For most of the world, the holidays are a joyous time filled with cookies and presents and catching up with family. For too many though, it signifies the annual disconnection from gaming. These days, it’s even more painful to leave our PCs and consoles behind, because games require such an investment of time and mindshare. After a week off, our reflexes are sluggish, we’ve forgotten some of the finer points of our character builds and that Civilization game that was going so well crumbles to dust as you try to remember exactly whose back you were going to stab next.

I can’t fix any of that. I’m sorry. However, I can help you find ways make time away from digital gaming an enjoyable experience.

Right after Thanksgiving, I typically feel the call of tabletop gaming. There’s something about the weather and the inevitability of travel that forces me to seek out new, more portable experiences. More importantly, I need to find things that prevent me from appearing anti-social that still engage the part of my mind that video games typically inhabit.

Thankfully, the tabletop market has matured alongside the video game industry. Sure, you could get into an endless game of Monopoly with your cousin or suffer through charades with your aunt and uncle, but I’ve got some better ideas. The stuff you’re about to read about can’t be found at Target or Toys R Us (mostly). We’ll tell you where to get your fix, though.

Want to explore a haunted mansion or fight off madness and monsters? Ever want to control your own zombie invasion? Maybe you are going to suffer Star WarsThe Old Republic withdrawal. We’ve got choices that can satisfy all of those and more, all while spending time with your family (and crushing them beneath the might of your gaming prowess). For each listing, we’ll let you know details about theme, cost (MSRP, but you can probably pay less if you do some hunting), portability, setup time, play time and relative complexity. So, put down the controller and read on.

Note: Most board game publishers offer the rulebooks online. It is always a good idea to get a feel for a game by reading them before making the investment. Links to those documents and simplified quick reference cards created by community members (the best of which can be found at Headless Hollow) will be included where possible. There are also fantastic communities for many of the games mentioned over at Boardgamegeek.com

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Hey… I know you!

When I was growing up, I had board game versions of Pac-Man and Q-Bert. Aside from the novelty, I don’t recall them being terribly good games. Just as digital entertainment has matured in the past quarter century, the tabletop world has evolved. The entries below aren’t just good adaptations, they are great experiences.

 

Gears of War: The Board Game
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Number of Players: 1 – 4
Theme: Video-game tie-in, Cooperative
Setup time: 10 – 15 minutes
Play time: 1 – 3 hours
Portability: Moderate
Complexity: Moderate
Cost: $69.95
Rulebook: Fantasy Flight Games
Player Guide: Universal Head

All at once, I’m throwing you into the deep end and making sure you have a life preserver.  For those who are new the concept of more complex board games, the idea of solo play or cooperative mechanics might be entirely foreign. Yes, you can play Fantasy Flight’s Gears of War board game alone. Yes, all of your favorite characters, weapons and Locust are here. Yes, this game will kick your butt if you don’t grab some waist-high cover.

One of the things that you’ll quickly learn is that most board games have an element of luck. Whether it’s card draw or dice rolling (or both), often times you’re at the mercy of fortune. This is also where the replay value comes from, as even the same scenarios can play out differently each time you dive in.

Gears of War uses a mission structure for its play. This means that you won’t use all of the pieces in every game, and the map will be different. This is handled through tiles of different sizes and shapes that are placed together to create different layouts. The interchangeable cookie cutter hallways that we decry in digital gaming are a boon on the table. They save box space and increase replay value.

Additional variety is added thanks to the COG character cards that can be mixed and matched. Want to bring Marcus and Dom on one mission and Cole and Baird on the next? No problem. Additionally, weapon drops are handled by cards, so you never know if you’ll be picking up a Longshot, Torquebow, Boomshot or something else that’ll make Locust giblets. Oh, and there’s a Berserker (and a Hammer of Dawn with which to put it down).

Included in the box are the map tiles, heavy cardboard tokens, cards and plastic miniatures. They minis are solid red or gray, but as you can see here, a skillful painter can work wonders.

 

As with most modular games, Gears of War suggests that players start with an easy scenario, in this case, it’s the one called “Emergence.” This is a single stage (set of tiles) with two mission phases. Each time you play one of the seven included missions, the tiles in play will be the same, but the layout is different. Each has an entrance and exit point, and from experience, it’s possible to end up with a decidedly more difficult situation depending on the random placement.

During setup, Locust and emergence holes are automatically spawned. These forces are dependent on the number of players and can be reinforced later during the Locust activation phase that occurs during each turn. Basic turn order is fairly straightforward, though there are additional, more nuanced decisions that can be incorporated.

One of the key features of the Gears adaptation is that player hands, made up of order cards, also serve as the characters’ health. This makes spending an extra card (discarding) to pick up a weapon or activate an area’s special equipment a trickier decision, especially if there is a Boomer or Theron Guard lurking close by. You never know exactly what the Locust will do, as their movements and attacks are governed by a deck of cards.

