Some midweek thoughts

Hey everyone!
I know how you all enjoy my rambling thoughts, so I’m going to treat you all to some right now! Yes, you really are very lucky…

I’m currently watching House of Flying Daggers, which has a bit of a soap-opera-y story, but also has some truly excellent set-pieces. I draw your attention to the Echo Game near the beginning, and the sequence in the bamboo forest, for but two of these. I also really love the production design – and some of those locations, oh my! But yeah, it is a bit meh as far as the story goes. Can’t let that get in the way though!

Oh yes, and I’m enjoying a cup of lapsang souchong again. Fabulous times!

Speaking of tea, I was working on the degree yesterday evening, and enjoying some Chai tea. It’s something that I don’t go in for all that much, I have to say, but having not had a cup for a long while, it was actually really nice! So there I was, reading Richard Lattimore’s translation of the Odyssey – quite a high-flown translation, in my view, too; I much prefer that of EV Rieu, which I studied for my A level – and drinking Chai tea. Just when you thought life couldn’t be any more pretentious…

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Had a pretty excellent lunch today. I walked into my local game shop to pick up the new saga expansion for Lord of the Rings, and the manager had the Star Wars LCG laid out trying to learn how to play it. Being the gent that I am, I offered to help, and thus had a marvellous impromptu game! I lost, but that doesn’t really say all that much! But in my defense, it’s been a long time since I’ve played this… But anyhow, I’m hoping that I can play this game a bit more often, so have spent a small portion of my evening making up a pair of decks – Scum & Villainy, and Jedi – in the hope that they won’t just be there gathering dust for the next few months!

the road darkens

I’ve only briefly looked at The Road Darkens, and it does look quite fabulous, but I think I might keep it for a while yet. Since I wrote the Mirkwood Cycle blog last week, I’ve been really craving getting back into this game, but I want to start with my favourites. The new expansion doesn’t add a lot of player cards, as the bulk of it is made up of new encounter cards. In fact, this box departs from tradition by having each of the three quests use a single, 30-odd card encounter set. Finally! I usually find myself buying three, or even four copies of deluxe expansions in order to have all of the scenarios set up and ready to go from the start, so this is good news for my wallet! Anyhow, despite only the handful of new player cards, I do want to look at the decks I have set up, as I think there are five decks I have had made up now for about a year at least, with minimal tinkering as new expansion packs have come out, so I could be missing out on some good synergies and combinations.

Pathfinder arrivals

Monday was also quite the day for games, as I had a glut of packs for the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game! The seven class decks, along with the Skull & Shackles Character Add-On deck, and the second pack in that path, Raiders of the Fever Sea, and all of the associated promo cards, are now mine! Oh, and I also had the replacement rulebook for the core set delivered too – a veritable tidal wave of cards! Oh, how we chortle…

I’m still only on part two of Rise of the Runelords, of course, and up until last night had been thinking that I’d wait until the end of that adventure path before wading out among the Shackles, but thinking logically about this, there’s no reason to do so, as one is not a continuation of the other. Plus, with the class decks, there is an almighty mass of new heroes to take on a watery adventure! So I might break it out soon. Especially now that I have the rulebook to know how it all works!

Imperial Assault

I was really happy to see this news last night, I have to say! Back when this game was announced at Gen Con this year, I was really excited – finally, a Star Wars board game from Fantasy Flight! My favourite IP from my favourite company! Of course, as part of the deal, they announced ally and villain packs for Luke and Vader which would be included in the core set, which was amazing. But already we’ll be seeing more to help bulk out the game soon after its release! Wonderful stuff!

Imperial Assault, as you no doubt know, is modelled on the popular Descent, so I suppose the closest analogy for these packs would the the Lieutenant packs for the dungeon-crawler. Part of me hopes that we won’t be seeing quite so many, of course, as the number of lieutenants available for Descent is quite scary (it’s 17, if you were wondering). But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it…

Imperial Assault does bring up an interesting point that has been doing the rounds over the weekend, however. Over on boardgamegeek, a fairly hostile review of the new Warhammer Conquest LCG went up, spawning quite a stunning comments. The original review has been taken down, including some of the offensive follow-up points, but the conversation is still going on as I type. Anyway, while I personally happened to disagree on a lot of the points made, something has emerged as potentially troubling the gaming community. FFG do seem to be putting out a lot of games that recycle mechanics of pre-existing – and, often, ‘current’ – games, and Imperial Assault is a perfect example of this. Descent is still being published, with an expansion released not that long ago, and already we’re seeing this re-skin.

