Weekly PnP: Seasons of Rice

  • Designer: Corry Damey
  • Artists: Jerome Damey and Corry Damey
  • Publisher: Button Shy Games
  • Where to Find It: PnP Arcade

Luke: Seasons of Rice is a game that, artistically, I had admired from afar for a year or so. Whenever I saw the brilliant greens of the paddies, I couldn’t help but wonder what could be contained in those 18 cards, each with a gorgeous depiction of one of the town’s inhabitants.

Phil: It’s hard to overstate just how great this game looks in its simplicity.

Luke: And while the game piqued my interest, this is a title that passed me by amidst the hustle and bustle of our day-to-day lives.

Phil: I know that feeling all too well, dude.

Luke: Well, no longer! After having the opportunity to sit down with this little title and not wanting to stop after multiple games, I knew Seasons of Rice was a game we needed to share in some capacity.

Phil: I’m honestly surprised it’s not one of the Button Shy titles that I hear about more often.

Luke: Seasons of Rice is a 2-player title that looks to pit players against one another in making the most profitable paddy farm. Each player will start the game by choosing a farmer to play as, providing a special ability that will shape how they grow their patch of heaven.

Phil: And with 18 different abilities available from the get-go, there’s a lot of replayability in that element alone.

Luke: The game is played in 2 unique drafting phases. In the first, players will draft 2 cards from their hand of 8. One is placed in their paddy while the other will be discarded to the river.

Phil: We’ll get back to that in a little bit.

Luke: You’ll want to build your farm carefully, lining up the dividing paths to allow for fully outlined sections. Each of these will score points based on its size, as well as the number of rice pickers, houses, and oxen contained within.

Phil: It can be easy to leave yourself a little gap here and there, preventing you from finishing certain patches of your farm, which can be rather detrimental.

Luke: After the first draft, players will then draft those cards everyone discarded to the river, starting with the player who has the least points. This continues until everything is drafted, at which point final scores are tallied and a winner is declared.

Phil: There’s plenty of interesting choices to be made here, not just in terms of what to keep or hate-draft. What cards go to the river can make a huge impact on how you’ll approach a match, especially when considering if you’ll be the 1st or 2nd player to draft that round.

Luke: And as we mentioned above, the abilities encourage players to try a bunch of weird and unique ways to tackle the puzzle, prioritizing a specific size of clearing or the types of elements you include in your layout.

Phil: Many of these encourage more player interaction as well, making this already tension-filled game that much more.

Luke: That being said, some abilities that come up are just better than others, but these seem to be a rarity, as most cards will only be as good as you are at the game.

Phil: And let me tell you, Luke is bad at this game.

Luke: … I have yet to win. And yet, I can’t stop myself from playing, a definite sign of a winner in my book.

Phil: This is a game I see myself revisiting time and again, especially once I get my hands on the mini-expansions.

Luke: While I’m unfamiliar with what they add, I’d be curious to see what more is added to this already svelt system.

Verdict: Seasons of Rice is a phenomenal 2-player drafting game that provides the rewarding sensation of building something and the tension of having to work around your opponent’s whims. This is a Button Shy title that deserves much more attention, so please take the time to check it out if you haven’t already.

Mini Rogue: A Dungeon Delving Delight

  • Designers: Paolo Di Stefano and Gabriel Gendron
  • Artist: Gabriel Gendron
  • Publisher: Nuts! Publishing
  • Kickstarter Date: June 9th, 2020

Disclaimer: The PnP of Mini Rogue was provided to us by Nuts! Publishing for review. In addition, we are being compensated with 2 full KS pledges of the game.

Luke: A long, long time ago, in the year of 2016, I reviewed Mini Rogue under a different name, Budget Board Gamer. Despite being new to board gaming at large, I found the 9-card PnP a particularly stand-out title. There was something charming, exciting, and mystifying about a game that could provide such a rich experience using only 9 cards.

Phil: So why are we talking about it again all these years later?

Luke: At the time, Mini Rogue was a free PnP, winning a number of awards, but there was always the promise that the designers wanted to one day make it a boxed title. And today’s that day, with Nuts! Publishing putting it up on Kickstarter with more than a few new bells and whistles.

Phil: I would think so; the team has had 4 years to mull it over at this point.

Luke: This has clearly been a passion project through and through, and it truly shines with the care and quality expressed in the game. Make no mistake, this is a title worth checking out.

Phil: For those unfamiliar, Mini Rogue is a 1- or 2-player game in which players are attempting to reach the end of the dungeon, killing the great and powerful Og to obtain his rare and valuable ruby, Og’s Blood.

Luke: The narrative details aren’t too specific, but what flavor is there feels fitting and adds some character to the adventure.

In each of the 10 rounds, players will explore a 3×3 grid of cards, encountering monsters, treasures, and traps. How you approach each of these cards and which direction you choose to move in can be difficult, and largely dependent on your finite resources.

Phil: You need money to buy stuff from the Merchant, XP to get more dice and rerolls, food to feed yourself in between rounds, armor to reduce enemy attacks, and health to… well, live. Each of these resources is incredibly important to balance as you delve deeper and deeper into the dangerous dungeon depths.

Luke: Many of your encounters will involve rolling dice. Traps and other encounters will require you to roll to disarm the trap or get whatever loot is there. Monsters, on the other hand, will fight you to the death, testing how prepared you are. There are ways to mitigate luck, but they often cost something, such as money or XP, and you already have so little… maybe you can just press forward and see wha-

*dies*

Phil: Make no mistake, this game can be particularly hard, but not in a way that ever feels unfair. Dice can certainly be against you, but oftentimes you’ll fail because you didn’t prepare well enough. Neglecting your rations for a while can leave you vulnerable to a rogue rat munching them up and leaving you with none. Not fighting often enough will leave you with very little XP, and thus very few dice to roll. Every system feels interlocked in a way that’s satisfying.

