Cosmic Encounter Duel: Intimate Chaos

  • Designers: Frank Brooks, Bill Eberle, Peter Olotka, and Greg Olotka
  • Artists: Sebastian Koziner, Jean-Baptiste Reynaud, and Regis Torres
  • Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
  • Release Date: June 2020

Luke: Cosmic Encounter has been revered since the ’80’s as a board game classic, embodying the philosophy that a game doesn’t have to be balanced to be a ton of fun. Leaning into the chaos of party games while providing a strict game system, the franchise has been re-released… what is it, 4 times now?

Phil: And with a ton of expansions under its belt, the series is one of the more recognizable titles you can find on a person’s shelf.

Luke: So when the 2-player variant was announced some time back, it wasn’t a huge surprise, although I went into this venture a little skeptically. I wasn’t a huge fan of the original, largely because of how long it takes to play and how there can be games where a player just doesn’t get to participate in all that much due to the whims of the cards.

Phil: It’s definitely an odd pick beyond the obvious bran recognition. How would they translate such a social title to bring about the same excitement with only 2 participants?

Luke: Each game starts with, predictably, players getting a random alien race, each with their own abilities. While some of the powers echo those of yester-year, all of these are unique and provide their own flavor.

Phil: Honestly, I like this art style much more than that of the original. There’s a cartoony look that lends itself to the goofiness of the game.

Luke: Players will start with 5 of their ships in the Warp (essentially a discard pile), 6 cards in hand, and a planet to fight over.

Phil: Each round, a card from one of the 3 fate decks is flipped, determining what happens that turn. After the first round, which forces players to encounter a planet, the bottom of the drawn card will dictate which deck to draw from next.

Luke: The pink deck is all about fighting over the planets, aka victory points, the yellow deck provides resources, and the blue deck is like an event deck, composed of a little of everything.

Phil: Most of the time, a planet will be on the line, as is the nature of the game. At the start of each duel, players will secret send between 0 and 4 ships to the planet, which should sound familiar to fans of the game. Then, players will have the chance to flip any Envoys they have favor with face-up.

Luke: Cards that represent the alien races of the original game, each Envy introduces a mandatory rule that, once flipped face-up, must be followed for the rest of the game. While you don’t know what any of them are at the beginning, if players get access to them, they can cause a ton of mischief.

Phil: After this, players will secretly choose a tactic and a combat card to use. Combat cards are what you have come to expect, valued between -2 and 42. Each player has their own deck now, so you know you’ll have access to 1 of every card over the course of the game.

Luke: Tactics, on the other hand, are flimsy standees that will interact with the ships before the fight. Most tactics will either attack the opponent’s ships or defend their own, with 1 allowing you to pass this action to recover tactics. If all of a player’s ships are removed from the planet prior to the combat, then the fight is over, meaning that this can have some impact over how you’ll plan.

Phil: After tactics and combat cards are revealed, the numbers are totaled, and whoever has the stronger attack value wins, claiming the planet for themselves. The loser returns what ships they still have on the planet to their supply, and play continues until a player runs out of ships (losing) or controls 5 planets (winning).

Luke: While Duel has a lot of the randomness of the original game, it also feels orderly. Maybe a little toooooooo orderly.

Phil: I thought you hated the more chaotic feel of the original. Make up your mind!

Luke: I do, but at least Cosmic Encounter has some personality of its own. Duel feels like a facsimile, an awkward attempt to recapture the magic that already exists and people are still invested in today.

In order to make this system work for only 2-players, a number of changes needed to be made to make the system feel more competitive and fair so you don’t just have a ton of blow-out, one-sided sessions. In the process, though, the game now feels homogenized, with every game feeling very similar.

Phil: The alien powers can help, but they rarely feel particularly involving beyond the art and style. And there are still those aliens that just feel better than others; in a multiplayer bonanza, that’s not all that big a deal, but when there are only 2 aliens to duke it out, the game just feels lopsided.

Luke: There’s something to be said for the new combat system, and it can feel clever occasionally, but there are way better combat games that I’d rather take the time to play, like Unmatched.

Phil: No matter how you slice it, I don’t think this is a game any one person is going to really fall in love with.

Verdict: If you loved the original Cosmic Encounter, this will feel to orderly and organized, with the chaos of social interactions and the big turnaround moments missing in action. If you weren’t a fan of the original, Duel still feels like a watered-down back-and-forth that can better be found in titles like Unmatched. No matter how you slice it, this should be an easy pass for most people.

Marvel Champs Monday: Words Have Meaning

Phil: Keywords are a big part of how we understand and interact with many of the cards in Marvel Champions, though some more so than others.

Luke: Keywords can certainly add a lot to any LCG, enhancing the system with new mechanics while making it easier to understand what a card does at a glance. Yet provide too many keywords or make many of them inconsequential, and you’ll end up diluting the language of the game, making it more obtuse with each expansion.

Phil: We thought we’d look at each of the keywords for Marvel Champs that have been released up to this point and talk about which ones add a lot to the game, which ones have fallen flat, and which ones could use some more love from the game devs.

Luke: Let’s get into it!

Guard and Overkill

Phil: One of the most intuitive and easily implemented of the keywords, Guard adds an obstacle to deal with before slamming the big bad with everything you’ve got. They can make some attacks less optimal, as heroes may be forced to waste excess damage output to deal with minions, and can have some nasty effects associated with them that will pressure you to deal with them.

