Guest Review : Mansions of Madness

Mansions of Madness cover Mansions of Madness is a game of investigation and horror based in the Cthulhu Mythos. Mansions of Madness shares the theme of Arkham Horror and Elder Sign, which are also based upon the works of H.P. Lovecraft. This highly thematic game is a semi-cooperative game for 2-5 players and plays in 2-3 hours.

Appearance:  The box for Mansions of Madness is the standard 12” X 12” square, but is 4” deep, which is to provide enough room for the large monster models. The cardboard components are a very good quality and include 15 double sided map tiles that are used to construct the modular board. There have been some reports of some warping of these tiles, but nothing to the extreme of the problems that faced House on Haunted Hill. Overall, the cardboard components are of the quality one expects from Fantasy Flight Games. The art is enjoyable and invokes the setting, but if you’ve played Arkham Horror, there’s plenty of recycled art (but, it’s still good).

Rules/Ease of Learning: Mansions of Madness is of moderate difficulty, but most of this difficulty can be carried by the player who takes on the role of Keeper. The Keeper role is that of the antagonist – they make decisions that affect how the story plays out and how the Unnameable Horrors try to keep the Investigators from preventing their escape into Arkham proper.

Investigators have the job of exploring the Mansion and trying to unravel the mysteries that it hides. As an Investigator, your turn is comprised of two movement steps and an action step. An action step involves one of a number of actions, including, using card abilities, investigating a location, and attacking monsters.

The Keeper’s available actions vary in each scenario. The actions the Keeper may perform in a turn are printed on Action cards, which have a point cost. The game automatically balances for the number of players by providing the Keeper with a number of Threat tokens equal to the number of investigators, so in a two investigator game, the Keeper must ‘save’ threat up to unleash a powerful action that costs 3 threat, but in a four investigator game, they can perform that action each turn, if so desired.

There are several situations that have specific rules on how to handle specific tests (such as Horror and Evade tests) which overall, are not complex rules, but because there are a fair number of these situations to recall. A Keeper who is well versed in the rules can shoulder much of this burden without changing the pace of the game signifigantly.

 

Gameplay: Mansions of Madness has five scenarios to play though. Each of these scenarios involve a different mansion setup and also contains a number of choices for the Keeper to make that influences how the plot cards are seeded within the Mansion. This process is rather time consuming and is probably one of the biggest drawbacks for the game. There could also be concern for replayability, but as there are roughly three choices with two-three options, one could conceivably play the same scenario around 9 times before returning to the ‘original’ solution. The plot doesn’t change massively, just where major clues are found. However, Fantasy Flight has already released 3 single-scenario expansions for the base game, plus a large expansion that will add investigators, scenarios, rules, and locations.

Once the board is setup, the theme starts to ramp itself up. The keeper reads a short story aloud to set the scene. This story includes clues on where to begin the investigation. As investigators explore, they’ll encounter locks and puzzles which must be opened or solved. Mansions of Madness has an unique puzzle mechanic which adds to the theme of the game. Puzzles are setup as per card instructions and investigators must solve the puzzle by creating an image, completing an electrical circuit or matching symbols. There are components that the investigators can move/rotate/swap, but the investigator can only do so many actions on his turn, which is driven by the intellect score. This helps to model the skill of the investigator very well and adds to the immersion.

As time passes, the Keeper will reveal Event cards, which result in effects related to the choices made by the Keeper and add to atmosphere of the story read at the beginning of the game. While playing, it feels like you’re exploring a creepy haunted house, and as the eldritch horrors begin to reveal themselves, the race against time becomes more apparent.

There are some mechanics that might take a few plays to really solidify, simply because there are several little things to remember. Of those minor things, there isn’t anything that really makes the game less enjoyable.

Overall, the theme really shines, perhaps giving an even better thematic experience than Arkham Horror. It feels like you’re approaching the Whateley home, with some unknowable horror waiting within. The game mechanics work to reinforce the theme. There’s opportunity within Mansions to take your board gaming a step further and treat it as a mini-roleplaying game, which would only add more immersion within the game.

