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Review: Battle at Kemble’s Cascade

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BattleAtKemblesCascade_boxcover

In the hearts of all of mankind, a battle rages. It is a battle of good versus evil, self versus self, mind versus soul, and the weapons are truth, courage, and justice.

But this is an entirely different battle; this battle is at Kemble’s Cascade, and the weapons are lasers and missiles. So gather your wits and your ship upgrades, brave pilots, as you prepare to face an army of pure evil droning menacingly towards you. Will you defeat the boss at the end?

How it Plays

The Battle at Kemble’s Cascade is an emulation of classic arcade space shooters. You start with a ship and some basic abilities, and you fly rapidly through a deadly course of asteroids, enemy ships, and upgrades until you reach the final boss. In this game, though, it’s not about how far you can go – with infinite respawns, you’ll get to the Boss eventually – it’s about how awesome you are along the way.

You start with a ship that can hold 5 Energy, move once per turn, and fire a low-power energy weapon.

Ready... START!
Ready… START!

The board is a square grid made up of rows of cards, with each card featuring 2 spaces, and five rows overall. The board features a variety of obstacles and enemies, including enemy ships, asteroids, black holes, wormholes, alien mazes, power ups, and energy cells.

Players take turns in an order determined each round by bidding from their hand of Sensor cards (that range from 10 to 400).

On your turn, you have two options: Battle, or Power Down.

Battling is what lets you move around on the board and do things; you get a free movement point and a free shot, and you can spend energy to do more actions. This is your chance to grab those Power Ups, destroy enemies (and reap the reward, which is frequently bellonium and sometimes Glory points), and shoot at other players. When you destroy something on the board, it is covered up by a Sensor card, which has an “empty space” backing.

If you Power Down, you get to recharge some energy and then visit the Shop. At the shop, you can find a number of weapons and upgrades, such as the Laser that can fire twice, the Missile that does splash damage, and the Gamma Ray that can fire through enemies and obstacles, continuing to do damage down the line. You also have a shield upgrade, and engine upgrade, and an Energy reactor upgrade. You buy these things with your accrued Bellonium.

You can also pay to enhance your current loadout; each weapon and upgrade has a few levels of increased effectiveness, and even your starting Turret can be upgraded so you can fire in any direction you want rather than paying energy to rotate it.

"Ground Control, Eagle has landed." "Shut up, Steve."
“Ground Control, Eagle has landed.”
“Shut up, Steve.”

Whether you Power Down or Battle, you must then resolve your current Threat, and then calculate new Threat.

Threat is calculated based on where your ship is – enemy ships and certain obstacles have icons that indicate they’re trying to do damage to you. For every Threat icon in range, you increase your Threat level tracker. You can also gain threat levels when other players shoot at you, or when certain enemies scroll onto the board.

This calculated threat will resolve on your next turn, but you do have a chance to evade it. Every movement you take reduces your threat level by 1 (to represent dodging), and your Shield upgrade can absorb some Threat. When you finally do resolve your threat, you subtract your Threat Level from your Energy, then reset your Threat to 0.

When your Energy hits 0, you explode. You do get to respawn, but exploding grants points to the other players.

Don't keep your enemies close. No. Blow them up.
Don’t keep your enemies close. No. Blow them up.

After everyone has taken their turn, the board “scrolls.” You remove the lowest tray of cards, dump them, move the other trays down, and place the now empty tray at the top, filling it with another fresh row of cards. Any player who was in the bottom row gets “scroll-pushed” up into the next row, which can sometimes result in damage or destruction.

Eventually, the Boss will show up. The Boss (of which there are 4 in the base game) is a huge enemy ship that does massive damage and encompasses an entire row of cards (sometimes 2). When the Boss is completely destroyed the last row is scrolled out, the game ends.

Earn points by completing Missions or earning Achievements, which involves meeting certain conditions like “Ram an enemy ship three times” or “Get destroyed in the top row of the board.” Each player has 1 mission, but the 4 available Achievements refresh when one is completed. You also get points for destroying certain Enemy ships (Especially Boss sections), spending time exploring alien Mazes, and for shooting at other players (if they end up getting destroyed).

The player with the most Glory when the game ends, is declared the winner!

Sensor bidding!
Sensor bidding!

Galactic Awesomeness, or Galactic-Scale Boredom?

There’s an odd juxtaposition when it comes to the adaptation of arcade-style games into the realm of cardboard and plastic. The former is generally based on precision of control and reaction time, throwing players into a frantic realm of combat where threats rocket in from all directions and hand-eye-coordination is key, while the latter usually involves patient thought and planning.

Kemble’s Cascade isn’t exactly frantic, but I do think it captures the spirit of the arcade shooter pretty well.