Luke: Luckily, the game provides us with one of the easier workarounds for this problem, Overkill. By letting us crash through minions, we can potentially kill 2 birds with 1 Hulk Smash!

Phil: Similar to the Crisis symbols on schemes, this additional pressure can make for tense scenarios where you and your friends are surrounded by beefy Guards who make it increasingly difficult to deal with the Villain at hand.

Luke: They can be a little annoying if they become overly present in a single encounter, but having that additional pressure can go a long way to making a fight feel more intense than it may otherwise.

Quickstrike, Retaliate, Ranged, and Incite

Phil: Depending on how many allies you flood the board with or what Aspect you’re working with, you may find yourself flush with health and able to take on just about any enemy you may face. Enter two terrifying terms.

Luke: Quickstrike can take you by surprise, dishing a bonus in very inopportune moments. I’ve certainly gotten killed by it once or twice in the past.

Phil: But Retaliate, that’s the true terror. Consistent damage that wears down aggressive allies, takes away Tough statuses, and generally becomes a sizable burden to deal with.

Luke: By far one of the more punishing keywords thus far, Retaliate makes each attack feel like a tough choice. Is it worth it to deal 2 damage to Arnim just to take 1 as well? Every swing has to be weighed and considered, and it makes for earnestly exciting fights.

Phil: What’s more, it’s so empowering when you have it. Black Panther and Hulk welcome the attacks of minions so they can wear themselves out on their armored suits and thick skin.

Luke: Due to how it can be used for or against the players while also impacting how you interact with the game, Retaliate may be my favorite keyword so far.

Phil: Enter Ranged, a keyword that outright avoids Retaliate. While primarily seen with Hawkeye’s arrows, Ranged will be a strong tool for players to take advantage of when dealing with some of the more defensive villains down the road.

Luke: On top of all of that, there’s Incite, a term that does damage when it comes into play… to the scheme.

Phil: What Incite we have seen is of smaller values, but any boost to how far along the scheme is can spell death, especially when you aren’t anticipating it.

In this way, Incite acts in similar ways to its health-draining brethren, killing any chance the players have at success at a moment’s notice.

Toughness and Piercing

Luke: Toughness provides characters with a Tough status as they enter play, making them a force to be reckoned with from the onset. That is, unless they’re smacked with a Piercing attack, removing the Tough status before it can be of any use.

Phil: There’s nothing quite like setting yourself up to have a Tough status take a punishing hit only to have it cut down, slamming you full-force in the face.

Luke: It makes a rather valuable resource more selective in its use, which is probably for the best. Tough is an incredibly powerful tool, so having a counter to it only makes sense.

Phil: It seems that this was a big goal in the creation of Rise of Red Skull; making counters for what keywords are already in play. It’s a smart implementation, especially this early in the game’s life, and will likely service the future of this system well.

Permanent and Surge

Luke: The Encounter deck. Ever the instigator of bad things to come. And when bad things come, they come in droves. Enter Surge, that dreaded term that makes more bad things come out of the deck than there ever should.

Phil: Nothing is quite as frightening as discovering that more cards need to come out of the deck than initially anticipated, as ever card is the promise of something sinister on the horizon.

Luke: Permanent, on the other hand, stands in the middle of the battleground, middle-fingers raised in the air, saying “Deal with it!”

Phil: Both of these keywords force players to deal with more of the bad stuff than usual, but in opposite ways. One creates a boundary that will never be overcome, whereas the other floods the play space with more evils to face. They look to pressure us into tight spots and seeing how we might react.

Uses and Restricted

Luke: Sometimes, there need to be limits on how buck-wild a player can make a deck, and these 2 keywords look to rein in the machinations of players in some manageable ways.

Phil: Restricted makes it so a deck can only have so many cards of a certain power-level in their deck, whereas Uses limits how many times a card can be used before it’s removed from the board, limiting its abilities.

Luke: This is standard deck-building stuff and hardly worth noting, but they’re worth addressing in a cursory manner due to their importance to the system.

Setup

Phil: A new terms meant to facilitate campaigns, Setup simply allows players to start the game with this card in play.

Luke: As it stands, it’s a fairly bland term, but I could see some heroes or future cards benefiting from this a lot. Imagine a character like Hawkeye starting the game with his bow already in play!


Phil: So, what’s to be gleaned from all this?

Luke: Well, it’s clear that there are various counters set in place for some of the stronger elements of the game. Retaliate and Tough now have very clear answers that remove their effects from play. This helps to support the idea that there’s no one right way to play or any one stratagem that makes the game easier to tackle.

Phil: Other than allies-

Luke: Yes, we get it, allies are super good. But I think we’re starting to see villains and mechanics set in motion that slow down minions or make them less effective when dealing with the hurdles Marvel Champs sets out before its players.

Phil: Additionally, there are a lot of keywords that have yet to be used to their fullest. Setup, Permanent, and Restricted are all terms that are only seen occasionally thus far. The promise of more down the road is very exciting.

Luke: Lastly, I would say the most involving keywords are the ones both sides can harness. Toughness, Retaliate, Piercing, Overkill, these are all effects we can use just as easily as the villains can, and make them more nuanced and involved to consider, unlike something like Surge, which is more one-note because only the villains have access to it.

Phil: I for one am looking forward to what other keywords are on the horizon. What keywords are you all waiting to see implemented? Let us know in the comments, and we’ll see ya’ll next week!

Marvel Champions: Hulk – “Hulk is Hulk!!!”

