Battle Line Review

Battle line is Reiner Knizai’s best 2-player game, combining the  elegance and simplicity based on set collection as seen in Lost Cities and the myriad strategic decisions of Blue Moon.

In Battle Line, players take on the role of generals commanding armies arrayed in a battle line, spread over 9 posts (flags).  To win, players need to win either 5 flags in total or 3 adjacent flags.

Winning a flag is a mater of having stronger forces, in this case, determined by the colours and numbers played on the flag (to a maximum of 3 normally).  With 60 cards, in 6 colours with strength ranging from 1 to 10, players will need to create forrmations to beat their opponent.   These formations are basically drawn from poker hands, with the straight flush the strongest down to the straight and single numbers winning.

It’s a concept that is easy for players to grasp, but throwing in flags and tactic cards make the game more complicated and strategic. Battle Line is a definite winner for any 2 player card game and should not be missed.

Frontiers board game review

Frontiers coverFrontiers is a light, miniature-less tactical war game that is everything it promises to be. Fast to learn, fast to play, the game recreates the feel and decisions of a miniature game without the requirements of multiple miniature purchases and figures.

Appearance: Frontiers comes in a single, inch and a bit tall box that contains the battle-map and all the necessary pieces. And by pieces I mean cardboard punch-outs and two decks. Lots of punch-outs; which is really the point of a miniature-less war game as these punch-outs take the place of all the terrain features, the characters, the required equipment and even rulers. Art work on all these counters is quite thematic and suitable, there is no issue at all about reading the counters (which include all the unit statistics) and all the counters are double-printed. The card board pieces and the map are all of good quality as well so you’ll be playing this game repeatedly with it showing little worst for wear.

My largest complaint? The lack of an insert. With so many counters, a well designed insert (or multiple ziplock bags) would have been appreciated. Set-up time without the use of this insert increases exponentially as you will find yourselves flipping each counter/character over repeatedly trying to figure out who is who.

Another nice to have feature would have been a simple ‘cheat sheet’ of what the various special ability icons are – and what they do. As it stands, thelongest part of putting together an army is remembering what each icon does.

Rules / Ease of Learning: Rules for Frontiers are extremely easy to learn – each unit has a movement and armour rating and three attack ratings. These attack ratings correspond to the three types of armour available – body armour, heavy armour and armour for structures. Each unit will have a bonus for firing on each of these different types of armour, with combat (and damage) resolved via a roll of a die. The bonus is added to the die roll with any result greater than or equal to the armour rating of the defender equaling damage. Depending on the unit, this can result in either death, a wounded unit (flip them over to their damaged side) and/or damaged parts (for vehicles).

That really is the essential part of combat for Frontiers. Two things complicate the game and make it more than a straight out slug-fest. Firstly, order counters are placed during the Order Phase. Players place the order counters at the same time, with each order counter hidden in the beginning. Two blank (bluff) order counters are available and each player starts with a minimum of 2 order counters. Additional counters are gained through special unit abilities (normally from leadership units like Lieutenants, etc).

During the Activation Phase, players flip over order counters according to their numbers in ascending order, with units activated at the same time acting at the same time. So it’s possible to destroy units simultaneously – or destroy units before they are activated.
Lastly, to increase combat and add a certain ‘fog of war’ to the game, action cards are available for both sides. Each action card deck is unique, though there are a number of similar cards available. In addition, players can only start with 25 cards (from an available 30 cards), so a level of customization is possible as well.

The only other area of complication, which is what takes up the most time to learn, are the various special abilities. These range from simple additional orders to smoke bombs to tripod and medical/mechanical options. All are pretty familiar to miniature / war game players and would not take too long to understand.

Gameplay: Firstly, because build points are entirely subject to the players, games of Frontier can last from as fast as an hour to a few hours. Players can customize and create their own armies as they see fit, along with the deck of cards to suit their play style. This set-up phase does not take long at all, and this includes setting up the board. In our games, we randomize set-up by just tossing pieces onto the map. Equipment crates are up to players, in half our games we go without just to simplify and speed up the game.

