Update!

Wow!

I made this blog years ago and ran it for a few months to test out my writing and reviewing skills. It was a fun project that I’d honestly forgotten about, I’m sure a lot of people have an abandoned blog or two lying around the internet somewhere…

Imagine my surprise when, most of a decade after I wrote these reviews, my old blog suddenly blows up out of nowhere.

Escape! 404 especially has got a lot of attention! Who knew I had such an exclusive (and maybe valuable) treasure sitting in my pile of old games?

I’m hanging on to it – but I’m happy to share photos and videos of the things to slake all this curiosity!

Board Game : Blood Bowl 2E & Dungeon Bowl

Blood Bowl, the biggest American football/Warhammer Fantasy Battle crossover event in history, was and remains one of my favourite board games of all time. Me, my siblings and my friends spent hundreds of hours playing our favourite teams and the comically exaggerated violence and exquisite art and miniatures on offer produced some of the best memories I have of myself sat at a table.

The artwork and board quality are peerless. I’d easily rate this board as among the all-time best available for any game. This high quality carries over to the miniatures with a huge variety of imaginative design on display covering human warriors, goblins, dwarves, elves, orcs and trolls from the Warhammer universe. Each species team has different rules and abilities to play off with different drawbacks and advantages. The faction-based strategizing and aesthetic consistency are carried over from mainline Warhammer Fantasy Battle. 

Teams were made up of members of the main faction, members of related races, guest characters and special characters filling the roles of Blockers, Blitzers, Throwers, Catchers, Runners and Linemen. 

The rules of the game were a hybrid of rugby and American football but the game was really played in the special abilities and violent attacks and combos used to remove opposing team players from the pitch.

The tongue-in-cheek reference humour is the cherry on the cake and gives the game great replayability and new depth when coming back to it older and wiser.

The supplementary Dungeon Bowl added new rules, figures, art and setting, a dark dungeon navigated by teleporter. Rather than the more traditional pitch-game emulating rules of the main game, Dungeon Bowl has teams competing to find a ball hidden in a chest before a brutal contest for possession with the first touch-down winning the round.

The new rules and setting made for a faster paced alternative to the strategic main game and this ended up being one of my favourite expansions ever.

All in all, though later editions changed the formula in ways that, arguably, improved the game, it’s the 2nd Edition that I played as a kid and it will forever have my heart. Play 2E if you can but even the current edition is unending fun.

Board Game : Rogue Trooper

A very complex, meticulously built world in which the player experiences a surprising but unusually immersive story that was updated and maintained by White Dwarf fairly religiously. This game is enormous. In the base box there is a map, six miniatures, six character sheets, one trader playing piece, seventy counters, two hundred and eighty-three cards, a rulebook, a survival guide and six dice.

Corners were cut with the miniatures, in that all six Rogue Trooper miniatures are identical in different colours and the trader piece is a paper cutout instead of a more substantial mini, which is a shame on a board where corner-cutting prevented the art and aesthetic matching the depth of the ruleset.

Players take on the role of Rogue Troopers, the last genetically-enhanced survivors of a war the good guys lost, hunting down the traitor who brought about the fall of the Trooper’s forces. The winner is the first player to locate and kill the traitor.

With a specificity of story unusual in board games the mechanics were specifically tailored around the story, with depth and complexity rarely seen without a DM screen present. The game is made up of hex maps and miniatures with a system of card determining the contents of each hex. It’s a robust system that has a lot of replayability.

Overall, Rogue Trooper has a steep learning curve but rewards those who tough it out generously.

Board Game : Tetris (The Board Game)

Billed as “The ultimate test of advanced territorial strategy”, this woefully inept adaptation of the Soviet video game Tetris delivers an underwhelming experience that leaves me wondering if this was simply a lazy attempt to cash in on a cultural phenomenon in early video gaming. It demonstrates how video gaming and board gaming aren’t interchangeable and senseless adaptations and doomed to failure.

