The Curse of Immortality: A Sword & Sorcery Review

Sword & Sorcery: Immortal Souls

Designers: Simone Romano and Nunzio Surace
Publishers: 
Ares Games
Players:
 1-5
Playing Time:
120-180 Minutes
Campaign Mode:
6 quests, branching narrative, replayable with no permanent modifications
MSRP: $79.90
Logged Plays:
10 games solo, full base game campaign completed as well as first two quests of Arcane Portal expansion
Copy Purchased By Reviewer

In 2017, we saw two high-profile fantasy dungeon crawlers hit the market: Isaac Childres’ Gloomhaven and Gremlin Project’s Sword & Sorcery.  While Gloomhaven in many ways revolutionized how we think about dungeon crawlers, Sword & Sorcery is at a surface level about as boiler-plate of a fantasy dungeon crawler as you can get.  You have your standard fare of humans, dwarves, elves, and orcs.  You resolve combat and skill checks with dice rolls.  Even the name of the game, “Sword & Sorcery”, is just the name of the fantasy sub-genre the game is an homage to.

DESPITE UNDEAD MONSTERS BEING FEATURED ON THE BOX ART, NONE ARE IN THE BASE GAME.

Perhaps “homage” is the best way to describe Sword & Sorcery.  It’s not necessarily trying to revolutionize dungeon crawlers, or trying to draw in a new audience to the genre.  It’s a dungeon crawler for gamers that like 3-hour long dungeon crawls.  It’s a dungeon crawler for gamers that like the swinginess of dice chucking.  It’s a dungeon crawler for gamers that like to track half a dozen status effects and wounds with a ton of little tokens.  But having played through the full campaign that comes with the base game, as well as part of the first expansion, I’m actually not sure if I’m one of those gamers.

Sword & Sorcery is the spiritual successor to Ares and Gremlin Project’s Galaxy Defenders, the 2014 fully cooperative campaign based sci-fi “dungeon crawler.”  The majority of Sword & Sorcery’s mechanics are a refinement of Galaxy Defenders’, including the red and blue D10’s with icons instead of numbers, enemy AI system, event deck, and more.  It simplifies the hex-based grids in Galaxy Defenders with interlocking tiles composed of larger areas, making it much easier to determine line-of-sight and enemy AI movement paths.  I know some people prefer the hex grid, but I found it too fiddly for my tastes to be constantly determining LOS and enemy pathing in Galaxy Defenders.  I appreciate how much easier it is to determine what an enemy will do on their turn and what player character they will target.

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EXAMPLE OF A SCENARIO IN PROGRESS.

Players take on the roles of ancient heroes that were brought back to life, and are effectively immortal. The base game comes with 5 heroes, each of which can be played with their Law or Chaos soul alignment, so you have 10 different hero classes in the box.   As an example, Thorgar the dwarf can be played either as a lawful Cleric or chaotic Runemaster.  Some of Thorgar’s skills are shared across both these classes, but their base powers, stats, and a few skills will be unique to each of the two classes.  Each hero and Law/Chaos variant feels unique.

When a player character dies, rather than be eliminated from the game, they revert to their spirit form.  Spirit form heroes can perform special spirit actions on their turn unique to their character/alignment, and/or can resurrect at a shrine at the beginning of a round if players spend enough soul shards.  What this means is that as long as you don’t have a total party kill, you can keep resurrecting heroes and bringing them back into the fight.  The drawback to this is that every time you die, you lose a level.  When you are Level 1 in the game, this is a non-issue, but as you level up into progressively more expensive levels, losing a level can be very costly in terms of lost souls shards (XP).  Death effectively becomes a currency that players will have to manage, as sometimes it is worth it for a hero to sacrifice themselves.

