Monday, November 30, 2015

Mayday Games will sleeve your entire collection!

Do you sleeve your cards?  I mostly sleeve PnP games that I make, but I do have sleeves on a few games.  There's a tradeoff between keeping your cards nice and pristine and having them feel like they're covered in plastic (because they are).  But if you're interested, Mayday Games is running a contest (just a little bit longer to enter) where they'll sleeve your entire collection, up to $500 worth, and including anything you purchase in the next six months!  So visit their site and enter now before it's too late!

Friday, November 27, 2015

Quick Review - AFL: Andromeda Fight League - Kickstarter Preview

Andromeda Fight League
Designer: Noah Massaro
Publisher: Mars Hill Studio Games / Daedalus Games
Quick Review - AFL: Andromeda Fight League - Kickstarter Preview

AFL: Andromeda Fight League is a light, tactical skirmish game for two or four players that combines tactical battle elements of games like Chess with elements of collectible card games, like Magic the Gathering.  The game was designed by a 14 year old homeschool student (and then further developed by him and his dad) and is now available for $35 on Kickstarter.  Noah and Tony Massaro put a lot of time into designing Andromeda Fight League and I was pretty excited about getting a chance to review this game since we also homeschool our sons and I thought this would be a great inspiration to them.


There is a backstory to Andromeda Fight League, which is actually available in a graphic novel written by Noah Massaro.  The idea is that the Millennial Wars in the universe has ended.  There are fighters scattered all over the universe that now have nothing to do since fighting is all they know.  Instead of rekindling the war they decide to form a fight league that meets on an abandoned planet within the Andromeda galaxy and have organized skirmishes and battles.  In Andromeda Fight League each player has a team of fighters that they pit against their opponent's fighters in a series of quick skirmishes.  Best two of three wins.

Each skirmish is divided into three phases: Draft (where fight teams are created), Setup (where players position five of their fighters on the battlefield), and Battle (when the actual skirmish takes place).

Draft Phase:

Fighters are represented by both a card and an avatar.  The card contains details about the fighter and is kept to the side of the board for reference; the avatar moves around the board and contains just basic stats.  There are several ways to form a team of fighters.  The recommended way is by drafting fighters, but the game also includes fighter rosters for four preconstructed decks and two basic demo decks.  Either way, each player will have a deck of ten fighters (the demo decks only have five fighters each for super fast startup).

Also drafted at the beginning (or assigned in the preconstructed and demo decks) are magic cards (five in the demo deck, eight in drafted or preconstructed) and two terrain tiles (which each 16 spaces with several different types of terrain).  This ensures that every game, and even most skirmishes, even between the same decks, will be different.  With 40 different fighters, 32 magic cards, and eight double-sided terrain boards there are nearly infinite different possible combinations.  And one of the ideas of this game is future expandability through new fighter and magic card packs.  This is definitely not a game that will lack for variability.

I mentioned magic cards.  There are three types of magic cards, Basic, Equip, and Fast.  Basic magic cards can be cast on a player's turn and provide various one-time effects.  Equip magic cards can also be cast on a player's turn and get attached to a fighter and stay in play to enhance the fighter's abilities.  Fast magic cards can be cast on either player's turn and can be used to interrupt and change the outcome of attacks and other events.  Each player will have five to use during each skirmish.
Each player will end up with a final fighting team
that consists of five fighters and five magic cards.

Setup Phase:

Once all the fighters, magic, and terrain have been drafted, the initial setup is begun.  From the ten fighters in each player's deck, six will be randomly selected.  And from those six the player will choose five to participate in the skirmish.  Each fighter has a level assigned and the total sum of all the fighters must be between 22 and 26, ensuring balanced teams at the start.  Each player also takes the avatars for the chosen fighters and five random magic cards from their pool of eight.

Players place their chosen terrain to create a battlefield consisting of 64 spaces.  Then, alternating turns, players place the avatars of their fighters face-down on their side of the battlefield.  Once all fighters are placed they are then revealed and their cards are laid out face-up along the sides of the battlefield so each player can see their abilities.  The final step of the Setup phase allows each player to reposition one fighter by moving the fighter up to its allowed movement amount.  Now the main battle is ready to begin.
Each player gets five fighters, five avatars, two terrain
boards, and five magic cards for a unique skirmish each time.