The failure is threefold. First and foremost, the removal of the time constraint that defines Tetris on computer kills the pacing and pressure that had palms sweaty and jaws clenched on that platform. Even artificially placing time limitations on yourself doesn’t capture the feeling of urgency that is caused by watching the blocks drop on the screen, just as manually calculating line scores doesn’t match watching that bar disintegrate and drop the next row.

The second issue that kills any fun in this game is the randomised pieces each player receives to build their side of the board. It is perfectly possible for one player to be given a game-breaking advantage right at the start with no remedy. Victory is determined as much by luck as by skill or strategy.

The third, final, and least of the problems is that Tetris was designed to be a single player experience; man against machine, reflex against logic. To make such a game two-player makes it into a strategy game more than a test of instinct and reflex. As a fan of the original Tetris, I feel this is a huge loss. It is, however, less of a deal-breaker than the other two major issues, as a single-player board game would defeat the purpose entirely.

In the game’s favour I’d praise the strong colour and art work and relatively clear instructions.

It’s worth mentioning that the spinner was very sticky other aspects of the set were less sturdy than they could have been.

In conclusion, I would not recommend this game. Play the original video game for a better Tetris experience and play a board game designed from the ground up with multiplayer experience in mind for a more fun group experience.

Board Game : Escape! 404

The biggest sleeper hit of ‘93, this game was well ahead of its time. Possibly too far ahead of its time for its own good; it seems to have largely been forgotten a couple of decades later. Among boardgame cognoscenti of a certain age, however, Escape! 404 Is synonymous with immersive fun.

 A dice-roller with a Dungeon Master, Escape! 404 was preceded only by Hero Quest, which was clearly its major mechanical inspiration. Aesthetically, it owes more to Ghost Castle.

It was a unique board game for its time and even today. I’d describe it as a catered game of tag through a shifting maze. 

The DM controls the placement of doors within the board and has at his disposal a nearly-unlimited army of slow-moving, overpowered ‘Infected’ monsters. The players move their characters through the maze with the goal of reaching the centre, a slime room represented on the board by a tub of slime. Players reaching the centre of the board would spend their remaining turns delving into the slime to retrieve coloured tokens. When they found the correct token for their character they would be able to access the evacuation chopper and escape, winning the game.

If caught by the Infected the player would enter a combat system based on a spinner. Upon failing, which was the usual outcome of combat, the player would take damage or become Infected themselves.

Upon Infection a timer is started and that player has one minute to find and consume an Antidote card before their game ends and control is taken by the DM. They can be found in random draws or through trading with other players, each of whom has a hand of cards to play at any time during their turn.

This board game was hours of fun for me and my friends when we were kids. We rarely won – it was a very unforgiving combat system – but even getting to the slime pot at the centre of the board and having that tactile element to the experience was reward enough. We were kids. There was slime. We were happy just to get our hands in the slime.

The mechanics were solid and fun. A good variety of generously-awarded buff and protection cards kept the players going against the far more powerful Infected and provided lots of emergent situations for the players to deal with that could help or hinder them.

The Hero Quest influence, Dungeon Master setup and narrative nature of the board and cards leads to characterisation of the pieces and builds strong attachment between the player and their pieces and their character. I still remember how avidly I defended my favourite piece, which was the dog, and the character I created to play in that piece’s paws, even eighteen years later.

On the down side, the combat was excessively unfair and there were a lot of random outcomes that made player skill obsolete. You just hoped for winning spins and an unimaginative DM.

Having said that, the game was still a lot of fun and completely dominated the summer evenings of ‘93 and ‘94 for me. It’s unfortunate that the game has fallen out of memory, for the most part. This is likely due to the slime component drying out or leaking and making old sets unusable, but in my case I was lucky. The slime has dried out but it didn’t damage any other components as it was properly sealed in its storage container.

There was an expansion pack released in late ‘93 called ‘Enter The Cloud’ which looked to delve deeper into the plague and world’s backstory but I was never able to find it, do not own it and am unable to review it. I will say that the world building in Escape! 404 is strong as it is in the base game.

