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What’s better than an Arkham Horror scenario? TWO Arkham Horror scenarios! You better believe it! The Forgotten Age has so much campaign to cram into its mandated cycle size The Heart of the Elders features scenarios A and B to play through. Or, as I like to describe it, you put your creepy cave in, your creepy cave out, in out, in out, you shake it all about…
After surviving your little jaunt into pre-history it’s back to bumble through the jungle starting from the Mouth of K’n-yan. There’s a mysterious set of pillars within whose puzzle you must solve. While I wish there might have been some ingenious TIME Stories like puzzle involving the cards themselves, I’m afraid you just have to imagine what goes down, and focus instead on finding the clues you need out in the jungle. It’s not just standard fair, it’s even re-treading the same locations you visited in the opening scenario. But I’m not going to begrudge card re-use when it enables so much game.
Scenario B tracks your descent into the vast cave network below. If you can get further than the first room, that is. We found this scenario cripplingly, brutally hard. By far the hardest scenario we have played, although a fair amount of that will be down to the accumulated suffering inflicted upon our investigators by the campaign. Fortunately this isn’t a scenario that terminates your campaign, rather marking an unexpected twist in the tale…
No particular similarities to the new cards here. But we do have some cool new neutral cards, which is a rare treat. How have we gone this long with this game without being able to buy a trench coat?? But now we do with a nice boost to agility, albeit at quite some cost. That’s Burberry prices for you. Similarly expensive and, mechanically, pairing quite nicely with your new coat is the Ornate Bow, a ranged weapon perfect for agility-loving rogues sneaking about the edges taking pot shots at monsters. It’s the first weapon to let you fight with feet! Plus it does a mighty +2 damage and has unlimited ammo! At the very thematic cost of having to spend actions knocking new arrows. A weapon for the stalkers in the party.
I suppose these neutrals do lean a bit towards the Rogues, which must be why they only get one new faction card this pack: Lola Santiago, the no-nonsense archaeologist! She’s just here to get the job done. So long as you don’t mind paying for her. Which, in a Rogue deck, is not likely to be too much of a problem. Add some static bonuses and you’ve got yourself a nice little ally.
Survivors follow up with some strong options for dealing with those inevitable failures. You can Live and Learn to just try again (for free!) and with a +2 bonus. That’s, frankly, amazing! Take Heart is similarly lovely even if, as a skill card, it doesn’t actually add any skill points. But in this case you wouldn’t want it to. With this card you actually want to fail as it rewards you with a pile of new resources. Sadly, the good stuff train starts to go off the rails with Against All Odds. A cost 2, experience 2 card that is only useful in the unusual case where your base skill is 2-3 points below a skill test target and you could still pass… so if you have a small mountain of bonuses from elsewhere. But think about all the better cards your hard won experience could go on?
OH GOD I love-hate that Premonition artwork! So brutal, so horrifying, so quintessentially Lovecraftian. It’s also a really cool power, letting you know, with certainty, what the next chaos token will be. This is never not useful. Finally you know how much effort, or not, to put towards a test. Saving you valuable cards or letting you sensibly invest them in an achievable but tough test. And it’s free! Fabulous! The slightly wild eyed Olive McBride is less predictable. And hurts my brain. Reveal 3 chaos tokens instead of one and apply two, discarding the third. I mean, that guarantees you avoid one awful token… but at what level of skill investment do you get value from this? I’m sure someone has done the math and, I suppose thematically, you should at least try her once? Finally you get Defiance, which you know, blocks what are likely to be annoying tokens, especially on higher difficulties. But it costs 2 experience. For a card you can at most use once per scenario… And particularly in recent campaigns where story choices have a big influence on the chaos bag you are probably better off with the lower level version of this card.
