Saturday, 10 December 2016


Friday - A Solo Adventure, Rio Grande Games, 2012

10+, 30 minutes, 1 player, Solo

This is the first Solo game that we've reviewed here, which is fitting because it was the first Solo game I ever bought. I have played this game nine times, although it turns out that the first six times I was playing it incorrectly. Nonetheless, there's one thing in common with all nine games - I lost badly. "Can you achieve a glorious victory with 80 or more points?" Well, no, I bloody can't. Playing the game correctly, I've scored -29, -44 and -55 points. In the nine games I've played, I have literally never even got to scoring positive points. And yet I kept coming back to this game, so I think it's worthy of review.

"You are Friday and spend your time on a deserted island. After Robinson suddenly capsizes with his ship and runs ashore at your beach, your peaceful times are disturbed. To give Robinson a chance to leave the Island again, you start to teach him to improve his survival abilities against the hazards of the Island. If Robinson beats two Pirates at the end of the game, he successfully leaves the island and you will have your beloved peace back." Now, as game premises go, that's actually not bad. Robinson (Crusoe, in case that rather obvious literary point escaped you) is a total halfwit who starts the game failing at almost every challenge that faces him. In fact, the only way you can even have a chance of winning (like I would know!) is apparently to deliberately make him lose certain challenges. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Once you've set up the game, you draw the top two cards from the hazard deck. You choose one of the cards as the hazard and place it face up (and discard the other). That's your challenge for Robinson to face. The card tells you how many cards is the maximum for fighting the hazard. It also tells you the score you need to reach to defeat that hazard. For example, the Cannibals card (pictured here on the right) says in the little white mark that you can draw up to 5 cards from your deck. If you're on the first run-through of all the hazards, you're on the green level, so your cards have to add up to 5 points. If you're on the second level, though, you need 9 points. And if on the last level, the red level (which I've only reached once) then your cards have to add up to 14 points. Defeat the hazard and you get to keep the card, which you flip around to use against other hazards later. In this case, that would give you a weapon worth 4, which is very helpful. If you don't reach the desired number, you can choose to add another card, which you do be sacrificing a life point. Robinson starts the game with life points, which are represented by some totally weird wooden tokens. Once you have none left, you lose the game.

At the start of the game, because Robinson is such a feckless idiot, most of his cards have a point value of -1 or 0, with only a smattering of 1s. The challenges are not so hard - sometimes you only need to get 0 points to succeed! But even that can be very hard because Robinson was apparently so busy living it up large in the middle classes of 17th century Hull that he forgot to learn how to do basic things like swim to his raft. As I mentioned before, though, you want Robinson to lose some of these first hazards, though, because to win the game (like I'd know!), apparently you really need to get rid of the 0 and -1 cards, which you do by losing hazards. Then, when you slowly win hazards, you replace those -1s and 0s with cards with positive values and then (LIKE I'D BLOODY KNOW!) you start defeating much bigger hazards.

A photo of life tokens that I found online. I'm not sure why
they're in gravel. I'm not even sure why the life tokens look
like this, because I have literally no idea what they're meant
to look like. Corn? A person? Lice? I have no idea.
And that's all well and good, but it's just stupid difficult. Firstly, the rules are poorly written, and a lot of players apparently have to go online to watch a gameplay video to see how to even start playing - I know that I did. But then apparently there's a trick, something you have to work out, before you can win this game. Once you know the trick, you keep winning the game. Apparently. And that leads me to question this entire game, because while it's nice to have a challenge, if you're playing a solo game there's already a small chance that your ego is shattered by your stark loneliness and the fact that you have no-one else to play a game with. So, why would you want to make an evening of sitting by yourself and losing to a bloody game again and again and again?!? Why do I keep doing it? Is it really because I have no self-esteem?!? Is it because I secretly hate myself and think this is the best life has to offer me?!? Or is it, perhaps, because it's a really unique puzzle that I know can be cracked, I just haven't worked out how yet?

And this is a puzzle. A real puzzle. The final page on the rulebook tells you that you can "look through both discard piles... count the number of cards in all three draw stacks... [and] look at the destroyed cards." It says that it's not a memory game, so you can access all open information. It even tells you that Robinson starts with 1 2-point card, 3 1-point cards, 8 0-points cards, 5 -1-point cards and 1 0-point card that gives you 2 life tokens back. So, I even went to extremes and noted them all down and started playing the odds. "Well," I cleverly thought to myself, "I'm facing a hazard of 0 points, and now I've only got five cards left - four 0-point cards and a -1 card. So, I've only got a 1/5 change of drawing the bad card, so I should go for that challenge." And then what do I draw? The bloody -1 card. And any game that makes you shout, "OH, COME ON!!!" repeated times has to have questions asked about it.

