The Dork Den Blog

12
Jul
Review: 5 Minute Dungeon



5-Minute Dungeon

By: Dave


Five minute games are great. You can play multiple rounds at a sitting, learn the game and evolve new strategies in a very brief time, and...


It doesn't matter. This isn't one of those games.



To be clear, the rules of 5-Minute Dungeon are set up so that it takes five minutes to play. There is a five minute timer that ticks down until you finish the dungeon or time runs out and you lose. The title isn't a lie.


You start with a dungeon deck, put together with a boss and a number of cards as stated on the boss board. Cards require a certain number of symbols to defeat—shields, swords, arrows, sprints, or scrolls. Non-boss or mini-boss cards are either obstacles, people, or monsters, and there are special cards which automatically defeat each of these enemy types.


Each player chooses a class and the corresponding colored deck of cards. Each deck has its own strengths in terms of symbols available, special cards, and so on. When the round starts, players take cards from their hands (hand size determined by player count) and play them as fast as possible to beat the monster. If you play a card, you draw a card, up to your initial hand limit; some effects make you draw extra, at which point you would just play down to your initial hand limit (you can hold as many as you want).


You have five minutes to get through all the enemies and beat the boss. If time runs out, or everyone is out of cards, you lose. So it's a five minute dungeon, right?


Yes. Technically.


Each dungeon is five minutes, barring a special effect like a divine shield that lets you stop the clock (which is usually a welcome extension). The idea, though, is that you'll beat all the dungeons back to back. It's a board game roguelike. If you lose, you can always just restart at the level you lost on, but "beating" the game means blowing through them all back to back. Even if you do it in different sittings, you're supposed to beat all five dungeons without losing, and it's pretty unlikely many people will do that one five-minute game at a time.


The game itself is pretty fun if you like chaos. There isn't a ton of strategy until you've played several times, with other people who have played several times, to the point where you know when and how to communicate your hands to each other fast enough to be useful. Think of it like hyper-speed Hanabi—if you can't find a way to work together beyond what normal-length explanations and planning can accomplish, you're not going to beat it.


There's nothing wrong with Hanabi, though, and there's nothing wrong with this. It's for gamers who want to lock in hard for a short time, breathe, then do it again. If that's you, pick it up.


Score: Five minutes out of the six you friggin' need.



10
Jul
Review: No Justice #1



No Justice #1

Review by: Anthony




It’s felt like ages since we’ve had a good Justice League comic book, and maybe that’s intentional as this secretive upcoming Justice League reboot has been in the works for who knows how long over at DC Comics. JL has been in a bad spot since Geoff John’s run on the crime fighting team ended sometime after the New 52 reboot where every title had a big name at its writing desk. Since then the comic has felt shallow, unnecessary and inconsequential. But after announcing that Scott Snyder, a man who is rising up to be the new master overlord of DC Comics in due time (I guarantee it) would be not only taking over the Justice League but rebooting it completely to #1 and introducing a new team, all things began to fall into place and make sense. It’s difficult to say whether Justice League was supposed to fall into the disarray that it did, though it’s safe to at least say it purposefully existed in somewhat of a void, being neglected by the higher end comic teams for quite some time until Snyder would eventually take over. This new team feels nostalgic and new all at the same time, introducing and reintroducing members that haven’t been recognized at a League member for years (looking at you Martian Manhunter) and that’s super exciting. This is also the first time that Snyder has really taken on an ongoing potentially lengthy comic book since his 52 issues of Batman. Naturally, I’m pretty excited.

In the wake of the universe shattering events of Dark Nights Metal, the Source Wall has cracked open, and if you don’t know what the Source Wall is, don’t worry, but it’s important, and it being cracked open is a pretty freaking big deal. Events have been set in motion far beyond the control of any Superman or any Darkseid and the universe's smartest entity is well aware. No Justice begins with Brainiac invading Earth, though our heroes quickly understand he’s there for unpredictable reasons. Destroyer gods are emerging from the wake of the Source Wall’s destruction, and he must rely of the heroes AND villains of Earth in order to safe himself and his people on his home planet. Brainiac arrives to tell the League of their weaknesses and their predictability in their teams. Each team: Titans, Teens, Squads all have existed in their current states too long and only with Brainiacs unlimited computing power can he formulate the perfect combinations of powers to create a force potentially strong enough to save the universe. Amanda Waller however, has something to say about Brainiacs plan, and as she works in the shadows as she does so well, things begin to go awry as she begins to meddle in his affairs.

