Star Wars Rebellion — Labor Day Fun and Freedom in the Galaxy

This Labor Day my brother and I finally got around to playing a game of Star Wars Rebellion. We had been interested in playing a game for a while. And we had two reasons why this game looked attractive.

Freedom in the Galaxy

First, the game is a new version of the old SPI game Freedom in the Galaxy. If you aren’t familiar with that game, it was released in 1979 and features a band of rebels taking on an evil galactic empire. The empire also has a “Planetary Stabilizer” by which it could destroy planets. The rebels had a secret base and tried to use subversive missions to unseat the dastardly empire. Sound familiar?

Freedom in the Galaxy was a thinly veiled Star Wars…but it couldn’t use that name or any other direct reference to George Lucas’ movie. But we all knew what we were playing, and Freedom in the Galaxy was a good game. It captured the fun of the Star Wars movie in a great board game.

— Freedom in the Galaxy. My copy is unpunched. My brother has the more well worn version that we used in our childhood

Fantasy Flight Reimagining and Star Wars

Second, Fantasy Flight was going to redo Freedom in the Galaxy. FFG had already reimagined the great Avalon Hill Game Dune. They updated the rules, board, and components and put out the new game as Rex. FFG couldn’t call it Dune because they had the rights to the game and rules, but not to Frank Herbert’s product. Thus, FFG set Rex in its Twilight Imperium universe. The game is good, but somehow not being set in the Dune universe took something intangible away from the game.

When I heard that Fantasy Flight Games had bought the rights to both the Star Wars license and the Freedom in the Galaxy game, I knew they would get it right this time.

Star Wars Rebellion

And this game is fun! FFG streamlined the rules, primarily by ditching the world environments and different ground units, upgraded the components, and added all the desired Star Wars elements. Now you have an actual Death Star miniature, along with all the other Star Wars personalities and units. The core of Freedom in the Galaxy is still there, hidden rebel base, missions, quick combat, so this is basically the same game…but updated from a 1979 game and made into a 2010s game with all the cards, minis, and chips that you expect from a FFG game.

— Star Wars Rebellion, the reimagining by Fantasy Flight Games

So things have come full circle: a game that was Star Wars that couldn’t call itself Star Wars is now called Star Wars Rebellion. The good game that Freedom in the Galaxy was is still there…but now you don’t have to imagine that Zina Adora is Princess Leia.

Now I can’t wait to integrate the Star Wars Rise of the Empire expansion. It has all the Rogue One content. I loved that movie!

Why Australia is the Best Power Grid Map

Okay, I really like board games that 1) have a lot of expansions and 2) have solid play testing. Power Grid is such a game. It is a classic (is is fair to call a game from the early 2000s a classic?) game that holds up well to this day. It also has multiple expansion boards that represent different parts of the globe. Expansion board rules seem well play tested for clarity, balance, and excitement.

I own all of the expansion maps, and today I am going to tell you why the Australia map is my favorite…and why it should be yours too.

— the Australia Power Grid board. In this particular game of 4 players, we omitted the yellow, central region.

The Ability to Place a House Anywhere

In classic Power Grid, to expand your network you have to place new houses close to your already placed houses due to the connect costs. Because there is no single, connected network of cities on the Australia map, you can put a house anywhere by paying a 20-Point connection cost. This mechanism allows players to strategically jump across the board on Step 2, Step 3, or any other time in order to cut off opponent networks.

The Uranium Mines

In Australia there are no nuclear power plants. Those plants are instead uranium mines. Players don’t buy resources for the mines and the mines do not power cities.

— those are not nuclear power plants, they are uranium mines!

Instead, during the bureaucracy phase the mines make money by selling on the international uranium market. The mines do not count toward a player’s power plant limit, and a player can possess any number of mines. This is a great addition to the game as it allows for a separate way to generate money (Elektros).

— the international uranium market. Players receive Elektros equal to the first uncovered space multiplied by the production of their uranium mines. In the last two photos, this player would get 20 Elektros (market price of 4 times the 5 production of the two mines).

The Carbon Tax

When Step 3 begins, Australia imposes a Carbon Tax. All prices in the energy market go up by 2 Elektros. This makes energy costs quite expensive!

— the 9 and 10 cost spaces for when the Carbon Tax goes into effect.

