Slightly Meh, Odd Game - SMOG: On Her Majesty's Service Review

I'm noticing a trend with Cool Mini Or Not (CMON) games - nicely produced, good miniatures, but very "meh" on the gameplay. I was never wowed by Zombicide other than it had great zombie minatures and map tiles. It takes way too long with a big group for what boils down to essentially a random dice chucker. Super Dungeon Explorer hasn't offered enough to put it ahead of many other dungeon crawl's out there. Kaosball was ok, but again, it just felt very mediocre and you can check my review for how disappointed I was with Xenoshyft Onslaught. So far Arcadia Quest is their one game that's impressed me, enough to make the lower part of my Top 75 list recently. Bloodrage hasn't yet reached the UK though and it's on the agenda when it comes out, but with all the hype that's getting, I'm naturally cautious as I've been burned enough by over-hype.

I've never thought a CMON game was bad though, that's the odd thing. Even Xenoshyft as much as I was disappointed by it, isn't a bad game, it just didn't measure up to expectations for me. But if it was brought out as a potential game, I'd likely still be fine with playing it (long as it isn't 4 players!). But something generally seems to miss the mark or rub me the wrong way or just bug me and what I feel it boils down is this desire to put everything in the budget on to the miniatures and not leave enough to the game design. It's an issue I have with Kickstarter in general in that far too many games brag on about "miniatures this and miniatures that", get a ton of funding as a result, and then a lot of them don't measure up on release.

One of the new ventures this year is SMOG: On Her Majesty's Service, based on a weird steampunk theme which I  thought had to be based on some graphic novel or comic strip that I'd never heard of. Apparently it's based on the work done by Panache Animation that you can find on their website here. As I look at the box, it's a big one and the back shows the usual lavishly produced ingredients I come to expect. Is this another recipe for mediocrity though?




Designer: Yohan Lemonnier (2015)
Publisher: Cool Mini Or Not
# of Players: 2-4
Ages: 14+
Time: 60 Minutes
BGG Rank / Rating: 3,962 / 7.28


It's Pasted, But They Use Very Shiny Paste


The theme for SMOG is based on an alternative Steampunk reality where you have to venture into a mysterious Shadow Market to acquire special artifacts for Queen Victoria while winning favour with the ominous Shadow Master and his agents to aid your progress. . . . . yeah you lost yet? SMOG's gameplay revolves (no pun intended) around the cogs that make up the marketplace. Each player has to buy and sell Ether's (essentially a resource) in order to eventually buy four artifacts and win the game. The catch is that cogs rotate after every transaction and their orientation from your perspective dictates how much each resource on each cog tile costs to buy or sell. Thus the prices are constantly changing and you have to navigate the market to get the best deals before they disappear. Players can acquire action cards to help their progress or hinder others and even purposely manipulate the cogs for similar reasons. On top of this there is continuous pressure to win favour with the Shadow Master (money is the key here) and thus gain not only some action advantages but also control of his agents who each have a special ability depending on where they are placed. Once all four artifacts have been acquired, players have to reach a predetermined spot with a set amount of resources to escape and win the game.

There's a lot in the rulebook that explains the background lore for each agent and character, but I think very few players are really going to bother reading it as it makes little to no difference in the game. Your four starting characters have no unique characteristics whatsoever, no special rules, no nothing. Starting Ether's are represented simply by a random card draw and yet the Ether's also have no distinguishing features. They're completely identical. You'll quickly forget their actual names in the book and simply refer to them as yellow mana and blue mana, etc. The whole theme despite being very well represented in the components themselves, feels like a thin layer of skin covering up a bunch of mechanics.

