Review for One · Solo Gaming

Review for One: Dragon Keepers

Thank you for checking review #118 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 at the cost of shipping in exchange for an honest review. All opinions remain my own.

An overview of Dragon Keepers

Dragon Keepers is a board game designed by Catalina Lacerda and Vital Lacerda that is published by Knight Works LLC. The box state it plays 1-6 players and has a playtime of 10-40 minutes.

In this fantasy universe, each player is the chief of a tribe of dragon keepers, defending the dragons from attacks by the evil hunter. The hunter wants to see those cute dragons dead, but must get past the dragon keepers. The keepers belong to different tribes but together they have the common goal of protecting the dragons. The keepers use magic in their duels with the evil hunter.

Dragon Keepers was designed by Vital Lacerda and his youngest daughter, Catarina. Says Vital, “She is the one who knows a lot about dragons and I could have never been able to do this design without her.” Dragon Keepers has two different games in the box:

KEEPER GAME: 3–6 players | 10–15 minutes | ages 6+
In this competitive mode, the hunter rolls dice to attack the dragons and the players choose which of the attacked dragons they want to defend. The game ends when one player manages to heroically defend three different dragons or if one dragon gets three hits. The winner is the player with more successful defenses.

DRAGON GAME: 2–4 players | 20–40 minutes | ages 9+
In this cooperative mode, the keepers work together to defend and train the dragons so that they attack the hunter. Players can take four different actions: Defend, Cure, Train and Attack. Those actions are limited and they need to cooperate and organized as a group to manage to stop the hunter’s attacks during the game. The players lose if a dragon is killed by the hunter, or if the battle event deck runs out. The players win if X dragons (where X is determined by the difficulty level) manage to successfully attack the hunter.

My Thoughts

 For a game that I expected to be a light dice-chucker…there are a serious number of thoughtful decision points in here. True, every round will involve rolling 1-6 dice for the Hunter. But that is the first thing that happens, and it tells you which of your six dragons are being targeted for the round, and you get two actions to try and minimize the harm to your dragons and try and make progress toward having all six dragons trained & successfully attack the Hunter. It is a challenge, especially since your pool of action tokens is limited, you have two of each color dragon card (in a solo game) to choose from before resting – meaning you can’t just repeatedly use the same dragon, and you can’t train a damaged, or targeted, dragon.

 The spell cards are a great addition to the game, oftentimes providing useful and essential abilities to help swing things in your favor, such as training damaged dragons, removing damage, or allowing rerolls of attacks. You can play one per dragon card/action token you put out, meaning you can use up to 2 per turn. Two of your four actions will give you new spell cards, taking one from the discard pile or from the top of the deck (both of which are face-up). However, that deck is also your game timer! Which means you’re punishing yourself by avoiding the draw from the discard pile. And since taking a spell card doesn’t read as being an optional reward, you might even be forced to speed up the game timer if you choose the wrong combination of actions. It allows some really tense decisions.

 There are a ton of ways to make the game more, or less, challenging. I find the “minimum” difficulty for solo mode (I believe it is Hard) to be a very strong challenge. It requires you to train and successfully attack with all 6 dragons, skipping over the easier versions where you only need to accomplish this with 4 or 5 dragons. How does it get harder? Making weak fireball die results count as misses, and making it so you need more hits on the Hunter. Also…

 The Shadow Hunter variant is brutal. Basically there are four different Hunter cards that are shuffled into the spell deck (Pandemic style, putting one in each quarter of the small deck). In the normal game, when they appear they are discarded and a die is permanently added to the Hunter’s die pool, meaning he’s going to be doing more from that round onward. That’s a challenge in itself. The variant makes it so each Hunter card does an additional effect as it comes out, which cranks the challenge up by a lot. I want to use this variant more, but I need to actually win a game first…

 The artwork is a huge win on this game. I absolutely love it. It can certainly be a subjective thing, of course, but this is the sort of game that I would see and immediately want to know more about.

 I like that there is incentive to deal damage to the Hunter as quickly as possible, because for every 3 Fireballs you hit him with, you can remove a die from his pool. This helps to offset the gradual ramp in difficulty, making it more likely the dragon you need to use is able to be selected. Because, again, if they are damaged or targeted by the Hunter they cannot be trained. Which means sometimes what you need to do gets trumped by figuring out what you can do instead.

 Let’s circle back to planning in the game. Not only do you need to manage your choice of when to use certain actions and activate/protect certain dragons, but you also need to keep in mind when to take your Rest round. Because you are forced to do it if you’ve played 6 cards (you play 2 per round, so every fourth turn is potentially a forced rest) where the Hunter rolls his dice but all you do is take all of your cards and tokens back into your hand/pool. Because the Hunter’s roll happens first in the round, you can see what is incoming and try to decide whether to play cards or to take the rest. I absolutely love that degree of planning. So why the half star? Because luck. I’ve had rounds where I felt like the right move was to press the advantage and take the forced rest. My dragons would be in good shape at the end of the current round, and barring a roll of X, I won’t lose. And then I flip a spell card and it triggers a hunter. And the next card is a hunter. And now they are rolling 2 more dice than I expected and, sure enough, three of those roll the same color dragon to make me lose even when I shouldn’t have been in a losing position. It doesn’t always happen. Nor does it happen often. But it can and will eventually happen that the 1-in-X chance of a perfect storm causing you to lose will come around

 The dragons each have their own special power, which is fantastic. However, it can be a challenge to remember which powers they have. It isn’t indicated on their untrained side, and even on the trained side it is iconography. To find out what they do you need to refer to the back page of the rulebook, where it provides better details. I would have liked 6 cards, one for each dragon, that I could place next to each dragon in the circle. Or 1-2 cards to have as a reference in front of me, outlining what each dragon’s special ability would be. Because it can be a challenge to remember. The same goes with the Shadow Hunter variant, where you need to open the rulebook to see what they do. Printing it on the cards, or having a separate 4 Hunters with that text on them, would have been a helpful addition. Neither are bad, but missed opportunities. No one wants to pull out the rulebook mid-game when it can be avoided..

Final Thoughts

Dragon Keepers is a light game on the surface but it contains a surprising number of decisions that run far deeper than expected from the box. I should, of course, not be surprised at this because it is a game co-designed by Vital Lacerda. Even a game like this is rich with decision points that have little to do with the randomness of the dice that are rolled. In fact, I would argue that the dice are (most turns) a non-factor overall in terms of their randomness because you get to see what the Hunter rolls prior to selecting your actions for the turn. Thus when you are making decisions, there is no randomness involved until you go to have your dragon attack the Hunter, and even then most dragons are rolling multiple dice and there are spell cards to help mitigate the random factor.

Did I mention that this game is far more difficult than anticipated? I am currently winless still in the game after a half dozen attempts, although I’ve had two games that were oh-so-close. One, the timer ran out on me by one turn. The other, I just needed a successful recovery round to close things out on the following turn (hopefully) and the Hunter capitalized. In none of my plays have I felt as though everything was hopeless, or even that random chance ruined me. Even the loss to the Hunter’s good roll, I could have rested the round before when I saw that the Hunter’s roll was a “safe” one for me to rest during.

And that is what I really love about this game. In spite of dice being rolled every turn, I always have control of my fate in the game. A bad decision is always what I can point back to, whether it is not Training quickly enough for all six dragons, or not taking the right token as a reward for Training, or taking a Spell card off the main deck instead of the discard pile, accelerating the game timer, or delaying a rest that I know I’ll need to take to try and maximize the plays from my hand (but then leaving me in a very prone position). It all falls back on me, and my need to play better.

