Review for Two · Two-Player Only

Review for Two: Morels

Thank you for checking review #129 by Cardboard Clash. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.

***Note: A copy of this game was provided in exchange for an honest review.

An Overview of Morels

Morels is a board game designed by Brent Povis that is published by Two Lanterns Games. The box states it plays 2 players and has a playtime of 30 minutes.

The woods are old-growth, dappled with sunlight. Delicious mushrooms beckon from every grove and hollow. Morels may be the most sought-after in these woods, but there are many tasty and valuable varieties awaiting the savvy collector. Bring a basket if you think it’s your lucky day. Forage at night and you will be all alone when you stumble upon a bonanza. If you’re hungry, put a pan on the fire and bask in the aroma of chanterelles as you sauté them in butter. Feeling mercantile? Sell porcini to local aficionados for information that will help you find what you seek deep in the forest.

Morels, a strategic card game for two players, uses two decks: a Day Deck (84 cards) that includes ten different types of mushrooms as well as baskets, cider, butter, pans, and moons; and a smaller Night Deck (8 cards) of mushrooms to be foraged by moonlight. Each mushroom card has two values: one for selling and one for cooking. Selling two or more like mushrooms grants foraging sticks that expand your options in the forest (that is, the running tableau of eight face-up cards on the table), enabling offensive or defensive plays that change with every game played. Cooking sets of three or more like mushrooms – sizzling in butter or cider if the set is large enough – earns points toward winning the game. With poisonous mushrooms wielding their wrath and a hand-size limit to manage, card selection is a tricky proposition at every turn.

Following each turn, one card from the forest moves into a decay pile that is available for only a short time. The Day Deck then refills the forest from the back, creating the effect of a walk in the woods in which some strategic morsels are collected, some are passed by, and others lay ahead.

My Thoughts

 This game is a very simple set of rules with a fast flow of turns. After all, you are doing one thing on your turn and most of the time you will even have an idea of what you are likely to do based on what is already on the table – any new cards coming out are going to cost 5-6 sticks to take which, frankly, is really expensive at almost any point in the game. Usually you’re looking at the first 1-4 cards, or the ones in the Decay, and trying to determine which card(s) you want to add to your hand and, in case of the Decay, if you even have enough room to take them are, because…

 Every card you take needs to be considered carefully. At the start of the game, 8 cards sounds like a lot to be able to hold in your hand. You can sort of take things without really thinking them through, and maybe you’ll even cook something to open up even more space before running out. Even if a Basket drops into your lap, you are eventually going to hit a situation where you don’t want to play anything yet, but are going to have to do something soon or reach for baskets to give yourself more time to stall. Which is why…

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 The best tension in this game comes from how much you want to press forward, holding out for the next perfect card to add to your growing set of mushrooms before finally cooking them. The more you collect, the more points you can get. Lucking into the right one from the Night deck gives you two more at the price of one card slot. Getting Butter or Cider to cook with them adds even more scoring potential. All the while you have a reference card telling you exactly how many of that card are in the deck, so you can begin to count off how many remain. While there’s a lot of luck there, knowing when to hold them and when to cook them is a key aspect of the game’s engine and provides the crunchy decisions you want in a game like this.

 I love the artwork on some of the cards. The personal standout is the Night version of the Fairy Ring, which as soon as I saw it I knew it was a card designed with my wife in mind. Even as someone who doesn’t like mushrooms, there is a lot of pleasantness to look at in here with some solid cardboard tokens added in there. All packaged in a box the same size as a Kosmos 2-player box, although a little thinner.

 I’ve debated between how to rate this aspect of the game, and finally decided it is a feature, not a hindrance, and just enough that it avoids being a “neutral” aspect of the game. There are three cards and one action that feel “less desirable” to take in the game, yet with each of them comes circumstances where you want them. First the action of selling mushrooms for walking sticks: this always feels like a terrible action to take unless you need to free up space in your hand because you see cards you need instead coming up and can’t play anything else. Except later you’ll see that card you NEED to get, and if you don’t take it soon your opponent will snag it because they noticed you taking that Shitake every time it came up and they want to deny those points to you. Second is the Pan card, which you need to be able to cook mushrooms. And yes, you can take the wasteful action of playing it on its own rather than play it with a hand of mushrooms to cook. But I almost always hate taking it on its own, which is why I like to let that – and the Basket card – go into the Decay and swoop them up with other cards or at least in greater quantity. And then comes the Destroying Angel Card, the one take-that card in the game. When taken, your base hand size is cut in half and you suffer that effect one additional turn for every set of mushrooms cooked, meaning it hits harder late in the game. Usually, you dance around this card and avoid it until it disappears in the Decay reset. However, on occasion your hand might be small enough, or it gives a chance to dump something like that single Morel you took to deny your opponent access, and so it has its circumstantial place. All of these things are cards/actions I hate to take, but because there are times when it makes sense (or you need to) use them, I can’t hold it against them.

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 There’s just enough luck going on in here to turn off some gamers from the gameplay. Whether you look at the odds of getting enough of a specific card type to make it worthwhile, to the gamble of taking a Moon card, to even the odds of having enough Pan or Basket cards coming up early enough to make a difference…all of those are micro-transactions in the luck of the draw. The deck isn’t small, and I’ve had a game where Pans and Baskets were really heavy at the end of the deck. This might not sound like a big deal, but it really can be since you need pans to cook those mushrooms filling up your hand, and you need Baskets in order to hold out longer before needing to do something with those mushrooms you’ve been collecting.

 After the first play, this was my biggest gripe with the game: the cards are set up in a line of 8 cards. Every turn you are taking a card and/or discarding a card from that line and thus sliding the other 6-7 cards down and flipping new ones. My wife refused to do such a foolish sequence of events, and so my turns were spent scrambling to keep things moving after shifting everything around. And then, before the second game (the next night) I looked at the extra piece of paper in there which talked about an alternative setup option where the cards are essentially in a circle, and a token is moved to mark where you count from when choosing cards and their costs. While not a perfect solution, it was a drastic improvement to the overall experience and turned this major “I hate this part of the game” into an “it is fine” experience. Is the line easier to conceptualize? Yes. Especially when a person skips ahead to take a card…somehow we haven’t figured out the perfect way to wrap our heads around where the token moves to, how the cards shift, etc. But hey, improvement is still improvement.