Sword & Sorcery uses an enemy AI system similar to Galaxy Defenders for how enemies act.  Each enemy type in the game has their own unique AI script that determines what they will do based on their distance to the nearest hero.  Gremlins may run up and attack, raiders may want to keep their distance and shoot heroes, orc shamans may heal wounded enemies, etc.  Harder versions of enemy types don’t just hit harder, they also have additional abilities and logic included in their AI scripts.  Enemies react intelligently to the current board state, providing a challenge for players.  Players know how precisely how enemies are going to act on their turn as well, so they can use this information to their advantage as they plan out their turns, providing some tactical depth to the game.  Enemy AI orders are also very clear and easy to execute, there’s little ambiguity in what an enemy will do on their turn.

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ADVANCED VERSIONS OF ENEMIE TYPES WILL HIT HARDER, DEFEND BETTER, AND TYPICALLY HAVE MORE NUANCED AI SCRIPTS.

As I eluded to earlier, Sword & Sorcery isn’t a quick or streamlined game.  It’s a beast of a game to setup, play, and teardown.  You’re looking at easily a 3+ long game depending on player count.  The rulebook is massive at 56 pages long (here is a link to it if you dare give it a read).  There are half a dozen status conditions that work differently depending on whether a player or enemy has them.  Individual enemies have their own unique powers and defenses that you will need to keep track of.  Scenarios, events, and story passages can introduce additional effects and triggers that you’ll need to keep track of, such as reading a later story passage when a certain monster on the board is killed.  Story passages may require you to place out new tiles to expand the map, spawn specific enemies, seed cards into decks, etc.  As a solo player, I found it to be a bit of an information overload to keep track of.


IMMORTAL SOULS

Sword & Sorcery: Immortal Souls is the first act in larger campaign that spans multiple expansions: Darkness Falls is the second half of the main storyline, Arcane Portal is an optional side-campaign that can be played between the two acts, and Vastaryous’s Lair is an optional epilogue to the campaign.  I should point out for retail customers that Kickstarter backers received all this content last year when their pledges shipped in 2017 and Arcane Portal is available in retail markets, Darkness Falls hits retail next week on Oct 23, but there is no official announcement/confirmation of a retail release for Vastaryous’s Lair at this time.

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LOTS OF PLASTIC.

All-in-all, playing through the entire thing will take you across a 12-to-20 quest campaign (depending on what expansions you get), but Immortal Souls is only the first 6 quests.  The base game comes with 7 quests, with the storyline branching in one of two directions for the final quest depending on choices and actions you take in the first five quests of your campaign.  I was pleasantly surprised that it didn’t just boil down to whether you were playing Law or Chaos, and that smaller choices/actions I took in earlier quests caused a butterfly effect that led me to my ending (I ended up getting Quest VI for my final scenario).

I was less pleasantly surprised to see that at least in the base game and Arcane Portal, losing a scenario requires you replay it (either resetting back to the state your party was at the beginning of the scenario, or the state your party was in when you lost).  This can be frustrating if you lose 2-3 hours into a scenario near the end of it (and more often than not, if you’re going to lose, it’s going to be near the end).   I would have preferred if the game had a branching narrative for if you lost similar to games like SEAL Team Flix, or the story carried forward even if you lost like in Arkham Horror: The Card Game, or if the game provided some sort of checkpoint system through a scenario.  Better yet, I think a lot of these scenarios could have been broken into 2-3 smaller scenarios that were 60-90 minutes each with some minor tweaks.  In doing so, not only would have have made the game more accessible and losing more palatable, but they could have advertised having 2-3 times as many scenarios as they currently have!

The underlying story for Sword & Sorcery is pretty generic, and largely forgettable.  You’re brought back to life to stop some bad guys from doing some bad stuff.  The most memorable thing about the story unfortunately is the designers’ constant pop culture references to movies and video games, which at best got an eye roll out of me, and at worst pulled me out of the experience.  Some of these are just throwaway lines, but some of these pop culture references end up being major characters in the storyline.

