Wiz-War and the Monumental Task of Updating Games

Roughly eight to ten years ago, Fantasy Flight was known for reprinting classic experiential games like Merchant of Venus, Dungeonquest, Talisman, and Cosmic Encounter. Of course they were also known for bungling those reprints. To be sure, there were some missteps. Their original reprint of Dungeonquest integrated a cumbersome combat system totally at odds with the breezy stupidity of the old-school dungeon crawl absurdity. The height of this absurdity was their reprint of Merchant of Venus, which through a mangled wreck of rights ambiguities, included both the original classic game and a totally redesigned version.

While the criticism was partially justified, I can’t help but think that in hindsight, it was a tad unfair. For my own part, Fantasy Flight served as my introduction to almost all of my favorite games. Cosmic Encounter, Talisman, and Merchant of Venus are all among my most beloved designs, and that can largely be credited to the handsome reprint jobs done by Fantasy Flight. The most grievous changes were almost always presented as optional (Merchant of Venus), purely cosmetic (Nexus Ops), or later corrected (Dungeonquest). I reflected on this as I taught my oldest son Wiz-War, the classic from designer Tom Jolly, itself reprinted by FFG in 2012.

I’ve written a number of times about Wiz-War. At its core it’s a classic take-that game where wizards do battle in a magical labyrinth. There are two ways to win: either be the last wizard standing, or steal two treasures from your opponents. You do battle with a deck of cards, all representing different spells. In the past this was done with cheap cardboard components and cards with only text. For FFG’s eighth edition, there were fancy plastic miniatures and nicely illustrated cards, but the overall effect is to my knowledge basically the same.

The minis is my copy look even nicer, because I painted them.

It would be disingenuous of me to compare the FFG version to earlier ones, since I have never played the game in any other form. I know a lot of old fans who took issue with some changes, such as card wording that affected timing or went against previous convention. Personally I’ve never had many issues with this ambiguity, but then I don’t actually know better. But other changes are more noticeable. Most of these are in the back of the original rulebook, so that players who want to can reverse-engineer something resembling the original game. Early on I rejected all the new rule changes, and it saved the game from the trade pile for me.

Overall I think this was the right call, but as I’ve played with my son I’ve started to see some of the wisdom of Fantasy Flight’s changes. The first one was how the deck itself was constructed. In past editions, all of the cards were in one big stack. But as FFG added expansions the number of cards nearly doubled. From the beginning, they introduced a mechanic called “Schools of Magic,” where the cards were divided into little 24-card packets arranged kinda-sorta thematically. Players would select a few of them each game, and leave the rest out. This was continued in the expansions, but I threw them all in the same giant deck. But after doing this for literally years, it felt like the game was starting to bog down too frequently. Not only that, but they didn’t have a lot of personality from session to session. Re-introducing the Schools of Magic created a much more focused experience. There are far fewer mechanical elements, but those elements are much more pronounced, making the whole thing more compelling and a bit more fast-paced. The variety from game to game has also gone way up.

Another big change involved the victory conditions. FFG introduced a system of victory points, where you get one point for either killing another wizard or stealing a treasure, rather than making it a duel to the bitter end. This is one of those shorter games where I think player elimination is actually a better fit, but as the player count goes up to five (with an expansion) the VP system begins to make a bit more sense. It makes for a shorter game, and it does create a different experience from the original game, but it’s not one that I think is unfaithful. To me Wiz-War always resembled Mario Kart more than, say, Starcraft. It’s a game of finding momentary advantages, not long battles of attrition. With lower player counts, it’s less necessary, but I’ll never play with five players any other way.

My son beat me in our first game. Now the circle is complete.

This whole process of bouncing between different variants to get a game to work perfectly has made me think about how we talk about reprints. I’ve now been in this hobby long enough to see games that I loved in their original form get reprinted with slight tweaks, and it can be a disorienting feeling. Game design is a holistic pursuit, and even slight changes can have unintended consequences to a design. When I see a new version of something like, say, Citadels show up, I am immediately defensive. I know that any change will result in something that is just a bit unfamiliar to me, and that’s not what I want.

This defensiveness can even extend to how I approach reprints of games I’ve never actually played. I’m a great lover of history, particularly board gaming history, and I want something “authentic,” as if there’s a moral imperative to play games as they have always been. But that betrays a bit of possessiveness on my part. Precious few games can ever exist without any changes at all, and so much art requires its original context to fully make sense. I admire the attempts to recontextualize old games to make sense to modern gamers. What a thankless task that must be. Not all changes are good, and some are catastrophic, but there are still new fans created. That’s how you grow the hobby while keeping it connected to its roots.

Fantasy Flight Games is today a very different company than the one that reprinted Wiz-War. Indeed, Wiz-War is now out of print, though I doubt it will stay that way for long. But I still want to take a moment to thank those tireless fans who work, through their craft, to explain to new players why the games they love are still relevant. So thank you to Fantasy Flight Games, Restoration Games, Stronghold Games, and any other publisher who is trying to recontextualize a game for a new age. It’s through the work of people like you that I have discovered the board games that have spoken to me in their own way. That is quite an accomplishment, and I will always be thankful.

Clank! in Review

The pitch for Clank sounds a little like the board game equivalent of magnetic poetry. A deck-builder? Combined with a dungeon-crawl? It feels focus-tested within an inch of its life. There are so many deck-builders and dungeon-crawlers out there that my eyes glaze over whenever I hear about new entries into either genre. That’s my excuse for why I gave Clank a pass for so long. I really only picked it up because it seemed like something I could play with my son, and because it is one of those games that has been extensively distributed in Asia. Most game stores here have several versions and expansions on their shelves, so it was only a matter of time. I’m glad I took the plunge, because while Clank doesn’t sound like anything fresh, it makes up for it by being well-executed, with a keen sense of what it wants to do and with few of the annoyances that dog either of its well-represented genres.

Chief among Clank’s many pleasures is how it handles deck-building. Ever since Dominion changed the hobby in 2008, deck-building has served as a genre that is best-suited to optimization. The whole mechanic is built around feedback loops. You keep adding cards to a deck that will allow you to execute some particular goal, usually to generate points. This boils down to a couple of key strategies that have always been key to deck-building. One is to identify a couple of cards that jive well together, and to hammer them to generate big combos. Another is to remove less efficient cards from the deck, making it more likely that the really good stuff is drawn. As a result deck-building has always favored experienced players, and punished people who have to shift strategies in mid-stream. Or at least that was my experience with Dominion, still the most popular deck-builder out there and one of the best in terms of polish.

Clank does require some of this stuff. In this game the cards generate four different resources, three of which you want. (We’ll talk about that fourth one in a minute.) Movement lets you travel deeper into the dungeon, while attacks let you defeat monsters along the way. Skill serves as the currency for buying new cards. You need to strike the right balance to get in and out of the dungeon with the most treasure. But Clank also doesn’t seem that interested in being an optimization exercise. There are a couple of stock cards that are always available, ensuring that you can always buy a card with more attack or more movement. But the more interesting cards are all in one big deck, with six available at any given time. There’s a decent chance you won’t see exactly what you need for sale, so it’s hard to build really killer decks. In a half-dozen games I have yet to find a card that isn’t at least pretty good for its cost, so it’s while it’s hard to build a deck that will wreck everyone it’s also pretty easy to build a half-decent one. There also aren’t many card effects that let you cycle cards in your deck endlessly, and even fewer that let you actually remove cards from your deck. As a result, you don’t go through your cards that quickly, and you can’t really fine-tune stuff on the fly.