Finally we come to the scrapings at the bottom of the Mythos pack. Custom Ammunition is pretty cool, reloading and powering up a firearm. But again, 3XP? There’s some punchy combos in there with this so it’s far from a no. Intrepid struggles even more. The main source of head tests faced by guardians are the mythos deck, and while it certainly feels like I have to face them all the damn time, I can all but guarantee I won’t draw a single one so long as this card is in my hand. At which point, it’s useless!
Otherworldly Compass has a really cool effect! Reducing shroud by the number of open locations adjacent to where you are investigating. That could get quite powerful for a card with unlimited uses. But YET AGAIN at 2XP in a card pool full to bursting with excellent ways of hoovering up clues, it’s probably not getting purchased. Apparently the card effect ‘theme’ this pack is overly expensive cards. Speaking of which we have Expose Weakness with an unjustifiable cost of 3XP. Bad luck Seekers.
Given the two part structure of this scenario, it is perhaps unsurprising that part A is fairly short: a mere 10 doom on the agenda deck. But that’s no bad thing – indeed, it’s a rather pleasant change of pace. And the scenario makes full use of that, by making you play through it multiple times.
Your objective is to unlock all 6 of the pillars within the cave. This is simply a matter of gathering a couple of clues per pillar and spending them in the cave. This does mean you’ll have to explore the jungle to get access to them. Importantly, you save your progress after each attempt, so an unlocked pillar remains unlocked on your next attempt.
On your first go though you’ll need to even figure this much out. That’d be act 1 then. After you complete the first act you never have to do so again, which significantly speeds up your subsequent plays. You might rightly wonder what adds the pressure? How can it be so hard to collect a few clues that you might need multiple playthroughs? That would be the giant snake monster on the back of the act card.
I don’t care how often they do that it ain’t ever getting old. This beasty can never be killed so I hope you’ve brought along someone with good evasion. Especially as each replay starts with you and the beast in the cave together! We found ourselves doing enough to get one pillar unlocked and then resigning to avoid taking more trauma. Which makes for a strange experience. The scenario feels inevitable, but it could be a bit of a grind. While the idea of pulling back to camp to rest and return the next day feels thematic, turning to say good night to the giant monster hunting you each evening feels more than a little weird!
It helps that, after the first, an attempt didn’t take us more than half an hour. It also helps that how well you did in the previous scenario, The Boundary Beyond, gets you multiple steps forward on this one. For each ancient location you fully explored in old Mexico City, you will have already unlocked one pillar at the start of this scenario. Indeed, it is possible that you can skip this entire sub-scenario if you unlocked them all. But good luck with that!
Descent into Madness
Part 2 is the real test. One chance to reach the depths. A vast doom threshold on the agenda deck giving you the space to explore the hauntingly vast cave network below. Where I feel like such locations should warrant an encounter deck emphasising the dizzying scope described by the act and agenda decks, and location cards themselves, what you instead face is a collection of perfectly unpleasant effects, but ones emphasising claustrophobia: darkness, cave paintings, skeletons, traps. Perfect for the temple in The Doom of Eztli, but nothing capturing the scale suggested by the Perilous Gulch, Vast Passages and Crystal Pillars locations. The one set of encounter cards added for this scenario: No Turning Back, is a rock fall which, frankly shouldn’t be such a cause for concern in Vast Passages. Don’t get me wrong, it fits the theme of caves, but less so the unique features of these caves.
The locations themselves do add some very nice thematic rules which go some way to making up for the encounter deck’s missed opportunity. Those Vast Passages say, require an extra action to explore, if no investigator has their binoculars. The scenario once again leans into the frustratingly random supplies mechanic. Although it goes some way to mitigate it: the opening location lets you avoid the treacheries in the explore deck if you have the map, making exploration considerably easier, and so the Dark Hollow provides more clues for the investigators, so they need not explore so often. At least not to advance the first Act. Of course, once they do, they better hope someone has some chalk or you all get lost and probably lose a hard won location.