Conclusion: Mansions of Madness is an enjoyable game. If it’s the only game you play, sure, the replayability could go down due to fixed nature of the scenarios. While it’s firmly a boardgame, the story-driven play could allow those who want to give roleplaying a try could probably have a good time using Mansions as a trial run. There’s some interesting puzzle mechanics and lots of theme to go around.

If you’re a fan of the Cthulhu Mythos, you’ll get a healthy dose here, even if Cthulhu doesn’t make an appearance.

Guest Review : Pandemic

Pandemic box coverPandemic is a cooperative game for 1-4 players taking on different roles in the fight against four diseases that are ravaging the population of the world. Players must work together to prevent catastrophic outbreaks and find the cures for four regional diseases.

 

Appearance
Pandemic is played on a board with a large world-map with major cities marked and joined by routes of travel. The board is quite nice to look at, however, some of the cities can be a little difficult to identify, due to the close proximity of some locations. Player role and reference are simple and easy to understand, with abilities and actions clearly identified and understandable. Infection cards are a little plain, but the information on them is clear. The player city cards are clear and have population and population density information listed for each city, which is pretty neat (especially when you compare them). Pawns, Research Stations and Disease Cubes are made of painted wood and are easy to distinguish from each other. The main complaint is that the board gets scuffed through the course of regular play from the components.

Rules/Ease of Learning
Pandemic is very easy to learn, but is not easy to win. The rulebook is well laid out and provides clear step-by-step instructions for game setup and how a player turn works. There is also a sample turn played out step-by-step, which makes for very clear and easy understanding of the game mechanics. The real trick with Pandemic is figuring out how to best make use of your role’s abilities and the best way to spend each turn’s actions to mitigate the growing threat of outbreaks.
You need to discover all 4 cures to win. Conversely, you lose the game if you run out of any color of disease cubes, after 8 outbreaks, or there are no cards left to draw from the Player city card draw pile.
A game turn is broken down as follows:

  1. Take 4 actions
  2. Draw 2 city cards to add to hand
  3.  Take on the role of the Infector

There are two types of actions, basic and special. Basic actions govern how players can move around the board. Special actions allow players to build research stations, discover cures, treat disease, and share knowledge.

City cards are drawn into your hand and are used for fast-travelling to locations, building research stations, and most importantly, discovering cures. Cures are discovered by playing 5 city cards of the same color (disease) at a research station. Within the player deck, there are Epidemic cards that will eventually arise. When one of these cards are drawn, the number of infection cards drawn on a turn may increase and all previously drawn infection cards are shuffled and returned to the top of the draw pile. This creates a lot of tension within the game. Cities can only sustain 3 cubes of disease. If additional cubes are added, an outbreak occurs. Outbreaks result in a cube being added to each city attached to the city that caused the outbreak. This may lead to further outbreaks.

When you take on the role of the Infector, you turn over several cards and spread the infection as indicated, which may lead to a new instance of a disease, or intensify the infection of an already infected location, or possibly an outbreak!

Gameplay
Pandemic shines in the aspect of gameplay. Each turn, you manoeuvre your expert into the area that does the most good. For instance, as the Medic, you’ll want to move to the area most concentrated with disease. Or, as the Dispatcher, you want to move people to where they can do the most good.

The theme comes out quickly. You start the game at the Research Station (or, Center for Disease Control) in Atlanta, which for many, really punches home the feeling of being a top-tier specialist at combating deadly microbes.

Each turn when the player draws cards, the emergence of the Epidemic card creates incredible tension, especially if it creates several potential outbreak hubs.

Pandemic is about managing threat levels, resource allocation, and teamwork. If you don’t utilize the strengths of each role, you will not be successful.

The box indicates that it is for 2-4 players, however, one can easily play this game solo, taking on multiple roles, if so desired.

 

Conclusion
If you’re a fan of cooperative games, Pandemic belongs in your library. A great theme and simple mechanics make Pandemic easy to play with gamers of all experience levels. The On The Brink expansion adds several new role cards and a few new ways to play and support for a 5th player, it’s well worth adding to your collection.