The board is actually two-sided, with a beginner’s map and one for more advanced players. Expansions have added other maps and cards.

This will drive some people crazy. Clank is not a game that is interested in tournament play. But the plus side is that most people will get what they need to do very quickly, and will have a decent shot at winning. It wants you to have fun right away, instead of insisting that you “git gud” before you figure out how to steal treasure. This laid-back feeling extends to its structure. Rather than there being a precise action and buying phase (think of the ABC turn from Dominion) you can just put all your cards out there and do all your things in whatever order you like.

As a dungeoncrawl, Clank draws the most from classics like Dungeonquest, albeit with much less interest in making the players lose. The shape of the game is almost identical though. Your adventurer needs to travel deeper into the catacomb, stealing as much treasure as possible then leaving before you get destroyed by the dragon. Remember that fourth resource generated by cards, the one you don’t want? That would be clank, a representation of noise made while shuffling around the dungeon. Expressed in colored cubes that sit in a pool on the board, every so often a card will trigger a dragon attack. When that happens, all those cubes go in a bag, and a few are drawn out that have the potential to become damage on a character. Some of the nicest cards generate a bit of clank as well, meaning that someone who buys all the best stuff will be more likely to suffer the dragon’s wrath. It’s not a punitive measure, but it’s definitely possible to overstay your time in the dungeon and to get yourself killed before you leave.

As a genre, dungeon crawls have had their problems. One big one is mess that can be generated with tons of wandering monsters. Clank sidesteps this by making monsters a type of card in main deck. When they come up they can be “bought” with attack, and immediately discarded for an instant benefit. Until then they can have adverse effects on the game state. It’s a really great way to make players want to fight monsters, and to give them a meaningful impact on the experience, while still avoiding clutter in the game state and in record-keeping. There are also “features,” isolated things in the dungeon like a shrine or a ladder, that are represented as cards in the deck as well. Like monsters, they are purchased and immediately discarded for an effect. The board itself is mostly just a network of locations. There are a couple of spots that hold artifacts, and collecting one allows you to leave the dungeon and trigger the endgame.

All of these different elements mesh together really well, and Clank does a great job at forcing the player to be good at a few different things. You do need to optimize your deck a bit, but you also need to know when to take a big risk, and when to admit that your plan just isn’t working. That it does all of these things without ever feeling burdensome is impressive indeed. Clank is the sort of game that looks like low-hanging fruit at first, but reveals a lot of smart design when you get into it. I can play it with my kids and with casual gamer friends, and more importantly, I really want to.

Steam: Rails to Riches and Its Complicated Family

steam box cover

We all have games that we admire more than we enjoy. Or else games that we only enjoy in a narrow set of circumstances. One such game for me is Steam, originally published by Mayfiar Games in 2009. It was the result of a labyrinthine rights battle around that time. You see, Steam was based on the 2002 game Age of Steam, itself designed by Martin Wallace. Owing to a messy divorce with original publisher Warfrog Games (At least I think so. I followed the whole thing and still couldn’t explain it to you.) Age of Steam somehow ended up fracturing into numerous different titles. One of these was a reprint of Age of Steam reprinted around 2011.  The second was a version called Railroad Tycoon, based on the classic series of PC games and eventually rebranded as Railways of the World when the license ran out. The last was Steam, the version with endorsement of the original designer, and the version that I own.

In all of these forms, the game represented a sort of Euro-style reimagining of the venerable train game. As a genre, train games have almost as rich a history as wargames. There are certain markers that always need to be hit, like laying track, transporting goods, and managing finances. In different measures these have always been the focus on games with extensive product lines, like the Empire Builder or 18xx series. Age of Steam hit all of these elements, but it did so in perhaps the most stripped down way possible. The goods were simply different colored cubes. The finances were mostly handled in a simple system of loans and interest. In general the focus was on abstraction, an embrace of the idea of train games above the minutiae.

(In this Wallace was in sync with another popular Eurogame: Power Grid. Friedemann Friese’s classic has its roots in the route building and economics of trains, even if it doesn’t actually deal with them.)

Martin Wallace’s big contribution to the train game was to put playability above details. This was done graphically as much as it was mechanically. Goods are shipped to any city that matches the color, rather than the cubes representing any real life commodity. The player doesn’t deal with specific historical train models, but rather represents advancing technology through a series of levels, from 1 to 6. Even the goal of the game, to generate income and points through transporting goods, works better in mechanical terms than in simulationist ones. Since the player gets points for each length of track they use, it is more advantageous to use the most circuitous, inefficient route you can. Heck of a way to run a business.

age of steam
The newest version of Age of Steam. The deluxe edition has a price to match.

The upshot of all of this is a game that is definitely thematic, but in that sideways way that Eurogames used to embrace. It’s all mechanical theme with little care for visual trappings. One could make the argument that abstracting so much historical detail misses the point of train games in the first place, and I don’t think that’s completely off-base. But in all its forms Age of Steam is still a compelling title, even as it inches toward two decades in age. The question is of course which version to get. As I said before I own Steam, even though I’m not actually sure it’s the best version.

That sounds kind of silly, but then our game preferences are matters of the heart. In my case, it is thanks to my friend Brad that I own Steam at all. When it hit shelves in 2009, it was after several years of Age of Steam, its predecessor, not being readily available. My friend Brad, always more of a Eurogamer than I was, eagerly bought a copy. We played several times, and my own response was always one of mild enjoyment, edging up to appreciation depending on the day. I also played a game or two of Age of Steam and Railways of the World, but Steam remained my primary point of reference for the whole dysfunctional family. After I eventually moved away I didn’t play it again for years, until I suddenly found myself wanting to try it again. By this time of course I lived in Manila, and the prospect of ever getting a copy was distant. But amazingly I found an old used copy on forgotten shelf at a store here. My nostalgia got the better of me and I bought it without a second thought.

game in progress
Steam has an understated but classy presentation. I actually really like it. (image taken by user killroy_locke on BoardGameGeek.com)

Revisiting the game has been an interesting experience. I’m at a place in my life where I’ve become much more comfortable with games that don’t quite line up with my tastes, and so I think my estimation of the game has definitely gone up. Upon reflection, the design is frankly brilliant. There are a lot of complex economic elements that go into rail games that are all expected to be there, and Steam hits them all so efficiently. In particular, I want to praise the game’s financial system, which revolves around an income track. Your position on the track dictates your income each turn, whether positive or negative. You can choose to move down the track to get a little more money, but if you go negative you will actually owe money to your investors. Or maybe it’s the bank. The real brilliance is that it can be either one. It represents the whole spectrum of financial management in a single system. It’s tough as nails and I love it. I am also a big fan of the way cities on the board grow. Players have the option to develop minor cities on the board, making them produce goods that can then be shipped around the board. It’s a great way to represent the urbanization of minor cities in the age of rail. All of this in a game that wraps up in a reliable 90 minutes if you play the gentler basic game.

