作者彙整:Matt Miller

Top Of The Table – Game Of Thrones: Oathbreaker

The concluding season of Game of Thrones is now behind us. And if you watched, you’re sure to have an opinion about how it all turned out. Dire Wolf Digital’s recent release of Game of Thrones: Oathbreaker gives you the chance to see it all play out again, almost certainly with a new ending, but with your gathered friends cast in the roles of the conniving lords and ladies of Westeros, along with all the lying, backstabbing, and trickery you’d expect.

Oathbreaker is a social deduction game built to be played by five to eight players. The high player count means that it’s best suited for a larger get-together, perhaps as the main course in a board game night of other fun but lighter party games. An individual round plays out in around 45 minutes (presuming you don’t get too bogged down in discussions about who is a traitor), but I suspect many play groups will recognize the potential inherent to multiple playthroughs in succession, letting the winners of one session dictate the power structure of the subsequent attempt to control the fate of Westeros.

While the game’s focus on deception and deduction are welcoming to any player, it should come as no surprise that being fans of the show (or, at the very least, the books) makes the experience far more rewarding. In addition, be conscious that the game demands lying, underhanded statements, and trickery from almost all the players; that won’t be the right fit for every gaming group, so bear that dynamic in mind when you consider ideal play groups.

Bluffing games are a familiar fixture of the party game scene. Fun releases like The Werewolves of Miller’s Hollow and Avalon can offer many hours of laughter and lying. Oathbreaker distinguishes itself through the asymmetric nature of the player roles. A single player always takes on the role of the king or queen of the kingdom, while everyone else adopts the role of recognizable nobles from the Game of Thrones universe. Some of those nobles will be designated to remain loyal to the sovereign. But in every game session some of those nobles will secretly be conspirators working to sow chaos in opposition to the king or queen’s rule. Figuring out who is who is key to winning the game.

The game unfolds through a series of missions, which usually reflect recognizable moments and events from across the Game of Thrones fiction. Perhaps the Battle of the Bay unfolds in one round, while in another there’s an effort to hire the Faceless Men. Each noble carries a hand of cards that can be played onto missions, and each card exhibits various icons. No matter the situation, each mission can only be completed if the correct type of influence icons are played onto the mission (represented abstractly by Crowns, Ravens, and Swords). A completed mission means greater order in the land, and a step toward success for the sovereign and their loyalists.

Meanwhile, Sabotage icons counter that influence, helping the conspirators undermine the king or queen, and ensuring the failure of the mission. Whether you play helpful influence or unhelpful sabotage, it’s all done in secret. Cards are played face down. When those cards are revealed, that’s when the real discussions begin, as everyone begins to charge each other with treachery. Is Arya a traitor to the crown because she didn’t help out more in the attempt to rout the Wildlings? Did Tyrion manage to trick the conspirators from playing cards to a mission by adding all those helpful cards to the mission, or was he just trying to regain the queen’s trust after the blatant sabotage he committed in the previous round?

Over time, the king or queen is given their own opportunity to sway events with decrees, especially ones that bestow favor or suspicion onto a given noble. Do you dare to help Ned Stark in a subsequent round after the king has marked him as duplicitous the round before, or are you dooming your house to fall as well?

At the end of the game, the success or failure of various missions helps determine whether chaos or order reigns, but the ruling player also gets to make guesses about who was and wasn’t loyal, which can further adjust the scoring. In addition, favors and suspicions played on each player can add order or chaos to the track.

And in one final twist, every noble has also been harboring a secret ambition. Even if your side (loyalist or conspirator) has come out ahead, you only personally win if you also fulfill your ambition, represented by a secret card you receive as the game begins. Perhaps you have been gathering honor to be like Jon Snow, or you are power-hungry like Cersei Lannister. The various missions you’ve been involved in net you these resources, like coin and power, so it’s yet another variable that must be factored in if you want to be one of the winners.

Taken together, Game of Thrones: Oathbreaker offers a deeper bluffing gameplay loop than many similar games, with far more factors to monitor. The king or queen must juggle constantly shifting alliances and actions by every player at the table. Each noble must be judicious in their use of cards. Loyalists must find ways to really prove their fealty, especially because the conspirators are actively trying to shade their every action. Meanwhile, conspirators must simultaneously sabotage enough missions to bring down the king or queen, but still find ways to gather the resources they personally need to win at the end of the game. There’s a fascinating interplay between these competing goals, especially since almost everyone at the table has different paths to a win.

Oathbreaker includes some excellent optional rules to customize play. An 8-player variant includes both a king and queen, working together to maintain order, and a smart system for how that works – making it far more doable to manage the large number of players sitting at the table. Among other options, I also really like the “Order in the Court” option, which expressly forbids nobles from speaking unless it’s their own turn, thereby limiting the cross-talk or conspiring that often unfolds among experienced bluffing game players, and consequently speeding up play.

Licensed projects connected to movies and TV shows sometimes get a bad reputation, cashing in on popular properties with simplistic gameplay models or low-quality components. That’s not the case with Oathbreaker. This is a rich and nuanced social party game, and a great pick for play groups who have tired of more straightforward options in the genre. Two separate double-sided game boards (each for a different player count) offer a beautiful map of Westeros and a way to track missions and rounds as they pass. The card and component art is mostly photography from the show, but that imagery does a great job of recapturing the personalities that so many of us followed for the many years that Game of Thrones was unfolding. This is a satisfying and well-produced release that you’ll be happy to see laid out on the table.

If you feel like your gaming group is ready for a rewarding trip into the world of Ice and Fire, Oathbreaker does an excellent job of capturing the vibe of deceit and underhanded dealings. It’s also one of the most innovative twists on the bluffing game concept to release in recent years, and well worth a look for the many fans of that playstyle.

If you just can’t stomach lying to your best buds over a Saturday evening’s entertainment, worry not. There are plenty more great tabletop recommendations waiting for you over at our Top of the Table hub. Click on the banner below to explore those options, or drop me an email if you’d like some personalized recommendations; I’m always eager to help you find the right game for your friends or family game night.

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Borderlands 3 Review – Sticking To Its Guns

Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Gearbox Software
Release:
Reviewed on: PC
Also on:
PlayStation 4, Xbox One

A lot has changed in the FPS game scene since 2012, when the last numbered entry of Borderlands arrived in our gaming machines. In all the ways that matter, the sequel hews closely to the blueprint established in that well-loved release, exploding forth onto our screens with a bevy of wild weaponry, asinine humor, and bloody battles.  The formula feels dated. But with some updates to UI and gameplay, and a huge adventure across a variety of destinations, it’s easy to embrace the insanity once again, even if – in the back of your head – you know it all feels just a bit too familiar.

