Friday, April 24, 2015

Apex Theropod Deck-Building Game by Die-Hard Games (2015)


Apex is a deck-building game, played solo or with up to 5 friends. You play as one of seven prehistoric apex predators competing for territory and resources against other predators. Each playable species has a unique deck to master.  Each deck has different strengths, weaknesses, and strategies—creating a varied and constantly evolving experience.

Your species must overcome a very brutal environment including harsh climate changes, disease, attacks from predators, grievous wounds, infections, and deadly prey. The game incorporates many dinosaurs that behave in their own distinct way. The goal of the game is to endure the environment, build up the population and evolve your species, and become the Apex predator.

* Summary from publisher’s website. Images from BoardGameGeek.

My thoughts

Apex is a game I waited a long time to get my hands on. Then I got it, and it took me nearly as long to learn how to play.

I’m exaggerating, but my unfamiliarity with deck-building card games combined with a poorly written rulebook certainly tested my patience during my first few games. The game designer has since published a second, much easier to understand rulebook and posted gameplay videos, all of which helped. I’ve now nailed down the core mechanics of the game, although I’m still a long way from mastering it.

Was all the time I sunk into Apex worth it? Definitely. Apex is the best dinosaur board/card game currently on the market. But it is not a game that will appeal to everyone, with mechanics that will likely confuse people whose experience with board games doesn’t go much beyond Monopoly.

Apex is a game for one to six players—or eight if you have the Kickstarter edition—in which you take on the role of a carnivorous dinosaur in the Mesozoic. You hunt prey, fend off other predators, and even “hatch eggs” that can become cards to add to your deck. Most of the game’s 600 cards represent an impressive range of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals that lived during the Mesozoic. (Except the giant snake Titanoboa, which was included for its coolness factor.)

At the start of the game, each player chooses a deck of cards that represents a specific predator. You then “hunt” prey cards using cards from your deck. Every kill earns you points that can be used to purchase new apex predator cards for your deck or "evolve" cards that give you special abilities. Trouble comes in the form of non-player predators that periodically pop up in the game to either kill prey or attack you. If that weren’t enough, you must contend with a super-predator “boss” that can not only deal out a lot of damage, but will take multiple hits to bring down. And did I mention this boss has minions to make your life even more miserable?

One thing Apex does beautifully is merge theme with game mechanics. A lot of the rules simply make sense in context of simulating a predator in the wild. For example, there are disease cards that require you to add a wound card to your deck every time you draw them. That’s logical: Just as a disease whittles away an animal’s health, disease cards make your deck progressively weaker. One rule I really like is ambush. You can set aside up to three cards to ambush prey in a later turn, but you must add an “alert” card to your deck to do this. If you draw the alert card later on, not only do you lose the element of surprise and return your ambush cards to the deck, but you activate any alert rules on prey in play, making them harder to hunt.

Another plus for Apex is it’s simply beautiful to look at. Apex was the creation of one man—Herschel Hoffmeyer —who not only came up with the game mechanics but also did all the art himself. That’s an impressive achievement, and I’m a bit flabbergasted at the amount of work that went into the game. The art is not just good game art—it’s good paleoart, with a degree of anatomical accuracy you usually don’t see in entertainment products. I’ve often found myself not playing the game but simply looking at it, enjoying the depictions of the dinosaurs spread out on the table before me.

Are there downsides? As I’ve already mentioned, the rulebook that came with my copy of the game was hard to follow. Another drawback is Apex isn’t a game you can just jump into on a whim. It has a significant setup time, with players needing to shuffle and sort the several card decks used in the game before they start playing. (This is probably less of a problem with more players given each person could shuffle a different deck.) Also, while I have only played Apex solo, I’m left with the impression there isn’t much player interaction during the course of the game. There are few cards you can play against other people but otherwise players are playing against the mechanics of the game itself, not other players. Whether or not this bothers you depends on what type of gamer you are.

