This week on Humble Brag, Ian experiences Little Inferno for the first time while Luke… “helps” in his own, Luke-ish way.
This week, the hosts are very much on the same page when discussing Always Sometimes Monsters, a story-telling game released in 2014.
This week on Humble Brag, we have an awesome new intro and we talk about Fez, a 2011 indie platformer exploration game made from the ground up by the infamous Phil Fish.
Year Published: 2017
Players: 2 – 4
Playtime: 15 – 30 minutes
Reviewer: Luke Muench
If you thought Crazier Eights was full of chaotic and exciting fun, fear not! James Gray has returned with a mini-expansion, adding more options to the fairly small card-shedding game, including new variable types of cards.
Crazier Eights: Avalon is the definition of “more of the same,” providing 33 additional cards with new abilities and altered symbology. Some cards include multiple symbols/cards (a handful featuring all four), making it potentially easier to discard your hand. That being said, those cards tend to feature extremely useful powers, such as discarding an additional card each turn while also reducing your own card draw, or stealing an asset at the start of every turn.
Designer: James Wallace Gray
Year Published: 2014
Players: 2 – 4
Playtime: 15 – 30 minutes
Reviewer: Luke Muench
Card-shedding games are a rare breed in the board gaming hobby. Up until this point, the genre has been relegated to kids games, characterized by Uno and Old Maid. And with the recent boom of deck-builders, the lopsided reflection of shedding games, there’s been little interest in seeing the revival of the rather short-lived niche.
Luckily, one brave man, James Gray, had a vision; what if Crazy Eights got a little… interesting? What if each card offered choices, requiring smart decisions each turn rather than mindlessly tossing cards into a pile?
With this simple concept in mind, Crazier Eights was born, composed of a humble pack of 53 cards, a reference card, and a rulebook. The cards themselves are made of plastic, which might be a polarizing choice to some, but I enjoy the feel of them sitting in my hands. The art is pulled from classic paintings and images, and while work from multiple artists has been used, it all blends together unnoticeably, never feeling distracting or irritating. The rulebook lays out the information well enough, but for the most part, the only thing you’ll need to refer to is the reference card, which clearly and conveniently describes the pertinent rules.
Now, let’s get this out of the way; the Arthurian theme is thoroughly pasted onto Crazier Eights. None of the card abilities really have anything to do with what’s depicted, and you’ll never feel engaged or invested in the going-ons of Camelot. And that’s more than okay. For a game like this, theme is barely a factor that needs to be considered. Still, it’s worth noting that this isn’t the game for you if you’re looking for dueling knights and dragon slaying.
Crazier Eights tasks players with trying to get rid of all of their cards as quickly as possible; the first player to do so wins. You’ll do this by strategically playing some of your cards for abilities while tossing others if the central pile allows it.
On your turn, each player will cycle through a handful of phases. After drawing a card, players will have the option to play a card from their hand for its ability as well as discard a card. There are two types of cards, Events and Assets. Events are one-time use actions that affect the game state before being discarded, whereas assets sit out in front of whoever played them, providing passive buffs or taking effect at the beginning or end of a player’s turn. While you can play any card for its effect that you like, you may only discard a card if it shares a number or symbol/color with the face-up card at the top of the central pile. Eights act as wilds, with the player discarding the card declaring the next symbol/color. This process continues until one player is left victorious.
Much of the flavor and intrigue of this game comes from the abilities that have been included, making the game feel like a mash-up of Uno and Fluxx. Alternate win conditions will be revealed, players will force one another to draw extra cards, one person might steal assets from another. It’s all very hectic and goofy, allowing for an at-ease and lighthearted gaming experience. Make no mistake, Crazier Eights, as the name suggests, is no more strategic than its predecessor. Rather, it aims to add new elements of screw-your-neighbor and randomness that simply makes it more fun, playing into its already established strengths rather than reinventing the game. Most turns will end in raucous laughter as everyone marvels at whatever wildly powerful card combinations have been played and activated.
Honestly, there’s little else that can be said. If you aren’t already sold on Crazier Eights, you’re not going to be. It isn’t terribly deep, and offers exactly what you see. It can be fun with the right crowd, but it won’t be for everyone. Still, if you’re interested in a light and relaxed card game, this is a pretty fun and good-looking option.
Humble Brag is a new podcast humorously critiquing various forms of media obtained and collected via Humble Bundle.