You might wonder, since I’m heaping such strong praise on Dragon Keepers, why it is missing from my Top 20 Solo Games that was just posted. What a keen, observant reader you are! Yes, it isn’t in that top 15% of the solo games I’ve played, but it just narrowly missed that cut. Had the list been a Top 25, you would have found Dragon Keepers right where it belongs, as a really strong and not-at-all-light solitaire experience. It makes me think in all the right ways, yet is short enough that I can sit down and knock out three losses in about an hour. And eventually that Hunter will fall to all six of my dragon attacks, and I will be victorious until we have The Hunter Strikes Back to the tune of upping the difficulty. Or adding in the Shadow Hunters variant which gives the four Hunter cards in the deck a special ability when they appear rather than just adding to the Hunter’s die pool. And then the losing can commence once more.

And I will enjoy every minute of it.

Solo Gaming · Top Ten List

Top 20 Solo Games – 2019 Edition

Every year there is a people’s choice solo game list that gets compiled. And so every year they ask for solo gamers to share their top games, which are then weighted into a system to where games get points based on their rankings for each list. So giving a game the #10 slot on a list is worth more to it overall thank a #14 ranking, etc. It is a neat concept and I always enjoy seeing what gets released as the overall results. Since they need the final lists by November 4th, I figured I had better wrap mine up in an official way, and look for this to be a recurring post each year.

Before I begin, I want to kick off with five games that are high on my solo wish list to try them. Which means you will not find them included on the list:

1) Edge of Darkness
2) Street Masters
3) CO2 Second Chance
4) Marvel: Champions
5) Empyreal: Spells & Steam
Bonus: Too Many Bones, which I am borrowing as of today so it’ll be played soon. Hopefully this weekend.

***

d10-2d10-0 – Roll Player

This game is an anomaly for me, because it really shouldn’t be such a highly-regarded solo experience. It involves dice, bringing about a random element every round that can foil the best-laid plans. You can’t even control or predict when the color of dice you need will appear. You will have rounds where the market will have no cards you want, and then the next turn it will have 2-3 you need but can only choose one. And that is the crux of how it makes this list: it rarely gives you what you desire to use, but oftentimes forces you to make difficult decisions about how to utilize what is presented to you. The layers of decisions include what card to buy (if any) and how much you need said card, because the die you choose determines what chance there is of getting that card you need – the lower value die on the offer will ensure you a shot at the card but is far less useful in your character. And the die abilities you’ll trigger every round help this to not only feel more dynamic, but also helps to mitigate the randomness of dice rolls. The base game is all I have experienced, which speaks volumes to how much I actually do enjoy this game. It is a beat-your-own high score game, which I generally loathe, and the expansion of Monsters & Minions will change that and, by extension, give this game a chance to climb ever higher on the list.

d10-1d10-9 – Call to Adventure

This game fires on two cylinders for me: as a gamer and as a fantasy author. On one end, I am provided with a fairly simple set of mechanics and a core concept to try an overcome by the end of the game in order to avoid a losing condition (avoiding the dreaded beat-your-own-score symptom, which all but two of these games successfully avoid). On the other end, I have incredible artwork and a system designed for crafting tales around. And while my wife wouldn’t want to sit around and tell stories about how her character started life as a Student who Excelled in her Studies and, as a result, Uncovered Hidden Lore that allowed her to Heal the Wounded and led to her becoming an Honorable Sworn Protector, Catching a Criminal and fending off attacks from The Wolf on her path to become a Paragon of Light, and a Blessed Champion of Light to battle off her adversary, The Dark Rider. I mean, the story there practically writes itself.

d10-1d10-8 – Lisboa

This game being here should be a strong indicator that you can’t just go look at my Top 100 Games list from June and grab the 20 highest soloable games from that list. Yes, some will be on here. But some of them, like Lisboa, will end up in places you don’t expect. And it isn’t Lisboa’s fault it is this low, really. I just don’t often have the time for a big, heavy experience like this when I sit down to play a solo game. Which means it doesn’t get played often, which means that it isn’t as likely to creep high onto the list, at least not very quick. I want to explore this one more, as I get ruthlessly demolished by Vital time and time again. But I will enjoy every minute of that beatdown because this remains a wonderful game that should only move up a little as I get it back to the table a time or two in the near future.

d10-1d10-7 – Chain Mail

This is probably not on many lists, as it is very much a hidden gem and not easy to obtain for those not in the know. You see, Button Shy Games has a Board Game of the Month Club, and to join it you would need to be a Patron for at least $5/month. But in exchange, you get monthly goodies (that are admittedly oftentimes a month or two behind) from them. Every month this year has expanded the game known as Chain Mail: an RPG-like adventure with interchangable maps, character parties, enemies, treasure, and scenarios. Every month gets you a new map, enemy card, treasure card, and scenario. Many months bring a new character, too, to swap into your party of 4 characters that all interact with their cubes in very different ways to trigger unique abilities. And that is the part that really shines in Chain Mail: how different the characters play, and figuring out how to shift the cubes just right to make them play optimally.

d10-1d10-6 – Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Core Set

My gaming history holds a rather rocky history with the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. It is a game I always wanted to love but could never quite commit toward because something always just seemed a little off. Maybe it was the limitations on free-to-play scenarios on the app that started it. Or the several different sets, each of which expanded out through a variety of add-on packs. Or the host of character add-on packs. While I can’t pinpoint why I never became enamoured with the older versions of Pathfinder, I can tell you that this is the best version of it out there. It brings a variety of new twists on the core mechanics, a fresh new look, and actual storybooks with adventure playing out as you advance from quest to quest. Most of the clunkiness is gone, although setting up is never a fast task, and it scales exceptionally well even with one character (although some are going to be more difficult to truly solo than others). Ultimately I love the customization of the character across a series of adventures enough to want to get this to the table any chance I get.

d10-1d10-5 – Maquis

Few games have surprised me more in a pleasant way than Maquis. This small game packs a huge punch for the variety contained in the box, and the difficult decisions it forces you to make. With each decision you make, the path you can take shrinks a little more. Do you play it safe and snake out from your starting location each turn, or do you gamble and try to pin down the place you need to go first and hope it doesn’t cost you the game? There is so much tension in every decision being made that this game absolutely stole my heart from the first play of it. I can’t wait for my Kickstarter copy of the game to deliver, because I know this is going to be one that I break out often when I need a relatively quick, yet thinky, solitaire experience.

d10-1d10-4 – Glass Road

Rosenberg strikes on this list with a game that, ordinarily, shouldn’t make a top solitaire game for me. While it isn’t his usual worker placement game, it is definitely about resource management and conversion to earn points. But that is the beauty here, with that clever resource wheel as you manage the push-pull to get what you need. And with the promo card for solo play that allows clearing some buildings from the market, this game’s biggest flaw was removed for solo play. The way it handles the solitaire game, giving you a differing number of actions each round and making it so you cannot use the same action card in back-to-back turns provides a nice puzzle experience that I really enjoy.

d10-1d10-3 – Albion’s Legacy

When I want to lose, there are a few games I could choose from on this list (#1, 6, 12, 18) but none of them feels more punishingly brutal than this game. I love the Arthurian love letter stamped all over every piece in the game, as it makes references to both the popular and the obscure in this game. The base game has limited legs, but I’ve since picked up two expansions on the cheap to integrate in when I reacquire this solitaire experience (because let’s be honest, it would be cruel to subject others to a no-win situation) where the theme draws me in and leaves me wanting to journey to Camelot with these famous figures.

