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Reviews Tabletop

Review – Res Arcana: Lux et Tenebrae

Designer: Tom Lehmann
Artist: Julien Delval
Publisher: Sand Castle Games (Asmodee North America)
Category: Card Game, Engine-Builder, Expansion
Player Count: 2-5
Price: $19.99 MSRP

Res Arcana is a relatively new a new engine-building game from Thomas Lehmann, famous for Race for the Galaxy. It did well enough to warrant an expansion, although the speed of Lux et Tenebrae’s release, as well as the ease in which it fits in the base game, makes me think this expansion was in production well before Res Arcana was released. In any case, is it worth another twenty dollars to upgrade your copy of Res Arcana? Let’s take a look! 

Content Guide

The game is about mages fighting each other, so be wary of any concerns you might have about witchcraft / sorcery. In particular, this expansion adds demon cards, which may give players a new level of discomfort with the theme. None of it is particularly scary-looking or realistic (after all, this is the same artist who does Ticket to Ride). The game is not explicitly violent; cards represent weapons, but I do not recall any blood or gore on the cards. There is maybe one revealing outfit (Beastmaster), but nothing extreme. 

Review

Strangely enough, the most important thing about receiving a review copy of Res Arcana was forcing me to play the base game again, and learning to properly appreciate it, forcing me to update my review

It’s near impossible to identify the expansion components apart from the base game components, which is a good thing. In fact, everything fits so neatly into the well, including an obvious slot for an expansion-only component, that I almost feel like this content was intentionally deleted from the base game to sell later. While that thought is somewhat annoying, I’d probably be complaining the other way if it didn’t all fit easily.

One of my favorite things in engine-building games is variable content, not all of which is used every game. This makes expansion content easy, simply increasing variety and replayability without necessitating new rules. Lux et Tenebrae is right on the money here, providing more of every single type of content in the base game, but no new rules. 

The most important thing Lux et Tenebrae adds are a new card type, Demons, which join Dragons and Beasts as the three possible sub-types in the Artifacts deck. And, of course, the new Mages, Monuments, and Places of Power reference the Demon Artifacts as well. Simply adding this new card type is important, allowing for more variation in the opening draft and diluting the overabundance of Dragon cards and their related strategies. The addition of Demons also adds a tiny bit more theme to a game that desperately needs improvement in that area. 

Related to that, the second most important change in Lux et Tenebrae is that the number of Places of Power now scales with player count, and two-player games (the best way to play) are reduced down to four Places of Power out of the seven (with the expansion) possible, instead of a constant, identical five always available. Players who find a particular Place of Power overpowered no longer have to face it every game, and again, the game is more variable at the outset, which is a good thing. 

If I had a complaint with the expansion, it’s that I’m not huge on the new Magic Item Inscription, because it’s unnecessarily complicated compared to the rest. However, considering the base game didn’t have it, I see no problem simply playing without it – it’s not as if any other Magic Items are removed from play with the expansion, so there are still plenty to choose from. 

Overall, Lux et Tenebrae is more of the same, and that’s exactly the kind of thing a game like Res Arcana – an engine-builder with so many variable pieces – should get from an expansion. If you love Res Arcana, this is pretty much an auto-buy.

Thank you to Asmodee North America for providing a review copy of Res Arcana: Lux et Tenebrae.

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Reviews Tabletop

Review: Caylus 1303

Designer: William Attia
Artist: Andrew Bosley
Publisher: Space Cowboys / Asmodee
Category: Worker Placement
Player Count: 2-5
Price: $59.99 MSRP

The original Caylus is important to the progression of the board gaming hobby for a variety reasons. First, it was one of the original worker placement games and it helped define and popularize the genre. Second, it’s also a poster child for the “boring medieval guy on the cover” trope so common among European strategy board games. Space Cowboys has worked with designer William Attia to greatly streamline the gameplay of Caylus, so much so that the game has a slightly different title. They also decided gender equity was important and now the cover has both a boring medieval guy and a boring medieval gal. But is the game any good? Let’s find out! 

