Galactic Renaissance

Galactic Renaissance, Matagot, 2024 — front cover (image provided by the publisher)

5 Plays (2, 3, and 4 Players)

A review copy was provided by the publisher

It has now been over a year since my four plays of a preview copy of Galactic Renaissance… over a year since the crowdfunding campaign for the game ended. And now the finished game is finally fulfilling to backers. A lot can happen in a year. 

I’ve backed a couple campaigns in the past where I was excited about the new offering and then a year or more passes, my tastes in board gaming change, and by the time the reward actually arrives I realize that this type of game is no longer a good fit for me. Fortunately, in the case of Galactic Renaissance, I find myself loving the experience just as much as I did a year ago. In fact, it is even better.

The rulebook and icons are now polished up, the production is gorgeous, and the gameplay is as good as ever. After our first play with this final version, I’m pleased to find no issues with this complex production aside from some dismissible grammatical errors on a few cards. I’ve seen Matagot get a lot of flak for other recent big box productions, but they seem to have made some improvements with their processes in response because Galactic Renaissance gives me no reasons to complain.

Because the gameplay is 99% the same as it was a year ago, I don’t have much more to add beyond what I shared in my full preview of the game. The only thing left to add is that this is a game that I still thoroughly enjoy. I want to revisit it more and explore it further. There is just perhaps one minor problem…

The issue is that I find myself with a huge advantage over any other players I try to onboard. Strong maneuvers aren’t readily perceivable to newcomers — while they are finding their footing in the systems, I’m running laps around them like the Energizer Bunny. And unlike Inis, Galactic Renaissance makes it harder for underdog rivals to gang up on the leader. Conflict is slower to trigger and less punishing against the oppressed, so players can generally only deal scuffs and scratches rather than decimating dents.

In our last play (3 players), the scores were something like 13, 11, and 7, and I managed to go from 11 to 30+ points in a single turn to suddenly slam the door on a deafening victory. Perhaps a more experienced player would have recognized my lucrative setup and tried to weaken me before my point explosion turn… Let me tell you, it was a supremely satisfying turn. But I would love even more to see a cunning rival cut my legs out from underneath me right before I sprint to the finish line. I believe this kind of experience is possible in Galactic Renaissance. I suppose I just need to train up my friends enough to let them become that threat. 

This is definitely the type of game that plays best with a group of fairly evenly matched opponents. It’s best to put in front of the same consistent group rather than a new batch of victims. But the fact that I want to go to the trouble to find or nurture such a group for this game is a very good sign indeed.

Prognosis: Good

Clash of the Gladiators

Box cover

1 Play (5 Players)

While he knows his way around a fistful of dice, Reiner Knizia isn’t the type to make Ameritrash games (games where bombastic luck and theme are front and center). That’s why Clash of the Gladiators — a game that is packed with lucky dice chucking, thematic abilities, and endless battles — is such a standout design in Knizia’s ludography.

Here players assemble multiple teams of gladiators and toss them into a pit together (with a few wild beasts sprinkled in for good measure). At the start of the game, you’ll take turns recruiting unique types of gladiators to your teams that will bestow specialized benefits in the ensuing battles. The spearman grant initiative, the swordsmen gift more dice, the net-throwers neutralize opponent abilities, the shield-carriers block minor hits, and the prong bearers allow one reroll.

This initial gladiator drafting is where the bulk of your decisions take place. As you watch the spaces fill around your groups, you’ll try to exploit the weaknesses that peek out from neighboring teams. If everyone around you has ignored initiative, then your team would have a huge leg up on many rivals with even a single spearman. If an enemy is preparing a team that hits hard and fast, then you can undermine them with a couple effective net casters.

