Beignets & Boardgames: First Look at Simurgh

Back in 1983, three teenage boys in Grand Mamou who were looking for a new video game experience for the Commodore 64 stumbled upon Dragonriders of Pern. Designed by Jim Connelly of Epyx Games, it was different from other space and shoot-em-up games. It had negotiation. It had action. But most of all, it had a theme tied to the book series of the same name by Anne McAffrey.

That series of books, centered around dragon riding heroes on the planet Pern who battle the “Thread”, a deadly micro alien organism attacking the planet, was a huge seller and a big influence on F&SF reading teenagers in the 1980s.

dragonriders_of_pern_thread_fight

The graphics in the electronic game about Pern were rudimentary, the game play was admittedly unusual for the day, but the theme was just cool. It was a chance to be the leader of the “weyr” (dragon hold) and build alliances with other weyrs to save the planet.

So, any time a board game company publishes a board game with dragons as a theme, it inevitably harkens me back to those books and that game.  Obviously, game play and graphic design have come a long way since then, but is there any game out there that can recreate that feeling?

NSKN created a sensation about a year ago with a Kickstarter for a dragon based game called Simurgh as well as its expansion. We finally got a copy of the game and have played it a few times recently. Although we agreed that we have not played the game enough to give a final rating, we have played it enough to know what we like and what we don’t like about Simurgh. Spoiler alert — if you are looking for negotiations among the great houses as you ally yourself against The Evil, better try to find a copy of Dragonriders of Pern and an old C-64 instead.

img_1487OVERVIEW:

Simurgh is a worker placement, action tile laying game from NSKN Legendary Games (NSKN Games) in 2015. The game was designed by Pierluca Zizzi, and is built around the legend of families raising dragons and training dragon riders to beat back the forces of Evil. The game has three levels in length, and the average game takes about an hour to play.

img_1489

INNOVATIONS:

Simurgh looks on the surface to be your standard worker placement fare, but there are some definitely unusual twists.  Players, who control one of five different dragon rearing houses, start with a dragon rider meeple and a spearman meeple, called collectively “vassals.”  The players use the vassals (and they can train more with the right resources) to develop resources, buy action tiles (where the majority of resources can be generated), explore the “wilds” and work on long term objectives like training real dragons and scoring big end game points.

The twist is two fold — first, the vassals can either be  placed or taken back into the player’s hand, but you can’t do both on the same turn. The second twist is that the board contains relatively few juicy actions at the start, because most of the research, production, exploring, and technology actions are on tiles that you must buy and play.  Anytime a tile is filled to the brim with vassals, or is emptied, that tile moves to the “chronicle” — which is one of the end game conditions. In a medium length game, we play to 11 tiles. (The other end game is when the objective tiles — either four or five spaces, depending upon player count — fills up.)

img_1501
COMPONENTS:

Here is where Simurgh gets really interesting. NSKN put in a lot of work bringing the game to its fans, and the material choices are — well, different to say the least.  First, you have the beautiful laser cut acrylic vassals, which are unlike anything I have ever seen. They stand out from your usually blob of wood and are easily distinguishable. There’s even plenty of wooden tokens representing two of the resources, and then strangely, wooden blocks representing two more of the resources, and then strangely again, cardboard tokens representing the remaining resources. Strange choices, indeed, but at least they are all good quality.

Next, there is the tile and board art. The artists, Enggar AdirasaAgnieszka Kopera, and Odysseas Stamoglou, knocked it out of the park with their depictions of the city, the dragons themselves, and the artwork all over the box. You can tell that a lot of heart and time were spent fleshing out the visual aspects of this beautiful world.

Unfortunately, that same desire to cram more artwork on the board than the Vatican has on its museum walls can go overboard. In this case, the board and artwork on the cards are so chock full of dragon goodness that it can be very overwhelming. Plus, the artwork is in some ways inconsistent. While having great looking dragons is a plus, some of them are very hard to distinguish on their respective dragon cards, which makes it very difficult to choose your dragon. Plus the artwork on the board and cards might be fine as decorations on a twelve year old’s room, but the fonts are way too small and the iconography far less than intuitive.

img_1503GAME:

I have played two five player games so far, and unfortunately, both plays were hampered by the very obtuse rule set given in the game. It would not be an exaggeration to say that we spent 30% of our time in the game looking up the rules and diving into BGG to get the answers to some very specific questions. The rule book is in serious need of revision, editing and glossification.

