4 Plays (2 Players)
I’ve been enjoying the Undaunted series for years now. Ever since Undaunted Normandy first hit our table in 2020, this streamlined war game has been a regular 2-player event for us. Thanks to a solid foundation of interactive deck building, impactful initiative tussling, tight hand management, tense combat, and endless scenarios, we are now up to 24 plays across multiple boxes of the system.
Part of the reason I keep coming back for more is that each new box in this series has had the guts to innovate and experiment upon the core system, rather than simply provide more scenarios. Undaunted: North Africa brought vehicles to the fight. Undaunted: Reinforcements featured solo and 4-player options. And now Undaunted: Stalingrad implements an ambitious, interconnected, legacy-like campaign.
Where every version of Undaunted before now was made up of a collection of standalone skirmishes, Stalingrad weaves each battle session into a larger war. The outcome of one battle branches into the next scenario. The casualties suffered in one day are permanently felt throughout the rest of the campaign. The experience gained in one fight results in stronger and more valuable soldiers. The buildings destroyed remain as rubble on the map. And your hardened platoon acquires fresh recruits, specialized units, and shiny new toys to take on the enemy.
The stakes feel higher than ever in Undaunted: Stalingrad thanks to these permanent campaign effects. Suddenly, withdrawing from a grim battle can sometimes feel like the best play when the alternative is costly casualties and a slim chance of victory. You become even more attached to the individual soldiers in your platoon as they develop new abilities or suffer tragic deaths. Your deck morphs and evolves over time as fallen elite soldiers are replaced with weaker reserves while surviving veterans hone their skills. In other words, the tension of each decision and each attack is ratcheted up by a lot — and Undaunted was already a deliciously stressful experience.
Thus far, our experience with the scenarios has likewise been thrilling. Often the victory of one side leads to their reckoning in the next battle. You’ve seized control of this region from us? Fine. Go ahead and camp out then. Meanwhile, allow me to introduce you to my sniper squad who is looking for some good target practice.
Aside from the better-than-ever tension and narrative, Stalingrad is surprisingly the easiest version of Undaunted to setup. That is largely thanks to the brilliantly organized components, where the map tiles are arranged in numerical order like a filing cabinet and the scenario maps are always laid out very simply. Perhaps it is a minor improvement in the grand scheme of things, but after 20 plays of other Undaunted games, it now feels amazingly convenient to flip through the tiles in the organizer, grab a handful right next to each other, and instantly spread them out in a row (cleanup is equally as simple). Your tokens and cards are likewise thoughtfully organized within their own inserts that keep the game tidy and the management effortless from one play to the next. Where many legacy-style games begin to buckle under the weight of their increasing component fiddliness, Stalingrad never becomes such a burden.
What we’re left with, then, is a version of Undaunted that improves upon the core system in basically every way. Designers David Thompson and Trevor Benjamin, as well as publisher Osprey Games, have refined their craft and unleashed their ambition to the point that Stalingrad fully merits every inch of its larger box size and every penny of its higher price point. This is unquestionably a definitive World War 2 game and arguably one of the greatest 2-player tabletop experiences ever crafted.
Prognosis: Excellent (Undaunted: Stalingrad also won Game of the Year in my Top 15 Games of 2022 post)
2 Plays (2 Players)
It feels like I’ve been playing loads of push-your-luck dice games in the past year or so. That’s mostly thanks to my lack of restraint in hunting down hidden gems in Reiner Knizia’s catalogue. And so I’ve now seen and enjoyed roughly 10 of his designs that focus heavily on dice rolling, with most of those also emphasizing push your luck. That doesn’t mean much other than the fact that I’ve noticeably developed tastes and preferences when it comes to what I do and don’t like in dice games.
It has become obvious that I derive the most delight out of chucking dice when player interaction, luck-infused drama, and ego-driven risks are at the core of the game. If you’re going to let Lady Luck hold sway over the outcome of the competition, you might as well throw her a proper party. And the best parties are the ones that don’t overstay their welcome and leave you hungry for more, so I also prefer dice chuckers that keep things short and sweet.