Battle Phase:

Throughout the Battle phase players will take turns activating one fighter.  They'll be able to move and then attack with their chosen fighter in an attempt to eliminate their opponent's fighters.  The first to eliminate all opponent fighters wins the skirmish.

Each fighter has several traits that are used during the Battle phase.  Each will have both an Attack and Defense strength.  They will also have Life, Movement, and Magic values.  Some fighters will also have special attack powers and latent abilities.
Fighter avatars have basic stats indicated on them.

Each turn of the Battle phase consists of four steps: Start, Move, Attack, Counter Attack.  To start a turn a player can cast any Magic cards they want and are able to.  In order to case a Magic card they must be able to pay it's mana cost.  Any fighters that have not been eliminated can pay to cast any Magic card, if their Magic (MA) strength is sufficient.  Once they cast the spell you put damage markers on that fighter's card to indicate how much MA has been spent (damage tokens are also used on fighter avatars to indicate battle damage during attacks).  This MA is no longer available to spend on future Magic cards, and once used a Magic card is out of the game.  The Start step also lets the active player state which fighter they will be activating for the remaining steps.
Fighters can spend magical energy (mana) to equip other
fighters with weapons and abilities.

Next is the Move step.  To move the player looks at the movement capability (MV) for the activated fighter.  Then he rolls a D6 die.  The active fighter can then move the lesser of the die roll or its MV value.  Some terrain affects movement, however.  Holes and mountains cannot be crossed, roads add +1 movement (if the full standard movement takes place completely on roads), and portals instantly transport fighters from one location to another.

As soon as a fighter finishes moving combat may be declared.  Usually combat must be between adjacent fighters, but some fighters have special powers that let them attack from a distance.  As soon as the attack is declared, however, players have an opportunity to play Fast magic cards.  These may change the outcome of an attack, or prevent the attack from happening at all.
Fast magic can be played on an opponent's turn in response to an
attack attempt.  Basic and Equip spells can only be used on a
player's turn.

Once any Fast magic cards are used combat takes place, if still possible.  Combat is pretty simple and straightforward in AFL.  Each card has three values that come into play during combat.  Attack (AT) indicates the offensive strength of the fighter.  Defense (DF) is the defensive strength of the fighter.  And Life (LF) indicates the amount of damage the fighter can take before being eliminated.  During an attack, if the attacker's AT is greater than the defender's DF damage will be dealt in the amount that the AT exceeds the DF.  If the total damage exceeds the defender's LF then the defender is eliminated.  If the damage does not exceed the defender's LF then damage counters are placed on the defender.  In subsequent fights an attack only has to exceed the fighter's remaining LF (total LF minus damage) to be eliminated.

Some fighters also have special Power Attacks that can be used if the conditions are correct.  Usually these are ranged attacks (which can't be countered) and sometimes they're special attacks against specific opponents.  The combat system is pretty easy to resolve and the outcome of most battles is known going into it, however there is some chance brought into the combat system through the use of a D6 die.  Before resolving combat the attacker must roll a D6 to see if the attack proceeds as normal, is a critical hit, or a miss.  On a 1 the attack is a miss and no damage happens.  On a 6 the attack is a critical hit and the strength of the attack is doubled.  This means 1/3 of all attacks are going to be affected by die rolls.
Shining Dragon has a ranged attack and can attack two spaces away.

The final step of the Battle phase is the Counterattack.  If the defending fighter was not destroyed in the initial Attack, it can Counterattack.  In general the rules for a Counterattack are the same as in a standard Attack (i.e. dice rolls determine if there is a miss or critical hit), however Counterattacks can only be done if the original attacker is adjacent to the defender.  This means ranged attacks cannot be countered.  Counterattacks also cannot use special powers; they must only use a fighter's base AT.

Once any Counterattack has been resolved the player's turn ends and the next player may take a turn.  This process repeats until all of one player's fighters are eliminated, or one player is reduced to fighters that have AT less than half of an opponent's fighter's DF.  When that happens the player with fighters remaining wins the skirmish.  A game is typically played to the best of three skirmishes.

