Caught in a Black Hole- Tiny Epic Galaxies: Beyond the Black Review

Tiny Epic Galaxies: Beyond the Black

Designed by: Scott Almes

1 – 5 Players

Playtime: 1/2 Hour – 1 Hour

While this might be content I’d normally tackle in a Budget Board Gamer episode, I felt it more prudent to discuss it now, as my backlog is a bit extensive and I felt the need to voice my opinions on this one.

Tiny Epic Galaxies is a game I have yet to discuss, but I must say that I do find it quite enjoyable and engaging both from multiplayer and solo perspectives. The follow mechanic is a stand-out idea that encourages more thought-provoking strategies. Every game feels tight, with players within a couple of points of one another by the end. And while not “tiny”, a rather big game comes in an impressively compact package.

Enter Beyond the Black, a Kickstarter campaign that passed me by before I realized it was there. Luckily, here at Games on Tape we can rely on most games eventually finding its way to our doorstep, with Tim having backed the game a while ago and me borrowing a copy from someone I game with often. Needless to say, it isn’t too hard to find these days on store shelves, in a box basically identical to the original.

Within, players will find four Star Trek-ish ships and a points tracker in each color, a score track board, an unexplored space board, five spaceport boards, 30 pilot cards, 12 planet cards, eight secret goal cards, and a rulebook.

While the new components were the first things to catch my eye, it didn’t take me long to notice the thin nature of the rulebook, composed of barely seven pages. The explanation is easily grasped and succinct, clearly striving to add a handful of new options without derailing the original game, one of the best things an expansion can aim to do.

Once I reached the bottom of the box, I noticed, coincidentally, that the modified rules for solo mode could be found in the bottom well. In fact, this is the only place you can find it, an oversight in my opinion, especially for someone who likes to keep all his rulebooks as PDF’s generally. A small nitpick, yes, but I’d rather have had this as a part of the rules, especially considering how short it is already.

The new player components are the same nice, wooden pieces that you’ve already been playing with for some time now. If you enjoy how those feel, you’ll have no issue with these. Similarly, the card quality and art is just as good, if not better.

I find myself being drawn to having roles to play off of when experiencing a board game, so I was immediately excited by the wide selection of pilots this game presents, from the four-armed alien Bookworm to the serious and confident Monk to… Tim Shaffer? Yes, if you got your copy via the Kickstarter, there will be a handful of familiar faces, including the titular Gamelyn Games mascot, appearing as promos. I’ve never been a fan of celebrities invading the games I play (I’m having flashbacks to the countless Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day promos that were all the craze at the start of the decade), and these feel particularly out of place, but to each their own.

Perhaps the most surprising and perplexing for me was the sealed stack of circular cards, labeled simply as unexplored space. While a neat idea to help distinguish them and allow them to fit on the appropriate mat, the shape and slickness make these a slight pain to shuffle, and are the least interesting to look at, with many of the images feeling mundane and typical when standing next to the portraits of planets and the grimaces and grins of the crew members you’ve recruited.

So, what does all this amount to? What does Beyond the Black truly add to the Tiny Epic Galaxy experience?

… A whole lot of nothing.

I hate that I have to say that, but it’s true. This expansion, for all its polish and style, acts as nothing more but a brief distraction until you return to playing the game the way it was originally meant to be played.

Beyond the Black looks to add two new actions that players can take on their turn; hire a pilot and fly to unexplored space, but before I get into those, I need to explain how exploration badges work for the sake of explaining balancing.

Exploration badges appear at the bottom of every pilot and exploration card. At the end of the game, on top of all normal, points, players can get points for having the most of each of the four symbols, two points if they have the most and one if they have the second most. A nice idea, certainly, but something that’s incredibly hard to tell, from a competitive perspective, how you are faring as opposed to everyone else. In the base game, you have x number of points, they have y number of points. It’s easy to recognize and calculate, thus allowing the games to be closer and more competitive. Here, half the exploration cards will remain unrevealed until the end of the game, and it simply doesn’t feel interesting or witty; it feels like someone collected the most triangles by random happenstance, so they get two points. … Hooray?

Hiring a pilot from a selection equal to the number of planets present is as simple as getting two dice of the same face and, instead of using them for their regular abilities, spending both to recruit a pilot that can fly the ship associated with those symbols. Some pilots can only pilot certain ships, but each give their own special abilities that only affect the ship they control, allowing you to collect extra resources, steal from others, colonize more efficiently, and more. Additionally, you can spend three of the same face to recruit any pilot for any ship type. Each pilot you obtain is worth a victory point, regardless if you replace them later in the game.

While these abilities can be fun and useful to have, a number of issues quickly surface, turning this seemingly useful option into more of a distraction. Firstly, players are required to spend two actions worth of dice to obtain a point and a passive buff when often you could better use those symbols to colonize or prepare your galaxy for the rounds to come. Yes, the pilots can be useful, but seeing as they only affect the one ship, their use is very limited. You’ll find yourself using a ship’s ability once only to leave it there because you have better actions available that actually move you towards victory. Because at the end of the day, pilots get you one point a pop for two actions. From a game-end perspective, you sacrifice a lot to get them with very little pay-off.

It’s not even like these pilots are all that balanced either; looking over the 30 cards, there are some pilots that provide better versions of abilities for the same cost, and sometimes with more flexibility.

Take the Kingpin vs the Agent; while the Kingpin lets a player take a free planet action when its ship successfully colonizes a planet, the Agent simply needs to enter a planet’s colony track to get the same effect, allowing for you to get the effect more immediately and plan around it as opposed to hoping you don’t get beat to the end of a colony track. On top of this, while the Kingpin can pilot two different types of ships, the Agent can commandeer any of the four, making it an easy card to scoop up. Oh, and the Kingpin only has one exploration badge while the Agent has three, making the Agent the most competitive not just in terms of abilities, but end-game points too.

Not convinced? Well, let’s look at the Marshall vs the Duchess. The Marshall, when colonizing a plent, gets 1 free resource of that planet type, whereas the Duchess gets 2 for doing the same thing. Also, the Marshall is limited to manning only one type of ship, whereas the Duchess can pilot two types, and each come with only one exploration badge. One card is LITERALLY better than the other in every given way.

