the warp (2020) first impression
The Galaxy is never big enough for the two of us. As vast as it is, we will always be fighting over the same thing, just to achieve the same thing… ”Victory.” Exploring. Expanding. Exterminating. Expanding… Exfoliating… Exploding… Or whatever it is that a 4X game contains.
The 4X (Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate) style is the premise of many games that you may have already played, like Twilight Imperium or Eclipse. Here, I will be talking about a new game which is coming to Kickstarter from Jumping Turtle Games, who would normally make small, rapid playing games and nothing as large as this. This is their first big box game called The Warp. A game about Conquest, development, resources and negotiation, all set to the backdrop of a sci-fi universe that looks familiar but feels different and not so aggressive as other titles. For up to 1 to 6 players can explore a strange world, build an Empire, fight Exiled Aliens and possibly gain control of the aforementioned Warp that is controlled by a cunning big boss alien.
A quick overview of the game is, players will find themselves equidistant from each other on a planet. With the same number of troops and buildings and BANG, they’re off, doing what they wish. Terraforming the planet, building an army, working on trades, mining, collecting energy, battling the aliens or each other. You will have free rein of the type of strategy you wish to pursue because this is a race for points. Points are earned from completing your own personal objectives or the common objectives, plus if you have control of The Warp you'll possibly score bigger points. Every player will take a 3 phased turn of :
When a player arrives at the prescribed score of victory points, this triggers the end game leaving the players a few more rounds to scoop up as many points as they can. After that, whoever has the highest score is deemed the winner. Simple as that.
So what makes this game stand out from the crowd? Number one, the aliens. There are lots of aliens to choose from. And you won't be selecting just one race to play, but in fact two races, each with a regular power and a power that can be activated by spending rewards from combat. This is done in a kind of card drafting mechanism, where two decks of selected aliens will go around the table. Each alien's power is really quite powerful, and if you know the game The Voyages of Marco Polo, I'm talking about overpowering powerful powers! This makes them all unique and interesting to play and interesting to see in action as the rounds go by. Maybe you’ll want to have two buildings built on your turn instead of one, then you become the Ralan Engineers. Maybe you’ll want your weakest soldier to have an attack boost, plus if you lose a troop you are compensated for your loss, then you pick the Luron Droids. But why not be both? In this game you can be. You’ll have control of two races instead of normal games' usual one race choice. That’s two constant powers plus two activated super powers. You’ll want to play again after seeing the other players powers, wishing you had combined one you have with one of theirs.
These cards also double for the Exiled Aliens, which are spawned over the planet in which you inhabit (or trying to conquer). Again, 2 of these aliens would be chosen but this time at random and be allocated one of two colours. Each Exiled Alien’s will have a similar power to the ones players could have used, but they are watered down a little. Because everyone can use these powers as long as they are on the board. Either while fighting against them or not. On top of that, that is another deck of aliens which is used for the controller of the warp. They all have different numbers of troops and terrain modifiers, as well as rewards for being defeated. How do you make a game more interesting and replayable, create lots of different aliens and abilities. All these uniquely different aliens add to quite a lot of replayability and variety and how you approached the game.
The game is kept simple by not having a wide variety of resources for you to keep count of. There are goldmines that will give you gold and power generators will give you power. That is primarily it. Baring of course your troops, which could be considered a resource and there are the Reward cards that can either be spent immediately to collect the benefit marks on it or saved up to be used on one of your special powers. Everything can be built and upgraded with just these two resources, again keeping it very simple. And what could possibly make construction simpler? Having cards tell you what you can build or upgrade and how much it costs. Archive cards will be flowing through your hand throughout the game, either being used for their construction effect or discarded for resources indicated on the bottom. Not all of the Archive cards are used for construction. About half the deck contains cards that can be used for battle, either to reinforce your Troop or to be used to support the Exiled Aliens scattered on those ready to be conquered zones.
To keep things interesting and to feed those players who are waiting their turns, the action phase provides interaction for all the players at the table. You'll have to choose from one of three actions to perform. Using an Archive card to build or upgrade something with your resources allows each other player to build from a card in their hand if they have the resources. This benefits them but also yourself, as for each player that does so permits you to take a resource of your choice. Terraforming (which seems like a pointless action), allows you to raise the elevation of one location and diminish the location of another, again also open to each player after you perform it. Although they can only adjust 1 area, you will benefit from an additional Archive card as a bonus for each player who does so. And then the attack. Either against another player or one of the Exiled Aliens. Any player can help support these Exiled Aliens by playing one of them Archive cards as a modifier. And of course roll the dice for them.
