Christmas Boardgame Roundup

by Dan H

Dan H spent the holidays playing boardgames
I tend to buy my family boardgames for Christmas. I also tend to be quite selfish, so when I went into our local gamestore to pick up a Christmas present for my brother this December, I wound up spending approximately four times as much on myself as I did on anybody else.

I've since spent the long holiday playing through the various games I either bought for myself or for other people with a variety of friends and family members. And since we do very occasionally talk about boardgames on FB (although I think the last article we had on the subject was in 2011) I thought I'd post some ... well ... not so much reviews, really as rambles about the games in question.

Zombicide: The Only Good Zombie is a Dead … oh wait

First up was Zombicide, at time of writing the only game produced by Guillotine Games.

Zombicide is aptly named. The flavour text on the box says that “there are more zombies than you have bullets.” This is strictly untrue, since neither the zombies in the game nor the bullets in your guns are limited in any way. The description on the website states that:

Zombicide is a fun and easy game with cool miniatures in an archetypical, popular and comics-inspired environment. Ambiance is constantly balanced between "beat'em up" and "survival horror" as survivors keep switching from prey to predators. Humor and gloom happily marry in a zombie-fest.

This description is about sixty percent accurate. It is true that the game is fun, and although it is easy, it is also sometimes quite confusing. Similarly while it is true that the game has some elements of beat 'em up and survival horror, I don't think it's true to say that the ambiance is constantly balanced between them. It's probably more correct to say that the game has a survival horror vibe for about the first three turns, and I think possibly only the first three turns the first time you play it. Very quickly, however, you realise that it is quite easy to tool up your party with chainsaws, uzis and sawed-off shotguns, and blow the ever-loving crap out of the zombie hordes. There's still tension, and your characters are still quite vulnerable, but the core elements of survival horror, which I would be inclined to suggest include limited resources, are mostly absent.

The game is relatively easy to play once you know how it all fits together, but there are a lot of ways in which the game is quite hard to get your head around at the beginning. There are lots of equipment cards which don't actually do anything, but which are needed for specific scenarios, but nowhere in the rulebook does it actually explain what you're supposed to do with these things.

The other – I understand semi-famously – confusing and unintuitive rule is the rule for ranged weapons. Specifically, when you attack zombies with melee weapons you get to pick which zombie to hit, and never hit friendly targets by accident. When you attack zombies with ranged weapons, you always, infallibly hit friendly targets first, followed by the zombies ascending order of how dangerous they are. This is … odd. I see the logic behind it, in that otherwise ranged weapons (and particularly dual-wielded ranged weapons) are far too good, but from a purely “roleplaying perspective” it is extremely strange that two characters can be standing next to each other, have a zombie burst through the door, and immediately turn around and shoot one another in the face.

I think this is one of those interesting situations (like, arguably, D&D hit points) where you have to look not so much at the literal rule (which states that zombie survivors will essentially shoot each other in preference to shooting zombies) but at the effect the rule has on gameplay. The ranged weapons rule ensures that getting in close with zombies is basically suicide unless you're armed with melee weapons.

The game plays smoothly, although there are some peculiar niggling details, like the fact that the double-sided boards are marked with a numbers-and-letters code (A1, B3 and so on) but there seems to be little logical connection in labelling the two sides, which makes it tricky to find the board you want. There is also, infuriatingly, one player model which is almost exactly the same colour as the zombie models. These are, however, minor bugs in a game which otherwise provides a solid zombie-slaughtering experience.

Descent 2nd Edition: Going Down Again

I loved the original Descent, but the game was somewhat marred by the fact that even the simplest dungeons usually took several hours to play. I seem to recall that the original actually evolved out of the Doom boardgame, and it had some slightly odd mechanics that betrayed its video game origins. Like the fact that whenever you died, you literally respawned back in town, and had to come back to the dungeon via one of the “ancient glyphs of transport” that conveniently connected the dungeon to the capital city of Tamriel (and it has just occurred to me that there is space in my brain being taken up remembering the name of the fictional starting city in a board game).

Like many dungeon-exploring games going all the way back to Hero Quest, Descent, in either of its editions, pits a party of up to four adventurers against a single villain-player (which in Descent is called the Overlord, although a tiny part of me misses the old Hero Quest title of “Evil Wizard”). Something I've often noticed about this kind of game is that the Villain player is in a slightly tricky position, since you're sort of in then same role as a GM in a tabletop RPG, but you're also very concretely trying to win. In the original game this was particularly tough, because the Overlord's goal was simply to make the players run out of Conquest Tokens, which could be achieved either by killing enough PCs (dying carries a Conquest Token penalty) or else delaying them as much as possible. This meant that a lot of the time as Overlord, you were relying on some fairly cheap tactics – picking on the weakest character, throwing as many random monster spawns down as you could just to delay things long enough to draw through your deck of evil (another Conquest Token penalty). This lead to a slightly annoying situation in which actually winning as the Overlord was deeply anticlimactic. While adventurer victories come from slaying a villain or capturing a treasure, Overlord victories come from just doing exactly the same thing you've been doing for the whole game, only this time you win from it.

