Watch out, this latest batch of first impressions might give you a bit of whiplash!
CloudAge is not great with first impressions and it struggles to stay engaging after the honeymoon phase. It was a bit of a hassle to grok the rules after my initial read through. I believe more images and examples could have made things much clearer. Honestly, the core gameplay is quite simple once you get into the groove of playing it, so the rulebook does feel unnecessarily difficult.
Additionally, I had heard from multiple people that Chapter 1 of the campaign isn’t even worth playing because it cuts out too much juicy goodness for relatively little improvement in accessibility. I can fully appreciate the intention of improving accessibility and easing gamers into the full experience. Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion, The Crew, and Undaunted are just a few recent designs that have successfully accomplished this. But it sounds like the creators of CloudAge took things too far as some players are coming away from barebones Chapter 1 with a bland taste in their mouths.
Thus, we skipped Chapter 1 and dove straight into Chapter 2. The main changes from Chapter 1 to 2 that I noticed include the opportunity for players to choose some of their starting cards (instead of a completely random deal), players receive private objectives to pursue, and the game is longer in both board length and round count for an even bigger finish. If you’re the type of gamer who wants a big payoff for your custom-built airship, or who shuns designs that don’t provide an excellent first play, or who can handle any medium-weight game with general ease, then I too advise that you skip Chapter 1.
During our first play, my skepticism with the game started to fade as I taught the game to my wife and we made it through the initial rounds. While a session starts out with a feeling of aimless wandering, things become more tight and intentional as participants grind the gears of efficiency. The three phases—Production, Movement, and Actions—make for a rather addictively smooth gameplay loop. Designers Pfister and Steinwender sprinkle just the right amount of luck and mystery across the navigation cards, combat mechanism, and city cards to keep things engaging.
The city cards, tucked within the cloud sleeves, are particularly notable. Edges of the city peek out from around the clouds that cover most the landscape below. These clouds challenge players to observe the visible details on the card, predict which resources will be most profitable, and commit to one resource based on that prediction and their own needs. When your entire turn’s plan revolves around having the perfect amount of resources or taking advantage of the potential bonus action, it feels especially good when you slide that card out from behind the clouds and find that you have earned exactly what you need.
Mr. Pfister’s latest design doesn’t stray too far from its popular siblings, Great Western Trail and Maracaibo. Much of the interlocking mechanisms and overall feel shares an undeniable resemblance with those two games. Yet folks who are looking for a third gargantuan Euro to round out the trilogy might be in for an unpleasant surprise when they catch CloudAge flirting with a significantly less depth and lighter complexity. The creators have made it clear since Day 1 that CloudAge is a simpler game than GWT and Maracaibo, but I still see people acting disappointed that it’s not also a heavyweight.
Personally, my biggest issue with CloudAge is the shoehorned campaign. This element is so forced, clunky, inelegant, and bland that it actively detracts from the enjoyable parts of the game. Part of the reason the rulebook is a mess is because it flips and flops and stumbles between the unique setups and rules of each scenario.
The legacy cards also make way for critical errors. For example, a Chapter 2 card states: “put ALL legacy tiles in the active bag” when it really means “put USED legacy tiles in the active bag.” This poor wording teed us up for a messy Chapter 3 when the setup instructed us to place out all the active legacy tiles and left us to flounder in the resulting mess of random new tiles with no context to them.
The addition of growth tiles in Chapter 3, a mechanism that is supposed to be exciting and evolutionary to the experience, is perhaps the lamest add-on I’ve ever seen a game. It is a unique strategy that you can incorporate into your play, but it’s far less interesting than the other options.
By separating the game out into an introductory scenario, an intermediate scenario, and a fully-fledge scenario, CloudAge sabotages itself by sandwiching its meat between two slices of underwhelming bread. By stretching and segmenting itself to try and satisfy both casual gamers and hardcore hobbyists, it feels like butter scraped over too much bread.
Despite the design’s relentless attempts to make itself replayable, it struggled to stay fresh after our first play. The forced variety either frustratingly muddies or shamelessly rehashes the existing content. And the core design just doesn’t lend itself naturally to refreshing dynamics from one play to the next. Sadly, we found CloudAge to be a rare bungle from Capstone Games.