 The Morels card. It wasn’t easy to come up with a strong complaint about this game because it really delivers a great package in a well-designed game. Now I understand that the Morels card is supposed to be rare because it is high in scoring as well as high in selling value. The problem I have with it comes from only having three copies of it in the deck. Why is this an issue? Well, because if you split this card 2-1, one person can only sell the Morels for a boatload of sticks and the other is left holding a card they cannot make use of for the rest of the game (or until they use a Destroying Angel to toss the now-garbage card). Because you need at least 2 to sell or at least 3 to cook, it really hampers the usefulness of this card. Having an extra card in hand may not sound that bad since you can hold 8 naturally, but consider you are likely collecting 2-3 different mushroom types and want to hold as many as you can before cooking or selling them. It is possible (and has happened) that baskets don’t really come out until really late in the game and so you are always limited in your potential compared to your opponent.

Final Thoughts

The theme for the game threatened to keep us away from ever wanting to pick up or play Morels. After all, how good could a game about collecting and cooking mushrooms be if we both agree that we don’t like mushrooms? The answer to that is completely clear, as once it hit the table it was all we played for several days. My wife liked it so much she even wanted to teach it to a friend when we visited – and instead we were forced to learn Potion Explosion – which is quite the testament to the game. My wife, while not opposed to teaching games to others, tends to prefer to not be the one teaching a game. That provides a pretty distinct honor for the game of Morels, as she enjoyed it that much and we’d still be playing it on repeat today if my wife had her way. Needless to say, it will return to the table soon.

The game is relatively quick in its pacing, and there are a lot of things to consider. Every decision to take Walking Sticks or play down a Pan on its own feels like a wasted opportunity, at least until you run into a turn where you wish you had a Walking Stick or three to get that card you really need, or have a nice set of 3 cards in the center you want to scoop up but, alas, you have one too many cards in your hand to be able to take them all and therefore cannot take them. Moments like that help the thinkiness in the gameplay to shine through.

So in spite of the theme, there is a great deal of fun packaged into this small box of cards and tokens. There is a nice balance between some light press-your-luck elements (most apparent when you consider the Morels card, which has only three copies in the entire game), set collection, and even some hand management going on unless you luck into several early Baskets The game also tends to end with a feeling of “If I had 1-2 more turns…” sensation, which probably drives some players crazy but to me it is a hallmark of a game ending at about the right moment. Plan better, right? If a card you need to get that perfect combo appears in those final 8 cards, make sure you have the sticks to grab it early enough to use it. All in all, Morels was a pleasant surprise that won’t change my mind about eating mushrooms, but did change my mind about the theme for this game: it is executed quite well here!

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June PnP Game-a-Thon

June is my birthday month, and I wanted to do something somewhat interactive here to help celebrate. I enjoyed participating in a month-long “Con” over in this Geeklist back in April, and it is helping to inspire my own idea. However, instead of going based alphabetically, I wanted to explore more great Print and Play titles that are available.

My initial idea was to list four games per day in June, all available as Print and Play in some capacity, demo or full game. Some free, some might be paid. And I wanted to start this early enough that anyone interested can look into said games, print them out if desired, and have them ready to go for June.

However, it felt really restrictive to do things that way, both for participants and for myself. Ultimately, I want to have a reason to play all these PNP titles I have printed over the years and/or have been wanting to try. And I want to open things up to be as inclusive for playing together as possible, and if I want to play game X tomorrow, I want to be able to pull out the one I’m itching to try or replay at the moment rather than what a list dictates. So here’s what I’m doing instead! I am going to link to several places that I turn to in order to find Print and Play games, and let you join in with anything that strikes your fancy. If you play a PNP game, or one that is available as a PNP (for instance, I have a lot of the Button Shy titles on PNP Arcade in Wallet form, so I’m not going to print a new copy out, but I might play them in order to get them to the table), then comment onto the entry for that day with what you played and how it went. I’ll update the main entry for that day to record what folks played and how they did. As things get rolling along I’ll put together a master Geeklist with all of the games played, links to the PNP of that game, and a recording of how people scored. So if 50 different scores get recorded for Ada Lovelace: Consulting Mathematician, that’ll be the point where we can compare what the “leaderboard” is for that particular game.

What I’d really love is for YOU to participate as well, playing some PNP titles and sharing your score in here. I’ll do my best to keep an up-to-date high score list. And if the game doesn’t have a score, tracking who won or lost in the game.

My only request, beyond participating? June 8th is my birthday, and I’d love to have folks try out The Honor of the Queen, which was my first design. It is a 9-card solitaire game, so it should be relatively easy to print and play out.

Places to find PNP Games:

PNP Arcade
Free Solo Print and Play Geeklist
FREE Print & Play Historical Wargames Geeklist
Best Print & Play Historical Wargames Geeklist
2020 9 Card Game Print and Play Design Contest (Has links to previous years, too, as should all/most of the below annual contests)
2020 Two Player PnP Game Design Contest
2020 54-Card Game Design Contest
2019 Solitaire Print and Play Contest
2019 Children’s Print and play Contest
2019 Wargame Print and Play Contest
2019 Single Page Solo Contest
2018 Mint Tin Design Contest
Postcard Design Contest
3rd Roll & Write Game Design Contest

Let’s open it all up to start as early as today! Why wait for June, right? I hope you’ll join me to play some great PNP games over the course of the next few weeks!

You can find the daily Geeklist here. 

I already have my first game played posted up there and the score I obtained.

One-Player Only · Review for One · Wargame Garrison

Review for One: Field Commander: Alexander

Thank you for checking review #128 by Cardboard Clash. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.

***Note: A copy of this game was provided in exchange for an honest review.

An Overview of Field Commander: Alexander

Field Commander: Alexander is a wargame designed by Dan Verssen that is published by Dan Verssen Games (DVG). The box states it plays 1 player and has a playtime of 90 minutes with a weight rating of 2.31.

Description from the publisher:

You take on the role of Alexander the Great in his world-conquering quest to extend the Macedonian empire and achieve personal glory.

