Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Legends of Andor (Thames and Kosmos)

I was first introduced to Role Playing Games (RPGs) when I was in college with the RPG books Vampire the Masquerade. It was only one night and the game group fizzled fairly quickly, but it was a fun experience of pretending to be someone else and uniting against a common enemy. I never tried an RPG again after that, not for lack of interest, but lack of finding a committed group and no desire to be a storyteller. Recently, I discovered the game Legends of Andor. It is technically classified as a cooperative adventure board game, but I have heard many people describe it as an RPG in a box. Therefore, I knew I had to buy it. The game plays 2-4 people, ages 10+. It takes between 60 and 90 minutes to play, and retails for $60. Normally, I'd tell you how to set up and play the game, but the manual has an introductory adventure that does that, so I'll leave that for you. Instead, I will tell you about the game in general.

The Base Game
The game takes place in a typical fantasy realm with your tried and trusty roles - a human warrior, an eleven archer, a sturdy dwarf, and a wizard from the north! There are also brutish monsters with new names - gors, skrals, trolls, and even a massive dragon. Within the box is a massive deck of cards that form five different adventures. These range from an introductory mission to familiarize yourself with the game to searching and mine and culminating in fighting a dragon. Each game you will set up the board, give people their player boards and dice, and follow the deck of cards to embark on your adventure. Unlike a traditional adventure story, where the main goal is to slash your way through your enemies as quickly as possible, this game requires a balance. You have a limited amount of time each day to perform actions and certain actions (like killing enemies) can speed up your game. Therefore, the game is like a puzzle that you must solve to prevail. You'll win some games and probably lose more than you win, but it has an epic feeling to it, and can be played with children and adults alike. What I like about it, is that it has a bit of a Tolkien-feel to it, and it gives you an experience of living out a story he could have written. Now, if this game was all that the Andor universe had to offer, I think it would be a fun place to visit with your family or friends and once you'd played the five adventures several times, move on. Thankfully, Andor has both sequels and expansions, which I will briefly touch on.
New Heroes
New Heroes is a "small box expansion" that retails for $20. Within this box are four new heroes - a guardian, a tracker, a protector of river lands, and a Taurean fighter. These four characters not only give you new ways to mix and match your adventurers from the base game, it also adds the ability to play with up to six players. There are also some twists on the game (fending off a drunken troll) and a way to increase difficulty if you find the game too easy (not a problem I have encountered). Even if you don't have six people you normally play with, this is a good buy to give you variety among adventures.

The Star Shield
The Star Shield is another "small box expansion" that retails for $20. Within this box is an adventure called The Era of the Star Shield. The story goes that all the records were lost from this time period, so there are a number of different events that could have happened including a dark temple, a siege tower, or a water monster. Therefore, this adventure is a giant deck of cards which will make up a different adventure every time you play it. You will be writing the history books of Andor and trying to save the castle from any of the aforementioned perils. This was a nice box to have and it is compatible with the New Heroes. It gives your base game and all the pieces in it a little more life and replay value.
Journey to the North
Journey to the North is a "big box expansion" and sequel to the base game that retails for $50. I classify it as both because you need the base game so you have access to heroes to play, but you also are embarking on a different journey with a different map and different monsters to face. With the exception of your faithful dwarf companion, you can use all the heroes from the base game. There was apparently a Battle for Cavern waged and Kram is the new prince of Cavern. (I'm still waiting for an official English translation of this adventure.) Never fear, he has been replaced with a Sea Warrior. The Sea Warrior is a welcome addition, because the majority of this map is made up of water. In the Journey to the North, you have a new way to travel (boat), but it comes with complications of its own. The wind will be your friend or your foe at various times, and if you want to beat the four new adventures in this game, you better properly harness it or you'll find yourself losing repeatedly. Unlike the base game, combat is a bigger deal. You will fight aboard the ship, upgrade your ship, position your people on the ship strategically, and live or die by the choices you make. This adds a fresh concept to the game and makes it a new challenge which I thoroughly enjoyed!

Other Expansions and Sequels
Recently, Thames and Kosmos released another "small box expansion," called Dark Heroes and a "stand-alone sequel" called The Last Hope, which is the finale to the Andor trilogy. Dark Heroes is going to add four more characters to play with, but I don't know what is in The Last Hope, but I am eager to find out. There are also several different single card mini-expansions you can find at the BoardGameGeek Store, which adds some more wrinkles to the game play.