Friedemann Friese, the designer of the game, is obviously some kind of sadist. The game has been hugely popular worldwide, but is also widely acknowledged to be extremely difficult. I've never even got to the pirates yet - Robinson has always died before I could even try to fight the pirates, whose card is always a random draw from a pile of pirates with varying abilities.

Apparently, this is one of the possible pirate cards.
But I wouldn't know because I've never got that far.
It's been months since I've played Friday, and when I look at it on the shelves, I sometimes think, "Oh, it would be nice to get that out again," but then I find myself thinking, "Or since I've got an evening to myself, I could go and paint some Imperial Assault miniatures." Writing about it now with the box next to me, I find myself thinking, "After I type this review, I could actually give it a try and see if I can beat it this time," but there's a much larger voice in my head saying, "...or just go to bed." In terms of design, once you've watched the gameplay videos online, it's a catchy, simply little game. I probably will play it again some time just because I really, really want to beat it without learning how from other players online. But then what? Once I beat it, I can go onto a more difficult level, but I can't believe the gameplay is going to be that different. The game even taunts you - "How many games did you need for your first victory in Level 1?" It may as well add "...loser?" to the end of that question.

I get that a number of Solo games are very difficult - Lord of the Rings, The Card Game is another virtually impossible solo card game that has sat on my shelf for a long time. But, I would like this game to be easier. Not easy, just easier. People talk about not getting their first win for 10-20 games and that's really rather messed up. Here's another puzzle that would take less time to solve - how many times can you bang your head against your gaming table before you start to bleed? I reckon that, life-threatening injuries aside, that might be a less frustrating puzzle to solve.

So, why have I played it nine times so far? Well, it's a cute travel game with nice artwork that doesn't take too long to play. If you're going to lose, better not to take an entire night over it. It's also an interesting challenge that I know that other people have beaten, which basically makes it like one of those Seeing Eye pictures. You know that if you look at it just right, you can see what it's meant to be. And you'll stand there for ages trying to work it out, simply because you know there's something there. And then you think you see it, but you don't, so you stand there for even longer trying to work it out.
It's a dog. Or a tree. Or a man stranded on an island.
I don't know what it is. Stop judging me. 
Friday isn't so much a "Solo Adventure" as a puzzle. Well, maybe it is an adventure when for the first time you reach the third level. And then lose. Maybe it's a metaphor for our lives - that we're all doomed to failure so perhaps we should just celebrate the small successes. Maybe that's what ultimately makes it an appealing game, at least on the evenings when I don't mind reminding myself of what a total and abject failure I am.

There is another Robinson Crusoe themed game that is for co-op or solo play, but it's currently very expensive and is also very difficult and with very complicated rules. Apparently, solo play, ridiculous difficulty, poor rules and Robinson Crusoe all go hand-in-hand. A new version of that game is shortly coming out with much clearer rules, and I can't help but think I'll be picking up a version of that. In the meantime, I hope I solve this puzzle some time before I die, but I'm aware that I actually might not.

  • Cute artwork
  • Simple game mechanism
  • Some strategy
  • Inexpensive
  • Quick game play

  • Poorly written rules
  • Too bloody difficult
  • Weird life tokens
Accessibility: 2/5 - A low mark here because a game with simple mechanics is just explained badly in the rulebook.
Design: 3/5 - Nothing special but nothing egregious here. The artwork is cute.
Depth: 2/5 - Maybe the fact that I don't see depth here is the reason I always lose. Or maybe it's just a game about playing odds.
Replayability: 3/5 - A nice challenge for an evening until you realise that there are other challenging things that you could do with your time that might actually bring about positive results.
Availability: 5/5 - Easily available online and in select stores for a cheap price.

Summary: A game that beats you and beats you until you work out the secret to winning is amusing for the first few games but then quickly turns into a struggle against the self and against succumbing to despair. Playing it now feels to me like someone rattling gates to a luxury theme park screaming "Let me in! Let me in!" and there's a few people on the other side with massive smiles on their faces, while most of the rest of society skulks around this side of the gates saying, "Give it up, we've tried." I don't know what the replayability is like once you've beaten the game because I've never bloody beaten the game!

