Posts by: Kelsey Rinella

Review: Nexionode

Sometimes, the lack of haptic feedback is a blessing.

It’s like playing Cat’s Cradle with electricity.

Some apocalypses leave the surface of the earth in desperate straits, with humanity struggling to survive. Mad Max, Fallout, A Canticle for Liebowitz–there are lots of post-apocalyptic settings in which interesting things can still happen on Earth. Heck, Marvel apparently already has post-Ragnarok plans. Nexionode is set at the end of the other kind of apocalypse; the kind that puts one in mind of the classic exploration of how to utterly destroy the earth. When something’s coming which won’t even leave the cradle of humanity a plausible place to recolonize, the tragically unforgiving allure of space becomes irresistible. Unfortunately, you’ve departed on your extrasolar Oregon Trail in quite the hurry, without the equivalent of a spare wheel or axle. Your job now is to Macguyver your way around the complications of flying humanity’s last hope before it’s entirely finished being built.

Darkly humorous setting aside, what we’re really talking about here is a simple puzzle game; in some of the loosest theming this side of the Tetris movie, there’s nothing an interstellar handyman can face which isn’t fixed by drawing lines between dots. These are the titular acid reflux-suffering nodes, each of which sports a number of hashes equal to the number of links it must have. Fortunately, simple concepts can work well for puzzle games, and Nexionode gradually adds obstacles, severe time limits, and motion, all of which add difficulty without additional rules overhead. Continue reading…

Review: RGB Express

Would it be in bad taste to make puns during the funeral? Because I would have a hard time resisting "Today, we are all blue."

In later levels, hitting “play” on my first draft usually meant sending two poor truck drivers into a tragic head-on collision.

Driving. You only see other delivery trucks, so it must be late, but you’re so amped that the world takes it color from a small box of crayons. Need to swing by the stash; they need red tops across town. Have to be careful not to circle around or trace the path of the fella bringing the green pills to that rich kid’s party, though–boss don’t want too much exposure in case of a stakeout somewhere. He’s getting paranoid, moving his drivers to a new city every ten jobs. Never get to learn the layout; feels like civil engineer gremlins lay out new roads every morning.

The un-themes and family-friendly attire of many puzzle games drive me to creative interpretation. RGB Express is the polar opposite of noir, a simple deliver-the-packages puzzler with a difficulty curve reminiscent of the world’s longest bunny slope. It instantly attracted my children to perch on my shoulders like a five- and six-year-old Hugin and Munin excitedly shouting what we’ll euphemistically call “wisdom”. It’s a wonderfully inviting experience, and for a long time offers only rare challenges for a disciplined mind. Eventually, though, I was tired and distracted, and chose Ascension over RGB–that was when I realized it had gotten hard. Continue reading…

Review: Starbase Annex

Dr. Evil is sort of Darth-Vaderish in that scene, isn't he?

“Get away from me, you lazy-eyed psycho!”

My grandmother is a Gin Rummy player, and by “player” here, I mean something rather less innocent and more ruthlessly predatory than the association with “play” might suggest. Many traditional card games have a high skill ceiling and a basic mechanism which generates interesting choices, but also have a themeless blandness and significant gameplay flaws which make developing that skill something of a chore. Rocco Bowling thought it would be pretty cool to highlight the heart of such a game by adding some tactical positioning and setting it in the same universe as his masterful and well-maintained Starbase Orion. So, instead of playing a five to take a two and three as in the classic Italian card game Scopa, you’re launching a midsize cruiser to ward off an attack on your home star system. Like tabletop gem Nexus Ops, Starbase Annex is still fairly simple, but departs from its traditional card game roots in that playing feels more like being a galactic emperor and less like being an elderly hairdesser.

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Review: Matchstick Memories

I'm a sucker for a theme that isn't terrifically depressing.

This puzzle was more fun when I was matching swords.

My first thought, upon hearing the pitch for Matchstick Memories, was that it had great potential to remedy a serious problem with classic interactive fiction: as I read most IF games, I’m basically playing Spock (Leonard Nimoy style, not the new-fangled, emotional Zachary Quinto version). I might have some investment in the story, but I always have as much time as I like to rationally evaluate my options. Even worse, the authors know this, so they have to write their choices so as not to make the better option so obvious that the distinctive freedom the book offers effectively disappears. So, not only do I feel like that bizarre abstraction, Economic Model Man, but the story also ends up feeling contrived for maximum uncertainty.

Matchstick Memories (henceforth MM) offers interactive fiction in which your performance on a variety of puzzles determines your choices. You’re still the ruthlessly efficient Economic Model Man, but now there’s some gameplay standing between you and your decisions. It’s well-suited to players who’ve ever imagined that successful life choices might hinge on the thousands upon thousands of hours of games you’ve played (which, as a man with a gig reviewing games for a website, I have).

