Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Mansions of Madness Game Review

Van Gogh lived a miserable life of turpentine-chugging and ear-chopping horror. The madness he faced eventually overtook him and he is said to have shot himself in the chest with a revolver. He didn't achieve serious fame until after he died.
Imagine creating something and having no idea that what you left was a legacy. Van Gogh did it with art. I would argue that Lovecraft did it with literary horror. As it turns out, the Call of Cthulhu is eternal....

Mansions of Madness is one of the many Cthulhu themed games put out by Fantasy Flight in the past few years. I jokingly refer to it as the heavy version of Betrayal at House on the Hill. In many cases, I think heavy versions of games tend to be clunkier and worse, but I think Mansions adds a pleasant depth to it that Betrayal is sorely lacking. I don't enjoy Betrayal, I do enjoy Mansions. On the other hand, Betrayal is very accessible to rookie gamers and Mansions is a bit overwhelming at first glance. 

Mansions uses the Descent model of gameplay: one evil "game master" is trying his best to kill the rest of the players. Meanwhile, the players, or investigators, are doing their best to meet some objective. Problem is, at the beginning of Mansions, the investigators don't know what their win condition is!
Desire to fuck with that green thing = 0 (note: figs do not come painted)
On an investigator's turn, he takes two moves and one action. The actions can be fighting, solving puzzles, or searching rooms (the most common action). On the Keeper's (evil game master) turn, he collects threat to fuel his card options which allow him to draw special cards, place monsters, move monsters, or do funky things. After, he attacks with any monsters that he can. In addition, time passes at the end of every keeper's turn, advancing towards the moment of big reveal.
Each investigator has a series of stats that affect how good they are at the game. Intelligent investigators get more turns to solve the puzzles*, fast investigators can evade enemies easily, and strong investigators can use axes and sledgehammers well. The game primarily uses a d10 compared to your stats to determine failure or success, so you know exactly what % likelihood you are to succeed. 
* - The puzzles are the coolest part of the game mechanically speaking. Most are variations of the 15 puzzle you played as a kid. It isn't particularly difficult mentally to solve the puzzles, so it requires good stats, decent luck, but also requires you to use your actual brain. It's a nifty delivery mechanic that I really enjoy.

The investigators are trying to find clues in the mansion that will direct them to the main goal of the mission, but the clues reveal little information until the final clue is found. Alternatively, the investigators will find out the goal of the mission as the midnight bell chimes and then have several turns (probably 5 or so) to complete their task. One quirky aspect of Mansions is that if an investigator dies before this reveal, no big deal, that player finds a new investigator and joins the team. On the other hand, if you die after the reveal, you are out of the game. Several of the Keeper's objectives involve killing one of the players, but it only counts once the truth has been revealed. This leads to my least favorite aspect of the game: as the Keeper the ideal strategy seems to be to hurt everyone as much as possible without killing anyone before the reveal. As an investigator, your job is to find a lot of stuff and commit suicide if you are getting pretty hurt. That seems...off to me.

FUN: 4 - Mansions isn't a particularly in-depth game but I really like to play it. The flavor of the game is awesome and the pieces are pretty cool. Once you set up, the game play is smooth and fast (others might disagree but I've found 80% of the rules are simple/intuitive and 20% require some work). There is a part of the game where you just frantically are trying to solve things which can really ratchet up the energy. Mostly, what I enjoy about Mansions is the hilarious scenarios it can create. The game is certainly more fun if you have a group of friends who are into the storytelling aspects of games and have a little bit of roleplaying experience. The game readily lends itself to amusing, ridiculous, and creepy situations that make it a great time. Plus, my brother and I have solid evil laughs for when either of us is the Keeper. 

STRATEGY: 1 - The trouble of playing a game where 50-80% of the players have no idea what the end goal is, is that, uh, those players have no idea what they are doing! Mansions is set up as a choice-based game but I have found that the set-ups lead to a pretty linear path for the players to follow. I rarely feel like I am making a complex choice about where to go and what to do. As an investigator, I found myself frustrated by the aspect of just 'doing whatever.' The only thing to really pay attention to as an investigator is what the Keeper is capable of doing, and doing your best to mitigate what he can do. The Keeper has a bit more versatility in action choices, but as I said above, I think the strategy is pretty straightforward: hurt as many people as much as possible without killing them.

SOCIAL: 4 - As the investigators you have to coordinate your turns, and depending on the scenario, sticking up or splitting up yields different rewards and benefits. Either way, what Mansions does really well is get people invested in their characters and the story - which makes it really easy for you to joke with your friends about the nun throwing holy water in the cultists eyes or the fact that Joe Diamond's figurine always looks like he is running down a hallway shooting as many guns as possible even though he isn't that much of a badass. Honestly, the social aspect of Mansions depends on your play group, but if the people are fun, then this game makes it incredibly easy to enjoy one another.

FLAVOR: 5 - This game just oozes flavor, which is exactly what you'd expect from a Cthulhu themed game by Fantasy Flight (let's ignore Elder Sign for now). The traumas you can go through are great (gah, my EYE). The insanity cards are amazing (one is called 'There's only one way out' that can only be played on a truly insane investigator. He kills himself.) The clues, while not particularly helpful, are sufficiently creepy. If you're the kind of person who likes flavor text, it exists on just about every card. You actually solve puzzle locks by solving puzzles. When you cast a spell, you flip over the card to see what happens because you have no real idea what power you are unlocking (my personal favorite tidbit of flavor). The monsters are slightly differentiated from each other, so you never know if this is the zombie that does more damage or is harder to escape. You can hide in a box. You can push a drawer in front of a door to slow down monsters. The lights can go out. A room can light on fire because the head cultist is insane and ultimately result in the death of the very monster he just summoned from the abyss (not that this happened in any of my games or anything). Cultists will explode and turn into bigger monsters. Sledgehammers do more damage if you are stronger, but knives don't. Rooms that you explore can have things, or they can have nothing (a card that literally says "nothing of interest"). You can only get claustrophobia while in small spaces. The list goes on and on and on...

MISCELLANEOUS: 2 - This one was hard because there are good and bad things that I am yet to address. I'll start with the good, even though I think the good is outweighed by the bad. The figs are awesome and the cardboard tiles are hefty. The art is solid and the game fills a unique niche for me. That being said, the game takes far too long to set up. We probably spend close to 15% of game time setting up. In addition, the base game comes with 5 scenarios with 3 different endings each, so far I've played 3 of the scenarios but I think even with the different endings the scenarios don't have a ton of variability. This means the game has a somewhat limited life as not knowing the end goal is one of the key mechanics of the game! All the cool pieces also come with a pretty hefty price tag of about 80$ at retail. Also, while I have talked about the rules being easy, there are lots of little things that are confusing where we just made up the rulings on the spot - this has generally worked out for us but it's a pain to not know what the correct way to play is because there are so many little tid bits of rules. Finally, there are a fair amount of typos in the set up manual which is a minor inconvenience, but regular enough for me to have noticed it (and I'm a math guy).

