My friends and family have always found that video games and board games are always good go-to gifts for me during the holiday season (which for us, starts in the fall, as my partner and I both have birthdays in September and October). 2020 was a bit different, however. For one thing, the COVID-19 pandemic meant that we weren't able to get groups together for tabletop gaming nearly as often as we used to. The pandemic didn't stop us from tabletop gaming altogether, but we restrained our play to being with only a few regular players, and even then, played mostly 2-player games in order to avoid having multiple house guests at a time. We even sometimes wore masks while playing, just as an added precaution.

It wasn't that I didn't want new board games (or expansions to games I already have); rather, we just weren't sure when I'd ever be able to play them. For example, I did receive the new Crusader Kings board game by Free League Publishing. Hopefully, I'll have an opportunity to play it sometime soon, and be able to write a review for it to go along with my review of the video game.

But video games were not a hard purchase because of the pandemic. Sitting at home and playing video games is, after all, one of the best and safest pass-times during a pandemic. Rather, the big video game releases of this fall came with a lot of baggage or circumstantial reasons why I wasn't enthusiastic to buy them.

Lack of games didn't sell me on a PS5

First and foremost is the biggest of the big new releases this year: the new consoles. I've never been an XBox-player, so there was no interest in a new XBox to begin with. I am, however, interested in the PS5. But I wasn't rushing out to buy one because I'm not going to buy a new console if there aren't any exclusive new games to play on it. And since I wasn't rushing out to buy one, supply problems meant that it only got harder to find one. Honestly, I was surprised that the PS5 seemingly sold so well considering that there just wasn't all that much to play on it. My lack of enthusiasm for the new console meant that even though my partner considered trying to buy one, she eventually decided against it.

The only 2 games on PS5 worth playing are not worth buying a new console.

The big releases for the PS5 were the Demon's Souls remake and Miles Morales. So far, they are the only 2 games worth playing on the PS5, which is why I saw them bundled together with the console at multiple retailers and resellers. I was interested in both, but not enough to drop $400 on a new console -- especially not during a time of economic uncertainty. I'm sorry Sony, but if you want to sell me on a new console, you got to have something better than a remake of a game from 10 years ago (and 2 console generations ago) that I already played the hell out of back in the day, and a sequel to game from 2 years ago that looks like it's mostly just more of the same (and which is also available on the last-gen console anyway). Every other big release for the PS5, from Assassin's Creed: Valhalla to Cyberpunk: 2077 was also released on other platforms, so again, there was no need to rush out and buy a PS5 to play these games -- which I wouldn't have done anyway because both of those games have their own baggage, which I'll get to later in this post.

I only bought a PS4 because of Bloodborne, and the PS5 has so far lacked a similar console-selling exclusive. Maybe they'll have one eventually. Maybe if Elden Ring were a PS5-exclusive, I'd be in more of a hurry to secure myself a console. But as far as I know, that game is set for release on PS4 and will also be available on PC, so I don't need a PS5 in order to play it, the way that I needed a PS4 to play Bloodborne.

WARNING:
The following contains sexual content that may not be safe for work or children, including descriptions of alleged criminal behavior at Ubisoft, and a screenshot from Cyberpunk 2077 that contains nudity. Reader discretion is advised.

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I was planning on writing reviews for X-Wing's second edition epic ships and "Epic Battles" expansion packs (which released in the winter). But real-life happened. The COVID-19 pandemic put me and my gaming friends into lockdown. Having elderly relatives and other relatives with underlying health conditions, we took the lockdown advisory pretty seriously and didn't have in-person interactions with anybody other than limited in-person interactions with our immediate neighbors -- none of whom are board gamers (bummer). So I didn't get to play much X-Wing other than a couple rounds with my partner, and we didn't play any of the epic content because she's still learning 2nd edition and I didn't want to overwhelm her with new rules. So my thoughts on those expansions will have to wait until at least this fall, depending on how much game-playing I can do when the lockdowns are lifted during the summer, and assuming that there isn't a second lockdown this coming fall or winter.

In the meantime, Fantasy Flight was kind enough to not leave me completely high and dry. In early June, my loving partner sent me a link to the solo rules, and I decided to try them out. These rules were released at the end of May, in the waning days of the official lockdowns. I'm not sure if Fantasy Flight has this planned all along, or if they wrote it up quickly as a reaction to the pandemic. In either case, it's a considerate (albeit opportunistic) gesture from Fantasy Flight. It's just too bad these rules weren't published a month earlier. It would've given me more to do during the most boring stretches of the lockdown. Ah well. We have these rules for the next pandemic, I guess.