Primarily, I think the Threat mechanism serves as a quite clever way to put the emphasis on maneuvering. There’s not a whole lot of “luck” involved here, which is a good thing; the arcade isn’t really about luck, is it? It’s about good piloting. So, instead of, say, rolling a bunch of dice to see if you get hit, you have a chance to see what shots are getting fired, and a chance to dodge them. It’s not a perfect simulation (obviously, if a shot is coming at you from the side and you move sideways, you’d still be in the line of fire, and a single space of movement might get you out of the way of several shots), but it translates the idea with very little complexity.

Flying aces, these guys are
Flying aces, these guys are

It also puts the emphasis on smart maneuvering – obviously, dodging threat is helpful, but if you can avoid it in the first place, that’s even better. This doesn’t translate the fast-paced nature of the arcade to the table, but it does capture the whole idea of skilled piloting. A savvy player will work out a way to get that Power Up, destroy an enemy or two, and end up in a safe place for their next turn.

Another element that transfers quite well? Upgrades. The range of weapons comes in a nice variety. Just as in the arcade, you start with the basics, but by the endgame you have a ridiculously overpowered killing machine. And, while every upgrade is on the table, you can never afford to buy everything. That means you get to experiment with a variety of equipment packages. I’ve played games where I get a bunch of weapons, and others where I’ve focused on one weapon, upgrading it to the max. You’ve also got Energy, Shields, and Movement upgrades to work with, and if you focus on those you might not pack as big of a punch but you can become nearly invincible as you maneuver your threat down and absorb the rest with shields. What I’m getting at is that you can have a lot of fun customizing your loadout.

Guns. Lots of guns.
Guns. Lots of guns.

Battle at Kemble’s Cascade employs a variety of cleverly implemented mechanisms that work well: the use of Sensor cards to cover up destroyed enemies is neat and effective; The variety of elements you may encounter on the board keep things interesting; the player vs player combat adds some interaction without making it so devastating to be on the receiving end. The deck of Space Cards comes divided into several “themed” package – one stack of cards has a lot of enemies, one has asteroids, one has bigger enemies, and so forth – so you can sort of design your own level arrangements. One bonus pack includes a series of “tunnels” which are impassable walls that require extra maneuvering and planning to avoid getting trapped.

The scoring works well, but I must admit here that it can be a little confusing. Not that the scoring is convoluted; it’s just that the natural expectation is to score points by killing lots and lots of enemies. Only a few enemies actually provide points, and if you only go for those, you will lose, dramatically. Achievements are really important, but since they involve a lot of risk, new players frequently avoid them. It’s just instinct to stay alive; but in this game, death is neither permanent or all that devastating. Sure, it rewards the other players with points, but a few well timed deaths that reward you with more points than you give for dying can push you up the point ladder. Sometimes Dying is the best way to get out of a tight spot where you might otherwise waste a few turns escaping while others are scoring points, and it’s all the better if you can go out in a blaze of Glory (because, y’know, Glory is what the points are called.)

Points! Glory! Glory is everything!
Points! Glory! Glory is everything!

On the one hand, this is one of the biggest disconnects between arcade and cardboard; in a game like this, you’d expect to rack up points by shooting things down; at the very least, the Boss provides a lot of points, and there is plenty of Boss to be destroyed. In fact, I’d say the Boss is another great element to this game; it provides an always climactic finish to the game, as a massive, wall-to-wall enemy suddenly appears to unleash massive destruction.

The Boss level does reveal what might be a significant balance issue with one of the weapons: the Gamma Ray. During the majority of the game, this weapon seems to meet the destruction level of the other weapons; after all, there can only be so many enemies in a row, and you’re just as likely to hit a bunch of them with missile splash damage as line them up for a deadly shot. (If you recall me mentioning, the Gamma Ray passes through everything in its path, continuing to deal damage until it hits the edge of the board).

That Boss is boss
That Boss is boss

When the Gamma Ray’d player reaches the Boss, though, incredible things can happen. For example, one might destroy the edge Boss piece (or just ram it), then fire the Gamma Ray (presumably fully upgraded) down the line to hit every single Boss piece on the board. It is entirely possible to destroy an entire row of Boss in a single shot, and that can score a TON of Glory. In many games, this sort of thing would be balanced by the different pathways to point-scoring. For example, in the effort to acquire a fully-loaded Gamma Ray, you might sacrifice points elsewhere; sort a slow-and-steady option versus a sudden burst of points. But that’s not exactly how it works here; there’s nothing preventing you from pursuing achievements AND upgrading your Gamma Ray.