The two sides (the Legionnaires and the Zirl) are rather interestingly balanced. In our games, the Legionnaires generally have had more order markers, spread out across a variety of units. The Zirl have the majority of their additional order markers concentrated, providing a high level of vulnerability.

In addition, in most of our games, the Legionnaires have had a lot of good infantry while the Zirl have focused on more tanks. This is partially due to the make-up of the actual units – the Zirl’s Vega Tank for example has the ability to shoot twice and is overall a better tank the Legionnaire’s equivalent.

While there are natural tendencies for each army, the build point system obviously allows you to customize your armies for your play style, providing a surprising amount of strategy and depth. No major hitches seem to arise, especially since combat is simple and easy to assess and resolve.

Conclusion: Frontiers is a light miniature-less war game. It is run on a battle level of strategy, so no requirements are made for resource allocation beyond your army at the present moment. On the other hand, it’s perfect for what it is and quite addictive. This is probably one of the most under-rated war games around.

Cutthroat Caverns review

Cutthroat Caverns Cutthroat Caverns is a game of co-operative back-stabbing set in a fantasy world. Players familiar with Munchkin will find the feel of the game similar, though the mechanics and game-play are different. A fun, fast-moving game of backstabbing, this is a definite game for those who are looking for something different.

Appearance: Cutthroat Caverns is a card game and comes in a small, easily transportable card board box. Cards within are made up of thick stock, with specific character cards and monster cards being made of thicker stock card board. The only real art in the game comes on the monster cards and the character cards, all who are well drawn in the cartoon-style chosen. Overall, the artwork works, but is rather sparse.

Rules / Ease of Learning: Rules in Cutthroat Caverns are easy to learn, though the rules could have been better laid out. It certainly took us longer to read the rulebook than to understand how the game plays. Players start by choosing a character (doesn’t make a difference, characters have no special powers in the base game). They are then dealt a hand of cards, playing any items dealt into their hands straight away.

Each turn, the heroes face a monster. There are ten of these monsters, ranging in power and special abilities. Each monster deals damage in a specific manner and often have a special ability.

To fight the monster, players are dealt an ‘initiative’ card. Players then place an attack card down face down in front of them. Attack cards are then flipped over, dealing the stated amount of damage to the monster in order of initiative. This is the meat of the game, as players also have specific interrupt cards that can be played to harm other players or to adjust their initiative or to stop a player from dealing as much damage as he needs to.

The aim of Cutthroat Caverns is to be the player who survives the adventure and gathers the most prestige points – gained from landing a killing blow on an enemy monster. Of course, since monsters do damage, players can optionally ‘kill’ all the other players, but must be careful to do so late enough in the game to survive the encounter.

Actual Gameplay: Cutthroat Caverns plays pretty fast, with each round in combat taking only a few minutes. While the rules were long, a number of questions and errata came-up during initial play (e.g.how many times do we use a potion, when could you use it) but were easily resolved by house rules.

With the majority of the deck consisting of damage cards, it seemed easy enough to kill the monsters, but difficult to actually ‘harm’ other players. Also, while the bluffing element of the game did work to some extent, it did not expand to the level that we had expected.

On the other hand, the game certainly played a lot like Munchkin in the back-stabbing aspect. There was a lot of player-on-player confrontation, especially in the last round. However, again, the lack of actual action cards made this a more difficult proposition than Munchkin does.

Conclusion: Overall, Cutthroat Caverns was certainly fun to play but not necessarily a game that will hit the table often. It had a big advantage over its closest competitor – Munchkin– in that a game finished within an hour. However, the lack of sufficient action cards did make the game slightly more frustrating, especially with the amount of luck involved in the drawing of cards.

