Competitive Future Archaeology – A Code of Nine review

It is the far and distant future. Long after the Conservative Party has burned down the last vestiges of modern civilization, four machines stumble through the ruins of mankind’s cultural Mekka (or possibly Des Moines) to pick up random bits of rubbish, convinced that this thing.. or maybe that thing… or maybe that other thing is an important artifact of human civilization. Unfortunately, nobody knows for sure. Everyone only knows 2/8ths of the truth – conveniently printed on cards – and it will take some clever deduction and reading of other players to figure things out. Or simply being first in turn order and placing your action marker on the appropriate action to let you peek at another player’s secret card. After an alarmingly quick five turns, the jig is, as they say, up. Or down. Or possibly sideways, because only then will you know for sure what will or won’t get you victory points.

 

CodeofNine

That sounds a bit confusing. So let’s try again. 5 turns (usually). 4 players. 3 actions per turn. 2 secret VP conditions per player. 1 clever and engaging game that thumbs its nose at the po-faced silence that accompanies so-called “pure” deduction games.

Code of Nine is a Japanese design by BakaFire, who I am sure has a traditionally Japanese-sounding name to our Western ears, but I have great respect for anybody who both dismisses the need for a surname and proper capitalization. As with many Japanese designs there is something remarkably refreshing about the whole-hearted embrace of randomness. Think of Love Letter, One Night Werewolf, Machi Koro. All games that feature a heavy dose of luck and randomness, but still provide enough robust gameplay to engage you, without letting competition distract you from the game you play. These games are designed to be played, and not to provide an alternative to juvenile belching contests over bragging rights.

And yet, despite Code of Nine engaging in the fickle dance of luck, it also promises that if you choose your actions wisely, you will end up victorious. If you put the clues together just right, you will establish yourself as the supreme future archeologist that you are destined to be. (Will have been? Will-an been have-ata?) People might call Code of Nine a deduction game. And it certainly shares all the outside markers for one. There is secret information, vital to the game’s end. There are numerous ways to both acquire as well as protect the secret bits of information entrusted to you. But the clever thing about this game, is that when it gets going Code of Nine is played in your mind. And not just your analytical, probability-calculating mind, but the part that deals with empathy, creativity, imagination or, you know, bluffing. And counter-bluffing. And counter-counter-bluffing. And… well you get the idea. Code of Nine is as much a deduction game, as it is an exercise in bluffing and subterfuge.

Many games incorporate large heaps of metagaming, but they usually require multiple plays, come with a huge stack of variables for you to memorize (I’m not naming any names, but Netrunner. I’m totally talking about Netrunner) and expect you to put in a lot of work to get to the metagamey goodness. Not so in Code of Nine. By the halfway point – which is about 7 actions per player in – it becomes apparent that each action a player takes tells you a lot about what they’re going for. And by extension, which cards they may hold. Before you even realise what’s happening, your cranial gears have gone into overdrive. “Why did she do that?” “Why did he get mad?” “Who shot J.R.?”

Co9

Making a sneaky move that only you and the affected player understand the consequences of, and leaving the rest of the table dumbfounded, is one of the joys of this game. Code of Nine is a deduction game that makes you feel clever not for solving the mystery, but for leveraging said solution for victory points. When an unexpected action leads to sudden outbursts of cursing and/or laughter, Code of Nine reveals its full potential. It’s a sizzling cocktail of mindgames ready to burst at any moment.

But with all that said, there are things about the game that feel somewhat clunky. Like that fairly long, yet very specific list of VP goals. You don’t need to have them all memorised, but you do find yourself looking at them over and over again as players take their turn. The VP calculation can be a little convoluted, since there are 8 distinct effects in play every game and some significantly affect one another. Some of the VP effects leave just a little bit too much room for interpretation, so a strongly competitive bunch is bound to have some rules argument at the end of the game.

All those things, though, are small blemishes on an otherwise strikingly unique game, that refuses to give players an easy way out. In Code of Nine there is always the risk of misreading an opponent and getting disqualified in the final turn because you have too many or too few of some resource. This either makes you pull a face in disgust, or giggle as you imagine one of your friends apoplectic with rage as you reveal the VP card that kicks him out of the top spot.

