Jan 062014
Aug 212013

Licenced board games tend to follow a similar pattern to licenced video games: most of them are a bit rubbish, but a few are great and really make the most of their source material. Here are two of those.

Spartacus: A Game of Blood & Treachery

The Spartacus board game is based on the TV series and sees up to four players take the roles of the heads of battling Roman houses and engaging in plots, backstabbing, market auctions and, of course, epic gladiator battles. I’ve not actually watched any of the TV series, but it’s one of the most thematic games I’ve played and I quickly fell into the role of a great Dominus fighting for supremacy.

First in each turn is the Intrigue phase, where you draw and play cards which represent the plots and schemes of you house. For example, slaves can be set to work to bring in money, opposing gladiators can be poisoned and guards can be posted to keep your own assets safe.

Then it’s on to the Market phase where there are blind auctions to buy more gladiators and slaves, or maybe some armour and weapons – everyone hides their gold, then holds however much they want to bid in their hand, before everyone reveals at once. The winner pays all the gold they bid, so how much do you want that shield? Bid low and hope for a bargain, or bid high to ensure you win and risk  massively overpaying? Finally everyone bids once more for the right to host the gladiator fight.

Collecting slaves seems to be the way to go. My treasury is overflowing from all the cash they bring in!

The Arena phase is the action-packed finale of each turn. The host of the games chooses two players to send gladiators into the arena, to battle for the glory of their house. Once combatants are declared, everyone gets involved again by placing bets on who’s going to win and whether the loser gets seriously injured or even decapitated. Then it’s on to the fight itself.

The combat mechanics are clever. Each gladiator starts with a number of attack, defence and speed dice. When attacking, both players roll their attack and defence dice respectively, and dice are compared highest to lowest (similar to Risk). For every undefended hit, the defender has to lose one of their dice for the rest of the combat, as they get injured and become weaker. Do lose your speed and attack, and go for the long game while you wear down your opponent? Or throw caution to the wind and sacrifice your defence to maintain a hopefully lethal flurry of attacks (if you’re me: yes)?

When an attack leaves you with only two dice your poor gladiator has been beaten into submission. Be left with just one and it’ll be a while before he’ll recover from those wounds. And if you lose your last one he loses his head with it. Bad news for you, but payday for anyone who saw it coming. And if your losing gladiator survives – well, lets hope you haven’t annoyed the host recently as he has to give the famous thumbs up or thumbs down.

So what are the best bits that make me recommend this game?

  1. Fairly simple rules. A few cards to play, easy market system and streamlined arena combat make it easy to teach new players.
  2. Auctions. These are great in any game, and makes it self-balancing. Does everyone think Crixus is overpowered? Then expect to pay a lot for him in your next game. Javelins are useless? Expect to pick up a bargain. And they give plenty of moments of tension and theatricality.
  3. Player interaction. Everyone is involved at all stages of the game, with joint plots in the Intrigue phase and simultaneous bidding on the market. Even in the Arena, cheering on the gladiator you’ve backed to win keeps it interesting for those not fighting.
  4. Controllable game length. By changing how many points you need to win you can start a game that’ll done in an hour or an epic that goes on for three.
  5. Power-tripping as you decide whether a defeated gladiator was worthy enough to fight another day.

Also intriguing is the fact that it’s a ‘Mature’-rated game. Not that being ‘mature’ makes it good (if I play GTA it’s in spite of the (im)mature swearing and violence, not because of it), but because I never really considered that board games could have age ratings…

Rob with the best card in any board game ever

It’s not a perfect game, and my main complaint is that because it’s a race to get to 12 Influence points it all goes a bit Munchkin at the end. If you’ve not played Munchkin, what happens when someone is about to win is that everyone brings out the cards they’ve been hoarding all game that knock points off them or otherwise screw with their plans. Similarly with Spartacus, it’s probably the third person who tries to win who’ll actually succeed, once all the plan-foiling cards have been drawn out.

But apart from that it’s still great fun, especially if everyone gets into character a bit and plays along with the theme.


A Game of Thrones

I’ll be honest. A Game of Thrones is not a game you’ll want to play every day. Or every week. Or even every month. We play it once per year, at New Year’s. It’s long, challenging, exhausting and possibly friendship-ending. It’s also fantastic.

The concept is simple enough – take control of House Stark, Lannister, Baratheon, Greyjoy or Tyrell (and Martell with the expansion) and muster and send forth your armies to conquer Westeros. Hold enough cities at any time and you win.

On my way to a Stark victory

The bulk of the game involves placing order tokens on your territories, commanding your units to march, defend, raid, support and consolidate power. You have a limited number of each type of order, so it’s often a tough call to decide where to attack or where you expect your enemies to push.

So I mentioned friendship-ending? That would mainly be the fault of the Support order. When an army marches into an enemy, the total force strength on each side is compared. Support allows you to add your army’s strength to a fight in a neighbouring territory, even one between other players. Cue much negotiating and deal-brokering as everyone looks for help in return for promises of future favours. The only problem is that order tokens are placed secretly, and I’ve seen genuine horror when it’s been revealed that a once-trusted ally has decided not, in fact, to support you, but to come to the aid of the enemy. Or in fact ignore both of you and march into your now-undefended homelands.