The biggest mitigator for this is to simply make sure you bid high to go first when the time comes, so you can blow up some of that Boss yourself before the Gamma Ray player gets to it; but you only have 2 Sensor cards to choose from when you bid for player order, both randomly dealt, and there’s not really a way to plan ahead very far for this kind of thing. The Sensor card bid might be the weakest area of the game; it’s more of a random-player-order thing than a planning and bidding thing.

Put some points on the board, with Achievements (and missions)
Put some points on the board, with Achievements (and missions)

But I do have to question myself about the Gamma Ray effect. Is it really unbalanced? Not every boss tile can be destroyed by a single Gamma Ray shot, and some sections are completely immune to it. Since special weapons can only be fired once per turn, I can’t say for sure if this is really overpowered. It may only be certain games where the Gamma Ray can sweep the boss away (it has happened though), but I haven’t played fifty times to really see if there is a long-term effect.

The game is burdened with one issue that isn’t riddled with uncertainty; the game length. It does seem to drag on a bit; although that is perhaps a bit due to new players trying to grasp all their options. Even with two players, it seems to take a while, and that drag can become tedious in what should be a more fast-paced activity. Or, at least, the theme would make it seem like it should be more fast paced. Even the setup is pretty extensive – you’ve got a number of decks to separate and shuffle, and then you’ve got to build a stack of space cards by taking out certain numbers of certain selections of cards and putting them in a pile. The plastic trays are a HUGE boon to scrolling – they keep rows intact and then you only have 5 elements to move down instead of 25 – but it still takes time to remove a tray, dump all the cards, move the other trays, and refill the newly emptied tray at the top of the board. Then, you’ve got the prospect of sorting things out when it’s all over. I don’t think the length is really a complete game ruiner, but there is a disconnect, and players eager to move on to something else will likely grow impatient. I suppose you could always put fewer cards into the Space deck to shorten the game.

The rulebook is a little hefty, and while generally informative, it buries some details that are easy to forget and hard to find. Some questions, I simply couldn’t find an answer to, probably because of the wording choice. Example: when you get destroyed, you become Astral. There is a section that talks about being astral, but because of the wording, I’m still not 100% sure if you’re allowed to visit the store for free and then do a Battle action, or if you’re simply allowed to do the Power Down action.

Pew pew pew! You'll be saying that a lot
Pew pew pew! You’ll be saying that a lot

On the other hand, there are a couple of extremely helpful charts on the back page (including a second copy on a pullout sheet) with information on all the enemies and obstacles and how you can interact with them, not to mention details on turn order and weapon functionality. These are particularly well written and clear, and the quick access to them makes the game all the more playable, especially for learning players.

Components here are excellent; most of it is cardboard, and the art really captures that 8-bit arcade feel, with depictions of aliens incredibly reminiscent of that era of video games. The player ships are unique in color and design, and the player boards are clearly laid out and functional. You’ve even got shiny translucent cubes to use as markers and trackers, and of course the Bellonium tokens.

Overall, I think Battle at Kemble’s Cascade is a good game, although it can require some patience. The mechanics at play, the art, and the emphasis on smart piloting all do a great job of transfiguring the arcade experience into a tabletop game. It may not be a perfect representation, but it captures the feel that it needs to. Will we one day see a frantic, real time arcade shooter board game? Well, I don’t know that that’s necessary, but this’ll do in a pinch. The potential for imbalance in the Gamma Ray is not really enough to deter the fun of the rest of the game, although the extended duration of the game might be a turn off to some. If the theme deters you, or you’re looking for something more intense, I’m afraid you’ll have to look elsewhere. If you want to blast some evil space ships to the pixel underworld with dramatically overpowered weapons as you try to out-starfox your buddies, The Battle at Kemble’s Cascade might just be the game for you.

Summary

  • Rating 7.0
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Summary

Pros:

Nails the theme
Great mechanics handle the precision control, if not the frantic nature, of arcade shooters
Art and components are great
Lots of ways to score points; there's always something to do
Thanks for the useful trays, Z-Man!

Cons:

Runs a little long
Gamma Ray might be overpowered
Scoring can be a little counter-intuitive to new players

7.0 Awesome

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

Discussion1 Comment

  1. Hi Wolfie!

    Nice thorough review!
    In answer to your question about going astral and shopping, there was actually a misprint in the original rules.

    In short:
    – The turn you blow up, you are not allowed to shop, even if you powerdown (resolving threat comes before shopping).
    – Once astral, you may shop OR enter the board. The word “OR” was unluckily omitted in the original rules. So basically, if you want to shop as astral, you need to pass a turn doing that.

    Look here for the errata and full FAQ: https://boardgamegeek.com/filepage/114044

    BR
    /Olle

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