Edit: Many of these issues have been resolved in the expansions to the game – Deeper & Darker adds even more monsters and special powers for each character; Relics & Ruins adds a new event deck and special relics to the game and Tombs & Tomes adds an adventure module to the game and expands on the previous expansions even further.

Deutscher Spiele Preis awards

The Deutscher Spiele Preis awards were announced recently. For those of you who do not know, the Deutscher Spiele Preis is a German award that is voted on by gamers only and generally nominates and awards for the best Strategy Games of the year.

The following are the top 10 games in order of their rankings for 2008.

  1. Agricola – 2008 Deutscher Spiele Preis Winner
  2. Stone Age
  3. Cuba
  4. In the Year of the Dragon
  5. Tribune: Primus Inter Pares
  6. Hamburgum
  7. Galaxy Trucker
  8. Keltis
  9. Witch’s Brew
  10. Metropolys

Jambo

JamboJambo is the greeting provided by Swahili traders before the colonial powers came to Africa, and in this game, players take on the role of traders in the marketplace trying to accumulate gold.A fun, fast moving card game that is easy to learn but very in-depth.One of the best 2 player business card games around.Appearance: Jambo comes in a rectangular card board box about an inch in height and 6 inches wide and long.Cardboard pieces are provided for the goods that you will trade and the card stock that make up all the other items in the game are of high quality.Artwork is pleasing to the eye, with cartoonish but appropriate images that are quite well done.

Rules / Ease of Learning: Jambo excels in its easy-to-learn rules.Players each receive a hand of 5 cards to begin and 10 gold with 1 large merchant table.Each turn, a player has 5 actions that can be used to draw, look and replace or take a card; to play a card or to activate a played card.As the end goal of the game is to reach 60 gold, players must strive to buy and sell their goods as depicted on the cards effectively.Of note in the draw phase is that players may only ever take 1 card in a turn, thus limiting the number of actions he can take.

Cards in the game consist of Good cards, People, Utilities and Animals.Good cards can be used to either buy the goods depicted or sell them.Perhaps most importantly, players must buy or sell all the goods on the card.Inability to buy or sell any of the goods makes the card unplayable.

People cards are often one-off ‘event’ cards that can alter the game, while Animals are similar in action though often more ‘offensive’ than People cards.Utility cards are item cards that may be played (3 maximum at a time) and then activated throughout the game for a single action.

An additional card is the ‘small traders table’ that can be paid for to add more spaces to place goods. As you only get 6 spaces to place goods on the main table, you will need the additional table.

Lastly, a special note that any actions that a player has left are discarded at the end of the turn.If a player has more than 2 actions left, he receives 1 gold.

Actual Gameplay: Each turn in Jambo plays fast (2 – 3 minutes per turn maximum) as the number of actions are limited and players have a limited set of choices (draw a card, discard that card to draw another or play the cards in hand or on the table).Card combinations are definitely a necessity to win this game, while the explanations on the cards are easy to understand.

Jambo has a good mix of both ‘defensive’ cards as well as offensive cards that can change your opponents plans, either by removing their utilities or goods in most cases. A few cards also allow you to exchange cards with your opponent, creating a good balance to the interaction between players.

Conclusion: Jambo has definitely shown why it’s won the many awards it has in my book. It’s a good 2 player, economic game that is easily portable and fun to play with involved strategies and tactics but easy to learn rules.

Battlelore board game review

Battlelore board gameBattlelore is a medieval fantasy two player war game. Players can choose to include or exclude as many fantasy elements as they wish, allowing you to recreate medieval battle scenes or go for an all-out medieval fantasy battle (but without dragons). Control of units are via randomly drawn cards that activate different units, with 3 ‘levels’ of units. Where Battlelore really differs is the use of the Command Council whose abilities can bring about special effects through the payment of lore. A fun wargame and probably one of the best in a medieval setting.

Appearance: Battlelore comes in a hefty box with a ton of unit pieces with differing banners and looks. None of them are pre-painted. Also included is the game board and the various terrain tiles and game play cards. The layout of the manual and the pieces are of really high quality, with nothing having broken thus far. Overall, a definite plus in the appearance department.

