What Did We Play? Near and Far

This week we all got together to try out Near and Far from Red Raven Games. I picked up the game at Gen Con (actually, I got the next to last copy from the Red Raven Booth) this year. It is a sequel to Above and Below, a game that I have never played but have heard good things about. Fortunately, you do not need to own Above and Below to play Near and Far.

Near and Far advertises itself as a storytelling game, an atlas game, and a campaign game! That sounds like a lot…and it had me intrigued when I saw the game at the Red Raven booth. Then I noticed the artwork! I was hooked!

— Clockwise from top left: Storybook, Atlas, Town Board (dusk side shown)

The Basics

The overall goal of Near and Far is to accumulate Journey Points. You do this by preparing your character in the town and then adventuring on one of the maps contained in the Atlas.

The game is essentially an action-taking game where each turn a player places their character standee on a town location and performs the action(s) listed there. Generally, you are trying to load up on food, coins, friendly adventures, etc so that you are ready to travel out of the town on the map.

On the map, you move around looking for quests and establish camps. The camps allow you to collect coins or gems, and also allow for less exhaustive movement across the map (ie it costs fewer “hearts” to move).

— The map for the first game, as contained in the Atlas.

The game ends once one player has placed all 14 of their camps (on the map, in the mines, and/or on Threat Cards). Journey points are awarded for camps played, trade routes covered, artifacts found, threats defeated, coins, gems, faction tokens, Chiefs obtained, Reputation, and any other card/board bonuses.

Gameplay

Everyone in my group expressed that the basic standee placement and action-taking mechanism closely resembled games like Raiders of the North Sea. Turns are completely fairly quickly and each player has a chance to get something accomplished on their turn.

Exploring on the map takes a bit longer. Once a player travels to the map, they move in a point-to-point system more similar to strategic war games than typical abstract board games. If a player stops on a quest, another player reads the corresponding lettered quest from the Storybook. Each quest has two alternative acts available for the player to choose from among (e.g. help the old lady or ignore her plight) similar to games like Scythe. Usually a skill or combat roll resolves the chosen action.

Players alternate their time from loading up in town and exploring on the map, much like a pen and pencil RPG. This adds a storytelling/role playing element that adds to the fun (it also allows even players falling behind in Journey points to have a good time questing).

— my player board early in the game. I had placed two camps, recruited two adventurers to my party (next to my faithful cat companion), and added a pack bird.

In the game that we played, it seemed like each player tried a different strategy. I was trying to collect as many artifacts as possible, Lee was placing camps on the map for resources, Stew was going after quests, and Bob was mining a lot.

— The game a few more turns after the last photo but still in the early part. Note that camps have started appearing on the map as we began exploring outside the town.

The game lasted about two hours. It was our first play and it took a while to figure out what the best options were each turn. Eventually my artifact grabbing rewarded me with a very narrow victory over Lee.

— My board close to the end of the game. I was well-prepared to explore and my loot of faction tokens and gems would allow me to buy plenty of artifacts from the Mystic.

The Verdict

From one play of the game, all of us agreed that Near and Far was quite fun. Everyone felt that they were “in” the game and that no one got left behind early. Also, the exploration on the map added a nice touch that broke up the monotony of standee placement in the town.

In short, we are looking forward to trying the Campaign game and adventuring on new maps. The gameplay is solid and fun, the rules clear, and the art gorgeous. If you haven’t tried Near and Far, I recommended that you give it a shot.

Scythe—The Rise of Fenris: Episode 2A War

At the end of Episode 1, we voted for War and not Peace. We had no idea how that was going to change the next game, but by the start of set up we found out.

— Spoiler Alert: I am not even going to try to hide anything revealed by the rules for this episode. If you haven’t played Episode 2A yet, I advise you to stop now…unless you like knowing the twists and turns ahead of time, so if you do, read on!

Episode 2A War

Set Up

Basically the nations of Europa have readied for war. Each player starts with 3 upgrades, 1 additional worker in play, 1 structure in play, +4 Popularity, and can purchase a perk for $15. Thus, each side can effectively upgrade their randomized player mat to make production easier. Like maybe a good idea might be to make Deploying a Mech require only 1 resource.