Thoughts
I really love this game, and I can't wait for my son to get a little bit older so that I can play this with him. If you love adventure and high fantasy, this is the game for you and your family. The stories are great. The replay value is high. And the artwork is brilliant and well though out. Don't let the price tags intimidate you, as most of these boxes are generally on sale. However, don't also dive in head first, buying everything. Start with the base game, and make sure you love it enough to get everything.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Further Up and Further In: Understanding Narnia

The Chronicles of Narnia was one of my favorite series as a child. It opened my eyes to a fascinating world, and is a series I still visit in my adulthood. I love it so much I have two different audio versions of the books and even imported some color hardcover books from the U.K. because I didn't think the U.S. versions of the books were of good enough quality for this series. In addition to reading the books, I also enjoy reading about the books and learning things I might have missed in my readings of them. That's why I knew I had to have a copy of Further Up and Further In: Understanding Narnia.

The book begins with the author, Joseph Pearce, explaining the proper order to read the series and touting its popularity almost 70 years later. He then discusses this series briefly in comparison with Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and talks about how that even though these books are widely viewed as children's books, they are for adults as well. However, to read these books as an adult, we must first become childlike. This leads us to the next chapter that teaches us about allegory, symbolism, sacramentalism, and learning to read like an adult. The meat of the book is the next seven chapters, which devotes one chapter to each book in the series, starting with The Magician's Nephew and working us all the way to The Last Battle. The chapters range in length from 12 pages to 29 pages. I was surprised that the shortest one was the one on The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, but perhaps that is because it is the most well-known and straightforward one of the series. The chapter I most enjoyed reading was on The Magician's Nephew. That is my favorite book of the series, because I love a good Creation story. Pearce tackles this story, compares it to Tolkien's Creation story in The Silmarillion. He also shows us the dire warnings that Aslan gives for our world, which though the warnings benefited from hindsight, the lessons can still be applied today.

The book closes with a chapter that discusses what happened in the final book at the end. Here we get an explanation of why Susan is not there and what that means for her soul. We also see a theology of someone not knowing Christ but making it to Heaven, because he lived a good life and tried to do what is right. This is not the heresy of Universalism, but the theology of a merciful God, saving the souls of those who did not have the chance to know him, and would have accepted Him had they only had the chance to know Him. I loved reading this book, because it made me get out the series and read it again. I learned things I have missed in my previous readings, and it tells me that you can read this series many times and find something new every time. I also liked all the holes Pearce poked into the arguments of Philip Pullman, a noted atheist author and C.S. Lewis hater. I have never had to argue in defense of C.S. Lewis, but if I needed to, Further Up and Further In is the first book I would reference. If you are a lover of Narnia, like me, this is a book you need on your shelf!

This book was provided to me by TAN Books in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Altiplano (Renegade Games)

A lot of people go to a lot of trouble to make their Top 10 favorite games. Some gamers do it once and will occasionally tweak it to replace a title. Other gamers release Top 10 lists for everything from theme, to game mechanic, to current year. I have never went to this much trouble, and probably never will, but if I was pressed into picking my favorite game of all time it would (currently) be Orléans. Orléans is a bag-building game designed by Reiner Stockhausen that takes place in medieval Europe. Recently, Mr. Stockhausen and Renegade Games released a "spiritual successor" to this game called Altiplano, which takes place in the Andes Mountains of South America. Altiplano is a game for 2-5 players, ages 12+. It takes between one and two hours to play and retails for $65. Today, I am going to tell you the basics of game play, what I think of the game, and how I think it compares to Orléans.
Setup
1. Take the seven Location Tiles (Village, Market, Road, Harbor, Farm, Mine, and Forest) and form a circle in the middle of the table.
2. Remove excess Goods, Carts, and Order Cards from the game depending on player count.
3. Place their respective Goods and/or Order Cards on their respective Location Tiles. This is the forms the main "game board." Place the Food and Coins in the middle of these seven Location Tiles so everyone can reach them.
4. Form the Extensions pile by removing Extensions that don't relate to the player count. Then, shuffle each pile by their back (A, B, C, and D)to form the pile. Reveal the top five Extensions from the pile, placing them next to the Extension Strip.
5. Each player receives 1 action board, 1 warehouse, 1 game figure, 1 marker, 1 container, 1 cart, and 1 cloth bag.
6. Lastly, each player is given one Role Tile (Woodcutter, Fisherman, Shepherd, Miner, Farmer, Trader, or Stonemason) and their starting Goods and Coins listed at the bottom of their Role Tile.
7. The youngest player is given the alpaca token to indicate they are the starting player.
Game Play - The game takes place over several rounds and is divided into four phases:
1. Draw tiles - All player simultaneously draw from their bag, and place them on the planning spaces of their action board. (Note: You have eight planning spaces, but can only place tiles on spaces for which you have performed road construction.
2. Planning - All players simultaneously take the tiles from their planning spaces and/or coins, and put them on different action spaces on their action board, role tile, or extensions.
3. Actions - In turn order, players perform one action and then play moves clockwise. Players continue performing one action each until all players have passed and can perform no more actions. (Note: When performing actions, your marker must be on the correct Location Tile. For example, you may only produce food on the Farm.)
4. New Round - Pass the first player marker. Fill in gaps on the Extension Strip or drop the lowest valued one if no Extensions were purchased.