Luke: One of the bigger changes to this new edition is that now there are a variety of bosses to face as you progress, with each level (of which there are 4) challenging you with a gnarly and gruesome beast to overcome.

Phil: These also help to punctuate the difficult jumps, pressuring you even after the fight is over.

Luke: But don’t worry, Mini Rogue often rewards your successes with fun loot to gather. There are 6 different potions to help you fight battles or heal yourself, and you’ll come across helpful items or characters in the dungeon that can help you on your way.

Phil: The diversity of adversity has definitely increased dramatically. The base game now contains over 20 room cards, which is over double what there was originally.

Luke: And on top of all that, now you’ll take on the roles of various dungeon divers, including a Rogue, Mage, and Crusader, each with their own abilities that can be used once per floor.

Phil: Characters have 1 combat ability and 1 exploration ability, meaning that you have some flexibility as to how you tackle situations. Additionally, each starts with varying health and resources, providing diverse game experiences.

Luke: Oh, and did we mention the 2-player mode?

Phil: … Yeah, we did. Like, 14 paragraphs ago.

Luke: Riiiiiiiight. Well, that’s a new feature as well, and frankly a welcome one. I was a little hesitant to give it a go myself, but my significant other Jess and I had a blast playing side by side, either working together to fight baddies or exploring opposite ends of the dungeon.

Phil: I’m honestly quite impressed by the game as a whole. There’s a lot of game packed into such a concise package.

Luke: Coming back to it all these years later, it’s no wonder why I fell in love with Mini Rogue. There’s a feeling of tension and excitement that’s unrivaled by other games, and defeating a boss can give you a genuine rush of euphoria.

Phil: Both the 1- and 2-player modes work smoothly, meaning that the game is a bit easier to get to the table.

And the various expansions provided in the Kickstarter look awesome. More rooms, more bosses, more characters, and a new mechanic in the form of Lore cards? Please and thank you.

Luke: The moment I knew this game was a winner was when, facing down one of the bosses, Jess and I were planning excitedly, trying to figure out just how to survive another floor. I, the Mage, cast a fiery blast of energy while she, the Rogue, put our lives on the line by rolling for her Backstab ability, which would deal double-damage.

And with me barely hanging on by a thread, the boss lunged at me… and missed their attack. The electricity in the room was palpable as Jess ended the fight in a final cut of her knife, as we just made it out by the skin of our teeth. There’s something to be said about just how much this game makes you feel, and to me, it’s unforgettable because of that alone. Why else would I still be talking about it all these years later?

Verdict: Mini Rogue is a passion project to be marveled at, treasured, and appreciated. The mechanics are slick and smart, the art gorgeous and fitting, and everything serves a distinct purpose. There’s no waste, no fussy issues to be had, only an invigorating breath of fresh air. Take the time to at least check out the Kickstarter for yourself; it’ll be worth your time.

Marvel Champs Monday: The Art of the Mulligan

Luke: Marvel Champions takes a unique approach to handling mulligans. When I first started playing the game, I simply skimmed over the section covering it, assured that I knew exactly how it worked from my years of board gaming.

Phil: Classic, rookie mistake, Luke.

Luke: Having revisited how mulligans work here, we thought it would be worth briefly discussing what makes for a good mulligan.

Phil: It’s easy to think that never mulligan-ing is the right call; throwing away cards means you’re that much closer to decking out and getting one of those nasty encounter cards. Not to mention you’re throwing away cards that you won’t see until after the deck reshuffles.

Luke: That might not be such a bad thing though. If I’m throwing away a couple of thwart cards at the start of a game against Wrecking Crew, I’m pretty safe in the knowledge that I won’t likely need those cards until late game if I’ve drawn out the fight too long.

Phil: Or having a particularly expensive ally in hand early on. I find it better to start building your permanent tableau from the get-go tends to be way more advantageous than playing Nick Fury turn 1 only to have him disappear shortly after.

Luke: Especially for characters like Iron Man.

Phil: And that’s the other thing; some characters really prioritize that you toss cards early on in hopes of getting better, more integral cards, into play. Iron Man needs his tech, Black Panther can often use his upgrades, and if you can get Asgard into play turn 1 for Thor, you’re in a really good spot from the start.

Luke: By that same logic, tossing cards like Mjolnir or Captain America’s Shield are obvious since you’ll just get them back momentarily.

Phil: Mjolnir less-so; if you can pay for cards in hand with it, return it to hand, and put it into play while emptying your hand, it may be better just to keep it.

Luke: But more often than not, these cards are easy mulligans, since you get them back for free. Even a Black Panther upgrade could be a good toss so you can return it to hand immediately afterwards.

Phil: And just as we said it may be good to toss cards against a specific villain, you may want to dig for others cards to combat them. Pulling Hawkeye early in a fight against Ultron is always clutch, and dealing with the early threat of Risky Business and Mutagen Formula can be very important.

Luke: Finally, there’s always costs to consider. If you have cards in hand you simply can’t pay for or doesn’t allow you to efficiently use all your cards, tossing some cards for better options isn’t a terrible play. Efficiency tends to be key, especially at the start of the game.

Phil: And since you’ll be working through your deck quicker, you’ll reach those cards you tossed sooner than later.

Luke: Of course, this is all based on your hand and is incredibly variable. Starting the game with a Power of Leadership and Falcon can lead to an obvious play… unless your other cards are all Iron Man techs that you reeeeeeeally need to just get on the board. Decisions, decisions…

Phil: And that’s the beauty of this method of mulligan-ing; even before turn 1, you’re making important calls, all without needing to shuffle your deck for the umpteenth time.

