Guest Writer: Matt Bartlett, AKA The Dice Chucker
Before I became a board gamer, I enjoyed a number of video games. The media surrounding that hobby often gave suggestions for what would be good to spend your money on, as it is with any major hobby industry. After a while, I noticed that only the big releases were getting good reviews, and occasionally, they would highlight a surprise. But oftentimes, I would find hidden gems that never seemed to get coverage. When I got into board games, the term evergreen constantly popped up in the mouths of reviewers and influencers, and I took their word as gospel while I started our collection. But after a while, there were just some games that were destined to be good because of their coverage, and the company, behind it.
And that’s what leads me to today’s post. There are just some games out there that get hefty coverage, and when we get them to the table, some of us after a significant purchase, find out that the game isn’t for us. I often wondered what we were doing wrong. Was there something we missed? Is the rulebook flighty? Were we too young in the hobby? But out of frustration, either because we felt misled, or the game truly wasn’t a mechanic for us, we sell the game on the third market and cut our losses. But perhaps years down the road, we hear people talk about the game, sometimes with the term that it “aged well,” and we become curious. These three games I’ll talk about this week were part of that aging process with the shame that I had to buy the game again. I’ll explain what it was about the game at first that turned us off, and why we went back to it, and were there other aspects about the game that turned us off before and then caused a return. Overall, this is an interesting subject to approach, because at the end of the day, all of us have either made the purchase of shame, or have considered it.
Star Trek: Ascendency
Oh, this one hurt. This one hurt because we let it linger for a long time. It stayed in the collection after one play, and just collected dust since there was promise from the publisher that the expansion would add an AI. But those expansions took their sweet time, and we lost interest. Star Trek: Ascendency was a 4x game that was purchased during the early days of our gaming career. We hadn’t played a 4x game yet in our lifetime, but we tried this one, and we had no idea what was going on. The game was listed for three players, but we thought we’d try it at two and see what could happen.
In that moment, with Jenn playing as the Federation and myself playing as the Romulans, there was no interaction, especially with the Romulans being very present in a “take that” kind of way. If you’re going to play this game with two, I highly suggest Federation and Klingons. The Klingons are more strived for combat, while the Federation wants to explore, and you’re more likely to bash into each other for good reason.
For those who haven’t played the game, you’re one of the main factions from the Star Trek universe, and you’re attempting to get five ascendency tokens. You can do that in a number of ways. Exploration allows you to find planets that give you the resources you need for the tokens, exploitation allows you to abuse the planets for those resources, expand allows you to stretch your reach which would give you a faster paced solution for those resources, and exterminate would allow you to get rid of your adversaries all together. Once one person has those five tokens, or they’re the last one standing, they win.
So what was the problem the first time. Well, we had never played a game like that before. Early into our gaming, we were focused on theme, and in Star Trek Ascendency, there didn’t seem to be much in the way of theme at first. Instead, what we got was more of board game LARP where you had to take on the mentality of the faction instead of finding the “Star Trek” cards with characters you knew. That was what I was missing at first. I wondered where Picard was, where Sisko or Janeway could be, but that wasn’t the point of the game. The point was to take on the mantle of that faction.
So the game was sold because we weren’t ready for it. The 4x genre wasn’t something we’d ever done before, and honestly, we had to wait for Heroes of Land, Air, and Sea, to understand the true meaning of the term. When convention season started up again in 2021, I noticed that there were people buying the game, along with all the factions. Surely I missed something into how this was played. I asked my FLGS to order it, and we took a chance. I wanted to see, since I was binge watching TNG, what could have been.
We played a few rounds and I noticed that I felt the same throughout. This time, we played with three players, and all three had a good knowledge of the source material. In the end, I began to see what people liked about it so much, and why some called it the essential Star Trek game. Overall, as I said before, the idea is that you’re playing as the faction, not the people, and honestly, I think the game fails some players for that reason. They want to play as the people, and not the faction. It’s why a game like Star Trek: Fleet Captains is more appealing to some since it’s what they want to get out of a game like this. By the end, I felt like the Federation, where it was my only mission throughout to discover, and find civilizations to bring into my faction. I fended off Klingons and avoided any trade agreements with the Romulan player. It felt as though I was in command, and I did alright, though the Romulans used their tricks to get their five tokens first.
