Welcome back to The Loaded Die, a biweekly feature here at the Kraken where your host, Kyu (that’s me!) reviews three new board games in every delicious post.
For each game, I’ll give an overview of what it is, a description of how to play, and my subjective thoughts (typically based on a single play-through). Looking for numerical ratings? Generate your own with our helpful guide! Simply roll the listed number and type of dice to discover your personalized rating. Remember, it’s not a meaningless number if you believe in it.
This week’s watchword is “progression,” whether that’s superheroes unlocking their most powerful abilities, players competing to build the most circuitous train routes, or students becoming masters in the high mountain villages of Shangri-La. No matter where you are in today’s games, some innate potential is being fulfilled, and as it does so, options are invariably closed off. Success or failure will be defined by your choices as many possibilities reduce to a handful of inevitabilities. Come take the road less traveled by.
Sentinels of the Multiverse
What is it?
Sentinels of the Multiverse is a co-operative superhero card game by a trio of designers whose company is Greater Than Games. It’s their first and most popular game, although they have since expanded to include a spin-off tactical game (Sentinels Tactics) and an unrelated deck builder (Galactic Strike Force). GTG is one of those Kickstarter success stories, and it’s led to a good game whose rough edges took a long time to get sanded off.
How do you play?
Each game consists of two to four Heroes, one Villain to be defeated, and one Environment, all represented by specific decks. As the game progresses, Villain cards are drawn, doing damage or other effects to Heroes. Meanwhile, the Heroes work together, using their own decks to try to destroy the Villain, and the Environment cards add their own wrinkles. Each Hero has a unique build that’s played differently–for example, one character uses defeated foes to build massive strikes, while another deals damage to themselves in order to heal other players. There’s a similar variety to the Villains, and with the release of multiple expansions, the game continues to add new combinations and mechanics.
So is it good or what?
Well, it is now. When I first played Sentinels, it had a number of crippling problems. Keeping track of damage and other effects was too complicated; the rules were written so simplistically that certain effect interactions and order of operations were unclear; and the game’s math didn’t properly scale for the number of Heroes in play. But all of those problems are fixed or improved in the game’s second edition. What shone through even then, though, was the game’s entertainment value. The fluff is really good, especially given how difficult it is to come up with original superheroes at this point. My favorite part of the game are the quotes on each card from putative comics featuring the character; they’re not only amusing or interesting in their own right, but cleverly written so as to construct a whole imaginary shared universe of narratives, one which bears some satirical similarities to DC and Marvel history. Reading those aloud is a great way to take what is essentially a math game and turn it into a fun, pulpy experience.
Don’t get me wrong, the math game has its pleasures. I particularly enjoy exploring the different strategies each Hero’s build allows and finding ways to make them work tactically in the current situation. It’s that element of extreme differentiation between Heroes that makes Sentinels unique as a cooperative experience. In most co-operative games, players are largely identical; in Pandemic, for example, each player has one specific ability and may have different cards in their hand, but that’s all that separates them. The result is generally a kind of hive-mind decision making process, where the group discusses a plan of action and then executes it together. In Sentinels, everybody is so different (in terms of their ability to do damage, for instance) that each player has to evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses and inform the group what they can do to help. You really end up working together as a team, just like in the comics. It’s feelings like that–the thrill of synchronizing with your team, the tension of knowing that the next draw determines all, and the elation of victory–that Sentinels truly excels at creating, and that’s what keeps me buying expansions and looking forward to the next time I play.
What is it?
Metro is a German tile placement game–which is to say, a German game about placing tiles, not a game about placing German tiles. It was designed by Dirk Henn, who has created many other games, including the popular Alhambra (which I have still not played, oddly enough, even though my friends own a copy). The game is themed around building train tracks between stations to earn points, and if that task sounds exciting to you, hello, Mr. Henn, and welcome to my blog.
How do you play?
Each player has a certain number of stations around the border of the grid (see above). They take turns drawing and placing tiles on the board, attempting first to connect the out-line of one of their stations with the in-line of another, and secondarily to do so using the longest, most circuitous route possible. This will earn them points, and when all the tiles have been played, the player with the most points is the winner. Pretty standard stuff.
So is it good or what?