For me, I don’t really see this as a bad thing. One of the driving reasons for why I buy games is the theme: there are quite a lot of games that are respected for their mechanics and such that I have completely passed over simply because the theme doesn’t appeal to me, while I own one or two games that can be said to be almost clones of each other. But this doesn’t really matter, because I can invest myself in the theme which inevitably triumphs over the mechanics anyway. Let me explain…

Warhammer Conquest is said to be a re-skin of Call of Cthulhu, simply because the players are fighting over a central line-up of cards, be they planets or stories (comparisons have also been made with Blood Bowl: Team Manager). The comparison ends there, of course, as combat is handled entirely differently, to say nothing of card draw and resourcing, but the point still seems to stand. Now, I enjoy Cthulhu a lot (check out my blog for more thoughts!), and I have enjoyed my one game of Conquest so far. The fact that the two games bear a superficial resemblance to each other doesn’t really enter my head, as I’m focused on the theme the whole time.

My limited experience with Descent will likely inform my opinion of Imperial Assault in the same way that Cthulhu has done so for Conquest. I am aware that Descent is a good game, but have only really played the solo variant as linked earlier. Because I enjoyed Descent when I have managed to play it does not mean I will not like Imperial Assault “because it’s just Descent in space” – that, to me, is an extremely short-sighted opinion to have. First of all, while Imperial Assault does bear a strong resemblance to Descent, it is not simply a re-skin. However, I enjoy Descent (from what I’ve played of it), and I really enjoy Star Wars. As a reasonably intelligent human being, I can assimilate what I know of the Descent mechanics with what has been previewed of the Imperial Assault game thus far, and I come to the opinion that I will, more than likely, really like the upcoming game. So what’s wrong with that?

Well, creativity is said to be stifled, or game designers are encouraged to be lazy, or somesuch claptrap. I honestly don’t believe that applying a new theme to an existing game system is such a bad idea. RPGs do it all the time, and nobody seems to really care – indeed, it can often be a selling point, as players aren’t faced with the daunting prospect of having to learn an entirely new rules set before they can sit down and enjoy themselves. But I also don’t really see companies like FFG encouraging lazy design over true innovation, as there are plenty of new and upcoming games that they have on the roster that are entirely that – new.

What I feel is happening in the wider gaming community is a confusion of re-themes, or whatever you want to call them, with refining of game systems. Returning to the Cthulhu vs Conquest scenario again, I would say that Conquest has taken an aspect of the older game – the story card line-up – and moulded itself around that, while bearing in mind the source IP, and has produced a game that feels familiar, lowering the barrier of entry, but is nonetheless fresh and true to the Warhammer 40k theme. If Conquest had had four separate conflict stages at each planet; if only three planets were ever up for grabs, and any one of the three could be won after five successful combats there; if players had to build up a domain to manage their economy – this would make me think that Conquest was a lazy design. It has none of these things, of course, so take from that what you will.

In short, I have no real problem with companies taking successful game systems and mechanics, and tinkering with them to create new games. Hell – I am a huge fan of Flying Frog Productions, and count A Touch of Evil and Fortune & Glory among my favourite board games of all time, and they are essentially the same game with a new theme! Flying Frog are living proof, however, of the triumph of theme over mechanics – a common criticism of the company being that they have designed the same game five times. While not exactly true, they have a core “FFP engine” that drives their games, and this has led to players, myself included, being able to concentrate on enjoying the game rather than flicking through the rulebook after every roll of the dice.

To finish this rant, games are meant to be fun! If you have fun while playing the same game in different themes, that’s what it’s all about! If you don’t – well, just move on! It’s hardly like we’re living in a board game drought, after all!

Right then, I’ll put my soapbox away now!

If you haven’t already, and you’re looking for a fun game, then I can heartily recommend you check out this week’s game, Arcana – it’s a deck-building card game for 2 to 4 players where you take the role of a guild in the city of Cadwallon, attempting to gain control of the city by recruiting a number of the notable denizens before the Ducal Jubilee. Highly recommended, and you can pick it up on amazon right now for under £25! Fantastic!

