Right up front, Cloudspire wasn’t made for me. Even with gobs of ways to play, ranging from a solo mode to cooperative scenarios, plus the regular competitive slugfest that goes all the way up to four factions, I can’t see the appeal. Maybe it’s because I have no history with the MOBA genre. Maybe it’s because I have a thing (a buried, unconscious thing) against poker chips.
Or maybe it’s because I like games that aren’t the board game equivalent of a chocolate syrup truck tipping over in slow motion. You know, a plodding mess.
If I had to give the elevator pitch, I’d sum up Cloudspire as fifty percent MOBA — those lane-based strategy games that were all the rage with my teenage cousins before they gave their souls over to Fortnite — and fifty percent production values. In the latter case, Chip Theory is as faultless as ever. The box is big and heavy, laden with neoprene hexes and nuke-proof storage cases and stacks and stacks of plastic chips that practically beg you to splash the pot even though the game features no such behavior. It’s as though somebody had a grudge against the “board” part of board games. If there’s cardboard in this thing, it’s hidden like an egg white at a vegan restaurant.
And as a notion, there’s nothing wrong with either of those halves. The idea is beautifully pure: you have a fortress, your opponent has a fortress. Like most fortress owners, you would prefer to be the only person with a fortress. So you hire bands of warriors who blindly hurl themselves down the paved paths of fantasyland. Since your opponent has the same idea, you can expect a lot of casualties somewhere near the middle. Meanwhile, you’re also building defensive towers, upgrading your fortress with new abilities, and deploying heroes with a game plan beyond “run down this road until you die.”
Like I said, it’s pure of heart.
Pure of heart but clumsy of everything else, just like grandma used to call me. Although there’s a game in here somewhere, Cloudspire seems determined not to let it show. Or maybe it’s that Cloudspire shows too much, terrified that somebody will notice there isn’t much game underneath all the neoprene and plastic.
The overview doesn’t seem so bad. Over the course of four waves, you’re tasked with breaking through enemy defenses and smashing their gate to pieces. To accomplish this, the phases are dutifully arranged: a market for buying mercenaries, followed by everyone building defenses and fortress upgrades, after which armies are amassed, put into formation, and flung in your rival’s direction.
We’ll talk about those armies in a moment. For now, the important thing to note is how much stuff there is to tinker with. Each side has a small handful of towers and approximately a zillion upgrades. Consider the Brawnen, Cloudspire’s most plain-jane faction. Before the action even kicks off, they’ve got loads to consider. Dispatch Platforms are towers that deal splash damage, perfect for taking out conga lines of enemy troops! Drilling Outposts occupy a defensive slot, but if they survive you’ll gain a bunch of
mana source! And that’s before we flip over the chips to reveal another set of towers, both of them even meatier and more tantalizing than the first two. Then there are your tiered fortress upgrades, like the Source Drill for generating extra mana source, Assemblies and Honor Pits and Strongholds that let you roll dice for extra perks or maybe nothing at all, and other spots that let you build new towers. Make sure you read over these options before you make any decisions. Wouldn’t want you slapping down that Drilling Outpost too soon. Cloudspire has perhaps the highest count of “Oops, I wasn’t allowed to build that yet” statements I’ve seen in years.
But the stuff! The units with their keywords! The upgrades with their italic explanations about how an “artillery die” differs from a “forsaken die”! You could get lost beneath such wave of competing perks and upgrades and unit types. Maybe even to the point of drowning, never to break the surface again.
The best part of Cloudspire is the process of building your army. As soon as you’ve finished poring over all those upgrades, you’re handed some command points and tasked with putting your force in order. Like everything else, there are plenty of options to choose from, all with their own strengths and vulnerabilities. And what strengths they are. There are your usual perks, familiar ideas like ranged units or flying units, but for each of these there’s something crazier. Something like Entropy, which transforms your unit into a walking suicide bomb, or Sourcefield for negating all of a unit’s damage by spending equivalent
mana source, or Assimilate for stealing the mana source rewards for defeated units within a certain range, no matter who landed the killing blow. The game’s most intriguing units tweak the makeup of your army in distinct and important ways.
Even how you stack them is crucial. Units can either be stacked on their own — with red health chips underneath each one — or clustered together. Flying solo, your units will stretch into a long line as they march down the path, ultimately bringing as many attacks to bear as possible. Grouped, on the other hand, sees each stack’s top unit absorbing all the lumps. When they die, the unit directly beneath them is cycled to the top. It’s a great decision, giving some tactical depth to your mob. Do you want to protect units until they’re within range of something juicy, or have piles of thugs on the field at once?