Luke: It’s smart, svelt, and makes you consider the value of your cards in a different light than you might normally.

Phil: But what are your thoughts on the Marvel Champs mulligan? Do you never do it, or are you tossing cards left and right before each match? Let us know your thoughts and recommendations in the comments!

Luke: Thanks for stopping in, and we’ll see you next week.

Behind the Board: Oliver Barrett on Unmatched

Luke: Hey folks, welcome back to Behind the Board, where today we have the chance to chat with one of my favorite artists in the industry, Oliver Barrett! Having worked with Mondo for some time now, he’s best known in the board game industry for having worked on the first batch of Unmatched releases, including the base game, the Robin Hood vs. Bigfoot set, the Bruce Lee solo pack, and the first Jurassic Park expansion.

Thanks for stopping by, Oliver, it’s great to talk with you again.

Oliver: Yeah, it feels like forever since we last talked at GenCon last year.

Luke: Yeah, that was a ton of fun. It must have been a wild experience for you, seeing as you don’t play board games all that frequently.

Oliver: Yeah, I’m more of a distant admirer of tabletop games than a player, largely due to being unable to find a regular group to play with. I have played a handful of quick, party-type of games that I’ve enjoyed, but I really want to try some deeper games.

Luke: Which makes it all the more interesting to see your work highlighting one of my favorite games on the market. How were you first contacted to work on the series?

Oliver: I’ve been working with Mondo for a few years now and I don’t know much about the who, what, when, why, etc of the selection. I’m assuming it was because I’m versatile, due to my background as a graphic designer and art director.

Luke: It’s certainly a boon to have such a varied history. How did creating content for Unmatched differ from other projects you’ve worked on previously?

Oliver: It was more like working on a brand or identity system than just a series of illustrations. I really considered the project as a whole and wanted to come up with visuals that applied not only to the individual card, but to the character, the boxset, and then the gaming system.

For example, in Sinbad’s deck, it became obvious that a ship needed to appear in the same spot in the ‘Voyage’ cards to identify them quickly and separate them from the rest of his deck.

Another great example is how the ‘Momentus Shift’ card that appears in many character decks has a consistent composition with a fist (or foot, if you’re Bigfoot) so that the player immediately knows what that card is by visuals alone.

I guess the big difference is that there’s a TON of stuff to create in an Unmatched release, and the constant fight against perfectionism makes it difficult for me to NOT pour every bit of energy into each piece of the game. There’s a ton of small details that I probably spent too much time on that aren’t really noticeable to anyone but me, but maybe that’s what makes the game special? 

Luke: I certainly think the little flairs you included add a lot to the game, and provides Easter eggs for players to find as they play over the years.

Were there any characters that stand out to you in particular as especially fun to work on?

Oliver: Robin Hood, because he doesn’t have a face. I squeezed as much as I could out of that shadowed hood, and it was liberating to not have to stress about making sure the likeness was correct or if the eyes were anatomically in the right place, etc. I could just cast a shadow over it and move on to other details. 

Bruce Lee was also a blast, who doesn’t love Bruce Lee?

Luke: He’s certainly one of my favorite to play as, and the color palette and overall aesthetic you used for him is one of my favorites in the game to date.

Was there any one card that you found incredibly difficult to come up with an image for?

Oliver: Alice’s Feint card. It was the last card to finish for Battle of Legends Vol. 1 and I had been awake for over 48 hours to meet the deadline. I remember drawing a line and then immediately questioning if I had just drawn that line or if it had already been there for 20 minutes. This happened over and over while drawing that card, to the point where I rubbed my eyes purple. Sleep is important.

Luke: [laughs] I can definitely appreciate that.

Is there a character you’d love to see included in the game down the road?

Oliver: Iron Maiden’s Eddie, because you could use song titles for each card and change Eddie’s appearance on those cards, depending on what album the song came from. Cyborg Eddie, Trooper Eddie, Killers Eddie, etc., it’s a no brainer if you ask me.

Luke: I can’t say I’m super familiar, but I love the idea behind it, and I think the creative ways you could present cards is very exciting.

So, not being super versed in board games and played it only a handful of times during playtesting, what was it like arriving at GenCon this past year and seeing your art “in action” for the first time?

Oliver: When I arrived at GenCon, the folks over at Mondo gave me a bag with the 3 sets released at the time, which I opened with my wife and son over dinner. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I teared up. They had to put up with me while I worked on the game, so it was an achievement for them too. It just felt really good to see something that I had  made that was more of a tactile, tangible object that could be played with instead of hung on a wall and remain static.

Luke: Since then, the Unmatched series has gotten a lot of much-deserved accolades for its art since release; how have you reacted to the strong praise your art direction for the game has received?

Oliver: I reacted the same way that I do when working with other talented teams: share the credit. Unmatched looks great because of Lindsay, Jason, Jay, and everyone else at Restoration and Mondo Games. Sure, I art-directed the illustrations for the cards and boxtops, but the artwork really sings because of the way it’s applied to the game. If the design systems around the artwork were subpar, I don’t think anyone would really be talking about the game’s visuals in the same manner. 

Luke: That’s a really thoughtful perspective, I love it.

The next 3 announced sets, Cobble and Fog, Buffy the Vampire Slayer,  and the second Jurassic Park set, will be featuring new artists to the series according to BGG. Is Jurassic Park: InGen vs Raptors your exit from the series, or should fans expect to see your work pop up again in the future?