This week on Humble Brag, the hosts introduce themselves, they call the show by the wrong name, and they discuss IDW’s Ghostbusters comic book series.
- Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition
- Fantasy Flight Games
- Designer: Christian T. Peterson
- Head Artists: Scott Schomburg, Brian Schomburg, Tyler Walpole
- 3 – 6 players
- Playtime: 3 – 5+ hours
- Reviewed by: Luke Muench
With three editions, a fourth on the way, a suggested five-hour + playtime, and the highest complexity level I’ve seen on BoardGameGeek to date, Twilight Imperium is one of the more polarizing and intimidating board games a person can play. Sitting at the 42nd best-ranked board game of all time as of writing, this was a game I knew I had to sink my teeth into at least once, if for no other reason than to say I had maneuvered the treacherous expanse of space and the war that comes with it. Below, I have done my best to recount my first experience of Twilight Imperium while providing observations and feedback along the way.
I arrived at my friend’s house at 10 a.m. to prep for the all-day affair that would be our six-player match. None of us had played the game before, and while we had all attempted to watch instructional videos online, we knew that the only way to truly grasp the game was to play it ourselves.
We first discussed the rules, a task that can be a chore in and of itself. This is perhaps one of the first things that will stand out to anyone looking into Twilight Imperium; there are a lot of rules. That isn’t to say that they are there without purpose though. Each is important in laying out the pertinent information in a way that feels methodical, almost militaristic. Rather, the problem is consuming and digesting so much information. Early on, it was determined that each player would have a mulligan of sorts in the case of someone botching a rule here or there, an inevitability we all accepted.
Once we glossed over the rules, we decided to run through a practice round, giving each person an idea of how a game might play out. Everyone was given a random alien for the purposes of understanding how the game worked, yet I immediately found myself growing attached to the species I was provided, the Yssaril. This is likely to be the game’s biggest strength; if you play Twilight Imperium, you will become incredibly attached to everything. Your species, ships, planets, anything you possess will become abnormally important and precious to you. Much of this comes down to the length of time you’ll be investing in these plastic pieces and cards, as the stakes in the game climb with every passing hour. But even from the start, I felt a twang of excitement seeing the greenish, Gollum-like creatures that had come to represent me.
After a brief recess for lunch, we began setting up for the official game. The game doesn’t have a good way of determining the first player for the starting round of the game. Additionally, many of the players didn’t like the idea of being dealt a race at random and being stuck with it. So how we went about this is, after rolling dice, five players received two races to pick from. The last player would receive a couple of the leftovers to pick from and then get to be first to place planets and initiative tiles.
I cannot describe my excitement as the Yssaril returned to me, and I selected them without earnestly considering the Xxcha. While this may come across as narrow-minded or unwilling to embrace the new, I had grown fervently fond of the Yssaril, and I noted that many of the other players latched onto races that they had tested earlier to eyed when sorting through the races prior to the game.
Each race has a unique set-up, so much so that it becomes a bit absurd. That race’s starting planets will push players to have a certain number of resources to begin the game, with the number of planets on your starting tile and the stats of those planets playing big factors into this. Then, each species begins with a different sort of fleet, units of various types and numbers doled out liberally to each. With eight different military units to stipulate for, this can sway the game in one direction or another very quickly. Races receive 2 unique trade cards, which will get to in a bit, but determines how many resources you’ll likely get from making trades. You also start with two technologies pre-built, with the selection being determined, again, by your race. Twilight Imperium features a tech tree that we’ll talk about later, but needless to say is complex and winding, though not terribly difficult to wrap your head around. Lastly, each race has its own set of abilities, each as mind-blowing as the last. None of them feel overpowered per say, but each has incredibly utility and strength associated with it.
At the start of each round, players vie for the different strategy tiles, each of which determines the order of player initiative and a special ability that they must use before passing that turn. In order to best layout the aspects of the game and my thoughts on them, I will work my way through each tile, but note that, how a turn works, is as follows:
After taking initiative, each player will get to take one action on their turn, with everyone taking actions until they choose to pass. Actions involve using your strategic tile, activating a sector of space, transferring units between two neighboring locations, or passing. Most actions will fall under the “activating a sector” action type, allowing you to move your units, build units, and attack others. An important detail worth noting is that once you activate a given location, you can no longer activate that spot again this round, nor can you move units out of that location for the rest of the round. Others, however, can still move to that spot, leaving you open to attacks. When a player passes, they can no longer do actions or contribute for the rest of the round, although the initiatives may still allow them to participate in different ways.
