In the last one of these I did, I talked about how the name of a game makes an important first impression. That reared its head again this time around, but I also ran into another thing that can skew perceptions before the first meeple is ever placed on the board.
But first there was the new Star Wars Risk. Now Risk is right up there with Monopoly in the annals of gamer infamy. It’s decried for its over-reliance on randomness, and it’s been responsible for more table flipping rage-quits that nearly any other game in history. So you’d think this version is just that game with a Star Wars coat of paint slapped on it. But I did some research and learned that it’s actually closer in spirit to the nigh impossible to find game The Queen’s Gambit, based on the finale of The Phantom Menace. Yes, there’s dice rolling and moving plastic pieces around a board, but there’s a lot more going on than that. First of all, there are three separate areas of conflict. You’ve got the space battle from Return of the Jedi going, with the Death Star at the center. But to attack the Death Star, you’ve got to take down the shield generator on Endor, which gets its own part of the board. Meanwhile, Luke is confronting Vader and the Emperor in the throne room. Each player has a deck of cards that represents the orders they can give to each of the three battles; you draw a hand of six, play three each turn, and take turns playing them and carrying out your commands.
The space battle is pretty straightforward; move your ships around, roll dice to blow up other ships. The Death Star can throw its weight around, and each side has one big ship — the Millennium Falcon for the Rebels and the Executor for the Empire — that packs a slightly bigger punch and can take more damage. If the Empire destroys all the Rebel ships, it wins. On Endor, the Rebel player has to move along a track, rolling to match or beat numbers on each space. The Imperial player can place stormtroopers on this track to increase the difficulty. Once the Rebels reach the end of the track, the shield is down and their ships can attack the Death Star; any roll of 6 blows it up, giving the Rebels the win. Finally, in the throne room, Luke and Vader go at it, with the Emperor occasionally lobbing in some Force lightning. If Luke is defeated, the Imperial player gets a bunch of extra actions. If Vader is defeated or redeemed, the Rebel player gets the actions. All of this flows together very well and feels really thematic; you really get the sense you’re replaying the climax of the film. And our game swung back and forth several times before the Rebels finally rolled their 6 and won the day. And we wrapped it all up in less than hour, yet still felt like we got a full, satisfying game. Which we might have missed had we just looked at the Risk name.
Once you get past the name and the components, the next make or break point for a game is the rules. Some potentially great games have been totally undermined by poorly written rule books, and a clever mechanic can take a game with so-so production values and make it a home run. Unpacking The King’s Abbey — a Kickstarter game I just received last week — was an overwhelming experience. There was just so much stuff. Then I took a look at the rules and saw each turn comprised twelve separate phases and started to think I had made a huge mistake. There was an event phase and a peasant movement phase and a building buying phase and a building, well, building phase. You tracked defense and darkness and had to feed people and sometimes fight Vikings or go on crusades and there were so many moving parts that I was afraid the game would be an interminable slog. Not that the rules were poorly written; there were just so many of them.
But actually playing the game? It flowed beautifully. Everything felt connected and made sense. The theme of the game is that the titular king has decided to commission the construction of an abbey to counter the growing darkness and despair in the land. Each player is part of the effort, gaining prestige as they construct the various parts of their abbey. Whoever ends up with the most prestige wins. The main mechanic of the game is rolling dice that are used to drive most of the major actions of the game. They’re used to recruit new peasants, advance the rank of your clergy (which unlocks various bonuses as you advance to Cardinal), claim resources for building, and, on occasion, fight off Viking raids that can take away peasants and buildings if they’re successful. All the while, there’s a darkness track that’s increasing every turn, and each player has to have more defense in their abbey than the current darkness or they lose peasants and prestige.
Like I said, there’s a lot going on. But five brand new players picked up the game pretty quickly and had a great time with it. The various phases flowed logically — for instance, you place your peasants on your existing buildings before you build new ones, so you can’t quickly build your way to dominance — and the looming threat of the rising darkness really added the sense of a ticking clock to the game. You couldn’t simply ignore your defense and plunge ahead with scoring points. And since any buildings you don’t build cost you the points they’re worth in the end, you’ve got some tough decisions as to what to invest in. The King’s Abbey is a fantastic, involving game, and probably my favorite Kickstarter game I’ve received so far (with apologies to Euphoria). Not what I expected when I first opened that rule book.
And that’s why we play these games. The surprises. The discovery that something you thought was going to be just okay is actually pretty great. It’s for moments like these that we go through the occasional letdowns and disappointments.