On top of this, there are some cards that have crazy abilities. The Overseer can colonize with either economy or politics regardless of the planet, the Lightspeeder can launch with any die face, and the Peace Keeper prevents anyone else from moving their ship on the colony track past it. These can be pretty insane abilities, so much so that they feel unfair next to others. I mean, get the Peace Keeper out early enough on a colony track, and no one else can take it from you. That’s ridiculous, but most of these cards are not that powerful, not by a longshot.

All of this is indicated on a player’s spaceport board, which means the expansion is already doubling the amount of tablespace you need to play. And when you do get a pilot, you need to choose one of your current ships, replace it with the appropriate ship, and then use the old ship to indicate on the pilot card which ship the pilot is using by covering that symbol. But once you have three or four, you start to forget which ship goes to which pilot, meaning you’re constantly checking over your cards and where your ships are positioned, making each turn drag.

That’s not even to speak to how much text is on every pilot card. Most have three or four lines of text in small print, meaning players will spend an extensive amount of their turn reading over the descriptions of not just every planet action, but every pilot ability as well.

When we first pulled this out, one of the players had never played Tiny Epic Galaxies before, so we started with a game only using the base components, a close match that lasted about 35 minutes. After introducing the expansion, however, the game dragged to a dreadful two hours. TWO HOURS. Now, this likely isn’t the most fair example, as everyone was new to the game, and thus had to both understand the game and constantly remind ourselves of the pilots and what they did, but regardless of that I think it’s fair to say that this expansion certainly extends the playtime of the game by a bit due to doubling the amount of information on the table.

So we have a ton of pilots that cost two actions, provide one point, and have effects that affect that ship in question, and while some are powerful, they are few and far between and cost the same as just about any other ship, meaning you either get lucky with the selection provided or you never take pilots, simple as that. I wanted to like this idea so much, but it just doesn’t gel well with the game format, not to mention it becomes a chore to use. Off to a less-than-great start.

The unexplored space though… in my opinion, it’s infinitely worse. How this works is that rather than flying a ship to a planet in some way with a launch, players can send their ship to unexplored space.

What I can briefly note as a positive is that this space provides culture, allowing for a permanent location that consistently provides a much-needed resource, something the base game lacks.

That being said, when you land there, you must draw an unexplored space card. When drawing from the top of the deck, if a green card, players may either keep it or place it on the table and draw again. Players can continue to do this until they find a card they like, three cards are already available on the table, or you draw a red card. Alternatively, players can take a face-up card from the table without replacing it rather than trying their luck.

Green cards provide either one or two resources, and will sometimes rarely give one point. Red cards, on the other hand, force players to lose two resources, give two resources to other players, or trap that player’s ships temporarily until they complete a planet track through an asteroid field or black hole.

In other words, the best reward a player can get is two random resources, something that your normal actions can often provide more consistently, and there’s a good chance that you’ll screw yourself and even help your opponents by doing so. After checking, there are 11 red cards out of the 30 unexplored space cards, meaning you have slightly more than a ⅓ chance of screwing yourself in the process. Meanwhile, there are ten cards that provide two resources, six cards that give one resource, and three cards that simply give you a point.

And yes, it can be argued that this is made up for in exploration badges, with the negative effects and lesser positive effects giving you more, but here’s the thing; those aren’t guaranteed points, far from it. You have no idea how many badges of each type players have until the game has finished, meaning there’s no planning involved, no strategy, just dumb luck.

It’s also worth noting that, in the games I have played, players have always taken the top card of the deck rather than fishing for more. And why not? Why would you risk drawing into a bad card if you haven’t already when the odds are against you in most situations?

The unexplored space mechanic adds a press-your-luck element that doesn’t work in such a deductive and strategic game, simply cluttered the tablespace with a ton of extra components.

And when it all comes down to it, players who get hung up on these two new actions will lose. In the first game I played of this, one of the players simply played as he always did, and smoked everyone else by a landslide, even after the badges. While most of us had six or ten points due to our exploration expeditions or recruitment phases, this individual fully upgraded their galaxy and sat on a handful of planets, boosting him to 21 points easily with no competition to fight when colonizing.

A lot of you may be wondering how solo is then, that maybe with less components to manage, less cards cluttering the table, and a more focused game, that all this might come together into a great experience. And while the pilots do get a little more traction, this is only because the AI will likely meander. The expansion comes with five new AI opponents (on the backs of the spaceport boards) which include the new mechanics, and the rules in the bottom of the box briefly explain how they obtain pilots.

What really kills this as an option, though, is how now every time the AI upgrades itself, it gets a random exploration card for itself, basically getting a free action. Through this, the AI can quickly accumulate enough exploration badges to get a free eight points at the end of every game, and while some may find this addition to make the game more challenging, I find it annoying and obnoxious. Not that it gives the AI that much of an advantage; I can still beat Medium without much effort, but many of the opponents have abilities that earn them extra Pilots and Exploration cards for free, quickly stacking points against you in a way that feels, to me at least, less interesting or exciting.

Even the new secret goal cards and planet cards feel tacked on and frustrating to use. Some of the secret goal cards are especially difficult to achieve, such as Invincible, which awards you if you have the most red exploration cards at the end of the game. While possible, you’ll lose so many resources in the process you’ll screw yourself out of the win, while also supplying your opponents with great face-up exploration cards if you choose to sift through your options. Meanwhile, the Dwarf and Giant goals requires a player to have no or all of their planets, respectively, to be worth 5 points, by and large limiting what you can and can’t do, especially when the luck of the draw can make these options not terribly viable.

And the new planets are here to add the new mechanics into planetary effects, but half of them provide either resource, depending on what you’re collecting, making them feel a little too generous, regardless of their planetary abilities. Additionally, you’ll be hard-pressed to have more than one or two of them show up in your game, with there being so many planets in the base game already.

Lastly, the score track, while a nice thought, becomes a hassle quickly. Yes, you can track every single point a player gets in real time, but generally you can determine how many points a player has just by looking for their cards, meaning it becomes more obnoxious than helpful.