Players once again jump into the role of one of four unique vault hunters, each with engaging gimmicks that set their playstyles apart. From the brawling melee charges of the latest Siren to the mech-powered sustained assaults of the Gunner, each character offers a range of build options, and theory-crafting your way to a powerful murder machine is especially compelling after several dozen hours of play and earned skill points. Most of those playstyles borrow liberally from earlier games or other franchises entirely, so most powersets will feel like an old pair of shoes to genre faithful – easy to slip into, but with few surprises.

Across an especially lengthy campaign, Borderlands 3 skewers internet and corporate culture in equal measures, satirizing the inherent narcissism and selfishness of both with the series’ trademark sophomoric wit. The humor is certainly hit and miss, but the writers seem to have adopted the philosophy that you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take; the chatter is nearly constant. Storytelling feels more epic this time as the heroes jet between planets. Previous games in the franchise have sometimes felt too tied to a particular environment, and this new installment combats that stale sensation with several well-realized locales, from an idyllic monastery to a corporate megacity. The variety is a welcome diversion, and keeps the visual palette pleasing.

Guns are once again the real stars of the show, with an unreal assortment of firearms that feature just as much gameplay variety as visual uniqueness. I enjoy the varied options at hand, and the solid gunplay across the board ensures engagement for many hours. From assault rifles that launch blasts of radiation to a pistol that shoots rockets, there’s no end of experimentation to be had. If anything, the plethora of options can feel overwhelming and slow down the otherwise frenzied pace of play as you simply try to figure out what is worth keeping or selling – a problem exacerbated by cumbersome inventory management and too few sell spots. It doesn’t help that weapons only sometimes conform to their expected archetypes. When a pistol is sometimes a better long-range option than a sniper, how best to judge an item’s utility at a glance?

Sliding under gaps and mantling over obstacles contribute to the fast flow of exploration, and I appreciate the sense of speed and mobility. Combat is frenetic but simplistic, especially in the early hours, as waves of enemies spawn repeatedly to be mown down. Later hours offer more interesting mixes of foes, but suffer from a different problem; many bad guys are extreme bullet sponges, extending fights in a way that feels unnecessary in an already meaty campaign playthrough. Several bosses are especially guilty of this sin, and can make for a miserable slog, especially played solo, where endless circle strafing quickly loses its appeal.

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Like its predecessors, Borderlands 3 is at its best when played cooperatively with up to four players online. As more vault hunters enter the fray, the visual phantasmagoria of color and explosions is amusing and strangely delightful. The game supports easy drop-in play, and options for independent level scaling and difficulty, smoothing out the hurdles facing players in different places in the game.

If the “bang” you want for your buck is simply a wealth of content and a lot to do, Gearbox has you covered. Beyond the potential for trying out different characters and builds through the lengthy sweep of the narrative, the post-game experience opens up a range of challenge options, tiers of  mayhem-infused encounters to climb through, and rank increases to shoot for as you dive back into the action. I welcome the commitment to endgame engagement. However, I must add that in my own playthrough, I felt the core loop of combat wore out its welcome well before the credits rolled, especially since the highest available initial difficulty (normal) rarely mounted a meaningful challenge.

Borderlands 3 is a love letter to its fans and a celebration of the style of play it first popularized. Filled with characters from previous installments, and unapologetic in its silly humor and bombastic action, it’s an amusing ride that seems hesitant to innovate. If more of what you loved before is your chief desire, Gearbox has granted that wish through a game of impressive scope that charts some very safe territory.   

Borderlands 3 is also available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Those versions feature 2-Player local split-screen cooperative play.

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Score: 8

Summary: Gearbox treads familiar ground in this lengthy adventure, tossing out jokes and guns with equally wild abandon.

Concept: Return to the bleak but humorous Borderlands for a lengthy adventure that rarely sees your finger leave the trigger

Graphics: The familiar style is intact and attractive, but you could be excused for feeling that little has changed in the years since the last game

Sound: Over-the-top voice work (including some celebrity surprises) vacillates between genuinely funny and irritating prattle

Playability: Smart changes to mobility, solid gunplay, and a well-crafted set of new abilities make the game accessible to a broad range of players – if you’re willing to invest a lot of time

Entertainment: An old formula executed well, Borderlands 3 rarely takes chances or strays from expectation

Replay: Moderately High

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Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey Review – Beautiful Concepts And Disastrous Execution

Publisher: Private Division
Developer: Panache Digital Games
Release:
Rating: Teen
Reviewed on: PC

I adore the notion behind Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey: Follow not one individual, but an entire evolving clan of hominids as they navigate the vagaries of survival and evolution across an inconceivable stretch of prehistory. However, deep and fundamental faults riddle the experience that stems from that idea. As a simulation, it creates rare moments of discovery and reflection about the miracle of life. As a game, it collapses under the weight of history, the ambition of its own concept, and a gameplay model that offers too little reward at the cost of far too much frustration and routine.

To say that Ancestors has a “slow start” is like saying human evolution has taken “a little while.” With no perception of what to eat or safely drink, how to form rudimentary tools, or the myriad dangers of the world, early hours controlling these ape-like progenitors is rife with failure. Poisonous mushrooms, broken bones, and pure exhaustion create an endless series of condition effects that blur the screen, slow down the already glacial movement speed, or cause overwhelming audio noise that otherwise obscures play. Unexpected animal attacks are constant, and after hundreds of exchanges, those pre-scripted battles rarely end in anything one might term a success, thanks to a timing-based mechanic that remains a mystery to me after many dozens of hours. The absence of a map may be authentic to the experience of early man, but I bet those poor hominids hated getting lost just as much as I do. Gauging distance to objects is nearly impossible using the icon-based points of interest, creating a pervasive sense of disorientation.

An entire lineage can die out without careful decision-making, and a full restart is devastating, since it means having to once again burn time to re-identify every object in the world, and slowly begin the evolutionary climb again, but moving through exactly the same locations and situations as before. With no guidance about when to pass a generation or evolve to a new epoch, you’re left without any guideposts for how to succeed and a paralyzing sense of indecision, since many hours of playtime may be at stake.

Of course, those many hours help to clarify things, and open up moments of fun. Leaping off a cliff and successfully swinging through the jungle canopy can be thrilling. Finally figuring out how to fish, staunch a wound, or survive a night in the wild is an accomplishment. And every once in a while, you break out to a high vista, stare out over a sun-drenched lake, and bask in the sense of exploration.

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However, even these moments of exaltation are fleeting, as the frustration of not knowing what to do gives way to knowing exactly what to do. The realization hits home that you face many, many hours of identifying the same plant types, having sex and childbearing (far more boring than you would think or hope), and the endless maintenance of clan members’ wellness. Sharpening that stick for the 20th time is little more than a chore. An overwhelming sense of tedium sets in.                      

Between the increasingly lackluster excursions of third-person action and traversal, your analysis and learning of the surroundings fuels neuronal growth and development, communicated via a fascinating but ill-explained evolution menu that governs progression. I enjoy the indication of clan development, but individual nodes are often so subtle as to not be noticeable in practice, and the need to refill nodes on subsequent generations is both confusing and feels like a time-waster. Another layer allows you to catapult forward hundreds of thousands of years, sometimes witnessing the rise of a new species, and seeing how your clan’s development compares with an approximation of science’s understanding of human evolution. It’s a neat idea, but demands an unreasonable level of patience.