But how fun is all of this? Well, pretty fun, but it has a certain stuffiness about it. Steam was born out of an age when Eurogamers were generally afraid of luck at all, and once the board is set there’s none at all in Steam. If you like planning that much then bully for you, but I think it lends the game a sort of fussy quality, altogether too much control for any game that wants to recreate the real world at all. This is in contrast to its relatives. Age of Steam at least lets you draw cubes randomly when new ones are placed on the board, and Railways of the World has cards that inject a little bit of chaos into the system. In a vacuum both of those things would be preferable to me, because Steam definitely favors the more analytical players at the table. It’s the sort of game I like best when played with people around the same skill as I am, because otherwise it’s not much of a contest. I’ve never been one to see extended networks in the abstract, and so I always play games like this at a disadvantage.

railways of the world
Railways of the World is perhaps the most decked out version, with enormous maps, plastic pieces, and take-that cards. It’s fun, but approaches too much of a good thing.

Steam could stand to loosen up, but it’s also the most approachable game in the series. It is somewhat more forgiving for inexperienced players, and provided with both a Basic mode (which I frankly prefer) and a Standard game closer to Wallace’s original release. It has a good deal more polish than the original game, with none of the chromed-out overproduction of Railways of the World. I feel like it’s also shorter than either Age of Steam or Railways of the World, though my memory is a bit hazy there. Most importantly, it’s just the version I know best. Sometimes familiarity lends importance, and that’s definitely the case here. There’s a decent chance I’d prefer the other two games all things being equal, but all things aren’t equal. They aren’t the ones I own, and I’m frankly not inclined to buy another similar title.

Oddly enough, Steam has become the rarest game in this little family tree. It’s become less common recently, still available here and there but far more obscure than its siblings. I think Mayfair determined it wasn’t worth trying to compete with a NEW new version of Age of Steam that has recently become available, or with the Railways games, which are still active as well. It’s kind of a shame, because in its way Steam was pitched squarely at the new gamer. It’s a nicely produced, affordable game, more forgiving than its siblings but still basically the same game. Not only that, but it opened up a huge library of expansions. Of course there were those designed specifically for Steam, but with very little conversion you can also use the numerous maps for Age of Steam. But instead we have the bigger, more expensive editions that are pitched at people who are already gamers. They have much to recommend them, but Steam is the one that to me best fulfills the promise of a train game for gamers of every type.

Star Wars: Outer Rim

box cover

It’s hard for me to gauge the buzz in board gaming circles these days, but the release of Star Wars: Outer Rim this last summer completely passed me by. From way over here in Asia, it barely seemed to register at all. The consensus was one of muted approval, a perfectly cromulent game but little more. I’m glad I gave it a chance, because while Outer Rim is a different game than I expected, I am altogether in love with the game I got.

At first glance Outer Rim appears to be in a very particular tradition, that of the pick-up-and-deliver genre. Merchant of Venus is a good starting place for games like this, where the player builds a network of routes to move items around the board. Games like Xia, Merchants & Marauders, and the Firefly board game have all riffed on this in various ways, adding different narrative elements like ship customization and combat. The results are generally very appealing to me, which was what attracted me to Outer Rim in the first place.

Outer Rim certainly has all the trappings of the genre. You take on the role of a scoundrel from the Star Wars universe, and then make your way through the outlying planets in the galaxy. This can be accomplished by moving cargo around the board, but you can also be a bounty hunter or go around the galaxy doing odd jobs. These different activities make you money, which can then be used to buy a better ship and do more stuff. The end goal is to make a name for yourself in the form of fame, and the first person to 10 fame is the winner.

There is a fair bit going on here besides mere pick-up-and-deliver. Furthermore, if you go into Outer Rim with the logistics of trade as your primary desire, you might leave disappointed. The board is actually a long corridor of systems, surprisingly linear in its design as opposed to the large network of locations in, say, Merchant of Venus. It is never very difficult to come up with a route to what you’re doing; either your goal is close or it isn’t. In truth Outer Rim is much more interested in letting players explore the Star Wars setting, doing what they like and making a name for themselves however they like best. It actually has much more in common with big adventure games like Talisman or Arkham Horror, more a light roleplaying experience than an economic one.

Outer Rim has a weird arc instead of a traditional board, making deliveries feel far more linear.

In that regard Outer Rim succeeds admirably. Other FFG Star Wars games have sought to recreate specific situations from the beloved movies, usually large-scale conflicts. Games like X-Wing, Rebellion, or Armada all put players in the role of Rebels or Imperials, maybe with some Scum and Villainy thrown in for variety. But Outer Rim is the first board game I’ve played that seems to really recreate the Star Wars universe itself. It represents a vibrant ecosystem of characters, spaceships, and worlds playing out against a backdrop of intergalactic conflict, and the player is given the option to experience it as they think best. You can take the role of famous characters like Han Solo or Lando Calrissian, more obscure ones like Bossk or IG-88, or ones that didn’t even appear in the movies. The game pulls from all three film trilogies, the various TV shows, and even the comic books. And it’s all there for you to explore.

This sense of freedom is pervasive, even as the characters steer you toward different strategies. Indeed, the character you play can make a huge difference in how you interact with the galaxy. Some are well-suited to bounty hunting, while others are really built for smuggling. But there’s never a big penalty for mixing and matching, for taking on a small smuggling job to make some extra credits. You can also build a crew for your ship, made up of characters like Chewbacca or Maz Kanata who might fetch nice bounties if captured by other players. You can even turn on your own crew members and turn them in for bounties if you want to. Outer Rim offers a huge range of narrative possibilities, playing out with surprising specificity.

Other board games have pulled off this trick as well, but what impresses me most about Outer Rim is how efficiently the game does it. Instead of feeling like a sprawling mess of a game with piles of seldom-used subsystems, it feels like it was designed to use the bare minimum of cards and tokens possible. This has been interpreted by some as a lack of content, an obvious attempt to leave something for an inevitable expansion. The game doesn’t really need more cards though, because the variety here is not achieved through huge piles of cards, but through mechanical interactions. The game changes quite a bit based on where NPCs are located, what ships are available, how patrols move, and what characters are in the game. Of all of FFG’s designs, it reminds me most of Battlestar Galactica, another design that relied on permutations of the same relatively simple setup. (Indeed, the games share a designer in Corey Konieczka, here sharing design credit with Tony Fanchi.) Outer Rim feels like a complete and finished experience, and while I would love to see more characters and more planet encounters, it feels like the sort of game that could easily be brought down by an expansion that isn’t quite as well-considered.

The narratives generated in Outer Rim feel surprisingly detailed, without a whole bunch of mechanical cruft.

Design-wise, Outer Rim is not at all flashy. There are very few elements that feel innovative or particularly unique. But it’s a classic case where basically everything here works well. Fantasy Flight has an unfortunate history of games that are great aside from one particular issue, often the combat. This was also an issue in Merchants & Marauders, the very fun pirate game with combat so overwrought that the players avoid engaging with it. Nothing in Outer Rim feels like a hassle, and the efficiency of the design means that all of the different mechanics come up in basically every game. The lack of “innovative” mechanics also means that you can engage with the game’s fun parts right away. At no point have I felt like I was at war with the rules, or that they were forcing me to learn something before I could enjoy myself. It just works, and it lets the players have fun on the first try. The only bit that feels a little undercooked to me is the use of “secret” cards, special player actions that can be gained on different planet encounters. They aren’t something that kills the flow of the game, but they are the only part of the design that feels like an afterthought.