When playing the game, you are placed in Alexander’s footsteps when he comes of age in 338 BC, just before the battle of Chaeronea. From that point on, you get to decide where to travel, when to battle, when to negotiate, and when to seek out divine prophesies to guide your actions.

You are supplied with soldiers and advisers to help you navigate the dangers of the battlefield and the negotiating table. These include Infantry, Archers, Phalanxes, Cavalry, Advisers, Scholars, Courtesans, and Spies. You will craftily combine these resources with your own plans to achieve victory, and glorification. And if you do well, you will be remembered as one of the greatest leaders ever to walk the earth.

The life of Alexander is divided into several campaigns, each spanning several years. During each campaign, you are given goals, but how you achieve those goals is up to you. Do you enter into battle? Or negotiate? How strong are you? How strong are they? What can you gain? These are all decisions you get to make, and must make well, if you are to live up to the immortal standards set before you.

The campaigns can either be played stand alone, or linked to play through his entire life. When played as one on-going life, the outcome of one campaign affects your starting situation in the next campaign.

My Thoughts

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 I love the idea of having a string of battlefields to play through, each representing a different timeline in the career of a historical figure. The sheer number of brilliant field commanders in history opens this system up to be able to deal with a broad range of history, and you can see this already with the release of a game in Ancient battle (Alexander), Napoleonics (Napoleon), and WWII (Rommel). Having a different map for each battle within the box, each containing its own quite unique setup, win condition, and obstacles to overcome means you can have a lot of variety across several games, and that is definitely the case here with Field Commander: Alexander.

 I am always a fan of player aids, and I like the combination of having the relevant information present on both the map (unique setup instructions along with the turn structure) and the score sheet (which doubles as the place for your army, battles to occur, and more). The less I need to open the rulebook, the better the game experience. I wish the prophecy info wasn’t something I need to cross-check in the rulebook, but since you are looking at only 1-2 of them per map they aren’t that terrible to deal with.

 Speaking of the rulebook, it was done really well. It has good visual examples and a nice layout. It is presented in a way that makes it great for those not as accustomed to wargaming, as I was able to dive in and grasp the game with minimal issue. The visuals, especially, are helpful here in getting a new player up and playing in a short amount of time. The most confusing thing comes with the Cavalry units, as the have the same battle value printed on them twice (representing if they hit, it is always dealing 2 hits instead of 1) and it isn’t explained as well in the rules for them, but there’s enough to make the correct connection.

 While I wish they offered a little more, the battle system here is extremely simple to grasp and flows well. There are a few nuances to remember, such as cavalry only attacking every-other turn and Phalanx units getting to attack multiple times if they hit, but for the most part you can line up the units and start rolling. As the player, it makes you feel in power to be able to allocate hits on both sides of the battle as you see fit. Faster units attack first, and same speed units attack at the same time, meaning you can make decisions that impact units still to attack for the round. A better field deployment, where formation mattered, would have been nice but this method keeps the game system approachable for new players and interesting enough for seasoned veterans.

 Going with the above, I enjoy that the unit types are different enough to provide strong merit to considering them each individually, as they provide a benefit “unique” to them. Archers and Light Cavalry are fast to act, but have a lower hit ratio (33%). Heavy Cavalry have a better hit ratio (50%) but cavalry units (Light or Heavy) only attack every-other round which offsets their stronger 2-hit attacks when they do connect. Infantry are unremarkable in speed and strength, but can take more hits than the Archer or Peltist (the latter of which is the one unit I find least useful). The Phalanx unit is really slow, but has a strong hit chance and can do multiple attacks in a round if they continue to hit. The variety of units are great and let you customize your team.

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 Let’s talk about the glorification system for Alexander. Essentially he starts off as a really, really weak unit in your army. With every completed prophecy along the way, he gains Glorification, which can let him “level up” to the next higher version of his unit (I think there are 8) which is going to increase his speed, his base attack, or his double-hit chance. And that aspect I really like. What I dislike is the battle where an opposing leader is involved. Alexander can either attack the regular army units, or he can attack their leader. If he attacks the army, their leader also attacks your army. As soon as Alexander attacks the leader, from that point on those two leaders only attack each other. Kill the leader and you auto-win the battle. But every time Alexander gets hit, he drops 2 Glorficiation levels. That is a HUGE penalty, meaning there’s rarely a strong incentive to choose to attack the leader – especially in battles where they have the Battle Plan that ignores the first hit on the leader – making it so you can’t even gamble to try and one-shot the leader (and later maps make it so that Battle Plan is always present in the leader battles). If it was a little easier to gain those levels, or if you lost fewer per hit, the motivation might be there to attack that leader and hope to end things early.

 The most “interesting” battle in terms of potential also turned out to be a dud in my playthrough of it. The siege of Tyr is full of historical flavor, and is unique because you can pay to manipulate several tracks to try and control the enemy resources, increase your own resources, and try to destroy the walls enough to break in and conquer the city. Unfortunately, what this amounts to is 6-8 rounds of standing in the same location on the map, making decisions on how to spend your gained gold this time and hoping the dice don’t move you too far backward on your progress at the beginning of the next round. It never really felt like a dynamic siege, but rather a waiting game to see what would break first.

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 The difficulty is something I want to discuss in brief here (as I go on more about it in the Final Thoughts). The first two maps felt extremely easy, lacking challenge as I powered through the countryside and took down the opposition with minimal loss to my own forces. The third map came into play and, rather than providing a challenge, simply forced me to sit and wait longer amounts of time to make forward progress – but it was never challenging, either. The last map…let’s just say it is extremely unfair, although it has forced me to evaluate the value in retreating from battle, purchasing Insights with my Glory, and more. The one thing preventing this from being a  point is that every map has optional changes to increase the challenge at the reward for more VP awarded at the end. And the more I think about it, the more I like that approach because you can have the game “grow” with your skill.

