Review for Two

Review for Two – Empyreal: Spells & Steam

Thank you for checking review #125 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.

An overview of Empyreal: Spells & Steam

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Empyreal: Spells & Steam is a board game designed by Trey Chambers that is published by Level 99 Games. The box state it plays 2-6 players and has a playtime of 30-75 minutes.

The industrial age has come at last to the World of Indines! Use your ingenuity and the skill of your team of technomancers to cross the continent of Indines while connecting towns and building a vibrant trade network. Research new spells as you carve a path through the many treacherous terrains of the continent, using your company’s unique advantages to outbuild the competition and secure supply lines for rare resources.

In Empyreal: Spells & Steam, technomancers use mana to build rails, and the amount of mana crystals required to cast a spell varies by terrain and by the potency of the spell. Mana crystals must recharge after being used, so your choice of when and where to use each spell will be critical to determining the efficiency of your construction engine.

The towns you choose to connect to your network will provide critical resources, and the value of these resources changes over time. Some become more valuable as they become more connected, while others become less valuable as their abundance increases. Thus, you need to be wary of what your competitors are building into their trade networks and adapt your strategies accordingly to maximize the value of your stock portfolio.

Reaching new cities first gives you additional benefits, and being the first to bridge the continent provides you with a sizable commission from your backers. However, those who build first are more at the mercy of changing markets. Time your construction projects to maximize your profits and the flow of mana.

—description from the publisher

My Thoughts

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 This box and its contents simply scream intentional design. What I mean here is that this game provides a comprehensive package. The components are all great in quality, even with just the retail version of the game. Even more than that, though, is that the game comes with storage items for everything that are both functional for packing the game away and keeping things accessible during the game. A lot of time and effort went into making this game, and it shows from the time you first open up that box.

 Gameplay is extremely simple (and the rules are done rather well!). You either move your conductor pawn and activate train cars at the space it stops, or you Administrate to replenish your supplies and expand your train car choices. Easy. Simple. Most of what you are doing involves placing trains on the map, typically adjacent to trains you already have on the map and going onto the terrain type pictured on the train car being used. There are exceptions, of course, and those are the trickier parts to get the hang of, but by and large this game can be taught in a matter of minutes, dealing with what train cars and specialists do as they are revealed.

 Speaking of which, let’s talk about the elephant in the room for the game: iconography. Sometimes iconography works well and a game is intuitive in how it flows once you understand what you see. Other times you need to have a reference guide at hand at all times in the game to understand what you are looking at. I’ve played games on both ends of the spectrum, and Empyreal: Spells & Steam falls more on the intuitive side. Yes, there are specialists that I still need to look up, but that is one time per game, at the time when considering which to take, and after that I don’t need to look back to remember what they do. The train cars? During the second play I was only looking up a select few to ensure what I thought it “said” was accurate and, in all but one case, I was correct. Some folks have made a big deal over the lack of text on the components, but I have found it to be something more helpful than harmful as the icons can be parsed quickly to see what something does, rather than needing to read text spelling it all out.

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 The game felt like it was sort of on rails during the first play. It felt limiting and restricted to a sheer race of laying down a pattern to connect the most hexes of a color to a specific city for delivery. But as the game hit the table more, I started to see more “advanced” concepts shining through, such as the Transfers, which open up the map faster. After all, your trains don’t need to be connected to be considered “connected”. It’s magic, right? Suddenly the map became more aggressive as you wanted to close in on an opponent, not just to have a chance to steal their goods but to be able to efficiently leapfrog their train and cut down on the number of cars you need to place to reach a specific location. Dropping Wasteland onto the map to clear out goods became a viable strategy. Taking train cars that provided free transfers suddenly felt as powerful, or moreso, than something that might offer a variety of terrain type placements. That isn’t even considering specialists.

 And those specialists are the stars of the show. They are the toppings for the ice cream that makes it feel like you are doing more than just eating vanilla ice cream. They add asymmetry for the players and allow you to break the ordinary rules in ways big and small – depending on the specialist type. Some help you get your own engine running faster or more efficiently, while others might help you to slow down an opponents’ plans. This asymmetry is the heart of Empyreal, and is what sets it apart from the other train-based games in the genre. Not only is it the distinguishing trademark, but it also helps open the door for…

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Near infinite replay value. This is something that seems like a strong point for both the designer and the publisher in question, meaning their pairing is always going to produce something that plays out differently every time it hits the table. With each company having a different player board of train cars, including a special train car on each of them, plus various conductors to mix-and-match would be enough. Shoot, the varied train car abilities would be enough by itself. Then you add in the specialists, with three types and taking one of each type over the course of the game. And the slightly-modular map layout. There is room for small variants, such as having mixed Demand Tiles on the cities or having players be able to draft specialists. All of these combine to provide a very different experience every single time you play the game.

 One of the worst things you can make a player do is to have to turn back to the rulebook mid-game. This is the one aspect where I wish they had included a separate printout for the various items with iconography. Don’t get me wrong, everything is clear as can be in the book. But having a single sheet with the train cars, and then one for each of the three specialist types, would make the process of cross-checking or verifying abilities a little easier.

 Call me crazy, but I almost wish the tiles for the map were smaller, so you could mix-and-match for a greater terrain variety from play-to-play. Yes, sometimes it might mean there is a cluster of 4 Forest areas together relatively close to the Green Town, but that would just mean you need to decide whether or not to try and focus there to be first to deliver that, or perhaps to spoil the opponents’ plans and deliver using 2 of those even faster, or ignore it completely and set up your own engine. I get that the map tiles are probably mostly balanced with the size, but I do wonder how it might change things with smaller tiles…

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 The solo mode is forced inside the expansion. And honestly, having played it via a friend’s copy of the expansion, there is no need for it to be an exclusive piece of the game that costs $40-50 more to obtain. Huge miss for the solo gaming market here, as it is already a costly game. To have to increase that cost by another 50% roughly to play it solo is going to keep others away from what is definitely a fun solitaire experience.

Final Thoughts

This game has been one of the most anticipated games to be released, with it making my list back in 2018 of games I was excited for. I’m an outspoken fan of Level 99 Games as a company, and equally a fan of Trey Chambers as a designer. Everything about Empyreal: Spells & Steam sounded like it would place it squarely within my wheelhouse and, better yet, be one only a few games from Level 99 Games that my wife might be willing to play. It took a long time for this one to deliver its goods, but it finally arrived and we’ve been able to get in some plays of the game (and I’ve even dabbled with the solo mode that comes in the expansion and, well, at some point I’ll be reviewing the expansion and covering that in greater detail but let’s just say I enjoy this one solo as well).

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And this game isn’t what I expected. Not in a bad way, mind you. But when you hear “train game” you either think of Ticket to Ride, or you think of 18XX. I was expecting something about in the middle of those two, but truth be told it is more akin to a fantasy flavor of Age of Steam, a game I played for the first time only weeks before my first plays of Empyreal. And I can’t help but see a lot of great things in both of those games: they support a wide range of player counts, they have built-in variability (AoS with maps, Empyreal with combinations of abilities, train cars, etc.), they involve building routes to deliver goods on the map to locations seeking those goods. And, truth be told, I think both could easily co-exist in my collection. AoS would likely appeal more to my wife and her desire for pick-up-and-deliver games of a moderate weight. Empyreal appeals to me with its asymmetric play and special powers. Neither one is inherently worse, they are just different. Kind of like how I enjoy both brats and hot dogs – one doesn’t replace the other, and there will be times I might want one over the other.

And for me, that game will be Empyreal. It is completely my jam when it comes to games, all fanboy considerations aside. The components, which is nothing more than sheer chrome to me, are absolutely delightful and look wonderful. I have the retail edition and don’t feel like I’m missing anything by not having the Deluxe Upgrade – much like I’m fine playing games with the cardboard money tokens instead of paying extra for metal coins. Empyreal has proven to be a game that opens up with repeated plays, possessing a multitude of strategies to pursue that you only grasp after a few plays and realize the benefit that something like a Wasteland Transfer can provide even at its “high” cost. The game can be as cutthroat or as friendly as you want it to be, especially as certain specialists or train cars enter in the mix. Especially at two players, where there is enough room to kind of spread out in some of the map, although eventually you’re likely to fight over resource tokens on the map.

If you’ve always wanted a game with something a little more than the random route-fulfillment of Ticket to Ride but aren’t entranced with the economic ideas contained within many of the other train games, this might be one to check out. It is a pure route builder, with your routes being represented by trains placed on the map, that is focused on delivering goods in certain quantities to cities demanding said goods. Because it has a strong, narrow focus with relatively fast turns, the gameplay is quick to flow and the player engines (pun intended) accelerate tremendously as the game chugs along. This makes it an easy game to teach, and a relatively fast game to play. I think we clock in at under an hour with two, and with more plays this will probably drop down to around the 20 minutes per player mark for the two of us. It feels like a game I can teach to almost anyone – some won’t be enamoured with the game, but I do believe that most will find enjoyment in the game with its smooth, solid gameplay and player-friendly play time.

