Category Archives: Board Games

Dead of Winter Comic Book Review (Issue #1)

Until today, I had never bought or read anything from comic publisher Oni Press. I am a card-carrying comic geek, but my reading is usually limited to Marvel and a few other small time publishers.

Comic collecting has always been a big part of my life, but in the last 5-10 years, it has become my secondary hobby, my primary being board games. I have amassed a treasure trove of board games, one of my absolute favorites being Dead of Winter. This smash-hit game is basically “The Walking Dead” in a box. (In fact, it captures the flavor of TWD substantially better than any officially-licensed TWD board game.)

In Dead of Winter, players represent survivors, holed up at a makeshift colony, fighting to withstand the zombie apocalypse and the cruel, unforgiving winter. Players need to work together to win the game, but each player also has their own, individual objective, which is kept secret from the other people. Oh yeah, and one of them might be a traitor. I won’t go into too much detail, but suffice it to say the game is amazing. Lots of difficult decisions, bluffing, deception, and begrudging cooperation. If you’re interested in exploring tabletop games, Dead of Winter is one of the essentials.

This week, Oni Press launched the first issue of their comic book adaptation of Dead of Winter. It was an instabuy for me, as I was very curious to see what they’d do with the IP. This is not the first time a board game has been adapted to comics; in just the last couple years, there have been several others, including Clue and Munchkin, another popular “hobby” game?

So how is the comic?

The art on issue #1 is nice. The cover really pops, and the interior visuals are well-rendered, if a bit cartoonish. The inside cover is laid out very much like the board game’s rule book, helping to tie it into the overall feeling of the Dead of Winter universe. The visuals of zombie being killed are brutal and in-your-face, but they are effective.

The story was perhaps a bit slow to get going, but it was certainly cohesive, with a definite scene structure. It felt like a sort of expository setup for a bigger storyline. If you’ve played the game, you’ll recognize most of the characters in the story. Gabriel Diaz, Arthur Thurston, Annaleigh Chan, and everybody’s favorite character, Sparky the Super Dog (also on the cover). It was interesting to get a brief glimpse of a Sparky’s history. In a one-page sequence, we flash back to a clip from the TV show that made Sparky famous. The artist uses bright, vibrant colors to create a whimsical, nostalgic feel, a staggering contrast to the drab color palette of the rest of the story. The use of a side-by-side panel structure to end the flashback and bring us back to the present is jarring and memorable.

The Dead of Winter IP borrows heavily from The Walking Dead. That means this is a comic based on a board game based on Walking Dead. To readers who aren’t familiar with the source material, I can see Dead of Winter feeling like an uninspired TWD knockoff. And in some ways, it is. But if you have played the game and know the characters, the comic’s story is that much better. It’s fun to see characters you know and love come to life in a new way.

Additionally, there is at least one in-joke, seen below:

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(Without spoiling too much, though, it seems this may turn out to be more than just an in-joke. It may actually become a story point.)

Overall, the first issue of Dead of Winter was enjoyable. I’m not sure it will appeal to people who haven’t played the game, but Sparky the badass zombie-killing dog may just pique their curiosity. The end of the first issue left me interested to see what will happen next, and I look forward to picking up issue #2.

[As a side note, I was deeply disappointed that Oni Press didn’t include a promo card for the Dead of Winter game in the comic. This feels like a huge missed opportunity. Considering that the Munchkin comics each came with a promo card and still maintained a $3.99 cover price, I feel like Oni could have easily done the same. It would have appealed to those who had played Dead of Winter, because they would have a new promo card to use in the game, and for those who hadn’t played it, it might be an incentive for them to try it out.]

Starcraft: The Board Game

This is one of those love it or hate it types of games. There is not much middle ground. When most gamers first learn about SCBG, their first reaction is, “How would that even work?” Truth be told, I thought the same thing. The idea of taking a Real-Time Strategy computer game and making it into a turn-based board game seems crazy. It’s like making the Mona Lisa into a sculpture, it just doesn’t seem to be its intended form.

Regardless, there is much to be said about this game. First off, you can’t look past its sheer size. Check this out:

It’s about twice as big as Settlers of Catan. And that’s just on the outside. Inside, there are nearly 1,000 gorgeous components to this game. The setup alone can easily take 30 minutes. That isn’t necessarily bad, though; it’s not a hard game, it’s a complex game, if that makes sense.

