Game Reviews Archive

Throwback Thursdays: Pathways into Darkness

Posted April 10, 2014 By Andrew Bradley

The year was 1993. I was 14. I was sad, for my parents didn’t allow video game consoles in the house, and although I felt smugly superior for owning a Mac rather than a PC, I couldn’t really play any games on it.

But then there was Bungie, and it was good.

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Betrayal at the House on the Hill (a.k.a The Haunt in our gaming circle after the game’s second phase) was originally published by Avalon Hill and WotC released a second edition in 2010 . Since this is a Throwback Thursday post, and since we see no reason to buy a new edition of a game when the copy we have is still in great shape, this is a review of the first edition. Also, we hope this makes you gamer geeks out there jealous. We actually have two copies of the first edition, just in case something happens to one of them.

Basic Gameplay

First off, this really is a game for 3+ players, you cannot skimp and have much fun with fewer. For a truly exciting two hours, we strongly recommend you find at least a fourth. This usually leads to a more interesting house layout as well as giving the non-traitors plenty of collaboration. The Haunt plays on a tile-based map, with tiles added as players move about the house. In the second phase of the game, one of the players becomes the Traitor and tries to do away with the rest of the group. Either the Traitor wins, or everyone else does. The Us vs Them setup allows for heroic self-sacrifice, something rare in non-RPG tabletops.

Exploration Phase

You start The Haunt on a single game tile representing the foyer of the spooky haunted house you have foolishly decided to explore. Each player chooses one character based on their preferred style of gameplay (the smart one, the strong one, the fast one, etc.) and you take turns moving the characters around the house, discovering rooms as you progress. Every time you walk through an unconnected doorway, draw a tile from the stack and place it on the table. Usually, something gruesome will happen to you next and, if you survive, you may pick up a useful item. Every time someone discovers an Omen (think nifty artifact with powerful, but not necessarily beneficial, effect), some special dice are rolled. The more Omens in play, the more likely that dice roll is to bring The Haunt!

The Haunt

In addition to the tiles, player figures, cards for tracking character stats, and a whole bunch of useful tokens, The Haunt comes with a number of rulebooks. The first set determines which Haunt scenario you get to play through. Based on a number of game-specific events (e.g. which Omen discovery triggered The Haunt), a particular scenario is chosen and one player is labeled Traitor (this selection rule varies by scenario). Each team (Traitor and Everyone Else) looks up the scenario in their corresponding rulebook and begins strategizing. The strategy phase usually lasts five or ten minutes, but sometimes longer. The scenario rules are not always clear, so a Traitor-EE conference is sometimes convened to hammer out the differences, without revealing too many secrets.

When play resumes, each team has some definite goals they need to achieve, and it isn’t always known what the other side is trying to accomplish or if the other side knows how to thwart your schemes. This is where The Haunt truly shines. There are over four dozen different scenarios that can occur, but even if you play the same one twice in a row, the house is going to have a completely different arrangement, which can have a drastic impact on the difficulty of accomplishing a particular goal. Add to the variety the strong element of chance, where the most powerful effects often can have serious adverse side effects or blowback, and you’ve got a game that really feels new and exciting even the second or third time around in a single day.

Why We Still Play

It is rare that we can get enough people together for long enough to have a good, solid Haunt. Lately, we’ve tended more towards casual, low-playercount games that we fit in around other responsibilities (like launching a Kickstarter). Playing The Haunt feels like a real treat. It is also a game that is easy to learn and yields very little advantage to those who have played it many times. Unless you are one who either reads the “secret” rulebooks in advance, or memorizes all the different Haunt combinations, each Haunt puts all the players on the same level once they’ve learned the general mechanics. Plus, the Haunts are great stereotypes of all sorts of horror genres, which is always amusing.

Beer Rating

Anyone who follows us on Twitter (@strangelandgame) knows that we were recently at Boston’s Extreme Beer Fest. Among the many fine beers we can remember trying, one was a hybrid, where they pitched the lager yeast first, fermented it for a while, then warmed it up and pitched the ale yeast (doppelbock and dubbel, in this particular case). The Haunt is like that, but in a growler, cause you need to consume it with plenty of friends.

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Remember when you were watching NASA’s Curiosity rover land on Mars and tool around, and you said (to no one in particular) “What’s the big deal? I could do that.”  Well, it’s time to put up or shut up with Kerbal Space Program, a physics-based space flight simulator from Squad. The game is still in beta, but it’s available for purchase via the increasingly common early access model. For those unfamiliar, this is where people pay for the game while it is still in development because they think it is just that awesome. Developers get income during development, when they need it the most, and players are more involved in the development process (essentially, you pay for to sign up as a beta tester).

