The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Slay the Spire

During the Steam Winter Sale I picked this up for $12 ish. This is another rogue-like (similar to Dicey Dungeons), except that your character is basically:

  • A Dominion deck, plus
  • A Collection of power-ups, plus
  • a few stats (HP, max HP, $$, etc)

And as you “Climb the Spire” you gain new cards, trash a few old ones, and get the power ups.

Like FTL, the game isn’t impossible to beat, but it definitely takes some finesse. And while there’s no “Easy/Normal/Hard” once you finally beat the game with each character you can start trying to be the “Ascension” game with increasing levels of difficulty. I thought after 20 hours it was getting some what samey, but even Ascension Level 1 adds a fair amount.

And — you know — $12.

Rating — Suggest

Written by taogaming

December 24, 2019 at 10:36 pm

Brief Thoughts on FTL

FTL is a … not new … computer game that made the best of decade list . I bought it cheaply (although apparently you can get it for free if you buy their new game, Into the Breach, which I didn’t notice until later. Ah well. It’s similar to Nethack: instead of a dungeon you are flying your space ship around a galaxy (8 sectors, each with perhaps two dozen systems you can explore). FTL has a real-time element but you can pause it whenever you like and place your orders.

Another similarity is that after fifteen odd plays (some by myself and some by the TaoLing), we haven’t beaten the game on ‘easy’ mode.

As for theme, the obvious similarity is Star Fleet Battles, but I think this bears a stronger relationship to Battlestations!, in that you move your crew around your ship to give bonuses, repair damage, fight fires, repel boarders, etc. (If you get a teleported you can also beam them over to wreck havoc on the enemy ships). So — on the ‘macro’ level you have a Tales of the Arabian Nights flavor. You hop into a system and may be given a choice: fight the pirates attacking a civilian ship or let yourself be bribed to ignore it. If you fight, then you go to the micro game.

There’s a hefty dose of resource management. You have to deal with scrap (money), fuel (1 per jump), energy, crew members (you start with three humans, decidedly not enough). Some weapons require missiles or drone parts (in short supply), you only have three slots for augmentations, you can upgrade many systems but those take scrap and energy (itself an upgrade). Spend it all now or save it in case you get to a lucky place to trade?

The story is vaguely — err, blatantly — reminiscent of A New Hope where a small group needs to get the plans to defeat the enemy back to your base and then fight a last stand battle. So you also have a time element. You can’t linger in the easy sectors (they get harder as you go) because the enemy fleet is approaching … in one game I went slightly out of the way to buy from a trader and then had to deal with the fleet on the beacon to exit the system. Despite being armed to the teeth with one of the best ships I’ve built, I managed to lose.

One nice detail, you are the fighting off the evil rebels as the Federation, so maybe it’s more not-quite-infringing on Star Trek. (At least one of the achievements is a great nod to DS9.)

As I said, on easy mode the first few games were quick losses, and then with some experience I could make it a few sectors, and then finally to the final sector. But never winning. On easy. This lacks Nethack’s “The devs thought of everything” depth where there are hundreds of subsystems that interact in hyper-obscure but reasonable ways, but there’s still plenty going on. (I don’t have the ‘advanced edition’ mods turned on, but they come with the game. Baby steps….)

One big improvement — the game probably takes 1-2 hours tops. (Once I started getting OK at Nethack, it turned into a real grind). I think in another dozen or so games we may crack the final sector (called, “The Last Stand”), but there are still many ship designs to unlock and then “normal” and “hard” mode. (Vhodjha Moi!) The reviewer of Polygon’s list stated it well:

I’ve played FTL: Faster Than Light hundreds of times and still never won the damned thing. But I don’t care, because dying in this pausable puzzle game is always a joy.

Joy may be an overbid, but its a mild one. Delicious Frustration, perhaps.

Rating — Enthusiastic

Update — OK, did win on easy (with the basic ship), which took about 3h.

2nd Update — 3h for a win seems typical. I’ve now won with ~5 ships on Easy.

VGG Link is to FTL.