The Carbon Tax slows down the final progression to the game end. By making energy costs higher, it makes it more expensive to operate non-ecological power plants. It also makes those uranium mines more valuable, as they are a cheap renewable source of Elektros if a player can’t add new cities on a given turn.

The Auctions are Different

With the uranium mines being very good to get early, and the Carbon Tax looming at Step 3, bidding for ecological power plants and mines is intense! At the same time, a shrewd player can grab an efficient coal, oil, or garbage plant if other players have run out of Elektros bidding on the mines and wind turbines.

The Overall Game Play

The overall impact of the rules is to create a truly new Power Grid experience. While the victory conditions remain the same (ie power the most cities) the route to winning seems to have multiple paths. Players can opt for a traditional coal/oil/garbage efficiency route, but they better be ready for that rough Carbon Tax. Players can also try to monopolize the uranium mines. This slows down placing houses because buying a mine means that you didn’t buy a power plant with that money, but it leads to plenty of cheap Elektros that can later in the game be plowed back into power plants. Also, with the game going longer for a few turns (mainly because of the Carbon Tax), those ecological plants pay off more than in a regular game of Power Grid. In our last game by the end, two players had almost 100% resource-free power production. When do you see that in a game of Power Grid?

–Games on the Australian map can be surprisingly close. Here is the end of our recent game. My brother and I both finished with 17 cities powered. But I had only 1 Elektro in my possession and he had 6. He won, I lost. It could hardly have been any closer. Note: I was black and he was red. Can you see how he jumped from Western Australia over to the east coast? Also note the high price for resources because of the Carbon Tax. Gotta love the Australian rules!

If you have played Power Grid, or even if you haven’t, I highly recommend that you get yourself a copy of The Australian map (the Indian sub-continent) is on the back. Trust me, you will be glad that you did.

In Defense of American-Style Games: 3 Good Reasons to Play Ameritrash as Seen by a Grognard

With the popularity of Settlers of Catan in the 1990s, Eurogames have exploded onto the American gaming landscape. The emphasis of Eurogames on indirect competition, hidden scoring, broad themes, resource-driven game mechanics, and balancing mechanisms to keep all players “in the game” has proven to be popular, particularly with younger players.At the same time, American-style Games, often denigrated as “Ameritrash Games”, have been criticized, panned, and abandoned by many of these newer players. The critique is that Ameritrash games are either based too much on luck (think Talisman), too much on direct competition (e.g. Advanced Squad Leader), too complex (e.g. almost anything by Avalon Hill or SPI), too theme specific as to not be appealing to the average gamer (e.g. Air Assault on Crete), and too long to play (e.g. The Campaign for North Africa).

Well, as a Grognard (look it up kids if you don’t know what it means), I am here to defend Ameritrash Games with 3 good reasons you should be playing them:

1 – Direct Competition Can Be More Fun Than Multiplayer Solitaire

One of my critiques of Eurogames is that often the game is thinly disguised multiplayer solitaire (in other words, each player plays alone and the end-game scoring determines who played solitaire better). Players really cannot directly confront, impede, attack, etc, each other. Thus, each player’s “strategy” is not truly an interactive strategy, but really solitaire. Good examples are Race for the Galaxy by Rio Grande Games or Cities by Z-Man Games. Often a Eurogame adds one element of direct confrontation, such as card drafting (think 7 Wonders), that isn’t really “direct” confrontation as the emphasis is on denying an opponent a resource rather than taking it from them.

Direct competition in an Ameritrash title is more than just denial, it’s seizure! Take the classic game Dune by Avalon Hill (or the new variant Rex by Fantasy Flight Games). Your units (tokens) will move quicker if they have access to Arrakeen or Carthag. Taking those strongholds gives you an advantage and removes it from an opponent. The battles that I have seen in my 4 decades of gaming in those Dune strongholds are legendary! In a similar vein, Small World by Days of Wonder encourages aggressive acquisition of territory–at another player’s expense (much like Risk). Nothing more fun than making your opponents’ units disappear from the board.

