Monday, September 06, 2010

Deck Building And Monster Stomping

One of the few pleasures of living out in Wilsonville is the proximity of not only a Hobbytown USA that is well stocked with games is that the owner is also a friend of mine and lives in the area. Strangely, we've had a lot of trouble getting together for games regularly, but we made up for that a bit on Sunday this week when we tried out a bunch of games that are new to me. In the deck-building genre, we have Thunderstone (using the Wrath of the Elements expansion) and Ascension, Chronicle of the Godslayer, and in the monster stomping category we have the new D&D Castle Ravenloft coop boardgame.

First up was Thunderstone. If you know Dominion, you can pick up Thunderstone in very short order. There are tons of comparisons around, so I'll keep it brief: Think Dominion but with killing monsters as the goal rather than buying land, and you choose between gearing up, getting rid of cards in hand, or killing said monsters. Following the theme of compartmentalization, the "Village" cards are subdivided further into heroes you can hire (and upgrade) as well as a set of Basic tools (daggers, rations, torches, redshirts) that are available every game. The monsters come in a variety of flavors, and the game uses them not only as VP (along with a few goods from the Village) but also as a timer. The eponymous Thunderstone gets stuck near the bottom of the deck and when it shows up in the first rank the game ends. There will be three types of monsters in the deck for a total of 30 cards. Like Dominion, there are lots of card types to work your way through, in all categories. There is also an experience subsystem that allows you to upgrade heroes, which I really like as well.

The theme is a lot darker than Dominion, which you'd expect from a dungeon crawl-themed game. The art is nice, typical CCG fantasy stuff, but fairly monochromatic with lots of dark blues, purples, and black. It was perfectly serviceable, just as functional as in Dominion despite the lack of a wide color palate. The cards seem a bit on the thin side, but nothing that will drive me to sleeve all of them immediately. Interestingly, the base game comes with dividers to help you sort the cards, but they are barely wider than the cards they are sorting and while useful, they don't help you set the game up particularly quickly. The expansion game comes with a box that will hold all of the cards, sleeved (!) with designated divider cards for each card type, much nicer. The only downside is that the rules don't fit in the new box, as it's a bit smaller! Glad I have an iPad for that sort of thing.

Speaking of rules, the game has less than fantastic rules, taking a simple idea like Light Penalties (where the further into the dungeon you are, the more you need a light source to defeat monsters) and makes it nearly incomprehensible. The rules are at v1.4, and my understanding is that v1.0 made no sense at all. AEG is not exactly known for it's clear rulesets, of course, and I'm happy that they are at the very least keeping them updated. That said, the game is extremely easy to learn if you know Dominion already and someone can teach you.

Finally, the card iconography is not what I would call "obvious" but it works once you've played for ten or fifteen minutes. There are several values on cards, from cost to VP value to experience level of a hero, to weight of a weapon, to gold value, to strength, to defense value to light value. Not all cards have the same information set on them, which adds to the confusion, but as I said it works just fine after you've played for a bit. However, I think that because of the many values that this game will be harder to sell non-gamers on, which is probably just as well as games take something like an hour to 90 minutes, a little long for a game like this.

I should also mention that the game supports up to four players, which would make getting some goods or heroes in a given mix a bit more of a trick. There is also a solitaire option.

Like most deckbuilding games, how cards come out for you early can make a big difference in how you progress, and I stalled badly early on, struggling to get even enough cash together to buy even basic goods, and the early monsters were also hard for me to kill. I really struggled with XP early, not buying nearly enough Trainers to convert my nearly useless Militia into XP to let me upgrade heroes, and I was far behind the curve for the entire game. In the end, Jesse had six Horde monsters to my four, which meant a 20 point lead just with those two extra cards, which was about the difference.

Still, I found that I liked the game a lot. There are iPhone apps that will let you randomize the various decks quickly (otherwise you use Randomizer cards similar to in Dominon), and of course how the game plays out will be largely determined by the various interactions of the Village, Hero, and Monster cards that end up in the game, so in that respect it's quite a bit like Dominion - much of the game is understanding how best to use the various tools in this particular toolbox to get where you need to be. However, there is a lot more synergy between the various card types. For example, many of the Elemental monsters punish you for either having a Weapon assigned to a Hero, or for *not* having a Weapon assigned to a Hero. There were also cards that prevented you from using Spells, or requiring at least one number from your attack value having a Magic component.

