Buzzworthiness: Epigo

This review of Epigo comes to you thanks to a review copy generously provided by the good folks at Masquerade Games.  This is the first time I’ve done a review based on a review copy, which is exciting.  I’m going to be honest about the game as I see it.  That being said, I’ll get this out of the way up front – it’s a really great game.

I’ll do a quick recap of the rules for those of you who don’t know them.  Epigo is an abstract game where the object (at least in the core game) is to capture three of your opponent’s pieces by knocking them off the board.  You each have seven possible pieces to move, and have to program three moves at a time, moving your pieces one space per order.  The game comes with 21 variants, and more available at http://www.masqgames.com.

COMPONENTS: First, the board.  It’s a very nice board, very solid.  Dimensionally, it’s a little less than 12″ square.  There’s no fold in the board, meaning that the box has to be big enough to fit, resulting in a square box that is slightly wider than Ticket to Ride, but only about half the depth.  At first, I was going to comment that it might have made more sense to fold the board and have a smaller box since there’s a lot of wasted space.  However, as my wife pointed out, it’s nice to not deal with a crease since you’re pushing pieces around.  I also thought about having puzzle pieces, a la Wok Star, but no – it’s too easy to mess up the joints, and besides, it’s nice to just have a solid one piece board.

The tiles are pretty solid cardboard, and the orders and epigons are different sizes.  The orders are marked with a picture on the back, and each color has a different picture.  This helps differentiate between the fairly muted colors for people with color blindness, but there’s no such marking on the smaller epigon tiles.  Not being color blind myself, I don’t know if that would be a problem, but it’s something to take into consideration.  The art is fairly unobtrusive, which I’ll probably talk about a bit more when I get to the theme.

The only real comment I have about the components is that I think this game would have been well served by including some player screens.  You’re organizing your orders, and while the tiles aren’t huge, it’s a bit awkward to fumble with seven tiles at once, as well as orienting them the correct way.  Including a screen would allow you to lay them out, see them on the table, make sure you have them the correct direction, and still give you some measure of privacy.  The pictures on the back of the order tiles can also give clues as to what ways you’re orienting your tiles.  It doesn’t tell you want the tile is, but it could give something away.  I asked Chris Kreuter about this issue, and he responded to say that, while they did have screens in some early prototypes, not enough playtesters found them useful enough to justify the increased costs of production and subsequent MSRP increase.  My suggestion would be, then, if you really want player screens, be creative and make your own.  Or swipe some from other games.

THEME: This being an abstract game, there’s not much of a theme.  There’s some flavor text on the back of the box telling a story about how an ancient Babylonian king staved off death by creating a game with tons of variants (kind of a 1001 Arabian Nights type of thing), but that’s about it.  The art gives the game an ancient feel, but the theme isn’t crammed down your throat, which I appreciate.  It just kind of gives some flavor to the game.  Giving the game a back story is much better than trying to get you to take on a role of someone playing a game.  The “theme” is not strictly necessary, but, aesthetically,  it’s better than just pushing numbers around on a board.

MECHANICS: The mechanics here are great.  I mentioned in my initial post how much I enjoy games with programmed actions.  I was thinking about it, and I can really only think of three others that I’ve played – RoboRally, Space Alert, and Dungeon Lords.  It’s no secret that these are among my favorite games, and part of it is because of that programmable aspect.  Something about telling your pieces what to do and seeing what happens really appeals to me.  It’s just three moves, so it’s not as stressful as the five in RoboRally or the twelve in Space Alert.  However, there’s still a good amount of thinking that goes along with what you’re doing.  You not only have to think about what you want to accomplish, but also what your opponent will be doing in order to prevent you from doing what you want to do.  I call this the Vizzini  mechanic – clearly I cannot choose the wine in front of you.

Moves are pretty simple and intuitive – you move orthogonally one space in the direction of your order.  If there’s an opponent’s piece in the way, you push it, but only if the number of their pieces in a row don’t outnumber yours.  It makes sense when you think about it – each epigon can push one other epigon.  If one epigon is trying to push two, it won’t work.  Likewise, two can’t push three.  If the row is ABABB, the only way an A will be able to push is if it’s in the middle.  B can push in either direction.

Another aspect of the mechanics that really works is the priority – higher numbers go first.  This adds a whole level of strategy to the proceedings, because you really have to plan who needs to move at which time.  Also, playing the same number as your opponent cancels your moves.  This can be effective for blocking.

The only mechanic that I’m not sure about is the super slide.  If you slide into an empty space, it’s a slide.  If during your slide, you did not touch an edge of another piece, you can complete a super slide to move one additional space.  I guess this is to keep the game moving on so you don’t have to spend much time getting a piece back into the fray, but I haven’t seen it come up in a game yet, so I don’t know exactly how it works.  Also, I’m a little unclear about whether touching a piece at the beginning of your move negates the use of a super slide.