This game is one I plan to keep in my collection for a long, long time. It has a very tall box, making it stand out on the shelf, but I forgive that because of the high quality of the storage system that comes with the game. It is nice having a game that can play as few as one (with expansion) and as many as six (with just the base game) or eight (with the two extra factions from the expansion) and isn’t a heavy, or light, game to teach and play. It isn’t often that I find a 2020 release so soon in the year that I fall in love with, but Empyreal: Spells & Steam delivered on everything I hoped it could be. Trey Chambers and the Level 99 Games team did it again here, and even if you haven’t loved any of their other games this one is worth checking out. If my wife can enjoy one of their games, so can you!

Review for Two · Two-Player Only

Review for Two: The Rose King

Thank you for checking review #124 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: The publisher provided a copy of the game in exchange for an honest review. All opinions remain my own.

An overview of The Rose King

The Rose King is a board game designed by Dirk Henn that is published by KOSMOS. The box state it plays 2 players and has a playtime of 30 minutes.

The battle between farmers and ranchers is fairly abstract. A single pawn travels on a square grid. Each player has a hand of cards face up. These each have a direction and a distance. The player can either draw a card and add it to his hand, or play a card. If he plays a card, then the pawn moves the appropriate distance to an empty square, and the player places one of his markers. Each player also has judge symbols that can each be used only once. The judge lets you move onto a previously placed opposition marker and reverse it. Players score points for each contiguous region equal to the square of the number of markers. If a player is not careful, such a move may be forced, as there is a maximum number of cards that a player may hold.

Contains rules for playing with 4 (in two partnerships of two players).

Later republished 1999 as Rosenkönig by Kosmos, as part of the two-player game series. The republication also included a re-theming of the game. The setting changed from Texas to England, and the factions changed from farmers and ranchers to the factions of the Plantagenet family from the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485) – the Lancaster (red rose) and the York (white rose) factions in a similarly abstracted fashion.

Rosenkönig is part of the Kosmos two-player series.

My Thoughts

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 The Rose King is like so many of the other titles in the Kosmos 2-Player line: it has a fast setup time, good 30-ish minute play time, and an easy teardown of the components. This might actually be the fastest of them all that I’ve played, with almost no setup time involved. The rules are simple and straightforward, with scoring being the one area that could trip new players up until they see an area scored. My suggestion: the first time the deck runs out, walk through how a few of the areas would score if the game ended at that point, so they can see just how much more valuable a 5th piece is than the 4th in an area, etc. Thanks to the handy table on the back of the rules, multiplying your areas becomes a breeze and simply requires a fair amount of addition.

 Gameplay here is extremely simple, as you are either 1) playing a card to move the crown to an open space, putting one of your tokens in that new space, 2) drawing a card if you have fewer than 5 cards, 3) playing a card with your special knight card to move the crown to a space your opponent occupies, flipping their piece to your side, or 4) passing. The board itself tells you the orientation of your card and the card tells you the number of spaces and direction in which you can move the crown. It is really easy and intuitive to see what you can do, and to execute each turn. And with a limit of 5 cards, even the room for AP-prone thinkers is small enough to prevent the game from bogging down.

 It is an interesting design decision to have the cards align based on the printed Crown at the top of the board. Which means your cards are oriented so the crown is in the same direction, so if the crown is facing you your cards will be “upside down”. My guess is that this was to ensure the proper distribution of moves in each direction, etc. and it is one of the more interesting aspects of the game. I also like how you are moving a crown piece around the board, which is where you are moving from with your cards.

 Each side begins with four Knight cards, which are essentially all one-time-use for a very powerful move. It allows you to move to a space occupied by an opponent, flipping their piece to your side in the process. It gets played together with a movement card, so you need to have the “right card” for movement in order to make these plays, and using these can be absolutely vital. Especially if you end up having 2-3 of them remaining when your opponent has already burned through theirs. This is the one direct way you can counter what they’ve placed, and is a great way to turn a “block” into your advantage.

 You don’t draw a new card as you play a card, which I both like and dislike. It forces you to consider when to play a card and when to forego the action to replenish your hand a little, opening up future options. Sometimes the position of the crown might dictate playing a card or two more than you expected, and other times it might force you into drawing since you have no plays. It isn’t a negative of the game, but it can lead to moments where you draw unplayable cards and can only watch, helpless, while your opponent plays card after card and then draws the card you could have finally used. The fact that you’re likely to have at least one of those action-droughts during every game means this is a very real hurdle you’ll have to overcome, and how well you can overcome it is completely dictated by the cards you draw and the cards your opponent draws.

 Not a negative per say, but a pad of paper and a small golf pencil easily could fit in the box at minimal cost (I suspect) and would be a useful tool for scoring the game. Even a blank pad of paper would suffice here, and even leaving out the writing utensil could be forgiven if it had said paper to track the score. As it stands, we usually both have our phones out to the calculator app to punch in the bundles of numbers. But paper would help make sure we don’t suffer from fat-finger syndrome or miss scoring an area.

 When things go bad, they can go really bad in The Rose King. Your moves are dictated by the cards you draw and the position of the crown on the board. Nothing can be more frustrating than spending a chunk of the game forced into suboptimal moves based on the card draw while your opponent seems to get the perfect card every time they draw, expanding their swelling mass of a territory while you are stuck building random croppings of 2-3 markers. An abstract game like this should have a little less luck involved, which might be a sign of the game’s age.

Final Thoughts

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The Rose King was one of those games I was interested in but didn’t have high expectations for, as it was an older title and much of its reputation might have been built before modern “replacements” arrived that were better. And sure, it isn’t the best abstract game I’ve ever played, nor the best 2-player game I’ve played by a longshot. However, this game was a delight to get to the table at the tail end of 2019 and again in 2020 for this review. It even surprised me by winning over my wife, whom I expected would be absolutely uninterested in the abstract nature of the game. Her enjoyment of The Rose King convinced me of two things: 1) she might just enjoy other abstracts like Santorini or Tash-Kalar, and 2) we can’t go wrong with exploring even more of the Kosmos 2-player line of games.

When it fires on all cylinders, The Rose King offers a host of interesting decisions about where to move for placement of your pieces. There can be ample room to strategic planning and tactical maneuvering. There is something satisfying about connecting two growing masses of your tokens into one unified, higher-scoring cluster – a feeling only surpassed when that is accomplished by flipping your opponent’s piece to make it happen. Moments like that are what make The Rose King a memorable and fun experience when it hits the table.

Unfortunately, there are ample limitations that can prevent those power moves from ever happening. The movement is completely restricted by the cards you draw, and a hand limit of 5 cards means it is possible that you can get into a situation where you are unable to make a play and helplessly watch your opponent drop down pieces unchecked until you have a valid move again. Most of our games ended with the pieces running out, but we have seen it position to where neither player had a valid move within their combined 10 cards which brought the game to an early conclusion. Added to that is the fact that you need to spend an action to draw a card and you might be forced to watch your opponent get to chain 2-3 plays together while you are trying to find a playable card to interrupt their flow. The game is very much an ebb and flow in its current, and whomever can capitalize on those momentum moments will usually hold the slight advantage needed to win.

And yet so much is limited by the chance of drawing the cards needed. With movement ranges of 1-3 and 8 different directions possible, there is a good chance you draw card after card that is playable yet doesn’t help position you where you want to go. Sometimes your cards play better into where your opponent wants the pieces to fall than your own, making you want to toss your hands in the air out of frustration. If the game was any longer, or had any stronger random factor in here, that would probably be a deal-breaker for the game. But it is a quick game to get to the table and move on to either the next game or a rematch of this one.

Ultimately The Rose King is probably my least favorite Kosmos 2-player game that I have tried so far, but that statement is kind of misleading. After all, I wouldn’t say that any of the games I’ve played are bad, and I wouldn’t qualify this one as bad by any stretch of the imagination. I’ll never turn down a game of The Rose King, but I’ll probably grab Targi, Lord of the Rings: The Duel, or Lost Cities before this one most of the time when I want a play of a Kosmos title.

Review for One · Review for Two

Review for One and Two: Everdell

Thank you for checking review #123 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: The publisher provided a copy of the game in exchange for an honest review. All opinions remain my own.

**Second Note: I lost a LOT of photos that have been taken in the past few months. So I have only a few on here, but I will be editing in more soon!

An overview of Everdell

Everdell is a board game designed by James A. Wilson that is published by Starling Games. The box state it plays 1-4 players and has a playtime of 40-80 minutes.