Of course, the explore deck is not the main source of suffering in this scenario. Although it certainly makes those initial steps harder. No, the real issue is the blasted snake people. Not that they’re all awful, I’m sure. Some of my best friends are snake people. But Heart of the Elders has been deviously structured to make them as awful as possible. You see, between parts 1 and 2, you keep any cards from the previous part in the victory display. Including any Vengeance cards. The Yig *!@$*!*s get brutally powerful when there is any vengeance being called down upon you.
To make matters worse, after playing part 1 there is a good chance you’ll be poisoned, but there’s no break for you to take medicine and clear it. As such, the rest of the deck gets even more evil and, to cap it all off, a frankly insane number of the cards you’ll face will have the Surge rule. Meaning you’ll be burning through encounter cards like aspirin during a hangover and if any scenario is going to feel like a hangover, it’s this one. Those tough as nails snakes will be pouring out of the deck faster than you can say ‘slither’.
I’d like to think you’ll struggle to survive this one. If only to salve my damaged ego. But not to worry. No matter what you do you find yourself at the gate, in the deepest darkest depths of the caves. And there you also find Alejandro (unless he was already with you) and Alejandro’s friends. His 10 foot tall, conical, clawed, alien friends. Alejandro is a baddie and by God I called it way back in the Forgotten Age review! The slime! I complained in The Boundary Beyond about throwing random enemies at us without due build-up but this reveal was handled perfectly. He has been a major player throughout and there was always just enough doubt around his knowledge and motivations to make this reveal satisfying without necessarily being guaranteed from day 1.
But where does this leave us? Apparently no longer with any form of human body, but apparently that doesn’t stop the campaign! We are off to The City of Archives to discover what on Earth… or rather, not on Earth, we’ve ran into.
Gentle rolling mounds. Birdsong. The occasional whistle of a train steadily chugging through the valley. And an “Ah bugrit!” or two as your opponent shafts your latest scheme. Foothills is a 2 player game of building rail lines and stations and associated paraphernalia using a similar, er… engine, to Snowdonia. But now it’s all cards.
Instead of worker placement spots, each player has a set of 5 action cards, one of which you’ll perform, and then flip, each round. This reveals a different, and usually weaker, secondary action on the reverse. This system is a joy to play with thanks to some clever design decisions. The action on the reverse of a card is not just a weaker version of the front card, it can be one of the other front actions, or something else entirely. Which means you can be unable to take a certain action for a turn or more depending on how you’re running your engine. Cards can be switched out for replacements, changing up the back action, and unlocking the original card for its end game scoring potential.
Naturally there is a lot of scope for finding efficiencies and accepting inefficiencies at the right time. This timing being influenced strongly by your opponent. What resources they have, what actions their cards currently allow, what things they seem to be going after. Much like Snowdonia, routes need to be cleared of rubble, which can mean gaining points or potentially gifting them to your opponent, but rubble is also a resource.
Train tracks score immediate points and advance the game towards its end. Stations open up the option to upgrade your cards and give you access to special action spots. The central ‘board’ (collection of cards making up the lines) is littered with special actions offering up a borderline ludicrous menu of extras to finesse or focus your strategy. I could not keep all of this in my mind, but that’s fine. That’s something to explore down the line, as it were!
I had tremendous fun just playing with the action card system. Discovering it. Knowing that there are whole dimensions of the game still to explore is fantastic. Foothills is a pretty meaty two player game, but it gives you space to experience that complexity as you choose to. The action selection system is elegant and easy enough to grasp that you can go anywhere from that foundation. Highly recommended so far.
This first look was based on a demo at the UKGE 2019.
Inuit has you collecting together a tribe of warmly dressed people and getting on with the day to day tasks of that tribe. Hunting, religion, warfare, that sort of thing. It describes your relationship with the arctic wilderness as one of unpredictabilities but ultimately of opportunities. It is your job to take from it the best you can.
