Gaming Recap

March 2020 Gaming Recap

Another fun recap list where I expand on thoughts of the games, both old and new. You may notice the lack of ranking the top 2019 releases or the top new-to-me games. Well, that’s because about a week ago I announced the finalists for my 2019 Game of the Year and, honestly, I don’t want to tip my hand too much as to which of those games might be the overall winner as I attempt to reevaluate them all in the next month or so.

March Games Played Recap

13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis

My friend got his rematch, after I went 2-0 back in January to kick off our deep dive into wargaming. It also marked the first time when Russians were a side that he didn’t get randomly forced into playing them, which might have had something to do with his success. This time I played a really aggressive 2nd round, which opened things up for a brilliant play on his part that made me end the game in Defcon 1 on the Military track due to a lack of Command value on my cards. Well played, my friend. Until I defeat you next time…

Agricola, Master of Britain

Oh how I missed this little game from Hollandspiele. After playing Charlemagne (more on that below), I found myself itching to get this one back to the table. This one is refreshingly quick to set up, given the much smaller map, and I had plenty of time in about 90 minutes to set up, reread the rules, and lose at the end of Round 4. I forgot, during the first Round, that this one has a set number of actions (even though I just read it…) per Round, unlike Charlemagne where things can go For-ev-er assuming you don’t pull those End Turn chits. The scope and scale of this is much smaller, making a really tight experience where it feels like there is a very low margin for error, and I was on the ropes from the start with nearly every Tan unit on the map to begin the game. Only one leader came out all game, and that was with one action remaining and myself unable to reach his location before he disappeared. Oh well, this one will get a rematch soon enough as I’m determined to finally win – especially when I was given the reminder that my best effort was obtaining 74 out of the 75 VP needed at a minimum to win…

Battle Line: Medieval

This one replaced the previous version of Battle Line, which I parted with a while ago. I couldn’t pass up the beautiful Medieval retheming of the game, and the artwork here is so outstanding. It also uses cards instead of pawns for the battlefield, and those cards have abilities that you can use to trigger special effects for each of the nine fronts being fought over. All in all this was a complete upgrade in my books, and the gameplay is still just as fast and fun as the original.

Call to Adventure

Sometimes you want a game that is just enjoyable to unwind and play. For me, Call to Adventure is becoming that game. It isn’t challenging or especially thinky, but as a writer and a fan of the Fantasy genre, this game invites you to craft stories for your characters as you gain the cards. I’m yet to run the risk of losing the solo game on this, which normally would be something I hold against a solo experience, but in this I think I’m just looking for something different when it hits the table. It is my guilty pleasure game, as the casting of runes and the crafting of characters is a sheer delight – and I genuinely cannot wait for the Stormlight Archive expansion to be released this year!

Castles of Mad King Ludwig

Like last month, this was a welcome game to hit the table. We always enjoy it regardless of player count, and this time it was a head-to-head with my wife that didn’t really go well for me. She’s too good sometimes, and there was never a prayer of catching her…something that was pretty clear by mid-game. Yet I always love this one because there is a sense of accomplishment at the end with the castle you’ve constructed!

Charlemagne, Master of Europe

Holy Charlemagne, this game is epic in proportion. Last year I fell in love with Agricola, Master of Britain but, when trying this, I was overwhelmed by the added complexities. Well, two months into solid wargaming and this was a perfect, fluid system that kept me delighted across my entire 10-round loss. Yes, I am disappointed it came to a premature end – darn Byzantium chits got pulled three actions in a row, costing me 24 points before I could counteract the board state. Combine that with the 9 I lost at the end of the previous round due to Minimum Army Strength and that was a 33-point swing I just barely fell short of overcoming. Had I banked one more EVP it would have been enough to go on, and this just showed me how brutal the game can get in the later turns if those Turn End chits remain elusive in the cup. Brilliant game, fantastic design. This one is everything I wanted and then some.

Command & Colors: Ancients

Let’s get the first thing out of the way: we played the introductory scenario, I played one key thing wrong, and it was an absolute landslide thanks to impossible rolling by my opponent. So with a grain of salt I wasn’t overly thrilled by the game; however, the key thing wrong was I didn’t realize I was supposed to draw a new card each turn. With all of the stuff explained after the start, I clearly forgot that and my opponent didn’t notice, and so I was stuck playing 4 of my 5 really crappy cards until I lost via his “I Am Spartacus” god turn that let him activate all 4 of his Heavy Infantry, each of whom rolled exactly 4 hits when they activated to wipe 3 more units of mine off the board. Dice can do that, and it left a really sour taste in my mouth about a game that took longer to set up, and then longer to explain, than it did to actually lose the game. I intend to request a rematch on this one the next time we play games, as I’d like to give it a better shot…especially since I really want to try his copy of Command & Colors: Medieval soon.

Empyreal: Spells & Steam

What more can I say about this one? Check out my review, which went live around mid-March, for more detailed thoughts on this. I’ll say that if this game had released in 2019 rather than 2020, it’d definitely be a finalist for game of the year. So don’t be too surprised if this one happens to stay near the top of the pack over the course of 2020!

Founders of Gloomhaven

I have found that I enjoy the designs of Isaac Childress. Sure, there’s the obvious Gloomhaven that everyone drools over, but I might even like both Forge War and Founders of Gloomhaven better than the massive dungeon crawler. This one certainly has interesting layers of depth to it, much like Forge War, and I am honestly surprised at how lukewarm the overall reception seemed to be toward this game. I speculate that it is because they wanted a game more like Gloomhaven instead of a heavy-ish Euro with the Gloomhaven world. I failed spectacularly at the game, in part due to a poor choice of race which was nice early with the exclusive access to the Jewelry upgrade, but hurt later in the game because I needed to make connections to more things in order to upgrade other tech. Ultimately, that was my downfall in the game…and I would gladly play it a second time if the chance comes about.

Great Western Trail

A personal favorite of mine, the play of Maracaibo made me have the urge to play Great Western Trail and my loving wife spoiled me by agreeing to that play. Per usual, she whomped on me but I absolutely loved my play of the game – as I have every play of it so far. This game is a near-perfect blend of things to make a game I can sink my mental teeth into. Next time we’ll integrate the expansion which I’ve heard makes the game even better. I’m not going to enjoy the task of deciding which I like more: this or Maracaibo. Maybe I should claim I need to play them both a dozen times first…

Gunkimono

Last year the designer of Gunkimono came into town (he is from this area originally) and showed up to teach his games at a local game day. I went with the hope of playing Pandoria (which I did get to try!), but before that he opened things up with a play of Gunkimono. I thought it was a clever design at the time, even if I was horribly beaten in our 5-player game since I was using the type of approach that would be good in a 2-3 player game but hurt my own progression as the game flew to the finish. This time was a 3-player game and while I still didn’t win, I did significantly better at being competitive. I don’t think I would ever turn down a game of this, but at the same time I don’t think I’ll be actively seeking plays of it, either.

Hengist

This game was a minimal gamble for me to pick up, as it was a mere $2 add-on to an order. With the designer being Uwe Rosenberg and it being a Viking-themed game, I figured we could get at least that much enjoyment out of the game. Yes, I had heard all the terrible things about the game. And, well, it isn’t a great game. It felt like we were drawing far too many cards, making it easy to move down for the gold especially late in the game. There was rarely a strong reason to push forward rather than try to plunder more of the gold if able. Its biggest fault was a lack of tension, from what I could see. I’m quite willing to give it another play or two, as I know there is a decent game in there. However, I imagine we’d probably grab something like Odin’s Ravens before this going forward.