The two notable titles that have surfed the wave of my curling preferences better than any others have been Gang of Dice and Rapido/Excape. These games don’t try to stuff their designs with superfluous phases, cards, abilities, or mechanisms in a vain attempt to appear more strategic or deterministic than they really are. They simply embrace the chaos of randomness in the most enjoyable way possible: by letting the players set themselves up to fail in glorious fashion.
All this is to say that I’ve entered the experience of Spots with a lot of baggage. My shelves are overly saturated with great dice games, and there are even some of those that I’ve considered parting with. Where most homes would receive the game of Spots like an eager family would welcome an adorable new puppy, this particular copy of Spots had the misfortune of entering a den of wolves.
Don’t get me wrong, I tried to make my wolves’ den as warm and welcoming as possible. I know a lot of folks out there are finding much to love in the game of Spots, and I was excited to discover it myself. The endearing Dalmatian art from John Bond, delightfully named dogs, and charming components also go a long way to disarm any Cruella de Vils at the table.
The gameplay itself also features some interesting twists. Players are trying to give their dog cards spots by placing dice values onto matching spaces. Each turn you’ll roll some dice, hope to get the right numbers, and bury any dice that you can’t place onto your dog cards. Bury too much in your yard and you’ll end up busting — losing all of the progress you’ve made on earning your spots. That’s why it’s important to decide when to spend your entire turn locking in any complete cards before those dice are potentially lost.
You’ll be able to earn and spent dog treats to reroll dice before assigning them to dog cards or your yard, so it obviously helps to have those on hand before a high risk roll. And the competition itself is a race to complete 6 dog cards before your opponents. So action efficiency is a major part of the game — particularly when you can risk it for the doggy biscuit by filling in all of your dice spaces and earning an automatic lock-in (saving yourself an entire turn).
But the real star of this show is the action drafting that takes place in the form of dog tricks like “Run” “Play Dead” “Fetch” “Roll Over” and more. Each trick is an action tile (the game comes with many, but you’ll only have up to 6 available to choose from) that you select, flip face down, and follow the directions on. These tricks allow you to do things like earn more dog cards, dig up and reroll your yard dice, roll new dice in diverse ways, or earn more doggy treats.
This is notably the most interactive part of the game, in that players cannot choose the same trick until all of them reset. Where some tricks force you to roll more dice than others, they can do a lot of damage when a player has very few dog spaces to fill and a yard that is approaching the bust threshold. So sometimes it helps to see what other players need and then decide which trick to temporarily deny them.
The trick tiles present a wide swath of setup variety for each game, where you’ll learn and adapt your strategy for how and when to use them. The least popular tile of each round (the one that isn’t chosen before the reset) will even earn itself a doggy treat to entice players to give it a try. There’s a smart and well designed system at play here that is bound to bring joy to gamers like a dog to its owner. As expected, designer Jon Perry and the team at CMYK (publisher of Wavelength and Monikers) know how to make a good game.
While there’s a playground of tricks and dynamics to explore here, I find that Spots never quite reaches the level of interaction, drama, or risks that I’ve come to expect from my favorite dice games. It trades spicy drama for chill dice chucking, sharp simplicity for wordy abilities, and potent interaction for puzzly variety. Much like a real pet, it demands a lot of work from its owners by asking them to read, internalize, and utilize its wonky trick tiles. I’ve always been the type who would rather enjoy a brief moment with a cute animal rather than be its long-term owner and caretaker, and that same feeling carries over into Spots.
1 Play (4 Players)
Gutenberg is fundamentally a recipe fulfillment, track advancement game. You know the kind: gather a, b, and c resources while advancing up e, f, and g tracks to fulfill this contract and earn x, y, and z points and bonuses. Only here you are literally gathering a’s… and i’s and o’s and u’s… not because the designer ran out of more creative ideas for thematic ingredients, but because this game is about being a 15th century cutting-edge printing shop akin to the work of Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of letterpress printing. On paper (ha ha), this combination of mechanisms is typically one that doesn’t get me all that excited about board games. Fortunately, Gutenberg does a lot things really well to the point that even a stingy gamer like myself can appreciate its experience.