All in all, the addition of combat and choices of how to spend your turn (passing can be a good way to get those nearly worthless Militia cards out of hand, as well as Disease cards) make this an intriguing alternative to Dominion, plus the capability for Solitaire to at the very least help you get used to the interactions between cards. I liked it better than Dominion two-player, and am glad I picked up the base set and will actively look for the expansion.

Next up was yet another deck-building game that has just come out, this one designed and published by some pretty high-calibre M:tG players, Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer. Now there's a presumptuous title! While this is a deck-building game, it feels a *whole* lot different from Dominion or Thunderstone. For one thing, you can buy or kill as much as you are able during your turn. For another, there are only nine cards available at a time to choose from for combat or purchasing, three of which are always avaialable, although killing a monster or drawing a card results in immediate restocking of that card. The pool of cards drawn from is always the same pool, so variability is driven not by setup but by what cards out of the 100 or so in the deck show up at any given time. The result is a much more free-flowing game, although one that can result in a player turn taking five minutes or so if they have done well in their deck building.

Cards are either Heroes (the Mystic and Heavy Infantry cards you can always buy, as well as the more annoying Apprentices and Militia that you start the game with, as well as "faction" specific heroes), Monsters which generally give Honor (VP) points as well as an occasional effect, and Constructs from the various factions, which are persistent but vulnerable to threats. It is the Constructs that can give you amazing amounts of effects during a turn, from granting additional Runes (money) or Weapons (not sure what this is called, but it's used to kill monsters) to various extra effects such as letting you draw extra cards. And believe me, the Constructs and faction Heroes that let you draw extra cards are the key to winning this game.

The draw deck consists of cards that all fit into one of four factions, useful as it gives you a hint as to what that faction is generally good for. The Void faction helps you get rid of cards in hand, your discard pile, or the central pool of six faction cards, which is nice if you don't want your opponent to get something, or if you are hoping for a good draw. Lifeforce cards generally have a lot of synergistic effects between them, mostly allowing you to add cards to your deck cheaply. Mechana tend to be pretty limited by themselves but very powerful as you combine them, while Enlightenment tends to allow you to draw extra cards from your draw pile.

Like Race for the Galaxy, the game ends when a pool of common points (represented by some very cheesy plastic gems in the box, but you could always use glass beads or pennies if you chose to) is gone and all players have had an equal number of turns. Add up your gems plus the VP value on your cards (which everything has other than the cards you start with) and whoever has the most wins.

One other note: the art is *really* different. Really. It's mostly colored pencil drawings that some might take as a bit amateurish, but I found I really liked it. In isolation, that is. There is usually a lot of detail, and the nature of pencil media makes it look a bit busier than it is. The result for me in my first game was that the art tended to overwhelm me rather than pull me in, as in both Dominion and Thunderstone. You would think that M:tG players would have a little more sense of what works and what doesn't, but as this is a new company I can forgive it. I will also note that the art was only bothersome in my first game, after that I didn't pay nearly as much attention to it.

Unlike Dominion/Thunderstone, this game plays fast. Our first game took a bit over 30 minutes, but the last two we played were about 20 minutes each. Setup time, being a standard setup, is very fast, the most time-intensive being counting out the gems for the VP pool. With more players, I would expect the game to take longer, probably ten minutes per player. The other big difference is that the pool of cards you can buy to add to your deck can change radically from one player's turn to the next, so the game is extremely tactical as there is no guarantee that the cards you want will come up, or that if they do someone else might grab them. As such, I suspect the sweet spot for this game is two players, possibly three. Even the playing board (really unnecessary for play three minutes into your first game) is obviously made to support a two-player game, belying it's M:tG ancestry. There is no solitaire variant in the box.

A quick note about component quality: cards are nice and beefy, and there is plenty of room in the box for them after sleeving. In fact, the company sells a custom card box and 200 sleeves for $16, which (assuming good sleeves, which I'm not sure about) are about what I pay for quality sleeves now in that quantity. If the box saves a lot of space, I may have Jesse order me one, as this is a *great* lunchtime or filler game for two, possibly for more.