The story paragraphs are in their own separate book from the scenario book, which is a nice touch, as it allows for surprises as you play through a scenario for the first time.  You may know opening a door will trigger reading a paragraph in the Book of Secrets, but you won’t know if it’s a good or bad thing that occurs until you do it (no accidental peeking ahead as can happen in other dungeon crawlers’ scenario books).  The Book of Secrets also allows for more “choose your own adventure”-esque narrative moments in the story, such as asking NPC’s questions, visiting locations in a village, making story decisions, etc.

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LOTS OF PAPER.

Over the course of the campaign, your characters will gain soul shards (XP) that will allow you to level up and gain new abilities, allowing you to not only get more powerful but also customize your character further.  In the base game and Arcane Portal, you can level up to Level 4, in Darkness Falls up to Level 7.  Each level gets exponentially more expensive to level up to, so while going from Level 1 to 2 costs 4 soul shards, Level 6 to 7 will cost 49.  As mentioned before, you lose a level when you die, so it gets progressively more and more expensive to die in the game, and can be frustrating to see a lot of time and effort killing monsters lost.  I’ve had sessions where even if I won the scenario, I ended up losing more levels/shards than what I started with, Even though I was progressing through the story I felt like I was making negative progress with my characters.


FINAL THOUGHTS

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LOTS OF TOKENS.

Mechanically, this is a solid dungeon crawling experience.  The enemy AI is streamlined, yet intelligent.  Scenario design is varied and challenging.  Player character classes feel different from one another, and the differentiation between good and evil versions is a nice touch.  But having played through the full base game campaign and half of Arcane Portal (8 scenarios in all), I don’t think I’m going to be continuing any further into the campaign.  Between the amount of time it takes to setup and play through a scenario and the sheer volume of things you have to track (especially as a solo player controlling multiple characters), it just didn’t really feel like the game was giving me that amazing of an experience back in return, just an OK one.


REVIEW SCORE: 6 out of 10 (OK)

icons8-plus-24 PROS

  • Character progression and customization with skills and gear
  • Enemy AI system clear and easy to follow, each enemy type has unique behaviors
  • Challenging scenario design

icons8-minus-26 CONS

  • Game is fiddly and requires tracking a lot of information
  • Scenarios are too long for my tastes, have to replay from the beginning if you lose
  • Constant enemy spawns and the death/resurrection cycle of player characters feels grindy
  • Story isn’t memorable, full of unnecessary pop culture references
  • No retail plans currently to release final expansion of the campaign

Duct Tape Won’t Fix It: A MacGyver The Escape Room Game Review

MacGyver: The Escape Room Game

Designers: Nicholas Cravotta and Rebecca Blaeu
Publishers: 
Pressman Toy Corp
Players:
 1-4 (theoretically can be played with any size group)
Playing Time:
30-60 minutes
Campaign Mode:
5 missions, not replayable once you know the puzzle solutions, components permanently modified
MSRP: $29.99
Logged Plays:
5 games solo, all scenarios completed
Copy Purchased By Reviewer


 

NOT SURE IF THEY WERE INTENTIONALLY TRYING TO MAKE IT LOOK LIKE A GAME FROM THE 80’S/90’S, BUT THEY NAILED IT.

I’m a huge fan of “escape room in a box” style games, and I have played pretty much every one that has been released to date.  When I heard that there was a Target-exclusive MacGyver-themed escape room game, I was morbidly curious.  Mass-market games based on IPs usually aren’t great.  Furthermore, it was designed by the same duo that made ThinkFun’s two “Escape the Room” games, which I wasn’t a fan of.  But my curiosity got the best of me and I bought it upon reading that the game came with five separate missions that had to be played in order, leading up to a grande finale against Murdoc.  A campaign escape room game?  I gotta try that out!

“Campaign” is overselling what the game offers (note: the game does not advertise itself as a campaign game).  Each of the five missions must be played in order because some components unlocked in earlier missions are reused in later missions.  There is no overarching storyline that carries through the five missions, it felt more like just five random episodes of the series.  In fact, the first mission is based on the pilot episode of the series, I’m not sure if any of the other missions are based on actual episodes or not.  Aside from a few physical props carrying over from game to game, nothing about your performance in previous games will affect future games.