Final Score: Once I beat this game - if I ever beat it - I might change this score. But the difficulty setting is so high that this game can turn a fun night of gaming into a reminder of the futility of human existence, and that's not really ideal in a game. But, if you're someone who really likes a real challenge, this game might totally be for you. To me, if I'm going to spend an evening by myself playing a game, I at least want a chance of beating it. Otherwise, I may as well read a book or paint some minis in preparation for a challenging group game like Imperial Assault for when the friends come round. Cute, challenging but more often than not, a little frustrating - 54%.

Friday, 2 December 2016


Star Wars: Epic Duels, MB Games / Hasbro, 2002

8+, 30 minutes, 2-6 players, Competitive

It's the summer of 2002 and I'm in New York. We walk past the most enormous Toys R Us store that I've ever seen and in the window is a stack of Star Wars games virtually being given away. $10 for a Star Wars board game? I consider for a moment buying a whole host of them to sell online later on, but decide against it. Years later, I realise that this decision costs me $1000. We go back to my brother-in-law's place and set up the game. Within five minutes, we're already playing. I've taken Vader and I draw the All Too Easy card. I read the text and laugh because of how awesome it is. I play a few attacks against Luke and whittle down his defence. Luke has a total of 19 health on his board and this card can do 20 damage if undefended. Finally, I play the card, face down as always. My brother-in-law says, "I'll choose to take the damage." I flip the card over. "ALL TOO EASY," I say. And that is what gaming memories are made of. That was 14 years ago and I remember it crystal clear. That is when my gaming life was changed by Epic Duels.

Star Wars Epic Duels is an incredibly simple miniatures game by MB Games, who were later bought out by Hasbro. Like the film The Blues Brothers, it was a total flop on release but gained a cult following as across the world people started to realise that it was, in fact, a classic.

Darth Maul prepares to unleash a wave of
attacks against Yoda. But Yoda is totally
preparing to Force Lift his opponent.
As the box art clearly demonstrates, Epic Duels is a duelling game between famous Star Wars characters, ignoring any semblance of timeline. Thus, Darth Vader can fight Mace Windu, Count Dooku can fight Luke Skywalker, and Anakin Skywalker can even fight Darth Vader. Players choose from 12 main characters, each of whom have a supporter character or troops: Darth Maul with 2 Battle Droids, Jango Fett with Zam Wesell, Luke Skywalker with Princess Leia, Emperor Palpatine with 2 Royal Guards, Obi-Wan Kenobi with 2 Clone Troopers, Han Solo with Chewbacca, Boba Fett with Greedo, Anakin Skywalker with Padme Amidala, Mace Windu with 2 Clone Troopers, Darth Vader with 2 Stormtroopers, Count Dooku with 2 Super Battle Droids, and Yoda with 2 Clone Troopers. Each character is given a card which monitors their health level. In the rules, all a player has to do to beat their opponent is to kill their major character (the one on the top of the card) but this actually leads to an imbalance in character strengths. For example, in the Han / Chewie deck, Chewie is by far the stronger character. Although he has fewer cards (minor characters always have fewer cards than the major characters), Chewie has greater health and much stronger attacks. As a result, the house-rule known as Last Hero Standing (LHS) is widely used by fans of this game around the world, meaning that a player is defeated when all their heroes are destroyed. For Yoda, who is supported by two Clone Troopers, that means just him being killed, but for Luke and Leia, it means that they both must be destroyed. This was clearly the original intent when the game was designed because Leia has a card that says, "If Luke is destroyed..." So, there's a little glitch in the game rules which a quick LHS house-rule addresses nicely.

In some sense, the game is well balanced. Yoda, for example, doesn't have much strength but his cards are insanely strong. He can Force Lift a character which immobilises them unless they discard three cards, for example. Boba Fett carries a Thermal Detonator, which can be brutal against opponents who keep their characters close together. Jango Fett has.... I don't remember, because I never play him because his deck is so bad because he's Jango Fett. And that's where balance is interesting, because it's not entirely balanced so that all characters are equal, it's balanced thematically. So, yes, theoretically Boba Fett and Greedo could kill Emperor Palpatine and his 2 Crimson Guards, but it's not very likely to happen. Fluff-wise this is perfect and this is where the game really shines, including by quoting characters in the films. As I mentioned at the start of this review, nothing feels better than quoting the film as you play a card.
"Never tell me the odds - you take damage and now I'm going to shuffle Chewie's Bowcaster back into the pile"
The card all use images from the films and the miniatures are really not bad. They're pre-painted and they're very clear representations of the film characters. So, you really feel like you're Star Warsing when you play this game. Yes, that is a verb. Another strength of the game is how unbelieveably simple it is. Every deck has an assortment of Combat Cards, Power Combat Cards and Special Cards (except for Darth Maul who doesn't have Special Cards but who instead has a crazy number of powerful Special Combat Cards).