Within the charming valley of Everdell, beneath the boughs of towering trees, among meandering streams and mossy hollows, a civilization of forest critters is thriving and expanding. From Everfrost to Bellsong, many a year have come and gone, but the time has come for new territories to be settled and new cities established. You will be the leader of a group of critters intent on just such a task. There are buildings to construct, lively characters to meet, events to host—you have a busy year ahead of yourself. Will the sun shine brightest on your city before the winter moon rises?

Everdell is a game of dynamic tableau building and worker placement.

On their turn a player can take one of three actions:

a) Place a Worker: Each player has a collection of Worker pieces. These are placed on the board locations, events, and on Destination cards. Workers perform various actions to further the development of a player’s tableau: gathering resources, drawing cards, and taking other special actions.

b) Play a Card: Each player is building and populating a city; a tableau of up to 15 Construction and Critter cards. There are five types of cards: Travelers, Production, Destination, Governance, and Prosperity. Cards generate resources (twigs, resin, pebbles, and berries), grant abilities, and ultimately score points. The interactions of the cards reveal numerous strategies and a near infinite variety of working cities.

c) Prepare for the next Season: Workers are returned to the players supply and new workers are added. The game is played from Winter through to the onset of the following winter, at which point the player with the city with the most points wins.

My Thoughts

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 I enjoy a good worker placement game. This one is pretty solid overall in design, with the ramp up in workers gradually across all seasons of the game. I like that there are spaces that are closed, supporting only one worker at a time, and ones that are open which can hold any number of workers. Depending on the cards, there are spaces that randomly come into play to add either 3 or 4 more action spaces (and at 4 players, each has 2 spots to place on). And certain cards, when placed into a player’s tableau, have action spaces. You go from hoping to get to do more than 2 things in the first season to having a ton of options and extra “actions” via cards later in the game and it provides a very satisfying progression.

 The other half of this game mechanics come from tableau building via cards, and here is where the real spotlight shines for me (because I’m that kind of player). You get to hold up to 15 cards which, again, at the very beginning feels impossible to accomplish since you might get 1-2 cards if you are lucky in that first season. Part of this comes from the clever design where getting the appropriate Structure into play can allow you to bring its paired Creature into play for free on a later turn. That makes it fun to seek out pairs, and to hold Structures in your hand to drop down if/when its partnered card appears in your hand or the Meadow. Perhaps more important are the effects of the cards, with a good number having an effect that triggers when played and, after the first and third seasons, will all trigger again automatically thus encouraging an early focus on those types of cards. Yet others will give you benefits any time you build a certain type of card, and some will score extra end-game points based on types of cards. Some cards open new action spaces to use, some of which can be used by your opponents at a cost. And other cards will allow you to build other cards at a discount later in the game. Very few games have a constant feeling of increasing power. Everdell nails it perfectly.

 Resources seem abundant and scarce at the same time. There are ample places to get resources, and tons of cards that will help you get more resources into your pool. Yet you will often find yourself needing to spend several actions to get what you need to play a card, or get creative with discarding a load of cards. This is great because it never feels like you can just buy any card you need, yet it also never feels like a card is completely out of reach. Even if the single printed space for pebbles is taken, there is a way around that restriction without needing to wait for them to vacate the space. The push-pull for resources is harsh very early, feels like it opens up mid-game, and then feels difficult to accomplish again in the final season as you are pushing to score as many points as possible while trying to find a way to play this card you just drew that could be worth a lot if you get it out.

 The fluid flow of the game is one I wasn’t so sure about going into the game, but I find I really like it. What happens here is that a season doesn’t end at the same time for everyone. It is an action you take on your turn to Prepare for Season, which is when you get more workers, retrieve the ones you already placed, and more. Which means that it is entirely possible to never have it line up to where you have a worker ready to claim a key 1-worker space unless you try to time your seasons around the blocking opponent, adding an extra layer of interesting intrigue into the gameplay. Not only that, it means the game might end for me far sooner than it ends for you. This was what I was concerned with, but since the turns are fast and most players end up finishing in a close timeframe, it has proven to be negligible – especially in a 2-player game. We haven’t had a game yet where it has been more than 5 minutes to wait while the other person finishes out their final plays.

 The game has a hard limit of 8 cards in your hand. This seems odd at first, and it really is unusual. The rules don’t allow you to draw that 9th card, even if you are supposed to. You can’t draw it and discard down to 8. You can’t discard ahead of time as part of that preceding action. You must already have enough room in your hand to accept all of the cards you are about to draw, otherwise you stop completely once the 8th is in your hand. While this makes it incredibly difficult to dig through the deck for more cards, there are still ways to make use of those extra cards you don’t want or need. The most obvious choice is to discard them at a 2-cards for 1-resource ratio using one of your workers. It isn’t a bad trade-off, although I never like spending said worker to accomplish this as there is always something else I need done that requires the worker. And in the final Season, there are spaces where you can discard cards for points, with the highest point spaces able to contain only one worker so first-come, first-serve.

 The offset the hard limit of cards is the presence of the Meadow. This has 8 face-up cards at all times, and anyone can freely pay to play a card from there on their turn. Also, as your second Prepare for Season action, you’ll get to take 2 of the Meadow cards into your hand (assuming you aren’t maxed out in your hand…). This Meadow of cards is great, except when you buy a card only to see the card you wanted flip up and your opponent immediately plays it (or draws it, if they hit that prepare action) leaving you hoping to draw into a much harder-to-find copy of the card deeper in the deck. No, that hasn’t ever happened to me. Why would you think that?

 The game plays fast at 1-3, and is easy to get to the table. I love it at 2, and I hope that comes through here. However, I do want to briefly touch on the solo play of the game. It is HARD. Why? Because the opponent blocks off spaces on the board, spaces on the cards, and blocks increasingly-more cards in the Meadow. That is dynamic enough. But they also gain a card at random from the Meadow (d8 roll) whenever you play a card. Those cards are worth 2-3 points per card, AND when things go wrong it’ll also help them score some of those Basic Events if you haven’t claimed it already when you do a Prepare for Season action. The AI is simple to pilot, the hallmark of a good solo system, and provides a strong challenge. You’ll hear a gripe here shortly about the solo experience, but as a whole I appreciate the game’s deliverance of a challenging opponent in a meaty experience that only takes about 45 minutes to set up and play.

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 I am not necessarily against extraneous components, but I am also a firm believer that components are merely chrome. Some of them can be more functional with improvements, but I have never been one to seek after deluxified games and pimped-out table presence. Shoot, half the time I can’t even be bothered to use a playmat with a card game or even to sleeve all my beloved cards. So take it with a grain of salt here when I say this game is unnecessarily overproduced. Not to the point where it gets a ridiculous MSRP based on what comes in the box – that I have no issue with at all. I do have the deluxe version of the game, and I don’t deny the feel of metal coins and wooden discs is good. The bits (which are the same in the retail version) are really good in quality. But that forsaken tree. Yes, it is cardboard. But it adds nothing other than a “wow” factor designed to make players ask what the game is. And I get that, kudos for those involved with finding a cost-effective 3D structure to “integrate” into the game. But my biggest issue, apart from the annoyance of everyone oohing and aahing over the tree to interrupt gameplay in public, is that it moves a pretty important piece of the game onto an elevated, flat surface to where it is not as easy to reference. Those Special Events, which you’ll see soon how much I love, become either forgotten or force players to stand to remember what on earth the cards they need to find actually are.

 Which brings us to the only real negative I have with the game: the Special Events and the impossibility of accomplishing them. I’ve played a reasonable sample size of the game with 6 plays under my belt, and I have seen exactly one fulfilled. That amounts to 1/24 achieved. The problem? The deck of cards is too thick and the likelihood of seeing the two cards you need, much less obtaining them both, is far slimmer than you would expect. At least it has been the case so far. Combine this with the limitation on drawing that I praised earlier, and you have a formula for disaster in trying to accomplish these Special Events. Also keep in mind you need to place a worker there after getting the cards, too, in order to claim the event. It is an exercise in futility that shouldn’t be a factor. And in a multiplayer game, it is fine. I have no issue in us all failing spectacularly – although if one person accomplishes a Special Event it can be a huge boost for them. The issue shifts when we get to the solo experience, where Rugwort scores all of the ones you didn’t accomplish. They might as well gift-wrap him those precious points.

Final Thoughts

Everdell had a bad first impression for me. It was a sour taste that I simply couldn’t get out of my mouth: that tree was clearly 100% visual gimmick. Even worse, it made those Special Events difficult to reference during the game because they were on an elevated plane. It was around midnight after a long day at a convention, and I grew tired of everyone stopping as they walked by to comment about the dang tree. It was not the most conducive way to play the game for the first time, and all of us were learning the game. Yet it was enough to make me interested in playing the game again, in spite of reservations about the scarcity of pebbles.

