As geek icons such as Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day have amply demonstrated, tabletop gaming is sexy like never before. A medium that was once synonymous with the tedious obligations of “Family Game Night,” board games, card games and tabletop RPGs are now being played by hip twentysomethings such as Quintin Smith and Paul Dean (whose hilarious video reviews at Shut Up & Sit Down reinvent the game review format in the same way that Alton Brown reinvented the cooking show last decade, but in an even more quirky, Internet-savvy format). This is thanks in large part to a decade-long tsunami of innovation inspired by the cleverness and elegance of European new-wave game design crashing against the flashy bling American publishers bring to the table, largely reinventing and reinvigorating the entire medium. In this new monthly series on NerdSpan, I will bring you the latest news and bloggy ramblings from the ever-changing world on my table.
The World on My Table
January is always a great month for trying out new games, thanks to the generosity of Santa Claus and his human minions. January 2015 was no exception: a number of new-to-me games hit my table this month, and I’m here to share my thoughts on the most interesting of the bunch.
By far my most played game this month was Jim Felli’s Shadows of Malice, a self-published indie game published under his own label, Devious Weasel Games. This game initially caught my eye with its sleek, minimalist art style, which stands out against the gaudiness of most fantasy-themed board or card games. But don’t let the clean lines, bold colors and small box fool you–this is a nuanced, epic, and flavorful dark fantasy adventure. As a cooperative game, it’s the players working as a team against the game itself–in this case, a demon named Xulthûl from before the dawn of time.
Shadows of Malice has one of the coolest premises I’ve seen in a fantasy game: the players represent angel-like Avatars of Light, demigods taking physical form to battle Xulthûl and his shadowy corruption over the land of Aethos. Your goal is the use the power of the Light Wells, hidden in strongholds across Aethos, to seal away Xulthûl in the Shadow Realm before he is able to manifest in physical form. The problem is that the powerful guardians of these strongholds have forgotten their purpose and descended into an animal-like state, attacking anybody who approaches the Well, even the Avatars themselves. (Think Shadow of the Colossus.) Even worse, Xulthûl’s corruption has turned some of the Wells dark, with only a few genuine Light Wells remaining. While you race to gain treasures and potions needed to defeat the stronghold guardians and reveal the wells, Shadows will grow in the Shadow Realm, randomly appearing in the material plane of Aethos to try to reveal the Light Wells themselves, draining the Well’s power in order to manifest as Xulthûl himself. If that happens, your last hope is to defeat the demon in face-to-face combat before he can snuff out the remaining Wells.
Shadows of Malice has a few interesting mechanics in support of this unique theme. Most prominent is the fact that there are no standard, generic enemies to fight, like goblins or werewolves. Xulthûl’s influence is mutating and strengthening the creatures of the land, which means that every enemy you encounter is randomly generated using a Creature Generator chart that comes with the game. You won’t know what type of creature you’ll face or how strong it is until you actually start combat. The creature types are deliberately vague so that players can imagine their own story while they play: if you fight a Power 3 Reptilid in the swamp, it might be a dinosaur or a giant boa constrictor, while a Power 1 Avian on the plains might just be a particularly angry ostrich. Random special abilities add even more variety and flavor to the creatures.
The other big innovation in Shadows of Malice is the ability for players to band together to take on the tougher enemies. By forming a band of 2 or more Avatars, the players move and fight as a group. This has both advantages and disadvantage: the band moves at the speed of the slowest member of the band but is able to participate in joint combat, with each band member contributing an extra die to combat rolls, taking the highest result among all the dice rolled. In joint combat, the creatures randomly target a different Avatar every round of combat, meaning each player gets a chance to trade blows. This really helps make every player feel like a vital and important part of the team. While many cooperative games can feel like everybody is doing their own thing, or can suffer from a single player “quarterbacking” and deciding everybody else’s moves for them, Shadows of Malice does a fantastic job of keeping every single player engaged.
The game does have some flaws. For one thing, it is epic in length as well as theme. You can play a quick game in 1-2 hours, but that usually feels unsatisfying due to the stripped down mechanics. Playing a more full-featured game takes 3-5 hours, a pretty significant time investment. Moreover, this is not a simple game by any stretch of the imagination. There are a lot of small rules and dice roll modifications to keep track of, and it can get overwhelming even for veteran gamers. In many ways, this is a roleplaying game, like Dungeons & Dragons, without a GM. Finally, there’s not a whole lot to do outside of combat, which could get repetitive for some people. Luckily, this last issue will soon change: Jim Felli is already developing a Quests expansion to be published this year. He let me playtest the pre-publication version of the expansion, and it’s a must-have, adding some powerful new forms of equipment to the game alongside the titular Quests, which add focus, structure and narrative to your adventures.