The first and most obvious thing it does well is simply the all-around great production. The game comes with tuck boxes to help organize components between plays, the player boards feature pegs for spinning cogs and recessed spaces for advancing cubes and discs, and the wooden letter block types are just plain classy. But I’d rather have a great game with a sub-par production than a great production with a sub-par game, so how is the gameplay in Gutenberg? If I had to select letter types to spell it out, I would choose: a-o-k (too bad the game doesn’t come with any k’s…)! ………It’s good.
Each round starts with players lurking behind their screens, meticulously arranging their black cubes along their personal recessed tracks. This part might just be my favorite aspect of Gutenberg… What you are doing is secretly selecting which actions you want to take, not unlike the classic Race/Roll for the Galaxy, before revealing your choices. Only the difference here is that you aren’t triggering an action for everyone, rather you are bidding to determine who gets to do each action first, if at all. If I dump a whopping four or five or six cubes into the ink track, that means I desperately want first dibs on the ink drafting options. If I don’t place any cubes into my take orders row, then I won’t be able to participate at all in that phase of the round. It’s possible for multiple players to bid the same amount of cubes on the same action; in that case, clockwise turn order trumps all (because later players also have the advantage of more cubes to bid with).
These actions you are bidding for are essentially five different flavors of drafting or worker placement. But the tempting options on the game board are diverse enough that you’ll often regret how you arranged your cubes when opponents snatch up the only cards or tokens that you cared about. You’ll be gunning for orders to fulfill, inks to claim, specialties to develop (track advancement), gears to claim (engine-building powers), and patronage rewards (bonuses and objectives). From there, you’ll need to go with the flow and crank out as many orders as possible to come out on top.
Thanks to a great production and neat bidding system, our Eurogame group all enjoyed it enough that it’s bound to make a return at the table before too long. Good job, Mr. Gutenberg!
1 Play (5 Players)
I finally got the chance to try the legendary Blood Rage but came away with more mixed feelings than expected. Where this popular game has been around for 8 years, I knew a fair amount about it without having ever played. I knew that it was a game of card drafting and area control. I had also heard much talk of a Loki strategy — something about winning the game by losing battles. And it obviously kicked off the epic Eric Lang x CMON trilogy of plastic-filled troops-on-a-map games.
As a gamer who is 8 years late to the Blood Rage party, it’s interesting to officially meet this design and encounter a feeling of familiarity. Within the card battling and bluffing, as well as the upgradeable player boards, I spot glimpses of Ankh. Across the spread of minis and monsters, I see shades of Kemet. From the card drafting and hand management, I’m reminded of Inis. These are all happy memories — recollections of things I enjoy and love. The problem is that these feelings mostly make me wish I was playing those games instead.
I get the appeal; Blood Rage features a ton of wild cards and cool powers. But as a drafting game, players are using 3 different decks (1 for each round) of cards that are almost entirely different from each other. Something Inis has taught me (and Blood Rage has exemplified) is that in games of high interaction, drafting works better when all players are familiar with the entire deck.
Within your first play of Inis, you’ll quickly get a feel for all 16 cards and start implementing that comprehensive knowledge into your strategy and tactics. You’ll hold back on your big maneuver until the dreaded Geis card has been used. You’ll hunger for the New Clans, New Alliance, and Exploration cards when you are looking to build your army. You’ll keep Raid and Warlord cards tucked in your back pocket as a safety net for potential clashes. And you’ll whip out the Conquest card when the map is ripe for the picking. Meanwhile, Blood Rage has roughly 100 cards that, while awesome on their own, massively undermine the strengths of a drafting-based conflict. This overstuffed deck erases the concept of predicting what tricks players have up their sleeves, and it makes for a more loose and chaotic experience.