To be fair, the experience does have some bumpy moments. While the design feels cohesive and intuitive, it does have quite a lot of rules, and there will be some references to those rules while you internalize everything. It’s also not a particularly deep experience. A lot depends on card flips a die rolls, and those who want more control might find themselves frustrated. Perhaps more worryingly, the game takes a while to get going. The first third to the first half of the game are occupied by small stakes, easier jobs and simpler bounties that allow you to get better ships, crew, and gear, thereby allowing you to go for the big stuff. As a result, the early going can feel endless, since most of the fame generated comes in the back half. It’s hardly a deal-breaker, but it’s a 2-3-hour game, and patience is definitely required if you want to see what it has to offer. However, the pace does have its benefits. I always feel like I’m able to explore as much of the galaxy as I want, and a faster pace might cut that short. I am fine with the tradeoff, but others will think it too long-winded. That’s especially true if playing with the full complement of four players.

Look, I’ve only had this game a short time. But in that short time I’ve played a whole lot. I have yet to find any major red flags in Outer Rim that would prevent me from giving it my highest recommendation. It’s exactly the Star Wars game I’ve wanted for years, a chance to play in the universe I’ve loved since I was a kid with very few boundaries. The fact that it’s in a well-designed game with few mechanical issues is just icing on the cake. This is one of my favorite games in a long time.

Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle

HP box cover

Innovation is overrated.

Not that game designers should never strive to try to do something fresh and exciting, but by its very nature, innovation is often unpolished. Rare is the game that does something totally new in a manner that is also clean and playable. But one of those rare instances was Dominion, the smash 2008 game that launched a dozen expansions and far more copycats. Deckbuilding as a genre has come a long way in the last decade plus of development, but Dominion continues to stand toe-to-toe in terms of polish and playability with just about any other game in the genre.

It should be noted that Dominion’s originality is almost totally mechanical. Thematically the game is about as generic as it gets. While I’m generally fine with games that don’t innovate mechanically, I long for game designers to branch out into different themes. The nondescript aesthetic of Dominion is one of the things that eventually burnt me out on that game. Well, Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle is not a very innovative game, mechanically or thematically, but it’s now the only deckbuilder I own. That happens to be because I like Harry Potter a lot, and Hogwarts Battle offers enough connection to its license to overcome some very conservative game design.

Actually, it’s not totally fair to say that Hogwarts Battle offers nothing innovative. Taking a page from more long-form experiences like Pandemic Legacy, it makes the ambitious choice to encompass all seven years of Harry Potter’s schooling. The game starts in Year 1, with characters that you will recognize from the first book/movie. This is indeed a basic deck-building experience, instantly familiar to anyone who has played a single game of Dominion. You play cards, buy cards, then shuffle them all and do it all over again. It’s a cooperative experience, so there are villains who must be stopped and bad-guy events that must be dealt with every turn. But it’s not at all taxing, and could easily be played by most kids.

Inside the trunk
Confession time: I still haven’t made it to year 7, so I don’t know what’s in that box.

But once you beat Year 1, there’s a series of little tuckboxes labelled “Year 2,” “Year 3,” etc. With each victory you open the next box and add the components into the game. Mostly these are more of what you have already seen, new villains and events, and new cards for the players to buy. But every so often they introduce advanced mechanics into the game. Maybe it’s a new type of special ability you can utilize, or an upgraded form of an old one. To say more would be to spoil some of the fun, but by the time you get to Year 4 the experience has become richer and more complex, though still very accessible.

This basically makes Hogwarts Battle a legacy game, but it avoids some of my little annoyances with that genre. (My main exposure to legacy games is from the very good Pandemic Legacy.) First of all, no single year adds very much in the way of complexity. Impatient people who want to get on with it can safely add Years 2-3 right off the bat, giving some nice variety without much complexity. It avoids the feeling of continually adding new rules to internalize by keeping the whole thing streamlined. Also in the game’s favor is the fact that resetting the game is simple and easy. If you complete all seven years you can put everything back in the tuckboxes and start over, or maybe loan it to some friends to try for themselves.

Perhaps most notably, the legacy elements represent the most meaningful connection to the Harry Potter world. There’s a definite sense of progression and rising stakes with every successive year, and every new character added into the deck gives a little jolt of recognition. It should be noted that Hogwarts Battle uses stills from the film series, not illustrations from the books. While I’m sure a lot of Potterheads would have preferred to see the illustrations of Mary GrandPré or Jim Kay, this is probably the best move. It makes the game immediately recognizable and provides a wide range of stills for the production. That production totally nails the license too. The box is designed like Harry’s school trunk, complete with an illustration of the contents of Harry’s trunk when you open the box. It’s a very well-designed physical product too, with great spaces to store everything and some decent organization solutions right in the box. (A must for deckbuilder games, I think.)

Player as Harry
A kid the age of Year 1 Harry is probably able to learn this straightforward game.

One could therefore be forgiven a bit of disappointment at the simple nature of the game. While the Harry Potter universe affords great possibilities for thematic design, Hogwarts Battle plays it very safe. This is not an altogether bad choice though, as it keeps the game squarely in the grasp of anyone who would ever want to play it. It’s the sort of game you could sell at Target, and most Harry Potter fans, children included, will understand it. It generally uses the most straightforward solution to every mechanical challenge, and it proves to be a worthwhile trade-off. I’m now at a point in my game-playing life where learning a new game is a little bit of a burden, so new games had better wow me. I’m not altogether sure that Hogwarts Battle clears that bar, but it’s so frictionless to learn that it makes up for it. There’s something to be said for a safe design that can be played easily.

But there are places where the game could really use a little more precision in its design. For example, the card tableau very sensibly has one giant deck, and every type of card is all mixed together. You have six options at any given time, and that’s all. This is the simplest way to play, and it offers a lot of unique cards to the player. But it also keeps the player from refining their deck very much, since you don’t have a ton of say in what kind of card you can get. That dulls the unique qualities of the different characters. Not only that, but when all six cards are a little pricey it can bog down the game quite a bit while players wait for a draw with enough purchasing power. There’s no way to flush the card selection, so you’re out of luck. It has the double whammy of slowing down the game, and giving the player a lot of turns where nothing much positive happens.

I also take issue with the game loss condition. In each game there are two or three locations, and events put evil influence on those cards. When all of the cards have been filled with influence, the game is lost. That’s not a bad way to do things, but the game never wavers from this mechanic, and it pushes against the various climaxes from the stories that most fans will be thinking of. It’s adequate without being very interesting. There are a few places like this where the accessibility is wielded like a blunt weapon, bashing out smart design in favor of simplicity.

Malfoy and Basilisk
The villains get much more difficult than either of these cupcakes. More numerous too.