The second edition fixes a number of these issues. It replaces the vast, sprawling dungeons of the original game with smaller maps that can be played through in about an hour (although most adventures are spread over two maps). Perhaps more interestingly, each scenario gives the Overlord a goal (which, admittedly, often winds up being a time limit by another means) making playing competitively as the Overlord far more satisfying. Of course I have yet to win a game as the Overlord, but I no longer feel bad about trying.

There are some things that are lost from the original – some of those things (like the vast number of characters and monsters added through the expansions) are added back into the game through the Descent Conversion Kit released at the same time as the second edition – but other things are jettisoned completely. In particular, the new game relies a lot more heavily on the campaign structure, whereas original Descent missions were very standalone, providing a full adventuring career progression in a single (very long) dungeon. I also admit that a tiny part of me sort of misses the absurd stuff like the in-dungeon shopping (which led to farcical situations like a minotaur charging headlong through a shopping centre in order to buy healing potions, then teleporting back to the dungeon and ramming into a beastman at a full run). And I suspect some of my friends will be a little sad that the introduction to every scenario no longer ends with “if you can reactivate some of the ancient glyphs of transport, all the better.”

King of Tokyo: Yahtzee for Monsters

This is what I wound up buying for my brother. King of Tokyo is a (mostly) dice game in which you play (mechanically identical) monsters battling in and around Tokyo. Whoever is in control of Tokyo is able to attack all of the other monsters at once, but will also be attacked by all of the other monsters, meaning that deciding when to occupy and when to leave Tokyo is probably the most important tactical decision in the game.

You can win King of Tokyo in two ways: either you rack up twenty victory points, or else you eliminate all the other players. You attack enemy monsters by rolling little claw symbols on the dice. You heal damage by rolling little heart symbols on the dice. You score victory points by either being in Tokyo at the start of your turn (which involves surviving a whole round of people dogpiling you) or by rolling … umm … matching sets of numbers.

Mostly, King of Tokyo is a nicely thematic game. You have nice cardboard monster tokens, well illustrated cards, and little green cubes to track your monstrous energy. Everything comes together really nicely to give the impression of a gigantic monster smackdown, except for the number-matching thing. A brief discussion over our first playthrough of the game led us to the conclusion that your monsters must be sitting on the outskirts of Tokyo having a quiet game of Yahtzee, and occasionally flipping out and attacking each other when the game starts to go badly.

The game plays quickly, we managed to get through about two or three games in an hour. Because the core mechanic involves one player putting themselves in the position to get blown apart by everybody else (essentially making “dogpile the winner” into a game mechanical requirement) the central dynamic of the game changes a lot as the number of players changes. With two players, only one player is outside Tokyo, so surviving inside Tokyo and gaining Victory Points is far easier, while with four players the monster in Tokyo has to survive three attacks before getting any Victory Points at all.

A peculiarity of King of Tokyo is that it seems to lack any kind of official FAQ, so whenever we needed rules clarifications we wound up going to forums on which people seemed primarily to be basing their interpretations on the wording in the French version of the game, which is particularly peculiar because the game is by Richard “Magic: the Gathering” Garfield who … well … isn't French.

Eclipse: A New Hex Grid for the Galaxy

The final game in my Big Christmas Games bundle is the game my brothers bought for me (like I say, family tradition). Eclipse is basically the board game equivalent of a 4X game – you control a space empire, and you explore, expand exploit and exterminate your way through a galaxy.

Eclipse is complicated y'all. The manual is full of little sidebars that say things like “You may have noticed you have three more Influence tokens than spaces on your Influence track. These will become available if you research the Advanced Robotics and Quantum Grid technologies.” Which, when you first look at the manual, might as well say “you may have noticed that you have more magic bananas than invisible turnips, these will become available when you get the space lizards and Pope Gregory IX.” On your turn, you have to choose between a bewildering array of actions and the first time you play the game you have no idea whatsoever what any of them do, or perhaps more importantly what it would mean to do any of them. Okay, I can explore more space. Is that good? That's probably good. Or I can research stuff? Okay, what can I research? Okay, this means I can colonise advanced money spaces. What does that even mean?

I said when I was reading the rules that it felt like the game would probably be extremely elegant and intuitive once you'd got your head around the vast amount of information that you need to work out how it works. And I think I was probably right. Once you get going it all starts to fall into place quite quickly. Although unfortunately it tends to fall into place just quickly enough that it's easy to work out what you should have done last turn, but there's so much to do and the game evolves so quickly that this doesn't really help you work out what to do this turn.

This blog post describes the game, I think accurately, as a “dependency management engine game” which sounds about as boring as it can possibly be, but I think it sums it up quite well. It's one of those games where you spend a lot of time saying “okay, so I need to do this, so I can do this, so I can do this, so I can do this.”