The pillaging that occurs across the provinces of the game board has some interesting elements — namely the opportunity for units in adjacent regions to pile in on a pillage conflict. You’ll think twice when there are empty spaces in your province and intimidating opponents looming in neighboring regions. But the fact that each province has a limited number of spaces (usually between 3 and 5) means that an area can easily be outnumbered or overrun by a single faction, making for an anticlimactic pillage event. It makes me long for the equally aggressive yet less restrictive experience of Kemet, where one player can crash one massive troop into another.
All this drafting and pillaging is done in the name of points — and this is perhaps the most jarring feature of Blood Rage. Going down in a blaze of glory, where defeated troops are sent to Valhalla, means nothing without the power of the Almighty point. The real focus of the game is to nudge your markers up various tracks on your board so that they can reach 10 or even 20 end-game points. You’ll also want to play secret objective cards which you drafted into your hand and then aim to meet those objectives by the end of that round for points. Or you can play to win rather than play to have fun and opt for the Loki strategy of spreading thin and losing as many battles as possible — milking those dull and dirty points every step of the way.
After 3 noticeably long rounds (especially at 5 players, with the 5-player expansion), the ending triggers yet another scoring. Only this final point track traversal is much like a classic Euro — where players look down at their own boards and cards to reveal dozens more points to add to their score. And in the end, one player will unceremoniously edge out another to be crowned the best point gatherer. This moment makes me long for Eric Lang’s more recent Ankh, where the point track is a gripping race to the end rather than a fizzling finish of frivolousness.
All this time I had wondered if I was missing out on loads by not trying Blood Rage. But I suppose I’ve now waited too long and enjoyed too many alternatives to appreciate much of anything it still has to offer.
2 Plays (4 Players)
Last year I shared my impressions of Alexander Pfister’s Mombasa, which were quite positive about the gameplay.
I enjoyed it enough to take interest in the more recent reimplementation called Skymines, which I have now played twice. So while I won’t be delving too deep into the gameplay here (because I already did that with Mombasa), I do find it worth touching on the differences.
Along with the new theme and setting, Skymines refreshes this popular design by adding in some new modules. While the actual presentation of the game feels like a lateral move at best (the graphic design of Skymines is a bit iffy in some places), Skymines successfully maintains the core experience of playing this solid Eurogame. The box even comes with some handy tuck boxes that take a while to assemble but do a great job at organizing components once they are ready to rumble.
The aspect that interested me the most about this new version was the double-sided player board, where side B features an asteroid belt rather than the classic map. I wouldn’t call this new board a total game-changer, but it does mix the game up a tiny bit to make for some more welcome variety. Rather than competing for territory on one share space (the moon), players are setting up camp across separate asteroids and occupying the space in-between with stations. Notably, if a company sets up multiple camps on the same asteroid, only the first one pays out bonuses, so you are incentivized to spread far and wide rather than cluster together.
Ultimately, the element that makes each session of Skymines feel truly unique from one play to the next is still the variety of company tracks (which were also found in Mombasa). The only new addition here is a 5th track, and we did get to try one of its sides. It’s nothing revolutionary, just another way to mix up the strategies.
The other modules include the mission cards (objective cards that nudge you to fulfill a certain task), and threat cards (a public objective that somebody must fulfill and be rewarded with bonuses, otherwise everyone suffers a negative consequence). We didn’t try them but both seem like fine additions for regular players who want a little more variety to spice things up.
All in all, Skymines is a solid new version to a game that I already enjoyed playing. The 4-chapter campaign doesn’t interest me at all, as it seems like unnecessary bloat to what is already a great standalone game. Those who were put off by Mombasa’s theme will finally have a version they can enjoy, while any who are simply looking for another worthwhile Eurogame will find much to sink their teeth into here.
1 Play (4 Players)
I genuinely wish I had loads of good things to say about Terra Nova, but our first play of it was just so bland that I’m at a loss for words. To be clear, this is coming from someone who has never played the more complex and widely beloved versions of this game – Terra Mystica and Gaia Project.