The tree remains a gimmick, and most of the time pebbles are still a commodity that is difficult to obtain in quantities high enough to buy all of the constructions you are wanting. However, my irritation overall faded into the distance as the game itself became the focal point for my attention. You go from feeling like you can do nothing in the first season of the game to having a maxed-out tableau of cards which, hopefully, have at least a few synergistic triggers that maximize your final turns of the game without needing to do as many placements of your workers. Everdell is a hybrid of a game between a classic worker placement, such as Agricola, and a tableau/engine builder, such as Race for the Galaxy. And while it isn’t as good at either of those areas as the big-hitters mentioned, the merger between the two gives Everdell something of a unique, refreshing offering as a game experience.

And that combination makes this game darn-near perfect as a fit for our personal collection, because it takes her absolute favorite mechanism (worker placement) and combines it with one of my favorites (engine/tableau building). This is a really fun game that we’ve thoroughly enjoyed and will continue to explore (I’ve even heard that the Pearlbrook expansion helps…) but it isn’t our primary go-to gaming experience. At least not yet, although I could definitely see it becoming a staple in our rotation as we dive deeper into the game.

The biggest offender comes in the form of those Special Events. You would think they shouldn’t be that difficult to achieve at least one in a game, yet I’ve seen it happen exactly once. Part of that is because of a misprinted card which, had I known at the time, I could have accomplished a Special Event but chose to toss the needed card because I didn’t know it was the needed card. Anyway, the big issue here is that the stack of cards to draw from is so freaking massive. Not even kidding. Yes, most of the cards have 2-3 copies in there that you can draw. Statistically speaking, you should see most of the 8 required cards for the Special Events during the course of gameplay regardless of the player count. But it just doesn’t play out that way, and trying to dig for a specific card isn’t entirely possible because you have a hard cap at 8 cards in your hand. Already have 8 when you need to draw a card? Tough luck, you don’t even get to draw that card. It is a clever twist, sure, but frustrating because you have to first spend an action to discard cards in order to draw cards to search for the item you need.

All in all, Everdell is a delight to play in spite of the frustration of those Special Event cards…unless you are playing the game solo. After all, in a multiplayer game you are all on the same footing if those cards never do come out for someone to lock in the combo, and even if you do get lucky enough to pull it off you have to spend one of your worker placements to claim the space. But in the solo game against Rugwort the Rat, he scores points for every one of them you do not accomplish. I suppose it is probably designed that way to give him that small boost to his score to make things competitive, but that still makes it feel bad when you finish a solo game and not a single pair appeared all game. As impossible as it sounds, my solo play didn’t even see both the Husband and Wife come out, just several Husbands and Farms. You are going through about the same amount of deck, thanks to Rugwort’s gaining a card anytime you do, and he punishes shenanigans like the Crane because he ultimately gains 2 cards while you sacrifice the Crane to gain into the 1 card. That changes the way in which you value certain actions, and creatures like the 0-point Postal Pigeon suddenly becomes a high risk-reward play.

As a while, Everdell is a game we’re going to keep in our collection for a long time. It offers a fast gameplay experience with a moderate amount of setup and teardown time, but is easily one of those games that can be pulled out on a worknight and enjoyed. Its table presence delights my toddler son, and I have a feeling one of our cats is responsible for a missing Red Squirrel meeple that I hope we’ll find in the next few months as we move into a new home (I am about 60% sure it was there when I unpacked everything and set out the colors for my wife to choose when we got around to playing it…) – if not, I guess we still have 4 playable colors and we rarely need even that many player accommodations. The game has beautiful production, exciting gameplay, and really simple rules that allow you to just dig into exploring new strategies and combinations during gameplay. That is the hallmark of a great game, and one I’m extremely glad to have in our collection.

Journey Through the CCG Graveyard · Review for Two · Uncategorized

Journey Through the CCG Graveyard #5: A Game of Thrones CCG/LCG Review

Welcome to the second review as part of my Journey Through the CCG Graveyard! My first one covered the Tomb Raider CCG, which was a surprising amount of fun in spite of the PS1-era images on the cards. It held some interest as a solo game, and felt like it would be similarly good as a multiplayer game where you could interfere better with your opponents similar to mechanics found in classic CCGs like Middle-Earth and the Lord of the Rings TCG via playing negative cards on them. But this time we’re shifting our focus onto a game known as A Game of Thrones Collectible Card Game. Fear not, if you are interested in how it compares with the later LCG implementations, I’ve got you covered because I have played it in all three formats enough to be able to speak on them all!

The Goal of the Game

Regardless of the number of players involved, the objective for the A Game of Thrones Collectable Card Game is to be the first House to obtain 15 Power. This makes thematic sense for anyone who has read the books or watched the shows, as the central theme is a struggle for power and influence across Westeros, with the Iron Throne being a centerpiece representative of that power struggle. Power is obtained in several ways: via a Power challenge in the Challenge phase, making any challenge that goes undefended, winning Dominance in a round, and on some character or location effects. Once a player reaches 15 Power, the game immediately comes to an end.

Who you are

You are not an individual person in Westeros, but rather your deck represents the locations and forces behind your particular House. Famous Houses such as the Lannisters, Targaryens, and Starks are present alongside others such as Baratheon, Greyjoy, Martell, Tyrells, and the Night’s Watch – among other smaller forces represented as either neutral factions or as allies to a particular House. Most decks will consist of cards aligned with one House and any neutral cards desired, although rules are in existence to have a splash of forces from a second House present in a deck. It is also possible for multiple players to be using the same House during the same game.

The Flow of the Game

Turns follow the same flow through the following steps, some of which are done simultaneously while others are done one player at a time, beginning with the First Player for the round.

Plot – One of the unique things in this game is the Plot deck, which is a set of 7 cards in addition to your main deck. These cards usually have some sort of round-impacting text, tell you how much Gold your House has for the turn, the Initiative value for determining the first player in the round, and the Claim value to tell you how strong your victories will be in the Challenges phase. During this phase of the game, players simultaneously choose and reveal an unplayed Plot card from their deck. This means your Plot card used now cannot be chosen again until you’ve played all 7 Plots, and many plots are restricted in number that can be included in a deck and some are tied to specific houses. Upon reveal, compare the Initiative value and the higher value gets to choose who is the first player for the round – in case of a tie, the player with the most Power chooses. After determining first player, the effects of the Plot cards will resolve beginning with the Starting Player.

Draw – The most straight-forward of the phases is the Draw phase. Both players will draw 2 cards from their deck and place those cards into their hands. Easy, right?

Marshalling – This is the point where the Gold collected is put to use. In the CCG version of the game, nothing can be held over after this phase so there is strong incentive to spend as much as you can (the LCG allows you to save some until the end of the round, when it goes back to the pool if unspent). Starting with the first player, each side will have a chance to pay to recruit Characters, add Locations, put on Attachments, etc. onto the board. There are also event cards that can be played, although not exclusively during the Marshalling phase. Any cards that have text involving the Marshalling phase would also be open to trigger here.

Challenges – The bulk of the game seems to occur during the Challenge phase of the game, and with good reason! Each player has the opportunity to initiate up to three Challenges, one of each type. The challenges are issues in player order, and each player completes all of their desired challenges one-at-a-time before the next player gets to initiate their challenges. Military Challenges, when successful, force the defending player to kill characters from their forces. Intrigue Challenges, when successful, force the defending player to discard cards at random from their hand. And Power Challenges, when successful, steal Power tokens from the defending House card. Character cards can have 0-3 of these icons, and can only participate in a Challenge of the associated type if they possess that icon. Characters participating typically Kneel as a response, making it so they cannot participate in future challenges later this round. If a Challenge of any type is not defended, the attacking player also takes a Power token from the supply and puts it onto their House card in addition to any other effect of the Challenge. The impact of a Challenge is determined by the attacking player’s Plot card, as they have a Claim value (Usually 1, sometimes higher). So if my Claim value is 2, then a successful Military Challenge makes you kill 2 characters, a successful Intrigue Challenge makes you discard 2 random cards, and a successful Power Challenge makes you lose 2 Power from your House card onto mine. A well-timed 2-claim Plot can swing the tide of a game!

Dominance – After the Challenges are completed, players compare the combined strength of their remaining Standing characters – i.e. the ones not Kneeling from being used. The higher strength value wins Dominance, which gains them a Power from the supply onto their House card. Tied? No one wins Dominance for the round.

Standing – All Kneeling characters, locations, and attachments are returned to their Standing position. Yes, it makes sense with characters…not so much with using the Kneeling/Standing terms for the other cards. I mean, how exactly does Winterfell Keep kneel down?

Taxation (LCG Only) – Any money remaining in your pool is returned to the supply. This means you can’t be frugal with your funds to save for bigger board-swinging turns later on. The reason this was added into the LCG? They made some events and card actions cost Gold to trigger, so holding back a few Gold can play even more mind games with your opponent as they try to guess what you are holding up your sleeve.