Three Mars rovers

Three Generations of Mars Rovers, with Curiosity on the right. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


Kerbal Rover

DSL Pandora Rover from Kerbal Spaceport user Yogui87

The Technical Stuff

KSP had user-modding built-in from the ground up, to the point that there is a link to the Kerbal Spaceport, the mod community website, from within the game itself. If it doesn’t break the laws of physics, chances are that someone has written a mod for that. The game is available for Mac, Linux, and PC on Steam or direct download from the KSP website. There is also an educator’s version under the name KerbalEdu. Resource requirements can be high, as with any high-fidelity physics simulator, but most of the resource-intensive components are configurable.

Sandbox Mode

When first released to the public, KSP was just a giant space-sandbox. After a brief tutorial on the controls, you’re dumped into a space hangar full of parts and left to create, launch, and explore to your heart’s content. The possibilities are a little too endless and can leave a new player a bit overwhelmed.

Career Mode

Introduced in late 2013, the career mode starts each player off with a very limited selection of parts (think late 1940’s or early 1950’s rocketry). The first time you accomplish a significant milestone (e.g. exit the atmosphere or complete an orbit around the home planet) you receive science points useful for discovering more technologies. Some of these are science experiments, which allow you to accrue science points even faster, but most of them allow you to build more powerful or more stable (equally important!) spacecraft.. This is the mode for beginning players who aren’t sure what they should build. As you progress, the parts become familiar and easier to choose from.

Mission Types

Though there aren’t set missions in KSP (yet, remember it’s still under development), there are enough parts to construct various types of space-related vehicles. The starting point for most will be simple rockets with a capsule on top, but you can progress to space planes, shuttles, interplanetary rovers, sample-return vehicles, and more. It is rare for a game to offer this much flexibility (only Minecraft comes to mind).

Beer Rating

KSP rates a Half and Half: you’ve got this mixture of Career and Sandbox modes that, while related, offer very different gameplay styles and appeal to different sorts of folks. Also, there is plenty of assembly required by the end-user.


We’ve left out a number of problems and issues from this review, not because we shy away from criticism, but because the game is still in beta and we expect Squad to fix these things. If you just want to sit down and play and have little patience for problems, missing documentation, etc. then just wait until the final release comes out (or, better for Squad, buy it now but just don’t play until the official release).

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Thirty years ago, Infocom released their text adventure game based loosely on the Douglas Adams radio drama and book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Read the remainder of this entry »

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Game Review: Gloom

Posted March 10, 2014 By Andrew Bradley
Box for the base game of Gloom

Gloom. It’s gloomy.

Gloom, a game by Keith Baker, is one of the more innovative games we’ve come across, in multiple ways.

First, and maybe least innovative, is the theme. In Gloom, as the title suggests, good cheer is hard to find. It is not, however, impossible. But finding your family in good spirits will, alas, mean that you’re probably losing the game. For the object of the game is to take one of the fictional families, ruin their lives, and then kill them. The unhappier your family is when they die, the better off you are.

Are you a sociopath?

Who asked that? This isn’t a FAQ! And no, I’m not. And neither is Keith Baker. In fact, there’s good cheer to go around as well, and when you find it, you should do your best to bestow it on the families of your opponents. So you see, this game is actually all about generosity, if the meanest thing you can do to a nemesis is to ensure their character is Wondrously Well Wed.

You said there were other innovations?

Still not an FAQ. Stop that. But yes. The cards themselves are one of the cooler ideas in this game. They’re not quite transparent, and so the effects endure, even when you’ve stacked more cards in top of yours. See the pretty picture?

See how translucent?

See how translucent?

That’s cool

That wasn’t a question. But yes, it is. And speaking of pretty pictures, how about that artwork? It looks like it was personally drawn by Edward Gorey, making it not only attractive, but a perfect fit for the game’s theme.

There are four expansions, of which we own three, and a Cthulu-themed spinoff with an expansion of its own. The expansions add players and each adds a new twist to the game without overly complicating it much, and thus they’re recommended.

What about your silly beer analogy review system?