Talking of cities, I’ve booked a trip to London in December. Something to look forward to, as my birthday looms! I do enjoy the capital, though – the British Museum being the main attraction, I won’t deny!

I’m going to stop typing now, anyhow. Hope you’ve all been having an excellent Tuesday!

Arcana

The city of Cadwallon is infamous for its intrigues and power struggles. It is a city with a deep history, whose thick walls contain many hidden places of power and arcane relics. The lure of these mysteries makes Cadwallon the focus of yearning for many. The most exclusive circles of power in Cadwallon are occupied by numerous merchant corporations, known as guilds. They compete to control the city’s vast resources. Can the agents of your guild recruit the most influential citizens in the city and recover the most precious relics? Can you claim control of Cadwallon?

Welcome to Tuesday, everyone!

It’s game day again here at spalanz.com, and today I’m going to look at one of the great overlooked games available in the world today: Arcana!

Arcana

Set in Aarklash, the same world as the boardgame Cadwallon: City of Thieves, and replete with the fantastical artwork of Paul Bonner (among others), the game is just excellent! The players take the role of guilds fighting for control of the city.

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There are six guilds on offer in the game, each one with a distinct flavour.

Arcana

With your guild, you go out into “districts”, a deck of cards laid out on the table, and try to win the Stake cards there by deploying your agents. Depending on the number of players, there are either three or four districts on the table, the central one of which has the Ducal Jubilee card shuffled into it (more shortly). Stake cards come in a variety of Personalities, Locations and Relics, as shown below:

Arcana

Each of the Stake cards has a value down the left hand side, with its “Main Arcanum” in yellow. You need to deploy one of your agents that has a high value, to equal or exceed the Main Arcanum of the Stake card, in order to win it. Some element of bluffing is involved, as each player has at least one Friendly district to which he can deploy his agents face down, as well as the Neutral or Enemy districts, to which he must deploy his agents face up.

Arcana

In the above example, then, the Stake card Sallas Yesod has a Main Arcanum of 6. The Guild of Blades has deployed 3, and the Guild of Thieves has deployed 4. In this case, neither would win the Stake, so they stay there face up until the next round. If there had been a tie, all three of the agent’s arcana are totalled to determine a winner. However, each of the Guilds has a ‘crest’ card, shown earlier, which acts as a tie-breaker.

When you win a Stake card, it enters your discard pile, and you can use it in future rounds as agents to gain more Stake cards.

Arcana

The game continues until the Ducal Jubilee card is revealed from the neutral district. This indicates that the game is about to end, and one more round is resolved. With the game over, the players total up the values of the Stake cards, and the player with the highest value has control of the city and wins. It’s really quite straightforward!

Arcana

There is, however, more to it than that. In addition to agents, you get locations and relics in your deck, which you can use for differing purposes. Locations have specific effects that allow you to, say, deploy additional agents, while Relics allow you to “bribe” a Personality Stake card. That is, you play a Relic card along with one of your agents and use the Relic’s ducat value – along with the agent’s matching arcanum, and compare it with the ducat value of the Personality Stake card. Only Personality cards can be bribed in this way, but some have a zero ducat value, indicating they cannot be bribed.

Arcana is a terrific game, and one that I feel is genuinely overlooked a lot of the time. Not many people I talk to seem to know about it, or if they do, it is because of the other games set in the shared fantasy world. However, it is well worth looking into!

Not least because of the whole host of optional rules available in the core box!

We’ll start with the “customizing” rules. You may have noticed in the pictures posted so far in this blog all show cards with a letter A in the bottom left corner? Well, the game comes with over 300 cards in the box, a good proportion of which have cards with letters up to F on them, for all the differing rules that are available.

The basic game involves all the A cards, which gives each guild a starting deck of 11 cards. Fantasy Flight have included 9 cards for each guild with the letter B in the corner; the idea is that you can build a deck of 11 cards out of the two sets in order to strengthen what you would like to use as your strategy for the game. I like this especially because it adds something to the deck-building genre that I’m not aware of any other such game having – a customized set-up.

Arcana

The C cards are Objective cards:

Arcana

Objectives have a different back to them, and are doled out at the beginning of the game. Each player receives four cards and decides to keep two; they must then complete these objectives before the end of the game in order to claim the points on the bottom of the card (they’re all worth 6 points each). An objective card will tell you to claim a number of Stake cards from a specific fiefdom – shown under the Stake card’s name:

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Objective cards are a really nice little side-quest style of play, and provide some nice bonuses to the final scoring!

