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This post is an edited reprint of my original from Geekdad.com, posted April 29, 2019.

You are an elite spellcaster, harnessing the power of elements to craft powerful creations and spells. Use all your resources at your disposal to defeat your opponents and claim the Godsforge!

Godsforge, from Atlas Games and designer Brendan Stern, is a competitive dueling mage-style card game for 2-4 players, ages 14 and up. While there are a lot of dueling card games out there, what really grabbed my attention is that Godsforge features simultaneous play, dice rolling for resources, support for up to 4 players, and games take about 20-40 minutes.

Opening the box, you will find:

  • 56 cards including 33 Creation cards, 19 Spell cards, and 4 player reference cards.

  • 30 gold jewel tokens, called Veilstones.

  • 17 dice, 4 in each player color and 1 black die for a specific card action.

  • 4 scoring tokens, 1 in each player color.

  • 1 circular board with a life point track and areas to place the Fate Deck and Veilstones.

  • 1 rulebook.

Godsforge comes in a rather large box for the number of components included. Slots are provided in the plastic insert for dice, cards, and player tokens, but everything fits nicely in a large central compartment if, like me, you prefer to bag components. I didn’t sleeve the cards, so I don’t know if the designated slot will hold all when sleeved, but there is a bit of extra room.

Component quality is good. The cards are a bit thin, but the printing looks great and the art is crisp. There is no practical reason to do it, but these cards would look amazing with metallic spot colors. The dice and scoring tokens are solid, having a bit of a swirly candy pattern that looks delicious. The Veilstones are the standard jewels you’ve probably seen in a lot of other games; these have a fun gilded gold finish similar to Terraforming Mars’ gold cubes. Overall, card and cover art by Diego L. Rodriguez is quite striking and intriguing, using black and white illustrations with an accent color or two. The board is dark gray with gold metallic ink for graphics and text. As long as you have good lighting, it’s not difficult to see. I checked the tokens and dice colors under protanomaly and deuteranomaly conditions and all were distinctive. Players with altered color perception shouldn’t have issues playing Godsforge.

How to Play GodsforgeThe Goal

The goal of the game is to defeat your opponents by reducing their life totals to zero or by outlasting them. The last player standing wins.

Setup

Each player chooses a color and takes the corresponding dice and scoring token. The scoring tokens will be placed on the circular life track running along the edge of the board, on spots indicated by the number of players. Each player may get a reference card if needed. The cards are shuffled, four are dealt to each player, and the rest, called the Fate Deck, are placed on the board face-down. The Veilstones are placed on the board next to the Fate Deck. You are ready to start crafting!

Gameplay

Godsforge is played in rounds of four phases. As noted earlier, play is simultaneous; everyone takes their turn at the same time.

1. Upkeep Phase
At the start of a round, any upkeep effect (indicated by a circular arrow) from cards in play trigger. You may also draw cards up to your hand limit of four, and you may exchange up to two cards if you’d like.

2. Forge Roll Phase
The majority of play in Godsforge happens in the Forge Roll phase. Each player will roll their dice, using the values to pay for, or “craft”, one card into play. A player may reroll a die twice, that is, reroll the same die twice, or reroll two different dice once. Then the dice are locked.

Godsforge has two types of cards: Creation cards represent creatures and artifacts that stay in play until an effect removes them. Spell cards resolve their effect and are immediately discarded. I liked that cars types were easy to recognize: Spell cards having geometric patterns and Creation cards with distinct illustrations.

Each card’s cost is shown on the upper left side. Usually, it is two or three values, but it also could be a sequential or an even/odd set of numbers.

The rulebook goes into thematic detail about numbers representing specific elements (earth, air, fire, water, etc.), but in practical game terms, you are rolling to match the values on the cards you want to craft. We didn’t use or remember the elements while playing. During one game, a card referred to “Godstone” and we had to refer back to the rulebook to see what that meant (Four of a kind).

Some cards list a cost of 7 or greater. To get a value above 6, you add a 6 to another die. For example, If I have a 5 and a 6. I could spend them both as an 11 if I would like, as shown in the picture below.

Though you are rolling dice to get resources, rolls are not completely dependent on luck. as dice rolls can be modified. Etherium and Veilstones are the primary way to adjust die rolls.

A 1 represents Etherium; basically, it is wild and can be any value you want from 2 to 6. You may spend a 6 to gain one Veilstone. Once you do this, though, that 6 cannot be used for crafting a card.

A Veilstone may be used to modify single value up or down on one die. For example, I roll a 5. I may spend a Veilstone to change it to a 4 or a 6. I cannot change a 2 to a 1 (wild), though, or a value above 6. Some cards need Veilstones to be crafted, and some others use them for buffing attacks or defense. Once you got the numbers you want or the dice are locked, you may craft one card from your hand. You may also choose to not craft a card and take 4 Veilstones instead. If you cannot craft a card for whatever reason, this is your only option. This rarely happened in our games.

3. Reveal Phase
When all players have chosen a card, or elected not to, everyone turns over their cards at the same time. Some cards have one-time reveal effects, indicated by an eye icon, which trigger here.

4. Attack Phase
Combat is quite simple, using icons on the bottom of the card. A red circle indicates the attack value; a blue shield is the defense value. Any text in the adjacent pink-bordered box is triggered, often adding choices to buff an attack or defense. Add up all the attack values and announce them to your opponent. All attacks are simultaneous. Only players are targeted; Creation cards don’t take any damage from attacks, and can only be removed by card effects.

In a 3-4 player game, you attack the player on your left and defend from the right. There is a little more complexity here compared to a 2-player game, as you have to be mindful of what your neighbors are doing as you play cards.

Once all players determined their damage, subtracting any defense values they may have, they move their scoring tokens down the life-track accordingly. If a player reaches zero, they are out of the game. In a 3-4 player game, after one player is eliminated, each remaining player will be taking extra damage in subsequent rounds so the game will come to a swift ending – likely in a round or two.

Rounds continue until one person wins by being the last person alive to claim the Godsforge!

Godsforge is simpler than my first impressions led me to believe, and that’s not a bad thing. In fact, my spouse commented that it would be a great gateway game. I agree. It is easy to pick up and teach. Also, It’s super deadly. If you let up or take it easy for a round, you may find yourself barely clinging to life afterward. Godsforge is fast and furious; you’ll want to play it again and again when it hits the table.

I’d like to have seen more cards in the Fate Deck, especially since a few cards are repeated. But there is a good variety already in the box and I never felt there were bad options in my hand. I wasn’t getting a strong thematic vibe off the elements or how they related to the Creations or Spells I was crafting, other than more powerful cards needed die results that were harder to achieve. Games didn’t seem to last long enough to make combos larger than three or four cards as you might in other mage-dueling games. However, Godsforge is not about intricate plans and setting up synergistic combos that take five rounds to develop. This is a race to stay alive, and if you try to get too fancy, you may find yourself out of the game pretty quick.

I recommend Godsforge to anyone looking for an interesting dice rolling and dueling card play in a fast, easy-to-learn game.

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A few weeks ago, I received this email from GMT, a small-ish independent publisher of wargames and strategy games...

Dear P500 customers,

I'm writing today to let you know that after much consideration and after consultation with the designer, we have decided to pull Scramble for Africa off of our P500 list.

It's clear to me that the game is out of step with what most eurogame players want from us, in terms of both topic and treatment. Over the past few weeks, we've heard from a growing number of gamers who had concerns about both in regards to Scramble for Africa. To those of you who took the time to share your concerns with us privately and also to those who shared concerns in public forums in a polite and constructive manner, I want to thank you for the kindness and class with which you shared negative feedback. As we always strive to do, we have endeavored in this instance to listen to you, learn from you, and act on your feedback.

I'm very sorry that we didn't catch this sooner. We work hard to evaluate and scrub games before they get to the P500 list, and we turn down games each year that we think are inappropriate for us in various ways. I'm sorry that we missed this one and caused some of you a lot of consternation and angst because of our oversight. We'll do better.

For those of you who had P500 orders for the game, don't worry. Your order was automatically deleted when we deleted Scramble for Africa from the P500 list a few minutes ago.

Enjoy the games!

Gene

To give you more context, "P500" (short for "Project 500") is GMT's system for determining what games they will publish and print. GMT will announce a game that they would like to produce and take unpaid pre-orders (at a discount from MSRP) to gauge interest. Once 500 people have committed to purchase the game, customers are charged and the game goes to production. It's a pretty solid system; they only publish when they have guaranteed sales out of the gate. They can effectively produce and manage a LOT of titles using this method, which is tough for a small company. However, from a gamer standpoint, it still has the delayed gratification aspect of Kickstarter: paying ahead of time for a game you won't get for months, or maybe even a year.