If you’re the type who giggled, you should pick up this game.

-Georgios

A Small Slice of Perfection – Part 14

I Know What You Did Last…. Turn

It is finally here! The long delayed, penultimate installment of “How not to be a douche” a.k.a. “Boardgame etiquette” is released and this time Georgios looks at those moments, when something fishy appears to be going on. How to respond? And why? And what should you keep in mind to avoid coming across as a grade-A douche?

These trying and unforgiving questions aren’t always easy to answer, but luckily there is this slice to guide your way.

Talk to us: Twitter (Ben) | Twitter (Georgios)
Tell us what you think: E-Mail | Website | BGG
Like us here: Boardgamelinks | Facebook | Instagram
Find us here: Stitcher | iTunes

 

Through the Ages – A New Story of Whup-ass

I sit here covered in lesions. Great welts criss-cross my back, patches of my skin are raw and pimpled where the hair has been ripped out at the roots and there is the unmistakable whiff of Maddox crackling permeating the air. This is because I’ve been recently playing Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilisation, a game that has allowed me to tap into herculean reservoirs of masochism that I never knew I had. So much masochism, in fact, that I would easily walk away with a gold medal in it; if such a thing existed.

Through the Ages is a civilisation game without a map. The story of your nascent empire will be told through the acquisition of cards purchased, for actions, from a card row. These cards will improve your ability to produce resources, swap philosophy for science, build population quelling structures and recruit leaders to guide your nation through the tumultuous seas of history.

There are no little plastic soldiers, there are no dice to simulate fog of war, it is simply the interplay of your cards with that of your opponents that will ensure your success or failure.

On top of this you can improve your armies and drive your way up the military track and intimidate the others at the table before crushing their civilizations into the blood red clay.

If you can have the greatest cultural influence by the end of the game you condemn all the other civilisations to the wheelie bin of history and get to build faux-trendy coffee shops and fast food “restaurants” on every street corner across the scarred face of the planet.

The first thing to be said about Through the Ages is that it is unforgiving. Extremely unforgiving. Unforgiving in the Calvinist sense (look it up, it’ll blow your mind). Errors of judgement and tiny miscalculations are punished mercilessly and the game is designed to actively encourage beating the weakest player and so provide a perfect analogue for the story of the human animal up to this point.

Photo by Paul Grogan

Victory is achieved through the systematic destruction of those weaker than you which means that playing against more experienced players or players that simply have more aptitude will result in hours of you being swung around like a cat in a plastic bag.

Also the game is long. Don’t let the box fool you. A full game with a full complement of players will easily exceed four hours.

So, the game is long.

The game is brutal.

Then why play it?

Simple.

Photo by Doug Adams

It’s fucking fantastic!

This is a game that is as engaging as it is frustrating. As enthralling as it is infuriating. As exciting as it is maddening. If art should reflect life then Through the Ages reflects all the glorious unpredictability of being a sentient, upright human being except it edits all the boring bits out.

It is a puzzle, it is a rigourous economic exercise and it is an iron clad battle of wits. This is a game that manages to be unpredictable, rambunctious and gut screamilngly vicious whilst at the same time being serious, thoughtful and profound.

It appeals to those who revel in minutiae and those who enjoy smacking people across the head.

Then there’s the satire.

Photo by Filip Murmak

Probably more than other designer, Vlaada Chvatil reflects the world in which he was brought up. From the corner-cutting communist future worlds of Space Alert and Galaxy Trucker to the cute monsters in Dungeon Petz whose malice bubbles just under the surface and evokes memories of the surrealist nightmare-scapes of fellow Czech Jan Svankmajer, Chvatil seeks to comment on the world he sees around him.

Through the Ages is no exception and like Space Alert this is satire though mechanisms, something intrinsic to the play of the game rather than an appendage bolted on.

Wonders can be built during the game and bestow benefits on the players building them. One such wonder is the Kremlin and while it greatly improves the players military capacity, mean happiness plummets. Most of his scorn is aimed at the martial and tyrannical but his satire can take a more light hearted bent too. Sid Meier, for instance, increases the cultural output of your laboratories whilst reducing their productivity, as it’s difficult to focus on science when you could play just one more turn of Civilization.