It might seem natural to go to a porter or a stout, for the darkness, but that would be too obvious. But no. Gloom is far too interesting for so mundane a comparison. It’s different, and at first glance it will confuse you, but as you partake it gets better and better, while continually surprising. Thus, I’m going to veer from a style comparison and into a specific beer, and name Gloom the Midas Touch of tabletop games.

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Throwback Thursdays: SimCity 2000

Posted March 7, 2014 By Jeff

It is hard to believe that this year is the 20th anniversary of SimCity 2000. It was the first game I can remember staying up all night to play. SimCity 2000 was one of the rare games that received parental non-disapproval. After moving cross country four times, with three to four years between each move, that game is the only thing that has been lost and then replaced. I haven’t played it in a while, since I’m writing this on a Chromebook and never bothered buying a drive for my MacBook Pro, but this being a Throwback, I’m going to ask my younger self to review it for me.

SimCity 2000 graphics are awesome. Instead of the boring top-down colored blocks from SimCity, the view is almost 3D and the buildings have all different designs on them. You can zoom in to see details and spin the camera around to see things from different angles (important when you start building big buildings, because they’ll actually block your view sometimes). Now that your city is no longer in flatland, there is terrain to deal with as well as layout. You can edit the terrain for free before the game starts, creating mountains, lakes, forests, etc. Or, you can take a computer generated terrain, find a good spot to start your city, then reshape the terrain as you expand. I usually take the second approach, since it is more realistic, and isn’t that the whole point? It makes you consider building a road around that giant mountain (even though it screws up your grid), rather than embarking on a costly earthworks project.

Taking care of the city finances is important, since it determines how fast your city grows and what kind of development moves in. I try to avoid industrial cities because they’re dirty and make lots of pollution, so I usually zone very little industrial and enact any ordinance I can to keep things clean, even if it costs me money. Since the plot of land is so large, you can try sticking all the dirty industry off in a corner, but any successful game eventually takes over the whole area, so you’ll have to deal with them at some point.

I find the most challenging thing to do well is public transit. It doesn’t make sense to put in subways for a small town (and the game doesn’t make it available until your city is bigger anyway), so by the time you’re ready for a metro line, all the good places to put one are full. I don’t mind knocking down a building or two to put in the station (no eminent domain problems here!), but sometimes putting in the underground tracks automatically reshapes the land above, destroying whole blocks. This was always very frustrating to me and I never found a good way to avoid it.

There isn’t really any way to “win” at SimCity 2000, which is part of the appeal, but I find that I sometimes get a bit bored when my city is running too well. I’ve even left it on overnight and come back in the morning to things still running smoothly. Of course, a few fires may have burned some sections, or something like that, but the residents rebuild. Eventually, once I’ve filled up the map and am earning lots of money, I’ll throw in a bunch of disasters (tornadoes, fires, even alien attacks are possible), see how well I can react, then trash the city and start over from scratch. This way, you can play over and over again, each time making your city bigger, or better, or grow faster. It’s a wonderful game and I’m sure I will enjoy it for many years to come.

I’ve got many fond memories of SimCity 2000 and its descendants, though SimCity 3000 and SimCity 4 are sort of blurred together in my mind, but I never got in to any of the spin-offs, the most notable of which was TheSims. I like the grand scale of trying to manage an entire metropolis over managing individual lives, and I also stopped playing video games during college, when TheSims was all the rage. SimCity 2000 is a well-balanced Imperial Stout: it isn’t too aggressive, so it is easy to get started, but there is a lot of depth to its character and every once in a while you realize after the fact that you accidentally consumed a bit too much to handle in one sitting.

Want to try SimCity 2000 for yourself? Buy it via our link below and we’ll get a nice little Thank You from Amazon for sending you their way.

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Game Review: FTL (Faster Than Light)

Posted March 2, 2014 By Jeff


Running low on oxygen and a fire at the helm. Doesn't look good.

Running low on oxygen and a fire at the helm. Doesn’t look good.

FTL is a roguelike-like space adventure from Subset Games that was Kickstarted in 2012 and released that same year. It is soon (early 2014) to get a major update, after which we’ll update this review or write a new one (seems like the update could make it a whole new gameplay experience). It’s available for Mac, Linux, and Windows and its simplicity means you can run it on almost any setup without worrying about hardware requirements.

The storyline is that you are in command of a ship with information vital to the federation, making your way though potentially hostile space in order to defeat the rebels. You accomplish this mission by moving from beacon to beacon through successively more challenging encounters at each one. The journey has the same overall structure each time, but the character of the space (rebel-controlled, nebula, etc.) and the layout of the beacons within each zone is random, which makes for great replay value.