GMT's catalog tends to be "gamer games" niche, ranging from heady eurogames to intense wargames that feature tiny chits over large hexmaps. Art and graphic design can be described as "minimal"; function is favored over fashion. This isn't stuff you find at Target, and you probably wouldn't break many of these games out at a family game night. In fact, many hobby game stores generally only carry a few of their popular titles like Twilight Struggle or Dominant Species. A lot of GMT games attempt to simulate real-world conflicts and notable battles of WW2, the Vietnam war, and the US Civil War, to name a few. I have not played any of these, but fans of their games say that the theme and subject matter is generally treated from different perspectives.

Earlier this year, GMT added the game Scramble for Africa. Part of the redacted description follows:

Scramble for Africa is a 2–6 player game of the period of exploration, colonization, and exploitation of Africa from around 1850 to 1900. In this game, you will take the role of one of the great European powers with an eye toward exploring the unknown interior of Africa, discovering land, peoples, and riches to expand your colonial power.

...

Finally, you will face the unknown by drawing an event card that adds to the adventures and misfortunes common in the era. Meanwhile, you may need to raise colonial garrisons as other players may incite local uprisings and independence movements to hinder your country's efforts. At the end of the game, you gain victory points for your exploration, discoveries, and how much money you earned for your country.

As per the email, the game has been removed from GMT's site, but here's a cached copy of a blog post describing theme and play:

I would hope readers would see how this game is problematic, and it is understandable that people would want to weigh in.

However, GMT's decision to pull Scramble for Africa created a dumpster fire of comments on BoardGameGeek (I didn't check out Reddit). There were accusations of political correctness against GMT, personal attacks directed towards those who had issues with the theme, and tu quoque arguments targeting the publisher. A lot of commenters encouraged the designer to take it to Kickstarter or self-publish instead, which, of course, is a viable option. The three takeaways from reading the comments (I know) were unfortunately typical in my observation of these kinds of “debates”:

  1. There are some people who seem to not understand the meaning and context of the terms "censorship" and "free speech" in regards to the First Amendment of the US Constitution. This does not apply to a small American game publishing company choosing whether or not to produce a game. It's a business decision.

  2. There are some people who seem to believe that their ability/right to purchase and enjoy a certain game negates critical feedback and discussion on the thematic elements of that game. This is often wrapped in a fallacious "vote with your dollar" free-market argument, i.e. "If you don't like it, don't buy it.”

  3. There are some people who seem to believe that there are organized forces dedicated to erode personal freedoms, claiming GMT's decision was capitulation to a tribal out-group. I won't comment more on this, as to diagnose the causes of conspiratorial and paranoid thinking is out of scope.

This kerfuffle got me thinking about the topic du jour: the quintessential eurogame Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico player board

I like Puerto Rico. It's a fun game. It is one of the very first eurogames I played, and introduced to me a mechanism that I really enjoy: the use of drafting cards which dictate the specific actions all players will perform in a round, a.k.a "variable action phase."

There are several cards or tiles on the table. Each may be numbered or have a name of an action or a "role." Using some pre-determined order, each player chooses a card. When all players have chosen, then each action indicated on the card will happen in that particular round. Often there is a bonus action or perk for the player who picked the card which the other players don't receive. When all players have taken a turn or all actions are done, then the action cards are returned to be drafted again at the beginning of the next round. It's a simple system that provides interesting decisions. Over the years, this mechanism has been integrated into other games. As pictured below, Twilight Imperium and the Race For The Galaxy franchise all use variable action cards like Puerto Rico.

Action cards. Top row: Puerto Rico. Middle rows: Twilight Imperium. Bottom row: Roll For The Galaxy.

Despite my enjoyment of Puerto Rico, there are two things that bother me…

1. The graphic design

Every time I look at Puerto Rico’s box cover I want to fix it. I get that they wanted to put the merchant fellow on the side panel, as people will probably store the game with him facing out, but there is nothing graphically compelling on the right side of the cover art to catch your eye, other than maybe the port in the background and the dude's hat in the lower left corner. This needs a redesign. However, this is a minor criticism compared to…

2. The implementation of colonialism

The objective of Puerto Rico is to be the richest player through the use of growing, refining, and shipping resources off the eponymous island. Each player has a board that represents their plantations and production buildings which require workers to activate, producing resources like tobacco, sugar, and coffee for profit. Workers or "colonists" are recruited by using the Mayor action card. Colonists are represented by brown disc-shaped tokens. Anybody with a history education probably knows the ickyness of New World colonialism: the dash by European powers to claim new lands and the rich resources of the Americas. These lands were seized by force, and labor was conscripted from indigenous populations (if they didn't die from disease first) and slaves from West Africa. I think we can cut the pretenses here: the mayor is a slave trader, and the colonists are slaves. Some have argued that because the colonists are put to work in buildings and production offices, as well as the plantations, they are non-indentured workers. However comfortable that may seem, slaves were the primary workforce in Puerto Rico for over 300 years. If representing the colonists as non-indentured workers is the intent, then the "indentured workers" are misrepresented in that they have no representation at all.

Arguably more popular than Puerto Rico, Catan completely sidesteps the issue by making the titular fictional island seemingly uninhabited. Players may exploit and trade away on a conveniently resource-rich island without apparent violence. But who or what is the robber? Who are players trading with at the ports? Any game that centers around European colonialism (or American manifest destiny, for that matter) is going to face this historical baggage.

What are some possible factors and influences that made Puerto Rico abstract an oppressive and violent system, and Catan hide it entirely? It's partly the avoidance of direct combat, and the reaction to American-style games. In his article "Orientalism and Abstraction in Eurogames," author Will Robinson explains that the 1970s were a boon in German game design and there was motivations to keep games non-violent (as far as direct portrayals).

This game design “arms race” led to a general aversion toward military violence in German board games, and was part of a larger cultural shift described by the German historian Geoff Eley: “Guilty remembrance of terrible hardships conjoins with an unevenly-grounded recognition of social responsibility to produce the present breadth of German aversion against war.” It is therefore unsurprising that most German-made games of repute avoid standard battle-scenes such as those found in Risk or Axis and Allies. In contrast, American hobbyist games of the same era became increasingly focused on the detailed simulation of war. Such American games often presented entire books of rules on everything from supply lines to firing rates, whereas even the more advanced Eurogame rule-sets are often explained in less than 10 image-laden pages. Eurogames foster different forms of conflict, avoiding the militaristic battles of American wargames by reducing play times, avoiding the elimination of players, and even constraining leading players, so as to keep all participants competitive throughout the game. Despite the turn away from military violence in game design, however, board games of this genre maintain an interest in depicting histories of European conquest. This contradiction prompts the question: how can colonialist narratives exist within Eurogames without reference to violence? Eurogames often contain the problematic presentation of European expansionism without including the indigenous other.

Is there a way to use colonialism in games without discarding or misrepresenting the indigenous other? How is colonialism used or recontextualized in newer games?

Cry Havoc is basically the plot of the film Avatar: three warring alien factions are trying to claim an unobtanium-style resource on a planet. However, they have to compete not only with each other but the indigenous Trogs, who want the invaders gone. In the four-player version, one player actively plays the Trogs., who have the upper hand of sorts, as they can move quickly across the map via tunnel structures. It makes perfect thematic sense. The indigenous population knows the area better than the foreign invaders and can move much quicker. Cry Havoc makes the Trogs a key part of the conflict.

Another interesting take on colonialism is Terraforming Mars. Players compete by creating and implementing technologies to make Mars habitable for human life. Ultimately, what players are doing benefits humanity as a whole. In Terraforming Mars, no populations are being exploited nor violence committed. It is legitimate "peaceful" expansionism, albeit fueled by capitalism in order to foster competition.

Spirit Island takes the theme of colonialism and spins it 180 degrees. In this heady cooperative eurogame, players are spirits working together to repel human colonists who seek to ravage the home island's resources and exploit local populations. The game even labels itself as a "settler-destruction" game - as a not-so-subtle hat-tip to Catan.

Colonialism as a theme is not inherently problematic, but the way it is treated contextually makes all the difference. In the case of Puerto Rico and Scramble for Africa, erasure of a whole population (or misrepresenting that population) affected by historical events creates a pseudohistory that constrains thoughts and perspectives on issues of race and culture and promotes an ignorant singular narrative.

I do not think designers are bad people or players are wrong for enjoying Puerto Rico or Catan or any game that thematically incorporates European/American conquest. However, going forward, game designers need to cultivate inclusiveness and portray historical events and peoples with accuracy and discernment, and gamers should demand it. As in the case with Scramble for Africa, I see that demand already happening, and that is a good thing.

