case, I get 3 shields (which block damage) and 2 Energy! The top card also activates, so I gain 2 swords and give the Bad Guy a Hex!!

It was my experience that splaying right was defensive (blocking damage) and splaying left was offensive (causing damage). And the special ability on the top of the card was sometimes very helpful in still doing something useful even if you were just defending.

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The top card (which had the special ability) gets put in a fatigue pile, which means it can’t be used until your next fight. As you fight, your deck gets smaller and smaller …

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Each character you choose has special abilities: the definition of Barrage is on your character card above.

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In the game, you must fight and defeat 6 Bad Guys to win! There is one Lackey, then one Boss per book! Over 3 books total, you will be fighting 6 Bad Guys one at a time. If you take all Bad Guys to 0 HP, you win! If you are reduced to 0 HP yourself, you lose! The orange marker tracks the Hit Points (HP): Above, you can see The Muscle has only 2 HP left after starting with 14!!

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Each character starts with some special Items to help: the items are powered by Energy. The Cutlass requires 1 Energy to use (upper right on card) and the Parrot requires 0 Energy (upper right). Energy (as we saw earlier) is generated from the words you spell.

After you defeat Bad Guys, you get a two-sided cards which lets you choose upgrades!

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After defeating the Muscle, I chose the side listed above! You get all the upgrades listed! Notice that the top upgrade allows you to add cards to your deck: this is the deck-building portion of the game we’ve been alluding to for some time. If you defeat a Boss, you get to add a card to your hand. If you defeat a Lackey, you only get to replace a card in your hand.

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Where do the upgrades come from? In the upper right part of the bard is a 3×3 grid of cards: This is the Shop! there are letter card upgrades, item upgrades, and McGuffins you can “buy” (at the cost of Boons) for your hand!

As you play, you get more cards, more McGuffins, more Items, and just more stuff to help you build better words.

But, at the end of the day, you spell words to get stuff done: all the other stuff just helps you.

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I spelled TODDLER above, using 2 wild cards, the Enemy Weakness Vowel (E), and my 4 base cards to spell a 7 letter word. Because the word was 7 letters, I still activate the Barrage: it needs 6 or more letters! But TODDLE is a word (just drop the final R), so with that, I can activate Barrage and get 10 swords of damage! Words Have Power!

Solo Game

Most games we look at here at Co-op Gestalt are cooperative games first and solo games second. Paperback Adventures is a solo game first with cooperative two-player variants second.

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This is clearly a solo game first: the flow of the game just feels like a 1-Player game.  And I loved it.  The great thing about solo game is that you can have as much AP (Analysis Paralysis) as you like! If I want to take a while to play the game, that’s on me: I don’t hurt anyone else or waste anyone else’s time.  I freely admit that I prefer to take my time in Word Games, so I liked that this was a solo game first.  

Cooperative Game

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Now, there are two variants for cooperative games: one that requires only one character box (called “Two-Headed Giant Mode”) and one that requires all three character boxes (called “2×2 mode”)!  See above: that is the second-to-last page of the rulebook describing the two solo variants.

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The best way to start is the “Two-Headed Giant Mode”: you can teach the game while you are both playing.  You basically play one character with two people splitting the resources (this the “Two-Headed Giant Mode” designation).  Essentially, the players sit next to each and alternate turns using the same character deck: the real difference is that the items and McGuffins are split between the two players.   Since Items and McGuffins are split between the characters, the game is a little harder since each player has fewer abilities.  The game overcomes this by allowing each player to get an Item or McGuffin when the Rewards would give just one: each player gets one.

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One concern I had was the at the “Two-Headed Giant” mode would be longer, and strictly speaking it is.  But, we found it to be fun and very interactive!!  It was surprisingly cooperative! We’d look at each others cards and make suggestions: I would see words my partner wouldn’t and vice-versa.  We’d remind each other to use the items.  We’d remind each other of the rules (each Bad Guys has its own distinct rules).   The “Two-Headed Giant” mode was longer than the solo game, but not by too much.  The extra time swapping players was made up for by having two brains concentrating on the game and the words.  Honestly, it was really very fun.

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 The “2v2” cooperative game is much better once you both know the game, especially since both players can play simultaneously. There’s not much interaction between the two players in “2v2”, except for characters can buy letters from each other: generally, the “2v2” mode is more “two players playing the same game at the same time and very occasionally helping each other out”.

If you want more cooperation, discussion, and interaction: play the “Two-Headed Giant” mode, but it is a slower game.  If you want just to hang with your friends and have much more limited interaction, play the “2v2” mode: the nice thing is that it is a much quicker game than the “Two-Headed Giant” mode, at the cost of some cooperation and interaction.

Unboxing Damsel

Unboxing Ex Machina

Will I Like This Game?

If you like word games, I think you will love this game!  Paperback Adventures is the game I wish I had growing up.  I have a confession: I am a very competitive Scrabble player .. and I become a jerk when I play.  I have AP, I take too long, I take places so others won’t  … I am not nice.  And I get grumpy.   I don’t like myself when I play Scrabble, so I simply don’t play it. But a cooperative or solo game where I have some AP and NOT be a jerk?? Sign me up!

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Right before my Mom died, we played a lot of Word Games together. We’d do the Jumble in the morning together. We’d play light Scrabble, but not for points: we just spelled words on the table.  This was some of the last memories I had of my Mom: playing Word Games with her.  I wish I had Paperback Adventures around before she died: we could have played cooperatively together and enjoyed our time that much more together.  I like Word Games.  My Mom liked Word Games.  This is a great game for me.

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If the idea of spelling AUSTERE (see above) in a game sounds fun, then Paperback Adventures is the game for you! If spelling baroque words sounds like a miserable experience, then this is NOT the game for you. You have to like Word Games to like this game.

What I Liked: So Many Places With Choices!

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I liked that there were a lot of places where you had choices on upgrades to get.  For example: The Rewards cards (see above) you get after defeating a Bad Guy has two sides with slightly different upgrades: you get to choose which side!

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The McGuffins also have two sides: when you take a McGuffin, you get to choose which side you want (you have to stick with that side though).

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You also have plenty of choices for upgrading at the end of a battle: You go to the Shop and and spend your boon points!

You choose which way to splay your cards for different symbols! More choices!

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I like that every Library cards has an ability on it: If I really want to use that, I have to come up with a word that starts or ends with that letter! My only limitation is my own vocabulary!

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I also liked that every Bad Guy gives you a Vowel that you can always have (See above: the Sea Serpent always lets you have at least one E: the yellow card below). The Enemy Vowel fixes a MAJOR problem with Scrabble that we all know: “I have no vowels!” You are always guaranteed to have at least one vowel. And I really like the way this extra card is themed as the Bad Guy’s weakness! (A funny joke was that the Cthulu type card HAD no vowels, and that was his power!)

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In general, I think the game gives you so many choices and so many ways to move forward! Even though this is still a word game at its core, the rules don’t straight-jacket your choices: there is a always some choice or way forward!

What I Don’t Like

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What don’t I like? The game is really long! The box says 90 minutes, and I say no way! It took me more than 2.5 hours to get through my first game, and it flowed very well. This could be my own Analysis Paralysis, but the game feels … maybe 30 minutes too long. The cooperative game took about 3 hours. That 90 minutes seems like a straight-up lie.

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I’ve already complained about the metal tokens not working in the plastic insert, but it bears repeating: it is probably the biggest problem with the game. I love this game, and I was really annoyed with the tokens not fitting. Someone else who might like the game could get turned off immediately from the way the metal tokens DO NOT work. I ask you to persevere and get through this problem: Paperback Adventures is a good game (if you like Word Games).

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I am also okay with the wacky way this game requires both the core box AND a character box, but I can easily see this causing someone to turn away from the game. “I need two boxes? What? That’s dumb”. Again, I ask you to persevere.

Conclusion

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If you don’t like Word Games, run away now: Paperback Adventures is not for you. Although there’s a lot of great components, cool modern mechanisms, and upgrade paths in this game, the core game is a Word Game. You must like that core word game to like this game.

If you like Word Games and are looking for a great solo Word Game or a very good cooperative Word Game, Paperback Adventures is a fantastic choice. I really like this game because it appeals not only to my word affinity, but also to my hard-core gamer. There’s a myriad of choices, there’s a plethora of upgrades, there’s a gamut of strategies! All the while, the base word game is fun and works well. I would give this an 9/10. I love Word Games.

My friend Sara didn’t like Paperback Adventures as much as I did, but she’d still give it a 7/10 and would be happy to play it cooperatively again.

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I wish I had this solo/cooperative Word Game growing up: I think I would have played Paperback Adventures a lot with my Mom. It’s unfortunate that I never got to play this with her.

Appendix

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One of my complaints was that the cards are unmarked (for the most part) as to where they came from.  In the Unboxing sections, I shows pictures of all the cards, items, and McGuffins for each character box.  Hopefully this will be useful for future generations to sort their cards.

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A Review of Minecraft: Heroes of the Village (a Cooperative Family Game)

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I was super-excited for Minecraft: Heroes of the Village (A Minecraft Family Game) after having such good luck with Minecraft: Portal Dash a few weeks ago: Portal Dash was a surprisingly good game! See our review of Portal Dash here. Heroes of the Village is another cooperative game from Target (I know, enough with the Target already). This is pretty new and I believe it just came out. (I picked it up Nov 4th, 2022). Let’s check it out.

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First and foremost: you need to know this is a lighter cooperative game for families: take a look at the age requirements: 7+ 

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This is a game set in the Minecraft universe.  This is also a family game: that’s very clear.

Unboxing and Gameplay

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Heroes of the Village is a cooperative game about building a village in Minecraft: It’s for 2-4 players.

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Each player chooses an avatar, and takes the appropriate avatar blue/green puzzle piece (left)  and corresponding white piece (bottom): see above.

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Each player also gets a pet: each pet has special abilities.  It’s funny, the character itself doesn’t have any special powers: it’s the choice of pet that gives each player a special power! See list of special powers from the rulebook below.

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Once each player chooses an avatar and a pet, they pick a color and piece together their player board and plastic base. See below.

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Above, you see player 1 with the blue board and panda as his pet.  Player 2 has the red board and the fox as her pet.

Then, you place the appropriate player/pet combo avatar on the home space on the board: see below.  Note, it’s kind of clever how the little marker has space for both the player avatar AND the pet avatar!!!

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This is where the game starts.  The object of the game is to build three village structures before time runs out! See the village structures below:

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Each village structure show you what blocks it needs to be built: these are blocks you’ll be “mining” by pulling from a bag.

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You only have a limited time to build the Village structures; the Illagers (see red avatar above) move closer and closer to you every turn.  if they reach space 1, all players lose!! If, however, players build all three village structures before that happens, players together win!

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The Illagers don’t automatically move at the end of each player’s turn: the current player will roll the white die: if the white die shows an Illager, the Illagers move one space! Otherwise they don’t.  Basically, you have a 50% chance they will move forward every turn.

