A Brief Game Review: Level 7: Invasion: Watch The World Burn

Huge hybrid of Civilization, Pandemic, and The X-Files that has its charms, but suffers from a rigid design that offers too few decisions for the amount of time it takes.

When I was fourteen, I would have been completely psyched to play Level 7: Invasion. This is theme-first Ameritrash all the way, a big beautiful box of plastic simulating monsters descending from the skies and desperate decisions and pitched battles and beleaguered scientists trying to keep the fight going just a little longer and HELL YEAH let’s DO THIS THING! My tastes have veered more towards elegance and ease of game play as I’ve hit my forties, but part of my gamer heart will always belong to a teenage boy stomping around a battlefield in a giant robot with laser cannons for arms; I was glad to give this one a try.

On the surface, the theme is easy enough to relate to. You have a friendly alien and the last survivors of his species allied with humanity as they try to fend-off a nigh unstoppable invasion long enough to develop the superweapon that will win the war. Unfortunately, the theme gets less compelling the deeper you go into it. The “friendly” Dr. Cronos has a taste for experimenting on live humans, and was the bad guy of the previous games in what had been a survival-horror-themed series until now. The invaders have legit beef with the Doc and his buddies, and if their behavior on Earth is any indication, they universe may indeed be a better place with the Doc’s civilization dead. The game boils down to protecting a war criminal long enough for his appalling ethics-free experiments to bear fruit against an invasion that would have been avoided entirely if the invaders had refrained from shooting first and asked Earth’s leaders “Hey, mind if we take this asshole off your hands and chuck him into that cute little sun of yours?”

But, never mind that. Alien monsters, drop ships, mutations, superscience, pitched battles, nations burning, world in peril, go!

The game is semi-cooperative. You’re all fighting against the invaders, and anywhere between zero and all of you can win if you can develop the superweapon before the invaders frag you all. Meaning that one or more of you could go the cutthroat bastard route and try to be the last civilization standing in the late game if it looks like you’re going to win, which is interesting in theory but seems badly broken in practice. The players take the role of the five — AND EXACTLY FIVE — human coalitions representing the continents that weren’t wiped the hell out before the game begins. (Sorry, Australia.) If you have fewer than five players, one or more players must control multiple coalitions. In addition to being a clumsy way to handle not having exactly five people at your table, that kinda blows the semi-cooperative element to hell. If you’re playing multiple sides, setting up the player(s) only running one coalition to burn is a colossal dick move with nothing in the rules to prevent it.

In addition, the mechanics governing the superweapon creation mean that certain coalitions MUST survive into the late game for humanity to have any chance, while others don’t. Short version: if you don’t trust the other people at your table, let somebody else be South America. I don’t think the game would lose much, if anything, by declaring that everybody either loses or wins as a team, even if a few of you win posthumously.

Each coalition must manage four different resources (money, food, fuel, minerals), four different technology tracks (military, communication, social, biological), overall population, the terror level of said population, territory, and military boots on the ground. This is handled well enough. It gave the game suitably worldwide scope without feeling cumbersome, and I had one wonderful moment where I realized “Good news! Enough of my populace will die from disease this turn that there will be just enough food to go around!” But I would have appreciated a little more depth. Your four resources all figure into advancing either your technology track or the superweapon project, but that’s ALL fuel and minerals are good for. Opportunities to use them elsewhere in the game would have made them feel considerably more valuable. Hell, more opportunities to influence the events of the game in general would have been welcome.

The biggest weakness with Level 7 Invasion is that it has a lot of complexity, but not necessarily a lot of DECISIONS. Well over half the playtime wound up devoted the automated machinations of the invaders. While waiting to see where the bastards were going to show up next and what collateral damage they were going to do in the process made for some good tension, it also meant a lot of sitting on your hands and occasionally rolling dice. Similarly, once it’s time to fight back and try and drive the invaders off, your only source of potential decision making comes from friendly alien mercenaries you may or may not have hired; otherwise, the battles are purely down to the dice.

There are also some false choices that the game makes you handle. You can either advance the superweapon research that will allow the humans to win, or … you can not advance it. You can move Doc Cronos along what’s obviously the most efficient route to his next research stop, or … you can not move him that way. To be completely fair, you do have to keep an eye on your resources so that when its your turn to advance the superweapon you can take care of business, but that feels more obligatory than interesting.