I think I understand what Terra Nova was trying to do: take a popular, heavy-weight classic and streamline it down to a more approachable gateway Euro. But it has the feeling of being a design that completely thrived on puzzly complex systems — take those out and there’s not much left to engage the mind or ignite the imagination.
In Terra Nova, you’re simply spending your money on terraforming a space so you then have the ability to build on that space which now matches your faction’s color. Then you’re spending more money to actually build the building, which will in turn increase your money. That increased money can then be spent to build more buildings or upgrade your existing buildings into bigger buildings, which will cover one money-producing space and uncover another (slightly better) money-producing space.
The only thing that mixes up this hellish cycle of money and buildings is the scoring objective track which merely nudges you to do it all in a certain order. And I suppose there are the asymmetric factions which further tweak your ability to make money, build buildings, or score points.
The shared game board and power cycling also proved to be letdowns for me. Opponents can kinda sorta block you from stretching your buildings in certain directions, but that seemed like a minor inconvenience at best. Meanwhile, the cycling power merely ends up being another form of money that effectively does all of the same things as money but in a slightly more cost-efficient manner. I suppose the real-world argument could be made that power is money and money is power… so that’s thematic, I guess. But to me, this secondary resource is as shallowly unique as if Sasquatch bleached his hair to disguise himself as a Yeti.
At the end of it all, the only feeling that Terra Nova has elicited from me is that of melancholy. True, there may be 9 other asymmetric factions I’ve yet to try, but a different bottle of food coloring isn’t going to do anything for this bowl of flavorless rice.
2 Plays (2 & 3 Players)
Preview copy provided by the publisher
Publisher Matagot pulled a fast one on us last year when they announced that Inis would effectively make a departure from its beloved Area Control Trilogy (Kemet, Cyclades, and Inis) to form a new “Political Trilogy” (Inis, Galactic Renaissance, and ______) all from designer Christian Martinez. In reality, nothing was stolen from our beloved Inis or its original trilogy. Rather, this was merely a way of marketing the fact that we were getting two more Inis-like games. As a longtime fan of Inis (I have at least a dozen plays and it has been in my Top 15 favorite games ever since my first play of it), I was delighted to hear this announcement.
So is Galactic Renaissance merely “Inis in Space?” A retheme? A reskin? Is it based on the descendants of Celtic clans — once struggling over a tiny island and now traversing the far reaches of the galaxy? While that last one would be a fun nod, the answer is no on all accounts. More accurately, Galactic Renaissance is a spiritual sibling design to Inis. Much of the design ethos, the mechanical DNA, the ambition and vision is recognizable here. These games were noticeably born from the same creative mind. But make no mistake, Galactic Renaissance is very much its own beast.
But before we get into the differences, how are Inis and Galactic Renaissance alike? One can spot many subtle similarities… Both boxes feature epic, stylized cover art from artists who have never before graced the board game industry. The region tiles display diverse landscapes, connect together like puzzle pieces, and feature unique abilities for those who control them. The cards are likewise lush with vivid scenes and characters displayed across large tarot-sized decks. Speaking of the cards, you’ll notice that both games contain cards with text-heavy abilities and actions. If a card displays two options, you can only ever pick one to resolve when it is played. Most actions are played during your turn, but some of them are only playable during a certain event like a conflict. Indeed, both games feature political conflicts that are less about unleashing a fury of swipes or volley of projectiles (board gaming’s favorite style of contention) and more about restoring balance to the region (through self-selected attrition or retreat).
On a larger scale than components or mechanisms, Inis and Galactic Renaissance are alike in how they start small and expand outward, how they begin loose and grow tighter in the competition, and how they see players slithering their way into various victory conditions. In Galactic Renaissance, players start on their home world which is connected to the hub planet via a portal (portals indicate adjacency in terms of moving your figures). Over time players will explore and expand across new planets, adding these tiles to the table and positioning their emissaries and institutes on them. Making allies of other planets will add their exclusive ability tiles to your personal tableau. Your selection of cards and actions will similarly expand outward over time as you add special cards to your deck. All of these are essential features in securing a victory against rival planets.