And if you haven’t played Enemy in Sight by Avalon Hill, you are missing out on how much fun direct competition can be. There is nothing more enjoyable than screaming “Breaking the Line” to the tune of Judas Priest’s “Breaking the Law” as you wreck an opponent’s line of ships. I have seen grudges held for years (actually it’s two decades now in one instance) over a well-played Breaking the Line card! Taking the battle to your opponent can be very fun–and memorable!

— you don’t eat the worm, it eats you!

And here is the kicker–luck is NOT involved in battle in any of these games! The common criticism that Ameritrash games are full of luck can be untrue.

2 – Randomness Can Be More Fun than Repetition

What makes Talisman work? The random discovery of what monsters, treasure, etc, lie in every space! Why do battles in Star Wars Rebellion feel exciting–because you have to chuck dice and live with the results. Let’s face it, many things in life are random, and randomness in games is a good thing not a bad thing. Now, we don’t want so much randomness that we are playing Monopoly, but adding a random element can help make a game less predictable, repetitive, and boring. Even the classic Settlers of Catan has two random mechanisms (dice rolls for resources and random bonus card draw).

The main problem with Eurogames is that they are so repetitive due to a lack of randomness. And repetition can be boring. Really good games with repetitive play (for example, Lost Cities by KOSMOS) are fantastic (much in the vein of Rummy, Solitaire, Pit, etc) but a good number of Eurogames are not fun when repetitive. In particular, I find Carcassonne to be really boring due to it being the same game over and over.

— nothing says generic, repetitive play like these components from Carcassonne

3 – Strong Themes in Ameritrash Games Make for Evocative Gameplay

Okay, one thing I despise about many Eurogames is that the “theme” seems to be an afterthought. The game is so abstract that literally any number of broad themes could fit. The classic Puerto Rico by Ravensburger or the more recent Terra Mystica by Feuerland could realistically be titled and themed anything. The games are all about the gameplay “engine”, Puerto Rico has nothing at all about it that is truly Puerto Rico–other than the tacked on place names, currency, etc.

Strong creative or historical themes build evocative gameplay. When I play Dune, I can envision that Sandworm eating my units (even if they are just little round cardboard tokens), I can see the Baron Harkonnen backstabbing me with a traitor, etc. Eclipse by Lautapelit is a rather complicated game, allowing for players to customize their spaceships. Guess what? This detail adds to the space 4X theme and gameplay. Arkham Horror by Fantasy Flight is so thematic that when I play it I can actually feel the Elder Gods returning to Earth.

— Arkham Horror by Fantasy Flight, a million Cards, chits, tokens, bits, etc, but well worth the hours it takes to set it up and take it down


So in short, there is a lot to love about American-style gaming, so don’t believe the “Ameritrash” label and get out there and play a dice chucking, card drawing, heavy themed game today!

Stew’s Rant Corner:Magic Realm

In this Second Edition of Stew’s Rant Corner, Stew discusses a classic 1979 Avalon Hill Bookcase Game: Magic Realm, a game that was ahead of its time in many, many ways, but suffered from a fatal flaw.

Magic Realm 01


 

Have you ever had that game where you love the art, like the basic premises of the game, enjoy the attention to detail, and the storyline takes you away to that awesome place, but the rules trip you up and leave you wanting to love a game that you just can’t? If you have ever tried or played Avalon Hill’s 1979 release of Magic Realm, then you know what I mean.

The Game is SOOOO Cool!

Before I dig into the details, let me make it very clear, I SOOOO want to love this game, but I just can’t. Ask me if I like Magic Realm, and I will say, definitely, “Yes!” Ask me if I like playing Magic Realm, and I will say, “Yes!” So, why can I not love this game; read on and find out.

Magic Realm was released in 1979, and as you can see from the cover art, it is a fantasy game of adventure, individual battles, and magic. Truly, Magic Realm appeared to be Avalon Hill’s attempt to capture a role-playing game in a board game. Magic Realm contains various playable heroes, many dangerous monsters, magic items, spells, enchanted locations and random encounters. What more could any one person want? Let me be fair, I think Avalon Hill did a splendid job with Magic Realm, and here is why. I loved the art work from the moment I saw it. I loved the random game board. I loved the combat system. I loved the random encounter system. I hated that some of the character adventurers could run into certain monsters and simply had no chance: your game was over. Read on and let me explain more.

