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Dispatches from GenCon #5: Sonar - Prepare to Dive!

Sonar is a game my wife calls "Battleship for Grownups". This gets the point across rather succinctly. It's a shockingly fun game with very few pieces in the box necessary to play. The basic setup is the same as Battleship, but there is only one ship you're commanding - a submarine. They recommend the game is played with 2 players per submarine. One person plays as the ships captain and the other plays as a radio operator.

With a bit of imagination, this scene will become the tense bridge room of a submarine in enemy territory,

A screen not unlike a dungeon masters screen separates the two teams. The radio operator and captain of both teams are each handed an identical map which shows the area where the submarine hunt will take place. There are four map variants in the box with more or less islands on them all the way to open ocean. Everyone also gets a dry erase marker to draw on their map. Further, the radio operators have a clear piece of plastic they can place over their map. This is used to record and predict any movements by the enemy submarine.

The submarine teams take turns with the captains calling out the maneuvers of their submarines. Each time you make a standard move, the submarine accrues one energy (to a maximum of four) which can be spent to engage a sonar ping, take a silent maneuver, or fire a torpedo. The nuances of the game are exposed when both subs are closing in on accurate positions of their opponents and tracking and carefully using energy is key to being in the right place at the right time to be able to fire off a torpedo.

I've had a ton of fun with Sonar. It's quick to teach somebody the rules and a great way to kill some time for four people. There is a more complex version of the game called "Captain Sonar" which I am unfamiliar with. That game supports up to 8 players and adds more roles to the game in addition to the captain and the radio operator. I'm not sure if I'll ever expand to that version, but give this a look if you want a casual to pick up strategy game with a surprising amount of depth.

Dispatches from GenCon #4: Monster Slaughter!

Are you tired of playing the weak human who has to gather up equipment in order to stand the slightest of chances against horrible monsters? Well, Monster Slaughter has heard your complaints and provides the solution. In this miniatures board game you play as a literal family of zombies, vampires, golems, and werewolves, The board itself is composed of a classic "cabin in the woods" horror scenario with a bunch of unsuspecting humans inside.

A real highlight of this game was the build quality of the board which is not mere window dressing for the gameplay. Doors slot over the walls, lifting off to reveal the broken version of the door. This results in the cabin changing visually over the course of the game as more doors are smashed by the players trying to get inside.

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Humans inside the building will run away in response to the actions of other players making your task of taking out certain humans first more difficult as they scurry away. Each member of your monster family has a slightly tweaked statline. The child monster is faster than the father monster who is stronger in combat, while the mother monsters are the best at searching for items in the house. All three are capable of trying to frighten or attack human characters. 

Honestly I only had enough time to get through 3 or 4 turns during my time at GenCon so I don't have a thorough read on the mechanics but it is clear from the passion of the guy demoing the game to us that a lot of love has gone into this game and it shows. The miniatures for the game are gorgeous and will look great on the board all painted up.

As a fan of the Frankenstein archetype I quite like the inclusion of golems as playable monsters.

If you're interested in Monster Slaughter they will be launching a kickstarter later this month on Halloween. Of course it's on Halloween.

Dispatches from GenCon #3: Munchkin Panic (and other panic) Impressions
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Munchkin Panic is one flavor out of  the many "Panic" monikered games from Fireside Games. The Munchkin version was the game I got my hands on at GenCon to try out but Fireside has also published a zombie themed version called Dead Panic, a sci-fi Star Trek Panic, and of course there is the original Castle Panic. I can't say for sure how different aside from theming any of these versions might be from Munchkin Panic, but the version that I played was a very casual system.

The board is broken down into four concentric rings centered around the players' castle. The first circle by the castle is labeled swordsman, then knight, archer, and finally the forest ring. New monsters enter play from the forest ring, moving inwards through each ring until they manage to hit the castle itself. The circles themselves are further divided like a pie creating three different colored sections of the ring (red, green, or blue).

Player's primary means of fighting the incoming hordes of monsters is playing attack cards which have a unit and color, corresponding to the rings on the board. For example, in the image above, a green knight would be able to strike the Pit Bull monster token. Some attacks affect multiple rings or colors, but by and large cards only effect one. In the munchkin version of the game, you are also assigned a character card such as dwarf or wizard which grants you a unique ability.

With that basic layout explained, let me just wear my bias on my sleeve for the rest of this post: I didn't like the game very much. While the premise of the game is a fun idea (defending a central castle from incoming monsters) the actual mechanical execution of the way monsters come in and the way players attack didn't sit well with me. Creatures move inward on the ring at the end of every players turn, sometimes they get shuffled around between sections as the result of cards being played. There is very little value in thinking ahead several turns and your options are extremely limited by the color and type of the card. I have to agree with the sentiments of one of my friends on this game, "It felt like a glorified candy land." If I don't feel like I have a strong handle on how the game is going to play out based on my decisions, it's hard for me to recommend.

That said however, I do think this would be a more fun game to play with kids than candyland. The rules are simple enough that kids could easily be taught the game and it's short enough that it will hold their interest for the duration. For strategy gamers? Give this a pass. Something to play with the family, kids, or casual game reluctant players? Then this one might do the trick.

Dispatches from GenCon #2: Firefly Adventures - Brigands and Browncoats Preview

Our main objective was to steal the goods in the center shack, marked by the star token.

Assemble the crew, scrounge up some coin for supplies, get the job done, and keep flying! Firefly Brigands and Browncoats (to which I will affectionately refer to as BnB from now on) is a miniatures cooperative game where players take on the role of either Mal, Zoe, Jayne, Kaylee, or Wash from the show Firefly. First, you pick a mission or "job" to take on together then the group spends funds to acquire gear to help on that job. Once that is settled, the job takes place on a gridded tactical board not unlike a Dungeons and Dragons encounter. Our job at GenCon was to steal some cargo from a locked and well guarded shipping area.