Parting thoughts on strategy: Most of the time, I find that ignoring the monsters is the best for the investigators as it can take a really long time to kill bad guys unless you are in groups. Make sure to take a careful review of the Keeper's action choices and move as a group (or separately!) accordingly. For instance, in one of the scenarios the Keeper can only summon madmen on investigators who are alone, so moving in groups of two can be a pretty sweet way to slow the Keeper down. As the Keeper, you have the most information, make sure to make good use of it and try not to give away the end goal to the players.

Good lucking keeping hold of your mind! May the rats eat your eyes!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Eclipse Game Review

Sometimes I review games that I've played a ton of times. This time, I'm reviewing a game that I've only played once. Generally, I would prefer to have a tiny bit more experience with a game before judging it (particularly for categories like strategy) but in this case, I know it's entirely possible I will never play this game again. The game in question? Board game geek's game of the year: Eclipse.

Eclipse is the popular new 4x game, and has received a lot of accolades. 4x stands for "explore, expand, exploit, exterminate" which is a category of games that focus on empire control and growth. When teaching gamers a 4x game, people will often respond with "Oh, so it's like Sid Meier's Civilization computer games?" Uh, well yes, they basically follow the same kind of premise.
Like most 4x games, Eclipse is pretty expansive so it's hard for me to give a proper overview of the game, but I will do my best. One of the appealing factors of Eclipse is that it's been tagged as taking only 30 minutes per player to play, which is much faster than Eclipse's spiritual ancestor Twilight Imperium. The goal of Eclipse is to have the most Victory Points by the end of 9 rounds. Some of the VPs are secretly recorded, so you can't always tell who is winning or by how much. In brief, you want to have more fights, more territory, and more technology. 
Each of these 9 rounds consists of a bunch of actions you can take, but the actions you take are limited by your resources. Science gets you more technology. Resources can be used to buy more ships. Money is used to pay for the size of your empire AND for the number of actions you can take. Your action choices are:
  1. Explore: An action that you will take a lot early on as it gives you more planets (and resources)
  2. Influence: A fiddly action for min maxing planet placement that you might take later in the game
  3. Research: Getting new technologies that can make you more efficient or to do special things, but mostly allows you to make your spaceships more powerful
  4. Upgrade: Actually pimping out your ships with your techs
  5. Build: Make new spaceships
  6. Move: Move your spaceships
Make no mistake: Eclipse is a war game. There are some alien races that you can fight, but midway through the game they will all be dead. I'm pretty sure it's near impossible to win this game without attacking or at least respecting the possibility of attack from your fellow players (aka building a fortress). Some would probably argue with me on this and say that you can win an economic victory, but I think that requires either all players to be "playing nice" or for you to have a very defensible position (which really means you already did what I said in regards to it being a war game). 

For a 4x game, Eclipse is incredibly smooth. That being said, Eclipse is definitely a 4x game for 4x players (I don't think it pretends to be otherwise, but I had received that impression from some other gamers). Eclipse is rife with the meta-diplomacy that I tend to just shrug and roll my eyes at - in case you can't tell, I'm not much of a 4x player myself. I enjoy the Civilization computer game because I am punching computers. I take little joy in raiding my friends in Eclipse or in any other 4x board game, but some folk are gleeful for any opportunity to do so! In the game I played, one player was going for an economic strategy while the other 4 of us were playing what I will call "normal" strategies. One of the players was leaps and bounds ahead by spamming scientific resources early (giving him super ships), and when I tried to get the other "normal strategy" players to agree to attack him - one person backed out at the last minute resulting in the third player being demolished by the Mega Empire. I meanwhile built up a defense and chewed on the economic player with no choice left but to meekly settle for second or commit suicide against the Mega Empire.
FUN: 2 - This is a personal rating. I'm not a 4x player for the most part and Eclipse did absolutely nothing to change my mind in terms of that. With the right group of people I'd be willing to give it another shot or two, but it will never be something that I suggest. The only sentence you really need to read in this review is: if you like 4x or think you like 4x, check out Eclipse. If you don't, you aren't really missing anything.

STRATEGY:4 - I'm more inclined to give this game a 3, but it won a lot of awards for strategy and I've only played once, so I'm giving it the benefit of the doubt. There are a lot of options in this game, particularly when it comes to what technologies to build; options and variety are what give the game depth.
That being said, I felt like most of us followed a pretty basic path. Early on I wanted to explore planets. In the middle of the game I wanted to pimp out my ships and kill aliens/ancients. At the end of the game I stared at my opponents and tried to conquer easy to take targets. I've heard that there are a variety of strategies that can lead to victory, but after playing I honestly don't see a way to succeed that doesn't involve building a pretty strong army, even if it's just for the purpose of preventing your opponents from attacking you.
The catch-up mechanic in most 4x games is to "kill the carrier," but in the case of Eclipse, chasing after the leader gets you killed as well. This seems like it leads to situations where the person who blinks first will take down the leader, and cost themselves a serious advantage in the process. You acquire victory points for fighting in the game, but you don't actually need to fight all that often to acquire a suitable amount. Maybe the game requires a few play-throughs to dive into the intricacies, but the time commitment of doing that isn't trivial. An issue with Eclipse is that if you get down, you can be completely out. It can be halfway into a game where you are trying for an economic strategy, and if someone commits to crushing you, you just won't have the time to come back from that before the game is over, effectively meaning you sit around for an additional hour waiting to lose. 

SOCIAL: 2(4) - I gave this game a 2 because I personally take little joy in choosing what player to attack. In general, you will make one ally, and then have at least one adjacent enemy. The scoring mechanism of the game makes it pretty hard to completely ignore the other players and still be competitive, so you are actually motivated by the game to start fights. Later on, you can literally choose who you want to hurt which can lead to some "feel bad" situations - that is, if you are a softie like me. If the kind of games you like playing with your friends is where you wheel and deal with each other, then Eclipse is pretty perfect for that situation! There is no trading, but you can certainly make alliances and coordinate attacks. If that is for you and your friends, this game is easily a 4 or even a 5 as the game is primarily based on the movement of your adjacent players.