On a turn, players always roll the d6 and it tells them whether some of all of their characters can move that turn. Then, the active player chooses to perform two actions from three possible choices - draw a card, play a card or heal a character. If they play a card, they usually do it to attack, which they do by placing the card face down. Then, the opponent chooses to defend or not. The attack value of the card minus the defence value of the opposite player equals the amount of damage caused in the attack. To heal a major character one health point, the player discards a card from a destroyed minor character. And that's it. Seriously. That's the game in its entirety. And that is the total beauty of this game.... it's wondrous simplicity.

"Your lightsaber is flacid."
"It happens with age."
"Never happened to me."
"I'm going to throw you down a ventilation shaft now."
Yes, there are issues. The largest issue is movement. Having your move determined by a die roll can be immensely frustrating when you want to close the gap to engage in melee combat and you roll far less. This is an issue that later Star Wars miniatures games like Imperial Assault addressed very easily. The second issue is with the boards, which some fans feel are too small (although I have played on a table-sized print-out map, I actually find the boards fine). In the box are two double-sided game boards - the Carbon-Freezing Chamber, the Emperor's Throne Room, the Kamino Platform and the Geonosis Arena. They're not bad boards, to be honest, but after a while you come to realise that certain characters really benefit from certain boards. For example, if Palpatine has nowhere to hide (such as behind the pillar on the Geonosis Arena or behind the Firespray on the Kamino Platform), then he is far more likely to be killed quickly. If he can hide, however, his character can be devastating ("You will die!"). So, luck can play two factors - in movement and in board selection - and that can be annoying for seasoned gamers. But this isn't really a game for seasoned gamers, it's an introductory miniatures game for Star Wars fans. It's light and full of fluff and it's fun as hell as a result. However, where it suffers is replayability. There's only so many times you can play Luke and Leia versus Darth Maul before you realise that the player with Luke and Leia is almost certainly never going to win. When you have a card called "I Won't Fight You" it seems totally counter-intuitive in a combat game, and while the mechanic of the card fits that quotation perfectly, it just doesn't work. There are only so many times that you can have Darth Vader faces off against Boba Fett and Greedo and have Vader Force Choke Greedo to death in a heartbeat before you decide to never again play the Fett/Greedo deck. In a game with only twelve decks, that poses a problem.

Jango Fett and Obi-Wan face off on the Kamino Platform.
*prequels shudder*

Some of the many possible fan-made decks (most of those
pictured were created by me)
So, this is where the online community stepped in. At the Epic Duels Wiki (, fans from all round the world created new characters sheets and cards and even new maps. They then used miniatures from the Wizards of the Coast 2004 Star Wars Miniatures game, and instantly breathed new life into this game... more than it had before! Now you could relive your favourite moments from the Star Wars films, by bringing in characters like the Rancor, or the Wampa, or Lando, or even R2-D2 and C-3PO! And this is where I fell into a life of gaming. I always played board games, but this made me new. I became The Tusken Raider, a prolific Epic Duels character deck designer ( I especially created the mechanic of Reinforcement, which allowed the creation of decks such as the Tusken Raiders, the Gamorrean Boars, the Ewoks and the Jawas. These decks bring a totally different sense of play to the game, as you kill one and another pops up if the player draws and uses the Reinforcements cards at the right time. Across the wiki, players created a plethora of extremely exciting decks.

It may be prequels, but who cares? It's Padme and Anakin
fighting Acklay and Nexu, and it looks AMAZING!

The original game was best with two players. The fan-expanded game is great with two but even better with four because of the huge assortment of characters available. And with the new characters and decks, replayability issues totally disappear. I can attest to that personally, having played over 500 games of Epic Duels in my life. I have never played a game as much as I have Star Wars Epic Duels. Yes, you have to spend lots of money on miniatures for it, but that's no different to any other miniatures game that you might play today.