d10-1d10-2 – Friday

This is heralded as a solo classic for a very good reason, and is the best of the solitaire deckbuilders out there (Shadowrift comes close, but I haven’t revisited that in ages since I loaned it to a friend, and I anticipate the announced expansion in 2020 for Mystic Vale will get that up here once it has an official solitaire mode). The concept of the game is extremely simple, but difficult to execute well because you start with a deck packed with mostly garbage cards. Not garbage like the normal deckbuilder where it gives you +1 of something, but garbage as in either +0 or -1 of your skill. And the last thing you want is to get further from your goal by flipping a card, so you need to thin the deck over the course of the game. Which you can do, but it requires both failing a test and spending your life points to accomplish this. And so it becomes this interesting dynamic of how aggressively you try to thin that deck early, and how to manage the aging cards as they make their way into your deck, which I absolutely love even more every time it hits the table.

d10-1d10-1 – Raiders of the North Sea

Worker placement games are, as a rule, difficult to make an effective solo play mode for. Most of the time the solution they come up with is to give you a limited number of turns and tiers of scoring thresholds to determine the level of efficiency. And so when Shem designed a solo AI for a game I already enjoyed a lot, I was really pleased to find out that it played quite well. It puts pressure on the player to optimize their approach as much as possible, which isn’t going to be easy because it will block a new space every turn from the town. It clears spaces on the map with relative ease compared to a normal player, which is also good because it means you need to be clever and creative at times in how you tackle the basic strategies with the game. And even better than that is its ability to work with any of the expansions, or no expansions at all, makes this a great add-on to your Raiders collection.

d10-1d10-0 – At the Gates of Loyang

This game genuinely surprised me when I first played it, because it was my first non-worker placement Rosenberg solo experience. And boy, what a difference it made because it delivered a game experience unlike what I had anticipated. I normally don’t like the beat-your-own score systems, and this marks the highest of those on the list. But when every point is hard-earned like it is in this game, it merits placement on the list. Rosenberg is my wife’s favorite designer, not mine, so I never expected to love his games so much. But this, and Glass Road, are anomalies in the Rosenberg world of design. The card system, and scraping every point you can over the course of the game, is what really makes this game shine for me. One of these days I might even score a 20 – what a joyful day that will be.

d10-0d10-9 – BattleCON: Devastation of Indines

This game probably takes you by surprise with its inclusion on a solo list. I felt the same way when I learned that this game, which is a brain-burning 2-player dueling game, had a solo mode in one of the boxes. Learning that one of my all-time favorite games could now be enjoyed even when I don’t have a second player…that was a pure delight. I love that I can pull out a new character (because there are so many I haven’t tried still) and run them through a gauntlet of smaller battles on their way to a boss duel. And I really enjoy that you can purchase items to make your character properly “equipped” to handle the task in front of them, giving it a light RPG element that I think works well so long as you remember the presence of said purchases. This game lets you know what each monster encounter is able to do on a turn, but you’ll never quite be sure if you are safe so it is all about choosing the right attack pairs, and positioning, at the right time to try and take as little damage as possible as you clear room after room in their BattleQuest booklet. Which is something I really hope they expand upon, because I really dig the system that was introduced via BattleCON: Devastation of Indines..

d10-0d10-8 – Cartographers: A Roll Player Tale

This might be the most unique entry on the list, and one of the more recent additions. It certainly caught me off guard about how much I enjoyed this game, especially since I have never really been drawn to the roll and write fad that has taken over the hobby. But there is something about Cartographers that is just different enough that it fascinates me and makes me want to play it again and again (which means I’ll be picking this up soon so that I can, in fact, play it again and again). It has the clever use of four seasons, each of which activates 2 of your 4 scoring conditions so you’ll want to balance all four of them in some way to try and maximize your points. The Ambush cards are a good balance to foil your plans and operate relatively easily when they trigger. All in all, there isn’t much to dislike about this…apart from my strong desire to get a set of colored pencils to use for my map-making skills to make it at least a little visually appealing.

d10-0d10-7 – The City of Kings

Welcome to the big, sprawling RPG-in-a-box on the list. No Gloomhaven. No Too Many Bones. I haven’t soloed either of those (yet), so this will have to satisfy all of our tastes. What I love the most in here is the combination of that monster creation system from a bag of abilities, combined with perfect information on how your stats function and what they can do. Enemy going to one-shot your hero? Find a way to reduce their attack or cleverly maneuver yourself so that you can deal damage without taking any in return. I’ve had dire, hopeless situations that I was able to puzzle my way toward a solution – and then it is on me to execute said solution. There is a good amount of content in this box, not to the level of a Gloomhaven campaign but more than enough to keep most gamers, solo or otherwise, content for many, many plays. I love and hate the character progression system, as you have complete control to min-max your character as they gain levels but there just isn’t as much to differentiate one character from another as I’d like. But for what its worth, this game is an absolute gem that I wish I could play more often.

d10-0d10-6 – Race for the Galaxy

The game that started it all for me so many years ago. I miss this game in my collection, although it was part of what sent me to Gen Con so I can’t be too upset. Plus now that there is a 2nd edition out there, it’ll be better than before when I finally get around to picking it back up. Because this remains a wonderful solo game with a brutal solo AI system to play against that forces you to play efficiently instead of seeking those amazing combos. If you ever wondered about the value of half the cards in the deck, they take on a whole new perspective when racing against the clock of the solo AI’s engine…even on Easy in this. My win rate is embarrassingly low, and I love that fact.

d10-0d10-5 – Oh My Goods!

I delight in the engine building of this game with multi-use cards. And thanks to the scenarios via expansions, this game squeezes past the game that started my love of solo gaming using “similar” mechanics. But oh, how I truly enjoy pulling off an efficient chain of production in this game. It provides just enough limitations to force you to pursue sub-optimal strategies in order to accomplish your objectives in the time allotted to you, and has some wrinkles it’ll toss in to try and slow you down. Plus that press-your-luck mechanic is a source of incredible joy and intense despair – sometimes a turn apart – as you try and squeeze the most out of every opportunity. This was the game that put Pfister’s games on my radar, and I can’t wait to get to try some of his other titles solo in the future.

d10-0d10-4 – Agricola, Master of Britain

One of these games is not like the others, and that game is Agricola, Master of Britain. I danced around dabbling in wargames for years but never could quite find the right one for me. I think that was because I was trying to find a game where it was a “play both sides” solo experience and that just lost the “interesting” factor in the same way that playing Dungeons & Dragons as both the GM and the party would get boring. This game solved that problem with the clever cup system and pulling chits. There are so many ways to lose the game to where you always feel like you are one bad decision away from a cascading loss. I’ve played this game’s big brother, Charlemagne, but haven’t gotten enough exposure to it to know where it would fall (and thus left it off this year, even though it probably should merit a spot) or even to know if I like it more or less than Agricola. So for now I’ll heap praises on this small game with so many fun, interesting, challenging decisions that it won me back over to enjoying the occasional wargame outside of War of the Ring.

d10-0d10-3 – Millennium Blades

This game might take some people by surprise, as few folks think of this as a solo experience. The Set Rotation expansion introduced bosses to play against, which opens up the solitaire experience to players and, surprisingly, it is both fun and good. The challenge level is ridiculously high at times, as it feels like they can score buckets of points while you’re scraping combos together to try and get more than 10 points at a time (sometimes) – which is part of the beauty here: learning the boss deck’s emphasis and capabilities and trying to counter them. All four feel very different to play against, and when that becomes “easy” for you, there is a mini-expansion that cranks all four of them to the next level. I can’t wait for Collusion to deliver in 2020 so I can have more bosses to lose to. And, of course, part of the fun of Millennium Blades is recreating that old CCG experience of patching together the best deck you can with the cards you get from those packs you’ve opened. Which is what keeps me coming back to this game time and time again.