Above you see a typical tribe, a healthy mix of people hanging out below a long thin player board. Each column corresponds to a job: whale hunter, shaman, seal clubber. On your turn you simply choose one of the jobs and take as many of the cards associated with that type from the ‘Great White’ (market) as you have people in that job. With an extra for the slot on the player board itself. It is card drafting at its simplest but it does some very clever things within that.
The first is with people. The Elder action lets you take more people, assigning them to whatever jobs you want in your tribe. Boom. Instant engine building! You’ll start with nothing, and from there specialise your tribe as best fits your chosen strategy. This makes the Elders a real focus, which rather befits their position.
The second is with the Great White itself. Unlike so many card markets, this one changes size throughout the game, expanding on bright sunny days or contracting down to a tiny choice when the storms blow in. But importantly this size is player controlled. On your turn you always flip a new card into the market and, optionally, you can scout, revealing more cards according to how many people you’ve assigned to that job, as usual. Scouting doesn’t count as your action though, so you can boost your, and your opponent’s, options. This process allows neglected card types to accumulate until players decide to pivot. It allows a player with 4 whale hunters to decide to wait a round rather than take the 2 whales available, to make the most efficient use of their engine, and then for the other players to undercut and counter-draft. The market becomes the arctic wastes, a place of great opportunity but where optimally efficient actions are rare moments of celebration. Although I don’t suppose the Inuit people quite phrase it that way…
Inuit is, like so many games, about maximising your efficiency. But it creates a space that is about evaluating chance rather than counting resources. Adding another Inuit to a job means that job can be more efficient, but you are less likely to see enough cards of that type to make full use of it. Might it have been more efficient to not take more people at all? Especially due to how they score. Each adult has a symbol of their tribe, and each child has two symbols (their parents).
Yes, Inuit children are just as effective workers as the adults. Yes, you probably will spend a fair amount of time commenting on each other stealing children. No, no, I’m rescuing them you see… from the Arctic.
Each of your tribes-people in actual tribes at game end are worth points to you, wherever they are. But any strangers in your tribe costs you points. So you want to collect your own tribesmen (who I assume got lost out there? This is thematically very strange) but you can take other’s if you think you can get the most out of them. Evaluating chance.
What is really great about Inuit is that this evaluation must depend on how you think the other players will act. It makes a quiet, tableau/engine builder into something inherently interactive. The interactivity goes even further when it comes to collecting weapons. This job takes people from the Great White and flips them face down above your board, depriving those tribes of their points and earning you some. The shaman’s rites are as close to take-that as the game gets but they are abilities you have the option to prepare for, and can affect all players equally. If they hit you particularly hard, you generally only have yourself to blame.
Each job has its value and it is to Inuit’s credit that the core action is the same for each of them, but all have differences to consider. Even the three types of game, Seals, Orcas and Polar Bears are worth different amounts of points and appear at different frequencies. For such a delightfully simple system (just take cards!) there is a lot to consider each turn, mostly thanks to how each player affects each other in interesting but rarely directly confrontational ways.
The game generously comes packaged with two expansion modules included: 1) The Great White, and 2) Rising Sun. Number 1 is by far the larger, adding extra card types that tweak many of the game elements. There are larger animals for each type, of which only a single large animal can be taken in a single turn. Conflict cards add an extra focus to weapons and targeting certain players. Legendary characters are tribesmen with specific roles and the ability to earn bonus points, effectively challenging you to double down on certain strategies. More risk to evaluate. Number 2 adds some special global rules that come into effect in the early, mid and late game, again tweaking your focus from the standard you might have become accustomed to with the basic game.
Inuit came very much out of the blue for me (or should that be the white…?) Arriving unbidden on my doorstep in the shape of a review copy. I didn’t know what to expect, but it wasn’t something this good! The degree of depth and interaction present in such a simple drafting game thanks to some simple mechanical choices has greatly impressed me. They even did some cultural due diligence!
Our copy of Inuit was provided for review by the publishers Board & Dice.
