Monthly High Five - April 2019
WHAT IS CARDBOARD REALITY’S HIGH FIVE?
The High Five is a monthly piece where we talk about five of our board gaming highlights from the past month. Then one member of Cardboard Reality will deliver the “down low” at the end of this piece, covering a poor board gaming experience from the past month. Enjoy!
The High Five
B.L. - After a monthslong drought for me, April brought a bounty of gaming opportunity in the form of Reality Con. More than a dozen people camped out at a cabin in Indiana and nothing but nonstop gaming on the docket for three days.
I played a lot of good games, but among the standout experiences was a full nine-player game of Sidereal Confluence: Trading and Negotiation in the Elysian Quadrant (or Space Meeting if you’re looking for a more succinct, less exciting name). This was my first play of Sidereal, and it says a lot that it was still enjoyable at the full player quota for such a high-player-count game.
At its core, Sidereal revolves around two primary phases: trading (in which players can basically trade cubes, ships, planets, and victory points for different cubes, ships, planets, and victory points) and economy (in which players take those cubes that they traded for and convert them into different, additional cubes to trade in the next round). There’s a touch of bidding and research taking place and it has a strong element of engine-building as well, but the game’s name is apt: trading and negotiation make up the core mechanic. It’s challenging, interesting, and more than a little chaotic, as trading erupts at the beginning of each round then tapers off into last-minute deals.
The biggest downsides of playing it as such a large player count was that the table space, even on a very large surface, was in short supply by the end of the game, and seating arrangements meant you traded much more with your immediate neighbors than those at the other end of the table. But it was a fun, frantic, and generally quick-moving experience for a non-party, nine-player game. I’ll be interested to play it at other, lower player counts, but if you’re wondering if it still works at the advertised full player count, the answer is a resounding yes.
Combat Commander: Europe
Nick - Just in case you haven’t noticed the obvious, or if you’re new to the site, Cardboard Reality has been obsessing over historical wargames as of late. We’ve gushed about Maria, Washington’s War, Hannibal, Sekigahara, the list goes on… These games all share a similarity in scope. They focus on the macro—the zoomed-out and abstracted combat scenario where you move an army from one zone to the next and command large groups of troops from a top-down view of the greater map. This style of play works wonderfully, but I’ve recently been itching to play something more intimate and focused where the entire game consists of a singular skirmish within a zoomed-in location. Enter Combat Commander: Europe, the answer to my squad-based combat needs.
I played the introductory Fat Lipki scenario with Dylan during our recent Reality Con gaming event. The game focuses on World War II scenarios that occured within Europe (hints the name). During this particular scenario, Dylan played those pesky Germans and I played the allied Russians. Each scenario establishes variable objectives that typically involve capturing and holding a location to score victory points, which was the case here.
Shortly after play commenced, Dylan snagged both objective locations which happened to be buildings. He hunkered down and began defending as best he could. My two squads attempted to approach each building by way of forest. Combat Commander incorporates terrain based obstacles by use of interesting line of sight and hinderance rules. Hiding in the forest helped bolster my defenses to help balance the substantial cover Dylan found inside each building.
Once our units established our battle lines, we started firing upon each other and all chaos broke loose. To successfully initiate a fire attempt, each player must make a targeting roll to see if the shot reaches the opposition. After this roll has succeeded each player may complete a firing roll to see if damage was actually dealt. To “roll dice” in Combat Commander, players draw cards to reveal a pair of printed dice. During these card draws, events may be randomly triggered. These events can trigger a sniper attack or a breeze to spread fire among numerous other things. It’s these “dice rolls” and events from players’ aptly named Fate Decks that push this game’s surprising and entertaining narrative.
After the tutorial scenario all I want to do is play again. The base box alone contains 12 maps. I now also own the Mediterranean expansion that doubles the map count and introduces a random scenario generator for immense variability. If you’re like me and think squad based historical combat sounds fun, look no further than Combat Commander: Europe.
Dylan - There has been a trend in board gaming over the years of calling a game a “_____ killer,” meaning the new game does what the old game does, but better. I’m not one that always buys into that phrase, but Underwater Cities seemed to set out to replicate the success of a game that I once really liked, but fell out of favor with, Terraforming Mars.
So is it true? Does Underwater Cities do it better? Short story is yes. I could do a full on comparison of why, but I want to get into the good of Underwater Cities instead of the things I think make Terraforming Mars average at best.
When you play a card that matches the worker placement spot, the card benefit triggers as well as the spot on the board. This is a great way to make your drawn cards combo with the permanent places printed on the board. But it’s not a requirement to match colors, only a benefit, so if you need to use something on the board, you still can.
Your tableau that you are building is tight, wherein you can only have a maximum of four cards. The cards that can be included are scoring cards, passive abilities, usable actions or additional production. So it becomes a management of when cards in your set of four turn obsolete.
There’s much more, but I also want to touch on the experience. It was great to game with patron Herb, who every time he went to play a card had to argue with himself if that was the choice he was to make. I always laugh when my wife does a light-hearted “ahhhhhh” when the decisions she can make all seem good. And there’s me, who continued to get snappy at Herb taking my spot on the board when he was conveniently ahead in turn order.
Overall this is a solid game and one I hope I can play again with Marianne, who seemed to enjoy it as well. Thumbs up from us.
