Hive (Game Review)

There’s a stack of games in our house we’ve said at some point or another that we’re probably going to sell. But before we do, I force us to play one or two more times to be sure we’re not making a terrible mistake and to try to think through why we didn’t enjoy the experience (if that’s still the case). THESE… are our stories.

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Everyone in board gaming goes on about how high-quality X’s of Whatever’s cardboard bits are, but Hive doesn’t fuck around: it has thick, pleasing Bakelite tiles that stack nicely in the (admittedly shoddy) plastic insert. (My edition does, at least: I know there are some wood ones going as well.) The insect-etching colours aren’t my fav, but overall: noice.

I can overlook the accompanying weird, 90s plastic tile-bag that looks like a soccer ball or a Bop-It accessory. It’s a good thing to include though, for portability’s sake. I just wish it wasn’t quite so Toys R Us.

The game mechanic involves simple strategy. This will explain the rules, though you don’t really need to know them to follow along. Suffice it to say, it’s a bit chessy. Not like the expansive, tactical/logistic chess midgame, more like the tight, ‘move in for the kill’ endgame. Which isn’t my favourite part of chess, really? If I sat down and did endgame puzzles I’d get better I guess, but it wouldn’t be *fun*, exactly. It’s this chessy quality that makes my girlfriend, who is very good at all kinds of the trad Euro games Hive doesn’t really feel like–games that certainly involve thinking and some planning–really dislike Hive. She’s not super-practiced at the ‘causal chain’ thinking chess demands (which might be a native leaning or a learned skill, or both). If you don’t enjoy or have a knack for that, if you’re really more a Eurogames person than someone who could really go for a round of checkers when the mood takes them, there’s a chance Hive won’t do it for you.

Neither of us find Hive that fun–and not just because of the win-imbalance. For me, there’s not enough to do in this game. If I wanted this sort of strategy experience I’d play chess (or I would if bloody anyone in the house wanted to play chess with me*), or maybe like, Chinese Checkers? That’s the sort of game this feels like, and it is interesting to see someone developing games along those lines, even if the result isn’t really for me. The rounds are quick, which was both a bonus and a sign that the game wouldn’t hold my interest. If they weren’t quick, it’d probably be due to analysis paralysis. I feel like if I really learned Hive I could potentially develop strategies etc., but I’m not grabbed enough for that. Hive doesn’t have chess’s complexity, glam lore or variants to draw you in.

VERDICT: We traded it on for ‘Hey! That’s my fish!’ I was not involved in this decision. We’ll see, mate. We’ll see.

* I don’t miss chess in a ‘casual game once in a while’ way, though? Either I’m in a period and situation where I’m playing 5 games a day with people around me or I’m not. I don’t really want the online experience or a game once a month. I don’t NEED chess, either. I think that part of my brain gets, for the most part, satisfied by Eurogaming. But it’s odd–I do feel I have a certain quality of itchy, compulsive thinking these hobbies answer in a way my chiefest pursuits (reading, watching, writing, cooking) don’t, really. I sometimes get the vague sense that it’s ‘healthy’ for me personally to do some gaming, that it gives me a feeling of Having Done Something which is not to be dismissed when you have depression and honestly often don’t. Accomplishment breeds accomplishment.** Maybe.

** I have always thought this and then I ran smack into mad, manic-depressive Dickens saying exactly the same thing in a letter and thought ‘oh christ,’ so I’m er, more aware it may be self-justifying bullshit, at this point.

Battle Line (Game Review)

There’s a stack of games in our house we’ve said at some point or another that we’re probably going to sell. But before we do, I force us to play one or two more times to be sure we’re not making a terrible mistake and to try to think through why we didn’t enjoy the experience (if that’s still the case). THESE… are our stories.

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NUMBERS NUMBERS NUMBERS!!!!

Hey, kids! Do you like NUMBERS??? Just pulling them from a deck and putting ’em down like it’s 1850 and good games haven’t been invented yet?? Well you’re in LUCK!!

Okay, that’s not really fair, but it’s also: why we’re ditching the highly-rated Battle Line.

According to Board Game Geek:

“Two opponents face off across a ‘battle line’ and attempt to win the battle by taking 5 of 9 flags or 3 adjacent flags. Flags are decided by placing cards into 3 card poker-type hands on either side of the flag (similar to straight flush, 3 of a kind, straight, flush, etc). The side with the highest ‘formation’ of cards wins the flag.”

There’s definitely strategy and calculation in this game. You’re making plans, you’re paying attention to what your opponent is doing and what’s on the board, etc. It’s a fairly cognitive game in these respects. But for all that, at its core, I would say Battle Line is about luck: whether you’re going to happen to draw the cards you need, and in time, or whether your opponent will.

And despite the (thin) theming and the possibly-disruptive tactics cards, it remains an essentially dry game, far more concerned with math and logic than with Alexander the Great. This review has it right. I’m beginning to think I need to check whether Reiner Knizia was involved with titles before we commit to them. His name seems almost a sure-fire harbinger of gamed I’ll dislike for variable yet somehow math-and-theming related reasons.

A final word on the formations element:

I kept checking back with the thin paper rule sheet to determine the relative value of the various tactical arrangements of cards. I think I’d have enjoyed this game significantly better (and learned it markedly faster) if the box had included two of those little rule-reminder tiles.