While it hasn’t seen as much table time as Shadows of Malice, I’ve fallen in love with Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck-Building Game, a reimagining of Upper Deck Entertainment’s popular Marvel Legendary line of card games, but this time inspired by the four Alien films. The complete opposite of Shadows of Malice, Legendary Encounters is extremely easy to learn and could definitely appeal to families as well as casual gamers. It’s another cooperative game, as the players play through four scenarios inspired by the Alien movies or mix-and-match elements to create upwards of 11 million unique combinations, ensuring that the game will continue to impress you with its variety.
If you’re not familiar with the concept of deck-building games like Dominion or Ascension, the basic idea is that you start with a small deck of weak cards. Every turn, you can use the cards in your hand as currency to “recruit” more powerful and interesting cards from the Barracks. These recruited cards don’t enter play right away, though–they go into your discard pile. Then, the next time you shuffle your deck, you’ll get a chance to draw these powerful cards. In this way, you essentially level up your deck of cards as you play the game, trying to unlock cool combos and synergies (many cards also have special effects that trigger if you play other cards of the same class or crew designation).
By far the coolest thing about Legendary Encounters is how cleverly it brings the plots of the four Alien films to life using special Encounter decks and sets of characters for the Barracks that match the movie you’re playing through. The game’s designers did a great job of making each of these Encounters feel unique without adding too many rules to keep track of–usually, everything you need to know is on the cards themselves, so you can set up a new scenario and discover it as you play. As an example of this creativity, the Nostromo scenario, following Ridley Scott’s original Alien film, begins with the players exploring the wreckage in response to the distress beacon. Instead of actual aliens, you’ll mostly find eggs that might unexpectedly hatch, resulting in a Facehugger latching on to one of the players. If you don’t kill it in time, the Facehugger will drop off, adding a Chestburster to that player’s discard pile. If that happens, the player is now living on borrowed time–as soon as they draw the Chestburster, it’s game over, man. If you survive the first Encounter, the next one sees the players searching the ship for the juvenile creature, with mechanics that reward players for searching carefully and “cornering” the alien. The final Encounter gives players two things to worry about: disabling the self-destruct sequence and herding the adult alien toward the Airlock, where they can finally defeat it for good and win the scenario.
In contrast, the Aliens scenario at Hadley’s Hope plays out extremely differently. After exploring the colony and killing off the human hosts, the players have to set up sentry guns in the hallway while a stream of xenomorphs swarm over them. Then, they need to rescue the captive humans before they can kill the Queen.
The comic-style artwork is consistently phenomenal, capturing all of your favorite moments from the movies. The bottom line is that, if you’re any kind of Alien fan, you need to get this game.
The World Beyond
As sweet as January was with the games I already own, there were some even cooler news announcements that have me drooling for the rest of the year.
To start with, Wizards of the Coast just announced a new game in their Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Board Game series, Temple of Elemental Evil, to be released in mid-2015. The D&D Adventure Board Games are a series of cooperative games that let players experience a simplified version of the combat and dungeon crawling found in the D&D roleplaying game. I have no direct experience with this particular game series, but I know that these games come in a heavy box that’s absolutely overflowing with plastic monster figures, if you’re into that sort of thing.
I’m a recently converted fan of Sierra Madre Games, the publishing company of Phil Eklund, who makes “simulation” games with crazy scientific and/or historical accuracy. And what a year to get into the company–as described in their recent Facebook post, there’s a fantastic array of confirmed new titles and “possibles” coming this year. This includes Neanderthal, a reimagining of Eklund’s own Origins: How We Became Human, which simulates the dawn of human civilization through things like brain development and linguistic mastery. A new edition and/or reimagining of Eklund’s hyperrealistic space exploration game, High Frontier, is on the list of possibles, while several games inspired by his card game Pax Porfiriana, which retells the story of Mexico under dictator Porfirio Diaz, may be coming, including Pax Pamir, set in the colonial era of what is now Afghanistan, and Pax Renaissance (self-explanatory), as well as a potential reprint of Porfiriana itself.
There are a few red-hot games currently burning up the crowdfunding scene. Ending soon, we have the space 4X microgame, Tiny Epic Galaxies, from Kickstarter veterans Gamelyn Games. There’s also a new Conan board game from Monolith Board Games, which is chock full of little plastic monsters and Conan punching his way through walls. Among recently launched projects, we have Trickerion – Legends of Illusion, a very deep-looking game about Victorian-era stage magicians (it’s been described as The Prestige: The Board Game). The only game project I’m personally backing, however, is Heroes Wanted: The Stuff of Legend, the first major expansion for Travis Chance’s quirky but deep game of Mystery Men-style wannabe superheroes.
In miscellaneous other news, there’s a Bravest Warriors card game in the works, a game based on John Layman and Rob Guillory’s Chew comics, as well as a new expansion for Donald X. Vaccarino’s evergreen deck-building game, Dominion, titled Dominion: Adventures. If January is any indications, 2015 will be another great year for the world on my table.