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On Golden Age by Erik Stanfill - 2M ago

Happy spring! Things have been busy, and posts have been scarce, but we are ramping up some new content and wanted to give you a peek at my queue…

Here at On Golden Age…

I’ve spent some time this past month writing about my thoughts on the classic eurogame Puerto Rico and others that use colonialism as a theme. The post is finished, but I’m still doing some edits on it. It’s one that’s been on my mind for a while. Look for it in a day or so.

Meanwhile…

Still percolating is my exhaustive post/guide to Gloomhaven. I’ve been playing almost a year and a half now, and I think we may be getting near the end? I’m not sure. But it’s probably a good time to reflect on this massive beast that tops “best of…” lists everywhere. I’ll provide you a guide on how to handle this 26-pound monster, if you DARE.

Wingspan is a HOT game right now. As I’m writing this, it is still pretty hard to find at a reasonable price, but that will change when a massive reprint will hit distributors over the next few months or so. I haven’t gotten it to the table, but it will happen soon, and I give you all the nitty-gritty birdy details, and how well I did on making that dice tower birdhouse.

Over at GeekDad….

I just posted a review of Atlas Games’ Godsforge. Look for the reprint here, probably after this post. I particularly like the color of the jewels. :)

I’ll be writing my first Kickstarter preview for Bad Comet’s Shaolia: Warring States, a sharp looking resource-management, engine-building game. This is the best looking prototype I’ve ever seen! The game launches on Kickstarter June 5th. Look for my preview then!

Also in the queue is a review of Catalyst’s Shadowrun: Sixth World Beginner Box: the first announced product for the SIXTH(!) edition of everyone’s favorite cyberpunk/fantasy mashup RPG. I started a small editorial about Shadowrun 5th edition for On Golden Age, but it looks like it’s time for a rewrite! Look for my post sometime beginning of June, before the box debuts at Origins Game Fair.

That’s it for now. Enjoy!
GAME ON.

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So, Magic: The Gathering has got your interest, but you don't know what it is about or where to even start? Here's what you need to know! First, I'll cover how to play the game, then provide advice on getting started.

In Magic, players are dueling wizards, or planeswalkers. Each player has a deck, called their library, which contains a variety of collectable cards representing spells or potential magical power.

How to win the game

The goal is to reduce your opponents life points to zero; when that happens, you immediately win! Also, if your opponent cannot draw a card because their library contains no cards, or if they concede the game, you immediately win! 

How to play the game

In a basic Magic game, players start with 20 life and (at least) 60 cards in their library.

The game begins by each player shuffling their library and drawing 7 cards. On each player's turn, they will play though five phases. Remembering these phases may seem overwhelming at first, but it will become second-nature after a few matches.

1. Beginning Phase - Untap, upkeep, and draw.

To start, the active player untaps any tapped cards in play by turning them upright (more on that below). Any effects from the active player's cards in play that say "during your upkeep..." happens here. After that, the player draws a card from their library into their hand. Note that at the start of their first turn, players will not have any cards in play yet, and the first player skips this phase on their first turn.

2. First Main Phase - Cast cards into the battlefield.

In this phase, the active player may pay the cost of any card in their hand to put it into play in front of them, this area is called the battlefield. Most cards stay in the battlefield until removed or destroyed; these are called permanents. There are certain cards that are not permanents, however, and will go away after playing. More on that below when discussing the card types.

The currency used to pay for cards is mana, which comes in five different colors: white, blue, black, red, and green. Each color has its own unique flavor in the game, as shown in this linked graphic. 

The primary way to gain mana is with land cards. During a player's turn, one land may be played to their battlefield. Land cards are not spells and have no cost.

The five basic land cards: Plains, Island, Swamp, Mountain, and Forest

To gain mana, a player taps a land by turning it sideways, which adds one point of mana in its respective color to a player's mana pool.  Tapping is a mechanism to indicate a particular card has been used. A player can tap as many lands as they have available, and may cast as many cards as they wish, provided they have the mana to pay for it.

Tapping a forest for 1 green mana

With mana in their pool, a player can now cast spells!

Let's take a look at one of the types of cards you may cast. This is a creature card.

Every card will have a unique name. This card is Shivan Dragon.

The mana cost is indicated at the top right corner. With Shivan Dragon, the mana cost is two red mana, and four colorless mana - indicated by "4" in the gray circle - meaning the mana can be from any color.. The total converted cost of this card is six mana. The mana and border indicate the color identity of Shivan Dragon as red. Some cards are multi-colored, or even colorless.

The type bar in the middle indicates the type of card (Creature), and the kind (Dragon). Also on the right is the set icon: a visual indicator of which set the card belongs to and the respective rarity. This is a rare card (indicated by gold) from the Magic 2010 Core Set. Many cards are not unique to a certain set, so you may see the same card with a different set icon, or even different art.

The box under the type bar explains the card's abilities. Some abilities are static, that is, it is always "on". Some abilities will have an activation cost, that is, mana needs to be spent and/or the card needs to tap to activate an ability. Shivan Dragon has the static ability flying (can only be blocked by other creatures with flying or reach) and, if 1 red mana is spent as an activation cost, +1/+0 is added to Shivan Dragon's power and toughness respectively until the end of the active player's turn. Think of it as magically giving the dragon extra fire-breathing power!

Speaking of power, the box in the lower right corner is the creature's base power and toughness. Power is how much damage it dishes out; toughness is how much damage it can take. More on this during the Combat Phase.

Other cards you can cast includes sorceries, artifacts, enchantments, instants, & planeswalkers.

A sorcery, artifact, enchantment, instant, and a planeswalker card

Sorceries are one-time effects that a player may cast during their main phases. These cards are not permanents and go to the player's discard pile, or graveyard, after the effects are applied.

Artifacts are permanent cards that provide abilities to the player when activated or when certain game conditions trigger its ability.  A specific kind of artifact is equipment that can attach to a creature card to enhance it's abilities or stats. Usually, there is an additional mana cost to attach. Most artifacts are colorless.

Enchantments are permanent spells that may help a player or hinder their opponent by changing certain play conditions. A common kind of enchantment is an aura that attaches to a creature, just like equipment cards. Auras can be a boon or a bane to a creature.

Instants are super-fast sorceries; they can be cast at any time, even during an opponent's turn. Whenever a player plays a card, activates an ability, or declares attackers/blockers in the combat phase, an opponent may spend the mana cost and cast an instant. Then the player may respond with an instant of their own, and so on. The cards cast form the stack which determines the order in which effects happen, or resolves, The top card of the stack, i.e., the last card played, resolves first, then the next in the stack, until the stack is depleted. Instants are not permanents; they are put into the graveyard immediately after resolving.

Planeswalkers are allies with powerful activated abilities. They are not creatures, and they don't participate in combat (although they may be attacked.) Instead, they come into play with an amount of loyalty points as indicated in the lower right corner. Planeswalkers may be cast during the main phases, The active player may add or subtract loyalty points to activate the plainswalker loyalty abilities as indicated. Loyalty points also serve as the toughness stat for a planeswalker. If a planeswalker is reduced to 0 loyalty points through loyalty activation or combat damage, they go into the graveyard.

Sample of a player's board

3. Combat Phase - Attacking and blocking.

It's clobberin' time! The active player may choose to attack by declaring who or what is attacking and tapping the respective cards. The defending player has a choice, to assign their own creatures to block, or take the full damage. Note that players never attack creatures; attacks can only be directed to players or planeswalkers. If the defending player chooses to block, they may do so with any of their untapped creatures. Blocking does not cause a creature to tap. Once all attackers and blockers are declared, damage is immediately assigned. Creatures deal damage equal to their power, and can take damage equal to their toughness. If a creature's toughness is reduced to 0, it is sent to the graveyard.

For example, I attack with a 2/4 Giant Spider, and my opponent blocks with her 2/2 Silverbeak Griffin. My spider will deal 2 points of damage to the griffin, and the griffin deals 2 points of damage back to the spider. However, the griffin toughness is 2, so after damage is resolved, the griffin heads to the graveyard. The spider survives, although it is now a 2/2 creature until it heals at the end of the turn. Of course, instants can be played to adjust outcomes. If my opponent casts the instant Diminish on my spider before resolving the battle, her griffin would destroy my spider instead, as Diminish makes a target creature 1/1 until end of the turn.

Any creature that isn't blocked applies damage to the defending player or planeswalker. Once all damage resolves, the combat phase is over.

4. Second Main Phase - Cast cards into the battlefield.

This is exactly like the first main phase. If the active player hasn't yet played a land card on their turn, they may do so now. This is the final chance to get cards into the battlefield before the ending phase.

