Villainous (Ravensburger, 2018)

Basic details: 2-6 players (competitive); 40-120 minutes (depending on number of players)

Dates played: July 3, July 4, and July 5, 2020

Expansions played with: Evil Comes Prepared (2019); Wicked to the Core (2019)

Basic details: You are a Disney villain, trying to achieve an objective specific to your character, while possibly also trying to prevent other villains from achieving their objectives, or at least slowing them down.

On each turn, you move your villain to a new location on your 4-location player board and carry out as many of the depicted actions as you want. Actions include gaining power tokens, playing a card, discarded cards, moving a card from a location to an adjacent location, activating a card, vanquishing heroes, and invoking your opponents’ fate cards.

Each villain has 2 decks of cards: a fate deck and a villain deck. The fate deck contains heroes (that may or may not need to be vanquished to achieve your objective), item cards that can be attached to heroes, making them stronger, and effect cards that can otherwise throw wrenches into your plans. The villain deck contains allies, which are slightly less evil villains, items that can be attached to allies, making them stronger, and effects, which usually let you take some kind of additional action that may help you eventually achieve your objective.

When your opponent plays a fate card against you, they draw the top two cards of your fate deck and choose one to play on your board. With few exceptions (like Yzma), they choose where to place any hero they have drawn. When a hero is placed on your board, they block half the actions for that location, and usually can only be removed by being vanquished by allies of equal or greater strength. When a hero is vanquished, any allies involved in the vanquishing are discarded back to the villain deck, while the hero is discarded back to the fate deck.

We blew through 3 games this weekend: Yzma vs. Prince John; Hades vs. Dr. Facilier (The Princess and the Frog), and Scar vs. Jafar.

Color Commentary: This game is fantastic, if for no other reason than they include Yzma, from The Emperor’s New Groove, as one of the villains. TENG is probably my favorite Disney movie, and completely underrated and often forgotten. Plus, her objective is clever: defeat Cuzco using Kronk. But there’s a twist, because Kronk can turn from being an ally to being a hero, the only remedy to which is to use an effect card to place him back in your hand and start the Kronk process over.

I think each package (villain, villain board, fate deck, villain deck, objective, etc.) is pretty clever, and they also create interesting dynamics with how you interact with other players. For instance, in the second game, I played Hades and M played Dr. Facilier, but also took a fate-heavy strategy, which basically made it impossible for me to win. Hades needs to start his turn with 3 titans at Mt. Olympus (far right location). However, titans must be played in the Underworld (far left location), and playing heroes can lock them and make them unmovable without an unlocking card. Also, unlike regular cards, titans can only be moved with special cards, as opposed to with a regular move-a-card action. So by M playing a fate-heavy strategy (he also had 2 locations from which he could invoke fate, and those locations were also pretty useful in general, so he visited them frequently), he could lock and re-lock and sometimes move my titans faster than I could get them to Mt. Olympus, because he had heroes on all my locations and thus half my actions blocked, severely limiting my options each turn. I briefly had 1 titan in Mt. Olympus, at which point he played a hero that let him move a titan, which was then moved onto a location with a hero that automatically locked any titans that landed there. My other 4 titans never made it past Mt. Olympus, and even then, 2 of them were locked and unable to move until I could cycle through and reshuffle my villain deck. I invoked fate less often against Dr. Facilier, and though doing so more often might have slowed M down a bit more, it was just a matter of pace, not possibility.

Compare this with the 3rd game, though, where it would be impossible for M to win if I didn’t use invoke fate cards. Jafar needs the Genie under his control, and the Genie is found in the fate deck. Scar’s objective is also easier to accomplish if other players invoke fate, although Scar at least has cards that let him look through the fate deck himself.

Thoughts from M: In the first game, I was Prince John, who had the pretty simple objective of accruing 20 power tokens. This seemed too easy, though, so I fiddled around with other strategies for a bit, and Petra won. In the second game, I was more aggressive, and decided from the beginning to play a fate-heavy strategy, just to see what happened. In the 3rd game, I couldn’t really figure out a best strategy and fate wasn’t thwarting in the same way against Scar as it was against Hades, as Scar needs to vanquish heroes to achieve his objective.  (Also, this game is evil as it had me fighting again Robin Hood, but then again monarchs are made up of the better families amongst us and do deserve to rule.)

In general, I think mixed strategies probably won’t work in 1 on 1 games as well as they would against more opponents, so against a single other opponent, I think it’s best to decide on a strategy early on and sticking with it and invoking it consistently are key. That said, it does seem to be a flaw in the game that fate (either invoked or not invoked) can make it functionally or actually impossible for a villain to achieve their objectives, because then players could just lock another player out, which definitely diminishes the enjoyment that player would get out of the game.


