A year ago, I didn’t know that I needed a cooperative modular game about Steampunk dirigibles in my life. Who would? But it turns out that I do. This review will explain why.
Zephyr: Winds of Change is the first game from Portal Dragon. It was released on Kickstarter last year and only just funded. From the beginning, the game designers were interested in community – in fan-made assignments, in community members being the actual characters, and so on. Of course, such things cost extra, but many backers happily obliged.
In Zephyr: Winds of Change (hereon just called Zephyr), players fly and equip their ship (or ships), like the Gypsy above, a special 5th ship available only to Kickstarter backers. On the left-hand side of the image are the ship’s structure and armour slots. In the middle are slots for weapons, tech and maneuvers. At the bottom are four slots for crew. As the game progresses, each ship, which is based on a thick and sturdy board, gains upgrades, and there are a lot of potential upgrades. Here’s just some of them…
Upgrades come in bronze, silver, gold and epic. The first three can all be purchased at the resupply barge, if you have enough scrap to pay for it. Epic upgrades have to be salvaged from the defeated ships of commanders.
So, how does the game work?
At the start of each game, the players draw a mission. Above, you’ll find the easier mission, called Plane & Simple. Yes, it does say it’s hard but that was a mistake. At the bottom of the mission card is a timeline. The players have six days to finish the requisite number of assignments before they fight an enemy commander. As the days progress, though, the enemies become more difficult to defeat – Tier 1 becomes Tier 2 which becomes Tier 3. In this introductory mission, each Tier lasts for two days, in others it’s totally different. Just for some nice variety, when you shift tiers, you also shift regions, which are differing areas with differing abilities which may help or hinder the players. These are drawn at random.
Above, for example, three ships are in the region known as Dixon’s Haven. One of the stretch goals was for the cardboard ships to have become miniatures. I’m a big minis fan so I wish this had happened, but it doesn’t detract from the game having the stands. In fact, some players online have said that they prefer the stands for the purposes of simplicity. And the quality of the stands and art is all excellent.
Players randomly draw assignments and decide whether or not to go on them. Starting in the bottom left corner of each card, one player takes the lead. Each mission tells you how many allies can accompany the lead player on the mission. Players who choose to tag along simply place their ship on one of the allies slots. Sometimes, as below, you can choose the route for your assignment. In the Mercenaries assignment pictured below, you can take three days or four. You have to choose which way you go based on how many days you have left for your mission, and what you think you can do. A question mark circle means that players can choose to scavenge or skirmish (explained later). So, in this mission, players could spend three days choosing whether to scavenge or skirmish and then on the fourth day they have to draw and defeat three enemy ships. Or, they could go the short way by scavenge/skirmish on the first day, fight an enemy commander on the second, and then defeat three enemy ships on the third. There are advantages and disadvantages to both choices.
There are two large decks of cards that come with the game. One is the scavenge deck, the other skirmish. Scavenge tends to be narratives of what might happen to your ship on its travels, Skirmish cards almost always lead to combat….
There is a strong element of luck in these scavenge cards, and there’s also quite a wild swing. Some are fairly benign, some are very positive and some are very negative. I could see that some people might not like the randomness but for me it creates a real tension. And there are so many cards that it makes every adventure different. Skirmish cards usually end up in a fight, and this is where Zephyr really shines. You start by drawing an enemy ship, all beautifully illustrated…
The Black Rook above is shown as a Tier 1 ship. Every ship has structure and armour based on the Tier level, as well as crew. Every ship has differing abilities.
Now you have to work out what you’re going to do. Firstly, you work out which ship or ships everyone is targeting. Then you work out who they’re firing at – do you get them to fire at the hyper-agile Spiftire while the Condor churns out damage on enemy ships, for example? (Yes, yes you do).
Then you draw cards based on your own ship upgrades and abilities. You can play one card as the captain, and one more card per crew member, so the more crew you have, the better things will be. And here’s a really nice feature of Zephyr…
Every ship has a standard deck. The Condor does different things to the Tub, which does different things to the Scimitar. Then every time you add a system upgrade, you add the relevant card to your deck. This Gypsy above, for example, would have the standard deck plus three bronze, three silver, one gold and one epic card. When you draw cards, you can perform the relevant actions based on the crew you have.
Again, there is a randomness to this, but in time you learn to kit out each ship in the best way possible and the luck element is reduced. So, let’s say this ship decided to use the Magnetic Grapple and the Wildfire Cannon that it drew. That does some damage. Then you look at the enemy ship(s).
A Tier 1 ship rolls one die, for the captain, but they get one more die per crew member, just as you do. Let’s take our Black Rook above. There’s no crew because it’s Tier 1 so it’s only rolling one die. You roll the die and see what happens on their ability chart. All attacks are simultaneous so damage is done to both ships. If both ships are still alive, you go again – the players draw more cards from their deck, play them and then roll for enemy abilities. The last ship standing wins. Seems easy? Not so much. Wait until you get to Tier 3…
Had this ship been drawn in Tier 3 instead of Tier 1, now it has 6 structure and armour to chew through, and three crew, which means it rolls on the Abilities chart four times! That can be a really tough ship to defeat. And imagine that there’s three or four ships that have been drawn at the same time! Then you’ve got a major fight on your hands. And what if they’re not just an ordinary ship but a commander? Take another ship below, a Defiler class ship. These don’t evade but they pour out a lot of damage.
