Come on in for Next of Ken, where in this week's column we'll bid farewell to a music great, gush unabashedly about The Avengers, and review two Alderac offerings in Thunderstone Advance: Towers of Ruin and Nightfall: The Coldest War. Join us, won't you?
My Book is My Shield and My Mic is My Sword
The world bid goodbye last week to Adam 'MCA' Yauch of the Beastie Boys. He was only 47.
I'm not sure how it was possible to not like or at least admire the Beastie Boys. They came into the wide public eye during MTV's rapid period of growth and based only on "Fight For Your Right (To Party)" it would've been easy to write them off as a one-hit novelty act. However, as time passed they continued to innovate and make great music; their longevity was both incredible and well-deserved. These "white rappers" went from a potential one-hit joke to being considered some of the elder spokesmen in music.
Adam was the director and driving force behind a lot of the Beasties' video work, and these videos for songs like "Intergalactic" and "Sabotage" were always humorous and attention-getting. To some, he was easily the most recognizable face of the band. He was a Buddhist and was very outspoken politically, and had that genuine, nice guy aura that made him well-liked and respected.
I hadn't realized that he was as sick as he had been and his death really caught me by surprise. It also made me realize that while I'd always enjoyed their music, I'd sort of took them for granted. They had been popular for so long, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking these guys are immortal, they'll be around forever, and maybe I'll catch a Beasties show a decade from now, who knows. And while they'll very likely go on making albums, Adam will certainly be missed. It makes you stop and appreciate all of their accomplishments all the more. He is survived by a wife and daughter; my heart goes out to them. He may have belonged to his fans as a creative force, but the loss is even more grevious for his family and closest friends.
Because you'll probably get your fill of "Fight For Your Right", "Sure Shot", and "Intergalactic", I've picked a different song for today's Video Break.
Tell me those guys weren't having fun with each and every thing they did. RIP, MCA.
The Hordes Will Rise For the Fight, Unleash Your Own Beast Inside
From saying goodbye to a respected musician to saying hello to Summer Blockbuster Season 2012...let's talk The Avengers, which I had the pleasure of seeing this past weekend.
First off, you've likely been hearing some pretty incredible buzz about the movie. It smashed records and made over $200 million domestically in its opening weekend.
Let me tell you this--it's worth all of the hype. Every bit of it.
We've been building to The Avengers since Iron Man in 2008. When this ambitious experiment was announced, most of us held our breaths to see if it could truly be done, though I doubt few of us were hopeful at first. With so many superhero movies acting as self-contained silos, now we finally have a living, breathing universe where these heroes interact and team-up. Tell me you didn't get goosebumps at the end of Iron Man when Nick Fury asked Tony Stark, "You think you're the only Superhero in the world?"
I wondered though how any movie could do all of these disparate characters justice. I was grateful to see that each and every character (hell, even Hawkeye) was given their due. When you start dipping into Black Widow's shadowy past, you know that everyone is getting their proper screen time.
It shouldn't be much of a surprise coming from Joss Whedon, who has always been aces at juggling an ensemble cast. The dialogue isn't his generally exaggerated snappy banter, though you do get a lot of vocal reparte among the chief players.
And action? Ooooh boy. One big complaint about so many superhero movies is that we never get the "big battle" payoff that we're usually looking for. X2 was fairly subdued and while the third X-Men went for the epic big-battle finish, it was filled with a lot of characters we didn't give a rat's ass about (good thing they killed Cyclops off-screen like a bitch, huh?)
But we're here to talk about good movies. Sorry about that.
Remember how awesome (in its day) the Superman versus Kryptonian battle scene from Superman II was? Yes, it's been that long since we've had a proper big-scale battle play out on the big screen.
The wait is over. We've got our big, epic battle, and it's a doozy. And as I mentioned before, everyone gets their chance to shine.
It's not just the action, though. From beginning to end, this movie is a labor of love to its fans while never squeezing itself completely into inaccessible nerd-dom. It's a movie that knows how to dole out the appropriate portions of pathos, action, and humor. It's a superhero movie that knows how to be fun without being corny. There are so many laugh-out loud moments peppered throughout the movie (many of them belonging surprisingly to The Hulk--if you don't laugh at what he does at the conclusion of one of the film's fight scenes, you are dead inside.)
This is an instant top 10 superhero movie for me. While it doesn't quite achieve the exact same greatness of The Dark Knight, I think it will be comfortable settling in right there near the top. I need to watch it again, for sure.
Speaking of watching it again, please be sure to stay through the entire credits. There are two scenes in there--one will have you nerdgasming at the prospects of another Avenger's movie, while the other, well...it's awesome. Just awesome. I'll say no more about it.