FLAVOR: 4 - The flavor in this game is very strong. The names of the technologies are cool and there are 4 classes of spaceships/stations that you can build to fight your opponents with. The use of wormholes to restrict movement is a nifty additional rule in restricting movement. The fact that space is limited (only a certain number of tiles) is a little bit silly, I wish there was a mechanic that incentivized players to interact other than "space is limited." Additionally, the way in which you construct your spaceships can lead to some pretty cool and flavorful situations. For instance, one player equipped his scout ships with heavy duty lasers and no armor and dubbed them "Kamikazes." Meanwhile, I was drawn to the idea of creating a "Juggernaut" and loaded armor onto my huge ships. Making "Minefield class" defensive space stations with first to fire missiles was pretty sweet as well. Sadly, I think there is a limit on cool combinations as there are only so many unique options to make.

MISCELLANEOUS: 2 - In the end, Eclipse still takes a pretty long time to play for what it is. By the end of 3 hours I controlled 8 whole hexagonal regions, and that was the ultimate fruits of my labors. Because of the nature of the game, weak players can be easily picked apart by stronger ones which makes initial seating order a big deal in the game. Additionally, the proclivity for the game to end in MAD (mutually assured destruction) situations leads to a fair amount of stare downs, which to me, feels pretty anti-climactic for a game where I was trying to build awesome spaceships.  I will say that the spaceship pieces themselves are sweet, but there's a reason the game costs at least 80 bucks.

Parting thoughts on strategy: Do something broken. Find one type of ship and try to make it absurd in some kind of way, and then build a lot of that same ship. Realize also that you can't "bum rush" people in this game, as you have to research technologies, upgrade your ships, build your ships, and move your ships. It takes a few turns before you can start fighting other players, and then be careful that you don't get taken from behind.

Best of luck expanding, exploring, exploiting, and exterminating!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Escape: The Curse of the Temple

Sometimes, you just want to get your hands on some loot.

Sometimes, that loot screws you big time.
Escape: The Curse of the Temple (which I really wish was called Escape!) is about being screwed. Escape! made a huge splash at Essen last year after a successful Kickstarter campaign by Queen games back in April. In Escape!, you play a crew of adventurers who have fallen into a room in a Temple that is on the verge of collapsing. You only have 10 minutes to get out, but the magical power of the gems is keeping you trapped. You must collect the gems and find the exit, and then EVERY player must escape or you lose.
Escape takes 10 minutes to play. It's a timed team game! Escape comes with a CD that you play to track the events of the game. You begin the game with 5 dice and three rooms discovered (including the safe 'base' room).
The different rolls you can get. There are two green men faces.
There are no turns in this game, you just roll the dice as quickly and often as possible. You may reroll any number of dice (picking and choosing the ones you like) with one exception: the dreaded black mask.
This die hates you.
If you roll a black mask that die is locked and unusable until you roll a golden mask to "restore" up to two black dice to you or any of your buddies in the same room as you. It's entirely possible to end up with all 5 dice as black masks, helplessly languishing until one of your friends comes to free you from your curse. The other three symbols are used to interact with the board: the green men are used for moving, the red torches are used to discover gems, and the blue keys are also used to discover gems. It takes two specific dice to discover new rooms and two specific dice to move into those rooms. There are two kinds of rooms with gems: those that require 4 of either the torches/keys and those that require 4, 7, or 10 of those torches/keys. The latter of those rooms can be completed at any difficulty level (but only once) with friends, while the former room must be completed solo. Once you have collected most of the gems and found the exit, you can roll some keys in order to escape. Once you escape you can hand one of your dice to a player still in the game.
There is one further complication: twice throughout the course of the game a gong will sound indicating that you need to return to the central chamber within 1 minute. If you fail to do so, you permanently lose one of your dice (making subsequent tasks much more difficult!).
Looks like these people are trying to escape, but there are too many magical gems trapping them!
Going off by yourself in this game is likely a death sentence - even though you are just as likely to roll gold masks as black masks, it can be really easy to find yourself trapped in a death spiral if you get just a little bit unlucky. Yes, the odds of it happening aren't terribly high, but you roll your dice so often (once every two seconds or so) that eventually you will trap yourself or get so bogged down you can't do anything other than try to break the curse. 
One complaint I have about the CD is that the gong/door shut sounds are not quite as distinct as I would like for them to be - when I played with my family we were constantly screaming at each other and gong sounds almost always had us going "Was that a gong? I think that was a gong! Did you hear the fucking gong?!?"
Another thing I will say about this game is that it is ridiculously easy to unintentionally cheat: be it picking up a black mask by accident, miscounting your groups torches, or walking through a wall - you will just accidentally cheat here and there.
Why does this chart look so crazy? Read below.
FUN: 2(4) Ok, so I cheated here, but it's for good reason! The lighter shade of orange in the chart above relates to my initial ranking of the game, a ranking that I think would hold for certain folks permanently but doesn't really hold for me (dropping it to my "true" darker orange rating). So why is this game initially a 4? Well, I think everyone should give this game a shot - it's a total blast to play! There are some similarities with this game and Space Alert, but other than that Escape is quite a unique gaming experience. When I explained the rules to my father, he was initially frustrated by how stupid the game sounded, but after playing he said, "Ok, I get it now." Using die rolling as a mechanism to race against time just makes you want to jump up and down and throw your dice all over the room in order to get that fourth torch but ARGH A GODDAMN BLACK MASK. Escape gets your heart rate up in a way that very few other indoor activities do.

But adrenaline wears off. 

I imagine every time I introduce this game to new friends I will get a laugh out of them panicking about what is going on. However, on a personal level you start to 'get' the game at a very rapid pace. In the case of a time pressure game, 'getting it' is a bad thing. The pressure is lessened and what's fun about the game really falls off. In my opinion, the initial "wow!" appeal of this game is what made it have such huge buzz at Essen this year but will make it hard for Escape to become a staple after the excitement wears off. As a 2, I would still play it from time to time, but I don't have any desire to own the game. I think after ten or twenty plays of the game it is likely near exhausted. Twenty plays sounds like a lot but keep in mind the game plays in 10 minutes, twenty plays of this game equals one game of Through the Ages or three games of Settlers.

STRATEGY: 1 Roll some dice. Run into rooms. Roll some dice. Roll again. Cuss. Roll again. Wait for a friend. Roll again. This game isn't deep, and despite the time pressure, it requires very, very little brainpower to be good at it. The tiny iota of strategy is in deciding when you are going to stick together and when you are going to split up, and also how you are going to explore and build the temple (as you have some control over that). There are expansions that I think make the game harder (one comes with the game), but I doubt it really changes anything drastically. My family and I played this game three times and won every time with something like 2 minutes to spare, which says to me that it's a bit too easy (at least, without an expansion rule).  One of the times we even employed the Super Adventuring Party Strategy* to great success.