I was deeply frustrated by Ancestors, so it may seem strange for me to say that I found a lot of promise, complexity, and nuance here as well. The novel concept and grand scope are far more appealing than dozens of other action or survival games on the market. This is a deeply flawed but richly imagined effort, but like many ambitious gaming projects at launch in recent years, it can now either die off like the Neanderthals, or evolve into something better from here.

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Score: 5.5

Summary: An ambitious idea ultimately falls flat, as the rewards simply don’t match a continuous stream of frustration and tedium.

Concept: Confront the challenges faced by early hominids across ages of evolution as you grow a clan and explore the prehistoric world

Graphics: Janky animations and repeated preset visual sequences break the immersion, but the primates and their world are believable

Sound: A mix of classic orchestral and world-music instrumentation successfully adds emotional resonance, but individual tunes are repeated too frequently

Playability: Expressly defended as purposeful from the introduction, the figure-it-out-yourself gameplay is nonetheless off-putting and frustrating to grasp. The functionality of Ancestors’ controls and systems is obscured or poorly explained

Entertainment: Moments of beauty and distantly spaced moments of sublime discovery are separated by hours and hours of tedium and frustration

Replay: Low

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The Most Exciting Games Of Gen Con 2019

Tabletop gamers by the droves converge every year in Indianapolis for a celebration of the hobby at the mammoth Gen Con event. Long-anticipated games are released, expansions detailed, and thousands of players demo and play games of all types. Even now, the 2019 show is underway, and new information on some of the coolest board, miniature, card, and role-playing games is emerging.

The hundreds of projects on display mean that it’s impossible to create an at-a-glance examination of the convention. But here are a few of the new announcements, reveals, and hands-on experiences from game makers that have gotten big early buzz in the first couple days of the show.

I hope to update this story next week with additional games; this initial rundown is heavy on announcements and a few of the especially anticipated projects of the convention.

Marvel Champions
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games

Fantasy Flight has a long string of successes to its name with its living card game formula, in which a core starter game is followed by regular static expansions with consistent card inclusions. Unlike CCGs, you know what you’re getting in each pack, and can follow along and grow your game in the way you want. The latest franchise to receive the treatment is the stable of Marvel heroes, with the announcement this week of a new game; Marvel Champions is a cooperative card game in which you take on the roles of characters like Black Panther and Spider-Man as they fight to stop villains like Rhino or Ultron. The scenario-driven sessions and decks unique to each villain help each playthrough feel different. Equally exciting, we know from previous living card games to expect a long follow-through of new expansions in future months, growing the story and adventures of your heroes.

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Cyberpunk 2077 – Afterlife
Publisher: CMON

Cyberpunk 2077 is undoubtedly one of the most anticipated video games on the horizon, so there’s good reason to believe that this newly announced project from designer Eric M. Lang (Blood Rage, Rising Sun, Bloodborne: The Card Game) will pique the curiosity of many. With an announcement timed concurrent with the big show, the card game (coming in 2020) focuses on a drafting mechanic in which players – controlling the “Fixers” of the Cyberpunk world – confront challenging choices as they acquire new cards, since they’re always working with an extremely limited set of funds. Getting a much-needed new card might require getting rid of an old one to afford the benefit. The project already boasts some evocative art, and there’s no shortage of great fictional backdrops to flesh out the experience. Now we just have to wait to learn if there’s a Keanu Reeves card.

Mezo
Publisher: Kolossal Games

We listed Mezo as one of the most anticipated board games of 2019 back in January, and the time for release is fast approaching. The game is being demoed at Gen Con in advance of its official rollout. Players control Mesoamerican gods as they deploy their followers to dominate the board in massive conflicts for region control. The game boasts asymmetrical powers for each of the different player-controlled gods, and the fantasy is brought to life by some impressively detailed and large-scale miniatures that represent the aspects of these deific figures. Deeply driven by its setting of ancient Mesoamerican mythology, Mezo is one to watch if you’re a fan of big, deep, detailed strategy games.

Parks
Publisher: Keymaster Games

If the art from Parks game cover looks familiar, it may be because you’ve seen something similar for sale while traveling to one of the United States’ many beautiful national parks. Keymaster partnered with the print makers at Fifty-Nine Parks to bring their iconic art style to life in a board game setting. In the game, players are hikers moving along the trails and visiting iconic parks around the country, gaining points for their well-rounded tourism and exploration of the natural world. I’m personally excited by the project because it seems at least partly inspired by the wonderful Tokaido, a favorite of mine in which players travel a road in ancient Japan while attempting to have the most lovely and relaxing vacation. Parks boasts some gorgeous components and art, and it’s on sale for the first time at Gen Con, with a broader release beginning in September.

Seeders from Sereis: Exodus
Publisher: WizKids/Sweet Games

I’m excited by this new announcement from WizKids, in which the publisher has partnered with Sweet Games to bring this ambitious sci-fi space opera to English audiences for the first time. The narrative focuses on the need for players to build an ark to escape a planet that will soon be anathema to life. Players draft cards representing individuals, items, and locations that help your effort to save a portion of the empire. The futuristic art and presentation of this game is especially captivating, and I’m eager to learn more about the project (said to be just one part of a broader transmedia universe of fiction and games) as it rolls out in advance of a 2020 release.

Pathfinder: 2nd Edition
Publisher: Paizo

A new version of the Pathfinder role-playing game has been in the works for a long time, but the official release of the 2nd edition is rolling out right now at Gen Con. Pathfinder originally grew out of the 3.5 edition of the D&D game, but in the many years since has taken on a life of its own, and cultivated a dedicated fan base that loves its detailed character customization, stellar world building, and flexible playstyle at the table. I’ve had the chance to dig into an early look at the new (and massive) core rulebook, and I’m extremely impressed so far with the clarity of rules presentation, smart evolution of existing ideas, and fantastic art and production values. Gen Con is the perfect coming-out party for the new edition, and RPG players should expect the game to make a big splash in the coming months as more and more players give it a shot in the competitive fantasy RPG space.

Arkham Horror: Final Hour
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games

Longtime readers of the column know I have a soft spot for this venerated series of Lovecraftian games from Fantasy Flight, and the studio has just revealed a new project in the line. Final Hour echoes a lot of what is always so fun in these games – existential horror, cooperative play, and story-driven encounters – but wrapped in a package that can be played in an hour or less. That’s a big deal, as the Akrham Horror games are renowned for their complexity and fun, but also for playtimes that can have your gaming group confronting Cthulhu for many exhausting hours into the dark of the night. Final Hour sees the whole team working together to stave off monsters as they roam across the fictional Miskatonic University, even while pulling together the ritual components that can halt the greater elder evil threat. If the short playtime can meet up with the same evocative themes and art that the earlier games are known for, Final Hour could be an investigation that is hard to turn down.

