The Dork Den Blog

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AuZtralia

AuZtralia

Australia with a ‘Z’. Boy, that couldn’t mean zombies or anything, could it?

Actually…

AuZtralia is a game with everything it shows on the front: blimps, old-timey gun trucks, soldiers, and the dusty hell that is the Outback. Does it look old-school? It should, because it takes place in late-19th century Australia. The ‘Z’ is, indeed, a reference to zombies, but they only play a bit role in this game, because it’s really about Cthulhu!

Are you wondering what the hell is going on yet? Don’t worry, everyone who opens this game not knowing what it is beforehand goes through the same thing. What you get here is a semi-cooperative strategy game between players working together to stop the hordes of Cthulhu from swarming through this overblown penal colony, and working to do it better than everyone else because when it comes to saving the world, you’ve gotta keep score.

Everyone starts by setting up a port along the coast. From there you spread into the Outback, mostly via railroads you build, ferrying troops to clear out nests of zombies, cultists, and otherworldly monsters, collecting resources to keep creating railroads and troops, and building farms to feed the citizens of this… fine land. Farms are important; there are three types, and there’s a benefit to having at least one of each type, but each one requires different land to be built. Some of that land runs a little close to the nasty things, and eventually the nasty things wake up and start walking around.

What makes AuZtralia work is the time mechanic. Although you can be limited by a lack of resources, it’s usually possible to collect what you need; the question is how much time it takes. Each action takes a set amount of time, and turn order is determined by who’s furthest back on the time track (ie. who’s used the least time so far in acting). Furthermore, time ties (which are common—nothing takes more than three time to do) are broken by whoever’s token is on top of the stack, and you go on top of the stack if you get there last. So, spending three time to build that railroad you so desperately means another player might get three turns before your next one. Is that worth it? Quite possibly! But you need to make a decision about using a resource that everyone has in exactly equal quantities.

Cthulhu’s forces are locked into the time mechanic as well. Whenever it’s Cthulhu’s turn, his token goes forward one time space, and on every other time space from the moment he starts (about halfway along) until the end of the game, he acts according to a pre-determined list of rules. At the start of the game, his forces start face down; his actions affect those which are face up, and those most frequently turn up because players investigate the spaces. If you don’t remove any threat which is present, now Cthulhu’s going to start running over you harder. You always have some semblance of control over what you do before he acts, but you can only do so much, even amongst all of you.

Then he eats your food! And your cattle. And your farmers.

If you stay on top of things and keep winning your battles—dice are involved, so this is never quite a given—the game can almost seem like a walkover. But it has the capacity to snowball out of control fast if you get the wrong event with the wrong monsters walking around at the wrong time. If there’s something that might seem unsatisfying, it’s if you end up playing a game and it feels too easy or too hard. There’s some chance involved, but you have a lot of control over the outcome. For a game that used Z for Zombie messaging to get attention, then barely even followed through with the zombies, it’s surprisingly good.

3.8 out of 5 stars (3.8 / 5)

Grand Moff Tarkin #1

Grand Moff Tarkin #1

While I should put myself onto a lengthy Star Wars comic review hiatus, I had to come out of temporary retirement when I saw a new Tarkin Age of the Republic comic book on the shelf the other week. Wilhuff Tarkin is one of my all time favorite Star Wars characters and all time nerdom characters. While he only appears in 1 movie as well as his CGI appearances in Rogue One, Peter Cushing’s role as the Grand  Moff is pure brilliance. Tarkin’s additional comics and books throughout the years highlight what the original Star Wars movie introduced: a strategically brilliant and ruthless military leader able to stand next to the ever intimidating Darth Vader with confidence. His wholehearted allegiance to the Empire makes him a fascinating character to watch and read, and I’m always excited to see more of him on the page or the screen, so here’s hoping Tarkin #1 delivers.

Interestingly enough, most of this short one-shot Tarkin comic takes place shortly before and shortly after the events of Alderaan’s destruction, even reconstructing the scene between Tarkin, Leia and Vader where Tarkin interrogated Leia and ends up destroying her home planet with the Death Star anyway. Tarkin compares much of his daily life with his early days, hunting and scavenging from a young age and learning to strive on his own, all callbacks to his recent Tarkin novel a few years ago. His crew is young and while loyal to the Empire aren’t exactly the military machine that Tarkin has proudly become. The destruction of an entire planet is no easy task to carry out. As Tarkin discovers hesitancy from many of his crew tasked with carrying out the steps necessary to actually fire the Death Star’s weapon, he questions their loyalty to the Empire. Despite them coming through with the weapons activation and doing their jobs, when Tarkin learns that one of his crew members was from Alderaan, he understands why there was a moment of hesitancy. It means little to Tarkin however. Duty above all else is Tarkin’s m.o., and anything less makes for a bad soldier.