5. Ending Phase- End step and cleanup step.

First, card effects that say "At the beginning of your end step..."  or "at end of your turn" happen here. All creatures heal from damage. If a player has more than 7 cards in their hand, they must discard cards of their choosing until they get down to 7. Finally, all card effects that say "until the end of your turn..." end here.

It is the next player's turn, and we start back at the beginning phase. Play continues until someone wins!

How to get started

Magic was designed from the get-go to be a social game, so the best way to learn is from someone who already knows how to play. Most game stores that actively support Magic through event and tournaments will have a supply of free Welcome Decks for new players. These packages will have two small 30-card decks and a quick-reference style rules sheet. Also, before the release of a new set, many game stores will host a Magic Open House, where new players can come and learn from experienced players.

After playing with a Welcome Deck, the current Core 2019 Planeswalker decks are an easy next step, they are inexpensive (around $11), and integrate with the 2019 Welcome Decks. 

There are other preconstructed decks, or precons, available like Duel Decks, which includes two specially balanced decks for head-to-head play, or Commander, a 100-card variant of the basic game.

How to play the game outside the game

After playing with precons, a casual player may want try their hand at building their own decks.

There is an intimidating amount of Magic products. Each of those expansion sets you see on store shelves represent different realms or “planes” visited by the Magic storyline. Each set can contain anywhere from 150-250 unique cards.

Generally, a core set has cards with frequently used or simple mechanisms, while expansion sets will often introduce new abilities and advanced mechanisms. Sets are released on a quarterly basis. As of this writing, Core 2019 is the most current set.

Being a collectable card game, Magic's primary product is $4 booster packs. Each randomized blind buy pack will contain 10 commons (black/white set icon), 3 uncommons (silver set icon), 1 rare (gold set icon), and 1 basic land card. About 1 pack out of 8, a mythic rare (orange set icon) will be in the place of the rare. About 1 pack out of 6, there will be an shiny foil card of any rarity. Rares and mythics are not necessarily more powerful cards, but cards with complex or disruptive mechanisms, as opposed to the generally simple and foundational elements of commons. Of course, rarity also has the effect of creating a secondary market for card singles. Single card market prices change daily, depending on collectability, usefulness in current tournament formats, popularity, speculation, synergy with other cards, and popular published deck lists.

A good route for beginners are Deck Constrution Kits and Booster Bundles. The bundles contain 10 boosters of a specific set, a pack of 80 land cards, a spindown life counter, and a how-to-play guide for about $40. The construction kits have 125 "semi-radomized" cards from current sets, 100 land, and 4 boosters from various sets, usually $20.

After building a deck, or maybe NOT building a deck, you may want to test your new Magic skills with other players at events - and win prizes and special promo cards to boot.

Organized play in Magic is divided into two types of tournaments: constructed and limited. Constructed means you bring your own deck; limited means you make a deck on-the-spot using boosters from the most recent set. There are sub-types of constructed tournaments that dictate the pool of cards that may be used, or have special rules for deck construction. Here's all about formats. A popular event is the weekly Friday Night Magic (FNM), hosted by sanctioned game stores. The formats may vary store to store, but often FNM is constructed. You will pay a buy-in fee, usually $5-$6, for prize support.

There are things I didn't cover here for brevity, like casual formats, but my hope is you got a good idea on how to play Magic and where you can go from here. GAME ON.

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This post is a reprint of my original from Geekdad.com, posted November 20, 2018.

Plaid Hat Games’ Stuffed Fables is a cooperative campaign-based adventure board game. Players take on the role as plush animal toys, or “stuffies,” belonging to an unnamed little girl. She is growing up and too big for a crib now, so it is her first night sleeping in a “big girl” bed. However, this makes her vulnerable to Crepitus, The Nightmare King. Her devoted toy stuffies are tasked with protecting her from Crepitus’ minions and other strange forces as she sleeps. This will certainly be a night of vast and grand adventure!

Stuffed Fables is designed to be played over 7 scenarios or “stories.” However, it is not a legacy game that permanently alters components, so all the stories are completely replayable. Let’s dive in!

What’s in the box?

Opening the box, you’ll find…

– 189 cards, including items, environment cards, condition cards, lost cards, and sleep cards.
– 40-card discovery deck containing secret cards needed for specific scenarios, which, naturally, you don’t want to look through.
– 57 tokens, including stuffing, hearts, bookkeeper token, and story-specific tokens.
– 15 buttons.
– 35 dice and a dice bag.
– 6 stuffy miniatures.
– 17 minion miniatures.
– 1 rulebook.
– 1 storybook.
– 1 sideboard.
– 6 stuffy character cards.

One thing you will notice right away on unboxing is the massive coil-bound storybook which serves as the campaign book and a gameboard all in one. There are no modular tiles you typically find in an adventure or dungeon crawl-type game. Having everything in a single lay-flat book is absolute genius.

The open storybook: gameboard on the left, narrative & instructions on the right.

The box, cards, and components are super high quality, which is to be expected from Plaid Hat Games and manufacturer PandaGM. The art is fantastic. Overall, this is a excellent production and well worth the price point. For storage, there isn’t a plastic insert, but a standard cardboard double trench for shipping; it’s perfectly fine. As time goes on, I’m certainly getting spoiled by publishers that include GameTrayz inserts in their games. I sleeved my cards and everything fit back into the box with the insert, although it took some strategery.

Setup

First, each player chooses a stuffy character (Lionel & Piggle are not used in the first story), and takes the matching character card and figure. Each character has a unique main ability, like Theadora’s “Versatile” ability shown below, plus others that are activated by spending earned heart tokens.

Then, open the storybook to the first page of the story you wish to play. You can pick any story you like, but the rulebook recommends beginning with the first story “The Big Girl Bed.” Place the sideboard to the right of the storybook.

Theadora’s character card showing a die in reserve, buttons, and her stack of stuffing

Place the buttons, hearts, stuffing, status cards, item cards, discovery cards (don’t peek!), and other tokens nearby. Each player receives 5 stuffing tokens to place on their character card.

Shuffle the lost and item cards to make their respective decks.

Take out the bosses from the minion deck and shuffle the minions, keeping the boss cards face-up nearby. You won’t have any bosses in your first game.

Build the sleep deck by taking the Waking card, shuffling it with two other random cards, then placing the rest of the (also shuffled) deck on top of the three cards.

Status, item, lost, environmental, and discovery deck cards, respectively

Choose a player to be “The Storyteller” and give them the bookmark token. They will be the reader and the first player (this duty will rotate around). The storybook will lay out the goal of each story and instruct the stuffies on what to do.

How to Play

On a player’s turn they will randomly draw five dice out of the bag and look at the colors. First, any white dice are rolled to get stuffing. If the roll is higher than the player’s current amount of stuffing, then they earn one token to add to their stack.

Stuffing is essentially the hit points of each character—once a stuffy has no stuffing, they are exhausted and cannot do anything until they get some more. In the rare event that all stuffies are exhausted, the game is over.

Any black dice are then put on the sideboard’s threat track to activate monsters. More on that below.

Actions

The player may roll any of the other dice once in any order and any amount to perform actions. Any action can be performed as long as they player has enough dice. Dice of a single color (or with the wild purple color) can be rolled separately, or together to obtain a higher sum.

This can be a bit confusing to new players as dice are used for multiple tasks and the colors matter in different circumstances.

For example, any color dice can be used to move a stuffy across the map; however, certain sections have colored lines that only can be crossed if the same color die is used for the move action, for example, a green die must be used to cross a green line.

Dice and reference sheet

Generally, red is used for melee attacks, green for ranged, and yellow for search tasks. Blue has no specific action, and purple is a wild color and can be used in place of any color for performing actions. You might notice that the red dice appear more orange, and purple a bit pink; this is intentional to aid those with altered color perception.

A player may reserve a die of any color by placing it on their character card to use on a later turn or for combat defense; more on that below.

Another action is to encourage a stuffy. You may either place any color die on their character card for them to use on their turn, just like reserving a die, or discard any die to give them 1 stuffing.

Often in the story, you will be asked by the book or a card to perform a skill test. Just roll the die or dice indicated by the test. If you get a higher number than the difficulty rating, then the test is passed.

Also, there are group tasks that a player can contribute to by rolling the indicated color die for the test and adding it to the group task track on the sideboard. Once the sum of all dice exceed the difficulty of the group task, it is accomplished!

If a map has a search icon in the top right corner with a number, players may use a yellow die to search for useful items. If the roll is equal or greater than the target number, something was found! The stuffy may draw a card from the item deck, equip it, or give it to another stuffy.