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Zombicide: 2nd Edition
Publisher: CMON

It’s fair to say that the Zombicide games have inspired a bevy of imitators, and for good reason. The original version (and its many expansions and standalone variations) encouraged players to work together in fast-paced combat encounters against the ceaseless hordes of the undead, gathering ever more powerful weapons and gear to survive. The game has always been at its best when it feels light and quick-moving, so the new 2nd edition is focused on streamlining, faster play, and getting into battles right away (a good thing, in this case). In addition, the initial announcement promises that longtime players will be able to update their current collections to the new rules, which is great news for zombie hunters who have already invested heavily in the franchise. The 2nd edition of the game was revealed this week, and will come to Kickstarter soon.

 

I hope to update this article in the coming days with some additional projects that catch my eye from Gen Con 2019, as the convention is running even as this article posts. Let me know in the comments below if there’s a particular game you’d like to read more about from the show. Every year, Gen Con is a hotbed of big announcements and buzz around the latest projects, so this is an especially good time to keep an eye on luminaries within the board gaming hobby and see what they have to say.

If you’re eager to dive into something that it is already out there on store shelves, feel free to peruse the backlog of the Top of the Table column by clicking into the hub banner below. As always, drop me a line via email if you’d like personalized board, card, miniature, or role-playing recommendations, and I’ll do my best to help you find something fun to play.

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Top Of The Table – Batman: Gotham City Chronicles

Sometimes you just want to roll some dice and wile away the weekend with a fantastic display of cardboard and plastic bedecked across your dining room table. For experienced tabletop gamers who want a particularly massive game to celebrate their love of all things Batman, Gotham City Chronicles is the project to which you should turn your attention. Behind a weighty bevy of intricate rules that govern every possible situation and character, this is a relatively straightforward game of dice-rolling, dungeon-crawling, and management of available actions. It adds up to a nostalgic and exciting romp with some of the best characters that the comic book medium has to offer; few graphic novels match the breadth of personalities on display in the Batman family. But with a high cost of entry and a significant rules barrier to full comprehension, this is a project targeted at a select audience. So let’s help you figure out if it’s worth the big investment. 

Two to four players can take to the streets of Gotham in any given session. One of those players takes on the role of the villain, usually controlling one or more of the Caped Crusader’s plentiful nemeses, along with a coterie of henchmen. The other players control a who’s-who of the Batcave, with an impressive array of do-gooders that include Batman, Red Hood, Catwoman, Jim Gordon, or one of 20+ other characters or variations. From towering monstrosities like Clayface and Man-Bat, to intricate sculpts of Green Arrow and Huntress, the real stars of the show here are the miniatures – dozens and dozens of them in the core game – that litter any given session, bringing life to the adventures at hand with evocative poses and detail that captures the essence of each larger-than-life character. There are so many that the core game comes in two separate oversized boxes, each arrayed with gorgeous art of the characters hidden within.

The core game includes two large boxes (heroes and villains) but multiple expansions are available that add to the options

Those plentiful minis will live out their conflicts on one of the two large double-sided boards, each of which depicts a shadowy landscape of darkened alleys and high rooftops. The atmosphere of the Batman world is captured with aplomb, but it takes some time to learn the ins and outs of a given board. Sight lines, height differentials, and obstacles are all depicted on the map, but small icons sacrifice easy usability for shadowy aesthetic ambience. Once you learn a given board’s complexities, each provides a satisfying and rich landscape for skirmishes.

If the miniatures and board provide the visual flavor, the varied and thrilling scenario-based gameplay keeps you returning for one session after the next. Any given game of Batman: Gotham City Chronicles has you flipping to a preferred page of a lengthy mission booklet, including over 20 distinct sessions to play out. Each includes flavor text to set the stage, and clear details about miniature and token placement. Setup can be a chore, not just because there are a lot of pieces to lay out for any given session, but because you’re sorting through dozens of other components to find what you need. However, once everything is in place, I love the way each scenario changes things up. In one adventure, the Birds of Prey leap into action to halt Poison Ivy’s carnivorous plants from devouring the city. In another, Batman and Robin must find an antidote to Penguin’s newest deadly drug. I enjoy the distinction between each character (including the villains and their minions) and the various scenarios, lending an already robust replay an almost infinite quality of recombination. Would the fight turn out the same if Nightwing and Batgirl had confronted Scarecrow’s latest fear toxin plan, as when Batman and Azrael made the attempt?

Double-sided boards and great organizational tools keep a given session streamlined and varied from the last

From a gameplay perspective, Gotham City Chronicles follows in the footsteps of Monolith’s previous work on the excellently designed Conan board game. Both heroes and villains move and act using action cubes that represent energy. These cubes are the centerpiece of play, and they offer tremendous flexibility to the way you proceed through a turn, giving boosts to big important actions, but at the cost of later clutch rerolls, defenses, and even your overall health. A constant push and pull governs your choice of energy expenditure, knowing that each cube brings you one step closer to defeat. After a big spend, do you take a turn to recover and get a lot of those cubes back, or keep pushing your luck? It’s a rewarding core mechanic, forcing both the villain and hero players to think ahead to future turns, but occasionally bust out dramatic big actions at important moments – a perfect fit for the superhero milieu.

Beyond energy expenditure, much of gameplay revolves around dice-rolling for one of any number of actions, from manipulating and defusing a bomb to taking a swing at Bane. While optional rerolls provide some ability to control for bad luck, it’s worth noting that the game can swing wildly in response to especially good or bad rolls; you likely know if your gaming group is cool with that kind of cinematic tension and the resultant unexpected turns of fate, or if it rubs folks the wrong way. Accepting that swing, I was still impressed in the sessions I played with how well-balanced each mission ended up being, even with the vagaries of dice play in the mix. Situations can seem hopeless for the heroes, but carefully placed items can turn the tide. Likewise, big event moments for the villain can lend that comic book sense of an insane plan falling into place, suddenly putting the heroes in a tight spot.

The many included miniatures feature stellar sculpts and detail, but they all arrive unpainted

In fact, I’d argue that it’s the intriguing approach to the villain player that really gives the game life and excitement. Managed from a large plastic “command post” with slots for all his or her cubes and tiles, the evil mastermind must carefully deploy bad guys to maximize destructive capability. Bad guy minis are represented on the command post by corresponding tiles that depict their stats, but after activating, those tiles slide to the end of a row (or river, as the game calls it), where their activation cost climbs dramatically. While it might be tempting to send Deathstroke out into the fray again and again, it’s simply too expensive. Likewise, big events can be triggered with other tiles from the river, such as bringing a neutralized foe like Talon back into the fight. It’s all a clever way to supercharge the villain’s potential and their large cast of available minions against the often ultra-powerful heroes and their many wonderful toys. In my experience, the villain often has the upper hand (by design), and the heroes must really scramble to pull off a win.