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Review: Province

Owen Faraday and the Rondels will be opening for Pink Floyd on their next tour.

I like rondels. They may be hard to theme, but they offer interesting decisions and they sound like 50s backup singers.

Province is a two-player micro-euro board game for iOS with a familiar lineage: basically, Agricola and Le Havre had a baby (though it does have Imperial‘s nose. Le Havre is sure that’s just an anomaly). A lot of people saw a euro playable in under five minutes as quite a promising niche, with over 6,000 backers on the Kickstarter campaign* together raising almost ten times the asking price. Most of the games I know which are reliably playable in that time frame seem unable to accommodate strategy of any kind. Enter Province, with a bit of swagger.

The basic gameplay cycle is to move workers one place clockwise on a pie chart that lists a sequence of actions — this is known in board gaming argot as a rondel. Actions generate labor or money, then use these resources to build buildings which make resource generation more efficient or flexible (and give you one or two victory points, if you build them before your opponent). Each game includes a stack of five goals selected randomly from nine options, which also offer a victory point bounty. The game ends when this stack is exhausted, a player builds seven buildings, or there are no more victory points to be gained from building. It’s simple, meaningful, small, and feels like a knock-down, drag-out fight in the backseat of a car. Or as we call it in my family, “driving to grandma’s house”. Continue reading…

Review: The Manhattan Project

I think I can hack together a workable prototype using the coffee roaster building from Puerto Rico.

I understand why plutonium and uranium are crucial fuels for a nuclear weapons program, but shouldn’t there be a third column for coffee?

The Manhattan Project bought tickets to the prom before asking anyone, got rejected, then went stag. That is, development on the digital adaptation of the highly-regarded tabletop game was already quite advanced by the time the Kickstarter campaign to fund it launched. Said campaign came up quite short, which left developer Domowicz Creative Group with strong feedback that polishing the app to their satisfaction was unlikely to pay off. In the face of that disappointing reality, they’ve taken pity on those fans of the game who saw the functional prototype in the pitch videos and have tidied up their existing work enough to make it available to the public, albeit in a less ambitious state than they had hoped.

If you’re familiar with Agricola or Lords of Waterdeep, you’ve seen the worker placement mechanic at the core of this game. It’s been a hot mechanic in modern boardgame design for a few years, in part because forcing players to compete for jobs produces subtle but constant player interaction while allowing conflict-averse players to focus on building their own engines of points.

The Manhattan Project innovates on this model substantially. This isn’t the bucolic live-and-let-live world of Agricola; as befits the theme of a high-stakes race to build nuclear weapons, you can deliver your opponents’ nuclear programs a fiery setback with bomber airstrikes, or steal their secrets with spies. You also have a level of control over the allocation of your workers which would make Oppenheimer (or Sammereza Sulphontis) envious. What you don’t have, sadly, is a polished app.

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Android Ascension

If wargaming has taught us anything, surely it's the value of initiative.

“All good things come to those who wait” is the default fake wisdom for these occasions. Utter hogwash.

imagePlaydek and Stone Blade have announced that Ascension for Android is live on Google Play. Android is now a legitimate smartphone platform.

Playdek are celebrating with a sale on their greatest hits and expansions, if you don’t already have them. Full details straight from the press release after the jump.

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Review: Catchup

Weirdly reminiscent of my old Assault on Hoth board.

Catchup often ends up looking like octopi making out. Hey, now–nobody think sinful thoughts.

Nick Bentley designed a well-regarded print-and-play abstract boardgame in 2010. The game so impressed Martin Grider (developer of the very well-executed For the Win, which I reviewed here way back in 2012) that he took on an iOS adaptation largely as a passion project, with help from contractors. Two years on, Mr. Bentley seems almost guilty at having occasioned so much work, with such a polished product released into the viciously unforgiving App Store, that he’s written a moving plea and a wonderfully detailed designer diary. As someone who has written about games for years, I am not amused that some yahoo can waltz in and make what I do look easy and sound like a caring, brilliant guy at the same time.

Catchup is a very simple matter of creating a larger connected structure than your opponent. Each turn, you take two hexes. There are only two exceptions: the very first turn only gets one hex, and when the catchup mechanism is invoked. Whenever you pull ahead or extend your lead, your opponent gets a half-turn bonus. In this game, that means they claim three hexes on their next turn, rather than two, but the idea could be applied to any game which maintains a score and which allows an even number of actions on a player’s turn. Catchup is probably the most accessible possible use of this mechanic, but it has some quite interesting properties, so I hope to see it again. The other wrinkle is that, if there’s a tie for the size of the largest connected structure, the tie is broken by the size of the next largest structure for each player, and this is applied recursively until a winner is found (which must happen, due to the odd number of hexes on the board).

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