When you add a commander, you randomly draw one and then place his abilities over the ship’s abilities…
See that at the top of that guy’s card? Draw 3 more ships! That’s one hell of a battle. The good thing about commanders is the reward if you beat them (at the bottom of his card). Usually, destroying a ship gives you a little scrap (1-6 scrap rolled for randomly). Destroy a commander, though, and you can pick up some amazing items. Scrap is monitored on a dial which is basically identical in design to an Imperial Assault threat dial. The more scrap you have, the more upgrades you can buy from the resupply barge at the end of each mission, including new crew members if you want.
And if all this wasn’t good enough, the crew is a really classy touch. Every crew member comes from one of the main factions (e.g. Imperial, Rogue), which has an ability which you can use during combat. Then overlaid on top you choose at random a crew member, whose personal abilities differ wildly. So you never know what crew you’re going to get, which adds to the excitement of the game. The modular laying of random personalities over chosen factions really is an extraordinarily clever design:
Balancing purchases of upgrades and crew becomes a really interesting part of the game, and having a heavily upgraded ship is immensely satisfying visually and also in terms of gameplay. What’s that you say? That crew card looks scratched? Actually, everything does. It’s a really classy bit of design that just adds a touch of character to the cards, chits and boards.
I’ve not yet seen a ship with this many upgrades, but this is a really strong ship right here. Five actions per round in combat, good attacks, good maneuvering, and the ability to fix damaged armour. This would be a lot of fun in combat. And it also just looks wonderful.
Here’s my favourite ship – the Rogue’s Spitfire. Three attacking slots, four maneuvering slots and two tech slots. Only two crew but its inherent ability called Smooth Moves allows two free evades once per trip. This is the ship you want them to shoot at while your other ships throw out damage. It even has a card called Loop Da Loop, which means that the first shot fired at you actually is done to the enemy ship (you’ve basically maneuvered in such a way that while they fired at you, they carved off the tail of their own ship!). Annoyingly, though, it also has a couple of cards that allow you to escape the battle, and I never use them because I like to stay and fight, so I feel like I have fewer cards in my hand when I play it. Still, I’m English and the idea of flying a steampunk Spitfire is just full of win.
But maybe you’re not the dodging kind of person. Maybe you want all out attack. Then you go for the Condor, which has 6 attack slots, only two maneuver slots and one tech slot. This thing churns out damage but you have to beware of taking damage yourself.
So, part of the fun of the game is getting to know the ships, getting to work out which upgrades work best when playing solo or in a group. There’s a lot of variance as a modular game, and that really makes every game different.
Are there gripes? Yes, but they’re very few. Firstly, there’s a colour issue. When you declare an attack on a ship, you place a small targeting token on it. Unfortunately, if you’re colourblind, four of the five tokens are almost indistinguishable in colour. Secondly, there are only four dice in the game. They’re lovely looking dice, actually, but sometimes you need more. Ships don’t usually roll more than four dice, but if they have a reroll, or if you’re fighting a Warlord, you can sometimes need more. Finally, the rulebook isn’t as clear as it could be and the designers have already released an FAQ, and there are some typos that remained in the game even after the proofreading process, which was a shame. But these are small gripes because Zephyr is a lovely game. The component quality is excellent, the art is excellent, the gameplay is excellent. And it’s HARD. I mean, really hard. You thought Commanders were hard? Once you get to Warlords, who can bring a wave of ships as well as their own bonkers abilities, if you’re not totally ready, they will carve you into pieces. Some players have complained that after playing an entire game, losing to the final boss in a matter of minutes isn’t fun. I can understand that, but I don’t agree. Experienced players walking into the final battle have a good sense of whether or not they’re going to have a chance. And if not, it makes for a great narrative. And that’s what Zephyr achieves – it forms a really fun narrative, whether you win or lose. It’s not really about winning, it’s about the journey. But maybe I only say that because I’ve not beaten a Warlord yet. Yet. And the game designers are very clear that it’s not meant to be an easy game. You’re an amateur flying a new steampunk dirigible in skies full of Warlords….what would you expect? So, it’s difficult. More difficult than Ghost Stories, and that’s saying something. But if you like a challenge, this is definitely the game for you.
I can see this game going a long way. I can see expansion packs, I can see new ships, new missions, new assignments and much more. What’s great about it is that it’s relatively easy to add components. Creating and balancing an objective shouldn’t be too difficult and that means that the backers and fans will be able to help create more for the future. Personally, I would prefer to see a double-sided mission card. That would make for a long game but would allow for the ships to get enough upgrades to actually have a chance against a final Warlord. What I would really like to see, and I think the backers and fans of this game could make this happen, is a campaign of missions. Having a campaign book for Zephyr, where the success or failure in one mission would affect the design of the next, would be amazing. Then losing to a Warlord at the end isn’t so bad because it forms part of a larger narrative. Or maybe you build up to the Warlord only after certain successes. Either way, there’s real scope for this game to develop.
Time for a summary…
- Ship and region artwork in particular is lovely
- The modular crew and ship upgrades work perfectly
- The combat system is easy
- The thick Skirmish and Scavenge decks, as well as varied ship designs ensure that no two games are ever the same
- The ships themselves are excellently designed
- Totally original concept
- Lots of potential for expansion
- Free baggies for tokens!
WE NO LIKEY
- Colours being too similar
- Rulebook needing immediate clarification
- The artwork for people isn’t as good as for the ships or regions
And now for some scores….