Ethnos

Published by CMON (Cool Mini Or Not), Ethnos is a game designed by Paolo Mori and is set in the fantasy land of, you guessed it, Ethnos, which is rendered beautifully by artist John Howe.

The fictional locale of Ethnos is divided up into six different territories. To start, players randomly pick 6 of the 12 fantasy races that come with the game and form a deck. Players are then given a helping of tokens in their preferred color and are tasked to do one of two things on their turn: they can draw a card from the deck / “face-up market”  or they can play a band (set) of cards that are either all the same color or contain all the same race of creature. Choosing one card from your band as your leader, allows you to activate a race-specific power and you then get to place one of your tokens on an area of the map that corresponds with the color of your leader card. It’s kind of like Ticket to Ride, but instead of collecting train cards, you’re collecting fantasy creature cards and, instead of placing trains on a board, you’re placing tokens to try to control certain areas of the map. You will gain points for controlling these areas at the end of a round, or Age as they’re called in the game, as well as for points corresponding with the size of your bands that you played throughout the Age. What determines the end of an Age you ask? Why dragons of course! There are three dragon cards shuffled into the bottom half of the deck and once the third is revealed, it’s an immediate end to the Age. This simple little mechanic provides for some real suspense as players push their luck in an effort to get another band played before the third dragon strikes.

The game provides a really neat twist on the set collecting and card drafting that can be seen in a game like Ticket to Ride. In Ethnos, you cannot horde your cards in an effort to get the right bands and then play them whenever you feel like it. If you have 10 cards in your hand, you have to play a band on your next turn and the cards that you do not use in that band have to be discarded to the “face-up market.” As a player, you may have a band ready to be played, but you notice that your opponent is nearing their ten card limit and you decide to hold off playing your band to see what goodies your opponent will discard.  This method of discarding is a clever change that really provides some extra choices and interesting moments.

Ticket to Ride is one of my gateway games into the hobby of modern board gaming and is still one of my family’s favorites to play. Ethnos scratches a very similar itch but provides a few more interesting decisions as well as some variability from game to game. It’s simple to teach and the different combinations of fantasy races that can end up in the deck drastically change the game and forces players to change up their strategies. This cannot be understated. Ethnos shines because of the replay-ability factor each of the twelve fantasy races provides with their rule breaking powers. For example, playing an Elf as a leader of your band, will allow you to hold onto cards (instead of discarding them)  after playing a band, while a Wizard will allow you to draw a new card for each one you have to discard. Some of the others even introduce new components. The Orcs, for example, require each player to have an “Orc board” in front of them and each time they place a token on the map with an Orc leading a band, they get to place a token on their “Orc Board.” These tokens can be cashed out for points at the end of the Age or saved over multiple Ages in attempt to score more points. And that’s just three of the twelve fantasy races that are included with the game!

It’s also worth mentioning that the theme of this game doesn’t deter non-fantasy loving, casual gamers. While I feel like dragons and trolls can only make every board game more interesting, it’s just not everyones cup of tea. I’ll admit, when one of my friends saw the box art (as beautiful as it is), they visibly cringed, but by the time we had finished the game, they were ready to play again immediately even though it was after midnight!

Ethnos is a fantastic game! It can be played in under an hour (twice if you’re playing with two or three players), it’s easy to teach and provides variability from game to game. While the race specific powers, coupled with the fantasy theme, might deter some people, I would argue that Ethnos would make a fine introductory game to new players. Ethnos can hold its own on any game shelf as a game that gets people thinking without leaving them overwhelmed and could comfortably sit between the popular gateway games Ticket to Ride and Small World.

 

 

We Are All Monsters

A (kind of) review of Ruthanna Emrys’ novel Winter Tide while pleading with board game designers to take note and listen up!

For anyone unfamiliar with H. P. Lovecraft’s work, The Shadow Over Innsmouth is arguably one of his best pieces of prose.  In it, a student finds himself isolated overnight in the strange town of Innsmouth and is witness to many bizarre events and, SPOILER ALERT, barely manages to escape with his life. Innsmouth is home to a group of people who worship the cosmic entity Cthulhu, evolve into fish like creatures known as Deep Ones at some point in their lives and can live for centuries under the sea. These Deep Ones are depicted by Lovecraft as terrifying and monstrous as they round up and sacrifice human beings in their rituals to their gods.

