Saturday, January 7, 2017

Star Wars Imperial Assault : Jabba's Realm

Hey everyone!

Join me as I make my way through this wretched hive of scum and villainy in the new Imperial Assault deluxe expansion Jabba's Realm.

Let's start by talking about Imperial Assault first.

Released in 2014 by Fantasy Flight games, and becoming an instant hit, Imperial Assault has since seen the release of many expansions. The base set rules were designed by Corey Konieczka (Star Wars X Wing, Descent), Justin Kemppainen (GoTh : The Iron Throne, Road to Legend App), and Johnathan Ying. With these guys involved, you know you're getting a well-designed ruleset. If you're familiar with the Descent system, then you already know how this system works, as it's a reimplementation. For those of you unfamiliar with that system, here's a brief breakdown :

You build modular maps from interlocking tiles as per a certain scenario (or "Mission", in the case of Imperial Assault), and a group of friends, using their miniatures, move through this map collecting treasures and/or meeting other objectives while battling enemies controlled by one opposing player.

Imperial Assault is a little on the heavy side, and the learning curve is daunting but not too steep, so if you're looking for a party game this isn't going to be your cup of tea.

I am, at heart, a Social Gamer. I'm also a titanic Star Wars fan, from the moment I sat in the theater with my parents to see the original Star Wars (before it was re-released in 1981 as Episode 4 : A New Hope. That's right kids, the original release had no episode number or subtitle). 
Like many, that moment transformed my life. Thanks to a love of Sci-Fi, this film instantly became a part of my very DNA, so it's no surprise that I'm likely one of the easiest to sell on a SW themed game. Add that it's a one-vs-many style game implementing miniatures, and I'm all in.

It might be worth mentioning that there's an app due for release "soon" that takes the place of the Imperial player, giving folks like me - those who can't get together regularly with others for a game - the ability to play the game solo (hehe!). 
I'm looking forward to this, but I greatly prefer playing with my friends. Games are, by their very nature, social animals after all!

Imperial Assault sees you and a group of friends take on the roles of heroes of the Rebellion as another of your friends takes on the role of the Empire, as you try to accomplish missions, battling against the Empire's forces all the while. 

This occurs in missions that can be played out as one-off adventures, or, taking on a role-play-like aspect, can all be linked together to form a larger narrative across a campaign. Ratcheting the role play mechanic up a bit further, you're able to gain money (Credits) and Xp that you and your friends can spend between missions for better gear or to amp up your character's abilities.

Keep in mind that the more experienced player should assume the role of the Empire, as there is a lot of bookkeeping and game set up that falls on their shoulders. Also keep in mind this is the role they'll assume throughout the campaign.

The campaign is driven by both a win/loss result - sometimes funneling the heroes into a specific mission - and the Rebels' ability to choose various missions from a deck that are then put into play. The campaign log also steers the course of events a bit, as occasionally it will call for a mission of a specific type : Either story or side.

While the base game has a massive campaign that includes both story missions and character-specific side-missions, FFG have gone out of their way to produce some really quality add-on missions that integrate seamlessly into the base. These can be found in the numerous expansion figure packs.

Each of these missions has a timeline coded to it, so you're not really able to mix ages. This is only really restrictive once you start adding in the expansions.

Don't care for missions or campaigns or the Pseudo-roleplay aspect? No problem, as one of the greatest strengths of Imperial Assault is that it also has a built-in skirmish mode, so you and a friend can play a small one-on-one battle!

Where the game really starts to blossom is in all the add on content. And that brings us back to the latest deluxe expansion, Jabba's Realm.

Packed to the brim with fantastic Star Wars goodness, the expansion brings us a new mini-length campaign that will have you navigating the criminal underworld across various planets and small moons full of pirates and criminals.
You'll find interlocking map tiles for Jabba's Palace, the Sarlacc Pit, Jabba's sail Barge, and other Star Wars locations. Simply mix the included tiles in with the base set's map tiles and you have the ability to construct each of the campaign's many maps!