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Each player gets two actions per turn: they can do any of these actions.

  1. Explore: uncover a new tile, which adds new cubes to the draw bag
  2. Collect Blocks: Go to a space with the mining action and draw cubes from the bag.  You get to keep all cubes matching the space you moved to.
  3. Fight a MOB.  If you ever accidentally collect a black cube, you have to put a MOB (bad guys) out on your location.  You can’t mine (collect blocks) from that space until you kill the MOB. Roll the black die up to 3 times to kill a MOB.
  4. Build.  Head back to the village space, and place some of your cubes out and build partly or completely a village structure!

This game is all abut getting cubes from the grab bag:

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At the start of the game, the bag is pretty empty.

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Every time you explore a new tile, you can put new blocks into the bag.

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For example, if you explore the tile on the right (above), you get to throw a white block into the bag.

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Above, the red player explores and gets a brown and white block to throw into the bag.

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When you mine, you draw blocks from the bag: above, the blue player mined, but he can only keep the grey block because he was on a grey mining space … unfortunately, he also summons a MOB because he drew a black cube!!

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The blue player can then keep up to 4 blocks on his player sheet.  There is also one space for redstone: redstone is “wild” when you draw it.  You can keep up to one redstone if you draw it from the bag.

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Since the blue player draws a black block, then a MOB (little weird piece above) goes on the board and blocks all future minings until someone fights it with the black die.

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If you get enough blocks, go back to the village and and build!  Above, the red player has built the first structure!  

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Basically players explore, mine, and build trying to get the three structures built before the Illagers arrive!

The components are decent.  The game was $29.99 from Target: decide for yourself whether you think they are worth it: see above and below.

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By the time you are done with a game, the board looks nice and colorful … kinda like Minecraft.

Rulebook

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So this rulebook is 44 pages. 

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BUT it’s 44 pages because there are rules for 7 different languages!! (See the back of the box).  

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The English rules are only about 6 pages.  (7 Languages at 6 rule pages each, plus 1 cover and 1 back = 7*6+1+1=44 pages total)

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These rules are so-so.  They do show a components page with correlating text and pictures, but the text and pictures are small and unclear:  see above.  I think some of the components aren’t particularly well-labelled.  As I was unpacking the game, I had to go through the component list about three times to make sure I understood what all the components were.

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The set-up page is good enough: see above (but it still felt under-labelled).

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The rules are pretty good, if not great.  (For example, I never got a good explanation for if there was a “village” tile: I assume it’s the middle home tile).

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It wasn’t the best rulebook in the world.  It was good enough to learn the game.

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The last page (unfortunately) has no icon summaries.

Solo Play

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This game has NO rules for solo play.  (Boo for not following Saunders’ Law).  For my first solo game, I played two characters: the blue guy with the panda, and the red gal with the fox.  See first set-up above.

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I thought, because village structure 1 needs 5 blocks (above), and each character can carry only 4 blocks, I thought I had to play two characters (so that they would build it at once).   Nope!  You can build part of a building and then go out in the world again.  So, you can simplify your game by playing a single player solo.  Two characters worked fine though: the game is pretty simple so the context switching isn’t a real problem.

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The game was very simple and quick. I played in about 20-25 minutes and won: see above. 

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I got pretty lucky in my first game: the Illagers never came anywhere close to the Village. I rolled “no advance” every time!

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It was ok.  I had some fun, but it wasn’t a great solo experience.  The randomness of the Illager die and the MOB fighting (see discussion below) kind of brought down the gameplay.

Cooperative Play

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Cooperative play seemed to go decently well.  There was a little more strategy in the game, as we used the different pets to better plan our actions.  For example, Ivan took the Panda (which allows him to ignore some bad pips on the fight die), so we tended to defer fighting to Ivan if it made sense.

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The board was a little messy with 4 players, and a little hard to manipulate in the middle of the table, but it wasn’t a big deal.  It might be better for future plays if we all played on one side of the table.

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Interestingly, we were able to play 5 players in one game, even though the box says 1-4: I sat out “teaching” the game and essentially managing the bag and the board:  It made the other 4 players turns go a little faster.  This is one of the reasons we like cooperative games here at Co-op Gestalt is because we can do things like this: see our 5th Wheel Becomes the 6th Man blog entry for more discussion.

We did win our cooperative game with some cooperative thinking.  But it was close.

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The group was very divided over this game: Kurt straight up called this trash and wouldn’t play it again.  CC (with his family goggles on) said he thought it was a decent family game and would play it again with kids, but probably not outside of that context.  Junkerman and Ivan thought this would be a good game for the RichieCon library for when families with kids come!

The Blocks

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The best part of this game are the blocks.  By being a bag-building game, as you play, you can introduce your kids to the world of probability! 

“What’s in the bag?  What’s our best bet to get some brown blocks?  Seed the the bag or do a pull now?” 

You can’ t look at bag while you are drawing from it, but you are allowed to look in at any other time.  The funnest cooperative part of the game is trying to figure out when to put cubes into the bags (“explore”) and when to draw to try to get some blocks (“mine”).  As a group, you decide when it makes sense to fill the bag and draw from the bag. 

In some ways, this game feels like a much lighter Ygdrassil (a bag-building game that made our Top 10 Cooperative Games Off The Beaten Path)

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Randomness Thoughts and Fixes

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Hardcore gamers will hate this game.  This game is just really random, as there’s no real mitigation of dice, and combat is just “lucky”: you roll the the die thee times and hope you beat the MOBs!  You have no upgrading weapons, and there is no path for any upgrades. 

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We need to reiterate that this game is for families and younger kids:  the mechanisms can’t be too complex.  Recall that Disney Sidekicks (see our review here) made the fatal mistake of being too hard for its age range.  For Minecraft: Heroes of the Village‘s age range of 7+, I think the dice are appropriate.  But just barely. I am very worried there is a very small window where kids will find this fun and not too simple.

So there are two main problems I had with the game, regardless of the age range. Both of them based on the dice (see below).

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First: The “Advance the Illagers” (white) die has a 50%chance every turn of advancing the Illagers.  Over time, that “about” doubles the length of the track (half of the time, the Illagers won’t advance).

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So, if the Illagers start on space 11 (see above), it will take “on average” 22 turns for the game to be over. While I get that it’s “kind of fun” to have the kids roll every turn and “maybe the Illagers will advance, maybe they won’t”, randomness completely takes this over.  In my first game, the Illagers NEVER advanced via the white die.  I think a better mechanism would be to have a die with 5 “advance the Illagers” side and 1 without, so then make the game have 18 or 19 spaces until the Illagers win: “on average”, the Illagers won’t move 3 times, so the randomness would be much more contained.   I don’t hate the white die, but I just think it’s a little too random.  But I get it: it’s fun for the kids to roll every turn.

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A much bigger problem is the black die used for fighting.  There are a bunch of problems with this, as the die has so many random effects:

  • You can push the Illagers back (with an arrow face)
  • You can bring the Illagers forward (with a Illagers face)
  • You can completely fail to kill a MOB you need to during combat and be very frustrated
  • There is no upgrade or mitigation

Whether or not you kill a MOB on your space (who is currently blocking you from mining) is completely random.  You get to roll 3 times, and during that time you may bring the endgame even closer (twice!) to end if you roll poorly.  This was just … so random.  First of all, I would completely get rid of the of “Illagers move forward/backward” part of the die roll: it’s not thematic, and it doesn’t belong, and it just sows more randomness into the game.  I would simply replace those faces with rerolls.   

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To help mitigate bad combat dice rolls (“I need a 6, but all I can roll is a 4!!”), I would add a cooperative mechanism to the game!! If you can’t kill a MOB on your turn, have a rule that states “for every character on a space when fighting a MOB, you get to add and extra roll and sum the rolls together!”  In other words, if we absolutely have to kill a MOB to win, let’s cooperatively take out a MOB!!!  This seems like an easy rule to add: it’s simple, it makes the game more cooperative, and it allows some mitigation of bad dice.

These aren’t official rules of course, but I think both adjustments would make this game more fun.

Conclusion

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Minecraft: Heroes of the Village was okay, but it has a very small window of applicability.  I think a 7 or 8-year old kid would enjoy this a few times, but might grow too old for it very quickly.  If I want to show a younger kid the world of cooperative games, this is not a bad starting choice!  I’d be happy to play this once or twice with a younger kid.  But just once or twice … the problem is, I personally would tire of it very quickly: it’s just a little too random.  And I think most adults and hard core gamers would tire of it quickly, even playing it with their kids.  There are many games where both the child and adults can enjoy the experience: I can see Flamecraft as a cooperative game being a fun game for all (see our review here and discussion of the cooperative version).  Elia and Something Shiny be a fantastic cooperative game for both kids and adults: see our review here.

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I should be happy that Target has a decent cooperative game for families.  And I am.  Minecraft: Heroes of the Village is not bad if you get it, and your kid may love it, especially because the Minecraft theme!!!  And choosing the pets will engage the youngsters too!  There are a few things you can do to make the game a little funner (see our fixes above). But watch the age range, because I believe this will have a short shelf-life.

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I am going to keep this for the RichieCon collection: we typically have a lot of kids with families coming to RichieCon, and I could see introducing some younger kids to the world of cooperative games with Minecraft: Heores of the Village.  It also looks good on the table.

A Review of The Siege of Runedar

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The Siege of Runedar is an odd duck of a game for many reasons. It was originally a German game that came out some time ago (2021), but it took a while to get the United States: I got my copy as soon as I could in the United States in mid 2022 (but I admit have been sitting on it for a few months … not literally). The theme (Dwarves trying to escape a fortress filled with gold) suggests that this would be what an Ameritrash game or thematic game. The game, however, is by Reiner Knizia, who tends to design games with a more euro tilt. And the main mechanisms of the game are stylistically at odds with each other: deck-building (typically Ameritrash), gather resources (typically euro), rolling dice for combat (Ameritrash), precise management of upgrades (euro), combat (Ameritrash), and Dwarves (maybe both).

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Even weirder, this is a cooperative game by Reiner Knizia. If you didn’t know, Reiner Knizia is known for designing hundreds of board and card games: cooperative games are only a very small portion of the games he has designed. Knizia hasn’t done very many cooperative games, but many people would argue his cooperative Lord of the Rings game was a watershed event in the history of cooperative games. Lord of the Rings (2000, my version is the Fantasy Flight edition) brought the notion of cooperative games to the forefront in the year 2000, using a respected IP and a respected designer.

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Let’s see what Reiner Knizia is up to in the cooperative sphere: will he revolutionize cooperative games again?

Unboxing and Gameplay

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The box itself is part of the game!  Players cooperatively play dwarves defending a castle, and the box itself is the castle!  So, this box is a little bigger than most “standard” boxes (see the Coke can above).

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This game is a deck-builder game: each player plays a Dwarf with exactly 12 cards (and that count stays at 12 throughout the entire game): see below.