Gotham City Chronicles’ biggest hurdle to enjoyment isn’t in its core play, which I really enjoy. Instead, it’s that the game is more imposing to learn that it needs to be. An ominous 60-page rulebook accompanies the game, filled with lengthy examples of how to juggle any one of the many specific situations that can arise in each scenario, but any given situation is challenging to find when you need it. There are dozens of visual icons to parse that govern specific dynamics. But here’s the thing; behind all of that, the game really isn’t that complicated. In fact, the publisher’s own how-to-play video is more than enough to get you in the door – if you’re willing to overlook some of the nitty-gritty details for your first couple of games. I still wish the barrier to entry was lower, but I wouldn’t let it stop you from trying out the game (especially if you come to it with some previous board gaming experience). After a few games, I can say with confidence that the game moves briskly and exhibits the breakneck pace of action you’d want from this popular comic pugilist.

Individual hero screens slide into a player’s “Bat-tablet” to create their hero board

Primarily rolled out as a Kickstarter (the second season Kickstarter just finished, and is still accepting pledges), Batman: Gotham City Chronicles is an expensive investment, even by tabletop standards. Depending on expansions purchased you can easily roll over into hundreds of dollars spent on these gorgeous minis. That’s a big decision surrounding your luxury money, and the time cost to really get into the game is no small feat, either. With that said, for players who love these characters and setting, Gotham City Chronicles nails what is exciting about the world of Batman. And if you enjoy that kind of decadent weekend dice-throwing I referenced at the start of the article, this is a game with long legs and a gorgeous presentation. As a big showpiece of your collection that can provide many evenings of Bat-themed battles, rescues, and adventure, this is arguably the benchmark tabletop project by which Batman games (and many other superhero games) may be judged for some time to come.

If that kind of big-time investment isn’t in the cards, don’t worry; there are a ton of other awesome recent tabletop games to check out. Click on the banner below to visit the Top of the Table hub, and peruse some recommendations. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, drop me a line via email, and I’ll be sure to respond with suggestions. 

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Sky: Children Of The Light Review – The Next Logical Leap

Publisher: thatgamecompany
Developer: thatgamecompany
Release:
Rating: 12+
Reviewed on: iOS

Sky: Children of the Light is a deeper experience, both figuratively and literally, than it first appears to be. Sky directly echoes many of the beats and gameplay moments that defined Journey, thatgamecompany’s last major release. But where Journey flirted with social elements, Sky is a full-on love affair with cooperative multiplayer. Early hours suggest a contemplative and accessible trip through an ethereal land of whirling clouds and distant horizons. While Sky can undoubtedly offer a thoughtful solo adventure akin to the studio’s previous work, it’s through engagement with friends and strangers that it becomes far more involved. Shaped by both mechanics and storytelling, it becomes a game about sacrifice, sharing, and the nature of altruism.

As one of the titular children of light, you are born into a world of interconnected realms linked beneath the same starry sky, and you must find ancestral spirits in order to return them to their rightful place in the constellations. By skipping across meadows, sliding down dunes, and soaring through open skies, you complete your task by bringing light to darkened places, kindling braziers and ancient bell towers with the touch of your candle. Gameplay is freeform and uncomplicated, and puzzles are often as simple as connecting the dots from one point to another. Lost spirits/stars are frequently hidden, so keen observation is required. Your life, light, and flight power are all encompassed in one shared statistic known as winged light, and it grows stronger as you find more of the lost. The sense of progression is satisfying, but the need to divert and collect new wing segments sometimes distracts from the natural flow of play.

Each of seven different realms offers a distinct visual and gameplay experience. The pastoral Daylight Prairie, with its inviting green fields and cumulus clouds, gives way to the rain-soaked Hidden Forest, which steals your light if you don’t find cover. Moving between the shifting landscapes is satisfying and well-paced; the music and environments together paint a potent mental and emotional scene. The most impressive magic on each stage is how much is hidden away, waiting to be discovered on subsequent playthroughs; greater flight power and the presence of friends opens up entirely new areas to ascend through and explore, lending a satisfying sense of mastery.

Whether you invite friends or meet up with strangers, Sky is a social game fueled by positive interactions. Dozens of emotive expressions unlock as you meet new NPC spirits, but the most popular within the burgeoning community are ones like “hug” or “high five.” Players are encouraged to share light and hearts to new friends, boosting their progress to new cosmetics. Musical instruments and sheet music can be acquired, to pause from the action and play together. Up to eight players can hold hands and leap into the sky together, guided by a single leader to discover new destinations – an ideal way to share the game with a child or less-experienced player. Some non-critical-path doorways and tasks in the world require multiple players to unlock, encouraging shared exploration. I really enjoy playing with friends, and I’ve had some magical moments meeting strangers in the wild and working to solve a problem. I only wish the direct invite functionality was a bit more straightforward instead of a strange QR code system. 

Click here to watch embedded media

Thatgamecompany makes a valiant attempt to wrangle the touch screen into a usable twin-stick setup for 3D navigation in air and on ground, but it’s only successful for simple tasks. More precise movement, platforming, and flight challenges don’t fare as well; I often struggled against the controls, or fell off a narrow ledge when I thought I was standing still. This interface is by no means a dealbreaker, but it can lead to moments of frustration in an otherwise idyllic game.

As free-to-play games go, Sky is far less predatory or immersion-breaking than many competitors on iOS, but it still has an in-game store that can speed your acquisition of new items. Amassing that same currency in-game can be slow, but faster if you choose to share light with friends, and they with you. Sky is built as a living game, and the hauntingly beautiful conclusion leads naturally into endless potential replays. If that replay is appealing, the developer has seasonal content planned, with new spirits to find and items to earn, which will also come at an additional price. 

Sky expands on the successful gameplay ideas of the developer’s previous games, but with a greater sense of progression, replayability, and a far more involved social component. Conceptually, this new project is a deeply felt meditation on empathy and the connections between people, couched in the same unpretentious and thoughtful presentation we’ve come to expect from the studio. Sky is a refreshingly moving and robust game on the iOS platform, and one best shared with others – especially folks who might not normally pick up a video game.

Click image thumbnails to view larger version

 

                                                                                                            

Score: 8.5

Summary: The new game from the makers of Journey is a thoughtful contemplation on positive interactions with friends, strangers, and the wider world.