Written by taogaming

November 10, 2019 at 11:48 pm

Posted in Artificial Opponents, Reviews

Tagged with


I hadn’t quite realized just how “all-in” the local 18xx group has gone. In the space of under two years, they probably now have 100+ different 18xx titles between them (as well as numerous collections of poker chips, a jewelers-tray to lay out tiles in, and other helpful player aids). So tonight I got to try 1836, which covers Ohio.

This is a winsome game — minimal components. The ‘hook’ is the ten minor companies. They each start with a ‘2’ train and can lay two yellow tracks a turn (but can never upgrade track). For each track they don’t place, they earn $5, and when they run they split income 50/50 with the owner. After the initial auction there are three ORs with minors only, then you go into the normal 1830 stock round / 1-3 ORs.

So the minor companies actually wind up placing most of the yellow tiles before any of the (5) major companies open. The major companies can also buy minors before they run, and get the minor’s extra trains (beyond their initial ‘2’), can replace their station marker for free, and treasury. The big implication is that a major company can get a train and valid route in their first OR, and so don’t delay. (Minors are always bought at $100, and do not need to purchase a train when the 2s go away).

So — like 1830 there is a large auction with values that are hard to figure out without a game or two under your belt.

Our 4p game took 2.5 hours with rules and the time flew by. With only five major companies (often starting with ‘3’ trains) and the low share limit makes dumping a company less necessary and less attractive. Also, the share limit is low which makes tactics like just grabbing a presidency with no intention of opening it until the next OR is quite reasonable. This does what 18xx is supposed to — let you walk into a game knowing 90% of the rules, learn the last 10% in a few minutes, and have those changes spin out in exceedingly complex ways. The only thing that I noticed is that all the major companies train locked at two trains when the five-trains came out (and I had the only minor left, minors closing on the first six if not bought), so unless someone when heavily into yellow (which may be viable) the game may not have any six trains bought. But there is a strong element of group think in that, i suspect.

I will definitely play again (assuming it shows up in the rotation), and am also thankful (given its apparent rarity) that I don’t have to buy it.

Rating — Suggest.



Written by taogaming

October 21, 2019 at 9:16 pm

Posted in Reviews

Race! Formula 90

Joe Huber once told me a gaming ‘life-hack’ (my wording, not his) — play people’s favorite game with them. Maybe you’ll see what they see in it. (And Joe’s just a generally nice guy, so left unsaid was “and you’ll make them happy.”) I’m not going to say I’ve gone out of my way to apply his advice, but I’ve said yes to a few games I might not have. (This is also the advice given in the Documentary about Bill Murray and why he has so many interesting stories about him, he is inclined to say yes to polite, well-intentioned requests even from complete strangers from time to time).

Discount Joe and Bill at your own peril.

Anyway, the (very minor) way I’ve always applied this is by watching my geek buddies for odd/obscure/against the crowd titles and recommendations, so RF90 has been on my watchlist for several years. It has a high rating but a glowing geekbuddy comment intrigued me. I managed to get my hands on a copy (trading away Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea, may it find a better home) and have been puttering around with it. As it’s obscure, perhaps its time to go old school and dish out a review that does a lot more mechanical explanation than I’ve done. (As of this writing I’ve played about a half dozen games split between solo and 2er).

RF90 sits between the classic “cars on a map” F1 games like Formula De and the pure “order only” games like the Stock Car Championship Car Racing Game. There is a map, and a fairly complex one, but each space (‘section’) can hold any number of cars and the ordering in the space matters. But each turn represents a few laps, so it doesn’t matter where you are on the board, you can always pit. The board means tracks have a different feel (they have Monza and Hungaring in the base game), but — like in the more board-based games — you’ll only do around two laps.

Each player has a hand of cards that have:

  • A movement point value of 1-4 (sections)
  • A ‘suit’
  • A check value (1-99, I think)
  • Possibly some penalties (tire or body damage, a driving check), benefits (a card draw or two, typically) or event triggers in the advanced game

At its core, this is a hand management game. On your turn you draw one card and play 1-2 cards. You can only play two cards if the second card is a single movement point, or if both cards are two movement points each, so you have 1-5 movement points via cards. A movement point lets you move a section, and possibly pass a car.