Once the teams are all formed and the board is seeded, players take turns attacking a neighbor with one of their own teams. Both attacker and defender will each get to roll dice, and casualties turn to points as players collect enemy casualties in their holding pens. Each defeated gladiator is worth a point, and each conquered animal is worth two points. Avoiding elimination is helpful too, because your surviving gladiators also each grant a point. Not that you can do much to aid your survival…

From the moment the first dice are cast until the end of the game, when one faction remains battered but alive, the core driver of the experience is Lady Luck. Yes, you can decide which neighbor you attack, but this decision merely boils down to which neighbor is weakest. Yes, you can decide which of your gladiators takes a hit and how your team falls apart, but it too often just makes the use of that team increasingly less exciting. Yes, you do get to pivot to playing as animals (and still claiming casualties) on your turn once your humans are completely eliminated, but this only makes the battles themselves more one dimensional.

All this game boils down to is ramming your units into other players’ units and hoping the dice roll in your favor. The problem is that so many games in the twenty years since have improved upon this formula, especially the ramming part in the case of Thunder Road: Vendetta.

In Thunder Road, the conflicts are more exciting, chaotic, hilarious, and tense. In Gladiators, the only exciting outcome is hit or miss… and a miss happens far too often (it’s 50% of the dice faces). Thunder Road also does a better job embracing wacky variety — granted, too much of that is siphoned off into the expansions. But even so, Gladiators doesn’t have much to stand on these days.

For a game that has more team customization, more interesting battles, and far less downtime, Challengers is a clear winner. Both games see players winding up their unique strategies before watching them clash in a big old luck fest. But Challengers does a far better job making you feel personal ownership and pride over your unique blend of characters. The teams of Gladiator look like different flavors of vanilla in comparison — would you like French vanilla or vanilla bean?

Although we had a few good laughs and loud gasps at the dice results, the same can be said of any dice chucker. Clash of the Gladiators might have been an amusing activity for its time, but it feels stuck in 2002 while the genre has evolved into bigger and better things.

Prognosis: Poor

Back Cover (Hans im Glück Edition)

Sol: Last Days of a Star

New logo

1 Play (4 Players)

A review copy was provided by the publisher

Most of us probably remember that one day in elementary school science class when our teacher informed us that the sun would eventually die and wipe out all life in our solar system. If you are like me, then you likely went home with a shadow looming over your very existence as you worried about the end of civilization. Such happy memories.

Sol is that game that fast forwards to that disastrous event far in the future and asks the question: What if we had the technology to get some of us out of the solar system before the sun explodes? Players act as competing factions who harness this technology to harvest the sun’s energy for their selfish salvation.

In Sol, you’ll deploy sundivers, maneuver them around the sun’s orbit (and even within its layers), and convert them into useful structures such as gates (passageways for sunders to delve deeper into the sun), energy nodes (resource generators), sundiver foundries (for making more sundivers), and transmit towers (point generators).

On your turn, you merely select one of three possible actions:  move (deploy and maneuver sundivers), convert (build one gate or station out of your sundivers), or activate (activate one type of station everywhere that you have a sundiver). Thanks to some handy player aids and a relatively streamlined ruleset, this isn’t a super complicated system to get into. But just like the many layers of the sun and its atmosphere, it takes time to dig deep into its strategies. 

Much of the complexity of this design comes from the planning of your actions. You’ll deploy a few sundivers, arranging them in a specific pattern to qualify for a conversion (turning them into a gate or station), and then actually execute that conversion. By the time you are ready to start utilizing your shiny new structure, you’ll unfortunately find your mothership on the opposite end of the sun where it is too far away to deploy more sundivers. 

Like the hands of a clock, players finish their turn by advancing their mothership one space in orbit around the sun — maintaining their equal distance from each other. You have to make the most of your current location in the atmosphere because you won’t be there long. Fortunately, you are allowed to utilize the gates and stations of your opponents, although you’ll be a bit more reluctant to do it because they benefit as well.

This unique combination of puzzly action planning and shared structure use makes for a refreshing experience in a lot of ways. On top of that, you’ll work your way through the instability deck — a deck of cards that provides one-time use abilities and serves as the countdown timer for the game. Thirteen of the cards in the deck are solar flairs, and when the last one emerges the game ends immediately. Due to the random shuffle, nobody knows whether the game will last half the deck or the entire deck or somewhere in-between. One can’t know how many days they have in the sun, they merely have to make the most of each day given them.