Simply put, Beyond the Black adds nothing of value to the Tiny Epic Galaxies experience. The ideas are mostly sound and interesting, but it all comes down to the new mechanics not being competitive enough. It’s a shame, really, as I had some incredibly high hopes for this game, even going so far as trying to play with just the pilots, removing the unexplored space and badges. But even if that was a viable way to play, it wouldn’t be worth the $25 price tag.

Kickstarter and Deception: Undercover Allies

It’s an exciting time for me as a board gamer as I see a lot of my favorite games getting support, expansions, attention, price drops, and resurgences, and, fortunately or not, Kickstarter seems to be the central hub for many of these changes. You’ve likely seen my coverage of the Roll Player expansion, Monsters and Minions, both in regards to how it plays and how it utilizes Kickstarter in both positive and negative ways. I also backed the Champions of Midgard expansions a few months back, which, to my surprise, will be arriving on my doorstep sometime at the start of July. With that being said, it makes me sad, confused, and frustrated to hate the Deception: Murder in Hong Kong expansion Kickstarter campaign as much as I do.

That sounds like an outrageous, backward, and unfair statement, so let me clarify a few things.

Firstly, Deception is one of my favorite board games to date, hands down. It takes the best parts of Mysterium, Clue, and Resistance: Avalon and creates one of the most unique and consistently enjoyable party games I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing.

Second, I do not hate that Deception is getting an expansion; I’m not some purist getting on his pedestal to denounce the idea of adding more to an already great game. Rather, I speak out against how it’s being handled on Kickstarter.

You may have noticed a few paragraphs ago that the turnaround time for backers of the Champions of Midgard expansions is around three months, an absurd and somewhat unbelievable timeframe considering how Kickstarter is supposed to be used. Little did I know that Grey Fox Games, a company I generally have a deep respect for, was using their Kickstarter campaign not to fund a potentially uncertain project, but instead to gather pre-orders for a product that had already been completed and at least partially pre-printed.

It’s unlikely that you know how much I abhor the pre-order culture and how it works tirelessly to devalue the quality of product I strive to find in every purchase I make. It’s a negative practice that has been perpetuated by the video game industry, driving me away from the hobby as a whole in favor of, you guessed it, board games. So, having realized my misunderstanding only after the fact, I was somewhat frustrated to say the least.

Then in walks Deception: Undercover Allies, initially announced to me through a message from that same Champions of Midgard Kickstarter, a practice that’s a little annoying but at least somewhat understandable. The announcement came with no details, no clue as to what it would add or why it was being created, simply that it was to exist. So, much like a detective at his wit’s end, I waited impatiently for new clues to make themselves clear, wondering all the while whether it would be worth a pledge.

With its recent release, I can say confidently that it is neither worth the time or money to invest in this project via Kickstarter, at least not in the state that we currently find it.

And I don’t make that statement lightly. Hell, it’s one of the most frustrating statements I’ve had to make about the industry in some time; watching one of my favorite games have its name dragged through the mud is nothing if not disheartening. But I can’t stand by pretending like this project isn’t manipulative and looking to get your money at the expense of the quality and creative aspects of the game.

For those of you unfamiliar, Deception: Murder in Hong Kong pits a secret murderer against a team of detectives, with their only resource being a mute forensic scientist, only able to communicate to them through tiles that provide vague clues as to what was found at the crime scene. With each player having a set of four means cards and four clue cards face-up in front of them, a player can make one guess over the course of a round as to what combo of one red and one blue card was chosen by the murderer, keeping in mind that each of these cards must be in front of the murderer in question. While I could talk about how smart this game is, how it’s a hidden role game that doesn’t rely nearly as heavily on the typical guesswork and bluffing,  I’d encourage you to simply try it out for yourself if you haven’t.

Deception: Undercover Allies initially started to concern me due to its focus on the inclusion of a few more role cards. Much like Resistance: Avalon, the base game came with a few optional roles beyond the required Murderer and Forensic Scientist roles, namely the Witness and the Accomplice, working like the Merlin and Assassin roles from that game. While each is functional, I find myself and my gaming groups using them rather infrequently, as they don’t add nearly as much in the format Deception presents.

But if these are cards I’d use on rare occasion, the Inside Man and Lab Technician appears to be roles I’d throw in my drawer of extra and unnecessary components. Each of these looks to add some mid-game alterations, forcing players to stop what they’re doing after the first round of play in order for players to be narrated through these new additions. The Lab Technician is able to confirm clearly if one card was or wasn’t used in the crime at hand, and the Inside Man steals someone’s badge, preventing them from making a guess. While the Inside Man sounds like it could result in some fun and unique bluffing, it comes at the cost of slowing the already fantastic and loose flow of the game. The Lab Technician, while an interesting idea, takes away from some of the mystery the game presents. Moreover, both roles feel forced, as if the expansion felt unwarranted without the inclusion of more roles. With the focus on these roles in the Kickstarter video and the promise of more on the way, Undercover Allies starts its sales pitch with material that is not only unnecessary but takes away some of what made the game as special as it is.

Next, four scene tiles and an event tile are included. The scenes, Ambient Noise, Murder Inspired By, Victim’s Personality, and Victim’s Hobbies, work like what we’ve already experienced, and simply adds some slight variety to what’s included in the base game. The event tile, however, is rather concerning in terms of how it might affect a game. The Perfect Crime potentially sways the forensic scientist mid-game to trying to help the murderer, causing confusion and strife within the group. And while the idea is very cool, the fact that the only resource players have to work with might suddenly intentionally sabotage the mission makes it sound one-sided and unfair. Yes, events can only activate after the first round, but I struggle to fathom a scenario where the murderer doesn’t win if this happens.

Two more badges are added, allowing for a game to be played with up to 14 players, which is absurd and completely unnecessary. I think the game is at a nice cap around eight or ten honestly, with too many people making it feel like a chore to sort through all the cards and possibilities.

Lastly, 50 means cards and 80 clue cards are included in the retail expansion, allowing for a bit more variety to the possible murderous combinations. This is by far the best part of what Undercover Allies offers, with players seeing all the cards from the base game on the table after four games if playing with a big enough group. Therefore, more of these cards are definitely a welcome addition.