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Each card in the deck allows at least 2 things, usually more: see above. Most cards can be used for movement (note the 2 in the upper left corner above for the base cards).  The other two symbols on the left side are other choices players can make instead of movement  Basically, the symbols dictate what you can do! You can either:

  1. Gather resources (bars, wood, leather) 
  2. Hand to hand combat (axe)
  3. Dig (pick symbol)
  4. Shoot Arrows (crossbow)

Every action has to be performed on the appropriate space to be relevant.  To gather the appropriate resource, you have to be in the appropriate place in the castle: one of the three workshops (see below).

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If you want to fight hand-to-hand, you have to be in a Location with an enemy: a troll, goblin, or orc. 

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To fight, you add up the number of the axes from your card(s) that you want to use, and that’s how dice you roll!  In hand-to-hand, you need 2 hits (red blops) to do one damage.   Orcs die from one damage, but trolls and goblins have different profiles (each different) to defeat.

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To use your crossbow (red crossbow), you have to be on one of the three towers on the board, and you can shoot things adjacent to the towers (but not inside the castle).   See below where the purple dwarf is on one of the towers (left): he can target the orcs at the front of the castle or the left of the castle (but not the right, as it’s not adjacent).

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You still need to roll the dice: you get one die for each crossbow symbol. Each arrow does one damage.

To win the game, you have to dig your way out of the back of the castle.  You have to “dig” a certain number of symbols to dig out one big block, and you have to do that five times.

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After you dig out one block, some goblins show up.  Each Goblin has very different  criteria “get rid of them”.  In the case above, you have to bribe the Goblin to go away with 2 of each resource.

As this is a cooperative game, there are bad news cards: these are called Siege cards and essentially bring Orcs into play and move them (as well as Catapults and Siege Towers and other bad things). See the yellow Siege cards below (right).  The Siege card below puts an Orc at the front of the Castle .. and the little arrow in the upper left means ALL ORCS MOVE!!

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Interestingly, the Siege cards are only revealed if your deck reveals an Orc (grey card on left above)!  Every player must have exactly two Orcs in their deck, so you may, on your turn, reveal 0, 1, or 2 Orcs, which causes 0, 1, or 2 Siege cards!!  You can never cull the Orcs from your deck: they are just always part of your hand. On average, you get about one Siege (bad news card) per turn.

If you can dig your way out of the castle before the Orcs steal all your gold, you win!

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Your score at the end of the game is how much gold you end with (the gold is there in the middle).

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You lose essentially if you run out of any resources:

  • reveal the last Siege card (run out of bad news cards)
  • reveal the last Catapult card (run out of Catapult cards)
  • reveal the last troll tile (run out of trolls)
  • put the last Orc from the reserve into play (run out of orcs)
  • lose all the gold nuggets (run out of nuggets)

There are a few other rules to help the players:

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You can hire Mercenaries to help you “clean up the castle” (kill a troll, or kill all orcs inside, or kill a Catapult, etc) for two gold: each Mercenary cards is a little different, but you get to choose when you want to use them!!! It essentially costs you 2 victory points to call a Mercenary (and they are out of the game at that point), but sometimes it can make a big difference.

There are a few other rules (for the Catapults and Siege Engines and Trolls), but that’s the crux of the game.

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Overall, The Siege of Runedar has a great table presence and plays like a hybrid deck-builder/euro game.

Rulebook

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The rulebook was pretty good.  The word choice in a few places made me think that this is a translation (to be fair, we know this game was originally in German, and the game came with a Spanish rulebook).  If it was a translation, it was still pretty good.

It starts with a list of components (see above and below).

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The next page(s) (below) shows a very good set-up! There’s a picture  of set-up to the left, and all the text to set-up is on the opposite page to the right.  Thank you for doing this!  It’s so much easier to set-up when you can see the picture AND the text is on the opposite page!!!

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The rulebook proceeds through rules and shows lots of nice, annotated pictures.

Overall, the rulebook was pretty good.

There were a few grumpiness moments:

(1) The special rules for the Goblins and Trolls tripped us a few times, as they have “more hits” and the distinguishing between hand-to-hand and long-distance  when dealing with Trolls and Goblins seemed to need a little more exposition.  It seemed like the gap of damage between arrows and hand-to-hand seemed too wide for the rules to be correct, but maybe they were.

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(2) The orientation of the Upgrade Board (see above) changes depending on the number of players. Basically, it costs more or fewer resources for some upgrades depending on the number of players.  The Upgrade Board orientation is VERY POORLY explained, and it makes a big difference in gameplay!  We wasted far too much time correlating the tiny picture in the set-up with the number of players.  A simple sentence or better picture would have gone a long way towards explaining this better.  (See the little number of players in the bottom corners of the Upgrade Board above?  Neither could we!!!)

In general, this a good translation, but it  still felt like it was a translation in a few places.  Generally, this was a pretty good rulebook.

Solo Play

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Solo rules on last page of rulebook

Luckily, The Siege of Runedar has a very simple set of solo rules on the very last page of the rulebook (thank you for following Saunders’ Law). Basically a solo player plays a single Dwarf playing the game with the normal rules and flow, but solo play make the Catapults or Siege Engines “lay fallow” for one round when they enter/activate.  This gives the solo player an extra round to deal with them.  Other than that, the game plays normally!

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As usual, I played a solo game first so I could teach my friends.  See a solo game set-up above.

As a solo game, the game flowed well. The very minor “extra rules” for Catapults and Siege Engines made perfect sense in the context of a solo game.  I was able to get through a solo game and learn all the mechanisms: I did have to look up a lot of clarifications (especially the Trolls).  In fact, I think I cheated in my first game because I think the Upgrade Board was oriented wrong and was “too easy” (see our discussion of the Rulebook above).

The solo rules present a good solo game.  It’s a good game.  I think solo is probably the best way to learn The Siege of Runedar, as you can lookup rules as you play solo without holding up a group: there are enough rules and complexity to bog-down a “group first play”.  However, once I played once solo, the game made perfect sense to teach.

But I didn’t “love” the solo game.  See my discussion of Issues in a few sections later as to why.

I would play The Siege of Runedar again solo, it just probably wouldn’t be my first choice.

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See a winning solo game above!

Cooperative Play

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I think this game shines best with cooperative play.  Although each player plays their turn separately (giving each player their own agency), players discuss what needs to be dealt with:  Should I take out the Orcs? Collect Resources?  Start Digging?  Spend some resources to help buy upgrades?

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One of the best cooperative mechanisms in this game was that you can spend resources on your turn to help buy an upgrade for the next player!  See the upgrades above!!  And you can supply some of the needed resources so your compatriot can fill-in the rest!  This is so at odds with other Deck-Builders!  In most deck-building games, if you can’t buy something on your turn with your money, you just can’t get it.  Here, you can supply some resources for your compatriots and those resources stay (on the card) until the card can be obtained!!  This single mechanism really encouraged cooperation.

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But of course, the discussion of “what are we going to do” worked really well too. 

I think I prefer this game as a cooperative game over a solo game.  The sharing of resources and the gameplay discussion elevated the cooperative game for me, but each player still had agency to play what they wanted on their turn. We all felt engaged on other players turns, but still had agency on our own turn.

Cooperative Deck-building Games

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One of the primary mechanisms in this game is deck-building.  Currently, there are a ton of cooperative deck-building games: see our own Top 10 Cooperative Deck-Building Games here. What makes this different?

Interestingly, the buying of upgrade cards and the culling  of old cards are part of the same action: when you buy a new card, you immediately have to get rid of another card in your hand.  (You also immediately get the card in your hand so you can play it right away).  This might be my favorite new mechanism for a deck-builder: you always have exactly twelve cards, so your new upgraded cards will come out almost immediately!  One frustration with most deck-builders is that your may not see your new upgrade card for some time … not so here!  You immediately get to use the new upgraded card AND your hand is so small, it will come out right away as well as again soon. 

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As a cooperative deck-builder, another one of the better mechanisms is that you can directly help others buy upgrades: you can place resources on the cards for others!  (All cards must be bought with a combination of leather, wood and some other resources).  See above: a few of the upgrade  cards have resources from previous turns from previous players.  This also means that your buying power can extend from turn to turn, whereas most deck-builders your buying power is only what you have that turn.

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I think these are some major advances in deck-building fro The Siege of Runedar:

  1. A player’s deck size is small (and set at 12), so upgrades always come out quickly
  2. The culling and buying are part of the same action, so your deck upgrades quickly
  3. The upgrade effects are felt quickly as cards go directly to your hand (rather than the discard). Other games have done this, but it’s still not as common.
  4. The resources for buying upgrades are shared among all players, so players cooperatively share resources to help each other buy said upgrades
  5. To replenish upgrades supply, your character has to end movement in a certain location.  This mean that upgrades do NOT automatically refill! You have to go out of your way to make sure they refill!

I have to say, I think Knizia has done a nice job of moving cooperative deck-building mechanisms  forward.  This may not be a watershed moment like Lord of the Rings, but The Siege of Runedar  definitely advances the state-of-the-art.  I hope we see future deck-builders incorporate some of these advances.

See our Top 10 Cooperative Deck-Building Games for more discussion of deck-building with some of our favorite older cooperative deck-builders.

Issues

Interestingly, this is a hybrid dice and deck-building game.  The cards tell you how many dice you can roll to try to get successes/hits.  Honestly, the dice are my least favorite mechanism in the game.  The game’s success succumbs to the randomness of dice.  I can’t tell you how many times I rolled poorly and basically just wasted a turn.  It felt like I was at the whim of the gods of randomness. Either :

  • I had only one die (because of the randomness of the deck) so it’s better to try at least once, but the odds were very much against you.  You really have no control over how how many dice you get on a turn
  • I had many dice but rolled poorly.  (My worst example: I rolled 8 dice and could not roll a single arrow)

If you could save up cards to try to get better odds, I may like it better.  But there’s really no way to mitigate the randomness of the dice.   A suggestion:

Allow players to keep some cards for the next turn so they can have some form of dice mitigation (in the form of allowing more cards which can add dice to the roll)

You may not have a problem with this randomness and dice-rolling: you could argue it’s very thematic for a fighting game, and the luck of the dice keep the game interesting.  Most of the people in my group didn’t have the problem with the dice like I did: they liked it.   To each their own!

Conclusion

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The Siege of Runedar is a good game! It seems well-balanced, has lots of good decisions, and most turns feel like you can do something interesting. The game also has a real presence on the table. There is also some real strategy in the game. I also think that Reiner Knizia has really pushed the state-of-the-forward for cooperative deck-builders. I’d love other cooperative deck-builders to use some of the mechanisms of the Siege of Runedar: they make deck-building more fun, more satisfying, more immediate.