d10-0d10-2 – Hoplomachus: Origins

Oh how this game came out of nowhere for me. Honestly, I had heard word of it but felt no strong desire to try the game. And then a friend was selling his all-in collection because it played best at 1-2, which caught my attention. After all, I specialize in 1-2. Sadly, he sold it before I could even get together to try it, but that didn’t stop me from jumping on a really good price for Origins a few months later. Well, the rest is history. It is absolutely a light, tactical, dice-chucking romp. But it is so much fun, and has a decent amount of variety even in the “small” box version I own. The Trials are a fun and interesting system, so much so that I am considering doing a series of videos on my YouTube channel in the near future where I attempt each of the trials in the game. This game doesn’t need more content, but there are a lot of packs of extra combatants you can pick up from Chip Theory Games that will expand your variety to enhance a game’s replay value that already has strong replay value. Did I mention that games are often 10-15 minutes or less, making this an easy game to pull out and play on any given night?

d10-0d10-1 – The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game

Speaking of endless replay value, there’s no surprise here about my #1 game. It offers so much variety once you expand beyond the core set, and even then you don’t need to own everything to have a lot of space to explore in deck construction. With over 100 quests now out there between all of the product, and nightmare modes of most of them, this game has so much endless variety that, at around 150 plays, I still have a ton of quests I need to try and deck archetypes to build that there is no shortage of opportunity to get another thousand plays out of this collection. This game is so much fun and, as a Tolkien super fan, this is the one game I would choose if I could only take one game with me to a desert island and the one game I would save if I could only retrieve one from a burning building. Yes, it requires investment to grow beyond a Core Set and investment in time to build your decks, but it is worth it. One of these days that 30-31% win ratio will hopefully creep back up to 33%, which is about where I like this game’s win/loss ratio to reside because it often pushes me, and my deck construction abilities, to the limits.

Solo Gaming

Review for One: Big Easy Busking

Thank you for checking review #115 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 in exchange for an honest review. All opinions remain my own.

An overview of Big Easy Busking

Big Easy Busking is a board game designed by Joshua J. Mills that is published by Weird Giraffe Games. The box state it plays 1-5 players and has a playtime of 45-60 minutes.

Big Easy Busking is an area control game for 1-5 players about being the best street musician in New Orleans. The game is played over three days, where players choose which locations to play their set of songs. It takes time to play a song, so players decide on their next turn whether they’re going to use all of their energy at the location or to only use some of it to save the rest for later songs. If a player matches the mood of the people with the song that they’re playing, they can get bonus tips!

Escalating Rounds: The game starts with three locations players can play at, but by the final round, there’s five locations so players have to choose where to play wisely!
Engaging Gameplay: Players determine how much energy to allocate to each location after seeing how other players play, so players pay attention to what happens between their turns.
Thematic Actions: Songs require differing amounts of energy from musicians and players are rewarded greatly for playing the songs that the crowd wants to hear.

Decide whether you want to try to get a few tips from the crowd at every location or if you really want to win over a particular crowd in this musical game of area control!

—description from the publisher

My Thoughts

 There are several different robot modes of AI to challenge you. Each one of them follows a different sequence of decision-making, which means your own personal strategy is likely to need to change and adapt depending on which one you are going up against. However, the best part is that they have all led to challenging plays with close final scores, and they definitely do feel different.

 The artwork on here is bright and vibrant and colorful. It isn’t art to my personal tastes, but I can appreciate the attempt to capture a feel for the theme of the game and evoke it through the artwork. Kudos to Weird Giraffe for the weird theme here!

 This game is about managing your scarce amount of resources and utilizing them in such a way that you maximize your control of the cards in play. You will never be able to have the majority in all of them at the end of the round, and in the solo play you will rarely be able to trigger the scoring on all of them while maintaining the majority in some of them. So it is about striking a balance between your points earned and minimizing their points earned. I feel like the area control aspect would be absolutely brutal and brilliant as more players are added to the mix.

 Turns are quick and simple, something that I find is true for all of the games from Weird Giraffe Games. They try to get you going quickly and keep you engaged with fast-moving action and an easy set of rules to follow and remember. They are certainly successful with that here, too.

 If you don’t mind the extra upkeep and chaos, you could play against 2-3 of the AI robots during the same gameplay. Doing this takes the predictability of the robot turns and adds in the puzzle of how to overcome 2-3 different AI approaches all at once. It is challenging in the right ways, and would absolutely be my preferred way to run this solo (more on the standard 1v1 solo coming soon…trust me, I’ll get there). However, if you think games can be “fiddly” and if that word makes you cringe, you probably will think managing multiple AIs can be fiddly and dislike that experience. Plus it leads to another problem: most of the time can end up being spent on the AI turns rather than player turns, which is something no solo player enjoys.

 The two-player experience of the game adds some extra unpredictability to the mix for the game, but not much as it boils down to a very simple 1v1 tug-of-war for control on these areas. It can become predictable and mechanical in deployment of things, the same trapping you’ll hear about with the solo mode. There aren’t enough variables here to make it a game I’d recommend as a game only played with 2 players. I don’t mind the game as a “we can play this every once in a while” sort of game, like titles such as Herbaceous, and it’ll be fine. But it definitely needs at least a third person to make this good.

 It is funny how some games need a little randomness in order to feel like it has the desired experience. In Dreams of Tomorrow, I was perfectly okay with the scripted opponent and trying to outplay them. Probably because we were moving around a mancala-style “board” of cards and its moves could dynamically change things if I didn’t plan properly. But here, well, it seems like a simply equation of figuring out which spaces are worth fighting for and passing as quickly as possible to maximize your earnings. I know where it is going to try to play and what it is going to do there, so I have perfect information to plan around. I know that the longer a round lasts, the higher potential it has for earning because its energy supply is greater than my own. Which then means taking new song cards can feel like a poor action because it allows them to get further ahead – especially in the late rounds of the game. And this ends up being my biggest snag with the game: the solo play doesn’t replicate playing a human opponent nor does it reward me for outplaying the robot with clever moves. It is simply seeing what it can do, and maximizing my own songs to squeeze out a few coins more than they do on a given round. Give me a small deck of cards showing the locations to play and a variable number of energy cubes to spend and a +/- “bonus” it can earn when the song ends if it meets certain criteria, etc. Let it occasionally take card X from the song row instead. Instead of three opponents, give me one deck of cards that adds dynamic variety with an unpredictable opponent and this suddenly becomes a much more interesting solitaire experience. At least in this reviewer’s humble opinion. This game isn’t bad as it is – far from it – but it just lacks something that I personally would like to see done differently. And your mileage may absolutely vary on this, to the point where you just love the solo play to pieces. I hope you do!

Final Thoughts

This has been a difficult review to circle around to for me, and not only due to all of the personal whirlwind of things I’m still dealing with. I’m a huge advocate for Weird Giraffe Games, and have really enjoyed titles like Stellar Leap and Fire in the Library, and even the unusual game Dreams of Tomorrow had some really good qualities that I could get excited about. But I can’t really say the same thing about Big Easy Busking, and I know it is as much a me problem as anything. I just can’t get excited about the theme of the game, and the mechanics never really shone for me in my first playthrough of the game. After that first play, I set this one back up four separate times, wanting to play it again, and every time I found a reason to eventually pack it away in favor of something different.