Scott Snyder is a really ambitious dude, The beginnings and middles of his stories are always extremely exciting and jaw dropping in its intensity and its scale. Snyder often struggles however in his conclusions and his wrap-ups and the complexity and the size of this first issue scares me a bit in that regard. However, this issue was really, really cool and really fun to read. It feels really good to have these neglected characters back in the spotlight and Snyder’s writing carries every page wonderfully as usual. This is a dialogue heavy comic book that feels rewarding and its something Snyder is so good at pulling off. There’s really not much more to say here. This comic was awesome and if you enjoy these big scale, flashy, over-the-top events then No Justice is for you. This only made me more excited than before.

5/5



05
Jul
Review: Stuffed Fables



Stuffed Fables


The description of Stuffed Fables at the above link calls it "an unusual adventure game".


Yeeeeeah. That's accurate.



Stuffed Fables is called an 'AdventureBook Game'. This is the first of its type from Plaid Hat Games. When you open the box and see a big spiral book full of stories taking up more space than anything else, it might immediately bring to mind Above & Below or Near & Far. The box cover alone, however, makes it clear we're dealing with kid-style stories, and likewise the game follows a simpler (read: more linear) path than either of those two.


The directions are easy: Read the book. Passages in italics are story for the current bookkeeper to read to the group. Regular text involves gameplay. Don't move forward from the section you're on until something in the game tells you to do so. As long as you know a few core rules, that's all you need to run the whole thing.


Let's split this between the gameplay and the storytelling.


—Gameplay. Every character has its own set of abilities, although each starts with the same amount of stuffing (health) and hearts to power their abilities. Characters usually have at least one ability that nudge them towards using certain types of items, though they can use anything they want.


You start a turn by drawing five dice from a bag. White dice potentially give you extra stuffing. Black dice are threat dice, which can trigger enemy minion turns or other negative effects. Other dice can be used for actions specific to that die's color, or for a few general abilities not connected to a color (mainly movement or storing dice for a later turn). Non-boss enemies have one hit point; beat their defense with a roll and you KO them, earning a button that can serve various purposes later. Bosses have hit points equal to the number of players in the game, but you hit them the same way, by rolling higher than their defense. Other icons on the board can give you other stuffed animals to talk to, merchants to deal with, or push the story forward.


The gameplay is about as good as it needs to be for a game like this. The best mechanic is the ability to choose how many dice you roll to attempt specific tasks. In most cases you'll want to roll as many dice as you can, or (if for some reason you have a pile of dice you can use) at least enough to just about guarantee success, but having the option not to do that and instead take multiple shots at a task with worse odds is good and I'm glad they offered it. Needing specific colors of dice for certain tasks, but having to pull dice from a bag each turn, is a recipe for annoyance, but the ability to save dice for later, or give friends dice to use on their turn, does a fair bit to alleviate issues created by randomness. Skill tests and group tasks can be failed, but you should usually have a much better than 50/50 chance to succeed.


Perhaps the highest praise for the gameplay is that it's good enough while also not overshadowing the story that is the selling point. Speaking of which...


—The story. When we opened the book, the first thing that came up was, do we actually have to read this kiddie garbage to each other? Once the gameplay aspects came in, though, we got over that, and everyone read without feeling weird about it by the end. It's also a little darker than someone might expect—not original Grimm Brothers level, but not shiny happy Disney stuff either, no matter how the first page of the story book might read. The first story revolves around the animals retrieving the blanket of 'their' child from little spider monsters with doll heads. If you look at the little spider monsters with doll heads and don't buy into the creepiness that exists here, you're probably not going to buy into the whole theme. And those are the lowest-level threats.


More generally, if you can buy into stuffed animals coming to life and running around (which is a relatively common idea), you can perceive the threats to their well-being. Yet stuffed animals don't die; they can give stuffing to each other, including if one of them hits zero. Having all the animals flatten out (literally) is a loss; we didn't get anywhere near that point, but the idea of it feels pretty sad.


It can feel odd to be an adult, reading these stories to other adults, but they've written and paced it all in a way that lets you get into it. It helps that the art and miniatures are really nice, so you know exactly what characters are running around the maps.


—The overall. Pretty good gameplay, solid story. Sounds like winner!


Eh....


Playing through a story is enjoyable. You go through the process, have a good time, and think, man, this is fun, I'd like to do this more. Then you get to the end and... nothing. There are different endings available depending on how the story plays out, one better than the other, but once you hit the ending, that's it. There are eight stories available; like a legacy game, there's not much point to playing them multiple times unless you're trying to introduce someone new to it, but there's no legacy aspect. Nothing moves from game to game. I mean, you could house rule it so your characters keep their items, but they'd become incredibly broken.