Concept: Fly through the clouds of a gorgeous world while making friends to soar by your side in this follow-up to Journey

Graphics: Swirling clouds, distant light beams, and the ruins of a lost civilization are all depicted in a soft and inviting art style, but occasional hitching on some supported devices can break the illusion

Sound: A stellar score ebbs and flows with the beats of onscreen events, while ambient sound effects add a naturalistic and meditative vibe

Playability: Challenges in touch-screen control mar an otherwise accessible experience that features a smooth curve of new ideas and difficulty

Entertainment: thatgamecompany’s eye for aesthetic beauty and meaning-laden interactions are made richer through social engagement and sharing with friends

Replay: High

Click to Purchase

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Square Enix Assembles The Avengers At E3 2019

We’ve known for some time that Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics had teamed up with Marvel to bring us a new Avengers game, but it has been kept tightly under wraps. Tonight, we got our first real glimpse of the title at the Square Enix press conference, and the Marvel heroes came out swinging. 

Marvel Avengers is an online-enabled action/adventure game with a focus on cinematic storytelling, built to be played by up to four players online at the same time. While the main characters at launch (Captain America, Hulk, Thor, Black Widow, and Iron Man) should be familiar to anyone who hasn’t been hiding under a rock in the last few years, it’s notable that Crystal Dynamics is crafting their own takes on these characters and their world, so they won’t be part of the same storytelling continuum as those in the comics or movies.

The story begins with the Avengers in a celebratory mood, opening their west coast headquarters near San Francisco from onboard their custom helicarrier, which is powered by a form of terrigen energy (perhaps hinting at some involvement of the Inhumans in this story?). In what appears to be a disastrous heist gone wrong, the helicarrier goes down, large swaths of the city are badly damaged or destroyed, and Captain America is taken out of action, though it’s not entirely clear whether he actually dies or if something else happens to him. 

The story cuts to five years later after the now-infamous “A-Day” and disbanding of the Avengers, when the team must reassemble to face a grave new threat. 

The game has some well-known voice talent connected to it. Nolan North is playing Tony Stark, Troy Baker is taking on the role of Bruce Banner, Laura Bailey is donning the Black Widow role, Travis Willingham is lending his voice to Thor, and Jeff Schine is performing as Captain America. 

While we got some screenshots that suggest third-person action, the presentation at the Square Enix press conference fell short of offering any substantive looks at the game in action. We did get one extra character tease near the end of the presentation, with the appearance of Hank Pym using his Pym particles to shrink a massive tank walker into a miniaturized version of itself.

Crystal Dynamics was also quick to point out that Avengers is planned as a game that will grow over time with new regions and characters, all of which will come free to those who have the game. In addition, the team promised no loot boxes or pay-to-win purchases connected to the project. 

Avengers is targeting a release on May 15, 2020, and is coming to PS4, Xbox One, PC, and Stadia.

Check out the trailer for more.

Click here to watch embedded media

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Destiny 2: Season Of Opulence – First Impressions

Destiny 2 has had a tumultuous year – both in-game and on the real-world business side – but that doesn’t mean it’s had a bad year. With its split from Activision now formalized, the content now rolling out likely begins to represent the Destiny universe specifically as Bungie hopes to present it. The latest addition to that world is the Season of Opulence, a not-expansion that nonetheless offers a new helping of content for season pass players to explore. Like the Drifter and Forge seasons that preceded it, Opulence focuses squarely on content for the initiated, dedicated player. And while there’s a mix of good and concerning elements in these first few days, the experiences on offer are well worth checking out for veteran Guardians.

Season of Opulence circles back to the storyline of Calus, the Cabal emperor who has been playing games and hatching machinations with our hero character since the launch of Destiny 2. Specifically, we’re now chasing treasure across the solar system, partially for our own enrichment, and in part for the entertainment of Calus. One of the standout elements of Destiny 2 since the launch of Forsaken has been the focus on deep lore, and there’s some great stuff on offer here if you take the time to read it as it unlocks; there’s an especially fun “future history” of Calus’ interaction with our Guardian that heralds the end of the universe. However, like most of the season pass content from this year, I’m left a bit underwhelmed by the actual in-game story beats. Without discrete new story missions or strikes, or even a true guiding purpose to the treasure-gathering, everything here feels a bit hollow, especially in comparison to previous epic encounters with the likes of Crota, Ghaul, or Uldren. Moreover, I find myself increasingly distanced from a sense of character agency for my hero. Like in the Forge and Drifter seasons, it feels like my Guardian is just being shepherded along to the next shiny object, chasing new gear without a particularly clear reason why. I miss the sense of epic heroism and purpose that defined the early years of the franchise.

The opening quest line for Opulence doesn’t help to alleviate those concerns, as it takes you through a rote series of brief tasks that are largely forgettable. However, that “Invitation” questline does open up an interesting new twist on play. The Chalice is a new tool that lets you guide the shape of certain rewards that will be coming your way, and it can be upgraded to offer greater specificity in the specifics of those pieces of armor and weaponry. I dig this concept, and the way it allows players to customize their loot in meaningful ways (with a bit of work). I’d be very happy to see Bungie expand the concept to other arenas.

The Menagerie is one of my favorite new activities in a Destiny game in a long time

The Menagerie is the place where you’ll go to try and win those rewards you’ve designated on your Chalice, and it’s this activity that is certainly the most rewarding and unique piece of content we’ve seen in-game in some time. A matchmade six-person activity, the Menagerie could be thought of a bit like a “raid-lite” experience. Over the course of several surprisingly different encounters and environments on board Calus’ Leviathan, you’ll work your way up toward a boss fight while engaging in a mix of combat and straightforward objective completion. In one encounter, you’ll need to run into a toxic cloud to snag an orb and slam it back into your home base. In another, you’ll need to kill certain enemies to gain a laser that is uniquely suited to breaking a particular type of crystal. The battles are frantic and smartly paced, and interspersed with brief periods of wandering a maze-like substructure. The Menagerie offers an ideal way for solo or small-group players to get the feeling of larger battles, but without the extreme challenge and organization required by a raid. In terms of complexity, the Menagerie’s varied encounters and locations make for a much more engaging activity than many other recent similar in-game experiences, such as Escalation Protocol or the Forges. Like the Chalice concept itself, I’d be especially pleased to see the developers iterate further on the ideas presented in the Menagerie; it’s great fun, and I’m eager to see what other bosses and heroic variations are on the way in the coming weeks.

I have to withhold too much evaluation for the new raid, Crown of Sorrows, as I’ve yet to finish a full run myself. With that said, what I have seen suggests a continued thread of excellence from the raid team that has remained largely unbroken since the original Destiny’s launch. Destiny’s raids offer a unique high-level cooperative activity and imaginative design that is unmatched in the industry, and Crown of Sorrows exhibits the same mix of innovative mechanics and challenging encounters we’ve come to expect. I like the way that the larger six-person team is forced to break down into smaller two and three-person groups, and then coordinate and shift responsibilities throughout the encounters in order to find success.

A bevy of new cosmetic ships and other items are available this season, but they are now almost entirely reliant on real-money purchases

Bungie has adopted a staggered release approach to much of its content, so we’re expecting more in the coming weeks, including a couple of exotic quests, additions to the Menagerie, and what I’d guess may be a few surprises, given the team’s recent modus operandi. As such, there’s not a lot of other brand-new content on offer for players in this first week, though there are some new things to take note of. For instance, the long-awaited appearance of the Gunsmith bounties is certainly a welcome respite from the shortage of enhancement cores and weapon mods, and it’s the first time in a long time that I’m going to see Banshee every day again.

