Category Archives: Reviews

Say… In the Dark…

Session Report: King of Tokyo: Dark Edition, May 8-9, 2020, and slight review

While browsing for some new ships to add to my budding X-Wing collexion, I noticed the new Dark Edition of King of Tokyo was being heavily promoted.

I’d played the original King of Tokyo about a decade ago (at least it seems that long ago) at a Unity Games con (R.I.P.), and I liked it enough to gift it to a friend of mine who is heavily into Kaiju. (I don’t have enough monster movie interest to feel right using that term, just like I will never be able to sign off with “peace” without feeling like a tool, but that’s neither here nor there).  I never got around to purchasing this game myself, as I’ve seldom played light or filler games in the past few years, and the artwork in the edition I had played was also fairly cartoony—not really my style.  I eyed this game off and on over the years, thinking it might be fun to try with the kids at some point, but it was never really a priority.

Recently, L has been expressing interest in playing Rampage (now re-named Terror in Meeple City, but we all know what it really is) with me the kids.  This, of course, re-triggered my obsessive need to round out my collection.  I mean, I can’t just have ONE gigantic-monster-smashes-city game on my shelf, right?  The demons in my head spurred me onward, the quick glimpses of the new Dark graphics pushed me over the edge, and I pulled the trigger.  

The kids were excited to see what was in the package that had arrived Friday morning.  No sooner had they glimpsed the box art when I heard the words come out of Ash’s mouth, “Can we play this game today?”  I remembered this game as being quick, easy to teach, and accessible even to small kids.  Yeah, the box says ages 8 and up, and my kids are 5 and 7.   But my kids are gamers.  And smart.  Fuck what the box says.  “Yes,” I answered.  Yes we can.”

“Can we play this game today?” 

“Yes. Yes we can.”

But back to that box.  I was immediately impressed with the outward presentation of this game.  The stark colours and clean presentation set this apart from the previous edition had played.  This is clearly intended to be a grown-up fluffy, light, dice-chucking kids game.  A beautiful touch is the cardboard that has the name of the game along with play time, number of players, and appropriate ages for the game… is a removable “out-sert.”  Once that is appropriately chucked in the trash, the box top has no words, just the graphic of a glowing gigantic lizard peaking through the smokey gray cityscape through which it is tromping.  It’s… quite stunning, really, and a far cry from the cartoony graphics of the previous version.

The kids were, of course, excited to get playing.  The board’s graphics are simple and functional, and the board itself is surprisingly small for a game about monsters smashing up a city.  Honestly, this game doesn’t really need much of a board at all, but the inclusion of one just… adds fun.  There are circular spots for Tokyo City and Tokyo Bay as well as enough room outside both of those locations to park your monster while they lick their wounds or prime their next onslaught against the monsters occupying the actual locations.  It’s going to be crowded out there with 4-6 player games, but that’s kind of the point.  Also present are simple and language-free graphics explaining the requirements of the new Wickedness track as well as the benefits to moving into and/or remaining in Tokyo City/Tokyo Bay. Also new to this edition, is the board art, which is darker (surprise surprise) with some excellent touches such as craters filled with glowy green ooze.  And it’s embossed.  They didn’t need to do that.  But they did.  And, boy, am I happy they did.  I was just as impressed with these little touches as I was when I first unboxed Space Hulk (see blog entry).  Actually, I was more impressed.  I expected a game at Space Hulk’s price point to be of the highest quality.  For King of Tokyo, this touch wasn’t necessary at all.  But it adds another touch of class.  The board itself is a mere quarter of a “standard” fold-out board, just filling out the now seemingly-standard box size for modern non-epic games.

Ash remarked at the board size, which prompted me to ask him, “What does that tell you?  Do you think you need a big board to have a fun game?”  He was about to find out.  Ash picked the mecha-dragon (because, duh) , and Scarlett chose the pink bunny mech.  I opted for the traditional Godzilla style monster.  In my head, it’s a tarrasque.  And it will always be a tarrasque.  The characters have no special powers other than looking cool,, which they all do very well, so this was a nice change from some of the more involved games I’ve been playing recently with Ash (X-Wing, Gloomhaven, Ghost Stories) where further explanation is needed before starting to play.  I don’t think I talked at all about the rules before we started chucking dice.