All of that said, despite an initial impression of "hmm" I found myself really enjoying the game. The relative chaos of the system is more than made up for by the quickness of the games and the brisk play once you have the basic ideas down. The art is unlike anything you own unless you are in to self-published graphic novels, but really makes you feel like you're somewhere else, and the four factions (which, I will reiterate, do *not* correspond to specific players) have very different feels that add to the theme. The title is a bit of a mouthful, but the proof is in the play, and in this case there is definitely a worthwhile game here if you can get past the relative chaos of a constantly changing card pool. Nothing like drawing 12 Runes in hand when there are nothing but Monsters in the pool, leaving you to buy Mystics and HI that you may not want!

In our three games, Jesse beat me handily in the first, but I won a narrow victory with a strong Void deck that got rid of all but three of my Apprentices making for a very lean and mean deck. Jesse won the third handily with a great set of constructs that allowed him to do quite a bit every turn near the end.

I will be picking this game up, no question. And if you do play, be sure to give it more than one hand to see how you like it. Like most CCG/LCG/DBGs, knowing what is possible makes for a much more interesting experience.

The last game we played was the one I was most excited about trying out, the new Castle Ravenloft cooperative game from Wizards. I love me some Descent, but it can be a bit of a drag for the Overlord player as the players figure out what they are going to do during their turns. That and four to eight hours of play time. And forget the campaign games - great idea that had some success in Road to Legend, supposedly "fixed" in Sea of Blood, but far too much table time required for a hobby that thrives on variety and not a lot of traction in my game group.

Enter CR, based on the old 1st Edition D&D I-series module (that also had a very cool Arabian/Egyptian trilogy that I still want to run someday) based on the players taking out a vampire in his castle. It was iconic enough that it became a campaign in 2nd Ed, focused on the occult and horror. I actually played the adventure back in the day when it was new, losing a level to a wraith in one of my most memorable RPG moments.

The game comes in a huge box, and you'll need it. There are a ton of dungeon tiles, all square (unlike the variety of shapes in Descent) that you discover as you advance. Not a lot of adventurers, just five to work with, and also not a huge number of monsters to fight, something like 12. However, the sculpts are all very nice and have some variance of color (there is no "normal/master" differentiation as in Descent), and they are easy to make out on the board.

I should mention that this is a coop game. You are playing against the system and luck, much as with the old Heroquest/Warhammer Quest system. However, the components are much nicer (I have the Warhammer Quest system, along with both of the expansion campaigns and several of the extra heroes), certainly in the case of the boards, which are nice and thick. There are a ton of cards in this game to generate not only monsters and treasure, but also encounters (think traps and random monsters). There has been some complaints that most of the cards contain only one or two colors rather than full color, and to them I say, big freaking deal. The game costs half as much as Descent. If you want color cards, buy Descent. These cards are extremely functional and aesthetically pleasing aside from color issues, and even that was no detriment in our game. Flash gets you only so far. That said, I'd consider sleeving the cards, as they are very thin, although will get handled much less than in a game where you have a hand of cards.

Gameplay is sequence driven, but very easy and intuitive after a couple of rounds. Your hero can move and attack in either order, or substitute an extra move for the attack (but not the other way around). An attack can also be used to use an item or to try to disable a trap. After this point, if you are next to the edge of the world, you add a new tile, drawing a monster card to place on it. If it has a black triangle (used to orient the tile) then you draw an encounter card. If you don't draw a new dungeon tile, you draw an encounter card regardless, so there's some incentive to explore quickly. Finally, any traps or monsters that *you* have triggered are activated in the order discovered, although *all* monsters of a given type of card get activated, so if you and other players have the same monster it's in your best interest to take them out quickly.

Combat is very simple, each monster and character and trap has a modifier (and very simple AI to tell you how the monster reacts) that is added to a d20 roll. If that number meets or beats the target's AC, it hits for the amount listed. It's very fast and effective. Characters typically get to pick a set of skills specific to their class, and at least one of those skills dictates their modifier and damage. Some skills can only be used once, although there are treasures and encounters that let you get them back. The party also has a set number of Surges that are used like bandages to get some of your hit points back.