In regards to pieces, they are simply beautiful. Standard Fantasy Flight goodness. Six colors, two factions of each race, each containing several dozen pieces, along with many tokens, chits, and cards. (Surprisingly, SCBG is a diceless game…) The pure number of items makes the game look extremely intimidating, but, especially if they have at least some knowledge of the computer game version, players will find it less intense than it appears.

It’s difficult to effectively explain the turn sequence, but each turn consists of three phases: the Planning Phase, in which players map out their actions for the turn, the Execution Phase, where players strategically employ planned actions, and the Regrouping Phase, in which players resolve the turn and prepare for the coming turn. The game can be won in three ways:

1) [Least common] Be the first to 15 Victory Points. These points are gained by controlling certain territories on given planets.

2) [More or less common, depending on number of players] Eliminate all other players.

3) [Most common] Achieve your faction’s Special Victory Condition. This could be a variety of different objectives, each relatively difficult to accomplish.

A standard game of SCBG can take anywhere between one and four hours, depending on the number of players and their own experience with the Starcraft universe.

Similarly to my earlier review of Roller Coaster Tycoon: The Board Game, part of the fun of this game is the inevitably poor player imitation of character voices from the video game.

“WE REQUIRE MORE MINERALS.”

I have found SCBG to be challenging and fun. There is certainly a lot to think about and the game can be quite mentally exhausting, but it is very well-made. I wouldn’t recommend it for inexperienced gamers, especially if they’ve never played Starcraft the video game.

SCBG can run you a lot of money, often around $70 or more. If you’re a die-hard Starcraft fan, you most likely already have it, so I don’t need to tell you to buy it. However, if you don’t already own it, I would recommend against buying it new. $70 is a lot of money. This game is good, but it’s not very family friendly. Unless your circle of gamers enjoy heavy duty galactic action, think twice before buying Starcraft: The Board Game.

Good game, if you’re playing with the right people. Just be sure you have plenty of Red Bull handy.

Overall rating: C+

Mansions of Madness vs. Betrayal at House on the Hill

This is it. The big one. These are two of the best games I’ve ever played, but which is better? The gloves are about to come off.


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Where do I even begin? Basically, these two games have the same basic premise: a group of explorers has, for one reason or another, found themselves in a creepy, old, haunted house, and it is their job to explore the inner depths of the house and survive whatever horrors lurk within. Here is a more specific overview of each game:

(***Side note, in side-by-side comparisons, Mansions will be on the top, Betrayal will be on the bottom. I do not own any of the images used. All images are taken from BoardGameGeek unless linked to their original site.***)

Betrayal at House on the Hill: The group begins in the Entrance Hall of the giant house, only able to see the long hall that lies ahead of them. From there, characters take turns moving into new rooms, flipping over tiles to reveal the newly discovered room. As  the game progresses, characters’ traits (Speed – How many rooms they can move through, Might – How physically strong they are, Sanity – How crazy or sane they are, Knowledge – How smart they are) change for better or worse, and, through the use of an inventive game mechanic, (usually) one player betrays all his friends. At this point, it becomes a battle for survival between the remaining Heroes and the Traitor, along with various monsters or powers he has acquired.

Mansions of Madness: From the beginning of the game, all players can see the entire board. Characters move through the house, unveiling its dark secrets by finding useful items, solving mini-game puzzles and obstacles and coming face-to-face with Lovecraftian monsters and other such horrors, all the while fighting to stay sane. In Mansions of Madness, one player plays as the Keeper, not necessarily a specific character within the story, but rather an omniscient representation of the general evil of the house. The Keeper’s job is to make the story interesting by messing with the explorers, sometimes even causing one to secretly turn against the rest. The players only have a limited amount of time to explore the house, after which, they will either win or lose, depending upon their actions up to that point.

These are both superb games. The atmosphere of play is great, and both games require a refreshing blend of strategy and imagination. Let’s talk about the specifics…

Room Tiles: The room tiles in both games are very nice (examples shown in game descriptions above). Both games’ room tiles show nice overhead views of the rooms, and tiles are very nicely detailed and fun to look at. For example, Betrayal’s “Basement Landing” tile shows the end of the Coal Chute and a pile of coal beneath it, as an explorer who enters the “Coal Chute” tile slides directly there.Mansions’ tiles are two sided, so the board can change both look and layout. Also, when the second edition of Betrayal came out in October 2010, fans were quickly disappointed to see all cardboard components quickly warping. Wizards/Avalon Hill has since fixed the problem and sent replacement tiles on better cardboard to anyone who requested it, but it just seemed to be a careless problem in the first place. Mansions’ tiles are on standard, good quality, Fantasy Flight cardboard, and are not prone to warping or damage under normal circumstances.