An important thing to note about my race, the Yssaril, is that they have the ability to wait; rather than taking a traditional action, the Yssaril player can skip their action without passing. This can be done every-other turn, but not two turns in a row. In many ways, this is an incredibly subtle but useful tool, allowing you to see how the others players are moving or acting and allowing them to spend all their resources before striking.
Initiative 1 is powerful in its simplicity and elegance. While allowing you to take the first action of the round, this tile, called Initiative, also allows you to utilize the passive abilities of all other initiative tiles for free. Normally, players are forced to spend a particular currency, called a strategic allocation, in order to activate a specific passive ability when another player uses their initiative primary ability, limiting your options in terms of what you can and can’t accomplish on a given turn. Otherwise, this tile has a few other unique factors; it is the only tile without a secondary ability for other players to use (but never the primary user of the tile), it factors into the order in which other abilities take effect, and it’s the only tile you are not allowed to pick twice in a row, meaning that this tile will constantly be shifting around the table.
This is possibly one of the best ways I’ve seen the first turn marker be used in a game in some time now, as it gives that player flexibility for a single turn before passing it off to another player, preventing the issue that many worker placement games face of one person constantly claiming the first player spot at the start of each turn. That being said, one frustrating thing I can say about this mechanic is that the order that people claim their tiles in isn’t determined by all players’ initiative tiles, but by who has the Initiative tile, with players claiming clockwise from that player. This leads to a rigidity that, once players have made alliances or rivalries, can make the initiative claim feel lopsided, whereas having tiles 2 or 3 results in you picking 2nd or 3rd in the next round might make certain tiles much more useful and desirable.
Initiative 2 was by far the least popular and most often ignored tile in the game I played. Called Diplomacy, this tile allows a player to state another at the table and prevent either of your from interacting with one another on the board. This largely has to do with the general lack of militaristic action in the game I played. This game group was rather hesitant to fight one another, both because we were learning the game and the permanence in such actions that would eventually lead to some heated arguments and swift retribution, but we’ll get back to that in a bit. Needless to say, the first 4 of the 6 rounds our group made it through saw this tile ignored, accumulating a ton of Bonus tokens (basically a wild currency). Its passive allows players to spend 1 strategy allocation and 3 influence (one of the two currencies each planet provides) to refresh up to 2 tapped planet cards, a situational ability at best that was rarely found to be useful.
So yes, for the most part, this tile was left to the wayside, and with fairly good reason. If no one is fighting, who needs a war deterrent after all? Again, if this tile then got to choose initiative tiles 2nd in the following round, this would become an infinitely more useful tile in my opinion. That being said, this reflects our game, and I do have some choice things to say regarding war later on, so let’s keep moving along.
Initiative 3, Assembly, sees players getting involved with politics… no, NO, don’t click away. When I say politics, I don’t mean current politics, nor the dreary space politics of the Star Wars prequels. Rather, when this tile is activated, players will be forced to debate over a new law or ruling that must be passed immediately. These political agendas can be either laws, effects that will change the rules of the game for the rest of the game, or instant effects that provide players with an immediate and temporary effect. These cards will also take two forms, either voting for the “for” or “against” effects or electing a specific player or planet to receive the effects. Regardless of which card it is, players will have a chance to debate before weighing in their political power, determined by the amount of influence provided by the untapped planets a player has in front of them. If a player has no untapped planets, they still get a single vote, but likely won’t be able to change the proceedings much. Additionally, note that if someone votes for one side or another, they must use all their voting power available, but does not have to tap their planets for the effect, unlike most currencies. Voting in this way always starts to the left of the Speaker (aka the person who has Initiative 1), and thus ends with the Speaker.
After whatever ruling has been made, the player who used Assembly then receives 3 more political cards, picking one of them to be the next subject voted on, left on top of the deck for the next round.
Additionally, the person who takes this tile gets to draw 3 action cards. Action cards act as the take-that and wild aspects of the game, providing random and crazy effects that, when played, can change the scope of the game.