Negatives aside, I love this game. I had never been much of a card game person before, usually preferring games with dice. Apex opened my eyes to a whole genre of games I had missed out on until now. Unfortunately Apex is not a game you can purchase and begin playing the same day, which will limit its appeal to casual gamers. The game has a bit of a learning curve. But if you are willing to invest the time to learn how to play it, you will be rewarded with the best dinosaur game since Dinosaurs of the Lost World.

  • The nine playable predators in the game are Acrocanthosaurus, Carnotaurus, Giganotosaurus, Spinosaurus, Tyrannosaurus rex, Utahratpor, Velociraptor, Quetzalcoatlus, and Sarocosuchus. The last two are only available in the exotic predators edition of the game.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Brontosaurus: A faded star rises again

So much for being the snob who corrected my friends whenever someone mentioned “Brontosaurus.”

As you’ve probably heard by now, a group of scientists has proposed restoring the name after concluding the original fossils differed enough from Apatosaurus to constitute a separate genus. I’ll leave it to better writers to explain how this resurrection came about. All I know is I’ve lost the pleasure of tut-tutting writers when they included Brontosaurus in their stories.

Make no mistake: Brontosaurus has appeared in a lot of dinosaur books and movies. It is possibly the most famous dinosaur, running neck to neck with T. rex in terms of a dinosaur name everyone knows. Pull someone off the street and ask that person to draw you a dinosaur, I’m willing to bet most drawings will resemble a Brontosaurus: thin at one end, much much thicker in the middle, and then thin again at the far end.

Brontosaurus may in fact be the first dinosaur ever to appear in a work of fiction. The 1901 pulp adventure novel Beyond the Great South Wall by Frank Savile is about an expedition to Antarctica that discovers a lost civilization that worships a god named “Cay.” The author includes this footnote after the narrator stumbles upon Cay’s lair:
Lord Heatberslie makes a mistake here. Professor Lessatition's subsequent researches proved "the god Cay" to be without doubt Brontosaurus excelsus, remains of which have been found in the Jurassic formation of Colorado. It was purely a land animal.
Beyond the Great South Wall was probably the first example of dinosaur fiction. Yes, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth was published four decades before Savile’s novel, but Verne’s tale didn’t include any living dinosaurs. Rather, the famous science fiction author populated his book with mastodons and marine reptiles. (Update: I forgot the 1888 novel A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder may actually be the first science fiction novel with dinosaurs, but a quick search through it didn't turn up any specific species, so my point stands for now.)

Brontosaurus also was absent in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel The Lost World, possibly because many of the dinosaurs depicted in the novel were known from fossils discovered in Doyle’s home country of Great Britain, whereas Brontosaurus is an American beast. It is ironic then that Brontosaurus would play a major role in the first film adaptation of the book. The 1925 movie features not only a Brontosaurus fighting an Allosaurus, but the animal is transported to London to go on a rampage through the city—a scenario that was copied by countless other B-movies.

The animal appears again in the 1933 film King Kong during a frightening sequence in which a group of sailors are trying to cross a lake in pursuit of the giant ape. For sake of plot, Brontosaurus is turned into a flesh-eating monster that flips the sailors' rafts then picks them off one by one as they swim to shore. One sailor manages to climb a tree only to be eaten by the Brontosaurus, which can grab him because of its long neck.

After that, Brontosaurus faded into the background of most imaginative works about dinosaurs. It usually got a shout out but was never the star, lacking both the fierce weaponry of Triceratops and the predatory habits of T. rex. One exception was the 1953 novel Danger: Dinosaurs! by Richard Marsten, in which a herd of brontosaurs plays a small but important role in the plot. More often than not, any references to the dinosaur were more like this throwaway paragraph in David Gerrold’s 1978 novel Deathbeast:
At first, he thought it was a grounded blimp – then his eyes adjusted to the scale of the thing and he realized it was only a brontosaur. Not dangerous at all – well, not deliberately dangerous. There was the case of that hunter who was eaten inadvertently because the brontosaur’s eyesight is so poor it hadn’t see him in the tree – but that one really didn’t count.
The 1980s saw Brontosaurus rumble into the spotlight once again. The dinosaur played a starring role in the 1985 movie Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend, a film so bad it nearly condemned dinosaur films to extinction. Luckily, the animal’s reputation was salvaged in 1988 with the release of The Land Before Time, an animated film about the adventures of a baby Brontosaurus named Littlefoot.