Jambo

Ah KOSMOS, why did you have to make so many excellent little 2-player games? And why won’t you reprint some of them, like Jambo? That was my feeling after getting introduced to this game, which has a really neat resource conversion aspect to earn money which are, essentially, points. You start with 30, and are racing to get to 60, but most of that initial 30 will likely be spent to set yourself up for future success. I knew the local Half Price Books had a copy for $40, and it was during the coupon sale week when I played so I figured I would wait it out and grab it Sunday for $20 if it was still there. Sure enough, it was gone. Oh well, like I have any shortage of good games, right? Still, I’m going to be keeping an eye out for a chance to get this at a reasonable price in the future.

Lisboa

So at least one of these must be true: my wife is a brilliant genius with heavy games, I’m a really good teacher, or I am just terrible at Lisboa. It is probably at least two of those three, with the questionable one being how good of a teacher I am when it comes to games. I am bad at Lisboa, and there is no longer any room to deny it. I have a track record of not just losing, but losing horribly. Even when teaching new players, I’m not even competitively close at the end. 20-ish points may not seem like much, but it is a chasm of difference in a game like this. But the great news is that my wife now knows how to play and it will be far easier to lose in the future when I want to get the best of the Lacerda games to the table. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll win a game of Lisboa before the end of this year.

The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game

My favorite solo game of all time is always a welcome presence at my table. I played my Ranger trap deck a little more and finally took out a handful of cards. I think I have a better handle on the deck now to where I can consider modifying it to trim it down to 50 soon, making it a more consistent, viable deck to play and actually win with regularly. When it fires, this deck is fun. When it whiffs, this deck flounders as it is. It didn’t help that I was playing a quest that didn’t have many enemies, and had a really fast acceleration in needed Willpower to quest successfully.

Maracaibo

We all have those designers. The ones we know, before even playing a game, that we’re likely to enjoy the game they designed. There are three such designers for me, and the tops among them is probably Alexander Pfister. His games resonate with me as a gamer in all the right ways: engine building, multi-use cards, strategic planning. This takes everything I love about Oh My Goods and Great Western Trail, adds some new and innovating things, and delivers a game that honestly feels like it was designed with me in mind. Like his other designs, this one took a little time to grasp everything presented on the board, the cards, and the player area. But once it all clicked, the game flowed in the same, smooth way that Great Western Trail has become. Calling this a reworking of GWT would be a disservice to Maracaibo. It has similarities, sure, but is a completely different game. Both will be able to exist in my collection, and this has rocketed up to become the next game I want to add to my collection. I can’t wait to play this one more, to teach it to my wife, to test out the solitaire AI opponent, and to play through the story campaign. This is the best new-to-me game I’ve played in quite some time, and it isn’t even close.

Nevsky: Teutons and Rus in Collision, 1240-1242

A complete shocker of an experience. That is hardly an understatement, considering that Nevsky went from being a game I hadn’t ever heard about to being a legitimate contender for 2019 game of the year. It has such unusual, interesting approaches to the wargame genre with its focus on operations and the calendar track to keep tabs on how long your leaders are willing to serve under your command. The longer the war lasts, the more you’ll see a fluctuation in the forces you can muster. Not only that, but it is difficult to feed and move a large army, which has to be maintained or you risk losing them early. Add in some programming of the order in which you resolve your units, and there is a lot here to sink your teeth into. I’m jonesing to get this one played again with my friend, exploring some of the longer scenarios in the box.

The One Hundred Torii

This little tile-laying game caught my attention last year on Kickstarter, and sounded like an enjoyable game experience. Last month I tried it solo and thought it was fine, and this month I played it with my wife. The multiplayer experience is definitely better overall. I question still the longevity of the gameplay, which seems like the scores will be fairly clustered once players figure out strong strategies to tile placement, this is one I will gladly welcome back to the table soon in order to explore everything else it has to offer.

Peloponnesian War

I had anticipated not being able to finish my play of the long campaign session of this one, but a series of circumstances opened up the way for me to play two more rounds (getting to Round 4’s conclusion) at the beginning of the month and bring this to a satisfying conclusion. I’ll be interested to see the other scenarios and what they change or involve, especially the new one designed for 2-players to compete. Sadly, I never was forced to shift sides on this, thanks to a lucky roll when I had a +3 SPI at the end of Turn 3. An unlucky Augury brought the AI to an early conclusion and a chance interception cleared a nice path to take my 3rd General down to Sparta with reasonable odds of being able to pull off an upset victory. Ultimately I think the single d6 has a little too much power in here, allowing small yet powerful swings that went both ways. The first two rounds went heavily in the Spartan AI’s favor, digging me into a VP hole and clearing off my efforts while expanding Rebellion in the eastern parts of the map. Then in the final two rounds they all seemed to go my way, allowing me to lock down decisive victories and chip away at the Spartan forces before heading down to an even-sized match against Sparta where they still had the modifier advantage (thanks to a +2 for being in Sparta and another +2 for having over half the army as Spartan hoplites) but they rolled really low vs my high number, which was just enough to win. I enjoyed this, and the scenarios will determine how much staying power this could have.

Quiddler

Word games are the bane of my wife’s existence, so i don’t think this will ever be a game I play at home with her. Yet as an English major I have no qualms about playing a word game like Quiddler, and I only had time for something shortish after Founders of Gloomhaven finished. So the couple I was gaming with grabbed this and taught me. It isn’t the worst word game I have ever played, but it isn’t the best either. I had fun, for what it was worth, and would potentially play it again.

Shadowrift

There used to be a lot of buzz about Aeon’s End being the greatest game since sliced bread, and I’ll admit it has some clever innovations (I especially liked the non-shuffling of your deck). However, from the first time I played Shadowrift I lost the urge to ever do Aeon’s End again, because it provides a similar theme and does it better thematically with having villagers and travellers, and the construction of walls, to fend off the waves of enemies attacking the village. Sure, it lacks a big baddie (which you can get via expansion), but it more than makes up for that with the experience. Things are slowly getting worse as you slowly get stronger – this probably has one of the tightest economies for a deckbuilder I’ve ever played. I still really enjoy this one, and got to try out some of the new stuff from the recent expansion Boomtown.

Three Kingdoms Redux

If you look back at my blogging history, this game has been on my “I want to try this” wishlist for years. Not owning the game is, of course, always a hurdle to overcome. But I also knew the 3-player only factor was going to be a preventative factor. Well, the stars aligned and this game was played and it lived up to everything I hoped for and then some. There is such an interesting development of balance between the three factions, and it is really interesting how one of them starts off “stronger” than the others but the balance corrects itself over the course of the game. It felt like, as the Wei player, I had the weakest generals overall in terms of the abilities. More often than naught, what I expected to chain into a great combo proved to be completely irrelevant while I watched them rake in great benefits. But who am I to complain, when my leader has the ability to win ties? This was a surprisingly low-scoring affair and the end game scoring was extremely clever and unique, as for most of the things it has you compare your position with the others to determine how many points are scored. The game ended a turn sooner than I expected, and was unfortunately during a turn when I had only 3 Generals to use and so even if I had anticipated the end there was a limit on how much I could have adapted to that information. I’d love to play this one again soon, and I know my wife would absolutely love the game (hint: it has a strong worker placement element). We do have a 3rd player coming on a regular enough basis to where we could probably even get this to the table regularly if we wanted to do so. And I think I do want to get this back onto the table soon, while the game is still fresh in my mind, to see if I can do better at planning and adapting now that I’ve seen the game to its conclusion.