Eclipse is one of those games which I strongly suspect will get more rewarding the more you play it, and once you get into the swing of things you really start to feel in control of your little space empire. At least until you realise that you've got way too little money, will go bankrupt if you try to take any actions next turn, that the player to your left has all the technologies in the world and is about a turn away from having an unstoppable army of hypertech dreadnoughts to wipe you out with, and the player on your right has a really remarkably large number of Victory Points from all Discovery tokens they've kept.

So far we've only played half a game, just to get a sense for how it all works, and I'm keen to try more, because I get the impression that there's a lot of depth of play there.

So … yeah. That's boardgames. I'd kind of recommend all of them. Descent 2nd is probably most fun if you have a regular gaming group; Zombicide is extremely expensive, but good if you like the minis; King of Tokyo is a great little game if you want a casual gap-filler; Eclipse looks like being awesome if you want a serious resource-management strategy game.

Stay tuned for more boardgame reviews which, at our current rate of progress, will be showing up some time in 2017.

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Comments (go to latest)
Shim at 12:44 on 2014-01-04
Ah, Zombiecide. That was a lot of fun.

I think the biggest hurdle for me was the missing explanations. It shares that problem with the D&D boardgames, for one. As a player, it's always confusing to find a stack of components that aren't described in the rulebook, but at least in most games they turn out to be specific to particular missions; it's simply stupid when they're part of the core game.

For the uninitiated, Zombiecide has a deck of equipment cards that you pick up by searching buildings. All of these cards are used from the beginning, but quite a lot simply don't do anything unless you're playing a specific mission where you have to collect them. Unlike most games, it doesn't include a crib sheet or Cards page that lists all the cards and what they're for, which means the first time you turn over a bag of rice you have no idea what it's for. You don't find out that Rice is a victory condition card until you do a mission where you need Rice, and so on. I can't remember what cards particularly baffled us, but there was certainly a fair amount of head-scratching going on.

If anyone's making a game, do us all a favour and include a comprehensive run-down of all the components in a single place in the rules.

The other thing I think is a little awkward is that when you first play the game you have no idea what proportion of Equipment cards will spawn zombies, or how often zombies are likely to spawn on the street, and so as Dan notes you start off playing like a survival horror game. Having played a bit, I'm still not sure what proportion of Equipment is actually useful, or how easy it is to get victory items. A card list with numbers would help with the former problem. Arguably it would undermine the game, but in practice once you've played a few times you're going to know the proportions anyway.

In terms of the tile numbering, I suspect when they finished testing and went to production they picked their fave tiles and slapped them onto tiles without considering whether their in-house coding scheme would make that confusing. While I'm sure the actual arrangement results from a complex algorithm (or whatever) to ensure that you can make all the board layouts they want with only a single copy of the tileset, so all tiles needed for every single mission must appear on different tiles, there is really no excuse for not having the tiles numbered predictably. A simple A1/A2 scheme would be fine. Heck, AA01 if they're feeling confident about expansions.
Michal at 19:43 on 2014-01-04
I've played a full game of Eclipse, and did get a handle on it about halfway through the game--but it was too late to implement any effective strategies and another player had already taken the core sector and fortified it to the point where it was unassailable. My main beef wasn't with the complicated steps for upgrades (which are at least implemented in a mildly intuitive way) but the simple fact that you have to draw random sectors as you explore and the warp zones don't always (or even usually) line up, meaning you can get cut off on your side of the galaxy and not be able to reach players on the other side of the board--I couldn't do much of anything because the only way to the weaker players was through the core sector and attempts to go around the outer edge didn't succeed thank to sheer bad luck.

General impression was still "more trouble than it's worth", rather than "must explore this game further."

The best board game I played in 2013 was without a doubt A Game of Thrones--I was surprised how much fun it actually was.
James D at 07:54 on 2014-01-11
A boardgame I had a lot of fun with this year was Alien Frontiers, a retro-futuristic game about space exploration - basically you play as 50s-sci-fi-style astronauts who are trying to colonize a planet, while managing resources in the form of Solar Energy and Lunar Ore credits. You get a fleet of ships in the form of colored dice, and each turn you roll them to determine how you can use them - doubles, sequential numbers, and similar patterns allow you to place your ships in certain specific installations.

The goal of the game is to gather the most victory points, which you do mostly through establishing colonies on the central planet - also, whoever has the most colonies on any given region of the plant gains control of that region, which allows them to use that region's special ability, as well as awarding them an extra victory point. However, control can be taken away if someone else equals or exceeds your colonies in that region, and Technology cards can provide some really devious ways to screw your opponents - such as teleporting one of their colonies to a less advantageous region. It's a very fast-moving game that's easy to learn and takes maybe half an hour to play, but there is definitely a layer of tactics involved that gives it lasting value. Also, I only have the base game, but there have been a few expansions released that I'm sure provide even more depth. Definitely recommended.
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