Oliver: This year got a bit too crazy for me to deliver artwork for another installment of the series, unfortunately. But not to worry… I’ll be back.

Luke: *Phew* [wipes brow]. Glad that you’re taking time for yourself, and I’m definitely excited to see your eventual return.

What would you say is your biggest takeaway from having worked on Unmatched up to this point?

Oliver: Board games are really f$^&ing hard to make, and making a good one is one hell of a feat. 

Luke: [laughs] Too true. Do you see yourself working on more board games in the future?

Oliver: If the right fit came along, I’d definitely consider it. Right now, I’m focused on slowing down from a pretty relentless 3 years of working on client projects and figuring out how to apply some of the things I’ve learned from working on all of these different projects into doing my own stuff.

Luke: Awesome, I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for your work for the foreseeable future.

Thanks so much for chatting with us, Oliver. Is there any upcoming projects you’re working on that you’re excited to share with folks?

Oliver: I just wrapped close to 100 illustrations for The World of Critical Role. It’ll be cool to share some of those pieces, they really challenged me to grow as an artist and figure out how to execute stuff that’s a little out of my comfort zone. Aside from that, there’s a couple of things that I can’t talk about yet and then some stuff to finish for Mondo that I’m really excited about.

Luke: Fantastic, I can’t wait to check those out!

If you’re interested in seeing some of Oliver’s most recent work, be sure to stop by his website, Instagram, and Mondo page.

Thanks to everyone who took the time to stop in and read. Be sure to let us know your thoughts in the comments, and we’ll see you next week!

Weekly PnP: Under Falling Skies

  • Designer: Tomas Ulhir
  • Artist: Tomas Ulhir
  • Publisher: N/A
  • Where to Find It: The BGG Forums

Luke: Continuing our look at the 3 highest ranked PnPs of 2019 according to the Golden Geek awards, today we’re looking at Under Falling Skies. Despite not winning first place, caught the eye of CGE and is now going to be getting an official release later this year.

Phil: And in a way, doesn’t that make them the real winners here?

Luke: It certainly is an impressive feather to put in Tomas’ hat. And it looks like the official release will be expanding the experience in a big way, and we hope to talk more about that when it’s released.

Phil: But for now, let’s take a look at what makes the original system tick.

Luke: Under Falling Skies presents an all too familiar premise; aliens are invading Earth, and your scientists need to rush to develop the ultimate weapon before the Mothership reaches your base of operations. You, the player, win if you can max out your research track in time, whereas the AI wins if you run out of health or if the Mothership breaks Earth’s atmosphere.

Phil: It’s always nice to see a game with more concrete and individualized victory conditions rather than gathering arbitrary points. It services the theme and experience so much better and makes me more invested in reaching that end-goal.

Luke: Each round, you will roll 5 dice, 3 black and 2 white. You’ll have to strategically place those dice on various spots of your homebase to try and complete different actions. But-

Phil: There’s always a but.

Luke: -you can only place 1 die per column, limiting what you can do from the get-go.

Phil: That’s not so bad-

Luke: And the aliens? They move according to the value of the die you place in its column, meaning that if you want a powerful effect, you better be okay with an alien charging at you.

Phil: Alright, well I’m sure that’s manag-

Luke: Oh, and did I mention that your base of operations is under construction? A large portion of your options are blocked off because you haven’t excavated deep enough to reach them, meaning you’ll have to spend up to 1 die each round to try and use more lucrative options.

Phil: Jeez, okay, well-

Luke: AND you have a limited amount of energy, which need to be spent to do most of your actions, thus limiting how much you can accomplish in a given turn.

Phil:

Luke:

Phil: … Is tha-

Luke: Oh, and at the end of each round, the Mothership does something nasty to you, moves forward a space, and respawns all dead alien ships.

Phil: You done?

Luke: I mean… yeah.

Phil: Sounds like the player is shoved up against a wall from the get-go.

Luke: Yeah, the odds are definitely against you. I have yet to win on the standard difficulty, which is a nice change of pace. A lot of the solo games I’ve tried my hands at lately have been a little on the easy side or just ask you to rack up a better score. This feels more compelling to revisit, as I want to save the Earth at some point.

Phil: Tell me about the different actions you can take to do just that.

Luke: For the most part, they’re surprisingly straightforward:

  • Gather Energy: You can collect up to 7 energy at any given time, meaning you’ll need to refresh your supply pretty regularly.
  • Do Research: Seeing as this is how you win the game, you’ll want to do this often. Each space on the research track contains a different number you’ll need to surpass, culminating in a particularly tricky “12” value space.
  • Blow S#!% Up: Any ships on air strike spaces can be blown up by spending the appropriately valued die, saving you a ton of damage.
  • Build a Robot: Robots can be placed on the board, dice that can be used each turn, lowering in value each time it’s used. These bonus actions, while expensive to make, can be crucial for a successful run.
  • Dig: In order to excavate further into the Earth, you’ll need to spend a die to move the excavator at the end of the round.
  • Slow the Enemy: Rather than doing a regular action in a given column, you can reduce how many spaces the enemy moves towards you by 1, potentially setting them up on just the right space for you to retaliate.

Phil: Wait, so there are different spaces the aliens can land on too?

Luke: Only a handful. Beyond the airstrikes spaces, arrows will move aliens to different columns, possibly allowing them to move twice in a round, and Mothership spaces will make the Mothership move an extra space immediately, reducing how much time you have but potentially circumventing a nasty effect. If a ship ever reaches the base, you take a damage and the ship resets at the end of the round.

Phil: Wow, what an intricate system.

Luke: Yeah, I love game designs that give dice multiple uses. Not only do the dice inform your action and alien movement, but every time you place a white die, you have to reroll all your other unplaced dice, for better or worse.