EACH MISSION COMES IN A SEALED ENVELOPE, WHICH IN TURN CONTAINS SMALLER SEALED ENVELOPES.

Each mission consists of six puzzles that you must complete in a fixed order.  I found for the most part the puzzles weren’t that challenging to solve.  The majority of them were actual puzzles where you had to arrange some tiles in a certain arrangement, and required little thought aside from just moving pieces around until you reached the solution.  Some were a little trickier, some were a bit obtuse even with the hint system, but none of them ever made me say to myself “that was really clever” like other escape room games and actual escape room games have me do.  Even worse, none of the puzzle felt like stuff MacGyver would do to solve problems.  Instead of combining items together to make gadgets to solve problems like MacGyver would, you’re just trying to solve codes to enter into an a webform.  I admittedly am not a die-hard MacGyver junkie, so I can’t speak for how frequently MacGyver spent solving codes on the show, but it feels like he’s much more iconic for his DIY skills, and the fact that the game failed to capture that essence of the character and the show in the game is a huge misstep.

I should point out that the game requires an internet connection to use a website that serves as your game timer, hint system, and how you enter answers to the puzzles.  The website will also instruct you on what envelopes to unseal as you progress through a mission.  I’ve played a couple escape room games now that use apps and websites for similar purposes, so I had no issues with it, but just something to keep in mind if you’re looking for a purely analog experience or won’t have an internet connection.

I should also point out that in the envelope for the first mission, you are provided with a small mirror.  This mirror has a protective film cover on it that you need to peel off, I didn’t realize this until the final mission of the game and struggled using an incredibly cloudy mirror to try to solve puzzles with.  While I don’t think this knowledge would have noticeably improved my overall impressions of the game, it would have at least made solving a couple of the puzzles a little more bearable.


FINAL THOUGHTS

Unless you are a die-hard escape room junkie or an even bigger MacGyver fan, I recommend passing on this.  There are dozens of far better escape room tabletop games out there to try out.  If you want to combine items together to solve problems ala an old school adventure game, try checking out the Unlock! series.  If you want more a collection of challenging and interesting puzzles to solve, check out the EXIT series.  They are both fantastic and even the most mediocre entry in those series is better than any of the missions contained in the MacGyver box.


REVIEW SCORE: 4 out of 10 (Below Average)

icons8-plus-24 PROS

  • Five escape room scenarios for $30 is a decent value

icons8-minus-26 CONS

  • Scenarios are short, typically only take 30 minutes to solve even solo
  • Puzzle quality is weak
  • Puzzles don’t feel like things MacGyver would do
  • Disappointing grand finale

 

A Demonic Magical Cat and His Robot BFF Fight a Dinosaur Witch God in the Weird West – A Grimslingers “Tall Tale” Review

Grimslingers (3rd Edition)

Designer: Stephen Gibson
Publisher: 
Greenbrier Games
Players:
 1-4
Playing Time:
60 Minutes
Campaign Mode:
4 chapters, linear narrative, replayable with no permanent modifications
MSRP: $29.95
Logged Plays:
4 games solo, full campaign completed
Copy Purchased By Reviewer


I remember in 2016 going through BoardGameGeek’s Gen Con 2016 preview list looking for hidden gems that might debut there, and one game on the list in particular stood out to me because of its box art.  On the box cover there was a dinosaur with horns, a cute lil’ robot, a cowboy with glowing eyes, some reptile(?) thing with a gun, and a bigger scarier robot.  No, I’m not talking about Smash Up!, I’m talking about Grimslingers by Stephen Gibson and Greenbrier Games.

Dat box.