Final Thoughts:

AFL: Andromeda Fight League is an interesting idea.  I like the idea of a lightweight tactical combat game that combines the traits of a Collectible Card Game (or better yet a Living Card Game - selling precompiled deck expansions seems a better route than random boosters).  New fighters and magic cards can really provide a wealth of material for future expansions.  It provides a long term business model that can keep a game like this feeling fresh and interesting for an extended period of time.  And if MtG, Netrunner, Pathfinder, and the likes are any indication, there is a huge market for this type of game.
The game is easily expandable by offering new fighters and magic cards.
That said, I think the game is lacking a bit in the gameplay.  It's core mechanics work well and I think it has the potential to be a really great game, but there are a few areas where I felt it fell flat.  I played the game with both people who like the combat aspects of games like Magic the Gathering and people who generally like tactical combat games with lots of dice rolling.  We all felt AFL is a solid concept, but it fell flat for myself and the others I played with.  Primarily it was the "swinginess" that the die created.  Too many times the die was the deciding factor in the outcome of combat, and generally it was an insurmountable swing.  Either a strong fighter had a miss, allowing it to be completely eliminated in a counterattack, or a fighter rolled a critical hit, taking out another fighter that normally would have only been damaged minimally.  Die rolling also came into play when determining movement and even if some spells were cast successfully or not.  Counterattacks also seemed to be overpowered, particularly when a counterattack resulted in a critical hit.

Most individual confrontations between fighters lasted only a single fight, occasionally two.  This resulted in fast skirmishes (generally 10-15 minutes per skirmish, but occasionally a skirmish could be decided in as little as 5 minutes).  The combination of quick fighter elimination and random chance being a deciding factor left players feeling frustrated and unfulfilled.  Even a ranged attack that can't be countered directly is risky for a weaker fighter to undertake on a more powerful fighter because most ranged attacks are two spaces away, which means even if an attack can't be countered, all it takes is a single move and then the defender becomes the attacker.  So it's virtually impossible for a weaker fighter to ever slowly take out a stronger fighter through strategic planning and tactical maneuvering without getting a lucky critical hit, even with a ranged attack.

Some chance in a game like this is good, but I personally don't enjoy when chance plays as large a factor as it does in AFL.  For me, it takes away from the tactical strategy.  I would rather see something like a single D20 rolled by the attacker.  A one could still be a miss and anything else could add to the AT the value of the fighter.  This would allow even a weaker fighter to have a chance at a good attack occasionally, while reducing the possibility of a stronger fighter being virtually indestructible.  There would still be chance, but not necessarily resulting in complete swings of a fighter's fate; a variable approach rather than an all-or-nothing approach.  I'd also like to see counterattacks be tempered a bit.  Maybe eliminate the possibility of a critical hit on a roll of 6 for counterattacks.  Or give the attacker the option of retreating one space on a missed initial attack.

The game is supposed to be a series of quick skirmishes, and for that it works well.  But I think a single, slightly longer battle would be more fulfilling.  It would allow time for strategies to develop, allow for wearing down opponent fighters rather than quick eliminations, and provide opportunity for comebacks.  These are issues that would be very simple to fix with a few house rules, but it would be nice if they were ironed out by the designer.

Another minor issue I have with the game, although it doesn't affect the gameplay, is the theme and artwork.  The story behind the game's premise just doesn't quite fit with the characters and artwork in the game.  The characters are mostly fantasy genre characters, but then there are a few zombies and ninjas thrown in.  But the backstory is a science fiction tale of a universe-wide war between inhabitants of many different star systems in many different galaxies.  When I originally got the game I was expecting starfighters, aliens, spaceships, plasma weapons, and other typical scifi stuff, not dragons, wizards, ninjas, zombies, etc.  And the artwork, while unique and interesting, seems very amateur.  The graphic design on the cards shown on Kickstarter will help with that a bit (it's a lot better than the prototype designs I received), but the character art still lacks that professional pop.
The artwork is nice, but nothing special.

Anyway, I think AFL: Andromeda Fight League is a solid concept and has a lot of potential.  Overall I really liked the game's core premise and mechanics.  It's a great first design, but I just felt that it could be so much more than what it is.  If you are looking for a very light, tactical combat game that plays quickly, AFL works well.  It makes a good filler for those that enjoy fast paced fighting games.  It is easy to learn and set up (particularly with the well balanced predefined decks), plays quickly, and can easily be paused and returned to later due to the nature of having separate skirmishes.  It's also great for adjusting the overall length, just by playing more skirmishes, or keeping it simple with just a single skirmish.  However, if you want something a little meatier with more long term depth to the strategy, the team drafting and combat in AFL will leave you with a taste, but wanting more.  There seems to be a depth of strategy in the preparation for the game through drafting or constructing decks that should appeal to MtG players and others who like deck construction, but the battle phase felt like it was much less strategic and a lot more casual and light.