Phil: Meaning the order you place them in can be tricky in and of itself.

Luke: Yep.

Phil: I can honestly see why this game was picked up by CGE. There’s just enough going on here to keep things fresh and interesting without it becoming overwhelming.

Luke: This game is a masterclass is solo design. Genuinely, this may be my favorite solo game to date. The theme works perfectly, the mechanics are smart and succinct, here’s so much choice and variability turn to turn, and it’s all contained in 9 cards, some cubes, and some dice.

Phil: It’s hard to imagine what else can be added to the experience.

Luke: According to CGE, minis, a campaign, and multiple maps.

Phil: I think this just became my most anticipated release of 2020.

Luke: I’m definitely very excited to revisit this down the road. But for now:

Verdict: Under Falling Skies is a phenomenal, compact solo game that does everything right. Choices are always difficult and interesting, with a single die placement having a ripple effect. Games are always tense, making you wonder who will win up to the last second. And you always feel like you lose because of your poor planning, encouraging you to learn and return to it again and again. If you haven’t had a chance to try it out, you need to give this title a chance.

Marvel Champions: Thor – Bringing the Hammer Down

  • Designer: N/A
  • Artist: N/A
  • Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
  • Release Date: March 2020

Luke: Thor is likely the most divisive of the Marvel Champions heroes thus far. He’s gotten a ton of flack for being “underpowered,” with solo players finding little to no success with him, and with it being the last release before the quarantine, there are those who have been stewing over it for a few months.

Phil: Not us though. While we could have released this review some time ago, we wanted to take the time to dig into the character and see the overall reactions online before providing a full review on Thor, seeing as we had the time to kill.

Luke: So let’s take a look back on the God of Thunder and see what this hero pack has to offer.

Phil: Being a god and one of the most powerful characters in the Marvel mythos, players were expecting a play style that rivaled Captain America in terms of flexibility and raw power. What they found was a hero that, while he can wipe the board of minions pretty quickly, can barely hold his own against Klaw or other scheme-heavy enemies before succumbing.

Luke: This does make sense thematically but has rubbed many in the wrong way, saying that a human like Black Widow, out of the box, is more successful in scenarios than a literal god.

Phil: And while we get that perspective, we’ve found it a little shortsighted. In our interview with Michael Boggs, head developer of Marvel Champions, he pointed out that Cap and Black Widow, agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. who specialize in efficiency, have basically peaked as they are. Steve Rodgers does what he does well, but if things don’t get shut down quickly, he can run out of steam. And from what we’ve heard, there’s unlikely to be more Preparation cards down the road, meaning Black Widow won’t have more cards to fuel her system.

Luke: Thor, on the other hand, has a lot of room to grow, with future cards added to the pool of options likely expanding his play-ability.

But that doesn’t make him better now, which begs the question of why FFG felt that now as the time to release him.

Phil: He’s a classic Avenger, and with this “season” of Champions being dominated by the core cast of the films primarily, it made sense from a sales perspective.

Luke: Perhaps you’re right, I just wish we had more tools to mix-and-match with him.

Phil: You make it seem like Thor is a “bad” hero to play with.

Luke: I am, but that’s not my intention. I think Thor is a phenomenal pack that everyone should pick up at some point. I just think he could have benefited from being released later down the line.

Phil: Maybe we should actually talk about the pack itself?

Luke: As we discussed in our Marvel Champs Monday article yesterday, Thor is built around creating a loop of generating resources and dealing damage, with his trusty hammer at the center of this storm.

Phil: Many of his tools are both important for his success and rather expensive. Want to have a reasonable hand size? That’s gonna cost yah 3 resources, but Asgard is perhaps one of the most integral cards to bring into play.

Luke: Thor’s hand size has certainly been a point of contention, and while Asgard is powerful it also brings Thor up to par with the average character, making it feel like an extra step to the norm than an upgrade.

Phil: Even his low-cost cards come with hidden caveats. Lightning Strike costs 1 resource to play, but then you have to pay a ton of Energy to deal enough damage to make it worthwhile. And Defender of the Nine Realms may be free on paper, but depending on what minion it forces into play and how many encounter cards it discards in the process, it can be a risky play for 2 cards and some threat removal.

Luke: This often means that deck-builders will have to find ways of cutting costs in other areas of their deck design and construction. The God of Thunder resource generation helps, along with Mjolnir‘s ability to be spent and returned to hand, but Thor is, by design, a character that needs help getting his engine running.

Phil: This isn’t helped by him having the most punishing rival of the lot. Loki is often brutal to deal with, frequently negating large swaths of damage due to the luck of the draw. He is, by far, the most infuriating card to deal with in any game.

Luke: Family Feud is no joke either, often providing the villain with a permanent scheme boost due to how much threat ends up getting put on it.

Phil: For all these reasons, there are those players who have accused Thor of being swingy, and there’s some truth to that. Thor is much more reactive than other heroes. Like Ms. Marvel, you’ll have to count cards and estimate your odds, moving with the flow of how the game plays out.

Luke: But that’s what makes him so fun to play, in our eyes. I personally love Leadership Thor, providing some fun interactions and thematic moments while giving you the room to build up your tableau.

Phil: It would be easy to write off Thor at this point in the life of the game, but we feel that he’s already pretty damn fun to play, especially in 2-player games, and we’re looking forward to seeing how he evolves with future expansions.

Luke: Oh yeah, we haven’t talked about the Aggression cards in this set!

Phil: Well, many of them are minion-focused, as is fitting of Thor, but I honestly don’t have much love for those.