In the end, The Siege of Runedar was just a touch too random for me. I think I would give this game a 7.5/10 objectively because it is a good game! Unfortunately for me, the randomness of the dice coupled with the randomness of the bad news deck and the randomness of the upgrade decks and the randomness of the deck-building drops it to a 6.5 or 7/10. I think if there were a way to mitigate dice rolls (using our suggestion), this game would be a solid 7.5 or maybe even 8. I got a little frustrated a few too many times because of the dice. It wasn’t a major problem, but just enough of an issue to make me drop my score a tad.

Let me clear, my group enjoyed our plays of this game, and we would definitely play this again! Heck, I might even play it solo again! But I think it is better as a cooperative game than a solo game.

The Siege of Runedar is a deck-building and dice game, much like the G.I. Joe Deck-building Game, but it is so much better than the G.I. Joe Deck-building Game! (See our review of the GI Joe Deckbuilding Game here). I am actively trying to get rid of my G.I. Joe Deck-building Game (you want to buy it? It’s on the Geek Store on BGG) but I will be keeping my Siege of Runedar.

A Review of Agents of Smersh: Epic Edition (and a Comparison to the Original 2012 First Edition)

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This week we take a look at the Epic Edition of the Storybook game: Agents of SMERSH!

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The original Agents of SMERSH was on Kickstarter back in 2012 from 8th Summit Games: I backed it. The original first Edition (see above on the left) became one of our favorite games here at Co-op Gestalt!! The original made our Top 10 Cooperative Games Off The Beaten Path as well as our Top 10 Cooperative Storytelling/Story Book Games! Agents of SMERSH is cooperative storytelling game where each players take the role of a wacky “James Bond like” spy from the era of the 70s: players work together try to stop Dr. Lobo from conquering the earth! Yes, Dr. Lobo is the “James Bond” Bad Guy! Massively Evil!

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Unfortunately, 8th Summit went out of business a few years ago, and it appears Dr. Lobo has beaten our spies!! Luckily Everything Epic Games resurrected the Agents of SMERSH title and put it on Kickstarter in May 2021 and was able to reprint it! Not only was Everything Epic able to reprint the game, they also streamlined the gameplay, upgraded the art, cleaned-up the graphic design, and revamped the playing pieces! I received my copy of the “Epic Edition” (see above and below) in early October 2022.

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Was it worth upgrading a game I already love? After all, I still prefer the original 2nd Edition of Sentinels of the Multiverse over the newest Definitive Edition (see our review of the Definitive Edition here). Sometimes just because someone tells you “they’ve made the game better”, they haven’t. We’ll take a look at the newest Epic Edition of Agents of SMERSH below and make the judgment!

Unboxing

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The Coke Can is there for perspective: this is a big box!

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The newer version is also significantly taller than the original printing.

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Upon opening the box, you are greeted with a paper with the some errata. This is great! You immediately know what problems to be on the lookout for.

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One of my favorite parts of the little sheet is that it tells you the difference between the different versions. The Collector’s Edition (which we have) has more standees and other stuff. This is great! So many times, a Kickstarter edition has “new stuff” but it’s never noted. Now we know the differences between the base game and the Kickstarter version.

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The gold version comes with Neoprene mat. It looks real nice! (It also comes with a board with the same map). Typically Neoprene mats are nicer because it’s easier to grab components off the mat. But, they are harder to store.

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Next comes some art prints:

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They are cool and all (see above), but I usually don’t get the art prints… what do you do with them??? They just happened to come with the version I got.

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There are a number of boards with punchout tokens … (see above). These are nice thick cardboard.

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And a corresponding board (in case you didn’t get the neoprene mat).

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Under all that are the player boards and player sheets. The player sheets are cool because you can slot them into the dual layered boards! See below:

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But the most important components in the game are the Storybook (Encounter Book)… see below …

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.. and the Epic Showdown book … (see below).

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This is a storybook game where you roll dice to overcome challenges presented to you by the Encounter book (during normal gameplay) and the Epic Showdown (during the finale). The dice are super nice if you get the metal ones, but the normal plastic dice are great too.

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You roll against your abilities on your character sheet:

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Successes give you upgrades and all sorts of good stuff. Failures smack you down.

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The insert is pretty good: notice that mine has already been crushed a little bit above (from shipping). But everything does fit back in the box pretty well.

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As you explore the map, you get encounters in different regions: see the regions above. Note that they color does a good job of distinguishing the region. Each region card looks “something” like below:

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Above is an encounter card that tells you what you are going to look up in the encounter book, depending on what you do. All of the region encounter cards look like the above.

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Frequently when you succeed at a region encounter, you get a status card.  If you fail, you ca get a bad status card: Watch above is  good status which helps you tamp down Dr. Lobo’s progress.

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The tokens are all pretty nice.  The game even comes with plastic bags for storing some of them.

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Overall, the components for this version of Agents of SMERSH are quite nice. They are solid and awesome components.

Comparison To The First Edition

Ignore this section if you don’t care about the original edition.

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The original version of the game (left) had two major expansions: Swagman’s Hope (a well-known expansion) and the Showdown book (a lesser-known expansion).  Both of those elements have been incorporated into the the Epic Edition, either directly or indirectly.  In fact, it says that in the Epic Edition rulebook on the first few pages.

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Let’s take a look at some differences between the original and Epic Edition!

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The Epic Edition box (right) is much bigger that the original printing (left).

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The map is significantly bigger in the Epic Edition and perhaps a more readable and easier to look at? The Epic edition’s board is a giant 6-fold board vs the original 4-fold board. See above.

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The Epic Edition also comes with a neoprene map: it’s essentially the same size as the board (see above as it covers the 6-fold board almost perfectly): see above.

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The old board (above) looks more like an old style map, notating the different regions with colors at the cities.

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The new map (above) is much more “tech-cool” looking, and notates the different regions with more “emphasizing” color. Note that each regions has some “special” things that apply to it … above, in Asia, you can spend two info to gain an Advanced Skill.

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Which map you like better may be personal choice, but I like the cool tech look of the new one.

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The manuals/rulebooks are … about the same size. Inside, the newer manually is substantially easier to read: see below. We’ll look closer at the rulebooks below.

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Remember that dice are rolled to overcome challenges in the game: the Epic edition dice (left) look cooler. The older dice (left) had different distributions of successes and failure, depending on the color of the die. The newer dice (right) are more uniform: gone are the days of counting “how many successes” are on which dice. The new dice rolling is simpler.

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Oh ya, the newer edition DOES NOT have a dice bag. Sure, a dice bag was cool, but I don’t think it was necessary.

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The graphic design has definitely changed: the older game has a well-labelled, but perhaps slightly dated graphic design. The newer edition has a slicker (but arguably not quite as well-labelled) modern look-and-feel. I like the newer cards better, but I wish the labels were more pronounced.

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An interesting curiosity from the original edition (left) is that you could play WITHOUT the storybook! If you used the top row of cards, all the encounters were on the cards instead othe book!!! In the newer edition, I think they wisely got rid of that mode and just made people use the storybooks.

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See above for a closer look at the status cards: original edition (left), Epic edition (right).

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At the start of the game, each player gets two Top Secret cards which give the characters a mission (and a direction to go).

The newer edition mission cards looks a little more modern.

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The villain cards from the original edition are … pretty complicated: see above. They had a Pandemic like element, as well as some other things. These are completely gone from the Epic version of the game.

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The older edition has player summary cards. The new edition doesn’t …I wish it did.

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The newer edition cards (right) look more modern overall.

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Another major change: all the player choices for encounters are ON THE ENCOUNTER CARDS in the Epic Edition (see above right), whereas the original edition had a piece of cardboard listing them (above left). I understand why the original edition had this: it was a mirror of the game Tales of Arabian Knights. I think getting rid of that sheet made the game easier to deal with: everything you need is on the card itself! See above and below.

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At the end of the day, the most important component is the storybook (Book of Encounters). There is a ton of content in both, but the newer edition has slightly more content. See below.

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Note that both kept the ring binding: I think that’s a good thing. This is a huge book and the spiral binding makes it easier the page through the book and still keep the book in good shape.

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The newer book (right) is slightly better organized. Note the color (right) helps remind you which region you are in, as well as better notated SUCCESS and FAILURE sections (+ and X above right). See some more pictures below.

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You still use little cubes to notate your abilities: The Epic edition uses clear plastic cubes, the original uses wood cubes. See above.

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Tokens have special spaces in the Epic Edition insert (right) but I had to use bags (left) for the original edition.

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The newer Advanced Skill tokens are larger and easier to read.

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The info tokens (right) are more identifiable as square folders than plain circles (left). The newer UN Tokens are larger to see and easier to hold (right) than the original edition (left).

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No need for injury tokens (left) in the Epic edition: it’s just one of the markers on the character mat as Health (see below).

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I think I like the standees from the original edition better (left). They are more distinguishable than the Epic Edition, where the characters only have white outlines (right).

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The original Dr. Lobo was hard to get to: you had to get different types of intel and mark them on the Dr. Lobo chart (see left). This mechanic is completely gone in the new one. They’ve replaced it with the Epic Showdown book!

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A lot of ideas from the Epic Showndown came from the the Showdown expansion from the original expansion:

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The Henchman idea is still in the game, but again, the idea of how to fight them has changed. You used to have to find them and fight them before you could ever bring out Dr. Lobo. Now, the henchmen are very different: to fight them, you simply discard an appropriate number of intel and then consult the Epic Showdown book! It’s much simpler than before!! If you defeat them, it’s easier to defeat Dr. Lobo in HIS final showdown!!! If you don’t, the final showdown with Dr. Lobo gets complicated with appearances by the Henchmen!

The Henchmen mechanic has changed significantly: it’s become an Epic Showndown rather than some baroque rules.

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There are SIGNIFICANTLY more characters in the EPIC edition vs. the original edition: 23 vs. 8!

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Essentially the same info is on both cards, but the newer cards are larger and more readable. See above.

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Finally, the Epic edition has the cool neoprene map, art clips, and dual-layer boards for the character sheets.

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Overall, the Epic Edition of Agents of SMERSH is more modern looking, easier to use, and simpler.

Rulebook

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The rulebook is pretty good.  The font is big and legible: see above.

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There’s a nice little table of contents and a great annotated components page with pictures. Very helpful and useful for correlating components.

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The set-up page is great: a picture with labels and corresponding directions on the facing page. This is how set-up should be.

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In general, the rest of the rulebook is “pretty good”. You can find all the rules, but sometimes the organization felt a little of and I had to do more hunting. For example, the Henchmen and Dr. Lobo showdown are both handled similarly, but they way they were described felt disjoint, despite the similarities.

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And a few places, some rules should have been notated differently (For example: using intel for the Showdowns needed to be emphasized).

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I shouldn’t nitpick too much. I learned the rules, the rulebook was readable, and it was pretty easy to look stuff up. I generally liked the rulebook.

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And, most importantly, the rulebook ends with an Icon summary. Thank you for using that last page for something useful!