Sections are divided into three types:

  • In Straightaways, you spend a movement point to pass. So if there are two cars ahead of you in the next section, one movement point to enter, one to pass Car A, one to pass Car B and another to go to the next section.
  • In Corners, you can’t pass during your turn, and any excess movement points are lost. But have a contest at the start of next turn to switch order.
  • In Braking sections you lose spare movement points (like in corners), but you can make a check to pass with a risk of disaster, via ‘Late Braking’

A check is done by either drawing the top card of the deck (a “blind check”) or spending a card from your hand to compare a check value with a target. For late breaking (which must be done via blind check) each corner has the target listed — make the target and you pass everyone and get another section. Miss it and you spin out. (In the advanced game, how badly you spin out is often another check, which need not be blind).

One of the details that helps this game shine is that each car has a slot for the individual driver’s aggression level (which starts with the card used in qualifying) . Many cards (the entire green suit, I think) force the driver to make a driving check, which could be resolved by blind draw (off the deck), or spending a card in hand, or event the card you just played. Make it, no problem. Miss it and take a point of damage (which may be fixable in a pit stop, or not). But — here’s the fun part — the card used to pass/fail the check replaces the aggression level (called the “Driver Check Level”) for next time. So if you have a check level of 70 and play a green card with a skill check and it’s got a check level of 60, no problem, you can use that card and replace it. But your next check is harder. If the green card had a 75, perhaps you want to spend a card from your hand (lowering your hand size until you pit or play a slow card that draws cards) or draw blindly or maybe just grind up against your neighbor, take the damage but at least you’ll have an easier number for next time.

Eventually you are going to fail and take damage. But damage isn’t really horrible. Until you take the point that puts you out of the race. (Cars can take 4-6 points).

Cornering is another fun hand-management game. Each card (starting from the rear) plays 1-2 cards — this time you can play any two you like, and only the movement points matter. The section leader may get a bonus or penalty (some corners are very hard to overtake in, others very easy). Everyone who played cards gets re-arranged in movement point order and ties cause a point of damage. Cars that didn’t play cards keep their order (behind all the challenging cars) and then you go off. You even get to keep the cards you used — but you can’t use them that turn.

Also on the board some spots provide good driving lines (‘trajectories’) on them. Ending on a trajectory provides a 1 or 2 Movement point bonus next turn, if you play a card that matches the trajectories’ suit.

So you have a combination board/hand management. You start with 4-6 cards, but you want high values to pass and go fast. You’ll want to play your low value, hand-size boosting cards when you are about to be blocked by that pack in the corner. Single Movement point cards are slow, but you can play them as a second card. Green cards will inevitably accumulate damage, but hopefully slow enough. You’ll want to keep a good match of suits for trajectories. High value cards let you pass easily, at the cost of tire and body damage. And so it goes.

Oh, and you’ll need to pit. This repairs tire and body damage (although some body damage is not fixable during a race, random draw), discard any unwanted cards draw up to hand size. (You must discard down to max hand size if you happen to be above it). Oh, and it moves you back 2-3 turns worth of sections. But you have to pit at least once for fuel, so when to pit? Big decision. And there are robot cars on the race (more than players). These go at varying speeds and general get in the way once you start lapping them,

Each driver’s car may be different (in allocation of body damage it can take, tires it can spend, and starting hand size). There are six strategies a driver can pick from, which allow you to conserve tires by driving safely, gain extra movement by driving recklessly, get better card draws. You can change strategies when pitting (or giving up a turn).

Qualifying is its own little mini game. Each player starts with one card above hand max and plays it. Higher cards go first, but ties — of which there will be many — are broken by aggression. Lower check values go before higher, but those lower values start as the driver’s check target. (The robots just draw chits). Thankfully — for those who start later — you pick strategies after seeding.

The advanced rules add weather, give more depth to the strategies by allowing them to earn track cards (which differ for each track and can only be played in the appropriate section, but really shine at those places), driver skills (like strategies, but they can’t change during the race), more advanced spin-outs, yellow (and other) flags, tire types, fuel, a restart-pace car, and the like. There are also plenty of expansion rules (and tracks/decks) in the BGG forums, although some of those are fan-made.