Minor grouses for me include the fact that none of the pieces are coloured and that it can get difficult to pick out specific figures due to the way the game is packed with only flags and pennants used to differentiate pieces. Easily solved for those who like painting though.

Rules / Ease of Learning: Like most wargames, the rules for Battlelore will take at least 20 minutes to learn. While not particularly hard, there are a number of different rules to keep in mind. A big advantage is the well laid out book and the various ‘cheat’ cards that players can refer to while playing. Definitely allows quick immersion. Also, the scenario book is great as it slowly introduces new elements to the game in each new battle – starting from the base medieval battles to full scale fantasy battles.

Units are broken into the typical cavalry, infantry and archer units. Each unit can be one of three types – green, regular or veteran with corresponding bonuses in damage and reduction in movement rates. Also, additional ‘fantasy’ unit types in the form of goblins, dwarves and ‘monsters’ are available.

Understanding the rules of pursuit, battle-back, morale and archery is as always very important. Perhaps most importantly, battle-back rules allow the defender their only option to ‘hurt’ attackers in the same round, a potentially lethal tactic.

The big difference that Battlelore introduces is the ‘Advisory Council’. Thisis where the game gets really interesting as the council can directly affect the game through the use of Lore cards. Depending on who you have on the council and what cards are available, players can heal friendly units, throw fireballs at enemy units or play ‘sneakier’ cards to increase movement, defense or teleporting pieces.

Actual Gameplay: Battlelore is an interesting miniature wargame. As most scenarios do not require the need for additional pieces, it can be played right out of the box and the multiple scenarios offered are a great way to get started. Set-up times is not bad, with experience obviously playing a good part in speeding it up. The useof multiple figures to indicate unit strength can sometimes be a tad slow, though short-cuts of not using the exact figures can be used to make gameplay run faster.

The combat system is the same used for Memoir ’44, with differently experienced troops having different strengths and movements. While staying to the medieval theme for the most part (all the infantry, archers and cavalry have the same statistics), the introduction of goblins and dwarves offer a little variety inn terms of special troops. The special monsters are powerful but as a friend pointed out, easily destroyed and thus a non-issue quite often.

Command cards dictate movement and units that can be activated per turn, enforcing a tactical twist to any strategy – it’s hard to advance on the left flank when all your cards are for the right! Obviously, this has it’s pro’s and con’s as a well laid out strategy can be ruined by the lack of cards.

Battlelore really shines in the use of council and Lore cards. These provide an interesting new way to affect the game while adding a ‘fantasy’ element to it that is not just dragons and goblins and dwarves. This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of Battlelore in my view and what differentiates it from other ‘war’ games.

Two issues that do bother me about the base system is the lack of realism in combat and unit strength. A unit that has only 1 figure left still can do as much damage as an unhurt unit. Also, because units can only battle-back when they are bold, it is possible to entirely destroy a unit without it ever inflicting any damage back to the attacking unit – which seems unrealistic to me. This is perhaps due to the ‘turn’ nature of combat but the rules do dictate a specific strategic and tactical style.

Conclusion: Battlelore is a great fantasy wargame that works for those that are not looking for anything too complicated or realistic. The lack of differentiation of units and the somewhat unrealistic movement (command card) and battle rules dictate strategy in the game. This is perhaps not the game for ‘realists’ but it is a fantasy medieval wargame. Realism is optional, and it has the best depiction and use of magic that I have come across. Most importantly, it’s fun.

Kingsburg board game review

KingsburgKingsburg is a medieval fantasy development and resource management game where players compete to develop their provinces to battle-off the invading hordes. Kingsburg uses a dice-rolling system to initiate order in the phases and then proceeds to use those rolls to allow bids on advisors for their favour. A fun development game with long-term strategy planning and short-term tactical decisions, it’s a perfect advanced development game that won’t hurt your brain too much.