Guest Review : Battlestar Galacitca Board Games

Battlestar GalacticaBattlestar Galactica is a 3-6 player semi-cooperative game based on the re-imagined series. Players take on the role of one of the major characters on the Galactica trying to survive after the Cylon’s attack on the Twelve Colonies. Throughout the game, players must manage of finite resources while trying to identify and mitigate the threat of any Cylons among the humans. A game of Battlestar Galactica takes about 3 hours.

Appearance: The components of Battlestar Galactica are of high quality and fit in the 12” X 12” X 3” box with plenty of room to spare. While all of the tokens, cards, rules, and board fit easily in the box, the insert that comes with the game is not at all useful once the cards and tokens are taken out of their shrink-wrap. Even a simple tray that could be used to store the cards would have been a nice touch. That complaint aside, the tokens are made of sturdy cardboard and feature clear art identifying its purpose. There are two sizes of cards: Mini-American – 1 5/8”X 2 1/2” and Standard American – 2 1/4” X 3 1/2”. Both card types look great and feature images from scenes from the television show. The smaller cards sometimes have more writing than I’d like on them, making them hard to read, but making them full- size would be too large. It’s a minor complaint and only really affects maybe 10% of the cards – and I’d prefer a little crowded over too empty.

There are 32 plastic ships in sculpts of Vipers, Raptors, Raiders, and Heavy Raiders. The plastic is a little malleable, but doesn’t seem to warp or bend much if accidentally bent a little out of shape. The sculpts are quite good and significant detail is shown on pretty small models.

The board itself is a 24” X 24” square that is dominated by an overhead view of the Galactica, with small areas representing the Cylon fleet, Colonial One, dials to track key resources (Fuel, Food, Morale, and Population) and other Tracks and card deck locations. The board is well designed and efficiently uses space.

Character cards are perhaps the best item in the box. The cards are cut in the elongated octagonal shape of the paper in the television show, which shows attention to the little details. A prominent photo of the character is shown as well as skills, character type and special abilities. Easy to read and quickly gather information from.

Rules/Ease of Learning : The rules for Battlestar Galactica are not incredibly complex, and the rulebook is generally well done. An experienced player can easily teach a new player how to play in about 20 minutes. The goal of the human players is to reach the planet of Kobol by executing 8 units worth of FTL jumps. Cylon players must prevent the human players from reaching this goal by depleting a resource to 0, a centurion invasion, or destroying the Galactica.

To start the game, players must select a character. Characters come in four types: Political, Military, Pilot, and Support, which correspond to the skills and how the character can help the Galactica. For instance, only Pilots can fly Vipers to defend against Cylon attacks, whereas Political leaders are more likely to be President, and Military leaders are more likely to be the Admiral. Players pick characters in an order determined by the table, but players must select from the types that are most plentiful (or Support). This ensures that each player has a sphere of expertise and that the largest cross-section of skills is obtained. Title cards (President and Admiral) are distributed to those highest in the line of succession. The President is the political head and can utilize Quorum cards to help the humans survive. Quorum cards can increase certain resources, brig suspected Cylons, and the like. The Admiral is the military head and receives two nuke tokens that can be utilized against the Cylon ships attacking Galactica. Both the President and Admiral also are called upon to make choices throughout the game from Crisis Cards or selecting FTL jump locations.

With the characters in play identified, a Loyalty Deck can be constructed. The Loyalty Deck dictates whether or not you are a Cylon or a Human and your Loyalty may change mid-game! The number of players and the characters in play will change the composition of the Loyalty Deck. Cards are dealt out and the remaining cards in the deck are set aside. Halfway through the game, a second card will bedealt to the players, which might change their allegiance.

Loyalty Cards are kept secret, so no one knows if or who is a Cylon. Deft Cylons can subtly prevent success of the Galactica’s crew. However, a Cylon may be discovered and becomes a revealed Cylon. Revealed Cylons harass the humans from the Cylon Fleet locations.