Current Rating: 6/10
Speaking of Capstone Games, I also have some good news! My second play of Maracaibo was just as enjoyable as my first. This one is very similar to Great Western Trail with perhaps an extra layer of complexity added on. It’s also an absolute monster to setup and teardown, but both times that I’ve played, another person as done all the hard work of setting it up for us. I still don’t feel the absolute necessity to own a copy of Maracaibo when our copy of Great Western Trail scratches a similar itch and hasn’t grown old. But it’s a game that I wouldn’t avoid the chance to play even more.
To put it simply: Maracaibo is initially overwhelming, mysteriously satisfying, oddly familiar, undeniably fun, and undoubtedly Pfister.
Current Rating: 8/10
The Shores of Tripoli
Note: A review copy of The Shores of Tripoli was provided to me by the publisher.
The Shores of Tripoli is a card-driven historical game set in the early 1800’s that sees one player commanding President Thomas Jefferson’s American troops against another player who controls the forces of Tripoli. I’ll leave the thematic summary at that as there are plenty other folks with much more knowledge on these events who can really bring this subject to life.
In fact, that may be The Shore’s of Tripoli’s greatest compliment and strength. Not only does it come with an entire booklet containing historical supplements and designer’s notes, but the art, gameplay, and actions across the cards evoke the period drama to great effect within a production of solid components.
For those who love historical settings and themes within their tabletop games, you’ll be right at home here within The Shores of Tripoli. If you find yourself to be more of a Hopeless Historian, like me, then the most enjoyment you’ll get from the theme might simply be when you finally declare, “It’s time to bring out the big guns…. Thomas Jefferson, I CHOOSE YOU!!!!!” As you slide your massive fleet of ships into the harbors of war with childlike glee.
Indeed, for those who are unfamiliar with the enormous niche of historical war games, The Shores of Tripoli may offer a great introduction thanks to its short playtime (under an hour) and medium-light complexity. Although, if Shores of Tripoli was aiming to be the quintessential gateway historical game, it didn’t exactly stick the landing.
My biggest beef with Tripoli’s accessibility is the barebones rulebook. Outside of initial images of the components, we’re talking about a rulebook that provides zero examples, zero visual aids… nothing, nada, zilch. Now again, this isn’t all that complicated of a game, but the cognitive load that is dumped on a complete newcomer who is trying to absorb the rulebook is unnecessarily brutal thanks to the lack of graphical and hypothetical assistance. This wall of text quickly becomes a jumble of terms—frigates, infantry, corsairs, Algerine, Marines, Tripolitan, Ground Combat, Harbors, Naval Combat, Patrol Zones, Morocco (Tangier), Preble’s Boys Take Aim, etc. etc. The text’s insistence on thematic authenticity actively works against the game’s approachability.
To the publisher’s credit, they did invest in a great How to Play YouTube video that was an essential supplement to both keeping me from getting a headache and allowing me to sit down and play the game. It’s no excuse for a difficult rulebook, but it’s a welcome aid nonetheless. And maybe I was just a weak-sauce rules reader, but I still believe that this rulebook could have been much more digestible, especially when comparing it to the hundreds of other rulebooks I’ve consumed with little to no problems.
Unfortunately, that pattern of historical authenticity coming with a cost also carries over into the gameplay itself. As the American team, the first few rounds gave me the feeling of biding my time until the mid-game where the real action kicks in. My early decisions felt scripted and predestined, as though there was nothing I would ever do differently given a different situation or hand of cards. Add some Swedish boats here of course (because that’s all the card lets me do anyway), put down some enemy boats there (it’s basically my only target at the moment), pull a couple more ships from the supply, undo my enemy’s event card, and save the rest of these event cards for when they are actually useful and/or usable.
When the action finally picks up, it all boils down to each player grabbing a fist full of dice, sending them cascading across the table, and hoping a few sixes show up, because otherwise there ain’t nothing happenin’ at all! Pack up and go home, your turn is over. Essentially, you’re trying to keep a few areas clear of the enemy for when you can finally force a treaty that requires certain areas to be uncluttered. Or, you can opt for the go-for-broke option of blasting Tripoli’s home base to smithereens near the end of the game.