Now I can completely understand the counter argument of "but doesn't Sentinels of the Multiverse have a ton of background lore and you love that so much?". That is true, but with that, the back stories of each hero and villain are not only more interesting (yes that's subjective I know), but they're reflected in the cards themselves. The way each hero deck plays in that game makes sense when you read their back story and learn their characteristics. The "Nemesis" mechanic where a hero and villain will do extra damage to each other is also based on the background lore. That's an example of when such a theme is done right. Here, the back story of each character and agent is completely irrelevant. You can tell me that one was a cricketeer that played for England and then went on a murderous rampage for 4 years, but when I'm playing the actual game and everyone is generic, I couldn't care less. I don't deny that fans of the SMOG universe will probably get more out of this, but for the uninitiated, the theme could be pretty much anything you like.

Each player gets some random end game goals to determine which tile and what Ether's they need to finish and normally that would improve a game for me and yet they don't really add much either here. You need to be some kind of genius to decipher exactly where the opponent needs to go and what they need so you might as well have simply made it the centre tile - at least then you can work out a way to effectively hinder their progress. But here, they just feel unnecessary.



Keeping Up Appearances


As always with anything by CMON, the component quality is the high note. The board and cogs are nicely detailed and fit the Steampunk theme while the miniatures are the same top quality we come to expect. They seem a little out of place for this game as I'm not sure this warranted detailed miniatures, but it all adds to the asthetics when laid out on the table, though also annoyingly the box size. It's not a small box by any means, yet I feel it could have been condensed down fairly easily. The cards don't have much in terms of any artwork as such, but the graphic design is neat and easy to follow and the cardstock is better than in previous games.

The weak point however are the little standees that are supposed to be placed on your player board and represent the amount of Ether's of each colour your poesses. They look cool, yes, but there was a major flaw with my copy of the game and I'm not sure whether this is a common thing. you have to place these little plastic coloured gem pieces into each standee to match the different Ether colours. But the four colours are Blue, Red, Yellow and Brown/Dark Purple (I'm still not entirely sure what it's meant to be) and these plastic pieces aren't very big or bright. It therefore becomes almost impossible to distinguish the Red from the Brown and I swear some of them looked Orange depending on the light. Now I'm not colour blind by any means and this drove me crackers, so god knows what this will mean to anyone with bad eyesight. It's a minor quibble as you can simply ignore the gem and refer to the player board itself, but it's a weird oversight.


That's Chaos Theory


Strategy doesn't really play a part here, instead SMOG is more of a tactical game. You have to consider multiple potential actions on your turn and several different ways to achieve your goals. So there's a fair amount of decision making required even if the decisions themselves aren't particularly taxing, putting this in between a light and medium weight game. However the extent of what you can control or predict changes dramatically based on the player count.

In a two player game, it feels like there's very little conflict going on. None of the board is scaled up or down based on player count so you generally find yourself playing your own game with only the occasional bit of interference from moving cogs or bidding for the Shadow Master. This does however allow you to better plan out your following turns. Up it to 3 players and you hit the sweet spot where there's enough conflict between everyone, but still enough control retained that it feels balanced out. But oh my word if you dare play this with 4 players, be prepared to deal with chaos and frustration. You can plan out your future turns all you want, but by the time it gets back round to you the market has changed to such an extent that it makes planning anything beyond the next turn an art form that only the most clairvoyant of soothsayers should attempt. Bring back the Shadow Master, the agents and the action cards and it becomes incredibly chaotic to the point where the game is effectively playing you and thus frustration occurs.



The Pendulum Swings Uncontrollably



The Shadow Master's benefits are a little powerful, but it alone doesn't swing the game for a player providing they are making a conscious effort to steal it back now and again. However the action cards, they are a whole different story. Each one requires you to poessess 3 different Ether's, always three, no more or less and note that I said poessess, not spend because you don't actually get rid of them upon using the action card like in other games. This helps to speed things up a little because you don't have to keep replenishing them all the time, but this creates a colossal balance problem - I'm baffled as to how this got past playtesting, but let me explain.

