Designers: Martino Chiacchiera, Hjalmar Hach, Pierluca Zizzi
Artist: Xavier Durin
Publisher: Horrible Guild
Release Date: December 12th, 2019
Disclaimer: This game was provided to us by Luma Games for review.
Phil: So… why Similo?
Phil: You were the one who was interested in checking this one out.
Luke: Well sure; the art looks great, the premise is simple, and it takes elements of Mysterium and Codenames and puts them in a small package.
Phil: The art is great. I particularly like the expressions on the characters’ faces. It gives them more of a personality and makes them endearing.
Luke: The backgrounds are my favorite, like backdrops in a play, coloring the mood and atmosphere of the source material.
Phil: So, yeah, the art’s great, blah blah blah, but what about the gameplay?
Luke: In Similo, much like Codenames, there’s a clue-giver and there’s a guesser. The cluegiver is given a random face out of a crowd of 12 that they have to make the guesser… well, guess. Each round, the cluegiver plays a character card either up-and-down or sideways. Up-and-down means the goal card is similar to the one just played, whereas sideways means that the goal card is different.
Then, the guesser must eliminate a number of cards from the line-up depending on the round; in the first round 1, then 2, then 3, then 4, and finally 1, as there will only be 2 cards remaining. If at any point the goal card is eliminated, the game ends in failure. But if the goal card is successfully saved for the end, everyone wins!
Phil: … That’s it?
Luke: Not quite. The wrinkle here is that different themed decks can be combined to play a game. For example, players could use the Historical Figures deck for the 12 character grid and the Fables deck to provide the clues.
Phil: So it’s cooperative Guess Who?.
Luke: No, no, it’s… it’s…
Phil: One player is giving information about a secret face that needs to be deduced over a certain number of rounds.
Luke: … $#!*, you’re right.
Phil: If anything, the biggest difference is there are fewer instances for your relatives to use outdated and problematic stereotypes as clues.
Luke: Now that you mention it, I have noticed that some of the same clue-types are used across multiple games. Gender is a popular determining factor for a lot of gaming groups, I find, as well as heroes/villains.
Phil: In many ways, our brains are hardwired to search for those kinds of correlations, so it makes sense. If anything, I’d be concerned about the ever-present “meta clues” that would crop up in Dixit or Mysterium, ie clues that became permanent over time, requiring a more diverse set of cards to refresh the experience.
Luke: And luckily, that is a thing that we’ll see here, as more decks are being made, such as the upcoming Myths deck.
Phil: Which is great, considering Historical Figures doesn’t work great to give clues for Puss-In-Boots or the Sea Witch.
Luke: Yeah, I definitely agree that it was an odd choice to release these 2 decks at the same time, seeing as the general relationship to one another is stretched thin. It feels like this game is aimed at more casual audiences, possibly families, so having leaders from across history seems like a hard ask for kids to recognize or easily remember.
Phil: There are brief synopses on the cards if you’re in the dark as to who someone is, but these are only marginally helpful.
Verdict: I think for family gatherings or getting kids interested in the hobby, this is a great and more accessible intro thanks to the amazing art and cooperative gameplay, plus it’s small, making it easy to travel with. Older audiences will likely tire of it after 6 or 8 plays, but if enough decks are released, we could see this having the scope and size of Timelines one day, giving it a versatility that will appeal to a wider audience.
Designers: Michael Boggs, Nate French, and Caleb Grace
Artists: Various (Uncredited on BGG)
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Release Date: November 1st, 2019
Phil: Just get it out of the way.
Luke: But I’m gonna come across as pretentious or something.
Phil: Yeah, that’s why you should just say it now so we can all move along with our lives.
Luke: *sigh* So, I’m a big Marvel nerd. No, not the “I watch all the movies” kind, more like “I not only read comics but try to keep up to date with the lore and ideas within the mythos even when I have no interest in reading certain series” kind. You know, occasionally insufferable kind.
Luke: While I found the films exciting at first, a lot of the creativity and life that once fueled them now resides at the bottom of Disney’s immense coffers, too risky to be introduced into the wildly popular film dynasty they’ve built for themselves.