There are two major Buts to all of this. Either on its own would present a major problem; together, they’re enough to scuttle everything Clouspire is trying to do.
The first opens with a concession: yes, there are dozens of keywords, and yes, you’ll be constantly flipping over your faction sheet (and probably the market sheet) to match those keywords to their definitions in order to figure out what each unit can do. At its most excessive, you’ll also be demanding to see your opponents’ sheets, because certain abilities are so outlandish you won’t believe Geoff read them properly until you examine the text with your own eyes. Honestly, fair enough. Chip Theory wasn’t about to clutter up all those beautiful chips with 4-point paragraphs explaining each ability.
But they could have actually explained each ability. Cloudspire provides a hundred options, but doesn’t deign to explain them all. The birdfolk Heirs have an entire system built around three keywords, Elfin, Roost, and Roost Roam, which have something to do with kamikaze hummingbirds spawning onto a stack, roosting on certain units, and flitting away to explode stuff. How do these keywords interact? Don’t ask the faction sheet. I’m not even sure it knows. To say you’ll be seeking out an FAQ is an understatement. At times, Cloudspire feels like it’s trying to boost the career of professional FAQ writers.
The second problem is even more pronounced, and appears the instant those army stacks are put into action during the onslaught phase. Now everyone takes turns moving their heroes out to harass rival columns, snipe kills at the last moment, and uncover random destinations on the board — and slowly, painstakingly, dully shuffle the rest of your units forward a few steps at a time.
To call this process languid would miss the point. It isn’t only boring, although it does lay claim to that title. Far worse, the onslaught — the culmination of all those preparations, those upgrades, every spent pip of
mana source and every assigned command point, all your units arranged and stacked — is ninety percent resolved on autopilot. Units trundle up to each other, trade blows, and die, all while steadfastly sticking to their preordained paths.
Oh, there is that remaining ten percent. Your heroes aren’t entirely useless, and can, in some circumstances, swing a fight into your favor. You’re even permitted two “emergency builds,” letting you relive the thrills of the earlier building phase to slap down a tower or two at the right moment. Everything else is a slow trudge, your minions trapped in a singular orbit and deprived of any will of their own. You’ll make occasional targeting decisions or split the difference if there are two paths equidistant from your destination, but beyond those few glimmers of agency it’s pretty much fire and forget. Units march, trade slaps, and provide
mana source to the enemy when they die. It’s like a straight line of dominoes pushed simultaneously from both ends, but less kinetic.
Balance isn’t an issue I often comment on. Most of the time, such complaints have nothing to do with a game’s tuning and more with somebody losing when they feel like they should have won. That said, the units in Cloudspire certainly don’t feel balanced. It’s common for one force to totally shred another, even stumbling upon the enemy gates with health chips to spare. Your heroes, meanwhile, are generally too fragile to face the hordes head-on, instead spending their time stealing kills or performing support roles. Are certain units good at countering other units? Absolutely. As it should be. But there’s no way to scout out an exploitable weakness when everybody’s armies are arranged simultaneously. In that regard, it’s the MOBA formula inverted: battles fought by mobs while your heroes lurk around the fringes, looking less and less heroic each time they’re relegated to support rather than wading into the fray.
In other words, Cloudspire contains loads of decisions, but few are informed, and fewer still have much of an impact on the battle. What’s the point of so much choosing when most of it hardly matters in the end? When you get right down to it, Cloudspire is like meeting people through the most uptight dating site ever conceived: lots of rules, lots of keywords, lots of beautiful components — and not much to do with them.
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Posted on October 30, 2019, in Board Game and tagged Board Games, Chip Theory Games, Cloudspire, The Fruits of Kickstarter. Bookmark the permalink. 38 Comments.
I’m basically the target audience for this game – I love MOBAs like League of Legends and have not forsaken them for Fortnite, and I automatically give a game bonus points for having cool, heavy poker chips. That being said, I cringed further and further in my seat when you explained the fiddliness of this game. Thanks for suffering through it in order to save the rest of us the same pains.
You know me — I live to save people from bad games.
My thoughts exactly on this game.
I really wanted this to be good since I love Too Many Bones.
I found the randomness to be very unwarranted as well as irksome. The towers dealing damage based on dice rolls and some of the landmark chips just being complete tempo swings.
Thank you for your wonderful review as always.
Happy to do it! I considered mentioning the landmark and dice swings, but ultimately decided they hadn’t bugged me as much as everything else. But that’s an excellent additional example of how the game isn’t interested in allowing player decisions. Thanks for pointing it out!
