To build off of the hot topic of the moment, which is social distancing, one thing, if you’re a board gamer, that you can consider to get your board game fix, assuming you don’t play games solo, is board game apps. And there are a…
It’s that time of year, with Black Friday and Holiday Shopping nearly upon us. That means that people are starting to think about the gifts that they’ll be getting for others or what they might want to ask for themselves.
This list is basically the opposite of yesterday’s list which was focused on small games that are going to have a small footprint, small box, and generally a smaller price. Epic board games are going to generally be in a larger box and they are going to pack a lot into the game, so whether it’s in a fantasy world or a sci-fi setting, the game is going to feel big and epic. Also, stocking stuffers are going to be more apt to be games for a newer gamer, these, you are going to want to know the person likes board games.
Aeon’s End: War Eternal – This game actually doesn’t have a ton of pieces to it or a giant board at least. It’s a deck building game, but the game feels epic as you face off against an giant monster who is trying to destroy the town of Gravehold. You take on the roll of a breach mage who is casting spells to deal damage or out last the plans of the giant monster. To do this, you are building up a deck of cards, so it’s a pretty standard deck builder that way, but, in a twist, you never shuffle your deck, so if you are clever, you can pull off some interesting combos.
Betrayal at House on the Hill – This game is different from the first in that it has a sprawling footprint. You’re building out this massive haunted house, and eventually, there will be a twist when the haunt happens and someone is going to be a traitor. This game is a really thematic game that leans into the horror theme. The best way to describe it would be that you are playing through the movie Cabin in the Woods, if Cabin in the Woods was a mansion instead of a cabin. You never know what the haunt is going to be, because an omen card in a certain room is going to take you to a specific haunt. The game is a bit swingy in that someone can, with a bit of luck be very strong or the haunts can be a bit unbalanced, but it’s very thematic.
Blood Rage – With a name like that, how could it not be epic? In this game, you are taking your tribe of Viking warriors through combat and area control in order to get the most glory. However, beware where Ragnorak is happening, because that can knock your troops off the board. Blood Rage is, at it’s heart, a card drafting game where the cards you pick at the beginning of the age determine your strategy for that age. But it feels like it plays out on the table in a massive way, with big epic conflicts, monsters on the board, and the strategies are all based around different deities from Norse Mythology. The game looks cool on the table and the minis help give it it’s epic feel.
Cry Havoc – In what turns out to be a bit of a euro-style area control game, you really get to play through a giant cinematic game of different factions warring over the crystals. Humans are able to attack from different areas in support. The mechs can build up stronger technology and call in satellite support. The pilgrims are a peaceful alien race that just cares about growing as many crystals as possible. And the trogs are everywhere on the planet, because it’s their home world, and they’re trying to fight everyone off. In this game you’re getting points for crystals in the few rounds that you are playing and scoring. But it has a tricky bit of combat and interesting card play to be able to get to other areas, fight your battles, or in the case of the pilgrims, set-up your fortified areas. It looks cool and feels a bit like Avatar.
Dead of Winter – Dead of Winter is a survival zombie game where you are in charge of a group of survivors. You need to go out and find food, deal with zombies, get medicine to heal people, deal with crisis that are happening and complete a main objective. There is a ton to do in this game, plus, beyond that, you have your own goal you need to complete and there might be a traitor in your midst. All of that is great and epic feeling as you try and figure out who the traitor might be, but there are also crossroads cards which offer you tough decisions if the right conditions are met that makes this game feel even more epic.
Gloomhaven – This is, in my opinion, the ultimate big epic board game. It’s a massive box, massive footprint on the table, a ton of characters to play. Now, it comes with a large price tag, but the number of hours worth of play, it’s worth the price. Gloomhaven has a nice story to it, but it shines in the scenarios where you have to work with your teammates in your card play to get it really ticking, because the monsters hit back and they hit back hard. It’s a lot of strategy and it’s just fun to play, plus unlocking new characters keeps the game feeling fresh. It’s like a video game RPG, but on a board.
Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition – The only Lovecraftian game on this list, I considered Arkham Horror LCG, and while it does have a great story, it doesn’t feel quite as epic. Mansions of Madness though is an epic horror game in a box. You are using an app to drive the story and provide ambiance for the game. But that doesn’t take away from the board game piece, it just enhances it and can cause the game to be set-up differently each time you play a scenario. And there are tons of scenarios out there and expansions. You take on the role of an investigator who has been called in for something odd happening, but can you stop it in time or before you become too injured or insane to carry on?
Pandemic Legacy Season 1/Season 2 – I’m lumping both of them together, but both are pretty epic stories. As a Legacy game, it means that you have a limited number of plays through the story, but the story is good, and you feel like you get your value from them. You are playing what is basically Pandemic, a game where you are a member of the CDC going out to deal with diseases. The basic game is fairly epic, but when you add in an evolving story, it becomes more epic and challenging as you have to adapt to the strategies that the changes in the game is leading your towards. It’s fun to play through, even twice, like I’ve done, because there is a good story with it and a lot of story and interesting decisions.
Root – These are cute woodland creatures, they won’t be epic, will they? Yes, they will in this asymmetric game where players take on the roles of different factions of woodland creatures. Maybe you are the vagabond who is getting new items to be able to do more things or planning out your long term strategy as the Eyrie who need their orders to be carried out in a certain way and things will go poorly if they aren’t. Or maybe you are the Woodland Alliance who don’t start with much, but need to create a strong position on the board. And then there is the Marquise de Cat and his cat troops who are trying to keep control on the areas and expand their power. It’s big, it’s epic, and everyone feels really unique in the game.
Skulk Hollow – By far the smallest game on the list and only a two player game, it still feels epic. You have the foxen heroes who all of a sudden have to deal with a guardian. The guardian of the realm probably isn’t a bad guy, but with the foxen folk there now, they seem like one. One player plays as the guardian and the other as foxen folk, each with their own goals. The foxen folk always want to take down the guardian, but the guardian might be trying to get certain tokens out or maybe kill the leader of the foxen folk, or just kill as many foxen folk as they can. The game plays fast, but it packs a punch for what it does.
Star Wars: Rebellion – The original trilogy in a box, it’s going to be epic. Again a two player game where one person is the empire trying to find that darn rebel base. The other player, as the rebels is trying to complete missions in order to subvert the empires evil plans. It’s a good cat and mouse game with all the big players that you’d expect from a Star Wars game. It’s been close basically every time I’ve played it and while the rebels can be a bit trickier to play and this is a longer game, it is engaging the whole time and not too hard. The asymmetry is pretty limited and that makes teaching the game easier than the previous two ones, even with the different character goals.
Sword and Sorcery – Another big dungeon crawl with a lot of characters, Sword and Sorcery takes you on a tighter story than Gloomhaven does, but in what is more of a dice chucking game. The story is cool, and the monsters, while limited, offer a good variety of challenges. What makes this game especially unique is the death mechanic, where if you die, you aren’t out of the game, you have limited things you can do, but you can also respawn as long as you have enough soul gems. There are a ton of characters to play, and while the story is quite linear, I do feel like it’s a game that I could play through again with different characters and the game would feel different.
T.I.M.E. Stories – This game is basically time cops as you try and police the time stream, going to Earth in different eras as well as to completely different worlds. It’s an interesting game because you run through different stories, which are expansions for the game. T.I.M.E. Stories, for everything, is the most expensive game on the list, but it’s worth checking out. The story in the base game is interesting, and it only starts to show you the plug and play nature of the system. Each story, also, has it’s own epic feel, and you get to run through the story, making better decisions each time or maybe finally going down that rabbit trail that you probably shouldn’t have gone down.