Streamlined Play

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I usually blanche when someone says “This game is better because it has streamlined play!” Streamlining, although it can mean simplifying, it can also mean dumbing-down. I will admit, for what it was, the original Agents of SMERSH had too many rules. At the end of the day, the fun part of Agents of AMERSH is reading silly dumb encounters from the encounter book and rolling dice! The core fun of Agents of SMERSH is the reading and dice-rolling. All the other weird rules of the original edition seemed to be a distraction: So, I am okay with some streamlining here. I admit that I want some game in there because Tales of Arabian Nights (another storybook game) was always a little too random for me. There is some strategy and some choice in Agents of SMERSH, but it’s still a storybook game where the storybook dictates some randomness (but excitement) in your play. Agents of SMERSH should be a fun game not hampered by too many baroque rules.

The original edition had quite a number of extra and mechanisms that are now gone.

  1. The dice are now uniform.  The original edition had different distributions of successes and failures on dice, and you rolled different dice depending on different rules.  That was complex and added too many rules: it’s gone.
  2. The Henchmen rules are simpler.  There were some strange set of rules for bringing out the henchmen, and you had to measure the success to bring them out.  Nope: all that’s gone, and the henchmen are handled in Epic Showdown book just like Dr. Lobo.  In other words, the Henchmen rules are not a weird bunch of rules tacked on.
  3. Dr. Lobo and different types of Intel are gone.  Dr. Lobo used to have to find a certain number of type of different intel tokens.  Nope: all that’s gone.  Intel is a generic resource that helps you roll better.
  4. Dr Lobo final encounters are in the storybook!  Now, Dr. Lobo final encounters feel more “epic” as you read from the Epic Showdown book.  It feels like the Storybook parts of the game we like, not a different set of rules.

There were also some rules that made the game “Pandemic-like” as cards shutdown airports and removed intel from the map.  That’s been simplified in the intel rules: the Epic Edition doesn’t have many rules for removing intel, it simply must be found.  I admit I liked the old rules for intel, but I understand the new way Intel is handled does make it simpler.

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The Epic Edition has streamlined the rules appropriately. The game is simpler and easier to teach without taking away from the fun.

Solo Play

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So, congratulations to Agents of SMERSH for following Saunders’ Law and having viable solo rules! Interestingly, there is no discussion of solo rules in the rulebook. The game “simply scales” to the number of players. I wish there had been at least a sentence discussing it, because solo rules almost always have exceptions or modifications. Not seeing a sentence abut the solo play makes me think it was an afterthought: BUT, it was not.

Basically, the solo play is fairly balanced because the one character gets all the good stuff happening to him, so all the bonuses and stats upgrades all get applied to exactly one character, which turns that solo character into a bit of a Superman. With more characters, those bonuses are divvied up over multiple characters. Now, multiple players have more Health collectively (Four players have 4 Health each for 16 hit points total, one player has 4 Health for 4 Health total), but since all the specials, re-rolls, status upgrades, bonuses and the like are applied to one character, that character usually has a better shot of surviving. That said, the solo game can be more swingy since there are dice and the superman solo can die if there are some bad turns.

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I really enjoyed my first solo play of Epic Edition of Agents of SMERSH. I lost because I missed a major rule: during the Henchmen encounter with Darling, I forgot I could use info tokens for extra dice!!! (Which is why I wished the rulebook had emphasized that more: my fault though).

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If I had defeated the Darling Henchman, I might have survived my final battle with Dr. Lobo!

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It’s good to lose your first play: it usually means you want to play again.

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One other thought: I usually prefer Storybook games with multiple people-maybe it’s because the theme comes through more with multiple people reading aloud.  This is one case where I think the game works just as well solo: I think it’s because there are enough decisions for the solo player since this is not “just” a storybook game.  The theme is everywhere, there are many decisions.  I think I like this as much as a solo game as a multiplayer game.

Cooperative Game

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As a cooperative game, the game moved around, with us reading out loud to each other. We got into a groove where the book would be passed, the “region” pages would be opened as we waited for the player to read the card and make a choice about “how will I respond to this encounter”.  This worked pretty well, as everyone got to read to everyone else: it was a shared responsibility. See above as Sara picks a choice and Andrew reads what happens from the choice!!

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The cooperation, in terms of gameplay, wasn’t as pronounced as other cooperative games we have played.  People generally did what they wanted on their turn to improve their characters to get ready for the final battle. There was some discussion, but in general, people just moved forward and did their own thing: the major pieces of collaboration were “When should we all rest for a showdown?” and “When should we start the showdown?”.

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It isn’t a bad thing, as lots of people like cooperative games but prefer to just cooperate when needed.  Just be aware the cooperation isn’t as pronounced here as it is in other games.

But Is This A Good Game?

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If you know nothing about the original game, then you are probably wondering: “Is This A Good Game?” I absolutely think this is a GREAT game, but it really depends on what you are looking for.

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In Agents of SMERSH, each player takes the role of a wacky 70s spy! This game has a sense of humor—so, you gotta enjoy some goofiness (see above with silly portraits: is that Sean Connery? Is that from Kill Bill?). But each of the characters is different and has different powers: a lot of people like asymmetric powers, and this game has that in spades.

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Players are working together cooperatively to vanquish the evil Dr. Lobo and the SMERSH organization. The spies roam the world (below) looking for intel on Dr. Lobo, his Henchmen, and the SMERSH organization: there is exploration!!

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At its core, Agents of SMERSH is a storybook game. Every turn other players will be reading from a giant book of Encounters (storybook) describing some situation for the current player.

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If your idea of fun is reading from a storybook to other players and then making die rolls, then you will love this game! Since the game embraces the cheesiness of the Bond era spies, you can read with crazy accents, yell, make sound effects, and be as dramatic as you want! If you hate reading aloud, you will hate this game. This game is all about reading to each other and being silly with the text.

If you hate reading aloud, but still like the idea of a story being read aloud to you, then there are number of games that use an APP to read to you: Forgotten Waters (see our review here) and The Grand Hotel Abaddon (see our review here) are two such games.

This is a great game IF you like reading aloud from a storybook and hamming it up. If you don’t like that, this is not the game for you.

Variety

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There are a few things to be aware of.

The Epic Showdowns are cool, but they are limited.  There’s only 4 Henchmen and only 4 Dr. Lobo Endings.   Each Henchmen and Dr. Lobo has an entire section, and there are a few branching points in the text: this gives each Henchman some variety.  And the final text with Dr. Lobo changes depending on whether the Henchmen is alive or not.  So, that also add some variety into the game.  But, be aware that you probably want to rotate through the Henchmen each time you play, to keep the story different.

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If you look at the limited Henchmen too closely, you might think “This games sucks!! I can only play it 4 times before it repeats???” And strictly speaking, you would be right. But, between the branching inside each Henchmen and some variety with the endings, your endings will be different.

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A better way to look at this situation is to compare it to many other adventure games with a Storybook. For example: Adventure Games The Grand Hotel Abaddon (which we reviewed here) has a limited life already! Once you’ve played that game, you know all its secrets and it really only has one ending!!! So, with the Epic Edition of Agents of SMERSH, you don’t have just one ending but 4 major endings! And within each ending are a number of paths for more variety.

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I personally prefer games with a more directed story, so I am okay with this limitation. But you should be aware there might be less variety here that you expect.

Conclusion

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I was a supporter of the original Kickstarter for Agents of SMERSH back in 2012. My name is even on the book inside! (Kickstarters used to list all the supporters somewhere in the game: they don’t really do that anymore). My game groups loved this game: Charlie and Allison picked up their own copy! Joe picked up a copy to use in his English classes (he loves the reading)! And yet, I always felt a tinge in the back of my neck when I had to teach this game: it was just a little bit clunky and it had a few too many rules.

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Fast forward to 2021: Agents of SMERSH Epic Edition has gotten rid a lot of the weird rules, updated the components, simplified the gameplay, and added the Epic Showdowns! I can honestly say that I will only play the Epic Edition going forward! The new game is better looking, more fun, and easier to teach!

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Having said that, if you ever find the original edition used for a good price, it’s still worth picking up! The story is still all there in that giant Storybook! And all the silliness and zaniness that we loved is still there. It’s just that the newest Epic Edition really does streamline the game and make it easier to teach and funner to play.

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The original game used to be an 8/10 for me, but the newest Epic Edition is probably a 8.5/10 for me now: it should probably be higher on our Top 10 Cooperative Storytelling/Storybook games! I strongly recommend Agents of SMERSH Epic Edition!

  • Me: 8.5/10 might prefer it slightly better for solo play. 
  • Teresa: 7.5/10, would suggest it and would play it again
  • Sara: 6.5-7.0/10 would definitely play it again, but not reach for it or suggest it
  • Andrew: 6.5/10, enjoyed my play, would play again but wouldn’t probably suggest it

Appendix

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My friend CC texted me just today: he told me that he and some other friends will be playing through Sleeping Gods soon. Sleeping Gods is another Storybook game in the same genre as Agents of SMERSH: See our review here.  I am in the minority that I didn’t like Sleeping Gods  (most people do: I am the weirdo).  It strikes me that the main problem I had with the first Edition of Agents of SMERSH is the same problem I had with Sleeping Gods: There are too many rules for a game with significant randomness.   The other side of the coin is Tales of Arabian Nights.  See our Top 10 Cooperative Storybook/Storytelling Games for more discussion of Tales of Arabian Nights: it’s just random storybook with no other real rules.  Tales of Arabian Night is too random and feels more like an activity.  I think Agents of SMERSH Epic Edition strikes the right balance of “some randomness from storybook” coupled with “decisions that make some difference” coupled with “streamlined gameplay”.  Said another way, the gameplay of Agents of SMERSH Epic Edition is appropriate to the level of randomness. 

A Mini-Review of Clue: Treachery at Tudor Mansion (An Escape and Solve Mystery Game)

This week, we’ll be taking a look at another cooperative game we got at Target! A lot of our games have recently come from there: Minecraft: Portal Dash (which we are cautiously but optimistically recommending: see here), Star Wars: The Clone Wars Pandemic (which we really liked: see here) and Horizons of Spirit Island (which is basically a cheaper vector into Spirit Island: if you like Spirit Island, you’ll like this). Target has become somewhat of a Mecca for cooperative games for us: everything we’ve gotten (so far) has been quite good! Will this weird Clue game be any good? Let’s take a look!

Is This Clue?

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NO! Clue: Treachery at Tudor Mansion is is not Clue! That’s why (I think) the games emphasizes the “Escape and Solve Mystery” on the front of the box!! See above. This is a combination Escape room/Detective/Adventure game set in the Clue universe. Yes, there’s a Clue universe. Yes, I know, that sounds weird.

This game reminds us a little of The Adventure Games The Gand Hotel Abaddon which we reviewed a few weeks ago. Clue: Treachery at Tudor Mansion is a game of exploring the Tudor Mansion (which looks surprisingly like the Mansion from the original board game Clue): See below. (This picture below is a little bit of a spoiler, as you will be slowly exploring the mansion to reveal the map as you play, so just glance at it quickly)

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If there was ever any doubt you were in the Clue Universe (Cluniverse?): take a look at the characters below. Each player plays one of the fabled Clue characters:

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I haven’t played the original Clue in quite some time, so I remember there used to be a Ms. White: I guess she’s gone.