Also, each player could place up to 4 of their stars on other players’ starting points to declare them a “rival”. If you defeat a rival in combat you remove the star and place it on the achievement track and get a bonus of $5.

But the biggest change was yet to come! Packaged in the RoF box was a new double-sided achievement board that you overlay atop the regular achievement list on the map board. The “war” side changes the available achievements to emphasize winning battles and collecting 8+ combat cards.

— The War Achievement Board overlay. Note how some achievements are missing, replaced by more spots for winning battles.

Game Playthrough

Stew drew the number 1 player mat and had to go first. The turn order would be:

Stew-Rusviet Union

Lee-Togawa Shogunate

Neal-Saxony

Bob-Clan Albion

— The start of the game. You can see that my (I am Saxony) two neighbors have put rival stars on my start point.

Rusviet got off to a great start. He built a mech on the first turn and increased his speed. Using his faction power to select the same action on successive turns, he quickly moved his character toward the Factory…but then veered away to reveal his Divide and Conquer objective.

— Rusviet completing an Objective by the third turn

But Stew wasn’t the only player to quickly finish an objective. Lee skillfully manipulated his units to complete his objective a couple of turns thereafter.

— Togawa Shogunate finish their objective early

As each side quickly deployed all their mechs, both the Rusviet and Saxony were able to find a quick victory in combat against a rival. Exploiting their speed, the Rusviet isolated a single Clan Albion mech guarding workers and defeated it. Saxony jumped across the board via a tunnel to defeat a Saxony mech.

–The board after the Rusviet and Saxony victories against rivals

From there the game turned into a real boring affair. Each player had generated 8+ combat cards (one of the new “war” achievements) and had deployed all 4 mechs. Saxony had the most Power, but each faction quickly Bolstered until they too were above 7 Power.

This led to each player concentrating at least 2 mechs and their character (The most units that could move together on a single action) onto a single hex with some human shields, ie workers. Nobody could get their sixth achievement without winning a combat…but nobody could attack without running into 3 units, at least an equal number of cards, and a hex full of workers that would ruin the attacker’s popularity if the attacker won.

— all 4 factions turtled up! The poor Togawa and Clan Albion couldn’t find any way to attack, and the other factions were afraid of ruining their popularity by attacking or losing the attack and giving the game away. Saxony had the best chance to attack, but would have to vacate the 3-hex Factory to do it.

The calculus was simple: if I attack but the defender’s cards are better, I not only lose the game, but I just threw the victory to the player that I attacked. This kind of “kingmaker” situation is ubiquitous in multi-player games and can portend a bad ending: the eventual reckless attack by a player that gets bored.

The Sad Ending

After a few turns of staring at each other with nobody willing to gamble on an attack, we decided to just quit rather than continue. I am pretty sure this ending is not what the game designers envisioned, but it seemed preferable to us rather than just “grinding” more turns of a senseless buildup of resources, Popularity, Power, etc. as nobody wanted to launch a reckless attack that in essence was a coin flip to determine the winner.

We all thought the problem was the rival stars. If each player had been able to take back at least one rival star still uselessly sitting on an opponent’s starting point, the game would’ve ended quickly. Instead those rival stars were “stuck” on the map board preventing a resolution. Another problem was the ability to use those first 3 upgrades to deploy mechs early meant that each side had all their mechs deployed pretty much before anybody could attack anybody else. This was particularly true for Togawa and Clan Albion. Neither has Speed so they couldn’t actually attack because their opponents could see easily avoid unfavorable confrontations.

After calculating ending coin totals, Rusviet won the episode, with Saxony in second. So, the two factions that won a combat did indeed finish higher, but there wasn’t any decisive victory.

Also poor was that the War Achievement board effectively negated the Saxony faction power. Because every faction could get 4 combat achievements, Saxony didn’t have any true advantage from its power to get any number of combat achievements.

The Verdict

In the end, this episode was quite disappointing. The set-up changes didn’t encourage combat, they instead made combat impossible. We all hope that the next episode would be better.