To make an attack on a minion, a stuffy must have a weapon. Melee attacks must be adjacent to the minion. Roll a red die (or dice) and if the results exceed the defense value of the minion, it is defeated! The stuffy will earn a shiny button; the storybook will say when and how they can be used. Ranged attacks work the same way, except the minion has to be within range of the weapon and green dice are used. Many item cards give bonuses to attacks, too, by adding a modifier to a particular die. For example, the rubber bands below give +1 to every green die used in ranged attacks.

Ranged and melee weapon item cards

There is a lot a player can do on a turn. During my first skim of the rulebook I was concerned that this would be too much for kids to keep track of. However, the actions are thematic enough that it only took a few turns and a little coaching for my 9-year-old daughter to go with it. As seen above, there are handy reference cards to help keep track of the dice colors and the possible actions are listed on the back.

About the discovery deck: the storybook will tell you when to retrieve specific cards from it. A nice bonus is that these cards are added into the common decks and can be used in future stories.

The Threat Track

After a player is all finished with their actions, all used dice are placed in a common discard pool, then the final step is to check the threat track.

Sideboard with black dice on the threat track - here comes the crawlies!

Sideboard with black dice on the threat track. Here comes the crawlies! Photo: Erik Stanfill

If the number of black dice on the threat track is equal to or exceeds the number of minion cards next to the sideboard, then the minions will act. Each die on the track corresponds to a minion, and it is rolled to determine what actions the minion will take as indicated on its card. There are rules on minion movement and attacks that I won’t go into detail here, but, suffice to say, they are not nice things.

When attacked, a stuffy may roll a reserve die to defend itself; just subtract the amount rolled from the damage. If a stuffy manages to negate all damage, then the die is returned to the character card instead of the discard pool as a bonus. If a stuffy collapses, then the top card of the sleep deck is revealed. Asleep cards have no effect. Restless cards will trigger an event indicated by the storybook, and the Waking card will activate the Waking ending to the story. And, be warned, the storybook may have you pull from the deck after certain events, too.

The sleep deck

Minions are generated on the map through story encounters or random encounters. The storybook will tell you when these occur.

Once all minions have taken a turn, the threat dice are discarded, then the dice discard pool is returned to the bag. It is the next player’s turn. Play continues until the story ends. A story will take place over several pages and maps, and may not take a exact linear path; it depends on decisions made by the players and outcomes of combat. And, as mentioned before, the ending will be different if the Waking sleep card was revealed.

What’s the Verdict?

Certainly, a major theme of Stuffed Fables is a child’s bedtime anxieties. I can see kids developing emotional attachment to the little girl as they may relate to her, and certainly the story can be poignant to parents. There is a lot to discover about this game that is better to uncover on your own, so I won’t say much more other than I am enamored with the simple theme and the story so far. It feels like a really good animated film in a box.

I consider Stuffed Fables a family game rather than a kids’ game. It is quite complex for those 12 and under and will need a grownup to explain the rules. It’s probably a no-go for any one under 8. An all-grownup party can certainly play and enjoy it if the theme resonates with them—there is enough game here, but it seems Stuffed Fables is designed for a mix of kids and parents. I’ve only played with three players, so I can’t comment on if there is significant downtime with higher player counts.

The storybook pushed Stuffed Fables over the top for me. Having maps and the story self-contained in a book, instead of modular tiles and a separate campaign book that can spoil all the maps, is awesome. Now, I like modular tiles, but the big disadvantages with them is storage, material limitations, and knowing all the environments beforehand. With the storybook you just just slap it on the table, open it up, and you are good to go. Going to a new map is just turning a page, not stopping the action to fumble for needed tiles. Setup shouldn’t take you more than a few minutes. We had some issues figuring out some of the storybook navigation and nomenclature at the start, but we caught on after the 2nd page or so.

Pro tip: Hide all of the minion and boss figures under the box lid, keeping them secret from the other players until needed. That will add a little extra surprise in each story.

I love Stuffed Fables. It’s a lot of fun, and the only downside for me is that my family hasn’t gotten together recently to play. That needs to be fixed.

GAME ON.

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There's been quite some hype and questions this summer around a new collectable (kinda) card game from Fantasy Flight Games and Magic maestro Richard Garfield. Well, now that KeyForge finally has arrived, here is the question du jour: is KeyForge fun and worth your money and/or valuable gaming time? (Spoiler: yes.) Let's dive in!

What is KeyForge?

KeyForge is a two-player card deck-based battle game; players are Archons trying to be the first to "construct" three Keys. To construct a Key, players must spend 6 Æmber tokens at the start of their turn. Æmber is obtained through playing or exhausting cards that generate Æmber, or by stealing from an opponent. Pretty simple, right? Well... you and your opponent each have an Archon deck that contains a powerful set of creatures, artifacts, and action cards to thwart each other's progress. So, yeah, a fight is on. Making those keys is not going to be a cakewalk.

So what makes KeyForge special, other than designer pedigree?

Each players' Archon deck is unique. When I mean unique, I don't just mean the sealed decks have different cards. I mean no other deck printed has the same card combinations, Archon name, or even card back design. The Archon's name is even printed on the front of every card. This means that decks are locked; they cannot be modified, added to, or built from scratch. You buy a deck, and that is the deck: no blind booster packs; no monthly card packs, no net-decking (building card decks by researching combos online), and no chasing pricey rare cards.

The names and designs of the Archons are procedurally generated, a technique common in designing video game environments, but I've never heard of it being used in a card game before. Also, the cards in a particular deck are not randomized, but sorted algorithmically to ensure a playable deck.

Call of the Archons starter set

In the Call of the Archons starter set, you'll find two training decks (these are the same in every box), two Unique Game™ decks in retail packaging, power & status cards, chain trackers, six Key tokens, Æmber tokens, damage tokens, and a folded one-sheet quick-start guide. I'm not sure why the full rulebook was not included (it can be downloaded here), likely to keep it as an living document to update as needed. Everything about this box seems geared towards quickly getting you at the table and playing with no mess or fuss.

The starter set is nice and complete for the $40 MSRP, but if you really want to get in the game and don't want the training decks, your minimum entry is two 37-card Archon decks for $10 a pop. For all the other content (Æmber and damage tokens, status cards) you can probably scrounge up substitutes around the house. That'll save you about 20 bucks.

Single Archon deck

How do you play KeyForge?

To begin the game, each player takes three key tokens with the unforged side up, places their Archon identity card in front of them, and draws six cards into their hand if they are the first player, seven if they are the second. Players may take one mulligan, drawing one fewer card, if they wish.

The first phase of a player's turn is checking their Æmber pool. If they have at least six, they must spend it and flip one of their Key tokens over to forge. The color of the Key token doesn't matter, although I suspect it will in future card sets. At the beginning of the game, this phase will be skipped.

The player will then select one of three houses indicated on their Archon's card. Like the mana colors of Magic, or the factions/corporations of Netrunner, each of KeyForge's seven houses has their own flavor and play style for you to discover.

After picking a house, the active player may play ANY card from their hand that belongs to that house. If this is the first turn for the first player, they may only play one card this round. Cards have no cost to play. Creatures and Artifacts are permanents, they stay in play until removed by an effect or combat, and enter play on their side ("exhausted") and can't be used until turned right side up ("ready"). Action cards have an immediate effect and go into their controller's discard pile. Upgrades attach to a Creature to enhance their abilities or power.

Creature, Artifact, Upgrade, and Action cards

Creatures are setup in a "battleline,” meaning that the relative position of creatures on the table is important for certain card effects. When a creatures is added, they must flank one previously played. When one is removed and discarded, the remaining creatures fill in the empty spot.

A player may attack with any active-house character card that isn't exhausted. Unlike other duel card games, you are not trying to take out your opponent; you target your opponents creatures instead. Each creature has a power rating telling you how much damage they can dish out and take. Also, each will have a shield rating that will absorb points of damage on every attack. Damage is persistent; creatures do not heal at the end of the turn, so damage tokens are used to track when a creature is hurting.

Any ready active-house character may also “reap” for Æmber, meaning they can exhaust themselves to add 1 Æmber to their controller's pool (stored on the Archon identity card). Also, a player may discard any number of active-house cards in their hand to free up space for the draw phase.

When a player is finished playing cards and discarding unwanted cards, they now ready any exhausted cards, then drawing back up to 6 cards, if needed. If they have 6 or more Æmber in their pool, they must announce "Check!" indicating that they are able to forge a key at the beginning of their next turn. It's now the next player's turn. Play continues until someone forges their third key, which makes them the immediate winner.

Grits’ deck list on the left & card back in the middle - note that Grits’ name is printed on the front of the Round Table artifact card.