Village Attacks – Maybe, as compared to the rest of the games, you want to play the bad guys. In Village Attacks, you and a team of other monsters has to deal with pesky villagers who are coming to your lair with their pitchforks and torches. You need to protect yourself, because that’s very rude of them to attack you. Can you survive the onslaught of monsters coming? It’s a fun cooperative game and very challenging as there are so many villagers. I had a blast playing it at GenCon, and I’m super excited to get my kickstarter copy. If you want to get this game, you need to check out the possibility of a late pledge from the kickstarter.
XenoShyft: Onslaught – Sometimes you just want to squish some bugs. XenoShyft is basically Starship Troopers where you have to defend this mining facility from all sorts of waves of bugs. This is another deck building game, and it’s a tough deck building game, but you always feel like you’re getting better and have a chance. The cool and unique part of the game is the fact that you can play your cards to help other people, because sometimes you might have a lot of weapons that you can’t use, but someone else might need them, so you have to balance it out to make sure that there isn’t a weak link. This is a tough game to win, but a ton of fun.
There are so many epic games out there. If you want a longer game that you can play a lot, there are a lot of good options out there. I’d recommend starting with some of the smaller ones on the list, XenoShyft: Onslaught, Pandemic Legacy, or Aeon’s End. But if they already like epic games, and you want to splurge, Gloomhaven is a game that you can’t go wrong with. Yes, it won’t be for everyone, but it is a massive epic game and unless you want a ton of dice rolling, which Gloomhaven doesn’t offer.
Is there an epic game out there that you really love? Or is there one that is really epic that you want to get?
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Normally I do these reviews on games that I really enjoy. However, I thought it would be interesting to do a TableTopTakes on Dominion, a game that I have enjoyed but now that I don’t enjoy as much, and it’s still a very popular game.
In Dominion, you are building your deck up to be able to buy as many victory points as possible. The downside is that those victory points clog up your deck. On your turn you are playing down cards that give you additional actions, card draw, number of cards you can buy, and money. At the end of your turn, you draw up a new hand of cards and you repeat the process. Doing this, you are getting cards like Marketplace, Council Room, Estates, or cards like Copper, Gold, and Silver that give you money.
In terms of a pure deck building game, Dominion is a pretty good game. The issue is that it had a dull theme on it. It looks like it’s a trading in the Mediterranean game with poor artwork and a dated looking card design. And with Dominion, that theme “works” because the game itself has nothing to do with the theme. Why the Council Room gives you draw of 4 cards and an extra buy action and the Festival gives you 2 coins, 2 more actions and another buy action, who knows. And really who cares, you are just trying to build an engine of cards to be able to buy estates as quickly as possible.
But, like most deck building games, you are really looking for a very small combo. You are looking for ways to get as much money into your hand as consistently as possible while avoiding getting dead cards. There is a strategy to the game, but with a bit of luck of the draw when you start the game, one person is going to be down the path to victory faster than everyone else, and there are going to be no catch-up mechanisms. Now, a good strategy game, that’s fine, but there’s enough luck with the shuffle of the deck that now it doesn’t matter that you figured out the strategy, someone was able to get the combo going a turn faster than you, you won’t win. And if you don’t notice the strategy, you can figure out half way through the game who is going to win because they figured out the right combo of the cards. Now, again, Dominion is an abstract deck builder with a pasted on artwork and theme that aren’t needed, so if you want that puzzle and hope that you can get your engine rolling faster with a little luck in the card draw, Dominion is a great game for that. It’s meant for you to min-max your cards and find the ways to empty out your deck to just have what you need, more power to you.
For me, I’ve gotten rid of Dominion though. I think that there are other deck builders like Clank! In! Space! or Xenoshyft: Onslaught that I have on my shelf that are a lot better. Now, there’s a bit more going on in those games, so it’s probably not as good for teaching deck building, but I’m not teaching deck building too often. And I think some of what bugged me about Dominion was that there are a plethora of expansions for the game, but they really don’t add that much new, and the new and additional rules that they add, they aren’t thematic, or are they used all that often, because they add to the complexity of Dominion. Dominion being more complex pushes it away from being that introductory deck building game, which means that unless you have people who live and breath Dominion, there are those people out there, I know one of them, and always want to play it and play it with other people who love it, those cards and rules aren’t going to be needed.