Luke: Perhaps, but some of these cards are just too damn fun not to highlight. Jarnbjorn is a kingly card that can help bring down some of the burliest baddies, Hercules and Heimdall are the most expensive allys we’ve had yet, and while they aren’t always the best, they are exceptionally powerful if you manage to get them to the table (say with Peter Parker or Steve Rodgers), and Mean Swing has a ton of potential for those heroes with access to weapons, or simply in tandem with Jarnbjorn.

Phil: Frankly, almost all the cards in this set make me excited, with Get Over Here! being the only big exception.

Luke: It’s certainly the most niche card in the lot, though I can see why it’s here, clearly playing off of Thor’s strengths.

Phil: So yeah, we actually really enjoy Thor and, while he may not be our favorite come the end of the year, he brings a lot to the table that’s worth appreciating.

Luke: Thanks for stopping in as always, and we look forward to discussing the Black Widow pack in the coming weeks, so be sure to stay tuned for that!

Marvel Champs Monday: Thor’s Signature Move

Luke: Let’s not beat around the bush; with characters who are built with a specific piece of equipment in mind, like Captain America or Hawkeye, it’s hard to rationalize that any other card could best encapsulate the essence of that character.

Phil: Much like in the comics, Mjolnir defines Thor in many ways, and while he may not need to have it on hand at all times, the versatility and usefulness of the card is undeniable.

Luke: And while other cards, such as Defender of the Nine Realms, are important to the functionality of the character, they aren’t as all-encompassing as Thor’s mighty weapon.

So rather than try and explain its significance in lore, as I’m sure everyone is all too familiar with the royal hammer, let’s explore the various uses Mjolnir and how it creates a particular play experience.

Phil: At first, the card seems a little innocuous; +1 attack and an aerial trait? Sure, the extra damage is nice, bringing Thor’s stats up to equate those of She-Hulk. The Aerial trait, however, is meaningless outside of context, relying on other cards for it to have any meaning or value beyond thematics.

Luke: And this is because Thor’s deck is so carefully built around using Mjolnir for other purposes that the card itself is, on its own, seemingly unimpressive.

Let’s start with Odinson’s ability:

It would be one thing to have this card simply deal extra damage, but with the Worthy effect in mind, players can quickly pay for other effects while also returning Mjolnir to hand.

Phil: This is especially important considering Thor’s low hand-size until Asgard comes into play. This gives players an interesting choice; deal a ton of damage by having Mjolnir equipped or keep tossing it to help your various other tools hit the ground running.

Luke: Once Thor is wielding his trusty hammer, though, he’s got some nasty attacks up his non-existent sleeves that will keep minions running for the hills. Remember that Aerial trait that seemingly did nothing? Alongside Lightning Strike, players can potentially wipe the floor, dealing tons of damage to a crowd of enemies.

Phil: They do have to be engaged with Thor specifically, but the important part is that Aerial allows you to ignore Tough status cards, a huge boon against certain villain sets.

Luke: It’s so satisfying to take down 3 Armored Guards with a single attack, all while doing a little damage to the head honcho while you’re at it.

Phil: But if you’re really looking to pack on some damage, Hammer Throw will plow through a minion and hit the villain square in the face, all while returning Mjolnir to hand. While this may not be always beneficial, this allows players to shift between the 2 distinct modes of Mjolnir, dealing damage to pay for cards, returning Mjolnir to hand, and eventually returning it to play so you can do it all over again.

Luke: That looping cycle is unheard of at this point in the Marvel Champions experience and a hard balance to pull off, but with some practice, Thor can be an incredibly powerful hero to helm.

Phil: And this does, in many ways, speak to how Mjolnir is presented in the comics, sometimes used to track individuals or items, purge illnesses from the possessor, or power submarines or force fields. It can be used defensively or offensively, depending on the situation. The Worthy ability does a great job of mimicking this, having Mjolnir fuel a variety of effects.

Luke: And similar to Hammer Throw, it presents how persistent Mjolnir can be when called to its wielder, reliably returning time and again.

While the Marvel mythos has gone through aches and pains to remind readers that Thor is more than his hammer, the Marvel Champions interpretation of the character makes Mjolnir a quintessential card. Anyone can and should use it, but only true Gods of Thunder will find victory through a full understanding and appreciation of the card.

Phil: Thanks for stopping in as always, and be sure to pop by tomorrow as we do a full review of Thor as a character before the U.S. sees the official release of Black Widow.

Behind the Board: Scott Almes on Food Chain Island

Luke: Welcome back to Behind the Board! This week, we’re going to be chatting with Scott Almes about his work on Food Chain Island, a Button Shy Games title on Kickstarter as of writing.

Welcome, Scott, thanks for sitting down with us.

Scott: Happy to be here, Luke.

Luke: So tell me; you’re obviously very well known for cramming big game experiences into compact containers, as you’ve shown time and again through the Tiny Epic series. What design philosophies have you developed over the years that tend to be reflected in these designs?

Scott: As I design small box games, I look for opportunities to trim and streamline components. Can I convey this information on one card instead of six? Can I combine these mechanics so they flow better together?

I apply that same approach to the rules. Is this rule needed? Does this add to the game, or is it an unfun complication? If I need this rule to keep things moving, but it doesn’t add to the experience, is there a better way to approach what I need the game to do?

Luke: Makes sense, especially when putting together a title that can only use 18 cards. Was that a restriction you put on Food Chain Island before you realized it would become a Button Shy game?

Scott: Food Chain Island originated with the card stacking mechanic. I had a fuzzy idea of a solo game where you had to splay out all the cards and then stack the cards on top of each other until you had a single deck. I was just playing around with a deck of cards, and it was very pleasing to win the game with a single stack of cards. It felt meditative.