Ruthanna Emrys’ first novel, Winter Tide is a historical fantasy novel that borrows from, but more importantly, adds to, the cosmic canon of the occult created by H. P. Lovecraft. The book answers the question of what the U.S government would do if they knew that creatures such as the Deep Ones lived on American soil. Emrys expertly intertwines the fate of Innsmouth with that of the American Japanese people who were interned during and after World War two. In an attempt to understand the magic of the Deep Ones, the American government all but wipe them out. Aphra Marsh is the main character of  Winter Tide and is one of the last remaining survivors of Innsmouth.

Throughout the book, the reader gets to know Aphra and her family of both blood and bond, what her childhood was like, what tastes and smells are nostalgic for her and what her cultural rituals and practices look like from the perspective of someone who reveres and respects them. She is initially painted as tragic and much empathy is felt for her as she tries to reclaim what is left of her people and their ways after a near complete genocide.

As a big fan of Lovecraft’s work, I have found myself perturbed and saddened, at times, to discover the racist and xenophobic views he held while living. I have questioned whether to separate the person from the art.  I have done this on occasion. I loved Ender’s Game but refused to continue reading the series once I found out that Orson Scott Card is openly homophobic and advocates against equal rights for the LGBTQ community. However, I do still find myself revisiting and reading Lovecraft and have told myself he is an unfortunate product of his time but, it can still be uncomfortable to read some of his stories and their xenophobic undercurrents.

I was therefore overjoyed to discover Emrys’ novel as it contained within it characters once believed to be monsters. Lovecraftian “creatures”  that were actually people, that were human. I could read this book and pore over its canonical detail and its references to Cthulhu and the Yith without wondering if there was any backhanded and racist allegory at play. This novel is a gift to anyone who loves the mythological sandbox that Lovecraft has created but is at odds with the man himself.

This is where I shall put a call out to board game designers! There are more than just a few board games out there playing within the aforementioned Lovecraftian sandbox. I ask you to reconsider characters and their motives.  I ask you to empathize with “the other.” I ask you to make something new with what has been provided to you. Create a game where a character like Aphra can lead the narrative and protect herself and her family from those that would do them harm. How fun it would be to pray to the cosmic gods rather than cower in fear of them.

 

I know there are at least a couple of board games out there that have you on the side of the occult rather than fighting against it. Both Fate of the Elder Gods and Kingsport Festival have you donning the robes of cultists in an effort to summon forth the Ancient Ones and Elder gods. While this is an interesting departure from always being on the side of Good, the cultists are still bland and one dimensional, evil caricatures that are attempting to bring about the end of the world. They are not being discriminated against for practicing their human right of religious freedom, they are trying to destroy the planet and everyone on it!

There’s a great scenario in Fantasy Flight’s Mansions of Madness (2nd ed.) board game based on The Shadow Over Innsmouth. *SPOILER ALERT* Players find themselves trapped in a hotel room in Innsmouth with locals banging on the door to get in and threatening to harm or kill them. In a simple reversal, what if you were playing as the character that was banging on the door? Doesn’t it make sense that the locals would not want outsiders escaping with knowledge of their cultural practices and ways? That, if word were to get to the government, their community and way of life would be completely in jeopardy? It makes sense then, that there is a mob trying to round up the human investigators and that Deep Ones are lunging out of the water to impede their escape. They know who the real monsters are.

In-Between Round 3

With Dave away, visiting the mystical, magical island of Newfoundland, this episode of the In-Between has Mitch and I doubling down on our chatter in order to fill the Dave sized gap. Which means, if math can be trusted at all, we go a little overboard.

We talk about Mitch’s acquisition of Talisman, a classic from the 80’s that has lived on in various incarnations, and the gimmicky but aesthetically cool looking, Forbidden Bridge. We then talk about Dad Joke Face-Off, another new game on Mitch’s shelf, plus some newer games and some fun little small box games that we’ve been playing lately. Isle of Trains, Valley of the Kings: Afterlife and 7 Wonders: Duel, are fabulous little games that are heavier than their small box size suggests. (You see what I did there right? That’s what’s called a play on words, since they aren’t actually that heavy, weight wise.)  With slight learning curves and layers of strategy awaiting to be revealed, these little games are definitely worth checking out if you haven’t already.

Another one worth playing, if you have somehow missed the hype, is the clever and quick roll and write called Welcome To. Listen in to hear a jumbled explanation for how to play it and how it has been my most played game for the month of August by a long shot. Accessible, fun and very nice looking, it’s a triple threat that gets a high recommendation from The Secret Order of the Rolling Duck..

