4-player Terraforming Mars with Preludes, Colonies and Venus Next at the League of eXtraordinary Gamers ‘Legends of Summer’ event!
This French-designed classic went back to Kickstarter in Dec 2018 and has been a much-anticipated arrival for me. After about 3 hours (no exaggeration involved) of punching and organisation – here is a first look at the contents and an initial play through.
Here is the initial track set up and grid placements (I chose Track 31 from the official tracks because I wanted an excuse to use the sweet bridge overpass).
Mistakes: I made a few! In hindsight, I definitely ignored the overtaking rule a couple of times. Looking forward to having another go!
If you’ve come here looking for solo play reviews – welcome!
What We Are Playing is not limited to solo play reviews – but we’re getting a nice collection. I love a good competitive multiplayer game . . . when I can get one. But sometimes I (and probably you) must, or prefer to, play solo. I played 33 different games solo in 2019, and enjoyed most of them.
Some games go really well solo; some are even a bit better in that mode; others are . . . the word ‘limp’ comes to mind 😦
Are popular games actually fun? Are they any good solo? Will you like them? These are the questions we’re trying to answer in our What We Are Playing solo play reviews.
You can click on the ‘solo play review’ category in the top menu or side navigation to find these – or here is a current list (click any picture for the review):
Forge me up a silk and mithril mace with quartz highlights, will you?
Smiths of Winterforge is a Family level game of Short + length. It is playable by 1 to 6 players.
This review focuses on the solo play experience.
Smiths of Winterforge has a built-in solo mode with a custom deck of solo cards for variety – it is a ‘beat your own score’ mode of play.
The best bits of this game are the use of weird and wonderful materials to craft the desired items. Fancy some birch and bronze boots? This is the game for you 😉
Also, my version (Collector’s Edition) has some very, very sweet metal coins (call me shallow, if you wish… I will not dispute it.)¹
The worst bit of Winterforge solo is that it loses a bit of the interest and tension. The materials in the market don’t rotate enough for real interest; there’s not enough conflict / competition and it lacks that compelling feeling which the multiplayer game has.
Smiths of Winterforge does a good job of delivering the feeling of working away in your dwarven forge. Each contract blueprint which you take indicates how many of each type of component you need – say, one ‘base’, one ‘binder’ and one ‘decorative’ element. At times, you’ll get a bonus for a specific component – say, +2 to forge a breastplate with bronze – but nothing forces you to use specific items. You may think that boots would make sense with horn and hide – but birch and bronze will do the trick! Now, what can I make with silk, twine and rubies….?
Forging has a planning element and also a luck element – the components contribute dice to a pool, and better (more expensive) components contribute dice with higher values. If you roll your forging target number (after skill, material, and crew adjustments) then… success! Quartz decoration will add a d6 towards forging, but (much more expensive) diamond delivers a d12 + d4. Failure on your first attempt is not unusual – but all is not lost! If you stick to the task, each effort gains +1 by adding ‘work tokens’ until the crafting is done.
Adding the right crew, and getting the cash to fund the components is part of the mix too. Successful crafting will improve your skill in jewellery, weapons or armour – whatever you successfully forge. You’ll need this skill because, throughout the game, you’re working towards your royal contract, which will require a decent level of skill, the fanciest of components, and a dash of luck.
The deck of solo cards simulate events which occur during the limited number of rounds. They do add variability and replayability to the game, together with the random draw of components and contracts.
Unfortunately, Smiths of Winterforge falls a little flat for me as a solo play experience – the solo cards are (in my opinion) actually better when added to the multiplayer game, to foil or enhance the plans of several competing dwarves at once.
I’m normally open-minded about ‘beat your own score’ solo games – A Feast for Odin and At the Gates of Loyang are two of my favourites, and retain a real challenge as solo games – but this method is not a great success in Smiths – the solo really needs an Automa or alternate solo challenge, in order to be a satisfying solo experience.