The end game will trigger when all Goods Tiles and Order Cards are used up at a location, i.e., no more Wood and Cacao in the Forest. Complete the current round and perform one more round. Score any Extensions, Good Tiles, Boats, Houses, and Storage points for each completed row in their Warehouse. Highest score is the winner!
Review
When I first received this game, I thought I was basically getting a South American version of Orléans. If that had been the case, that would have been enough for me, because it would have given me a unique theme of a game mechanic (bag building) that I love. However, the bag building mechanic is really all these two games have in common. Let's look at the three major differences Altiplano has that Orléans does not.

1. Asymmetric starting powers - Each player begins the game with a different role. From that role, you are given a specialization that only you have access to and which dictates your strategy from early on. Sure, you can go against your specialization, but you will be fighting an uphill battle if you do.
2. Movement - Unlike Orléans where you place your tiles and activate their powers every time, location is key to Altiplanto. If you want to perform an action, you have to be able to be in the specific location for it, so you better plan your movement carefully.
3. Bag Contents - In Orléans, you place your tiles back in the bag at the end of every round. In Altiplano, you place your tiles in your container until you run out of tiles in your bag, then you refill your bag. This is nice, because it guarantees you will make use of your tiles and not just fill up the bag and hope they come out.

So has Altiplano replaced Orléans as my number one game of all time, and which game should you get if you have neither? Let's start with the easy question. Orléans is still my number one game of all time with the caveat that you need the Trade and Intrigue expansion to go with it. Now for the harder question...If you have neither game and are pretty experienced with games, I recommend buying Altiplano over Orléans for the following reasons:

1. It is a thinkier game, and one with a lot of strategy that you can really sink your teeth into.
2. It plays up to five players right out of the box, no expansions or upgrade kits required.
3. The theme and locale is more unique than another game based in Europe.
4. The art and color choices are more vibrant.

If I have these strong feelings for Altiplano and recommend it over Orléans, why won't I be getting rid of Orléans then?

1. I have the deluxe version with lots of wooden bits, and wood is better than cardboard. If Renegade had made a deluxe version of this game, this would be a different story.
2. Altiplano is a better game than the base game of Orléans, but when you add in the expansions and all the promo buildings, I would say Orléans is a better game. This might change if we see some mini-expansions or a big box expansion for Altiplano.
3. There is a lot of planning and thinking that goes into Altiplano, and Orléans plays a bit smoother and requires less deep thought. Maybe, I'm lazy, but sometimes I just want to play a game without burning my brain for 2 hours.

In conclusion, this was a fabulous game that I would highly recommend. It is a gamer's game, but it hits all the right buttons and will be a strong candidate for game of the year. If you can only pick one game between the two mentioned in this review, go for Altiplano. If you already own Orléans and all the expansions, you can buy a copy of Altiplano guilt-free, because it's not just a re-skin. It is its own unique game and having both games in your collection is perfectly acceptable!

This game was provided to me for free by Renegade Games in exchange for an honest review.