Overall, this is one of the best board games I ever played as a child and it has been a pleasure delving through those memories to write this review.

Board Game : Block Mania

Set in the universe of Judge Dredd the game draws on the chaos inherent in that setting to pit rival block-gangs against each other. Players control block residents as the vandalise the opposing blocks with spray paint, flamethrowers, sledgehammers and heavy lasers.

This game rewards knowledge of the setting. I remember that, even at the time, myself and others of my friends who knew the 2000AD universe and its rules and trends were at a distinct advantage. This kind of intimacy between board and screen is rarely seen in the board games of today and provided a unique feeling that felt bespoke to its setting and its time.

The rules are not presented clearly and there are almost more exception-rules than there are base rules themselves. Luck and change play a huge factor in success, as does pre-knowledge of the game and world. The unfairness of the game ends up complimenting its theme of paranoia and violence in a dystopian authoritarian future state. Death and wealth are distributed randomly and to those able to leverage their knowledge of their environment to their advantage. Whether is is a happy accident or deliberate genius, I cannot say.

Board Game : Key To The Kingdom

One of the more innovative and unusual games in my collection, the six-room, many-piece, modular, arrangeable board lent the game high replayability. Two of the rooms could only be reached via whirlpools at the centre of the board and the six rooms could be matched up in many variants with road pieces. The board can also fold and change mid-game, with special rules handling players who were caught on a folding or shifting board section.

The goal of the game, to move around the board collecting the key required to escape and another treasure (to make the escape worthwhile), using eight starting equipment cards to deal with or avoid traps and fight monsters. Treasures could be stolen with other players, and teamwork was also possible in dealing with obstacles and threats.

This game was fun and different every time. Huge replayability, very unpredictable, rewards risk. Great art on the box and on the board with clear mechanics that hold a surprising amount of depth. I thoroughly enjoyed this game as a kid and would happily give it another go now.

Board Game : Space Hulk 1E & Genestealer

Space Hulk, an accessible miniatures game/Aliens ripoff set in the universe of the far more complex Warhammer 40K, was a gateway to the world of tabletop and miniature gaming for me. Along with Escape! 404 it was one of my all-time favourite games, and still is. I didn’t have the money or maths skills required to put together and play a 40K or Warhammer army but I was entranced by the grimdark world I found in the rulebooks and codices for those games. For my twelve-year-old self, the 40K and Space Hulk universe was an intoxicating mix of the titillating and the recognisable. It was both edgy and safe.

The game itself is an excellent microcosm of the gritty universe in which it is set. The artwork is strong and evokes the “oil and incense” atmosphere of the Monastery-Starships of the Imperium of Man. The Genestealer models were exceptional and remain unmatched to this day. The same cannot be said of my Space Marines, which looked like hamsters. Their quality on the board, however, depended on your skill as a painter.

I always played Space Marines, facing off against the horrifying Genestealers. Each side faces different restrictions and has different advantages. The Space Marines are limited in number and slow, facing harsh real-world time restrictions for their activities, but have powerful weapons and a wide array of tactics available to them. The genestealers are limitless in number and do not face time restrictions as they are so much faster than their opponents but are somewhat vulnerable to Space Marine weaponry and have a smaller pool of tactics to work from. 

Dice rolls determine the course of fate, but the system was fair and pliant to skill. The player never feels as though the outcome is random but that their actions bring about consequences. This is a major plus in a board game.

Unfortunately, the 1st Edition is ultimately a broken mess on the rules side and it’s very easy for players to find themselves outside the rules or smashing up against a brick wall of rules inappropriate to the board in play.

The Genestealers expansion was more of the same, and very welcome. Variety was added to the scenarios and the ruleset, though in the case of the ruleset this caused yet more breakage and confusing bloat within game systems. For a game that was, at heart, a simplification of 40K combat, complexity ended up becoming a high barrier that Space Hulk didn’t overcome until the 3rd Edition.