* - Super Adventuring Party Strategy or SAPS is a stupid/ridiculous strategy for 4-5 players I came up with to play this game that involves staying together the whole time as a group. You elect a party leader who is the primary explorer of new rooms, and you travel in a straight line, ignoring any normal dungeon construction plans. You never reroll gold masks so you can cure other party members.Since all of you are together, you tend to conquer rooms at a very rapid rate. When the gong goes off, you IGNORE IT and continue playing. Everyone will lose a die, but you move through the dungeon at such efficient speed that it doesn't matter. You obviously have to move fast because after the second gong you can't conquer any of the single gem rooms (4 minimum). Crafty players will hold onto torches and keys for additional speed as you move through the dungeon. Not only did this hilarious strategy work, it worked with flying colors. Lots of yelling at each other ensues.

SOCIAL: 4 A large part of the fun in this game is coordinating amidst chaos. Teaming up to complete certain rooms or splitting up to explore more ground but not getting too far away from one another requires a ton of constant communication. That being said, I couldn't in good faith give this game a 5 because in my experience I only interacted with half the players at the table! This just happened to be whatever 2-3 person group I was moving around with in any given moment. Of course, the game is so short that you can play again and coordinate with other people the next time, but it is immensely easier to coordinate with someone sitting next to you so you aren't screaming across the table. (Note: SAPS allows you to scream at everyone equally)

FLAVOR: 2 I love Indiana Jones, so I'm all about the idea of a pulp, booby-trapped dungeon. In an expansion that comes with the game (that I am yet to play and looks like it adds a little spice but nothing mind-blowing) you can even become cursed (the most hilarious curse is if you roll a die off the table it is gone forever). That being said, all you're really doing is running around and rolling dice. Why does it take 4 keys to unlock this gem, and what the hell is rolling dice supposed to indicate that my character is actually doing in the game? I have no idea. I like to pretend your avatar is going through all his pockets and trying to pull out enough MacGyver goodies at any given moment, but who knows. Also, why do I need to run back to the central chamber every few minutes, and what is it that makes that central chamber so safe anyway? And when I lose a die, what does that even mean? Eh, I give up.

MISCELLANEOUS: 3(5) Escape is incredibly unique, which is what gets it most of its points. The first time you play this game its like "Wow! This is amazing, why haven't I been playing frenetic run around games my whole life?" but then you realize, "Oh, because while fun, it isn't particularly deep." What I actually love most about Escape is the role I see it fulfilling in my life: time-wasting filler on game days. You know what I mean - you have a game day with 8-10 people so you split into two games. One game finishes a half hour before the other, and you want to do a player swap, but what do we do in that half hour? 
Move aside Zombie Dice, helllllooooooooo Escape! If Escape were 20$ cheaper I would buy it for this sole purpose.

Parting thoughts on strategy: Uh, don't go anywhere alone. Don't choose 4x as an option for any of the multi-option gem rooms. Try to build your dungeon in such a fashion that makes it easy to get back to the central chamber and then to get back out again.

Best of luck, uh, escaping!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Empire Builder Game Review

Since I started this blog I've wanted to give a negative review. Not because I'm a bad person (I am), or because I really want to tear something apart (I do), but because I wanted to show a range of scores in my early posts. Every game I've posted about so far might not be my favorite game, but each game is something that I'm happy to play in just about any instance. Unlike IGN's videogame ratings* or grades in my Master's program**, I wanted there to be a noticeable value when I say a game deserves a '5' in a category, or that I consider a '4' to be an entire level above a '3'. Giving a negative review shows that I don't just chronically review games in the '3' or '4' category, but that there are games that I like and that I don't like.

Of course, there is a large selection bias in reviewing games. I know that I'm not generally into longer war games (though I have been challenging this belief recently) so I avoid them. When I spend the time to play a new game, I'm already saying "There's something about this game that I think I will like." Therefore, it's harder to find games that I don't like than games that I do, and ultimately, different games are for different people. That's what this post is about.
(* Joke explanation: IGN is often derided as giving bad games a score of 9.0 and good games a score of 9.5, making a 100 point scale into a 10 point goal)
(** Joke explanation: Turns out a 60 is an A-)
Empire Builder hides under many names, as Empire Builder is more of a game franchise than a single game itself. Empire Builder is often referred to as [Location] Rails: Euro Rails, Martian Rails, Australia Rails, etc. My parents and my sister all love Empire Builder. In case it wasn't clear by my lead-in, I hate it. Another thing to know about Empire Builder is that it's older than I am, according to Boardgamegeek, the game came out in 1980.

The goal of Empire Builder is to make money and to build a rail network Empire. You win the game by having a predetermined amount of cash and connecting the majority of the major cities on whatever map you are playing (classic Empire Builder uses North America in case you don't recognize The Statue of Liberty or Mount Rushmore in the picture above). Empire Builder boards are composed of a bajillion dots on waxy material. The waxy board allows the players to draw their rails with crayons, and after game end, erase those railways for the next play-through (crayons included in the game, but paper towels are not).
All the boards use the same black dots on white background format
At the beginning of the game you receive 4 load cards (from which you will choose 3), each with 3 options of what good to deliver to what location. 
Australian Rails load card
It's important to note that you will only use ONE of these three delivery options and then the card goes away, to be replaced by a new random card. You pick up the various goods in cities all over the board (you are given a reference chart to determine where that city is), and the farther that resource is from the destination city, the more money it is worth. During your turn you move your train a fixed number of spaces (that you can increase by pimping your ride) and then may spend up to 20$ million to extend your railroad. It is more expensive to build over mountains and rivers, so building in specific areas first can yield a cost advantage.You may spend your turn discarding all your load cards and drawing a new random set. It is important to note that inside the load deck there are random cards that will screw players based on their location on the board. For instance, flooding on the Mississippi will destroy your rails and cause anyone in the area to miss a turn (and since you have to repair your rails, it can often amount to missing two turns).

FUN: 1 - I flippin' hate this game. It gets a '1' over a '0' because every few years I forgot how bored I get playing this game and agree to play. The first ten minutes is fun, and the remaining 2 hours and 50 minutes is pretty much pure tedium to me. In general, I am wary of train games. By construction, train empires require a lot of initial investment in order to play out in the long run. What this means is that a certain point in many of these games you can look and be like "I fucked up. It's game over for me" but you have to sit there for another ninety minutes waiting to die. Now I will say there is a group of people that really, really, really enjoys these games. Empire Builder might be my mom's favorite class of games, but for me, it's a bitter experience every time.