Meanwhile, the Tripolitan player finds themselves laboring to build up defenses while sending out pirates on raids in hopes of either crippling the Americans or pirating enough gold to earn their way to victory. It’s the more straightforward faction of the two options where less experienced gamers will feel more comfortable.
If I understand correctly, The Shores of Tripoli takes inspiration from classic historical war games such as Twilight Struggle. But to be frank, I know almost nothing about Twilight Struggle except that it is a big, sprawling, meaty 2-player game that has thus far sounded too exhausting for me dive into. I’m much more familiar with a compact, streamlined version of its style in the excellent 2019 release, Watergate. And sure enough, while playing The Shores of Tripoli, I found some parallel mechanisms between these two similar-weight designs.
Both games have a tug-of-war like vibe where the progress of one comes at the detriment of the other. Both are 2-player games with asymmetric decks and objectives. Both see players using their cards in multiple possible ways, and both require powerful cards to be completely removed from your deck when used for their feature ability.
Yet this similarity is also where Shores of Tripoli suffers within my collection, as both games scratch a similar itch, yet if The Shores of Tripoli is a wooden back scratcher from the dollar store, then Watergate is Zeus’s personal Olympian Masseuse.
A card in Tripoli can be discarded to take a generic action, or it can often be trashed to take a powerful action, but the loss of a trashed card to use its one-time benefit never mattered to me. I was going to use it eventually, so why not now? Meanwhile, cards in Watergate have very specific “generic” actions whose value match that of their powerful action… meaning that I can either keep milking an amazing card for its amazing generic action, or I can take the plunge and lose it forever for a quick shot of tactical adrenaline, all the while hoping that I don’t regret my giving up the card so soon.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of reasons why I would never choose to play The Shores of Tripoli over Watergate. Watergate has always played out in uniquely dynamic ways, while Tripoli feels more on-the-rails and scripted. Watergate grows in tension and suspense as both players inch toward victory, while Tripoli meanders around during the first half before ending in a quick flash-bang of lucky dice rolls in the second half. Watergate provides players with aids and helpful reminders that make it easy to revisit even months after the previous play, while Tripoli begs players to remember all of the many exceptions and differences without even the slightest helpful hint from any of the components.
Sadly, I find no compelling reason to get Tripoli to the table again. I’m sure that historically savvy players will find much to appreciate within the thematic richness of The Shores of Tripoli. As for myself, I’m content to leave it in the past.
Current Rating: 5/10
Age of Steam: Deluxe Edition
Age of Steam is a tight, tense, and thrilling strategy design. The training wheels are off and the sleeves are rolled up in this cutthroat game.
To start off, I was pleasantly surprised to find the rules and complexity were more accessible than expected, yet the skill ceiling seems incredibly high. The round phases are clearly laid out across the display boards. Thus, each round flows smoothly across issuing shares, bidding for player order, selecting actions, building track, moving goods, collecting income, paying expenses, adjusting income, growing goods, and advancing the round marker.
The amount of freedom that Age of Steam offers is deliciously liberating. One can choose to take loads of shares and rake in tons of immediate money to benefit them in the turn order bidding and building costs, but they’ll be paying for it dearly when expenses come around for the rest of the game. Turn order bidding cannot be ignored, as player order can mean the difference between gaining the bonus action, building track on the spaces, or moving specific goods that are essential to your strategy and easily stolen away by other opponents if you don’t claim them first. Budgeting your finances and the costs associated with your plans is vital as well, as excess money is strategically wasteful while having not enough money is brutally punishing.
If you enjoy a good Splotter game or Brass: Birmingham, then this should be on your radar. Just watch out for costly mistakes and hope that you or your game teacher can help navigate newcomers away from crushing punishments long enough for them to get hooked. The most soul-crushing aspect of the design is the bankruptcy and player elimination. As long as you can avoid that (which is usually the case), you’re in for a treat.
Current Rating: 10/10
Lost Ruins of Arnak
Lost Ruins of Arnak is a solid euro with a gorgeous production and a good amount of card/action/ability variety. On the flip side, I don’t find Arnak to be a standout game in any particular way.
It’s basically a low-interaction resource converting point salad where you can either move up the tracks, purchase more cards, or hit new action spaces—or a combination of the three—to acquire points and bonuses.
