For those who haven’t been to the CMON Expo, it is a relatively small and cozy board gaming convention where the primary focus is to showcase CMON products and games. They give away a lot of free stuff and participants are able to get a hands-on, first look at unreleased games.
While at the CMON Expo, I was able to play five games that I hadn’t played before: Bloodborne, Council of 4, Massive Darkness, Unfair, and Ethnos. What follows is my initial impression, a brief review if you will, of each game.
Bloodborne is a card game by Eric Lang. It is based on a popular video game so if you are a fan of the video game you’ll likely enjoy the card game version. I haven’t played the video game (I know, how lame) and I found the Bloodborne the card game to be decently enjoyable. It isn’t a game where you can count on planning out a strategy since not only do the monsters present unknown challenges, but the other players can also mess with your plans. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a lot of strategy to be found in the game, but rather that your well laid plans might be put to ruin.
Bloodborne is quite brutal and you’ll die often. However, you’ll quickly respawn and charge headlong back into battle. The cards that other players put into play heavily influence the round. Cards can allow a player to go out of turn, damage all other players, steal Blood Echo, and so on.
Turn order is fairly important. Often, you’ll waste a card because the monster will be defeated before you got a chance to wound it. This means you don’t get any treasure or bonus cards. Sucks.
Overall, I thought Bloodborne was okay. Fans of the video game will probably like it more than those that haven’t played the video game, but it can still be enjoyed by everyone. Component quality is fairly high, which is to be expected from a CMON title. If you like competitive, monster fighting games with a good amount of player screw, Bloodborne might be for you.
Council of 4 is an economic area control type game that features a lot of miniatures for basically no reason. The production value of Council of 4 is high, like off the charts, but it doesn’t really need to be. I mean the game looks great, don’t get me wrong, but I couldn’t help feeling like the cost of the game was unnecessarily inflated due to the components. Also, this begs the question: is the game as good as people think? Can they separate the component value and visual gratification from the actual gameplay? For a lot of people, it is difficult to separate these feelings. Therefore, I think Council of 4 might be perceived as a better game than it actually is.
Now, Council of 4 isn’t a bad game by any means. I enjoyed it well enough and would definitely play it again. But it felt close enough to any number of medium-weight Euros that I’m not running out the door to get a copy. It was fine, but the gameplay wasn’t groundbreaking. The major compelling reason to buy Council of 4 is the production value; the minis help sell the game. But I don’t need to buy another game that is essentially a box of minis with a game that won’t get played.
Speaking of boxes of miniatures, I couldn’t help but back the Kickstarter campaign for Massive Darkness. There were, quite simply, too many neat looking miniatures to pass up. CMON knows what they are doing when it comes to large scale Kickstarter projects. All the exclusives and freebies are downright alluring, like a Siren’s call.
When I sat down to play Massive Darkness, I was told that it had very little in common with Zombicide: Black Plague. And while it is true that the spawn rules, ranged weapon rules, etc are different from Black Plague, it is a cooperative miniatures game where hordes of baddies swarm the good guys. Sound familiar? However you want to classify Massive Darkness, I’m in it for the minis and I bet that’s the same story for a lot of people. The gameplay might be a little different from Zombicide, but it still isn’t a classic dungeon crawler, which is what I think a lot of people were looking for/hoping for.
I played a six player game and we defeated the first mob easily enough. I think maybe 8 evil dwarves (can’t remember if it was 8 + their boss or 8 total) spawned in the second zone of the building we opened. These baddies were fairly weak and we made short work of them. After looting all the treasure, we made our way to the second map board. In our way, we found an orc (or maybe ogre?) shaman. This dude was crazy tough. He had 24 hit points and regenerated 2 health every time he rolled a diamond as part of his defense. Not to mention, ranged and magical attacks were less effective against him. He pawn’d us.
From my perspective, because the game is set up to autonomously play against the players, things can sometimes get a little weird and ultimately be less than optimal, realistic, or enjoyable. This is true for other similar games and there isn’t really a work around while playing 100% by the rules. Everyone will have their own favorite frustrating example of where the rules seem to defy logic, mine is: if there are only two baddies in a zone and they are of a different type, why can’t I target one of them (this example is from Zombicide: Black Plague)? It comes down to the “programming” of the mechanics and, quite simply, it is what it is. Personally, like a lot of table top gamers, I have an ample list of house rules. When Massive Darkness is received, I’m sure I’ll house rule certain aspects of it as well. And I’m completely fine with that. CMON provided more than an ample framework, maps, scenarios, and tons of great looking minis so I’m happy to make house rules. All in all, I’m looking forward to Massive Darkness.