I really, really wanted to like AFL, and on one hand I do, but on the other hand I'm seeing how much more it could be.  I wish Noah and Tony luck with their Kickstarter, but really want to see this game developed more.  It has the potential to be great, but right now I felt is was just mediocre.

If AFL: Andromeda Fight League sounds like something you'd enjoy, be sure to check out the Kickstarter campaign.  You can help support Noah's dream and get yourself a copy of the game for $35.

Preliminary Rating: 5/10
This review is of a prototype game.  Components and rules are not final and are subject to change.

Did you like this review?  Show your support by clicking the heart at Board Game Links , liking GJJ Games on Facebook , or following on Twitter .  And be sure to check out my games on  Tabletop Generation.

GJJG Game Reviews are independent, unpaid reviews of games I, George Jaros, have played with my family and friends.  Some of these games I own, some are owned by friends, some are borrowed, and some are print and play versions of games.  Where applicable I will indicate if games have been played with kids or adults or a mix (Family Play).  I won't go into extensive detail about how to play the game (there are plenty of other sources for that information and I'll occasionally link to those other sources), but I will give my impressions of the game and how my friends and family reacted to the game.  Quick Reviews will only get a single rating of 1-10 (low-high) based on my first impressions of the game during my first few times playing.  Hopefully I'll get more chances to play the game and will be able to give it a full review soon.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Quick Review - Roll Player - Kickstarter Preview

Roll Player
Designer: Keith Matejka
Publisher: Thunderworks Games
Quick Review - Roll Player - Kickstarter Preview

A couple of weeks ago at Protospiel Madison I was playing games with Keith Matejka (the designer of Bullfrogs, one of my favorite abstract games, with a theme) and a few other designers and playtesters.  Conversation shifted to the actual production and manufacturing processes in board game publishing, as well as how prototypes are made.  Keith pulled out his prototype of Roll Player, which he had hand cut 18 die sized holes in 4 different player boards.  The game piqued my interest and we agreed to play it then and there so that I could review it.  Unfortunately I only got one play in, but I took lots of pictures and think I have a great feel for the game, too.  I'm definitely looking forward to getting more plays in sometime in the future.

And that future will hopefully not be too long off.  On November 10th Roll Player will hit Kickstarter at a $45 pledge level to get the game.  This is Keith's second game that he's self publishing with help from Kickstarter funding.  The first was Bullfrogs, an abstract strategy game that I absolutely love.  The artwork in Bullfrogs is awesome, the gameplay is simple, solid, and very deep, and the game is a ton of fun.  But enough about Bullfrogs, let's see how Roll Player stacks up.  Is it another hit, or a sophomore slump?  Well, I guess I kind of gave it away in the last sentence of my previous paragraph; this is bound to be another hit.

>> Check out the Campaign on Smarter Backer <<

So, Roll Player is a dice game for 2-4 players, aged 10+ that should take 60-90 minutes.  And there are lots of dice.  Lots and lots of dice.  73 to be exact.  And these aren't chintzy 12mm dice, they're big, bulky 16mm dice.  There are also player boards and plenty of cards, too.  I only played a prototype, but if Bullfrogs is any indicator they'll all be top quality.
Keith Matejka explaining how to play Roll Player.

But, though there are lots of dice in Roll Player, there's very little luck.  This game isn't about getting lucky with good dice rolls, it's about using the dice to your best advantage and manipulating them to create your own unique character.  Roll Player takes the whole process of creating a character for an RPG and moves it to a tabletop game that includes player interaction, important decisions, and plenty of puzzly goodness.

In RPG each player starts with a character.  There are four main character races: Human, Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling.  Each of the characters will be assigned a Class, Backstory, and Alignment.  Class will be something like Monk, Wizard, Warrior, or Paladin.  Backstory will tell you a little bit about your character, like is he a Hunter, Brawler, Savant, or Aristocrat?  And the Alignment will tell you how Lawful or Chaotic, Good or Evil your character is, again with a characteristic like Champion, Hermit, or Eccentric.  These three, randomly assigned characteristics make up your character.  Each character also has six attributes: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma.  None of these traits has a value at the beginning of the game, and that's where the dice come in.
During setup each player gets to seed their player's Attributes
with a number of dice drawn and rolled.  Throughout the game
they'll work on fleshing out their characters' abilities.