A game turn typically consists of drawing skill cards, moving, performing an action, and resolving a crisis card. To additional steps: Activating Cylon ships and prepare for jump are completed if a Crisis Card dictates that they should take place. Crisis Cards are either a skill challenge or a Cylon Attack. Skill challenges have a difficulty value and skill types that can help to resolve the challenge. Each player may place cards into a check’s pile but any skills contributed that are not identified as valid forthe challenge are subtracted from the total. In addition to the player’s contributions, a Destiny Deckplaces two cards in every check. This deck provides a little randomness and allows a Cylon to operateundetected by providing a degree of deniability. When a skill challenge is failed, one or resources are reduced.

Cylon Attacks represent situations where the Cylon Fleet has discovered Galactica. Cylon ships are placed on the board and create a physical threat to Galactica and nearby civilian ships. Cylon ships on the board mean that civilian ships may be destroyed (which result in resources being lost), Galactica being damaged, or Centurions boarding the Galactica.

Battlestar Galactica backGameplay : Battlestar Galactica is able to capture the feeling of the television show very well. The distribution of Loyalty Cards and the Destiny Deck contributing to skill checks feed the feeling of mistrust of your fellow players. The Destiny Deck allows Cylon players can covertly contribute negative cards to skill checks, which will make checks harder to complete, or sink the attempt entirely, furthering the Cylon agenda.

Each character’s special abilities and rules feel right and make them come alive. For instance, Baltar has the Cylon Detector once-per-game ability, which allows him to view all of one player’s Loyalty Cards. Baltar is also a coward and starts the game with two loyalty cards which increases his chance of being a Cylon and immediately makes him more suspicious. Another example is Starbuck’s Expert Pilot ability, she can make two actions when she starts her turn in a Viper; Insubordinate makes it easier for her to be thrown in the brig. Not only do the characters feel right, they seem to be well balanced against each other.

When the Cylon fleet arrives the space battles are furious and often very challenging. Strategically selecting how to manoeuvre in space to protect the fleet and Galactica is very important for the Viper pilots. Vipers are the main way for humans to prevent Civilian ships from being destroyed or Centurions boarding the Galactica.

Secrets are important in Battlestar Galactica. The cards contributed to a skill check are shuffled before revealing them, Loyalty Cards, and the Destination selected by the Admiral are all examples of secrets kept in the game. Again, this drives the tension and mistrust among the players skyward.

As a Cylon player, you need to weigh the risk of staying undercover too long against the damage you can do while unrevealed. Revealed Cylons cannot contribute as many cards to skill checks, but can activate the powerful Cylon Fleet locations. The most devastating parts of revealing yourself as a Cylon do not take place if you are in the brig – so choose when to reveal carefully.

There are a few minor issues with the game. First off, the sympathizer loyalty card is confusing and does not seem to add much to the game. The second issue revolves around the brig. If a human player is suspected of being a Cylon and is thrown in the Brig, influential players can keep that player in the Brig by convincing others to keep them there. A true Cylon would likely reveal themselves after an attempt or two to get out of the brig. A human player can only be released from the brig on a successful skill check, so particularly paranoid groups could leave a human player in the brig for the entire game – which isn’t much fun for the affected player. If the Cylons are able to get all the humans in the brig, well…game over.

Conclusion: One doesn’t need to know the television show to enjoy Battlestar Galactica, but it does help to really appreciate the game. The themes of trust and a race against limited resources are well showcased, and the characters are well designed and feel like their small-screen counterpart. If you’re a fan of the show or like games with hidden traitor mechanics, Battlestar Galactica should be on your game shelf.

Guest Review : Space Hulk Death Angel

Space Hulk : Death Angel CoverSpace Hulk: Death Angel – the Card Game is a card based iteration of the Games Workshop classic, Space Hulk. You take on the role of a Kill-team from the Blood Angels Chapter of the Adeptus Astartes (Space Marines) charged with the investigation and purging of a derelict Space Hulk. This is a highly thematic co-operative game for 1 – 6 players that can be played in about an hour.