Let's delve into the attack as it is an interesting system. Attacks start by declaring a target, either an Exiled Alien or another player. Movement is normally just to an adjacent space unless you have an Assault ship. You’ll move all but one of your troops from that space to your combat zone before choosing whether to play an Archive card. If either party has chosen to play a card, the next step of the battle is to try and Bribe that player to discard that card by making them an offer they cannot refuse. Although they may refuse.This keeps the interaction going and can swing the game in different directions. Once the Brides are out of the way, if there are cards in play, they are revealed and one of the options must be chosen before dice are rolled. Each option has a resource cost and some give a benefit if you use to support an Exiled Alien. What's nice about this combat is the fact that you will get a simple choice each time. The number of dice you get to roll depends on the number of troops in the combat zone. Then the magic of terraforming comes into play. The defender will multiply their total die result by the level of their terraformed area whereas the attacker will multiply their die result by the terrain of the area that they just left. This multiplication may be just by 1,2,3,or 4, but can make a vast difference in the result of the endgame. This makes it an interesting battle to participate in as well as to watch.
Every combat becomes a well calculated puzzle for those playing. Added to that, the bluffing of playing a card against an opponent adds intrigue and pressure to each encounter. Then the relief of walking away with a success and a Reward card that you could save to activate a powers, or immediately to collect an item or two is satisfying. Even if you lose, it’s not drastic unless you have some building that then becomes the property of someone else.
Multiplication doesn't end there. Everyone has a player board which records the level of your building plus the amount of resources you can get the income phase. To know how many troops you can recruit or how much gold and energy you can produce, you’ll refer to this track. Let's say you had 3 Gold Mines on the board and you also upgraded these mines to level 2. You multiply the 3 by 2, giving you a result of 6 and this is where you place your cube on the track. These tracks are blocked out to give you a maximum of 3 of a resource at the higher levels plus a bonus power. On top of that, if you are the first to reach the top of a track, you’ll score the common goal card of 3 points, which is a third of your objective score. This applies to the mines, the trade buildings, the command centres and the energy plants. Not everything is free and easy to build, different builds have different costs and the mine and energy plants can only be built on selected terrain. This could possibly lead to territory fights amongst players. At the end of your turn, you can redeploy two troop members to another location under your control. Mid game, this becomes a high tension moment as one or another of your opponents will comment on how close a large group is to their own. Could there be a war…?
Now, you are free to do whatever you wish on your turn, but you will be compelled to follow your objectives, as these are the main reason you are playing. They score you points that hopefully win you the game. There are a lot of completely different missions to do from the three types available. Conquest deals with combat, Prosperity is about collecting resources and Progress is about buildings. You are restricted to one of each type as your personal quests but there will also be one of each which is public. So even if you feel a little stuck with the ones in your hand, as some can be impossible to achieve at some stage of the game, there is always something else to aim for. This can be daunting for some players as they watch other score points on easy objects every round. But there are ways to discard to get a better card into your hand.
I can't comment on the solo mode as I have not seen the rules, but I presume it may be a Race Against Time or playing against an artificial intelligence made from a deck of cards. After playing with two and three player count, I can tell you that this is not an aggressive or restrictive game. Yes, the threat of your very close neighbour attacking you is always there, but they probably will not do it unless a Conquest card tells them to or they see an opportunity to easily take a build of yours. You can quite happily stay in your corner and build your Empire to suit your objectives, winning points very rapidly. The board layout has a portal that keeps players within attacking reach of each other, even though visually it doesn’t look so. Games can be won without attacking one another or even the guardian of the Warp.
The game is relatively fast paced once you have had a few rounds. It’s very easy to pick up and play but will still consume a fair amount of time. Anything from an hour and a half to 3-4 hours for larger groups of players, but you will be constantly engaged. The artwork and components of this prototype are very high. Each alien is excellently represented in image, name and power, although everyone will have the buildings and troops on the board of the same shape. It would have been nice to see the multi-use Archive cards expanded. Many a time, during the game, the market of Archive cards had to be replaced once all the same types were revealed. Only to be replaced by four more cards that had to be replaced. Having build and combat actions on the same Archive card would be a great alternative to alleviate this minor niggle and benefit from the choices you make. And the font, thematic as it is, can be a little hard to read as it is.