 I’m not a fan of roll-and-move games, and I am less of a fan of the roll-to-move concept. You roll and compare the result with the size of your army. If you roll lower, you have to pay gold equal to the difference in order to move. If you roll higher, you take hits on your army equal to the difference. If you roll exact, you can move with no downside. That means there is a 16.6% chance of moving without penalty. Yes, you can voluntarily lose units after the roll to decrease the cost in gold to move, but most units will cost more than 1 Gold to recruit back into your army. And taking hits are worse, as it costs 2 gold to get a unit back to full health. The only saving grace here is that you can choose, after seeing the roll, to not move and end that portion of your turn. This is the engine that determines how far and fast you can conquer the map and, tied in with that, how many points you earn at the end of the map. My 2-turn victory conquest on the 2nd map? Almost every move roll was perfect, and the ones that weren’t were under by a single pip. My miserable experience on the 4th map? See more about that below…

 This is another thing covered more down below, but the game is extremely linear in progression. The location of enemy forces never changes, nor does your objective (conquer all key areas) change – and that’s fine. But so many other aspects of the game either felt like there was no need to change my approach (why fix what isn’t broken and already feels like the best choice to make?) or that it would all come down to sheer luck of a d6 roll. Maybe I was just spoiled early from two other brilliant solitaire wargames (Agricola, Master of Britain and Charlemagne, Master of Europe), but so much of the game feels like it is on autopilot and I’m just along to decide how to allocate damage in battle.

Final Thoughts

This review was ready to look quite different after playing the first three scenarios of the campaign. I was ready to join others in proclaiming this game far too easy, at least without the addition of extra challenges unique to each map, as every game played proved to be minimal in challenge. I had come off the second campaign map with a strong victory in two rounds of play, and the third required a lot of just idling in Old Tyre until that nut could be cracked and then breaking through afterwards. The lack of challenge had been a little frustrating – I always prefer a challenging solitaire game experience over a cakewalk. But I couldn’t stop without seeing the final series of battles for the end of the campaign.

And boy, what a kick in the pants that map turned out to be.

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But there’s still an issue here. The difficulty spike was more from the increasing mass of an army placed in your path at the start. Even with the -3 Enemy Orders from my advisor, they still drew EIGHT orders. My army of six was outnumbered 2:1 and I did a soft reset on the battle three times before finally weathering the obscene number of die rolls enough to take a few of the enemies out and retreat from the battle, allowing me to replenish and finally break through the enemy force. Prior to that last attempt, every single battle ended Round 1 with just a reduced Alexander remaining, and with only a single loss on the enemy side. The dice were NOT my friend that morning. I figured from here it would be smooth sailing, as I would be able to sweep up north and take down a few strongholds to replenish the coffers but, alas, another string of terrible luck left me bereft of gold two spaces from any battle spot. Several straight rolls of 1-2 and I did another soft reset to the end of the battle, keeping the needed Raze intact (because the funds were needed to recover) but also reserving what I hoped was enough to travel through the desert. No luck, I got stopped at the same exact point without funds and with the same ridiculous run of low rolls – to be honest, I rolled that die another half dozen times in frustration and never saw anything higher than a 3. So I “allowed” myself a free move each turn rather than a reset again to simply move. And, well, money remained an issue. I was locked into a cycle of frustration, because it felt like random factors, sheer numbers in the opposing forces, and diminished return on money were grinding the game to a halt rather than poor play on my end. It stopped being fun in any sense of the word. It wasn’t a challenge. I wasn’t being expected to discover some clever way to circumvent things and find success, but rather battle against improbable odds.

And yes, history. I get that and I don’t hold a grudge against the game for trying to make it a tough map to overcome. But at the same time I want to feel like there’s a way I can do better, apart from “roll better”, and I couldn’t see it as possible, unless I knew to spend my Glory and Gold better at the end of the previous scenario in the campaign and, well, how could I know that going in the first time? The next campaign, perhaps, I could make different decisions leading into that game but not this time.

I know it sounds like I am venting out frustration here, and maybe part of me is doing just that. But I also want to make sure it comes across clearly: the game goes from super easy in the first two maps, to being a “battle of attrition” in the third map as you stall for turn after turn waiting to break the walls, to being a completely hopeless affair in the final act. And, ultimately, my biggest disappointment in the game overall is that it feels mostly like it is “on rails”. The map has set army sizes that appear in set locations, and your goal is to conquer all of those locations as quickly as possible (and then depending on die rolls, your location, and Operation draws they might get bigger). Battles are “line up” both sides by speed and like speeds attack simultaneously. But my Archer way over here in the line can hit, or be hit by, anyone else in the line on the opposing side. Sure, I get to at least determine who takes hits (both enemy and friendly units), but I don’t have to agonize over how to deploy my units to minimize risk. Even the Battle Tactics I employ feel like there’s little choice required: regaining a force after battle is essential to save Gold, canceling a hit is equally essential, and assuming I have Cavalry the tactic allowing them to not wait to attack again (up to 6 times) is the other must-use to make the battles go well. The maps were relatively linear, with a clear progression from the start to the end. Even my force never really seemed to need to change often: a Siege Engine to minimize Wall frustration once those became a factor, an Archer to fire early, a Light Cavalry to strike early as well, a Heavy Cavalry to deal big damage, Alexander, and a Phalanx for the multi-hit opportunity. Advisors? The one who reduces Battle Plans for the enemy by 3 and the one who allows you to do multiple purchases at the end of a Round to get both a City and units back into your force.

There are decisions in the game but, looking back, it felt like there were rarely good reasons to do something different. The good news is that, for three of the plays, I didn’t notice and greatly enjoyed the gameplay in spite of its linear path – enough that I plan to revisit the campaign with a difficulty+ attempt through the first three maps and to work to set myself up better for the fourth map (which will NOT get any added benefit). The fact that I am wanting to revisit it again is a testament to how much I did enjoy the game until that final play, where I even texted a friend of mine with a knee jerk reaction that was extremely negative reflecting my bitterness over that final map. But I like challenges and I enjoyed this game more than the level of frustration experienced at the end, and so it’ll remain a staple to revisit when I am ready to string together another four plays – ideally across an entire afternoon – and see what else this game might have to offer.