I have much more mixed feelings about the dramatic rework of the Eververse store. It’s clear Bungie is putting in some work here in advance of some big changes coming later this fall, and the new user interface is cleaner, more welcoming, and better organized. However, it’s hard to praise some of the more behind-the-scenes decisions for this real-money storefront. This season’s earnable engrams only reward a “best of” engram with items from previous seasons. If you want any of the new ships, armor, ornaments, or other goodies, you’re now effectively locked in to spending real money to get them. It’s disappointing and immersion-breaking for me. I often think about how much more exciting the loot pool might be if some of these items were integrated into the broader game. While cognizant of the realities of monetization, every year has seen Bungie move further down the road toward this business model, and I’m not a fan of the direction it’s going, especially in a product that is (as of now) still a premium, pre-paid game.

The new Pursuits tab is too utilitarian for its own good, and fails to surface active projects in a meaningful way

Finally, on the user experience side, I have to mention that the new Pursuits tab, located in the Director, feels like a utilitarian solution to a problem that Destiny has struggled with almost since its inception. And while I admire that the team is still trying to work out the best approach, I can say with some confidence that this isn’t the right answer. Bounties, questlines, and other active points of engagement (like the Chalice) all swim together in a hard-to-read mix of rectangular blocks, and I regularly become lost trying to identify where a particular project is described, and what it means that I’m working on it. In an epic RPG experience, players should feel driven not just by the acquisition of loot, but also by a sense that their characters are on important tasks that move the story and the world forward. The current Pursuits tab doesn’t contribute to that sensation, and I hope Bungie keeps exploring alternate options.

It’s impossible to fully evaluate a current season of Destiny 2 in its first week, since so much of it is built around a gradual roll-out. With that acknowledged, the big takeaway is that seasoned players will find a couple of solid and exciting new activities to engage with this spring and summer, along with a return to the familiar “powerful engram” grind that has been guiding their play for a long time now. New and returning players would be forgiven for feeling a bit lost at sea at this point; Opulence does little to help you understand what’s happening or why your character is doing what they’re doing. Even so, returning players who brave the waters will be happy to receive some power surge items as part of the initial Opulence questline, which should do wonders for helping you to catch up with your friends and get into the good stuff.

Bungie spent yesterday announcing a slew of exciting features on the way to Destiny 2 this fall, from a new standalone expansion to a free-to-play core experience. In advance of that, Season of Opulence aims to keep the ship moving in the right direction, but does little to dramatically change the view from the bow.

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Top Of The Table – Pandemic: Rapid Response

Hidden away in the array of modern board games is a subset of titles focused on real-time countdowns. It can be a contentious design decision, since it has the potential to subtract from the relaxed and conversational vibe typically engendered so well by a fun board game night. Nonetheless, some games manage to get it right, by keeping the action moving fast, the rules simple, and the game lengths limited. I’m happy to report that Pandemic: Rapid Response fits comfortably into the category of fun real-time games, and it’s a release that deserves your attention.

Pandemic is one of the most familiar games in the hobby scene. By focusing on cooperation between players, and an identifiable theme about staving off worldwide disease, the game has long been heralded as one of the great “gateway” games for inviting new players into the tabletop hobby. The original Pandemic release has inspired a host of follow-ups, including an excellent legacy variation and one of my personal favorites, a twist on the concept set in ancient Rome. Pandemic: Rapid Response maintains the cooperative playstyle, as well as the focus on a team of specialists leveraging their skills to save human life, but the core play loop is entirely new.

The game board depicts the interior of a high-tech plane

In response to rampant natural disasters sweeping the world, an international effort has led to the creation of the Crisis Response Unit, a team of scientists with the tools to quickly deploy and bring relief supplies where they’re needed around the world. Rather than a large map of the world (as we might expect in another Pandemic game), Rapid Response’s board is the interior of the high-tech plane on which the CRU must prep their aid. By managing your time to the last second, you must deliver first aid, vaccines, water, and other lifesaving supplies to places like Johannesburg, Moscow, London, Tokyo, or Atlanta. Even as you make that essential food drop, another city has already been hit, and it’s time to rush on to the next calamity.

Gameplay is all about throwing a pool of dice, and carefully (but quickly) selecting which results to use, and how. Your die results dictate every action you can take, so you need to be smart about how each is deployed on your turn. You get a couple of optional re-rolls on each turn, but at the end of your rolling, you have to work with what you have. Do you have enough “food” die results to create a food supply crate needed in Bogotá, or are you already working ahead for the next stop in Bangkok, where they’re in desperate need of power generators? You must also expend die results to move about the plane to other rooms, to fly the plane to a new location, or even to make the cargo drop once you’ve reached the designated city. All the while, you must manage the limited resources available on board the plane, so a dedicated recycling center must be constantly attended to, transferring waste into usable raw materials to continue the fight.

Each player has their own set of dice which are rolled at the start of their turn

I really enjoy the dynamic choices the system creates, especially since you’re working in concert with all the other players at the table. One of you may be playing the Flight Planner role, so you’re better suited to maximizing the distance flown to new destinations. If you’re the Analyst, you get extra die rerolls on your turn, ensuring you can pull out those clutch results when they’re needed most. Each role brings something different to the table, and if you don’t take advantage of each character’s skill set, it’s very hard to win. Constant frenzied table talk is required, as each of you divvy up the necessary tasks and figure out how you can best help the effort. It’s fun and frantic.

The real trick is this whole thing is happening as an inconvenient two-minute sand timer is running down in front of you. All your rerolling, recycling, action selection, moving around the plane, and jetting off to new cities is happening as the sand drips away, and it’s remarkable how fast those two minutes disappear. Even as you finish your turn, the next player around the circle is feverishly waiting to throw their dice down and keep things moving. When the timer runs out, the current player’s active turn pauses, and a new city is struck by a natural disaster, and the whole team loses one of its precious time tokens. Run out of time tokens, or let the waste aboard the ship get to toxic levels, and it’s game over.

The timer completely changes the dynamic of play, demanding quick decisions

Here’s the thing you need to know; Pandemic: Rapid Response is a game that’s easy to grasp, but it is hard to win. The game includes multiple difficulty settings, and after playing with multiple group configurations, even the easy and normal difficulty settings can be really tricky. There are even “crisis cards” like Extreme Winds and Supply Spill that can be used to further complicate matters. Inevitably, players end up working at cross purposes, sending the plane off in one direction when another player has plans to fulfill the needs of a city in the other direction. You’ve got a skill that would make recycling a breeze, but someone else wastes their turn tackling that task, rather than filling up on those first aid cubes that Ryadh so desperately needs. The fun lies in the constant tension, as you wait to see the next city card, how far away it is from your current location, and whether you have the supplies built up that you’ll need. There are absolutely times when all hope seems lost, and the last supply drop happens literally moments before the timer runs out.