You’ll know when the end of the game is possibly very close, especially when the draw pile is small, but otherwise you have to decide whether to commit to a short-term strategy or long-term strategy and hope it pays off. This makes for a thrilling climax when the first half the game is about setting up an engine of replenishing fuel and sundivers and the second half sees players pivoting to point mongering. 

After our first play, we all came away with the sense that further experience will lead to more skilled play. Many of the initial turns were met with the expression, “Oh no, I made a mistake,” or, “Well that was a bad decision,” as we realized that our plans hadn’t accounted for all the necessities. It takes time to wrap your brain around the implications of your actions. Fortunately, the design welcomes repeat plays and mastery by also granting many possible instability powers — rule-breaking abilities that feel oh so good to execute. In a single play, you’ll only use a fraction of the effects that come in the box. 

Instability effects aren’t the only form of variety that one can find in Sol: Last Days of a Star. The rulebook also provides a shorter game variant, a longer game variant, solo scenarios, a cooperative mode, simpler effect cards, complex effect cards, aggressive take-that effect cards, and a trigger event variant. It’s enough options that you’ll almost have the overwhelmed feeling of looking at a Cheesecake Factory menu. A bit more editorial trimming would have been a welcome improvement, at least for the person learning, teaching, and hosting the game (myself). But as a publisher, I can appreciate that pressure to cram enough content into a crowdfunded game. It’s a tough balance to walk that line between perceived value and a focused gameplay experience. Yet on the player’s end, few things are as frustrating as learning a game with an identity crisis.

I imagine that most groups settle into their preferred version of Sol after only two or three plays. So that’s not a dealbreaker. For my table, I’m just not sure how often it will get repeat plays. The design is just obtuse and demanding enough to gently repel me — like the relentless rays of the sun driving me to the comfortable shadows of games that are easier for the entire group to handle. And there are elements of mostly positive player interaction here, but it still feels like a rigid brain burning optimization puzzle more than a flexible interactive contest. I don’t often crave this type of gaming experience… not like I used to.

Regardless, I can say that we all enjoyed our first play of Sol. It’s engaging, challenging, and refreshing. It lingers in your mind after you pack it up and shelve it. Much like that gloomy science class revelation I encountered long ago, Sol is a potent experience that sticks with you.

Prognosis: Good

Throw me into the sun

Die Patin & Löwenherz

1 Play (4 Players); 2 Plays (3 & 4 Players)

Recently I had the chance to play a couple different German old-school style area control games that surprisingly have quite a bit in common. Despite the fact that I happened to play them only a few months apart, they were actually released about 25 years apart. 

Löwenherz is designed by Klaus Teuber and was originally conceived as part of a trilogy of games that also includes the one and only Catan. One can spot the DNA of Catan in this design… The critical initial setup which can make or break your game; the desperate negotiations over prizes; the long playtime. But Löwenherz mitigates any luck much better thanks to the auctions and negotiations that take place.

The area where Löwenherz really shines is in the round-by-round action drafting. Each round a new card is revealed that displays 3 different actions which can vary in strength. These actions include things like building walls onto the board (you want to enclose your castles in larger regions to score more points), extending your existing kingdoms further (even taking over enemy territory), putting out more knights to strengthen your kingdom against rivals, gaining money, or gaining a power card.

When a new action card is revealed, players take turns staking their claim on action A, B, or C of the card. If multiple players select then same action, then they are forced into a negotiation. If the negotiating players can’t come to an agreement on who gets the action and who gets paid a bribe to back out, or if more than 2 players choose the same action, then the conflict proceeds to a duel (or in other words a blind bid). 

Money is power in the world of Löwenherz. You can almost always talk an opponent down from a duel and guarantee yourself the action if you bribe them enough. And you can never have enough money when push comes to shove and you must duel your way to a coveted action.