Pieces: Once again, Mansions of Madness seems to be better. Fantasy Flight games is known for quality games and components, and this game certainly does not disappoint. While Betrayal’s cards and figures are not bad, take a look at this comparison of monsters:

No comparison. Mansions wins, hands down. In regards to player figures, Betrayal’s figures aren’t bad. They’re nicely pre-colored, though the blue figure of Madame Zostra / Vivian Lopez has a pretty nasty lean to her in many sets, including my own. Mansions’ figures are not colored, but this is not laziness, it encourages players to custom paint their set.

How about the cards? Really, they are both very nice. Take a look.

It’s tough to pick a definitive winner, but I think Mansions probably takes this category, too. Betrayal’s cards have a nice, weathered look, but they are shaped very awkwardly. They are tall, thin, specialized cards, so it’s hard to find plastic sleeves that fit them. Mansions’ cards, though they come in two sizes, use standard game card proportions, and any game store anywhere will sell protective sleeves for them. Also, many cards in Mansions have nice color images on them, another one-up on Betrayal.

Gameplay: So, Mansions certainly looks better. But which game plays better? First, let’s start with the lengths of the games. Betrayal at House on the Hill usually takes about an hour to play. As such, for non-gamers, it’s a good choice, as it’s not mentally exhausting. Mansions, however, can easily take several hours to play, so it my not be as easy for inexperienced gamers to enjoy.

I certainly believe that, in both cases, the quality of gameplay is very contingent on the atmosphere of play. Neither one of these games are meant to be played outside over a midday picnic when it’s a sunny 75 outside. They are best enjoyed at night, preferably by candlelight, and with creepy music playing in the background. In my games of Betrayal, I require players to read text on cards in a creepy voice. Call it a silly house rule, but this simple addition to the game makes it so much better.

As far as suspense goes, I think Betrayal wins hands-down. Because characters can’t see the room that they are about to explore, they have no idea what they are getting themselves into, whether they are about to encounter an attack from something hidden in the dark or draw the final Omen card to make them the traitor. Especially for first-timers, this makes the game a lot of fun, and maybe even a bit creepy. With Mansions of Madness, the characters can see the whole house from the start, so the suspenseful element is more or less lost, or at least limited only to revealing cards hidden in rooms.

Another huge category is replay value. How much fun will the game be the second time? The tenth time? The hundredth time? Well, Mansions of Madness has 5 different playable scenarios, which certainly keeps the adventure going for some time. Also, more experienced players may be inclined to play as the Keeper, rendering the game experience completely different for them. However, I think Betrayal wins in this category, too. While Mansions’ scenarios may be slightly more in-depth than Betrayal’s, it comes down to the difference between 50 pretty good scenarios (okay, maybe there’s a few that suck, we’ll say 45), versus 5 great scenarios, not to mention playing on either “side,” as either the Heroes / Explorers or the Traitor / Keeper. Some gamers may disagree here, but I would personally be willing to sacrifice a bit of complexity and maybe even a touch of quality for some ten times the scenarios. In other words, less is not necessarily more here.

Conclusion: Betrayal at House on the Hill and Mansions of Madness are two fantastic games. They are both well worth a play or 50, but they are both very good for different reasons.

As is expected of Fantasy Flight Games, Mansions of Madness is gorgeous. The cards, the figures, the tiles, the tokens, everything. It’s a thing of beauty, and the game itself is very fun, too. Where Betrayal has that ever-lovable, hokey, B-Movie feel, Mansions is much more serious. Betrayal’s components aren’t necessarily bad, they just don’t measure up to the stunning figurines and cards of Mansions. However, Mansions doesn’t (in my opinion) measure up to Betrayal in atmosphere. I think Betrayal is wonderful, not despite its corny nature, but because of it! It’s one of those games that is just pure, simple fun. It’s much more appealing to non-gamers, as it usually takes about an hour, as opposed to several hours for Mansions, and it seems to be much simpler to learn.

Having played both games multiple times, I truly believe Betrayal at House on the Hill to be the superior game. Of course, it ultimately comes down to your personal preference. Do you like beautifully crafted, complex strategy games? If so, maybe Mansions is better for you. I, however, love playing games with non-gamers and getting them hooked on the fun of board gaming. Thus, Betrayal is better for me. I certainly don’t mean to downplay the quality or integrity of either game. They are both great, but, when put side-by-side, the House on the Hill beats the Mansion of Madness.