Brontosaurus didn’t make it into 1993’s Jurassic Park. However, the animal did appear in the 2005 remake of King Kong. The film took place on an island where dinosaurs continued to evolve and thrive after the rest of their kind died off 65 million years ago. According to the tie-in book, the island’s brontosaurs had evolved from earlier sauropod ancestors.

Will Brontosaurus rise again now its status has been restored? Hard to say. Still, it is notable that the upcoming Jurassic World features Apatosaurus as one of the dinosaurs populating the park. Given the park’s staff have been known to get dinosaur names wrong before, who is to say the dinosaurs are not brontosaurs?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Game alert: Evolution takes flight on Kickstarter

When I posted my essay Monday about the history of prehistoric-themed board games, I didn't expect this week would be filled with news about them. Now it turns out the popular card game Evolution is getting both a second edition and an expansion that will allow players to create animals capable of flight.

North Star Games - the publisher of Evolution - is running a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the expansion, titled Evolution Flight. The company also is planning a second edition with major changes to many of the cards - a strange move given the first edition hit stores just last year. The good news for anyone that owns the game is that if you pledge $25 for a copy of the expansion, the company will send you the updated 100 cards at no additional cost, provided it hits at least $50,000 in pledges. The game was already at $23,700 with 44 days to go in the Kickstarter campaign at the time of this post, so it is very likely the pledge amount will go above and beyond the amount needed to get the updated cards.

I admit I was distressed when I learned about the Kickstarter: I had just purchased a copy of the game a few hours earlier! I'm happy I will probably get the new cards along with the expansion, but I can't help but think of those retailers whose copies of the game may go unsold once word gets out a second edition is already in the works. It doesn't sound like a smart business move to release an updated version of the game so close to the release of the original version, but then again, I'm not in the board game business.

Anyway, click here to see the campaign. $25 will get you the expansion. $55 will get you the second edition. $75 will get you both.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

New game: A deck full of dinosaurs

History buffs who play board games probably are familiar with the Timeline series of card games. Now amateur paleontologists will get to see what all the fuss is about with the most recent edition in the series, Cardline: Dinosaurs.

Cardline: Dinosaurs is already out in France and will debut in the U.S. sometime between July and September of this year, according to BoardGameGeek. Here's the description of the game from the publisher's website:
The diplodocus is clearly heavier than the tyrannosaurus, but what about the brachiosaurus? I imagine that the stegosaurus is lighter than those three, but does it weigh less than a wooly mammoth?

In Cardline Dinosaurs, these are the kind of questions you’ll be faced with each time you want to place one of your cards. There’s only one goal here -to be the first one to correctly play all of your cards.

This box contains 110 cards built around the theme of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. All of these cards are compatible with the cards from the Cardline Animal series. This way, by using various boxes with different themes, you increase the possibilities and the fun of playing.
That description isn't particularly helpful in describing gameplay but I've played other games in this series and can assure you they're pretty fun. Basically players try to get rid of all the cards in their possession by placing them in the right sequence in relation to other cards in play. In the history game, cards must be arranged from the earliest historical event to the most recent. In Cardline: Dinosaurs, cards must be arranged from the smallest animal to the largest or from the lightest creature to the heaviest. (Players decide at the start of the game which category they want to use.)

The video below gives you an idea of what the game looks like. Its biggest selling point is the tin that holds the cards. The card art is colorful, but unfortunately the dinosaurs lack the anatomical accuracy one would find had the company used a paleoartist instead. Still, I plan to pick up a copy of the game once it hits the states.