And these dice.  Let me tell you something, if your central game mechanic is rolling dice, you would do well to make your dice hefty, easy to read, and pretty.  And have your players roll at least two at a time.  It’s about hand feel, people.  And this game… far exceeds what a dice throwing experience needs in order to be fun.  These dice are big.  These dice are heavy.  The numbers and icons are clear.  You get to throw six dice at a time minimum each turn.    And then roll them again.  And again.  The previous version of this game had chunky dice, as well.  But these… with their smokey gray base colour and bright green icons…  these dice are a step above.  These dice are wonderful.

While discussing components, I should also note that the card artwork has, I believe, also been updated, and while maintaining a bit of cartoonish quality, the fonts of the card titles evoke more of a Creature Double-Feature UHF movie night vibe, which is a welcome bit of nostalgia for me.

This game is just simple enough for that to be possible, even with young children.  Scarlett was as engaged as I could hope for until her giant robot bunny fell.  Ash was even more invested.  The smile on his face as he contemplated his rerolls, weighing character abilities vs. healing vs. damage dealing vs. points…  it was marvelous to see.  This was the most tense game I’ve ever played against my seven year old son.  There is enough luck to mitigate and skill differences.  The cards and new wickedness tiles are simple.  I did have to read and explain them to Ash at first, as he’s not great with reading small text yet and with fully internalizing how they translate into rules, but he’s excellent with remembering what things do, as has been evidenced by his fielding an 8-ship Imperial squadron against my Rebel scum in X-Wing.

A great part of this game is how light it is, being fueled by the dice mechanic.  Certainly there are strategies and tactics to employ in order to decide which dice to keep and reroll depending upon your current strategy, but… there are dice…  there are so many dice.  And, like I said, these are very very VERY good dice.   Still, there are decisions to be made based around how your beautiful, meaty dice roll.  Do you go for straight victory points and try to outrun your opponents to 20, potentially capturing more powers via the new Wickedness tiles on your way?  Do you try to whittle away your opponents’ health or try to heal yourself?  Do you try to go sideways and enhance your powers to do any of these things by purchasing cards?  All of these are viable, and they allow for both strategic play, but they also require a bit of improvisation to your schemes, because, again, DICE.

After Scarlett dropped from our first game, Ash and I slugged it out for a while.  Now, I’m not one to let my kids win at games.  Or anyone for that matter.  I don’t believe in it.  But I don’t always play my absolute dastardliest against my children, especially Ash, as I’m trying hard to help him overcome his defeatism and sore-loserdom.  I didn’t have to worry about that this game.  He kicked my ass.  He played exceedingly well, and seeing his mind work as he decided whether to and which dice to preroll was a father’s joy.  And it paid off for him, as well.  He beat me soundly our first game.

Slight Misplay:  I didn’t quite understand that the new tiles are tiered, with 4 3-level cards, 4 6-level cards, and 2 10-level cards, so I had misdistributed them in our first game and accidentally grabbed a super-powerful card for level 3.  It was easy enough to ret-con a turn or two after.  I don’t believe the rules specifically call out the difference between the tiles, but the tiles themselves do have the appropriate level number on them, so mea culpa.  Ash still dominated me this game.

After our game, Ash quickly asked if we could play again.  

Yes.  Yes, we can.

We played the two-player variant this time, as Scarlett decided she’d had enough after her bunny had been clobbered in the first game.  The two player variant gives players energy instead of VP’s for entering or remaining in Tokyo City.  I quickly understood that this meant this would be a more card-driven game, and I wondered if Ash would be able to keep up with that new dimension.  He did, and I also had some revelations while playing this head-to-head variant, all of them good ones.  