And now that I’ve returned to the game at long last, I remain convinced that this is not the game for me. And it tears me up to say that, because I firmly stand by the fact that Carla is one of the best young designers in the industry and her solitaire modes are solid and challenging and fun. And this solo mode should be no different. It provides a tense, close-scoring game. It makes you plan ahead and consider your decisions, trying to capitalize on what the robot opponent will likely do on the next turn. It has several robot variants to spice up how it makes decisions and interacts with the game. Check all those delightful boxes.

But sadly, I think the real problem I have is that this game just isn’t for me. Your game group might really dig what this one has to offer. I really hope they do, because I know there is a clever game in here. As a solo player, you might find this scratches an itch in an unique niche of theme that hits all the right notes for you. And once again, I genuinely hope it does. Because I believe in Carla, Weird Giraffe Games, and in their production of fun and engaging games with solid solitaire modes. But every game is not for every gamer, and this one is a miss for me.

Review for One · Solo Gaming

Review for One: Chai

Thank you for checking review #111 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: This review and photos based upon a prototype version of the game. Final quality and components will vary from those in final production.

An overview of Chai

Chai is a board game designed by Dan and Connie Kazmaier that is published by Deep Aqua Games. The box state it plays 1-5 players and has a playtime of 20-60 minutes.

In Chai, you will step into the shoes of a tea merchant, combining tea flavours to make a perfect blend. Specializing in either rooibos, green, oolong, black or white tea, you will buy and collect ingredients to fulfill your customers’ orders.

As a tea merchant, each turn you will do one of the following:
Visit the Market – The player immediately receives a gold coin and selects a tea flavour tile (mint, jasmine, lemon, ginger, berries, and lavender), adding to their tea box. If the flavour tile is touching tiles of the same type these tiles are also taken. Payment (gold, silver, or a copper coin) is placed in the money pouch corresponding to the furthest-right column the tiles were in. Players cannot have more than 12 flavour tiles in their tea box at any time.
Select Additives – Tea additive cards (milk, sugar, honey, vanilla, and chai spices) are also needed to complete most orders. A player may conduct two actions in the additive area: selecting all of the additive cards of one type (with new cards drawn after the first action), resetting the visible cards, or drawing a card from the additive deck. Players cannot have more than 6 additive cards in their tea box at any time.
Reserve a Customer – A player may also reserve a customer card from the customer pool from the visible cards or draw deck. If drawing a visible card, a new card is immediately drawn faceup into the customer pool to replace the card taken. A player cannot have more than 3 unfulfilled customer cards at any time in their tea box. If a player has more than 3 cards, a card is discarded and placed faceup in the customer pool with a copper coin from the money pouch placed on top.
At the end of each turn, a player may complete a tea order from one customer card in their hand or visible in the customer pool. A base tea token, tea flavours and additives shown on the card are needed ingredients, and placed in an empty tea cup. The player flips over a tip and receives a coin bonus, moving the thermometer round tracker up one notch if all cups are filled.

The game ends when five rounds of cups have been fulfilled. When the final order is completed, other players complete their last turn so that each player has played the same number of turns.
To score, players add up their victory points from fulfilled customer orders, and add their leftover money to this total. In 3-5 player games, additional points are awarded to the player(s) who fulfilled the most orders and most diverse tea recipes. Award ties are friendly with each winner receiving 5 points.

The player with the most victory points (from customer orders, money, and awards) wins the game as best tea merchant! In the case of a tie, the person with the least number of fulfilled customer cards wins. If still tied, the person with the least amount of money wins. If that does not break a tie, the victory is shared.

—description from the publisher

My Thoughts

 The first thing I noticed, even as a prototype, were the colorful and exciting components. I love the feel of the tiles, and I know that the final production ones are going to be even better. This game is great to look at and to feel as you’re moving things around. I question whether they needed to have such large cards (I think tarot sized?) but it does help make the artwork stand out. The only real issue is that the bag is too small for the tiles to all fit into, something I assume will not be the case with the final copy.

 I really like the concept of the market and how the tiles slide as you make each purchase, and how getting them to line up well can make your purchases more efficient. This encourages careful manipulation of the market, and in a multiplayer setting even makes for some serious interaction as you try to capitalize on the moves other people make – or ensure you don’t leave the next player with a great and inexpensive combination of tiles. Although I do wish the Chaiwalla would impact this (and the circle of ingredients) during his turn.

 The Chaiwalla is what makes the solo game interesting (more on the solo game itself later). All he does is take a card from the market after your turn. This means over the course of 10 turns in a solo game, you’re opponent has 10 scoring cards and, usually, you will have at least 2-3 fewer than that. Which is why it is a good thing he takes the lowest value of the three cards showing – which can be as low as 4 or as large as 13 in unusual circumstances. This creates a lot of tension as a player, because you need to figure out a way to score a card most turns, as well as consider how taking card X might impact what the Chaiwalla takes. Sure, you might be able to score that 5 or 6-point card this turn…but what if the other two cards are a 10 and an 11 and then a 9-12 flips out? Suddenly you LOST points that turn, essentially, by taking that small card. But if it flips out a 4, you’re further ahead. This is the point where the game in a solo play is at its most interesting.

 The rules of this game are really simple and the game is straight-forward in terms of gameplay. This is one that is easy to open and learn the day you get it, and it is going to be really easy to teach to other players. The way the solo rules are done are mostly intuitive as well, although I was confused enough to play without the Chaiwalla in my first play since it was listed as a separate thing from the solo rules. And maybe it is intended to have a standard solo beat-your-own-score meditative version as well as a try-to-beat-the-Chaiwalla variant in there. For me, only one of those versions would see repeat plays, especially since adding the Chaiwalla literally only does one additional thing each turn.

 Tying in with the above, each turn has three actions to choose from and you only get to execute one: go to the market to buy tea flavor tiles, select some additives from the additive wheel, or reserve a customer from the display and do one of three special action cards. Regardless of which you choose, you can always serve a customer at the end of your turn if you have the correct items to do so – but you can only serve one customer.

 Mixing in the entire deck of customers makes things interesting as you play. Most customers will require you to PAY a coin when serving them (and then you’ll likely get at least that back in a tip). Which makes it seem insignificant until you are in a spot where you need exactly X to buy those tiles you need to serve a customer, and X is exactly what you have for cash. Meaning you can buy those tiles but you can’t serve said customer this turn. However, if the customer is your color then you don’t have to pay that valuable coin! A small detail, but it adds a nice touch to the planning in this game.

 The special action cards are nice in theory. After all, it makes reserving a customer an action that doesn’t completely waste your turn. However, at least in a solo game, I find I rarely should use this action as it is almost always better to hit the market or grab some additives. Maybe I’m still learning the strategies for the solo game, or just haven’t had the right action out under the right circumstances. But so far this action of the three is the “forgettable” action – usually reserved only if there is a card I really want to make sure I can serve on a future turn and the Chaiwalla might take otherwise (or in the rare case that all three cards showing are high and I can find no way to serve any of them this turn, therefore this is the only way to hopefully get a lower value out for the Chaiwalla to take)

 The solo game without the Chaiwalla is the standard fare of optimization. You get 10 turns to score as many points as you can, with the optimal level being 60+ points. And since each turn you get to do one of the three actions, you are really only racing to make sure you can average 6 points per turn (which isn’t quite as easy as it sounds some games!). Without the Chaiwalla, the customer lineup can become stagnant with a bunch of cards that are either too cheap to be worth the turn or too expensive to fulfill without dedicated effort – something the market itself can suffer from with only one player taking tiles.