Vikings: Scourge of the North

This little folio game was the first of the recent review copies of wargames to arrive, and I was excited to get this to the table because it promised a quick playtime, minimal rules overhead, and a Viking theme that sounded delightful in a solitaire-designed package. I shouldn’t be so surprised that the game was very luck-heavy, with dice being rolled for nearly everything involved in the game. Is it fun? Absolutely, and I am excited to get it back out a few more times to prepare for a review. The real question is how much does the dice influence the game vs. the decisions I make as a player. My initial impression is the dice reign supreme, especially in a game with only a handful of activations to accomplish everything. Especially considering you roll to see how many spaces you sail on the sea, and then roll to see if you lose anyone on said sea voyage…

Watergate

A 2019 favorite, as you might have seen from the very recent post announcing my finalists for 2019 game-of-the-year. I didn’t expect to be blown away by Watergate, and had hoped it was the first impressions that left me thinking it was a little gem. Unfortunately, the second play was just as enjoyable as the first, even having switched sides. Each side plays very differently, and this is one I know my wife would enjoy if she could get past the theme. I won’t hold my breath, though. However, I can’t wait to play this one again and again, the mark of an excellent game.

Next 3 Reviews
Vikings: Scourge of the North
Traveller Customizable Card Game
The One-Hundred Torii

2020 Husband/Wife Record

Him: 15 Wins (+3)
Her: 20 Wins (+5)

Next 3 Games to Teach My Wife
Avatar: The Last Airbender CCG
Julius Caesar
Escape Plan

Five Games I Want to Try Soon
Commands & Colors: Medieval
Mombasa
Falling Sky: The Gallic Revolt Against Caesar
Irish Gauge
Cooper Island

Next 3 Acquisitions
Mystic Vale: Harmony
Pipeline
The Wars of Marcus Aurelius

2020 Five & Dimes (Games with 5+ Plays)
Vikings: Scourge of the North (6)
Arboretum (5)
Circle the Wagons (5)
Hostage Negotiator (5)
Lord of the Rings: The Card Game (5)

Best Releases of 2020
Empyreal: Spells & Steam
On Mars
The One Hundred Torii

Best Expansions of 2020
Mystic Vale: Nemesis
Shadowrift: Boomtown

First Impressions · Wargame Garrison

Insights and Impressions from Nevsky: Teutons and Rus in Collision, 1240-1242

We’re nearing the conclusion of the month of March, and I’m nearing the end of my backlog for these first-play session/impression reports. In case you missed it, today’s game of Nevsky made the cut for a 2019 Game-of-the-Year finalist – and part of me was secretly glad to find a Wargame that was able to make the cut (assuming you don’t count Watergate as a Wargame) in spite of my very recent plunge into those games. And this game is certainly one of those “hidden gems” of a game, with such a unique approach that I found myself really digging.

But this isn’t a review (yet) of Nevsky. No, I need more plays to get to that point and hopefully April will bring enough of those plays to get it there. Instead, here are some of the things I learned from my first success at Nevsky: Teutons and Rus in Collusion by Volko Ruhnke. Full disclosure; I still have not played a COIN Game, something that will be remedied at some point this year, so don’t expect there to be any comparisons between this and the other game system he made popular.

Insight #1: Feeding is going to limit the expenditure of your actions.

Right from the start I picked up on something: feeding my troops isn’t going to be an easy task. I should have known that my background playing Uwe Rosenberg euro games would come in handy eventually, as that is also a really common aspect in his worker placement games. Here in Nevsky, any movement or combat activation is going to require a feeding of your troops – even if your opponent is the one to trigger the combat against your army! I cannot overstate the importance of being able to feed your guys, as the impact of not feeding them is the associated marker will slide backward on the calendar track. If that Lord’s disc aligns with the current part of the calendar you are in (i.e., the turn track), that Lord and his troops are packing up and heading home for the time being and you’ll be stuck trying to pivot to figure out how to make it all work from there. And depending on when that happens, it could have all sorts of nasty ramifications that ripple down from there. Bottom line: feeding is very important. It is the economy of the game that will drive everything else along the way, and will dictate how you use your actions and even who you will be willing to activate.

Insight #2: Program carefully, and triple-check to make sure you have the right Lords in the right order

I blundered here on the second round, and fortunately it didn’t hurt me in the long run. Let me back up a moment: during the activation phase you are taking a stack of cards (there are 3 copies for each Lord, and 3 No Activation cards for each player) and choosing a variable number of them (for us, it was 6 because it was summer) and putting them in a face-down stack. So basically you are pre-planning which Lord to activate and when, as well as how many times. Choose poorly and you might be activating the wrong Lord at the wrong time (like I did), and be left trying to figure out how to do what you wanted. Not only that, but your opponent will get to activate a Lord after you activate a Lord, going in an alternating activation order, so what they do could drastically alter what you are faced with, meaning your initial plan for a Lord might have to change. Oh, and plan poorly (like I also did) and you might find yourself being unable to feed a Lord at the end of a movement or battle, forcing him to slide backwards. This could happen from using him too many times, taking movement that places you in an isolated spot you cannot leave, or even from your opponent initiating a battle against you so that you expend that feeding you needed for your own turn.

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Insight #3: The calendar track sounds quite daunting at first, but ultimately is really simple and is one of the highlights of the game

There are aspects of the game that, in the abstract, sound confusing and daunting. Sometimes reading the rulebook doesn’t give a clear enough picture of what a thing does, how it operates, etc. The calendar sounded like it was going to be one of those really confusing things, and we genuinely expected to have it be a stumbling block. Setting up didn’t help either, as we set up for a 2-round scenario and it had us put things into spots on the calendar that were beyond what the game would last. It simply wasn’t adding up…until we started playing. Suddenly it became a lot clearer about how said calendar would operate, giving both a turn track and letting us know who we could recruit and see how long some of our current Lords would be in service. Once we realized the manipulation of those Lord markers on that track, it really clicked for us. The key here: you do not want a Lord’s marker to be on the same place as the Turn Marker, because then they leave and take their army with them. Not feeding = moving toward the Turn Marker. Giving excess Loot = moving away from the Turn Marker. Simple, right? The further you can push their marker, the longer they would stay (or the more you can “skip” feeding their army).

Insight #4: Being the defender in battle is nice. And, as always, the dice can rule everything

I genuinely felt bad for my opponent. I was stationed outside of one of his fortresses with two of my Lords, and was preparing to take it forcefully. He moved his Lord to stop me, initiating a battle. What happened from there was nothing short of a massacre. As the defender, I got to attack his army first which was a really nice perk that I wasn’t expecting. Well, I rolled well and he rolled poorly to save, and by the end of the battle he was down to 2 troops retreating away and I think I might have lost 2 total. It was a bloody massacre, and his unfortunate luck of rolling high to defend caused him to get completely crushed. I assume most Wargamers are used to the kiss of Lady Luck via die rolling – those bouts of bad beats are bound to happen – and unfortunately the scenario wasn’t quite long enough for him to recover from that blow. However…

Insight #5: There is more than one way to earn points

The scores are lower than you’d think. Ultimately, the introductory scenario ended with a crushing Teutonic victory at 2.5 points to 2 points. That’s an average of 1.25 points per round for one side, and 1 point per round on the other. In other words, every little point seems to matter here. And the MVP for the Russian side of things? Ravaging. It isn’t glamorous or anything, but it wastes away the opposing landscape, gets you a Provender for feeding your troops, and gains you a ½ point. After his horrible defeat, the rest of his actions were spent destroying the Teuton landscape and it came close to paying off, especially as a misplay on my part saw my highest-activating Lord stuck due to arriving at the wrong port – seafaring is a horribly expensive way to travel in Nevsky and one small mistake there can be costly (and nearly was!)