BoardGameGeek rates this game as 2.36 out of 5 in weight, (at the time of publication of this review), though that rating doesn’t distinguish between solo and multiplayer games and so is not adjusted to reflect the changes involved in solo play. I consider this rating slightly overstates the complexity of the game – Smiths is a fairly simple move-and-act, collect-and-apply-resources game. There is a modest amount of simple engine-building, and a few ways to score points (assuming you include the optional ‘laneways’ expansion which comes in the base box), but I consider it ‘lighter’ than that BGG rating.
It appears that Smiths of Winterforge has been a bit of a sales disappointment for the publisher, because it’s widely available and cheap at the moment. It is a crazy low $29 from DungeonCrawl at the moment – it’s a lot of game, for that price. However, I don’t recommend buying it if you only plan to play it solo – it’s much better with 3 to 5 players².
¹ I doubt you will get these sweet metal coins in the retail version for the current low, low price, so please check to avoid disappointment.
² Technically it plays 6, but with some special rules – I’ve tried that; stick to 5 maximum, in my opinion.
I have never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men…
Henry David Thoreau
‘It’s a train game, but … not really. Actually it’s a slightly mad, complex, deep, balanced worker placement game – full of scenarios and every variant and twist you could think of.’
Snowdonia Master Set is a Fanatic¹ level game of Full² length for 1 to 5 players.
The best bits of this game are:
1. the challenging decisions it forces on you as you balance the order and availability of actions – just when you think you’ve got your next few turns planned…. that weather mechanic!
2. the ‘events’ mechanic which sees events happen in a predictable order, but with unpredictable timing. This is just great – it gives each game a feeling of progression and requires flexibility and risk mitigation; and
3. the sheer breadth and range of the scenarios – you don’t have to settle for the original Snowdonia railway: travel to Germany, Japan, Tibet or even time-travel as you play. I mean, when it includes scenarios put together by designers as eminent as the great Hisashi Hayashi – and that’s just one of 18 major scenarios – this is a lot of game!
The worst bit of Snowdonia Master Set is the stencilling on the wooden pieces – the workers and surveyors look weird and pretty ugly, to be frank, and the goats (mini-expansion, included) are hideous. Also, this game has a significant cost and limited availability.
This review does not cover the Botdell solo mode in detail – I’ve played against that once, am still getting the hang of it, and will probably do a separate solo play review of that.
Snowdonia really captures the feeling of toiling to carve out a rail line up a mountain – clear rubble, lay track, prepare the stations, and race to the top! There are multiple ways to gain points as you play, and you’ll probably need to exploit all of them to some extent, if you want to do well.
Contract cards introduce a neat dynamic: end-game goals which can deliver big chunks of points, but each also has a one-off in-game benefit, which can be a real boon.
The engine building in Snowdonia is limited, but literal- you build engines (but just one at a time) which are a sacrifice to build, but deliver ongoing benefits.
The components in this game are fantastic – chunky, colourful and well produced.³
In addition to the scenarios there are a range of optional mini-expansions included – for example seasons, and wagons, which I think I would include in every game from now on, and … more whimsical ones like the Abominable Snowman, which might only get a run occasionally.
Replayability? Well, it’s ridiculous. With 18 major scenarios, mini expansions and countless promo expansions (you use 6 trains per game but they give you over 100 😵) – I think you could play this game hundreds of times and still find it challenging and interesting.
BoardGameGeek rates this game as 2.89 out of 5 in weight, (at the time of publication of this review). Honestly I think that is way under what it would be rated if the many, many scenarios and variants in the box are taken into account.
Snowdonia Deluxe Master Set is expensive and of limited availability – currently just via Guf in Australia ($200). Totally worth it though, and definitely comparable or superior in content to similar deluxe games like the Eagle-Gryphon games.
These are, of course, our opinions only.
¹ I debated whether to rate this as an Enthusiast or Fanatic level game. I consider the decisions about when to excavate, build, convert and take other actions to be quite tricky, and a suboptimal choice can be quite punishing and hard to recover from- there are no significant catchup mechanisms in this game. For me, that puts it into the Fanatic category. Besides, if you buy this massive beast of a game, you’re clearly a fanatic 🤣😝
² some scenarios are quicker than this, and over time you’ll definitely get faster, but this game has a significant setup and pack down time, mainly due to the vast number of cards, options and scenarios.
³ except for the horrifying goats mentioned previously. Seriously, you might have nightmares.
