Thursday, January 8, 2009



Sometimes the strengths of a game are also its weaknesses, which seems the case with Mutant Chronicles Collectible Miniatures Game.
There are elements within this game which will appeal to many gamers, and yet those same elements are likely to turn other gamers away in search of alternative gaming fare.
Those elements start with the miniature pieces themselves.
For those unfamiliar with Mutant Chronicles, it's a rather well-known, and long standing sci-fi universe with faction waging war. So the miniatures here represent the different individuals in battle, both human, and those which of course are far more mutant in nature. The game publishers, Fantasy Flight Games, a company respected for high quality games, made the decision to produce the miniatures in 54 mm scale, and to ship them pre-painted. Most miniature games opt for smaller scale, 28 or 30 mm, so the pieces here are big, and that allows for a fair amount of detail.
The downside though is that most mini gamers play a number of different systems and often borrow miniatures from one to enhance play in another. Since these are out of scale with the vast majority of systems, they won't transfer well.
Having the miniatures painted is a plus for those who aren't skilled with a paint brush, or those entering the hobby and not looking to invest in a case full of paint, brushes and accessories. The paint jobs here are solid, although somewhat muted in colour patterns given the 'dark future- theme of the game.
Of course for many a big part of the hobby is the painting, and if you paint your own miniatures it does allow a greater range of 'looks' on the gaming table.
Again it depends just how you view painting as to whether pre-paints are good, or bad.
The miniatures are collectible, allowing players to buy additional forces to customize their play rosters. Unlike many games out there, these are not sold in randomized packages where you take your chances on what might be inside. These come in packs where you know what you are getting. That's a good thing since the larger scale here makes the minis somewhat pricey, but you are getting what you want, and don't have to paint them so the cost is not too out-of-line.
One downside is that there are variations within the models in terms of game play statistics based on the colour of the bases, while the miniature remains the same. It would have been better had the miniatures received a little different paint scheme too.
Mutant Chronicles is played on a board with a hexagonal grid, the hexes matching the bases of the pieces. The board system works, and it is sold as just that a board game.
However, for many miniature game fans, the attraction is the free form approach, where you put out some terrain pieces, and then have freedom of movement, mimicking real life more closely.
For starters in the genre the board is good, but veterans might soon want great freedom. Fantasy Flight would do well to at least offer additional rules to free the game from the confines of the board.
In general terms this game offers some nice features, the mini size being the most obvious. The pieces stand out on a table. The problem though is that they seem a touch over-produced for a board game that while interesting, doesn't exactly jump out as one of the better games of the miniatures genre. Then again this one is not so much a pure minis game as it is a board game.
Therein may lie Mutant Chronicles greatest dilemma. It ends up being a game that seems stuck somewhere between worlds; a board game that seems as though it should be a full form miniatures game.
If the theme catches one's attention, that of a dark future where corps battle it out with guns and magic and mutants, it's a game worth looking into, if you are OK with the larger pieces, the pre-paint aspects and the limitations set by a board. Otherwise there are better miniature systems out there.

-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper Jan.7, 2009 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Monday, January 5, 2009