It feels a little odd to criticize the game for only having eight stories to play when Time Stories starts out with only the one, and that's quite popular. The difference I would draw between them is that Time Stories is a mystery to be solved, so once that happens you naturally wouldn't have a reason to play it again. Stuffed Fables is a game that makes you want to keep seeing new stories, just like you would want more work from an author you like, with sufficient gameplay but not enough to make you want to re-run anything. Some people may get through all eight and decide they got their money's worth; others will think there should have been more. I have no good advice for how to decide which side of that line you'll fall on. It helps if you enjoy crisp art and excellent miniatures. That's all I've got.


Score: Six crawly doll heads out of eight.



03
Jul
Review: Plastic Man #1



Plastic Man #1

Review by: Anthony


When I heard about Plastic Man #1 I was giddy. “Finally, a quality comic book.” Plastic Man is the epitome of comic book ridiculousness and when written properly is by far the most enjoyable character in the DC Comics universe. He’s basically DC’s Deadpool but he doesn’t rely on tropes and obvious, repeated jokes in order to be funny. Plastic Man is ridiculous by design. He’s over the top, quirky, extremely powerful and has the perfect personality to go with his abilities. Plastic Man is the best stretchy powered superhero in history and when you read either his solo comic books or his work on teams (Which I think is even better) like the Terrifics, he really shines as the face of the comic. He’s constantly taking up the entire panel, stretching across the page and getting up into your face, and it’s really something you have to see in order to understand. There’s an unsaid pattern behind how you’re supposed to draw and write this character, and it’s amazing to see that consistency and comprehension from creative team to creative team. Plastic Man is a really awesome character has been left in the shadows for some years now, and it’s time for his big return.

Much of Plastic Man #1 is about reintroducing the character of Patrick O’Brain, Plastic’s real name, and explaining away some of the discrepancies and unanswered questions DC has to fill the holes of when talking about canonical storylines and events of the past. Any comic book reader is used to this kind of thing by now, and when handled correctly is understandable and for the more part ignorable if you’re uninterested in the company being forced to close loose ends and make canon whole. All of that is fine and we do eventually get a storyline going. The JLA has been infiltrated, at least so says Spyral, a respectable spy organization that many will know from Dick Grayson being an agent of for some time. Plastic Man’s abilities are the kind that they need for their mission so they attempt to recruit the now active hero of old on the investigation. It has a bit of an Ace Ventura vibe to it, which is pretty cool as it works quite well for the character. Of course, silliness ensues.

For obvious reasons this comic book doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it knows when to take things slower and be clever rather than just nonsensical. Plastic Man is a very vibrant character but he’s also charming and sly. When he’s Patrick he’s cooler and collected and that balances perfectly with how eccentric Plastic Man is. This character demands good writing to work well, and the creative team so far has done a wonderful job. This series is only 6 issues, and in that time there’s a lot of potential for a great story and a great revitalization of the character. 6 issues is all he needs, and then he can exist with his friends on the Terrifics for all eternity and I’m completely happy. All hail Plastic Man.

5 / 5



28
Jun
Review: Honshu



Honshu

Review by Dave


How much nonsense we could do away with if it was possible to just lay better nonsense over the top of it...



Honshu is an trick-taking card game about building... let's call it a community. There are buildings you want to put together to form a city, but you also need to pay attention to how much forest you have popping up, the size of your lakes, and how well your factory capacity matches the resources you gather during the game. Everything counts for points at the end except the deserts, because deserts are literal wastes. They're a tiebreaker because the more desert you manage to deal with in your community, the better you've apparently done.


Everyone starts with one map card. Each starting card has a different layout and is double-sided to increase the number of starting possibilities (starting map cards always have a resource space). Players are then dealt six regular map cards; these are numbered one through sixty. Players then put down a map card and may also place a resource on the card to increase its value by sixty, guaranteeing that anyone who uses a resource will wind up ahead of someone who doesn't. After that, a new player order is determined by the bids, and in that order players choose map cards from the ones offered for that turn. Having the first choice as often as possible is best, but as with any trick-taking game, knowing when to dump your garbage cards can be just as important.


Placing map cards must be done by connecting them to at least one of the cards already in front of you. This means placing it on top of current cards so that one or more of their spaces are covered, or sliding it beneath current cards so that one or more of the new card's spaces are covered. Players run their hands down to zero cards, then are dealt six more, with the process repeating so that the game ends after twelve rounds. (In a five player game, this means all cards will be used, and tracking what's left becomes a valuable skill.) At the end, points are added for contiguous city spaces, contiguous lake spaces, number of forests, and number of factories which you can supply with the appropriate resource. A substantial balance point in the game is deciding when resources are more valuable as a method to jump ahead in turn order and when you need to save them for the end of the game.