Luke: Hulk is a particularly strange hero to discuss.

Phil: No dude, that was last month.

Luke: While Thor had previously been criticized for being very one-note, Hulk takes that to a whole new level, with less of an engine and more of a spattering of events intermingled with turns where you scream into a pillow in frustration and sadness. Only with the assistance of some online deck recommendations was I able to get Hulk to feel both fun and manageable, namely with a Leadership deck.

Phil: Not exactly a particularly thematic choice.

Luke: Perhaps not. But with the smallest collective hand-size out of any hero and 1 way to remove any threat in his core set, it’s hard to deny that Hulk is… Hulk, for better or worse.

Phil: I find myself having the least fun with those heroes that feel tied to a single method of play or restrictive in their choice of Aspect, and while Hulk could theoretically embody any Aspect in Standard play, if you’re going to take on Expert, you better strap in for a rough time.

Luke: And not a rough time like a good challenge so much as drawing into hands that do little to nothing and then throwing the remainders away because you can’t afford any more threat.

Phil: Hulk’s core ability is thematic, sure, and unique in its aggressive playstyle, but coupled with such a teeny hand-size makes it feel like a particularly harsh punishment. You better draw into just the right set of cards or flip to your Alter Ego, because otherwise, that copy of Hawkeye you can’t pay for is going in the trash.

Luke: What’s more, the extreme reliance on a single type of resource, while thematic, restricts how Hulk’s deck is built in many ways while making him very vulnerable to specific threats.

Phil: Anything that requires you to pay a set of resources to remove from the board is just something you’ll have to deal with unless a teammate can help out. But filling your deck with a more diverse pool of resources will often punish you, making your Hulk-specific cards notably less helpful.

Luke: Limitless Strength obviously helps with this, but even that’s restricted to your hero form, understandably. Everything in Hulk’s arsenal feels so precarious, so precise, that you’ll find more and more turns where you have little else to do.

Phil: And you better hope you don’t get tapped or stunned by the villain, because holy $#%&, you will get nothing done that turn, possibly multiple turns depending on how bad your luck is.

Luke: To be frank, Hulk is incredibly vulnerable to a lot with very little to make up for it. Sure, he can blast through minions and deal a ton of damage, but the trade-off feels a little too extreme, even for me.

Phil: As for the cards that come in this set, there are some pretty spicy options that are brought to the table. The new Aggression allies are a much-needed addition that brings a ton of neat additions to the table.

Luke: Toe to Toe and “You’ll Pay For That!” are a ton of fun, presenting the 5th Aspect we never got to see in a fun and exciting way.

Phil: Beat Cop, Inspiring Presence, Electrostatic Armor, Martial Prowess, there’s rarely a dud in this set beyond To the Rescue! and Resourceful.

Luke: Simply put, I’d recommend this set for the cards contained rather than for the hero proudly displayed on the box. I have no doubt that, in due time, Hulk will get some cards that will make him fr more viable, but as it stands, it just doesn’t feel like much fun to build a deck for him, let alone play him.

Phil: And who knows? Maybe Rise of Red Skull will bring a bunch of new toys for Bruce to play with, but we’ll have to wait and see. What were your thoughts on Hulk’s set? Let us know your favorite card in the comments, and we’ll see you next week!

Marvel Champs Monday: An Efficient King

Phil: This weekend, a great loss was felt across the internet was Chadwick Boseman passed away, very suddenly for those of us who weren’t aware of his battle with cancer. It’s difficult to express the impact that it has had, on our community or on each of us individually.

Luke: And while there is little we can say here that hasn’t already been articulated well elsewhere, we wanted to take the time by celebrating his contributions to this hobby by taking a look at the Black Panther hero set, one that, dare I say, would not have been in the core box of the game is not for Chadwick’s portrayal of the character.

Phil: And damn, what a hero he is. In all honestly, I think he’s one of the best in the game to date, rivaling Dr. Strange in regards to raw power.

Luke: You think?

Phil: Absolutely, but not in the same way as the good doctor. While other S-Rank heroes hold their positions through powerful combos and or particularly great cards, Black Panther holds his throne through sheer efficiency. Everything about his design boils down to doing things well, quickly, and at little cost.

Luke: That’s fair, each game starts with Black Panther pulling an extra card, starting nearly every game with a hand of 7. Regardless of whether you decide to build your engine right away or not, that extra card can make all the difference in terms of setting yourself up for victory from the get-go.

Phil: And looking through his card pool, he has so many tools to get stuff on the board. Every one of his cards costs 2 or less, meaning he has the least expensive deck out of any hero currently released. Couple that with the fact that he comes with 3 offerings of Vibranium, a powerful resource card that can outright pay for anything in his core set, and you’re talking about a character that has the coin to buy whatever he pleases fairly easily.

Luke: This low barrier to entry makes it so that you can add nearly any card to T’Challa’s deck, regardless of cost. Hercules and Heimdall have never been more viable allies to get to the table.

Phil: On top of this, so many of his cards provide extra value. The Golden City lets T’Challa draw 2 extra cards, which can be a huge swing in his favor. Shuri practically pays for herself, letting you pull an extra card from your deck when she enters play. And Ancestral Knowledge will let you put spent cards back into your deck, holding off the extra Encounter cards while potentially letting you activate Wakanda Forever! again.