Now, if this was all there was to Undercover Allies, I could easily write it off as an expansion that adds more of the same but not enough substance, maybe picking it up on sale after it’s released. But this is Kickstarter, and with the crowdfunding format comes a lot of temptations and problematic practices, with a good number of them found here.

First, and by far the worst, Kickstarter exclusives. If I felt comfortable writing it, the rest of this paragraph would be a cacophony of obscenities, but instead I’ll say this; making any content exclusive in a market that already struggles to keep many of their products in print is just as damaging, if not more so, as pre-order culture today. I’m all for promos and additional content, as long as everyone has an equal opportunity to get them, but making stuff to specifically lock behind a timed pay-wall doesn’t just speak to negative business practices, but devalues every other copy of the expansion that is released. Yes, they’re just means and clue cards, that’s not a big deal, there are already a ton more. But it IS a big deal; regardless of how little it adds, exclusivity is always important in an industry that struggles to include newcomers to the hobby.

Of the exclusive clue and means cards, while a very small handful is being unlocked by reaching stretch goals, a majority can be bought via add-on content through theme packs. Each pack is based around a collection of nationalities, including cards specific to different regions and cultures of the world. At first glance, this is a neat idea, with a lot of interesting cards being added to the mix that provides a certain diversity to what’s included. But putting them behind a secondary pay-wall is a little on the ridiculous side, with each pack containing 20 cards for $5, or are included in one of the tiers with a $2 discount on the overall $15. In other words, if 130 more cards aren’t enough for you, there’s a bunch more if you’re willing to pay. But if you don’t, they’re Kickstarter exclusive, meaning you can’t get them again down the road. Manipulative to say the least.

Additionally, an extra pack of cards will be added to the theme packs shortly, with people voting on the pack in particular. This pack will be themed around a certain geek culture property, such as Harry Potter or Alien. Looking at the poll, it will likely end up being Game of Thrones. If you followed my coverage of the Roll Player expansion, you know I’m a fan of getting the patrons involved by having them vote for stuff to be added, and I stand by that, but this is something entirely different and a lot more skeezy.

The first and most innocent thing that grabs my attention is that these cards will likely not gel with the rest, a concern I already share with the other theme packs. The cards made for the base game of Deception focus of items and ideas that come from a more modern setting, allowing for there to be interesting combos without a specific theming clash or odd card to make a murderer too obvious. With the addition of cards that don’t fall under that banner, there’s a risk of these additions unbalancing certain experiences due to a longsword being a little too obvious of a potential clue to be chosen by a murderer. Just look at the Death Ray and Laser Shark cards from the third stretch goal to find examples of this.

But on top of this, patrons are not voting on a stretch goal that they are guaranteed to get; rather, they are voting on what they must then PAY EXTRA to receive. The update in question (#2) states that the pack will be added to their themed packs, and if you look at the backer tier that includes those, it specifically says it includes the “three” packs, a fact that is unlikely to change as the tier cost would need to be readjusted.

[EDIT: After someone pointing it out in the comments, it’s been clarified that the aforementioned “pack” was actually referring to another 2-card stretch goal, with the awkward verbiage resulting in my confusion. Backers do not have to pay extra for this stretch goal, so the above paragraph does not apply. Thanks to WarpedLord for pointing this inaccuracy out.]

Upgrades to the badges and bullet tokens are provided in the forms of metal badges and plastic microscope tokens, which, again, you can get as an add-on or through another tier level, but costs $20 in the add-on format, with the $2 discount via the backer tier. Ignoring that the same price could get you a cavalcade of metal coins for other games, this is almost the same cost as the expansion costs by itself. The only reason why this one doesn’t bother me in particular is because it isn’t cited as being Kickstarter exclusive, and I respect those that want to pimp out their board games further, as I certainly have before.

The last and perhaps worst thing I have to note is the social stretch goals. While not outright excluding people from getting content like Kickstarter exclusives do, social stretch goals ask patrons to advertise a project for the creators in order to get more stuff. While at first these doesn’t seem so bad, the damage is done through the fact that these solicitations are not genuine. Patrons aren’t going around parading Deception: Undercover Allies because it’s the next best thing that’s come to Kickstarter, but rather because they want more free content. And who doesn’t? Really, I can’t blame them for doing it, so instead I blame those on the Kickstarter team who decided to employ such an awful tactic. Through this method, false buzz will be generated for a game that doesn’t necessarily deserve it for the wrong reasons, but will likely result in a boost in sales, and thus more content, creating a vicious and wholly immoral loop. And for what, another role card? The last exclusive role card that was released, the Consulting Detective, was met with confusion, with users asking each other online the point of such a situational card, and I struggle to see how this role card will be any better.

As I come to the conclusion of my rant, I’d like to address the easiest and laziest of responses I can imagine for this article; “You don’t have to get it, you know.” And yes, that’s absolutely true, and for some of my critiques a reasonable response. Some of my thoughts on the functions of certain cards are my own, and others might find enjoyment out of the more random clues or diverse roles. But from a sales perspective, from the mindset of Kickstarter being used appropriately and responsibly, this campaign is a master class in how to do it wrong. Tons of extra content falling under the dreaded Kickstarter exclusive banner, a patron-voted addition requiring that backers pay extra for the results, and a generally manipulative vibe to the whole thing makes this project feel like I’m not being sold a good product but that I’m being conned into buying a bunch of extra stuff I don’t really need but will buy so I’m not excluded. Sure, I don’t have to get it, but people will buy it due to that compulsion, simply because they feel like they need to to not be excluded, perpetuating the issue all the more.

Deception: Undercover Allies is a tempting offer; with tons of extras, promises of better inserts, and more content on the horizon. But I can’t bring myself to put money towards such a hurtful and negative Kickstarter campaign. It represents everything wrong with the resource’s use to date, and it saddens me that a company I hold in such high esteem is behind such damaging practices. All I can hope is that, by writing all this, someone might listen and see the inherent issues projects like these create not only for the indie developers hoping to break into an already cluttered and unforgiving market, but for board gaming as a whole.