STRATEGY: 3 - I give this rating with a very perplexed face. 
First result on Google for 'perplexed face'
I personally feel there is little strategy, but the same people perform well in this game pretty consistently so I'm inclined to say it's a skill-based game. In the initial stage of the game, you have to assess your cards and decide where you are going to build. That part of the game is pretty brain intensive and fun as you are trying to figure out how you can efficiently connect a network to pick up your first few paydays. After, you pray that every new card you get is a load you can deliver or connect to and that you don't randomly get delayed because you were in the wrong city at the wrong time (completely out of your control). You might even completely sack out (sack - short for lucksack; to have a sack full of luck means to have a lot of luck) and draw the card that delivers Bauxite to Perth for 65 million and you happen to have Bauxite that you were carrying on board! (You can do this because you don't pay for resources in the game, you just pick them up willy nilly as long as you have room) Knowing when to discard your hand and draw a new one is definitely an experience-based aspect of the game, but it's a feel bad mechanic that most people who aren't familiar with the distribution of cards would avoid (spending a turn discarding just feels like losing). In fact, I have heard of strategies where you pick up a remote resource and then dig for locations to deliver it to. That makes sense to me, but is that fun?

SOCIAL: 0 - You aren't getting away with this one Empire Builder. In the game you can take your opponent's rails and pay them to do so, but that doesn't mean there is interaction in this game. I played this game over break with my family and paid next to no attention to what they were doing and why there were doing it and still won (by some miracle; this is a game I often lose due to lack of experience with efficient rail set-ups). An anecdote of the game to show how it is the easiest game to disengage with in the world:
I read a book between turns. There was a point in the game where I was making a pair of deliveries across the board so I just counted out what spaces I would end up every following turn and marked it on the map. For half an hour, I would look up at the board for 3 seconds when it was my turn, and then pass the turn to my sister. I'm not exaggerating. I timed it. For a score and ten minutes I stuck a thumb up my butt and went to la-la land. Sure, I could have normal conversations with other players when it isn't their turn, but my point is that as a 3-hour game, interaction is limited to "sucks that you got stuck crossing the Ohio River". Or in my case, "Does this play even make any sense at all?"

FLAVOR: 2 - The flavor of this game is alright - you are connecting cities with railroads and delivering goods. Everything about that makes fine sense to me. You can spend money to upgrade your trains, and the initial investment of building your trains and railroads is outweighed by the long-term benefits. However, there are some things that are pretty empty flavor-wise. For instance, it's unlikely that they would call Jim from the Great Northern and say "Jim, I have a job for you. You can deliver Wine to Cincinnati, Cattle to Jacksonville, or Iron to Las Vegas. Subsequently, we will pay you 13, 27, or 14 million dollars. The choice is yours." Additionally, when you pass through a city, you can pick up any good they offer for free. Cause why not? We have too much beer in this city anyway, feel free to grab some and carry it around the world for the next few weeks until you find a buyer.

MISCELLANEOUS: 2 - The game board is kinda ugly, but there is a definite appeal to drawing on things with crayons. In fact, as a child, my desire to draw with crayons on the board was my first experience with this game.

Parting Thoughts on Strategy: Uh, well I suck at this game. Count out everything at the beginning to see if you can actually get to the places you want to get (building railroads is expensive!). Always stock your train full of materials because some of the nasty effects make you lose one of your goods. Unless you have delivery chains, longer runs tend to be better than shorter ones.

Best of luck delivering!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar Game Review

Tzolk'in is a worker placement game that was (quaintly enough) released in December 2012.
The end of the world.

Tzolk'in plays out over 26ish turns (27 is the maximum number of turns but players can manipulate it so the game is shorter) and I assume each turn is supposed to indicate a two-week period so it sort of, kind of plays over a "year." The goal by the end of those 26 turns is to (can you guess?) score the most victory points. You score points by constructing buildings, being technologically advanced, erecting monuments, praising the gods, and leaving crystal skull gifts for the aforementioned deities.

Dat headdress.

The decision making in Tzolk'in begins before the game even starts as you get 4 starting resource tiles and select your two favorite. I kind of like this unique take on starting resources - skimming through the tiles they seem to be pretty balanced, however, I think certain tile combinations can put a person slightly ahead before the game even starts. Like in many worker placement games, there is a "feeding phase" that occurs 4 times throughout the game - once every 6 or 7 turns. There are buildings (farms) you can create that assist in this process, and to me it seems pretty rough to get by without building some kind of farm.
During your turn, you can either place workers or pull workers off the board (but not both). The longer workers have been on the board, the more advanced they have become in their tracks (thanks to a nifty wheel majigger) and will yield cooler things. When you place workers, you must place in the lowest parts of the tracks available. Placing higher in the tracks (because lower levels are blocked) or placing multiple workers will cost you precious corn.
More stuff is better, so you can see that Yellow is primed to reap Palenque.
I mentioned there were 26ish turns in the game, but that is actually pretty false - since you are spending around half your turns placing workers, you really only have 13ish complete action sequences. One thing I haven't quite figured out about this game (and highly intrigues me) is the efficiency of placing all your guys versus slowly placing them, in addition to the efficiency of pulling off all your workers simultaneously instead of pulling them off one by one. In most worker placement games you want to get as much stuff as fast as possible, but like a good chili, sometimes just letting the fruits of your labor marinate for some time can really pay off in the end.
The various tracks allow for different actions. The 'food' track yields corn or wood. The 'resource' track gives building materials and crystal skulls. The 'building' track allows you to advance on the technology tracks (which increase action efficiency), construct buildings, and appease the gods. The 'special' track allows you to get more workers, swap resources, or break the rules in little ways. The 'VP' track allows you to place crystal skulls and get a bunch of points for doing so. You could play an entire game and ignore the last two tracks, but it is probably impossible to ignore the first 3 and still win.

FUN: 4 - Tzolk'in is a fun brain game. It's no secret that I love worker placement games and Tzolk'in is no exception. I have only played the game twice, but I really enjoy the planning aspect of the worker placement- by construction you have to plan several turns ahead. You are always weighing the costs of playing more guys versus how long it would take to play them all out. Upon reading the rules I thought the goal would be to play out and scoop up your workers as fast as possible but the game is in fact much more deep than that. The gameplay isn't necessarily complex, but it does require you to always be paying attention to what you are doing. Plan, plan, plan!

STRATEGY: 4 The game has a high level of strategy because it is incredibly dynamic, but those dynamic elements aren't random. In fact, the only thing that is random in this game is the starting tiles and the order in which buildings are revealed. I debated on giving this game a '5' strategy because I was always thinking about what I was doing while playing it, but after some more thought, I don't think it deserves to be a '5'. One thing that keeps this game from being a '5' is that I worry that some aspects of the game are eminently solvable. What I mean by that is that after a dozen plays, I wonder if I will look at the board and say "ah, this time I will place two guys on corn so I can perform the good ole' double clear forest/reap action at levels 5 and 6." When games turn into recurring systems, they aren't quite as strategic. That being said, in the two games I played, I saw four separate game plans perform quite successfully. There is quite a bit going on with this game, and you will never interact with all of it in one play through. I just hope the different strategies are all as viable as they seem at initial glance. I always felt like thinking forward was well rewarded in this game, and I felt accomplished when a strong plan came together.