Review

While the cover doesn’t inspire all that much confidence, this version of Caylus is clearly a graphical improvement over the general. The wooden bits are nice, the colors are vibrant, and the iconography is clear. Somehow the buildings still look classic enough that someone unfamiliar with the game, but knowledgeable of board gamers, might think it an older title, but somehow I mean that in a positive way. 

Now, unfortunately I have never played the original Caylus, so I can’t make much of a comparison. But I’ve read both rulebooks, and I can appreciate the efforts to streamline the game. However, I struggle to find what makes either version of Caylus exciting. When I’m playing a board game, whether a card game, big American war game, or a point-grabbing Euro game, I look for those “big moments” that make everyone go around the table and say “wow, impressive!”. Caylus can have those, but not often, and the most common one is screwing someone over with the Provost.  Let’s talk about him.

While it seems unfair to knock a founder of the genre for feeling unoriginal, in 2019 Caylus doesn’t have much pizzazz or uniqueness to separate it from the overwhelming number of worker placement games out there. Its unique hook is the Provost, who moves around the board and completely cancels any action ahead of him on the board. Players lose their workers and get nothing in return. There are places on the board, as well as sort of a bidding war early on each round, that let players move the Provost around, but the goal is ultimately to avoid getting your stuff ruined, and to completely ruin your opponents’ plans. I have two problems with this. 

The first problem is that now that the worker placement genre has grown, it kind of feels out of place to have such a mean mechanism. The genre is defined by its indirect interaction – you mostly mess people up by taking the spot they wanted, but then they just go and do something else that they wanted less. With the Provost, you can absolute ruin the entire game for another player who is balancing their resources on a razor’s edge (which, typically, is a strategic way to play a game in this style). I feel like the genre has drifted far away from what Caylus 1303 brings to the table in this regard, and it feels out of place in 2020. The other issue is that I’m by no means opposed to “mean” direct interaction, but I think I’ve come to appreciate far more in a two-player game, rather than a multiplayer game where destroying someone simply leaves the other players at the table ahead of both of you.  It’s the same out-of-place “bad feels” as Mandatory Quests in Lords of Waterdeep or Takeovers in Race for the Galaxy: Rebel vs. Imperium, but you can easily just remove those elements from those games. Here, the whole game is centered around it. 

Without the appeal of that mechanism, Caylus 1303 doesn’t do enough to differentiate itself from the wonderful, newer worker placement games like Everdell, Lords of Waterdeep or Viticulture. I can’t help but notice the three that came to mind use unique cards to inspire those big moments, while Caylus mostly uses meanness. There are special powers that move among players, which are a nice touch, but even those can be stolen at extremely inopportune moments to ruin a player’s day. You may notice that I haven’t really talked about resource management, or the buildings, or anything but the Provost and powers – that’s because, by 2020 standards, it’s all very basic and generic. In 2005, they may have been innovative breakthroughs, but not now. 

It’s entirely possible that a player who enjoyed the original Caylus will find this new edition actually less mean, or more streamlined and interesting, but without that nostalgia, Caylus 1303 simply does not measure up to the amazing games we’ve gotten in the 15 (!) years since it was first designed. 

Thank you to Asmodee North America for providing a review copy of Caylus 1303. 

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Reviews Tabletop

Review: Newton

Designer: Simone Luciani, Nestore Mangone
Artist: Klemens Franz
Publisher: Cranio Creations (Asmodee North America) 
Category: Card Drafting, Hand Management
Player Count: 1-4
Price: $59.99 MSRP

You get a lot of weird comments as a math teacher or professor, and most can be summed up as a “math apology.” You tell someone what you do, and they start talking about how bad they are at math. So, it’s not surprising that we don’t see too many games that celebrate mathematics.

Wait, you say? This is a game about scientists and their discoveries? But Newton is the father of Calculus! Let me have my moment! Anyway, let’s take a look…. FOR MATHEMATICS! (Hmm… just doesn’t have the same ring, does it?)

 

Review

I’ve mentioned in other reviews that I often view strategy board games as having two parts: a central mechanism for taking a turn, and then objectives attained by that mechanism. For some of the very best games, it’s impossible to separate the two, but many great games still have that obvious dividing line. And it’s clear as day in Newton. 