This game struck me as that worst design technique, the 10 minute job. Because that is the entire time it would take to finish the work.
Okay, have the idea and muse over a design. But someone, somewhere should have held up their hand and said, “hey, this is dumb”. Shelve it. Do something else.
Never want to see it again.
Thanks for saving me the money. I was seriously considering hunting this down.
Minions aren’t as on rails as you seem to say. Minions can slow down if there are enough hexes to side step onto. They must always make progress towards the base and they must always use as much movement as possible but how you spend that movement can vary. They can even move backwards as long as they don’t re-enter any hex they have already used this move and they still follow the rules of 1. Making some progress 2. Using as much movement as possible. But its true if there is only a single 1 hex wide path all the way then they will plod straight into each other.
Splitting hairs, there.
With this rule you control the minions and the heroes. Without it you just control the heroes. Seems like a pretty big hair to me.
This game is awful. Thanks for pushing back against the hype.
This review leads me to believe the author played less than a handful of games. I don’t believe that to be a solid basis to build this kind of negative critique, however to each their own and own opinion.
What a rude thing to say. Dan has stated elsewhere that he played six times.
He played a game with 4 (5 if you consider the expansion) completely different factions a whole 6 times? Wow, he must’ve seen everything the game has to offer by then!
Also, to approach this game as if it was a war game with such a preference in mind isn’t a preferred approach IMO. I wonder if some of that experience and influence set the experience up with cloudspire to be a fail from go. There is also something to be said about the fact that the Author doesn’t really like poker chips; “Maybe it’s because I have a thing (a buried, unconscious thing) against poker chips.”
Even at it’s most basic, not liking one of the major components of a game from go, sets this up to be an unfair and failed review.
Thanks for sharing your experience and opinion @Author. Thank you also for hearing mine out.
Rude again. Neither did Dan say he was approaching it like a wargame nor was he being serious about the chips thing. Reread the part you quoted. And nobody has heard your experience or opinion. All you did was complain about assumptions you made.
Dan, since one or two people apparently don’t know what a review is for, let me say thank you for taking the time to play and write about such an expensive game. I think I’m enjoying it more than you are, but you make some very compelling points. Some of them even help explain my own frustrations with the game’s shortcomings.
Thanks for the review, Dan! Definitely made me think about the game and some of it’s flaws. I think this game is what other reviewers describe as a “roommate game” (one that benefits from repeated plays with the same person to explore the nuances and ‘git gud’ at the same rate). That, in my eyes, is its biggest shortcoming. It is a time suck and time away from it will make refamiliarizing yourself with the keywords that much worse.
I am having a much better time with it than you did (bully for me, right). I agree with the above poster that pointed out some of the nuances in minion movement that I think you underplayed in your review. I discounted them as well and largely moved my minions on autopilot until I taught the game to a friend and he promptly trounced me by slow rolling his way past my towers and using his movement cleverly. On close inspection, there is just enough wiggle room in those rules to out-pilot your opponent.
I think there are two really smart design decisions that shine for me for this game. The minions doing straight damage while towers roll dice adds just enough randomness to deterministic combat for my taste and makes minions and towers feel like different but complementary parts of your army. Secondly, I agree with you that picking your army for the turn is the best puzzle this game has to offer. However, knowing what is on the field in terms of towers and landmarks after wave 1 (as well as knowing what units your opponent likes to utilize) does give you enough knowledge to have preferences for your army. Consequently, that didn’t feel like a blinded decision to me.
All the above to say, I enjoyed the game and felt it had some design triumphs. You didn’t enjoy it and you made a compelling argument for why. Cheers. That’s the mark of good criticism.
Thank you for your well-considered thoughts, Tom!
It’s probably the first time I strongly disagree with many of the points you are making here.
As always, good write-up, but I do think that you are misrepresenting the game in this review.
I will be honest, I do not have the time to make an elaborated response, but I did want to voice a dissenting opinion so as to balance things in the comment section.
Free-minded like you are, I know that you will take it well, which is why I feel free to write openly here.
Thanks for weighing in, Timothée! Whenever somebody likes a game I didn’t get along with (or vice versa), I’m completely happy for them. And any failure in communication leading to misrepresentation is my fault and mine alone, but entirely unintentional.
Thank you for the response. I knew you would take it well. If only, we could disagree on such friendly and civil terms regarding other matters, the world would be a better place.
I’m fascinated by the people saying there’s more going on in this game than Dan lets on. From my plays, it’s pretty much exactly as described. Ninety percent automated, ten percent decisions. You occasionally choose where a minion steps, and you make some targeting decisions, but those are exceptions. Ten percent exceptions.