Review -- ARIMAA


It's the last issue of 2008, so it seems a good time to look at what is probably the best game to be designed in the last decade.
Interestingly, for a game worth such high praise, it is a game which has yet to be commercially produced, although there are indications Z-Man Games may well be changing that with a commercial set in the new year.
The game in question is Arimaa, a brilliantly designed board game by Aamir Syed and Omar Syed, who brought the game to the public in 2002.
When you see Arimaa set up on its 8X8 board your mind is immediately drawn to chess. While the game was obviously influenced by chess through its development, anything you know about chess in terms of moves, mechanics, rules, or strategy will do you little, if any good, with this game.
Arimaa is beautifully a completely unique gaming experience.
Arimaa was designed to be difficult for computers to play. Something that is not the case with chess where computers are now at least equal to all but the very best players. With that goal in mind the number of possible moves at each turn in Arimaa is about 500 times that of chess.
To show that Arimaa is beyond a computer there is a reward of $10,000 for the first person or company who can build a computer program (with off-the-shelf programming tools) that can defeat a selected human Arimaa player prior to 2020.
As stated, Arimaa is played on a chessboard, except that four squares are distinguished as trap squares. A piece isolated on a trap square (unsupported by an orthogonally adjacent piece of the same colour), is removed from the game. That is the only way to capture a piece in the game, so the four squares are key locations to both attack and defend during the game.
Each player begins with an array of 16 pieces. These are, in order from strongest to weakest, one elephant, one camel, two horses, two dogs, two cats, and eight rabbits. The pieces may be arranged in any order a player wants, along the two closest ranks to his side of the board.
The objective of the game is to move a rabbit of one's own colour onto the home rank of the opponent. One also wins should they eliminate their opponent's eight rabbits.
Unlike chess, each piece in Arimaa has the same basic move ability. A turn consists of making one to four steps. A step has a piece move into an unoccupied square one space left, right, forward, or backward, except that rabbits may not step backward. The steps of a turn may be made by a single piece or distributed between several pieces in any order.
Stronger pieces may also move weaker pieces around the board, allowing them to drag opponent pieces to the aforementioned trap squares. A player may use two steps of a turn to dislodge an opposing piece with a stronger friendly piece which is adjacent orthogonally (think rook move). For example, a friendly dog may move an opposing rabbit or cat, but not a dog, horse, camel, or elephant. The stronger piece may pull or push the weaker piece. For example, when pulling, the stronger piece steps into an empty square, and the square it came from is occupied by the weaker piece.
The relative strengths of the pieces is a key factor in Arimaa, seen again in the ability to 'freeze' pieces. A piece which is adjacent, (directly beside) a stronger opposing piece is frozen, unless it is also adjacent to a friendly piece. Frozen pieces may not be moved by the owner.
The interaction of pieces relative to their strength adds incredible strategic depth to Arimaa.
Yet, the mechanics are strikingly simple, since pieces all move the same, and you only have four steps per turn to work with.
While limited in the amount of movement per turn, determining what an opponent might do in response to anything you do is difficult, because a player can move one, or up to four pieces on a turn. As a result you are often working on your own strategy, while keeping yourself in a position to react to a number of threats from an opponent on any given turn.
You can find the rule set for Arimaa online, and it can be played using chess pieces, but really you will want to create a custom set because this game deserves its own play pieces. Fantastic game, with simplicity, elegance and depth. Make sure you give it a try.

-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper Dec. 31, 2008 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Review -- HIVE


It's only a couple of sleeps until Christmas, so it's a rather special time of year.
With that in mind I thought it appropriate that I write about one of the most interesting, and special games to come out this millennium.
Yes, that is only a period of eight years, but it has been a great eight years for board gamers as the hobby has experienced something of a resurgence with numerous games arriving on the scene to rave reviews.
Hive certainly makes the list of the best of the era, probably sitting number two on my list, only a smidgen behind Arimaa, a game that will soon be reviewed here as well.
In the case of Hive, designer John Yianni came up with a true classic.
The game, which was released in 2001, uses a rather unique mechanic in that it does not have a pre-set board on which the game takes places.
Instead, the hexagonal pieces themselves ultimately form the board as they are played, and maneuver throughout the game.
In the original Hive, each player starts with a single queen bee, two beetles, two spiders, and three each of an ant and grasshopper. Each of the insect themed pieces has a unique movement pattern.
Players start with their pieces in front of them, and take turns placing a piece on the table, each piece having to connect to the 'hive' as it is added to the 'board'.
Within the first four turns, a player must place his queen, which is the key piece in the game, since a player wins by completely surrounding the opponent's queen. Six pieces are needed to surround the queen, and they can be either player's.
Other than the rule regarding the queen's placement within the opening four rounds, a player can either add a piece to the hive, it has to touch only other pieces of his colour, or they can opt to move a piece already in play.
The only other overriding rule to remember is that the 'hive', the combined pieces in play, can never be broken into separate units – all pieces must remain connected.
With each piece having a unique move, the queen moves one field around a neighbouring piece, while the grasshopper has the ability to hop over the hive to rest on the other side, the game is reminiscent of chess.
However, the game almost always has a different look as the pieces are played out, and moved, to create an ever changing 'hive' pattern.
Early sets of Hive had the pieces made of wood, with stickers which depicted the various insects. the components have since gone through a major upgrade, with current sets having Bakelite pieces, with engraved images of the bugs.
The Bakelite pieces make this a true heirloom game which should last forever.
Yianni, has also created a game that has evolved. In 2007, he created the mosquito piece as an addition to the game. Each player has one mosquito, a piece which once placed mimics the movement of any piece it is adjacent too.
In correspondence with the creator, Yianni hints that he has other ideas percolating which could add even more bugs to the Hive family in the future.
The arrival of the mosquito, and hints of more to come, add to an already great game because it will add new strategic options to game play.
A game with few flaws, it has great pieces, interesting mechanics and it plays quickly too. Simply a winner all around.

-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper Dec. 24, 2008 - Yorkton, SK. Canada