Good advice for young (and not so young) boardgamers:
I’m keen to discuss the catchup mechanisms in The Rise of Queensdale which I’m part way through playing at present – do you like catchup mechanisms in general, or dislike them?
I see catchup mechanisms (and game balancing in general) as one of the major factors distinguishing modern game design from traditional game design and it’s interesting to see how they are managed in various games.
Spoiler Alert: these pics and the rest of this post contain spoilers for up to Epoch 4 in The Rise of Queensdale so read no further if you want to avoid them.
There are both short and long term catchup mechanics in RoQ and they seem very effective to me.
The Robber Baron tokens and Crown track help players who did poorly in the most recent game by giving them a head start and a buff in the next game. The Robber Baron gives randomised rewards and powers (such as trading one of your workers for another player’s which you prefer), and the Crown track allows carryover of a few points from a previous game which you didn’t win – those are the short term mechanisms.
In addition to that, players who fail to reach their campaign goals in a game get ‘seals’ which are then used to add stickers to the dice workers, improving their ‘talents’ in a way that lasts for the whole campaign – a longer term catchup mechanism by way of ‘dice building’.
So far they are working well in our campaign – the leader looks at risk of being caught and overtaken by the other player who now has significantly better dice, but is still hanging on to a lead (so far) – each game is close.
I think it’s an effective combination in a campaign game. Do you enjoy catchup mechanisms in a game, or do you prefer grinding the bones of your enemies? 🦴 🏴☠️ 🤣
Opening up and getting into the Rise of Queensdale – don’t look closely at these gallery pics if you want to avoid Epoch 1 & 2 spoilers.
Each game is of Short length but obviously the overall campaign is… quite long, it depends on your progress. Definitely an Enthusiast level game.
When you just can’t let your opponent have that card they realllllly want:
captures the feeling of the Imperial Settlers card game, and Adventure mode is a challenging solo experience
Imperial Settlers: Roll & Write is an Enthusiast¹ level game of Filler length. It is playable by 1 to many (theoretically, up to 96) players.
This review focuses on the solo play experience.
IS: Roll & Write has a specialised solo ‘Adventure mode’ in the box. This is a pad of 48 different sheets, spanning the factions and themes of the IS ‘universe’, and the key to making this a quality solo game.
The best bit of this game is that Adventure mode pad – it’s really neat and thematic. Having 48 different sheets is really neat.
The worst bit of Imperial Settlers: Roll & Write is that it can be a bit fiddly tracking your ‘people’ each round – since you get them all from one die. I ended up making tally marks on the main sheet for each round, but a more elegant solution would have been nice.
I am a fan of Imperial Settlers, but Portal Games’ recent catalogue has been patchy² and I was skeptical about whether this game would be any good. I was pleasantly surprised – it’s deeper than you’d expect and I found myself needing to stop, think and re-think decisions (and I made plenty of strategic / tactical mistakes, which is a good sign of depth) in my first few plays.
The Adventure pad drags you into the Imperial Settlers universe and you do feel like you’re helping the bumbling Barbarians or fruitful Japanese with their labours. Part of the advanced rules involves making patterns on your playsheet to gain extra benefits and this adds a welcome layer of variability and replayability to the game.
It’s enjoyable, thoughtful and easy to learn and play, but has depth too – give it a try!
As mentioned, your pad of 48 unique solo sheets means there’s plenty of replayability. Also, Portal make extra sheets available to order cheaply online and has some free ‘Print & Play’ promos available online (more here also).
There’s also a typical score ranking system for solo gamers, but the real fun is in tackling the challenges of each Adventure mode sheet successfully.
BoardGameGeek rates this game as 1.90 out of 5 in weight, (at the time of publication of this review). In my opinion that rating doesn’t reflect the use of the Advanced rules.
IS: Roll & Write is widely available. I suggest the ever-reliable Guf ($38).
¹ I consider this an Enthusiast level game if you use the Advanced rules; or a Family level game if you play the basic game. But play the Advanced game, it’s more fun!
² recent hits: Detective (apparently – haven’t had the chance); massive misses: First Martians (though I actually like it).
“Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius.”