Many players had mixed feelings on the cards, but as the Yssaril, I by far had the most experience with them. The Yssaril’s other ability is that this player gets an additional action card at the end of each round (2 instead of 1), has no hand limit for these cards (normally 7) and can look at another player’s hand of action cards at the start of each round. Because of this, most of the game saw me holding 5 or more cards that could sway events in my favor in big ways… if I drew well. Some of my cards allowed me to ban someone from voting on a political card, spawn free units in specific ways, do automatic damage to enemies who dare attack me, each with their own incredible and exciting ability. Others were incredibly specific, so much so that I never saw a use for them. One required me to have the Warsun, a specific military unit that requires multiple technologies to even consider building and 12 resources to create, by and far the most expensive thing in the game. And because I wasn’t aiming for a militaristic angle, this never had the chance to see the light of day, a dead card residing in my hand for literally hours. Other players complained of receiving hands of bunk action cards, and I’m somewhat inclined to believe, without the power of the Yssaril, action cards could easily be the boon of others will screwing you by the luck of the draw.
The tile’s passive ability is that players can spend a strategic allocation to draw an action card, an ability rarely used by anyone except those who held the Initiative tile and would get it for free.
Space politics was by far the most interesting part of this game, as I had never really seen anything like this appear in another game prior. The effects are sweeping and have dramatic effects, with each player struggling to vote one way or another depending on their personal plans and concerns over other players. For much of the early game, I became a political power that could sway the entirety of a vote, meaning that I had people vying for my political strength, buying me off with resources to get laws passed. Late game, politics became aggressive, even nasty, with people fighting bitterly for certain agendas to be passed in hopes of sabotaging or hamstringing others. Taking the tile is interesting and exciting, giving you a chance to change the events of future turns will providing you potential resources immediately. It’s a bit of a gamble, honestly, but that’s a part of what makes it exciting.
Something to note, though, is that this can easily make the game more complicated in a rather forgettable way, specifically via the laws. Any permanent law that changes how the game is played can get lost in the hustle and bustle of events, leading to lengthy and frustrating retcons of certain events. The most notable moment of this for our game is when a massive attack on someone’s homeworlds took place, successfully might I add, only to realize that a law would have required the attacking player to pay a resource that he didn’t have to attack any sectors with a planet claimed by someone else. While it was fairly easy to rationalize and backtrack accordingly (as he had bought extra units on that turn which he wouldn’t have had he known the cost of attacking), these moments are impactful and disruptive to the game’s flow, but are hard to avoid due to how much needs to be kept in mind, especially when you’re new to the game.
Initiative 4, Logistics, allows its user to take 4 command counters immediately. Command counters are a currency that determines how many locations a player can activate on a turn, how many strategic allocations a player has to spend, and how many ships that player can hold on a particular location. All players start the game with the same number, but as different players spend them on different things, this can quickly change. Additionally, players only receive 2 command counters at the end of each round, regardless of how many they used. Between rounds, players can put their counters in any of the three appropriate locations, customizing their boards according to their needs. In this way, Logistics allows players a bit more longevity, both on this turn and future turns, enabling a player to have the ability to do more.
One of the only passive abilities that doesn’t cost a strategic allocation, this tile allows other players to spend 3 influence for a command counter. Players can do this as many times as they want as long as they have the currency to spend.
Logistics I feel is self-explanatory in its use, allowing players to have more opportunities, ultimately a tile that everyone will likely need at some point over the course of the game.
Initiative 5, Trade, allows players to make trade agreements with one another. Each race starts out with a unique set of 2 trade cards with values that fluctuate between 1 and 3 resources. When this tile is activated, players may openly make trades with one another, swapping trade cards to allow for trade goods to be obtained. Trade goods can be used as either resources or influence when purchasing other things, but cannot be used as votes when voting for the political agenda. Each player may make one trade each time this tile is activated, but those trades must be approved by the person activating the tile. The primary player also gets 3 trade goods immediately.
Alternatively, a player may cancel all trade agreements, resulting in a hard reset in regards to what resources each person can get. This was never used in the game that we played though, as the benefits of doing this, in our eyes, was negligible at best, largely because any trade can be canceled at any time by either player who is participating in a trade or if those two people go to war. Additionally, the player using this tile is the sacrificing the 3 trade goods they would get otherwise to reset the trades everyone can get, so unless the player in question has a massive stock of trade goods to rely on for a while, this action seems somewhat anti-productive for most strategies.