Final Thoughts

I need to apologize to the designers of Chai. They sent me this prototype about a month after their Kickstarter campaign ended, and I did play it once shortly after it arrived. In the midst of the chaos that followed, the blue box this game was packaged in failed to stand out on the shelf. So I forgot what was actually in the box for months, and it was only about a week ago when I realized this game was in there – after opening the box to see what this mysterious game was on my shelf. Because based on the box, it was a game I would have no reason to own.

And so I dutifully got this back to the table a few times. I remembered back to my first play and how unimpressed I was with that initial play. Well, it was because I misunderstood the solitaire experience, not using the Chaiwalla. And so it became a “score as much as you can in 10 turns” game, which is always a disappointment in a solo game. But this time, well, the Chaiwalla was implemented properly. Yes, there is still a beat-your-own-score approach in there but now there is an opponent to defeat as well who removes a card every turn (the lowest value). And holy cow did this open things up in a good way.

Sure, some turns are simple. I should do anything but take that 4-point order card out there because I want him to score only 4 points this turn. Because he is nabbing 10 cards over the course of the game, he’s going to get a lot of points. Which is why you might think twice when the time comes about taking an order card. Maybe you can fulfill that 8-point card this turn, but the other two showing are 11 and 12 points each. Odds are the next card to flip out will be lower than those, but what if it is another 12? Suddenly he’s getting 11 points, whereas you could ensure he only scores 8 this turn by doing something different.

And let me tell you, the worst turns are when you cannot fulfill an order. Because you know he’s gaining ground, because he needs a smaller average to score well with 10 cards versus the 7-8 you might end with. This tension right here is what made this go from a forgettable solo experience and turn it into something really fun. Because every decision you make could potentially set him up for more points, either during this round or the next round. Sometimes getting greedy will pay off, and other times you’re going to be wishing you had been a little more conservative. And this is where reserving cards can really come in handy, because you can set up to score that card later with no risk (during that turn) of boosting the Chaiwalla’s score.

All in all this game was quite enjoyable, far more than the first impression it left upon me. As someone who enjoys drinking tea, but never does it often enough to really call it a habit, I was curious about the game. Like many games, this one is a great game with others at the table. But if you are one who would pick it up with the intention of playing with a spouse or game group, as well as playing it solo, the experience from the latter will prove better than you’d expect upon reading the rules. It isn’t marketing itself as a heavy thinker of a game, but there are plenty of tense and interesting decisions packed into this vibrant package. And while you’re letting this review steep, don’t miss out on a chance to get the game still at Kickstarter pricing.

Review for One · Solo Gaming · Spring of Solitaire 2019

Review for One: Pigment

Thank you for checking review #108 by Cardboard Clash. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.

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

An overview of Pigment

Pigment is a board game designed by Michael Epstein that is published by Copper Frog Games. The box state it plays 1-3 players and has a playtime of 15-20 minutes.

You are Master Painters of the Renaissance! …Or you would be, if you had some paints!

Send your two Apprentices to gather and trade Pigments in the crowded and ever-evolving Bazaar for your works. Each Bazaar Card has two useful effects to choose from, but each Apprentice can only use one each turn.

Fetch Subjects to paint with your Pigments, and receive powerful Premier Piece Effects from the completed works.

Fill your gallery first to win!

~

Pigment is a fast, minimalist worker placement game for 1-3 players from Copper Frog Games LLC.

My Thoughts

 There simply aren’t many worker placement games out there with such a small footprint, portable design, and fast gameplay. This checks three very important boxes that helps the game to stand out in a crowded game, and worker placement, market today. Add in some quality components and delightful artwork, and this is a game that is always pleasant to pull out for a quick game or two.

 The solo opponent for the game is easy to navigate, as you simply move the worker one painting over, pull three cubes from the bag, and then check if he can paint that current painting he is on. It is a really simple and streamlined process (although not without questions, as highlighted in a later point).

 Pigment succeeds at what it sets out to accomplish: distill a 60-90 minute worker placement game down into a 10-15 minute game. There are different action spaces (with a conveyor belt shifting of spaces!), resources to generate and turn in for points, and special powers to be gained from your paintings. If you’ve ever wanted to grab _____ worker placement game off the shelf to play but didn’t have the time, this game deserves to be in your collection because it emulates a much larger experience, although distilled down a little bit due to size/component limitations.

 I wish there was more variety in the game. I love the action spaces changing as the game progresses, but the paintings themselves never change. Sure, the order in which they appear will change, but you’re ultimately gaining three types of resources to turn in for paintings and the first to obtain five paintings will win. Give my asymmetric player powers that let you break the game’s rules once per game. Give me more painting cards so I can’t know that eventually I’ll see a RRYY painting to purchase and thus keep those components set aside. Give me secret scoring objectives, such as 1 point for every 2 Red cubes in my supply at the end of the game.The base game is a solid game as it is, but it’ll get repetitive quickly because it never has variation beyond the order in which things appear.

 There is a little room for uncertainty in how the solo opponent operates. Namely, what happens when a painting is bought. Does the new painting just replace it where it was at? Or do all paintings shift? Can you buy the painting they are on? If the paintings shift, does the AI worker move with that painting or stay on the “position” they are at? Are cubes spent returned to the bag? If so, when? I’ve always played that the paintings stay where they are, and that I refill the cubes in the bag before the AI turn – but the game could be a little different if either of those are changed.

 The game’s solo system is extremely random. I’m all for some randomness in a game this short, but it never feels like I’m playing against an opponent in Pigment. Sure, it avoids the “beat your own high score” pitfall, but there is no real way to plan for the opponent nor does it interfere in any way with your own turns. And that is truly unfortunate, because even in a game like Pigment there is opportunity to have a blocking worker or two placed down on the board. A simple deck of 10-15 cards, each one depicting two space numbers on it (i.e. Position #1 and Position #4) would work. You flip the card, put a neutral worker on the first space listed on that card, take your first turn, flip the second card and place a neutral worker on the first space listed without a worker (or in the occasional case, both spaces may be occupied in which case the worker is not placed), and then place your second worker. It could maintain everything else it currently does and just this addition would make the solo experience more interesting because then you cannot count on an ideal turn every turn based on the 5 available spaces and 3 paintings shown. Or it could eliminate the moving worker on the paintings altogether and have some of those cards show a painting position at the top and the first thing you check is if they have the cubes to paint said painting and, if so, they go to that space instead. Or eliminate resource gain from the AI and seed a few paint painting cards in there and, when those appear, they just get said painting. Put five of those into the deck, having one shuffled in as one of the bottom three cards of the deck so you’ll always know when the end is near for the AI but never 100% certain when it could end while preventing the random chance of all five being near the top of the deck. There is potential here for an excellent solo system. Maybe I should design it, since i have these ideas fluttering in my mind. But as it stands, this is far too random to feel like a satisfying solo experience overall. Enjoyable? Sure. But not satisfying in the same way that triumphing over an opponent would be.

Final Thoughts

Pigment first caught my eye last year at Gen Con as I was wandering through the hordes of booths in my first ever convention. It was priced reasonably, worker placement, and boasted a small play time. At the time I wasn’t ready to make my select few purchases of the convention, and by the time I made said purchases I had forgotten about Pigment. Yet it resurfaced onto my radar as I was preparing for my Spring of Solitaire extravaganza.

