Welcome back to Friday! It’s been a busy week packed with the reveal of a new Warhammer 40,000 edition, plenty of upcoming releases for later in the year - and the D&D movie now just a week away from release, of course!
Every Friday, we get together to discuss the board games, RPGs and other tabletop games we’ve been playing and thinking about this week. Some games we might’ve already covered on the website and YouTube channel, but some might be new things we haven’t been able to look at elsewhere just yet.
This regular feature is also an opportunity for you to tell us what you’ve been enjoying on the tabletop as of late. We always appreciate hearing what you’re playing - whether it’s a new Kickstarter delivery or a surprising discovery - so please go ahead and share your thoughts.
This week, we’ve been duelling in Star Wars: The Deckbuilding Game, exploring the mysterious waters of Sleeping Gods, returning to Summoner Wars and scrapping over Middle-earth in War of the Ring: The Card Game.
Let us know in the comments what you’ve been playing recently!
What We’ve Been Playing - March 24th 2023
Star Wars: The Deckbuilding Game
Expect some fuller thoughts on this recent branded entry from Fantasy Flight in the future, but for now consider me a die-hard adherent for what many people are calling “Star Realms for two, but better in every way”. And they’re right. Designer Caleb Grace has managed to translate his talent and expertise with cooperative titles - he’s best known for Marvel Champions: The Card Game and The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game - and apply it to a licensed translation of one of the standout media franchises in a way that feels natural, careful and exciting.
It would be so simple to sit here and compare Star Wars: The Deckbuilding Game to Star Realms, given both are playing in the same sandbox. Both do the ‘start with 10 cards, draw a hand of five’ opening gambit and then ask the players to gradually sculpt a strategy by purchasing more cards from a market. Both have ships that are played to the table until they are destroyed. And cards from both generally fall into one of two categories: resource generator or combat unit.
Instead, the experience shines in the contrasts. The decision to split the two players along distinct Rebel Alliance and Empire lines allows the game to be ever-so-slightly asymmetrical (the Empire player always goes first) and evoke that feeling of a ragtag coalition facing off against a fascist regime without upending the mechanical apple cart.
Then there’s the Galaxy Row, which functions both as a card marketplace and shooting gallery, depending on your allegiances. All of the faction-aligned cards (everything but bounty hunters, Jawas, Jabba the Hutt, etc.) display their cost, abilities and art to their respective player while showing a headhunting power and respective reward to the opponent. Instead of attacking your foe’s fleet of ships and base planet - you win by destroying a certain number of bases - a player could instead send their TIE Fighters and Stormtroopers after Leia Organa or Cassian Andor, netting some resources while also denying their opponent a critical weapon.
All of this results in a tense back-and-forth exchange of blows that feels extremely well balanced, at least in my limited number of games. The included named characters are who you would expect, but they also stretch across all nine core films, plus notable entries from the more recent one-offs such as Rogue One. Delivering a coup de grâce to the Death Star as Jyn Erso or managing to play Han, Chewie and the Falcon in the same hand feels like the perfect dollop of icing on an already delicious cake
Star Wars: The Deckbuilding Game surprised me by landing squarely among my favourite board games this year. I worry that it won’t escape the disappointingly short shelf-life that afflicts the deckbuilding genre writ large, but the box does come pre-built with plenty of space for expansions. Fantasy Flight and Grace have my interest and attention.
I’ve been itching to play Sleeping Gods since it hit tables a few years back. Having appreciated a number of designer-artist auteur Ryan Laukat’s previous board games more in concept than execution - finding their beautiful art and interesting storytelling overshadowed by slightly less distinct gameplay - I was curious whether Sleeping Gods might finally strike the right balance for me.
Wowzers, did it. After a few hours playing through its opening tutorial (one of the best ‘learn as you play’ walkthroughs in recent memory) and early quests this week, Sleeping Gods has immediately rocketed to the top of my “I want to play more of this” wishlist and placed its upcoming sequel, Sleeping Gods: Distant Skies, at the top of my most-anticipated radar for 2023.
Part of what makes Sleeping Gods such a winner is its truly open-ended gameplay, which sees players journey around a vast open world in their boat. This open world stretches out across the spreads of a book-board, with various locations dotted across its islands and seas. When you reach a location, you flick to the corresponding numbered entry in a storybook - a bit like a choose-your-own-adventure game - and read through its passages, often making decisions to branch the possible events as you go. Simple tests - resolved using your crewmembers’ skills, plus a card draw totalled against a difficulty level - introduce a level of planning and unpredictability.
Crucially, Sleeping Gods avoids hamfisting its atmospheric exploration and player-driven narrative into restrictive “sessions”. There’s no fixed end-point to a single session - instead, the players can choose when to save their progress in the game’s 10 to 20-hour campaign and pause the game before resuming later, just like a video game. This avoids the awkwardness of attaching victory points, win conditions and other incohesive elements to an experience explicitly designed to be about freedom and discovery.