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And there’s not too much we can show! This is a one-shot mystery game: once you have played through the mystery of the game, you know the solution! And the game slowly adds cards and map pieces to the game as you play, so we can’t really show too much of that other than what you see when you open the box: see above and below.

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Mystery

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Clue: Treachery at Tudor Mansion is a mystery game. Over time, players cooperatively explore the Tudor mansion and find objects, they find new rooms, they find new clues! It’s got a little bit of a “point-and-click” adventure game feel, as you have to combine objects to get stuff done.

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As a group, you work together to find out who killed Mr. Boddy: It’s a cooperative detective game. This game would fit very well into our Top 10 Cooperative Detective Games.

Play

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Clue: Treachery at Tudor Mansion says that it plays 1-6 characters and takes 90 minutes. That seems fairly accurate: we cruised through the game, but we can imagine a more ponderous group taking 2 hours if they wanted. We ended up playing 4 characters, which felt just about right. Too many characters can cause conflict as competing detectives strive to be heard, but too few characters can miss some obvious clues in the game. 3-4 Players seems the best player count, but I could see playing this 1-2 fairly well too.

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One of the best elements of this game is that the game made sure to keep everyone involved: play rotated through the players, forcing everyone to read cards on their turn. The mystery is in the text of the cards: reading more cards exposes more and more of the mystery!!. The game forced everyone to read something on their turn to the group. It always felt like everyone was involved in the mystery.

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As we played, we’d ALWAYS reveal more and cards from the box on our turn. So, it always felt like we were making some kind of progress!

It really did feel like something happened on everyone’s turn! There was never a dull moment!

The final mystery was pretty straight forward: you have to solve the who killed Mr. Boddy, where, and with what … okay, that does kind of sound like Clue. But in this case, there is a well-constructed mystery story already written! And it’s cooperative! And there’s exploration! And Reading! And object manipulation!! So, those things make it very different from Clue.

This wasn’t a hard mystery, but it was still challenging.

Silly Things

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There were somethings you should be aware of: the game makes you do silly things. For example, “something happened” on my turn, poking me in the eye (in the game, not real life), so I had to put my hand over my eye for one full turn. A couple of things “like this” happen over the game. You can completely ignore this if you like, but as a group, you should make a determination as to whether you are playing “fully serious” (and ignoring the silly things like that) or “silly” (and embracing the silly things in the game). We ended playing silly and embracing it: it’s up to you. This is a simple enough mystery that you don’t have to be fully serious.

Just be aware: there is some silliness in this game.

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Conclusion

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I can’t call this a full review because:

  1. We didn’t play it solo first.  I think you could play this solo if you liked, but then the mystery is solved!
  2. We can’t show too much.  There would be too many spoilers!

But, we can share overall thoughts after playing through it.

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This one-shot mystery was fun!   It was only $15 I think.  The Adventure games (like The Grand Hotel Abaddon from a few weeks ago) are a little bit better deal from a gameplay  perspective, because you get three 90-minute sessions out of those games for the same price as a single 90 minute session from Clue: Treachery at Tudor Mansion.  But, Clue: Treachery at Tudor Mansion is a better “light” mystery, as you are always engaged because you are always doing something: the game always seems to be moving forward.  Some mystery or adventure games can be more plodding as you “think more” to solve the mystery: this game doesn’t quite have that vibe.  You still have to think and solve the mystery, but the game reveals itself quite quickly.

I liked this and my game group liked this.  We reset the game (nothing is torn up, so you can completely reset the game back to its original state) and I will be passing it on to Charlie and Allison: they like mystery games!

Top 10 Cooperative Dexterity Games

Now that cooperative games have become mainstream, it’s easier to make many more directed Top 10 lists! This Top 10 list is for Cooperative Dexterity Games! Dexterity Games usually involve a silly physical challenge. There’s 4 main flavors of dexterity games on this list:

  1. Flicking (where you flick items using your finger and thumb)
  2. Stacking/Building (where you build structures of interest)
  3. Balance (where you balance things while you move them around)
  4. Other (which is anything else)

Let’s take a look at our Top 10 Cooperative Dexterity Games! The order of the games here doesn’t matter as much as other Top 10 lists: you know right away if you like flicking, stacking, balance, or other. The order here is more influenced by the opinions of my normal game groups and the game groups from RIchieCon 2022.

10. Seal Team Flix

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Ages: 14+
Players: 1-4
Time: 60 minutes
Type: Flicking

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This is a war game that’s a flicking game.  You know what it is when you see it!  

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There’s a LOT of stuff in this box, but there’s also a lot of work to set things up for a simple flicking game. And there are a lot of rules for a flicking game.

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Despite all the work for set-up and rules (which is why it is #10), the game was thematic (“be quiet or else all heck breaks loose!”) and fun! We had a lot of fun with the flicking side games as well!

9. Space Cadets

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Ages: 8+
Players: 3-6
Time: 60-120 minutes
Type: Other (mix of flicking and other stuff)

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Space Cadets is an amalgam of a lot of different games: each player plays a position on a starship (like the Star Trek Enterprise).  Each position has a different challenge, and some of them are physical challenges:  There’s a flicking position, reaching into a bag to “feel components” position, make dominoes, and some other odd things.  This is a fairly strategic game, despite all the silly challenges (and thus the 60-120 minutes playing time). We found this game to be love/hate in general: you either loved it or hated it (which is why it’s #9 on our list). But it was definitely fun to watch!  You should definitely try it at least once to make sure you like it before you buy it.

8. Flick ‘Em Up: Dead of Winter

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Ages: 14+
Players: 2-10
Time: 45 minutes
Type: Flicking

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Flick ‘Em Up: Dead of Winter is a pure flicking game: that’s both bone and bane for the game.  If you are terrible at flicking (which we were for some of the game), you will lose pretty badly!  Even playing cooperatively!  But, this game has an amazing presence and looks great on table: you can’t go wrong! See below!

There were a lot of rules for the different types of things to flick (guns, knives, shotguns, etc), so again that was boon and bane: it was cool to have  all the variety, but it added a lot of complexity to a pure flicking game … this is why this is a little lower (#8) on our list.

7. For Science!IMG_2023

Ages: 14+
Players: 1-6
Time: 30 minutes
Type: Stacking/Building

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For Science is a box filled with lots and lots of wood building blocks!  There is a game here about building molecules for science, but really the game is just about playing with blocks.  My game groups loved the blocks, but didn’t like the real-time part of the game (which is why it’s only #7).  There are probably just a few too many rules too, but it’s just so much fun to play with the blocks!

This was an Interesting game from the designer of Spirit Island (a cooperative game we love here).

6. Dungeon Fighter

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Ages: 8+
Players: 1-6
Time: 45 minutes
Type: Other: throwing stuff

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So Dungeon Fighters has a name that SOUNDS LIKE it’s a generic Dungeon crawler.  Nope!  Well, there is some dungeon exploring, but at it’s core, it’s a “throw dice” (and I mean “throw dice”)!!! It’s a wacky “physically throw dice at a board” while doing all sorts of silly physical challenges. Throw dice beneath your legs, off-handed, under your arm, and laugh the whole time.  This is NOT a serious game. 

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Our first play of this game is a huge ongoing joke: my air conditioner was on the fritz, so we choose to play this (probably the most physically active game on the list) without A/C! We were huffing and puffing and downing water afterwards! Learn from our mistake, don’t play this of your A/C was on the fritz. But the game was still such a hoot!

5. Slide Quest

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Ages: 7+
Players: 1-4
Time: 15-45 minutes
Type: Balance

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This game is interesting because the box itself is a component of the physical puzzle!  Each player moves a lever on each side of the box (see picture above and below) to help move some markers through a maze landscape into a hole. It reminds me quite a bit of those old wooden maze labyrinths where you would try to manipulate a metal ball through a hole.  

4. Ghost Adventure

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Ages: 8-99
Players: 1-4
Time: 20 minutes
Type: Balance

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Ghost Adventures is a really odd duck: you have to cooperatively move a top around a bunch of boards!  Each player (usually) takes one board, shepherds the top (physically adjusting the board) through his/her board, then passes the top to another board! Passing the top from your board to your compatriot’s board is probably the hardest part!  It sort of reminds us of Slide Quest (#5), but Ghost Adventures uses tops instead of a little roller ball dude.  It was fun and goofy and the component quality was very good!

3. Space Invaders

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Ages: 8+
Players: 1-4
Time: 30-45 minutes
Type: Flicking

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This is a light silly game where you flip “firepower” at the space invaders who are slowly descending down upon you !  This is a very lightweight flicking game that you can get from Target (currently) for pretty cheap! It’s silly fun.

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Even though this is essentially a cheaper Flipships (see the next entry) with generally worse components, the little flipper is pretty cool! See red/white/blue plastic flipper above.

2. Flipships

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Ages: 8+
Players: 1-4
Time: 30-45 minutes
Type: Flicking

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This is a silly flicking game, but the special powers on the ships that you flick give the game some interesting twists.  Even though we were terrible flickers in general, the game was fun and silly and we were laughing the entire time.  The ambigram (words with symmetry) on the cover also enchanted us.  We also liked saying Flipship.  Flipships.  Flipships.  

Sam surprised us at RichieCon 2022 by saying it was favorite game that he learned in the past year!  He then he proceeded to teach it to everyone he could at RIchieCon 2022!  This is a surprise hit which is why it’s so high on the list at #2!!!

1. Menara

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Ages: 8+
Players: 1-4
Time: 45 minutes
Type: Stacking/Building

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Menara was described very aptly as “reverse-Jenga” by my game groups! Players cooperatively build a structure together, using the patterns and rules described on cards as they come out. There’s a surprising amount of strategy in this cooperative dexterity game, as you have to choose when-and-where to build, and when-and-where NOT to build! This is probably the “thinkiest” of all the games on this list, and is probably why we put it at #1. It was fun! And it was hugely popular at RichieCon 2022!

A Review of Minecraft: Portal Dash (A Cooperative Game), Part I: Unboxing, Solo Play, and First Impressions

Wait, what just happened? When did Target become my primary store for cooperative games?

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Two weeks ago, we picked up and reviewed Horizons of Spirit Island (which we got from Target), then one week ago we picked up and reviewed Star Wars: The Clone Wars Pandemic (which we got at Target). We just happened to pick up two brand new cooperative games at Target today (October 16th 2022)! One we’ll review today (Minecraft: Portal Dash) and the other next week!

What Is Minecraft: Portal Dash?

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Minecraft: Portal Dash is a cooperative game set in the Minecraft universe. Minecraft is a phenemonally popular video game for most platforms: PCs, Macs, and video game consoles. This game is obviously trying to capitalize on the Minecraft Intellectual Property (much like Star Wars: The Clone Wars did last week but for Star Wars).