And so while Field Commander: Alexander isn’t my favorite solitaire wargame to pull out and play, it definitely was worth exploring and is one I intend to revisit again when I’ve had time to let the scars heal from that last beatdown. And if DVG releases another Field Commander title in the Ancient, Medieval, or Renaissance timeframe you bet I’ll be lining up to check it out because, in spite of my aggravation with parts of the game system, I did enjoy the experience as a whole enough to want to try more.

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The End of an Era

That’s right, an era is coming to a close here at Cardboard Clash. I’ve been blogging about 1 and 2-player experiences in board games since the end of 2016, and have nearly 130 reviews that I’ve posted during that span of time. I’d like to think I’ve left a bit of a mark on the board gaming hobby, and as this year has marched forward I’ve found myself reanalyzing a lot of things. So there are a few reasons I am looking to bring Cardboard Clash to a close:

 

  1. Probably the biggest motivation is to rekindle the joy in games with my wife. I love playing games with her, and there are a ton of great games sitting on my shelf. I hate the feeling of wanting to play X, but needing to pick Y instead so I can review it eventually. That isn’t to say the games in said review queue are bad, but rather it forces me to sometimes choose a game I need to play rather than one I am wanting to play. And our gaming time together is too inconsistent since our daughter was born to keep up with reviews AND play the games I want to play.
  2. I’ve discovered a deep love for Wargames. Holy cow, I’ve fallen hard into that rabbit hole and I can’t get enough. I’ve been lucky enough to have a local gamer who has also fallen down this same path with me at the same time, providing a regular (well, prior to quarantines) opponent that I can game with weekly or bi-weekly and explore what this area of the board gaming hobby has to offer. The past few months have been an internal battle between reviewing the games in my queue or writing about my wargaming impressions and working on reviewing those. And I’ve learned which half brings more joy into my spare time.

 

Those aren’t the only things, but those are the primary driving forces for this change. So I am going to be shifting gears now, launching a wargame-focused blog called Swords and Chit. But don’t worry! Everything that is sitting in my review queue right now will still get a review, and that includes:

 

Pixel Tactics Legends

Exceed: A Robot Named Fight! Solo Fighter

Exceed: Shovel Knight Hope Box

Exceed: Shovel Knight Shadow Box

Exceed: The Beheaded Solo Fighter

Heroes Welcome

The One Hundred Torii

Sanctum

Shadows of Kilforth

Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends

Traveller Customizable Card Game

 

Along with the wargames I acquired as review copies up until now, which will be posted in both locations (although it will appear first on Swords and Chit) with my first impression/lessons learned posts appearing only on the new blog:

 

Arquebus: Men of Iron IV

Battle Ravens

Field Commander: Alexander

Julius Caesar

Root: Underworld

Root: Clockwork Expansion

 

In fact, two of those reviews above will go live this week (at the very least). I also will reveal my choice for top game of 2019 later this week, as previously promised, and in June I have one last hurrah planned for trying to play through some of the PNP games I’ve been collecting and hopefully encouraging some additional participation.

 

So while the book for Cardboard Clash is nearing its conclusion, there’s still a few pages remaining that are to be written. If you have any interest in Wargames, particularly Medieval or earlier and/or Fantasy/Science Fiction settings, then I hope you’ll join me in my new adventure as Swords and Chit. Here’s where you can find me:

 

Twitter: @Swordsandchit

WordPress: http://swordsandchit.wordpress.com

BGG: Same username, new blog! https://www.boardgamegeek.com/blog/10085/swords-and-chit 

One-Player Only · Review for One · Solo Gaming · Wargame Garrison

Review for One: Charlemagne, Master of Europe

Thank you for checking review #127 by Cardboard Clash. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.

***Note: A copy of this game was provided AGES ago in exchange for an honest review. More on the delay can be found in the Final Thoughts section.

An Overview of Charlemagne, Master of Europe

Charlemagne, Master of Europe is a board game designed by Tom Russell that is published by Hollandspiele. The box states it plays 1 player and has a playtime of 180 minutes.

Description from the publisher:

At the age of twenty-nine, Charles I became sole ruler of the Frankish Empire. What he did with that power over the course of the next forty-plus years is the stuff of legend. His unparalleled achievements in warfare, diplomacy, administration, and culture led to the sobriquet Carolus Magnus: Charles the Great: Charlemagne, King of the Franks and of the Lombards, and Emperor of the Romans.

In this solitaire strategy game, you assume the Frankish throne, and seek to duplicate – or exceed – Charlemagne’s singular genius, while hopefully avoiding some of his mistakes, such as the famous defeat at Roncevaux (immortalized in the Song of Roland). As you conquer new territory and incorporate it into your empire, you’ll need to contend with rebels and palace intriguers. Building public works and patronizing the Carolingian Renaissance will increase your prestige and wealth. Along the way you’ll need to win the support of the papacy, buy off Viking marauders, convert the pagans in Saxony, contend with incursions from Al-Andalus, build a powerful army, and maintain detente with the Byzantine Empire.

Gamers who are familiar with the game Agricola, Master of Britain will find many similarities between it and Charlemagne: Master of Europe, though this is a longer and more complex game, with its own nuances. The core mechanism of cup adjustments is of course alive and well. Chits representing enemy units reside in one of three cups representing how they feel about your rule: Friendly, Unfriendly, or Hostile. Chits are drawn from the hostile cup and placed on the map, manifesting themselves as overt challenges to your rule. Every action you take will subtly change their stance, blindly moving chits from one cup to another.

My Thoughts

 This game is epic. I mean massively huge in feel. Four times the size map from Agricola, Master of Britain, and so many other things to balance apart from controlling the spread of forces which, as you might imagine, is a bit more difficult with the larger map. Thankfully you get Marquis folks, who can help stamp out the tribes with less effectiveness and who can someday aspire to have roads built through their part of the map. There are so many little levers to see in action here, and it makes the game feel massive, impressive, and wonderful. And, well, potentially overwhelming. But believe me, friends, when I tell you it is absolutely worth blundering through.

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 Just like in Agricola, Master of Britain, this one has a nice ramping up of things to teach you some of the things to watch for: army strength, VP total, money, etc. Each round you need a little more, meaning you need to continually be making forward progress. And paying attention to the things that increase your wealth-making and VP-making potential. And keep an eye on how many forces you are actually losing, because at some point in time you’re going to need to be buying more replacement troops and promoting troops beyond the 1 per round if you want to keep up.