Once you see the mechanics in action, Honshu is a very easy game to learn, and very replayable as long as the basic gameplay appeals to you. Every community gets built differently, and every game requires learning how what you have available can offer advantages in whatever situation you find yourself facing. It's a clever little game about which I have very little clever to say—it's short, coherent, and simply good.


Score: Seven. Play it and decide what the seven is out of.



26
Jun
Review: Prelude to the Wedding #1



Batman Prelude to the Wedding #1

Review by: Anthony




It’s funny and interesting to go from the massive DC events like Metal and No Justice, which focus around these massive life and universe altering changes and cosmic level villains to something like Prelude to the Wedding. Tom King has this really cool story going within his Batman run focusing around the wedding between Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, and while some of the comics have been fun and simple, catering to perhaps a less hardcore Batman audience and giving us a really good emotional few comics with the Bat as a slightly more vulnerable and protective character, there’s been a lot of drama around this wedding. It really feels like a superhero soap opera with Batman still kicking villany ass on the daily, and it’s been a total joyride. King’s run on Batman has had its ups and downs for me, and I can’t say with any confidence that I’ve unconditionally enjoyed this run so far, but these past 10 or so issues that have revolved around this relationship between Catwoman and Batman have been a joyride to experience, and I’m a total sucker for the Cat and Bat relationship that has been hinted at and explored in the past. Prelude to the Wedding focuses on Damian/Robin dealing with the League of Assassins, who have always had their claws in Bruce’s life. Why does this comic exist? No idea, but I’m on board.

Damian is slightly troubled in regards to how he feels about this whole wedding thing. Shortly after the famed proposal, he struggled with being excluded, claiming that he wished his father had at least told him before it all went down. With Nightwings advice and a little consoling he was able to reassure the ever skeptical kid that despite Bruce’s lack of affection and consideration, he would go to the end of the universe for all the Robins, and he has. By now Damian feels a little better about the whole situation, even tagging along with Selina Kyle to the tailor to pick out and fit his outfit, showing off his intelligence and proclaiming to Catwoman he would have no part in calling her Mother or really treating her any different despite now supporting his father’s wishes to get married. Doubt comes again however when Damian is off patrolling and he encountered the unexpected, Ra’s Al Ghul, Damian’s grandfather and immortal leader of the League of Assassins. To his surprise Ra’s is well aware of the upcoming wedding and after a difficult fight, Damian suspects and confronts Selina, wondering how his grandfather new about the secretive wedding.

I really enjoy Damian Wayne. I’ll just say that right now. He’s a pompous, ultra intelligent know-it-all because he was born and raised to the best fighter and killer in the League of Assassins, but, he’s also just a kid. Damien has been the focal point of some of the greatest and well written emotional moments in Batman history as he’s struggled with his desire for humanity and his tendency for maliciousness. The relationship between himself and his father is one of the coolest and most well deserved in Batman’s near 80 years of existence and Damian is just all around a love-hateable character. So needless to say I enjoyed reading through this comic, though I question its necessity. King and DC Comics are interested in fleshing out and milking this whole marriage thing, so, fine. I’m in, but I’m not ecstatic about it. The comic is fine, but completely inconsequential. If you like Damien or you’re keeping up with this marriage stuff, check it out!


4 / 5



21
Jun
Review: Downforce



Downforce


Some games are good. Some games are good, but hard to like because they don't suit us. Some games are bad, but we like them because in some way they're just what we need.


Some games are just trash.



In the interests of fairness, this is currently rated 7.5 at BGG, which is pretty good. I acknowledge, therefore, that most people feel better about this game than I do. That's fine. I respect their right to be wrong.


Downforce is a racing game that isn't just about pushing your car to the finish line. Players bid points (money) before the game to own cars, and earn points at the end of the game if their car(s) finish anywhere except last place. Each car has a randomly drawn power associated with it; if you buy multiple cars, you only keep one of the powers, but it's applied to all your cars.


Just as important is the mechanic of betting on which car will win. There are three betting checkpoints; after any turn where someone passes a checkpoint, everyone bets on a car. If it finishes in the top three, you win points, and the earlier the checkpoint, the more points that bet earns you. If you pick the winner all three times, that's 18 points, which is a big chunk of a winning score.


You start with a hand of cards, the size of which is determined by the player count (all 42 cards are dealt, so that divided by number of players). Each card has anywhere from one to seven colors on it: one for each color of car, plus white for wild. These cards are used for bidding—show a card with a given color and you bid that number of points for that color car, white is zero—and during the game, where you move each car on the card the printed number of spaces, in order from highest to lowest.


