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- I -
Ice Pirates of Harbour Grace
(Note: a complimentary copy of this game was received for purposes of review.) Game for up to six of exploration and combat. Players control ships which begin at the center of a sea formed by face down cards. Sailing reveals the cards which come in the following flavors: open sea, open sea with blocking ice, storm, treasure map fragment, extra crew, treasure island. Player travel is fueled by the wind which changes on every storm encounter, i.e. not overly often, and is directed by player desires to acquire the various ship upgrades located at the six corners. These enhance either movement, – main sail, jib, icebreaker – combat, – cannon, grappling hook – or discovery/pick-up – telescope. Only three of each are available and the later one arrives, the more they cost in crew. Theme-wise spending crew feels a bit odd as does having to to go to these various places, but it works well on its own terms since choosing which items one wants is a nice dilemma, particularly considering what others might do and whether it's necessary to sail upwind, i.e. slowly. The sailing rules work well, a speed of 3 being the maximum. Eventually someone finds all three map fragments and recovers the treasure, at which point the second phase begins: all attempt to seize the booty by combat and escape the map off the northern edge. Managing this can be quite an elegant puzzle as there are positioning and movement restrictions as well as changing winds. Sometimes the best move would be to hover in the right spot, but even that is difficult as the rules require a move. Often there is combat which is resolved with the help of dice, each player's total being the maximum of his crew or his die roll. The losing player may discard a crew and thus re-start the contest. This system offers a nice tension and does not outlast its interest. Production is pretty good, especially for a new independent. It comes in a clear plastic bag, but the cards are fairly sturdy and packaged in re-usable sleeves. The plastic chips are gambling sized and though hardly thematic, are at least a pleasure to handle. Card artwork is cartoonish rather than classic. The instructions are ultimately clear, but sometimes need a careful reading. They tend to err on the side of being a little too laconic. For example, one section has
A player with a Jib who tacks on her first move may still move again. If she has a Main Sail she may also tack on her second move and still move again.
What this means to say, we believe, is
A player with a Jib who tacks on her first move may still move again, as long as that move is with the wind. If she has a Main Sail even the second move may be tacking across the wind which can be followed by a third move, which must be sailing with the wind.
But overall this is recommended as a worthy addition to almost any collection, especially as it supports six with acceptable downtime.
Strategy: Medium; Theme: Medium; Tactics: Medium; Evaluation: Low; Personal Rating: 7
Carl Chudyk & Erek Slater; Cambridge Games Factory; 2005; 2-6
if no image, probably out of print
Steve Jackson effort in which players represent secret, conspiratorial world powers from the complicated mythology presented in The Illuminatus Trilogy and elsewhere (read more about how these conspiracy theories get started in Umberto Eco's well written Serendipities). In game terms players are trying to take control of various unowned public groups from The Cattle Mutilators to the Fiendish Fluoridators. Players spend money to help or hurt the chances of a takeover/destroy attempt which is resolved by dice. Each player's position has unique abilities and victory objectives. Has a "blackmail" tendency akin to Kill Dr. Lucky in which no one wishes to participate in stopping an incipient winner for fear of harming his own chances. Often victory can turn on a lucky card draw or fortuitous roll of the dice. Some players would probably prefer that all cash be public. There is plenty of humor inherent in the characterization of various public groups, although the game sometimes seems to take longer than one would wish. The bidding system is very innovative and continues to fascinate as it can be found in games as diverse as Republic of Rome, Verräter, Meuterer and others. There are many dimensions to consider including measurement on a point-by-point basis of just how useful the current auction is, considerations of what bidding is doing to the remaining treasuries of opponents and the tendency, once bidding begins, for good money to be thrown after bad. Same basic system later released in variously modified editions, e.g. Deluxe Illuminati, Illuminati: New World Order and Illuminati Y2K (not described here). [variant cards]
[Buy it at Amazon]
Imperator [Vae Victis]