Grimslingers is effectively two games in one box.  The first game mode, Versus mode, is a 2-6 player competitive card dueling game that can be played 1 vs 1, team vs team, or in a multiplayer free-for-all brawl.   The second mode, Tall Tale mode, is a 1-4 player co-operative narrative campaign-based adventure game.  This review is about the Tall Tale mode specifically (3rd Edition, even more specifically), but the game’s origins is in its Versus mode, so let’s talk about that a bit first.


HIGH MOON AND THE ORIGINS OF GRIMSLINGERS

Grimslingers initially started development as a competitive elemental dueling mobile game called “High Moon,” later renamed to “Grimslingers” to avoid potential trademark issues with a web comic of the same name.  The game had a pixel-art style to it similar to Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery, but shared a lot of thematic and mechanical elements of what eventually became Grimslingers:

Designer and artist Stephen Gibson eventually moved High Moon to the tabletop space after having issues keeping programmers staffed on the mobile game.  His eventual goal was to use the profits from the tabletop card game to further fund the mobile game’s development.  When the Grimslingers Kickstarter launched in 2015, the competitive Versus mode was initially the only mode offered.  I won’t go into too much detail about how this mode plays, you can download the rulebook here, but to briefly summarize, each player simultaneously picks and reveals a card from their hand and then resolves the cards in a rock-paper-scissors fashion.  Rounds continue until all but one player/team is left standing.

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A sampling of the game’s gorgeous card artwork.

The cooperative Tall Tale mode was added later in the Kickstarter campaign as an optional add-on stretch goal.  Whereas Versus mode was already designed and developed before the game even went to Kickstarter, Tall Tale mode was just an idea Stephen had at the time of its announcement.  When Greenbrier Games eventually picked up the publishing rights for Grimslingers a couple of months after the Kickstarter wrapped, they gave Stephen the time to flesh out the Tall Tales mode more, and ultimately chose to package it in the core game.

Of the 7 written reviews on BGG (not counting this one), 5 of them are exclusively focused on the Tall Tale mode, and one only briefly mentions Versus mode in passing. Some of the video reviews cover both Versus and Tall Tale mode, but the general consensus from people seems to be that Tall Tale is the better and preferred mode of the two.  Grimslingers may have started as a competitive dueling mobile game, but it found its voice and its audience as a coop/solo tabletop adventure game.


TALL TALE MODE

Grimslingers’ Tall Tale mode can loosely be described as a “weird west” campaign-based cooperative adventure card game.  Players take on the role of Grimslingers, magic-wielding cowboys conscripted by Icarus the Iron Witch.  The campaign takes players (along with their snarky robotic anima sidekicks) through a 4-chapter story in The Valley of Death on a mission of hunting down and killing Icarus’s boss, The Witch King (correction from the designer: The Witch King is not his boss, he’s just a self-proclaimed “king” that thinks he’s the boss).  The world that Stephen has built around this game, The Forgotten West, is an interesting mix of western, magic, sci-fi, and fantasy tropes.  It’s a world where cowboys, bandits, robots, goblins, minotaurs, talking llamas, chupacabras, witches, and vampires co-exist, and it works.  Weird West is a genre that you surprisingly don’t see a lot of in boardgaming, so despite being a strange mish-mash of all sorts of genres, it feels fresh and unique.

Each chapter consists of a series of narrative entries with corresponding objectives that players must complete in order to advance the story and finish the chapter.  Objectives may have you traveling to locations on the map, collecting items, fighting monsters, etc.  The Valley of Death is represented in the game as a small node-based map that players move together as a group around with a single red meeple.  Attack nodes on the map require players to duel an AI opponent similar to how duels work in Versus mode, and reward players with character level-ups and items.  Event nodes have players resolving random events from a deck of event cards.  Landmark nodes give players location specific actions players can take, such as trading with shopkeepers or gambling at the saloon.  Despite being a small piece of cardstock you are pushing a little meeple around, it feels like an open world adventure game that you are free to explore at your leisure.  Between objectives, players are free to mosey about the valley, there is no in-game mechanism or timer forcing players to progress in the story, which is not something you typically see in a cooperative board game.  I found that individual chapters took me around an hour to play solo.