First, changing the bonuses for occupying Tokyo does a splendid job of exactly what it intends— creating a longer (though not by any means long) game, allowing both players to still pursue multiple paths for victory.  With players not getting directly closer to victory by entering Tokyo, the mechanic emphasizes the other paths to victory which are still the core of the game.  You’re still trying to pound your opponent into submission, but now to get a VP win, you need to be a bit more savvy with the cards and with your dice assignments. There is still, also, a tense decision to be made about whether or not to remain in Tokyo City or to yield, since you cannot heal yourself in Tokyo, and since it’s much easier to remain in the city since you only have to withstand one assault from your opponent to do so.  

My second revelation was due to the emphasis on cards (since you’ve got to do something with all that energy you’re acquiring). Because of this, I was forced me into a style of play I don’t usually gravitate towards in a light game— meta-play via cards.  But Ash and I both found the cards so straight-forward that we were both able to utilize them not only on their own, but also to synergistic effects with other cards and tiles we had earned.

Thirdly, and possibly most importantly, even head-to-head with only two players with a dice-driven mechanic, this game allows for incredible tension and turn-to-turn tight tactical decision-making.  There were several turns where I thought I was going to destroy Ash and possibly make him cry.  However.  I did not.  I could not.  Between the dice and his own clever play, my plans were dashed, and, you guessed it, he turned the tables on me without me having to pull any punches at all.  Quite to the contrary, I found myself on the ropes scrambling to fight back for my monster’s life for the last two turns, those same turns on which I thought would grant me the victory for certain.  And then he won.  And it was glorious.  

This was the tightest game of anything I’ve every played with Ash.  Even when I thought I’d be pulling a fast one on him, sneaking a victory through clever card buys, he managed to stay one step ahead of me and knock me back on my heels.  He decided that was enough of the game for the day, which was, admittedly, plenty.  I wondered if he would be enthusiastic about playing again any time soon. 

We found ourselves with a little extra time on Saturday, so Ash quickly agreed to play a three-player game with L.  Unfortunately for Ash, his mother picked him up after the first turn, but L was very enthusiastic to keep playing, so we continued on with the normal rules until she secured a win.    To my pleasant surprise, she asked to play again!  And we did, this time using the 2-player rules,  Again, we had a very tense game up until I was ultimately able to eke out a victory via card-play.  

I have to say I’m extremely satisfied with this game, even pleasantly surprised at how much more enjoyable it is than I had remembered.  It’s well-exceeded my memories of a quick, fun, dice-romp and has moved up in my estimation as tense and tactical game whose enjoyment fills every minute of the play-time.  This quick play-time ensures that this game doesn’t overstay it’s welcome on the table.  It also means this game will see the table more often than some of my other household favorites such as PitchCar, Fireball Island, and X-Wing, also owing to the quick and simple set-up.  Also, the game has a “let’s play again” factor, and the short play time encourages that… as does the desire for revenge for your fallen monster. The game itself plays well with both children and adults, offering interesting and accessible decisions for both, and it scales well for all player counts I’ve tried.  I’m sure this game will make the rotation of post-Thanksgiving games… If and when social distancing/lockdown/quarantining ever ends. 

Dark Edition definitely adds a level of beauty and class to the experience with the new art and graphics, while also contributing a simple but impactful, and most importantly fun, addition to the already elegant rules.  This is a game I will proudly display on my shelf alongside Rampage, breaking out both for a monster game night while blasting Blue Oyster Cult’s Godzilla and‘s excellent Monster Attack!!! track.  The new Dark Edition is an excellent chance to pick up this game if you don’t have it already, thoughI don’t think the new edition warrants a rebuy by anyone who already owns the original or King of New York based on the new rules addition alone. Unless you really like the art. And chunky chunky dice.