Thank you for taking the time to read; let me know what you thought in the comments below, as well as whether this is the kind of article you’d like to read in the future.

Kickstarter and Roll Player

As you may have noticed, Roll Player has been on my mind a lot as of late, but something I haven’t really talked about in regards to the project is the Kickstarter campaign itself. I feel like, in regards to board games, Kickstarter has become something of a touchy subject, with the BGG community feeling fairly divided over how the website has been used over the past few years. So, as we reach the 2-week mark of the Monsters and Minions campaign, I want to take a look at how it reflects the state of Kickstarter in this day and age.

Again, a disclaimer that I have backed this project and have been involved with it for some time. For some of you, this may discount my opinions altogether, and I respect that, but I feel I still have some valid points to make that I’d like to take the time to share.

The first thing I ask myself when faced with a project is whether the individual or company using it truly needs Kickstarter funding to make their project happen. It’s easy to buy into a project that interests you without paying attention to such things, but Kickstarter becomes more and more diluted by big names looking to get even bigger bucks for the games they can already fund but would rather have the public pay for. Thankfully, Thunderworks Games is one of the rare examples of a pre-established publisher using Kickstarter appropriately. It’s a smaller business that isn’t often able to make print runs of their games, let alone releasing new content, making this process their only way of releasing their ideas.

Next, the presentation of the page. It’s no question that Roll Player has some gorgeous artwork, and the campaign page is peppered with them, both showing off the quality of what’s being released and helping to inform potential patrons of what they are buying into from the moment they click on the link.

But perhaps what’s infinitely more important is the communication this allows for. While the video provides a succinct overview of what Monsters and Minions looks to deliver, every aspect of what’s to be included is carefully laid out. A “what’s new” section immediately clarifies the additions being made. A components list and image lays out what you’ll be getting. The rulebook and PnP version of the expansion are provided for you to deduce for yourself if this is a project worth your money and time. Previews have been arranged for to show off components and initial reactions of known faces in the industry. Sections that establish why Kickstarter is the venue being used and Add-On options. And there’s a section on explaining Roll Player to those unfamiliar. Everything that needs to be clarified can be found here, and it’s all laid out rather nicely.

My one gripe about this, though, is how the stretch goal list is basically the first thing readers now come across when scrolling down the page. Don’t get me wrong, I understand this decision, as it’s an easy way to incentivize people to fund the project in hopes of reaching another goal, but it says suggests that selling more content is more important than what’s already here. Rather than have the material regarding what’s already included in Monsters and Minions front and center, newcomers will be presented with the fact that reaching more stretch goals has become more of a priority (at least, that’s the impression it creates).

Moving back into the realm of communication, Thunderworks Games has been great in terms of updates. Since the project’s release on May 23rd, patrons have seen seven updates (at the time of writing), meaning that there’s nearly been an update for every day the project has been live, speaking to how informed patrons have been throughout. And within those updates, patrons have been not just been given sneak peeks into the progress of the campaign, but the active ability to interact and partake in the process, which I’ll touch on later.

However, this is a pretty standard, expected process since the campaign is still being funded; I’ll be curious to see how this continues once the campaign is over.

Okay, let’s move on to the elephant in the room; stretch goals, by far the most heavily debated aspect of any Kickstarter project.

Briefly, I want to note that nothing in the Monsters and Minions campaign is Kickstarter exclusive, which is an important distinction in my opinion. The practice of making certain pieces of content trapped behind a pay-wall that is also only available for a brief period of time is both insulting to the customer and frustrating to those who didn’t know about the project until afterward. The inclusion of Kickstarter exclusives is a practice that needs to not happen anymore, and while it’s unfortunate that I can praise something for doing what most people should expect, it’s good to see no exclusivity here.

Now, I’m not one of those people who abhor stretch goals and see them as a company selling out in order to get some easy money from eager gamers. Sure, this can be the case at times, but not always. Rather, stretch goals, while a way to extend a project’s ability to fund itself exponentially, allows publishers to use those funds to make more exciting content for the product they are creating, using the support to make more of what people wanted in the first place. Funding a project that wouldn’t otherwise have the money should always be the first goal of a Kickstarter project, but allowing for the continued support of the game is just as important, as long as those rewards are meaningful.

That caveat is incredibly significant and separates the good stretch goals from the manipulative. Monsters and Minions has presented examples of both so far, with 14 stretch goals unlocked at the time of writing.

Before I delve into examples of these two extremes, I just want to take a moment to briefly mention the middle-ground, the stretch goals that aren’t anything exciting or amazing nor are they terrible, namely the Alignment cards. Here’s a reward that has cropped up three times so far, and presents four Alignment cards to be added to the pool contained in the base game. At most, they add variety, which is nice, and allows for the random set-up for each game to have even more options. While some might be bothered that each set of 4 are just mirrors of one another, it makes sense in the context of these cards, as there’s already a fairly robust selection that mirrored one another as well. There are only so many combinations possible with this card type, so it makes sense to do this.

There are two types of stretch goals that have been keeping me checking the Monsters and Minions page on a daily basis, elated to see what new additions will crop up, but both boil down to a single important factor: patron interaction. As I mentioned above, with many of the updates patrons have received, Thunderworks Games have provided those backing the project with options in terms of how the campaign will continue to grow.

The first of these is the addition of new races. Now, this option immediately gets me revved up, as I just adore the idea of personifying various species. Yes, the effects of them on the game are minimal outside of the two modifiers present on any given board, but they look so cool and feel so satisfying to use. Anyhow, when each race board is unlocked, patrons have an opportunity to vote from a selection of options to determine which races will be included in the finished product. This not only provides a new exciting reward to backers but allows them to have a say in what is being added. This also accentuates the community, as we all try to promote the races of our choice and discuss what would be most interesting. Even after the voting has concluded, backers are talking about how the different races should be named, allowing for the community to be bolstered even further. At this point, this has only appeared as a stretch goal twice, but I wholly hope that we see more of this down the road (and no, not just because I REALLY want to play as a bird-person).