The Militia are denoted by cards with a D in the bottom-left corner.

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I must admit, I’ve not actually played with this particular variant of the game, so can’t comment on its utility. There are six cards – two Captains and four Soldiers – that are shuffled at the beginning of the game and placed in a separate deck. The idea is that players can, if they so wish, discard a Stake card from their hand to gain the support of the militia at a district, by playing the top card of the deck there as an agent. At the end of the round, all militia cards are put back into their deck, which is reshuffled.

Given the fact that the militia aren’t particularly amazing stats-wise, I find it difficult to justify their inclusion, to be honest. Granted, if you’re playing with Objectives and you are desperately trying to win a specific fiefdom card but don’t have the required Arcanum, it might be worth trading off a Stake card for the blind draw of a militia card, but I’m not really convinced. If there were some additional effect they brought to the table, such as breaking ties or something, then they might be more compelling, but as it stands, I think I would be inclined to keep my Stake cards.

E is for the Guild Masters:

Arcana

Each Guild comes with three Guild Masters, one of which you choose before the start of the game and place it next to your Guild Crest card. These cards provide your guild with a unique ability that is either once-per-round (denoted by the purple icon above the letter) or always-on. Further, each guild has at least one Guild Master that specifically interacts with the Militia variant described earlier. While they’re all variations on a theme, I do like these cards. They provide some useful boons that you can use, and add yet more depth to the game.

And finally, Random Events are from the F pile:

Arcana

The Ducal Jubilee turns out to be but the first in the many public holidays celebrated in Cadwallon! There is a bit of setup here: at the beginning of the game, you shuffle all 12 of the event cards, then take three, shuffle the Ducal Jubilee into those, and place them on the bottom of the event card pile. As normal, the Jubilee denotes the last round. However, the events add a nice sort of area-effect to the game, such as the Day of Law, which prevents bribery from taking place, or the Festival of Lanterns, where all agents are placed simultaneously.

Finally, there is the option for Tactical Discards (no letter). When you win a Stake card, you can place it under your Crest card rather than into your discard pile. I find this can be really useful if you’re sensing the Jubilee is close, and want to stock up on expensive Location cards but don’t want them clogging up your deck, for instance.

As I said before, I think Arcana is a tremendously good game. It’s a deck-building game, but has such a unique feel to it that you won’t feel like you’re playing Dominion or whatever. For starters, you don’t just buy cards from a line-up, but compete for them. Indeed, the way you go about winning Stake cards does have an element of the cutthroat about it, which I for one really enjoy. My very first game with this was a bit manic as we didn’t quite understand the rules, and ended up having something resembling Snap going on, as we were both throwing cards down and winning Stakes all over the place. But that was one hell of a game! Almost like a permanent Festival of Lanterns, but on acid…

I must say, however, the rulebook isn’t precisely easy to follow. Don’t get me wrong, it’s no Death Angel, but it wasn’t particularly clear on the first read-through how things like bribery worked, and seems to be almost over-complicating itself. I’m not sure if part of the problem might be due to the fact that Fantasy Flight are acting as distributors for a French game, but anyway, familiarity with the game definitely helps.

I mentioned the board game City of Thieves at the top of this blog, and the two games are quite closely linked. Indeed, I had ordered City of Thieves online when I was reading a review that mentioned this game as the way one player and his group choose who goes first in the board game. That just sounded absolutely tremendous fun, and was the reason why I bought this game. A couple of years later, and here I am – having sold the board game, I have kept hold of Arcana because it is an absolute delight!

As a final word on the game, I’d like to mention just one other small point. This game is complete as it stands – with effectively six mini expansions in with the base game – and has not had an entire glut of additional content released, because it stands perfectly well on its own. You can have a whole ton of fun with this game, without the need for more stuff coming at you every other month, or whatever.

Oh yeah, and a final-final point I’d just like to mention – this is a card game with no extra bits: it’s just a box with a mass of cards in it. Don’t get me wrong, I love the card games from Fantasy Flight, but sometimes, it’s nice to play a card game that is precisely that – no tokens and chits, no dials, nothing but cards!

So go on, treat yourself to an amazing and fun game today!