A thoroughly enjoyable medium weight conquest game. Not too hard to learn. Lots to keep you entwined in this adventure, from all the objectives you can perform, combinating you powers of your abilities and power, to the overall interaction that was omnipresent. Maybe a gateway game for your friends before introducing them to TI4 or something bigger. Definitely worth “Exploring”, possibly “Expanding” to 6 players, “Exploiting” your bank account, “Exterminating” a dull moment at the table with friends.
Shards of the Jaguar (2020) first impressions
What’s it about?
Kahanur, your tribe's founding father, long ago defended your people by transforming into a spiritual Jaguar. But the enemy eventually learnt how to curse this spirit and break it into crystal shards. As an Initiate of your tribe, you have vowed to find these crystal shards from a sacred temple. Doing so will grant you the great honor of becoming the heir of Kahanur...But others at the table will be doing the same thing for the same reasons. To be successful over your adversaries, you will need to be devious and lay traps to slow them down.
Remember that these are first impressions of a prototype. Rules, mechanics and components may be different from the final version of this product.
How do we play?
After players have chosen their characters and decided player order, they will collect their starting amulet and another from their chosen entry into the temple. They now have 8 rounds to enter this sacred place, find treasure, amulets, perform rituals, and find map pieces that will lead to the Shards of the Jaguar. 6 of these rounds will allow the players to explore 3 out of the 4 board areas of the temple, while the last 2 rounds open up this final quarter. This area is where you’ll use any map pieces you have, to pinpoint the Shards of the Jaguar. Followed by a bonus round where they need to escape with the movement points allocated by their remaining health points.
Each round is constructed of 4 phases.
Points can be earned, not only by trapping other players but also by your collection of gems, performing rituals and your remaining health points. Points can also be lost from the amount of curses you have received or if you take damage and have no health.
Respect for the theme?
Traps and treasure go hand in hand, just like Indiana Jones and artifacts. The fact that you are all from the same tribe, maybe even related and are deliberately trying to hamper the other players feels a little wrong. You feel obliged to be the nasty player, even if you just want a fair and friendly competition. Poisoning others or having them pricked by a handful of arrows is essential to scoring points but not amusing if you are a passive player who just wants to use skill to go in, collect stuff and get out. Luckily, you don’t always have to set off traps that damage other players (and possibly yourself). There are two “so called” traps that do no damage. One is a secret passage that you and only you can use to jump around the board. The other is a flood of water that will displace all played 2 spaces in any of the 4 directions (north, east, south, west) but with a small benefit for you, as you were prepared for it.
The collection of amulets and crystals fits right into the universe, as they are things we have seen in games like this many times. It’s nice to see that they have more than one reason to be there apart from earning point. Amulets give you powers when used. Allowing you to heal or traverse walls, but most importantly, granting an all important extra action. And using crystals to pray at altars, leading more points your way if you are the first to do so. The only thematic thing that seems out of place is this forcefield that prevents players entering the last quarter of the board until round 7. It would fit perfectly into a sci-fi universe, where robots are decrypting codes and laying traps, just until the shields are removed, allowing them to get the hidden rebel plans and jettison in an escape pod. But apart from those things, the theme works.
This game screams interaction. You are snatching up things before others get to them. Deliberately trying to damage them, just to gain points. And constantly trying to out think them and predict where they will go. You will be forever in each other's face, laughing as they fall in your trap, growling at you as you pick up that map piece they were going to grab. The game is constant backstabbing and playful unfriendliness.
Dive into the mechanisms?
The 4 phases are simple to slip into. From determining player order, which is logic, to the movement and trap setting. Having a restricted number of actions keeps the game very tight and slick. Movement is orthogonal, an action point is required to pick up things, use things and move. This leads to lots of calculating on what you want to do on your turn and where you think you will finish your movement. Very important this, as you do not wish to set a trap beforehand, only to be sat in it. And this calculation is very important if you play the more experienced level, where after round 8, you NEED to escape the temple but can only move as many spaces as your life point tracker indicates.
This restricted action point mechanism didn’t work too well in the 2 player version, as there are slightly different rules. With 2 players, there are 2 extra phases. You’ll set a trap, use 2 action points, set a second trap and use your remaining points. This stop and start is a little frustrating, as you may have something planned for the round, but because you are only doing half of it before the other player activates, they can screw you over. Running to the location you hoped to get to, making you have to change your plans halfway through a round. Remember, action points are very tight in this game. You won’t be able to do everything that you plan.