The expansion also includes sixteen new figures to add to your games. These range from Weequay warriors and Gamorrean Guards to a MASSIVE Rancor! Seriously, the Rancor model is titanic, and, thanks to the fantastic level of detail each mini has, this thing just begs to be painted!

Three new Rebellion heroes are also included, and are simply a blast to play! There's the "tank" Onar Koma, who's slow but can soak up massive amounts of damage ; the support character Shyla Varad, who's fast but can hold her own in a fight; and the ridiculously-fun-to-play Rodian gunslinger Vinto Hreeda, who simply Can't. Stop. Shooting, even when he's moving!

You'll also find a wealth of new abilities, missions and other cards to add to the base set.

Alongside the deluxe we get four smaller releases, each containing new skirmish and mission cards, as well as premium miniatures : Alliance Rangers, Captain Terro, Jabba the Hutt (yep, he's not included in the expansion named for, and Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker! Each of these sees a token included in the Jabba's Realm expansion, however, so you're able to play them in the missions. It is worth noting that the figure packs include new skirmish cards, agendas, etc that can only be had there.

Speaking of, lets touch on the components for a moment.

The cards are split between standard sized and mini, and are decently heavier than average card stock. I've talked before about sleeving your cards, and I stand by that here. They're bound to see a lot of gameplay, and thereby handled quite a bit, so you'll want to go that one extra step to prolong their life.
The cardboard tokens and map pieces are - as per usual for FFG - above the usual standard and should hold up very well under repeated plays.
But here's the real gold : the figures.
These things are ridiculously detailed and boast some mighty impressive sculpts, considering the price point of the sets. There's some issue with the occasional spear or light saber being a bit bent, as this is a softer plastic, but this is easily remedied by dipping the bent/warped piece in hot water, reshaping it, and then running it under cold water.
The components all fit back in the box really well, including the larger map tiles. I wish FFG would jump on the bandwagon of including a few plastic zip baggies for the smaller tokens and chits in their games as other companies are beginning to do.

So that's the good news.

What's the bad news?

Well, the side missions can drag the overall campaign out a little too long. The core set campaign is long already, with many players commenting that it's possibly too long. I've heard complaints of losing the story, spending too much time on missions that really don't affect the overall story-arc, or, worst of all, losing interest in the game entirely!!

Jabba's Realm, at a brisk campaign length of just four missions, could potentially be played through in an afternoon!

Another issue is that the game overall can be "swingy". What this means is that you're doing well, when suddenly your luck bottoms out and all of your work seems to be for naught. It's something that's really difficult to recover from. Right now it seems neither side is immune to this. Unfortunately this expansion does little to mitigate this, as the game can quickly turn into a "run for the objective" affair, denying your Imperial friend any kind of meaningful interaction.

Set up time can really be a problem.
The tiles are all numbered, and each map lists out the tiles required by number. If you don't have your tiles organized in some fashion it can take a bit to sort out the ones you need. I suggest mitigating this by pulling the required map tiles before your gaming session.

Lastly, I sometimes hear grumbling that it's really luck based. This complaint stems from the dice system used for battles, and I tend to agree. One bad dice roll and you can pretty much tell which way that particular mission will go. I will add the caveat that, if you view this from a role-play point of view (as I tend to do, playing it out very cinematically), the drawbacks become just as fun, as thematically the Rebels weren't always winning or even accomplishing their goals. This makes for a far more dynamic gameplay experience, but can be a trifle off-putting to folks who are used to a more traditional "win/loss" mechanic.

Imperial Assault overall is swamped with the SW theme, but never moreso than with this expansion. Returning us to familiar locales, we finally get a real taste of the "scum and villainy" Obi-Wan warned Luke of in Episode 4.

That's it for this review. Thanks for reading and if I'm not chucked into Jabba's Rancor pit, I'll see ya next time!

Sunday, January 1, 2017


Konnochi ha, Mina-san! (Hello, everyone!)

Walk with me a bit as I travel the dusty byways of Tokaido.