SOCIAL: 2 This might be more of a personal perception. In games with lots of planning, I think between every players turn in order to cut down on the time it takes me to act on my turn. Since rotating dials are surprisingly difficult to keep track of, I find myself blocking out the other players for the most part. Now, it does pay to have some idea what your opponents are doing. The game has a monuments mechanic, unique buildings that score tons of points at game end, and you want to make sure no one is going to build the monument you are shooting for. Additionally, you are all competing to be the most in favor with the three separate gods so knowing where people are advancing is important. All of that information, however, can be gleaned from looking at the board itself. There is no direct interaction in this game and it is very easy to block out the other players except for the cylindrical workers they place on the board. There are some actions that are exclusionary (for instance, placing a skull on a certain location prevents others from doing so), but almost none of these actions should ever come as a surprise to people.

FLAVOR: 2 I feel mean giving this rating. The idea of a Mayan game is cool. The influence of the gods is interesting. The gigantic gear that rotates all of the city tracks is amazing looking and quite unique. That being said, the gear is just an aesthetic pleasure. Simply put, the flavor of this game does not affect the mechanics of game play. The temple tracks could just as easily be currying favor with politicians, or investing in mines, or providing troops for a distant war. In the end, you are just moving cylinders along a couple tracks to get more stuff and then you use that stuff to convert into victory points...just like every other worker placement game. I like Tzolk'in, but the theme of the game has very little to do with it. My enjoyment from the game is derived from the mechanics, and as I said, I don't feel the game play nor mechanics are informed by the theme.

MISCELLANEOUS: 4 The game is beautiful. The rotating gears are super cool, and while at their core they really just advance a few tracks 1 space each, the game does it in a really unique and satisfying way. I really enjoy that the starting set up is different for each player so right off the bat you can pursue different strategies instead of having people constantly vie for the same base strategies. The random selection of monuments also gives different end game goals for players to pursue. The board is incredibly vibrant and it makes it stand out against a lot of the other plainer looking worker placement variants. Also, the crystal skull pieces are awesome. Some people even go balls out and paint their boards and make special pieces.
Too much time on your hands?

Parting thoughts on strategy: I haven't really played enough to give you a very solid idea, but here is what I've learned so far. First of all, never go to 0 corn unless you are pulling off workers next turn - this means pay special attention to when the feeding days are! Like in most games, you should decide a strategy you want and you should go for it in a focused fashion. In both games I played (and won), I went for some variation of a building strategy: either by the architecture tech track or the resources tech track. Buildings are just incredibly versatile and allow you to do a lot of other things. Gear a game plan towards a monument, as they can be worth over 30 points in a game where a winning score is 75 points. I watched my brother grab a close second by focusing entirely on crystal skulls. I think in general it is most efficient to place over time and pull as many guys off at the same time as possible, but I honestly don't know for sure.

May your sacrifices be well met!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Pandemic Game Review

Ah, Pandemic - the golden standard of cooperative games. My college game club picked up Pandemic in my senior year, and we played the game enough times for me to become sick of it until I found someone with the copy of an expansion. (Side note: as a rule of thumb, I dislike game expansions, but the Pandemic expansion does a fair amount to change the game - primarily to make it more challenging - without changing the core of the original)
In Pandemic, you work for the CDC when suddenly BLAMO!!! Not one, not two, not three, but FOUR SIMULTANEOUS AND GEOGRAPHICALLY LIMITED EPIDEMIC PANDEMICS ATTACK THE EARTH! As one of the various CDC roles, your goal is to run around the world and find the cure to infection before any or all of the diseases get completely out of hand. 
As a fully cooperative game, there are no secrets between players and full collaboration is encouraged and generally required to win the game. Every turn, you have 4 actions that you can use to move, build, cure, trade, or research. After your actions, you draw (almost always) helpful cards that correspond to the geographic cities on the map followed by revealing several infection cards that will force you to place miserable disease cubes on the board. If you get too many disease cubes, there is an outbreak. The goal of the game is to collect the right cards to research the cures but in the meanwhile you need to manage the diseases so that there aren't too many deaths (outbreaks) and prevent any disease from becoming so prolific it becomes unstoppable (all cubes of one of the four colors is gone). Additionally, you can die by running out the geographic location deck. Oh, and one other thing - the deck where you get good cards from? Every once in awhile, you'll flip an epidemic that will ravage a new city. If you find all 4 cures (having 5 of a specific color of card and going to a research station) before the game end, you all win. Simple as that.

Or is it?

Yes it is because the game is really easy to play, it just isn't necessarily easy to win. 

FUN: 3 - Pandemic is a perfect example of a '3' game for me - I'm almost always amenable to playing but I will rarely suggest playing it (unless I'm trying to hook new gamers). I don't own Pandemic and I never hope to, in large part because enough people own it so that I can pick it up or put it down any time I like. Here's the thing about Pandemic: it's really just a big random number generator puzzle. Now, I love playing "puzzle games" because sitting around figuring out the most efficient path to victory is entertaining for me, but ultimately, it is more of a puzzle than a game. That being said, Pandemic is NOT forgiving. If you spend almost any time durdling (slang; wasting time) you will lose and wonder why even though picking up that one cube in Santiago may not have been the best play. The nice thing is that it's over in 35 minutes and you can give it a second or third shot. What Pandemic does really well is engage you - turns are generally fast and you always want to be paying attention to what your doctors-in-arms are doing. Additionally, it's easy to bring new people into Pandemic, hold their hand through the first game, and then play a second right after.

STRATEGY: 2 - Pandemic has what I refer to as a "Strategy Shelf" - the point you reach where you literally can't get any better at the game. It doesn't take long to get there in Pandemic. In my mind, there are three levels of learning in Pandemic:
  1. Holy shit there are cubes everywhere! ANOTHER EPIDEMIC ARE YOU KIDDING ME WE HAVENT EVEN HAD THE CHANCE TO CLEAN EVERYTHING UP? How in the hell do I get 5 cards?
  2. Ohhhhh, I'm supposed to RESEARCH cures not clean up all the cubes. I can even trade cards with other players! Epidemic, huh? JOHANNESBURG??!? F&^#$%
  3. Oh man, understanding when to use my cards to fly places (and charter flights especially) makes me amazing at this game. Also, tactical research station placement! Who woulda thought?
Once you start figuring out the "systems" in Pandemic, you're usually just applying your new understanding to slightly different situations. Sometimes it is harder than others, but for the most part you know that the Operations Expert is supposed to drop bases everywhere and that you load up the players with redundant cards with more of the same card to win ASAP. 
One other thing I will note about Pandemic in terms of the luck of flipping cards: it is my opinion (particularly in a 4-player game) where you can play near perfectly and still lose to bad card draws. If everyone draws an equal distribution of colors, you are in for a world of pain (because everyone is sick and the symptoms are violent). On the other hand, in a 2-player game, the game is basically impossible to lose once you get the hang of things - I can go into a complicated statistical treatise (that has been composed in my head) of this but it basically comes down to an increased likelihood of color density in your card draws.