There are a lot of moving pieces in the game. So much going on. You move here, pick that up, this lets you get points, using this means you discard it. The game is simple in principle, but there are many things to remember. You may get bogged down and forget to level up when your score tracker passes a certain point. Or you may be so concerned with your gem collection that you forget to heal yourself, then you fall into not one, but two traps. Taking your health below zero and removing points from your score track. This has the look and feel of a family game, but there is a thin layer added to make it a little more intricate.
Remember, this is a prototype that I am talking about so not everything has been made correctly at this time. For one, the colours on the board and tokens are very dark and sometimes a little difficult to see. This made the setup a little longer than it should have been, added to that is there is a lot to setup. More differentiation between the types of tiles would smooth it out, also larger icons. The icons get a bit lost in the artwork themselves, although they are relatively simple to learn.
The artwork is nice and fits the feel of the theme of a temple. It was relatively simple to distinguish which traps were where. The main board we had was a set layout, whether the final version will be modular or have more types of map is unseen as I write this. I presume that later the wooden components will be replaced with more elaborate looking bits. Even if they aren't, you quickly become accustomed to what they represent.
With two versions of the game (an introductive and normal level) the rules themselves are relatively simple to pick up. There are a lot of little things to remember, so during a first playthrough you’ll probably have to go back through the book to check a few things. A second or even third play and you will have mastered it. You will probably always need a reference card though, to remind you of what each amulet's power is and each gem's value at the end of the game, as some have standard points while others are cumulative. And the added exception of checking on each character's special powers.
Yes, each character can level up and collect amulets as they go and when fully maxed out, they have their own unique power that bends the rules. From defending against traps to transforming amulets. And there is so much choice in what you can do. Do you go for the gems for their end game value? Or collect them to make tributes to score bonus points and level up? Do you grab all the map pieces that let you claim the high scoring Shards of the Jaguar? Do you grab the amulets and abuse their powers to your own evil needs? Finding a good strategy in amongst all that is a challenge as you weave in amongst each other, trying not to get hurt or cursed by the traps that appear in all the chaos.
I feel that the introductive version of the game is best suited to families who like games like Survive: Escape From Atlantis. As it removes the character powers and makes amulets a little more available. It also removes that bonus round after round 8 of getting out of the temple on the life points you have remaining.
Aside from the two player version which felt too “stop & start”, having more players became more intricate. Planning your moves, based on what you thought the other players would do or where they would set off traps adds a nice bit of cat and mouse to the game. Sometimes this would backfire and you may find yourself falling in everybody else's traps and no one falls in yours, giving those an instant boost on their score, leaving you trailing behind. As long as this doesn't happen every round, you should be ok. But there are points aplenty and there is always a possibility of catching up with the other players by doing other things. But is it balanced? I can not tell at this time.
One thing that didn’t feel balanced is the characters final and permanent powers. Having two scoring markers that both move when someone falls in your trap is quite powerful. The scoring track itself is not 1 point by 1 point. It jumps in increments of 3 and if you manage to get to the end of it, it goes up in increments of 5! Compared to the power to try and guess which trap will hit you on a round. Guess correctly and you take no damage from that trap. They seem balanced in a two player game, but with more players and more traps, more traps means a more likely chance of someone falling into one. Enhancing one of these powers while diminishing the other. Or the ability to use a blue amulet to move 2 spaces. I suppose that it gives an objective for that player to collect blue amulets when they unleash that power. And getting to that level can be easy or difficult depending on where the gems and tribute posts are. Plus whoever is unlucky enough to fall into your traps.
There are a lot of moving parts in this family style game. Maybe too many if you play the full version. Even the introductory level, I feel could be lightened to make it more accessible to a younger audience. With a lot of moving of components from one space to another, things may get forgotten in all this shifting of tracks and items collected. A little heavier than your average family style game, but no less fun. With the push your luck element of “what should I take” and “how far should I advance” that you will find in games like Clank. Infact, playing this will probably appeal to that audience more than a kid friendly one. But all of this ties up nicely into an exciting race to get the most points. While stepping on the other players toes, hoping they fall into your devious traps. Tense and exciting, if you don’t mind the luck factor.
Me, of course!