This cycle of selecting actions, avoiding conflicts, bribing opponents to back out, and sometimes dueling to the bitter end is what makes Löwenherz such a joy to play. Even all these years later, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It’s a testament to Teuber as a game designer that he was creating systems that still feel refreshing today. Yet that doesn’t mean that Löwenherz has necessarily aged well. Like many games from its time, the general pacing is a bit slow, the overall game length is long, the initial setup can be overly punishing to inexperienced players, and often the writing is on the wall too soon as losing players spend the last hour flailing. It’s like a tall lumbering brontosaurus that means well but can accidentally step on (and flatten) its small companions at times.

Die Patin reminds me of Löwenherz in a lot of ways. This brand new 2023 release from German publisher Zoch also features shifting walls and borders on a central area control board. It likewise proceeds slowly through many turns of gradual map changes. It too has no qualms crushing a player or two under the weight of its mechanical brutality. But the manner in which players select actions is completely different from its distant ancestor.

Die Patin gives you 4 figures to use during each of its 5 rounds. These figures each represent an action that you will select and a space in which you will temporarily bolster (with the presence of the figure). You can either choose a space within your territory (a way to strengthen your forces or collect resources) or a space adjacent to your territory (this usually leads to a territory expansion action). The best part of this is that 1 of these figures is your boss lady — a special figure whose super powered action you secretly select at the start of the round.

The core focus of Die Patin is to compete for one of five possible scoring objectives, and you always have to claim a new one across each of the five rounds. So if I score for having the largest territory in round 1, I no longer care about this objective for the rest of the game (aside from the fact that I don’t want my opponents to easily earn it in later rounds). Then I’ll have to move on to occupying the most manholes with the rat cubes, or having the most rats on a single manhole, or setting up the most back rooms on the board, or having the most loot on hand. If I quality for multiple objectives at the end of a round, I can still only claim one. If two players tie for being the best at a particular objective, then neither of them can claim it that round. This becomes even more brutal as the rounds march on, because the points you score are equal to the current round number.

Much like the action selection shenanigans of Löwenherz, I’m a huge fan of the objective jockeying in Die Patin. Both of these games feature a refreshing element that keeps me engaged as I explore them. But both games also suffer by spreading out their fun across too many cycles of actions and rounds, at least for my tastes. 

It was also interesting to compare this experience to another old-school area control game, El Grande, which we played the morning after our session of Die Patin. While El Grande is arguably just as long and cyclical, it manages to justify its playtime with a dynamic variety of action cards — more surprises, more highs and lows, more flexibility to pivot and make a comeback. Simply more bang for your buck.

Although I enjoy both Löwenherz and Die Patin, I can’t muster the enthusiasm to revisit them over other options on my shelf. Both games call back to the golden years of board gaming where player interaction reigned supreme, yet they also carry some of the baggage of those old-school designs that more modern creations have learned from.

Prognosis: Fair


Botanik, Space Cowboys, 2021 — front cover (image provided by the publisher)

2 Plays (2 Players)

As we prepare to launch our own line of 2-player games, I’ve been doing a lot of research into the genre lately. From what I’ve gathered, there are only really 2 big publishers that have established and are continuing a formal 2-player line of games. One of them is Lookout Games who put out one of my favorite releases last year — Patterns. This line of games includes many other legendary titles such as Mandala, Patchwork, and Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small. The other living 2-player line is from Space Cowboys who just released the excellent Marabunta that I covered recently. Space Cowboys’ hits include Jaipur and Splendor Duel, among others. Then of course you have more publishers who informally put out 2-player games (Capstone with Watergate, Match of the Century, Curious Cargo, etc.; Osprey with Undaunted, General Orders, etc.) and 2-player lines that seem to be discontinued aside from reprints (KOSMOS 2-player line, GIPF project, etc.).

The 2-player-only genre is certainly an interesting topic for me. It could be considered a niche audience since you are limiting your demographic to only groups of exactly 2 people who play games together. The moment you have 1 more or 1 less person, the game is out. On the other hand, the 2-player-only genre might be the largest niche in board gaming. It’s certainly easier to gather and coordinate the schedules of 2 players than it is to gather 4 or 5. If the success of Sky Team, Undaunted, Lost Cities, Patchwork, Chess, Go, Magic, and 7 Wonders Duel is anything to go by, then this “niche” within board games actually has a huge audience.