 Which is where the best part about this game comes in: there is only one way to win, but half a dozen ways to lose the game. This will probably drive as many people away as it draws in, but I am well documented as a person who really loves a solo game with a challenging experience. I don’t usually enjoy the easy win games that are “for the experience” – there are exceptions, but in general I want to feel like I earned it. The downside here? You could literally lose at the end of the 10th round unexpectedly through a chain of events unraveling your cushion. More on that later. And those 10 Rounds? Yeah, it took several hours to get there…but it was 100% enjoyable the entire way, even in the bitterness of defeat.

 While everything else got bigger and more inflated, the combat system here got simplified to smaller battles that follow the same flow, just fewer units overall but at the same time more tactical decisions, such as two wings of combat and how your Scara have a strong advantage during the first round of attacking. Even after the battle, deciding which unit on each half should get promoted, keeping in mind that you’ll get a VP but also lose that strong Level 4 unit if you make that final bump…so much to enjoy here.

 I absolutely love the chit pull system employed, and how every action you take leads to reactions in the cups and the deployment of more forces. Most of the time you feel like you are treading water, trying to keep one or two areas under control and then swooping up to deal with the heathen armies as they get out of control or, more likely, when you want some cash for churches and roads. I never feel like I am fully in control of the board state in the game, and only rarely do I feel like things are spiraling out of control. Do I sometimes suffer from a terrible pull or two in a row? Sure, that can and will happen. But it isn’t the norm.

 Knowing that a single round can be the difference between winning and losing provides an insane amount of tension for the player in the game. The closest I came has been losing via VP in Turn 10. That game I had a good cushion all game on VP, even racked up 5 EVP early on. Turn 9 I lost points due to Army Strength, which that was as much on me as the bad losses I took in battles that round. Next round? Three actions, four Byzantine pulls costing me 6, 7, 8, and then 9 VP. Next action? End of round. Oof. Even with the EVP paid out, I was 2 points short of the threshold when I had been at the 11th round goal before that army strength loss. I couldn’t have prevented it. The turn ended by the time I got to where I could start clearing off leaders. Yet earlier in the game, I had a fun round of tension where I was trying to weigh between waiting in Rome to get crowned or going to deal with the Moor threat. And boy, was it nerve-wracking pulling Hostile Reactions knowing that one more Moor would end it…

 This game goes from feeling like you have all the time in the world to scrambling to keep up. The first four rounds, before a 3rd End Turn chit is added to the cup, can literally take until the entire Hostile cup is empty. In my experience, at least one of those turns will come close to that point, and it can seem like you are floundering about, trying to come up with meaningful things to do that aren’t moving you backwards (like losing forces in battle). Once you finish the 8th turn, now there are four of those chits in there and getting two pulled can happen WAY sooner than you want. Again, speaking from experience here. I enjoy the fluid turn lengths, but man it can bite you sometimes.

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 I hate the condition for building the roads: completed church, Marquis present, no enemy units or Vikings. That last one, that’s the rub. You want to know how many turns in a row that was foiled by a late pull of a single unit to the area, several spaces from the Marquis of the area, that was followed very soon after by the 2nd Turn End chit drawn? And I need to do this THREE different times? In my best showing, this was what I was convinced would cause me to lose because I needed 2 more and there was just no way it was coming together in time.

 I know it is the Hollandspiele standard, but I am pretty sure my map will never, ever be remotely flat when on the table. I’ve stacked books for several nights, and no success. I’ll either have to luck into a rare mounted version of the map some day, put it in a frame of some sort on my wall myself, or just accept that there will be parts of the “board” that the chits just won’t like to stack well.

My biggest nitpick on this? There’s a wonderful player aid, four pages long. And I can deal with the inside being flipped upside down from the outside. But honestly, what is the reason to not include how many Hostile Reactions come from each different action? Everything else about your actions are listed, and yet the most important one is not mentioned! I had to tarnish my player aid by marking it up with a pen to correct this mistake, as it had to be a printing error… Note: It turns out mine must, indeed, be a fluke of a player aid. I gave photographic evidence that what came in my box was an anomaly. So rest assured, your player aid SHOULD have those Hostile Reactions, and the inside shouldn’t be flipped upside down.

Final Thoughts

This game has been my source of shame as a reviewer for a year. Typically I aim to turn a review around in a few months, and I was successful in doing that for Agricola, Master of Britain which they also sent at the same time. Agricola hit my Top 20 countdown, in fact, because I was absolutely in love with the game and it gave me hope that I could find solitaire wargames to enjoy. And then I tried playing this, which was Agricola+ – taking the system and expanding everything for a more epic, grand scale. And boy, was it ever larger. So much so that I positively failed to get any kind of traction on wrapping my head around the game. I got it to the table two different times and had to put it away mid-2nd turn because it just wasn’t clicking for me. And so onto my shelf it went, taunting me every time I looked at that bright orange box and making me also keep away from Agricola, Master of Britain for a whole year because, well, why should I play the smaller game when the larger one still very much needed played and reviewed.

Enter 2020. A friend of mine convinced me to play 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis with him in January. Which led to Twilight Struggle. Which led to Watergate. Which led to Sekigahara, Meltwater, Commands & Colors: Ancients, Nevsky…and down the wargaming rabbit hole we both fell. So the next time Charlemagne looked at me, I stared right back and swallowed my pride, pulling it off the shelf and setting it up and revisiting the rulebook.

That next play? It went so well in terms of flow and understanding. I was FINALLY ready to graduate up to a bigger wargaming experience, and for that I apologize wholeheartedly to Tom and Mary, because it should never take a full year to get around to reviewing a game. However, had I forced myself to suffer through more plays last year, I am convinced that my review would have been a gross disservice to the game, the designer, and the publisher because it just wasn’t the right fit for me at the time.

The good news is that now IS the right time for me as a gamer to return to this one. And whoa, what a game this is. Once it all fell into place for how it all connects, this is an epic, incredible game experience that progresses at a slow burn, but once things start to boil then it really takes off in a way that blew me away, even above and beyond what I enjoyed from Agricola, Master of Britain. Both games will place really high on my Top 100, I believe, and I had to play Agricola again after some plays of Charlemagne to make sure I knew which I loved more. However, there’s room for both, because Charlemagne is definitely not a game you can finish in a single sitting unless you get unlucky and lose early…or have a really long, uninterrupted sitting.