I ended up buying the game with a few caveats to what is present. First, I would recommend playing the rules with the speedy set up, with more resources and the like. The game is slow, but if you know that going in, then you’re prepared. Second, if you’re playing with more than three, I would lower the ascendency tokens to three. Lastly, and this one is huge, I would play the first phase of the turn where you’re building, with all players doing so at once. I know it takes part of the game away where those later in the turn get to see what others are doing, but it speeds things up so much. And you can still see what others are doing while you are planning things out.
We own all the factions, and haven’t yet played with the Borg, but are planning on doing so once the leg heals up and I can get back into the game room. The dining room table is big, but not big enough for that game. I’m also looking forward to the two new expansions which were announced, one of which adds the Dominion. I’m not sure they should add anymore factions since the game will reach ten factions with this release, but only time will tell. On the whole, this game is one where I had to purchase it again, and if you’re interested in Ascendancy, and you’re a Star Trek fan, it’s definitely a try before you buy. I’m glad I tried it twice and got back into it.
The Lord of the Rings LCG
Where to begin with the Lord of the Rings LCG? I wanted to like this game when we first got it, and it was one of our first times watching Watch it Played. And while the video was helpful, the way we played the game wasn’t quite so helpful. This was back in the age when Fantasy Flight Games told the public that if they wanted to seriously play the game, they needed two core boxes. I think that turned it off in my mind. But the game was interesting, difficult with just the core box, but interesting. I was eager to jump into the next expansions and see what I could do with deckbuilding since both Jenn and myself were coming off the Game of Thrones LCG. But we didn’t play the game enough right out off the bat. We would play it, then put it away for an extensive period of time, basically forgetting what we would need to do. And if you know anything about the Fantasy Flight LCGs, it’s rules, rules, rules. One slight mix up, and you’ve lost, or you can’t understand what’s happening. Worse off, and this is the problem with all the Fantasy Flight Games LCGs, if you don’t get in from the beginning, then you’re lost. We got in three years after the initial release so there was too much to catch up on with releases.
So the game was sold, and not a good experience with that either. In more ways than one, the person we sold it to, complained that the elastics that held cards in place all snapped in transportation, a fault of the USPS, not us, and complained. We ended up comping the sale because this person would not let it go, and I’m sure there were rare out of print cards in there. Until now.
With the release of Marvel Champions, Fantasy Flight Games has gone through a bit of an LCG Renaissance but only with their Cooperative LCGs. Champions basically set the standard for only having to purchase one box, and so Arkham Horror LCG was the next to be adapted to that formula. The releases for Arkham were big boxes at first, I’m not sure if there are blister packs for the game, with both the campaign, and then the “hero” decks. And I was sure that Lord of the Rings was next. Lo and behold, it was. I eagerly jumped in, knowing that I would be able to get all the releases and be in on the ground floor.
I forced myself to play it multiple times within the first week we owned the new set, just to be certain that I could remember all the rules this time. Jenn and I have enjoyed the scenarios, except for one, and you know the one I’m talking about, and from what I can tell, many are also getting back into it. However, I should mention, if someone is taping themselves and putting it out there for all to watch, be kind. This game attracts people who are devoted to it, and when one mistake or rule gets skipped, they tend to launch. So think before you type. That’s all.
Oh Thunderstone. This was one game that was very disappointing to me, and for reasons I’ll tell you in just a moment. But first, some backstory. We did not back Thunderstone Quest when it was on Kickstarter. We hoped one of our FLGS would back it at a retailer level, and to our disappointment, no one did. It was appearing on many people’s favorite games of the year, and we had some massive FOMO. But fear not! A retail edition was coming, and it would drop soon. But…
It was missing some of the content from the Kickstarter edition. That was to be expected, since that’s how Kickstarter works now. But we got it anyway, and we enjoyed AEG’s product line.
Until this one.