Photo by Paul Grogan

Through the Ages fulfills all the criteria to elevate it into the realm of art while never forgetting that it is a game. A game that delights and infuriates and has the capacity, when played badly, to suck up your self-esteem like a malevolent cardboard vacuum cleaner.

This is not a game that I can play every week but when I feel the urge to emulate a Tory M.P. and swing around from a P.V.C. “discipline swing” with an unpeeled orange stuck up my arse then Through the Ages is my go to. It is a wildly arousing dominatrix of a game and although it treats me badly it’ll always have me coming back for more.

-Ben

Perfect Information Spotlight – Costa Rica

Thanks to the slow-grinding cogs of the European justice system, we managed to get Matthew Dunstan to return to our little show, before the restraining order would take effect and we’d have to cease any attempts at contacting him. 

The game that we are “interested” in is “Costa Rica”, which “Ben” mercilessly grilled “the” designer on. (Also, can somebody tell “how” those quotation “marks” work? I’m not “sure” I really got the “hang” of it.)

Tell us what you think: E-Mail | Website | Twitter | Boardgamegeek
Like us here: Boardgamelinks | Facebook | Instagram
Find us here: Stitcher | iTunes

Our new episode is up!

Perfect Information Spotlight – Costa Rica

A returning designer spills the beans

Thanks to the slow-grinding cogs of the European justice system, we managed to get Matthew Dunstan to return to our little show, before the restraining order would take effect and we’d have to cease any attempts at contacting him.

The game that we are “interested” in is “Costa Rica”, which “Ben” mercilessly grilled “the” designer on. (Also, can somebody tell “how” those quotation “marks” work? I’m not “sure” I really got the “hang” of it.)

Tell us what you think: E-Mail | Website | Twitter | Boardgamegeek
Like us here: Boardgamelinks | Facebook | Instagram
Find us here: Stitcher | iTunes

Forward to Blandness – A Tyrants of the Underdark review

Who is this for?

TyrantsBoxcover

That was the question I was left to ponder after packing away Tyrants of the Underdark, the new Dungeons & Dragons board game published by Gale Force Nine and Wizards of the Coast.

I’m not sure it’s for me. I’m not sure it’s for people who dwell in my rather uninhabitable part of the demographic spectrum. Those people who spend all of their money on board games and then bombard Twitter with pictures of them, all the while shrilly protesting that “there’s nothing wrong!” and “no really, I’m fine! Ha ha!”.

It certainly isn’t for the casual player; those friends of yours who indulge your obsession, but would barely lift an eyebrow if the police called to tell them you’d hanged yourself.

Then it seems that this game was made for those DnD players that are board game curious. Market research has identified them as a group, that are not fully maximizing their fantasy product outlay and so this glaring gap has to be plugged. This is what does Tyrants of the Underdark does. It plugs a gap. As do suppositories.

I belly flopped into DnD with the release of fifth edition. I belly flopped hard. The kind of belly flop that leaves your torso red for weeks and people at the side of the pool looking like they’ve just sniffed a three week old pint of urine. I bought the rule books and the adventures. I backed those metal dice kickstarters. I bought really unfunny fucking t-shirts and I loved it, because DnD is so great. So blindingly great. It is the scaffolding around which so many great experiences can be built. It begs you to be creative; it begs you to be anarchic and to simply do with it whatever you wish. This is a product put out by a corporation that doesn’t feel in the slightest bit corporate. Not so with Tyrants of the Underdark.

In Tyrants of the Underdark players are the heads of drow (dark elf) houses that are vying for control of the iconic Forgotten Realms setting. This is achieved through deck building and area control elements that utilize plastic troop figures and a board.

Troops are placed on the board by a combination of card powers and spending one of the game’s currencies: Power. These cards are bought from the now crushingly familiar card row, using the other in game currency: Influence. Locations yield points based on area majority and it is these points that will win you the game.