It's important to note that what I'm reviewing here is technically considered a "alpha test" of the rules. These rules are not finalized, and they may be subject to extensive changes as a result of player feedback before they officially release. If the rules change substantially for the official release, I may add an addendum to this review, or write a separate review. As of the time of this writing, the solo rules are freely available for download at Fantasy Flight's website. I do not know if Fantasy Flight is planning on eventually selling this as an actual expansion, or if the finalized version will remain free. So, you know, download it now. Just in case.

Fantasy Flight released official rules for playing X-Wing solo.

Best of all, these rules would probably work just fine in first edition as well. Players who haven't bought into second edition can still join in on the fun. You'll just have to improvise with regard to the hyperspace tokens, since those are the only components that are required for solo play, but which aren't in the first edition sets.

Dice for brains

The rules refer to the non-player ships as "solo ships", which I think is kind of confusing, since it sounds like the label refers to the solo player's ship(s). So call the non-player ships "NPC" ships (or "NPS" for "non-player ship", or "A.I." ships, or whatever you want to call them). In any case, the core conceit of the solo mode is that the player rolls a defense and attack die for each NPC ship when it activates, and then looks up the result in a behavior table to determine how each given NPC ship will behave. It's a simple enough concept that I'm surprised hasn't been in the rules earlier.

Roll dice, then look up the result in a table of possible moves.

The defense die is the principle determinant of the NPC ship's "attitude" (how it will behave). On an "evade" result, the ship will behave defensively or evasively. On a "focus" result, it will have a more balanced or passive posture. And on a "blank" result, it will behave more aggressively or boldly. This will largely determine the NPC ship's movement and action for the turn. The result of the red die will further modify the NPC ship's movement.

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Photosynthesis - title

Blue Orange is a company that has released a series of very successful board games that are geared towards children, and which feature educational themes. My girlfriend and I came across some of their games in a kids' hobby store while on a family road trip last year. The game that stood out the most on the shelf was a new release called Photosynthesis, a game about players competing to grow a small forest. The box art and pictures on the back made the game look very pretty, and its educational theme about the life cycle of plants intrigued us. So we bought a copy and held onto it until our kid's birthday in the fall.

The game is recommended for ages eight and older, and is easy to dismiss as just a "kids' game", especially given its status as "edutainment". However, this game is more complicated than your standard kids' fare. There actually is some strategy involved, and the game runs for about 90-minutes. It's not a random dial-flicker or dice-roller like Chutes and Ladders, Candyland, or other such Milton Bradley / Hasbro / Parker Bros. games that make up a kid's board game shelf. It also has deeper strategy than the children's version of Carcassone (which our kid also has). This game (along with most of Blue Orange's catalog) is definitely geared towards family night, in which people of all ages are playing.

The game board is very pretty once multiple trees of different colors are placed.

A vibrant forest

This game's components certainly are pretty. The trees (and everything else) are simple cardboard cutouts, but they are printed on some thick and sturdy cardstock. Production quality is pretty high for a kid's game, and that high quality is always important when you're playing a game with kids, as it means the game will last longer before falling apart. All the colors are vibrant and attractive, and they all mix together very well when the trees are all clumped together on the board. I'm not particularly keen on the blue evergreens, which look very unnatural and kind of out of place. Maybe Blue Orange could have gone with more of a blue-green color? Or maybe red, as in "redwood"? Ah well, it's not a big deal. Maybe the blue trees are an homage to the company's name. The game looks very pretty, in any case.

The gameplay is pretty simple and elegant. Each turn, sunlight comes from a particular direction on the board, and any trees that are not blocked by an adjacent tree (e.g. the tree is not "in the shadow" of another tree) collects sunlight points for the owning player. Each player then spends their sunlight points to plant new seeds on the board, or to grow existing seeds into small trees, to grow an existing tree from small to medium or medium to large, or to let a large tree die. When a large tree dies, it creates new soil, which is awarded to the owning player as victory points. Trees in spaces further from the edges of the board score more points.

The sun moves across the board each turn, providing sunlight and shade to different trees.

Each round the sun moves around the board, casting different trees in the shadows of other trees. Medium and large trees also collect more sunlight, cast longer shadows, and can collect sunlight if partially-obstructed by smaller trees. So where you put the trees, and how tall you let them grow, will determine whether they will get sunlight, or if they will block other players' trees. You also have trade offs between planting more trees or growing your existing trees. Your own trees can also block your other trees, so you have to keep that in mind when you are placing or growing your trees.

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Star Wars X-Wing 2nd edition miniatures game

I finally got around to playing some games of Fantasy Flight's second edition of the X-Wing Miniatures Game. I had bought the 2.0 core set and the 1.0 conversion kits back in October of last year. I was on the fence about purchasing 2nd edition. The only change that I was really excited about was the new turret rules, which I figured I could easily house-rule into 1st edition. However, I used my girlfriend's teacher discount at Barnes & Noble along with a coupon to get a hefty discount on the 2.0 core set and conversion kits, in the hopes that the game's other changes would also make it worthwhile.