Oooooh, this game!

It's such a pretty pretty thing! Unbelievably beautiful components....I hardly know where to start!

Tokaido, designed by the renowned Antoine Bauza and illustrated *beautifully* by Naiade is a strange animal : it wants to immerse you in Zen as you completely screw your friends over as you make a mad...dash...across Ja...pan....


Hardly a mad dash. More of a loooong leisurely stroll. 

That screws your friends over.

Along the way you'll compete for the best food, the greatest painting, and the greatest souvenirs, amassing points for each. But it's not a race. You meander to your next destination, and if your opponent has arrived ahead of you? Well, you smile knowingly and stroll a bit farther on down the road.

You begin your Journey in Kyoto, traveling along the East Sea road - the titular Tokaido - on your way to Edo (the original name of Tokyo). Along the way you'll stop to admire - and perhaps capture in painting - the surrounding beauty of the landscape. Or perhaps you'll lose yourself in a bustling shopping district, assembling a collection of souvenirs to mark your journey. All the while donating money to various temples, and stopping at inns along the way, enjoying hot springs and the finest cuisine each region has to offer a weary traveler.

And that's the game in a nutshell.

You and your friends assume one of the many included roles, each with a special ability, and line yourselves up at Kyoto in preparation to begin your journey. In a neat twist on turn order, the person who is in last place gets to move their piece first.  This might enable you to actually take two turns in a row, or get stuck in this sort of weird nether region between all the other players' turns as you curse every move each of them makes.

It's a strange, vying-for-control mechanic that drives this beast, as you attempt to arrive at certain destinations before your opponents. Once at each of the three inns you encounter along the road, you'll all stop and rest for the night. But don't be late, or you may find yourself paying exorbitant prices for whatever food is left over. 

I love this game.

By now it's likely clear I write about games I have a real passion for, games that I love. It's true, but only because I find it so difficult and saddening to write about games that I ultimately don't like. And there will be some, of course, that don't really work for me, but right now I want to talk about the games that do.

See, board games are a kind of litmus test of our individual psyches, in that the old adage rings very true : one man's garbage is another man's gold. And if you're here reading this then you must have at least a passing fancy for this specific game. Hopefully this review - and my others - educates you and helps in your game purchasing decisions.

I love gaming in general - and board games in particular - so much so that I am loath to run any of them down. I just do not want to be the guy who shifts someone's game-buying decision to the negative. What if a game that didn't work for me would have worked *wonderfully* for that person? I shudder to think of shouldering that responsibility.

So here we are with a game I adore. Oh, that's not to say it doesn't have its issues, and I'll get to those presently, but for now let's focus on the positives, shall we?

This is one of the neatest games I've ever played.

The board is an abstraction of the journey along Japan's coast, with spaces marked out clearly via artwork appearing in measured marks along the way. Each of these stops have space for more than one character, but, other than the inns, not enough for all characters. This is the "screw your friend over" bit I spoke of earlier.
And sometimes choosing between two of the locations ahead becomes outrageously tense!

Well, as outrageously tense as a game steeped in Zen will allow.

Earlier I mentioned the gorgeous artwork. Wow!
The board isn't super detailed, but it's still mightily impressive ; It's a simple, eloquent layout of the road, the waypoints, the space for donating money to the temple, space for the food cards and the painting cards, and a points track across the top.
It really is an incredibly beautiful board.

But the role cards have it beat by miles. Naiade brings the style with artwork that isn't quite surrealist anime, isn't quite cartoony painting, but is all exquisite. 
Each card lays out the starting cash you receive, your ability, and your name ; English across the bottom, Japanese down the side

A clever device for matching your role card to your traveler meeple      (traveeple? Meeveler? No? FINE) is the colored chit matching the color of your meeple that plugs snugly into a hole in the role card.
The card stock is super heavy, and, unless you play with folks who constantly fiddle with their gear, will last a long time.

I mentioned meeples as counters, and these are standard fare, painted to differentiate each from the others.