Here's one of my Archon decks: "Grits" Ryvre, Bazaar Mentor. Every deck will have a complete card list on the back of the Archon card, along with a QR code. used for the Master Vault web portal/app and for tournaments. All a judge or event coordinator has to do is scan the code and the deck's name and content are checked in to the tournament. At least, that is my understanding of the intent.

The Master Vault site and app allow you to track your decks stats: wins, losses, chains, et al. Just signup with an Asmodee.net account, login, scan the QR code or enter in the alphanumeric code, and your decks are stored.

What questions come up about KeyForge?

A big question that tends to come up while discussing KeyForge is deck balance. In casual play, I don't think it will be a huge issue (you can use Chains, described below), but for tournament play? Could someone have a deck with killer card combos that can blow everyone else out of the water? How do you determine if its the deck that is overpowered, or if the player is just that good? These are questions that I'm sure the folks designing tournament play are working on answering. But as of this writing, I haven't seen concrete solutions.

There is an optional handicap system for casual play, Chains, that levels out a game if players perceive one deck to be more powerful than the another. It works like a tracking system where the stronger deck draws fewer cards when refilling their hand than the player with the weaker deck for a certain amount of rounds. Also, trading decks between matches is encouraged, too.

Other questions are about the printing process of KeyForge. How did Fantasy Flight print tens of thousands of unique Archon decks? The publisher is tight-lipped at the moment on the exact procedure, likely because it involves intellectual property, trade secrets, NDAs, secret memos, and all that. The box says that the cards are printed in Germany. In a recent Game Boy Geek interview, Garfield confirmed that Cartamundi printed the cards.

I will guess that the actual print production is the easy part of the process. Using a traditional offset press would be completely impractical, as they are designed to make a large amount of high-quality impressions of a single image. A full-color offset press typically uses four inks: cyan, yellow, magenta, and black (CMYK). Each ink is applied separately using an etched metal plate that transfers (or "offsets") ink to a rubber blanket, which then applies the captured ink to the print surface. Here's a video on the process. Because of the setup time, prepress work, and production of the metal plates, it isn't cost effective to do low print runs on an offset press, much less a single run. However, the latest high-speed sheet-fed digital presses like the HP Indigo 12000 would be more than up to the task of producing all the unique decks needed for the game. Digital presses do not need plates or offset blankets to make impressions, so they are not limited to a single image on a print run. Not only can the Indigo print quickly, but with the resolution and quality needed for a hobby gaming product. One sheet would contain all 37 cards of one deck; the Indigo 12000 can print about 1700 full-color double-sided sheets per hour. Adding press checks, maintenance, and rendering time, it seems very possible that 10,000 unique decks could be printed, cut, and packaged in just a few days. This is all speculative on my part, of course, but the point is that KeyForge likely takes advantage of the latest and greatest in digital print-on-demand technology that didn't exist until a few years ago.

Now, the hard part: designing the game in conjunction with building print files for the press. I'm sure having someone around who earned a PhD in mathematics and combinatorics would be really handy... and, well, you know, Garfield happens to be one.  I can't imagine the work of play-testing all the hundreds of cards, building the algorithm to sort and create the Archon decks, and creating press-ready files. This is all out of my wheelhouse here and makes my brain hurt thinking about it. But the Fantasy Flight team pulled it off, and, with only a minor hiccup, it seems to work out well so far.

What's the verdict?

I really enjoy KeyForge. It's got a quick-action feel like Hearthstone or Epic. I like that its a turnkey game; you can buy a deck, sit down, and play without the subjective meta-baggage of Magic. It's not as convoluted to teach like Netrunner. As time goes on, I'll be having fun learning about the houses and discovering which ones match my play style. The cost of entry is great. Since this is a Fantasy Flight joint, you can be assured that there will be further card sets released in the future, but, if they stay with the release model of Call of the Archons (a starter set & unique Archon decks), keeping up with the game seems like a minimal investment compared to CCGs, or even Fantasy Flight's Living Card Game (LCG) model that releases new card packs every month or so for $15. Keyforge may have replaced Netrunner (RIP) for me.

Any card game designed by Dr. Garfield is going to have to deal with the big ol' Magic elephant in the room. I'll just say it: KeyForge is not Magic. In fact, the beauty of KeyForge is that is purposefully trying not to be Magic, and feels like it wants no part of a comparison. But it's gonna happen, folks. I've been doing myself it in this post. So I can see this game not being everyone's cup of tea. The lack of deck-building will be attractive to some, but will be a non-starter for others. The thing that made Magic last over 25 years was not just a steady supply of expansion sets and products, but the community that developed around the game-outside-the game. The metagame of KeyForge will be interesting to watch. The pay-to-win aspect of Magic may be minimized in KeyForge, but there is still that question of potentially powerful decks on the secondary market for big bucks creeps in. How the OP team addresses this will be a big factor in tournament play. Even all this talk about tournament play, deck tracking, and other stuff, KeyForge appears designed for the casual gamer. A CCG for people who don't like CCGs. I think that's a good thing.

While I doubt it will reach the heights of what made Dr. Garfield famous (I don't expect any other card game will), Keyforge: Call of the Archons is one heck of a followup, and well worth anyone's time to check out.

GAME ON.

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This post is a reprint of my original from Geekdad.com, posted October 25, 2018.

It is difficult to raise a daughter in the 2010s and not have some familiarity with My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. This animated show features an intrepid group of six colorful ponies who learn and teach life lessons in friendship and conflict resolution while managing their day-to-day life in the village of Ponyville – not to mention protecting the equine-dominated realm of Equestria from evil (or apparent evil) threats. I was skeptical about Friendship is Magic, thinking it would be just a 22-minute Hasbro toy commercial, but I was won over by the show’s memorable and funny characters, fantastical adventure elements, latent geeky content, and a surprising amount of pathos. Although my daughter is into Voltron and Undertale rather than ponies these days, we still enjoy watching the show together on Netflix.

Now, with River Horse’s My Little Pony:Tails of Equestria, we can have pony adventures of our own in this tabletop role-playing game. Is this book just another one-of-a-bazillion forgettable My Little Pony marketing products, or is this a solid RPG worth your valuable gaming time? We gathered around the table and gave it a go!

What do you need to play?

Like most tabletop RPGs, you will want pencils, character sheets, and a set of dice. A gamemaster (GM) is needed to narrate, adjudicate rules, play non-player characters (NPCs), and guide the story. For dice, Tails of Equestria uses a standard polyhedral set (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20). Small items like coins or beads are also needed to use as Friendship Tokens (more on that below). There is a character sheet in the book that can be photocopied, or you can find PDFs on River Horse’s website. Before the story begins, all players need to build a pony character.

How does character creation work?

With this 152-page full color tome, players may choose from three different types of ponies commonly found in Equestria: Earth ponies, Unicorns, and Pegasi. Earth ponies are renowned for their stout heart, so they receive a bonus to their Stamina. Unicorns can use magic; they start with the Talent of telekinesis. The Pegasi have wings so they can, of course, fly.

With this 152-page full color tome, players may choose from three different types of ponies commonly found in Equestria: Earth ponies, Unicorns, and Pegasi. Earth ponies are renowned for their stout heart, so they receive a bonus to their Stamina. Unicorns can use magic; they start with the Talent of telekinesis. The Pegasi have wings so they can, of course, fly.

Traits and Talents are rated by a specific die: d4 being the lowest rating, d20 the highest. As you may have figured out, these are the dice rolled when performing a Test or a Challenge. As ponies progress in levels, they may choose stats to increase by upgrading a die one step. A d4 to a d6, or a d12 to a d20, for example.

A pony’s basic Traits are Body, Mind, and Charm. A player decides between Brainy (Mind at d6, Body at d4), or Strong (Body at d6, Mind at d4). Every pony begins with a Charm of d6 representing their natural likability. GMs can upgrade or downgrade dice as the story requires. For example, if a pony rolls in the mud or gets excessively dirty, the GM may decide that the pony’s Charm be temporarily downgraded to a d4 until they have a chance to clean off.

Talents are the same as skills in D&D. A pony could have a certain creative flair, perform well at athletics, or even perform a magic spell. At each new level, a pony will have the option to take on a new Talent or upgrade one they already have. The provided list of Talents is not very comprehensive, but, with the GMs permission, players may create or modify Talents from scratch.

Quirks add more roleplaying flavor to the character; perhaps the pony is bossy, naturally fearful, prone to illnesses, or needs to wear glasses. Each pony begins with one Quirk.