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Example setup of a solo Tall Tale game.

The brisk playtime I had could be due to the fact that I avoiding traveling to attack nodes where at all possible, as I wasn’t a huge fan of the combat system.  Duels lengthened game sessions, they were more dangerous, and weren’t very satisfying to play through.  Across my entire 4-chapter campaign, I only dueled 8 times, most of which were mandatory fights to progress the story.  The combat in Tall Tale mode is similar to Versus mode in that you pick a card every round to play, but the AI plays instead with a custom deck of generic and creature-specific AI cards (6 normal creatures and 1 boss creature come in the game).  Creature AI cards don’t deal with the elemental rock-paper-scissors mechanics that PvP duels do, so for the most part it felt like I was just playing basic spell cards to do a couple points of damage per turn without any real insight into what the AI was going to do.  As you progress through the game and level up, you gain access to advanced spells and items that open up your options a bit, but not by much.

I should also point out that the game is already on its 3rd Edition of its rulebook.  Stephen and Greenbrier have continued to tweak and simplify the rules (as well as fix typos) in the rulebook between print runs over the past 2 years based on player feedback, going as far as stripping out entire sub-systems of the game that players found clunky.  Even in it’s 3rd printing, the rules are a little difficult to parse.  Each different node type on the map is resolved differently and has rules for what you can/can’t do at it.  Duels require learning a whole separate set of rules for combat, and have you flipping back to the Versus rules section for some things.  Player aids for this game would have been a huge help (it is my understanding that these are provided in first big-box expansion, The Northern Territory).

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Creatures, grimslingers, and anima.

Besides doing the art and design of the game, Stephen also wrote the story that goes along with the campaign.  The story is well-written, even humorous at times (sadly something I can’t say about a lot of narrative games on the market).  The characters you meet and places you visit are memorable and evocative of a much bigger and fantastic world that they inhabit.  Rather than spell everything out for you, Stephen’s writing and artwork sets the stage for your imagination to fill in (or question about) this strange world.  The story is linear, which Stephen has said was an intentional choice on his part to tell the story he wanted to tell.  There is only one moment in the entire campaign where players are given a story choice, and it’s a very minor choice at that.

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Examples of some archetypes you can play as.

Character progression in the campaign is pretty linear as well.  At the start of a campaign you will choose one of several archetypes for your character: vampyre, daemon, witchborn, etc.  This will give you a character-specific combat ability as well as your max health/energy values.  As you defeat creatures and complete story objectives, your character will level up, but rewards you get for leveling up are baked into the advancement track, you don’t get a lot of room for character customization over the campaign.  You are able to gain advanced spells as you level up, but a lot of them felt designed for and better suited for Versus mode.  While the campaign is replayable, you could potentially explore playing as different archetypes or taking different routes around the map to get to objectives, this feels like something you would play through once to experience the story and not revisit.


FINAL THOUGHTS

Despite the small package and relatively short campaign that it comes with, Grimslingers’ Forgotten West is actually one of the most interesting, beautiful, and fully-realized worlds that I’ve experienced in a boardgame space.  Fans of weird west fiction and/or gamers looking for a campaign with a unique settings should check this game out.   You can get this game for less than $25 online and a full campaign only lasts 4 hour-long games, so it’s not a huge investment of either your time or money to check out.  Who knows, maybe you’ll even get some mileage out of it as a PvP game as well if you find yourself enjoying the combat mechanics.

I have bought The Northern Territory expansion and look forward to exploring all that has to offer, be sure to come back and check out my review for that in the future!