As I developed the game further, I purposely imposed the limit of 18 cards because I thought it would be a good game for Button Shy. I’ve been looking for the right game to work with Button Shy on, and it seemed like a great fit!

Luke: Especially considering how this is the kickstart (pun intended) of the Simply Solo line. You’ve always been well known for the solo variants of your games, but what’s it like creating a solo-only experience?

Scott: They feel completely different. A goal for the solo mode of a multiplayer game is to replicate the feel of a multiplayer game for just one player. This means creating automated opponents, additional components, or mechanics to make it feel like you are competing against someone else. Sometimes, you may even have to alter some multiplayer abilities or add clarifying text to ensure that the solo game will run smoothly.

For a solo-focused game, you have a lot more freedom. You can set up the player to play against the game, and not have to worry about matching a particular feel or experience that happens during the multiplayer game. 

Luke: Yeah, it must feel freeing to not feel as restricted in that regard.

In terms of the various animals you see throughout Food Chain Island, how did you go about coming up with the abilities associated with each?

Scott: When balancing the powers, I looked at separating the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ powers as much as I was able to. It’s typical for players to have more higher numbers towards the end of the game, and that’s when I want the game to feel the most challenging. It’s no fun if you somehow lose and have 10 cards left. It’s fun if you lose and you have 3 cards left. So, since the higher cards are typically left towards the end of the game, their powers are more of a hindrance for players.

One of the biggest developments I had was making all the powers mandatory. Originally, the powers that were typically used to benefit the player were optional, and all the negative powers were mandatory. In an effort to streamline the rules, I tried having everything be mandatory and see how that felt. It was a big improvement! Now, if you don’t pay attention, a power that would normally be helpful could be a hindrance if it was used at the wrong time. It made the player’s decisions extra interesting!

Luke: Have you found specific animal combinations that players are often drawn to?

Scott: The lizard and the bat are both very useful! They can be used to get people out of tight situations if they have made a mistake.

Luke: How did you decide on the types of animals that you wanted to represent in the game?

Scott: I first wanted to make sure that all the animals would (somewhat) be able to eat the animals below them, and I honestly just picked a bunch of my favorite animals from the long list. I made an attempt to theme each ability after the animal itself. The bat flies across the map, the polar bear hibernates after eating, and so on.

The water animals were a whimsical way of keeping the types of cards separate. I didn’t want to use additional land animals for the one time abilities because it might feel confusing. So separating the special abilities into water animals felt the right way to go. And, then with the Tough Skies expansion I separated the animals that make the player’s life harder into the bird category!

Luke: Yeah, I certainly appreciate that each of the mini-expansions varies how difficult the game can be, modifying the experience for whomever is playing.

Speaking of difficulty settings, why did you choose the board shapes you did for the more difficult iterations of the game?

Scott: I didn’t have a scientific way of picking the shapes, other than playing around with 16 cards and seeing what I could come up with. When testing, ones that got too ‘long’ became far too difficult, so I tried to keep a rough square shape as I worked. It required a lot of testing to see what the outside limits were.

Here’s the most challenging one of the iterations for folks to try out. Best of luck, everyone!

Luke: One last question before we wrap things up, Scott; what advice do you have for aspiring small box board game designers?

Scott: I feel like the best thing a small box designer can do is question everything you want to put into the game. It may sound extreme, but if you are committed to the ‘small box’ aspect you need to ensure everything has a clear purpose in the game. And ask why it can’t be done in a simpler way.

Luke: Awesome, thanks so much for your time, Scott! What should we keeping our eyes out for from you and Button Shy down the road?

Scott: The next game we’ll have is called The Ugly Gryphon Inn, which is a whimsical game about running a fantasy inn. The occupants are a giant pain in the behind, are always unhappy, and tend to do destructive things if their needs aren’t met. It’s a good puzzley game with another funny theme.

I’m also hoping that Food Chain Island is successful enough to do another small expansion or two. And, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that people enjoy it enough that we can do more in the Simply Solo line of games!

Luke: The Ugly Gryphon Inn sounds awesome, definitely looking forward to checking that out later this year!

And thanks to you readers for taking the time to read along with us! If interested in learning more about Food Chain Island, you can check out our review from earlier this week and visit the Kickstarter page. Looking forward to seeing everyone again next week!

Weekly PnP: Tinyforming Mars

  • Designer: Michael Bevilacqua
  • Artists: Michael Bevilacqua and Cheryl Leon Levy
  • Publisher: N/A
  • Where to Find It: The BGG Forums

Luke: The BGG Golden Geek this year were slightly lopsided in terms of representation this year. With Wingspan winning a majority of the awards, fans were left with a much less diverse pool of games to discover.

Phil: Which is why the PnP section was easily the most interesting of the different categories for us. Three games we had never played, let alone heard of? We had to give them a go. And sitting at the very top was Tinyforming Mars.

Luke: I’m not shy about the fact that I am by no means a fan of Stronghold Games’ crown jewel Terraforming Mars, so I went into the experience hesitantly. Sure, there were far fewer components and a drafting system that seemed both more unique and less punishing, but I didn’t expect much.

Phil: Yet here we are, talking about it, so it must have done something to pique your interest.

Luke: In Tinyforming Mars, you are trying to establish the wealthiest cities on the red planet before you and your opponent use up all the resources it has to offer. Players will earn points based on the greenery next to their cities, any water or greenery that you border and your opponent doesn’t, and the heat that your cities generate.

Phil: You know what they say, you are what you heat.

Luke:

Phil:

Luke: … Anyway… Each round, players will alternate drawing a card from the top of the deck and putting it in play until there are 3 cards available. How a player orients the card will determine what actions and resources each player has access to.