Yes, but how did the game play? I loved the gameplay, ignoring for a second the confusion about the terms and turns and play. There are so many juicy decisions to be made. Do I start by increasing my team of vassals? Do I choose to go exploring or build tiles, or recruit more dragons? Am I resource hound, or will I do my work on other people’s tiles? All of these create tensions, especially as the timer to the end of the game keeps tick, tick, ticking away.

img_1502I think Bradly from the Krewe de Gumbo said it best:

It actually has a very interesting mechanic for a worker placement. Essentially the players are responsible for putting out the resource generating tiles. Most of the initial tiles are resource spending ones. And then if too many people se those player placed tiles, or if no one is one them, they go away. So a lot of the game is timing — keeping tiles out that others place (by placing vassals on them), and then waiting to put out your own tiles when no one can use them. 

img_1488FINAL THOUGHTS:

Couple of quick comments from the Krewe before I share my final thoughts:

Carlos: Cool theme and artwork, but a complete hot mess to see what’s going on; sitting from the other side of the table from the tiles is ridiculous

Bryan: Board is pretty, but too busy and hard to read

Dave: Funny name, board is way too messy

BJ: I like Simurgh a lot, but the rules are terrible and the icons are just not intuitive. NKSN needs to bring the #CarlosGraphicDesignHammer to the board and tiles

Bradly: Simurgh is good, not great; the board is needlessly busy and the rules stink

With only a couple of plays, it is too early to tell where Simurgh stands in the pantheon of board games played in the last few years. As Dustin always says (who has yet to play the game by the way), a game has to be great to stand out. The good news is that Simurgh has interesting mechanics, beautiful artwork, and has lots of juicy decisions and tension but can still be wrapped up in about an hour. That makes it more likely that it will come back to the table, and I think Simurgh deserves that. I can’t help feeling that there is so much under the hood in this game that can be explored. I am ready to watch these dragons soar again.

Until next time, Laissez les bon temps rouler!

— B.J.

 

 

Aliens (not yet) Among Us — A Preview of Alien Artifacts from Portal Games

One of the scheduled releases for Gen Con 2017 is ‘Alien Artifacts’ from Portal Games, a 4X card game of interplanetary domination designed by Marcin Senior Ropka and Viola Kijowska. I got my hands on this beauty at BGGCON 2016 and thought I’d share how the game works and my initial impressions.  Please bear in mind that this is still a prototype and although it seems that the core mechanics are fully developed, there is sure to be some alteration to the game by the time it releases next year.

Alien Artifacts primarily runs off of a single deck of cards.  Each player will draw multiple cards a round, and each card will have a number from 1 to 4 on them.  These numbers are only used during combat or when other special effects require them.  Mostly the cards are used for the symbols on them.  There are four colored symbols; blue, red, green, and yellow, and each card will have two sets of symbols of up to 3 symbols each.  For instance, a card might have 2 green symbols and 3 red symbols.  Each run through of the deck constitutes a single year of the game; for the demo we played through 2 years but there were tiles for Years 1-5 available, so I’m assuming a full play of the game would be a full 5 years.

image06

Players begin Alien Artifacts by selecting one of the galactic corporations.  Each corporation plays similarly except for their starting technology (this may have just been for demo purposes).  Corporations have several statistics that they can raise throughout the course of the game.  They are: Assembly (green), Production (blue), and Storage (yellow).  Assembly is how many cards you can assign a turn, Production is how many cards you draw a turn, and Storage is how many cards you can bank total.  You can upgrade each statistic in two different ways.  One, all statistics can be upgraded by paying a certain number of credits.  Each statistic can also be upgraded by completing certain milestones.  For Assembly, you automatically upgrade it for completing a certain number of technologies, while Production upgrades based on your combat power and Storage upgrades when you explore planets.

