Previewpalooza: Bullet, Intrepid, Pax Viking
Woe is me. I have let too many previews pile up, and now the reaper is coming to collect his due. What follows are three games that I’ve played only in limited fashion — digitally, in prototype, with unfinished components or rules — but certainly enough to get excited about. In other words, it’s fun to be enthusiastic, but be warned that the final game might be totally different from what I actually played.
Cool? Cool. Here we go.
There are two reasons I don’t play shoot ’em ups. First, reflexes. Second, the word “shmups.”
In the process of porting the genre from digital to cardboard, Bullet — no, I’m not going to keep adding that cutesy little heart — makes the whole thing bearable. Crud, more than bearable; this one of the most interesting timed games since Level 99’s own Millennium Blades. That element of speed is at the heart of Bullet: every round, a bunch of, um, bullets are transferred from your bag to your mat. Your goal is to clear as many as possible, using some mix of special actions, combo cards, and a limited pool of energy. Better yet, any bullets you clear will be added to an opponent’s bag next round. Clever players can even glance at rival boards to determine which bullets will be the hardest for them to deal with. That’s currently beyond my level, however, especially since I’ve only been able to play on Tabletop Simulator, which undoubtedly sheds much of the game’s tactility and information flow.
It will surprise no one who’s played a game from Level 99 in the past decade that the cast is a big part of the draw. Each character packs her own signature playstyle. While everybody is interested in arranging combos with the right numbers and colors, Adelheid Beckenbauer transforms bullets into wilds that can fit easily into any situation. Ling-Ling Xiao and Ekolu Kapakahi hunt for specific numbers in order to clear entire swaths of their boards at once. And Mariel Martin even appears on her board in person, darting around to smack bullets out of the air. I’ve only played half of the eight characters so far, but each one has provided a fresh challenge.
In an odd way, Bullet reminds me of The Quacks of Quedlinburg, and not only because they both have draw bags. Like Quacks, every draw is a gamble, but one that’s informed by the situation on your board and by the bullets passed your direction. In Bullet, for example, you’re required to draw all of your chips before the round ends, but you remain free to take actions or make combos in between draws. As your board grows more crowded, it becomes easier to make combos and clear bullets, while also increasing the likelihood that one will slip past your defenses. It’s a sweet spot between risk and reward that makes each draw both gratifying and nerve-wracking.
My one complaint? In its current format, Bullet only plays with four. Given the simultaneous nature of the game, some additional bullet tokens and power-ups would have let it go all the way up to eight without adding any overhead or extra time. That would have made it a no-brainer for larger game nights. Sticking to four pits it against a lot of competition.
Still, it’s a lively one, a rattlesnake of a game that ratchets up the pressure without burning too much gray matter.
Bullet is on Kickstarter for another five days.
Disclaimer: Intrepid was originally going to license the Space-Biff! name for its title. Then Jeff Beck examined the contract I sent over. In hindsight, seventy percent royalties was ambitious on my part.
Dice games are about managing chance and chaos. Intrepid is about trying to survive aboard the International Space Station during a disaster. Same thing, really. Both times I’ve played it, the scenario was basically the same as that Sandra Bullock / George Clooney romcom. Thanks to a big explosion, a wall of debris is hurtling across Earth’s orbit and impacting with the ISS every couple hours. To keep the station together long enough for rescue to arrive, the crew will—
Roll tons and tons of dice. More dice than you’re thinking. Big chunky handfuls of the things.
What makes Intrepid interesting, though, is how you massage the outcomes of all those rolls. When I played, everyone was in charge of a different resource like nutrition, power, oxygen, and heat, with fluctuating requirements for each — by which I mean they usually go up rather steeply. As we utilized and repowered modules, we gained access to new tricks. These tricks revolve around the international part of the ISS, because each nation brings their own unique approach to handling the crisis. Some build matches, or unlock temporary rolls, or rotate dice, or plug dice into modules for more dice. There are many approaches, and each brings their own advantages and drawbacks.
The resulting game is more than cooperative — it’s collaborative. In the same spirit as the actual ISS, players are encouraged to build upon their own strengths while remaining aware of everybody else’s needs, a sort of “all for one and one for all” that becomes the slender difference between the station’s survival or its untimely decommissioning with all hands aboard. The entire enterprise can seem like a multiplayer solitaire game, but thinking of it that way is guaranteed to benefit nobody. Failing to share enough information and resources caused us to reenter the atmosphere and break apart.
Stern stuff. And also an approach to cooperative games that I can get behind.
Intrepid will appear on Kickstarter on June 23rd.
Pax Viking has been pitched as a gentler introduction to the Pax Series. Which raises two questions: how gentle, and how Pax?
There’s little doubt about the first answer. Teaching a game like Pax Renaissance, Pax Transhumanity, or Pax Pamir can take much longer than a single play. Expect thirty minutes to run through the rules, plus half a play before any of your moves adopt any context, plus another two or three plays before you’re comfortable nudging the board and market to suit your long-term plans. Heck, even having long-term plans means you’ve spent a few hours turning these things over.
By contrast, Pax Viking can be taught in ten minutes. I know this because I’ve done it on no fewer than five occasions. And my pupils performed quite well, thank you.
The sky-high concept is immediately approachable, at least compared to Porfirio Diaz’s reign of Mexico or the global campaign of emancipation — topics that required a few explanatory notes before tossing players into the deep end. Here, you’re Vikings exploring the world, chasing rumors and opportunities, making friends and worshiping gods, and hopefully becoming the biggest darn Viking to ever eschew horns on his or her helmet. The rules are streamlined, although they hit a number of familiar systems: a market for purchasing opportunities, action limits that always seem one point shy of actually achieving your aims, and victory conditions that tend to reward scheming and hanging around in second place until the right time to make your move presents itself.
The bigger contrast is whether it holds together as a continuation of — and an introduction to — the Pax Series. For the most part, yes, although there are some thematic niggles to consider. The good news is principally mechanical. The market is streamlined down to one row from the usual two, but this keeps the action moving at a steady clip. Stalled rounds are rare, and most actions beget immediate effects that alter the state of the board. The game’s most interesting element appears in the form of four special actions that are only available to whichever player holds a majority of a particular type of follower. Having the most Swedish followers, for example, lets you draw from the market and possibly settle for free, while embracing Christianity with gusto can let you convert far-off tokens with ease. These actions provoke major swings but can be difficult to access, encouraging jarls to wrestle for control over multiple domains that might not be directly related to a particular match’s randomized victory conditions.
Thematically, I’m less convinced. Oh, the whole thing coheres well enough. Sailing halfway across the known world to follow up a half-understood rumor feels like a very Norse thing to do. But going a-viking is certainly the least novel setting the series has produced. Unlike the plumbed depths of its sister titles, Pax Viking sticks to paths oft trod, and seems less intrigued with history’s unswept corners. At no point did I feel like I was learning history as I reshaped it.
Then again, this very well could have been another limitation of playing a game in prototype form, because the tiles and victory conditions were still a work in progress. The good news? I can say without reservation that each iteration proved more full-bodied than the one previous. The core concepts remained firm, but each tweak brought it closer to the sort of game I would gladly use to introduce my warier friends to the Pax Series. I’m eager to see what the final version looks like.
The pledge manager for Pax Viking closes in only a few days. Yikes!