One of these is drawn on each player’s turn, and will almost always throw a monkey wrench into the heroes’ plans. Emergence holes can open, new Locust can join the fight and ammo can be lost. Thankfully, players can react to Locust actions by using a card. Each Order has a symbol representing an extra attack, an additional two defense dice or “follow.” These can be used to get the jump on Locust, hunker down or gain a free movement to tag along with another player on their turn. The versatility of the action choices creates a dynamic atmosphere, especially when there are multiple players in the game. Gears of War is fun solo, but it’s definitely more fun strategizing with others.

Because of the random nature and possibility of constantly spawning enemies (and bad rolls that prevent you from closing emergence holes), games can go on for a while. Gears of War doesn’t take up as much space as many tabletop games featured in this feature (and can be transported to a temporary flat surface for continuation later), but it’s still a good idea to set aside enough time to play from start to finish.

I loved the adherence to the Epic Games’ universe, which is present throughout the game. The art is taken straight from the Xbox 360 series, lancer rifles sport their chainsaws, Kantus can revive fallen Locust and the cover mechanic makes a lot of sense. It’s just as deadly to be out in the open in this version as it is on your television screen. There are six different missions in the box plus Horde Mode. An additional mission pack, complete with new enemies and weapons, are available for $9.95 as a print on demand set. You’ll want to have card sleeves, since the paper stock will inevitably be different.

If you have even a passing interest in Gears of War and co-operative tabletop gaming, there is a lot to love here. The versatility of the location tiles and the smart, card-driven Locust AI kept me on my toes while playing. It’s definitely challenging, and there’s more than a little luck involved due to card draw and dice rolling, but it’s still a fantastic adaptation of one of the most enjoyable franchises of this console generation.

A copy of Gears of War: The Board Game was provided by Fantasy Flight Games.

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Resident Evil Deck Building Game (Mercenaries Expansion/Core Set)
Publisher: Bandai (under license from Capcom)
Number of Players: 2-4
Theme: Video-game tie-in, Horror, Cards
Setup time: 5 minutes
Play time: 45-60 minutes
Portability: High
Complexity: Low
Cost: $29.99
Rulebook: Bandai

I know what you’re thinking. How on earth can you pack the tension, inventory management and sheer terror of Capcom’s legendary Resident Evil series into a box filled with cards? Bandai took a good crack at it, and while the results are mixed, they’ve done some very interesting things with the deck building sub-genre.

Deck building games have taken off in the past few years, thanks in large part to Dominion. They all play a bit differently, but the general premise is the same. Players start with the exact same decks made up of unimpressive cards that are the seeds for more interesting combinations and tactics later on.  Starting decks give you the basic tools you’ll need, which typically includes money and ways to acquire victory points. A typical turn includes one “action” and one “buy,” finishing with a discard of every card drawn that turn and the draw of a fresh hand. This is a major difference from almost any other card game, but the timing of the draw and the frequent shuffling is absolutely critical due to card interactions.

A significant difference in Resident Evil from others in the genre is that players represent one of the series’ familiar characters. Jill Valentine, Chris Redfield and Albert Wesker are just some of the choices. Each has a special ability that can be activated once a victory point threshold has been reached. In Resident Evil, ammunition cards also have monetary value. Weapons carry both an ammo cost and a damage. Early on, it’s best to acquire more ammo and a couple of beefier weapons before investing in action cards. Early turns move quickly, as players typically count up their ammo/gold cards and purchase what they can. Shuffling is required once you’re out of cards to draw from your “inventory,” so expect to get very good at it.

Once you’ve loaded up on enough ammunition and weapons, you can choose to “explore the mansion” on your turn. The Mercenaries expansion/core set is representative of Resident Evil 4 and 5. Enemies include the Eastern European and African infected types found in those two games. If you’re big on classic Resident Evil, I would strongly suggest picking up the original core set alone or in conjunction with this one. In the original, you’ll find familiar items like Green Herbs, and foes like zombies and hunters.

Once you explore the mansion, a monster card is flipped over. Follow the instructions on the card (if any) and compare your weapon damage against the creature’s health. If you defeat it, it gets attached to your character to count the “decorations” (Resident Evil DBG’s victory points). If you fall short, you’ll take damage based on the creature’s skill. In the default Story mode, you can resurrect with reduced maximum health. In Mercenary mode (unplayable with just this set), death is permanent. There is also a more complex version of the standard Story mode that uses skill cards which are activated by moving decorations from character cards onto them.

A couple of things struck me as we were playing. First, while I understand that modifications must be made when adapting a property for a new medium, it seemed very odd to us that we were swimming like Scrooge McDuck in our mountains of ammunition. Additionally, unlike other deck building games, victory points don’t go into your deck. Typically, it’s a balancing act in this genre, making sure you don’t jam up your deck with useless cards early on. The flip side is that there are enemies that play off your currently “attached” monsters (the ones you’ve defeated). It’s a reasonable trade off and a unique twist. Finally, the game lacks any sort of built-in tracking mechanism for health. This is the first in the genre I’ve played that requires a pen and paper. It’s not a deal breaker by any stretch, but I find it to be an odd choice.