For a racing game, the complexity is up there. Nothing compare to wargame standards, but still. The rules aren’t complicated, but take time to get used to. In particular, turn order and the robots. The robots have some (fairly simple) rules but don’t bother with cards, etc. But the robots react differently to human cars and other robots. This makes for a fine simulation — you can play 2p and still have a full track — but takes a while to grok all the interactions. As for turn order …. like most racing  games you start with  the leader and work your way back, but when the leader laps cars, they activate. This works nicely (and realistically): the leader gets tangled up with the trailing cars, eventually passes them, but then they fall in right behind the leader (robots will not challenge someone who has lapped them).  There is a chart of checks, and some of them must be done blindly, some don’t.

Nothing difficult, just subtle variations that take time to absorb. A copy or two of the (inside) back cover of the rule book as a player aid would be nice. Some rules were unclear — all spaces are counted as straightaways on the first or last lap. But laps are abstracted and a turn can represent multiple laps. (A check to BGG confirmed that lap meant “turn,” in this instance. There’s a glossary, but lap wasn’t defined).

Frankly the rulebook had several spots where I had to stare at the rules, the map, the (often good) examples and possibly read the FAQ and/or watch a video of the designer playing a (modified) solo system. It didn’t take long, a few hours, but the fact that I needed those resources may deter someone thinking about this. I did notice there was a new advanced rulebook on BGG (with a few rules changes).  I skimmed it and it had some much clearer examples. (The simplified, non-production quality graphics make it easier to understand, since all ordering is depicted as a straight line, instead of curvy real-world corners).

I got this because it looked like it would work well solo (or with the TaoLing). The box lists the range as 2-6 but I would imagine that six would have to be a group that really loved this, fixed fun. But I think once you know it moves at a quick pace. In particular, once the track spreads out you can plan your turn and move. Robots take a few seconds, so that’s not a problem — although even the designer forgot a few points in the video I mentioned above — but he was also playing with some expansion solo rules. After a basic solo game I found it fairly easy to play a nearly full solo game — I forgot one or two things, but mostly made mechanical errors (like forgetting to advance the turn track, or missing some options I had).

So — I spent a bit of time learning this, but on the order of two hours, not twenty. Some points are still unclear.

RF90 has flaws. Firstly, its a touch long even at 2p. (Solo is fine because all the time wasted is wasted by me). With the full rules, we’re looking at 90m or so for a race. The basic game (with super fast robots) is a touch too hard, the addition of the track cards makes it fine (all of our games have been humans 1-2, the solo game with the even faster robots is hard). Secondly, even with some of the second edition rules, the strategies are not balanced. Hazard needs nerfing (a perusal of BGG forums shows solid agreement) and I think Lucky and Chase should strengthened, although I have no particular ideas as to how. (Saving Tires, Banging Wheels and Balance seem ok). I’m not sure about the skills, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they are a touch off. (Hazard + Reflexes seems dominant and possibly broken, but I think most of that is on Hazard).

Like any F1 game, a downside is that each track requires it’s own board. Worse, they also require their own cards. So short of getting the expansion or printing out the track and decks on BGG, I just have two tracks for the time being.

Of serious concern for some groups: a runaway leader (or fallaway loser) is likely, possibly inevitable with 3+ players. The leader must deal with lapping cars (and yellow flags) but a player making a failed high probability check can lose a turn or two (or be eliminated). This seems thematically realistic to me, and I doubt I’ll ever suggest this multiplayer (it may not even make it into the bag) but that’s a concern.

For me, the biggest issue is likely the length/sameyness. I eventually got rid of all of my Formula De stuff because each race felt the same. RF90 does admirably work in making each turns decisions feel bigger, more complex, but are they actually? Not really. There are many more variables to juggle and it’s got refreshing depth, but twenty six turns of it (for Monza) is a bit much. The really important decisions are basically going for a 1-pit, 2-pit or 3-pit strategy and then optimizing. These are difficult decisions, but I’m not sure it justifies a 90 minute game. At 6 players I’d likely shoot myself.