Dominion is significant to the hobby, and I recognize that. It really helped create deck builders, and without it, games like Xenoshyft: Onslaught or Clank! In! Space! might not exist. And Dominion has helped get people into the hobby, but some of the love for it that it’s gotten over the years, it just doesn’t resonate with me. That might just be my taste in games coming through, but I think that there are plenty of better deck building games out there, and while Dominion might have been a good introductory deck building game to teach the concept, I think that there are better ones out there, and an early year of Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle is going to be just as good for deck building if not better. Or even something that’s definitely more complex like Xenoshyft: Onslaught, because it’s cooperative, could work decently well in that teaching role. And with both of those games, they feel like they have more theme and that you are doing something more. The veneer on Dominion has now become too thin when it comes to theme.
Overall Grade: C-
Gamer Grade: D
Casual Grade: B
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Let me start by saying that Deck Building is one of my favorite game mechanics, and one that has been around for a while. Also, let me say that there are two different, distinct ways you can qualify deck building. I am not referring to the collectible card game method (or even living card game), where you can build a custom deck leading into the game. Yes, you do build a deck of cards to play with in those games, but the game itself isn’t about deck building. In some ways, they are the basis for modern deck building games, though.
In those games, you would build your deck of cards, however many that might be, from cards you had bought and collected. You were looking for interesting interactions and synergies between cards. That is something that still definitely exists in modern deck builders. But the modern deck builder doesn’t have you create your deck ahead of time. In fact, everyone starts out with the same cards and then you can build and expand your decks beyond that.
That is what makes the mechanic interesting, in a lot of the early deck builders, you would customize and try and develop your own strategy for the game based off of a set of cards that were available to everyone in the game. Dominion, the first popular deck builder, created an economy where you would search to combo cards to the point where you could buy victory point cards, in particular the high cost victory point cards which were one way to end the game.
While I do appreciate the mechanic in Dominion, Dominion does have one serious flaw to the game. There will always be a best strategy because everyone is purchasing from a static market of cards. This can lead to a run away leader problem in the game, or if the cards don’t synergize well, the strategy is then just to buy more money, so you don’t actually end up using the combinations. Also, the game has a medieval theme that could literally be any sort of economy, so it’s very very themeless. Toss in inconsistent art throughout the game and expansions, and I’ve moved on from my copy of Dominion.
But Dominion was the one that started it for deck builders, maybe not the first, but the first big one. From there we’ve moved on to a few different ways of deck building.
The first big advancement is the rotating market. The game Marvel Legendary is a great example of this. While the market is limited more so than in Dominion, the market rotates as people buy a card, you flip a new card down. This means that the market is constantly changing and there isn’t a way to create a specific strategy as clearly that is going to be the best. This helps solve the run away leader problem. It also provides more strategy for creating your deck as the option of just buying money isn’t going to fix your problem in the game of figuring out card synergies.
In a cooperative game, like Marvel Legendary, you can still make your decks highly focused as you’re talking about what is out there and who might want what card when it comes around to their turn. But in Clanks! In! Space!, you are playing a competitive game with a rotating market. This means that someones you might buy a card that isn’t ideal for your deck, just because you don’t want anyone else to have it.
There are also interesting ways that they fixed the fixed market issue in Dominion in other games without it being a rotating market. Xenoshyft: Onslaught is a good example of this. In the game you are working together to defend your base, but I might have the role of the science department while someone else might have the barracks. Because we have different roles we have different powers that make our strategies unique. If you are the science department, you have the two unique cards in your deck from the start, and you can get a discounted buy on science cards each round. That means your deck is going to lean a certain direction because it’s easier for you to load up on a certain type of good card than it is for other people. Variable player powers cover over a lot of issues you can run into with deck builders by actively making people build their deck in different ways or they won’t be building it the most efficient way using their resources.