The game essentially runs off of a single deck of cards (some 200 of them for the purposes of the demo).  Each turn, a player either draws as many cards as his/her Production allows, or takes another action available.  The additional actions include claiming a planet, beginning a new technology, upgrading one of the three statistics with stored credits, or buying a ship.  If you decide to draw cards from the deck, you then have to assign them.  Cards have 2 sets of symbols each, either being Blue (used for research), Red (used for Combat), Green (used for Exploring), or Yellow (wild cards that can be used for anything).  You can assign these cards to those purposes, remembering that you are limited in the number of cards you can place by your current Assembly and you can only place to one effect a round (for instance, if you had an Assembly of 2 you couldn’t place one card for technology and another for exploring.  They would both have to be placed to the same effect).  

You also have the option of storing the cards as credit, selecting one color and storing the cards as credits, one for one, based on the number of icons that match that color (so if you stored a card with 2 green symbols and another card with 3 green symbols, you would have a total of 5 credits scored).  Stashing cards for credits in this way is not limited by your Assembly score.

image02Cards assigned for combat (red) must be placed under a ship that you control.  Each player begins with a single Freighter that can have a total of one card placed under it.  Additional ships can be bought from a shared pile of 4 different types of ships.  Each player may own only one ship of each type and the ships get more expensive the longer you wait to buy them.  The first player to buy the Mothership pays only 10 credits for it, while the next player must spend 12.  The Mothership can hold an impressive 4 combat cards under it while also granting an innate 3 combat power, and grants additional victory points is fully equipped at the end of the game.

Cards assigned for technology (blue) go under a specific technology, and technologies are completed once you have a specific number of symbols assigned to them.  Technologies come in 4 different types; Blue (Expand), Green (Explore), Red (Exterminate), and Yellow (Exploit).  Expand technologies typically either make your technologies stronger or easier to complete.  Explore is the same for planets (one green technology might give you the ability to assign both green and red symbols to exploring planets).  Red technologies affect combat, while Yellow technologies change fundamental rules of the game for you alone.  For instance, one of the yellow technology cards that I got let me copy one of my opponents’ technologies.

image05As well as the decks of ships you can buy, there is also a deck of planets.  There are always two planets showing from this deck, and a player can, as their turn, claim one of those planets instead of drawing from the main deck on their turn.  Planets require Green (explore) symbols to complete, but once you do they grant you a one-use power.  Some may allow you to buy ships at a discounted rate, and some let you search for Alien Artifacts (which consists of drawing the top card of the main deck and gaining a number of Victory Points equal to the card’s numerical value).

Attacking other players is also a possibility in Alien Artifacts.  To do so you first have to draw one of the combat cards from the deck during your draw phase.  Drawing these cards is the only way to attack other players during the game and they are fairly limited in number.  Once you attack an opponent both he and you draw a card from the top of the main deck and add it to your combat power (your combat power being a total of the red symbols assigned to your ships).  If you have the most combat power after drawing, you steal a victory point from your opponent.  If they have the most, they effectively fight off your attack and your turn is over.

I enjoyed the games I played of Alien Artifacts, but by no means do I think it’s perfect.  The game is so far along already, however, that I have high hopes for it when it releases at next year’s Gencon.  Personally I would like to see something done with the combat system to make it more interactive.  As it stands now all you do when you attack is draw a card from the main deck and compare combat strength.  Since the cards in the main deck only go from 1 to 4 that means if you attack someone with fewer than 4 combat strength than you have it’s an automatic win.  I’m also not a huge fan of the Alien Artifacts powers of the planet deck.  Again, when activating these powers all you do is draw a card from the main deck and gain Victory Points from it.  I’d much rather see a separate deck for the Alien Artifacts that include unique bonuses as well as negative effects such as aliens assaulting your company.  That would add a sense of uncertainty to completing a planet that grants an Alien Artifact, and would allow for the artifacts to be slightly more powerful than their current state.

Ultimately ‘Alien Artifacts’ provides a 4X experience, similar to Eclipse, in a card game that takes less than an hour to play.  If they’re able to add a little more flair to the game in the next few months, then I foresee it being a massive success for Portal Games.

— Bradly @BradlyBillingsl

 

Beignets and Board Games: First Look at AssassinCon!

What if the world’s greatest assassins meet each year to compare notes, talk shop, and of course, play a con-wide game of “Assassin”?  If you’re sick of trading in the Mediterranean or running from zombies, then let’s talk today about a game with a very unique theme.