Appearance

Death Angel is very well produced and fits nicely inside the 8” * 4” * 1.5” box. The individual Space Marine cards truly bring each marine to life and the text area on these cards is easy to read. The Genestealer cards also have fantastic art and clearly provide the information needed on them. The Terrain cards are rather generic and a bit boring, but cards with text are easy to read. The remaining cards (Location, Action, and Event) are well produced and have good art and easy to read text. The game also includes a red custom die, numbered 0-5, with a skull icon on 3 of the faces and cardboard support and squad tokens, all of which have a high production value.

Rules/Ease of Learning

Once you have a few games of Space Hulk : Death Angel under your belt, the game is fairly simple to play, but the rulebook can be a bit of a hassle to navigate, due to a dis-jointed presentation. For example, the book presents the components of a game round in summary, then in detail, followed by specific rules on how specific actions work. In short, the first few games will probably involve flipping between pages frequently. However, after a few games, the rules become pretty clear. Someone that knows the rules
of the game can easily explain how to play in 5-10 minutes.

When starting a game, the various decks are prepared and locations are seeded, based on a starting location card, which changes based on the number of players. Players then randomly select their two
man squad by drawing squad tokens. Each squad has a unique ability that is tied to the specialty of one of the marines (eg, Heavy Weapons, Close Combat) and a set of Action cards. A round in Death Angel has four phases:

  1. Choose Actions – players select an action to perform, but cannot perform the same action back-to-back. Players may discuss actions, but cannot show their cards to the other players. Once an action is chosen, it is placed face down on the table.
  2. Resolve Actions – players resolve their actions in initiative order, which is printed on the action card they selected.
  3. Genestealer Attack – any Genestealers that are engaged with a Space Marine may attack
  4. Event – the current player reads the top card in the event deck, but does not show it or read it to the other players. This player makes any choices that are identified on the card and then spawns new Genestealers, and moves them, as directed on the card.

Attacks are resolved using the die provided. When a Space Marine takes an Attack action, they roll the die and if a skull comes up, they are successful in eliminating one threat. When attacked by Genestealers, the Space Marine rolls the die and if the result is greater than the number of genestealers in the attacking swarm, then the Marine lives – but it only takes one failure to remove a marine from the game.

Marines explore the Space Hulk by travelling to the locations in the location deck. Each location has a set number of Genestealers that will spawn and once they have all spawned the Marines move to the next location. The game ends when the victory conditions on the final location are met, or all Space Marines are killed.

Gameplay

Space Hulk LayoutWhile you play as a team of superhuman Space Marines, Death Angel is not easy. Communication, tactics and a bit of luck are needed to survive. To survive a game of Death Angel players need to work together and tactically select cards, especially since you cannot play the same card back to back. The necessary teamwork combined with the different abilities of each Marine, one really feels like they are part of a well-oiled Space Marine Kill-team.

Death Angel also captures the feeling of an unrelenting horde through frequent spawning of Genestealers. At the end of each round, more Genestealers spawn – and as swarms grow larger, it becomes more difficult for a Marine to defend against them, which adds to the sense of urgency and horror of facing a foe that vastly outnumbers you.

The location deck also adds to the theme of exploration of an unknown vessel. With each location change, players will wonder if the next location will offer a reprieve, or will the onslaught ramp up? Death Angel constantly pours tension on with each die roll and card drawn.

Having played Death Angel solo and with up to four players the game seems to scale well. The obvious complaint that one could level against Death Angel is the low chance to hit with a regular attack (50% chance) for a single kill, but special abilities are quite powerful and seem to balance this out. Genestealer movement and shifting Marines after a brother falls in battle can be a little tricky – a better rulebook might set this right though.

Conclusion

Death Angel is tense, thematic, and fun. The rulebook isn’t the easiest to read, but Space Hulk : Death Angel is easy to teach once you have a few games under your belt. It’s excellent for when you only have a short period of time to play, and the action can keep eliminated players interested.