The object of the game is to build your character by collecting dice and assigning them to your character's attributes.  The Class of your characters indicates the strength each Attribute must have by the end of the game, while the Backstory indicates where certain colored dice should be placed in the dice matrix on your player board in order to score bonus points.

Through a series of rounds (the number will differ based on the number of players), players will build their characters.  They'll add value to their attributes, acquire skills, purchase weapons and armor, and gain traits.  Each round is divided into four phases, most of which can be done simultaneously by players.
When characters are finished you really want to send them
out on an adventure...  Hmmm...  I smell expansion material!

The first phase is the Roll Phase.  During the Roll Phase the starting player for the round (it changes every round) draws dice from a draw bag equal to the number of players plus one and rolls them.  These are then placed on Initiative cards in sequential order.

Next comes the Dice Phase.  Beginning with the starting player each player chooses an Initiative card along with the die that was placed on it (and any gold coins if there happen to be any).  This indicates the order the player will go in the next phase, but as soon as a player has chosen an Initiative card the next player may proceed while the previous is completing the Dice Phase.  Once the player takes a die they must place it on the leftmost space on their player board for one of their Attributes.  Then they may take the action allowed by that Attribute.  Strength lets the player flip any die on their board to its opposite side.  Dexterity lets you swap the locations of any two dice on your board.  Constitution lets you adjust any die value up or down one.  Intelligence lets you reroll one die and keep either its new or prior value.  Wisdom lets you adjust your Alignment marker one space in any direction.  And Charisma gives you a one gold discount on any purchase in the next Market Phase.  Filling an Attribute's row lets the player collect one gold coin and placing a gold die nets the player two gold coins.
As dice are placed, players get to take the actions each Attribute allows.

Once all players have placed their dice the Market Phase can begin.  There will be cards laid out equal to the number of players plus one in a market.  The cards will be various types of weapons, skills, traits, and armor that players can acquire to bolster their players' abilities.  Each card will have a cost and some will result in a shift in the character's Alignment when purchased.  Purchasing cards happens in Initiative order.  Each type of card gives your character unique abilities or goals.  For example, the Pickpocket skill lets you decrease one die's value to gain two gold, but you also have to move your Alignment one space toward Evil (skills can be used at any point in a player's turn provided they have space in the Alignment grid to move).  The Ancient Spear is a weapon that allows you to collect an extra gold coin every time you choose an Initiative card with gold on it.  There are several types of Armor and they'll give you bonus points at the end of the game depending on how much of each set you've collected.  And the trait Cunning gives you bonus points for every Skill card you have at the end of the game.  Other cards have a wide range of other abilities.
Skills give your character new abilities that can be used,
but influence your character's Alignment.

Weapons give you passive abilities that take effect
when certain situations occur.
Traits affect how you are able to score points at the end
and can shape your strategy.
Finally there's the Clean Up Phase.  In the Cleanup Phase everything is restocked (Market, Initiative cards, Initiative gold), the starting player token is moved clockwise, and one used Skill is reset to be used again (you can use multiple skills per turn, but you only get to reset one of them).

The game ends when everyone has filled their Attributes to capacity.  Then scores are tallied based on a bunch of different criteria.  The winner is the player with the highest score.
The game is over, now it's time to tally scores.

I ended up with 30 points, respectable, but not enough
to win.  39 points won, last place was 27 points.
Final Thoughts:
Mechanically the game is pretty simple.  Strategically there's quite a bit going on.  There is some luck involved, but there are so many options and choices to be made that the luck is very easy to mitigate, although the decisions on the best way to mitigate that luck aren't very easy.  I never felt, throughout the entire game, that I was in a bad position because of how the dice fell.  Yes, I occasionally didn't get what I wanted, but that was usually just because of someone else managing to get it before me.  With 4 possible Characters, 12 Classes, 12 Backstories, and 13 Alignments there are virtually endless combinations.  If my math is correct, 7,488 possible character combinations, and in a four player game there are 14,854 different starting combinations.  That's quite a variety and if stretch goals are hit in the campaign that'll only increase.
Everyone had fun!  I'm looking forward to a chance to play again!