Appearance: Kingsburg comes in a well packaged box with some great, comic medieval fantasy artwork. While there is nothing that truly astounds (like Blue Moon), the artwork is fun and quirky while being well suited to the theme. One minor complaints about the board is how ‘busy’ it is – at first glance, it was quite intimidating with some difficulty picking out what was where. It took only a few minutes though before everyone was comfortable with it.

All the dice, tokens and game board are made of high quality material with no real flaws to be found. About the only major complaint is the generic use of coloured wooden cubes for the 3 resources (gold, stone and wood). A huge bonus in my view – the box comes pre-packaged with ziplock bags!

Rules / Ease of Learning: The rulebook is adequate, though at fist reading it seemed more complicated than the game actually was. Kingsburg is actually very easy to learn, though there is quite some depth of strategy.

The game plays over a period of 5 years, with each year broken into 8 phases. Three of the phases are ‘productive seasons’ (spring, summer and autumn) while winter is the last phase and when war occurs. Phases 1, 3, 5 and 7 are special phases, providing additional aid from the king to the losing player (phases 1 and 5), victory points for the current leader (phase 3) and preparation for battle (phase 7) in winter.

The goal of the game is to be player the most victory points at the end of the fifth year. Victory points are garnered in a variety of ways – through advisors, having the most buildings, developing certain buildings and through victory in battles.

As governors of a province, players will need to decide on which of 5 development tracks their province will concentrate on. Each building in a development track provides bonuses – either during the game or as victory points at the end. Track 1 focuses on providing a high level of building victory points (Cathredal), the second resources during the game (Merchant’s Guild), the third (Wizard’s Guild) and fourth (Fottress) military build-up and the last (Embassy) on-going victory points.

The productive seasons in Kingsburg is where the meat of the game lies. At the beginning of the season, players roll their dice (normally 3) and work out turn order. The dice are then used to allocate influence to each advisor, with players needing to meet the number on the advisor (ranging from 1-18) exactly. So a dice roll of 3, 4 and 5 would allow the player to affect advisors 3, 4, 7, 8, 9 and 12. Advisor no.6 (the Alchemist) could not be affected because the player could not make 6 with his dice roll. Players take turns influencing advisors starting with a player with the lowest roll and advisors can only normally be influenced by one player.

Once the dice allocation is complete, players will receive the benefits of each advisor and build one building (normally) per turn.

At the end of each year during winter (phase 8), the monsters arrive and players will need to tot up their total military strength along with the reinforcements from the king (based on a 1d6 die roll) and compare it to the monster’s forces. Winners lose resources, victory points or even buildings and winners gain generally small victory bonuses. The overall victor gains an additional victory point as well.

Actual Gameplay: Kingsburg’s actual gameplay can be considered quite fun. A number of aspects make it stand out as a great gateway or medium weight board game including:

catch up mechanisms

As mentioned, phases 1 and 5 are dedicated to acknowledging the weakest player and then providing them a benefit. In phase 1, they receive an additional white die for influencing advisors while phase 5 provides the King’s Envoy that allows a player to influence an already influenced advisor or to ‘double-build’ during a turn.

Also, the game is well balanced to allow even players with bad rolls to do well e.g. the turn order is based on lowest to highest, allowing players who rolled badly first pick.

Interaction

Since an advisor can only be influenced once, it behooves players to watch what other players have rolled to ‘counter’ the initiatives of other players. However, because this interaction is not a direct confrontation (as per wargames), it seems to certainly generate less antagonism.

Strategic decision making

Players are faced with two major strategic decisions during the game : which development path to continue down and how strong an army should they build. Both decisions will affect their long-term use of resources, with short-term tactical decisions during the influence phase.

One aspect of the actual gameplay that cropped up pretty fast was that there did not seem to be a huge number of choices in terms of optimal builds. While there are 5 tracks to choose from, only a couple of tracks seem to work out well in the long-term – which in a larger game will have 3 players using the same strategy at the same time.