Before Its Time: Campaigns, Double-Sided Tiles, Character Cards, and Random Monsters

First, Avalon Hill laid out Magic Realm into seven playable campaigns, meant to be played sequentially, teaching any potential players the rules a few at a time. Avalon succeeded brilliant with this, as the rules make sense, are easy to follow, and you learn them a small portion at a time: beginning with searching, then fighting, they monsters, treasurers, spells, etc., until the you are playing the entire campaign game looking for victory points to prove that you are the most experienced and fame worthy adventurer. In order to facilitate this, Magic Realm had, at the time, some new and innovative mechanics. First, the hexagonal tiles provided an ever-changing landscape, different with each game. Also, these tiles representing woods, caves, and mountain passes, could be “enchanted” and flipped over to a side where they not only changed the direction paths and roads led, but they also supported one of the three different colors of magic. I can not say if Magic Realm was the first game with hexagonal tiles that could be laid out randomly to create a different map every game, but it certainly worked and we all have seen that same random map structure used in many games today.

Magic Realm 02

The Hex Tiles.  The top 3 are examples of the “normal” side and the bottom 3 examples of the “enchanted” side.

Magic Realm also had Character Cards with the statistics, powers, weapons, and spells for each adventurer that a player could choose. These character cards also contained four levels that each player could be in their development of their craft, starting with a brand new adventurer to a seasoned campaigning veteran. Magic Realm also used a unique way to randomly introduced monsters onto the map by providing “Warning” and “Sound” counters that could be laid out at random, which when revealed interacted with the “Appearance Chart”. Other counters, laid out at random, would reveal the location of different buildings or places that could contain either more monsters, treasures, spells, or natives that could be hired to help. All of this was wonderful, easy to play, and quite enjoyable. Now, let’s talk about combat.

 

The mosaic above shows clockwise from top left: the campaign “Personal History Pad”, the “Treasure Set Up/Monster Appearance” Chart, the plethora of counters, and the Character Cards (examples in top row of art on the front and examples in bottom row of stats on the back).

A Truly Good Idea: The Combat Matrix Chart…

One of the best, and perhaps worst, mechanics was the fighting chart with the “Move” and “Fight” counters. The idea was for each combat the adventurer would choose a fight and a move counter; placing them on the combat chart into one of three locations. The monster would then randomly be placed on a place on the battle chart as well. This created a rock vs paper situation where two rules applied; if the speed of the monster was faster than the adventurer’s move, the adventurer was struck, the monster could also hit the adventurer by being placed opposite the location of the adventurer’s move counter. The attack for the adventurer on the monster was the same. Armor, weapons, and spells were then taken into account. This created a unique combat system, where sometimes no one was hit, and others both were struck. However, if the first strike killed the character, no strike on the monster would be made, and of course, vice versa.

Magic Realm 07

The Combat Matrix

…That Went So Horribly Wrong!

Here, however, is where Magic Realm broke down completely. Take the “Black Knight” character. He wore armor, wasn’t very fast, and used a mace that was hard hitting, but not overly so. Now take a certain “Tremendous” troll. It struck faster than the Black Knight could possibly move, did the most damage possible in the game, and was too tough for the Black Knight to hurt it. What resulted was a situation where the Black Knight was struck every time, and if he had tremendous armor on, could survive one such strike, but the Black Knight could not kill the troll, and the troll was too fast for the Black Knight to run and get away. This combination ALWAYS resulted in the death of the Black Knight. And here lies the fatal flaw of Magic Realm: no one likes to play a game that they can just randomly lose. If the Black Knight runs into other monsters, everything is ok, but if he ran into the Tremendous Troll, he was dead. Sort of made me want to run the random encounter at the start of the game, just to see if their was any point in playing it.

 

This flaw, and a major flaw it is, does not exist for all characters, just some, but enough to make you not want to play. The more times I played Magic Realm–and I played a lot of Magic Realm, because I SOOOO wanted to love this game! I loved everything about it, but the random fatality of certain characters–the more I gave up on the game. So, in a nut shell, do I hate Magic Realm and wish I had never played it? No. I just wish it had been play tested better ahead of time. I encourage all of you to find this game in a hobby shop, or online, and give Magic Realm a try. You will fall in love with it, and you will be frustrated by it, all at the same time. It is a good example of why play-testing is so important nowadays, and obviously, back then.