The other great example of this is with the Backstory cards. While similar to the Alignment cards in terms of how much they contribute and the limited customization of these cards, patrons were given the ability to submit their own Backstory cards to potentially include. This takes a fairly bland and average goal and makes it something that everyone is working towards or providing feedback for, helping one another as everyone looks to include new and exciting ideas. This stretch goal has now appeared three times, but backers still await to hear which submissions have been selected for eight of the twelve Backstory cards, making this a stretch goal that continues to give.

Now, the unfortunate fact of the matter is that, of those 14 stretch goals unlocked (as of writing), almost half of them fall under the underwhelming category of more cards. And before anyone points it out, yes, Alignment and Backstory cards are, in fact, cards. What makes this different is, as I’ve mentioned, Alignment and Backstory cards allow for more variability but doesn’t change anything fundamental about the game. They are, for all intents and purposes, more options in a pool of possibilities. The inclusion of Minion, Trait, and Weapon cards, on the other hand, work to mess with the balancing of the expansion as is and helps to perpetuate an issue already present within the game.

As an example, let’s take a look at the Unholy Flail, a card that can be found under the 6th update for the campaign. Unholy Flail is a 4-cost one-handed weapon card that provides a player with +1 to every battle they fight. A nice addition certainly, with some potential advantages if you are a battle-ready player. However, when thought about, this ability sounds and feels rather weak. Unless a player is off of a goal by 1 point, this card becomes useless. It requires that, during the random roll of the dice, you happen to roll in a way where you are exactly off by 1 point, giving you that slight boost. In other words, it’s a card that requires you to get slightly unlucky in order for it to serve any purpose. I’ve seen a few posts from other backers that see this card as underwhelming and not terribly interesting or useful.

Similarly, the Thieves’ Tools, a card found in the 2nd update, is a 2-cost one-handed weapon that allows a player to untap all Skills at the start of a turn, an incredibly powerful ability for certain classes for a paltry cost. If a player is already specializing in a Skill-focused game, especially if they are the Rogue class (which enables you to ignore the cost of a given Skill), this card can theoretically break the game for a particular player. We can’t know that for sure, though, because these are cards we, as backers, can’t really playtest, at least not easily, leaving us to trust that these cards, each of which sounds overpowered or useless, will accentuate the game in some way.

The addition of these cards also perpetuates the issue of the Armor cards. As I mentioned in my review of the Monsters and Minions expansion, there’s already an issue with the Armor cards being incredibly diluted, resulting in that method of getting points feeling nerfed to a degree. This only helps to make this issue more of an issue, at least regarding the Trait and Weapon cards.

On top of that, many of these cards are being offered individually as stretch goals. With many of these cards feeling underwhelming and problematic already, making an entire stretch goal one, even two, cards feels manipulative and unrewarding, especially when compared to the fantastic race boards and Backstory cards. And with the earliest of these stretch goals being the four Trait cards, the later stretch goals feel as if someone took a stretch goal that had four cards included and stretched it out into multiple. While this may not be the case, that’s how it makes me, as a consumer, feel.

This last bit may sound biting and negative, but I still wholehearted support this campaign, and only make such critiques to help it grow moving forward. Overall, Monsters and Minions is an example of a well-maintained and thoughtful use of Kickstarter with some glaring exceptions. There are still two weeks left, meaning there’s a lot more excitement to be had. That being said, moving forward I hope to see the stretch goals move away from the cards as rewards and return to more backer-involved options or even component upgrades. We’ve already started to see this with the potential for upgraded combat dice, and I hope more of that is on the horizon, even if they are a bit more spread out. I’d take some nice metal coins as a component upgrade over a bunch more Minion or Trait cards any day.

If this is something you would like to see more of down the road, please let me know, as this is the first of its kind. Any feedback, good or bad, is appreciated. For those of you interested in backing Monsters and Minions, be sure to check out their page here.

We’ve been on a bit of a Roll Player kick recently, but next Monday we’ll be releasing the last of the Monsters and Minions coverage on our end with an interview with Keith himself; be sure to check back then!

Roll Player: Monsters and Minions – A Review

Roll Player: Monsters and Minions

Designed by: Keith Matejka

1-5 Players

Playtime: 1 hour – 1 and 1/2 hours

After having been blown away by Roll Player, I quickly grew excited in the knowledge that an expansion, Monsters and Minions, would be coming to Kickstarter. Having had the chance to playtest it over the last month or so, I’m excited to have the chance to share my thoughts on what is, at this point, the finished project.

That being said, let’s get some disclaimers out of the way; yes, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve had the chance to preview this game for some time now, and thus have been in contact with the designer, Keith Matejka. Yes, I have already backed the project on Kickstarter, which may help to give away my opinions on the project but is important to note going into this review. And yes, just before I was about to post this article, one of my Backstory entries was chosen to be included in the expansion. With all that being said, I am in no way doing this out of a feeling of duty or for any compensation. This article is being written because I am passionate about board games, especially those I feel invested in and thus want to share my thoughts here on what Monsters and Minions has to offer.

Alright, let’s take a look at what this expansion adds:

First, a new type of die is obtainable to be placed on your character sheet, known as Boost Dice. Boost Dice are clear D6’s that provide a value between 3 and 8. This represents a character’s penchant for going above and beyond their normal limits and allows classes to hit some of the higher Attribute Goals that were previously impossible. The trade-off for this, however, is they don’t have any color and thus don’t contribute to any Backstory goals or class color Reputation.

Two more class options are being added for each of the playable colors, allowing for more varied choices when selecting your class at the start of each game.

Two new race boards will be added, the Shadow Elves and the Gnomes. While I didn’t have the opportunity to use them, they will act like any other race board, providing a unique +2 and -2 combination.

Next, Scroll Cards are a new type of card that can be obtained at the Market. These are activated the moment they are purchased, providing currency and other immediate benefits.

Due to the addition of new cards, some cards will be removed from the game at set-up. Also, one new card is available at the Market each turn, allowing for more choice when headed to the Market.

With these and other new aspects being added to the game, Roll Player will now support 5-players, yet still retain roughly the same time dedication as any other match.