You can also level up, although it requires a certain amount of luck. If you roll a natural 20 when making a roll on your behalf (not on behalf of a trap or monster), and the party has killed enough monsters, you level up, which means more HP, a better AC, more skills, etc. I got the sense that leveling was mostly for the larger scenarios, as it's unlikely that you'll want to spend your XP on leveling when it's so much nicer to wave off an encounter card that will screw the pooch instead. However, it's probably more of a priority if you're going to eventually be facing the villain, Strahd.

Although I had purchased and punched a copy of the game, I had not yet read the rules. We were playing within about three minutes, with very little in the way of rules lookups and screwups throughout. Jesse had chosen the second scenario, which was the first intended for multiple players (a couple of the 12 scenarios in the box are solitaire, mostly intended as learning devices). Mike must have been in the area, because i rolled terribly the first several rolls I made (four of my first ten rolls were 2's), and we found ourselves using both surges within ten minutes and three monsters of play.

After that, though, we managed to do some real damage, and I didn't need to use my Dagger Blizzard (or whatever it was) with my rogue until much later in the game. Interestingly, our task was to find the Chapel and gain the Icon of Ravenloft, but we weren't sure if we were also supposed to get *out* of the castle as well. So we ran for it, and nearly made it. in fact, Jesse's Dwarf Cleric (sorry, that combo just never seems to work for me thematically) got within sight of the stairs when he was cut down. Curse his stubby legs!

Play time was about 90 minutes. Wow. This will see some table time on Tuesdays, no question. Descent typically is limited to weekend or retreat play with my group, and you have to be pretty interested in having a group willing to put in the time. With CR, that's no longer an issue, and there's as much replayability here as with Descent. There are even additional games planned that can be linked together in various ways, from the monsters to the boards, so I think it will be a very successful franchise, at least as successful as Descent.

Again, as with Ascension, I did not read the rules for this game so can't speak as to how well they are written, although Jesse had good things to say about it.

I'll also note that the monster AI is done in a very appropriate scope. Range in this game is by tile, not by square, and so exact placement is not quite as important as it might be in other games. Frankly, this made things much more elegant just by elevating the scope a titsch. There's a lot to like in this game!

When my nieces and nephews were a bit younger, we'd play D&D on our family trip to Sunriver, and it was something the kids looked forward to quite a bit. I'll never forget Alex's face as a child when, as the dwarven warrior at about age 5, he struck the killing blow on the evil wizard in our first game. Some of those same nieces and nephews have suggested that perhaps we're getting close to a point where their kids would be interested in something similar, and while I don't know that some of the four year olds will have the patience to sit through two hours of anything other than Kung Fu Panda, I think most will do very well with a little math help from parents. Heck, a cousin's son was able to add two digit numbers fairly quickly when we played Pickamino, so there you go.

Three games, three winners. If any of these games are of the type that you are interested in, I highly recommend you check them out! Thanks to Jesse for introducing me to them, and I'll be picking up Ascension at the soonest opportunity.


Matthew said...

I played Castle Ravenloft twice on Saturday with three others and was surprised at how quickly it played.

I won't buy it as I think it will need a couple more expansions and scenarios to keep it fresh but I'll happily play it again any time.

Greg W said...

Thunderstone actually plays up to five and should play that way just as fast since everyone should be taking chunks out of the dungeon deck in roughly equal parts. That is a big win for me since I think Dominion is terrible with more than four.

I find that Thunderstone is much more about tuning your deck to manage variance than Dominion. In Dominion you can draw repeatedly to build a bigger hand, in Thunderstone you can't do that. So, it's much more critical to keep your deck tight early so that you can hit big (in some cases I would rest on my first or second turn!) and then balance it as your start to accumulate monsters.

I'm not sure what to make of Ascension yet. I've played half a dozen times now. Early Banish actions seem dominant. The Mechana Constructs are extremely valuable, especially if you can combo them. In the games I've played so far I think the player who got the majority of them won each game. I do like the combos you can get within factions but they seem very hard to build because of the random card market.

The rules are a little bit lacking, not to the extent of Thunderstone, but the game is so simple that mistakes have seemingly all been caught on the Geek already. Jeremy from RDG was pretty critical of the Ascension card sleeves so buyer beware.