I briefly mentioned tactics cards above. There’s a secondary deck you can draw from each turn instead of the ‘numbers’ deck. This consists of tactics cards that may totally destroy your opponent on a given flag or may not help you much. The incentive to fuck with tactics cards, however, is low. Your opponent can only lay down one more than you do, and if you take but don’t play these cards they just clog up your hand. Taking them slightly diminishes your chances of getting regular cards you really need, while playing them potentially enables your opponent to pull weird unforeseeable bullshit. There’s an arms race mechanic here, and the Cold War has never been my favourite historical era.

I like the idea of a random element in this tightly corseted game, and I suppose more confident or risk-taking players might want to employ tactics more. All in all, though, playing tactics feels like a bad gamble. This mechanic seemed insufficiently supported by the structure of the rest of the game.

Some game mechanics are kind of counter-intuitive and have a way of making you feel like a total moron. I could not wrap my head around the way flags are decided and closed off in Battle Line for the longest time. My girlfriend is typically great at explaining rules and mechanics to me, yet we had little luck here. It made initial rounds of play really frustrating for me (and a bit embarrassing). I only really got the game after maybe five plays, and by the subsequent and final plays, one or two of which I won, we already knew we were trading the game on. I still don’t love Battle Line, but I finally knew saw what was up, could play competently and competitively, and enjoyed the game, like, at all.

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VERDICT:

I liked Battle Line better by the end and could see its virtues as a mechanical system, but I’m still not sorry to see it go in favour of: Hive.

The Grizzled (Game Review)

There’s a stack of games in our house we’ve said at some point or another that we’re probably going to sell. But before we do, I force us to play one or two more times to be sure we’re not making a terrible mistake and to try to think through why we didn’t enjoy the experience (if that’s still the case). THESE… are our stories.

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The Grizzled is a war game like no other. Instead of the colourful abstractions of area-control mechanisms and the imperial grammar of exploration, civilisation building, races and conquest (or alternatively, Risk-ish or Twilight Struggle-esque military-political power-play), here you have a focus on cooperative survival. A small group of friends, French soldiers, attempts to get through a variety of ‘missions’. To do this they must deplete their hands without then encountering too many of the same elements either on cards laid down in the centre or on personal trauma cards, while also contending with a variety of other personal ‘hard knocks’.

Essentially the point is not to ‘win the war’ but to endure it as best you can as a small collective. You survive or don’t together. Your characters don’t have much in the way of pre-set personalities, but they have names. More even than the survival focus, this trauma mechanic fundamentally challenges the morality of war-based gameplay, highlighting the weirdness of what we do when we play at combat by shifting the terms of engagement from the machinations of kings and ministers to the effects of conflict on people. The Grizzled is almost a tight survival horror game.

Yet for all that, it is a game. I’d argue that The Grizzled makes more of an effort to be thoughtful about its premise than many conflict-based entertainments, but I’m not sure whether it’s ultimately more or less respectful to gamify trauma. I’m fairly uncomfortable with the premise of The Grizzled, but unsure whether it’s good or bad that I’m more comfortable playing more ‘abstracted’ conflict games, even ones about real events. The game also teaches you to be less uncomfortable with its set up via repetitive play.

Speaking of actual play, thematics aside, Grizzled is rather awkward. Whether you make the attempt with two players or five, it’s murderous if you take a lot of cards in a round in an attempt to rush through the deck and achieve the win condition. However if you play with two people and take the minimum allowable number of cards each turn, it is, if anything, too winnable: the game feels broken, here. It’s just a matter of going through the motions. Three people playing conservatively can also expect to win pretty easily. This strategy will not avail you with a large group: the difficulty ramps back up to ‘incredibly slaughterous, with no obvious way of alleviating that’.

It’s an odd play length. At thirty minutes, in its small box and with its simplistic mechanism, The Grizzled ought to be a filler game. But its difficulty makes it unsuitable for group play with newbies (and if we have a group over, it’s usually at least part newbie), who want wooed into Eurogaming and don’t exactly relish a collaborative ass-whooping. Experienced players will also find themselves unduly frustrated with newbies’ poor play in this collaborative, tense situation. Due to the difficulty and the subject, The Grizzled can make for high-strung gameplay.

If you want a short game as part of a session of short games, or if you’re looking for a filler game to warm you up, The Grizzled is too glum and low-energy for your purposes, really. It’s not that short, at thirty minutes, but neither would I think of it as a medium-length game. It’s got too simple a mechanic to support being treated as one, too. The game can be a desperate grind–even very conservative play is rigid, not admitting errors. The hard knocks can be fierce, and bad luck there could easily destroy your team. Sure that’s an accurate reflection of the horrors of war, but is it the stuff of a good filler game?

I do really like the rallying speech and sympathy mechanisms: they’re effectual, conceptually pleasing, and add a sweet note of camaraderie and support. However the Christmas Truce card throws me right back into my welter of questions about the ethics of the game, and reminds me unpleasantly of Sainsbury’s dubious recent attempt to use the Christmas Truce (a historical event I’ve always found ridiculously affecting) to sell biscuits. I’m not sure whether The Grizzled is unethical, or so ethical that it reveals a moral issue inherent in a lot of gaming that’s more serious than I customarily want to credit it with being, or both. I am sure it doesn’t quite work for its intended market-niche, or as a game generally.

VERDICT:
We traded it for Mr. Jack Pocket. Vive le trash.