Roller Coaster Tycoon: The Board Game

Yes, this is actually a thing. Loosely based on Chris Sawyer’s famous computer game series of the same name, this game has its ups and downs (as well as twists, turns, and corkscrews).

Okay, okay, so it’s by Parker Brothers. But like I said, I don’t hate Parker Brothers. Not all all. I think they are a great company who has made many wonderful board games. The thing that bothers me is when people can’t enjoy other games because they assume all board games are like “Risk.”

That being said, let’s dive in. Imagine “Monopoly,” if it was actually fun and took 45 minutes to play. That’s “RCTBG”. The gameplay is very simple: dice-based movement with a property owning technique. Your goal is to get park guests to visit your rides and attractions, all the while keeping a steady budget and consistently buying new rides and attractions. There is also a nice auction mechanic to the game where players can bid on a ride(s), sometimes not even knowing what exactly they are bidding on. This keeps the game interesting, as risks must be taken to ensure success.

The pieces are the best part.  The board is nicely detailed, the money pieces look good, but the Whoa Belly and Roller Coasters take the cake. Literally three dimensional and very fun to assemble and admire, the completed park looks awesome. One problem I noticed, however, is that there is a lot of stuff. Lots of tokens, lots of chips, lots of cards; while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it does make the set up of the game much longer than it needs to be. Also, you can’t drown your guests, charge for the bathroom, or take out a piece of roller coaster track and watch the train fly. Too bad.

All in all, it’s not a bad game. Short and sweet, nice looking, and pretty fun, “Roller Coaster Tycoon: The Board Game” is something of a diamond in the rough. It can appeal to a wide audience. Because it is easy to learn, quick to play, and based on a well-known computer game, non-gamers will most likely enjoy it as much as hard core gamers, a rare but wonderful trait for a board game.

Overall rating: B-. It’s not worth going out of your way to find it, but if you happen to come across a $7 copy at an entertainment exchange store like I did, it’s worth a try.

Pandemic

For my first game review, I thought I’d discuss one of my personal favorites, a fairly new game: Z-Man’s “Pandemic.” This 2-4 player game takes about an hour, maybe less. The basic premise is this: four deadly diseases have broken out across the globe, and it is up to you, a team of experts to solve the crisis before the viruses wipe out all of humanity. No pressure.

One of my favorite aspects about this game is  its cooperative play. In “Pandemic,” all the players are on a team, a rare mechanic for a board game. Players take turns taking up to four actions, which can consist of movement, treating infected cities, building research stations at which cures can be found, sharing knowledge with teammates, and officially curing a disease. The trick is that cities are constantly getting infected as the diseases spread and the rates of infection grow. And then there’s the dreaded “Epidemic” card…

When a player draws an “Epidemic” card, one city gets hit particularly hard. This can lead to outbreaks, in which one city overflows with disease victims and infects all surrounding cities, sometimes even beginning nasty chain reactions that can quickly ravage a whole continent.

Sweet.

There are three ways to lose “Pandemic:”

1) Players run out of “Resource Cards,” used to help in transportation and curing diseases
2) Eight outbreaks occur, leaving the world utterly devastated
3) All the disease markers of one color are on the board, meaning a specific disease has expanded beyond control.

The game ends in victory for the players if all four diseases have been cured before any of the above conditions are met. This makes “Pandemic” a tricky game. Players need to really work together and communicate amongst themselves to strategize a way to beat the diseases before it’s too late.

The cooperative mechanic of the game is very nice. Yes, I understand that part of the fun of a board game is pwning your oppwnents, but there is certainly something to be said for the element of teamwork. (If you MUST pwn other players, check out the expansion: “Pandemic: On the Brink.”)

The game is very simple to learn. Whether or not you are familiar with board games, “Pandemic” can be learned in under 10 minutes. The setup time is minimal, usually about 5 minutes. The rulebook is short and sweet, and the included pieces are very nice. Sometimes, the pawns can be a little too big for the city markers on the board, especially if two or more pawns are in one city, but this is a small problem at best.

One of the best parts of “Pandemic,” in my opinion, is the intensity of the game. While very lightweight and easy to learn, players get very into it, nervously awaiting the next “Epidemic” or trying to decide how to best prevent future outbreaks.

My favorite part of the game is coming up with specifically what the diseases are, as the rulebook never says. So far, here are my conlusions:

Red – Asian Bird Flu
Black – The Black Plague (obviously)
Yellow – Yellow Fever (duh)

And, my personal favorite:

Blue – Bieber Fever

“Pandemic” overall rating: A. If you’ve never played it, it’s worth a try. (Just don’t get infected by this kid…)