REVIEW SCORE: 8 out of 10 (Great)

icons8-plus-24 PROS

  • Top-notch world-building, art, and writing, all by the same person!
  • Seriously, I want more games in this universe, Greenbrier
  • “Open world” feel in a small package
  • Games are quick to setup, play, and tear down

icons8-minus-26 CONS

  • AI opponents a little too random and lack of basic spell card diversity limits interesting decisions to be made during duels
  • Rules are a little difficult to parse, even with 3rd Edition rulebook
  • Linear story limits replay value a bit
  • Card stock is difficult to shuffle

Stacey and the Mystery at the Spooky Cabin – A Spy Club Review

Spy Club

Designers: Jason D. Kingsley and Randy Hoyt
Publishers:
Foxtrot Games and Renegade Game Studios
Players:
2-4 (can be played solitaire with 2+ characters)
Playing Time:
45 Minutes
Campaign Mode:
5 games, replayable with no permanent modifications
MSRP: $45.00
Logged Plays:
5 games solo, full campaign completed
Copy Purchased By Reviewer


“When Stacey and the rest of the Spy Club go on a camping trip at their neighbor’s spooky cabin, they awaken to scary messages written in blood on the walls!  Wait, that’s not blood, it’s lipstick.  Is the cabin haunted, or is somebody else behind this bullying from beyond the grave?” – Back of the book of my theoretical Spy Club story

Turns out that it was the neighbor herself all along who was bullying the kids; she was jealous that she couldn’t be part of Spy Club!   Or at least this was the story that unfolded in my head during my campaign, and is one of 18,000+ unique combinations that can play out in a Spy Club campaign.

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The master case of my Spy Club campaign, I scored 91/100 points.

Spy Club is a family-weight co-operative Mosaic (more on that later) campaign game that is an homage to the “kid mysteries” book genre (Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, Babysitters’ Club Mysteries, etc).  Players take on the role of a group of kids that form a neighborhood spy club to solve local cases.  Over the course of a game, you need to solve a case by determining the five major aspects of it:  the crime that was committed, the suspect, the motive, the location of the crime, and an object involved in the crime.  The artwork of the game by Bartlomiej Kordowski is evocative of a pre-teen mystery book, richly detailed, and very lovely to look at.

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Spy Club’s artwork nails the source material it is based on.

Despite the detective theming, Spy Club is not a deduction or mystery game, but instead a hand-management and set-collection game. Players each have a hand of 3-4 cards that come in six different colors (five colors associated with each of the five aspects of the case, and a sixth grey “distraction” category that typically junks up your hand), and are working together to collect 5 cards of the same color in the middle of the table, solving one of the five aspects of the case.  When players have solved all 5 aspects by collecting a set of cards for each of the 5 colors, they win the game.

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A player’s “hand” in Spy Club

The game follows the tried and true co-op turn structure of “player gets X actions, then the game does some bad stuff”.  Players are given 3 actions a turn to manipulate their hand of cards and commit cards to the middle, possibly getting bonus actions if they can synergize with other players.  A suspect pawn then moves around the table, performing various bad actions depending on the type of card it lands on.  I won’t go over the rules in extensive detail, The Game Boy Geek has an officially sponsored rules tutorial on his YouTube channel, or you can download the rulebook.  Games are quick and streamlined.  The rules are simple and you can easily play a game in 45 minutes even at a full player count.   Spy Club doesn’t offer an official solo variant, but you can control 2 players’ hands solitaire.  Playing as 2 characters doubles the amount of cards a single player needs to track, and there is a memory element to this game of remembering what is on the backside of each clue card, but it is manageable.

As a standalone game, Spy Club is perfectly functional, and even a bit challenging (I only won 2 out of my 5 plays of the game), but not particularly interesting.   You can really only collect one set of cards at a time in the middle of the table, so if you have cards of that color to contribute it’s a no-brainer what to do, and if not there’s not much else you really can do.  If Spy Club’s core game had been sold on its own as a standalone game, it would be just be one of the dozens (hundreds?) of forgettable card games that come out every year.  But Spy Club isn’t just a simple card game, it’s got a whole lot more going for it that make it go from being an average game to a great game, specifically its exciting and innovative Mosaic format campaign system.