There are SO MANY things going on in here, and they help to highlight the best of the chit-pull system for this solo game. Places where you have control can rise back up in rebellion and need stamped out. Every action you do has a reaction, usually greater in number than what it is you did, meaning you’re never going to feel like things are under control. And even when you manage things well, the unpredictable nature of pulling the Turn End chits, as well as the wild card units of the Vikings, Moors, and Byzantium mean there are more wrinkles that can make your best-laid plans unfurl (I’m looking at you, Byzantium!). It all comes together in a beautiful, glorious mess of a masterpiece that I probably will never play as often as I want, but like my perennial favorite, War of the Ring, I will make a conscious effort to get it played a few times each year going forward.

I’m glad I didn’t give up on this game. I wish I had been able to enjoy it properly a year ago, but some games just need to come along at the right time in order to get a better appreciation. And with more time at home right now, there is no solo game on my shelf that I have enjoyed playing more this year than Charlemagne, Master of Europe outside of the Lord of the Rings LCG, which speaks a lot to where this game can ultimately fall for me, both on my solo list of top games and for my overall.

At least until the next game in the series, Aurelian, Restorer of the World comes out. In case you didn’t guess, that will be an instant buy for me, although I am guessing it will be coming out AFTER my birthday in June. If it is half the game that Charlemagne, Master of Europe turned out to be, it’ll easily earn its home in my collection.

If you are newer to wargaming, start with Agricola, Master of Britain. However, if you are an old hat to wargames or have some experience under your belt and are looking for a satisfying, lengthy solo game to play there is no game I can recommend more strongly than this one. It’ll be the best $50 you could spend on a game, in my opinion.

Game Design · Solo Gaming

Monster Invasion: Design Diary #1

**Note: Monster Invasion is very much a tentative, working title for a new game design I am tinkering with.

Okay readers, a new post here because I want to share my excitement level for a game I am currently working on. Will it be publishable? I sure hope so! This is being designed for the Button Shy contest going right now to make an 18-card legacy game. Yep, it sounds preposterous. I know it does. I thought it was an impossibility. However, I find myself believing in this impossible thing.

If you haven’t seen their video announcement, the premise/restrictions are as follows:

18 cards, Poker Sized
Up to 3 sticker sheets, card-sized
Up to 3 of the cards can be placed into a single black sleeve with one side hidden and marked (i.e. a, b, c) in the “package” – think of an Ultra Pro sleeve
Players may cut cards
Cards may be destroyed/removed
Cards may be written on, but not dry erase
Rules may be written on/altered

And boy, in a week my ideas for this game have shifted along the way. I had originally planned on a LOT of various things needed, some cutting of things, use of all sticker sheets. And when Jason Tagmire, in some chats, was saying that a replayable game would be ideal, I laughed at that idea as well. After all, who wouldn’t be willing to buy a $12 wallet game a second time to replay it? My original idea also involved cutting of about half of the cards into half, providing a ton of mixing and matching.

Well, now I’ve got my game idea. It uses those cards, and potentially a single sticker sheet which is essentially adding rules mid-game into the rulebook. No cutting, although there are 3 cards that could optionally be cut by the player to maximize the variability. Fully replayable IF a player sleeves all the cards and does the writing/marking on said sleeves. Everything during the game is 100% permanent until they win, or lose, the game. No dice. No cubes.

I’ve got all of my cards mocked up in a physical form, at least enough to play about 50% of the game i have in mind. That first 50% will tell me a lot about tweaks needing made, etc. to what I already have and what I should do for the 2nd half of the game.

So what does this game have? Well, dear reader, let me just spill some things:

Defense of a town against waves of monsters
Choose 3 characters from 6 options to use as your “party” for the game which means you could potentially play 1-3 players, splitting control of the party.
Diceless combat against waves of monsters
Variable monster stats that fluctuate based on how many you’ve eliminated from a card
Powerful one-time story events on each part of the monster card that, once used, boost the monsters on that card
Upgradable equipment
Character growth via stats, unlockable abilities that are unique to each character via a “sphere grid” sort of progression
A town to defend that has boostable “health”, buildings that can give a one-time effect once certain triggers are met but can also be destroyed as the town takes damage
And some cool, hidden stuff in that sleeve, including an “unlockable” victory++ condition to the game.

Here’s a little peak at the early prototyping. In here you can see a monster card (two halves, and double-sided!), two of the heroes, an example of an item card that is equipped, and a “loose” picture of an item card which has unlockable stat boosts via that treasure card picture.

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Obviously, all of these are just their 1st pass, so much can change. And while I know what certain things mean, a lot of this probably means little to you. All in due time, friends. There’s a lot that can change by the end of May, when this needs to be submitted. Stay tuned for a follow-up in a little while as I’ll report some of my findings from my first “play” through the half I have ready.

Review for One · Wargame Garrison

Review for One – Vikings: Scourge of the North

Thank you for checking review #126 by Cardboard Clash. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.

**Note: A copy of the game was provided in exchange for an honest review.

An Overview of Vikings: Scourge of the North

Vikings: Scourge of the North is a board game designed by Christopher Cummins and Joseph Miranda that is published by Decision Games. The “box” states it plays 1 player and has a playtime of 60-90 minutes.

Vikings: Scourge of the North. Europe in the last centuries of the Dark Age was beset by Scandinavian raiders. Their longships sailed the high seas, reaching lands as far as the Volga and North America. While mainly known for their pillaging, the Vikings were also explorers, traders, and colonists.

This is a solitaire game. You lead a band of warriors with their ships and weapons. Units represent historical Viking leaders such as Leif Erikson and Harald Hardrada. You can recruit elite huskarls and fanatic berserkers, and build more longships. You are in pursuit of gold, glory, and new lands to settle on a map running from Russia to Vinland, from Scandinavia to the fabled lands of the Byzantine Empire.