The Element of Harmony is another stat which is sort of like Tails’ version of D&D’s alignment matrix. Each of the six Elements represents a particular aspect of friendship: loyalty, generosity, honesty, laughter, kindness, and magic. For example, Applejack is one of the primary six ponies from the show (known colloquially as the “Mane 6”). Her Element is honesty, meaning she can always be relied upon to be truthful and a straight-shooter, but she can be TOO honest sometimes, and maybe isn’t great at considering someone else’s feelings. It’s a great hook for roleplaying and a simpler concept to grasp rather than the ubiquitous good/evil/lawful/chaotic alignment grid. Also, players have latitude in their character’s personality. Applejack may be extroverted, but another pony who shares the same Element could be introverted.

The last thing to do is to determine the pony’s “Cutie Mark.” In pony parlance, this is an icon on their flanks representing the pony’s individuality or special calling. It can be a literal or abstract design. Cutie Marks magically appear on fillies and colts to signal their coming-of-age of sorts.

My approach for building an NPC character was to read all the available options and just pick stuff that jumped out at me. A better method for my daughter was asking her what she’d like to play and choosing the appropriate Element, Talents, and Quirks that aligned with her responses. I don’t think we spent more than 30 minutes penciling in our characters, including a rudimentary background story. We used generalzoi’s Pony Creator to make our pony portraits.

How does Tails of Equestria play?

Tests are quite simple: roll the appropriate attribute or talent die, and try to beat a Difficulty target value determined by the GM. Challenges are just opposed tests between two participants. Higher roll wins.

There are ways to modify die rolls. An appropriate Talent might add an extra die to the test, and other ponies may attempt the Test, too. Ponies can also work together. For example, it may be impossible for a single pony with a body of D6 to lift a large boulder with a difficulty of 7, but if others pitch in, the GM lowers the difficulty rating by 1 for each pony. All ponies may roll their dice, and use the highest number. It’s a great system to encourage cooperation.

Another feature of the game is Friendship Tokens. Each player begins with a number of tokens equal to how many are playing, including the GM. During a test, a player may spend tokens to upgrade a die, automatically pass a test, or even effect the story in a small way. It’s up to the GM to decide the value of tokens vs. the desired outcome. Other ponies may add and pool their tokens to help out, too. Friendship Tokens are earned by leveling up, or are rewarded, at the GM discretion, to good roleplaying, such as acting on a Quirk or going above and beyond for another pony or NPC. However, If a player character does something unkind to an NPC, for example, a GM might take away a token. Note that tokens are not included in the game; I used purple colored gems available at the BoardGameGeek store.

A Scuffle is the combat-related aspect of the game. The book is quick to point out that fighting should a last resort option for PCs, and gives story examples from the TV series where diplomacy was not an option for the heroes; physical force had to be used to stop a serious threat. Scuffles are not deadly, however, and usually result in a loss of Stamina points. When a character loses all of their Stamina, they are too exhausted or injured to move, act, or do anything until they can get some rest, nourishment, or a bit of the panacea “pony balm.”

The book includes an introductory adventure in the back, The Pet Predicament, which connects nicely into the first full published adventure Curse of the Statuettes sold separately in a box set. My daughter and I finished the intro adventure in one sitting, while Statuettes may take us about three sessions to complete.

There isn’t any XP system or point tracking for leveling up. Ponies advance to a new character level after completing an adventure at the GM’s discretion. The book encourages players to reflect on the adventure and choices made. This is a great opportunity for parents and kids to talk about lessons learned from the experience and applying that to real life.

Do you need to be familiar with the world of My Little Pony to enjoy Tails of Equestria?

It’s not necessary to be a fan of the show to enjoy the game, but it does help to have some familiarity with the magical world of Equestria. The book does a good job of explaining concepts like the Elements of Harmony for the uninitiated. However, if you GM for savvy offspring, you may hear “Mooooom!/Daaaaad! That’s not how Spike talks!” and receive course correction on the proper way to roleplay an adolescent purple dragon. Are you completely at a loss on how to play in this universe? Just watch the first two episodes of the show. As of this writing, it is on Netflix in the US and many other countries. You’ll get a good enough crash course on the setting, locales, creatures, and characters to run a great session without investing a ton of time. It’s worth it. My daughter has a lot of fun being able to interact with characters from the show, even if its just her dad trying to (poorly) act them out. The rules are simple enough that I can see younger GMs giving it a try, too.

Any nitpicks about the book?

I’ll start with something that is not a nitpick, but more of a double-edged sword. The cover art is sweet. It completely sells the game by evoking a sense of high adventure and grand discovery. The depicted characters (original to Tails of Equestria) are wonderfully rendered. However, the interior art is mostly screen grabs and vector art from the show, with the cover characters absent save for a sketch in the character creation chapter. It would have been nice to see more of them in the core rulebook, especially since they feature prominently on subsequent adventure covers, similar to Pathfinder’s iconic characters. I’m guessing River Horse didn’t exactly have a Paizo or a Wizards of the Coast-sized art budget for this book, so the creative decision to rely on existing assets is completely understandable. The original artwork is so good, though, it makes the screen grabs stand out more. Also, there are a few minor errors throughout the book. For example, one passage in the character creation chapter refers to some visual samples of Cutie Marks that doesn’t appear in the book.

What’s the Verdict?

Tails of Equestria is a fun and unique RPG for kids, parents, and grown-up kids, especially if they love the series. I particularly like the Friendship Token mechanism that emphasizes roleplaying, puzzle-solving, and cooperation over physical conflict, which could help provide a richer gaming experience later for kids who may decide to play a “grown-up” RPG. The book is logically laid out and fun to read. For fans of the show, getting the game is a no-brainer. For those looking for a simple and excellent RPG for parents and kids, Tails of Equestria should be on your shortlist.

GAME ON.

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When I was a kid, I recall seeing a game called What's Cookin', a simple roll-and-move affair where player visit restaurants on a game-board and try to figure out what food they serve based on scratch-n-sniff cards. I’ve wondered if anyone would made a modern game using scents. I wonder no more, as I present to you WowWee's What's That Smell, a game that utilizes your olfactory system - for better or for worse.

The first open of this modestly-sized box took a bit of gut fortitude. My nose was greeted with a pungent bouquet blended from dozens of scent cards packed into the insert. All together it smells like cat pee, no joke. The odor is strong enough that you'll probably want to keep the lid on as much as possible. Fortunately, when the box is closed, the odor is non-detectable. The game has been in my office for a few weeks, and I haven't smelled a thing.

The bulk of the game is taking turns sniffing little folded scent cards. Every player gets one with a little number plastic holder (nice touch.) Give the card a few brushes with the provided thin cardboard tokens (don't use your fingers!) and bask in the glorious aroma.

As advertised, players try to guess the smell. In addition, the rules ask players to pick from some categorical descriptions of the smell and write any respective memory associations. Five points are earned for a correct guess; three points for close guesses, one point for getting the category right, and bonus points to whomever has the funniest memory - subjectively judged by the other players. As you may have figured, there isn't a ton of game or strategy here.

The scents were difficult; I don't remember guessing any correctly. My response after knowing the answer was more "Oh I can see that, I guess" rather than "Oh, yeah, I should have known." It helps to think of the scent as an idea of a particular thing, rather than a straight replication.

The game concludes after all the player's cards have been sniffed and guessed. Whoever scores the highest wins the game and gets to pick a victim to smell one of four super gross-out "Whiff of Shame" cards, ideally recording the event for social media posterity and LOLs. The marketing copy sure loves these four cards; mentioning them at every opportunity on the Amazon page.

Sealed “Whiff of Shame” cards with provided storage baggies.

What's That Smell has some upside. It's fairly novel in its scope and has a nice package. It is not expensive; about $20. The game did spark interesting conversations, and we had a few good laughs. It's a gross-out game without being overly rude or offensive. It ticks all the boxes on what a simple party game is supposed to do. It just doesn't do enough for me to revisit it, but I can see folks having a blast playing as an icebreaker or maybe home-brewing it to a "game show" format at a large party or a bar.
GAME ON.

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Cover photo by Alisa Anton.

I don't like cheesecake.

So much that I couldn't get myself to shoot one for this post, so I got one from another photographer. I'm not even sure if that is cheesecake up there; maybe it's a slice of key lime pie (which I love.)

However, let's talk for a minute about a place that makes this dessert its eponym.