Wargame by Vae Victis probably intended to be a workable Imperium Romanum ends up just as flawed, but in completely different ways. The setup is for two players only and covers the later Roman empire, i.e. from Marcus Aurelius onward. One player takes Rome proper while the other controls all the assorted barbarians plus usurpers which can be generated via Stratagem chit. These chits are a good place to start to understand what is wrong. Drawn once per turn by each player, not only are they wildly unbalanced, but some are so incredibly powerful that they will easily dwarf anything the players can manage to do on their own. A Mutiny chit for example can take out an entire stack of Roman army leaving the barbarians to do whatever they like while the mutiny doesn't even end until the Romans can someday bring in forces from elsewhere to defeat all the mutineers. And to think that Roman soldiers are happy to go on strike while Parthia or Germany help themselves to the best parts of the empire rather strains believability. But even if you can swallow that, what about the total lack of any need to trace supply? Trajan's campaigns in the East clearly showed the importance of this vital component of war, but here there are no rules for it whatever so, for example, Parthia might abandon its capital altogether and even lose it to Rome, but the "barbarians" simply don't care. Another strange item in the "don't care department": suppose the Germans penetrate the Roman limes and actually reach Rome itself. If the frontier troops have not been declared available, they can't even go to the defense of the capital. No, they are stuck there by rules which limit them to their region, apparently so they can defend against barbarians, even though all of the above are already having an orgy with the Vestal Virgins. By the way, if you ever do get roped into playing this game, be sure to choose the barbarians because they are the side that can earn the big points in this game. Rome earns nothing for conquest outside the empire and a mere four points a turn for maintaining the peace, but if the barbarians have any success, they earn at least one point for each unit that penetrates the empire, which can go up to twenty or more. With all the problems cited already, there is probably little point in mentioning that the counters of the two sides are colored almost identically and worse, that the forts they return to every single turn are not printed on the counters, but in the rules, where, by the way, the names are not sorted in any kind of alphaetical order and the words not emboldened although, confusingly, the other words are. The counters and forts depend on actual legion and fort names, which while nice for atmosphere are rather obscure and make things even harder. The publisher obviously has no interest in the international audience since even though Latin names are universally understood by all Roman fans, they insist on using the frenchified "Marc-Aurèle" and "Commode" for the more familiar Marcus Aurelius and Commodus. Finally, even though one would expect that with so many corners being cut that at least the game would pass fairly quickly, but no, there is no luck here as well. There are so many wasted motions and unnecessary impulses inserted that the AD 161-180 scenario is bound to last at least 8 hours if not more, and this is one of the shorter ones. If you were thinking of having this one translated in English, you can save yourself the trouble as there are no redeeming features here. [Vae Victis]
Two-player science fiction wargame about interstellar war in which humans have traveled to other stars only to find them already dominated by an enormous empire. Units are at the ship level and movement at the system level. Innovative is the fact that the game is punctuated by periods of war and peace and the loser of one war tends to receive more resources before the next one. In the first edition, it seemed best for the Empire player to lose a few wars and then appeal to the Emperor to get a large and budget, then use this to crush the Terrans. The second edition made this approach less viable. Interesting, but much of the depth seems to be in local tactics rather than having much overall strategy. I have heard that the same system was also later used in Dark Nebula. At the time of this writing, is being re-published as Imperium 2000 by Avalanche.
Imperium Romanum II
Wargame depicting various battles and campaigns from the Republic and Empire all the way to Justinian. Fascinating set of scenarios and maps, but the accounting necessary overwhelms attempts to play. It is also disappointing that such a big show of historical accuracy is made when there are glaringly obvious facts wrong such as including both Licinius and Severus in scenario 18 when they did not rule at the same time. And this is the revised version of Imperium Romanum.
Pseudo-role-playing game about insects. Mix-and-match body parts to create mutant bugs and try them in combat. Then mutate into new and larger forms. Detailed simulation of desert arthropod combat but easy to learn. Rainforest and Trilobite are expansions to this game. Nice twist on the RPG genre for the hack-and-slash crowd.