After this, you’ll alternate turns, taking either one of the actions on the cards or a single common action that is always available. Each action costs credits, limiting the number of things you can do in a round to only a handful of things. Additionally, you’ll need to have different symbols to legally activate most actions, meaning you may orient a card for the symbols it contains regardless of whether or not you can do the action on it.

Phil: There’s certainly a good amount of hate-drafting at play as well. Preventing your opponent from ending the game or placing a token in an inopportune location for you is often something you’ll take into consideration. There’s a surprising amount of thought and depth that goes into how each card is set.

Luke: After both players pass, you’ll earn income based on your cities and the water adjacent to them, discard all cards in play, and start a new round. This continues until 2 of the 3 resource types (greenery, heat, and water) are completely exhausted; whoever has the most points wins!

Phil: To me, this retains a lot of the depth and tough choices that Terraforming Mars has while making it less overwhelming.

Luke: This game has a smart core loop that makes players carefully consider how they place their cities, how many credits they’ll have access to next round, when to place that one water cube that will get them a bonus, and so on. Plus it’s waaaaaaaaaaay shorter, clocking in at around a half an hour.

Phil: For a game its size, it can feel like a little much at times, with some choices feeling overwhelming, only when you have a handful of options to pick from.

Luke: That and the terminology can feel a bit obtuse. Most of the game is explained through iconography, yet many of the terms feel like they don’t line up with the images they are associated with, making some instructions awkward to understand.

Phil: That being said, the iconography is very nice and works well to inform players of what’s happening in a given situation.

I personally really enjoy how the area control elements work, giving players access to certain symbols at all times if placed correctly, but in order to get the most points, you’ll want to be placed in the center of the board away from those buffs.

Luke: Ultimately, this game wasn’t for me, but I can see why it was so beloved on BGG. It packs a lot of game into a single package and creates a tense back-and-forth that leaves you invested until the final cube is placed. I just found it to be a little too heavy and dry for a game of this size.

Verdict: This is the way to play Terraforming Mars 2-player. We wouldn’t recommend the solo mode, but the strategic choices and careful area control elements make this a strong title, especially when you can get it for free right now.

Food Chain Island: The Darwin Dream

  • Designer: Scott Almes
  • Artist: Annie Wilkinson
  • Publisher: Button Shy Games
  • Kickstarter Launch Date: May 26th, 2020

Disclaimer: The PnP for Food Chain Island was provided to us by Button Shy Games for review.

Luke: Scott Almes! Best known for the Tiny Epic franchise, the man’s well versed in making big games in small packages.

Phil: A hallmark of Button Shy Games… games.

Luke: So it makes perfect sense to bring his talents to an 18-card solo puzzler that has left us amused and satiated.

Phil: Before we get into the specifics of how the game works, I just want to give a shout-out to Annie Wilkinson, the talented artist behind the beautiful images of this game. Who knew that animal murder could be so darn cute.

Luke: Food Chain Island plays out like an Animal Planet TV show mashed with a satisfying spacial puzzle. The goal? Have 1 animal remain at the end of the game, the mightiest creature on the island. But to do that, you’ll need to move animals strategically across the 4×4 grid to make sure the necessary animals get fed while triggering special abilities in a specific order.

Phil: Some of these abilities are helpful, allowing the Bat to move freely across the map or the Lizard to remove an unstacked card from the game. Others will restrict how your next turn can play out, forcing you to move animals in a specific manner and generally hamstringing your flexibility.

Luke: Luckily, you have 2 aquatic friends to help you navigate these troubled waters. Once per game, both the Whale and Shark can provide their much-needed services, transporting an animal anywhere on the board and removing an especially hungry creature’s dietary restrictions.

Phil: Speaking of which; each animal can only eat an animal if their card value is 1, 2, or 3 lower than itself. So the grand Lion, a 14, can only eat the Gator (13), Tiger (12), and Wolf (11), meaning you’ll have to slowly work your way up the food chain if you have any chance to connecting the lowly Plant to the mighty Polar Bear.

Luke: Your first few games, you’ll likely have a tough time puzzling out how to move your cards around, but once you get a hang of what everything does, the base challenge is a breeze.

Phil: This is when the real game begins.

Luke: Now, the game will challenge you to randomly remove 1 water-based animal before each game, reducing your flexibility. Beat that? Try it only using your wits. Done with that? Here are 6 other variable shapes to lay out the cards at the start of the game. Let’s see you beat all of those, with and without your wet friends.

Phil: Wet friends?

Luke: There’s only so many ways I can say it without sounding repetitive. Gimmie some slack here.

What we’re getting at is, while this may seem like a game with a “solution”, there’s plenty of challenges to try your hand at. And frankly, the fact that the cards can come out in so many different ways makes each game feel fresh and interesting, even if you’ll try and employ similar strategies when combing certain animals.

Phil: And I’ve heard there’s the promise of more creatures on the horizon?

Luke: There are 2 expansions included in the current Kickstarter, 1 free and 1 an optional addition, and while we haven’t had the chance to see what those are, we have no doubt that it’ll just add to the fun.

Phil: It reminds me of Wonder Tales, but solo… and reversed. Rather than building up a board and seeing who scores well, you’re attempting to whittle down the structure to a nub, and seeing the stacks of cards grow as the board diminishes is so satisfying.

Verdict: This is easily our favorite solo Button Shy title to date, even more so than Sprawlopolis, which can feel overwhelming at times. Food Chain Island gives us just enough to chew on and explore all while promising a tense 10- to 15-minute time-frame. If you haven’t taken the time to yourself, head on over to the Kickstarter page and check it out for yourself.