Similarly, Sagrada, has made its way to the table over and over too. This dice drafting, somewhat solitaire puzzle of a game has players placing colored dice on a board to craft a stain glass window. It’s rules are simple to learn but the puzzle is tricky to pull off successfully. Most people end up with at least one dice sized hole in their window.

You can also listen in to hear Mitch tell a serendipitous tale of how he ended up connecting with a European game designer whose games have begun appearing in Canadian Dollar Stores priced well below their production cost and well below their actual value.

That’s it. That’s mostly it.

Until next time, Stay fit and have fun!

No, wait. Place chits and game tonnes! (Ugh. That’s not much better)

Thunderstone Quest

My Sordid Love Affair – Part 2

  • Mechanics 95% 95%
  • Theme 75% 75%
  • Game Play 85% 85%
  • Co-op-iness 50% 50%
  • Deck Clog (monsters in your deck) 0% 0%
When the hulking monstrosity, in all its 19lb glory showed up on my doorstep, I was ecstatic and I was not disappointed. Steve

Dear Thunderstone Quest,

What can I say? I am so happy to have met you. You are near perfect in my eyes. I know that we have a long and happy life ahead of us. There’s no one else for me. I love you so. Let me count the ways…

 

So, along comes Thunderstone Quest. AEG launched it as a kickstarter and in no time at all, the game was fully funded. People were a little perturbed that you couldn’t use your Thunderstone Advance cards in this version of the game, but the folks at AEG promised that it was a new, streamlined experience and that Thunderstone fans would not be disappointed. I promptly backed it, followed the campaign closely and liked what I saw. When the hulking monstrosity, in all its 19lb glory showed up on my doorstep, I was ecstatic and I was not disappointed. Thunderstone Quest keeps everything I love about its previous iteration while it amends all that was problematic.

Theme

Most apparent is that the game’s theme remains the same and, if you want to involve yourself in the narrative and the flavour text, there is a grand fantasy tale to be found. This time around, the game casts the players as Champions of Thunderstone Keep. You have been enlisted to retrieve magical items from various dungeons in an effort to keep a powerful being imprisoned (at least that’s what I puzzled together from the first couple of scenario introductions). Nonetheless, you are still recruiting heroes and acquiring items and spells in an effort to destroy monsters and defeat Thunderstone Guardians.

While the art has changed a little with a brightened color palette, it remains top notch and engrossing. The goblins leap off their cards at you, the heroes look compelling and ready for adventure, and the festering wound card could make you lose your lunch. Most importantly, the female characters are sensibly clothed and can be seen wearing functional robes and armour like their male counterparts. The game has added a dungeon section, comprised of 7 different tiles that vary by scenario, and while it’s a bit of a table hog, the art on these dungeon locations are majestically rendered as well. If you happen to be into miniatures, the game also comes with some highly detailed characters for you to choose from as you need to place these minis in various locations in the village. Various locations in the village? Yup. Game-play has changed in Thunderstone Quest too. Thankfully, it’s for the better.

Gameplay

While the game remains singularly focused on deck building, a few streamlined upgrades markedly improve the game-play.

Firstly, players choose a side quest and a guild faction which not only gives more agency and decision making, but also provides bonuses like extra XP and legendary treasure cards.

Players also have choices to make in the village beyond which card to buy or which hero to level up. You can choose to visit the Monastery to heal your wounds (because you can take wounds in the dungeon now!), or go to the Shop of Arcane Wonders to buy treasure (because you can buy loot right away!), or go to the  Bazaar to buy gear like lanterns and potions (because … more stuff!). And these are just a few of the options available to you in the village.

The Dungeon has also changed and now provides you with more choice and opportunity. Some of the rooms where you fight monsters will grant you spoils like a treasure or potion, while others will boot you out of the dungeon or deal you more wounds.  Speaking of wounds, fighting a monster in TQ, almost guarantees that you will take some damage. Take a couple of wounds, and your hand size decreases for your next turn. Battle a couple of big foes in a row, and you might just draw one or two fewer cards on your next turn. This adds a neat push your luck element in the dungeon as you may try to hold your ground and fight as many monsters as you can to rake in the VP’s. This addition to the dungeon also balances the game in such a way that a practiced player cannot just build a strong deck and remain in the dungeon slaying monsters. They will eventually have to retreat to the village and may have to spend a couple of turns to heal up.