Insight #6: Prepare for a slog for the first Levy, but the game has flow after that

The first “half” of the first round took ages. Like, every time we had a glimmer of forward momentum, one or both of us would realize ramifications of how X affects Y, or that we could have chosen Z. For instance, I was the first to Levy and so I used almost all of my points to bring out their full continent of troops via the available Men at Arms. Then, as my opponent was working through his own issues, I saw that I would need to spend even more ships to transport a key Lord via the ports, meaning I couldn’t do what I had anticipated. Cue subtle rewind to take a card instead of one of those forces. And then the moment of “what do you mean I had a Lord I could have tried to muster onto the field?” realization which I didn’t opt to “rewind” to correct, but he did. So many little things can tie together and, on the very first turn, there are so many unexplored paths of what you can do and restrictions that you may not catch until later. The only reason we didn’t force a “too bad, you’re stuck” situation is we hadn’t actually left the Levy phase at any of those points, and it was very much our first go at this slog of a set of ideas – our heads weren’t completely wrapped around it yet. Once we hit the Campaign phase, it was half-speed ahead from there, with slowness due to thinking through options and consulting our player aid charts on what to do, etc., but that second Levy phase went nice and smooth because we had a better grasp on things. The first half of that first round took close to 45 minutes. The rest of the game took about the same time.

Wrap-Up

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There is so much more I could mention about Nevsky, but I need to hold things back for an eventual review (right?) and these are the big lessons I learned from the initial experience with the game. There is a lot in here, but once you get the basics down there is a nice flow to things. It has some outstanding player aids, and there are counters to use instead of wooden bits if you want an easier reference on your mats/board. This feels like a really polished, highly replayable design that has me excited to visit this one more AND to be on board for the next upcoming titles using this system. That COIN system spawned a lot of games using a common system, and I imagine this could do the same. And as long it it stays in the Middle Ages or sooner, I’ll be 100% on board with checking them all out along the way based on my thoughts so far toward Nevsky.

Expansion Review

Expansion Review – Shadowrift: Boomtown

**Note: The publisher provided a copy of the expansion in exchange for an honest review.

The latest expansion in the Shadowrift series has everything you would expect: more market cards and more enemy factions to face off against. In fact, some would argue that the best expansions to games don’t try and change what made the game great in the first place, instead adding variety of options – something that is always welcome in the deckbuilding genre of games. And here, Shadowrift: Boomtown certainly succeeds. Let’s just touch briefly upon what does come in the box and my thoughts on each of those groups.

The Enemy Factions

Boomtown adds two new enemy factions: Colossus and Goblins. Of those you might suspect that the Goblins would be the easy, generic choice but you would be wrong. They add a new mechanic with a trap deck, which can bring in face-down traps onto spaces along the Monster Area. When you engage with a monster in an area with at least one trap, all traps in that space go off. And boy, can they really pack a punch. This faction provides a fresh, interesting challenge that I found to be difficult as they loaded Wounds into my deck faster than I could deal with them. The Colossus, on the other hand, have high health and a really nasty Affliction in Shock, which costs 3 to remove from your deck. The bad thing? When you draw a Shock, you draw another card and then must discard an Action or Attack card. You want to know how many times I had just one of those, and it was a good card? The high health means you either need to really stack some damage into your deck or else ways (like Seal) to remove cards from the Monster Power Area because there aren’t really any weak or easy targets in here, but their Power card to make your first Wound each turn a Shock instead is particularly nasty. Bring lots and lots of Ranged… Oh, and they have one more unpleasant surprise in the Defense Node, which has to have 3 damage on it that you can remove in order to close a Shadowrift. Yeah, it can really ruin your plans.

New Town Cards

There are a handful of new Town cards, which are welcome inclusions. None of them stand out, but they are fun such as the Gambler, who might let you draw more cards for a price. The Tinker might be my favorite from the batch, as he lets you play an Action or Attack card from your discard pile – helping to overcome that nasty Shock. Yet I personally find that I rarely have the funds to spare early toward the Town, meaning when I get them it is usually later to where they don’t come out often enough. Regardless, these are a nice addition although most of the time they will have varying impact on your gameplay.

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Replacement Cards

This box came with replacement cards for various previous expansions, so that is nice. There are a handful of them, across multiple expansions, and the rulebook (small as it is) does tell you which expansions they come from as a helpful aid.

Market Cards

The game claims these are new heroes (Chronomancer and Fencer) but let’s be honest, the game doesn’t give new characters just abilities that could be used by someone with the specialization. As such, you are going to have most games where you “multi-class” across the cards in the market, although you could easily focus specifically on making up a market with all 4 cards of each “hero” to specialize. That being said, there are a few standouts in here. The first thing to note is there is a new mechanic called Stance, which appears on some of the cards. These cards have a when played effect, such as doing 1 Melee Damage, and then can remain in play until either the Trigger effect goes off, or the player puts them into their discard. What sort of Triggers, you ask? Well, let’s look at the Deadly Riposte as an example: “Trigger: If a monster would kill a villager, it takes 2 damage. if the monster dies, the villager does not.” How fantastic is that card ability? Now you don’t need to fully kill an enemy, if you can see it has a Kill effect coming up! Stop damaging it 2 from its max and let it finish itself off while you focus on stopping something else. The hitch? Only one copy of each Stance can be “in play” waiting for the Trigger to go off, meaning you don’t necessarily want to load up on them unless for its basic effect. This new mechanic is a welcome addition, and opens up some interesting space for the game, especially as it is a card that can thin itself out of the deck at times, letting you draw into other cards that you might be seeking more often.

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The other all-star here is probably the Iron Hourglass, which lets you keep any number of cards in your hand during Clean-up, drawing that many fewer. It also lets you discard a non-affliction card in order to draw a card during your turn. The latter is great, helping you to cycle faster for the cards you need, while the former is great when it works but can lead to really bad play trying to pull off a specific combo. Since the deck doesn’t really thin much during the game, as you get later in the game it might be far less likely to draw what you need. It also means that cards, like Shock, might get drawn and really ruin your attempts at setting up a good combo in your hand.

The rest of the cards are good at times: swapping cards in the Town with the one at the bottom of the Traveler deck, discarding Wounds to draw cards, playing extra special attack cards, drawing cards, duplicating Action or Attack cards, boosting damage and avoiding Wounds, Ranged Damage…all of those are among the Market cards added to the pool. Few of them are outstanding, but none of them are bad. All in all, an enjoyable batch of cards to mix into the fray.

Final Thoughts

All in all, if you like Shadowrift there is no reason to skip on this expansion. It is a small-box expansion and the Stance cards alone make this a worthwhile addition. Everything else is fine, especially if you try and construct a market with optimization in mind. However, there is also little in here to set the expansion apart, nor does it elevate the game. If you didn’t like Shadowrift before, this won’t change your mind. But fans of the game will definitely be interested in picking this one up.