Now this game isn’t bad and that is part of its problem. It’s almost too slick. Too well play-tested. It doesn’t feel as if a human has had any hand in making this game. There are none of the curious bobbles and imperfections that make designer games unique. It’s like a print of a famous painting. It’s pretty enough, but you can’t see the brush stokes or the eyelashes stuck in the paint. This game feels impersonal and produced rather than designed.

The card play and combos, the life of any deck builder, are without spark and originality. The market deck (the cards you buy) is comprised of two half decks (the game comes with four) that are shuffled together. Each half deck has a singular “character” that is supposed to ensure replayability, but they are just a laundry list of mechanics cribbed form other deck builders. “Look that’s the market row from Ascension” and “Oh, here’s that sub-suit from Star Realms that’s not done as well here.” It’s prosaic and unoriginal. It flows together well but doesn’t give you any feeling of excitement.

There is no peril or danger in the area control. You play cards, you put blokes out on the board and if other players kill them, you just put out more. One of the ways the games ends is when a player places their last troop on the board, and I found myself desperately trying to place as many troops as possible just to end the game.

This is a game that has been produced to try and garner a few more quid from those in love with DnD and it uses blandness to do it. This is no great surprise, though, as they have had such great success with king of blandness in games: Lords of Waterdeep.

If you love DnD stick with DnD, not with this watered-down version of some of the deck builders you know and love. Tyrants of the Underdark plays like it was constructed by The Deck Building Game Machine™ and leaves you feeling distinctly beige after playing it.

So the answer to my question. Who is this game for? Well it certainly isn’t for me and if you crave spark, originality and fun? Well it certainly isn’t for you either

– Ben

Perfect Information Episode 23 – Masterpieces and whatnot

I shall exterminate everything around me that restricts me from being the master

In this episode, Ben & Georgios talk about masterpieces of gaming. The boardgames they pick, and the reasons why. At least partly.

A quick stop at the guild lets us marvel at the interior decorating, before talking about your suggestions on how best to teach games (32:10).

Nick Mariner joins us, once more on the road, to add his voice and experience to guiding players into new games (56:26).

And finally, we review Scythe. It’s a boardgame. You see.. this is a boardgame podcast.. where we talk about… ah.. forget it. Ben and I both agree that our individual opinions on the game are more accurate than the other person’s. So that’s something at least.

Tell us what you think: E-Mail | Website | Twitter | Boardgamegeek
Like us here: Boardgamelinks | Facebook | Instagram
Find us here: Stitcher | iTunes

 

An Interview about Geek Dating

In which Ben shows off his Leisure Suit Larry impression.

As we’re heavily invested in the social dimension of gaming, it naturally falls into our purview to address the game beyond the game; the rutting time, the pon’farr, the seduction of the other.

To that end, Ben has sought out the minds behind G33dating, which is leet-speak for G-thirty-three-dating*, to talk a little bit about their website, what it offers and why you might want to have a look at it or tell a friend about it.

Alternatively, you could go to the site, sign up, make friends and tell them about it… although that seems somewhat redundant.

* – obviously a Battlestar Galactica reference… duh!

Tell us what you think: E-Mail | Website | Twitter | Boardgamegeek
Like us here: Boardgamelinks | Facebook | Instagram
Find us here: Stitcher | iTunes

 

Perfect Information Episode 22 – Those Who Can’t…

..and why you should be teaching to win!

It is a brand new Monday, so it’s time for a new episode.

This time Ben & Georgios talk about teaching. Specifically teaching board games. What to avoid and what to keep in mind. Apparently it’s more than just the rules. Who knew?

The incomparable Nick Mariner is in it to win it. And he explains why you should be too. So far no mention of Tiger Blood or “WINNING!” has resurfaced. Let’s keep it that way!

A quick stop at the guild gets us talking about your responses to feelings in board games. Or the lack thereof.

Finally, we review The Big Book of Madness. One of the big releases at last year’s Spiel in Essen, but Iello’s unassuming cooperative game seems to have vanished. Is it a hidden gem or a game that deserves to be forgotten?

Tell us what you think: E-Mail | Website | Twitter | Boardgamegeek
Like us here: Boardgamelinks | Facebook | Instagram
Find us here: Stitcher | iTunes