I give some major props to this comic book for choosing this story to tell. There was a lot of directions they could have gone but they chose a very short period of time within the Star Wars universe and told a very tight knit, meaningful story. I don’t completely love Tarkin’s treatment of his men in this comic book, I always got the impression from other stories involving Tarkin that he was a fairly merciful military leader, despite his ruthlessness on the battlefield. He always gave off battle-hardened old man vibes to me and I think this comic takes away from that a little bit. That being said, stories are stories, and Tarkin’s character development isn’t exactly multiple movies or books in length. Overall, I think this comics choice of timeline and storytelling is really powerful, and it was an ambitious choice to go here instead of somewhere else, specifically before the events of a New Hope. Moreso, it really just makes me want more Tarkin stories. This character is great.

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Azul

Azul

Let’s make a quilt! Or a rug. Or… whatever. Tile wall! That’s it.

Azul is a classic game, re-released two years ago, and it’s still selling well. That’s because it’s good. Spoilers.

So, let’s talk about how and why it works. You have a board with a five-by-five pattern you’re trying to fill in the most cohesive possible way. There are five colors, represented once each per row and column (they show up as a diagonal pattern, it’s quite nice). Each round, seven little platters are loaded with four tiles randomly chosen from the bag, each in one of the five colors. Players choose one platter, take all the tiles of one color from it, and put the rest in the center. A player may also take all the tiles of one color that have been placed in the center instead; the first one to do this takes the first player tile, which counts as a penalty tile at the end of the round.

Those tiles go on one of the horizontal lines to the left of the wall pattern. Those lines have one, two, three, four, or five empty spaces, going down. All tiles on a line must be of the same color. Take too many to fit the line where you want them to go? Extras go on the penalty row. Forced to take a color you can’t place? Those tiles go on the penalty row. The first couple of penalties aren’t major, but they escalate quickly, and you want to avoid them in any case.

When you fill one of those lines, at the end of the round one tile moves over to the matching spot on that row of the wall. If you’ve filled a spot, that color can’t be readied for that row anymore. So, as the game progresses, your goal is to keep targeting colors you need, but only as many tiles as are required to fill a pattern line and get the color into that row.

However! You also want to get tiles on the wall next to each other. The first one you place scores you a point. Every one you place after that scores a point, plus one more for each adjacent tile on the wall (orthogonal only). This means you’re gauging who needs what color, how many you need of each color, what colors will score you the most, how many tiles you need to put that color in the right place, and sometimes when you need to absorb a penalty to max out the scoring power of your wall.

It’s one of those games with basic actions that are easy to understand, but which lead into a game that runs fairly deep on strategic level. It’s also an example of good, professional game design. Quite a number of games give you a basic set of mechanics that lead to engaging play. Sometimes the mechanics are deceptively simple; Onitama gives you five pieces and a bunch of cards, and while the designers would have needed to spend plenty of time with the cards to make sure the game was balanced, overall it doesn’t take much to create an excellent, quick strategy game.

Azul, on the other hand, is a game that is either the product of a tremendous amount of iteration, or amazing luck (and still an awful lot of iteration). Filling the five-by-five wall is simple enough, but why are the pattern lines designed in a one through five fashion? They could have all been the same length, for example, and within that idea they could have reasonably been anywhere from three to five lines long. Why are the penalties structured as they are? How come there are seven platters of tiles, rather than six or eight. or a number based on the players in the game? Why do players get to take tiles from the center of the table, rather than only from the platters? Why is scoring exactly one per tile, including adjacent ones? Why are the adjacency bonuses orthogonal only, not diagonal?

Designers who don’t take enough time to playtest their games and figure out just the right balance points make mistakes on questions like these. Sometimes this happens because they need the game on the shelves and selling; sometimes, if they work for a larger company, they have bosses pressing them for a product; sometimes they just don’t see the fault lines in their creations. Azul sidesteps the potential errors, and we wind up with something on the short list of players everywhere for “that game you should totally get”. Maybe you already knew how good it was, but let’s take a moment to respect how much time it takes to put a game on that level.

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)


DCeased #1

DCeased #1

What’s a DC comic book story event without a ridiculous name right? DCeased is the next big event for the DC mainline continuity, and it’s something that both Snyder and Capullo have been teasing these past few months as fans have watched their mysterious tweets and mentions of something stirring within DC. Something they’ve been calling their final Batman story together. To be honest, It’s been difficult to keep up with, especially with things like Doomsday Clock and Heroes in Crisis still steadily hitting shelves in a painfully slow but no doubt deliberate pace. I know very little about this new story going in, but naturally I hear the names Snyder and Capullo and I’m immediately on board. Their Batman run of 2011 is legendary, and I have no doubt whatever they’re cooking up hidden behind all this fluff will be glorious.