THE CAMPAIGN STRUCTURE

Mosaic format” is a term coined by Foxtrot Games to define a type of campaign that is fully resetable with no permanent modification of components, you only unlock a small portion of the the game’s content over a single campaign, and you can play the campaign multiple times with each being a unique experience.  Spy Club is the first in what I’m hoping ends up being a continuing line of Mosaic games by Foxtrot/Renegade.

Spy Club’s campaign is 5 games long, with the first game playing largely like the base game (who knows, maybe there’s a little twist in it…).  At the end of the game, whether you win or lose, you pick one of the aspects’ clues you were able to solve, and unlock the module associated with that clue.  Each of the 39 different clues in the game has its own unique module, consisting of a small subset of cards pulled out of a 174-card campaign deck (similar to Charterstone, for those that have played it).  These modules can introduce new rules, win/loss conditions, scoring opportunities, player powers, actions, and mini-games.  Since you only unlock 4 of these 39 modules over the course of a campaign, by my calculations there are over 18,000 unique combinations of modules, causing no two campaigns to be the same.  Likewise, it would take a group 10 full campaigns (50 games) at a minimum to experience all the content in this game.

Fans of opening sealed content in legacy games or revealing haunts in Betrayal at House on the Hill will experience a similar dopamine rush every time a new piece of content is introduced to the game.  I’ve only seen 4 modules myself, and I won’t spoil anything about them but they all felt unique from one another and took the game in different directions.  Individual mosaic modules that I experienced were typically only used in a single game and then returned to the campaign deck, so keeping track of new rules remained manageable through the entire campaign.  New content unlocked in a module was usually contained to a card or two of rules text, and a few cards and related tokens.

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The full 174-card campaign deck along with assorted tokens that may get used by modules.

I want to give major kudos to Foxtrot Games for also having a comprehensive rules FAQ page online for each individual module in the game.  I think I only had one minor rule question in my entire campaign about a specific module, but I was impressed by how thorough the FAQ just for that single module was.  I know how frustrating rules ambiguities can be in campaign games and not wanting rules mistakes to be compounded from game to game, so I really appreciate the amount of effort Foxtrot put up front to make this game as smooth of an experience as possible.

Given the variability of what can unlock, the campaign doesn’t have a fixed storyline.  The modules have some flavor text associated to them as to why they’re being introduced to the game, which I found didn’t always necessarily correlate to the clue card that unlocked it.  Players are encouraged to discuss among themselves how the various solved aspects come together to tell a story, and players can share their stories on the official Spy Club website.  The game is very flexible in allowing players to come and go between games.  Players can skip games or leave a campaign without any detriment to the group as a whole, and players who join midway wouldn’t be at a disadvantage or feel like they missed out on key story beats.


FINAL THOUGHTS

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Players choose and name characters at the beginning of the campaign (game comes with removable label stickers)

I think Spy Club is an excellent family-weight intro to campaign gaming.  I plan on holding onto my copy for when my daughter is older, and this very well may be the first campaign game we ever play together.  Spy Club manages to scratch a similar itch to opening a sealed packet in a legacy game, without the commitment of a 12+ game campaign or the overhead of a more complex ruleset.  Players looking for a deeper campaign experience may want to look elsewhere, but Spy Club will be a good fit for younger gamers, families, and game groups that want to play through a shorter campaign game (this would be a perfect choice to take on a vacation or weekend trip).  I think that Foxtrot/Renegade have a hit idea on their hands with the Mosaic format, and I can’t wait to see where they or other designers go next with it.


REVIEW SCORE: 8 out of 10 (Great)

icons8-plus-24 PROS

  • Mosaic campaign format is exciting
  • Games are streamlined and fast even with additional unlocked content
  • Excellent rules FAQ system available online
  • Kid-friendly

icons8-minus-26 CONS

  • Core game on its own is a bit underwhelming