Despite my years-long appreciation of this genre, I hadn’t heard of Space Cowboy’s 2021 release, Botanik, until very recently. This 2-player abstract tile placement game features a very smart drafting system that fuels the entire play session. Three tiles are flipped face up at a time, and you and your opponent take turns selecting one and adding it to the central display board. You can either add a tile to the middle row (between both players) or your own row — but a tile placed in your row has to match the central tile of that column either in type or color. The moment that matching link is broken (when a new center tile covers the old center tile) is the moment you claim the tile in your row and add it to your growing tile network.

It’s possible for you to grant your opponent a tile as well when you break their link on the display board, but ideally you avoid doing them any favors or you do it at the most inconvenient time for their network. I learned the hard way that it’s hard to compete with your rival when they are simply claiming more tiles than you. It’s easy to claim victory by sheer strength of numbers because the network building itself isn’t all that hard.

All you are doing is connecting pipes to each other or blank sides to each other across your network of tiles. You’ll get points for grouping three or more of a tile color together, and you’ll get points for any flowers on your tiles. If a tile’s pipeline doesn’t connect back to your starting source tile through pipes, then that tile will be discarded at the end of the game before final scoring. It’s the world easiest spatial puzzle made a little bit trickier by your opponent trying to keep useful tiles away from you or force you to add them to your network before you are ready.

That back and forth of adding tiles to the central board, linking and unlinking with shared features, and growing your network makes for a nice steady tempo of gameplay. There’s something elegant here about going back and forth and back and forth in a 2-player game without the interruptions of round structure or bookkeeping. For two players who just want something smooth, quick, and bitey, Botanik is hard to beat. And there are even some nice surprising moments when the next three revealed tiles are precisely the colors or types that create some tough options or evoke feelings of regret for past decisions.

Yet even with its buttery smooth rhythm, I don’t feel compelled to come back to Botanik after our two plays. I mostly wish that the interesting drafting concept was attached to a more engaging challenge than a simple spatial puzzle. It feels like two games bolted together, with one of those games razzle dazzling me and the other putting me to sleep. Much like the auction systems of Nidavellir and Furnace, I hope to see the novel mechanical twist used again in a more interesting design.

Prognosis: Fair

Botanik, Space Cowboys, 2021 — gameplay set-up (image provided by the publisher)

Ticket to Ride Legacy: Legends of the West

Ticket to Ride Legacy: Legends of the West, Days of Wonder, 2023 — front cover (image provided by the publisher)

12 Plays (4 Players)

We finally wrapped up the entire campaign of Ticket to Ride Legacy — a game that managed to land high on my Top 15 Games of 2023 list, despite us only being 60% of the way through it at the time. But I’m pleased to report that this title is still worthy of such a ranking after having made it to our final destination.

As I noted previously, Ticket to Ride is a game that I haven’t played in many years. Perhaps it was more risky for us to acquire and commit to a massive version of the design in Legends of the West, but I had heard enough good things to feel confident that we would enjoy it.

Aside from starting you with a mere fragment of the United States (an incomplete map connected by large jigsaw tiles), the most obvious change from classic Ticket to Ride is found in how one scores points and wins the game. In vanilla TtR, you earn immediate points for claiming a route between two cities with more points for larger routes. Ideally you scoop up a lot of cards of the same color and spend big on huge routes to rake in a load of points as you work to complete tickets in your hand. These in-game points are entirely done away with in the Legacy game. 

In Legends of the West, players are still aiming to complete tickets (connect two distant cities with their train pieces) for big end-game points. But the point track itself has been replaced by money tokens. And there are new ways to earn money (points) during the game. You’ll want to build on your own color tracks as much as possible because you earn a bonus $2 every time you claim such routes. I love the fact that a certain route can have more value to one player compared to other players. In a game where there are many options to connect point A to point B, this added texture is a welcome change. 