Luke: Speaking of which, once your Upgrade engine is built, Wakanda Forever! is such a crushing blow to enemies, dishing a ton of damage while removing some threat and healing you in the process. And considering you have 5 opportunities to use them in your deck, it’s crazy to consider just how powerful this combo becomes.

Phil: Let’s not also forget Black Panther’s built-in Retaliate. So not only are you efficient in getting your cards into play, but you also damage your enemies simply by letting them hit you. Ultron’s drones fall to pieces simply because they touch you!

Luke: It’s impressive just how effective this hero is, and with the stat line to prove it. He’s good at just about everything, making him a great contender for every Aspect, something that can be hard to find all the time. I’m really looking forward to seeing what the Rise of Red Skull set will bring to the table that will strengthen T’Challa’s arsenal.

Phil: What new cards are you most excited to use in a Black Panther deck? Let us know down below!

Luke: And be sure to stop back in tomorrow, when we’re giving our full thoughts on the Hulk hero set. See ya’ll then!

Behind the Board: Daryl Andrews and Sagrada: Life

Luke: Hey folks, and welcome back to Behind the Board! This week, we’re joined by Daryl Andrews, who worked on the most recent Sagrada expansion, Sagrada: Life.

Daryl: Thanks for having me!

Luke: My pleasure. So, Daryl, Sagrada has obviously had its fair share of expansions at this point; what elements do you look to include in each?

Daryl: So far, each expansion has explored a different focus, with the goal of providing Sagrada fans fresh modular expansions they can mix-and-match to enhance their playing experience.

Luke: And there are certainly some exciting ones to check out this time around, like the Apprentice cards.

Daryl: Yeah, the Apprentice cards were a part of our original idea for the game. Before we had tool cards, we actually thought of those cards as apprentices that helped you during the game.

In the initial development, Ben Harkins, the owner of Floodgate Games, was wise in re-imagining those as tool cards. However, we still always liked the idea of helpers, so we saved the idea for an expansion.

Luke: And they also introduce “new” boards to play on, right? Well, not new-new; I guess you could call them “re-imagingings” of the first 12 boards.

Daryl: Yeah, Ben usually takes the lead in procedurally generating the boards, so many combinations are possible.

We had designed some new windows with the Apprentice symbols, but Ben thought it would be best to include the symbols on some of the “greatest hits” windows that fans have already indicated they enjoy playing. I would suspect many Sagrada fans will make stickers or draw symbols on their previous windows. Our goal was to try and include symbols on blank spaces to keep them simple.

Luke: And the cards themselves, wow, there are a lot of diverse powers reflected there. How did you folks balance out the various effects they gave?

Daryl: The Apprentice deck has some real diverse abilities, and it did take some time to help balance them to some degree. However, some are strictly better than others, depending on your circumstance. We enjoy the element of excitement this brings to the game. Players can ignore the Apprentice cards, but it might be their downfall.

Luke: Another thing players shouldn’t ignore are those Masterworks dice! What was the inspiration for including these awesome-looking dice?

Daryl: Early in the design of Sagrada we had the idea of the rare glass (clear) dice for the Passion expansion. However, we did not have a good idea for what made Orange dice unique and special.

Funny enough, one of the main reasons we never included the color orange in our original prototype was due to the fact orange dice are harder to find for prototyping. It was not until Adrian and I thought about how we wanted the Masterworks dice to act as a ‘ying to the yang’ of rare dice, that we found a breakthrough. As rare glass dice ignore colors, we wanted the orange dice to ignore numbers.

This gave us a fun new problem; if dice are not about numbers, then what could they be about? In the end, we were proud to think about the Masterworks dice as arrows that function like mini puzzles within your window.

Luke: I can’t imagine that it was easy to figure out a way to clearly communicate that information to players.

Daryl: We did struggle with communicating the faces of the die early on. However, we got to work with Ben and the crazy talented Matt Paquette to find solutions that were intuitive. We tried a few different symbols along the way, but that is why it is important to playtest the user experience with final graphics, and not rush a game to print too soon.

Luke: Moving on, this expansion includes yet more Public Objectives, and they are so cool! How do you all manage to come up with more inventive ways of scoring?

Daryl: This is the benefit of Sagrada reaching success. The fans of the game have given the game enough life, that we can keep dreaming up more clever ideas.

Adrian and I can always think about public goal cards. We can be working on a completely different game, and out of nowhere, one of us might burst out with an idea for a new twist on the public goal cards. We are constantly challenging each other to try and think of Sagrada from a different angle or perspective.

Luke: Looking at the expansion as a whole, what do you feel Sagrada: Life brings to the table that none of the previous content does?

Daryl: We found during testing that people love the Apprentice cards. They give each game many different “highlight” moments that seem to get big positive reactions. I really enjoy watching how people respond to the Apprentice cards.

However, I personally adore the Masterworks dice. I love the puzzle within a puzzle, of trying to fit a directional problem within your board, while still trying to maximize your bigger meta puzzle. Also, I really like how players can gain favor tokens during the game, so it really changes how and when players use the tools.

Luke: That’s awesome to hear! Alright Daryl, before we wrap things up for today, what other content should fans of Sagrada be keeping an eye out for from Floodgate Games?

Daryl: The big news coming down the pipeline for Sagrada fans is the upcoming Sagrada Legacy game Adrian and I have been working on. We teased a picture or two of us playtesting on my Instagram. However, we got our hand slapped to not reveal anything juicy yet. We want to save the excitement for when the timing is right.