The solitaire mode in this game is pretty high in randomness. You can see the pattern in which the AI player will be moving and what paints they will need to make said painting on their turn, but you have no real way of stopping them from making that painting. And that is unfortunate, because everything else about this little game is enjoyable as a solo experience. But to be able to go from losing with just reaching my 3rd painting in one game (they kept pulling the cubes they needed) to winning by a very comfortable margin in the next game (they didn’t pull the cubes they needed) isn’t a reflection of any increased skill on my end. But the fact that he does not interfere with my play in any way, apart from possibly taking a painting. A more dynamic and interactive solo opponent would make this game far more likely to see repeat plays.

Outside of that, I really like everything else in this game. It is a small worker placement game with a tiny footprint, it has a changing set of worker placement spaces, your most recent painting provides beneficial powers (in a 2-3 player game), it has nice little meeples and great artwork, and a clever little system. It’ll never replace the bigger box worker placement games, but having a 10-15 minute game in that arena is a niche that is hard to find. And while I would love for the game to have more options in there, whether a greater variety of paintings or added scoring conditions, this still is one I’m happy to keep in my collection and pull out when I just need a small worker placement game that I can take along with me.

Review for One · Solo Gaming · Spring of Solitaire 2019

Review for One – Hoplomachus: Origins

Thank you for checking review #106 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 Hoplomachus: Origins

Hoplomachus: Origins is a board game designed by Josh J. Carlson and Adam Carlson that is published by Chip Theory Games. The box state it plays 1-2 players and has a playtime of 15-30 minutes.

Hoplomachus: Origins takes you back to where the story begins, within the small battle arenas of 3 unique civilizations. You will represent one of the warrior houses found in these cities and will be battling for the right to represent your entire civilization in Rome. Quick fights, 3 exotic arenas, and competitive drafting of unique warriors, are what set Origins apart from our other 2 games in the series. Of course, it wouldn’t be Hoplo if you weren’t playing with premium 11.5 gram chips, neoprene mats, and custom dice!

My Thoughts

 One of the coolest things about this game are the components in here. The chips are wonderful in quality and have a nice weight. I wish the health chips were a little thicker and harder, but the presence of having 3-5 chips stacked beneath the character’s chip is pretty darn cool. It has some nice custom dice, and it comes with three box-sized playmats to present three different arenas for combat in the game. What comes in the box is a really good quality.

 I like the different factions within the box for units and how you can mix-and-match to form your own unique teams. I love a good deck construction game, and this lets you prepare your teams for the trials ahead of you. And with what you’ll encounter, sometimes a change is necessary in order to overcome a specific challenge.

 The game is extremely simple in rules and execution. This is something you can teach in a few minutes and allow people to have fun chucking dice and deploying units on the mat. Combine that with the production value and table presence and, well, this is a game I want to show off. That means photos when playing solo, and I can only imagine how it could grab crowds at a convention or game day.

 Setup, teardown, and playtime are all extremely quick in Hoplomachus – even when choosing a new team it can go at a relatively fast clip. This means the game is easy to pull out on any given night, even on an impulse, because there is no consideration about if there will still be enough time to play the game. The only question you’ll be asking yourself is how many times will you play it before putting the game away for the night. Resetting things for a rematch, or to move to the next task, are relatively simple as well which helps encourage it getting to the table often and staying there for multiple plays in one session/

 I love how this box comes with three playmats, and each of them operates in a different way. Two of them have a pair of victory conditions, and the other is a kill-the-leader approach to the gameplay. This means you aren’t necessarily forced into just wiping out the enemy forces – in fact it can often be advantageous to pursue the other victory condition instead.This also means that in a given night I can play three matches and have them all feel very different if they each use a different map. They would have been cool as just aesthetic differences, but the fact that they play uniquely is incredible.

 The solo mode in this game is interesting because it provides twenty trials to accomplish, and you move up the “ladder” so to speak as you complete each trial in order. They get a lot harder, and less straight-forward, as you go along and provide some interesting challenges along the way. Perhaps even more interesting is that losing once costs you nothing, but if you lose it a second time you drop down to the previous trial and must complete that one all over again. It feels like you are a gladiator team clawing your way up through the crowd’s favor.

 The game is random. You’re rolling a few dice in order to try and damage the opposing side and no matter which die you roll there is a chance of failure. Sometimes you’ll be rolling four dice and need just one hit, yet get none. Sometimes you’ll need three and get three. It happens. With just a few units per side, a bad turn or two can be crippling – or a good turn can lead to a rout. This game plays so far, though, that it can be forgiven for the randomness. And between recruiting your forces and how to deploy and use them, there is plenty of room for strategy even in this small, fast experience of each game.

 There are too few units in the game to keep a player satisfied for long. Games should feel like a self-contained experience that players can add expansion content if they want more. But this almost feels too restricted in size for the number of units in the game. Considering you are drafting teams of 6 in solo play (and 8-10 in 2-player games), the unit and tactic pool shrinks really quickly and you’ll find yourself relying on the same combinations over and over again rather than trying to find what else pairs well together. Even worse are the lack of dice. Far too often you will be rolling that same die several times for one attack because you just don’t have enough in said color to execute the printed attack.

 The rulebook is functional, but definitely needs some additional refinement. The game is quite simple in execution, something that benefits the game and by extension gives the rules a pass, but there is definitely room for it to improve with a nice professional editor. The solo rules could use a little expansion as well, and there are several abilities that might benefit from a visual example (such as Throw) in order to help new players wrap their heads around how the ability works. And recommended first teams, for 2-player and for solo play, might have been helpful to get players into the game quickly – it is hard to make a team when you haven’t a clue about which units are more useful than others, etc. A pair of player aids, also, would go a long way to being useful. One side could have a quick summary of the turn flow, providing gentle reminders such as you can deploy both a Tactic and a Unit at the start of a turn. But mainly, as a place to list what each ability does in brief (with maybe expanded, with examples, versions in the rulebook).

Final Thoughts

I had heard hushed whispers of the Hoplomachus series in the past, but never paid them enough mind. Had I been a more avid follower of someone like Ricky Royal I might have given the game series a closer look, but the theme never really drew me in for some reason as a solo experience. And then a friend of mine, whose gaming tastes align pretty darn close to my own, was selling his Hoplomachus collection at a really good price. After some conversations with him, I discovered it was because the game played best 1-2 in his opinion and he just doesn’t hit that player count enough to justify the game in his collection. So I started looking into it a little more seriously, as I do whenever I hear a game is best at those player counts, and tried to get a time to have him teach me Hoplomachus before committing. My daughter unfortunately caused that evening of plans to get cancelled, and my friend sold the collection off before I could try it. But the game stuck on my radar.

As luck would have it, I was able to get a used copy of Hoplomachus: Origins at what I felt was a good bargain. It was the smallest set of the series, and provided a low-risk chance to try out the game to see if it lived up to the hype. And all of this is a roundabout way to coming to this verdict: I fell in love with the game from the first play. It is a fast and furious solitaire experience (that is equally enjoyable with another player – something I intend to review later in full) that holds a really unique approach with the Solo Trials list. I’m not very far up the list yet, but I’ve experienced enough to know this game is more than a keeper – something reflected by its high appearance on my Top 100 List.