But this change is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Ticket to Ride Legacy. As you progress through the sessions, you’ll regularly add a new large tile to the map that comes with new cities, routes, tickets, and special rules. The design has clever and even delightful ways of keeping the game from getting too bloated — like the rising and setting of the sun, new features will be introduced, paraded, and dismissed over the course of one or multiple games. 

While you and your opponents compete to win the current session with the usual methods — ticket fulfillment, route claiming, train card drafting — you’ll have plenty of side projects to distract you from the main objective. These side goals will often tinker with the incentives and pacing of your decisions. They constantly push you outside of your strategic comfort zone. You’ll also feel that with the evolving deck of event cards which will pop off a new event every time a triggering card emerges from the train deck. These events are often tied to the new board tile and features — they help give a sense of progression in the overall story of the campaign.

Perhaps my favorite part of this experience was facing down a new challenge at the start of each session and formulating a strategy. As I look at my starting hand of tickets and decide which ones to keep, how do I weave this route plan into the current events and opportunities that we are facing? Sure, a few of my ticket cards are encouraging me to build across the northern states (the shortest route from point A to point B), but due to current events there are some golden opportunities in the south that I don’t want to miss out on. Do I risk taking a longer detour through the south, do I ignore those events and focus on my best tickets, or do I select different tickets entirely?

By the time you reach the second half of the campaign, you’ll feel pulled in a million directions as multiple events are happening across the country at once. Again, these features often reach a conclusion at some point and are never seen again, so it isn’t entirely cumulative. But we found it quite engaging to ride this meta-arc of starting quick and simple on a tiny map, expanding into a wide horizon of mechanisms on a growing map, and contracting somewhat back into a more focused system in the concluding sessions on a large completed map.

The common Legacy elements are here in full force with customized permanence happening across the map, within the decks, and among the competition. Although the story here certainly takes a back seat to the gameplay experience. While this is a far cry from the approachable gateway game that is Ticket to Ride, the design and publishing team have done a great job making this system feel quite streamlined compared to more unwieldy Legacy games. I would feel comfortable introducing this to more casual gamers, assuming that I as a seasoned gamer am guiding the experience. And assuming that they are up for the commitment of playing a few times per month so nobody completely forgets what is going on.

I’ve never been the type to get heavily invested in the story or narrative of a board game. Rather, I find my thrills in the engaging gameplay and challenging competition. But I’ll also quickly become grumpy if a game overstays its welcome or doesn’t provide enough juice for the squeeze. That’s why I’ve preferred Ticket to Ride Legacy and My City over other legacy-adjacent experiences like Gloomhaven or Mechs vs Minions or Pandemic Legacy which sacrifice some of that clean, focused play in service of stronger themes or narratives or surprises. For me, board gaming is first and foremost about play. Ticket to Ride Legacy understands this principle well — it took us on an epic, thrilling journey of play that satisfied the entire table.

Prognosis: Excellent

Ticket to Ride Legacy - A legendás nyugat Komponensek

Now Live On Kickstarter — The Jazz Collection!

Our Kickstarter project is live! Come check out these three strategy games of cool jazz and cool cats. Take advantage of our biggest discount ever by backing the entire bundle. Thanks for your support!

Prognosis: Excellent

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 classy board games that bite, including the critically acclaimed titles Trailblazers by Ryan Courtney and Zoo Vadis by Reiner Knizia. He hopes you’ll join Bitewing Games in their quest to create and share classy board games with a bite.

Disclaimer: When Bitewing Games finds a designer or artist or publisher that we like, we sometimes try to collaborate with these creators on our own publishing projects. We work with these folks because we like their work, and it is natural and predictable that we will continue to praise and enjoy their work. Any opinions shared are subject to biases including business relationships, personal acquaintances, gaming preferences, and more. That said, our intent is to help grow the hobby, share our gaming experiences, and find folks with similar tastes. Please take any and all of our opinions with a hearty grain of salt as you partake in this tabletop hobby feast.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Marc

    Aww, I love Clash of the Gladiators!

    Somehow, I had never heard of Lowenherz – sounds awesome.

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