There are two main types of encounters you can run into: combat and everything else. Combat is usually your ship against another (though sometimes just against invaders). You can pause at any time during combat to re-allocate power among your various systems, change orders for crew, retarget weapons, or just plain wonder how the hell you’re going to keep your ship from exploding when the engine room is on fire, the remote door controls are smashed, and the sick bay has a giant hole leeching oxygen to outer space.

The everything else encounters are choose your own adventure style. All the interaction is text based with a few choices on how you react (more choices can be opened up if you’ve got special systems or crew on board, but they aren’t visible if you don’t). Some of the encounters are plot points where the outcome is fairly predictable, but if you find a space station full of Giant Alien Spiders, be careful, because you never know what the outcome will be.

The graphics and soundtrack are retro and well done. There isn’t a lot of extraneous art, and I wouldn’t call the ships beautiful, but the simplicity allows them to put in a lot of useful detail so that you can successfully control your ship and all its systems and crew from just one screen. Everything is controllable either with mouse or keyboard (though that is a lot of hotkeys to keep track of).

One of the surprisingly great things about FTL is that you feel very little attachment to your crew. They’ve got nice, generic names, all crew of the same race use the same sprites, and you don’t care too much when they die (and die they will). This lack of attachment makes it easy to take risks and to restart from scratch once your ship is destroyed or left floating as an empty, airless derelict. While you can save your progress in FTL, you cannot reload. This is not a game for people who cannot lose, and for that we applaud it.

A downside to replaceable characters and a randomized, fixed-choice format is a rather thin plot: federation good, rebels bad, aliens some of each, don’t get hit by the asteroids. There is not a lot of detail in the random encounter stories and there is only slightly more in the plot points. It is hard to say, though, where they could have fit more story in. The quick playthrough (thirty to sixty minutes) doesn’t leave much time for developing story arcs and extra time for storytelling would leave less time for lobbing missiles and teleporting boarding parties. Subset made the right call in keeping the writing simple and to the point, but we just can’t help but feel that a little something has been left out. That probably says more about us, storytellers that we are, than it does about FTL.

One tip for anyone about to try FTL: PAUSE A LOT. Forgetting to pause has been the downfall of many Kestrels. All orders can be given during a pause, so there isn’t any real reason not to do so. It is a credit to the developers that the game is so engaging that we often forget to hit that spacebar.

FTL is simple and refreshing. The third or thirtieth experience is just as good as the first, like a nice dry cider should be. It’s not complicated, but it is fun, and that is why we like it so much.

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Game Review: Doomworks!

Posted February 23, 2014 By Andrew Bradley

This will be the first in what should be an ongoing series in which we review some of the stuff other folks out there are doing.

Doomworks! is a card-based tabletop game that we obtained by backing it on Kickstarter. It’s also one of the model projects we’re basing our own upcoming Kickstarter project on, and so it seemed like an apt first review.

In Doomworks! you are taking on the role of a mad scientist trying to assemble your doomsday device before all the other mad scientists finish theirs. It’s created by a fella in Arizona called Daniel Schroeder, whose domain at seems to have expired. Alas.

For our part, we’d very much like to see another project from the studio, as Doomworks! was inventive, imaginative, and different, while remaining competitive and fun. Its cards are well-designed, giving the information necessary without feeling cluttered. The game is easy to learn, which makes the strategy of each turn the focus of your energies.

The theme of the game was what first attracted me to the project, and it is well-constructed and maintained throughout. It reminds me of the game Evil Genius, which lurks deep in my Steam catalog and surfaces occasionally. It plays with the tropes of the mad scientist and, while playful, stops short of making fun of the genre, as well it should.

They manufactured at the GameCrafter and you can still buy the game there thanks to that company’s printing model. At 20 bucks, the game’s worth it as you’ll certainly pull it out and play it on a semi-regular basis. It’s a quick game, and the modular nature of the doomsday devices means you’re never manufacturing the same thing twice. (Or at least, rarely).

Lastly, and certainly not least, the art on this game is worth the price alone.

I have decided to compare games to beer, as an esoteric and inscrutable form of reviewing instead of giving something so mundane as scores. Doomworks! rates a Saison, but with something surprising like a hint of winter spice in it. It’s enjoyable in short bursts and suits many occasions, and you can play it a few times in a night with few ill effects.

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