I write this crammed into the corner of a sweltering Central line carriage after a long day at work, a few days after playing On The Underground at the UK Games Expo. Surely no sane London commuter can take any joy at the thought of a game about the Tube, a scene of barely endured torture day in, day out? Would I not recoil in terror at those all too familiar station names, those cramped lines, jostling up against the other players as we squeeze points out of the board like the air from my lungs… At least the game board doesn’t smell of armpits.*
*prototype components only
Imagine Ticket To Ride, but with the blocking dialled up to 11. You are still laying bits of track on a network of predefined routes, and the rules are, in some ways, even simpler. There is no coloured set collection with hands aching from holding so many cards. Here, each turn you just have 4 actions in which to lay track. Just put it on the board. There’s a wrinkle, in that each track must go at one of the ends of its line, forcing you to plan out carefully as your line snakes out across the board. But you will also have multiple lines you can found. That pivot from one line to two to maybe even three is an important part of the game as you can’t defend multiple fronts in this tunnel war.
There are two motivators for what you’re doing. There are points on the board for connecting to various features, train station hubs, terminals, parks etc. But the real meat is in providing for… the passenger.
This determined tourist has a perverse fetish for Underground stations and will be visiting every station on the board over the course of the game. You are there to ease their journey! You’ll earn a point every time they use one of your lines. The movement rules for the tourist are not terribly complicated: they will take the shortest route from A to B, with each line and each space walked counting as 1 unit of distance, but parsing the shortest route each round might take some getting used to and you might make a mistake or two. This will be the biggest hurdle for new players as your success in the game depends on being able to correctly parse that movement and design your lines to exploit it.
This is what drives the substantial interaction of On the Underground. You are all desperately competing for the tourist’s attention, trying to be the line that makes their life that little bit easier. So that you’re the line that gets the points. The tourist moves every turn, letting you earn points on your opponents turns, and encouraging them to do what they can to snaffle those points from underneath you – as entertaining and as in your face as passive aggressive mechanics can allow. It’s despicably good.
It puts you in wonderful positions gameplay wise too: the short term reward of getting the tourist this turn vs the longer term aim of building a reliably used network vs the specific building goals on the board itself vs the race to avoid being blocked out of entire regions of the board as key routes are locked down. It does everything Ticket to Ride does with its route building, on a tighter map and with more challenging goals to optimise for.
There are a couple of potential causes for concern I have. One, the tourist will visit every station by game end. This adds something of a memory element to proceedings that I don’t like the sound of, and it could take a while to fully play through (we ended the demo at about the halfway point). The need to resolve, discard, replace and mark on the board the tourist’s next destinations every turn is also kind of fiddly, but there is not much that can be done about that.
I really enjoyed my demo of On the Underground. Apparently the God-like perspective and an engaging puzzle were enough for my emotional baggage to fall away. Or maybe it’s the thought of there just being one person down here? Even in prototype form it is a lovely production, and fans of its original 2006 release will be excited to hear of the all new Berlin map on the reverse of the board. As for me, writing this article has helped the journey fly by! So now I can step out into the fresh air – *cough!* *hack* *cough* oh, yeah, still London.
This first look at On The Underground is based on a demo at the UKGE 2019.
Reykholt is a study in human psychology, and an exploration of the impact of unfettered capitalism on those caught within its grip. A relentless demand is created by an unending turnover of tourists but they will never be satisfied by what you’ve delivered. They always crave the new, the next type of vegetable, and as you advance your bottle of wine scoring marker along the row of tables lining the board that craving only grows. I’ve seen one tomato before, I want two. Growth is the only thing that matters. You build more greenhouses, you plant and harvest and plant and harvest always chasing a moving target until you can no longer keep up, throwing your greenhouses, the life-blood of your business, away to just crawl one more table along the line until you’re left with nothing. Nothing! And you stare your own defeat in the eyes. The game, finished.