Adding to the dynamic world is a cleverly simple quest system, which sees players collect keywords - such as ‘raid’ or ‘shrine’ - by progressing in a number of simultaneous missions. (Again, like a video game, you can choose which you want to pursue at any point, like an open quest log.) These keywords then unlock new events when visiting locations, in a system that smartly makes the world feel alive and reactive to your actions and choices.
The headline storytelling is complemented by a surprisingly engaging combat system - allowing locational damage on enemies’ body parts to reduce their attack power, special abilities and other effects - that is used sparingly to keep the focus on the game’s storytelling prowess. The rules, which also include a simple worker-placement system in choosing where your crew works on the ship for bonuses on each turn, are kept nice and light, meaning you can get to exploring quickly.
After a few hours drifting around its starting area, discovering ratpeople, mysterious totems and sunken ships, Sleeping Gods has left me hungry to see every corner of its engrossing world. It’s a triumph.
Maddie and I sat down for a quick bout in Summoner Wars the other day as we’d collected a few new faction decks that hadn’t been dusted off yet. It’s a cracking game that I really need to play some more of.
So far my biggest complaint is that the supplementary decks that have come out post-release of the initial starter box don’t excite me quite as much as the ones that released with the previous edition did. My edgelord shadow elves, who I brought to battle, seemed to be a little lacklustre compared to the bombastic and colourful mix of crews in the original six-team set. Maddie wasn’t all that sold on her squad either. Maybe I need to develop some kind of tier list?
War of the Ring: The Card Game
I may also share my thoughts on Sleeping Gods at some point but for now I want to talk about War of the Ring: The Card Game. A spin-off from War of the Ring - an enormous board game based on Tolkien’s seminal fantasy series - this card game provides players with a condensed version of the epic war title. Capable of supporting up to four players, War of the Ring TCG is a semi-co-op experience that pits either two players or two teams against each other as opposing armies in Middle-earth.
War of the Ring TCG is a loose interpretation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, featuring key characters and locations - such as Frodo and Minas Tirith - from the books but not following the events of its plot. As either The Shadow - featuring best buddies the Witch-King and Saruman - or the Free Peoples of Middle-earth, made up of Frodo and Aragorn, the players will attempt to either attack or defend within various theatres of war. If players are teamed-up with one another, they’ll need to work together as their respective factions against their opponents - supporting each other’s weaknesses with their strengths.
Each faction in the game has its own deck which will contain cards that are allied with certain armies. Whilst Frodo has cards allied with the dwarves, hobbits, Rohan and wizards, Aragon’s deck features elf and Dunedain cards, with the Witch-King and Saruman decks also dividing its faction card types between them. Only certain card types can be played onto specific boards, thereby limiting what players can do during a round. The differentiated decks in War of the Ring TCG mean that some players will be more useful than others, depending on the type of battlefield or location they’re fighting on that round.
Which board types are drawn is entirely random, with the hope being that if a player can’t assist with the battlefield then they’ll be able to help out with The Path. Whilst the battlefield board represents the various military clashes that take place throughout The Lord of the Rings, The Path board is more focused around the journey that Frodo and Sam must make to Mordor - cleverly mimicking the separate main storylines of the trilogy. Every board a team wins will earn them a certain amount of points, which they will need to defeat their opponents. Each board will see one side either attacking or defending, with the offensive side needing to play cards that provide more strength than the defensive side can shield against.
Rounds consist of each faction playing a card and/or performing an action, with the option to play cards onto a board or in a player’s reserve. Cards on the board can provide strength/shield to their respective side, whilst those in the reserve can be used at a later time or can offer special abilities when played there. Decks in War of the Ring TCG will contain cards that work well when played together or in sequence with one another, giving the player the upper hand if they’re smart and lucky enough. For example, my Frodo deck contained a card that could be played to summon Gandalf from my discard pile, thereby giving my Theoden card strength and shield.
Certain cards are almost useless without others - such as the Theoden card - meaning that it can get frustrating to be holding a hand of deadweights if you’re unlucky in what you draw at what time. Another frustrating element is that War of the Ring TCG expects players to pick up on its symbology, terminology and gameplay mechanics far too quickly. These two aspects combined mean that making mistakes is easy and punishing, leaving newer players such as myself a bit put off from giving it another go. The artwork - which is based on the original War of the Ring - looks incredibly outdated and off-putting in places, with Strider’s depiction making him look like a member of middle-management rather than the heir to an ancient throne.
Nevertheless, War of the Ring: The Card Game offers an engaging gameplay experience that allows players to experience the strategic mind-games of the original, without the exhausting playtime.