I don't know how ubiquitous they are outside the U.S., but you can expect The Cheesecake Factory's hulking facades in higher-end shopping districts or malls that have managed to survive the 00s (I like to call the 2000s the “ooze.”). Locations with the word "fashion center" in the title or feature bright fountains have a high probability of having one anchored on a corner between Zara and an Apple Store. I've personally only patronized this chain a couple of times while traveling with work colleagues. On a first visit, I thought I had wondered into a Vegas hotel. The expansive interior design can be described as "grandma meets Greco-Roman." Giant organic-shaped columns flank the tables with a color scheme that falls under "universe of beige." Our server hands me a heavy plastic coil-bound menu containing laminated pages offering every American staple you can imagine; it's more a catalog of casual dining than a bill of fare. It puts Red Robin menus to shame. Making a choice is overwhelming and paralytic, so I admit defeat and settle for a caesar from page 8 while sipping water from a plastic beer mug. When my salad arrives, there is literally enough on my plate for two or three meals. It's bar-food fare; not bad, not good, but we joke afterwards about going back whenever we are in the mood to consume an entire head of lettuce.

The Cheesecake Factory is a shrine to excess... and the paradox of choice.

The "paradox of choice," coined by psychologist Barry Schwartz, can be summarized as "choice is good, but too much is not good." Creighton Broadhurst from Raging Swan Press brings it context of his personal experience with tabletop RPGs in a blog post. When creating a first-level D&D character, he felt compelled to have as many resources and options as possible, lugging around as many as 27 books (!) just to get going.

I can relate to the thinking here. When making a 5th edition D&D character, I've rarely just brought out the Player's Handbook (PHB) by itself; I've consulted other books like Xanathar's Guide or Sword Coast Guide - both give more class and race options, or even online resources like the Unearthed Arcana articles, which deliver "official" options that haven't been fully playtested, but may show up in future books. So far, all my 5e characters have only used choices available in the PHB, but for some reason I'm compelled to think the process was missing something unless I had access to EVERYTHING. Of course, many folks enjoy this aspect of the game - collecting all the books, putting all the options on the table, min/maxing characters, and that's perfectly fine. But, for me, the question is if I would have the same amount of fun with a character I spent thirty minutes creating with just the PHB, or one that I spent hours on, pouring over multiple tomes and internet pages to make an truly exotic character who is all stats and glam? I'm not sure I would.

While not mentioned in the blog article, I can see this in context of board and card game design, too - specifically player choice. In fact, I consider player choice as one factor in determining the quality of a game.

Here are three things, related to player choice, that I look for in a good game...

I will point out that "good" is a subjective term. If I ever bag on a game that you enjoy, I don't think you are wrong for enjoying that game. You can like cheesecake, too. It's all good.

#1: The game provides players with meaningful choices that will affect the outcome.

This is why Candy Land is the worst board game ever. On a player's turn, they simply draw a card and move a pawn to the indicated color space on the board. That's it. There isn't even a spinner or a die to add randomness. The winner has already been determined once the cards have been shuffled and the first player chosen. Assuming everyone is following the rules, there is nothing a player can do to affect the outcome. The only true decision point is choosing to play or not.

My God, that cover.

A card game like Uno appears to offer many choices. After all, you have a hand of cards to pick from. However, you may learn early on that there is usually a single obvious choice on what to play each turn. If there is a decision point, it's likely only between two cards, and even then, it won't be that interesting of a choice.

Many modern board games subvert the "draw a card and you gotta do what it says, buster" mechanism by having a player draw two cards and picking one instead. It's a super simple thing to add to a design that instantly adds player choice.

#2: The game limits the choices player can make, but the choices are still meaningful.

A key mechanism in Scythe is the player board. On a player's turn, they choose an action space from four available on the board. Generally, they cannot choose the same space that they took on their previous turn, so that limits the player to three choices. On each space, there is a top action and a bottom action that the player may perform, as long as they perform it in order from top to bottom. This may seem limiting; on the board, players have three choices, then (maybe) two afterwards. However, Scythe is a game about completing multiple objectives to earn enough points to win. A player cannot achieve them all, so every choice of action is vitally important and meaningful in accomplishing goals. You need resources, money, popularity, and combat points, but you can't have it all, at least not right away. The decisions are excruciating and wonderful.

Two action cards from Gloomhaven.

Gloomhaven is great at a lot of things, but it really knows how to strike a fine balance between giving players limited choices, making those choices matter, and adding some measure of flexibility after a choice has been decided upon. Actions in this epic story-driven dungeon crawl is determined by a hand of cards. A player chooses two cards to play in each round. Each card has two actions, a top and bottom action like Scythe's player board, however, the player chooses a top action of one card, and the bottom action of the other to perform. Once the player has made their choice, they are locked. Kinda. Stuff may happen before they act; the board changes, plans are foiled. The player may then switch the actions around, playing the bottom action of one card rather than the top, and vice versa on the second card. Or they can take a less-powerful generic action instead. It is brilliant, as you have limited choices, but it never seems like you have too little or are stuck with nothing.

With "push-your-luck" games like Incan Gold, the choice is binary: you can stay in and risk what you have earned, or bag out while the gettin' is good. On paper, this seems super limited in choice, however, the meaningful part of a binary choice lies in the consequences of the choice. A good push-your-luck game will provide some information to help analyze risk, and not be completely random. In the case of Incan Gold, the "temple track" of cards is drawn from a finite deck, so players can try to assess the chances of a specific danger card being pulled that would cause players still in the temple to lose.

To leave the temple, or dive in deeper?

#3: Choice is good, however, the game doesn't offer so many that player decisions become paralytic.

I've already talked about Fuedum in another post, but this is an good example where too much choice ruined this game for me. There is SO MUCH that one can do on their turn, it is mind-boggling crazy. Or I think of A Feast For Odin, a worker placement-style game with an action board containing no fewer than 60 different spaces players can choose from on their turn. (https://opinionatedgamers.files.wordpress.com/2016/11/feastactionboard.jpeg?w=641&h=1255) No, thank you. This is the Chessecake Factory menu all over again to me. I've still never played Caverna on the "full" mode with the entire compliment of furnishing tiles. Again, if you enjoy these types of games, sweet, more power to you.

All in all, I enjoy games that don't let you do everything (or nothing), but allow you do a few things and make those choices tough. Fortunately, there are TONS of games that do this.
There is one choice that isn't tough for me: cheesecake. No, thank you.

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I've written previously about the evolution of the deck-building genre, beginning with the seminal Dominion and ending the journey with Clank!. The Tea Dragon Society is an interesting side-quest on that journey. The first thing that may catch your eye is the colorful illustrations and a loose theme that can best be described in the parlance of our times as "totes adorbs." Expect exclamations on the cuteness factor. I am unfamiliar with the graphic novel published by Oni Press that this game is based on, but knowledge of the source material doesn't seem to matter to enjoy the game.

As per most deck-builders, players start with a basic deck of fixed cards that will be added to as the game progresses. One difference is each player has a named tea dragon card which grants a (kinda) special ability. Another difference is that the player's "hand" is placed face up on the table as opposed to being hidden. This is really helpful in teaching the game to younger players; although the reverse is most definitely true; my daughter would catch my mistakes more often.

To win the game, you need to have the most points in your deck. 

On a player's turn, there are only two choices; you may buy a card, or you may draw a card. On the upper left of any card there is a leaf indicating how many buying points that card provides. On the upper left a tea mug is the cost of the card. There is a row of "market cards" that may be purchased and added directly to the player's hand.  A lot of cards describe some activity the tea dragons may be involved in (Sleeping, Feeding, Grooming, et al), or some kind of useful item. But more importantly, these cards may grant you more buying power and/or more points. Cards in the market row are replenished from a common deck after purchasing.

Market cards

The "memory cards" are another row. These cards are more expensive, but generally worth more point-wise than market cards. Memory cards are finite and divided up into four seasons, beginning with Spring and ending in Winter. Once all but one Spring card is purchased, the Summer cards are put into the Memory Row, and so on. When only one Winter card is left, the game is over.

The tea dragons' special abilities are pretty much the same for each: you draw again if you drew a certain card that is not already in your hand. For example, if the player who has the tea dragon Chamomile draws a Sleeping card when there is no other Sleeping cards in their hand, the player may draw another card. 

The four tea dragons

As a player's hand has more cards in play, combos will build up, and cards will be constantly drawn and discarded.  Many cards that provide points don't have much, if any, buying power. While they are in your hand, they are out of the deck, however, there are cards that will have you discard them, essentially creating dead draws on later turns. A careful balance between cards that provide points vs. currency is a key strategy.

After Winter is finished, the game is over. Players count the number of points in their deck, and a winner is declared!

The Tea Dragon Society is certainly not a "gamer" game. It may be too light for those looking for deep strategy and can be multiplayer solitaire. The only player interaction is the passing of the Mentor card (given to the player going last at the start to make up for first player advantage), and buying cards that your opponent may have wanted. However, I did find the card combinations more interesting than what Dominion's base game provides. All in all, this is a light family game, and a great if not ridiculously cute intro to deck-building for younger players.  

GAME ON.

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