The passive ability allows players to spend a strategic allocation to get the trade goods permitted by the trades they have made, thus cashing in on the deals. This does not cancel any deal made, simply allowing you to earn the currency your trades provide. This is done in clockwise order from the player who activated it, as trade goods can run out, resulting in players being unable to take this action.
Trade can be useful in allowing players to have a nice pool of useful and malleable currencies, but often cannot be relied on due to the fluctuation of the market, action cards that can steal tons of trade goods, and racial abilities that can allow players to steal some trade goods from others. One notable moment from the game I played was when I played an action card that allowed me to steal half of the trade goods (4 of the 8) from someone who I had a trade agreement with, curbing his progress in a big way. Another thing to note is how infrequently players would cancel or alter their trade agreements unless specified by a battle. Players saw no reason once they had established trade routes to alter them unless absolutely necessary.
It is worth noting that, at the start of the game, we botched this rule, as we thought players could make both trades on the initial action, thus making the start of the game skewed with more trade goods in play than normal. That being said, trade felt somewhat useless after the first couple of uses generally, as until players are more familiar with the game there appears to be little reason to make new trades. I also feel as if in the scenario that a player cancels all trade agreements, they would likely become a hated enemy of most players at the table, making that an action with little benefit and a lot of risk moving forward. Why would players not just reclaim the same deals they made previously unless one player repeatedly took the Trade tile to prevent this from happening? Doing this would be incredibly costly to that player, sacrificing turn order and options for a marginal benefit.
Initiative 6 is the Warfare tile, representing by far the most difficult aspect of the game to tackle. The tile itself is pretty self-explanatory; the player activating it may remove a command token from a location they have already activated this turn, thus allowing them on a future turn to move that legion of troops to potentially attack another neighboring sector. The passive ability is pretty tame in comparison, allowing players to spend a strategy allocation to move a cruiser or destroyer ship to an empty neighboring sector while exhausting that sector for the round. The passive was often ignored by most, even those with the Initiative tile, simply because there was very little use to leaving a handful of units out in the open like that.
But this opens the conversation of military and war in regards to this game. Much of the game hinges on warfare, with most player’s secret objectives requiring some form of war, with players needing to fight over planets and the resources that are provided by them, and with most of your resources, technologies, and ships being solely useful for fighting others to turtling to prevent others from fighting you. By and large, this game feels like it forces warfare on everyone. Yet, in the game that we played, most players tried avoiding it, at least for a while.
Fighting others isn’t appealing in this game for a few reasons, but most of them can be summed up in two words; emotional investment. When you’re playing a game for 6 or 7 hours, it’s unavoidable to feel attached to what’s going on. And unlike in most other games, fighting over something doesn’t mean you just lose the opportunity to do that thing. In Twilight Imperium, fighting means you are risking EVERYTHING. Every ship you lose is felt, as it opens you up to lose more and more. Every planet lost to an invasion is devastating in terms of what resources you do and don’t have access to. So, when someone attacks you and is relatively successful at it, the other player will likely feel so hurt, so pissed off, that they’ll throw their plans away in hopes of getting vengeance. I saw it happen multiple times here. Hell, I succumbed to it for a while, only to realize that I didn’t have the troops to make the fight worth gunning for. This is a game where if you lose a battle, you risk it all, and battles are determined by, you guessed it, rolling dice. Each ship has better or worse odds of hitting, sure, but at the end of the day, dice are fickle and can screw even the most skilled of players.
And this can easily result in player elimination in many fashions. Sure, you can hunt down and eradicate a particular player, much to the upset and irritation of everyone at the table, and that in such a drawn-out game can be upsetting and uninteresting in its own right, but you can also knock a player out of the game simply by reducing them to next to nothing. If a player loses enough stuff, they have no chance of coming back, and everyone knows it, especially them, meaning players start playing irrationally due to the game now becoming tedious for them. They are no longer interested in playing because they cannot win, and will thus do things that make no strategic or logical sense because nothing matters to them and they just kind of want the game to end. By the end of our game, two players had basically given up, resulting in two massive military forces sitting around doing nothing while other players vied for the win, even if most of them couldn’t at this point.
To place the cherry on top of this teetering mess, some species, if unchallenged by militaristic invasion, will win no matter what. The winning player of this game controlled the Jol-Nar, a technologically driven race that, while having a -1 debuff to all fights, could obtain one free tech every round and an additional one if they had the resources, regardless of who claimed the tech tile. This basically handed him the win, and we only realized it when it was far too late and he had an armada of dreadnaughts at his doorstep waiting for invaders.
