At MMGaming we don’t just draw the line at video games. We’re geeks through and through and something we have slowly but surely be gaining a profound appreciation of over the past few years is Board Games. So it seems reasonable that now we have developed a decent repertoire of board games, that we could try this review as an example to start reviewing games in the same way we do with video games.
So, after my recent reviews of One Night Ultimate Werewolf and Mage Wars, I have decided that instead of playing a slow game of catch-up with all the numerous board games I have enjoyed in recent years I thought I would provide a slightly quick-ish run down of the remaining 3 games in my Top 5, with Mage Wars and One Night fairly comfortable near the top.
Whilst naming my top 5 is significantly harder than naming those two games as some of my favourites, I feel I am fairly happy with the selection I have made: Cosmic Encounter, Dead of Winter and Codenames.
This is possibly something of a controversial choice, because while I know it is very highly rated and I personally rate it extremely highly (obviously), amongst my group of friends it is liked but not as universally adored.
In Dead of Winter you and your friends are survivors, working together to survive a zombie apocalypse whilst, in the middle of winter. So you have to work together to not only survive by fighting off the ravenous dead but also by surviving exposure to the harsh and freezing elements.
The game places your survivors in their compound which you have to maintain by, not only fighting off approaching zombies but also by keeping everyone supplied with food for the rounds you are playing. You also have to deal with waste build-up and a new crisis every round which could be lack of food or medicine. You also therefore have to travel between the colony and several “outside” locations to try and scavenge resources, and both travelling AND searching places your survivor in a significant amount of danger.
The colony collapses if you run out of morale or if everyone dies, and just about everything causes a loss of morale. Not enough food for everyone? Lose morale. A survivor dies? Lose morale. Fail a crisis? Lose a SIGNIFICANT chunk of morale. As well as this you are also playing against a clock of the round limit, which is always less than you think.
The win conditions are determined by an overall “victory” condition where the survivors will actually win. Conditions which could be anything from “clear out all the zombies from certain areas” to “provide a certain amount of supplies to the colony”. On top of this, players will also have their own specific victory conditions to make things a little more competitive. In the easier modes it tends to be simple things like having a certain amount of a specific resource in your hand, but it also opens up the possibility of making you a traitor who must specifically make the colony fail (without getting yourself banished into the wilderness).
This isn’t even the end of the complexity within the game, because as well as this, within a round every person takes a turn in order (and so usually everyone has to work together to plan out all the moves for the round) but before a person starts their turn, the next person picks up a “Crossroads” card.
The Crossroads cards have conditions at the top which are read in secret by the next player and if, at any point during the turn, the conditions are met then suddenly the player will find themselves at a crossroads. Sometimes these events can be as general as “have a survivor at the colony” to as specific as “Have Colonel Mustard with the Candlestick in the Police Station.” And the results of the Crossroads themselves can range from the harmless, perhaps meeting another new survivor to the colony, to a decision with potentially deadly and far reaching consequences.
All of this leads me to what is easily the biggest drawback of Dead of Winter. While the initial long set-up and overall complexity of the game is intimidating enough and so usually it takes a concentrated effort to begin a game with your friends, the single biggest reservation most of my friends have is that it is so damned difficult. Across numerous playthroughs with different friends, where I have been present and not, I believe Tim has only ever succeeded in beating the game once. ONCE.
It is a game where catastrophe can strike in an instant and turn a reasonably functional colony, that isn’t quite clinging on by its fingernails, into an absolute shambles. Travelling is a perfect example of this. If you want to simply MOVE a character from the colony to loot somewhere s/he must roll the encounter dice which has a chance to woun
d them, a chance to give them frostbite (each of which symbolised by a token which takes 3 to kill almost characters) or a chance to get bitten: literally instantly killing that character (and thus giving you a morale hit). So while wounds and frostbite provide difficulties, they can be dealt with, but there is always that chance that your character will simply get instantly killed. Just because of a DICE roll!
And it takes a lot to have even a slightly functional colony. Usually you will only ever be clinging on by your fingernails. You may think your characters have some pretty awesome abilities, especially working on concert with others. Maybe you get lucky in a search and find something like a sniper rifle early on. But there’s always so much that needs to be done in taking care of the colony, the crisis and the actual objective that in the end some things are left by the wayside by sheer necessity.
“Food? Oh we can do without food for a couple of rounds, we’ll only lose a couple of morale points.”
So you might have come up with a complex but winning strategy, playing off every character’s strength to achieve victory in a couple of rounds. Then the cruel wind of fate blows and a character is instagibbed on the way to the Gas Station.
“Oh, that’s fine, it’ll make this harder, but we can still do this. I’ll just send my other character instead and we reshuffle the plan slightly.”
CRUEL WIND OF FATE. The other guy is instagibbed on the exact same route.
THAT’S when panic REALLY sets in.
What I love about it though is how every game feels different. The sheer variety in characters, missions and then those ever-looming Crossroads (of which there are 80 different ones) means that there’s always something different going on. Even if the overall objective is the same, the game can proceed down very different paths.