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In Minecraft: Portal Dash, 1-4 players cooperatively play as Minecraft miners running towards the portal trying to escape. All players must survive and escape together or everyone loses! It’s a cooperative game! Along the way, players mine, fight, move, upgrade, and uncover new areas. When players uncover the last room with the portal, they must fight the big boss! As soon as the big boss is dead, players win!

Mostly, this game is about fighting and mining, while trying to move to the portal at the end to fight the boss.

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Minecraft: Portal Dash is pretty standard sized: see the game and components relative to the Coke Can.

Each player takes a token with a colored bottom and corresponding colored board and colored items.

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I played my solo game with blue. Note that the character you choose has no special powers: there are no variable player powers here. (You only get better and different through the upgrades you get).

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All players start with all of their items on the top row: they haven’t been used yet: See above. Once an item is used, it goes to the bottom row and has to be “repaired” to be used again. See below.

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Every round of the game starts with rolling the Bad News dice (the white dice): there are two. (I personally call them the Bad News dice to note that they are advancing the chaos and badness in the game: Minecraft: Portal Dash just calls them the white dice, or the block die and MOB die).

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The first Bad News die (left) strips a block from the Resource Cube. Which block? Whatever the die tells you! See below!

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The bad news die force the players to remove one cube, their choice of color

This is Bad News because the game ends when The Resource Cube (above) run out of blocks … either completely out of blocks or blocks at the appropriate level.  So, stripping blocks from the Resource Cube is slowly bringing the game to an end.

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The other Bad News die (the MOB die) activates the MOBS (the Bad Guys) in the game. Above, we can see two of them are activated! The upper right corner of each MOB character has a number from 1 to 3: you activate all MOBS with that number, which causes them to move towards the characters.

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If there are no matching MOBS, you spawn a new MOB at the closest spawn point to a character on the board. The MOB at the front of the queue (see queue above) is what gets spawned.  You can always see what’s coming next in the queue!

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After the MOB move, they may attack!  If the MOB bad guys do reach you, they do damage: above, the magma cube is adjacent and hits me for 2 (-2 on bottom right of the MOB) damage.  The ghast is not adjacent, but has range (2 square) and does 2 damage!  Above was the very first turn of my game and I lost 4 hit points!!

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Hit points are at the top of your character sheet: I only took 3 damage because I had armor that absorbed the first hit.

After the Bad News is done, the active player (who rolled the Bad News dice) gets two actions of their choice:

  • Basic Actions: move 1 space, repair 1 item, mine 1 block
  • Use One Item: move item from active part to lower part, invoking its upgraded action

It doesn’t sounds like a lot, but the mine 1 block is quite interesting. First of all, you can only mine blocks that are exposed: A block is exposed only if its top is visible and at least two other sides are visible.  And then you can do cool things with the block!!! Geometry is important here!

 You can use the mined block to help complete the piglin task (see below):

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Recall that you can’t open the final portal until the piglin board is complete! And you can’t win if you can’t fight the boss by the portal!  So, it is necessary to mine as you play to fill the piglin board.

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The other thing you can do with the blocks: use a special power! See above!  These special powers can be game-changing!  Repair all items!  Heal full hit points!  Of course, mining a cube has a cost: remember that the game ends when you run out of cubes.

Using an item usually gives you an upgraded basic action, but at the cost of “breaking” the item so you can’t use it until its repaired.

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For example, using the pickaxe would allow you to mine TWO blocks (instead of one).

Note that the sword and the bow are the only way to engage in combat with the MOBS!  To take out a MOB, you have to be in range (swords can attack adjacent only, bows have further range: upto 3 spaces away for the bow above).  When you engage in combat, you roll the number of dice as per the weapon:

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Every X is a hit: MOBS need to be taken out in one shot: damage does not persist.

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When you defeat a MOB, you get two upgrades: you keep one and discard the other.  

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If you can move to the final board with the portal (after completing the piglin board), you fight the boss: if you can defeat the boss, you win!  If you run out of blocks at any point, or if anyone dies, everyone loses!

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Rulebook

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This is both simultaneously a good rulebook and bad rulebook.  It’s a good rulebook because it is complete (all rules are here) and it teaches the game.  It’s a bad rulebook because of poor organization and some glaring deficiencies (the inclusion of a few things would really flatten the learning curve).

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First off, the rulebook is very daunting: when you first open the box and grab the rulebook, it’s very heavy!  It’s 48 pages long and very big!  Internally, I thought “Oh No! What have I gotten myself into??  This looks big and complex!!”

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Well, the rulebook is large because it holds three translations of the rules: English, French, and Dutch (see above).  So, that drops the “relevant rules” to 16 pages.  Not nearly as bad, but it does seem long for a game aimed at ages 10+.

So, the first major deficiency was the lack of a components page: the game basically just “jumps straight in” assuming you kind of know what everything is.  I don’t!  This was one of the things that contributed to me calling this a “bad rulebook”.  There are a lot of components in this game, and I don’t know “what-is-what”.

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If you look VERY CLOSELY at bottom of each translation column on the back of the box, you can see a list of components. It’s tiny, almost imperceptible, and it doesn’t help you figure out “what-is-what” in the component sphere. It is NOT a good components list.

My next problem was perhaps more of a preference thing: I strongly prefer set-up on two pages with a giant picture showing the board and some correlating numbers/letters. This rulebook prefers to add components to the set-up incrementally without ever showing the final picture.

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I think this is an okay method for set-up (incrementally vs. seeing the whole picture), but I still wanted a final picture showing everything. Again, this may just be personal preference. Included below is my final picture for set-up for your enlightenment.

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The rest of the rulebook has the rules, but the Icons and special rules for a lot of items (The Netherite items, the Enchantments) are scattered through out the text.  It’s hard to find some of the rules/icons: they are there, and you can find them, but it feels harder to look up rules/cons than it should be.

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The summary in Part IV was pretty good.

The rules showed helpful pictures and examples (see above). That makes this a good rulebook. All the rules were there: that also makes this a good rulebook.

The lack of an Icon summary, the lack of components page, the approach to set-up, the lack of some other exposition, and some of the organization really made me grumpy. However, at the end of the day, I learned the rules. I just wish the rules had been easier to learn (especially for younger audiences).

Solo Play

So, the game box says that the game plays 1-4 players.  Interestingly, there is no real discussion of solo rules anywhere in the rulebook.  This is mostly because you don’t anything special for solo play, except  for choosing which side of the piglin task board to use.  One side is 1-2 players, the other side is 3-4 players: See below for the 1-2 player side.  

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Still, the lack of any discussion of solo rules seems weird. A single sentence would have gone far:

The solo game proceeds just like the base game except that you use the 1-2 Player side of the Piglin task board and the solo player only operates one character.

However, this was consistent with our issues with the rulebook:  The game doesn’t strictly need to tell us about solo rules, but a single sentence would have clarified that. So, Minecraft: Portal Dash does follow Saunders’ Law, but it’s just not 100% clear that it does.

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How did Solo Play go? Very well! I was initially annoyed that the game used the white Bad News dice to mark your two actions, but I came to understand why. The game flows so quickly once you get into it, you forget sometimes if you are in the middle of your turn or the Bad News turn! “Wait, have I taken both of my actions?” So, even though the description in the rulebook is terrible about describing how to use the white dice for notating the actions, using the two white dice to notate your two actions per turn worked pretty well.

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I kept the rulebook off to the side in a chair because I had to look up rules all the time … but the rulebook was just a little too big to keep on the table.

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I won my first game, handily defeating the Wildfire (see above). My basic strategy was to get all the Piglin task board filled, then sprint to the end. It worked great!

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I worry a little that all games will have this arc: solve the Piglin tasks then sprint to the final board. That strategy worked great for me and I am sure I would do that again.

One of the funner elements of the game is that you are always getting upgrades in the form of new items: every time you beat a bad guy (a MOB), you get two Items from the top of the Item deck: you choose one and discard the other.  So, you are constantly moving new items onto your character board: See below.

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I didn’t like one mechanism the game used at first: whenever you use an item, you “damage it”, moving it to the bottom row. See above. You have to “repair it” before you can use it again! I didn’t like this at first, but because there were so many ways to work with this, it became fun! You can:

  1. Repair it with a basic action
  2. Fix all broken items using a mine “grey” cube
  3. Change out an item when you upgrade: the new item starts refreshed
  4. Upgrade an item with an enchantment: that forces it repaired gain

There always seemed to be a lot of ways to do things: I felt like I had a lot of agency throughout my game.  The solo game was good and absolutely essential to teaching me the game so I can teach my friends.  Now that I have the rules internalized, I think the teach will go well: it just took a lot of work to get there.

Frustrations

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This is a weird game.  I am annoyed by the low quality of some components (the rulebook, the standees, some super thin boards), but fascinated by a lot of the mechanisms, especially the Resource Cube.

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The rulebook is pretty off-putting, but it does teach the game.  It’s possible that the three simultaneous translations (English, French, Dutch) contributed to that. If you put the effort into reading this rulebook, you can find all the rules you need, but it will require some work.  That was frustrating.

Another major frustration was the lack of an icon reference.  The game is pretty icon heavy, especially because it is for English, French, and Dutch players!  So, the game leans pretty heavily into those icons, but the definition of those icons is spread throughout the rulebook: you have to go hunting.  You can eventually find the definitions, but these searches can be cumbersome paging through the entire rulebook!  A one-page icon summary would have gone a long way, especially since this rulebook has a lot of whitespace (and the back of the rulebook is so sparse).

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Another frustration: I also don’t know who this game is for.  The rules say 10+ on the box: I can’t imagine a 10-year old kid fighting through these rules unless he is really into Minecraft.  To be fair, a lot of kids are really into Minecraft, but I feel both the rulebook and the complexity of the game will turn-off a lot of kids.  

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That’s not to say kids couldn’t learn the game: if you can get an older sibling or parent or relative to shepherd the kids through a game or two, then I think that kids could easily get into the game!  Once you internalize the rules to this game, Minecraft: Portal Dash does flow pretty well: for kids or anyone!  I just wonder how much work it will take to get to that point: this game may be too much for many people without having  a shepherd.

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My biggest concern for the Minecraft: Portal Dash is the game arc.  I feel like most successful games will take a similar arc: fight a few combats, get the ABC pidlin task board done all at once, then sprint to the end.  It makes the most sense to do the pidlin board  done up front when there are fewer bad guys trying to get destroy you!  It’s possible this strategy is a function of the boards that come out: perhaps different combinations of boards will help vary this game arc.   We’ll have to see: my biggest worry is that the game arc will have no variety.

What I Really Liked

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Once I got into the game, the game flowed pretty well.  It was pretty simple: roll two dice for bad news, then take two actions.  Repeat!  There were a lot of little things to look-up (icons mostly), but the basic gameplay was straight-forward: I liked that.