This is another game with auctions, and remember, Auctions Are Good. Every few turns (at random) it’s all change in the royal court, and everyone uses their power tokens to bid for their place on three tracks – the Iron Throne track determines turn order, the Valyrian Sword track gives combat advantages and the Messenger Raven track allows better orders to be used. Any of these can be of critical importance at different points in the game, usually leading to cries of joy and despair as bids are revealed.

This is another game where it’s hard to avoid falling into character, especially if you’re familiar with the story. I once tainted a Stark victory while playing as Greyjoy by landing a force into undefended Winterfell right at the end of the game. I didn’t know the story at this point so I wasn’t aware of why this was bad, but despite her winning the game, a certain friend continued a vendetta against me in the rematch a whole year later. Tip of the day: don’t play A Game of Thrones with people who hold grudges…

This current edition has a nicer looking board

If you’ve got the right group of people, this is definitely a game worth playing. It’s long (our first game took six hours), it’s pretty complicated (the rule book is 30-odd pages), and it heavily encourages betrayals. But it does justice to the source material, there’s a real sense of achievement with every minor victory and it’ll leave you with stories of epic battles, unstable alliances and backstabbing that’ll be heard for years.

(Yes I remember Winterfell, let it go already!)

Jan 022013

The usual image of board games is of a sedentary pursuit, with players taking their time to decide their next move or roll some dice.  These games can be incredibly tactical and intense, but one thing that’s usually not associated with board games is adrenaline.

I’ve played two great games recently that are completely different from this, and I’m going to tell you what makes them awesome.  The games are Space Alert and Galaxy Trucker.  They are both designed by the same person, one Vlaada Chvátil, and they both include the element of real-time gameplay.

Space Alert

Space Alert is a co-operative game for four or five players.  You play the crew of a spaceship sent into hostile territory who must survive for ten minutes.  What makes this game different though is that those ten minutes are played out in real time, to an accompanying soundtrack CD.  Every minute or two the ship’s computer will call out a new threat that has to be dealt with, and as a team you have to work together to defeat each threat before it tears your ship apart.

During those ten minutes you put down cards to plan out what your little crewman is going to do.  With each action you can move to a different room, or you can press the A, B or C button in each room which either fires the guns, powers up the shields, moves power to where it’s needed, or a few other special actions.  All players plan out their moves, but the move cards are placed face down so nobody can see what anyone else is doing – you have to talk to each other to make sure all threats are being dealt with.

Finally, after the ten minutes are up, there is the “action replay” phase.  Each player turns over their action cards and replays on the board what actually happened.  If all went well and the team played as a cohesive whole then a whole pile of alien spaceships will appear and be blown away by coordinated volleys of laser fire, and you can congratulate yourselves on a job well done.  More often than not though one player will be pressing the fire button on the main laser but nothing will happen because someone else drained the batteries to power up the shields and nobody remembered to throw more fuel into the reactor and the missiles were fired too early and the target was out of range and…  and it’s just funny to watch what you thought was a bulletproof plan fall to pieces as your ship does likewise!

Playing this game is completely unlike playing any other game.  You will experience ten minutes of pumping adrenaline, shouting and panic as five people all try to coordinate their actions against the clock.  Make a mistake, lose track of what room you thought you were in, press the fire button at the wrong time and the whole carefully laid plan can fall down around you.  Everyone is relying on you, and you are relying on everyone else.  But each game only takes around 20 minutes, so if you fail horribly (and you will), just get back up and try again.

Galaxy Trucker

I love Galaxy Trucker.  It’s very high on my list of “Games to try with people who don’t play board games”.  The premise is simple: build a spaceship out of junk and fly it to the other side of the galaxy, and hope it makes it in one piece.

This is another game of two halves, one frantic half against the clock and a more sedate resolution phase.  The best bit is building your spaceship.  Each player has a board with squares on in the rough shape of a spaceship.  In the middle of the table is a pile of face-down square tiles.  Each of these tiles is a ship component (such as an engine, laser or crew compartment), and each has different shaped connectors on each edge.  You build a ship by taking a tile, looking at it, and then either connecting it to an existing compatible connector on your ship, or placing it back on the pile face-up.  But, there is no turn-taking.  Everyone plays are once, grabbing pieces, looking at them, and deciding whether to attach them or put them back on the table.

What you’ll get is a mad dash as everyone grabs components looking for the best bits for their ship.  But as you’re taking new tiles you have to keep an eye on what’s being thrown back, in case it’s that battery with the awkard connectors you’ve been looking for.  As the tiles start to run out the panic can set in as you realise you still need to find shields or engines and you just can’t get them.

It’s all so tactile, and the few rules about how components fit together are pretty simple and all make sense.  It’ll take five minutes to explain the basics to new players before they’re building their first ships, and this is what makes it so approachable for novices.

After the building phase there is a simple adventure phase, where random event cards are used to throw asteroids, pirates and planets full of loot at the players.  Bits fall off the ships when they’re hit, and there is great comedy potential as you watch a lucky asteroid hit cleave your friend’s precarious construction in half before it limps to the destination with nothing but a crew compartment attached to an engine.  But nobody minds because the whole thing is over in 20 minutes again so you just move up to a bigger and better ship and try again.

So, Space Alert and Galaxy Trucker are two of the most fun games I’ve played recently, and I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that both involve real-time gameplay.  I appreciate a complex strategy game as much as the next geek, but playing these games scratches a different itch and comes much closer to what we think of as playing in the traditional sense.