Phil: In other words, they’re people pleasers.
Luke: Am I not people, Phil?
Phil: Not the people who Disney sells to.
Luke: Darn right.
Phil: But what does your weirdly and somewhat specific background in Marvel have anything to do with this?
Luke: Well, from the off-set, I was pretty skeptical of Marvel Champions, mostly because it’s visually sloppy. Various art styles and designs are mashed together for convenience, making even the good art assets stand out awkwardly, and the icons used are poorly conceived and executed. Frankly, it was a hard pill to swallow.
Phil: And yet, you decided to take your medicine.
Luke: That I did. I could barely believe it when I heard that this was a reimplementation of the Arkham Horror LCG, a game that I enjoyed more in concept than execution.
Phil: Isn’t that the #1 beloved solo board game of all time on BGG? Dude, you could get banished from the 1-Player Guild for saying stuff like that.
Luke: Perhaps, but I stand by it. Arkham Horror, being a game of spooky frights, is full of uncertainty and tall tales, which in gamers’ terms translates to some significant random chance and long-winding narrative, which are elements I don’t care for much in my games.
Phil: Random chance needs to exist in just about any board game.
Luke: Absolutely, but the degree of luck at play in a number of the Arkham scenarios I’ve played was significant enough to make me feel out of control, which, to be fair, lends itself well to the theme, but didn’t make for a fun experience. Luckily, the differences are significant enough to make each experience wholly unique, even if they do utilize similar formats and mechanics.
Phil: So… how much did you pay for your copy of Marvel Champions?
Luke: Don’t look at me like that.
Phil: Say it.
Luke: You say it.
Phil: $60!!! For a bunch of cards and tokens.
Luke: I knooooooow.
Phil: And they don’t even include dividers in the box!!!
Luke: I knooooooooooooow.
Phil: It’s like highway robbery.
Luke: I knoooooooooooooooooooow, but at least this time around you don’t need to buy multiple sets of the base game to get enough copies of each card.
Phil: That’s not a defense, that’ an indictment of the garbage policies these LCGs have had up until this point.
Luke: Okay, it’s a bit pricey for what it is, absolutely, but for my money, this is one of the best games I’ve played all year.
Phil: … Alright, I’m listening.
Luke: Each game focuses on defeating a pre-selected villain before they can rub their hands maniacally for long enough to get away with whatever evil plot they’re up to.
Each of the 5 heroes has somewhere between 15 and 20 unique cards that must be included in their deck. Otherwise, you may add cards from 1 of the 4 types (aggression, leadership, justice, and protection) and neutral cards until your deck is composed of between 40 and 50 cards.
Some folks might be bothered by how limited this may seem, but it leaves each character maintaining its own flavor while allowing for interesting combinations when exploring your options. Deckbuilding is thoughtful but much quicker than in games like the Lord of the Rings LCG, letting you get to the game sooner while also feeling accomplished with the thing you cobbled together.
Each game, your hero will start on their civilian side and-
Luke: Yeah, this is easily the coolest mechanic in the game. Each hero has two forms that they can switch between during a game, each providing different abilities, actions, and hand sizes. Additionally, villains will only attack you according to which form you’re in during the villain phase, meaning that how you end your turn will have a huge effect on how the villain reacts to you.
Luke: It gets better. Certain cards can only be used or activated when you are one version of a hero or another, meaning that, since you can only flip your hero once per turn, you’ll have to think of a clever pattern of how to play your cards in order to ensure you get the most bang for your buck.
For instance, Peter Parker gives their hero a free mental resource to use once per turn, but many of his cards can only be used as a hero, so you have to think about what cards to include in your deck or play before becoming Spidey in order to maximize the use of his powers.
Phil: Resource costs? How many are there, and does that mean you need to include the equivalent of mana cards to your deck?
Luke: There are 3 types of resources (mental, physical, and energy) as well as wilds, and here’s the other kind of spicy choice you’ll be making each turn; every card can be discarded for the energy it provides to pay for another card. That means that you’re always pressured to toss powerful cards to get other effects to trigger or to build a hand of cards in hopes of pulling into the right cards to pay for the absurdly expensive Avengers Mansion or Nick Fury and reap the benefits. It’s a smart way of getting around an issue a lot of CCGs and LCGs have faced in the past while also forcing the player to make hard decisions each turn, keeping the game fresh and tense.
