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I'm just leaving a New Year's party with friends, which means getting to try some games I'd been wanting to play.

Mice and Mystics
I fought the claw and the claw won. I was playing the wizard who was responsible for turning the heroes into mice to escape from a prison cell. This proved to be a bad plan. "This is what happens," said one player, "when your party's wizard is a furry."

The basic rules are that you move around on a set of cardboard maps divided into spaces (with nice art boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/12… and not rigidly grid-shaped) and attack hordes of monsters. Over time more monsters spawn and you eventually run out of "pages" in the "chapter" or quest you're playing, but you can increase that time budget with achievements that represent making the story more exciting. Success in combat is very random, modified by powers that run on cheese (!) that randomly appears for no in-story reason. We made jokes about "ablative cheese armor" explaining why you can get cheese by defending and attacking. The quest booklet has lots of flavor text explaining what's going on.

We had to make a certain roll with a 50% success rate, failed five times in a row (which made us unable to kill the monsters), then got attacked by the mouse-scale dragon equivalent: a cat. So we ended up losing by chance, but the group is still interested in trying again with the second mission.

In hindsight it doesn't seem like there's much decision-making. On my turns the main options were "attack one enemy" (with little reason to pick one over another), or "spend 1 cheese to do a more powerful attack". I did this only once, since my cheese supply was very limited and the cleric needed it. My stats meant that I had a lower chance of generating cheese than the other heroes, partly offset by my character's unique power. In game design I look for "interesting choices", the ability to pick between at least two options with meaningful differences and enough info to make the decision non-random. I didn't see interesting choices for my character. In fact I'm reminded of a musketeer I played in Pathfinder for a while, whose decisions were basically "shoot and reload" or "shoot and reload with more expensive ammo".

Room Party
An imitation of "Chez Geek", which we played with a furry expansion. Get a bunch of cards, play them on yourself or others to get the party worth the most points at the end. No depth here, and the fun is just in seeing the silly cards and the implied events like your gaming system turning out to be a Chinese knockoff or your guests getting into a simultaneous argument about pony fanfiction, Israel and the Republican Party. (I've seen this exact combination.)

Dead of Winter
I don't like zombies. They're gross and overplayed. Still I enjoyed "Zombicide" which is co-op zombie slaughtering fun, good for that "let's just kill some monsters" mood but with a little tactical thinking. "Dead of Winter" is a more thinky game where you run a refuge and everybody contributes to a shared goal while working on a secret personal goal, which might be to betray everyone. It seemed kind of easy to me, but we rolled really well, particularly in making my "stunt dog" find food and slaughter zombies. Interesting game. I like the idea of having 0-1 traitors, so you don't really know if a traitor is part of any given game.

An interesting mechanic is that during your turn, another player holds a "crossroads" card that makes something happen if you do a certain thing. Eg. I held one that would have triggered a noisy, zombie-attracting lovers' quarrel if the player beside me had controlled two characters exploring the same place together. There's a bit of a tower defense aspect in that you take actions at home to build barricades, stockpile food and clean trash (discards!) as well as exploring. I'm fond of that idea of building up a base while venturing outward, but I didn't see a lot of that here. Seems interesting, though; I'd like to play again.

Buck: Legacy boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/19…
I finally bought this while it was heavily discounted. It's a pony RPG card game, revised, and I suspect my review of the first edition on BoardGameGeek influenced the second edition. Will revise these comments for BGG.

It's co-op but with a competition for medals. The session we played was highly cooperative, with players outright giving each other items and only caring about beating the bosses. The party starts in town, shopping and preparing, then goes on an adventure. There, each player faces a random monster, trap or other event, and there's some ability for heroes to help each other. After a certain number of "distance" markers get revealed, a boss pops up. A typical card is a fight determined by (hero power+weapon+d6) vs. (monster power+d6).

Thematically, there's a lot going on, mostly good. I was a unicorn knight with a flaming sword and bunny ears, for instance. Unlike "Munchkin" you keep one race/class identity throughout the game, and the various items do things besides granting a generic +1 bonus. Eg., basic armor doesn't give an attack bonus but can save you from losing credit for your victories, after a defeat. These elements give me an impression of being a fantasy adventurer rather than a collection of stats. That's good. Unlike some AAA computer games like "Elder Scrolls Online", you have to balance your resource spending over multiple fights, eg. conserving mana. The rules for being KOed (er, "Incapacitated") are bothersome, because they kick players out of the game for potentially long periods, sometimes for reasons totally out of their control. (First encounter: Make a fear test! You fail! Make a run test! You fail! Now sit and watch your friends play.) That's a potential fun-killer. In our case we eventually got a level 2 cleric who could insta-revive people and had lots of MP, which then made being KOed trivial. There's got to be a happy medium here. I'm pleased that the awarding of medals is not so arbitrary as in the first edition. Our group had more gold than we could spend.

The art is cute, but there are way too many "Gurren Lagann" references, going beyond a joke into almost being GL fanfiction. This game is supposed to have its own unique setting and identity, and overdosing on cool anime interferes with that. It's a symptom of a larger problem: a split identity between "generic adventure with a bunch of nerd memes (angry bird, giant enemy crab, killer carp...)" and "serious fantasy setting that happens to have ponies". Just compare the box and manual cover art, which is fairly grimdark, to the much more toonish style of most but not all cards.

There are a couple of other oddities. The "first player" token is a button/keyring/bottle opener, with one of several random designs. I got a sort of sinister dragoon. There are no cardboard tokens for tracking stats, but instead you get stat cards, plastic sleeves, and a dry-erase marker. Fine if you don't mind passing the marker around, I guess, but we mostly used an awkward collection of dice to track stats. My copy of the game came with around seven postcards. These varied from a cute Christmas pony card to some slightly disturbing art, to a green... thing that had me saying "what the hell is this horrible thing? It's not even in the game!" The collection gives me the impression of a slide from happy toony pony game to dark fantasy. (As long as I'm referencing other games, see "Eversion" for the emotional effect.)

Finally I must criticize the text. The manual contains numerous typos and run-on sentences. The cards themselves contain both grammatical errors (like "its" misused) and at least one confusing typo ("use a spell of magic scroll"), and the rules in general are confusingly worded. What do you call being knocked out? "Incapacitated". Free actions at the market? "Market savvies". My group had a lot of trouble distinguishing between adventure turns, combat phases and so on, which are crucial for game balance. Eg. you can only cast certain spells once per "combat phase", which seems to mean once for a whole set of battles taking place at once, as opposed to once per battle or per round of a battle. "Instant damage" isn't really damage at all, and we had to puzzle out why it's different from straight-up combat power. To be fair, some of the confusion comes from what's otherwise good design, namely the fact that armor, magic, steampunk items and weapons all do different things. I get the sense that this game is close to the edge of what's practical complexity for a card game as opposed to a D&D-like game, as evidenced partly by the dry-erase stat cards. A better-written manual would help clear up the puzzling aspects.

I bought the game with the "Here Be Dragons" expansion, adding 13 cards including a Knight class whose power saved me once, and adding an unexplained reference to "Quests". The game's size had us encounter the same cards a few times, but the repetition wasn't too bad. The fact that you're adventuring in specific places adds some modifiers to the battles.

Overall, my group had fun once we knew what we were doing. We got off to a slow start both because of the rules and because the party got whipped in its first quest or two, but gained momentum due to better equipment. I wrote out a quick reference sheet as I studied the rules, and think I have a decent handle on them now. I'd like to play this again.
  • Reading: Biography of the Wright Brothers
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January 2
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