On Death and Duplicates

It is pretty standard fare for a game to make it so there are unique characters and locations and limit you to just 1 copy in play of said character at a time on your side. What this does differently is makes it so that you have a discard pile and a dead pile. Discarded cards can come back. Dead piles are essentially eliminated from the game. If Robb Stack dies, he can’t come back 2 turns later. He’s dead, meaning that all copies of that card are essentially discard fodder going forward. However, the neat saving grace (and reason you may want to run multiples of characters) is that you can, during the Marshalling phase, put a duplicate of the same character beneath the current character for free. Get 3 copies of Robb Stark into play and suddenly he sticks around a little longer, even in the face of an effect causing him to die, as you simply discard the top copy when they need to die. This is especially important if you have a character with a keyword like Reknown, which has them getting Power tokens placed on the character where they can be removed by eliminating the character.

Plots and Intrigues

As alluded to above, the Plot cards are one of the most unique things the A Game of Thrones CCG/LCG brings to the table. The deck is exactly 7 cards for each player, and one comes into play each round. The power and effectiveness of these cards vary wildly, from having cards with blank text boxes but a higher Claim, Gold, or Initiative value to having effects such as wiping out characters, searching your deck for a card type, or even making it so you cannot defend (usually because you have a higher Initiative and Claim). A well-timed Plot card can alter the course of an entire game or, as I found out, bring things to a premature end (in the 2nd Ed LCG, thanks to my wife having a character who gains Power whenever a Lord or Lady character is killed. Her plot forced me to “save” three characters in play and the others are dead. All 5 of mine were Lords or Ladies, and so my wife went from 13 to 15 Power just from that well-timed Plot which prevented me from getting the few I needed even though I had a better Initiative and a 2 Claim on my Plot…didn’t matter!). Shaping the Plot deck to have ones best to play early (usually searching for cards and/or providing high Gold), ones that are good for mid-game, and a late-game push are the keys to an effective Plot deck, I think.

A Bountiful Start

One of the other things I like about the game is how it handles the opening board. What I mean is, you get to start the game with characters and/or locations in play. Depending on the version you are playing, you get either 5 Gold (CCG/1st Ed) or 8 Gold (2nd Ed LCG, because the cards cost MORE) to deploy secretly to begin the game from your opening hand. The one limitation is that only one of the cards can have the Limited keyword on there. This allows you the chance to get out either a strong unit, a few average ones, or a bunch of smaller things to drop down a numbers advantage. Either way, you get to draw back up to your starting hand size of 7 afterwards. This is a really neat aspect of the game which, while it is only as useful as the cards in your opening hand, definitely helps you to ramp up faster than some of the other CCGs out there.

Starting Experiences

There are three different starting experiences to discuss in passing here, because I’ve done starting experiences for all three versions of the game and found one to be vastly superior to the others. Let’s begin in the order of release. For the CCG side of things, I tried out the Fire & Ice Starter set, which had a deck for the Greyjoy House and one for the Targaryen House. They are completely constructed and run surprisingly well as standalone decks. For instance, the Greyjoy deck has a Plot card to search for a Maester card and put it into play.
Having played previous LCG versions, I was expecting to find 1-2 wimpy Maesters at best, but there were either 5 or 6 of them and one turned out to be a pretty decent Round 1 addition to my forces. Like any CCG, you wouldn’t expect the deck to be tournament-competitive, but it had a surprisingly strong synergy and both decks were capable of winning.
At the price I paid for the starter (a hair over $5), this was a really strong launching point into the game. The 1st Edition Core Set is, easily, the one I am most familiar with and also most disappointed by. Years ago, before I knew really how to shop for used games or even good places to get new games, I ran across that Core Set on Craigslist for $20. And for that price, what I got wasn’t bad. The cards in there were fine, although there was a glaring absence of several Houses. The game came with Starks, Lannisters, Targaryens, and Baratheons. Four houses, out of the six that were released with the 1st Edition, meaning you needed expansions – and likely a few of them – before you could build a viable deck with those other houses. It did come with interesting variants for a 3-4 player game but ultimately the decks were underwhelming and it felt like an incomplete package. The 2nd Edition fixed that. All 8 Houses (they added 2 more) have representation in the Core Set, and you can either just splash some neutral cards in to run a thin deck or it has recommendations on how to divide things into 4 decks, each having two Houses featured. Having played those decks, they are really fun to pilot and provide a great way to get a feel for each House, even in complement with another House, to get an idea of where you might want to explore via deck construction in the future. All in all, the $40 value of the 2nd Edition Core Set (and you can probably find it cheaper now) is a great bargain because it provides everything, tokens and all, needed to play the game. If you bought nothing else, it still has a ton of replay value and fun within the box. The CCG starters are a close second, providing strong decks to start with that are going to give you a foundation to expand upon – and most starters I’ve seen tend to run in the $5-20 range depending on the starter. If it included tokens for Power and Gold, or at least the Power, it would be close to equal with the 2nd Edition – but the Starter I got didn’t have any tokens included.

The Rulebook

The rules are extremely well-laid across all editions. One of the strengths, I think, of Fantasy Flight Games is their presentation of rules in a way that allows you to get going. There are some more complex concepts and keywords, but those are put toward the end of the CCG rulebook. And it is surprisingly short in length, considering the thick rulebooks I’ve pulled out from some of the other CCGs I’ve dropped into (I’m looking at you Mythos). Although perhaps my perspective is skewed, since the CCG was like a homecoming party for me since I had played both versions of the LCG years ago. The great thing is that many of the concepts remain the same, or close, across all versions of the game. This makes it easy to transition from one version of the A Game of Thrones game to another. I think the biggest things to pay attention to are the Claim Value idea, along with the multiple Challenges that can be initiated and how those flow. Noting keywords as they come up is also important, and don’t be afraid to ask your opponent to read off what a card says when they bring it into play. Too often have I seen one of us blindly stumbling into a mistake because we didn’t stop to ask what a card does until it is too late.

Expanding beyond the Starters, CCG Edition

There are a lot of expansions for the CCG, and unfortunately it doesn’t get any smaller when looking at either version of the LCG. This is both good and bad, of course. It is good because no matter where you go there are literally thousands of unique cards you can obtain for your collection. It is bad because, well, there are thousands of unique cards to peruse and try to determine what you want, or need, for the House-specific deck you are trying to build up. This can be most frustrating for a CCG player, as you are really at the mercy of random chance. Your booster pack might contain 5 cards for your House, but it could just as easily contain none. It could have a ton of Plot cards, or none. With 17 different sets, 4 Premium Starter Sets, and many standalone starter decks there is plenty of opportunity to dive into the game. This is probably a game where it would be best to choose a cycle, such as the Fire & Ice Edition, and start by expanding into that cycle of cards (so Fire & Ice, Wildling Assault, A Throne of Blades, A Crown of Suns, and the Premium Starter) because, at least theoretically, the cards within a cycle (there are 4 of them from the looks of it) should synergize well together. Boosters for the game seem to be reasonably priced, as do boxes, and I haven’t noticed any one set in particular being more expensive than the others. Admittedly, that might be because things are also easy to lose within the sea of LCG stuff for sale…

Expanding beyond the Starters, LCG Edition

This is the area where expansion is a little more straight-forward. Fans of the 1st Edition might be able to snag some Chapter Packs for cheap along the way, while others might be overpriced due to its out of print nature. Deluxe Boxes, for either edition, are the best path forward if you want House-specific cards in a hurry because each House has a Deluxe box with them as a focal point. For roughly $60 you can snag two Deluxes and really dig in on tailoring the favored House for you and your opponent. The 2nd Edition also has Intro Decks for each House around $15, making that an even easier first stepping stone along the path to boosting the deck construction options for a specific House. A lot of folks will likely preach the need for 3 Core Sets, and I call B.S. on that. I’ve played a handful of LCGs and I’ve never once felt like I was at a disadvantage because I couldn’t run 3 copies of card X. I’d rather put that $40 toward a Deluxe and a Chapter Pack, getting new cards to build around, than get extra copies of cards I can’t use only to get an extra of some I may use occasionally. The strongest selling point, of course, for the LCG is the non-random factor. You know exactly what cards are in the package before you buy it, and you get 3 copies of every card in those packs. No chases. No need to buy multiples of a pack unless you really want to have multiple decks all using the maximum number of a specific card – but at least in that situation you know what pack to buy to obtain said cards. The LCGs release following a format of a Deluxe with 6 Chapter Packs to expand the “cycle”, and like the above CCG recommendation it is never a bad idea to start with rounding out a cycle if you aren’t seeking specific cards to build around.