As with Tanto Cuore‘s review, Metro is another game I wasn’t able to finish. In this case, it has nothing to do with theme; although I’ve talked before about how Euro games tend to bore me, Metro is really an abstract tile placement game wrapped in a Euro skin. It could just as easily be about digging tunnels, stringing yarn, or any other such concept, and those yarn-tunnels wouldn’t have to hail from Edwardian-era France. The art style is functional, the concept isn’t bad, and I actually rather liked the competitiveness that sprang up around screwing our opponents out of properly utilizing their tracks. The difficulty of the game lies in the randomly drawn tiles, and the fact that, unless you get lucky, it’s usually hard to decide where to place the weird tile you’ve drawn instead of the good one you were hoping for. So the “game” itself was fun enough that I wouldn’t have quit just for that.
No, the problem with Metro is its rules. Most of them are clear enough, but the tile placement rules failed to clarify one small issue–and small though it may have been, the issue had arisen several times already before we were halfway through the game. Since the game is essentially nothing but tile placement–it’s the sole, core mechanic–the ambiguity we had discovered was completely untenable. To finish the game would have been meaningless. We might have come up with an answer on our own, but then we would not be playing Metro. Game designers must, by the nature of the medium, be comprehensive in eliminating edge cases and describing the rules of their system. Everything is carefully balanced for those rules; and you can remove all of the dice and tokens, all a game ultimately is is its rules, no more (and no less). Going against that designer’s careful creation by deciding a crucial rules question would be to abandon “Metro” altogether in favor of some new thing whose outcome would prove nothing. My only conclusion is that, in addition to being fairly uninteresting, Metro is actually broken–literally unplayable, in fact, because the “it” you are trying to play cannot be fully determined. I suggest you give this one a miss.
Rating: n/a (game abandoned)
The Bridges of Shangri-la
What is it?
The Bridges of Shangri-La is a territorial war game sneakily disguised as a game about learning. It was made by Italian designer Leo Colovini; Leo has designed dozens of other Euro games, but I have no idea if they’re any good because I’ve only even heard of a handful, and those vaguely. That said, two of them are Star Wars games with ridiculous German subtitles–Star Wars Clone Wars: Das letzte Gefecht and Star Wars: Galaktische Schalchten–so that’s a point in Colovini’s favor.
How do you play?
Shangri-La consists of 13 villages, each containing 7 disciplines, each connected to three or four other villages via rickety wooden bridges. Players take turns placing tiles, or “students,” in villages on matching disciplines; or adding one tile on top of another to create a “master,” which can then be moved across a bridge to another village, supplanting an opponent’s student of the same discipline. Every movement of this nature leaves the bridge crumbling to dust behind it; this means that there are a limited number of “attacks” players can make, and only one from a particular direction. Whoever has the most Masters on the board when all but one village is completely cut off wins the game.
So is it good or what?
I liked this quite a bit. As I said, it’s functionally a military game; but all the ways in which it differs appeals to me, from the pleasant, whimsical theme (each discipline is a type of magic, including Firekeeper, Astrologer, and Yeti-whisperer) to the orderly simplification of the map (compared to a typical war game map) and the precise nature of “attacking.” Unlike some games, which introduce a random element to attacking (Risk‘s dice rolls, for instance), Bridges‘ attacks are as concrete and bloodless as a move in Othello. Coupled with the game’s excellent visual design (I love the little squares and primary colors), this clarifies and emphasizes the tactical decisions of when and where to attack over all other considerations.
I talked about progression at the top of this post, and about irrevocable choices. Nothing gets that across better this week than Shangri-La‘s one-time-use bridges. As they go away, villages become more isolated, and player choices become more limited–a state which allows you to extrapolate your opponents’ moves several turns down the road and adjust your game accordingly. And the more villages that are closed off, the more the tension rises. The game isn’t particularly cutthroat (the way you amass troops and the limited actions per turn prevent any one player from sweeping another), but takes the form of a careful dance, detentes forming and shattering over time. Students proliferate and change into masters; masters make their way across a bridge to spread their knowledge to a new village. The game rewards multiple strategies (will you shepherd your strength? Blitz? Defend?), and like all such oppositional games, finds its replay value in navigating the game’s system against new, smarter opponents. Sure, The Bridges of Shangri-La is never going to replace chess. But it’s not nearly as shallow as one might expect, given the whimsical packaging. This is the kind of strategy game where, given enough practice, the student will eventually become a master–or, as Darth Vader put it, “Wenn ich dich verlassen, ich war aber der Lernende; jetzt bin ich der Meister.”
That’s it for this week! Tune in next time for more board game action.