But this begs the question; should players be forced to march on and attack someone from the start of the game because, if left unchecked, they will dominate? I don’t find that to be a fun or fair experience, but that’s more or less what that race asked of us in terms of this game, and that leaves me with a confused, sour taste in my mouth, making one of the key elements of this game the most difficult to stomach.
Initiative 7, the aforementioned Technology tile, allows the user to build a tech for free, and others to build one for a strategic allocation and 8 resources. With 4 different tech focuses and many of the techs having prerequisites, this tile can be rather useful to pushing forward certain plans, but never feels too overpowered… unless…
So Initiative 8, Imperial, is perhaps even more controversial in my eyes than the warfare of this game, and for one very important reason; winning. Notice that I haven’t mentioned how a player wins the game yet? Sure, there’s a lot of interesting and exciting stuff going on in terms of the universe and how everyone interacts, but how does one actually “win” this epic space opera?
Well, by getting 10 points of course.
… Okaaaaaaaaaay, but how does someone get points?
Well, there are three ways to get points; through a player’s secret objective that always provides 2 points, through claiming the Imperial tile which gives the active player 2 points for free, or by accomplishing public objectives which are revealed through the Imperial tile.
So, other than a player’s secret objective, the only way to WIN the game is by taking the Imperial tile every chance you get.
… That seems a bit anti-climactic, confusing, and frustrating.
It certainly is. Most of the other tiles, in retrospect, start to appear useless in this regard, as a free 2 points is a HUGE deal in this game. The public objectives, in the early game, provide 1 point a pop, but you can only accomplish one each turn, meaning you’re at the fate of what order they come out in. In our game, the first three that appeared were all tech-oriented, meaning the Jol-Nar player quickly took a dominating lead. And while the late game public objectives can provide up to 3 points, they often require INSANE requirements. Take over Mecatol Rex and all 6 surrounding sectors of it for 3 points? Good luck with that.
What’s Mecatol Rex?
Oh, just the center tile of the board that is a prerequisite for 80% of players to achieve their secret objectives.
So everyone is constantly fighting over it?
Either that or stationing troops all around it in hopes of scaring off anyone else who wants it.
In other words, unless you are planning on going to war for the measly 2 points the secret objectives give you for substantial effort, taking the Imperial initiative every chance you get is the only strategic way to win. Sure, you can get a public objective here and there, but only if the objectives that come out are achievable by you. Hell, some of the secret objectives can become nearly impossible depending on the board state. And if you wait too long for some good public objectives to appear, certain “objective cards” just end the game, meaning that the person claiming the Imperial tile is not just advancing towards the win, but forcing other players to worry about the ticking clock that will eventually force the end-game.
As a brief aside, the passive ability of this tile allows players to build units on a tile that is already exhausted or without exhausting said tile, allowing players to stock up on more troops.
So, with all that said and done, after 7 or so hours of playing the game, we didn’t actually finish the game. That’s right, while the “winning” player hovered at 9 points, we saw that the clock struck 10 p.m., with most of us having a ways to go to get home. This can certainly be attributed to us learning the game and not knowing optimal strategies, sure, but at the end of the day, this isn’t a game to play if you’re looking to win. After discussing it with some of the players, I came to the conclusion that this game often ends in the same way as Citadels; the player that is quiet, doesn’t piss anyone off, and is able to remain in the shadows for long enough, wins the game automatically. Unless players are willing to get their hands dirty and commit to a war-mongering playstyle, certain races and players will win every time, no matter what.
This is a story-telling game through and through, providing an adventure that players will remember, full of space battles and intense fighting, both on and off the game board. It’s a game that becomes personal fast, and for that reason alone it’s a game that’s not for everyone. Hell, I don’t know if I’d play it again myself unless invited. It’s an investment, both from a cost perspective and a time perspective, and that can’t be overlooked. The scoring system is inherently flawed in my opinion, and due to the personal stakes of the game, it’s hard to play it optimally without potentially damaging friendships depending on who you play with. It’s a brutal but expansive experience that you need the right circumstances for, and in that way, it is hard to recommend. Still, I think this is a game that everyone should experience in some way or another in order to at least say that they have, as Twilight Imperium is undoubtedly unlike anything else I’ve played.
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.
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.
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!