BIG time thumbs up from me for The Avengers. It's been worth the wait. The only bad thing? Between this and The Dark Knight it just makes the really shitty comic book movies like Daredevil, Ghost Rider, and a slew of others all that more painful to watch. The stakes have been certainly been raised. Man up, Hollywood.
The Sceptre in My Left Hand, I Ever Reign in the Material Land
I've had the chance to sit down with Thunderstone Advance: Towers of Ruin, the expansion/reboot for the Thunderstone series.
Initially, I was a big fan of Thunderstone, especially as it was one of the first of what I thought of as the truly thematic deckbuilders to hit the scene. As more and more expansions hit, as more things got bolted to the system, it did start to feel a little clumsy and weighted down. That's in addition to the fact that the game always did seem to overstay its welcome by half-an-hour or so. And let's not get into the potentially bad selection of cards for a game (weapons too heavy for the selected heroes to use, cards keying off of character classes not present, monsters requiring Magic Attack with none available...you get the idea.)
Learning their lessons from their other deckbuilding efforts, Thunderstone Advance is basically the game as it would have likely originally been released, if they'd had the experience they do now.
The core of the gameplay is intact--it's the same load up your deck with adventurers, spells, and weapons, dive into the dungeon, and kill some monsters. The bulk of the overall improvements specifically are to the selection of cards and the flow of the early game, plus some great strides in card templating that make the cards easier to read and standardizes the timing of battle/after effects.
Early game is not as slow-paced mostly due to the new Regulars, who replace the old Militia. If you've played Thunderstone, you'll know that players often wandered into battles that would end up killing Militia, smiling as they "mourned" these fallen "heroes." I mean, I get that the initial segment of any deckbuilding game has to have you start with crap and work your way up, but the Militia were really, really crappy. Now? Not only do they level up for 2XP rather than 3 (BIG IMPROVEMENT), they also allow you to draw a card if they are equipped with a polearm. That doesn't sound terribly exiciting until you learn that the old Daggers in the starting deck have been replaced by...Polearms. Cool, huh?
There's a pretty swank new board, not just a dungeon board but also one for holding the Village cards. This board ties into the new random card selection process, where the spots on the board are broken up into the different types of cards, and you can't have more than a certain number. So, should you already have all Weapons slots filled in the Village, for example, the next Weapon you reveal you set aside and keep selecting random cards until the specified number have been placed. This prevents lopsided and weird Village set-ups and ensures that a larger variety of cards will be available.
For monsters, each group of monsters now has an associated level, and when you build the dungeon you will only have 1 of each level. Nastier beasties tend to be higher levels. What this does is prevent both ultra-hard and super-easy dungeon layouts. You do sacrifice variety if you're talking just Thunderstone Advance's selection of monsters, but it does help ensure that you won't "lock" the dungeon up as often with beasts that are out of your league.
The last big change is the fact that the game-ending Thunderstone is no longer floating free but is attached to one of three Thunderstone Bearers, basically end-game bosses that you must defeat to claim the Thunderstone. These guys are pretty tough. My favorite is probably Stramst, who will stay at the back of the Dungeon until the last monsters pour out or he is killed. This helps prevent anti-climactic endgames like the original game where the Thunderstone would just sort of float on out of the dungeon.
What did I think of this new repackaging? I've gotta say, they did a really good job here at addressing some of Thunderstone's issues. You're no longer tripping over useless troops quite as often, the Village layouts are varied and more interesting, and the monster mix keeps the game moving at a steadier pace.
Thunderstone though for me has suffered greatly from the presence Nightfall (also from AEG, so I doubt they're losing too much sleep over the "competition.") I like the gameplay of Thunderstone, but even with the improvements it still runs a tad longer than it feels like it needs to, and there's the simple fact that attacking my buddies directly with my minions is much more satisfying than racing them into the dungeon for VP grabs.
The breakdown is pretty simple. If you were a big fan of Thunderstone before, you are in for a real treat. Seriously, they've improved every negative aspect you can think of, and the game is much better for it. If you weren't a fan before, I doubt sincerely this is going to do enough to sway you. It's essentially the same gameplay as before, just cleaner and more efficient. If you were on the fence, it's quite possible that enough has improved with this release that could put you over into being a big fan.
I'm keeping Thunderstone Advance because I think it's best as a thematic 2-player deckbuilder. The one area of Nightfall that I do consider a weakness is its often lacking 2-player experience. Thunderstone isn't a game that I'm going to drag out as often as I once would have. I admire the design, love the theme, but for multi-player deckbuilding, I'll probably go with Nightfall or Puzzle Strike, every time.