You keep the cards you bid with, which means you'll usually buy cars for which you have at least one good card; in theory this could be a downside because your opponents see your cards, but everything jumbles into each other so much that remembering enough cards to gain a strategic advantage is unlikely. When you take a car, you also get an 8 card, good for one eight-space move. (This is both a good way to incentivize car purchases and the mechanic that winds up mucking the game. More on that to come.)


From there, the game simply proceeds in turn order. The first player is the one who buys the car in pole position, with play proceeding to the left from there. Your goal is twofold: use your cards and powers to push your own car(s) out in front while creating a cluster behind you that gets jammed into chokepoints and loses movement (e.g. if a green six is played and green can only move one before running into other cars, green effectively loses five potential movement).


And this is where the game starts to fall apart. The only strategy, really, is to decide when to prioritize pushing your cars forward and when to throttle your opponents. If you can create a serious enough roadblock, opponents may be forced to move you ahead more than themselves. In doing so, however, they'll often make it easier for other people to pass them, but if nobody moves you, you're still in the lead when it gets back to your turn, and unless all your cards are garbage, you can fly ahead of everyone else from there.


That doesn't sound so bad, right? It sounds strategic. And it is strategic. However, the implementation leaves a fair bit to be desired. First, movement per car is relatively limited. There's enough in the deck to get everyone around the track, but it doesn't take much wasted movement before a car literally cannot make it to the finish line anymore. While this is functionally not awful—whether you're last to cross or the only one not to cross, you're still last—it's an unfulfilling way to end the game. "I lost" is not as bad as "I didn't even finish", unless the reason for not finishing makes for an incredible story. But it's too common in Downforce.


Secondly, while forcing people into difficult choices often makes for a healthy strategic game, in this case those choices are frequently no-win situations. Playing a game where, if you don't get into the lead, you're spending the game making least-bad choices rather than good ones that can improve your position is a disheartening experience. It feels fine when you're winning and bleh when you're in the pack, watching someone race out into the lead.


Thirdly, once somebody starts holding a lead (which isn’t that hard), the betting process is too often cut and dried. You know who's going to win barring a serious strategic misplay, so everyone knows who to bet on. The real problem here is that the winner can bet on themselves; while there's no reason they shouldn't be able to, if you get winner prize money and also bet on yourself at all three betting points, you've maxed your score and can't lose. Unless someone else does well enough with multiple cars that is, which leads to...


The fourth point. A six player game is ok, since everyone owns one car. Two or three players is theoretically good; the cars don't need to be evenly split, but can be. In a four or five player game, though, some player or players will have more than one while the rest have just one, and that ends up being a serious drawback without a gin hand that has huge numbers for all of your cars. The special 8-card, for example, is supposed to be the thing that jumps you ahead at the right time; if you have multiple cars, though, playing one eight means you leave your other car(s) in the dust along with everyone else. It's harder for any of your multiple cars to succeed as well as a single one unless you hard focus on one of them, and if you do that it's likely your other cars will finish far enough back that they won't make up the points you spent on acquiring them unless you grabbed them super-cheap. So the potential balance of multiple cars doing well and competing with a one-car winner doesn't really pan out.


And, finally, the sign that the designers definitely did not put enough time into solving this game's issues: Track #2. The board can be flipped to play one of two tracks, which is great. However, on Track #2, the first single-space checkpoint can be reached on a move of eight. Therefore, the race basically revolves around who wins the pole position car. Is it red, and you only have a 2 as your highest point total for red? GG. Unless the pole winner doesn't realize the situation, all they need to do is play their eight for that card, get into the gap, and let everyone else crowd in behind them. They're off to the races, playing every big card they can for that color immediately if they're smart, and unless their hand is total garbage apart from the eight and whatever card they used to win the car, no one's going to catch them. It's a dumpster fire of a race, and the fact nobody on the design team realized that is gaming malpractice.


It's not like the single-space chokepoints are great in general; it's a take-that mechanic writ large. The game would have made substantially more sense if it was designed like Formula D, where there are always multiple avenues of movement and blocking only happens if multiple people happen to line up side by side. Getting blocked in Formula D is an aggravation, but a rare one, enough so that it can be called 'part of the game' and not take away from the enjoyment. It could easily be argued that Downforce needs that extra movement room even more, since the relatively low values on the cards (as compared to Formula D's dice rolls) make it easier for cars to pack together. Granted, the Downforce track offers a very F1 feel—if you've ever watched an F1 road race, you've undoubtedly seen the tight corners where passing is impossible—but the designers needed to take the time and realize mimicking that aesthetic so closely was a terrible decision for their game.


The art's really good, and the overall look of the game components is solid. It feels like a game that should be good, and it plays like a game that should be good. Having only played larger games, I'll even allow for the possibility that it is good at small player counts. But at four and five, it's a rolling dumpster fire. Avoid it as you would any dumpster fire.


