Lembitu: A four-sided game review

Lembitu boxLembitu* is a co-operative board game from small Estonia publisher 2D6.EE, by designer Aigar Alaveer.

It was launched at the UK Games Expo 2015 in Birmingham with very little fanfare, but if you like co-ops it may well be worth your attention.

The game plays two-to-four players but like most co-ops it is equally good for solo play. Games shouldn’t take an hour with four and with one/two it’s possible to play in 30 minutes – or, if things go badly wrong, it could be considerably less!

The components are a slightly mixed bag – but mostly top notch. The box and board and beautifully illustrated while the 60 cubes (the bad guys), three custom dice and 20 fortification tokens are industry standard. It’s just a shame the cheap plastic turn marker and player pawns look like they’re our of an old budget copy of ludo… But as the game retails at about £25 it still represents solid value.

In terms of theme, Lembitu represents a tough time in Estonian history – the Livonian Crusade – when the nation was being conquered on all sides by the Danish, the Crusaders and Novgorod (an ancient part of Russia), with only their Leader, Lembitu, standing in the way of them all. That’ll be you then.

In truth, for most of us, the theme is non existent. You can use the three different coloured cubes as you like as each army is essentially the same  – one hit, one kill – while your cheap plastic player pawn has all the personality it deserves (ie, none). This is an abstract co-operative game, unless you’re being taught it by an Estonian history teacher.

Teaching

Lembitu in playAs with any co-op that has no hidden information, as long as one player is fully versed with the rules you can teach as you go.

Game play itself is straightforward and once you get up to speed things rocket along – but unfortunately the rulebook isn’t the greatest and there is also an error on the board itself: pretty inexcusable, especially as it isn’t mentioned in the rulebook/in the box as an addendum (I’ve highlighted all the problems/answers I had in a Lembitu rules FAQ over at Board Game Geek).

Turns are super simple. First, move the turn marker to the next space (nice and clear around the edge of the board) – this will indicate if it’s your turn, an enemy turn or a rebellion, or if you’ve won (by getting back to the start of the track). Winning is simply a case of surviving long enough to get once around the board.

The bad guys move, Defenders of the Realm or The Dwarves style, from the the edge of the board towards your capital along pre-set paths. If they make it, or you run out of defenders (players), you’ve had it. On each bad guy turn, roll the three dice and add attackers (0-2) to the six enemy routes (each dice has two symbols). If the enemy arrive on a space with a player, that player is dead – if they arrive in the capital, game over.

Player turns see each player act, with the amount of actions determined by player number (always a total of 12, so 6 each in a two-player game). An ‘action’ is either move a space, kill one enemy or place an uprising token. That’s it – no dice, no player powers, no items.

You’ll notice the board is in three colours: there are three ‘rebellion’ spaces around the edge of the board, each matching one of these colours. When you hit these spaces, any uprising tokens on towns of the same colour become a fortification – slowing the enemy. In certain strategic positions, these are super useful – but hard to pull off.

The four sides

Lembitu bits These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: I shouldn’t like Lembitu. It is structurally naive, the luck can be unmitigable and at times it feels like a prototype rather than a product. But what can I say? It’s fun. Chaos be damned – it’s so simple to set up and quick to play that if everything goes to hell you can set up and go again. And on the plus side, different player numbers makes for a very different game each time precisely because it hasn’t been balanced to within an inch of its life.
  • The thinker: In one way I like the stripped, abstract nature of Lembitu: it has an elegance that is easy to appreciate. But those dice rolls are just too swingy, especially near the end when the enemy is getting two turns to your one. I need to feel good play will be rewarded more often than not and here I think too many games will be decided by the dice. But I wouldn’t turn down a game if others were keen.
  • The trasher: I found this one to be fun, in a crazy dice fest kind of way. The game moves at a great pace and we actually played back-to-back games after getting thrashed the first time – which is quite rare for our group. That said the abstract nature means I probably wouldn’t miss it if we never played again: it just lacked a bit of personality, despite some fun pics on the board. If only those sea monsters were actually in the game!
  • The dabbler: While I didn’t hate Lembitu, I was quickly shouted out of the picture by more alpha gamers. Beyond the colour of your plastic piece you have no personality, no power, no distinction – it’s even worse than Pandemic in that respect. I ended up being given a quiet bit of the board and just plugged away, doing what I was told. It was fun watching things unfold, but I didn’t really feel part of it and the theme was totally lost on me.