This design approach begins to take its toll in some of the later years. As the stacks of different cards grow thicker the experience grows streakier. It feels like success in the later games is contingent on getting a lucky break in all of various card decks. The easy villains need to come out early on, the right cards for your deck need to become available, etc., to have any real shot at success. And like the novels the game is based on, the later years get a whole lot longer. What started as a simple 45-minute card game bloats all the way toward the 2-hour mark by the time you get to year 6. It’s still very playable, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that with a better design and development team it could be a lot more enjoyable.

I don’t want to be too negative on the experience though, even in the later game. This is one of those games that has a couple of very specific niches for me. It’s a simple game I can play with my son, a no-fuss deckbuilding experience, and a chance to play in the Harry Potter universe for a bit. Even as the design begins to creak in the later games, it still ticks all those boxes ably.  Sometimes recycling the ideas of others can make for a fun game, particularly if you slap a well-loved license on the box and do right by that license. Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle does just that, and as a result it’s one of my most-played games of 2019.

7 Wonders Duel is the best version of 7 Wonders

box cover

Recently, the website Paste published a list of the 25 best board games of the 2010s. The list was filled with reminders that my own taste in games is far afield from that of others in the hobby, but no reminder was as stark as the number one game. Antoine Bauza’s 7 Wonders, originally published in 2010, has become a perennial favorite, but it doesn’t do much for me at all. I like the idea of a very light civilization game, but it pulls back too many layers for my taste. In spite of some clever mechanisms, to me the actual play of the game is sorely lacking. There are numerous ways to score points, but none of the cards really do anything besides score points. The result is a civilization game that feels bloodless and neutered. When a two-player version co-designed with Bruno Cathala was published in 2015, I was understandably skeptical.

But to my surprise, 7 Wonders Duel improved on its big brother in just about every way possible. It made good on the promise of a stripped down civilization experience by tweaking the card draft and adding some new ways to win the game. The response was positive enough that it’s proven to be a hit in its own right. (Tellingly, it also placed in the Top 10 on Paste’s list.) There were always strengths to the design of 7 Wonders, but now those flourishes are in service of a much richer experience that still doesn’t feel overwhelming.

The original 7 Wonders did have a two-player variant, but that was never its niche. While it could function with groups of 3-4, my experience with it was always with groups of 6-7 players. This has no doubt contributed to my antipathy to the game, because while it plays 7 players smoothly, it’s so frictionless that it disappears completely. In the interest of creating a more robust two-player experience, Duel rethinks the original game’s card draft. Now instead of passing a hand of cards back and forth, a series of cards are set out in the beginning of every round, randomized but in a set shape. Half of the cards in every round begin the game face down, and are only revealed when the cards that cover them are drafted.

Wife playing Duel
Not a great picture, but if 7 Wonders Duel is a great game for couples. My wife kind of agrees.

This changes the draft considerably, making it a much more interesting decision than it ever was in the original game. Both players know the same information, so it’s easier to think a few moves ahead toward what your opponent might want. The face-down cards are the most interesting element here, because they make you think twice about taking a card you really need. There’s always the chance that you might uncover a card your opponent really needs, so timing those reveals becomes a consideration. While card drafting can be used well in a design, 7 Wonders Duel finds a much more interesting implementation than its predecessor.

While most games of 7 Wonders Duel amount to scoring after three rounds, this version adds a couple of new ways to win. The first is a science victory. The science cards each have an icon on them representing a different technology, and if you collect six of them you win automatically. There is a similar approach to military. Whenever a player gains military might it moves a little shield along a track. If the shield ever reaches one end of the track, that spells victory for the player who pushed it there.

No design decision has as big an impact as these new victory conditions. They provide a new decision point that wasn’t present in the original game. Now you need to monitor how close your opponent is to one of these victories. Single-minded focus on your own economic engine can easily result in an easy victory for your opponent if they push toward military. A science victory is harder to pull off, but it still shapes the decision-making process. More importantly these strategies add some much-needed thematic flavor to the 7 Wonders formula. Military in the original game was a value calculated relatively with your immediate neighbors, and only ever resulted in some extra points. Science had its own squirrely scoring system that I always found a little too convoluted for what was ostensibly an easy game. But neither felt very distinct, just another way to score points. Here they do feel distinct from each other, and up the stakes by providing a way to auto-win. Even without victory, the provide a material impact within the game. Military success will cause your opponent to lose money, and science cards can be used to gain the use of specific powers that can be a game-changer.

Pantheon cover
Those who like hard boundaries between history and mythology in their civ games may not be wild about Pantheon, but it does change up the formula quite a bit.

Duel’s success ensured expansion content, and the Pantheon expansion is worth exploring for anyone who liked the original game. It adds the ability to call upon various pantheons of gods, who will then provide powerful abilities to the players. It does gum up the smooth play of the original game a bit, and it makes the game swingier. I am not wild about the first change, but the increased variability in scoring makes this a nice change for people who have played the base game a lot. Co-designer Bruno Cathala has always had a propensity for cards with special player powers, and this is on full display here. Pantheon is hardly necessary to get the most out of the game, but it’s still a worthy addition.

Truthfully, although I much prefer 7 Wonders Duel to the original, it has softened my attitude toward a game I have disliked for years. There is a lot of clever design at the heart of 7 Wonders Duel that was there from the beginning. Perhaps the most impressive design feat is its sheer accessibility, which Duel maintains in spite of a couple of wrinkles. Like many games these days, my 9-year-old is my primary opponent for this game, and it’s generated in him an interest in civilization games of all stripes. Both games deal with resource production, trade, and wonders in a way that keeps everything clean and simple, while still generating some good decision points. Duel also maintains the high production quality and intuitive graphic design that made the original so accessible. Any successful game will generate alternate versions, and Duel is a great case to be made for this practice. Anyone who liked the original game will almost certainly like Duel, and those who were skeptics might find themselves won over by this smaller, better version.

Incan Gold, or Big Game Groups Done Right

eagle games edition

For the experienced board gamer, travelling is an opportunity to play games. Not big-box games with lots of pieces, but smaller ones without a bunch of components. I spent most of October on the road for various work functions, and in the evenings there were several opportunities to play some great games. There are plenty of great card games that work well with large groups, but as we played one of them, Incan Gold, it was a reminder that while games don’t change much, gamers are always changing. Ten years ago I would have flat out refused to play. Now it’s one of my favorite games to trot out when there’s a big group, and not much time.

(Someday I might write a piece about when it’s important to give unloved games another chance and when you can leave well enough alone. The only problem is that I haven’t ever figured out which is which.)

My original disdain for Incan Gold (which was originally published as Diamant, and has recently been republished that way again) revolved around its simplicity. Incan Gold is one of those games that revolves around a simple binary choice every turn. Well, not a turn exactly. Following in the tradition of games like Hoity Toity, Incan Gold doesn’t actually have turns. The players all decide simultaneously whether they will continue their journey into a ruined temple, or leave. Leaving becomes tempting as the game goes on, because it’s the only way to carry all of your treasure out with you. But staying allows you the opportunity to gain even more treasure, though the odds go up that you won’t get anything at all.