The colored chits and the in-game currency boast the same hearty design, with the money evoking the Japanese 5 yen coin, only these have a square hole as opposed to the round one of their real life counterparts.

The cards representing the souvenirs, food and encounters are all standard card stock,  and feature more of that stupifyingly terrific artwork.

The box carries an absolutely stunning piece of artwork that manages to capture nearly all of the activities you can perform in-game, and the insert was clearly designed in preparation for expansions. More on those in a bit ...

The rule book is concise and intuitively laid out, with an easy to understand rule set that's explainable in minutes, and is a joy to simply look at!

Oh! Felicia Day has her own promo role card! How awesome is that?!?

On top of all the other goodness, I'd like to talk about the expansions : Crossroads and Matsuri. 

Crossroads, as far as the art design and layout is concerned, boasts more of the same. Just simply beautiful packaging and components. A level of sturdiness comparable to the base game is apparent as well.
Speaking of the components, this expansion includes a small board that you place near the main board that adds stacks of cards that alter how each corresponding stop works, offering up a crucial decision for you and your friends. 
For instance, instead of painting, your character can simply gain a Cherry Tree. Or instead of visiting the hot springs, you might choose to spend a coin to visit the bathhouse instead, gaining you even more points. You might forego taking money from the farms in exchange for extra luck at the gaming room.

Ah, The Gaming Room.

This expansion also adds a small measure of gambling to the proceedings, in that you wager coins, and, based on the roll of a new specialty die, break even, win more coins, or lose it all.

At the Temples you can now choose to donate money or buy an amulet. These amulets contain a single-use effect, and can be mighty powerful when played at the right moment.

Lastly the shop is altered in that you now have the decision to buy souvenirs or a legendary object. The objects are big points, and can really sway the game!

Besides the new board and corresponding cards, you get 6 new traveler role cards that integrate seamlessly with the cards from the base set.

Overall a nice addition to an already near-perfect game.

Next there's Matsuri
Just as with Crossroads before it, the box, artwork, and components all maintain the high level of quality, material and art design.

And just like Crossroads, this expansion adds a new type of card : Matsuri (festival), which are triggered when the travelers arrive at any of the three intermediate inns. This is my one complaint with the expansions, but is one that's easily overcome with time : there's so many different types of Matsuri that you'll find yourself referring to the included rules addition quite often. Not a big deal, but can easily slow the game down beyond its already leisurely pace.

And holy cats ; more travelers! 16, to be exact. These ALSO integrate nicely with those of the base and expansion travelers, allowing for a huge amount of latitude when deciding just what tack you'd like to take for any individual game session.

Lastly, also included are tokens covering various effects afforded by the cards.

Finally, I want to talk about the Collector's Accessory Pack.
WOW, was this ever a great idea!

First off is the box art that's evocative of the base game cover art, and is a stunning piece in its own right.

Inside you find a bag of metal coins to upgrade from the cardboard coins in the base game along with a printed cloth drawstring bag to store them in, a new wooden Fortune Die to replace the plastic one in the Crossroads expansion, five new "Furoshigi" (wrapping cloth) counters to replace the points counters of the base game, and perhaps the best set of upgrade components ever : plastic miniatures to replace the meeples. 16 of them! Unfortunately this only covers the base game and the Crossroads expansion, so I'm holding out hope we'll get a small upgrade pack of miniatures for Matsuri as well. There's also these cool little colored bits that snap to the bottom of your chosen figure's base, color coordinating with the role inserts, making it easy to tell at a glance who's who.

These figures are so damned cool! Better-than-average quality plastic that holds the higher than average detail well. Going through them, I could tell - by comparing them to the character cards - who was who quite easily, despite there being some variance in pose here and there. 

And in a genius stroke, also included is a soundtrack cd
This nearly hour long cd will transform your Tokaido game session into the ultimate experience, as you enjoy Japanese-inspired music played on traditional instruments. Some of the tracks have other ambient sounds as well, such as birds, waterfalls, or the sounds of folks bustling through a crowded marketplace. It's quite magical.
Give it a listen here :

Tokaido Soundtrack

There's a Deluxe Edition that integrates both Crossroads and the Accessory Pack into the base game available as well.