Still, I’m pleased with this as a change of pace from our other games. I likely won’t solitaire it much since the TaoLing enjoys it, so I’ll likely have more than enough 2p plays to tide me over.

RatingSuggest (solo), dropping a bit with each more player. Likely indifferent with 3 and avoid by 4 or 5.


Written by taogaming

September 22, 2019 at 7:24 pm

Posted in Reviews

Tagged with

Excuse me stewardess, I speak Chaotic Good

I don’t role play much these days, but (like many a gamer of about my coughity-cough years), I was introduced to Role playing via the D&D Boxed sets. Even at that tender age I found the idea of alignment based languages laughable (although now I longer remember if those were in the boxes, or something later on in the 80s, like AD&D). But, here’s the funny thing that I didn’t know at the time — they exist.

Mainly not neutral good. But thieves — such as the Coquillars — had a jargon or lingo they used to avoid detection. Imagine three fellows of limited acquaintance meeting outside a pub:

“Say, Frank, what say we invite George out drinking, spike his drink, then  — while he’s passed out — go to his place and rummage through all his stuff and take whatever is valuable but not obvious when it goes missing, as well as swiping a fair chunk of his change that we can excuse as ‘his turn to buy rounds?'”

“Capital idea, Ralph. Say George, care for a drink?”

There is some chance George may demur said invitation. But if Frank and Ralph can use slang phrases with an innocent (or cryptic meaning), perhaps encoded in names or places with double meanings to them but not George, they may very well be able to have that exact conversation and sure, why wouldn’t he want to go drinking with such friendly guys. What is interesting about Cants is that they are often done by groups to avoid government interference. So, in reality a lawful alignment cant doesn’t make much sense, but good does. Think of Hobo chalk signs to indicate where to find food, which areas have kindly versus cruel law enforcement. Or Polari, which allowed a man to make a plausibly deniable pass at another man when homosexuality was illegal in England. Anyone who would be offended (and likely to punish the speaker) would most likely not decipher the meaning.

Anyway, now and then these show up in Pop culture (a Bowie song (Girl Loves Me) mixed Nadsat from Clockwork Orange and Polari in his final album)

Cants (or Argots or Cryptolects or Anti-languages) are an interesting rabbit hole to explore.

And — while I don’t much play RPGs, I’m not immune to the siren song of reading them. A thieves can’t shows up in the Princess Bridge RPG (written by the real most interesting man in the world and friend of Tao, Steffan O’ Sullivan). Whether its a great RPG (like any) depends on your taste and your group — I sometimes like rules-heavy systems because they are gameable and hey — I started out my RPG life as a munchkin like most teenagers. But nowadays FUDGE strikes me as a fine low-effort system. It was an amusing read and I may run a one-off at some point in the future. And you can be a bandit and take the gift of speaking the Thieves Cant (to invite George out for a ‘drink’), or you can be a brute and take “Fights local gangs for charities” (to eliminate any penalties for fighting multiple opponents) or “I can’t help it if I’m the biggest and strongest.” And this particular version of Fudge (with attributes of “Body, Wits and Heart”) fits wonderfully with the theme. (Steffan points out that pretty much every main character with the exception of Buttercup is a criminal and probably a killer, but they have good hearts and really only stumbled onto crime as a last resort. Sure, they’ll rob and steal, kidnap the odd Princess to start a war with Guilder, but they have qualms and aren’t psychopaths — unlike many characters played by myself and friends those many years ago). And the entire game session is framed as a meta-RPG with the players all taking the role of the characters and the grandson, with the GM being the grandfather, which is a wonderful touch.

And True Love features prominently. So that’s nice.

Rating for the Princess Bride RPG — Conceivable. I probably wouldn’t have bought it without knowing Steffan, but hey, it’s the Princess Bride.

Written by taogaming

August 29, 2019 at 5:26 pm

Posted in Reviews

Tagged with

Memorial Day Gaming at Casa de Tao leads to two quick thoughts

Bios Megafauna — Played a few 2p “Tooth and Claw” (basic) games. Seems dominated by luck. You get 11 turns (assuming no early ending) but even in the basic (non-roller coaster) game, you can easily have your entire turn (or more) dominated by an event. For example, the TaoLing takes two mutations. Done! I take a mutation and populate. Random event causes two plus organs to degrade … which kills both of the TaoLings mutations (and mine). Two turns later a mutation roll at snake eyes kills two species. OK.