We have been working on this game for the last two years and we can’t wait for it to be ready for the world to experience. We are in our final stages of development and hopefully, more news will be coming soon. Meanwhile, just follow Floodgate, and consider supporting their other amazing games!

Luke: Wow, that’s incredibly exciting to hear! I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes peeled for more regarding that.

Daryl, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me today! And thanks for everyone who took the time to stop in. Let us know if there are any industry folks you’d like to hear from in the future. We’ll see ya’ll again next week!

Conspiracy: Abyss Universe – A Splash of Inspiration

  • Designers: Bruno Cathala and Charles Chevallier
  • Artist: Pascal Quidault
  • Publisher: Bombyx
  • Release Date: January 2020

Luke: Abyss was one of those games I loved for a long time. The aesthetic is fantastic, the game loop fairly compelling, and there a variety of ways to tackle the puzzle at hand.

Phil: It’s a game that you’ve introduced me to, and I’ve certainly dug what I’ve played of it.

Luke: Yet it’s a title that, over time, I realized I enjoyed for the social interactions and in-jokes I had with friends regarding the game than for the actual game itself. In many ways, Abyss has some hurdles that I couldn’t overcome in the long term, leading to its exodus from my collection.

Phil: Enter Conspiracy, a smaller, svelter, more streamlined iteration of the original released, what, 6 years after the original?

Luke: It caught my eye, especially with the variable covers and metal ton, so I knew we had to give it a go.

For those unfamiliar, Abyss games feature players fighting to be the best fish noble by gathering fish politicians to make fish laws. It sounds a bit goofy, but the dark aesthetic and devious tone sells a cutthroat vibe that makes for a fun and unique theme for the game.

Phil: What divides the original from Conspiracy is that the original had lots of extra stuff dolloped on top, some that worked and others that definitely didn’t. Here, a lot of the chaff has been removed to try and provide a purer experience.

Luke: Rather than a bidding game, Conspiracy focuses on the press-your-luck elements of its predecessor. On your turn, you may draw 1, 2, or 3 cards from the noble deck. Selecting one, you’ll place it in an inverse pyramid, shaping it in just the right way to earn points.

Phil: The catch? The nobles you don’t choose to keep are discarded to public pools organized by color. A player can choose, instead of drawing blindly, to just take all of the nobles from 1 of these public pools.

Luke: It’s a system that works well enough while reducing the amount of time the game takes to play, considering how long the bidding rounds could run at times.

Phil: Nobles are much more generic this time around, with each faction composed of a set number of 0’s, 1’s, 2’s, 3’s, 4’s, and 6’s in the deck. Every 1, regardless of its faction color, shares the same power, meaning you’ll become quickly acquainted with what nobles do what.

Luke: Some of these nobles carry keys; collecting a set of 2 of the same will provide a location, which works nearly identically as drafting nobles. Each location provides points or a 1-use power.

Phil: Ultimately, players will score based on their highest-valued noble of each color, their biggest grouping of the same colored nobles, their locations, and whoever gathered the most pearls on their noble cards by the end of the game.

Luke: At first glance, this seemed like a great replacement for the original to me. Taking away the swinginess of some of the noble powers in Abyss and a lot of the fluff the expansions tried to add shows how strong a system this game can be.

Phil: The problem, however, is how easy it is for someone to get a runaway lead.

Luke: The game ends when someone completes their 15 card inverse pyramid, which suggests that everyone would finish at the same time since everyone gets 1 card for turn on average. But you forget that, if people end up discarding a lot of nobles, someone’s going to have the opportunity to draw 3 or 4 cards of the same color in a single turn.

Phil: Couple that with how valuable it is to have a large area of the same color in your pyramid and you have a recipe for disaster. Most of the games I’ve played have ended with pretty lopsided scores and a player who has maybe half of their structure built.

Luke: And honestly, luck can play a much bigger factor in this game than in Abyss. Where before you had blueprints you were building towards and trying to fulfill, giving you the chance to play and play around your opponents, here you just have to hope you draw into cards that will help what you’re vaguely working towards.

Phil: The last game I played, my opponent had a bunch of yellow cards in their structure and, when drawing 3 cards to try to get something of value into my own, I drew into 2 yellows and a green. The green is what I needed for my structure and was actually worth points to me, but leaving those 2 yellows for my enemy would make them all the stronger. Essentially, my choices were to gain some points and give my opponent a ton of points or gain almost no points and break my color chain to try and slow down the opponent’s rapid ascent to victory.

Luke: And it’s not uncommon to feels as if you’re a part of an uphill battle here. It’s unfortunate, and a factor that makes this a game we can’t really recommend, but it’s just an overpowering element of how games play out that there’s no getting around it.

Verdict: Conspiracy shares a lot of the great qualities of the original, with a fun game loop, great art, and interesting choices. Yet the frequency in which luck of the draw dictates a victory well in advance of the game’s end makes this a hard game to recommend to anyone but die-hard fans of the original.

Marvel Champions Monday: A Fist of Options

Luke: We’ve seen it time and again, with She-Hulk, then Thor, and now Hulk. Characters with smaller hand sizes, across the board, have seen heavier scrutiny than any of the other characters in the game, generally speaking.

Phil: We’re not here to rail against that scrutiny; in fact, we think it’s a trend worth taking note of.

Luke: While it may be strange to some players that this can be such a sticking point, it’s clear that hand size is a wildly important element of how any hero plays, forming their play style and strategies. Those with fewer cards in hand are often faced with different issues and have to employ wily tactics to make up for the disadvantage.

