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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Tail Feathers Review

He's on my tail... this time literally

Hey-oooooo internet!

So last night Kristy and I got to try out my latest game, Tail Feathers!

This is a beautiful game made by Plaid Hat Games that takes place in the Mice and Mystics world, one that is reminiscent of Mouse Guard. In Tail Feathers you control a force of military mice that are just hell bent on wrecking that pretty tree of yours in the name of cuteness. The way they go about this destruction involves ground forces scurrying on branches and missions as well as piloting small birds that take to the skies to wreak havoc on each other. On the surface this is a cute game that appears to be a re-skinned take on pilot games like X-Wing and D&D Attack Wing, but once you dive deep into the cheese wheel you can see that it's got so much more going for it.

This battle is about to get... bird pun here

Before we got into this game we watched a video describing how to play the game. I highly suggest it because although it's a board game it is heavily influenced by wargame and dogfight mechanics, something that may not always be your cup of tea. Even for me it seemed tough to read through, not due to the instructions being terrible or anything, but because I already had preconceptions of how wargames work and it's like relearning how to ride a bike but you're given a unicycle.

I felt that I got the gist of how the game operates from it and set up the board using the first scenario, which is just a pitched battle with the single goal being to destroy each others' nests. We eliminated almost all the optional rules so that we could get a grip on the core concepts and introduce these rules bit by bit into future games. It's already a bit much to take in with just the core rules, but if you've played any wargames it is actually not difficult to go through, just difficult to put all together for your first turn. After the first turn though we went through it with ease.

In a nutshell the game consists of several phases. The first one involves selecting a mission that your ground forces will take part in. These missions range from infiltrating the enemy tree, shooting down birds in the sky, attacking other missions to keep them from succeeding and even a decoy mission meant to draw resources from your opponent. Once selected you place them close to the center of the board and dedicate a few ground forces to ensure that the mission succeeds.

The next phase involves activating your models. Tail Feathers uses an alternating activation system like Malifaux, with the exception being that if you have a unit with multiple models they all activate at once. This is where the bulk of the game takes place. You'll move around ground units on tree branches to prepare to shoot from them when enemies are in range, or move them close to the trunk to prepare for a possible invasion. Your birds and their pilots are moving around using templates (similar to X-Wing) and are a huge influence on the battlefield. These big guys are capable of attacking missions, ground units and other birds. 

The last phases involve resolving your missions and end of turn cleanup. Once you're done with all of that you restart from the beginning until you have a winner.

This turned into an epic chase to save the nest

At first it felt a bit overwhelming for me to grasp everything just from reading. Although I am a fan of having Intro and Advanced rules sets to introduce new players into a game, I hate the format for how it orders things in a rulebook. This tends to force you to flip back and forth throughout the book even when they are related rules. Tail Feathers tends to do a better job of this but it still made it hard for me to wrap my head around. It's a personal issue I believe as some people can learn the game faster that way, I just prefer to have everything in the order you should be experiencing it on the table. If a rule is involved with movement it should be in the movement section, but because mechanics like the Death Spiral are in optional advanced rules they are not together with the normal movement section. Although the format works to introduce players this makes it annoying to reference in future games sometimes. Like I said earlier, though, Tail Feathers does this much better than some rules I've read, like almost any game made by Fantasy Flight Games. FFG makes some of the most entertaining games, but man their rules love to hide important bits in random places. I'd say that Tail Feathers is definitely easier to learn by diving in rather than trying to understand every rule through reading before you play, and the video we watched helped that out immensely.

So now that I've gotten that bit out of the way, what are some good points? Well for starters this game is dripping with theme. And it's not just superficial to me either, some mechanics are simply brilliant as a game implementation and I get the impression that those mechanics were created to convey the theme rather than the other way around. Take falling leaves, for example. It's an advanced rule, and one we hadn't included yet in our game, but it is a very cool mechanic. The whole game revolves around your home tree, and what cooler way is there for mice to travel from tree to tree other than cutting off leaves and using them to float over the battlefield? The only other cooler way would be to hijack a bird and joust with him, but all the cool rats took those. Well this game took a concept that sounds like two kids are talking about what would be a cool game and made it functional with the tools they include.

This theme permeates the entirety of the game, and although it can be judged as form over function it really is the opposite. In recent discussions it has come up that a game, when wiped away of all its aesthetics, it should function as a fun game still. This game is a good example of aesthetics elevating the gameplay. Yes, the mechanics function well enough without all the shine added and would still be a very deep game without it, but cute little birds and mice fighting over trees while collecting berries and cheese makes it that much better, unlike using wood blocks and meeples or something.