The absolute best part of Newton is the mechanism for taking a turn. You start with a hand of cards, and simply play one. Each card has a symbol on it corresponding to an action, and the more of the symbol you have, the better the action. For example, the first Movement card you play will let you move one space, but play a second in the same round ans you can move twice, since you see two Movement symbols. Symbols can appear in other ways, too – everyone starts with a certain symbol on their board, and can add bonus symbols to their board through various upgrades.

Perhaps most interestingly, every round players must bury one card from their hand, showing only the symbol (which becomes a permanent boost to your tableau). This creates intrinsic engine-building with the actions, but also forces players to spend actions buying new, better cards for their hand, lest they have no cards to play. It’s deckbuilding (or “handbuilding”), but in a very light and streamlined way. You wouldn’t have even thought of deckbuilding if I hadn’t said it – you would just see a clever card mechanism that instantly makes sense. 

That’s a really neat mechanism, but what do you do with it? Well, this is Newton, so you do… science. You travel the world, you read books for victory points, you send students out to do your busywork, and at critical moments, you get help from an expert in the field. These are cool ideas, and it’s a fun, unique theme. But it only really interweaves with the card mechanism because the game says it has to. What I mean by that is, the bonus tiles and things on the three (!) different board areas (not counting the individual player boards) give you various bonuses for the cardplay, but only because the bonuses have been hand-picked to adjust the various areas of the board or to boost card actions. You could strip away everything except the card mechanism and replace it with an entirely different theme and ruleset and it would work fine. 

While this division between the “how” and “why” of a turn is glaring, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it’s something that happens often in European strategy games. In fact, it could work in the game’s favor: I’d love to see this exact same card setup with an entirely different back half, with an altogether different theme (not that I dislike this one!). It’s quite a nice change of pace from the usual “settling an estate” or “trading goods,” but still fits nicely into the same period in which these Eurogames usually find themselves. 

I do have two complaints, however. The first is that the game looks like every Eurogame out there, even if the theme is different. Part of it is using the ubiquitous Klemens Franz as the artist yet again; the other problem is the overwhelming use of beige, brown and other muddy colors. The game looks serviceable, and the iconography is beautifully clear, but I just wish it was brighter and snappier. 

My other complaint is the lack of interaction. Sure, players are competing for the most victory points, and there are some bonus tiles that only go to whoever gets there first, but that’s literally it. This is exemplified by the solo play rules, which require a shockingly small amount of adjustment from the 2-4 player rules. On the other hand, because of this, the game plays incredibly well as a solitaire game. But, given the clear divide among the mechanisms I described earlier, they could have bolted on something far more interactive to the card play mechanism (area control or majority scoring, for example). 

Even though I have some complaints, those may actually be positives for other players. A friend with whom I played through Newton is a huge fan of other games by Simone Luciani, and he enjoys this type of artwork as well as the low level of interaction. As for me, nothing makes me happier than having a grip of cards in hand and an interesting way to play them, and that strength in Newton outweighs any complaints. 

Thank you to Asmodee North America for providing a review copy of Newton.

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Reviews Tabletop

Review: Marvel: Crisis Protocol

Designer: Will Pagani, Will Shick
Artist: N/A
Publisher: Atomic Mass Games
Category: Miniatures
Players: 2
Price: $65.94 Amazon.com

Marvel: Crisis Protocol brings the popular comic book universe to the tabletop! This skirmish miniatures game puts 2 players head-to-head as they control squads of superheroes (or villains!) in a race to 16 victory points. The core set provides all the materials players need to get started, but numerous expansions are already available to further customize the game.

Review

I have been active in the tabletop gaming scene for more than a decade, but I have very little experience with miniatures games. With the exception of the über-popular X-Wing and a drop-in game of Battletech at a recent con, the entire genre is unexplored territory for me. As a lifelong Marvel Comics fan, however, Marvel: Crisis Protocol made me stop and stare.

This game turns the tabletop into a superpowered battlefield. The core set comes with a staggering amount of plastic goodness for players to assemble and paint (I should note that I have not painted the miniatures in my set yet). In the base game box are 10 characters – 5 heroes and 5 villains – including Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Captain Marvel.