Quality of Life Improvements

Possibly my favourite change to the game is that once you defeat a monster in TQ it no longer goes into your deck, but is discarded from the game. The inclusion of wounds is a much more thematic way to mess with a player’s turn. I’m happy to leave the bodies of my enemies in the dungeon and take their treasure and loot as my trophy. Ah, that feels so much better.

The pace of the game has also picked up quite a bit. Another one of my fave changes to the game is the card combo available to you in your starting hand. If you have your Level 0 Adventurer (TQ’s “Regular”) in conjunction with a lantern, you can take a village turn and immediately after, take a turn in “The Wilderness.” The Wilderness sits above the dungeon and has a giant rat that you can fight for a spoils ability that allows you to level up a 0 level hero. So, a bunch of your initial turns in TQ will consist of you buying a desired village card, followed by fighting a giant rat, thereby culling a starting card from your deck and adding a more powerful hero. You can also trash one of your starting daggers anytime they’re in your hand and you’ve bought something in the village. These two changes to the starting deck significantly speeds things up.

Another element of the game design that seems to make things move along a little quicker is the addition of the guardian keys. These are represented on cards and are shuffled into the monster decks at the start of the game to effectively serve as the game’s timer. Once the fourth key is drawn, the guardian is revealed and each player gets a final turn to attack the games big boss.

Finally! A climactic ending to a Thunderstone game. Players are on edge once the third guardian key is revealed, knowing that any minute the guardian may show up. When it does, players have one more turn, draw 6 additional cards to their current hand and then have to discard 4, which usually results in a powerful hand of cards capable of fun combos and able to generate some serious attack power. Your aim is to hit the guardian as hard as you can because you get VP’s equal to half of your attack! Once everyone has had an opportunity to attack the guardian, players total up VP which now includes your XP tokens and values on your treasure cards. A fitting and epic end to an epic game!

The only issue? Thunderstone lacks a cooperative play mode, which would suit the game. This looks like it will be rectified as AEG has successfully funded a Kickstarter campaign that boasts a very intriguing co-op mode that has big chunky dice and simultaneous turns! I’ve backed it and can’t wait to give it a try! It looks to be the final piece of the puzzle that will make for the ultimate Thunderstone experience!  

… Oh, my love. I know it’s forever. Someone joked to me the other day about what I would do if Thunderstone Quest Advance were to come along. I laughed and reassured them that it would never happen. Hahahahahahahahahahahhaahahahahahahahaha……

It will never happen right? 

{ nervously googles Thunderstone Quest Advance, gets no hits }

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahhahahahahahaha…

Love,

Steve  

Thunderstone Advance

My Sordid Love Affair – Part 1

  • Mechanics 95% 95%
  • Theme 85% 85%
  • Game Play 75% 75%
  • Co-op-iness 50% 50%
  • Deck Clog (monsters in your deck) 100% 100%

Thunderstone Advance and I go back a ways and at some point in my short gaming life I’ve hailed it as my favourite game.

Steve

Dear Thunderstone Advance,

What can I say? It’s complicated. You’re great. You’re fun. You’re complex while still being reasonably easy going. The stories you tell, the excitement you bring. We had a good run.

Look, it’s not you, it’s me.

No, never mind. Scratch that. It’s time to be honest.

It’s definitely you. …

I’m not gonna lie, playing and enjoying Thunderstone Quest feels a little morally wrong now. Thunderstone Advance and I go back a ways and at some point in my short gaming life I’ve hailed it as my favourite game.

It all started after friends of mine introduced me to Dominion and the concept of deck building. It was simple enough a concept. Players use the same starting deck of cards to “purchase” more cards in an effort to gradually build a more powerful deck, that should allow you to perform better turns and gather you more victory points (VP’s).  At some point in that first game I played the “Village” card, which not only allows you to draw another card, but also allows you two more actions. That was when something exploded in my brain. I realized that card combos and chaining cards together was an endorphin releasing experience and I was hooked.

Flash forward a little ways into the future. I was beginning to gradually expand my board game collection and was perusing Kijiji. Someone was selling Thunderstone Advance. I researched a bit about it online and reviewers were calling it Dominion with a Dungeons and Dragons theme. I was sold and promptly arranged to purchase the game.  I was not disappointed. Here’s why:

Theme

I know there are a bazillion board games out there with a fantasy theme, but Thunderstone Advance was my first foray into a card game that featured Wizard Elves and Fighter Dwarves slaying Kobolds and goblins in a dungeon setting.  As players, you are tasked to venture out into the wilderness and dungeons where evil Thunderstone Guardians have been amassing armies for nefarious purposes. Beautiful cards, oozing with theme and featuring detailed depictions of unique weapons and powerful spells, items, characters and monsters bring the game to life. You start the game with six “Regular” adventurers in your deck and as you progress through the game,  these characters gain experience and can level up into powerful Rogues and Clerics. Although one caveat about the games artwork is that a lot of the female characters in this game are drawn in the “traditional” abhorrent sexist fantasy style.