So yes, I really enjoyed playing Roll Player.  The theme felt very well integrated with the mechanics.  The gameplay was very solid.  I always felt like I had important decisions.  And the ultimate winner wasn't apparent until the very end.  This is definitely a game on par with Bullfrogs for fun, strategy, theme, and overall gameplay.  It's quite a bit bigger (73 dice take up a lot of room) than Bullfrogs, but at only $45 on Kickstarter it will make an excellent addition to any gamer's collection (and for only $25 more you can grab a copy of Bullfrogs, too).  So be sure to check out the Kickstarter campaign, starting November 10th at
Each player had a very different strategy and
some worked better than others.

Preliminary Rating: 8/10
This review is of a prototype game.  Components and rules are not final and are subject to change.

Did you like this review?  Show your support by clicking the heart at Board Game Links , liking GJJ Games on Facebook , or following on Twitter .  And be sure to check out my games on  Tabletop Generation.

GJJG Game Reviews are independent, unpaid reviews of games I, George Jaros, have played with my family and friends.  Some of these games I own, some are owned by friends, some are borrowed, and some are print and play versions of games.  Where applicable I will indicate if games have been played with kids or adults or a mix (Family Play).  I won't go into extensive detail about how to play the game (there are plenty of other sources for that information and I'll occasionally link to those other sources), but I will give my impressions of the game and how my friends and family reacted to the game.  Quick Reviews will only get a single rating of 1-10 (low-high) based on my first impressions of the game during my first few times playing.  Hopefully I'll get more chances to play the game and will be able to give it a full review soon.

4th Grade Confidential is available for purchase!

My latest game, 4th Grade Confidential, is available for purchase on Drive Thru Cards for $7.99!  Go ahead and check it out.  Also, be sure to check out the comic book it's based on, Fourth Grade Confidential by Neal Simon.  That's available for purchase from Drive Thru Comics!

Danger lurks in the halls of Northfield Elementary.  The school yard is no place for the meek.  Only one man can protect the innocent children from bullies, cheaters, and thieves.  But unfortunately Principal Jones is usually too tied up with PTA meetings, in-service days, and keeping his office chair warm.  That leaves Adin Simon, private eye, gumshoe, and sleuth to clean up after the fact.  Fourth grade may not be safe, but with a bit of grit and determination he'll solve your case and bring your culprit to justice... Or get wedgied trying.

4th Grade Confidential is a microgame of deduction, bluffing, and cunning. The game is based on my friend Neal Simon's comic book project called Fourth Grade Confidential, starring his kids and their friends (including my kids). The premise is that a 4th grader named Adin is a private eye at his school, working to solve the great mysteries of elementary school, like who stole his sister's stuffed pink bunny.

In 4th Grade Confidential one player is the Sleuth while 2-4 other players are the Characters. Each round the Sleuth is trying to solve a different mystery. The Sleuth has six Sleuth Cards and the other 12 cards are dealt evenly to the Characters. The Sleuth has six turns to try to figure out which Character has the Target Item for that round by calling out various attributes and seeing who has items with matching attributes. Through careful deduction and use of actions the Sleuth and Characters all try to be the player to end up with the Target Item.

The game can be played in a single quick round, or in a longer game with each player taking the role of the Sleuth.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

GJJG Game Reviews - The Last Spike - By Columbia Games

The Last Spike
Designer: Tom Dalgliesh
Publisher: Columbia Games
GJJG Game Reviews - The Last Spike - By Columbia Games

Game Overview:
Train games...  It seems like there are a ton of them out there.  And The Last Spike by Columbia Games is yet another.  But The Last Spike is unlike many other train games out there.  Yes you are building railroads, but the game is stripped down to just bare essentials to create an interesting strategy and speculation game for 2-6 players.

The Last Spike was originally published in 1976 with the same name, but in 2015 a reprinted and slightly modified game was successfully funded on Kickstarter.  The new version removed a roll-and-move mechanic that dictated much of what players could do on each turn and changed the map's geography from Canada to the United States.  I haven't played the old version of the game, but from reading the descriptions online it sounds like it was 99% luck with a strong feel of Monopoly.  Let me tell you, the new version is definitely different and worth anyone's attention.  The Kickstarter campaign was successful (127% funded) and now The Last Spike is available for purchase for $39.98 from Columbia Games.

Components & Packaging:
Columbia Games is doing something interesting with their game packaging.  Most, if not all, of their games have pretty much the same form-factor.  They all seem to come in a 9"x12"x2" box.  When I received my copy of The Last Spike I found out why.