SOCIAL: 5 - I mean, I called it the gold standard of cooperative games. What do we play cooperative games for other than to...uh...cooperate with one another? I actually think it could be fun to try a version of Pandemic where the players NEVER speak to one another, and see what you can do with that and if you can operate on the same wavelengths (warning: only for experienced players who have immense patience with their fellow gamers) but I would only do it once because the cooperation aspect is the reason why I play this game. One word of warning though, the social value of this game PLUMMETS if you attempt to play for other players. I myself am guilty of this mistake once or twice, but when you just start bossing other players around instead of including them ("Dispatcher, move me to Miami to meet up with Alexander Flemming. Just do it!") they start to get really bored of the game. If you have a plan, explain it to people and see what they think of it. It's an egalitarian game, not a despotic one.

FLAVOR:1 - Ugh. I want to give this game more than a 1 because the idea of a disease game is just SO DAMN COOL. But the flavor in this game has absolutely nothing to do with the mechanics. The fact that there are four simultaneous epidemics that don't spill over into other regions is...painful enough. The fact that pulling 5 cards of a colored region is the key to curing a disease is a joke. The fact that I have to meet you in Algiers (specifically) where there isn't a single bit of disease in order to pass off my Algerian knowledge of the Black Death is just an extra dagger in the heart.
What? This photo doesn't invoke terror in your soul? It should.
When bashing games for their flavor, I often like to think about how else the game could be skinned (themed) so that the gameplay and feel of the game is the EXACT SAME. The best part of this anecdote is that I wasn't even playing in the game that it happened in. My college buddy, Eric, and I were really into Warhammer 40,000. Not the miniatures game, just the flavor of the world. One time, Eric corralled the rest of our friends into playing "For the Emperor" a game where the Space Marines had to face the simultaneous invasions of the forces of Chaos, the Orkz, the Eldar, and the Necrons. Geographic cards become battleground locations, and having 5 battleground locations meant you won a crushing campaign against the enemy space race. Let me tell you, the cries of "I shall suffer no heretics!" changed the gameplay in absolutely no way, but instead enhanced the experience.

MISCELLANEOUS: 3 - The pieces in Pandemic are alright, the rules are easy enough to follow and explain, but the thing that really sticks out to me in the Miscellaneous category is that I play Pandemic for the niche role that it fulfills. If I'm looking for a quick, easy-to-teach, cooperative game, Pandemic is the go to. There are some other fine options, but I think Pandemic really just does it in a sleek way. Pandemic is an incredibly accessible game, but it also appeals to heartier gamers looking for something simple. That being said, Pandemic really ONLY fills that specific role. To be fair, that is all it seeks to do.

Parting thoughts on strategy: I already touched on this earlier, but the goal of the game is to research cures. Make sure to utilize trading and flying (to facilitate trades). I can't emphasize how powerful charter flights are once you actually understand what you are doing, particularly in a 2-player game (because you need to cover more ground and you tend to have less bases). By the way, a good Operations Expert (using the modified OE from the expansion) should just spend the first turns making the entire board easily accessible.

Bless your soul for curing all the world's diseases.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Dungeon Lords Game Review

I have a confession: I judge games by their cover.

Have you ever played Dungeon Keeper?

Dungeon Keeper was a tongue-in-cheek video game my brother and I played when we were much younger. The goal was to build the most bad-ass dungeon in the kingdom, and prepare for heroes that would come and invade your lair. I have no doubt in my mind that Vlaada Chvatil has played and loved these games. However, much like when the book becomes a movie - I automatically assume that the game is bad when I first saw it come out a few years ago. However, I played a few of Vlaada's other games (Space Alert, Galaxy Trucker) and really enjoyed them, so come Christmas time a year ago - I bought Dungeon Lords for my brother.

Dungeon Lords has been amazingly adapted from the computer game. Obviously not all the mechanics are the same, but the themes, the tongue-in-cheek nature, and the desire to crush the souls of heroes translate very well from the old school video game. In Dungeon Lords you dig tunnels, develop special rooms, hire monsters, design traps, and pay taxes all in the glorious name of evil.
At its core, Dungeon Lords is a worker placement game. The game takes place over 8 seasons (turns), and at the end of the first and second year you will be attacked by a group of adventurers. Every turn you select 3 actions from the 8 possible choices (Food, Propaganda, Dig tunnels, Mine gold, Hire imps, Buy traps, Hire Monsters, Build rooms) and place them face down in front of you. In turn order, you reveal your actions as you placed them and put your figure on the board. The actions are all different depending on the order in which you take them, for instance, if you go to acquire food you pay gold to get 2 food, but if you are the second player to do so, you become more evil and get the food (as the farmers no longer wish to sell, so you rob them). Furthermore, there are only 3 slots for each action, so if you are the 4th to do something, then sorry bub, you lose your action. Every turn 2 of the cards you played the turn prior are unusable, so people have some way to project what actions you are going to take. For players that really want to overthink things, trying to get in the other players minds can be essential in this part of the game.
Throughout the year heroes queue up at your dungeon entrance, with the most evil player getting the most difficult opposition. If a player is evil enough, he will have to face the dreaded paladin. But combat isn't the only thing you have to worry about. Your monsters demand additional pay and the tax collector will assess the size of your dungeon and charge you for it. Failing to pay your monsters or your taxes (especially taxes) is devastating to your end game score. 
At the end of the game players score points based on the size and compositions of their dungeons, along with how many heroes were killed vs. how many rooms the heroes destroyed. Additionally, and most importantly, players score points for acquiring a variety of titles, including Most Evil, Lord of Imps, Lord of Halls and so on. 

FUN: 4 - I really enjoy Dungeon Lords and would gladly play it just about anytime. The only thing that keeps it from getting a '5' rating is that I feel the strategic choices in the game are a bit lacking (more on that below). That being said, the game is incredibly engaging - I am always paying attention to what I am doing and planning for the future. The most enjoyable (or agonizing!) part of the game is when the heroes finally come into your dungeon and you tear them to pieces or they intricately deconstruct your pathetic dungeon. You spend most of the game setting up for the heroes, and then you try to solve the puzzle of how to kill them in the most efficient way possible. One thing I personally love about this game is that even though the learning curve is a bit steep, once you get it, you get it thoroughly. One of my roommates, who I would describe as a lighter gamer, has named Dungeon Lords one of his favorite games.