However, I will plug their Facebook Thunderstone app; that implementation is AMAZING. All the fun of Thunderstone in about a fifth of the time. Hopefully they'll have the Advance cards on there soon enough.
Let Me Hear Your Balalaikas Ringing Out
Speaking of Nightfall, this will be an AEG deckbuidling two-fer as I've gotten to spend some time with Nightfall: The Coldest War. So far, the Nightfall expansions have judiciously but cautiously been adding new gameplay elements, and the result has been pretty awesome so far. You'd get a peppering of new mechanics in your games without those new mechanics becoming the dominant element. Too often, an expansion will roll out so many bells and whistles that the flavor of the original game is completely swallowed up.
I was a bit nervous when I heard everything that was coming in The Coldest War. New starting decks? New cards to be played "during Combat"? New moon phases? Would this be the time that an expansion shook up the base game to the point of oversaturation?
I'm happy to report back that they have freaking NAILED it with this release. Somehow, despite the fact that more new gameplay elements have been added here than in the previous expansions, it still manages to feel like an organic part of the game's development.
The big thing is the new starting decks. Fans longing for some early game variety will be happy to know that there are now two each of six new cards that you can either use as a new starter, stick with the old starter, or mix and match. Brilliantly enough you don't make your choices until all the drating and public archives have been fully revealed, meaning you get to make informed choices about what cards you want to help you in the early game. Lots of direct damage out there? Bad Smoke will still be your guy. Lots of cheap attackers? You might want to go with JAREK instead, who lacks Bad Smoke's bodyguarding capabilities but provides regenerative blocking skills--and he, like Smoke, hangs around until he's destroyed and not a moment before.
With the new "Combat" effects, now even combat itself is a lot more unpredictable and dynamic. Originally once you assigned attackers and blockers, it was pretty routine to see what was going to happen. Now? Some cards have "Combat" effects that mean you can play them from your hand during Combat to help influence the battle. Technically Nightfall already had this type of effect with Martial Law's Wounds that could double as strength pumpers, but with so many new Combat effects battles tend to be much more exciting. Yes, this is pretty much "combat fast effects come to Nightfall", but I'm okay with that.
Speaking of wounds, for quite possibly the first time you may relish getting them...assuming you end up with a copy or two of the new Wound featured in The Coldest War. It allows you to chain to and from it with any color, so if you're getting beat down and shut out of juicy chains, this just might be the cure to what ails you. It's a very creative idea and I have really enjoyed what they've done with the Wound aspect, turning taking damage into an advantage that can help get you back in the game.
The overall theme of the new cards (beyond the Russian setting) is the health level of minions. Several cards deal with either healing minions or targeting minions that have certain amounts of health. Sophia Otrava, for example, has a Combat effect that will reduce a minion to 1 Health--a nasty surprise for a would-be beefy blocker--but when played on the Chain, she can actually Exile a minion having 1 health. You have to be careful with that sort of effect as you always have to fulfill card effects in Nightfall if you can, so yes, if you're the only player with a 1-health minion, they're toast.
Unless I overlooked it before, the new drafting rules give players larger amounts of cards to choose from for their draft. While I'm still a little hesitant on that due to how it affects how many choices a player has (slowing down the process) it also means that with the much larger selection of cards, that someone is much less likely to get boned as hard on the draft. Then there's the matter of expansion cards getting lost in the growing sea of them; with a larger hand to draft from, this means that players can aim for certain flavors of play more easily. On the whole I think that change is a positive, though it does take away from the purity of a four cards, pick two, remove one from the game, make the last one public archives. Give me a month or two though and I doubt I'll even think about doing it the old way.
This is a stand-alone set and it's a fantastic jumping-in point for newer players. All of the new starter cards are interesting, combat is more involved and even more fun, and the new Wounds all have new Art that makes it easier to see at a glance what type they are. Plus more cards play into the "ghoul/werewolf/hunter/vampire" themes, including the new Moon phases that boost the different factions depending on which one is active.
Nightfall is all about building up your minions and direct damage orders and crushing your buddies into a bloody pulp. It remains the deckbuilding game that has best captured the essence of its CCG forefathers. Nightfall: The Coldest War continues this evolution and development, and they've found just the right pace of introducing new game elements while not overwhelming the core system. Though the game is more complex now than when it first started, I'd feel comfortable recommending this as the perfect stand-alone to experienced gamers. And if you're already a fan? This is a huge homerun, and not in the "Twilight Vampires Playing Baseball to a Muse Soundtrack" kind of way. Thumbs waaaaaaaay up for Nightfall: The Coldest War.
And there you have it--another column in the books. Until next time, crank up a Beastie Boys' song for old times' sake, and keep chucking those dice and chugging those beers. See ya again in two weeks. Thanks for reading!