Deck Construction

Typical decks run exactly 7 Plot cards, and in most cases they are limited to 1 of each card in the Plot deck, and a 60 card standard deck for their House with a maximum of 3 copies of any single card. That 60 doesn’t appear to be a hard cap, so feel free to experiment with a little more in your deck, and 40 is a soft cap (usually for drafts) but functions just fine with something such as the 2nd Edition Core Set when trying to test out a single House on its own with a little splash of Neutral cards to hit that 40 number. So long as both sides hold to the same deck size, it shouldn’t be a negative thing to play with fewer cards as you slowly build up your card pool. For the LCG, you also choose a Faction (main House) and Agenda (oftentimes a Banner, which allows use of non-loyal cards from other Houses in your deck).

My Thoughts

Okay, enough preamble here. Let’s talk about the A Game of Thrones CCG/LCG experience. First things first, I’m personally going to stick to the 2nd Edition of the LCG for my A Game of Thrones Card Game of choice going forward. There isn’t anything inherently bad about the CCG (apart from chasing of cards, like any CCG out there) but it also isn’t inexpensive enough to make it able to offset the value provided by the LCG model and its 3x of the cards in the non-randomized package. And yes, this game is very much a keeper even though it has previously left our collection. You see, this game has sharp elbows. It will have moments where you’ll feel like everything sucks and there isn’t a darn thing you can do to stand a chance of winning. An early board advantage can lead to a game spiraling quickly out of control, and many of the games played never even reach the 7th round to go through an entire Plot deck (I’d say 5-6 is around the average turn of conclusion). Having even one glaring hole in your deck (such as a lack of characters with Intrigue) can lead to a constant loss of resources while your opponent happily plucks up a free Power for your defenseless nature. And the very real possibility of drawing nothing but dead cards – literally, cards in your dead pile and thus unplayable – can make it so that your deck even limits your chance of making a comeback. All of these things can, and will, happen. A few years ago, my wife and I weren’t able to get past that brutality and still find enough enjoyment in the game; when the games flowed well and were even, we loved the game, but when it was lopsided or a devious card’s ability shifted things unexpectedly, there could be bruised feelings.

We’re in a much better place now to where that might make us frustrated briefly in the moment, but we can separate the game experience from our relationship toward each other. And we found, really quickly, that we still enjoy this game a lot. Enough that we played the CCG several times in a day’s span and, the next day, picked up the 2nd Edition Core Set back into our collection and played that later that same night. I’ve also learned that my wife is really, really good at this game – something I should have remembered. There is no going easy, she doesn’t need it. I lose at this game often, and usually lose horribly. And yet I absolutely cannot get enough of the game because of its ties to an IP we both enjoyed watching together, books I’ve enjoyed reading, characters I’ve grown attached to. It has solid mechanics that separate it from any other game we play or own: the Plot deck, three three different Challenges, the gaining of Power to win rather than a need to deplete an opponent’s health, and the free deployment at the start of the game all combine together to make this game stand out in all of the best ways possible.

There is so much tension in your decisions each game, because there are so many limiting factors that affect you. The Plot deck can only have one of each card, and once that card is used you might as well expect to not be able to play it a second time because the game isn’t likely to last long enough. You are always needing more Gold than what you have available, whether because you need a large amount to play a strong character onto the board or because you have too many 2-3 cost units you want to get out and don’t want to spend forever getting them out. In the 2nd Edition of the LCG, there are also hand size limitations to consider based on your Plot card, and the balance of holding back some Gold to play events, trigger abilities, or make your opponent believe you might just have a nasty card to play if the circumstances are right. You cannot hold onto cards for too long, as a well-timed Intrigue Challenge can make you discard that card you hoped to play on the next turn. And then there is the decision of who to use for attacks, making sure you have enough Standing forces to weather a counter-attack when it is their turn to make Challenges as well as claim Dominance.

There are so many things to consider as you play, and yet at its core the game’s turns flow easily and the mechanics stay out of the way. It is a smooth system, with a fair number of Keywords to learn but not to the point where it impedes the enjoyment of the game. You quickly learn to pay special attention to anyone with Reknown or, perhaps worse, Stealth, because they can cause the game to shift if unchecked. The game punishes you for not defending attacks by giving your opponent free Power, and clearly wants both sides to try and be aggressive since ties in combat go to the attacking player. Which means that games are rarely spent “turtling up”, as you want to try and find a way to fire off three successful Challenges rather than holding back to ward off one or two.

All of this helps the game to move forward at a pace that is almost breakneck in speed at times, because you are trying to exploit every opportunity you can to strike knowing that the gap might be closed in the next round. You get the feel of being a general directing the deployment of forces to their maximum effect, rather than some magical wizard hiding behind a line of large units and hoping not to get hit. Games like this are all about tempo, and while it is possible to slow down the tempo of the game (such as the Wildfire Assault Plot, which has each side keep only three of their characters in play), usually the next round sees at least one side rebuilding quickly to begin their furious assault anew. Even the smallest of characters can make a big impact, whether because they have an icon your opponent cannot defend or because they have a keyword like Stealth which makes them hard to defend, and it isn’t about how hard you hit. Just that you hit hard enough to win the challenge – unless you happen to be holding a nice Event that lets you claim extra Power after winning a Challege by X or more.

And the Houses feel different. Yes, there are similarities among them but in general you will find a different playstyle is favored depending on the House you are using. The Lannisters have a lot of ways to generate more income and have sneaky ways of subverting the board state and possess a lot of Intrigue icons. The Starks have very little Intrigue, but have strong units that get even more fearsome when paired with their iconic weapons or direwolves. Baratheons have a multitude of ways to gain extra Power during their turns. Targaryens have dragons, and effects that kill off characters if their strength gets reduced to 0. Even if you know nothing about A Game of Thrones, the Houses offer such vibrant, different strengths that anyone can enjoy exploring what they each have to offer.

So here I am, returning to a game that I owned and sold many years ago. I’ve grown as a person and a player, and can enjoy the game whether in victory (rare as they are) or in crushing defeat. I love the characters and mustering my beloved Starks out to overrun the board with Military challenges that keep my opponent’s board as small as possible. I enjoy the game a lot, and my wife does as well so that makes this an easy keeper and a game I cannot help but recommend strongly to anyone who isn’t afraid of a fast-paced, aggressive gameplay approach. And we’re still waiting on The Winds of Winter to be published, just like we were back when I first found this game. Come on GRRM! I don’t need the final two books to enjoy this game, but enough is enough.

Review for Two · Two-Player Only

Review for Two: Targi

Thank you for checking review #120 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: The publisher provided a copy of the game in exchange for an honest review. All opinions remain my own.

An overview of Targi

Targi is a board game designed by Andreas Steiger that is published by Kosmos Games. The box state it plays 2 players and has a playtime of 60 minutes.

Theme and overview:

Unlike in other cultures, the desert Tuareg men, known as Targi, cover their faces whereas women of the tribe do not wear veils. They run the household and they have the last word at home in the tents. Different families are divided into tribes, headed by the ‘Imascheren’ (or nobles). As leader of a Tuareg tribe, players trade goods from near (such as dates and salt) and far (like pepper), in order to obtain gold and other benefits, and enlarge their family. In each round their new offerings are made. Cards are a means to an end, in order to obtain the popular tribe cards.

Gameplay:

The board consists of a 5×5 grid: a border of 16 squares with printed action symbols and then 9 blank squares in the centre onto which cards are dealt. Meeples are placed one at a time on the spaces at the edges of the board (not including corner squares). You cannot place a meeple on a square the opponent has a meeple on already, nor on a square facing opponent’s meeple. Once all meeples are placed, players then execute the actions on the border squares the meeples are on and also take the cards from the centre that match the row and column of the border meeples.

The game is predominantly scored and won by playing tribal cards to your display. These give advantages during the game and victory points at the end. Usually cards are played (or discarded) immediately once drawn. A single card can be kept in hand but then requires a special action to play it (or to discard it to free the hand spot for another card). Each card has a cost in goods to play. Goods are obtained either from border spaces or from goods cards.

The display (for scoring) consists of 3 rows of 4 cards that are filled from left to right and cannot be moved once placed (barring some special cards). There is also a balance to be found between the victory point score on the cards themselves (1-3 VP per tribal card) and in the combinations per row (a full row of 4 identical card types gets you an additional 4 VP, and a full row of 4 distinct card types gets you 2 VP).

The winner at the end of the game is the player with the most victory points.

My Thoughts

 This game provides incredible brain burn. It won’t seem like it at first, but there is more to this game than the average game because there is a huge spatial aspect to the game. Your workers are placed along the borders, and the points where your workers “intersect” in the center of the grid of cards will give you 1-2 additional actions to execute that round. That in itself is really clever. However, the ruthlessness of being unable to place a worker across from your opponents’ workers means the grid of cards shrinks quickly. Which means your first placement isn’t necessarily on a card you want the action for, but rather to hopefully lock down the center card you are banking on this turn. But, oh no, your opponent unwittingly (maybe) just put their worker on the other card you needed to make that perfect intersection, so now you’re trying to figure out how to salvage the rest of this turn without ruining your attempt to get that card next round instead. This is the brilliance of Targi.