I own the Kickstarter version of Unfair, but I haven’t yet had the chance to play my copy so I was thankful to be taught it while at the CMON Expo. I played with two other players that had played Unfair before and I won so I didn’t feel like I was at a disadvantage from not having played it yet. Unfair is a nice looking game featuring engine building wrapped in an amusement park theme. Combining different theme packs (Gangsters, Pirates, and Robots for example) seemed a little odd to me at first, but it works and everything is very thematic. I think I have to vote Unfair as the best game I played at the CMON Expo. It really checked off a lot of boxes for me: high production value, relatively easy to learn but offers a lot of strategy, high replay value, multiple paths to victory, etc. Unfair gets top marks in my book.
However, some of the card combos seem completely over powered. I won the game with 255 points while third place had only 160 points. Sure, play style and the tactics you implement will have a lot to do with things, but the cards I received in my starting hand really influenced how I played and ultimately led to some stupidly powerful combos that let me rack up 138 coins. I heard some players at another table talking about upgrading one of their attractions so that no one else stood a chance of winning. By and large, who you are playing with and their style of play will determine a lot, but the fact that Unfair facilitates runaway leaders is a slight negative. Of course, the name of the game is Unfair, but I’d like to think that all players have an equal chance of winning. Honestly though, for me, my opening hand really helped to solidify my victory. Sure, I could have played poorly, but it seems like the luck of the draw also had a lot to do with it. Even still, with any negatives I might be able to throw at it, Unfair was enjoyable and I look forward to playing it again.
Last, but certainly not least, is Ethnos. Ethnos was explained to me as Ticket to Ride with area control and fantasy races. After playing the game I think this was a fair summarization. Instead of claiming rail routes, players put discs onto a map in order to compete for dominance. Each of the fantasy races has a unique ability and Ethnos comes with more fantasy races than can be played in a single game. This adds to the replayability and makes each game unique and interesting.
Ethnos is on the lighter side of the modern board games spectrum, another aspect it shares with Ticket to Ride. Turns often go fast, some times multiple rounds go by with everyone only drawing a single card as their entire action. At times, this makes Ethnos feel a little hollow. But then you’ll lay down 8 or more cards, possibly in two or more sets, and a grin creeps across your face. Scoring big and dominating a region is fun; it feels good. But the feeling is often fleeting as 4 or 5 more rounds go by where nothing happens. And then, as you are holding out for one more card, the third dragon is drawn and your turn is forfeit.
Thankfully, if all players are paying attention, turns do go quite fast. This helps keep things from being boring, since even with six players, maybe three seconds go by between most of your turns. And I don’t want you to get the wrong idea, Ethnos was quite enjoyable. I’d definitely play it again. I do question why the decision was made to put so much into the production value of Council of 4 but not so much into Ethnos. Instead of placing little discs onto the map board, I’d much rather place miniatures of different fantasy races. Instead of just choosing a color, the different colors could have also been represented by elves, skeletons, giants, trolls, and so on. I think this would have made it an instant buy for so many more people. But then I guess it might have taken the spotlight off of some of CMON’s other games. I don’t know about that, but I do know that I would have purchased Ethnos without question if it came with minis like Council of 4 or Blood Rage. Even if the miniatures were tiny like most of those in Council of 4 (10mm?), I would have been very happy. But, not every game can have miniatures and I realize that. Simply including miniatures in the game would have increased its price, and as a company it is smart to offer different products at different price points.
Of all the games I played at the CMON Expo, I think Ethnos will be the one I end up buying (remember I already own Unfair and I’ll be receiving Massive Darkness as part of my Kickstarter reward). I think Ethnos deserves a place in my collection. It is easy to teach/learn, has a relatively short game time, and thanks to the multiple fantasy races it comes with it offers a slightly different experience each time it is played. This makes it a great game to play with casual gamers. This is probably another reason it doesn’t come with miniatures since those can be off-putting to the casual crowd.
So that’s my rundown of the new games I played at the CMON Expo. There were quite a few more games there that I didn’t get the chance to play, with a lot of them being upcoming, presently unreleased titles. CMON has certainly become a powerful force in the board game industry and I’m quite okay with that.