STRATEGY: 2 (maybe 3) - I will admit off the bat that this rating of strategy may say more about my opinions about what strategy means in a game than about the game itself. Let's start with the positive: the game has a cool mechanic where you are trying to figure out what cards everyone is playing and in what order - the goal is to abuse that knowledge in order to get yourself where you want to be in the action orders. This occasionally leads to decisions paralysis for players, but for the most part people make their decisions in a timely fashion. That being said, it is nearly impossible to perfectly estimate how the other players are going to sequence their cards (especially in the beginning of the game, less so at the end) and it can lead to some truly 'feel bad' moments when you played your room card in the third slot but have everyone play their room cards in the third slot AFTER you (there are only two available rooms) or when you play gold in your first slot and the three players in front of you also chose to do the same thing: blocking you out entirely.
None of this really explains why I scored strategy so low though. There are a few reasons. First of all, taxes are BRUTAL in the game and require all of the players to make sure they have as much gold as possible. In fact, the way taxes are structured, it actually discourages players from digging new tunnels until tax season has passed for the year. I personally think this is tragic, as being able to build honeycomb dungeons is one of the most entertaining aspects of the game! The same kind of effect happens with Monster Pay Day - you are disincentivized to hire monsters if Pay Day is coming, but the monsters are the best part!
The main reason that I rate this game as a low strategy game is because the game is all about the journey, and not about the end. It's fun to manage your board and to kill heroes, but the VP scoring mechanism at the game end is quite lacking to me. When you play, it feels like the goal should be to build an efficient dungeon. In reality, the goal is to maximize your victory points - which is not synonymous with building an efficient dungeon. For instance, there is a title for being the most evil, but there is an entire action (Propaganda) dedicated to making yourself appear less evil! There is no title for being nicest. There is a title for having the most tunnels and another for having most rooms, but neither of these rewards really feels deserved to me - rooms already score victory points just for being built! In many games I dug extra tunnels with no goal other than to get the Tunnel lord title instead of grabbing more traps to kill heroes (the true flavor goal of the game).
One of my main questions for strategy in a game is, "Did the actions I take make me feel like I deserved to win this game?" I think a good strategic game has a "Yes, therefore I won (or almost did)" or a "No, therefore I lost" kind of answer. In Dungeon Lords, I feel like there is a conflict between actions that kill heroes and actions that win the game. I will explain with an anecdote of a game I played:
We were playing a 3-player version of the game (where the fourth player blocks random action spaces throughout the game) and I was prevented from taking actions (blocked by other players) or taking an inefficient action a total of 5 times in the first year of the game. That's 5 of 12 actions that I had invalidated in the first half of the game. In addition, we were playing with the optional random event rule, which wound up hurting me the most of the three players. The entire game I felt like I was miles behind because of my pathetic dungeon, but I just played to the title scoring as best I could. In the end, I won. I was honestly and completely flabbergasted (and I tend to have a good sense of these things). I felt like I had played horribly and made bad/unlucky decisions but I won. To me, this is a flaw if the winner of the game feels completely undeserving, especially because there was no luck I would attribute to my victory!

SOCIAL: 4 - At first glance, this game seems like a solitaire game - you manage your own board, with your own minions, your own heroes, and can never attack another player. But if you are ignoring the other players, you are probably not playing to your maximum efficiency (the goal of all worker placement games). In fact, the crafty player needs to get inside the head of his opponents in order to determine what they will do to inform what actions you are going to take. This is accomplished by paying attention to the other players' strategies, which 6 of the 8 actions are available to them, and what your order in the turn is. Additionally, unless you are going the 'Evil as possible' strategy, it greatly behooves you to manage your Evil-meter from turn to turn to manipulate what heroes come to attack your dungeon. Although the game technically gives the strongest heroes to the most evil player and the weakest to the nicest player, you may actually want to avoid that thief hero (even if he is feeble) if you are going for trap strategy.
In addition, the flavor of Dungeon Lords creates an amusing atmosphere where you can brag about having your heroes fall into your best laid plans or giggle about the fact that you are simply confusing the pants off of the heroes instead of killing them. You can rub it in your friends face when he flips his trap card before you, allowing for the coveted free trap spot that is second in the action order, or you can cajole your buddy into selecting the Dragon so you can complete your trifecta army of Oozes.

FLAVOR: 5 - With the exception of the end of game scoring, this game plays like you are building an awesome dungeon. With the goal of killing the heroes in mind, every action is about acquiring resources or creating deadly scenarios. What really puts this game over the top is the small bits of flavor laced in every corner of the game (many of which can be found by reading the hilarious rules). For example, the "Magic Room" is a room where two imps and a romantic dinner meal enter, and a new imp comes out the other side. Vampires are incredibly powerful but can't attack clerics, who, by the way, hate the other members of their party and will only heal them after being attacked by monsters but not by traps (that's the rogue's job!). Your minions might go to town to buy food, but the townspeople refuse to sell it so you burn the town down and take the food anyway. When too many imps are working you need a foreimp to oversee them because they get confused. Even though I have griped about the end of the game, the titles are presented with an Emmy Award style statuette that maintains the entire tongue-in-cheek nature of being an evil overlord.

MISCELLANEOUS: 3 - The rules are an absolute treat, and you should read them just for the fun of it. Furthermore, the little imp components are pretty cool looking and fun to play with. Other than that, the pieces are alright, but nothing special. The reason this game doesn't get a super high rating is because upon explaining the rules for the first time, absolutely nothing makes sense. There's a bunch of little intricacies with the combat (do clerics heal this turn?) that require a play through in order to get used to. Additionally, to play the game to win it takes a few times more to understand why your awesome dungeon isn't just getting enough points to make the difference (pro tip: build more rooms).

Parting thoughts on strategy: As I mentioned before, if you are playing to win then play towards the titles. Try to get as many as possible. And build rooms! Throughout the whole game build as many rooms as you possibly can. The Trophy room that comes out in the second year is absurdly imbalanced, do everything in your power to get it. Always pay your taxes. It might be OK to miss one gold of your payment, but anything more than that and you are almost definitely out of the game. Traps can be really strong, but getting one thief in the back of your party can entirely invalidate your strategy. Getting a lot of imps early can really make a huge difference for you, especially if you get a room that you can throw them in at the end of the turn.

May you slay all the goodie two shoes and hope the demon doesn't eat you in frustration!