The largest and most involved addition, as one might guess, is the inclusion of creatures to fight over the course of the game. After players establish their classes, a Monster is chosen as a boss that will be fought at the end, providing players with an additional 8 Reputation to shoot for. A Location, Obstacle, and Attack card is randomly selected and placed face-down next to the Monster during set-up. Each Monster has three of these cards associated with them to randomly select from, allowing for some variability each time you fight that boss. These are pieces of information that can be obtained to help players fight the Monster end game.

Turns play out normally, with players taking dice and actions per usual, but when the Market Phase is reached, players now have three options; buy a card, discard a card, or fight a Minion.

The Minion deck will always show the top Minion card, allowing players to fight that Minion. Players may also spend three gold coins to cycle through the Minions, but if they do so they are locked into fighting something that turn. When fighting, players get combat dice, smaller d6’s used for these battles, based on the following:

  • Players always receive one die to fight with, representing their character.
  • Depending on the Minion, players may receive dice based on their stats, dice, or cards they have collected.
  • Players may spend five gold or three XP (a new currency) to purchase an additional die for any one combat.

After rolling, players may spend one XP to reroll one die. Then, the values are tallied up to see what level of rewards a player gets.

Players will primarily earn XP for fighting Minions, which can be used in combat as mentioned above. Players may also spend five XP to take any one attribute action on their turn, allowing players more flexibility in adjusting their stats.

Players may also earn Honor or Injuries, which provide a +1 or -1 to their total roll when fighting the Monster at the end of the game. Two XP can be spent to discard an Injury.

Lastly, if a player does enough damage to a Minion, they keep it as a trophy and are allowed to look at the Location, Obstacle, or Attack card if they haven’t already. Each trophy will allow you to look at the next card in the line-up, and if you get more than three trophies, players will earn an additional XP in lieu of the information.

At the end of the game, the Location, Obstacle, and Attack cards are revealed, giving players one, two, or three dice respectively to use against the Monster. Depending on your Final Roll and how the Monster manipulates it, players will receive a certain amount of Reputation that is added to your end-game total.

Due to the game being in a prototype state, I can’t really comment on the quality of components, but the art for the cards look as gorgeous as ever, the XP tokens look amazing in their current state as translucent blue cubes, and the combat dice are compact and easy to read.

A lot of players I’ve introduced the expansion to have assumed that fighting the Monster is now the end-all-be-all for points, initially aiming almost exclusively at trying to get the information and resources needed to fight the end-game baddie. This is by no means the case, and that’s an incredibly good thing; the Monster mechanic simply compliments the already established means of earning Reputation. It’s not meant to overpower any other strategy or plan, with some players sticking to the stratagems the base game presents and doing perfectly well. Monsters and Minions provide more variety and options without taking away from the original design.

Boost Dice, Scrolls, new class cards, and new race boards all provide more options and variety, simply adding to what’s already here in a very positive way. The addition of a fifth player is nice and doesn’t add any time to a game. The Minion deck allows for some more options each turn, and it feels rewarding to roll dice for combat, even if it is a little luck-reliant. Everything about this expansion feels like natural additions to the already established game.

Solo mode has also been slightly altered for the new additions. At the start of a solo match, players set aside two gold dice now, with more potential negative effects depending on what dice you take. Also, if players don’t get any Reputation for fighting the Monster, they die and immediately lose the game.

Now, I do have some slight issues with how the new additions play out. Firstly, due to the new cards, players are forced to discard a certain number of cards from the deck each game, meaning a number of the Armor Cards might end up getting discarded, resulting in scoring Reputation for them might become a lot harder without you even realizing it. This can potentially be remedied by allowing players to see what’s been discarded if you so choose, but it still dilutes how useful Armor cards can be during the final scoring of each game.

Secondly, the effects of the Location, Obstacle, and Attack cards can feel random and require that you change your gameplay strategies too late in the game. There have been some games where players have earned a large amount of combat dice for the final fight for doing nothing out of the ordinary, which can be frustrating. Luckily, there is a variant included in the game in which you can play with these cards face-up, adding a lot of strategic choices in trying to out-play your opponents.

Third, you’ll likely be hard-pressed to fit everything in the original box. Those of us who have the Frogkin board have already been forced to discard the rather flimsy insert, but with multiple race boards, extra cards, tokens, etc., it’ll be a tight fit, especially considering the various stretch goals being unlocked every day. Of course, you could always keep the base game and expansion in their own boxes, so this is only a minor quibble.

Lastly, the game takes up a lot of table space, even more so than before. This is largely due to the various tokens being added to the game, but also the Minion deck and additional Market card. Plus, you need to find space to keep your Scroll and trophy cards around your player board, meaning that space can run out very quickly.

Despite these minor issues, this expansion adds so much to a game that I already find so enjoyable, allowing for more diverse and interesting strategies, providing a more robust selection of options, and creating an even stronger puzzle to tease my brain. Plus, anything that doesn’t work for your gaming group will likely have some form of variant or alteration that can be used to suit your needs. If you’re a strategy-oriented person like me and haven’t played Roll Player before or are looking to pick up the expansion, I highly recommend checking out the Kickstarter page, where you can get the base game as well as Monsters and Minions.

Tomorrow, I plan on releasing an article talking about the Kickstarter campaign itself in honor of the 2-week mark. Be sure to check back here to see my thoughts on everything Roll Player.

Luke Muench

Games on Tape

Roll Player – A Review

Roll Player

Designed by: Keith Matejka

2-4 Players

Playtime: 1 hour – 1 and 1/2 hours

Roll Player is a game that I’ve been wanting to discuss for some time now. It’s one of the very few board games I enjoy playing solo, it’s got a fantastic theme that is a love letter to the hobby, and it provides a game that allows you to manipulate luck to create a strategy. Unfortunately, being the Budget Board Gamer has put me in the awkward place of wanting to recommend a $60 game to people who may not have the cash to earnestly afford it.

Well, no longer shall I remain silent! For not only is Roll Player a fantastic game you need to play at some point in your life, but its expansion, Monsters and Minions, was just recently posted on Kickstarter and prepared to add so much more to an already robust game.

So without further ado, welcome to Breaking the Bank, a series of articles dedicated to introducing gamers to board games that may be above that $35 MSRP range I usually aim for but is worth the extra cash, even if it means passing on a few smaller games in the meantime.