The first half of so of this first issue follows Darkseid, an evil god and one of the most powerful entities in the DC universe. His recent invasion of Earth is quickly answered by the Justice League, who bring his swift defeat at the hands of a not-so-happy-to-see-him Superman. Defeated, Darkseid retreats, though he’s already retrieved what he was looking for elsewhere. Cyborg, created by technology akin to the Anti-Life Equation, an extremely powerful and dangerous ‘thing’ Darkseid has spent his entire life trying to find was Darkseid’s target all along. Now kidnapped by the minions of Apokolips, Darkseid’s home world, they work tirelessly to tear the Anti-Life Equation from Cyborg’s cybernetic body. Though perhaps with some impatience and eagerness for the prize he’d spent so long trying to obtain Darkseid finds himself in a less than ideal situation, forcing the Anti-Life equation out of Cyborg and sending shock waves throughout the universe as a result. Though Cyborg is able to return to Earth during this time, his connection to the digital world causes a heap of trouble, as the now revealed Anti-Life Equation uploads itself onto the internet all over the world, festering as an incredibly malicious virus and in turn, a mind altering disease. Hundreds of millions across the planet become plagued with the Equation and lose their minds, going berserk and killing everything in their path. The Justice League is forced to move quickly, though as they’re forced to sever their connection to the web they find themselves scattered, unable to contact each other.

I’ll start by saying I didn’t expect zombies. I’m not a fan of them, but I suppose I should have known just by looking at the cover and reading the name. This isn’t necessarily a deal breaker though, and I’m always willing to give comics a shot, especially for DC. Disregarding the zombie element for a second, the style of this comic’s writing and the buildup to the end of the comic is pretty entertaining. The story obviously revolves primarily around Batman, but the Justice League which has now expanded quite significantly, now similar to the old JL roster, have their roles to play too, and it’s all handled quite well. The art is the comic’s primary weak point, but I’ve certainly seen worse, and I think the art direction is something that could grow on me after a few issues. We’ll have to see how this comic continues and how it ties back into Snyder’s storylines he’s stitching together, but to be honest, I hope the zombie stuff doesn’t last the whole run.

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)
Welcome To Your Perfect Home

Welcome To Your Perfect Home

If there’s a nightmare scenario in life, it’s living in a community where every house is exactly the same, all of you have to follow rules about keeping your home “clean” and your lawn “tidy”, and you swear that every one of your neighbors have a not-insignificant amount of Stepford blood in them.

Selling those houses, though… that’s a win.

Welcome to Your Perfect Home puts you in the role of a real estate developer with three long blocks of houses to fill—one of ten houses, one of eleven, and one of twelve. A fat stack of cards is split into three piles, each with an action on one side and a number on the other (with a small icon of the action on the flip side of the card in one corner). Each round, one card is flipped action side up, so each pile has a number and an action visible. Players choose one of these combos, put the number on one of the houses, and choose whether or not to use the action.

The goal is to fill all the blocks with numbers going in ascending order, while also pulling in enough points through putting pools in yards, investing in neighborhoods of certain sizes, and meeting other various goals to outscore everyone else. The game ends when somebody has a number on every house, or when someone marks off three stop signs (three instances of not being able to develop a house on a turn with any of the available numbers). It’s a roll-and-write game, although with cards rather than dice. Apart from fences, which you use to create smaller neighborhoods within each block, you mark off a spot for each action you take, which (potentially) earns you more points by the end of the game.

The first time I played this, I put together a flawless game. I mathed out how many numbers I would have available to fill in the number of spaces that would be left if I put number X on house Y, and did not waste a single turn. The game ended when all my houses were full, and all three of my opponents had one empty. Given that real estate bonuses for the blocks you have completed only count if all the houses on the block are full, that’s a nice edge to have.

I lost. Not by a couple of points, but by twelve (112-100). And that’s why I think this is a pretty good game.

Here’s the reason: when I saw I played a flawless game, it means I did not make any errors in figuring out what numbers to place where, and when. I strategized towards making sure all my houses were tagged, which is the end goal, and it worked perfectly. Yet I obviously did not play a perfect game, because I got noticeably beaten.

The nature of the card draw means you’re always playing the odds. There are enough cards in each deck that you can’t really card count effectively (if you can, you will be godly at this and you don’t need any strategy tips). But you have to take into account how many points you’re likely to score with each move. If you put a palm tree up in six houses across all three blocks, you’ll get twelve points. But if you fill them up on one block, the same number of palm trees will earn you more in sum because of the finishing bonus. You’ll probably have reason to take real estate bonuses before you’ve started forming your blocks, so do you choose a number and let that guide how you build? Will you build towards bonuses? Can you see what bonuses your opponents are going for, and can you beat them to the punch?

There’s probably some perfect strategy to the game that’s most likely to win as long as you get the cards you need. That last part is the key, though. Unless that strategy is the best under any circumstances, and you’ll only lose if you’re desperately unlucky—and, while unlikely, this is possible—you’ll need to know how to adjust. That’s where you get gameplay rather than rote memorization, and that’s what makes a game good.

4.2 out of 5 stars (4.2 / 5)


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