If you like dumpster fires, well... here you go.


Score: 4.5/10 (it doesn't even deserve a marginally thoughtful scoring mechanism)



19
Jun
Review: Lando Double or Nothing #1



Lando: Double or Nothing #1

May Review

Review by: Anthony




Ah Lando.. The ultra suave, seductive scoundrel we all know and love. There’s something about Lando and comic books that just click, and after the 5 issue mini series a while ago for the more familiar older version of the character, Double or Nothing brings us back to Donald Glover’s young and less jaded version of Lando, bringing us a new story in the wake of the Solo movie which just hit theaters a short while ago. Star Wars comics seem to rarely go wrong, and for as much as I like Lando as a character, I was pretty excited to see what Marvel would do with this comic. It’s worth noting that Double or Nothing may fall solely as a marketing ploy for the movie. It’s really the only reason it exists after all, so there’s always the opportunity for Marvel to really drop the ball here and make a passable, forgettable story because they’re forced to. But, these shorter runs and short stories open up the spotlight for less known and up and coming comic book writers / artists to shine. Surprisingly enough this comic is written by Rodney Barnes, who’s much more well known for writing television, and I love seeing what non-regulars in the field can dish out.

Lando is a scoundrel. He’s not a master of chance or the hero of the tale, he’s a self centered cheater. He doesn’t win at cards because of an amazing skill at the game, he wins because of the card up his sleeve. The best thing about him as a character is that his charm only covers up his scumbaggery and his taste for a lavish life. Those traits mix together to make one of the best smugglers in the galaxy, and he’s got the reputation for it. When the wealthy daughter of a slave approaches him and offers a lump sum of credits for his skills in the field, Lando can’t turn it down, so with his trusty droid L3 he takes off on another money earning adventure which of course is going to get him and his allies in more trouble than he’s bargained for.

Double or Nothing does a great job of not only extending the character development of Lando set up in the Solo movie, but also showcasing Lando’s character in a way that feels like a smuggler / scoundrel comic. Unlike Han Solo, who despite being a smuggler and a scoundrel like Lando, will always be expected to save the day or adhere to some protagonist morals, Lando has no limitations. That’s why he’s awesome, and this comic does a pretty decent job of at least showing the smuggler as the pompous slippery scum that he is. Lando doesn’t have to save the day if it’s not beneficial to him, even if he’s a decent guy at heart, and that sets up for some pretty cool stuff for the future of this comic. The excessive dialogue and slow moving pace of the comic itself gives hints toward the script-writing nature of the comic writer, but it’s easily passable with the pleasing looking art and decent beginning. Lando, if written well, will carry any story, and that’s what we’re seeing here. So as long as the writer keeps what he’s doing going with Lando, Double or Nothing will be another notable entry to the Star Wars Marvel gallery.


4/5



14
Jun
Review: Council of 4



Council of Four


Short review: Council of Four shows the fallibility of the monarchy and why it was destined to fail as a form of government.


Game's not bad, though.



Council of Four, much like owning a multinational corporation, is a game about being a merchant, using people in government for personal gain, and replacing them if they don't suit your interests anymore. The board consists of fifteen cities split into five different regions. One of your goals is to put a merchant in every city in a region before your opponents do to gain a bonus; alternately, you can put a merchant in every city with the same color, which spread across regions and are usually not connected, to earn different bonuses. The more efficient you can be with your merchant placement, the better, as you'll be able to earn more bonuses. Getting to them quickly matters too, though: Queen's Rewards go to the players who earn bonuses the fastest, and they drop precipitously in value as the game goes on.


You get merchants into cities by influencing the noble councilors of the three regions, or the councilors of the queen herself. There are four councilors assigned to each region and the queen, determined randomly. As an action, you can push a new, unused councilor into one of those groups, pushing the one in the end out of favor and changing the set. Often this is done to earn money (you gain four gold for doing this with your main action). Sometimes it's mainly done to adjust the council so it fits your cards. Rarely, since it's usually hard to tell what another player needs, you'll change a council to try and mess up someone's plans. However, usually you can only tell what a player needs when they assign someone to a council. Because a newly-placed councilor has to cycle through all four council spots before getting booted, it's unlikely you'll be able to kick that person off before the player doesn't need them anymore.


To influence councilors, you need to collect cards matching the set currently on the council. The cards relate to the six colors of councilors (related to how they dress, it's not a racist thing... I think). You start with four cards and draw one per turn. This makes set-gathering slow; however, if you don't have a full set, you can pay to make up the difference (you need at least one card of the set). Early on you'll usually be able to get a merchant placed for free or cheap. Overall, however, part of your task is to minimize how much you spend per city on average while getting your merchants into as many cities as possible.