I can't wait to get a game in with these new components! An already gorgeous board made even more so by the addition of these spectacular upgrade pieces! 

Simply lovely.


Fans of intense interpersonal interaction might be put off by the game overall, as there's very little of it. That's not to say you're not communicating, laughing, etc. What I mean is you take your turn, then your friend takes theirs, then the next friend, and so on, each person waiting to have their go, without any way to really affect any other player's turn.
My comments earlier about "screwing them over" comes less from interaction, and more from arriving at stops before they do.
"Oh, you're working on your painting, and only need the last panel? And there's only one more stop before the end of the trip where you can gain that panel? Well, how about if I just stop there instead...?"  
It's an incredibly fun thing to do, but ultimately you're doing it alone.

This isn't a deterrent for me at all, as I enjoy a wide variety of game mechanics, but some might find it off-putting. Heck, I'd recommend picking the game and it's expansions up simply as a conversation piece, it's all so beautiful.

And there you have it : Tokaido.

Thanks for reading, and if I'm not strolling down some coastal trail, I'll see you next time!

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Uncharted : The Board Game

Hi again everybody!

Today I'll be adventuring through dense jungles and ancient cities in search of treasure, and along the way might have to battle an enemy or three, as I attempt to discover the treasure that lies inside Uncharted the Board Game.

Uncharted was released by Bandai back in 2012, and was designed by Kisaragi Hayato, who also designed the totally bonkers Gamushara Gang.

I'm finding few people knew the game even existed, as it seems Bandai slipped this one out quietly for some reason, and I really feel this under-appreciated gem deserves some recognition and appreciation, even though it's now out of print. However, copies can still be had easily, and for a very decent price, at various places online.

I'm a huge fan of the video game franchise this game is based upon, so getting this to the table was an easy choice for me. Fortunately it also ended up being a really fun, interesting game!

Combining the aspects of a board game and a deck building game, Uncharted crosses this strange line where your deck interacts with the board, in that you're attempting to discover treasure and fight off bad guys while doing it.

It also straddles another line in that while semi-cooperative, each player is vying for victory points.

And while I called it a deck-building game, that's only sort-of correct.

You see, there's a central shared deck that everyone draws from, and you kind of build the "deck" in your hand and play cards to your play area (or Tableau, as it's now come to be known) directly in front of you apart from the board. So while it feels a little like a deck builder, your entire deck is played open in front of you for all players to see. Any cards in your hand never stay there for long as you can discard cards for myriad effects, and as a payment for the cards you wish to put into play.

The interesting bit here is that each card's art is bordered by a color - red yellow blue or green - and those colors correspond to certain aspects of the game, such as red for fighting or yellow for searching, allowing you to discard them for their specific color's special effect, should you find you have a few cards in your hand you deem otherwise useless.

So the game goes a bit like this :

You start with 4 Basic Actions in your play area, and each corresponds to one of the four colors I just spoke of.
As you move through the game you draw and play more cards from the central Action deck, building your Tableau, allowing you to execute bigger and better actions to take on bigger, badder enemies, or discover any of the game's shiny shiny treasures, as you interact with the various cards played to the board. Oh, and you're only allowed three cards of each respective color in your tableau at any time. This may later lead to some interesting play choices, as incoming cards boot in-play cards out of your tableau.

Speaking of, I can't recall the last time outside of Tiny Epic Galaxies that I've ran across a board - especially one that supports four players - that packs so much into such a small amount of real estate.
Across the top of the board is the VP track, where you and your co-adventurers will move your ancient coin token along as you gain (and sometimes lose!) VP.
Below this is the Action Pane, a 3x2 area where the treasure and enemy cards are played.
To one side of this is pretty much the whole of the game's rules laid out, while to the other side is where the Action, Special Actions, and Adventure decks are placed.