For those of you unfamiliar, Roll Player is a game in which players are working through the process of character creation before a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, competing to create the character with the highest total of Reputation, aka victory points. Reputation is accumulated through six unique avenues:

  • Attribute Goals are values players are tasked with hitting within each of their character’s six stats. While the values you are tasked to reach and how many points each stat provides differ based on the class you play as, the total points provided by reaching all Attribute Goals is always 12 Reputation.
  • Dice that you place on your stats sheet that match the color associated with your class with will net you an additional one Reputation per die. While gold dice don’t add Reputation, they do provide two gold when placed.
  • Depending on what Alignment Card you are dealt each game, players can earn up to three Reputation depending on where your token is at the end of the game. Alignment is used for other things throughout the game, however, so players can also potentially earn no Reputation or even negative points.
  • Depending on what Backstory Card a player is dealt, players can accumulate up to six Reputation based on if you can place dice with specific colors in certain spots on your character sheet.
  • Players can purchase sets of Armor Cards that can net you large amounts of points based on how many you manage to obtain. You can also earn an additional point if the set you collect is associated with your class.
  • Lastly, Trait Cards obtained can provide alternative ways of earning points depending on what you do or don’t accomplish over the course of the game.

Now, how do you obtain dice and cards in order to earn that Reputation? After the start game set-up, whoever is first player will draw dice from a bag for the number of players plus one. After rolling them, the dice are placed on Initiative Cards from lowest value to highest value. If there are any ties, the first player chooses what order they go in. Then, each player selects a die and puts it on their character sheet. Besides the color and value of the dice, it also matters where you place dice because each stat provides a unique ability that can be used when a die is added to that track:

  • Strength allows you to flip any die placed to the opposite side it was sitting on.
  • Dexterity allows you to swap the positions of two dice on the character sheet.
  • Constitution allows you to adjust the value of one placed die by +1 or -1.
  • Intelligence allows you to reroll one placed die and keep either the new result or the previous value.
  • Wisdom allows you to adjust where your Alignment token is by one space up, down, left, or right.
  • Charisma gives you a token for a one-gold discount that must be used by the end of that turn.

After players have placed their dice and used the associated abilities if they choose to, they may then go to the Market. The order players go to the Market is determined by the Initiative Card they took their die from. Players may either purchase one of the cards available or discard one for two gold. After everyone goes to the Market, all remaining cards are discarded and refreshed.

There are a few different types of cards that can be obtained in this way:

  • Armor Cards, as mentioned above, provide points for sets collected.
  • Trait Cards, as mentioned above, provide alternative ways to earning Reputation. It’s also worth noting that Trait Cards may alter a player’s alignment, depending on the position of their Alignment token.
  • Skill Cards allow players to take special actions during their turn, potentially adjusting the values of dice, the order in which actions are taken, or how certain cards are obtained. In order to use a Skill, players must pay by moving their Alignment one space in the designated direction. Used Skills are tapped, and one can be untapped at the end of each turn.
  • Lastly, Weapons provide passive buffs that allow players to earn gold, pay less, or adjust values when taking certain actions. Each weapon has a hand value assigned to it, and characters can only hold up to two hands worth of weapons.

After everyone’s character sheets are filled, Reputation is added up and whoever has the most wins! Games will generally last from an hour to an hour and a half, depending on the amount of time it takes players to take their turns.

For those familiar with my Budget Board Gamer show, components are a big factor in how I respond to a game. Worry not, for Roll Player has some pretty great components in the box. The dice are chunky and are easy to read and look colorful when collected on each player’s sheet. The cards are of nice quality and don’t need to be sleeved, but can be to easily distinguish between the two stages of cards that build the Market deck. The gold coins and colored tokens do their job well enough as well, but the stand-out components that can be found are the character sheets, sprawling pieces of cardboard that have slots to place your dice and a variety of your cards, and clearly translates important information, such as the trait abilities and the various ways of earning points. The art of the cards and character sheets look fantastic and make the game that much more exciting to play, and each character sheet provides art for either gender with no difference between the two. Unfortunately, the insert isn’t anything fantastic, so I removed it from my copy some time ago. Also, the dice bag provided has been falling apart for some time now and may need to be replaced at some point in the near future.

Regardless, the gameplay itself is marvelous, with each game offering an entirely unique puzzle depending on what race, class, Backstory, and Alignment you end up with, not to mention how the dice and cards come out. Now, that might sound a little random, but this game revels in the fact that it takes random results and allows players to manipulate the results in smart and strategic ways. And there’s some tense decision making in regards to what dice to take, where it put it, how it will affect your Initiative level, and if you really need a card in the Market enough that you might sacrifice a good die in order to get first dibs. The design of the game is clever and there’s a huge amount of replayability due to the various combinations players can have at the start of each game and the various cards players can obtain that will completely alter how you’ll strategize and what goals you’ll be aiming to achieve.

The solo game is also a blast to play. Yes, it’s a high-score oriented game, but due to the nature of the puzzle, it’s still a lot of fun to see what crazy character you end up creating. Depending on what dice you take, a gold die that’s set aside at the start of the game will be rolled, causing certain cards to be discarded permanently.

To be fair, the game isn’t perfect. Some of the traits are a lot more reasonable and obtainable with less risk than others, making certain traits not worth getting unless you have the flexibility to aim for them. Certain Attribute Goals can be impossible to hit if paired up with a race that has a negative modifier for that stat. And there can be a feeling of analysis paralysis if you’re new to the game, with a lot of short-term and long-term decisions and choices to constantly consider.

Despite that, this is one of the best games I’ve had the privilege to own in some time, with so many stand-out features that it’s hard to compare the game to anything else. Roll Player is a strategic, smart, and colorful game that will appeal to even those who haven’t played an RPG before as long as you’re looking for a deep yet light-hearted experience.

Next week, we’ll be taking a look at the expansion, Monsters and Minions, having had the chance to playtest it for the last month or so. Both the base game and the expansion are currently on Kickstarter, so if you have any interest in the game I encourage you to check it out.

Luke Muench

Games on Tape