First Impressions · Wargame Garrison

Insights and Impressions from Peloponnesian War

We’re creeping ever closer to getting current on the First Impression-style session reports for Wargames played this year! I think three more to go after this one..for now (Charlemagne Master of Europe, Commands & Colors: Ancients, and Nevsky are yet-to-come!) and with the chaos of moves going on for both myself and my Wargaming opponent, well, I might actually get current before adding to the lengthy list of games needing these reports. I didn’t expect that to be a possibility about two weeks ago!

This one is really unique, being designed as a solo game with a MASSIVE board that has far fewer troops on there than you’d expect. Of course, there are several different scenarios to play, and there is a pretty lengthy example of play to “play” through to get that first turn of the massive campaign finished. I started by going through that example, moving pieces around the board step-by-step as it walked me through everything. And then I had to tear the game down, as a friend was coming over and we needed the table space. But the next day, back out the game went to restart that same scenario and try to run through things from Turn 1, making my own decisions.

And boy, it lasted far longer in terms of time than I expected. Those first two Rounds took about an hour each, as I still had to stop and reference the rulebook frequently to make sure I was doing things properly. But by the time I hit Rounds 3-4, at the end of which the game concluded (I conquered Sparta!), it was moving at a clip of closer to 30 minutes per Round. Of course, with each Round lasting a variable amount of turns per side there could be both really short and really long Rounds. I found the shortest to allow 2 turns per side, while the longest had one side get a 5th turn in there. And, well, let’s just get right into the series of insights on this one because I really wish I had been able to understand this first one better before I played.

Insight #1: Your Operations can be anything you desire, and the game doesn’t really make it clear what you SHOULD be doing with them

Boy, this was a sticking point for me. I even went onto BGG after that learning turn to figure out what I was trying to do. I mean, I knew the win conditions for the game but had no frame of reference for what I should be trying to accomplish in order to get closer to those objectives. Ultimately, my first Round was spent closely mirroring the actions taken in the example game because I still didn’t grasp what was worthwhile, but figured there must have been reasons for those things. Fortunately, my Round ended on the earlier side, so I didn’t need to flounder for too long, and as things slowly began to resolve (poorly) I had the first moment of revelation: the AI opponent was spreading Rebellion across the map, and so I could focus the next turn on trying to stamp some of those down.

The next Round saw the AI get a unit stranded really close to my units, so I had my second moment of clarity come really early: I should send a stronger force to attack that stranded unit, and so I divided my efforts between mustering a slightly stronger force to go and attack the smaller armies around the map while also sending expeditionary forces to stave off the further spread of rebellion. Well, neither of those went well for me. My die roll in the battle was horrible, and so my marginally stronger force with a leader lost to their single Hoplite and I lost the entire stack. And most of my expeditionary forces were intercepted and suffered from the removal of a unit which left my leader stranded because I didn’t send him in anything more than a single boat. Also during this resolution I saw, in a negative way, what those Rebellion and Ravaged markers could do as it reduced my income for the next turn and dropped my SPI value…leading to my third moment of clarity: sending out a force to raze the land is a key way to chip away at the opposing force’s funds while also bringing them closer to a loss. Equipped with those three revelations, I had a much better time of planning out my Third and Fourth Rounds where the momentum shifted in my favor.

Insight #2: Luck can swing the tide in a hurry

My play was a tale of two halves to the game. In the first two Rounds, everything that could go poorly seemed to go poorly for me. No big deal, I thought. I’ll be in a great position once the game has me switch sides, opening the door for an easier victory. Well, no such luck was in store as I didn’t get to switch at all for the game (even on the 3rd Round when I had a +3 modifier to that roll!). But seriously, I was losing battles, losing troops during interception skirmishes, and overall doing a great job of losing the game. I’d like to think it was my better understanding of the game which changed the outcome in those last two Rounds, but it was mostly that the d6 stopped going against me every step of the way. Sure, I did plan things better to where I had better modifiers in small-scale battles, but I also saw my share of rolls go my way – especially at the very end as I tried to take down Sparta with their +4 modifier versus my +2.

Any time that luck plays a factor in games, you’re going to hit situations where you lose when you expected to win and times where you win when you thought it might be completely hopeless. Since you’re rolling a single d6, it has that room for swingy effects, as there aren’t buckets of dice to flatten the curve of chance. Just know that there’s a good chance, when things are swinging hard your way, you are opening yourself up for a greater chance of being forced to change sides.

Insight #3: The losses from a defeat can be absolutely staggering and change the landscape of an entire turn.

If you thought the dice had power before, it has staggering power when you consider the ramifications of a battle outcome. See, the winning army stays where they are and has you lose/gain VP and affect the SPI track. The losing army likely goes down on that SPI track and, even worse, loses their entire army to the Going Home box after taking permanent losses. Yep, even if they outnumber you 10:1, if you manage to win they lose everyone off the map. Huge. This could cause a massive swing in the board. In fact, this was the very thing that caused me to consider going for victory in Round 4. See, on my 3rd Operation I was on my way to squash Rebellion in the north and the nearest path took me right past a large enemy force in Corinth. Sure enough, they intercepted. Skirmish ensues, and the armies are large enough it goes into a land battle. A very close-in-size land battle that I won, wiping that space free from enemies. Well, that left a wide open path down to Sparta that I couldn’t pass on. Thankfully, my next activation happened and I was able to trek down and overcome the lopsided multiplier to pull off an unexpected victory.

Just know, those losses go both ways…and when you lose, you also suffer a -15 VP hit which stinks, since you only get 10 VP per victory.

Insight #4: The worst part of this game comes in calculating the route an Operation will take

It isn’t even close. My least favorite thing to do is to count out 8-13 spaces over and over again, taking slightly different paths, to figure out which path the force should take. Because the rules state they must take the shortest route, and when two (or more) are equal, you roll a die to determine which branch they take. Well, this really sucks to do. I’m pretty sure I managed to recount the same route accidentally at least once every time I had to math out paths, and there were several times when I couldn’t remember what a route counted as so I would have to count it again. Take this out of the game and it shaves at least 45 minutes from my overall play time. I’m not exaggerating here.

But I do understand the importance of this in the rules. After all, it prevents you from strategically making decisions to avoid – or encounter – specific spots on the board. All you can do is pick the destination and “chance” determines the rest if there is more than one good way to get there. It is how I wiped out Corinth, after all, so I can’t be too upset about the process. But this is easily the most frustrating part about the Peloponnesian War.

Insight #5: The AI only changes tactic if you put it on the defensive or if you do well on a turn. So when you suck, you can use that to your advantage.

All things accounted for, spreading Rebellion isn’t such a bad thing to see your opponent do for 3 Rounds in a row. It sent them off to distant parts of the map (and yes, it Ravaged pretty effectively along the way), but the forces sent were really small and vulnerable to attack. Rebellion is easy to remove, just needing a friendly force adjacent to the space. And for the most part, it keeps your own forces intact. Once I started to see the advantages it gained me, I was able to leverage that to a strong Round 3. And next time I hope to be able to analyze the board, and the action’s intentions, much sooner to be able to exploit that early on to my benefit – although not too strong of a benefit in case I get forced to switch sides.

