Essen Preview #31 – Three games from AEG – Smash Up, Courtier and Love Letter

AEG has been making a move over the past year or so to break into the Euro-game market. Previous to this effort,  I had known them most for role playing games and L5R games. This year at GenCon, they released Smash-Up which is fun game that I have enjoyed with my kids.  They also announced that they are releasing a series of games set in the fictional Tempest world.  Four games will be released at Essen 2012 in this new line, and more are planned for the future.  All of the Tempest games are very Euro-game in style, and I’ve even managed to get in a play of Courtier in the run-up to Essen.

Smash Up
Designer: Paul Peterson
Publisher: AEG
Players: 2-4
Time: 30-45 minutes
Ages: 8+

Times Played: 4 with review copy provided by AEG
Theme: create decks (made up of two races) to control more bases than your opponents

Main Mechanics: deck construction, area control

Smash Up is a slightly different take on the deck-building genre as it allows to you combine two mini-decks of cards (only 20 cards each) in every game that you play. Each deck is filled with creature cards and action cards – and each deck has a definite flavor to it, and each deck plays differently as a result.  For instance, the Robots specialize in making lots of little robots that pick away at opponents while the Aliens send cards back into player’s hands.  Each mini-deck has its own specific strength, and they all interact a little differently with the other decks.

The goal is to score the most points.  You score points based on how strong your army is around different location cards.  Each location card has a set of VP values printed on it as well as a “trigger number” in the upper left corner.  On your turn, you are able to play cards from your hand, and this usually allows you to place one or more army cards around one or more location cards.  After you resolve your card, you look at each location to see if the total value of all cards at that location exceeds the trigger number.  If so, that card is immediately scored.  The value of each player’s army is totaled up, and the highest valued army scores points equal to the highest number on that location card.  Second place gets the second higest number, etc.

Example of a location card. There is a special ability here that is put into effect when the card is scored.

OK, let me get a little more specific about how a turn goes.  Remember how I told you there were two types of cards in each deck? Well, on your turn, you are able to play up to one of each type of card.  If you play a minion card, you take it and place it at one of the location cards on the table.  There might be a special action on the card – so you read the card and do the action.  If you play an action card, read it out loud, do what it says and then discard the action card.  You are not obligated to play any cards, but you are limited to one of each type.  After you play your 0-2 cards, then you check for scoring – look at each location card and see if the total value of minion cards around it is equal or higher than the trigger number.  If so, you score that location.  Then play rotates to next player.

A minion card

If a location is going to score, you first announce which one is scoring and each player has a chance to take any “pre-scoring” actions – this could be a card in hand or a minion already on the board. Then you tally up the strength of each player at that location. The player with most gets the number on the left in VP (usually the highest number of VP), second gets the middle and third place gets the right number.   Some of the bases also have a special ability on them that goes into effect at this time. Then, any “after scoring” effects can be played.  All cards at that location are placed in the discard pile of the player that played them.

The game continues until someone has at least 15 points.  If there is a tie, you keep playing the game until there isn’t a tie.  It could even turn out that the player who wins wasn’t one of the ones initially tied at 15 or more!

Impressions – this is a game that my boys love.  At 9 and 11, the cards are not too complex for them to figure out, and they love combining the different mini-decks in each game.  It is serving as a decent introduction to the concept of deck-building because here they really only have to worry about 2 components, but it is definitely easy to see the effects that each change makes. The gameplay can be a little take-that-ish, but not so much that it ruins the game.  Some of the cards are targeted, and at times, the boys decide to just keep trying to get back at each other with their actions.

Gameplay is quick – many turns take 30 seconds or less, though scoring the bases can take a bit more time since you have to allow time for pre-scoring actions, the actual scoring, and then post-scoring actions.  My only big beef with the game is that I feel it should have come with a board for scoring.  Not that it’s that much of a hassle keeping score with pen-and-paper or on my smartphone, but I’m just so used to having scoring tracks or some other visible record, that it’s weird to play games without it now.  It was also a little cumbersome to have to keep reminding people of the score near the end of the game.

The artwork is nicely done, and the box insert is very Dominion like with multiple molded sections in the vac tray to hold the different mini-decks.  There are way more slots in the insert than decks in the game which makes me think that expansions are in the works to help fill out these extra slots.  Or… if you had two sets of Smash Up, you could store them in a single box and then give people more choice when constructing their decks.

Way more slots in the insert than you need… Curious?

Smash Up should make its European debut at Essen.

Thoughts on Smash Up by Matt Carlson: Dale does an excellent job giving an overview of the game.  I was given a review copy of Smash Up at GenCon and it has seen quite a bit of use.  As my boys are far younger than Dale’s, I primarily inflicted the game on the local high school boardgame group I sponsor.  It was a major hit, with the game seeing play nearly every week.  At least one member let me know it was already on his Christmas list.  The crazy mix-up theme and quick gameplay, mixed with a bit of aggressive style of play put Smash Up right in the target audience for teen games.