As you interact with the board - either by discovering treasure or battling bad guys - cards in the Action Pane will be added or removed as scored by the players.
You score cards by gaining enough search tokens (in the case of treasure cards) or having more attack points (in the case of enemy cards), and those cards are then removed and replaced with new cards from the Adventure Deck

Each player also assumes the role of one of the main characters from the video game series : Nathan Drake, Sully, Elena etc, and are given a card used to track health that they place in their tableau representing that character. In a neat bit of minor difficulty scaling, these cards are dual-sided, with one side carrying potentially game-altering effects.

Another scaling aspect is the adjustment of the contents of the Adventure Deck. 
You can noodle with these contents, increasing or decreasing the game's overall difficulty, as the deck also scales in size to the number of players.

You attempt to gain as many VP as you can while also helping the other players, before either the Adventure Deck or Action Deck runs out of cards.
Getting down to those last few cards really amps the tension up!

I've found that during a game, a player can jump very far ahead in VP, only to have them stripped away later in the game. This lends a thrilling, seat-of-your-pants element to the proceedings as the game goes on. In my last game, as an example, I was really far ahead of the other players in VP, only to have a creature that drains VP from the person in the lead at the end of every round show up in the Adventure pane, with no easy way to kill it. Consequently, as the game ended, I only won by one point! 

The board and components are average quality, not much different than any other card or board game, and might actually wear quickly with frequent plays. 
Everything you need to play is included, and I suggest sleeving the cards to help prolong their life.

Let's talk a little about the theme.
The Uncharted series is a massively popular franchise, with four games to its ranks, which allows for the use of a rich, densely populated universe.
This is reflected pretty well in the cards, but ultimately can feel a little pasted on to the ruleset.
You don't get to keep the treasures you and your friends discover ; you simply take whatever action or execute whatever effect is listed on them, score the VP, and discard the card. Which, now that I think on it, is a little like the games, but I wanted the treasures to mean more than just some minor effects or VPs. A couple had game-altering rules-breaking effects while they were in play, but this led to the dilemma of scoring them - and thereby removing their effect from the game - for the VP or simply leaving them there, clogging up the board.

And fighting the bad guys should have a larger impact on the game as well. That specific mechanic is simply adding up your Attack Points and comparing it to their health, then removing that card and scoring any VP they might allow. Oh sure, doing in a bad guy gains you one of the Special Action Cards, but these are sometimes likely to just be a higher-cost version of a card you already have in play.

Which brings me to my next issue with the game :
Some of the cards feel "under-costed", while other are too expensive. As I spoke of above, I might have a card that, when I rest it, allows me to draw a card. I might draw a card from the Action or Special Action decks that is the exact same card, but just has a higher cost slapped onto it. It made little sense.
They tried to mitigate this by giving each color a "special ability" that you can simply discard the card to activate, but that mechanic felt like a tacked-on afterthought, and comes off as simply fiddly.

The final issue I have is a weird one, with the in-game ability to add actions to your turn. May seem really good at first, right? Well read on...
Play goes around the table, each player taking two actions ("resting" - turn 90 degrees - a card for each action to do so) each time their turn comes around, until everyone passes.
There are cards that add actions to your turn, but you're limited by the ready cards in your tableau. If you front load your turn too early, you could be removing yourself too soon from the round (as, after passing, you wait for everyone else to finish their turns), which might make for some boring between-turns game time.

One other aspect I did like is the idea that this game is simple enough to act as a gateway to board gaming. Casual gamers can pick this up quickly, and fans of the franchise might find themselves open to a new aspect of gaming.

So overall I really liked the game - as did my playgroup - and agreed that it's simplicity and easy set up make for a fun, lite filler or end-of-the-night game, despite the theme and gameplay being nearly mutually exclusive. And since the game can be had on-the-cheap, so to speak, it's a game I recommend adding to your collection.

Thanks for reading everyone, and if I'm not lost in a Peruvian jungle, I'll see you next time!