Return of the King

Session Report- Lord of the Rings co-op game, 4/21/20

Players: L, Ash, Scarlett, me

I did something last night I hadn’t done in over a decade.  I played the classic Knizia Lord of the Rings co-operative board game.  This was the first modern designer board game I had ever purchased, and I remember being awestruck by the simple mechanics (back before I knew what mechanics were even called), the co-operative play (again, I’d never encountered this style of play before), and how thematic this game was, evoking scenes from the books and movies with such a clean presentation of event titles and simple mechanical consequences.  I remember playing this game a lot with my old group, all of us Lord of the Rings fans, and adding in the Friends and Foes expansion and eventually the Sauron expansion, as well.  Like many co-operative efforts, this game lost a bit of its luster once we beat it for the first time.

When I read The Hobbit to my children two years ago, I found myself disappointed, not in my children’s reactions (Ash cried at the end, which made me exceedingly proud), but with my own experience revisiting the text and world of the book.  Would this prove to be a similar experience?  Would I bring my children and girlfriend back to the Shire only to discover that it was no longer as I remembered it, either because the world had changed… or I had?

Why did I even bring this to the table in the first place?  Why do I even include it in my collection, nestled between War of the Ring and Lord of the Rings: the Confrontation on my fantasy strategy shelf, and not relegate it to my Euro shelf, almost a museum of my modern gaming origins?  Why, when this game’s innards haven’t seen the light of day in over a decade, does it not simply live in my cold storage cabinet, far from the sanctity of my “live” collection?

Laura has been wanting to rewatch the movies for a while now, and it seems that the kids have forgotten more than they remembered of Middle-Earth, Tolkien’s world being overrun in their little minds by Star Wars and Disney Princesses.  As Laura had never seen the extended versions (le gasp!) and with us having a bit more time on our hands these days, we’ve begun rewatching the films, punctuated by my daughter’s whispers of “my preccccioussssss.”  I’m a theme junky, so some sort of LotR game was destined to happen.

In addition, the kids have been a bit challenging to game with lately.  Ash has had consistent issues with sportsmanship and sore-loserdom, and Scarlett hasn’t really engaging in the higher level games that appeal to Ash.   I should note here that Ash is 7 and Scarlett is 5, so these issues aren’t overly concerning to me, but I’ve been doing my best to address them.  I thought a co-operative game with overt tie-ins to a movie trilogy we are currently watching would be a great opportunity.

Before even setting up the game, the kids and Laura had decided upon their colours, Ash departing from his usual favourite of red in favour of yellow, making him Frodo.  Scarlett took red for Sam, L took the green Pippin, leaving me with Merry.  I went through the rules and was pleasantly surprised at how simple this game is to explain to both adults and children.  The common cooperative mechanic of “do something bad, then do something good” was easily accessible to the kids, and the tile bag (snatched from the Sauron expansion) provided a nice tactile activity for the kids on their turns.  The kids were also very excited to have a chance to hold the One Ring, though they were a bit disappointed that they didn’t become invisible when putting it on.  

“Okay, I have GOT to read these books.”

–Ashford Grayson

Ash read his card text like a champ, made good use of his joker symbols and special ability with a few reminders and coaching, and was overall engaged with the game.  A key moment for him was jumping to my character’s aid by using a special card to push me back three spaces on the corruption chart when I found myself  staring at Sauron block from a space or two away.  Thanks, buddy!  Also, upon seeing the Ghan card on the Mordor scenario board, Ash asked who that character was.  When told he was a character from the books and not the movies, he exclaimed, “Okay, I have GOT to read these books.”  Love this guy.

Scarlett did a good job of identifying the symbols on her cards and distinguishing the white and gray hobbit cards for one another when we quizzed her at the beginning of the game, but she still opted to play “open-faced sammiches” which allowed us to help her play and stay engaged with the game.  We definitely used her as a support character, which she was more than fine with and kept her mind engaged and her hands out of the tile draw bag.  She had some awful tile-pulls, which prompted a nice explanation of how while you can’t really be “bad” at drawing tiles or rolling dice… sometimes it’s fun to pretend it’s someone’s fault.  Which it is.

Scarlett’s shining moment was actually just before the game began:

“Everyone’s always after the ONE RING.  It’s all about the ONE RING.