Now, High Frontier has some high variance rolls — (failure rolls), but ways to mitigate. And there’s a lot of legit planning in space mission. But getting 22 actions and having them helped or hindered by random events that do a lot more than the actions (sometimes)…. Well, it’s an experience game, you say. American Megafauna was too long, but the number of decisions seemed much higher. I do want to try the roller coaster game, perhaps so much more randomness (but with known dark heart limits, for example) makes it better.

One surprising thing — Once you know it the game goes fast. I mean, 45m for 2p seems reasonable. But teaching it (and learning) is a bear. I did really like the Heavy Cardboard walkthrough video, which I watched (the first half of) to check my rules after the first game and to pick up the roller coaster rules (roughly). If they have a video on Neanderthal and/or Greenland I’m likely to watch it.

Initial Rating — Still withholding judgement,probably in the “noble failure” subcategory for me. But I might play another half dozen times before deciding.

Tiny Towns — A clever shape tile / resource management game that I don’t love, but I appreciate that its not the same old thing (unless I’ve missed a trend on that). Only one game, but I’d play a few more times. (It seems that a relatively simple strategy of working from the corners to edges to center made it relatively easy (spatially) to avoid blocking yourself, but maybe I just got lucky. The fact that there’s a solitaire game is of interested, but is likely to puzzley and not gamey enough for me.

Also played this weekend — Bohnanza, Eclipse, Code 777, Res Arcana (may write more about that in a week or two), Sentinels of the Multiverse, Fairy Tale

Tomorrow is an extended edition of the normal monday game day, so perhaps there will be more new games…

Written by taogaming

May 26, 2019 at 11:31 pm

…. but the second mouse gets the cheese

At some point around the turn of the millennium (I think) I read about independent designers who would make a game about their hobby — the example being dog shows — and build a game that had a bunch of interesting stuff if you were into that hobby, and had a bunch of game mechanisms straight out of monopoly, etc. Then they’d print 5000 copies and find no buyers in the game market (‘natch) and that the hobbyists would just prefer to do their hobby instead of play a mediocre game about it.

And I also remember reading about WWII playing card that had airplane types (or tanks) to teach troops how to ID them while they were playing cards. More recently, I believe the U.S. makes terrorist watch list playing cards.

Which leads me to Wingspan. This game looks like something made lovingly by the Audubon society. I’m not bird-er, but the artwork is lovely and I assume accurate. If I wanted to be able to identify birds by sight, wingspan, etc, simply a must buy game.

But — I do not.

Still, Stonemaier games is not a novice company. I haven’t loved any of their prior entries to the market, but they seem solid enough.

And that’s where I’m left with Wingspan. You have twenty-six actions over four scoring rounds to either

  1. “Buy” birds from your hand (which cost food and maybe eggs)
  2. Get food
  3. Get eggs
  4. Get cards for more birds

Birds are (again, I assume accurately) assigned a rough range, where they take slots in the food/egg/cards rows, and get cool actions that may trigger when played, when you take the action in the range you place them, or when your opponents do things. They also have a nest type and max egg count. But basically this is a resource management game where you have hundreds of different birds that may appear, you hope to “buy” 10-15 of them and score the most points. Which range you place the bird in improves your action in that type (#2-#4 above) but additional birds in each row cost eggs. Paid from different birds (?).

So, at it’s heart an action efficiency game, but with only a very small subset of possible birds appearing. There’s also bonus points available at the end of each round (determined by the setup) and objective cards that you get at the start of the game (before you have more than a few birds) or drawn during the game (when you can’t really change tacks).  Some birds give you a “Draw two keep one” of bonus cards, which are usually just a few points but could in theory be huge.

Nothing wrong with any of it (although I did actively dislike the cutesy birdhouse dice tower, because you can’t drop the dice in from the top) but nothing that attracted me.



Written by taogaming

March 4, 2019 at 7:56 pm

Posted in Reviews

Tagged with