The goal of the game is to be the first player to 16 victory points, but the way players earn them varies from one game to the next. At the start of each game, 2 crisis cards are drawn; these establish the scenario and list special rules and scoring conditions.

Both players begin with a squad of characters. (As with most miniatures games, the rulebook includes instructions for squad-building.) Players need not stick to just heroes or just villains, but they can mix and match as desired. Each character has their own stats sheet, which lists their vitals (stamina, speed, defense, etc.) and details their attacks and superpowers.

At its core, Marvel: Crisis Protocol is not that complex, but its rules are a bit lengthy. With that in mind, the general gameplay involves players taking turns activating 1 character at a time. When a character activates, he/she can take 2 actions. Most often, these actions would be moving and attacking.

Movement works much like it does in X-Wing: the game comes with “rulers” to measure distance as figures are moved from one end of the ruler to the other. These measuring pieces can pivot, allowing characters to maneuver around obstacles.

Cosmic Cube in hand, Red Skull swiftly dives behind a car.

Attacks are character-specific, and they are all thematic to the individual hero/villain (e.g. Captain America throws his shield, Iron Man uses his repulsors, etc.). Each attack has a range, a strength stat, and a power cost. Range is self-explanatory, strength is the number of dice rolled when the attack is used, and power is the amount of energy needed to use it. (In a sense, power can be thought of as the game’s money.)

This brings up an interesting aspect of the game. Characters gain 1 power each turn, but this residual income does not go very far. However, any time a player suffers damage, they earn power equal to the damage they sustained. In this way, damage is bad (obviously), but sometimes it is the best way to gain the power needed to launch awesome attacks.

Of course, no Marvel game would be complete without superpowers. Characters each have their own abilities, which are asymmetrical, unique, and thematic. Some have an associated action or power cost to perform, but all are satisfyingly cinematic.

Characters can use the terrain in battle, climbing up buildings, dodging behind dumpsters, and yes, throwing cars. Depending upon the scenario, there may also be tokens on the battlefield for players to interact with, such as civilians, mission-specific items, or areas that must be secured.

Play continues until someone reaches 16 victory points; that player is the winner.


As I mentioned before, there is much more minutiae to this game than what I’ve covered here, including threat levels, squad affiliations, and different types of attacks/superpowers. It would be difficult to cover all aspects of this game succinctly, but hopefully my above description gives a general idea of how Marvel: Crisis Protocol works.

This game is very, very thematic. Playing it feels like acting out a climactic fight scene from an Avengers movie, complete with car-tossing, baddie-blasting, and cosmic-death-ray-dodging. Mixing and matching the characters is fun, and it provides great potential for customization. Speaking of characters, dozens of others are already available in expansion packs, and I suspect we will see more and more of them in the future.

The Black Panther & Killmonger expansion, which I use to illustrate how the miniatures come out of the box.

The rulebook succeeds at explaining the dynamics of play, but I wish it included “Quick Start” rules, like X-Wing does. As it is, the thick rulebook may be a bit intimidating for newcomers (though it is fairly thorough). That said, the game looks and plays great. I had a ton of fun assembling the miniatures; in total, they took ~3 to 4 hours to build, but I found it relaxing. (Side note: If you buy this game, you will also need to buy a hobby knife and modeling glue.)

Marvel: Crisis Protocol is a theme-drenched superhero skirmish. As a comic book fan, I appreciate the level of detail that went into its design – it is very clearly a labor of love. I don’t think it will be for everyone, but fans of minis games and true-believin’ Marvelites will definitely want to check it out.

Review copies of the Marvel: Crisis Protocol core set and Black Panther expansion were provided by Asmodee.

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Reviews Tabletop

Review: Catan: Starfarers

Designer: Klaus Teuber
Artist: Michaela Kienle, Franz Vohwinkel
Publisher: Catan Studio (Asmodee)
Category: Exploration, Trading
Players: 3-4
Price: $89.99 Amazon.com

Catan: Starfarers is an updated reprint of the highly-regarded but long-out-of-print Starfarers of Catan. This game takes the classic Catan system and builds upon it, offering exploration, alien encounters, and incredibly cool plastic rocket ship pieces. It is a great game for anyone who has played Catan.