Phil: Of course, there is one big boon when drawing fewer cards; you’re making your way through your deck more slowly, meaning you’re triggering fewer Encounter cards.

Luke: Sure, on the surface that can be helpful. One Encounter can make all the difference, depending on what it is. However, this can also lead to some sizable issues, namely in regards to building your engine. By drawing fewer cards, it may take longer for you to dig for that one card that you needed 5 turns ago, making some games particularly difficult, depending on how the deck has been shuffled.

Phil: That can certainly be a huge sticking point, leading to swingier games due to the luck of the draw than those that have more options in their hand on average.

Luke: Having more options provides more flexibility, which allows you, as a player, to be able to react to more on average. We’ve all had those games where She-Hulk drew 4 ally-related cards with no allies in play to use them with, and it can be infuriating to draw into a bum hand.

Phil: I know I almost smashed my deck when my Leadership Hulk drew nothing but resources.

Luke: That’s another thing; because a player’s hand size is smaller, they need more resources in their deck to pay for things more consistently. Yet by adding more resources, you are more likely to get those bum hands.

Phil: It’s a vicious cycle for sure, for some heroes more than others.

Luke: Of course, Hulk is the biggest offender of this. Not only does he have a tiny hand of options, but when he has cards that can’t be used, they’re thrown away, regardless of how useful they might be in a turn or two.

Phil: Because of this need to limit the price of many of the cards in your deck, these heroes often need decks that have a low-cost barrier and a bit of versatility in how their deck works.

Luke: This often pressures these characters into the Leadership Aspect, which has low-cost allies that can make up for what the hero can’t do in a given turn.

Phil: Yes, other players can make up for your hero’s deficiencies, but being able to do something of value every turn is too important, often necessitating a flexible design, which allies inherently provide.

Luke: And with more and more tools that keep allies in play for longer, it can seem like the most straightforward option.

Phil: That’s not to say that these heroes can’t be successful in other Aspects, but it’s rare that these heroes can survive as Protection heroes. The fewer cards you can draw, the less likely you can pay for cards during the villain phase and have enough to pay for cards during the hero phase as well. Protection also forces the hero to stay in their hero form for longer, drawing fewer cards for longer stretches of time.

Luke: In many ways, hand size can become a barrier to entry for certain play styles, and while that’s all fine and well, it can make them feel less interesting to design decks around. To me, designing a deck is only as fun as the number of ways you can build an effective deck. If I have a character that can be played in 6 or 8 different ways, it’s fun to figure out the particular way that suits me. It feels individualized, like I have ownership over that version of the character.

Phil: But if a character has to be built in a particular manner to do well, that can feel deflating, like you’re just copying off of someone else’s notes during a test.

Luke: A feeling that I’ve gotten a lot when tooling around with Hulk.

Phil: Say what you will about hand size and the characters that have a lower card draw, but it’s an element that affects how effective a hero can be. It can encourage a certain playstyle, which can be fine, but it can also pressure players to do certain things with that hero too regularly, resulting in boring and repetitive iterations.

Luke: We’re sure to be revisiting this topic when we tackle the green goliath next week. But until then, play more Champs, and we’ll see ya’ll next time!

Luke’s Unmatched Designer Diaries: What Was Lost is Found

Welcome back to Designer Diaries! Last time, we took a look at my design for Captain Hook, and a design that ultimately encouraged me to consider one for Peter Pan. It’s weird to consider; there’s only going to be 1 character from each public domain property usually, so why design both Peter and Hook? Well, I also know that 1 of my submissions will make it through. So as long as a Peter Pan-based character is already in the works, I should be in the clear to get one of these designs off the ground. And even beyond that, designs can be re-themed if need be.

So, Peter Pan; what makes him special or unique? Going into this, I had the idea of making him a cross between Robin Hood and Dracula. He has a team of miscreants at his disposal, will likely be more of a guerrilla fighter, will have a lower health total, and needs to be crafty about how he moves about the battlefield. So, in that vein, I drafted potential abilities based on those inspirations.

The first of these played into Peter’s trickster nature; if Peter started his turn adjacent to an opposing fighter, the opponent would discard a card (basically the inverse of Dracula). This seemed neat in theory, but in practice, much like Drac, the ability rarely procs, and when it does, it doesn’t feel the best. I quite enjoy playing Drac, but his ability is one of my least favorite in the game as a whole, despite it being highly thematic. It’s just incredibly situational and can leave a bad taste in the controlling player’s mouth.

At this point I had a whole deck built for Pan, set around his narrative more so than his ability. So when I pivoted to a design that lent itself more towards movement, I found that the deck worked perfectly alongside it. Suddenly, the pieces clicked together and it seemed like a satisfying cat-and-mouse engine had been created.

This second ability stated that, at the start of Pan’s turn, if he shares a zone with an opposing fighter and isn’t adjacent to any opposing fighters, he can move to any space adjacent to said fighter. In other words, if you’re in the same zone as Pan, he can leap behind you and catch you by surprise, the inverse of Robin Hood and his merry men running away after they fight. This feels in line with the sneaky elements of the character and keeps opponent’s on their toes regularly, pressuring them to keep a distance from Peter or to get up close and personal. Some heroes can also use their sidekicks to essentially cancel Pan’s ability for the turn, sacrificing a resource to try and run away. To me and those I’ve playtested with, it feels very fitting and makes for a tense match-up depending on the opponent.