Personally, I find it an enjoyable game to play with a crowd who will find it fun, but not my first choice in gaming.  When played with a very strategic mindset, the game is reduced to biding one’s time trying to slowly increase control in one or more areas.  Hopefully a player can claim a win on their own turn in one big go before one of the other players can do the same.  This results in a rather slow, cautious game which doesn’t let itself to the style or theme.  My other disappointment is in the card mix.  There are some great themes to explore (Robot Dinos anyone?), but experienced players will soon find there are a few combinations that just don’t work that great together.  (I played one two player game where my opponent and I fumbled about – he drawing more and more cards and me clearing out any minion he played – while neither of use were able to build up a presence on one of the available areas.

All that said, the game has a crazy fun theme and a pretty solid (if not too deep) gameplay.  I put it in the “I Like it…” category and expect my own boys will be going ape over the game in 5 or 6 years… (at which time there should be a few more expansions… )

The other set of releases at Essen from AEG are the games in the Tempest line.  AEG have created an imaginary world, called Tempest, which they have at least four games set in.  All of these games share the same backstory – which is elaborated upon in the rules to each of the games – and thus far, the games share character and location names with each other.  I’ve looked online a little bit, and I have yet to find a book, movie, graphic novel or anything else this series is a licensed product of.  I think that it has been designed/developed by AEG specifically for these games.

I have had a chance to play one of the games, Courtier, and I have read the rules to some of the others – and here are my first impressions / initial thoughts on these games.

Designer: Philip duBarry
Publisher: AEG
Players: 2-4
Ages: 10+
Time: 45 minutes

Times Played: Once with near-final prototype with designer
Theme: exerting influence over different parts of the Tempest court
Main Mechanics: area control

Courtier is one of the new releases in the Tempest line of games, and I recently had a chance to play the final prototype with the designer, Philip duBarry.   We had communicated via email in the past and at Origins or Gencon, but until this month, I didn’t realize that we actually lived in the same city!  Given our geographic proximity, it seemed like an easy plan to meet up one night and play some final prototypes – he showed me Courtier, and I gave him a first look at Suburbia.

In Courtier, you are trying to score the most victory points.  The main way to score points is to fulfill petition cards – each petition requires you to have control over certain members of the court.  You play cards on your turn to try to take control of these people.

The board – here you can see the 8 different groups of courtiers

To start the game, 12 fashion cards are randomly drawn, and the game end card is shuffled in the bottom 6 cards.  The board represents the royal court, and there are 8 different areas of court (having between 1 and 5 personalities in that area).  Each area has a special ability that is associated with it.  Each player starts the game with 15 influence markers that he can use, the rest of them are placed in the supply (think El Grande provinces/courtyard). Four petition cards are placed face up next to the board, and each player is given one petition card that he keeps secret.  Then, each player gets 5 cards to start the game – there are 2 different types: influence cards and power cards.  Influence cards allow you to place influence markers on specific people or perhaps on someone in a specific group.  Power cards have all sorts of abilities that might move influence markers, place extra markers, let you play multiple cards, etc.  The two types of cards are kept in their own deck, and the top card of each deck is put face up next to each deck.

A fashion card

On your turn, you start with the choice of 1 of 3 actions: 1) you get to play one card and do what it says, 2) you can discard any or all cards left in your hand, OR 3) gain an influence marker from the reserve.  After you do this, you can score one petition card (either a face-up one or the private one in your hand).  Finally, you draw back up to 5 cards in your hand and play passes clockwise to the next player.  Play continues in this fashion until the end-game card is drawn from the fashion deck (more on this later).

An example of a power card

If you play an influence card, these usually let you place an influence marker on a specific person or on any person in a specific area of court.  Each person in court has a number of available spaces for influence. If one of these is empty, then you must place your marker in this empty space. If all the slots are taken, you can displace the cube of your choice when placing your own.  There are some cards which specify that your marker must go in an empty space, if so – you obviously cannot displace another cube.

An influence card

As you place your influence markers, you may end up controlling a courtier – this happens when you have more markers on a person than any other player.  There are times when neutral markers are placed on people – these neutral ones do not count against you.  Additionally, if there are any courtiers who have all slots filled with neutral markers, you control them on your turn.  You might also end up controlling one of the coteries (one of the colored areas on the board).  This happens if you have the most total influence markers in that group.  If so, you take the coterie card which reminds you of the special ability you get for controlling that group.

Coterie card

Your short-term goal is to control different courtiers because that’s what you need to do in order to score points.  After you have played your card (or discarded or taken an influence marker), you can choose to score a Petition card.  There will always be 4 face-up cards at the side of the board, and you will always have one secret Petition card in your hand.  You can choose to score any of these 5 options on your turn, though you are limited to scoring a single card on your turn. To score, each person listed on the card must be completely filled with markers, and you must have control of all of the people listed on the petition card.  Certain cards or coterie powers may allow you to substitute for one or more people on the card, but you must “control” all the listed people in some way.