Saga cards send you on four different voyages of discovery and quest fulfillment. Voyage cards bring in special actions such as forming a shield wall in combat and ending the game with a Viking funeral.

—description from the publisher

My Thoughts

 This game has a quick playtime once you get into the flow of the game and its nuances. More on that later. But as a whole, this one plays quick which is exactly what you would want and expect from a Mini Folio game. If you are seeking lengthy gameplay and strong replay value, you might find just one of those here. To give you an idea, I played through all four games of the campaign in under 2 hours, which includes both setting up initially and doing the cleanup between each sequential game.

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 Everything in the game flows so well because of the overall simplicity of the game system. Once the rules are out of the way (again, more on that later), this has a nice rhythm to it. Turns are usually spent making a move, drawing a card and resolving it, and then doing stuff related to your new space if desired or mandatory. Battles are easy to resolve as well, especially if you have the Jarl who gives you the initiative in battle automatically. While you might sometimes stop to puzzle out the best path to take, most of the time you have clear ideas what the likely destinations are (based on the Saga card in play and the location of the Quests, usually). This means most of your time spent in the game is engaged time, which is valuable to have in a game like this.

 The map is done really well, and has some excellent reference tables on there to assist you during the game on what certain things mean, the impact of various colors of spaces, and more. Beyond that, everything else in this package might not be top-tier quality (as you would expect in a game of this size and price) but it is all really solid. I have no complaints at all about anything that came with this one, and it does look pretty good while on the table.

 The campaign is designed well enough to provide an engaging multi-play scenario in the game. The order of the first three Saga cards is random, and you’ll always play the same card as the last one. Once I got to that card, I understood why. While there is one part of that final Saga card I have an issue with (you need 5 Edda? Really? Come on, be real!) the rest of it flowed really well and I felt the pressure to preserve my Jarl, conserve Gold, and to gain Edda as much as possible. As a whole, the campaign provided a nice, decent-length set of games to play in one sitting.

 Berserkers are fantastic. They can ignore the first hit during a battle, meaning they are likely to survive longer. The real tough decision is whether to put them on the front of your queue or to put them 1-2 spots back. Because inevitably, when I put him on the front I get back-to-back damage to destroy him. And when he is back a space, I take only one hit which kills off my Huscurl instead. It feels like a lose-lose sometimes, but having the decision space (and where to put units like the ship and your Jarl) in the order makes a difference – sometimes.

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 A lot is going to depend upon the location of the Quest markers, which is variable from game-to-game and they get placed based on rolling 2d6 and consulting a chart on the map. When you are lucky, there will be 2-3 of them within a space or two of a homeland. When unlucky, you might need to spend 4-6 turns sailing/trekking inland to get to where you need to go. Luckly, most quests only require completing a few of these, but they all require you to complete some of them. The other downside is moving into a Quest space provokes a battle guaranteed, and depending on the Journey card flipped, you might be doing a back-to-back battle.

 I understand a need for “increasing difficulty” in the campaign, but as a whole it never really feels like you get stronger. Yes, you can keep some settlements on the map (which can help or hinder your next quest, potentially) and the money you have. But if you have a near-wipe of your warriors to end the previous Saga, you will potentially have no funds to replenish your force apart from the 1 Gold per settlement you ended with. Hopefully it’ll be at least 3, to get a new ship if needed. And then, to boot, your battles pull an extra chit to face per Saga you’ve completed which means your force, which may or may not be weak (I couldn’t afford more than 4 total units until almost onto the 4th Saga), is facing a larger army that can be stacked with big hitters or lucky weaklings, setting you back more. It works, sure, but it never felt like my side was getting stronger – I was just facing more enemies and having fewer total resources to overcome the obstacles presented.

 My initial impressions were that this game was pretty luck-heavy as the die is rolled with high frequency. And that didn’t really change over the course of additional plays of the game. However, when I realized that I was able to get 4 plays in of this in 2 hours, it wasn’t as big of a sticking point. I’ll play and enjoy a game with some interesting decisions that uses randomness if it hits that timeframe for a single play of the game. So while it is random-heavy at times, it still provides a fun experience with good decisions along the way to where I enjoy it in spite of that randomness. And depending on your Jarl, you’ll have a chance to impact at least some of that randomness in the game.

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 Let’s not mince words here, the rulebook is not good. The majority of its errors can be forgiven, as the player can still make intuitive connections about what is intended. Unfortunately, the biggest issue comes in the form of omissions. For instance, never tells you what your starting Edda value is for the game, campaign or otherwise. It also doesn’t do a good job at telling you the full steps to follow for setting up a consecutive game in the campaign. Do your troops remain on the map where they are located at the conclusion of the previous Saga, or do they depart once more from one of the Viking homelands? These ambiguities tell me that it probably didn’t go through much blind playtesting, as these are questions that were obvious from the start of setup, and from the beginning of the 2nd Saga card in the campaign. There is no answer in the rulebook – so the assumption was made that you start with 0 Edda and that you always depart from a Viking Homeland at the start of a Saga.

Final Thoughts

It might seem like I was pretty harsh on the game and thus didn’t like it. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth: I genuinely enjoyed the game in spite of its flaws. And while I wish some things were different – the sea movement not being dice-dependent, the feasibility to mustering and voyaging with multiple forces, a more immersive campaign with a sense of progression – this game delivers a really fun experience in a small and inexpensive package. At least once you get past the rules.

That opinion of it being a fun experience is quite the turnaround from the end of my second play of the game, at which point I assumed it would be voyaging out of my collection as soon as I got enough plays to review the game. Like most games, first and second impressions may not be able to provide an accurate representation of the long-term impact of a game which is why I never believe in doing a review after just that first play and have made careful steps to clearly identify my wargame impressions posts as first impressions rather than reviews. This game here is a case study in why.

It has good decisions, although your objective tends to give you a clear idea of what to do there are multiple ways to get there. With four different Jarls and four different Sagas to play, there is enough variety in here for a small game like this. It isn’t a perfect game, and it isn’t setting out to be your favorite game of all time. Yet this one is fun, fast, and will be sticking around in my collection and, soon, getting some other Decision Games titles to join it on the shelf based upon the merits of this first experience into their catalog of games.