The game is a perfect balance between strategic planning and adapting to the random results of the die rolls – something that works well here simply because a game is 5-15 minutes at most. A string of rotten rolls means set it up and try again, and a run of luck can carry you up the Trials ladder to greater challenges. Apart from the first night I played the game – learning it rather late at night – I have never played it just once when it hits the table. It is always a series of 2-4 Trials getting played which makes this a perfect solo game for any situation (except on-the-go). The game takes minimal time to set up, because there are so few units to choose from, Everything about this is quick paced – except for the Keywords on the units. I wish there was a better way than looking at the back of the rulebook, but at least it is on the back and organized well. This really only becomes an inconvenience in a 2-player game since you can’t both be looking at the keywords at once.

The game certainly isn’t without imperfections, yet it is a game I’ve come to quickly fall in love with because it is so highly replayable, each play goes by quickly, and there are so many team combinations you can try without much investment beyond this box. My biggest desire in here is that there were more units to choose from, because I’m already finding myself feeling like there just aren’t enough in there for a new player. Which is probably a good thing for Chip Theory Games, because I’m going to be picking up some new content to expand the game and, eventually, probably try to add everything Hoplomachus to my collection.

Board Gaming · Review for One · Solo Gaming · Spring of Solitaire 2019

Review for One: Roll Player

Thank you for checking review #93 by Cardboard Clash. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.

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

An overview of Roll Player

Roll Player is a board game designed by Keith Matejka that is published by Thunderworks Games. The box states it plays 1-4 players in 60-90 minutes.

Mighty heroes don’t just appear out of thin air — you must create them! Race, class, alignment, skills, traits, and equipment are all elements of the perfect hero, who is ready to take on all opposition in the quest for glory and riches.

In Roll Player, you will compete to create the greatest fantasy adventurer who has ever lived, preparing your character to embark on an epic quest. Roll and draft dice to build up your character’s attributes. Purchase weapons and armor to outfit your hero. Train to gain skills and discover your hero’s traits to prepare them for their journey. Earn Reputation Stars by constructing the perfect character. The player with the greatest Reputation wins the game and will surely triumph over whatever nefarious plot lies ahead!

My Thoughts

 The “AI” system in this is really simple and intuitive, and it makes sense on how it functions. Sure, I wish it was a competitive player option to try and defeat but at least it takes the market and makes your drafting decision on the dice matter: do you take the lowest value rolled to make certain you can purchase the card you need from the market? Do you take the best die to round out a needed attribute score and risk losing the market card you’d benefit from the most? Maybe you go for the middle one, getting some money and accepting the 50% chance that the market remains in-tact. The answer, surprisingly, is different from round to round.

 This game is surprisingly fast to get to the table. Setup takes a matter of minutes, the only long part comes from taking out a few cards from each half of the Market deck – assuming you do not consider the rolling and placement of your six starting dice as part of setup (I wouldn’t, since you are making game-critical decisions at that point). This is a game that comes in a big box but can get to the table with ease due to the quick setup and teardown time.

 Every game is going to play out a little differently, because you’ll have a different race, class, alignment, and backstory card combination. So you will have different goals in terms of stat scores, dice placement, and more depending on what you are given to start the game. I appreciate the shifting focus, so that a prevalent “always go after X” strategy does not really occur. Plus with the removal of 14 cards from the Market each game, you can never bank on those to pan out, either.

 There are a lot more ways to mitigate dice rolls, or use poor ones to your advantage, than you might anticipate from a game with so much rolling of dice. That was quite the pleasant surprise, with there being a ton of manipulation through placement in each stat line, along with a bunch of market cards that can help to either use more manipulation or potentially reward you for having a stat or two in a lower threshold.

 Gameplay is highly addictive. I received a wave of games for the Spring of Solitaire series, and since the first play I always pause long to consider pulling this one out – again – when I am looking at games to play. Coupled with intuitive rules, a moderate table presence, and a quick setup/teardown, this is a game that is bound to get repeat plays both solo and with others.

 This game suffers from the opposite of what I feared to find in a game like Call to Adventure. I imagined this was a game with mediocre mechanics (because I’m inherently biased that way toward dice games, if I’m honest) and a theme that sounded cool in practice but required a lot of open imagination from the player to be great. And while you could argue about the theme being replaceable, all of the elements in here certainly make you feel like you are crafting a D&D Character – except I never rolled those great of stats across the board. And the mechanics are, surprisingly, what makes this game stand out.

 While there are ample ways to manipulate dice in the game, it still boils down to being a dice game and having several other elements of chance that can impact your score: the set collections in the market, since you cannot be guaranteed all of them will come out, and what color dice are pulled each round. Need a blue die in the final three rounds to finish your backstory? Tough luck unless a blue die is pulled from the bag – of which you have 9 “chances” it will be blue and not one of the other five colors. The point difference between all 6 on the backstory and only 4-5 can be huge – and it is often those final ones that are the hardest to nail down.

 The solo game is a beat-your-high-score style of solo game. I usually loathe those and avoid repeat plays, but this one has a strong enough set of mechanics and fun to make me want to revisit it. Yet that will eventually wear thin, making the game destined to be one I pull out from time to time but never really a staple in the rotation. I hear the expansion cranks up the solo experience and adds a win/loss, among other aspects, and so there is no doubt I will be picking that up in the near future to enhance the Roll Player experience.

 I want a little more variety in here. More market cards – although 7 of each half are removed at the start of the game in a solo play. Backstory cards that might dictate 2-3 of the colors in some attributes and none in others. Attribute goals that have some middling and/or low stats rather than all 14 or higher goals. Alignment cards that let you trigger an attribute ability at the end of the game instead of scoring points. Wanting more stuff isn’t necessarily a bad thing – by wanting more it is clear I enjoy the game, but I fear it will get stale with just the base game after a dozen plays or less.

Final Thoughts

There are a lot of things about Roll Player that, on paper, should turn me off from the game. I am not a fan of dice rolling – although there is drafting from the rolled dice here. I am definitely not a fan of “beat your high score” solitaire modes. I played the “close kin” game, Sagrada, once as a multiplayer game and it didn’t impress me and, therefore, I sort of ignored all of the buzz around Roll Player. I figured it wouldn’t be my kind of game.

I could not have been more wrong. While this is still not a perfect solo game for me, it was one of my early favorites among the review copies secured for the Spring of Solitaire. Not only that, but it sounds like the expansion adds everything I would want to see in the solo game to crank it up into an experience more in-line with what I would typically enjoy.

This game offers a lot of fun and interesting decisions. Yes, there are times when the dice can place you into situations that are not ideal, but there are so many ways to adjust and mitigate and adapt to those situations to where it never feels like a factor. Sure, you might get into a spot where you need a specific color and/or number rolled in the final turn or two – but careful preplanning can help make it so you aren’t painted into that corner or, at the very least, where only a point or two hangs in the balance.

With so much variety in setup between the player board, class, and alignment it helps every game feel fresh. I wish the market had more variety of cards – although you do take out 7 cards from each half as part of setup. I understand it is balanced to make it possible to collect full sets of armor, but I’d rather have the strong variety making you try to capitalize on what comes out rather than hold out for a specific card or combo. That remains my biggest nitpick with the game, beyond the desire to have something more than a high score system (which the expansion corrects!)

Roll Player is near perfect for what it sets out to be. This game is super quick to set up and tear down, and I can clock in a full game – from box to table to box again – in about 30-40 minutes. That is an outstanding gameplay time for a game that delivers a meaty enough experience to not feel like a filler game. This is also one that I have high hopes that my wife will enjoy, making it the rare dice game we both like to get to the table on occasion. If so, it will be in good company alongside The Castles of Burgundy in that category on our shelf. The fact that I hope, and expect, it to reach the same “status” as that Feld masterpiece should tell you a lot about how I feel about Roll Player, and it will only get better with expansions.