Insight #6: The threat of changing sides is always in the back of your mind.

This game has that really cool and interesting approach where you can be forced to switch sides, which is a bigger threat based upon how well you do in the previous Round. Yes, it is a d6 roll, and every step on the positive direction for SPI adds to your roll. A 6+ makes you switch sides, and suddenly all that work you did to deplete the forces of the enemy becomes what you have to work with as you try and strike back and bring the game to a successful conclusion. And this is always on the back of the mind, especially as things go well for your side. There’s always a temptation to hold back just a little bit, in order to minimize the disadvantage you could possibly inherit. It seems like a game where you want to take small steps toward victory, until you can have one big turn to sweep the board into a victory – and it certainly played out that way for me unintentionally. However, my victory was not strong enough to lock up a decisive victory, something I may come to regret later in the campaign…

Wrap-Up

I sure had fun with this one overall. It helped to reignite my desire for a nice, sprawling epic of a solitaire experience while I was borrowing it from a friend. And we’ll have to definitely try out the 2-player scenario in the game at some point. While I’m a little sad that I never had to flip sides, I still learned a lot from the game as it gradually unfolded. Which means my next game should start off a little better, at least in terms of how I approach what I am accomplishing on my turns. That understanding may also come to be a strong disadvantage, should I find myself needing to defend out of the hole I dug for myself. Which is why I am excited to revisit this one sooner than later, before these lessons fade into the past. If you like solitaire wargames but dislike playing both sides against each other equally (I’m definitely not a fan of that approach), take heart: the inactive side is fully automated with tables and dice rolls. You might really dig this one, just like I did.

Awards

Announcing the Finalists for the Cardboard Clash 2019 Game of the Year

The time for dragging my feet and feeling indecisive about the finalists for 2019 game of the year has to come to an end. March is nearly finished and, assuming I want a little time to actually revisit some of these finalists, the time is now to declare the games that are vying for the final position as the top game released in 2019.

The problem? Because, of course, there is a problem! Well, there are two problems that sort of go hand-in-hand here. I’m using one to justify the other, actually, which is either a terrible situation to place myself into or it is a stroke of brilliance on my part. Time will tell which it is…

See, I wanted to make the list of finalists only 5 games long. And I was pretty sure which games those were going to be. But then March came along and I played two more 2019 releases, one I expected to be phenomenal and the other coming out of nowhere to surprise me. Suddenly my anticipated list of 5 finalists was back up to 7 and, well, I couldn’t decide which two to cut. ALL of them deserve more plays, and my goal is to focus strongly on them all from now until the end of April, at which point in time I will hopefully be closer to ready to crown one as the 2019 Game of the Year.

It may roll into May. It depends on whether or not one of these rises above the rest quickly.

Oh, and that other “problem” I referred to? Three of these titles are from a single publisher…which is how I’m justifying a field of 7 here to narrow down from. Without further ado, here are the seven games and some brief thoughts on why it could win, as well as why it might not. These are listed in alphabetical order:

1. Maracaibo by Alexander Pfister. Published by Capstone Games

Why It Could Win: I am a self-proclaimed Pfister fan boy, with two of his games (Great Western Trail & Oh My Goods) cracking my Top 10 last summer. Guess which two games have their fingerprints of influence in Maracaibo? Yep, you guessed it. Add in the fact that this game is genuinely fun, has a wealth of interlocking mechanisms, engine building with purchased cards into your tableau, and what appears to be several paths to victory and this is a strong contender, even apart from Pfister’s name on the box.

Why It Could Lose: This game might suffer from what I call the “Battle of Five Armies” effect. In short, I used to own The Battle of Five Armies, which was a fun game in itself, but when I played it I always found myself wishing I had played War of the Ring instead. Will Maracaibo make me wish I was playing Great Western Trail and/or Oh My Goods instead? After all, my initial urge upon finishing the first game of Maracaibo was to get Great Western Trail back on the table.

2. Nevsky: Teutons and Rus in Collision, 1240-1242 by Volko Ruhnke. Published by GMT Games.

Why It Could Win: Let’s face it, I am currently exploring the world of Wargames and absolutely loving it thus far. This game wasn’t even one I knew existed until last month when my friend showed me his copy, but it completely impressed me with my first play of the game this month. There is plenty of replayability with the various scenarios, and it provides a really fascinating approach of placing a fairly strong focus on portraying military operations and trying to plan ahead, and coordinate effectively, how to best utilize your various lords upon the map.

Why It Could Lose: What we played was essentially a 2-round sample game scenario. It might be that a longer scenario makes the game turn into a chaotic slog of an affair that is more a battle of attrition than an exercise in fun and enjoyment. There’s a lot going on here, and it could be really easy to overlook something that makes the game less enjoyable, especially since I’m newer to wargames in general. Plus, this one isn’t as likely to be a game my wife would enjoy, limiting its audience appeal.

3. Pax Pamir (Second Edition) by Cole Wehrle. Published by Wehrlegig Games

Why It Could Win: The shifting river of cards is wonderful, and opens up a ton of replay value and a need to constantly analyze the board and everyone’s position in relation to what is coming available. The ability to shift alliances with factions is fascinating, there are multiple paths to victory, and this has a strong blend of area control with engine building and is done in a way that is different from anything else I’ve ever played.

Why It Could Lose: My experience with this was with three others, all of us playing for the first time, and I was able to subtly position myself for an early victory via points – something that probably would not have been possible with experienced players. The shifting of alliances and openness for backstabbing might not play out as strongly with 1-2 players as it was with more, changing the overall experience to something more lukewarm.

4. Pipeline by Ryan Courtney. Published by Capstone Games

Why It Could Win: Part worker placement, part spatial building, part economic engine. That is a satisfying mix of things which provides a strong experience on the table and layers to consider as you attempt to maneuver yourself into the arena of not just making enough to purchase what you need for the next round, but to round that corner to where you are turning a profit every round. The development of technologies to strengthen some of what you can accomplish opens up avenues to try different strategies from play-to-play.

Why It Could Lose: The cycle of buying oil to produce more oil to sell in order to buy more oil to produce and sell could become quite repetitive in the same way that many Rosenbergs can boil down to trying to successfully feed & heat your people round after round. Much of the game is played in “isolation”, to where what I do doesn’t really affect anything you will do unless I take the pipes you wanted first, or take (or close off) the technology you wanted.

5. Res Arcana by Tom Lehmann. Published by Sand Castle Games

Why It Could Win: As a Race for the Galaxy fan, I took notice when others called this Mr. Lehmann’s best engine building game. And honestly, I have to agree. This one is such a tight, interesting little game that plays quickly, and having a set deck of 8 cards to build your engine from is really, really fascinating. This game plays really well across the player counts, too.

Why It Could Lose: Drafting is almost essential to help players at least feel like they were responsible if their engine is bad, because it is very possible to have your engine crawl if you don’t get cards with enough resource generation. The threat of dragons can make a single game go really sour for some players, especially when playing with someone who gleefully exploits using the attacks every round.

6. Skulk Hollow by Eduardo Baraf, Seth Johnson, and Keith Matejka. Published by Pencil First Games

Why It Could Win: A very asymmetric 2-player game that offers tight gameplay. It is really fun to be the woodland animals, climbing up the massive monsters to deal them damage – and it is also enjoyable to be the massive, unstoppable Guardian who holds great power. There are four very different Guardians to control, providing replay value and forcing a shift in strategy based upon which Guardian is in play.