As push-your-luck games go, Incan Gold is pretty bare-bones. In each round another card is revealed, representing a new room in the temple. Those rooms might contain treasure, which is divided as evenly as possible between all the players still in, or some kind of hazard. You can survive several hazards, but if two of the same type are flipped everyone is forced to leave without any treasure at all. My original issue with the game was that there really isn’t any good way to gauge the likelihood of success here. You can figure the odds broadly, but there are lots of times when the hazards chase off the players before anything interesting can happen, or when the least likely card somehow comes up and makes you lose everything. It makes no attempt to soften its luck, and something about the offended me when I was starting out in the hobby. These days I am much more inclined to play a simple game, because I’m closer to 40 than I am 30, and life is too short to keep playing long complicated games all the time.

Hazard cards
The ancient temple is full of hazards. Image by user binraix on BoardGameGeek.com.

But some other mechanical elements have become evident to me over the years. Although the decision to leave is a binary decision, it’s not always a simple one. Aside from push-your-luck mechanics, Incan Gold also forces you to outguess your opponents. Anyone who leaves has access to leftover treasure that hasn’t yet been divided, but if too many people leave at once your share is smaller. Depending on the version you’re playing, there might also be special treasures that go to people who leave the temple alone. The game rewards reading the other players and figuring out of they are the risk-taking types. The nexus of the push-your-luck and double-guessing mechanics is where Incan Gold dwells, and anyone who knows me knows that those are two of my favorite mechanics in any game.

There are a lot of practical elements that have changed my opinion on the game. Most notably, I have two kids now who are old enough to play games. Incan Gold is the rare game they can both enjoy with a table full of adults. This is partly because of the game’s structure. Since everything happens simultaneously, and in the open, the game moves quickly and provides lots of ups and downs in a short amount of time. Played over five hands, even big groups can go through a whole game in 30 minutes without breaking a sweat. Because the decision is a simple stay-or-go, the game can be played by a wide variety of ages at once. This particular quality has become important to me, because my older son especially wants to play games with adults. Incan Gold is a great candidate for that kind of job. And because the game has a fairly high level of randomness, there’s a decent chance that a young player can win, just because they were bold or cautious at the right time.

But the real secret sauce comes in the way the game does everything in the open. Because each decision is made in the open, and because everyone sees the results of every progressive step into the ancient ruins, and interesting communal atmosphere develops around the table. People who leave are cheered when they get a windfall, and people who risk it all to stay in provoke a nice “ooooo” from everyone. There are cheers and groans when every card is flipped. Even though this is a very light design, it has the ability to thrill a full table of eight players. Even those who aren’t really into this sort of game might find themselves swept up in the highs and lows of treasure-hunting, because everyone gets to experience them together. This is high-player-count gaming at its best, stripped-down, immediate, and communal.

Diamant cover
The name of this game has bounced between Diamant and Incan Gold. This is the most recent edition, published in 2016.

Not that there aren’t some complaints here and there. A round can sometimes end prematurely if two of the same hazard comes out early. If this happens in the last round it can have a sharp sense of anti-climax. It’s not a problem to shuffle up the cards and replay the hand if that happens, but the rules themselves don’t sanction that. It’s also a hard game to win on purpose. I’m not sure I’ve figured out a good strategy, other than just making a moment-to-moment decision about what must be done. Some games will reward conservative play, while others will give someone a huge pile of treasure while they ride close to danger. There’s no way to tell what kind of game you’re playing, and that can make the end result a little unsatisfying. Winning is hollow when you don’t really know how you did it.

For those reasons, Incan Gold is a game best enjoyed in the moment, not after the fact. The communal experience of seeing whether someone will get more treasure or lose it all is why you play, and the victory is more of a way to crown a winner than a reward for good play. Designers Bruno Faidutti (Mascarade) and Alan Moon (Ticket to Ride) had the good sense to not overthink this one. There aren’t a lot of corrections to keep those little imperfections away, because every extra rule is one more sentence that needs to be added to an explanation. Incan Gold draws its power from its ability to make the experience exciting. To me that will always be worth a little bit of leaky design.

Omen: A Reign of War

kolossal games cover

I gave collectible card games a good try. Several years ago some friends and I put together a small league of Magic: the Gathering, and we had a really fun time. But it fizzled out after less than a year. I also invested (then divested) myself of at least two or three of Fantasy Flight’s Living Card Games. I got a fair bit of mileage out of the Star Wars one in particular. But once again when I lost interest I ran far in the other direction. In both cases the problem wasn’t so much the cost, since I was managing that about as well as could be expected. It was more an issue that I didn’t want to deal with the game when I wasn’t actually playing it. I didn’t like having to think in the abstract about what impact cards would have on my decks. I just don’t function that way; I do far better with playing and seeing game effects in person.

Yet I find the idea of CCG gameplay compelling. The combo-heavy, in-your-face flow of most CCGs is intoxicating to me. The way individual cards can destabilize the whole game is really fun. A lot of people feel this way, so it’s small wonder that a lot of two-player card games have tried to recreate this feeling in a single box. Some have done better than others, but none I’ve played have succeeded in quit the same way as Omen: A Reign of War. It’s not a CCG at all, but it checks a lot of the same boxes for me.

Designed by John Clowdus and originally published in 2011 by Small Box Games, Omen is a two-player card game where players vie for influence over three cities. On your turn you can send out units to give your side more strength, and if a certain threshold is hit between the two sides the city gives a reward to the stronger player. There are five kinds of units: Warriors, which trigger an ability when they come into play; Oracles, which trigger every round in a specific phase; Beasts, stronger units that can be discarded for a strong effect; Spirits, who provide one of two effects when played, or both if you spend the money; and Heroes, who can swing a specific battle but are worth points if they go unplayed in your hand. The big tension of the game is managing your hand while also making sure you can generate enough coin to put cards in play effectively. There’s also a subsystem of what amount to achievements, and bonuses generated by rewards taken from cities.

Omen: A Reign of War has some sharp artwork, even if the card design in earlier editions (like in this promotional picture) had some problems. Later editions have maintained these great illustrations.

Omen comes in a lot of forms and playstyles (probably too many, as we’ll see in a moment), but in broad strokes the game always comes down to the tug of war for the three cities, and the race to make those achievements. Either system can trigger the end of the game, so there are a few options for how players can rush to the end. The cards are all various levels of overpowered, able to unbalance any situation in just about any turn. There’s very little keeping a player from exploring a “broken” combo here, because there is almost certainly another combo the other player can pull off that will send the game off the rails in the opposite direction.

This ties into the two things I love about Omen the most. First of all, this is a game that allows flexibility. You might be behind in one way or another, but it feels like you’re always one good card away from jumping back in the game. That flexibility leads into my other favorite thing about Omen, it’s propensity to create “bomb” moves. By “bombs” I mean those turns where you chain together numerous cards to create a knock-out punch that can leave your opponent reeling. There’s a lot of drama packed into a game of Omen, making it a highly addictive experience. I almost always want to shuffle the cards and go again after finishing a game.

