When you get a new game you often have an idea of how it will play. You might have seen a YouTube video or read other’s reviews. These can all shape your view and set a benchmark by which you might judge a game when you actually sit down and play it.
Now, imagine trying something new for the first time, without any previous knowledge, with a completely open mind. This is the situation I faced last week. Amass arrived courtesy of Dark Frontier and Zatu. At this point, if I was to crystalize my thoughts this would be to repeat the words of my teenage son.
“Amass is excellent. We need to back this when it launches on Kickstarter!”
But let me un-package why the entire family are so excited about Amass.
This was an early version of the game. The entire package though, including rules depicts an alien world with spacemen exploring the planet’s surface. Amass is all about the acquisition of resources (amassing if you will). But there are so many interesting game mechanics at play. It is as though Dark Frontier has taken many of the exciting elements of certain games and distilled these into a fun 45 to 60 minute battle for the planetary resource is.
This is a game that will appeal to families and older primary school children, teenagers and adults as well. It scales well whether for a solo game or for more. With a full six-player complement Amass leaves plenty of scope for healthy competition.
Setting The Scene
Each player controls their own team of spacemen, charged with collecting gems from the eight mines scattered across an alien planet. Planet X is also inhabited by natives who will try to prevent any successful mining attempts and also try to steal resources from one of the six player’s bases. The board depicts the terrain, divided into eight zones, with each of the space bases scattered across this world.
The colours and graphics are a slightly blocky “8 bit” style, reminiscent of early computer games of the 80s. It is better for this. The space meeples are lovely little spacemen with power packs. Players may have up to eight workers, depending on player count and it is these space meeples who will either grab some resources, battle the native or slug it out to raid gems from others.
At the start of each turn, the selected starting player would choose the action and distribution of the gems to be mined. The top two cards are examined, one is selected and the other placed back on top of the draw deck. This means in subsequent turns when the next player has the chance to affect gameplay, the initial player may already have an inkling of what is coming. They might plan their first moves more carefully to mitigate against the next player's actions.
One of my favourite game mechanisms is hidden actions and pre-programmed moves. This allows the player to make a decision entirely independent of other players actions. This will often be simultaneous and leads to a slickness in play. Each player is assigned one space base, depicted on the board as four walls around a central compound. Every player also has an action board. This shows the actions that may be chosen by a player on each turn.
At the same time, everyone deploys their space meeples onto their action board. Their choices need to remain hidden and then everyone reveals them together. The actions available could be described as; mining, raiding, protecting, going native.
Digging For Victory
At the start of each round different numbers of gems are revealed and placed on some or all of the eight mines. The gems have different nominal values and are depicted as coloured cubes. Mines with a more valuable resource is might attract more attention from potential space miners. Also, the natives influence the productivity of each mine. At the beginning of the turn, the native is moved a certain number of zones around the board. All previously unclaimed gems in zones through which the native passes are removed. Similarly, the native could steal a resource from a space base too.
Players can choose to place up to three space meeples on each mine. The more spacemen they commit to this task will increase the chance of mining success. However, each meeple may only retrieve one gem. If a mine only produces a simple pink (valuable) gem this may attract a number of competing parties. After going through the “battle” phase a player may still have several spacemen at that mine. However, only one gem may be obtained per worker.
Competition for mining resources is quite cut-throat. The outcome is determined by the roll of dice. Depending on the magnitude of the loss, the injured space meeples are transferred to the “hospital” to recover. After a number of turns, they are returned for redeployment, but for a number of turns, they will be out of action.
Smash And Grab
Rather than taking resources from mines, it may be easier to snatch a few gems from another player’s base. The bases contained four walls where the resources are store. A player may deploy up to four meeples to attack each of the walls of their opponent. Successful raids will be rewarded by grabbing gems from the outer part of a base but if an attack is successfully repelled then the injured meeples face a time of recovery with some rest and recuperation.
Get Off My Land!
As a player acquires more resources so their space bases become a target for attack. Players could choose to place a number of spacemen into their base to stave off raids from others. However, in keeping space meeples at home this does mean there are fewer workers to mine for the resources or attack others bases.
A Helping Hand
All raids and battles are determined by the rolls of the D6 dice. However, players may use action cards to allow for extra powers, re-rolls or influence. These are gained when a player deploys their workers to the native square. These action cards can be very useful at repelling raids to ensure a win when fighting for the mine’s resources.
Everyone reveals their space meeples and deploys them at the same time. Simple, uncontested actions are enacted immediately. Players grab resource is any cards as needed.
Battles and raids are played out by pairs of players in turn. In some zones, there will be a number of spacemen contesting a single space. The first player has the initial benefit of selecting which pairs of players will fight this out first of all. Once that battle is resolved the next player in a clockwise fashion has the pleasure of choosing the next paired battle. In a multiplayer game, numerous injured meeples will end up in the “hospital” and need to sit it out for a few turns.
Once every raid, skirmish and mining disagreement has been resolved the players can move their haul back to their base. Each space base has sufficient storage for up to 20 items. These are arranged in the four walls around the base and it is these resources that may be plundered by others or the native. Gems placed in the outer slots are more vulnerable to be taken than items near the centre of the compound. This means it is usually better to place the highest value items as far as possible, out of reach. Once a player has filled all of the spaces then the game will be finished.