A small petition card

When you score a card, a number of things happen

  • you take the petition card and keep it face down in your area. At the end of the game, you will score the VPs listed on the card
  • you remove ALL influence markers from the people used to score the card
  • replace the petition card – if you scored a face-up one, put a new one face-up; if you scored the secret one in your hand, draw a new secret card
  • Flip over the top fashion card – for the most part, most of these cause you to place lots of neutral markers on the board.  If the game-end card is flipped up, the game ends immediately
  • If the game continues, discard the face up power and influence cards and replace then with new ones from the deck

After you take your option to score a Petition card, you refill your hand to 5 cards.  You draw them one at a time as you can choose either Power or Influence cards.  You can freely choose the top face-down card from either deck.  If you want to take the face up card from either deck, you must return one influence marker to the supply.

As I said earlier, the game goes until the end-game card is flipped up.  This means that a game will last somewhere between 6 and 12 scored petition cards.  The player with the most points wins. If there is a tie, the player with the most petition cards scored is the winner.

Impression – I really liked my one play of the game.  When I first read the rules, I wasn’t sure what to expect – but my first game has shown this to be a well-crafted area control game.  You have a fair number of options on each turn, and you have more control than usual over your choices because you can choose which type of card to draw into your hand.  I found that it was always good to have at least one card of each type in my hand.  Influence cards seemed to be more powerful early on, but as the people filled up, the Power cards gave you a bit more choice in moving cubes around.

The game has a nice tempo to it.  Early on, many turns are simply playing an influence card, placing a single cube and then moving to the next person.  It takes awhile to score the first petition card because you ALL of the influence spaces have to be filled on ALL people on the card.  However, once the scoring starts, the pace picks up nicely.  Part of the reason is due to sheer number of cubes on the board; there are a lot more options on how to move cubes around with your Power cards.  The other reason are the Fashion cards – remember that one of these is revealed with each Petition card that is scored.  Most of them direct you to place a bunch of neutral cubes on the board which also helps move things along.  In our game, it took about 20 minutes to get the first Petition card scored, but then the scoring was fast and furious after that.   There was a nice feeling of setting things up in the first part of the game, and then turns took a bit longer as you had to really look at he board to see what your options were based on the cards you had in your hand and the petitions available.

The designer playing games in my basement

I’m excited to see AEG move towards more Euro-style games, and the quality of Courtier has definitely raised my expectations of the rest of the Tempest line.

Love Letter
Designer: Seiji Kanai
Publisher: AEG
Players: 2-4
Ages:  8 and up
Time:  15 minutes

Theme: Writing letters to the princess who is locked in the tower
Main Mechanics: hand mangement

Seiji Kanai has created a number of small card games which I have picked up over the years at Essen.  Last year, his Master Merchant was a novel take on the idea of deckbuilding  as it was really more of a hand-building game. The sweet part of the game was that there are only 36 total cards in the game – Mr. Kanai is certainly able to maximize the action out of a limited number of components.

Love Letter seems to have a similar design philosophy as there are only 16 cards in the game!  Each card represents a different person found at the royal palace.

The game is played in a number of rounds, until someone has won enough rounds (2p = 7, 3p = 5, 4p = 4).  At the start of each round, each player has a hand of 1 card.  Then on your turn, you draw a card, choose one of the two cards in your hand to play, and then play it.  Players can be eliminated from the playing of cards. If only one player remains in play, he wins the round.  Otherwise, the round ends when there are no more cards to draw from the deck.  At that point, the players still in the round reveal their hands (again, this would only be a single card), and whichever player has the highest ranking person in their hand wins the round.

There are 8 different personalities in the palace, and each has a different ability.  When you play a card, you must follow all the instructions on it, even if they are not good for you…  An example is: #3 Baron Talus:  When discarded, choose one other player still in the round. You and that player secretly compare your hands. The player with the lower rank is knocked out of the round. In case of a tie, nothing happens.

So, from the rules and what I know of the components, there doesn’t appear to be a lot here at first glance.  But, that’s what I thought about Master Merchant, and I was definitely surprised by the depth that I found in that little game – I’m hoping for the same here.  It sounds like most rounds here will only take 1 or 2 minutes to play, so the game as a whole should come in around 15 to 20 minutes.

There are two other Tempest games to be released the fall – Dominare and Mercante.  I’ve downloaded the rules to those two, but I will not have time to read them until I am on the plane to Europe.  However, given my initial experience with Courtier and my anticipation of Love Letter, I’m looking forward to giving the entire Tempest line a try! And, for those of you with the collector’s bug – here is a picture of the first few games in the series – they will certainly look nice lined up on your gaming shelf!

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
This entry was posted in Essen 2012, First Impressions. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Essen Preview #31 – Three games from AEG – Smash Up, Courtier and Love Letter

  1. Justin R says:

    Excited for this new “Gaming World” to be unleashed! Hurry up so I can spend my money and escape to Tempest! :)

  2. Mark says:

    Love Letter is a little gem

  3. Marcel says:

    I’m not sure about the whole Tempest setting. After all, we don’t know anything about it yet, we can’t relate to it.
    After you’ve played a couple of games in this setting, maybe the “Tempest” label will start to have additional appeal, but for now, it’s even more bland than Renaissance Italy (which actually isn’t bland at all, just way over-used). The fact that the three big games all use well-known mechanisms doesn’t help either. Only Love Letter jumps out as unique, and therefore is the only game that has made it on my try-it-at-Spiel list.

Leave a Reply