Philip Eklund; Sierra Madre Games
Basically-solitaire game (microgame) after the popular science fiction horror film Alien. Includes 16"x20" map depicting a tripartite space station and various intruder information as well as fifty-four counters, including nine crew members from the command, science and engineering persuasions (which should please fans of Star Trek). The intruder can have various powers such as immunity to vacuum, shock, cold, flame, gas, sleep darts or blasts or possibly have speed, fast reflexes, great strength or cloning ability. As you might expect, the crew must find a way to kill it or self-destruct and escape in a shuttle before they are all destroyed. A scenario to include a second player who controls the intruder is also presented, as well as ones representing return to the station with marines. Perhaps the most interesting scenario is one in which one player represents science officers trying to capture the intruder while the other crewmembers still prefer to kill it, but tantalizingly, if both fail, both players lose. This can also be combined with the scenario in which a third player controls the intruder. The intruder movements and activities are well-handled and make for a taut, tense game. The system is very clean and also quite pliable for designing variants, some of which are presented at the site of Chris Camfield. Designed by B. Dennis Sustare, most of whose work has been in the RPG world, including creations Bunnies & Burrows, Heroes of Olympus and Swordbearer and others. [chart]
Invasion America
One of the better SPI efforts, this one concerning a dark future in which a much-weakened North America is invaded from Europe, Asia and South America. The much-beleagured American player is something like the ancient Romans in many games, trying to fend off multiple invaders by taking advantage of shorter interior lines. The game works well and has plenty of strategic interest although a few crucial dice rolls can determine a lot of the game, particularly for the player of the Asian forces, which are large but very fragile. A dumbed-down version with plastic pieces called Fortress America was published by Milton Bradley as part of their GameMaster series. This general setup has several sources starting with Philip Nowlan's 1928 "Armageddon 2419 AD" in the magazine Amazing Stories, Robert Heinlein's The Day After Tomorrow and others. Anticipates in subject many games produced by XTR.
American Civil War naval wargame. Control individual ships in the War Between North and South. Plotted movement, critical hits, various types of ammunition and many scenarios. Very well done and satisfying. Later supplemented by Ironclads Expansion Kit, which added more ships and battles from the War Between North and South. Yet another expansion, called Shot and Shell, was later done by 3W. [ship list by name] [ship list by number] [ship list by owner] [ship list by name] [ship list by number] [ship list by owner] [combined ship list by name] [combined ship list by number] [combined ship list by owner]

- J -
James Clavell's Shogun
Risk-like game of conquest set in Japan. Added are a large number of event cards and the concept of honor points. Woe betide any player who loses a battle or two early as the resulting dishonor probably knocks them out of the game. [analysis]
Wargame about the expansion of Islam and the Arab empire. One player portrays the Arabs, the other the various lands they try to conquer. In a wonderful, innovative idea, the civil war splits the Arab force in two and when it appears that one side is about to lose, the players exchange pieces and resume the game from opposite sides! Unfortunately, the game needed a lot more development. When it first reached me, it had no victory conditions! When I wrote and finally received these, I learned that it was trivial to break the game. The player not playing the Arabs can use the march attrition system (which is borrowed from The Crusades) to march their last unit an immense distance and thus be sure of killing it by attrition. But the Arabs player cannot count a land as conquered unless it manages to conquer the last unit in combat. I received no useful reply from the publisher who said only that they never expected anyone to use such a tactic to win a game. Obviously a game which fails to consider all legal tactics has not been completed. [errata]
Judge Dredd
Multi-player wargame based on the futuristic comic book character. Each player is a judge and races about to vanquish perps. Much of the game is purely luck based on the cards, but the humor of the cards adds a lot of fun to the proceedings. Its real failing is that it requires a particular style of play to work. For example, if players want to spend all their cards foiling the chances of others, the game will ultimately fall flat as well as take forever. This is not a failing of the players, but of the system which permits it. Good systems are designed with such problems already in mind and find ways to solve them.
Jungle (Animal Chess)
Traditional game from Asia which shows the common origin of games such as Chess and Stratego. Here the animals have different rankings and abilities. Possibly a nice variant for fans of Stratego. Rules from the Game Cabinet.
Multi-player wargame satirically set in a banana republic handles up to seven players, which is rare. Each player represents a family trying to siphon government funds into a Swiss bank account. They elect an El Presidente who in turn distributes the offices of minister of the interior, three generals, an admiral and general of the air force. He also distributes funds. Those not receiving funds may wish to engender a coup upon which the El Presidente may be overthrown. But beware the minister and his assassination team. Event cards add a lot of intrigue to the proceedings, as do rules permitting players to switch sides at a propitious moment. Requires some level of emotional maturity as a player who declares a coup every turn isn't doing anything more than just making the game a lot longer than it needs to be; in fact, he is probably hurting his own chances as it takes a couple turns to build up enough cards to make a coup worthwhile. The more players can get into character, the better. Putsch is a later, less successful entry on a similar topic.
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