Why don’t they just get their own?!”

–Scarlett Poe

Gods I love her.

Both kids were entranced with the prospect of using the ring.  L and I did our best to provide recommendations on when it might be most effective, but ultimately, we let the kids have their final choice in the matter.  A nice combination of the game design and our tactics allowed for each of us to have a turn as ring-bearer during this game, and for the most part we used the ring to skip one or more die rolls on the main track.

I was impressed that our first attempt lasted longer than the first scenario board, though we did start Sauron on the 15 mark for this first game.  I was increasingly astonished at each further board we conquered until we found ourselves in Mordor.  I had been repeatedly cautioning everyone about how difficult this game was, how much harder things would get in subsequent boards, and how we would most likely lose and could try again another time.  Ash actually seemed quite okay with this.  He was happy with our progress and seemed okay with the prospect of us losing in the end.  

We did a nice job of strategically and selflessly giving up shields for event spaces in Mordor, chugging along on the main travel line while also making good progress on the friendship track.  We mostly ignored the other tracks on this board.  To my surprise, we found ourselves within two spaces of Mt. Doom, and I had a secret weapon in hand for the final challenge awaiting us.  L was able to use a special card to hand me the last needed card to complete the travel track, and after the die roll at the end of that track was completed, we headed to the end game.

I had reserved my Belt card just for this purpose, ensuring our win by avoiding my initial die roll to toss the ring into the fires of Mt. Doom.  We.  Freakin’.  Won.  The feeling to me was similar to the last time I remember winning this game.  It was, of course, exciting to win, especially with L and the kids and it being our first play together.  On the other hand, the nature of the win, using a card to ensure the victory, left me feeling a bit unsatisfied.  While the use of a die roll to decide the ultimate fate of our game (and all of Middle Earth for that matter) can seem on paper to be unfair and random, there is a lot to be said for the drama and tension created by the entire game resting on a single roll of the dice.  Ash seemed satisfied and excited with the win, but in retrospect, I should have used the Belt to avoid the die roll on the last space in Mordor and proceeded with the die rolls to preserve the excitement, especially considering none of us were in any danger of being eliminated from the game.  I could also have held onto the Belt to save the day and win if things looked even bleaker after several failed die rolls at Mt. Doom.

Nonetheless, it was a very satisfying evening overall.  The game still impresses me as a masterful piece of design linking seamlessly with the theme in a very economical way.  The lack of text on most cards not only make the game seem very clean, but also make it much more accessible and understandable by children, and the mechanics overall are as elegant as one could possibly hope for in a game that evokes such a strong narrative feel of the source material.  Moreover, the game is tense, challenging, and fun, both for adults and kids.  The art by John Howe is simply gorgeous, and Scarlett was actually disappointed to have to use a friendship card because she didn’t want to give up the picture of Sam eating soup.

Despite keeping the kids up well past their bedtime, and Scarlett being in one of the wackiest moods I’ve seen, everyone had fun through the game and are anxious to play again with the normal difficulty… and then add expansions.  Although my tastes have shifted away from euros over the decades, it was a real treat to play a masterpiece by one of the all time masters of game craft.  The art and overall production of my copy (the original Hasbro box is the one I own) supports clean mechanics that avoid being dry and stale.  One rule in particular stood out for me this play-through.  Players being allowed to share any and all information about their cards and intentions is a contrast to games like GloomHaven, in which discussing numbers and other specific are forbidden.  This really shone when playing with my kids, and combined nicely with the iconography of the mostly text-free cards to allow all of us, including Scarlett, age 5, to engage in full strategy and tactical discussions before each turn.  The artwork is gorgeous, vibrant, and evocative without being intrusive or distracting to gameplay.

Misplays:  None, really!  I did have one moment when I attempted to use the Belt to avoid a die roll when using the ring, but I looked it up quickly afterwards and ret-conned the move before the next player (L) took her turn.  It’s a testament to the elegance of this game that there is not much room for mis-remembered or misinterpreted rules.

Until next time.  Onward!