Phil: So, walk me through a turn.
Luke: At the start of each turn, you’ll have a fresh hand of 6 cards or less (depending on which side your hero is starting their turn on), and you’ll be able to take as many actions as you’d like in any order. Actions include:
Playing a card by paying its cost.
Flipping your hero to their other form (once per turn).
Using your hero for a basic effect (attacking, thwarting, or recovering).
Using an ally card to attack or thwart.
Triggering a card in your play area.
Assuming you are playing with someone else, you can also play cards into their play area or use cards they have out in play with their permission, making for some neat teamwork that is rare to see in these sorts of games.
Once each player has had a full turn to complete all their actions, the villain has their opportunity to wreak havoc. First, they’ll put threat on their main scheme, the ticking time bomb that will end the game if you’re not careful. Then, they’ll attack each hero in their costumed form and scheme against each hero in their civilian form. Finally, each player gets a card off the top of the deck, giving negative effects such as bringing out minions to fight, more plots to foil, or even activate special negative effects specific to your character.
This loop will continue until either all heroes are dead, the villain’s final plot succeeds, or the heroes are able to take down both forms of the villain, winning the game!
Phil: You know, for as much information as there is to take in, that seems fairly straightforward overall.
Luke: Once you’ve played through a turn or two, it’s like second nature, and you’ll find yourself wanting to play again and again, trying out all the different villain and henchman combinations, seeing how they fair at higher difficulties, and experimenting with the hero decks.
Phil: And it plays well?
Luke: Beyond well. 2-player is neat due to the aforementioned ability to give your teammate useful things and borrow their effects so players always have something to do, but 1-player is where I find this title really sings. With multiple heroes, you can kind of buff out each other’s flaws, and while enemies scale to player count, it can feel a bit easier with more folks. 1-player gives you a challenge worth pursuing, and with so many different challenges to try and how cards will trigger in wildly different ways each game, the same villain can feel just as fresh as your first playthrough.
Phil: Luke… don’t tell me this is one of your favorite games?
Luke: Let’s not get too hasty. It’s certainly one of the best 1-player games I’ve played in a very long time, and a fantastic 2-player game as well, but we’ll have to wait and see how good it is until more content is released for it. As much as this is a complete package, the deck-building could use a bigger card pool and more variability of heroes and villains is never a bad thing.
Phil: Anything else that rubs you the wrong way?
Luke: Due to the number of small rules at work, I’m still finding little things here and there that I’ve realized I’ve been screwing up, which speaks to the volume of stuff that can be found on individual cards. Certain enemy symbols are hard to remember and track, it can be easy to forget steps of your upkeep in the process of composing your extravagant, Beautiful Mind– level plan, and tokens can inadvertently cover key text that you needed to recall.
Phil: Okay, well this article already feels like a marathon, so why don’t you sum things up.
Luke: Marvel Champions is expensive for what it is, with FFG making off with a king’s ransom due to the popularity of the product they’re making, but for the thoughtful, intense, nuanced system at play, it’s definitely worth investing your time and cash into this. Come January, 3 new expansions are going to be released to give the game a new breath of life and will allow you to customize your game to your liking. With any luck, we’ll be covering that content down the road, but for now, this is a must-have for me and will be staying in my collection.
Phil: Okay Luke, what the heck is this game and why does it sound like I have something unmentionable stuck to my ceremonial gong.
Luke: Strap in, bud, because while Gugong works hard to disguise itself as a dry euro, this game of worker-placement makes a statement about some of the creative decisions that can make even the most tired of mechanics feel refreshing.
Phil: I’m listening.
Luke: In Gugong, players are trying to impress the Emperor by getting all his chores done through the use of ol’ fashioned government corruption.
Phil: Soooooooo the same as nearly every Chinese-themed game ever.
Luke: Basically. There is some historical context provided, but in my experience, it doesn’t resonate with the gameplay enough to be worth bringing up.
Phil: So then why did you bring it up exactly?