In the village, you will recruit more heroes, new weapons and learn spells. By the end of the game, you will have gathered together a small armory and a party of characters that are not to be messed with. I don’t remember exactly what the theme of Dominion was but I loved the mechanics enough to thoroughly enjoy the experience. With Thunderstone, the deck building mechanics are intact and, if you can immerse yourself in the setting and your expanding deck of characters and abilities, the game has a story to tell.

Gameplay

The cards in Thunderstone represent adventurers, villagers, items, magic spells and weapons that can be wielded by adventurers. These cards will each have a value for either light, gold or attack or a combination of the three. Some cards will have extra abilities that are triggered whether you choose to visit the dungeon or the village during your turn. All players start with the same small deck of 12 cards offering some gold, some attack and some light to get by with. These same 12 cards will be used, 6 at a time, to visit the village where you can use gold to purchase better cards, or recruit heros or even upgrade the heroes you have using xp you will earn throughout the game. If you feel you have a strong enough hand, you can head straight for the “dungeon row.” Here, monsters await in one of three slots indicating various amounts of darkness for which you need to present light or suffer penalties on your attack. When you’ve decided how deep into the dungeon you wish to go and which monster you will face, you will tally your attack value and your light value as well as activate any card abilities in an effort to defeat your chosen foe.

If you feel you have dealt yourself a hand that will not be useful in either the village or the dungeon you can instead “prepare” for your next turn by placing cards from your hand onto the top of your deck to be in your hand again next turn. Or alternatively, you may “rest” which will allow you to remove a single card from the game.

Play continues like this until the dungeon deck dwindles down and the Thunderstone Guardian is revealed and, once defeated, the game ends. Players go through their deck and total up their VP’s from their slain monsters and their level three heroes and whoever has the most points wins.

Even though there is a winner at the end, I have to say, from the countless games I’ve played, the game feels like a co-op experience. We often help each other maximize our hands and give suggestions about cards to purchase in the village. After all, we are the good guys and our end goal is the same. Not to win individually, but to vanquish evil together. It just so happens that one of us will vanquish evil better.

Issues

The game is not without issues though. Through a solid year of playing this game regularly, some bothersome kinks in its shiny armor were revealed. The thing that immediately rubbed me the wrong way thematically, was that defeated monsters go into your deck. Maybe the designers were going for the idea that your heroes are carrying around trophies and perhaps wanted to clog player’s  deck’s a little as an added game-play challenge, but it just never feels right. It doesn’t make sense that you will be in the dungeon with a pretty good hand of cards and when you go to draw another card, hoping for a long sword or fighter, you draw that dragon you defeated four rounds ago. What’s happening there thematically? You reach down for your dagger and accidentally pull out a dragon skull?

The game also moves fairly slow. I love the game enough that this isn’t a huge deal. I feel like one of the main reasons the game drags on is that there aren’t enough opportunities to trash cards. Sure, one of the possibilities on your turn is to Rest and trash a card, but turns feel too valuable to spend in such a way. I’m not going to spend my turn trashing a #@!* Regular when there is a six VP Ogre staring me in the face that I can beat and my opponent probably can too.

The last couple of  bones I have to pick have to do with Thunderstone’s endgame. Here you are, spending two or more hours delving deeper and deeper into a dungeon just waiting for your chance to scrap it out with the Guardian, the boss monster, the big daddy. The sad part is, that when the Thunderstone Guardian finally rears its ugly head, it’s not as tough as the Wyvern you just killed and is worth less points. It feels so anticlimactic that we added a house rule that we have to deplete the dungeon deck before the Guardian can be fought. This not only added climactic tension at the end of the game, but again illustrates our desire to play the game cooperatively.

And that’s my final issue with the game. It was in need of a co-op mode right out of the gate. I know one showed up later in an expansion that was pretty fun, but the theme of this game almost insisted on it being a cooperative experience right from the get go.  

… and this is why we must part, my love.

It’s just that something better has come along that makes me… happier.

There, I said it. Good bye.

Sincerely,

Steve