Why It Could Lose: One side is far more interesting to play than the other, and not just because it is massive stone monsters. There is strong variety across the 4 different Guardians, each having their own unique decks and unique powers. The Foxen Heroes, on the other hand, have the same exact deck regardless of which Leader is in play and, therefore, can be the “boring” side to have to use.

7. Watergate by Matthias Cramer. Published by Capstone Games

Why It Could Win: Incredibly tense push-and-pull affair driven by a hand of cards each round which can be used in a variety of ways. Simple objectives to accomplish that are more difficult to score than it may appear on the surface. Both sides feel viable in their attempts to score a victory, and each has very different ways of winning the game.

Why It Could Lose: Let’s be honest, some people are going to pass on this based solely on the theme and a lack of interest in it. That’s something that isn’t the gameplay’s fault, but it’ll make it a harder “sell” to someone like my wife. A small deck and small board might limit the scope of replay value on the game, as emergent strategies might shine through on each side such as holding off on the Nixon’s Gambit card until late in the game to steal an instant victory.

***

There you have it, the SEVEN finalists for 2019 Game of the Year. I’m actually quite happy with the list here, which is why it had to stay at seven. Any fewer would have potentially led to an oversight in the coming weeks as I try to revisit them all at least 1-2 times at 2 players to get a better handle on which one is the frontrunner. I’ll likely also announce the runner-up. Just know that ALL of these are excellent titles, and I definitely recommend them all. Don’t be surprised this June to see them all when I count down my updated Top 100, either…

Now to start working on a fancy award graphic…I’m terrible at graphic design.

Uncategorized

Insights and Impressions from my First Plays of Vikings: Scourge of the North

Another session report here in the format moreso of lessons learned from my first play than a blow-by-blow of the action. All in all, I think this approach provides more helpful insight than simply recanting what happened during the game, and it sure is a lot of fun to write. I am slowly catching up as well, entering into the March plays while still in March! Unfortunately, there are still 4 more to go after this one in order to get fully up-to-date with these session reports thanks to an excitement to try new games rather than replay the ones we already knew!

This time I’m taking a look at a smaller game from Decision Games, but don’t let the size of the package sell you short on it. There is still plenty contained inside this little folio! I’ve actually played two games of this, but the first ended so quickly that I reset it all and tried again with much better results thanks to friendlier placement of quest tiles and learning from a few of the things that became apparent as I had my first fast failure.

Insight #1: The clock is ticking faster than you would expect

Oh boy, this game is definitely a SHORT game in terms of the time you have to accomplish tasks. Your Voyage deck is variable, depending on the Saga Card you are playing. Mine had a 9 on there, which sounded like a lot. Except you realize that every turn one of those comes out and movement can be slow enough to get where you need to the point where 2-3 of those can vanish before you even get to do something meaningful. Movement by land can only go 1 space, and movement by sea can be from 1-3 spaces depending on your luck of the roll. Which makes choosing the right Homeland to launch from is really important, and having a key group of troops wipe can completely cost you the game if they had to travel far to reach an important area. Add into the mix that some of those Voyage cards can cause you to LOSE cards from that deck, you might see your game shortened by several turns unexpectedly as well. There is little room here for trial-and-error.

Insight #2: There is a high luck factor involved in the game

Darn near everything in this game involves luck. You randomly choose your starting Jarl. You randomly draw from a random number of Voyage cards, which may or may not have really bad things happen to you. You randomly roll to determine how far you can move that turn via sea – ranging from 1-3 spaces – and then randomly roll to see if you lost anyone during said sea voyage (and the further you went, the higher the risk of losing someone). You randomly place the Quest tiles, face-down, on the map at the start of each game and their locations are randomly determined by rolling and referencing a chart. You roll to determine how many enemies you face. You randomly roll a d6 during battle, and the opposing force does the same. You must potentially survive a second battle if you are attempting to claim a quest on your turn, too. Bottom line here is that if you dislike randomness in your game, this game will give you heartburn because it is relatively random-heavy. Given the playtime of the game (30-45 minutes) it isn’t a major issue but I was a little disappointed as to just how much random luck plays a factor (especially looking at you, die roll to move via the sea…in two plays I got to move more than one space only one time, and it cost me a crew member…)

Insight #3: The game is about minimizing risk while maximizing reward potential

It should seem obvious from the above two insights, but I’m spelling it out plainly here because I need that connection made myself. You don’t have time to waste on high-risk situations unless you are pressed for time/resources. You also want to be very aware of how long something might take – my first game I planned to cut across the land map toward the quests rather than sail around and, ultimately, I had to abandon that when I realized how many days it would take to get there. My second game nearly was lost when I took a small team (a Jarl and a ship) to knock out a quick quest/pillage combo nearby and then sail to settle a nearby location. Well, sure enough, I lost that ship during combat and so I had a stranded Jarl who couldn’t leave his location because he couldn’t pillage to get money to buy another ship – nor was there a place to bring that ship into play with him – or a route further inland to walk where he needed to go. I had to use another troop to get the needed gold to get a ship out there to pick him up, making the game a last-turn victory when I could have finished with several to spare. Choosing your targets carefully, planning out the most effective way to get there, and then making sure you have a sufficient force to get there AND do everything you need is important. And always, always look at the connections around said destinations to see if, worst case, you’ll be able to march somewhere else. I didn’t, and it nearly cost me the game.

Insight #4: Money is tight. Extremely tight.

It should come as little surprise, but money is really tight in this game. For instance, I started with 10 Gold from the Saga card and that feels like it should be a lot. Except each ship costs 3, and even the weakest land unit costs 2 gold. Pillaging as an action gains you 2 gold back, which means every 1.5 pillages gets you a ship, which are essential to leaving your homeland and for the fastest route to most places on the map. There’s a forced march action to move extra on land, but that costs 1 gold per unit to go an extra (i.e. a 2nd) space during your turn. Oh, and settlements also cost you 2 gold to make. So that 10 gold, or whatever the starting sum you obtain, happens to be, it will vanish quickly. The grand ideas of getting Berserker units vanish quickly. I’ve previously made 2 fleets of troops, holding one in reserve to either take a different route to a separate target, or to deploy should the first one suffer a terrible fate. However, I’m not completely convinced that it might be best to just get some stronger units in one group (max. Counter limit is 4, so with a Jarl and a ship that leaves just 2 more hires) or to have those for forced marching or settling. I’ve never hit a point where I felt like I had enough gold to do well, but I’ve had plenty of times where what I can do is limited by what gold I did have in my supply.

Insight #5: Battles provide plenty of room for meaningful decisions.

Okay, so you can’t control how the dice will roll in the game. Fact of life. But you can control a few things going into the battle. The order in which you “deploy” your guys onto a battle makes a difference, because the enemy force will go down the line in order of attacks, meaning you don’t want your game-ending Jarl at the front line leading the charge, even if he has decent odds to hit, because he might get one-shot after your first attack an it becomes game over. Furthermore, when you get to attack you choose which enemy unit you want to attack and can tactically go after a unit who hasn’t attacked yet, or after the one with the best odds of hitting your troops. Because the combat is simple, based on the attack value of the attacking unit and whether or not the roll is equal to or less than their value, it becomes easy to parse what unit poses the biggest threat…but also makes it so all units are equally vulnerable in battle (except the wonderful Berserkers, who get a nice ability to ignore the first hit during the first round of a battle).

