I’ve been looting and pillaging faraway lands, struggling for control in ancient Japan and trying to survive a brutal siege. Here’s how much fun it was.
I’m part of a Board game group that plays every week and one of the big benefits is that more dedicated gamers bring along the latest hot new releases. Here’s my take on some of the games we’ve played that were released in the past year or so. This is the second part of my “recent board game review” article. You can read the first part right here.
(If you’re not familiar with any of the game mechanic terms I use in this piece, check out our jargon-buster on the topic.)
Raiders of the North Sea (with Fields of Fame and Hall of Heroes expansions)
The base game from 2015 is an old favourite at our group, thanks in part to it’s creative twist on worker placement: on a turn you place a worker to take an action, then remove another worker to take a second action. That means you can almost always take the actions you want, but not necessarily in the order you’d hoped.
The two new expansions (which can be added individually or combined) both allow for an extra player, which always feels like a bit of a con as a paid extra. Fortunately they also offer worthwhile gameplay additions as well. Fields of Fame adds in enemies in some locations which you must fight, flee or even recruit into your party, with an added ‘Fame’ track for scoring. Hall of Heroes adds an extra component in mead (which temporarily increases your crew’s fighting strength) along with the option to complete quests on empty locations, scoring points on another new scoring track.
Both additions work well by giving more routes to scoring without overly complicating the game. This is particularly useful for overcoming a problem with the base game by which new players will usually struggle against experienced players who’ve figured out winning strategies: using the expansions means you need to be more flexible in your approach depending on both the starting layout (which is heavily randomized) and the development of the game.
While Rising Sun will inevitably be compared with designer Eric Lang’s previous creation Blood Rage (particularly with the gorgeous components), it’s very much a success in its own right. Based around rival Japanese clans battling to control regions of the country, it pulls off the tricky task of combining multiple popular mechanics in a smooth manner. The alliance building and betrayal is a little overhyped, but the game neatly cycles through stages of worker placement, auctions, set collection and area control, making it a real “gamer’s game”.
The big downside is that it’s not the easiest game to pickup. For one thing, having only three rounds means that by the time you’ve learned how it all plays and started to think about overall strategies, you’re a fair way into the game. For another, every player having special abilities that significantly affect their best decisions gives an added layer of complexity while you’re still trying to get to grips with the basics. It’s definitely a game that would be more enjoyable on repeat playings and luckily it’s engaging enough that most players would be up for that.
This War of Mine
Adapted from the computer game, “This War of Mine” is a similarly bleak experience of trying to keep a group of civilians alive during a civil war that’s heavily influenced by the real events of Sarajevo. The gameplay is an increasingly difficult effort to manage resources acquired through daytime hunting and building in a house and nighttime scavenging raids (while defending the house against looters.) The resources are vital to manage the characters’ levels of hunger, misery, illness, wounds and fatigue, with all but the last of these taking the character out of the game if they reach a critical level.
The game experience itself depends very much on the size and nature of your group. While it plays multiplayer, this actually involves cycling round so that a new player makes each major decision, though the group can negotiate or discuss it as they see fit. How well this works really depends on the group as it can be anything from a dry number-crunching exercise to a full-blown RPG depending on attitudes, and realistically it’s a solo game that can be a multi-player experience.
The game also takes a creative approach to the rules process. In theory at least you can start playing from scratch, with a brief journal teaching the rules as and when they become relevant through the various stages of the in-game ‘day’, which then repeats a dozen or so times as you approach the ceasefire that ends the game. Frequently asked questions and more detailed rules clarifications are scattered through a “book of scripts” with more than a thousand entries. At various stages in the game, particularly when scavenging, you’ll be sent to an entry in the book that develops the story and often asks you to make “Choose Your Own Adventure” style decisions.
The game is brutally (if realistically) difficult and comes with both an advanced mode and a couple of shorter “scenario” modes, so should have a lot of game play in it. It’s certainly not fun, but is very much an experience with a solid game at heart.
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