The box lists a play time of 2-4 hours, which feels wildly optimistic. This is the kind of game where you and four buddies decide to kill a day with a single pizza break in the middle. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; I’ve had and loved my share of marathon Civilization sessions. But I felt like I spent entirely too much of this game watching it instead of playing it to justify the time investment.

Would I play it again? Sure, I guess. If I had some friends eager to try it out, I’d take another crack at saving Earth from certain doom. But if I’m going to look forward to spending this much time on a game, I want more than a middling theme and a crapload of passive card flips and dice rolls to tell me how badly I’m screwed. If something about the theme calls to you, if a good alien invasion fires you up or if you’ve been playing and loving the other games in the Level 7 series, by all means, give it a try. But this is not a must-play. Cue my inner fourteen-year-old in his giant robot tromping away in disappointment.

A Brief Game Review: Tiny Epic Kingdoms — Tiny Little Package, Big-Ass Feel

I’m a sucker for good 4X games both on the tabletop and my PC. I don’t even want to know how many hours days weeks I’ve dumped into Civilization in its various incarnations.

“4X” describes the four basic elements in this style of game: eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate. You start in some little corner of the board, then you explore the world around you, expand out into it, harvest the resources it provides, and wind up in plenty of fights as your neighbors do the same thing, improving your technology and unlocking new abilities all the while. These tend to be heavyweight games; a playing time of 2-4 hours makes a game fairly lightweight within the genre.

… until now.

Tiny Epic Kingdoms, a game that overfunded to the tune of two thousand goddamn percent on Kickstarter, is by far the fasted, simplest 4X I’ve ever played, yet still has the feel of what I love about the genre. This is a marvel of efficient game design and is just a hell of a lot of fun to boot.

Each player takes one of thirteen different factions, each with their own unique technology magic track. Everybody gets a home territory the size of a postcard, two adorably tiny meeples, and a handful of starting resources, and you’re off. The fundamental mechanic is role selection a la Puerto Rico, save that there’s no inherent advantage to being the one to choose one of the options. You can move meeples on a map you already occupy, move meeples to somebody else’s map, spend resources on magic, your victory-point sink tower, or new meeples, or exchange resources you have for resources you want. If somebody selected an option that’s useless to you, you may instead harvest more resources based on what lands your meeples occupy.

When two meeples occupy the same space, they fight! Battles are won based on how many resources the players are willing to spend; high bidder wins, ties go to the defender. (There’s also an alliance mechanism I’m looking forward to seeing in action, but it’s explicitly omitted from the two-player game, and so far I’ve only played this with Jasmine.)

You win by having lots of meeples on the board. Or by pursuing your magic tree and exploiting whatever VP-based power awaits at the end of it. Or by building the most bad-ass tower. Or by camping on the most VP-giving spaces.

I love this game. The rules are simple but have enough depth to be satisfying. The varying magic tracks give the game enough asymmetry to give each faction its own feel without completely turning the rules on their head. You’re making meaningful choices constantly, and have to think far enough ahead to avoid getting painted into some really unpleasant corners.

This is a full-on 4X game that plays in thirty freakin’ minutes. The ludicrous piles of Kickstarter cash the makers are currently Scrooge McDucking their way through show in the absolutely gorgeous artwork and production values. When this thing goes on sale properly, I can’t imagine it’ll cost much more than $30, and it will take up a tiny footprint on your shelf.

If you’re a fan of the genre, this is a must-buy, either for seducing new players into the ways of 4X or as a lightweight yet delicious snack for yourself. Highly recommended.

A Brief Review of Gone Girl

I would respect any opinion of Gone Girl from “It was the best movie I’ve seen this year” to “It filled me righteous and implacable fury and I will never watch anything David Fincher directs again.”

Hell, it’s possible to walk away thinking both.

I’m being vague because discussing what’s problematic about this movie is basically impossible without giving away some huge stonking surprises. And I don’t want to spoil anybody on the movie who might actually see it because it’s really goddamn good, a tense, twisty thriller with uniformly excellent performances that kept me engaged throughout.

But the problematic bits are … yow. This movie winds up embracing some cultural narratives that desperately need to fuck off and die.

Ultimately, did I enjoy this movie? Yes. Yes, I did. But through most of it, there was an annoying douchebag MRA in my head who kept punctuating various scenes with a fist pump and an enthusiastic “AMIRITEBRO?!?!”, and I gotta admit, I never really got that guy to shut up. Recommended for fans of exceptionally well executed lurid thrillers who either do not have certain liberal viewpoints or who are willing to temporarily push them aside for the sake of a gripping story.