Key observations

Lembitu player actionsLembitu is definitely a game that will irk the pampered modern gamer. With no player powers or hidden information/traitors there is plenty of room for a gobby ‘alpha gamer’ to take control and order everyone around; while a player taking a risk could well be eliminated in the first round and have to sit the rest out.

The latter isn’t much of an issue though, precisely because of the first point: no player powers. You don’t feel invested in your character, but you do feel invested in winning – in solving the puzzle. Moving a particular piece feels like an arbitrary part of proceedings.

In addition the setup dice rolls (showing how far the enemy troops have encroached before play begins) can swing from practically non-existent to outside the city gates – and there is no official way to make a game ‘beginner’ or ‘hard’ difficulty. It’s down to luck. But again this just makes it feel like a different puzzle to solve each time.

But from a design perspective there is a lack of cleverness or subtlety behind the scenes, which will annoy some: it has a microgame ethic, but not a microgame size or price point. But others will appreciated the stripped-back vibe that moves so far back away from the fiddlyness of games such as Dead of Winter and Robinson Crusoe.

And a minor point: I would’ve liked a token to represent the ‘free move’ you get after moving on a road. The extra action makes sense, showing you made more progress by moving on an established route, but when you’re trying to work out your moves it can get a bit much when another slightly different action is thrown into the mix.

Conclusion

Lembitu boardPurists may well mock Lembitu for its naive, retro design – I know there are some players I wouldn’t put this in front of knowing the derision that would follow. But for me it is an absolute keeper.

Friend and fellow game designer David Thompson described it perfectly as a ‘guilty pleasure’: a game that ignores recent conventions and suffers mechanically because of it, but has enough old skool charm to carry it off and be a success regardless.

Bad luck can, and sometimes will, see you lose – while on other days you’ll quite easily coast to victory. If you can’t take that from a game, walk away now. But quite often the game sits on that tightrope edge between victory and defeat – where that risky move could give you the edge or lead you to certain doom.

This is something I’ve heavily criticised in my review of Dead of Winter, so why do I find it OK here? Simple – this is a puzzle that sets up in two minutes and does not have me role-playing or investing in theme: you can set up and play a game of Lembitu in the time it takes to get Dead of Winter out of the box.

Lembitu will be on sale at Essen 2015 and if you like puzzley co-ops I’d recommend checking it out. But if you roll lots of doubles during setup, don’t expect anything other than a hideous spanking…

* I would like to thank designer Aigar Alaveer for providing a copy of the game for review.

The Dwarves: A four-sided game review

The Dwarves boxThe Dwarves* is a fantasy themed co-operative board game which plays out in just over an hour. It is listed as two-to-five-player but also works very well solo and plays well across all player counts.

The English version is released later this year – I’ll update the post when it arrives. This review will hopefully whet your appetite!

The game-play is classic co-op, as you’ll find in titles such as Pandemic and Defenders of the Realm. It is very much suited for families as well as gamers who like thematic games.

Each player has a character with individual abilities and decides what to do on their turn, but this is discussed as a group because you’re working towards a common goal. The tension mounts the longer the game goes on, and the group of players will either win or lose together – there are no individual victory conditions.

In the box you’ll find a gorgeous game board, five player boards with matching cute plastic minis, 100-ish wooden cubes (the encroaching enemy horde), 10 dice, 50-ish cardboard tiles (mainly marking the enemy’s taken land) and 80 cards. (Kickstarter backers can expect more of just about everything, including monster meeples, while the ‘Saga Expansion’ looks to include the same ‘more of everything’ for the rest of us).