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What fascinated about the game was the dual-use blocks you mine from the Resource Cube!  See above!  One use of the blocks is as a resource to advance the Piglin tasks.  In that case, you have to worry about having enough cubes available (in that color) because of the mining rules.  See below for all three complete Piglin tasks and an almost depleted Resource Cube!

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But you can also mine a block for a special power: see below.

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The mining of a blocks is essential, because you have to mine to win the game (for piglin tasks). But every cube you mine brings you closer to the end of the game: if all 64 cubes are mined, you lose! Or if you can’t finish a Piglin task because you ran out of colors or cubes on a level, you lose! 

And you will lose a cube (usually) every turn because of the bad news die! See below.

So, the Resource Cube becomes a 3-D representation of the game’s state space!  What choices are available?  What choices can you reach?   Which blocks do you want for Piglin tasks? What blocks do you want for special powers?  What blocks can you afford to lose?  What blocks can you not access because of the geometry?

This Resource Cube is fascinating and probably the best part of this game. It’s new and different and I haven’t seen it in any other game.  I really want to explore this mechanism further: I find myself still thinking about it …

Conclusion

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I know what Horizons of Spirit Island is and I know who should play it . Similarly, I know what Star Wars: The Clone Wars is even after just a few plays. I feel comfortable knowing what those games are: we may not need a Part II for those reviews because all my initial thoughts stand. But, I still don’t know what I think of MInecraft: Portal Dash.

Like Disney Sidekicks, I think Minecraft: Portal Dash might be too complex (especially the rulebook) for its suggested lower ages. Also like Disney Sidekicks, I think a shepherd could make this game much more accessible: if someone can just teach the game, I think younger kids can learn and play the game, but I think that shepherd is fairly essential. So, I can’t quite recommend it for lower ages.

But then the component quality is pretty substandard for a lot of pieces. See above. It’s hard to imagine hard core gamers wanting to play this: it looks like an old 80s board game.

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Having said all that, the Resource Cube concept is so fascinating and deep, I think this one mechanism might make Minecraft: Portal Dash one of my favorite games of the year!? Or maybe it’s not nearly as deep as I think and I will become disillusioned with the Resource Cube? I don’t know, but I find myself wanting to play again and again to try out the Resource Cube! It fascinates me!!

As you can see, I am all over the place. I got the game for $39.99 at Target, so it wasn’t cheap, but it wasn’t expensive. It feels like the components should be better for the price (especially after seeing Horizons of Spirit Island for $29.99), but that Resource Cube stands out as one of the better components.

I can say that, right now, I like Minecraft: Portal Dash, despite the rulebook and poor components, but I feel like I need some more time with this game before I can wholeheartedly recommend it. Currently, I would cautiously optimistically recommend it.

Never has one of my reviews been in such dire need of a Part II.

A Review of Star Wars: The Clone Wars (A Cooperative Game from the Pandemic System): Part I: Unboxing, Solo Play, Differences From Other Pandemics, and First Impressions

Didn’t we just go to Target last week to get Horizons of Spirit Island? Yes, we did: see here! While we were at Target picking up Horizons of Spirit Island, we asked about Star Wars: The Clone Wars. They said they had it in back, but it was under some palettes so I needed to come back. That was fine with me: I was too busy playing Horizons of Spirit Island! … see last week.

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Well, a week went by and they still hadn’t put out the Star Wars: The Clone Wars game, so I had to hunt around Tucson and I found it at another Target across town: see above!

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Horizons of Spirit Island was a cheap game from Target ($29.99), whereas Star Wars: The Clone Wars was significantly more expensive at $59.99! Target “usually” has some kind of sale for board games: in this case, I got it for $10 off (any Toy purchase over $50 was $10 cheaper). And then the Target card gets you another 5% off, so it ended up being about $47.99 of so: that price is significant, because GameNerdz and other discount online game shops have the game listed for $47.99 as well!

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So, if you do a little bit of work (waiting for sale or looking online), you can probably pick this up for about $48. Interestingly, Star Wars: The Clone Wars is obviously NOT a Target exclusive, because I can order it now from online shops. GameNerdz has it on pre-order as coming out on October 7th, so you can either order it there or go to your local Target (as opposed to Horizons of Spirit Island, which is absolutely a Target exclusive).

What is Star Wars: The Clone Wars?

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Star Wars: The Clone Wars is a cooperative game for 1-5 players in the Pandemic System (see the little Pandemic logo in the lower left corner?). This means that Star Wars: The Clone Wars shares a lot of DNA with the original Pandemic. In this case, though, I think a better comparison would be to compare this to World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King, another game in the Pandemic System: see our full review here.

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I originally thought that the Star Wars: The Clone Wars Pandemic game would just be a “slight re-skin” on the World of Warcraft Pandemic game. Although these two are probably the “closest” relatives of all the games in Pandemic world, there are still enough changes to differentiate the two.

Unboxing and Components

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The box is an odd shape: it feels thick and thin at the same time.

But in general, the components look really nice, especially since this is a mass market game! The miniatures are especially nice!

Gameplay

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To play, each player takes the role of the one of the main Heroes from Star Wars: see below.

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Note that each player has a special power that’s unique to their Star Wars hero!

To win, the Heroes have to take down of one four Villains:

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Players choose a Villain at the start of the game, and each Villain comes with their own Villain deck!

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Each Villain has its own special deck!

That means each Villain has a unique play style!! The game recommends starting with Asajj Ventress:

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Like Pandemic, “bad things” come out on the board as the game progresses. In this case, it’s Droids! Droids are invading the system!

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Like Pandemic, they slowly accrete on the planets, as a few Droids get added to the board at the end of each player’s turn:

If a fourth Droid would hit a planet, you get a Blockade there: There’s no spill out to adjacent planets. (The Blockades are more like the Abominations in Wrath of the Lich King than disease cubes from base Pandemic).

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A Blockade on a Location means you must fight the Blockages before you fight anything else on the space!

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To get rid of enemies on a planet (Droids, Villain, or Blockades), you have to roll the big 12-sided die! Every circle/star is a success and does 1 damage to the enemies. Blockades need two damage to take them out, Droids need one damage to take them out, and Villains vary. The explosions are how many hits the Hero takes!

Continue reading “A Review of Star Wars: The Clone Wars (A Cooperative Game from the Pandemic System): Part I: Unboxing, Solo Play, Differences From Other Pandemics, and First Impressions”

A Mini-Review of The Grand Hotel Abaddon

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About a week ago, we reviewed and discussed The Return To Monkey Island, a point-and-click adventure video game for Steam and the Switch. During our discussions, we lamented the lack of point-and-click adventure type games in board/card game form! There are, however, some out there … like The Grand Hotel Abaddon, which we review this week.

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The Grand Hotel Abaddon is the fourth in the Adventure Games series from Kosmos Games: Yes, that’s right! There are at least 3 more adventure point-and-click card adventures!!! This particular adventure is for 1-4 players and plays over 3 sessions of 90 minutes each. To be clear, this is a “one-and-done” game: once you’ve played it, you’ve seen all the puzzles and solved them. You can still easily pass this box on to some friends to play (you can still reuse the game, as you don’t destroy any components). You can also come back to it in a year or two when you’ve forgotten all the puzzles. I frequently replay my old point-and-click adventure video games (The Monkey Island games, Thimbleweek Park, to name a few), so I am in the category of re-enjoying and re-playing games.

So, Is The Grand Hotel Abaddon good enough to replay in a few years?

Components and Gameplay

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The game is mostly cards and an Adventure Book: see above. The Adventure Book (above right) has the story and and interactions all baked in … and lots and lots and lots of text!! The big cards (labelled A) are Locations you travel to in the game, the numbered cards are objects to interact with, and the tokens are for noting things. Below, you can see all the objects the character Yu Heng Zhu holds (a bunch of cards).

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The Big Cards sit out and form the map you explore:

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Each player takes the roll of one of four adventurers in the game.

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I ended up playing the Dr. Susan Pendergast. Throughout the game, each character has a minor subplot that unfolds within the main plot. You actually get pretty invested in your character as you play! We ended up playing 3 different sessions over about 2 months. We always enjoyed coming back to the character we previously played.

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The Adventure Book is the most important piece in the game. If you want to explore, put two objects together, try something in a Location, or generally “do anything”, the adventure book tells you “what happens”. Generally, the game works by combining two numbers: objects have a 2 digit number and Locations have a 3 digit number. You quine the numbers together (the smaller number first then the bigger) and lookup that number in the Adventure Book. If an entry with that number is there, you read it and “something happens!’ If there is no entry, that means that interaction doesn’t do anything.

Players basically work together to explore the map and try to figure out what’s going on! The story is quite interesting! Play proceeds clockwise, as each character “tries something” (explore, combine, other) to see what happens.

Why a Mini-Review?

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Why are we doing a mini-review and not a full review?

  1. We didn’t get a chance to play this solo: the game gives you rules to play it solo by operating two characters (yay, thanks for following Saunders’ Law), but we didn’t play this way. We played the game with a full complement of 4 people. And we think this is the best way to play: each player then gets to play their own character and feel ownership/kinship with that character and the backstory. You also get to see all the arcs of the game that way.
  2. It’s difficult to avoid spoilers. It’s hard to talk too much of the game without giving away too many spoilers. This particular game also has a lot of spoilers: it’s much more fun to see what happens as you play.

App vs. Text

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So, you can play this game with an app or without an app. We played the original Adventure Game: The Dungeon without an app because it didn’t exist yet when we played! In that play, the Adventure Book was passed around a lot as each player would read out of the book on their turn. We had a lot of fun reading out loud and talking in silly voices when we played the first one!

You can also play The Grand Hotel Abaddon without an app as well. That’s very satisfying: if the company ever goes belly-up and stop supporting the app, you know you can still play this.

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In the end, though, we ended up using the app to read the text. Partly because it was less work, and partly because it was less tiring: we could all concentrate on what was being said and just solve the puzzles.

We preferred using the app to read. But we would have had just about as much fun reading from the Adventure Book ourselves.

Discussion

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We has a grand old time playing this (no pun intended). We played the three different sessions over three different nights: the game seemed to be just the right length each time: not too long, not too short. We were able to explore, tease further plot points, do interesting things, and generally have fun.

I think we also enjoyed the game that much more because we each played a different character with different goals and backstories: we bonded with our characters. I feel like we didn’t get this as much in the previous Adventure games.

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Overall, the Dungeon is still our favorite, but The Grand Hotel Abaddon is a very close second. The other two are still good, but arguably not as good. Some people didn’t like The Volcanic Island very much (it does have some weird things happening), but we did.

Conclusion

If you want a point-and-click adventure board game like the video game Return To Monkey Island, then The Grand Hotel Abaddon is a great choice: it gives you that exploration and puzzle-solving experience like The Monkey Island games, but in board game form.

And yes, this game is good enough to replay: I suspect we will replay this again in a few years.