Older ships have new abilities,
and tokens flip to a "spent" backside.

Fantasy Flight took the opportunity to streamline many components and add some ease-of-use features. For example, the maneuver dials are redesigned such that you can see every maneuver that the ship has available without having to rotate the dial. Upgrade cards have large, empty spaces that allow you to slot them underneath their respective pilot's card without covering up important information. Ship bases and maneuver templates have handy guidelines that can be helpful when executing partial maneuvers (due to collisions). And so forth.

Tokens have been broken up into different colors, each of which has a different effect. All green tokens (such as "focus" and "evade") are now buff tokens which are removed at the end of the round (unless a card says otherwise). Orange tokens are de-buffs (such as "disarm") that go away at the end of the round. And red penalty tokens (such as "ion" and "stress") remain in play until a certain condition removes them. Shield tokens now have a back side, which is colored red. This way, you can flip a shield token over when it's spent, but keep it on your ship card in case it ever gets recharged. The new energy and force tokens work the same way.

Better still, many features, concepts, and abilities from later expansions to 1st edition have been back-ported to all ships in 2nd edition. This has certainly increased the value of simple X-Wings, Y-Wings, and many other early 1st edition ships. The titular X-Wings, for example, now have a barrel roll ability on its card and a Talon Roll on its maneuver dial. The Lambda shuttle is one of the most improved ships in second edition, as it now has both a fore and aft-facing firing arc, as well as new "coordinate" and "jam" actions.

I appreciate that expansion ships are sold in smaller, more efficient packaging.

Heck, even the packaging is more streamlined. The massive boxes for 1st edition's large ships (which were full of empty space) have been replaced with smaller plastic bubble-packaging.

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Star Trek Ascendancy Borg expansion

One of the weaknesses of Star Trek: Ascendancy (in my opinion) is the simplicity and irrelevance of the game's "minor races". They just sit there waiting to be invaded or hegemonized. They don't even have ships in orbit to defend themselves from attack (or provide the Klingons with an opportunity for some easy culture). I had hoped that there'd be an expansion pack that would give at least the warp-capable civilizations a little bit of agency. Sadly, that hasn't happened yet, but Gale Force 9 has released an expansion that does add an NPC faction: the Borg.

How do Borg allocate damage between multiple fleets?

The Borg are not a player faction (like the excellent Cardassians or Ferengi expansions). The Borg are a non-player "A.I." entity that use a deck of cards to define their behavior. They act in opposition to every player in the game, and are intended to add some extra player-versus-board challenge. The Borg expansion also adds rules for solo and 2-player games, though I'm not terribly happy with how either of those variants plays.

The big problem is that the rules for the Borg cause a lot of confusion. The non-player element of the Borg creates a lot of strange edge cases that the rulesmakers just didn't seem to think through very thoroughly. Some rules leave the Borg's actions somewhat ambiguous, and there are no rules for determining how to resolve such situations. For example, if a Bog cube is battling multiple fleets belonging to the same player, how does it determine which fleet takes damage? We generally house-rule that the Borg attack the largest fleet first, and that the player who activated the cube decides any ties.

The enemy of all my enemies

The bigger problem, however, is that the Borg movement rules lead to considerable balance issues once the Borg are connected to one player, because that poor player now faces the brunt of the entire Borg Collective. Once the Borg have a path to any one player's systems or homeworld, the Borg will exclusively funnel all of their ships down that one path, since it's the only "connected" route available. The only way this will change is for the targeted player to go out of his or her way to try to create another, shorter path to one of the other players (essentially painting a huge target on that player's head). Or I guess one of the other players could accidentally create a shorter path while they're exploring, if they're dumb or not paying particularly close attention. In any case, the problem is that once the Borg become connected to any one player, the Borg stop exploring and looking for the other players, which randomly puts the single player in a disadvantaged defensive position while the other two players are free to build up without much threat of being targeted by the Borg.

Having the Borg in play gives further reason for players to cooperate.

The game tries to offset this by making it so that the Borg become more powerful if they assimilate any worlds (including warp-capable civilizations), or if they assimilate any one player. If your homeworld is assimilated by the Borg, you even get to take over as a Borg player, taking a whole extra Borg turn in which you get to influence how they behave. This is a fun and thematic way of allowing an eliminated player to continue to participate in the game and seek some degree of "revenge" against the other player.

The idea here is that the players shouldn't let the Borg concentrate on wiping out a single player, and we should all partially co-operate in order to keep the Borg in check. There is no actual co-operative victory, so you're only co-operating with each other to the ends of stalling the Borg long enough for you to achieve a victory, at the expense of the other players. There is no "defeating" the Borg.

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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