Xenoshyft: Onslaught also has another interesting mechanic that helps. One issue with deck builders is that as the deck gets larger, you can either get a deck that is too big to really get the cards you want together, or gets too full of early game cards that you don’t get enough money at the same time to purchase more. Xenoshyft: Onslaught fixes both of these issues in unique but good ways. The first thing it does is you area always gaining money to your hand each round of the game, in the first three rounds, you get an extra xenostatham (money unit), in the next three, you get a three xenostatham card, and in the last three rounds, you get a six xenostatham. Now, this means you are never short money, but it adds bloat into your deck. Xenoshyft: Onslaught realizes this, so in the middle rounds, you can trade three one xenostatham cards for a three xenostatham card, and in the last three rounds, you can get your threes to sixes. This keeps the deck cleaner. It also allows you to use troops that you can buy in the first three rounds as discounts on troops in the later rounds, this helps keep the deck thin and focused.
One thing that all the games that I’ve mentioned thus far do better than Dominion as well is that they’ve added theme back into a deck builder. The cards that you are buying and using make sense in the game for the ultimate goal of the game. Wen you’re recruiting heroes to fight against a super villain in Legendary, it makes sense. When the cards have certain abilities on them, they make sense for the hero. That was a huge move forward from what we had been previously seeing in Dominion, and while Dominion might still be the most popular, it gave people a lot more options for games.
There are now some other interesting things that have been added into deck building that make certain deck builders unique.
A game like Cry Havoc, while not a pure deck builder, has some deck building in the game as you add in various terrain cards to your deck. It uses a draw two and pick one methodology of building up your deck. So depending on where you are locate don the board will determine what you want to take, and whom you might be fighting.
Aeon’s End (a game that I’ll have the legacy version of the game on it’s way, but this one does something unique as well. It’s interesting because instead of shuffling your deck like you do with every other deck building game I can think of, you literally just flip your discard pile. However, when you discard cards on your turn, you can sort the order that they go into your discard as long as they are used in the game time in the game. That means that you can stack your deck in an interesting way and specifically create hands, especially earlier in the game.
Deck building is definitely a mechanic that has been extremely popular and I think will remain popular, though we’re now seeing less pure deck building games. A game like Cry Havoc has deck building, but that’s fairly secondary in the game, and you’d actually be able to play the full game without doing any additional deck building if you wanted (if I remember correctly), but it’s fun to see a fairly familiar mechanic showing up in a diverse cross-section of games that wouldn’t always seem like deck building games. It’s also led to some interesting games that have hand building that can work similar to deck building, but you have access to all the cards from the start and then lose them as you play them.
So, to wrap this up, if deck building seems like an interesting mechanic, where would I start?
That’s a tough question, Dominion is probably the purest deck builder out there, but there are a ton of expansions, so it might seem a bit intimidating to get into. It’s also not the easiest game to sell to people to play, because the theme is very bland. But if you are playing with less gamer-y people, I would start with Dominion.
If you’re playing with people who are used to playing games, just not deck builders, I’d probably start with Xenoshyft: Onslaught. The game has some very interesting choices in it, and it’s fun to face off against a bunch of alien bugs. Marvel Legendary is good as well, but there are so many expansions, I wouldn’t consider it a great starting deck builder. You could look at Legendary Encounters games and just pick the them that works best for you, whether that’s Alien, Big Trouble in Little China, Firefly, or one of the others. These games all offer more to do with your cards and a lot more depth of strategy than Dominion while still keeping the focus on deck building.
What are some of your favorite deck building games?
“There’s so much on the planet, all this money to be made.” “What about the giant bugs?” “Hire some good security for the mines.” “And the scary looking brain scorpions?” “More security.” “And the hydras?” “Alright, mechanical armored security.” That’s how I imagine it went…