Good review, Dan. Can’t believe my group chipped in for this garbage. At least it sounds like somebody will take it off our hands.
Eh, people like what they like. It isn’t worth getting upset over. I could live without the accusations that I haven’t played the game enough or that I’m deliberately misleading people — what a weird thing to say — but my stance is expressed in the above review. Agree or disagree, I’m not about to waste my time arguing about it.
Tough review. Not without its fair share of points, but I solidly disagree with you on this one. After only 2 full games I’m very excited to play more and do not agree that the game is 90% autopilot. The priorities for building, whether to place towers with your resources or invest them in buildings, what kind of upgrades to get, etc. are all choices. And the knock on keywords, eh, I don’t really put much weight in that as a significant negative. For me thats a selling point for games like this with different factions meant to be asymmetric. Yeah it takes some time to recognize the keywords and understand what the buildings do but it isn’t too bad.
He didn’t say the game was 90% autopilot. He said the onslaught was 90% autopilot. The other stuff was a highlight. He didn’t even knock on keywords like you’re saying. He resolved that it was a good thing it separated the keywords like it did.
If you’re going to disagree with a review, at least know what you’re disagreeing about.
One item that you missed is that if you check the FAQ, they do clarify that player #2 has a chance to fully review what player #1 has decided to deploy in the conquest phase, which means that if you fully understand the game you have an opportunity during one or two of the waves to counter what your opponent is doing.
Several factions do have a lot more interesting conquest phase decisions rather than “march along the path”.
Brawnen’s forsaken (when they do move) have full terrain allowance, meaning that if they are in front they can step sideways and then back onto the path, bottling every other minion behind them until you choose to let out the hordes.
The Heirs have full control over their elfinkaze – deciding when to strike them out from their tower or minions roosts to explode over towers and minion groups.
The Tree people (name forgotten) can choose to stop their taproots and summon new minions – which drastically afffects units’ progress down the path.
Additionally there’s another layer in terrain manipulation that allows you to create triangles of path (which allow far more control of your unit progress) than just trudging along the path.
I haven’t played the other two factions at all yet, but to me there’s enough tactical decision making during the conquest phase that it does not at all feel on rails. It’s not a game with full control over the minions, but that is also not the game style they are going for (in MOBAs you only control the hero unit).
It is a meaty game to get good at, and my only complaint is that it seems to work far better with 2 or 4 players than 3. The 3 player setup has too much of a chance to snowball and let one leader run away with no chance for the other players to respond (possibly fixable if everybody understands the game well, it was one of my first few plays).
Ugh, replace “conquest” with “onslaught” – I screwed up my phase names.
This review is honestly a little embarrassing. I suggest you re-read the rulebook, play a couple more games, or maybe just watch an explanatory video, because almost every one of your major criticisms is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of the rules. I guess that’s what happens when you go into a review expecting to dislike a game.
LOL! Someone’s sore over spending $175 on a game!
On the contrary, I ordered the base game a couple months ago and just last week I ordered both expansions because I’m digging it so much.
Unlike some of the people commenting, I have to agree with pretty much everything you wrote. Cloudspire is currently my number one disappointment of 2019. Total lack of pacing, choices that are obvious for the first half of the game, questions that are buried in a FAQ… I’m selling my copy as soon as possible.
I’ve played 4 games now; three 2 player games and one 3 player game. This game has a steep learning curve. There are a ton of keywords and learning requires BGG, FAQ’s and watching some playthrough videos. But once you’re there, I find there is a wealth of strategy. You can put slower minions in front to slow down the faster ones, you can buy your Earthscapes to position wider paths for your minions and getting your hero to finish off a guy to level him up and get his health back up to full. I can see where you’re coming from but I appreciate a game like this. I’m really curious about the co-op campaign as well.
The best $1 pledge I walked away from in 2018.
I for one am glad that Dan did not enjoy this one. Why? Because I bought his copy, and it is easily in my top 3 of all time. We all can have different tastes, and that is what is great about this hobby. I can completely understand why people are not huge fans of the title, as honestly it would be better implemented as a video game than a board game.
For what it is worth I am in line with I would say 90% of your reviews, so I am glad I did not read this review before buying it off you at the game exchange otherwise I would have stayed away.
PS – Thanks for the BattleCon stuff you included with the buy! Had no idea that I bought it off the Space Biff, otherwise I would have said thank you for all the time that you put into your reviews.
Ha! I live to serve. Anyway, life would be uninteresting if we all shared the exact same interests.
I completely agree with review. I sold it.
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