At our game nights, the Krewe de Gumbo loves to play deduction games with a little bit of take that in them. Games like Dead Last and Deception: Murder in Hong Kong have been big hits. (Well, except for our friend, Dave.) Are there any games out there that will fit the bill?

As a freshman at LSU in the mid 80s, I joined in on a campus wide game of Assassin. We were told to get a nerf type gun, carry it around in our backpack, and were handed a picture of our “target.” This was well before 9/11, when you could walk into the scheduling office of the largest university in Louisiana and ask “Hey, what’s So-And-So’s schedule this week?” and be handed a copy of your target’s class schedule, no questions asked. (Try doing that today!)

The game was fun, and as I recall, I got down to the last four or five people left before taking a hit coming out of a history class. I never played the game again, but it was fun, and I know it has been played by thousands of geeks at conventions all over the country.

The folks at Mayday Games sent us a copy of game based on that same concept from the live action games. So pour yourself a steaming hot cup of Community Coffee, grab some powdery goodness, and let’s take a quick look. 

In AssassinCon, the 2016 release designed by Binh Vo with artwork from Marco EehevarriaAllison Litchfield, and Benjamin Schulman, players choose characters (each with a different color and picture, but all with the same characteristics) representing assassins at a convention. Each assassin is given a target to “eliminate”, but does not know who their pursuer is. The game is geared for four to six players, but seems to play best at five (where the sixth player is handled with a ‘dummy’ deck, whose randomness throws a little chaos into the deductive skills of the best assassins.

The characters are spread out around the convention center, and players take turns playing actions Robo-Rally style  mixed up and face down so nobody knows who is making what move. If a player ends up in the same room as another player, he can be eliminated — if the assassin wants to take a chance and reveal himself or herself. (It might be more strategic to wait until there are multiple eliminations at one time, so no one can smoke you out.) There are also three special rooms that allow long distance eliminations (in other words, without being in the same room as the target).

The game play is quick and as the turns move forward, the tension gets ratcheted up. Once the game is down to two players only, or if one person can figure out who is chasing them and successfully “call the guards” (reveal the pursuer), the board is reset and players get new characters.  The first assassin to five points wins, and points are awarded either for eliminations or for being on the right side when the guards are called.

We have only played this a couple of times, and it’s going to take a few more plays to really evaluate the game.  I do see some roses and thorns so far.

The roses: the game plays very quickly. Players really only have three choices in playing cards — there are three different movement cards, so it does not take long to figure out your next move. The game length is perfect for a game to play at the start of the night while waiting for other players to show up. It only plays to five points, and a couple of quick eliminations gets one of the players to three or four points quickly (since you also get any points that player accumulated during the round). The artwork is fun, too.

There are a few thorns, however. While the artwork is fun, it is a little cartoonish and uneven. The cartoony part is probably chosen to complement the theme, to keep it light and representative of assassins taking part in this fantasy convention, but it could have used a little bit more of an edge. The board itself is very busy and takes a while to really get used to the arrows pointing in all directions (representing the moves you can make with your movement cards.)

And the worst culprit is the rulebook. I have read hundreds of rule books, and on the surface, this seems like a fairly easy game, but the rulebook was a tough read to understand the schematics of the gameplay.  If I were Mayday Games, I might give Paul Grogan from Gaming Rules a quick call if a second printing is planned.

Finally, even though it seems to be geared as a light, action packed first-part-of-the-night game, it is in fact a brain-burning puzzler with lots of tensions that is a little hard to teach without walking players through each phase of the game play.

AssassinCon has a had  a lot of buzz since its release. You have probably heard that it is a brain burning, tense, quick to play puzzle and the rumors are right. It is not for everyone — keeping track of who is attacking you, what moves you need to make, what rooms to avoid, navigating the convention to get the best spot to make a play on your target, all of that is a lot to grok! — but if you like Dead Last or Werewolf or Coup but don’t like the direct confrontations in the game, the indirect targeting in AssassinCon should be right up your alley.  I definitely want to get a few more plays in, and test out a couple different strategies on the rooms to grab early and on how to make the most of multiple elimination opportunities.

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

— B.J.