This isn’t the deck building game for the whole family (though you might hook some of the adults). If you want something a bit more kid friendly, take a look at Dominion, Thunderstone Advanced (not the original Thunderstone) or Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer. For those that are hooked on the T-Virus and all the horror it has wrought though, this is a thematic and enjoyable entry into the world of deck building games.

A copy of Resident Evil Deck Building Game was provided by Bandai.

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Uncharted: The Board Game
Publisher: Bandai (under license from Naughty Dog/Sony)
Number of Players: 1-4 (the standard game is played with 2 – 4)
Theme: Video-game tie-in, Cards
Setup time: 5 minutes
Play time: 45-60 minutes
Portability: High
Complexity: Low
Cost: $29.99
Rulebook: Bandai

The “board game” part of Uncharted: The Board Game is a bit of a misnomer. This latest adventure for Nathan Drake, Victor “Goddamn” Sullivan and a host of generic and identifiable baddies is actually a card game. There is a board, but it serves largely to keep the different decks in place and track victory points. Should you wish to increase the portability of this game, you can ditch the admittedly well-designed play surface and just bring the cards in a small box. The packaging isn’t excessive though, so there isn’t a reason to condense unless you are flying and need every square inch of packing space.

Unlike the Resident Evil Deck Building Game, Uncharted is a more traditional card-based affair. Instead of recycling cards, you’ll be discarding them permanently when they leave play. Hands carry over across turns, making moment to moment decisions that much more crucial. As with all card games, there is an element of luck, but given that players are impacted almost evenly by the random factors, it shouldn’t be a huge deterrent for control freaks.

Each player starts with the same four basic cards, a weapon, a card draw mechanism, a way to acquire treasure (victory points) and a way to sacrifice a life point for an extra card or search token. Each player also has a character card. I strongly suggest using the side of the cards that includes unique skills for each player. It makes the character choice more compelling, card play decisions more interesting and strategy a bit more complex. For instance, Nate gains an additional two attack points when his life is at four or lower. This gives the decision to heal a downside. Other abilities are activated by having an array of card colors. As an example, when Sully has the maximum three yellow cards and at least two green cards in his play area, he gets an automatic +1 to his attack.

During each turn, play passes around the table as players can execute two actions each. These include playing cards, activating cards in the play area, using a card color’s special effect by discarding (placing a search marker, healing or earning two additional actions) or attacking an enemy in the adventure zone. Every card has a cost that must be paid by discarding other items in your hand. There are some tough decisions inherent in this design, and it works extremely well. Sometimes getting a card on the table means dumping something with a higher cost that might be valuable later on.

Acquiring treasure (and by extension, victory points), is handled through “searching.” Each artifact has a cost, and multiple players can participate in the hunt. Once the marker threshold is reached, everyone that has a stake in the search earns the victory points and whatever benefit the card offers. Some also have effects that are only active while in-play, so choices emerge between earning the victory points or keeping the benefits on the board a little while longer.

Attacking (and defeating) enemies not only awards vital victory points, but it allows players to draw from the “Special Action” deck. There you’ll find powerful weapons and other playable cards that offer more bang for the buck. Things can get ugly for everyone if there isn’t a balance between treasure hunting and knocking off enemies. Play continues until everyone passes, with card draw or a search marker awarded to those who fold early, and priority on the next turn awarded to the character who sticks in the round the longest.

After everyone has passed, enemies in the adventure area deal damage. “Resting” a card (otherwise known as “tapping” in Magic: the Gathering) is worth one defense point each. There are cards, like Cover, that award extra DP. Once each player has accumulated as much protection as they’d like, damage is dealt with a simple calculation of attack minus defense. If a player loses all his or her health, it’s game over (and time to go get drinks for the rest of the table). The game ends when only one player is left standing or one of the decks (most likely the adventure deck) is empty.

I played with my eight year old daughter, who is a fan of deckbuilding and other card games. She grasped the concepts quickly, with minimal coaching and guidance. The theme and art of the cards is most certainly rooted in the Uncharted world, but it’s also extremely approachable for players who have never heard of Nathan Drake.

In addition to the default mode, there is a deathmatch mode that removes enemy cards from the game and places the emphasis on player interaction. Once you and your friends have the mechanics down, making the transition is easy. You will need three or four players for this, but it’s a much more satisfying option that inspires a lot of trash talking. Survival mode offers a solitaire option, but it can be played with up to four. There are some modifications necessary for a number of the cards and especially the character abilities, but the manual has explicit instructions. Kudos to Bandai for providing additional ways to use the game and get more out of the $30 investment.

Uncharted: The Board Game is approachable, appropriate for a wide range of ages and experience levels and plays smoothly and quickly. I expect that I’ll be coming back to this one again, and not just because I love the source material. Oh, and I forgot to mention that I died a horrible death at the hands of the Tank boss and my daughter is currently rubbing it in my face.

A copy of Uncharted: The Board Game was provided by Bandai.

Horror lovers, we’ve got a few choices perfect for your bloody Christmas.