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that this type of stress isn’t going to be the right fit for every player group. Everyone needs to be in the right mood, and ready to laugh off the failures as quickly as celebrate the narrow victories. Thankfully, a full game of Pandemic: Rapid Response can be completed in about 20 minutes – much longer and it would be more exhausting than enjoyable. And unlike some games, if you’re playing it right, that limit is fairly well locked in by the very nature of the gameplay. So even if it ratchets up the tension a bit, you’re not going to be sweating bullets all night. For my part, I find it’s a great pick to pull out in the space between two larger and more slowly paced games over a long weekend of gaming; everyone gets their attention refocused, and then they’re ready for something new. 

By banking particular die results, you create supply cubes that can be used to save the inhabitants of a disaster-ridden city

As an aside, I also have to give props to Z-Man Games and designer Kane Klenko for the clever theming at play here. Without any explicit reference to the concept, Rapid Response feels like a game that is all about climate change. The accelerating pace of natural disasters, the focus on recycling and waste management, the fundamental idea of a doomsday timer that is ticking down, and even the looming sense that there’s no chance to win – it all reads contextually as a not-so-subtle take on the current state of humans and their environment, and it’s fascinating to see a board game try to explore the concept from such an unusual angle.

Even with the change in tone imposed by the time limit, Rapid Response still has that appealing Pandemic vibe that made the original game so appealing. There’s a thrill in working as a team and pulling off the world-saving action that makes the table cheer. And the new city card draws emulate that same unexpected event of new disease cubes that go out in the original Pandemic. Like the original, Rapid Response celebrates teamwork and a diverse selection of talents, and it’s exciting when everything comes together for a narrow victory.

Whether this new take on Pandemic sounds like a good fit or not for your gaming group, feel free to explore the Top of the Table hub by clicking into the banner below, where you’ll find a ton of other recommended board, card, miniature, and role-playing games. And if you can’t find what you’re looking for, drop me an email and let me know what you’re looking for.

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Void Bastards Review – Scavenging The Fun

Publisher: Humble Bundle
Developer: Blue Manchu
Release:
Rating: Mature
Reviewed on: PC
Also on:
Xbox One

Strip away the thematic concepts and storytelling, and a game like BioShock focuses on creative problem-solving. How do I confront and control a space through the use of unusual tools, stealth, and outright assault, and come out the other end better for the exchange? Void Bastards explores that core dynamic with a procedural loop, focusing on opportunities for strategy and improvement, and eschewing characters and story with an almost nihilistic abandon. The result is a relatively pure flow of discovery and mastery for many hours, diminished only by an eventual sense of rote.

Mirroring the darkest corners of Douglas Adams’ sci-fi vision of outer space overwhelmed by bureaucracy, you play a smattering of mostly minor criminals who have been “dehydrated” into snack-sized bags of powder. When a hazardous nebula turns a transport’s crew feral, a mindless computer rehydrates you to get the ship out of danger. The relatively simple task is complicated by inane jobs set by the ship, like the need to laminate an ID card to authorize shipboard control, so it’s off to explore the wrecks of nearby ships (and their mutated crews) to find the requisite supplies.

Borrowing elements from the roguelite genre, each prisoner rockets off with the same crafted weapons, armor, and tools left behind by your last unfortunate expired protagonist. You manage food, fuel, and wandering spaceborne threats like pirates to avoid certain death in the void. Instead, you face certain death onboard the ships on which you’re gathering supplies. If you’re lucky, you return with the parts, only to face another bureaucratic hurdle. The dark absurdist humor shines through, even as the repeated deaths mostly lose their sting, since you’re still consistently progressing broader goals regardless of who you are controlling.

Each ship you visit is a strategic challenge, filled with perverse enemies, helpful supplies, and stations you can work to solve the puzzle. The helm has a map of supply locations, but you need to turn on the power generator in a different room first. The drill you need is in the Hab unit, but you need to deactivate the gun turret in the security room to reach it. Everything is interconnected, and I enjoyed learning the many ways to manipulate the varied ship configurations encountered through the smart procedural generation.

Along the way, the insane and mutated ship crews stand in your way at nearly every turn, each spouting incoherent ramblings that not-so-subtly jab at modern-day society. Matronly supervisors berate you for being late to your shift. Scrambling short-statured “Juves” gleefully scream profanities to see if they can shock you. Spooks sneak up behind you and disappear from view as you begin to attack.

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Enemies each offer their own challenges to avoid or defeat, and further complicate the riddle of navigating any given ship. Environmental factors like radiation, fire, and oil slicks add yet another layer of complexity. On top of it all, just as you master one enemy type or ship setup, you progress to more potent challenges. On that front, I appreciate the adjustable difficulty; roguelites can sometimes feel calibrated to only welcome hardcore players, but Void Bastards can be customized to welcome anyone from casual to veteran.

A thoughtfully imagined crafting system provides minor player-set goals in the midst of the set tasks that push the adventure forward. With enough recycled materials, you can create different weapons, protective armors, and other helpful equipment. From the shotgun-like stapler to the clusterflak gun, the weapons and explosives are silly and fun to use, even if it’s frustrating to be low on ammo for the weapon you currently need the most.

Void Bastards’ biggest dilemma is in the sense of repetition that emerges after several hours. Even with smart procedural generation, ship layouts eventually begin to feel too similar, and enemy configurations feel like frustrating road blocks rather than meaningful encounters. And while the storytelling does its job of reinforcing a sort of anarchic and cynical view of how meaningless life can seem, that theme doesn’t do any favors to helping a player feel invested over time.

Even so, there is an ending of sorts, and Void Bastards seems to recognize that it’s running out of steam within a few hours after the tedium kicks in. Even in those final hours, I was still impressed by the consistent tone, smart mix of stealth and action, and the tension of managing your characters’ lean chances of survival. Void Bastards is funny, misanthropic, and yet still fun to play, and even after arising from some pretty clear inspirations, manages to feel like its own mutated beast.

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Score: 8

Summary: Inspired by System Shock 2 and BioShock, Blue Manchu’s hybrid of action, shooting, stealth and strategy offers a darkly comedic adventure worth exploring.

Concept: Scrounge and scavenge derelict spaceships while employing stealth, strategy, and shooting

Graphics: Colorful comic-book aesthetics are juxtaposed with grotesque mutant designs to create a memorable visual style

Sound: The ambient voices and sound effects stand out, helping to inform the way you approach an encounter

Playability: Controls feel tight and responsive, and the wide variety of weapons and tools are intuitive to use

Entertainment: Void Bastards provides a clever twist on the gameplay model popularized by System Shock 2 and BioShock, now with a procedural element to aid in long-term engagement

Replay: Moderate

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