Of the common cards, I selected Ambush, Snark, and Regroup for Peter. Snark may seem odd for a melee character, sure, but it’s thematically appropriate for the character, and the character design benefits from the light card draw without giving him too many options to do so.

But I know what some of you are thinking; no Feint? That’s by and large due to a card I knew I wanted to include; Just My Shadow. Acting like a cross between Bewilderment and Highway Robbery, this Defense 0 card cancels the opponent’s card in full, then teleports Peter to any empty space on the board. There’s only 2 in the deck, of course, but it felt fitting for the hero as a tool in his arsenal.

Peter has access to 2 schemes in his deck, the first of which I’m rather proud of. Skilled Mimic looks at the top card of the opponent’s discard pile and provides an effect depending on the type of card showing (Attack, Defense, Versatile, or Scheme). Pixie Dust, on the other hand, allows Peter and his Lost Boys to move up to 4 spaces through opponents before gaining an action (their normal move is 2).

A theme that I wanted to try and convey with this design was how disposable the Lost Boys are to Peter. In the text, he’s shown to give little regard for Lost Boys “dying,” assuming they’ll get back up and keep playing with him soon enough. So, there are 2 cards in the deck that capitalize on this. The first, the only Lost Boy-specific card, is An Awfully Big Adventure. As the quote suggests, the ability triggers if the Lost Boy dies while defending with this card, allowing the player to draw 2 cards. While it may seem odd to give the sidekick 2 copies of a Defense card as their only unique card, there are enough Anys in the deck to make them a nuisance, and the card itself provides an interesting choice.

The other card that capitalizes on Lost Boy sacrifices is Selfish Strike, allowing Peter to sacrifice Lost Boys adjacent to the opposing fighter to add +1’s to the card. I have a feeling it should be in the same zone rather than adjacent (if Drac’s cards have taught me anything), so I’ll have to edit that next chance I have.

Peter’s big hits are The First and the Best and It’s Hook or Me This Time! The former plays off of his ability, a 3 attack that becomes a 5 if this is his first action of the turn. The latter, however, is a doosy. A 4 Versatile, Peter can discard any number of cards from his hand. In response, the opponent may do the same. For each card that Peter’s player discards that the opponent does not, the card’s value is increased by +2. This can lead to some big plays, especially if the opponent is playing recklessly, but it can just as easily be a card the opponent Feints if they’re watching each player’s hand size.

While there are a few more cards here, including the card that revives all defeated Lost Boys, I think that pretty well illustrates the ideas and intent of this design. Ultimately, I do believe that, after some more playtesting, Peter and Hook will be the characters I submit, but we’ll see. And what does that mean for future entries into this series? I’m not sure. My significant other is considering submitting some designs of her own, so I may have her write on her experiences here if she’s up for it.

But for now, thank you all for reading as always, and I look forward to seeing you on the Unmatched battlefield!

Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion – New to the Adventuring Party

  • Designer: Isaac Childres
  • Artists: Francesca Baerald, Cat Bock, David Bock, David Demaret, Alexandr Elichev, Jason Kingsley, and Josh McDowell
  • Publisher: Cephalofair Games
  • Release Date: July 2020

Luke: Gloomhaven has always been one of those gigantic, daunting games that have taunted me from afar. A game whose box size has only been usurped in size by its reputation in the gaming community. I love board games big and small, but something about this one has always proved to be overwhelming in concept alone.

Phil: I’ve played through a good portion of the initial box, and while I’ve enjoyed what I have played, there were enough issues with it that have caused my group to take an indefinite hiatus from it.

Luke: Enter Jaws of the Lion, a beginner-friendly set designed to give you a taste of the overall experience. With “only” 25 scenarios and 4 characters to try out, this promises to be a much more manageable set to dip your toes into.

Phil: And in no small part is this assisted by the scenario book. A spiral-bound series of maps, this makes set up for each scenario infinitely easier, so much so that Cephalofair Games has added similar books as add-on purchases for Gloomhaven and Frosthaven.

Luke: From what I’ve seen, I’m glad I’ve never had to wrestle with the terrain tiles, as one of my biggest obstacles to actually playing a game is the amount of time it takes for me to set up.

Phil: For those unfamiliar, a brief summary. The Gloomhaven system is essentially a collection of D&D style combat dungeons. Each player controls a character in an atypical fantasy world who is making their way through a series of enemies and traps to try and accomplish a goal. Often, players will need to kill all enemies, a certain enemy, survive a certain number of turns or make it to a specific space of the map.

Luke: Each turn, players will choose 2 cards from their hands to play. One will be used for the top ability, which will usually dictate an attack or some form of aggressive action, whereas the bottom will often allow a character to move, heal, or do a defensive action. Once those cards are played, they are discarded. Eventually, your hand is refreshed, but one card will be permanently removed, limiting your options and time.

Phil: Players can trigger traps, which can cause damage and status ailments, as well as find treasure, which includes gold and useful items that can be used in battle. Those pieces of equipment you can’t find in battle you can purchase from a shop in-between sessions.

Luke: You’ll also experience random encounters that allow players to experience some of the world outside of battles, giving you two ways to approach a given scenario. Players will get goodies or a punishment depending on their choices.

Phil: Much of what was in the original have been preserved for this release, as many of the improvements have been preserved for Frosthaven. Some stuff is new here, like debris, an element added for the sake of one of the characters and their card effects.