The Dwarves victoryFirst released in Germany in 2012 under the title Die Zwerge, it is set in the world of the books of the same name by author Markus Heitz. While huge in Germany the books have failed to have quite the same impact elsewhere, often blamed on what are seen by many as pretty poor translations.

This lead to a reluctance on Pegasus Spiel’s part to release the game in English – hence their decision to crowd-fund the game via Kickstarter in May. It smashed its €30,000 goal (passing €118,000) and is estimated to be sent out to backers in December 2015 (board game gods willing) – so hopefully the rest of us will get it around then too.

It is also worth noting the design team behind The Dwarves, Michael Palm and Lukas Zach, were the pair behind celebrated 2013 party game ‘Bang! The Dice Game’.

NOTE: The version you see pictured below has a paste-up board and cards from the original German version. Expect big changes in the ‘proper’ version.

Teaching

One of the beauties of classic co-op games is that they’re very easy to teach and The Dwarves is no different. There is no hidden player information and you’re all on the same side, so in fact helping is beneficial to all!

A player’s turn follows a simple structure: move the hero token (bad stuff), draw new cards (if any were completed on the last player’s turn), then carry out two actions – the turn structure is even printed on the main board.

Taking a hit from the bad guys (boo!)

The Dwarves scenario cardsMoving the hero token will do one of three things: shuffle threat (read: bad) cards into the adventure (read: good) deck, roll dice and add bad guys to the board, or move the council marker in the wrong direction – all of which I’ll discuss below.

The key to winning the game is completing a number of scenario cards before either one of the heroes (that’s you guys) is killed, or you run out of time (marked by the hero token track). Each scenario card has a condition that needs meeting before you can move onto the next and the harder you want the game to be, the more of them you include.

Alongside the scenario card will be three adventure cards. These are non-essential side quests but a handy way to gain items (in the form of cards) and other benefits. When you finish a scenario you also clear out the current adventure cards and replace them – but as the game goes on some will be threat cards (see ‘moving the hero token’ above). You’ll face dire consequences if you didn’t complete them, making for some tricky situations.

The hero token starts on the left side of the hero track, but there is also a doom token at the other end – and like Knizia’s Lord of the Rings, if the two meet the heroes lose the game. The doom token will rarely move early in the game, but f the enemy troops get some traction you may need to start worrying about it.

Most hero track actions involve rolling the recruitment dice, which slowly bring enemy troops onto the board. They come in from four locations that all have paths leading to a central square (Blacksaddle). Once they start arriving here the doom token can start to move at an alarming rate – time to wrap up or face defeat!

While this sounds like an old mechanism it is done well. When five enemy units occupy a hex they burst it, turning the land ‘perished’ (making it a pain to move through) before moving on. A tile is flipped and placed on the hex – its detail showing the main direction of troop movement and which headed to neighbouring tiles instead. Bad luck sees several tiles burst in a row while paths can also meet – speeding the enemy’s path to your door.

Finally there’s the council track. It starts in a neutral position and can be moved right by the players (giving nice advantages), or left by the enemy (predictably giving penalties).

Sticking it to the bad guys (huzzah!)

The Dwarves player boardEach hero has a health level, three stats (attack, crafting and speed) and a special ability. You get two actions on your turn, all revolving around stat-check dice rolls.

While luck is of course a factor, it can be well mitigated. Tests see you rolling a dice for each number you have in a stat, so asking Boindil to complete a 5+ crafting test when he has 1 crafting is a desperate or stupid act – especially if it is Balyndis’ turn next and she gets 3 dice for crafting, plus a re-roll of them all. But it means things are never certain, which again adds tension.

Your actions allow you to move, fight, influence the council or try to complete a scenario or adventure/threat card test. For movement you can move as many spaces as the best dice you roll; for the council, you need to get a certain number to move it one space (there are four each side of the neutral space) – needing a six to move into the best two slots.