Sol: Last Days of a Star
James - Is Sol officially the latest darling sleeper superstar in the Cardboard Reality Universe? After it shined at CBR’s recent Reality Con convention, and has now done the same for me, I think it’s time to give that a resounding “yes.” After B.L. Anderson gushed about Sol in the January High Five, I knew I had to get the chance to play this game. I purchased it online, where the designers continue to sell the remainder of their leftover kickstarter surplus, but then had trouble getting it to the table for a few months. It stared at me from the shelf of shame, taunting me, calling to me, my hype growing more and more with each gaming session that it got passed over. Finally, enough was enough, and it hit the table in April.
What a terrific game. The gameplay flows so quickly from player to player, with an excruciating decision space where you’d love to do every available action, but you can only do one, baby-stepping your way into position to pull off a grand maneuver and rake in momentum (victory points) as you battle your way to survival and victory. All of this while having to keeping a watchful eye on your opponents’ player boards, pieces, and plans. The unique plastic molded components, and minimalist card art paired with a beautiful deep black game board and theme really bring Sol together into a true work of art.
Sol is a rare optimization euro that also has high interactivity, seeing you use each other’s structure, often giving small resources or points to your opponents for the sake of seeing yourself prosper. The built in variable timer in the card deck works brilliantly, as the leader can push that timer and try to close out the game, while trailing players desperately try to stretch out just one more turn. And the variability in the game is at an elite level—with a thick deck of instability effects that change every game, and a card deck timer that could literally make one game half the length of another, creating a beautiful blend of tactics and strategy. This game deserves to be more well known and more talked about—find it and play it!
Scott - I recently spent 3 days straight playing board games in a cabin. One game that stood out as a highlight of this past month was Campaign Trail. The gist of the game is this, each of the 3 players control a candidate with unique abilities and they compete for voters in the 50 states. I played as a political newcomer, which meant I started with fewer voters on the board. However, I could sway undecided voters everytime I took a support action, the 3 support actions being travel, fundraise, and register voters. The game’s other 3 actions are advertise, campaign, and politick. The politick action is a powerful one time use or persistent affect that modifies your actions.
On each players’ turn they play one card from their hand and each card has multiple uses. They have varying strengths of the 6 actions as well as debate issues listed on the top that come into play during the 2 debate phases of the game. The early game was filled with tough choices while I was trying to work out a long term strategy because you are offered such a wide range of options through your multi-use cards. Do I play it for the strong fundraising action and save up money for advertising or do I hold it back for the debates because the states I want to win care about the debate topics on the card?
Finally, the production. The game looks good and its functional too. It comes with an electoral vote track with 3 different colored slots that hold the state tiles, which vary in size by their electoral votes. This makes it very easy to tell at a glance who is winning what and eliminates the need for a calculator to count up all those electoral votes at the end, unless it comes down to one electoral vote like our game did.
Campaign Trail offers you a ton of flexibility in strategy and splurges on the components to make the game much less fiddly as well as simple to setup and teardown. I feel like there is still more to be seen with this game after my initial play and I am hoping this is one that I will have a chance to play again.
Joel - If you follow the progression of games that I have been enjoying, you know that I have recently grown quite fond of train games. From 18xx to Tramways to Age of Steam, I have become enamored with games involving route building, stock holding, and “mathy” calculations. While there have been some train games that were a bit disappointing, Soo Line, Tokyo Metro, etc., none surprised me as much as Stephenson’s Rocket. While I was not enthused to play it before it was out on the table, I became more excited once it was being explained. It was a bit opaque at first, but I could see how the routes came together as we started playing.
However, at some point, it took a turn for the worse. Routes abruptly ended, even though I lost all my shares in the company trying to stop it. Mind you, I was not the only one. Trains were being merged, cities being delivered to, stations being scored, and yet, I felt like I was never really in control of my own destiny. Similar to Chicago Express, where any person can run a train company, Stephenson’s Rocket has a similar mechanic. However, a person can spend their stock in that company (acquired by running the company), to change the direction that you run the train from its current location. While this seems like it would help you control the trains you want to, it sets you up for failure. The following player can just move the train again, and now you have spent all of your stock.
You might say, well why did you not plan better? Well, you really cannot seem to do so. Any player at any time can move any train in basically any direction. You can try to push it in a general direction, but that does not mean it will hit a particular point you want it to, like one of your stations (scoring you points), a city/town (to calculate points), or in the line of another train (merging the two companies based on the head of the train). Oh and I forgot to mention that you can deliver goods to cities as one of your actions, but in a limited supply, and only if that city has not already been calculated for scoring. Compared to Chicago Express, Stephenson’s Rocket basically traded out the money as the limiting factor in what you could do, for the veto power with bidding shares. This feels like a poor choice to me.
Remember how I said this was opaque? Well, since we started off the game not really knowing what we were doing, it really messed up any long term strategy any one player may have had. It quite soured the experience. While I am not so turned off by it as to never play again, I will think twice about it. Can I play another game in the same time frame that I will enjoy more? Most likely. I have heard others say that it is better with a few plays, but I also heard that about the Soo Line, and I have no idea how that could be possible. I kind of see the potential here, but a not so great first experience has left me with a bad taste in my mouth for wanting to try it again. The other three players I played with even agreed. I think there are better, light train games. I would much rather play Chicago Express again. Take a few steps heavier and I think Age of Steam is better than most of the games in this genre, until you get to 18xx of course, then it gets a bit tougher for me.