Update: Dear Readers, BFF Games have seen our review and have given us some feedback. Please read (or re-read) to the end of the review to find their comments placed after the dice ratings by Sam-Wise and Dino-Girl
Players: 2-6 Ages: 10+ Game Time: 30mins
Hidden Leaders by BFF Games is currently available as print to play, as well as online at TableTopia and Tabletop Simulator. However, on April 20th Hidden Leaders is coming to Kickstarter for the creation of physical copies. It is currently unknown what, if any, upgrades the campaign will bring to the game. However, it will be exciting to find out, when it goes live. This review of the game is using the rules and materials from the Hidden Leaders Print to Play pdf.
So what is Hidden Leaders all about?
The emperor of Oshra is dead. The alliances of the island’s inhabitants are crumbling, and the path of succession is unclear. One of the emperor’s six children must manipulate events to become the strongest candidate for the throne. Each of these children are known leaders among the island's people. Before the emperors death, they have each forged alliances with two of the four factions on the island. By recruiting a party of heroes and using their abilities, leaders fight each other to ensure that when the dust settles, one of their loyal factions is the strongest. But succession can never be that simple, especially when it’s a game. Another leader in play may also have the loyalty of the winning faction.
The Hill Tribes and the Imperial Army compete to amass the most power. Meanwhile, the Water People seek to keep the balance, but the Undead vie for all-out war. This manifests as a board with a central influence track and markers for the tribes and the army. Where these markers end up determines which faction is dominant. Where two or more players have favour with the dominant faction, it comes down to which of them has recruited the most heroes of that faction.
To do this players take turns playing heroes from their hands and resolving their effects. This mostly increases or decreases the influence of the tribes and/or army, but also includes stealing cards, killing heroes etc. For a full breakdown of the rules, check out either the online simulations or the print to play pdf. The only thing to add about the rules, without essentially including them here, is that some areas of the game would benefit from better explanation (at least in the print to play materials).
Hidden Leaders is pretty easy to learn and play. But as usual the important question is playability. Firstly, the game is advertised as being for 2-6 players, and this is true. The game does work with any number of players in this range. However, to get the most from this game, no less than 4 players is required and maxing out at 6 is definitely best.
The game has several good things going for it. The overall theme is simple with enough that is familiar and new. Many of the Leader and Hero characters put a humorous spin on the usual archetypes. These are amusingly portrayed with good, simple artwork (sketch style for P2P and full colour online). Also the rules and mechanics are simple, quick to learn and the means of determining the winner is fairly unique.
However, several of the rules and mechanics would benefit from both better explanation, as well as more dynamic execution, to make the game truly satisfying. For example, while having two factions each opens up various paths to win, it also conceals your leader's identity. The restrictions of simple game play reduce the impact of this significantly. Also some game outcomes require such ‘aggressive’ game play that the players intentions become very obvious. This effect is only marginally reduced by having more players, hence the recommendation earlier.
Another game mechanic that feels under-developed is the playing/recruiting of hero cards face up and face down, depending on circumstances. Generally, hero cards are played face up but can be acquired or turned face down to either conceal which factions you are collecting, or to slow down the end of the game. This ends when a player has a certain number of face up cards determined by player count. While there are card effects that use this mechanic they are fairly rare, which diminishes the inclusion of this to being near pointless.
Personally I feel that this game needs to really get to grips with who its target audience is. For a young audience, the game will do fairly well but could perhaps use some tweaks to remove the need for aggressive gameplay and streamline it for this market. For a more mature gamer, several rules and mechanics need further development to introduce more intrigue. The disappointing fact is that many of the tools to do this are already in place, and just need fine tuning. For example, make it so a player can choose to use a card face up, using its ability as it comes into play, or face down without effect but concealing your intentions/allegiance. Or, have each leader have primary loyalty with one faction and less with the second where in the endgame each recruited hero is only worth half. In fact using the same game components but having basic and advanced rules would work quite easily.
Overall this game has much more potential than has been brought to life in this first iteration. I very much like the theme, characters, artwork and the core concept of the mechanics. Whilst I appreciate that the game is designed for a wide age group, meaning that simplicity is needed for the youngest gamers, there is just too much lacking to be a really satisfying game for all ages. I truly hope that future work on this game takes place to help it meet its potential however for now it scores low at 3/6 on the dice scale.
I was a little disappointed in this game, I had hoped from the premise that there would be more cutthroat backstabbing akin to the great Munchkin games, but alas, it was not to be. The two-player variant was also disappointing in that those with the Un-dead affiliation were identified very early on, this being due to the aggressive nature to push your tokens into the winning requirements for that faction (as noted by Sam-Wise) which meant there was nothing really “Hidden” about our leaders . . . Perhaps the Kickstarter version will correct some of these downfalls? 3 out of 6 dice.
Update: So BFF Games have read our review and contacted us with some exciting feedback. Here is what they had to say; "Thanks for covering it (Hidden Leaders) and for your improvement ideas! We have 2 add-ons in testing already that include much more complex cards and strategies. For creating physical copies we focused on the core mechanism! Much more to come."
Sadly we do not have further details to share with you here. However this does tease that there may be new material to come that will excite more in-depth gamers. It will certainly be exciting to check out the Kickstarter when it goes live to see what stretch goals and add-ons are revealed.
The development of this game is definitely one to watch as with some work it'll be a good introduction to hidden role/objective games for young or new gamers.
So there you have it.
The Diary of a Lincoln Geek crew love to get feedback (from developers and readers) and for the quick response and exciting teaser merit a 6/6 for customer interaction.
Images sourced from the Hidden Leaders website and print to play pdf.