The Dwarves equipment cardsFighting is also simple. There are three enemy types, the easiest (orcs) killed with a 4+, trolls a 5+ and elves a 6. Simply go to the space you want to fight in, roll your dice and deal damage accordingly. The risk is that if you manage no hits at all, you take a wound in damage.

All cards – scenario or otherwise – revolve around these same actions. You may need to move from A to B, fight creatures on the card at a certain location, or go somewhere and craft some items. But importantly the theme is felt throughout.

The final twist is in the last scenario card, which is actually three cards you turn one at a time until one equates to the current state of the board (how many enemy troops are on the board, or how many perished land tiles have been laid). This adds a nice element of surprise to the game’s finale.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: One thing that really impressed me were the ways you can change the difficulty level. Adding more scenario cards makes the game harder, but a little longer; while changing the number of enemies that bust a hex from five to four makes it harder and shorter. Doing both simply makes it insane, but it’s great to have more than one way to change things up.
  • The thinker: The Dwarves sang for me as a solo experience. There is something to appeal to the table top miniatures fan here as the lava-like flow of the enemy movement combines with the dice rolling for attacks. And while it has quite a few components only the cards felt fiddly, but certainly not unmanageably so. But for me there is not enough decision making to make it more than a solo game.
  • The trasher: At the right difficulty level, The Dwarves really ramps up the tension. You can choose your own character, letting me grab one of the warriors and get right into the think of it. Battles are fun if simple and by the end you can be rolling seven attack dice if you play your cards right – with a re-roll! But then you’re relying on the crafters to do their thing too, making it a great co-op.
  • The dabbler: As always I was worried about the alpha gamer problem, but it hasn’t really cropped up in our games – but this may be the group, not the game. Whatever happens it will be you rolling the dice though, so no one can stop you doing what you want to do! The theme is great too, while the dice mean you’ve all got something to cheer – or as often commiserate over. Great with the right group.

Key observations

The Dwarves board and bitsThere aren’t many English reviews or comments on the game yet, but those I’ve seen raise some valid points. The biggest are the game lacks decisions while the amount of randomness makes it too much of a luckfest.

Yes, there is a lot of random – which is why I wouldn’t (and didn’t) recommend The Dwarves for groups of more advanced euro gamers. But this shouldn’t worry those who enjoy lighter games, or a dice fest; and especially those with an interest in the fantasy genre. And personally, as a euro gamer myself, I really enjoy it solo.

I think the lack of decisions is covered by the same argument: those getting into the theme or playing with less experienced gamers will play their own game can get a real kick out of it – especially fans of the books. But this is generic fantasy 101, which isn’t going to sway those who are looking for high culture.

One frustrating random situation can occur early on: you get the ‘Gear Up’ scenario card (have three items equipped) and then get a run of adventure cards that don’t reward you with items. But even this can be overcome by raising the council track to the limit (very advantageous anyway) then crafting your own items.

One fair beef with The Dwarves may be on replayability. Despite having three end game scenarios I can see the game getting samey if you played it to death, but after five plays I’m still enjoying myself – especially having now found a challenging game level. I could name many games that failed to get to five plays in our house.

Finally you can find you don’t need to pick up equipment or fight monsters, as you simply work through the scenario cards and do what they tell you. If you’re in this situation, you have the difficulty level wrong: ramp it up and watch the sparks fly.

Conclusion

The Dwarves boardThis is probably my longest review, but as this game hasn’t had many English write-ups yet – and because I’ve really enjoyed it – I thought it was worth the extra time.

While it isn’t the biggest or cleverest game out there, from a design perspective I love the way the enemy moves on the board; while as a simple soul I love rolling dice and crushing orcs: The Dwarves has become my favourite co-op and is a keeper for me.

There are definitely players I won’t be putting this in front of and a lot of people who won’t like it. But when the snobby elves head home, this will regularly be hitting my table.

* I would like to thank Pegasus Spiel for providing a copy of the game for review. It was an early paste-up version of the base game using some components from the German version, so please be aware there will be significant changes in the final release.