One of the most notable differences between Inis and Galactic Renaissance is in how you win the game. In Inis, players are struggling to achieve one of three unchanging victory conditions: spread out across 6 different regions, gain majority over 6 different figures, or be present at 6 different sanctuaries. Any player who meets at least one of these conditions may claim a pretender token, and if multiple players qualify for victory then whoever meets more conditions wins (or ties go in favor of the Brenn — the capital’s clan leader). A winner is only crowned at the end of a round (after all players consecutively pass), so there is frequently the opportunity to undermine an opponent’s victory qualification. I’ve always loved this aspect of Inis in how it piles on the tension for when to publicly unleash your schemes or when to risk passing. But for those who aren’t big fans of Inis, their common complaint is understandably that the end game can be drawn out and ripe with bash-the-leader incentives and kingmaking scenarios.
Does Galactic Renaissance come with similar features/bugs (depending on the eye of the beholder)? Nope. Rather than having players plant their victory flag at the top of the hill and declaring to all others, “Knock me down, if you can,” Galactic Renaissance is a race to the finish that instantly ends the moment a player reaches the victory point threshold. Notably, you’re not just trying to reach 30 points first. You must reach 30 points and score 10 or more points in a single turn to win. The way this plays out on the score board is simple: if your turn ends with your score marker between 20 and 30, then it simply tumbles back down to 20. Nice job getting this high, but you’re going to have do something really impressive to earn the highest seat on the Galactic Senate.
This extra little rule — needing an exceptional scoring turn to secure the win — creates just enough wiggle room for opponents to possibly undermine your scoring potential between rounds while they scramble to catch up and surpass you. It wouldn’t be worthy of the “Political Trilogy” if such ruses weren’t possible. But Galactic Renaissance features another trick up its sleeve that differentiates it even further from Inis: the core mechanism.
Where Inis is a game of tight drafting from a knowable supply of action options, Galactic Renaissance is a combotastic deck-builder focused on pace, positioning, and tempo. The deck building itself is quite unlike anything else I’ve played: You will draw and hold only a few cards at a time (your hand limit can increase over time with the right upgrades), play one or more cards (if you can manage to chain together bonus actions), have ways to draw more cards into your hand during your turn, but the game-changer here comes in how you discard your cards and refill your draw pile. Your played cards are discarded in the order they were played and put straight under your draw pile. No shuffling is allowed here, ever (…well, that is true unless you get a special card that lets you break this rule). Notably, only one of your cards will trigger major scoring, so it helps to cycle through your deck as quickly as possible while you set yourself up to maximize your next scoring action.
Much of what I’ve described about Galactic Renaissance thus far has been very mechanical, abstracted, and high level. That was, admittedly, on purpose. Where I’m only two plays in to what feels like a game as deep as outer space itself, I’m not feeling quite ready to unleash a full preview. Yet as a first impressions post, this will suffice. What I can say is that Galactic Renaissance feels very much like an Inis sibling in a lot of good ways, yet it plays entirely differently in all kinds of exciting ways — for both Inis fans and Inis detractors. Stay tuned for my full preview in the coming weeks!
Current Prognosis: Excellent
Ending on Kickstarter this Thursday, February 16
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Prognosis: a forecast of how the game will likely fare in my collection, and perhaps yours as well.
Excellent– Among the best in its genre. This game will never leave my collection.
Good– A very solid game and a keeper on the shelf.
Fair– It’s fine. It’s enjoyable. But I’m not likely to seek it out or keep it around.
Poor– Really doesn’t fit my tastes; not one I want to revisit… but hey, that’s just me.
Hopeless– Never again. Run & hide. Demon be gone.
Article written by Nick Murray. Outside of practicing dentistry part-time, Nick has devoted his remaining work-time to collaborating with the world’s best designers, illustrators, and creators in producing excellent board games, including the upcoming Zoo Vadis by Reiner Knizia. He hopes you’ll join Bitewing Games in their quest to create and share classy board games that bite.