Luck is an obvious factor in the game – it doesn’t matter how good your strategy is, bad rolls can still sink you. Certain strategies (e.g. the Merchant Guild development route) are more susceptible to bad rolls than others, but it is interesting to note that even the worst rolling player in our game ended up only 10 points back.

Lastly, downtime can be a major problem with the game – because players have to consider the dice rolled by others as well as their own options, analysis paralysis is a definite danger.

Conclusion: Kingsburg in my view is a game that has a lot of potential and is certain to hit the table often with my group. It feels in some parts like a ‘lighter’ version of Louis the XIV – no one walks out of our gaming sessions complaining of a fried brain after Kingsburg! The added need to balance development of soldiers against the invading hordes gives it a nice fantasy feel to it as well and I certainly do like the ‘catch-up’ mechanisms added to the game. In my view, it’s a great mid-level strategy game for players who want more choices in their board games.

Carcassonne: Traders & Builders board game review

Carcassonne : Traders & Builders Carcassonne : Traders and Builders is the second large expansion to the Carcassonne Series of games and probably my favourite expansion to the game. It adds two new scoring options that adds a slight shift in strategy, new ways to speed up the game and my favourite, a cloth bag to keep all the tiles in. What the expansion does miss is the lack of direct player confrontation that is hallmark of Carcassonne.

Appearance: Carcassonne : Traders and Builders comes in a small rectangular box. As with Carcassonne, there is very little to comment on in terms of artwork – it is terrain features after all. The pig is somewhat confused, looking very little like a pig but then again, meeples don’t look much like humans.

Rules / Ease of Learning: Rules for Carcassonne : Traders and Builders are easy to learn, and because they come in three component parts, can be selectively added to the base game.

Goods are represented on both city tiles and as punched-out markers. Players who complete a city with a good marker on it win the specific good marked (wine, cloth or grain). Players with the most goods of a specific type at the end of the game get 10 points.

The Pig is a small addition to the game which can be placed on an existing controlled farm. That means you’ll need to have your farmer placed already. A pig adds 1 point to each city scored for the farm.

The Builder must be placed after a meeple is placed like the Pig, but is dedicated to a city or road. The builder allows players to play another tile immediately after adding to the city or road that the builder is on. That is, when a road which a Builder is on is extended, the player may automatically draw a second tile and play it anywhere on the board as per normal rules. And no, you do not get a third turn.

Actual Gameplay: Traders and Builders adds a slew of expansions, some with varying success. The Pig is the least game-altering addition, adding only a single point. Farm centric players will love it, others will find it mostly a miss. In our games, we found it to be generally a non-feature – it was useful, but nothing special.

The Builder was the most disappointing in actual game-play. While the concept of having multiple turns to ‘build’ on a feature, in a 5 player game at least, by the time a Builder was in play, the actual benefit was minimal. After taking 1 turn to place a meeple, a second to place the Builder, you then had to be lucky enough to draw a road or city (whichever it is on). Quite often, you would only get to use it once or twice before another player shut the feature down, forcing you to start the process again. Of course, our experience might be due to the number of players involved (5) and how aggressive we were at shutting down each other.

The Goods feature was probably the most popular addition to the game. While adding only 30 points, it provided a twist to gameplay as players would compete to get the goods as much as points. Quite amusingly, in at least one city, players were purposely increasing the size of the city as 4 goods were available and no-one wanted the city to be scored.

Possibly the best addition was the bag – instead of having tiles spread all across a table, you now had a simple and efficient way of keeping all your tiles together. Probably my favourite addition and for anyone who has a small table or who wants to make the game easily portable.

Conclusion: My favourite expansion of Carcasonne thus far, a more comprehensive expansion that both changes the game and adds to it. Well worth the cost for nothing more than the Goods and Cloth Bag in my opinion.