The actual box for The Last Spike is just a generic corrugated cardboard box, printed black with the Columbia Games logo on it.  The pretty artwork that you see is actually a slipcase for the box.  This means that Columbia Games packages all their games in the same basic box and just adds the appropriate slipcase.  That's got to be pretty cost effective.  It doesn't detract from the look of the game on the shelf and it seems pretty sturdy, but it does lost a bit of elegance that I think most gamers have come to expect from their games.
The Last Spike, like other Columbia Games titles, comes
in a generic cardboard box with a nicer box sleeve.
All the components fit in the generic box and generic tray.

The components, however, are another story.  Again, there are cost cutting measures prevalent in the game components as well.  The one component that didn't feel like it was made to cut costs (not made of premium materials either, though) is the cards that come with the game.  They're standard playing cards.  Nothing fancy, no linen finish, not even black core or anything, but they're not used for shuffling or heavy handling, so they're just fine for this game.

The track tiles are nice enough, but you can see from this
picture just how thin the game board is.
All the coins and track tiles are nice wooden components.  The track tiles did need stickers placed on each of them, but the stickers were nice foil stickers.  Engraved tiles would have been really nice, but that probably would have been cost prohibitive.  The coins, however, I felt were cutting corners just a bit too much.  All the coins are simple round wooden discs.  There are white, red, and blue discs to represent $1,000, $5,000, and $10,000 denominations.  There is no imprinting on them at all.  So I'm torn.  The wood feel is very nice and I like that more than cardboard chits, but they just seem so plain.  Even stickers for the tokens would have been a bit nicer, but then again, I'm not sure I would have wanted to put even more stickers on stuff.  So, although the wood tokens were nice, and it doesn't really affect the gameplay, they are a bit of a letdown.

The biggest disappointment though is the gameboard.  The artwork on the board is fine.  Nothing spectacular, but it's functional and looks nice and thematic.  But the board itself is pretty chintzy.  It's only chipboard, not even a real game board.  While playing it serves its purpose and doesn't take away from the gameplay, but it is the first thing anyone comments on when I pull the game out.  It really feels like corners were cut on the gameboard more than any other component.  I can excuse the box (it's kind of a branding thing) and the money tokens (they're functional and the wood is nice), but the game board really should be a real gameboard.
The game board is about as thick as standard tiles in any other
game, and thinner than premium tiles in some games.

Score: 4/10 x1

Rules & Setup:
The longest part of setup is turning all the track tiles face down and mixing them up, especially if you are sure to sort the land cards when cleaning up the previous game.  And the rules for The Last Spike are very simple.  The game can be explained in 5 minutes, or even less.

Basically on each turn you will have a hand of four track tiles to choose from.  You'll play one tile in its corresponding place on the board, pay its fee, check to see if any cities are newly connected and if they are pay out rewards to landowners of those cities, purchase land, and draw a new tile.  The process is even explained right on the game board.  The game ends when St. Louis and Sacramento are connected by a complete track.  The winner is the player with the most money; that's all that counts at the end.
All set up and ready to play.

Probably the most complicated mechanism in the game is how the land cards work and how they pay out.  But even that isn't too difficult.  Any time someone plays a tile they can then purchase a land card for any city that already has at least one track tile adjacent to it.  If a player is the first to add a track next to a city they get a free land card for that city, otherwise they can purchase one from any city that's already had its free land claimed.  When a track between two cities is completed (i.e. all four tracks that connect the cities are placed) those cities pay out.  Each player who owns land cards for those cities receives the amount of money designated on the land cards for the number of cards they own.  For example, if St. Louis and Omaha are connected and I have one St. Louis card and 3 Omaha cards I'll earn $36,000 - $12,000 for my one St. Louis card and $24,000 for my three Omaha cards.

Score: 9/10 x2

Playing The Last Spike is fast, simple, and strategic.  While the mechanics are deceptively simple, the depth of strategy is astounding.  You end up playing the other players as much as you are playing the game.  It's a very interesting blend of cooperative and competitive gameplay.  The game can't end until everyone builds the transcontinental railroad together.  And you can't get paid out until two cities are connected.  Different cities have different land values, so you'll want to pay attention to the board and speculate on what's probably going to get completed, however you don't want to get too greedy because then other players won't be too keen to help complete those tracks.  It's a fine balance between encouraging others to work to help you to your goals and at the same time make enough money to win the game.