On top of this, actually winning it then FEELS like a real achievement. Given how difficult and deadly the game is, you truly feel like you have survived a zombie apocalypse and become extremely attached to those survivors of yours who helped get through it. It’s a game where moments of heroism are made all the more epic simply because of the ever-present danger.
Intensely difficult and necessitating a lot of strategic thought is only a good thing for a game like this which makes every minor victory feel like a major one.
The design of the cards, survivors and locations makes everything feel delightfully grim and apocalyptic. Rolling the encounter dice feels genuinely tense and the use of noise tokens to determine how man zombies your scavenging attracts just adds to that feeling of a zombie plague.
With dozens of survivors, item cards, zombies, crossroads, the game feels absolutely packed with so much stuff it just blows my mind.
The numerous objectives, secret objectives and characters makes every game different enough in its own right, but the use of the numerous Crossroads is absolutely inspired.
Social Score: 6/10
While suitable for a small group of up to 5 players, with or without drinking, the complexity could drive off inexperienced board-gamers and the long set-up/play-time can make it a somewhat difficult suggestion for a relaxed evening.
An absolute staple amongst my group of friends and also widely lauded, Cosmic Encounter sees you taking on the role of a species of aliens on a mission of Intergalactic Domination. You start with 5 planets of your own, each garrisoned by 5 saucers (each indicating 1 ship) and you win when you have 5 garrisons on the worlds of your enemies.
The game proceeds around the table, each person in turn takes a card which determines who they will attack that round. Then that person can decide which of their target’s worlds they will attack. These two players then take it in turns, attacker first, calling on the rest of the table to see if anyone will ally with them in the fight. Allies supply additional ships to the encounter, with the bonus that a successful attack will provide the allies with a foreign garrison as well and a successful defense will allow the allies to draw additional cards into their hand.
Then, allies decided, both defense and attacker draw a card from their hand with a value on it, symbolising the additional value of the fight, which is added on to the number of ships. Whoever has the highest number wins, simples, with the defeated ships blasted into the “warp”. Except that players can then start adding on additional bonus cards to increase their attack power in the middle of the fight, and they can also play other cards to provide additional and sometimes extremely powerful effects. Still quite straightforward…
Except then either or both people can play “Negotiate” cards. A negotiate card is a gamble in that if it is set up against an attack card, it automatically loses, but two negotiates allows the two main combatants a chance to resolve the war peacefully. The benefits of a negotiation are often that it allows the two main players to resolve things without providing any benefits to the allies they might not really have wanted to help out.
Before you think that it mostly comes down to whoever has the biggest guns, in the words of Billy Mays: BUT WAIT, there’s more!
Every player at the start is given a choice of three different alien species, which each have different powers and abilities which can affect different stages of the game. Some with extremely subtle yet extraordinarily powerful cards (such as one which allows the player to decide himself who EVERYONE actually attacks) and some with much more straightforward yet no less strong cards (such as one which instantly recovers all ships lost to the warp in combat).
And it doesn’t even end there, as well as all of this there are tech cards to provide you with additional bonuses at the cost of your ships. And then a few other bits and pieces as well on top of that, just in case you thought there might not be enough going on.
Like Dead of Winter, the amount of content of Cosmic Encounter is staggering, and can perhaps be a bit intimidating to newcomers. UNLIKE Dead of Winter however, the rules tend to be a lot more straightforward and so once you get past the set-up it really is pretty simple to wrap your head around. Despite all the additional bits and pieces you might need to know to become good at the game, realistically your strength will be entirely determined by how well you can play against your friends.
Eurogamer describe it is something like Poker, and in a sense they are not far off in that there is a fair amount of bluffing and threatening which goes on. However, it also has things like Risk and Neptune’s Pride thrown in, where you have to try and keep people happy, players tend to gang up on anyone who is within reach of victory and you have to swindle and sneak your way to victory as often as you can simply try and smash your way there with brute force.
In a sense, like Dead of Winter, the game’s true strength lies in the fact that every single game will be different. While the cards in play will always be the same, flares and reinforcements and so on, there are 50 alien species in the base game alone.
FIFTY. And each one has a unique power which can often utterly disrupt the balance of the galaxy. In a game for a max of 5 players, that means you would have to play 10 times at an absolute minimum to experience the powers of every different alien.
Add to this that there are a number of expansions which primarily just add MOREnew alien species (along with new and exciting cards of course) and you are provided with an essentially infinite possible combination of species to face off against each other.
Now, admittedly, because a player will draw 3 cards at the start of the game and choose the specie they want from the 3, some of the species will likely not see any play time. The game is actually pretty poorly balanced with a number of the species being obviously and significantly stronger than others, so if you get a poor set of choices you’re fucked, and equally if you get a powerful species card then the other weaker ones are less likely to be chosen.
Where it then differs from Dead of Winter is that Cosmic Encounter is at its heart a lot less serious of a game. It’s designed to be light-hearted and fun. Those balance issues I mentioned are left by the wayside simply because while it’s definitely competitive, it’s competitive in a very friendly way.