The setting of the game is broadly one of Greek mythology, though it’s not reflected that well in the actual design. The players theoretically are sons of Zeus vying for rulership of Greek cities, but it’s largely an excuse to pit two largely similar sides against each other. There are a lot of creatures from Greek mythology that make an appearance, and even though they all have unique powers a lot of them seem to be named somewhat arbitrarily. This can make it a little hard to learn the game, because although the cards all have very different effects they aren’t always very distinct from each other thematically. In your first few games you might have a hard time telling apart the Keeper of the Tides from the Shadow Sculptor. One place where that Greek setting is expressed really well is in the illustrations, which all share a sort of ethereal darkness. Through all the different iterations of Omen, the artwork has been uniformly great. Rather than making everything look polished and heroic, the figures look weird and a little grotesque, particularly the beasts. It lends the game a more otherworldly vibe that a straight Greek mythology theme might otherwise lack.

The second edition, which I own, came in a long box with enough room for lots of expansions.

For a game published about eight years ago, Omen has seen a staggering number of editions and spin-offs. Early versions of the game had much larger decks, because every card had multiple copies. This made for a much more volatile experience. The whole thing was a bit longer and a bit more swingy. Beginning around 2014, newer editions reduced this to a single copy of each card, adding in Spirits and Heroes, which were originally expansion content. This made a somewhat more stable setting, and one that I think is generally positive. If you find the game today odds are good this is what you’ll get. These versions can be hard to track with, given the spotty availability of many of John Clowdus’s games. The newest edition is thankfully in mainstream distribution channels, since it is now published by Kolossal Games. In addition to the edition confusion, there are a couple of spin-off games as well. The only one of these I’ve played is the much-condensed (and excellent) Edge of the Aegean, but there is also Fires in the East, and Heir to the Dunes on its way next year.

All of this can be very confusing, and if I have any serious criticism of Omen as a product it’s that this endless churn of editions and versions has made the game much harder to get into than is necessary. But even if there were only one edition, Omen (at least Reign of War) sets itself apart through its sheer versatility. Every version has some form of draft or deckbuilding play in the rules, and this is a great way to play for people who want to pull the game a little closer to the constructed play of classic collectible card games. This is a great test of skill for those who want to do it, because it rewards knowledge of the deck and of the way cards interact. I tend to prefer playing from a common deck, but both ways are outstanding.

If the last two paragraphs made your head spin a little, don’t worry. Just know that Omen: Reign of War is a great game, one that is generally available and worth your time. Those who might be weaning themselves off of the CCG addiction might not find quite the scope of that genre, but they will find something that is dynamic and versatile, with great illustrations and a great sense of unbalanced balance.

Why I Love Merchant of Venus

avalon hill cover

There are a handful of games I’ve reviewed multiple times, which is something that can happen when you write about games for a long time. While this may seem like repetition (mostly because it is) it’s often a good indication as to the quality of a particular game. In the case of Merchant of Venus, it’s true that it’s a great game. Honestly, it’s one of my favorite games ever. But this is the third time I’ve written about the game, and part of the reason is because I’ve had a hard time pinning down exactly what it is about Merchant of Venus that I like so much.

That’s partially because Merchant of Venus is the rare game that I clicked with immediately. This was around 2011 or so, and I was playing someone’s homemade copy. There was something about the game that made me want to have its experience in my life. I never had to analyze something that wasn’t working for me, because it all worked right away. Part of this can just be chalked up to it being a genre I like. There’s a curious niche of thematic pick-up-and-deliver games out there, games like the Merchants & Marauders, Xia, Firefly, and Wasteland Express Delivery Service. There’s something fundamentally appealing to me about games like these, I think because they present a vision of really living in a fantastic setting. It’s not a struggle, and they aren’t (always) geared toward conflict. You need to go to places and do things besides fight other people.

Merchant of Venus is older than all of those games by at least a good 25 years, but it is telling that is also simpler than many of its descendants. As a space pilot, you are given a ship and a galaxy to explore. There are fourteen races scattered through different systems, each one producing a good that can be bought there are sold to several of the other systems. The early game features exploration pretty heavily, but that eventually gives way to setting up trade loops. You take buy one good in a location, take it to another to sell it for profit, and repeat that a couple times before ending up where you started. Since the goal is to reach a particular level of cash in the bank, a strong loop can be a huge advantage.

Full map
The whole galaxy on my dining room table.

There are different ships you can buy and upgrades that enhance your ride, and you will also be able to buy some businesses that will improve the infrastructure of the system, making trade easier. But for the most part the game is about trying to leverage the geography of the map and the layout of the different races into a stable trade route. It’s a fundamentally pleasurable gameplay loop, one that goes down so smooth it’s taken me years to figure out why it works so well. But an interview I heard with Sid Meier offered a clue to me. In that interview, the great video game designer was reflecting on the addictive nature of his magnum opus, Civilization. He guessed that it had something to do with the combination of short term and long term goals. Your overall goal might be to send your people to space, but it’s built on very small goals that take a few minutes to complete. You make the goal to settle a new city, or to build a certain wonder, or whatever, and the game gives those goals explicit endpoints. So you finish the Pyramids, but then you also have this settler who is about to be completed in another city, and then when they’re done you want to go settle that new city, and so forth. Before you know it, you’re in “one more turn” mode.

I found myself reflecting on this in my last game of Merchant of Venus, which was with my son. This is a game that gets the value of offering clear short term goals. You have cargo you need to get to another system, or an undiscovered planet whose denizens may have something good for you. You want to go somewhere to upgrade your ship, or to pick up a passenger and take them back to Galactic Base. The game does a great job at doling out rewards for accomplishing these goals, without ever making the whole thing feel like it’s only in service of winning the game. In that moment, the specific effectiveness of your strategy isn’t important, it’s all about your small goal. It’s fundamentally satisfying to, say, upgrade your ship, regardless of whether it ultimately helps you with your victory.

While old games from the 1980s have a reputation for being baroque and complicated, Merchant of Venus is quite focused, and is all the better for it. Everything is in service of the single goal: make money. You don’t explore for its own sake, you do it to open up the game’s economy and put new goods into play. You don’t upgrade your ship to shoot down space pirates, you do it because it’ll let you fly between planets faster or haul more cargo. Although I wouldn’t call Merchant of Venus a simple game, it is a refreshingly straightforward one. It presents a clear goal, and gives you a whole galaxy to explore to accomplish it.

2012 FFG version
The 2012 Fantasy Flight version.

This is something that its descendants haven’t quite figured out. Later thematic pick-up-and-deliver games always something pulling focus away from the gameplay loop, or abstractions that muck with the immersion of the experience. Merchants & Marauders has a clunky combat system and victory points. Firefly has a license to flaunt, and is also an absolutely sprawling experience. These are all fine games, and these details are meant to evoke a sense of setting and open up the scale of the experience. But the overall effect is that they also can feel a little overstuffed, their pleasures diluted through their scale. Fantasy Flight Games, who released their own updated version of Merchant of Venus in 2012 fell into the same trap. Their version added quests, space pirates, outside industries, and various mechanics. It wasn’t bad exactly, but it was a definite downgrade. (Thankfully, due to a weird licensing snafu, the original design was included in the FFG edition. That’s the version I play.)