Castellion (Z-Man Games, 2015)

Basic details: 1-2 players (cooperative); 30 minutes

Date played: June 29, 2020

Gist of the game: You are building a castle. To win the game, your castle must successfully overcome 3 ordeals, ensuring that you have the necessary defense fortifications and a sturdy foundation for each ordeal.

To set up the game, place 1 each of the 3 ordeal levels (Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3) face-up on the table. Each ordeal card specifies what defensive fortifications you need/what happens to your foundation and the number of traitors that will trigger the ordeal. Shuffle the two sets of dream tiles separately: 72 regular tiles, which contain 12 traitors and 12 “safe” tiles, which contain no traitors.

On each turn, draw a tile from one of the two sets. If it is a defender (i.e., non-traitor), you may place it or discard it. If the tile is a traitor, you must place it next to the ordeal card you are working toward. Once you accumulate the specified number of traitors, or you complete the 6×6 grid, you will trigger the ordeal.

To place a defender tile, you must follow 4 rules. After the 1st tile is placed, tiles must be orthogonally (not diagonally) adjacent to each other. With the exception of the bottom row, tiles must be placed above another tile (no dangling tiles), and tiles depicting the same shape (circle, square, triangle) cannot be placed next to each other. Finally, the castle may not exceed a 6×6 grid. To discard a defender tile, simply place it face-up in the discard pile.

There are 3 defensive formations: a 2×2 grid, a 4×1 line, and a 1×4 line.  Tiles of the same faction (they have names, but are 4 different colors)

You lose the 1st ordeal if you don’t have the required defensive formations specified on the ordeal card or if you do not have 6 tiles in your bottom row (the foundation). If you do have the defensive formations and a complete foundation, you proceed.

For the second ordeal, you destroy your current foundation so that the 2nd row is now the foundation. If this new foundation is not complete, you lose. If the new foundation has 6 tiles, you proceed.

The 3rd ordeal is similar to the 1st. You must have the required defensive formations and a complete foundation to win.

There are three levels of difficulty: introductory, base, and advanced. With the base and advanced levels, new defender features come into play, like letting you move tiles around within your castle and being able to violate some of the defender placement rules.

Color commentary: This is a quick and fun game, though I would like to renew my mild complaint about games that don’t have a single end point that you work toward and then determine victory. Nautilion was similar, where I would realize halfway through the tile path that I could no longer win. In Castellion, I never even survived the 1st ordeal, which makes the whole thing very anti-climatic. This meant that the projected 30 minute play time was really more like 5-10 minutes, depending on how quickly I drew traitors. It was still fun, but simultaneously slightly disappointing.

I lost on the 1st ordeal in the introductory level. I had a complete foundation and 2 of 3 defensive formations.

Because I understood the mechanics of the game, for the 2nd attempt I moved up to the base cards. I also lost on the 1st ordeal with 3/4 of each of the 3 defensive formations and 5/6 of my foundation complete. Using some of the defender abilities triggered by a discard might have helped, but I’m not convinced of that. Probably I should have started taking from the safe pile after I drew the next-to-last traitor card.

The game is fairly portable: you need room for up to a 6″x6″ grid, 3 cards and a row for traitor tiles next to each, two stacks of tiles, and a discard pile.

Thoughts M might have had if he had played: I think there’s definitely strategy here, like when to draw from the safe pile, and where to try to position your defensive formations, but so much of the game is also simply luck, based on what tiles you draw. Perhaps discarding also becomes strategically advantageous, to ensure that you’re not clogging up your castle with defenders that aren’t actually advancing either your foundation or your defensive formations. Also, since the 2nd ordeal always necessitates destroying your foundations, it seems like you should plan for formations to only start in the 2nd row, or a 1×4 formation that you need for the 1st ordeal but not the 3rd.

On further reflection, there certainly is an element of luck in this game, but there’s also plenty of room for strategy, especially in the base and advanced levels, when the defenders can do more, and sometimes do better, when they are discarded rather than placed.

BarBEARian Battlegrounds (Greenbrier Games, 2018)

Date played: June 27, 2020

Basic details: 2-4 players; 20 minutes

Gist of the game: You lead a team of bears -aka the most magnificent creatures to be found in the known universe- who want the most glory for their village. To gain glory, you need to earn resources (which can be traded for glory) and win fights (which allow you to steal another bear’s glory). The first bear to gain 7 glory tokens wins.