Review

Love it or hate it, there’s no denying the towering influence of the Catan series. It is largely responsible for the explosive growth of modern tabletop gaming.

Many years ago, I was lucky enough to find the long-out-of-print Starfarers of Catan for a decent price, and I played a TON of it. Now, 20 years after its original release – an eternity in hobby gaming terms – what has become a “grail game” for many is back with a shiny, updated version.

Catan: Starfarers builds on the series’ basic game system, so for the sake of this review, I’m assuming the reader is familiar with the original. The core framework of Starfarers remains the same as any Catan game: players collect different types of resources, trade them with opponents, and use them to develop a network of colonies in a race for victory points. In addition to this, however, it offers a ton more content (and chrome) that makes it stand out from the rest of the series.

First, Starfarers includes an exploration aspect. Players begin at the edge of the board, on the “Catanian Colonies” (basically, planets that have been explored/settled). The rest of the board represents deep space, with planets ripe for discovery. Throughout the game, players build and pilot rockets to explore these unknown sectors. The numbered production tokens outside the colonies begin face-down, meaning players won’t know how “good” a planetary system is until they reach it.

Each player also has a giant, plastic rocket ship that represents the smaller ones on the board. During the game, players can upgrade and customize their rockets, adding boosters to make them faster, cannons to make them stronger, and freight pods to increase their transport capabilities.

As they explore the board, players may come upon ice planets, space pirates, or alien outposts. This leads into another aspect that makes Starfarers interesting: encounters. The large rockets have a number of colored balls inside them, and whenever a player wishes to move on the board, she “rolls” her rocket by shaking it, causing 2 balls to fall into the engine cone.

The red, blue, and yellow balls are used to determine how fast players’ ships can move each turn. A blue ball provides 1 speed, a yellow provides 2, and a red provides 3. If a black ball falls, however, it signals an encounter. When this happens,  a neighboring player draws and reads aloud the top card of the encounter deck. Normally, encounters give the current player a choice, such as:

  • Space pirates attack; do you flee?
  • You receive a distress call from another ship; do you respond?
  • You encounter an alien; do you give them resources as a gift (and if so, how many?)

Depending upon the player’s decision, the outcome may be good or bad, and it’s not always obvious which it will be. For example, taking a “friendly” action might backfire! (It’s the unexplored depths of space, what did you expect?) Additionally, when players establish trade stations at alien outposts, they earn “friendship cards,” which provide helpful bonuses going forward.

Like any Catan game, the winner is the first player to reach a set number of points, in this case 15. There are more nuances to the game than I have covered here, but hopefully, this gives some indication of the things Starfarers offers, that other Catan games might not.


I certainly have not played every iteration of Catan, but of the multiple versions I have played, Starfarers is my favorite, far and away (and it has been for years). The original Catan is fine, but it is definitely starting to show its age. I like Starfarers because it provides a variety of features that go beyond just “wood for wheat?,” like exploration and encounters. Additionally, this new version provides some updated mechanisms which really enhance the game. For example:

  • The game now offers extra resource cards for players with fewer points, to help them stay in the game
  • It introduces a variable board, which greatly adds to the replay value
  • Also, while the rules about discarding/stealing cards on a roll of 7 are still in place, all opponents receive a random resource card for free when it happens
  • There are now production tokens labeled “2/11” and “3/12,” which produce on either result, making their spaces that much more desirable
  • The game comes with extra colored balls, so players can adjust their ships’ probabilities as desired (for example, to make encounters more likely)

All in all, the experience is just way more dynamic than traditional Catan. Again, I like that game just fine, but I LOVE this one. The presentation in Starfarers is top-notch. (Also, having played both versions, I am happy to report that the redesigned rocket ships are much sturdier and not prone to breakage like the old ones.)

I would recommend this game to anyone who has played Catan, whether they enjoyed it or not. Fans of the series should have fun with Starfarers because it maintains the classic Catan essence, while building upon it. It will feel familiar, but with new challenges, much like adding in a new expansion. For folks who dislike or have grown tired of Catan, this game offers more options – and more strategy – than the original version. Either way, there is something here to enjoy.

(Also, those giant, plastic rocket ships are still some of the coolest game components ever.)

A review copy was provided by Asmodee.