The other great thing about this game is its depth and layers. In our game there was only one true goal, which was to destroy the other nest. How we went about it, though, is what made this a game that was very tense and filled with measures and counter measures. Kristy decided to go for the jugular from the start and chose the Siege mission, which if successful allows for a few of her ground mice to pop up directly on another tree. I decided to start withering away her flyers as soon as possible by using the Patrol mission, which if successful allows you to attack any flyer you want - which was important as she had three flyers to my two. On turn one she was immediately pushing the pace as my home tree was invaded, and the risk I took didn't pay off as it failed to injure my target, and I felt the pressure from the start. From that point I was desperately trying to fend off the birds from getting close by colliding with them and initiating Death Spirals, and ground forces couldn't be dedicated to missions as they needed to defend the home nest. My birds also had to try to stop missions from succeeding by swooping in attacking them, and it ended up being a wasted effort as Kristy used a decoy perfectly.

It felt like you had to stretch your resources to cover as many of your bases as possible, and you can never have enough coverage. This created way more tension than I've felt in an X-Wing game, because there were so many approaches you had to consider. If you considered the three main approaches - Birds, Ground, and Missions - it always felt like you only had enough to deal with two of the three at any time, which is a great thing. There may be some players who suffer from analysis paralysis when confronted with all the options you have, and Kristy was definitely getting a headache from all the decisions you had to consider. I would think that once you get through a few games the better options become more clear, or at least you develop a style you like that doesn't need to engage every option, so that your playing can become more streamlined and easier to think about.

Things are not looking good for these vermin

A lot of the gaps in gameplay get filled with the advanced rules set. Using leaves for transportation solves the issue of moving your models to other trees outside of a mission, and this adds a further wrinkle in what you dedicate your resources to during the turn (do I attack the mission or the rats on a leaf?). Dropped feathers help defend the model from additional ranged attacks, which is something desperately needed as I found ranged attacks to be very powerful and flexible. Action cards are probably a huge addition we need to add next, as they can possibly help balance the scales if things don't go your way.

So, enough glowing about, what are the issues?

For starters there are the flyers. They are beautiful models, and the pilots fit very well with each bird. But the tilting that's necessary for their movement can be cumbersome throughout the game. A few times they came off their stand and had to be reattached, and while tilting them you have to be very careful. When you're getting in a tight bunch there's a guarantee that you won't be able to place them perfectly where they should be, and god forbid you do a Death Spiral in the middle of a bunch of models and stuff.

The movement templates can also get in the way when you move through several other flyers. This issue happens in X-Wing, but in that game there are a few elegant solutions for placing the template accurately. But because they are on round bases it's a little tougher to get around, and they will definitely not be perfectly placed all the time. It's going to be tough to get exactly movements when you're flying between a lot of other models, and you'll have to hope your wings don't tip over other flyers. Between that, physically tilting the model, Death Spirals, etc., you're definitely going to have to be okay with models not being perfectly undisturbed. I don't see this becoming a tournament game or anything, so usually you're playing with friends who don't accuse you of cheating because when a model fell over you weren't facing exactly northeast by 2 degrees or something.

Another issue I had was with a few components. The tokens and templates printed on thick board were excellent and numerous, that's a good thing. The card stock they used for the mission cards is ridiculously thin. I dropped one on the floor and it took me a bit to be able to pick it back up again. These are cards you'll be using every turn of the game, I wish they printed them on the thick board instead. Other components were used with that same stock and it is terrible.

Also they only give you enough for a small two player game, If you're wanting to expand they give you the extra cards that are compatible with models from their other game, Mice and Mystics. As far as I can tell these are all ground units, meaning you are pretty limited on your bird and pilot options. If you're looking for a more grand scale of battle, or even just go beyond the one ground unit you have for one of the factions, you'll not be able to do so out of the box and will definitely have to buy something else. Since there aren't any released expansions for Tail Feathers yet your variety is limited to ground units, and buying another core set doesn't help as your heroes are unique and can't be duplicated from what I can tell.

I can't say anything about other flaws as I've only gotten one game under my belt. These flaws, however, do not detract from how excellent this game is and how much potential it has. It's definitely a brain bender as it gives you plenty of strategy to muck about in. It takes this strategy and wraps it in a clever aesthetic under the guise of a wargame. In our game Kristy didn't let up the pressure and ended up destroying my nest with hers untouched and we both had a blast with it. I highly suggest giving it a try!