 The set collection aspect of the game adds a great layer of decisions into what you are choosing for actions. You are strongly incentivized to fill a row with 4 cards of the same type, as that is an extra 4 points. However, failing that you want to get a row of 4 unique card types for 2 points. Anything else is a wasted opportunity for bonus end-game points in a game that is often tight enough to where even 2 points can make all the difference. Neither of those sets are easy to collect, and there will be times when you seriously consider whether or not to take that card which will ruin said collection you are working toward, since you only have 3 rows to work with.

 There are three great spots on the outer board that are worth mentioning, because they open up flexibility and, at times, some push-your-luck. First, there is an action space which will let you move one of your central cylinders to an open central card that round, meaning it is a valuable place to go when your opponent blocks you out of a row or column you really wanted – assuming they don’t mark that very card you wanted. Second, there is a space which allows you to take the top Goods card off the deck. This is a strong risk-reward play, but it can provide a great feeling when it gives you a coin for the gamble. Last is the space which lets you take the top Tribes card and either buy it immediately, add it to your hand, or discard it. However, there are several reasons this can be risky because…

 You have a hand size of 1 for the Tribes cards. If you have one in hand, you need to use the space on the board which allows you to play or discard that hand card, otherwise you’re going to have to buy or discard any Tribes cards gained until that card is gone from your hand. And with only one space to play/discard that card, it is entirely possible your opponent may block you out from using that spot on the turn when you wanted to play the card, forcing you to pivot your entire plan. Anyone claiming worker placement games have no interaction has clearly never played Targi, because there is constant interference in this one with such a tight board and limited actions per round.

 There is a neutral piece that moves around the outside perimeter, advancing 1 space each round. This is great for two reasons: it is the timer for the game (although players CAN trigger it early), and it blocks one space from placement each round. In addition, the four corners contain Raid spaces where players immediately lose either goods or points and then the piece advances to the next space. So while there are 16 cards making up the border, it’ll really be a 12-round game at most with up to 4 penalties paid – which can be a lot less forgiving than you’d think. This game can be TIGHT.

 A “board” made of cards where the center 9 cards are constantly changing definitely creates a dynamic game experience. However, it also creates the issue of needing to remove and replace cards constantly, alternating which type of cards goes into that spot (i.e. if the card used/removed is a Goods card, a Tribes card replaces it). These cards are initially placed face-down as the actions are resolved for both players, and then flipped to end the round. Okay, fine. Except that’s a lot of placing and flipping over the course of the game, and if you have even the slightest ounce of perfectionism in your body you will get a nervous tic every time a card slides askew from the others. A small board or playmat to place the cards on might be a nice way to “deluxify” the game experience and help provide a small amount of control to the layout of cards. I learned the hard way in our first play, when I had the cards tight together. Ever since there has been a nice cushioned gap in every direction.

Final Thoughts

Targi is one of those games I always hoped to try because it was a 2-player worker placement game – something I know is up my wife’s alley for gaming. I expected a game that was extremely overhyped, because I’ve heard numerous times just how excellent Targi is as a game. No game, especially one so small in size, could be that good, right? Let’s just get this out of the way now: Targi doesn’t hit the expectations from word of mouth. It exceeds them. This little game is, somehow, even more impressive than I had been led to believe.

At its heart, Targi is just like most worker placement games: you put out workers each round to gain resources which you then convert into points. It adds set collection, which also isn’t that uncommon to worker placement games. It doesn’t allow you to place a worker where your opponents are, just like many other worker placement games. So what is it about Targi that sets it apart from so many other games?

This game provides incredible brain burn. It won’t seem like it at first, but there is more to this game than the average game because there is a huge spatial aspect to the game. Your workers are placed along the borders, and the cards in the center where they intersect will provide 1-2 more actions to execute for 4-5 total per round. Clever, but still not special. However, the restriction to prevent you from placing directly across from an opponent is what elevates this from small worker placement game to mind-melting puzzle. This is the brilliance of Targi. This is what sets it apart from most vanilla worker placement games, and what makes it an incredible experience that sets it up as one of the absolute best games to play with 2 players.

When I get the itch for a worker placement game (which isn’t often, since they almost always end in defeat against my genius wife), this is one of the first games that will come to mind going forward. It is quick to set up, plays in well under an hour, provides incredibly crunchy decisions, and has a fast teardown time. Even more importantly, it has a moderate table presence, meaning it isn’t a game that needs a ton of real estate to play. It probably isn’t the best coffee shop game to take along, although the small box is nice, but it does work fine on almost any sized table.

All in all, Targi is easily one of the best new-to-me games I have played this year. And I’ve played some really amazing gems, even in the 2-player only market with hits like Bushido, Skulk Hollow, and Exceed Street Fighter making it to my table this year. Don’t make me have to choose which one is best – I’ll be struggling with that come June when I refresh my Top 100 (where I expect Targi to easily place on there somewhere). If you haven’t tried Targi and you like thinky 2-player games, this is definitely one of the more unique and worthwhile titles to add to your collection.

Review for Two · Two-Player Only

Review for Two – Imhotep: The Duel

A quick note: I am collected data from folks on their top games to play with 2-players. Not necessarily 2-player only games! Essentially, send me a message with up to your Top 20 games, ranked in order, and I’ll enter them into my spreadsheet. I am collecting data on this until 12/14/2019, and shortly after that I will begin unveiling the results. Currently I have nearly 50 lists, and the more we can collect the more accurate we can represent the People’s Choice Top 100 Games for Two. You can find more details here: https://www.boardgamegeek.com/article/33412597

Thank you for checking review #119 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: The publisher provided a copy of the game in exchange for an honest review. All opinions remain my own.

An overview of Imhotep: The Duel

Imhotep: The Duel is a board game designed by Phil Walker-Harding that is published by Kosmos Games. The box state it plays 2 players and has a playtime of 30 minutes.

The competition of the builders continues in Imhotep: The Duel!

In this game, players take on the roles of Nefertiti and Akhenaten, one of Egypt’s most famous royal couples. Game pieces must be cleverly placed so that players can unload the most valuable tiles from the six boats. While this is happening, each player builds their own four monuments in order to gain as many fame points as possible.

My Thoughts

 The 3×3 grid may be reminiscent of tic-tac-toe, but it is used in such a clever way that I think 3×3 turns out to be the perfect size for what they are trying to accomplish here. Because you each have four workers, it will never be completely full. And most of the time you won’t even have all four workers out at once, since there is a constant ebb and flow of people on the board (more on that next). I like a nice, tight space where you can continuously have your best plans thwarted in clever ways by your opponent.

 The game is simple, since you can either place a worker onto a space, or unload a boat (technically the blue action tokens provide a third option, usually some enhanced version of the two core actions). And each space on the grid connects with two of the six boats out there, meaning your worker is never fully locked in on which boat they help unload – only which tile position on said boats. Unloading is restricted only by the need for at least two workers to be in that row/column for the boat – but you also don’t need any of the workers to be yours in order to trigger said unload action. So this opens up the tricky play opportunities to try and slow down, or deny, your opponent the tiles they are working hard to set themselves up to gain. Since those workers will come off the board and need to be replaced, any time you force them into the unload they don’t want to take, you are slowing them down. And if you have at least one worker out in that area, you’re gaining something in return each time. Will they likely replace the key worker on the spot they really need for their next turn? Probably. But it might open up one of the spaces you needed also, making it totally worth doing.

 The blue action tiles are the only tiles which do not go onto one of your four boards. However, they are arguably the most important tiles to target because they allow you to either break the rules (such as unloading a tile off any boat, or swapping the position of two tiles on a boat) or to take more efficient actions (such as placing two workers in one action, or unloading two different boats). Depending on when these tiles come out, they can either be used tactically to gain a strong advantage during a key sequence of turns, or they can be stockpiled for a point each at the end of the game.

 Apart from those action tiles, there are four other types of tiles that all are sought after for different scoring aspects. Not only do they differ by type, but the side of each board you use changes how they are scored. Because there are a limited number of each of these tiles, and for the most part they are open information on what a player has gained, you can get a sense of what you and your opponent really needs and plan accordingly. This allows you to not only optimize taking what you need, but also potentially taking tiles you don’t need in order to deny them to your opponent – or making sure a boat unloads to discard a tile they need.