The main difference between BnB and other games of it's ilk like Star Wars Imperial Assault or the Dungeons and Dragons adventure games is that characters begin the game in "casual" mode. The designers intelligently made the jobs not just about combat but also about stealth, verbal deception, and technical skills. Each player will have not one but two miniatures to represent their character. One miniature for "casual" and one miniature for "heroic".

At the beginning of our heist, our characters started their first turns by staking out the location casually. While acting casual, characters won't automatically draw attacks from guards on the board. In addition, some characters will be able to hack terminals (to open locked doors) or engage in conversation challenges or use abilities on guards in an attempt to talk them out of watching those doors so closely. In our game, Kaylee and Wash were able to distract some guards long enough to get into one of the rooms with a terminal where Kaylee was able to hack open the door to our ill gotten gains. Meanwhile Mal and myself as Jayne engaged in some less diplomatic thrillin heroics. As Mal got in a brawl with the thug outside another room with a terminal, I popped inside and jumped the guard by surprise. Even as some characters go heroic entering combat, your entire team does not have to go heroic. Kaylee and Wash can continue to be sneaky and act like they don't know those people causing all the commotion across the yard.

Another major aspect of the game is its initiative system for determining turn order. Every action has a cost in "moments", every time you take an action you move a token representing your character up a time tracker by the appropriate amount of moments. To determine who goes next, you move whoever is lowest on the time tracker, meaning they've used the least amount of time so far. It's a very clever system which ties into the overall job system nicely. At regular intervals of time during the mission, escalations will occur. This is stuff like reinforcements being called in, alarms going off, doors getting locked down - it's bad news for Mal and his crew. It keeps the tensions of the job high and replicates that feeling of a plan gone awry from the show in game form.

Each action a character performs takes a certain number of moments, noted by the clock and number symbol next to it.

There are other ways for the encounter to escalate too. Not only did I have to try and time my takedown of the guard for when Mal had distracted the other guard watching the door, but once the enemies are downed they leave body tokens on the battlefield which if spotted by other thugs will send up the alarms. Many stealth video games over the years have used a similar mechanic, but it was the first time I saw it in a tabletop strategy game and it was a welcome addition.

Even if you weren't a fan of the shows universe (and really, why don't you like Firefly? What's wrong with you?) I believe BnB offers a unique strategy game. If you're tired of just romping around dungeons or blasting storm troopers, I think Firefly Adventures opens up a new door for the genre where non-combat mechanics are just as important if not more so than combat to completing the mission.

You can pre-order Firefly Adventures Brigands and Browncoats today, or look for it's release before the end of the year!

"I aim to misbehave."

Jayne and Zoe get the job done while Mal lies around and gets beat up like usual.

Dispatches from GenCon #1: Hellapagos Preview

Everything was going great until our yacht hit a reef and stranded us on a tropical island. Limited food and water are a daily concern. Wood must be gathered and rafts constructed if anyone is going to make it off this island before the hurricane wipes us all out for good. This is the simple premise to Hellapagos, a new game from French publisher Gigamic.

Each turn players will need to have an amount of food and water equal to the number of players in the game. If there isn't enough food or water to go around, a vote is called and the voted on player is killed out of the game. This vote and execute process is repeated until there is enough food or water for everyone remaining to drink.

The trick is to not be the player that everyone votes to kill off when supplies get scarce. You can do one of four actions on your turn to make yourself useful to the survivors:

  1. Fish for Food - Fishing is done by selecting a wood ball from a sack blindly. You catch the number of fish displayed on the ball.
  2. Collect Rain Water - Each day, a weather card is flipped which determines how much it is raining (if at all). This action collects water based on the current weather.
  3. Search the Boat Wreckage - Draw supply cards from the boat wreckage deck. These are things like extra food, water, guns, bullets, and tools.
  4. Search for Wood - Automatically collect 1 wood, but may search longer for additional wood. The more wood you search for the more likely you are to be bitten by a snake making you sick for one round, forfeiting your turn.

With the immediate threat of being forced to kill people if enough food or water can't be gathered, the primary goal that formed early in our game at GenCon was to collect surplus food and water. What makes the game interesting is when food or water inevitably run out and voting must be done, everyones past actions are scrutinized by the group. Players who feel on the chopping block begin lobbing accusations. "Why didn't you gather water when it was raining heavily? It's your fault we're screwed now that it's been dry for two days!"

You can even find and keep secret a gun and bullet cards so if you are ever about to be voted off, BLAMMO. You can take out another player. Of course, that will make you really unpopular the next time a vote needs to be called depending on who you killed and how you justified it. This game is all about keeping blame off yourself so waving your gun around should be considered a last resort.

Of course you could be searching the wreckage not for bullets but for the valuable tool cards you can find. One of our players affectionately became known as "Half Raft Zak" when he acquired the axe and was able to build half a raft by himself each turn with the extra wood it let him gather. Getting something like that can make you practically immune at the next vote when food runs out.

It was fascinating to me how this game turns a group of players who on turns one and two are cooperating very tightly into people shouting and blaming each other for this or that by the time the game is winding down and there are almost enough rafts to escape the island. It managed that feat in our game with over a dozen players and the game never felt slowed down. For that alone Hellapagos deserves some attention as a game that can be played with 16 players and keep everyone engaged with whats happening.

This was one of my favorite new games at GenCon and I pre-ordered it before leaving the convention center. It will be released by the end of 2017, check it out!