Nowhere else is this clearer than with the upshot of the numerous alien races. Because of the vast array of powers, which can occur at same or different times, there is massive possibly number of combinations the powers can be used in. Inevitably this means you will come across powers which clash, possibly because the effect would change determining on the order they happen in or in that they enhance/cancel each other out. Things like this. And for situations like these it is practically essential to establish a house rule for it, and I would say that a good sign of a fairly casual game is one in which house rules are common (and this is one of the very few times I don’t see it as detrimental).
Of course, because of the Poker/Risk aspects, it also becomes a game of grudges, where one lost battle early in the game can make one player decide simply to fuck up their adversary for the rest of the game out of spite. Such is life in the Galaxy.
The design of the cards is fabulous, with art that just blows me away. The small plastic ships are excellent as well, and there is something so inherently satisfying about slamming a set of five down in front of your enemy with that attitude of “you’re going down bitch!”
Combined it is a game which combines the awesome feeling and looks of some kind of space Empire with an amusing game to play with your friends which will just never lose its lustre despite how often you play.
Consistently genuinely good fun with enough simple but deep and interesting aspects to satisfy both casual and competitive players, slightly detracted by overall balance issues which might make it harder to play in a truly competitive setting.
Awesome card art and design combined with the use of plastic tokens and hypderdrive travel makes the game both feel and look excellent.
What feels like an endless supply of cards and bits and pieces with the constant possibility for expansion to only ever increase the content which will add to both gameplay and replayability.
FIFTY FUCKING ALIEN SPECIES. Nuff said.
Social Score: 7/10
Despite the max player limit of 5, Cosmic is accessible and fun enough that it ought to be easy to convince players of all background to play. As well as this the games feel shorter and less intense than some others, allowing for a more relaxed evening.
In direct contrast with both of the previous games, Codenames is not a game with a complex set-up. It does not have a vast array of different items and cards, its rulebook is really a fraction of the size of the other two. It is also by a long shot the most accessible of the three and quite possible the best in terms of sheer fun.
In Codenames, two teams square off against each other, each lead by a Spymaster of some description. A grid of 5 by 5 cards with completely random words is set up on the table and both Spymasters secretly examine a random card which will show them the location of all their secret agents. It is then up to the Spymasters to get their team to guess which of the words represent code-names for their secret agents before the opposing Spymaster does the same. There is also an assassin which, if revealed, will result in an instant loss for the team which revealed him. AND it’s also worth noting that guessing the code-name of one of the opponent’s team results in them revealing one more agent.
The way this is all done is that the Spymaster must create some kind of link between the random words which symbolise his agents and state how many are within that group. This is however all done in secret, similarly to many party games where the Spymaster must avoid revealing anything with expressions and any other sorts of clues.
For example, if the words “steel” and “soldier” are both agents for one team, a Spymaster might say “Sword, 2”, hoping for his teammates to guess both of these. However, unfortunately the Spymaster might be a bit incompetent and not have noticed that “Knight” is also on the table and is an innocent bystander, an enemy agent or worse the assassin.
Following this there are only a few other small rules, primarily with what can be considered a valid clue or not, but realistically that about covers it. Despite the sheer simplicity of the idea, it’s a fabulous game, perhaps even because it is so simple.
It’s a game of laughter and confusion, because invariably your spymaster will give you a clue for a few of the words that they deem absolutely obvious and then you and your team absolutely fail to guess any of them right, leading to those classic post-game confrontations of “are you fucking retarded? How does this link to this?” Meanwhile the spymaster will continuously insist it makes perfect sense.
It’s also a game about memory and tactics in a way. For example in the above situation, if your team DID guess Knight instead of Soldier you can always give them an additional guess on the next turn in the hope that they will guess it that time. You also can have clues which overlap to finally provide all of the agents on the field.
It’s such a simple game but really is just a great deal of fun. It works with small groups of 4 people but can work just as well with much larger groups of players. In the latter situations it often can just get hilarious with all the conflicting opinions and thoughts everyone will have, with some people seemingly pulling connections out of their ass. The best part of course being that these connections can often be completely right, leaving everyone else staring at the guesser and spymaster with a mix of incredulous disdain and hostile amusement.
Also with the large array of cards, the fact that you never have the same set in play or representing agents, because you can take turns as the spymaster, the game just has probably the highest replay value of any I have mentioned so far.
Codenames actually represents something I love about board games in that sometimes the simplest and most straightforward of ideas can be every bit as fun as something which takes a whole evening to learn how to play and get through a single game. Absolutely worth everyone’s time and money.
Exceptionally simple idea, following the tradition of word-puzzle games being pretty great fun despite the inherent simplicity.
Card art and design is all fairly average with nothing of any particular note to speak about, as a game primarily based around word-games the cards are just a tool to drive it.
Hundreds of word cards, dozens of agent placement cards and a price tag of under £15 makes the game a complete steal.
With essentially an infinite variety of possible set-ups, really the only limit on the game is how much you can play before you get bored of the formula.
Social Score: 10/10
Suitable for small groups all the way up to large ones, with or without drinking, makes it one of the most socially suited board games I’ve played in recent years.