 If you are against games with negative player interaction, this game might have enough potential take-that opportunities to sour the experience for you. Granted, every step of it is based on choices you are making, but if one player is being cutthroat in their play it can feel bad for the other player. However, that is a player choice, not the fault of the game. It allows you to be as gentle, or as ruthless, as you would like. Which means this game should cater strongly to most gaming pairs. Just know what to expect based on the player sitting across from you.

 I do wish that some of the tiles were removed at random (apart from the three placed on the dock space, which may or may not come out). Some players prefer perfect information, knowing that X number of Y tiles will come out over the course of the game and can plan accordingly with their strategy. I, on the other hand, like when at least a small amount of information is imperfect (such as in Hanamikoji) and you must carefully try to adapt your plans as things are revealed. Personal preference here, and it doesn’t stop me from absolutely loving this game when it hits the table.

Final Thoughts

Imhotep: The Duel may or may not be like its predecessor – I cannot tell you how closely the two games align with each other. However, I can speak about the experience that came from this 2-player game and, quite frankly, it is really fun. I wasn’t sold, when reading the instructions, about the 3×3 grid for worker placement and everything but it all turns out to be a fine-tuned system with far more player interaction opportunities than I would have believed. With some clever timing, you can very much interfere with an opponents’ plans before they come to fruition, setting them back a turn or two on something they were working toward. Of course, it isn’t a forced thing and you can play and enjoy this completely as a pair of carebears, but for those who like a little meanness and the ability to interfere with an opponents’ plan…this will be a pleasant surprise.

The game moves along at a quick pace. With a small supply of workers and two primary choices of actions, it is bound to be a punchy pacing for the game. Yet within the simple mechanical confines there are riches of decisions to be made. Like the aforementioned aspect where you can play mean or nice, you can also base your decisions around what your own plans are, or play based upon what you see your opponent doing and try to capitalize on their action selections. After all, any time they can select an unload action where you have at least one worker, you put yourself a little further “ahead” – which might only be the appearance of advancement, but it is still a rewarding feeling to get something from their turns.

The real star of the show comes from the multiple tile types and how they are all used in different ways along your “player board” area. With four different sets to collect, each interacting in different ways, makes this a really interesting puzzle of figuring out how to value the tiles available – and how to value what your opponent is trying to gain. And with an A side and a B side to each of the four boards, there is a really drastic change in approach on some of these when you change sides. Suddenly what you used as a strategy in the first game might be a suboptimal approach in the second game because it scores very differently now. And I absolutely love that aspect.

This game is exactly what I look for in a dedicated 2-player title: quick setup/teardown, high replay value, “thinky filler” status, and a playtime that clocks in at around 30-40 minutes which enables multiple plays in one evening if desired. Imhotep: The Duel is an excellent game when considered on its own merits. You might be intrigued because of the experiences you’ve had with regular Imhotep and, again, I cannot tell you how it compares to that (yet). But don’t hesitate to pick up this game, because it is an above-average 2-player game that will be a welcome visitor onto my table any time someone requests to play it with me.

Review for Two

Review for Two – The Bladesmith: Mint Tin Edition

Thank you for checking review #117 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: The publisher provided a prototype copy of the game in exchange for an honest review. All opinions remain my own.

An overview of The Bladesmith: Mint Tin Edition

The Bladesmith: Mint Tin Edition is a board game designed by Adam Higginbotham and Rylie Hilscher that is published by Logos Games. The tin state it plays 2-4 players and has a playtime of 10-20 minutes.

The Bladesmith Mint Tin Edition is a game that fits completely in a mint tin. It is played in 10 to 20 minutes. It is a worker placement game with Meeple rolling. You actually roll a meeple much like you would roll dice. The goal is to gain Handle and Blade cards to complete knives. There are also artisan tool cards where you can upgrade your blade to a better blade such as Damascus, Hamon, and Acid Etch. If you put your worker into the market, do you have the opportunity to trade cards with other players or even steal a handle or blade card from them.

My Thoughts

 I really dig the theme of making knives. Would I prefer swords? Of course. But this one works as a unique theme where you make handles and blades that you craft into finished products. This could have easily been a handful of other themes, which some might claim makes this a “themeless” game, but I champion their choice on this front.

 Turns in the game are often fast, keeping the pace of the game moving at a nice clip. That is a great value for something compact enough to take on a dinner date, as you don’t really want to be mid-game when your meal arrives. It also helps this to work as a palate cleanser between gamers or as an opener/closer game for a group of people who are looking for something quick to get to the table.

 Setup and teardown time are, as you would expect, relatively short for this game. When you have a portable, fast-playing game the last thing you want is to spend more time setting it up than you do playing the game itself. The quick time will help it to be a last-minute impulse play game, whereas others in the mint tin category (looking at you, Micro Brew), have a pretty lengthy and involved setup time to get playing.

 Everything that comes later will be focused on the 2-player experience, which is the lower end of the player count for this game. And it certainly feels like a game that gets better with more players. However, I want to talk for a moment about the solo mode developed for the game, because it “fixes” many of the issues I have with the 2-player experience. Why? It trims the decks. It makes rolling a side meeple a punishing thing, making it a more integral part of the game than just having it equal a 2. It makes the standing meeple roll even worse, as both are trimming the decks. However, it also incentivizes the player to collect Artisan tools, allowing them to add a removed card back into its deck. It is fast-playing and has a lot of good strategy along the way. My only wish? It had a loss condition instead of being just a beat-your-score. But man, this is a great 10-minute solo filler.

 The meeple rolling aspect of this game is clearly what is supposed to set the game apart. And sure, for a novelty mechanic it does accomplish that goal. However, more often than not the result of said roll has minimal impact on the game. The chances of rolling a 1 on the meeple feel almost as high as rolling a standing meeple, as it tends to end up on its side more often than any other result which makes the regular 2 a very standard result. Getting a 1 is rarely enough punishment for a poor roll, nor is the standing meeple significant enough to impact gameplay because you’re usually planning on going elsewhere anyway.

 I like the shared pool of meeples used by the players, and I like that they block the location. I love that you can’t just place it back where you took it from unless you roll a standing meeple. However, in a two player game it can lead to some frustration because you need to try and plan ahead, picking up the meeple on X and placing it elsewhere so you can use X next turn – and then your opponent simply goes back to X, making it so you need a perfect roll to try and use the space you need to. Rinse and repeat. And a clever opponent, if they know you need the item from X desperately, will avoid giving you that item if you try and circumvent things via the market. Because you have a small hand limit, and finishing turns over that limit forces you to play a card and potentially remove another card from the game, having several turns trying to get that one resource you need can be especially frustrating because it can be intentional denial by your opponent.

Final Thoughts

There is a lot in the game, mechanically, we enjoy as a gaming couple: worker placement, set collection, and a small bit of take-that to help set the opponent back a turn or two. Turns are fast and the game is very portable. Setting the game up takes very little time, and tearing it down is just as simple. By all accounts, this should be a game we’re excited to revisit again.

But we’re not. Not really.

Yes, the meeple rolling mechanic is an interesting concept, but it rarely impacts gameplay. Most of the time you’re deciding where to place the meeple under the assumption that you won’t roll a standing Meeple. Most of the time you’re getting 2 cards rather than 1 so it feels like it is an arbitrary way to get people excited about placing workers in a very small footprint of spaces. Sure, there are exciting moments when I happen to pick up a meeple, hoping for a perfect roll and get it so I can place it back where it came from – but those are the exception rather than the rule for the game.

The greatest sin this game commits, though, is not being interesting enough. There is very little variety in the decks, as the cards range from 1-3 points, and getting that perfect set to upgrade the blade only improves it to 4 points for the blade. It feels like our decisions never truly matter along the way because we’re building around the same number of blades and getting close to the same number of points. If she happens to get a few more 3-value handles than I do it’s likely a done deal unless I exploit the Market action to steal cards. With more players it might feel like a more tense game, but with two it boils down to who gets the marginally better components as most of the cards end up getting pulled since the game timer is literally when ⅔ of the decks are empty.

All in all, this game proves something that is easy to forget: making a compact, portable game is a difficult task. It either is resigned to fall into the category of filler, or has to fight an uphill battle be to something exceptional. Sometimes, with the success of Button Shy Games, it is easy to forget that these smaller microgames aren’t easy to make because many of them just feel too distilled because of the restrictions. That is certainly the case here, as this game has a lot of promise and potential it fails to deliver upon. I absolutely love the theme and an expanded version of this, with more locations and variety in the actions available, could make this a sleeper standout title. But as it stands, this will be a game we wouldn’t mind owning but might only get played a time or two per year to get it back off the shelf, rather than a game we’re thinking ahead to the next play. And maybe with more players it is an absolute home run, but as a couples’ game it falls just a little too short for us.

However, as a solo game that I can grab when I need something fast – and a game I can also use as a filler for 3-4 players, it fits perfectly on my shelf in a size that should make it easy to hang onto for those occasions when it is warranted.