I've played the game with kids and adults and everyone has had no problems picking up the mechanics.  The strategy behind the decisions though is much deeper than most people realize.  If you have one of the tiles that connect to Sacramento or Saint Louis there's a good chance that you can control when the game ends.  But too often I've seen players delay the end of the game in the hopes of collecting a few more payouts while someone else that was previously behind pulls out the victory.  You really have to pay attention to what your opponents are doing.  Sometimes ending with a lower score (money) gives you a better chance at winning than just holding out as long as you can.  It's an intriguing dilemma since most people are conditioned to just grab as many points as they can.
Each tile has its unique spot on the board
and a particular cost to play.

The Last Spike is very similar to the classic Acquire in many respects.  Instead of buying stock in hotels you are speculating on land in cities.  Instead of expanding your hotel empire you're building railroad tracks.  But The Last Spike takes everything that is good about Acquire and strips it down to its bare essence, making The Last Spike a very streamlined, fast playing, strategic game where who you are playing against is just as important as the game itself.

Score: 9/10 x3

I've played the game several times now and I've enjoyed it every time.  It does play best with 3-5 players (2 feels a bit sparse and 6 is a bit crowded), but it's still good with 2 or 6.  The mechanics are pretty simple though, and I can see where it might start to get boring if you play it a ton.  It is the same game every time and if you are playing with the same people it's easy to fall into a comfortable strategy that gets repeated every game.  But it is definitely a solid, quick strategy game that's great to introduce new board game players to that I won't ever turn down.
As the tracks get laid out the importance of decisions increases.

Score: 7/10 x1

General Fun:
The Last Spike is quite a bit of fun.  It's a nice balance between casual and thinky.  There's a bit of luck in which tiles you draw, but not too much luck.  This makes it very accessible.  The game doesn't outstay its welcome either.  It's fun with a group because you are playing both the game and the other players.  It's not a rip-roaring, laugh-out-loud game, nor is it a highly thematic adventuresome game, but it does encourage player dialog through some mild cooperation and provides for interesting gameplay.  Everyone I've played with has enjoyed it and said they would like to play again.  The Last Spike is going to become a staple for the Family Game Night I host at my FLGS.
Playing at Family Game Night at my FLGS.

Score: 7/10 x2

Overall Value:
At $40 the component quality is what kills this game.  A $40 game should not have corners cut in component quality the way The Last Spike does.  It's not like there are a ton of components in the game either; 45 cards, 48 track tiles, a game board, and a few dozen money tokens.  If the components were top quality I'd expect the game to cost around $35, at most $40, but with the cheaper components I'd value the game at $25.  And that's a shame, because the gameplay rivals any other $40-$60 game on the market.

Score: 6/10 x1

Final Thoughts:
I really, really like The Last Spike.  And what's more, my wife liked The Last Spike a lot, and she was prepared to hate it since the generally doesn't like train themed games.  If component quality and overall value were not factored in this game would have received a, 83/100 score, but unfortunately those drop the score into the 70s.

The Last Spike has become a family favorite for its simple, yet strategic gameplay.  It's a great game to introduce new people to board games, but quick enough and just meaty enough to satisfy even experienced gamers.  I'll be bringing the game to my twice-a-month Family Game Nights at my FLGS and I'm sure it'll get quite a bit of play.  I'm also looking forward to playing with my parents, who played a TON of Acquire when I was growing up.  I think they'll really enjoy it as well.
He won the first game against my wife
and I and we all immediately wanted
to play again!

So if you're looking for a great strategy game that's easy to play, fun for all ages, and great for all gaming abilities, check out The Last Spike from Columbia Games.  It should definitely be getting more notice than it has.

Overall Score: 76/100

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GJJG Game Reviews are independent, unpaid reviews of games I, George Jaros, have played with my family and friends.  Some of these games I own, some are owned by friends, some are borrowed, and some are print and play versions of games.  Where applicable I will indicate if games have been played with kids or adults or a mix (Family Play).  I won't go into extensive detail about how to play the game (there are plenty of other sources for that information and I'll occasionally link to those other sources), but I will give my impressions of the game and how my friends and family reacted to the game.  A score of 1-10 (low-high) is given to each game in six categories: Components & Packaging, Rules & Setup, Gameplay, Replayability, Overall Value, and General Fun.  Rules & Setup and General Fun are weighted double and Gameplay is weighted triple.  Educational games have an extra category and Gameplay is only weighted double. Then the game is given a total score of x/100.