Wrap-Up

This is a lovely little game in a compact package. It is higher on the random factor than what I would prefer, but there are enough meaningful decisions, and tough ones at that, to make me want to get this one back on the table soon and try to do better. Because it plays so quickly, now that I have a firm grasp on the rules, it is something I can easily pull out and play a few times in an evening. Shoot, I could probably squeeze in all four consecutive plays of the campaign (assuming I win each time) in a single evening if I was ambitious enough. That makes this a great entry point into solitaire-designed wargaming, as well as something I can play when I need something I can definitely finish in one sitting. Look for a review on this one sooner than later, as it won’t take long to get this played a few more times now that this session report has gone live! I definitely have thoughts on this game beyond these insights, and I look forward to sharing those soon.

First Impressions · Two-Player Only · Wargame Garrison

What I Learned in my First Failure at Meltwater: A Game of Tactical Starvation

Since my friend added yet another game to our growing list of games needing a session report after the first play, it became apparent that I needed to hammer out another one quickly. This time the focus is on Meltwater: A Game of Tactical Starvation from the delightful Hollandspiele Games. Wow, this is a game that came out of nowhere for me, as I hadn’t even known of its existence until my friend told me about it. He kept trying to lure me with the name which, admittedly, is pretty fantastic. And tactical is definitely the name to suit the game, as there is a lot of short-term planning pivoting going on in this one.

After plays of games like 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis and Twilight Struggle, we were ready for the standard factions of U.S. vs U.S.S.R., and per the “norm” my friend randomly was given the Russians. After his crushing victory in Twlight Struggle, it seemed like it would be time for him to ride that momentum to another victory. The first 1/2 game we played we missed a critical trait regarding the Dead hexes and how all adjacent hexes become Dirty – it explicitly states that when talking about the Attack action, but not when discussing the Doomsday Phase. However, back in the Overview it does mention that every adjacent hex to a Dead hex is Dirty, so we missed it. Still, I think an addendum in future printings would only benefit. After that missed rule was discovered, we reset and started over for real.

And, well, I learned a few insights from that play.

Insight #1: If you fail to plan, you can plan on failing

The game might be tactical in nature, but you can still plan for the long-term. I did some really good things early in the game that I think were a strong benefit, but the real turning point came when I had too many people isolated and, ultimately, they got consumed by the overrun of Dead and Dirty hexes filling the board. I stopped having answers for anything the board, or my opponent, were doing and became completely reactionary in my efforts to stay alive longer. It is no surprise, therefore, that the game ended poorly for me even if it was “closer” than it probably should have been. You have plenty of open information in this game, and can see how the board will change at the end of your turn AND at the end of your opponent’s turn. Use that to your advantage for the entire game, not just the first 50%.

Insight #2: No Man is an Island, so Don’t Treat them as Such

This ties in strongly with the above point, but is a bit more specific. You see, the U.S. player has the distinct advantage of having 2 civilians start the game on the far western corner of the map, 3 hexes away from the nearest Neutral civilian and 4 away from the nearest Friendly and Unfriendly units. This seemed like a strong advantage at first, as they were safe from anything my opponent could do. And then the map started shrinking fast, and it became clear that they were going to get pinned in and, eventually, wiped off the map without doing anything useful ever. Far too late, I started trying to move them across the map. One of them made it, but at a high cost because during those 2-3 turns spent trying to move all of those guys out (by that point in time we had Pressganged a Neutral into our side, making it so I was trying to move 3 units and failing spectacularly) and across the map, my opponent was positioning himself for a victory by upgrading to Soldiers, killing off my guys while shrinking the map in his favor, and taking my Stockpiles. I should have cut my losses sooner, yes, but I also could have been slowly moving them across much sooner to get a stronger numbers advantage.

Insight #3: Don’t Underestimate the Usefulness of Militarize

It seemed like a complete waste. Spend all four of your actions to do ONE thing, upgrading 1-2 units to Soldiers. Except it became clear, far too late, that the Soliders are the key in the late game to controlling the board in your favor. Shoot, even early on they are useful. They make Threaten easier to accomplish, block your opponent’s attempts to Threaten, and do the same on Pressgang. We used them far too quickly for Attack, which is probably why I undervalued them since they were quickly removed so the cost of a turn to lose them again in a single action felt ridiculous. Little did I know, they would be really, really useful in the late game – even if for nothing more than being able to move through Dead hexes.

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Insight #4: Be a Bully and Push People Around

Normally I wouldn’t advocate something like this, as I personally suffered from bullying most of my school years. However, the imagery is suited for this one with the use of the Threaten action. There are a lot of things you can do in Meltwater to change the position of things, but one of the most important things you can do is to be vicious in Threatening your opponent – or neutral – civilians. Not to your advantage, but rather to your opponent’s disadvantage. Especially as hexes get Dirty, start trying to overcrowd an area and fill in the hexes around it with your own units – or empty them of units. Because, as you will notice, the units cannot Flee OR Defect into an empty hex in the Starvation phase. Which means that if there is nowhere to go, units start to die. The faster you can begin to deplete their numbers, the better it will go for you because then they NEED to make Soldiers to Threaten or Pressgang, or to cluster into small areas to have large enough stacks to use those actions.

Insight #5: Wage War Over Those Stockpiles

This game is all about numbers. You will be counting time and again how many units can be supported on a hex, to make sure you don’t need to send anyone packing (or worse, your opponent chooses where to send your guy packing). Which means those Stockpiles, which you both begin with two of, are essential to control. Wresting control from your opponent is a key to putting them at a disadvantage. Unfortunately, I waged war on them far too early, when the map was still relatively open. So while there was a good time where I held 3-4 of them, my opponent could survive because there were places to spread out. Later in the game, when I was struggling with Insight #2’s problem, he reclaimed some of these and took some of mine away, putting me in a critical bind to compound my other growing list of problems. If you take it, make sure you can keep it, and redouble the efforts later in the game as that map shrinks.

Insight #6: Expand early and often

This might sound like an interesting thing, but there are two key reasons for this. First, the Doomsday spreading of Dead hexes ignores any hex with a unit on it (until it no longer can), going instead to the nearest Dirty hex that isn’t occupied. So if you have a lot of space you control, you are maintaining a lot of areas that might become Dirty, but will remain free from becoming Dead. Second, during the Starvation phase a unit cannot move out of a hex into an empty hex. I know, it sounds crazy that they can’t go where they could live, even if it is there, but that’s the way it goes. This is Antarctica, after all, and an isolated civilian fleeing to an isolated location would be as likely to starve or die of hyopthermia, or something equally cheery. So the more hexes you occupy, the more places you can shift into when needed – especially if you control those Stockpiles along important areas.

Wrap-Up

What a cheery game, right? I thoroughly enjoyed the first full play we had of the game, and it cemented Hollandspiele as a publisher I need to play more often. Since then I’ve pulled back out my copy of Charlemagne, Master of Europe (review on that coming hopefully sometime this month!) and might have placed an order for The Great Heathen Army. Not all of their games are for me – anything needing 3+ is likely a hard pass – but I will be expanding my adventures into their lineup. And eventually I’ll coerce my friend into playing his copy of this one 4 more times so I can get a full review in of Meltwater: A Game of Tactical Starvation in as well. Because who knew it could be so much fun forcing your opponent to die of starvation until you have the last man or woman standing on the map?