Luke: This can make it hard to transfer these characters to other iterations of the game, although some folks online have found ways to do just that. Each fills a particular archetype (bruiser, cleric, warrior, and ranger) and can be used in any combination, although which set you choose can be integral to your success.

Phil: While this isn’t such a big deal in 4-player games, at 2, the game becomes a bit harder, and certain types of heroes (the clerics) become less useful with fewer allies to assist.

Luke: Characters will gain XP and level up over time, getting access to new cards to add to their hands, as well as some super-secret items that are tucked away in boxes for the players to reveal. They’re cute additions that attempt to make your characters feel unique, though I didn’t find ours to be especially exciting.

Phil: That’s kind of the vibe I got from this release as a whole. The story is well written, better written than any other board game I’ve experienced, with personality and little details that can draw you in. But due to the nature and pacing of the game, the story becomes somewhat meaningless, reasons to string together the various events. Depending on the “choices” you make (open Door A or Door B), you won’t experience some of the scenarios, but these rarely have any narrative rational or purpose beyond some slight replayability.

Luke: The combat itself is neat and investing at first, with the system opening up and allowing you to discover different combos and interesting ways to play your characters. That is, until 5 or 6 games in when 2 pretty distracting things start to happen.

Phil: First, you’ll find yourself bringing the same cards to nearly every fight. Some cards may be better suited to particular obstacles or enemies, but most of the time, you’ll see the same cards over and over again.

Luke: And second, the difficulty of the game ramps up and slaps you across the face. We’ve played a scenario 3 or 4 times and not won, which just forces you to keep grinding and throwing yourself against the wall until the next door is opened. You’ll keep what XP and gold you collect that fight, but leveling up often feels like more of a boon for the baddies than it is for the heroes due to how the system works.

Phil: This leads to scenarios feeling arbitrarily more difficult while your character has 1 new card to play with that you can use a handful of times each session.

Luke: And this incessant repetition and need to revisit scenarios over and over again is what killed the game for me. Yes, you can adjust the game to be easier, but even then you’ll find yourself getting some terrible luck and needing to repeat scenarios, and when the game feels so repetitive, that can be a frustrating thing to have to do.

Phil: Yeah, this release didn’t really solve any of the issues I had with the original, and frankly, the Steam iteration seems more and more appealing every day. Having a computer arrange the maps, track the info, and just allow you to play the game quickly and easily? That feels pretty ideal.

Luke: I’d definitely be interested in checking it out, as the physical medium just feels like an awkward way of implementing this sometimes overly complicated system.

Verdict: Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion is a great way to show you whether or not this game series is for you. While the ideas, play loop, and overall design are smart and involved, the difficulty spikes and generally repetitive nature made us check out well before the campaign had concluded.

Marvel Champions Monday: Who Wants a Piece of Me?

Phil: With the release of Rise of Red Skull fast approaching, we’ve had the opportunity to check out one of the cards coming in the set and share it with all of you!

Luke: If you haven’t been checking out the various spoilers content creators have been revealing, be sure to follow along this schedule so you can see all the teasers before the box launches.

Phil: So, what card did we end up with?

Luke: Well, considering how we’ve debated the usefulness of certain allies in the past, it only makes sense that we have the opportunity to dive into the details of Spider-Girl!

Phil: So, let’s break this down. Another 2-cost ally? Nice.

Luke: Very nice. Having them come into play to take some damage is incredibly helpful.

Phil: Stats? Pretty solid. 2-health is to be expected, but that 2 ATK is a nice boost.

Luke: Makes sense for being an Aggression ally.

Phil: The resource? She’ll be good with Captain Marvel and Thor decks, both characters that lean towards Aggression.

Luke: And that ability?

Phil: Spicy. Basically jamming up a minion in play can be a pretty big deal, possibly for 2 turns if you play it right. Spider-Girl will be a beast against some Mutagen Formula minions for sure.

Luke: It makes sense that the protege of Spider-Woman would hand out some status cards like candy.

Phil: She’ll also be a very useful tool against some Modular Sets. MODOK and Madam Hydra should be a bit more bearable with Anya’s assistance.

Luke: Not to mention Nemesis minions. Let’s just shut Loki down for a few turns and not worry about him.

Phil: The biggest caveat here is that she has to be played from hand in order to get the effect, meaning those Leadership cards we know of won’t help get her benefit.

Luke: Leadership? But she’s Aggression…

Phil: Yes, but Make the Call can pull from your friend’s discard piles, not just your own. Plus, Spider-Woman could have both Leadership and Aggression cards in the same deck.

Luke: Ah, good point. So she may not be as versatile in regards to using the multiple Aspects, but she does have the Avengers tag, making her add some more fuel onto the potential Spider-Woman tribal Avengers fire.

Phil: Her and Hulk make for some strong 2-cost Avengers allies, so I can definitely see that very powerful synergy forming.

Luke: The other thing likely worth noting, since it was released so recently, is that Anya will get her ability halved by the worst of the minions.

Phil: Ronan

Luke: Since he can’t be stunned, he’ll be slightly more resistant to the effect, though the Confused would still be put in play.

Phil: All-in-all, Aggression has needed another low-cost ally, and Spider-Girl is a fantastic option for just that. Her effect is useful, if situational, her stats are nice, and she can make for a good unit to chum if need be. Definitely a fantastic addition to the Aggression line-up.

Luke: But what do you folks think? Is this an obvious addition to your future Aggression decks? Let us know your thoughts down below, and we’ll see you next week!