Most games are over within an hour. With more players the number of raids increases. This will affect gameplay due to the time to resolve each battle. Players may wish to amend the endgame conditions depending on the time available. We have found a ceiling of 16 gems as a target (4 for each storage area of a base) will enable a four-player game to finish in about 45 minutes.
Thoughts On Amass
The name says it all. This is a game about the acquisition of resources through means, fair or foul. Much has been written lately about the importance of “theme” in a game. Amass has plenty. From the front cover of the box, through the rules and board, this game leaves you in no doubt what is expected- space mining! This continues with the storage of acquired resources in your space base and the opportunity to raid others or defend your base. This all fits very well with the “storyline”.
I had the privilege of playing a pre-production version. My first impression was how much had been added to the box. With 48 space meeples, and their little life support backpacks, plenty of resource cubes, and action cards galore, there was very little space left in the box. This itself shows the thoughts that Richard and Dark Frontier Games have put into Amass.
The artwork and board set up to bring back memories for me of playing some early computer games in the 80s. My family and I absolutely love this style. It is not overly complicated. The game board sectors are clear. The graphics and iconography all fit with the futuristic mining base theme.
But a game is not just about components. These, whilst important, should be considered like the semi-precious stones found alongside the rich vein of pure gameplay gold of the mechanics. Amass is a rich treasure trove of fantastic game mechanics. We each have particular gaming styles that appeal to our personalities. We see this reflected in our gaming purchases. I would argue that Amass has a very broad appeal through the mechanics at work.
How many games become frustratingly slow due to a players analysis paralysis? There is none of this in Amass. At the same time, everyone may choose how to deploy their spacemen. As this is independent then this action will take moments.
Some of the fun of playing games is trying to catch out the opposition – leaving them caught or exposed and taking advantage of that situation. As players reveal their plans this will lead to tension and expectation, but also relief that your plans have worked out.
One of my favourite games of all time is Room 25 by Matagot games. Fixing your moves independently of others means you need to “read” their thoughts and plans based on previous actions. The same applies to Amass. Once your spacemen are allocated on your action board there is little you can do- only hope that your men will acquire the resources at uncontested mines, or perhaps you have sufficient space meeples defending your home base.
During play, there is nothing to stop a player from dropping hints or deliberate misinformation about their plans. This could persuade others that one mine might be strongly contested, in the hope that it would dissuade others from allocating miners at that position. With sufficient hints dropped and a Double-Bluff in place, a player could then mop up all of the resources without even a scratch. However, while their miners are working, so their space base might be vulnerable to attack.
This is a very popular gaming mechanic. With limited resources and spaces, the deployment of your miners is crucial. There is great tension when a number of players will be contesting a single valuable resource. It will only end in tears, with most spacemen ending up in the “sick bay” and out of action.
Sometimes it is wise to work together to reduce your losses. In larger, multiplayer games the use of pacts to agree who or where you might deploy your miners could be a benefit. However, like many things in life things can unravel and beware of being “stabbed in the back” when agreements turn sour!
Variable Worker Numbers
In games such as T’zolkin workers will remain “out of action” for several turns. This will limit a player’s actions or possibilities. Amass has a similar mechanic. With injured meeples in the hospital after a raid that goes wrong, a player might find themselves with many fewer workers. They will need to consolidate their plans, but realise that after a few turns, their spacemen will have returned to full strength.
With one or two players who have depleted workers, now could be the time to raid their base. This might be to steal back the resources that have been taken previously. They may choose to actively defend with all of their remaining missiles and therefore leave the remainder of the planet's resources ripe for the plucking.
The use of action cards during the conflict phase is a superb touch. This enables a player to influence the outcome of any particular conflict to their advantage. However, a player needs to decide how much importance to place on winning. If they deplete the cards in their hand on a minor skirmish they might have nothing left in reserve when another player chooses to raid them.
First Player Turn Order
Being the first player conveys a slight advantage. Whilst that player can decide how and where the gems are available, they also affect the movement of the native. This can be used to weaken an opponent’s base by stealing resources. It is right that this benefit is shared throughout the game as the first player turn moves clockwise around the players.
Variable Conflict Order
This mechanic allows players to determine the order in which raids and battles are resolved. Players will use this to their advantage to weaken the opposition and make it easier with their own personal battles. However, as the conflict order moves around the players so others will also have the opportunity to choose which battles are resolved next.
The joy of playing a game is dissecting the outcome once the result is known. Amass is all about player interaction, from the competition for resources to the dice rolling battles and raids. So often the direction of a game can be determined by the outcome of a few small raids. This leads to the inevitable post-game discussion of “if only you hadn’t rolled a six and I hadn’t used my action card when I was attacking...”
The ability to test or play a game solo will increase its playability. The solo mode with the automaton is a solid, logical and tough action. This variant of the game will mean that Amass will not just collect dust on the shelf, only to be retrieved when it is possible for like-minded gamers to meet again. Nearly all of the popular new releases have a solo mode and dark frontier are to be commended for this.
Final thoughts on Amass
It has been a privilege to play Amass. With the player count of 1 to 6 and so many worker mechanics in play, this game covers so many bases. The rules are simple enough for a child to take on, but adults would definitely love the bluffing and hidden action element. With no “downtime” the gameplay is quick and slick. The hour or so for each game passes very speedily and with great enjoyment through the superb player interaction.
Will this game be one to look out for and back as a Kickstarter? For sure
Will this game be played regularly at home? Definitely
Will Amass enable Dark Frontier Games to break onto the bigger stage? I really hope so