Thunderstone Quest was a mess upon opening the box. I’m sure there were expectations that weren’t being met, but for me, there was just one major problem with the whole presentation, and that was the rulebook. I’m not sure if other AEG rulebooks up until that point were like this, or not, but it was very flighty. When looking at the material, it seemed that the player aid on the board telling you what to do for both the village and dungeon phase were out of sync. But before we get further into that, what’s the game about?
Thunderstone Quest is a competitive, unless you have the big box expansion, deckbuilder where you go into dungeons to find keys that unlock the guardian. Then each player has one turn to defeat the guardian and then whoever has the most points from both their deck and thunderstones, which you amass throughout the game, wins. So what was going on, and why did we hate it?
First, it was long. To get the keys seemed to be an almost impossible task. You need four of them to trigger the endgame, but if you stick with me, there’ll be a reason for why we thought the game was long. Second, the player sheets and rulebook made no sense to us at all. I’m not sure if the rulebook has been fixed, but if you want to learn this game, learn it from someone who knows it well. Thirdly, the game suffered from the lack of content that was Kickstarter only.
In the rulebook, when talking about the keys, there were a few major issues that cause the length of the game to run on. The paragraph that tells you what to do at the end of the dungeon phase in the rulebook is confusing, and should be re-edited. It starts with the line, if you didn’t kill the monster in the dungeon, do this. As someone learning on the fly, I skipped the rest of that paragraph, not knowing what to do. On the card for the keys, I thought we had to be in the room to take it. Not so. Instead, you put it aside, and if another comes out right away, then you put it back in the deck and shuffle. Only one key can be claimed for each turn. And when you look at the rulebook, and then the key cards, the cards seem to tell you that you need all six to unlock the guardian, and not the four from the rulebook. But that was the way the card was written and how it was perceived. Secondly, the enemies are tiered to the rooms they’re in. And once a deck of enemies runs out, then you’re supposed to take the next tier of enemies and fill it in. This makes getting to the bottom of the dungeon easier, and a reason to take care of the enemies in decks where you found all the keys. Lastly, you don’t leave the room where you defeated the enemy.
Now, this rule is difficult to find, but if you cross reference it with other cards and rooms, you’ll find that this is the case. For example, the trapdoor spider gives festering wounds to all players in the room when it comes out, which can only mean that you stay there. I was under the impression at first that when you go into the dungeon, you always start at the beginning at each turn, wasting light as you constantly went down into the dungeon. But with that major change in how the dungeon phase worked, it made more sense now.
During the village phase, you need to go by the player aid exactly. Reveal your hand, then do your village abilities. You go to a location, whether or not you are able to do that location’s ability. But you can always go to the temple and put a card from your hand onto the top of the deck. Then you buy from the marketplace. Then you heal one wound, two if you’re at the temple, and then you upgrade one of your heroes if possible. If you don’t remember to heal, then you’ll be sorry that you didn’t remember to do it. Overall, there is a lot of information on that sheet, and most people will just look over it and move on, and since the rulebook isn’t great with the village phase either. And then you’re stuck to decipher on your own.
The last complaint I had about the retail game was the lack of content for that edition. Thankfully, my primary FLGS had kickstarted wave two and sat there for some time on the shelf. After hearing more quests being published for it, I knew there was something I was missing. So I tried it with a friend who loved the game, and while we played the cooperative mode, the only one on the shelf was the competitive, and I bought it again. Not because I was taking a chance like Ascendency, but because I could see that there was something there. The first time at home for round two wasn’t great, but I could still see the value. Then, while I was laid up with my leg, I was intrigued. I played a game and saw the issues I had again, but this time, I saw the solution.
And what happened then? I adore the game. There are some neat mechanics in here. Does some of it show its age? Sure. But there is plenty to look over for that. But for goodness sake, I hope that AEG has someone come by and fix the rulebook. I’m no expert, but it needs a rehash. I think the rulebook excels at card anatomy, and what abilities are, including an FAQ, but there’s still a great deal that’s not in there that leads to assumptions.
This is not an easy admittance to make. Have you made the purchase of shame? One you had a staunch opinion on, then had to purchase it again, only to find out that it was as great as some said? Let me know in the comments below!