Luke: It’s at least worth noting that there’s a reason for the aesthetics and ideas at play, and the mechanics, in theory, match up well enough with the actions being done, it just isn’t something that players will be overly aware of as they participate in the head-splitting puzzles at hand.
Phil: Puzzles, you say? Now you have my attention.
Luke: I thought I might, but first! Let’s talk about how players win. After 4 rounds, players will check and see whether or not they have impressed the Emperor thoroughly enough to be declared… the rulebook doesn’t make it clear, but you win, and that’s what matters, right? You’ll score points based on different thresholds you meet over the course of the game, any end-game goals you bought in to, how quickly you ran up the steps for your lunch date with the Emperor, and how many of these delicious olives you brought him to snack on.
Phil: … Those are pieces of jade.
Luke: Oh yeah? Then why do they taste so good?
Phil: Probably because you seasoned them first.
Luke: Like any good chef should.
Phil: Enough of this faffing about, get to the game already!
Luke: At the start of the game, players will receive a set of pre-selected cards, depending on the player order, and a set of cards will be randomly distributed to the 7 action spaces on the board. These cards are essentially your workers that you’ll be sending all over the kingdom to get down to business, BUT you’ll need to send them with the right bribes for the job.
Phil: So, what, you need certain item cards to do certain actions?
Luke: Not exactly; each card has a number value which represents its persuasiveness. In order to take an action, you need to swap the card that’s currently on that space for a card that is valued higher. The harder the card is to place, such as a 2 or 3, the more likely it will give you bonus actions for using it.
Phil: But what about a 1? Surely you can’t use those anywhere.
Luke: Actually, 1’s are the only thing that can dethrone the mighty 9’s, making them a fairly powerful tool given the right timing and planning.
Phil: Ah, interesting. But surely players will find themselves in a pickle where none of their cards can legally be placed anywhere.
Luke: Sure, that can happen, but if you’re planning for it, you can slip your way around this. You may always spend two servants (the primary currency of the game) or discard a 2nd card to your personal discard pile in order to use any action, regardless of what card is currently present there.
Phil: Okay, so you have some flexibility there… but why a personal discard pile?
Luke: Whenever you take an action, you place the card that was previously in that location in your personal discard pile, which will become your hand of cards next round. So not only are you planning out your actions for this turn but what actions you will potentially have access to next round.
Phil: Oh jee-
Luke: Oh, that’s not all. At the start of each round, 3 dice are rolled, showing a random assortment of numbers. If you have any of those numbers present in your discard pile at the end of the round, you’ll get extra servants for the next round, and if you have the most cards that match these numbers, you’ll get bonus points and progress on one of the main actions of the game.
Phil: That… that’s a lot.
Luke: It is, and we haven’t even gotten to the 7 actions you can take in the game.
Phil: Sounds like somebody’s slacking.
Luke: Well hold on, there’s still one more thing to cover. Most actions have both a standard version, which costs you nothing extra to use and a premium version, which costs 1 or 2 servants to get a little something extra out of it. Servants are a pretty scant resource, to using these to your advantage will differentiate a good player from a truly efficient government employee.
Phil: Okay, I think I get the idea.
Luke: Good, because the 1st of the 7 actions we’ll be covering is the Palace of Heavenly Purity, and we don’t want to be late. If you don’t get your player piece to the top of this track by the end of the game, you automatically lose, meaning that even though all you’re doing is moving a pawn forward 8 times over the course of the game, it can be one of the tensest elements at play.
Next, let’s talk about Travelling. Everyone likes a good horse ride, but where you’re going can make all the difference. Each space along the Travel track holds different bonus tokens that will give you extra resources or buffs that will help you out on the various other tracks. Additionally, spent tokens can be spent again for bonus resources, assuming you collect enough of them.
By itself, the Intrigue track does very little for you; if you’re the first one to take the standard action in a round, you’ll get the 1st player marker, and if you’re higher on the track than any other players, you win ties against them.