"I'm gonna chomp you, little Jedi..."
And this is where we have to make a comparison with Fantasy Flight's game Imperial Assault, a game we have not yet reviewed but will do in the future. Both games are fluff-heavy. The miniatures for Imperial Assault are unpainted but are clearly more detailed. Movement issues are resolved very nicely by Imperial Assault, although luck features heavily in that game in another way (in rolling attack and defence dice). Both games also rely on luck-of-the-draw - there have been many games of Epic Duels where I've been dying for a card to reach my hand, and Imperial Assault's Skirmish relies on luck of Command Cards being drawn at a good time. Good players know how to use the cards in their hand, though, while waiting for their ideal cards to come. Imperial Assault has an entire campaign to it and the maps are larger, even if you do have to jigsaw them together. But it is also clearly more complicated than Epic Duels, whose rulebook can be read and explained in five minutes. In terms of Star Wars combat game design, its simplicity is its key. Star Wars fans with children will find this game far easier to introduce to their kids than Imperial Assault's Skirmish rules.

How exactly did a Bantha get inside the carbon-freezing chamber on Bespin?
Who bloody cares? What's wrong with you?!? 
What is interesting is how many of the fan-made card effects in Epic Duels were replicated by Imperial Assault. Maybe I should write off to FFG and ask for royalties for the Bantha Trample. Maybe not.

What's so great about the fan-made element is not just how it opens up the game but also how much of yourself you can put into the game. If you don't like the original game's Darth Vader deck (because it's actually way too weak in the LHS game), then you can go and create your own. If you want to see Han and Leia in a deck together, you can make that. And I did. The fan-made decks are almost all based on the LHS rule, which means that each game lasts longer, which in turn makes for a more enjoyable gaming experience. Yes, there are very rare exceptions. I once played as Boba Fett against the Jawas, I had the initiative so I went first, I lobbed a Thermal Detonator into the Jawas who were packed together, blew them all to smithereens and won the game on literally the first action. But such games are ridiculously rare (I've only ever done that once in over 500 games!). The opposite was a Mace Windu vs Acklay/Nexu game that went through the card decks three times, as a brutal and totally memorable duel in the Geonosis Arena. These are the things that gaming memories are made of. I remember having fun with lots of differing board games, but I remember specific duels from this game a decade on. That speaks volumes about this game.

So, overall, what do we think?

  • Excellent fluff-factor
  • Lovely card art
  • Miniatures
  • Extremely simple mechanics
  • Fan expansions

  • Roll to move
  • Limiting boards
  • Very high game cost today
  • Fluff-based imbalance of decks
Accessibility: 5/5 - The simplest miniatures game rules that I know.
Design: 4/5 - Oozing with fluff with a mixture of ranged and melee characters from the first six films.
Depth: 2/5 - Although seasoned players could find depth in strategic choices based on card texts, the extreme simplicity of the rules means there's little substantive depth at all. However, that was clearly never the aim of the game in the first place.
Replayability (core set): 2/5 - The twelve characters are lots of fun, but only for a while until you realise how stratified their abilities are.
Replayability (fan expansions): 5/5 - Just look at this webpage - Enough said.
Availability: 2/5 - To buy the core set online now, you're looking around $100. If someone buys this for you, they really, really like you. If you're adding fan-based decks with miniatures, you're going to be spending decent money on this game.

Summary: There's a reason this became a community classic, because it's absolutely a classic game. Not like Monopoly is a classic game, but it's a beautifully simple access into Star Wars individualised combat. When you watch Darth Vader face off against Luke in the films, you want to re-enact that. Sometimes you want more than the films provided, such as a real duel between Boba Fett and Han Solo. With this game, you can achieve that (actually, that would make for an interesting LHS match-up, which Han/Chewie would probably win but which might be well balanced with Han/Leia). Imperial Assault is an excellent game, and this is in some sense that game ten years earlier and far, far simpler. Roll to move can on occasion be frustrating, but who cares when Yoda Force Lifts you or when Darth Vader Throws Debris at you in the middle of the game? This game is really what board games are about - it creates an exciting framework to transport you somewhere you love, in this case, into the the middle of the best action in the Star Wars films.

Final Score: This has to be two scores - one for the core set and one including fan-made expansions. While they're both the same game, the unofficial expansions totally transform the game in a way I've not seen with any other game. So, we gladly give the core set 79%. Recognising the enormously positive effect of the fan-based expansions on the game, though, we award that our highest rating so far - a galaxy-filling and truly exciting 88%.