If you build a set for a regional council, you take one of the two available business tiles for that region. Business tiles have bonuses that are immediately earned. They also have a letter or letters on them; these refer to cities that start with the same letter. If you take an action to buy a business tile, you can take another action (usually on a different turn) to place a merchant in one of the cities on the tile. Should other merchants already be there, you have to spend one servant per merchant in the city to place yours.


Servants, by the way, serve numerous purposes, most of them revolving around taking a secondary quick action after your main action. Think of them like Five Tribes'... fakirs.


Alternately, you can collect a set aimed at the Queen's Council. By spending the cards and then two gold per city the queen must travel through to reach the one you're interested in, you can bribe her into letting you place a merchant there (servant costs still apply). You don't get a tile, which means no tile bonus and one less tile to potentially boost your endgame scoring a little bit. However, bribing the Queen means you only need one turn instead of two, you need a different set of colors (so you can work around the hand you have more easily), and you can place your merchant in a city even if there's no tile for it immediately available.


When you place a merchant, you earn a small bonus connected with that city (except the capital, where the Queen starts). As the game progresses and you place more merchants, you get bonuses from merchants in cities connected to new placements. It's not just adjacent ones, either; for every adjacent city, you also earn bonuses for each city another remove away. So, if you spread around the board and then drop one of your last merchants in a central area, you can earn a boatload of bonuses.


Bonuses come in a few varieties. First are the aforementioned city bonuses. In addition, if you're first to hit every city in a region, you earn the region's five-point bonus. There are also four colors of cities: blue, orange, purple, and yellow, with two, three, four, and five cities of these colors, respectively. Blue's fastest and worth five points; yellow is hardest, but it's worth twenty. Orange and purple are eight and twelve. Nobility bonuses exist if your nobility increases far enough, but that's something of a side bonus—you can read about it if you play.


Biggest of all, however, are the Queen's Rewards. These are so big (at first) as to seem out of line with the game's general balance. The first person to finish any regional or color bonus gets the first reward, which is an extra twenty-five points. The second to do so earns eighteen. The rest are, I think, twelve, eight, and three. This puts a major impetus on playing for the first Queen's bonus, which gives a major advantage to people who have played before over those who haven't. Even if you explain its importance, a newbie may not realize what they have to look for to try and get that bonus. (It's pretty much always going to be whoever finishes the two blue cities first, barring a nutty tile draw.)


However, if you go for that bonus and miss, then you're behind in going for #2 if anyone else decided chasing that one made more sense. If you don't get either of those two, you almost don't have a choice but to go for yellow, but if someone's already got a head start on that... you have time, but you're still working from behind.


******


That explanation of the game took longer than usual. Let's discuss what makes the game good or bad.


First off, the balance between the actions and how they effect your play is very polished. It's easy to throw down your cards and spend your money to gain a few quick cities, and if they're the right cities/business tiles, that may be able to propel you forward. But there's no combination that leads to an outright snowball unless your opponents are paying no attention and let you take all the best stuff. There's an optimal way to proceed, turn by turn, but with enough randomness between what tiles are available, what the councils look like, and what your opponents do that you can't autopilot anything.


Finding the right city bonuses to connect to each other is somewhat dependent on how the game goes, but making a nice chain and then maximizing the resources you get out of it is a good feeling. It's hindered slightly by the difficulty you sometimes run into when making those chains, but in some ways that makes it all the sweeter when you do connect several merchants.


The scoring mechanisms, though...


Let's go back to the Queen's Rewards. If you're careful/lucky, you can snag the first two blue cities by turn three, maybe four. In doing this, you earn a five point bonus for the blue, and twenty-five for the first Queen's Reward. It feels insane to watch that many points go out that fast. In pure balance terms, it's not as bad as it looks; if the eighteen goes with the three city bonus, that's twenty-six, and if you can get all the yellows, that's twenty plus whichever Queen's Reward you can manage, if any.


However, winning that blue bonus early still gives you the single biggest bonus in the game, and getting those blue cities is effectively a question of luck. They're spread apart, so you either need business tiles for both or one tile and then use the queen for the one near the capital. The first strategy takes longer, but is a little more reliable. The second is faster, but only if you get a perfect set of cards. The skill is more in recognizing whether or not you'll actually be the one to complete that pair first. That's a legitimate skill, but because it happens so early, there really isn't anything about winning that bonus that takes what we might think of as a 'gamer skill'—planning ahead, setting up your moves ahead of time, etc. Plus, watching those bonuses go away so fast lends a sense of inevitability to the outcome, even though it's not inevitable at all.