It’s remarkable that even given the more focused design, designer Richard Hamblen was able to create an experience that was more immersive and richer than any of its progeny. It’s hard to pin down why it worked so well, though I think one big reason is that it’s fine with the little emergent details that emerge from the game. Because its endgame is a finish line and not a timer, there is room for the game to go a little long and for strange systems to develop. If you play to 3000 credits (and that’s the best way) some planets start to actually run out of goods to sell, which disrupts the game’s economy in the late game. It also had the good sense to tie the game’s variety to what systems go where, rather than the physical geography of the board. This means that while you can get used to the challenges of navigating the board, the need to go to different areas changes every time. Even choices like using dice for movement show a comfort with unexpected outcomes that is not common in modern designs. Sometimes stuff just doesn’t work like you wanted it to. Through all of that, Merchant of Venus gives the player a great deal of agency. It trusts you to play well, and gives you the freedom to play poorly. More than that, it somehow still manages to make poor play feel satisfying in its own way. After all, there are all of those little short-term goals you got to accomplish. You lost, but you chose exactly how you would lose.

I mentioned the 2012 FFG reprint, which is the most recent edition. Sadly it is no longer available. I have no idea how well the game sold, but its presence a couple years ago on the FFG Holiday Sale is something of an admission of failure. There could be a million reasons why it didn’t sell as well as hoped. The presence of two versions in the same box, FFG’s redesign and the original version, likely inflated the game’s price by at least $20. Perhaps it was successful and just didn’t fit into the corporate strategy. Maybe it wasn’t marketed well, I don’t know. But I suspect Merchant of Venus’s appeal is sadly a little limited. It’s not a hard game to learn, but it’s not an easy one to learn to play well. It also has a couple of old-fashioned elements, like its endgame and its requirement that players figure out percentages of profits here and there. On top of all that it’s comfortable with bad luck in a way modern gamers often aren’t. The unfortunate result of all of this is that a game that was once rereleased with so much fanfare is now back in the wilderness.

close up action
It’s worth travelling through the asteroid system for those fine melf pelts.

While I firmly believe this classic games deserve to stay in print, there is something vaguely romantic about Merchant of Venus being hard to get. It has always given me the feel of a DOS computer game from the late 1980s. It’s world is somehow made bigger and more expansive because of its lighter detail, and the whiff of absurdity in those details feels old-school. I mean, no one in 2019 would think to make “rock videos” humanity’s main export. Hamblen is often regarded as one of the great Avalon Hill designers, and Merchant of Venus is a clear demonstration of his prowess, not to mention a true classic.

Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation

lotr the confrontation cover

Reiner Knizia is so prolific as a designer that he’s managed to publish several games based on the works of JRR Tolkien. Two of them are terrific adaptations of that classic world, but they take completely different directions. The one that most people remember, simply called Lord of the Rings, was one of the first big hits in the hobby that featured cooperative gameplay. That game cast the players in the role of hobbits journeying through the entire story of the novels, taking the approach of hitting the most popular story beats in a specific order every time. It’s for people who want to live the books, and it’s a great game, one of the most important designs in the hobby around the turn of the millennium. But it’s not the only classic that Knizia has authored in Middle-earth.

Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation is an altogether different experience. Designed for two players, one player takes control of the Fellowship of the Ring, while the other plays the role of the various monsters and villains serving Sauron. The good guys are tasked with taking the Ring to the other side of the board to drop the it in Mount Doom, while the bad guys can win by either destroying Frodo or overrunning the Shire. Taking its cues primarily from the classic game Stratego, the identity of each piece is hidden to your opponent. That means that when your wargs attack, they won’t know if they are facing Pippen or Gandalf, so there’s a huge potential for bluffing and double-guessing. It matters quite a bit too, because each piece has a special power unique to them, making it feel like a game of Chess where you can’t differentiate between your opponent’s pieces.

Frodo and Sam
Little does my son know that Frodo and Sam are totally buddies.

There’s some outstanding design built into these special powers, because they recreate the specific characters in the book so well. If Samwise shares a space with Frodo, he can replace Frodo in battle and become much stronger. Boromir is able to destroy any piece by destroying himself. The Flying Nazgul can attack any single piece on the board, at the cost of revealing the piece’s identity itself. All eighteen pieces feel distinct and well-observed, but they also feel balanced. The result is a game with a ton of thematic flavor, but also an accomplished asymmetric design where each move has a possible counter-move.

If you’ve ever read anything about this game, the character powers are usually celebrated as the big design accomplishment. But they are given more power by the subtlest and best work here, which is the board. The Confrontation uses a square board angled 45 degrees, meaning the players are playing on a diamond shape. The entire geography of the novels is recreated here, with the Shire on one end and Mordor on the other. Each half of the board has six spaces, and there is a spine of four mountain spaces right in the middle. Movement is highly restricted under normal circumstances. Pieces can only move forward, and there can only be two pieces in any given space. In the mountains it’s even more restrictive, since there can only be a single piece on any mountain space. There are also some specific geographical features on the map as well, such as the River Anduin, which the “good” player can use to move horizontally, or the Mines of Moria, which can be used to bypass the mountains completely.

Frodo made it to Mordor, but you can see all the servants of the Eye that my son expended trying to stop him.

It’s not really an accurate map like the one at the front of your copy of the novel, but it does an outstanding job of forcing the players to make the same kinds of decision points as the characters in the novel. The mountains dictate the whole rhythm of the game. The Good player will need to contend with how to get around them, while the Evil player will need to balance their defensive abilities in the mountains with the need to be proactive and hunt down Frodo. Of course this is all combined with the hidden identity of each piece, meaning that players won’t always be making the obvious move. Or they might be, but will try to make it look like it isn’t so obvious. Bluffing is weird that way.

The potential for bluff and the various decision points give The Confrontation a sense of branching narrative that the cooperative Lord of the Rings avoids entirely. What would happen if Gimli accompanied Frodo all the way to Mount Doom? How about if the Shire was overrun with Orcs and Wargs before Frodo could ever succeed? Combined with a light bit of card combat and a tight 20-30 minute playtime, and you have a surprisingly addictive experience. Most sessions of The Confrontation consist of at least two games, and sometimes more. It’s an intoxicating blend of planning, bluffing, and recreating a beloved story, and it goes down so smooth that it always feels like you could play again.

Original Kosmos art
The original box art from Kosmos. This is the version of the game I have, and the one in the pictures above.

Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation was originally published by Kosmos in 2002, and like its big cooperative ancestor it featured great artwork by John Howe and got an American release from Fantasy Flight Games. This initial version came in a small square box, making it extremely portable. That’s the version I have and if you find it I would give it my highest recommendation. But there has also been a larger deluxe version that has made it to print a couple of times. This version has a larger board and pieces, and it looks really nice, but the real motivation there is the eighteen alternate characters. If you want to inject some extra variety into the experience, that’s definitely a good option. I can’t vouch for the experience with the alternate characters, since I’ve only ever played my copy. Really, there’s no bad option here, it’s just a matter of what combination you want of portability, variety, and price.

I mention all of those options because I really think Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation is one of those games you will probably like. It’s simple enough to be enjoyed by my nine-year-old son, but also complex enough to present something new every time I play it. Reiner Knizia may always be better known for his cooperative Lord of the Rings game, and that’s an excellent game. But I think The Confrontation is the one I would pick as the more durable design. Its polish and variety, not to mention its well-observed recreations of elements from the novel, make it a no-brainer for people looking for a great two-player experience.