I get why Arnak has its fans. It just provides me no compelling reasons to love it or hate it. For me, it’s a fine but forgettable game all around.
Current Rating: 6.5/10
I have to accept at this point that sprawling cooperative adventures (dungeon crawlers, narrative-driven games, etc.) are not exactly my jam. These games always feel like work to me, and that’s never a desirable feeling when I’m seeking entertainment. It’s especially difficult to enjoy these types of games when I see them trying to scratch an itch that a good novel or video game can scratch 1000 times better.
One particular aspect that bogs down the experience is the messy rulebook. With so many mechanisms and effects going on in the design, we’ve found ourselves frequently turning to the rulebook for clarity during our initial plays. There has never been an instance where referencing the rulebook wasn’t slightly cumbersome and irritating. It’s just difficult to find what you are looking for, and such instances always bring a game to a screeching halt. On top of that, within days of the game arriving on backer’s doorsteps, Red Raven had to put out five pages of errata, FAQ’s, and advice to try and patch up all the leaky holes in the game’s rules. I just struggle to see a session of this game ever going smoothly for us unless we are playing it multiple times a week and remembering all the tiny little details across the many pages of rules. And for how long it takes to setup and teardown, it doesn’t lend itself well to being an easy go-to game on a consistent basis.
Sleeping Gods can be played solo, and playing with more people simply divides up the abilities, so there’s not a massively compelling reason to gather a group around for this game in particular (outside of experiencing the adventure together). That just brings me back around to my soul-searching question: Why not just read a killer fantasy novel or play a killer adventure video game instead? At least for me, both of these options are far more convenient, streamlined, exciting, and memorable.
That said, Sleeping Gods is a pretty solid option within this genre. It really shines in those moments where you find yourself immersed in the experience and not dealing with the bookkeeping or rules referencing. Stunning artwork, superior storytelling, and some solid mechanics help push this one into tolerably enjoyable territory for me. When both my wife and I are in the mood for the storytelling, it’s quite fun to get into the spirit of the adventure. The combat and challenges are constantly tough decisions with weighty consequences, which is an essential element to keep me engaged in any game. We saved our last session at a point where our entire crew is banged up pretty badly, desperately in need of some good morale and nourishment. I can’t promise we’ll survive or even finish the adventure, but we haven’t given up yet, and that’s certainly worth something for a demanding game outside of my wheelhouse!
Current Rating: 6/10
A War of Whispers
This circular track worker placement game is all about manipulating the warring empires on the board so that your secret favorites come out on top. My first impressions are that the neat things going on here are mixed with a heaping of flaws. But as always, my opinion of what appears to be “flaws” should be taken with a grain of salt, as I’ve only played A War of Whispers one time.
Secret incentives are fun, but randomizing them allows for an uneven playing field. If the other 3 players want blue to be crushed and blue is your highest scoring empire, then you’re already starting at a disadvantage.
Area control on a circular board is nice, but the restrictions imposed by the movement rules and map make it a scripted and sluggish affair. Military units can only move one space at a time and are funneled through very specific connections.
The worker placement track is nifty, but jumping between players and actions and decisions is laborious. The worker placement actions all take place in clockwise order around the board, but the 20 actions jump around between players and force them to make more decisions each time the action arises. It’s not quite as smooth and fast-paced as the action resolution phase of other worker placement games like Caylus or Bus.
The cards feel valuable, yet they lack imagination. The obvious optimal use for them seems to be to save them until the game end and then blast your opponents with the take-that abilities.
Our final scores were tight, but it felt less like a close race and more like a gentle merry-go-round. Players simply revealed their tokens, tallied their scores, and somebody had one more point than second place and two more points than third place and so on.
I would suggest that Dogs of War, Blitzkrieg, and The King’s Dilemma explore the same territory of political influence and incentivized tug-of-war in more interesting and less flawed ways.
Current Rating: 6.5/10
Article written by Nick Murray. Keep an eye out for his first published design, Social Grooming, which will debut in a Kickstarter bundle alongside two games from critically acclaimed designer, Reiner Knizia! Don’t miss out on this killer filler bundle coming in 2021! Subscribe to the Bitewing Games monthly newsletter to stay in touch.