Let us take a step back. Reykholt is a game about growing vegetables in Iceland. You know it’s Iceland because it’s so cold even the carrots need greenhouses. But you start without even a shard of glass to hand. Take the opportunity now to throw all the stones you can. So it is off to the main board to precure yourself one. And, while you’re at it, better get some veg to plant too.
Well now it looks like we have got ourselves a worker placement game… about farming… why yes that is Uwe Rosenberg’s name on the box. How!? How, you might wonder, can a designer known for, at present count, 8 worker placement games, possibly keep things fresh? Astonishingly he does. And there are two reasons why this one stands out from most other games in the genre.
The first is the objective: deliver a very specific combination of vegetables in a very specific order. Everyone is trying to do exactly the same thing, as far from a point salad as you can possibly get. And that is perfect for a classical worker placement game – the exclusion of other players from the actions you choose forces them to diversify their approach. To deal with their second, or even third, pick. The array of spots on the main board supports this. There are really only 4 or 5 actions, but multiple spaces that give that result to various degrees, costs or variations. For example, there is a ‘Take one greenhouse’ spot, and also a ‘Take a tomato AND a greenhouse, of specific sizes’, or a ‘Discard one vegetable to gain a greenhouse or seed a bunch’. You can definitely gain a greenhouse each turn, but will you have the size you want, or can you afford the costs?
The second major reason is the economy. Your very local, personal economy. While you have your standard gain one tomato type of spots on the main board, you are a farmer! So you’ll take that tomato and you’ll do a plant action to place it into one of your greenhouses, at which point the entire greenhouse spontaneously fills with them! One tomato makes quite a few seeds after all. Suddenly your farm is filled with potential but nothing about farming in Iceland is easy. Harvesting one or two spots from amongst your greenhouses is as much effort as planting them was, and you’ll have to harvest a greenhouse multiple times before you’ve emptied it to plant again. At the end of each round everyone gets a bonus harvest action from each greenhouse, but it’s going to take a while for that to build up.
Everything in Reykholt takes a while. It feels like a tremendous effort to get even your first greenhouse planted – plausibly you won’t even manage this in the first round! With only 3 workers, and so many bits to manage, and the constant pressure of the tourist track, this is a game that absolutely rewards careful forward planning. But there are also opportunities for big, highly efficient actions. There are spaces that let you plant in all of your greenhouses, but that requires you have the empty greenhouses and the right mix of veg on hand to plant with. Coordinate all this and you’ll feel like a genius.
The way the demands ramp up as the game goes on is fascinating. One veg of each type is easy. So easy that you might accidentally short your engine before it gets going. The mid game running of your developing engine will get you through the two and three veg tables without too much difficulty but before you know it you’re slamming into the 4s and 5s and there is just no way to produce every one of those veg types in that quantity and at that speed. What are you going to do? The game builds relentlessly to this impossible question and it makes for an great climax.
There are action spaces that let you ditch greenhouses to move forward, fantastic! You think. But then you need to be in exactly the right spot at the end of your previous turn to make use of those. The fight to crawl one space further is unlike any other Euro game I think I’ve played, thanks to the specificity of the task in front of you. The one issue is that you can see how close everyone else is too. With but a bit of calculation, you might know the winner already, unless you can interfere on the worker placement board.
Like the tourists we board gamers forever crave the new. We’ve seen that before, it’s no longer good enough. Designers are the gardeners, contorting and twisting to create something to grab our attention. Reykholt offers us the same vegetables we’ve seen before, but in a cunningly different way. And then it says, oh, you liked this? Why not try it with this tweak here? Suddenly there is a menu of ways to play, card set after card set that can be slotted in, each subtly changing the dynamic of the game. There is so much to explore, even a so-called story mode.
Reykholt may not be quite as excellent as Uwe’s magnum opus, A Feast for Odin, but what games are? It is still an extremely solid game, far more interesting than most worker placement games, and a fair bit more comprehensible than Uwe’s typically sprawling behemoths. This is Uwe at his most accessible.