This is where the Great Wall comes in. Players will add their servants to the wall like fleshy bricks waiting to support your lofty goals until the track fills up. Whoever has sacrificed the most servants will earn 3 points and move up a space on the Palace of Heavenly Purity track before removing their tokens. Then, as long as you have a token on the wall, including the winning player, each player can spend their Intrigue to get extra servants, jade, or even change the die-faces that will score at the end of the round to different numbers.
Speaking of jade, players can always head down to the jade shop to buy some of those delicious green gems. The earlier you go, the better the deal you get, so grab ‘em while they’re still cheap!
At the Grand Canal, servants will be sent down the river to do menial tasks for you, but you’ll need to take the time to fill your boat to capacity (3 servants) before reaping any rewards. Players can get extra points, extra actions, or a double-servant token, but it’ll take a significant amount of time and actions, which will make you question whether or not it was worth it.
Finally, Decrees will either provide you with extra buffs over the course of the game or end-game goals to reach for. Like the jade shop, the first player to buy into a decree will get it cheap whereas others will have to pay extra for the benefit.
Phil: Sounds like a lot.
Luke: It is, especially considering you’re balancing your cards you have to play this round, what cards you’ll have next round, how many servants you have to spend, and what actions you need to take if you have a chance in hell at winning, placing this squarely in the medium-to-heavy-weight range of games. While some players will have no trouble picking this up, others will be frozen by the sheer volume of knowledge needed to play.
Phil: But the question is, is it worth it?
Luke: Well, from a 2-player perspective, this game can actually be a ton of fun. The more players you add to a game like this, the more waiting, random variables, waiting, analysis paralysis, and… look, I just don’t like waiting for my next turn, okay? But with only 2 players, turns are snappy, and you can get in a rhythm where you and your opponent are placing cards one after the other, boom, Boom, BOOM, until suddenly someone takes your play, and there’s a moment of, “GAH, WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?!?” before you quietly ponder for a few minutes before getting back into that same beat.
And for advanced players, you can start keeping track of what cards your opponent is taking so next round you know what numbers they have and can start planning around what actions they could feasibly do, making for an intense head-to-head competition.
Phil: Damn, sounds like a great time.
Luke: It is, for the first few plays anyway. One of the core issues I have with Gugong is that certain actions feel almost mandatory to do each game, even when they’re not. Obviously the Palace of Heavenly Purity is required, but getting a bunch of jade, getting at least 1 end-game Decree, getting the right cards for the end round scoring, and getting an extra action card from the Great Canal feels almost mandatory, and while I’ve seen people win using their hand of 4 cards, that’s usually because they spent their resources on extra decrees or jade. While the card placements for the start of the game are different, the things you do in the game rarely change drastically, making for little variability game to game beyond what bonus tokens come out on the Travel track.
Phil: But how important is variability really?
Luke: If you play this once or twice a year, not that important, but for me, who tries to play each game in his collection once a month, this lack of variety leaves me wanting something more with each game I play. Not only that, but this is certainly a game that benefits the most experienced player. The more you play, the more clearly you know exactly what to do in a given circumstance.
Phil: But isn’t that any game?
Luke: Sure, but in a heavier euro like this, where you can see that you’ve lost an hour and a half in advance, that becomes a much bigger issue than if I’m doing poorly in a quick game of Rolling America or Queendomino.
Phil: Fair point. But how does the solo mode pan out?
Luke: Pretty poorly, unfortunately. While the game for the player is basically the same, figuring out what the AI will do each turn can be a bit of a chore, and you’ll likely have to glance through the rulebook 4 or 5 times per game just to clarify some finer points. The AI is no push-over, which is nice, but it almost feels unfair, with the opponent often getting scores above any I’ve seen a human player get. You can try to play around its moves, but its actions are dictated by a sizable deck that resets midway through the game, making it rather hard to predict what it could possibly do.
Phil: So I guess this one’s a bust, huh?
Luke: Not necessarily. While I can’t say I’ve enjoyed the solo mode, Gugong as a 2-player experience is a blast if you have the right person to face off with. It creates an almost chess-like feeling of outmaneuvering your opponent for the right card or blocking an action space with a high-value card just in the nick of time, and the complexity is eased by the smaller number of players sitting around the time. I’d say if you pulled this title out once every 4 months or so, this would make a great addition to your collection of 2-player titles.