The cards can range from semi-useless to ultra-powerful depending on the player count and even disregarding that some of them are clearly better to obtain then others. One has you collect a coin from each player, which at best is 3 coins, but you can see how with less players the value of this card is quickly diminished. Further up the scale we have the ability to steal an Ether from another player. Not only did this save you coins, but also several potential actions to purchase it and you can be specific and obtain the one Ether you need to power up your action cards or meet your end-game condition while potentially ruining a turn for the opponent. Clearly that's better than getting a couple of coins. Now on the top end of the scale we have a card that lets you steal an artifact from another player, an item that is critical to winning the game and requires multiple actions, Ether's and coins to acquire. Using one of these especially in a two or three player game is incredibly powerful and if like me in my first game you get lucky and acquire two of them, it is the gamer's dictionary definition of "broken". I was two artifacts behind in my first test of a 2 player game when my opponent was about to win. I stole both artifacts in one turn because I didn't have to spend the Ether's to use the card per the rules and instantly changed a 2-4 imminent defeat into a 4-2 guaranteed victory, which my opponent could do nothing about. My victory was more hollow than an empty Pringle's tin as it was all decided by a couple of action cards, making a good chunk of the time playing the game absolutely pointless. I simply had to gather the 3 Ether's I needed and just sit back and wait.

It's so bad that a valid strategy in the game is to spam the central tile to obtain these action cards, then set yourself up with the necessary Ethers to use it and win while also obtaining two random other artifacts. Sit back on your end-game tile and bide your time, then BOOM, steal and win! How this wasn't seen as an issue is beyond me as there are several threads on BoardGameGeek that comment on this as well. Now you can house-rule them out of the game which does resolve the problem and I strongly suggest you do so, but even then the rest of the cards are not fully balanced anyway.



Verdict


Unfortunately, SMOG hasn't managed to shift the trend I'm seeing with CMON at the moment. This is another example where the components and production quality overshadow the gameplay. That's not to say it's a bad game, I don't think any CMON game is bad, but something always falls short with the exception of Arcadia Quest and with this, there's a few issues I have that make this another "meh" venture. That being said, the production is great with the exception of those little Ether standees that don't quite match with the colours unless you have pitch perfect eyesight, but these can be simply ignored. It looks the business on the table and though the theme isn't particularly immersive or strong, there's certainly some effort to be seen in how it's described in the rulebook and portrayed in the miniatures. The game length of 60 minutes is fairly accurate for a 3-4 player game so it can fill a small slot in your gaming night.

The biggest problems however are scaling and the action cards. The game changes dramatically with each player count ranging from carefree to chaotic. You barely feel like the opponent is a presence with two players, but when you put four together the game collapses into extreme chaos where it's almost impossible to plan ahead. The action cards are also a big concern in that they can be swingy and unbalanced without some house-ruling. The Shadow Master mechanic can get a little fiddly to operate at times particularly with multiple players and in two player games it becomes almost critical to obtain, but it's a minor issue.

Feedback has been very mixed on this one. Some will enjoy this and others will get bored of it quickly. For me it's another one of those occasions where too much time is spent on miniatures, which for the most part are not even necessary in this game and not enough on other areas. Theme wise, for me it doesn't really come out much for me, but then I guess this is really aimed at those who understand a lot about the SMOG universe in general. It's an average game, but it's about time we had something better.

If you are interested in this game you can find a copy at your friendly local gaming store - http://www.findyourgamestore.co.uk/


You Will Like This Game If:


You want your game to look good on the table - production values are high here and the miniatures are good as always.

You would enjoy the chaotic factor that comes with multiple players - this doesn't really work as a 2 player game.

You want some tactical choices to make - despite the chaos it can get you pondering several choices on your turn, but expect plans to go wrong regularly.



You Will Not Like This Game If:


You're looking for an immersive theme - there is one here, but it feels pasted on and almost works against it when trying to teach the game.

The action cards are too swingy for you - taking some of them out by way of a house rule might help, but that's down to the players.

You want replayability - there's not enough variety in the game to keep most coming back unless they are big fans.

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