Furthermore, the larger the group of cities you need, the harder it is to collect them. You can only rely on the queen so often; you'll need business tiles for most of all of the ones you want. They're not always available, so you have to be ready to grab them when they are. In addition, the yellow group is worth a pretty good number of points, but the regional bonuses are only five. This is supposed to be offset by the fact you're getting many more gameplay bonuses from connecting your merchants. However, they toe this weird line of not being worth the effort, yet being tantalizing because we all like bonus points. There is real value in getting bonuses from connected cities, but it's almost like they added regional bonuses because having four colors and three or four Queen's Rewards didn't seem like enough.


******


In the end, calling Council of Four 'good' seems correct, but too safe. The gameplay is very good, and as mentioned, the balance between actions is spot on. The variety of cities and bonus types mean that, while everyone's going for the same basic goals, the way you set up your actions to get there needs to be flexible. In that vein, it's almost comparable to classics like Terra Mystica (though not quite there).


The scoring, though, makes everything feel out of whack. This is a game best played with four people, but there are only three truly major bonuses available. VPs can be earned as the game progresses, and by the game's end, before bonuses are added, scores can vary quite a bit. However, the bonuses are most of the overall scoring, and the impetus on taking them takes away from the options a player can pursue without borking their chances at victory. It's not a fun experience to watch all of them get snatched up and feel like you're dead in the water. And there's no obvious fix; changing the values would merely change the importance placed on them. When you house rule stuff like that, then whether the changes are good usually depends on the whims of the players unless you hit just the right note.


I'm sure the designers think they hit that note here. I think they're wrong. But play it, because it's fun enough to check out once and see which side of this you fall on.


Score: Three angry, yet dapper, councilors out of four.



12
Jun
Review: A.D. After Death



A.D. (After Death)


Ooooh, it's a review about not a game!


Maybe I shouldn't sound that excited. This isn't an excitement book.



Jonah's a thief. Lots of people are thieves, but Jonah's a good thief. He strategizes on the Internet with other thieves, and people who give the thieves ideas of what to steal. Eventually he meets one of those idea people (Head of Table), who asks him to steal something very special: a forty-year-old woman with a disease that has kept her physiologically a child.


Yes, it's kidnapping. They don't call it that. It's just stealing something else to them.


The book jumps between Jonah's memories of the past and the book's present day, which is over eight centuries in the future, since the cure for death was found. Jonah's reached a point where he blames himself; he was, after all, instrumental in acquiring the basis for that research via the aforementioned kidnapping. Why would he blame himself for it, you may ask? Is this another story where immortality is found to be something unwanted, filled with people tired of life but too scared to finally off themselves?


I'll leave that question unanswered, in an effort not to spoil too much.


What's important to know: Jonah is an easy-to-understand protagonist/narrator, from the story about his family vacation and the fate of his family to how he ended up in the position of making the most important theft in human history. He's complex in the sense of having enough layers for him to be a whole person, but not in a way that's likely to lead to dramatically different readings of his character.


The blend of text storytelling and graphic novelization is well-handled. It's mostly text, while the graphic sections mainly refrain from a lot of dialogue (and it makes sense where it shows up). The book would have come off much differently if it were fully text; had it been 100% graphic novel, it probably would have still had much of the text laid over the art, so this was a good way to reduce production time while still having basically the same story, whether that was the intent or not. From a purely artistic view, the back-and-forth between the styles is done well enough to be worth studying and learning from, beyond simply being enjoyable.


A.D. was originally released as three smaller books; as is too often the case with compilations, it's easier to see when the story starts going off the rails a bit. The first two have a pretty solid narrative arc, even if you're not really sure where it's going to end up. The third, in theory, should have this as well; this was developed as a full story, not a series that become surprisingly popular and required the writers to dream up more of an arc than they initially anticipated. But the explanation of the fate of the world gets a little weird. It's explained as an outcome with causes that aren't really set forth; that's fine if the causes are fairly obvious, but in this case they're not. You assume the outcome is due to the cure being found, but then Jonah says the rest of the world didn't know about the cure, which makes their behavior more curious and harder to understand. The ending is similarly unexplained; although the drama of the final scene is quite good, there will probably be a wide variance among readers regarding whether they like the way it wraps up, because it's not closed off neatly.


However, A.D. isn't a book that leans heavily on the power of its storytelling. It has a good story, but the aesthetic (both of the art and the narration), the mixed-genre style, and the concept (what would a world without death look like?) are the draw. It's worth a read, although at $25, you might want to wait for a sale.


Score: Seven walking, talking undead (THAT'S WHAT THEY ARE) out of nine.




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