Overall, the mechanics work very well.  Your victory condition can change from game to game depending on the variant you’re using, but I’ll talk about those when I get to Replayability.

LUCK vs. STRATEGY: When playing with a friend who is a computer programmer, he said that one of the things he liked best was the element of chance in the game.  I had been saying that there’s no luck in Epigo, but I got to thinking about it.  If you define luck as a random event that you have no control over, then there’s no luck.  What this game has is an opportunity to structure an event, but not to know the exact outcome.  Is that luck?  I think chance might be a good word for it.  As a music major, I got to learn all about what is known as “aleatoric” music, or chance music (“aleatoric” is a word derived from the Latin for dice, alea).  John Cage was the king of this – structure a piece of music so that it you’ll never know exactly what will happen.  I remember performing a piece of his called “Imaginary Landscape No. 4”, which is performed on 12 radios.  For each radio, one player works the tuner while the other works the volume control.  Specific (AM) stations and dynamic changes are specified, but since stations will be different all over the world, you never know exactly what you’ll get.  We had a lot of static in our performance, and something about a chicken that cracked the audience up, but it was an interesting experience.  The point of this story is that you can plan all you want, but some unforeseen circumstances (i.e., what your opponent does) can change everything.

So, does that mean there’s no strategy?  Absolutely not.  You can choose to try to be aggressive, pushing your opponent around and trying to get them off the board.  You can try to head someone off by playing high numbers, or you can try to cancel them out by playing an order of the same value at a time when you think they’ll use it.  So there’s lot to think about.  Just know that there’s an element of chance that could shoot all of your plans out the window.  It’s really a game about outguessing your opponent.  Variants provide more strategy as well.

ACCESSIBILITY: This is a game that I think a lot of people would enjoy.  The simple rules means that a lot of people would be able to pick it up quickly and start playing almost immediately.  The strategy might be over some people’s heads, but I think the game is very easy to pick up.  And if you don’t like one version, you can always try another.

The box says that the game is for ages 13+, which I think is kind of high.  I think kids as young as 8 might be able to grasp the mechanics, while kids as young as 10 might be able to start picking up on the strategies.  Chris mentioned that 13+ is kind of an industry standard because of reduced standards for testing (it’s so nice that those of us who are over 13 are not as important to protect as those under).  He also said that a large portion of the kids they playtested with didn’t pick up on the nuances of the game so much.  I’m fine with the 13+ age range, but I always wonder if it will turn people off to a game because they have kids that are “too young” for it.  With Epigo, I think that you know your kids well enough to figure it out for yourself.  I know a bunch of kids who would probably beat me in this game.

The other limit to accessibility is that it’s a two-player game.  Of all the variants, there’s just one four-player version (which I admittedly have not had the opportunity to try yet).  But since the game is so quick, it doesn’t really matter – you can whip off a game quickly if there’s time to kill, or you can organize some kind of tournament/match play.  Chris tells me that there are more 4-player (and even some 3-player variants) in the pipeline.

REPLAYABILITY: The biggest strength of this game, I think, is the 23 ways to play you get in the box – the core rules, the 21 variants, and the four-player game.  There are seven more on the website, called the Lion set (which is really nothing more than flavor – Chris tells me the next three planned are Bear, Dog, and Man).  With 30 different ways to play so far, this game has a ton of replayability.  So far, I’ve played the core rules, the Protexion variant (where the object is to knock your opponent’s X tile off the board), and Tiamat’s Chaos (which uses the ooze set up and a single SLAM order to move all of your pieces at once.

The variants come in a number of different varieties.  There are several different set ups (the standard two-line set up, a scattered set up, a butterfly shape, and what is known as the ooze – only one of your pieces starts on the board, with the others oozing off the top).  The set up offer more strategy opportunities – figuring out when to bring out your pieces in the ooze, where around the board to play them in scatter, and different groupings for the butterfly.  Different rules include using the X tiles, the slam orders, kinging captured epigons, leapfrogging when blocked, switching matching epigons when matching orders are revealed, being able to move one of your opponent’s pieces, and on and on.  Some of the internet variants also encourage using a dry erase marker to alter your priority or make a secret objective, but I can’t imagine wanting to write on the game.  I’m sure it will be fine, but it makes me nervous.  Still, lots of good variants out there.  Plus, there is always the possibility of making your own variants.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes.  I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with getting a copy of this game.  If you like abstracts, this is a great one.  If you like theme, you’re out of luck there, but the quickness of play and mechanics reminiscent of other highly thematic games (particularly RoboRally and Space Alert) might still get you involved.  The large number of variants is also a great selling point – because the core mechanics stay the same while the victory conditions change, this is a game that will take a long time to master.  There’s not much of a learning curve – I think a newbie could come into this game and dominate more seasoned veterans just by thinking about things differently.  So I would highly recommend this one to just about anyone.

I hope this review has helped you at least learn more about this great game.  Thanks again to Chris Kreuter and Masquerade Games for providing the review copy, and thanks to you for reading!

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