Players start the game with 2 glory tokens and 3 dice. Over the course of the game, players can buy up to 2 additional dice and 5 more glory tokens. Players also have village boards on which to allocate their dice and a screen so that their choices are made secretly. Players are given 2 trial cards, from which they select 1. Each player also has access to a set of upgrade cards that they can purchase. Resource and specialist tokens (which are purchased with resource tokens and help players gain more resources) are placed in a community pile, as are 5 additional neutral dice that can be hired out by players for a turn.

Rounds of play contain 4 phases. In the planning phase, players roll their dice simultaneously and announce their results for everyone. They then place their screen in front of their village board and play their dice on the board secretly. On their village board, they can select various locations for their dice: battleground (offensive fighting position), barracks (defensive fighting position), or on the honey-, faith-, or ore-production areas. The battlefield can use dice only, while the barracks and resource areas can also use specialist tokens. Once everyone has placed their dice, players remove the screens and resolve the actions.

In the brawl phase, battles occur. If 2 players attack each other (the village boards have a slot for attacking each other color), there is a clash. The player with the higher dice total wins the clash. The dice value of the loser is subtracted from the dice total of the winner to provide the winner’s strength when encountering any potential defense. If the attacker has a higher dice value than the defense, the attacker successfully raids the village and has the choice of either a glory token or 2 resource tokens of the loser’s choice. Ties go to the attacker.

After battles are resolved, the gather phase occurs, when players collect the resources produced by their dice and specialist tokens.

In the build phase, players can use their resources to buy specialist tokens, more dice, upgrade cards, and glory tokens. Resources can also be spent during the planning phase to change a die value or to obtain one more or additional dice for the turn. Players can also lock their glory tokens, so that they cannot be stolen after a lost battle.

Color commentary: Look out, Hanabi. You have a new competitor for the role of marriage-breaker. Listen. The game has bears, which basically dictated that we purchase it. Little did I realize that the game would descend into belligerence and aggression, wave of attack after wave of attack when all I wanted to do was collect resources. I could also probably be a more gracious loser, but when every turn you have a glory token ripped away from your little bear paws, it starts to hurt. When the opposing bear has more glory tokens of your color than of their own, it stings, because the only thing that enabled them to win was your tearing down turn after turn.

Ok, aside from the melodrama, I think this would maybe play better as a 3- or 4-player game, where battles may feel a little less like personal attacks and a sign of some kind of deeper aggression and resentment. When it’s just 1 on 1, it feels more brutal. I also had made the strategic decision to focus on gathering resources and buying my way to glory, and had successfully locked up several glory tokens, but had depleted my stock of them and was going to have to start buying “neutral” glory tokens from colors not in the game. But M bought a couple upgrade cards that greatly enhanced his fighting and looting prowess, and he was able to steal glory tokens before I could get them locked up. I think this was maybe the most frustrating. Because one of M’s upgrades allowed him to use additional dice in combat, and because you could never play 2 dice in a single area unless the dice shared the same value (barracks were slightly different because there were 2 slots), I was never going to be able to mount an adequate defense, and since combat is all-or-nothing, devoting nothing to defense and everything to resource production still seemed like the best strategy to me, even though it was a moderately-paced bleeding of resources and glory tokens.

Because of the dice, this game feels a little less portable than card games. If you roll carefully, or have a little dice tray, it could probably work. Personally, I have a lovely image of playing this game in a bar and bringing a dice tower with me. Aside from the dice issues, this game probably requires a 4-top to be able to accommodate the boards/screens and community piles of resources, even for just 2 people. But I think a 4-top would still work for 4 people.

Thoughts from M: I have a feeling that, in a 2-player game, if one player gets out to an early lead, the other player is best served by being aggressive with attacks. And given that this is actually pretty likely to happen, depending on how specialist tokens end up getting distributed, the game may very well become a zero-sum contest of attrition quite quickly. Nonetheless, even an aggressive strategy might not work every time, unless your opponent is a schmo…I mean, gentle soul (love you, Petra!) (P here: Uh-huh) who never attacks back and mounts only paltry defenses, but yet still used dice to mount defenses in a way that was so predictable, I was perpetually awaiting the arrival of proof of a mixed strategy. If both players are using nearly all their dice for combat, resource production is likely to slow down, and interestingly, players may be confronted with a difficult decision to make about dice allocation, since a 6 is excellent for the battlefield, but also the only way to lock a glory token (when placed in the faith production area).

Because I wasn’t on the receiving end of the brutality, I think I enjoyed the game more than Petra did, but it would also be interesting to see how the game plays either with an agreement to never attack or when both players are in full aggression mode.

Playing with more than 2 players would also be interesting, because as Petra alluded to above, I think it would change the dynamics of gameplay and increase the strategic decision-making about who to attack and what kind of defenses to mount.