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First Impressions September 2020

First Impressions September 2020 feature

September was the start of a new season. Rather fittingly some of the Zatu bloggers embarked on some new games too. Here are their first impressions. From Fort to Clank!, discover what is on our gaming radar.

Marco Polo II - Louis Noble

Marco Polo II, like its predecessor, is a dice placement game. Dice are placed to take actions. Usually to acquire goods from the market place or to travel between locations on the map. The value of the dice placed indicates the strength of the action taken. Whilst this sounds like it might favour high rolls, there is some mitigation. Players who roll lots of low numbered dice are compensated, and high dice are potentially costly to place later in the round.

Players are rewarded for completing contracts (trading resources) during the game, and at the end of the game for meeting certain travel goals, as well as for completing the most contracts. If you have played The Voyages of Marco Polo, this will sound very familiar.

Though VoMP is a popular game, it has been criticised because the dominant strategy in the game usually doesn’t involve travelling – which is quite damning for a game with “Voyages” in the title. I am happy to report that Marco Polo II addresses this. Whist the first game could be won through a “completing contracts” strategy, in the successor players have to commit to some travel in order to collect contracts. In fact, whilst there are several routes to victory, all of them involve some form of travel on the map.

I approached Marco Polo II with the predecessor game held in very high regard – it was going to be a tough act to follow. However, MPII does not disappoint; if you enjoy VoMP, you will probably enjoy this more; if you felt that VoMP was a bit lacklustre, due to one-sided play, you should consider giving this a go.

Fort - John Hunt

Fort is a beautifully presented, quirky deck builder from Leder Games. You are playing a band of kids competing to build the best Fort. Collecting pizza and toys, the game's two resources, enables you to level up your Fort. They provide VP and other bonus powers as well as scoring conditions. The guts of the game is recruiting individual kids (cards) to your gang, then playing them to use the action(s) depicted.

The unusual twist here is that from a hand of 5 you play only one card in your turn, which shows a public and a private action. You can use one or both of these and in some cases you can boost actions by discarding more cards of the same suit. Once you are done, the other players can then discard a card of a matching suit to follow the public action. Your turn ends by any cards left in your hand going into your yard, a publicly accessible array from which other players can recruit your cards to their deck – if they dare.

The net result of these mechanics is a lot of player interaction. It's perhaps less about direct 'take that' (though you could nick and subsequently trash another player’s prized possession) and more about managing your hand across the full round of play. I have only had a few plays, but you are constantly trying to find ways to get the most out of your hand of five and minimise the size of your yard. Boosting actions is critical and because of the follow mechanic you are watching other players like a hawk.

There is additional crunch in players having a backpack, which adds resource storage, and a treehouse which allows card storage. Both of these upgrade with the Fort and give routes to VP with the right cards. All in all, it is a thinky, lively and engaging puzzle which I am looking forward to reviewing properly later in the month.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig - Nick T

I had heard good things about Castles of Mad King Ludwig from other Zatu guest bloggers. I’d looked at it, thought I would like it, but wondered if it would actually hit the mark with the people I play games with. It firmly resided in my Zatu wishlist, but with its slightly hefty price tag it never ever made it into my shopping basket. It was also often thwarted by the lure of other shiny and new releases!

This month that changed as I finally managed to play the game and garner my first impressions. The first thing that struck me was that there was a lot of grey on my table. There weren't even fifty shades of it, more like two! The marketplace and tiles for the initial set up were a long way away from some of the beautiful productions my eyes have feasted on in recent times.

Once the game got going however, the mass of grey fell into the peripheral vision and the bonkers sprawling castle took centre stage. While the aesthetics of the many quirky rooms may be more akin to a retro computer game of the 1980s, they began to have a charm and whimsy about them that was more endearing after my second and third play. For example in one of my son’s mad castle creations, visitors to the castle would have to go through a fungus room and dungeon to get to the guest bedroom with en-suite broom closet! It made us both chuckle.

Where Castles of Mad King Ludwig shines is in the gameplay. The values of the rooms are ever-changing, and is the first player bonus. This works in an ‘I split, you choose’ way. The choosing of market values allows for a bit of manipulation of other players, as money for rooms purchased goes to the first player too. This creates a lovely dilemma of not putting what you want too cheap that others steal it, but not leaving what they really want too affordable either. This creates a quandary for all players as they balance maximising points from room placement with their bonuses and the fiscal costs involved.

All in all, Castles of Mad King Ludwig is an interesting and highly strategic game which created an entertaining gaming experience. I wasn’t surprised how much I enjoyed it, but was buoyed that my wife and eldest son (12) really got to grips with it too. I can now see it being upgraded from my wishlist to shopping basket very soon!

Clank! - Callum Price

We have had a few fresh experiences this month as far as board games go, but first we have a confession to make. Until this week, we had never played Clank! I know, right? The iconic deck-building adventure by Renegade Games Studio is one we hadn't ever touched. We'd had opportunities, but never claimed them. So we decided it was time. We bit the bullet, donned our adventuring gear, and set off into the dragon's castle...

For those of you that aren't aware, Clank! is a deck-building adventure game for 2-4 players. It orients around travelling through a dragon's lair to find relics and other valuables. All combat, movement and card purchases are driven by card symbols.

On a turn, you draw five cards and play them all, resolve choices, and can then purchase cards. What makes this unique is the Clank! element of Clank!. As you play, your adventurer may make noises which alert the dragon to your location. This is when a player placed a cube from their stock to the Clank! area. Should a dragon attack card be pulled, the Clank! cubes placed by players are added to the dragon bag and cubes are drawn. This causes damage to players, and can result in player elimination.

Clank! sounds a lot, but it isn't. You move across the map using the cards you purchase to your advantage. There's no end of scope to manipulate play to your advantage, but when you're competing for treasures, it's undeniably competitive!

We loved getting deep into the depths and competing for the best cards. But, as with all deck builders, it relies heavily on your ability to resist clogging your hand with one trick pony cards. We found Clank! manages to deter from that well, as its cards drive movement and combat. Also, it doesn't then force you to hold onto useless cards. What's more is how quickly it plays! For such an ambitious game, coupling in adventuring and deck building, it flows well and runs in about an hour. Quicker with more experience!

If you've not tried Clank! yet, shame on you. We've repented for our ignorance. We are now frequently found in the depths of the dragon's castle... highly recommended for newer players or anyone who likes a quality deck.

Pacific Rails Inc. - Thom Newton

There is something very satisfying in watching a map slowly turn your player colour. It’s one of the things I love about games like Power Grid and Lords of Vegas. Pacific Rails Inc. had my curiosity when I saw it was a game about racing to build a rail network that spans all the way to the US Pacific coast. I was fully on board when I realised it also had elements of worker placement and engine building. All aboard!

The game starts with players placing a pair of trains on opposite sides of the map. On your turn you’ll be placing workers out to take different actions. This can allow you to gather resources, build track, hire workers or start placing that track out onto the map. The worker placement has a bit of a twist to it though.

You place your worker between two actions, and you can take either of them. But when you take an action, you will get bonus actions if you have other workers adjacent to the space. This means you could spend a turn getting 1 bar of steel, or with a bit of clever play, that same move could get you 3 or 4 steel girders. This gives the game a sort of special element to it.

As you start building on the map, you can start increasing the size of your train. This gives you more space to store resources. Also, it gives you more spaces to place employees to boost your actions on the worker placement board. There are also a few variable end game scoring conditions into the mix to keep things fresh. I feel like I have barely scratched the surface of what this game has to offer. I have found myself thinking about it a lot over the last few days, that’s got to be a good sign!

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