Friday, June 3, 2016

Something to Fight Over - Mats by Mars review

Having played a few games with Mats by Mars' vinyl, umm, mat, I've donned my reviewer cap again to talk about my first honest-to-goodness functional game board.

So, getting the flaws out of the way first. And by flaws, I guess I mean limitations?

I stored the mat poorly- resting incorrectly for a week is long enough for it to get a little weird... however, being stored correctly is also plenty to mostly correct this. You can see some slightly curled bits in a few photos below. I'm not sure, I guess that's more of something to be aware of than an actual flaw, like a book can get dinged without a dust jacket. Actually, continuing the analogy, it might be worth investing in a dust jacket, i.e. poster tube, for a few bucks. It comes in a heavy plastic bag, but I think I'd prefer something more substantial down the line.

The print resolution is a bit low for my taste... but with my limited experience with vinyl printing, I think this resolution might be standard print? So, this might be more of a materials thing, again.

And, well, that's about it.

...On to why I think the mat's a great gaming investment, in the most organic flow- starting at setup and moving through the game.

The mat in its natural state, i.e. with a pile of random hobby bits pushed to the side when it's time to game.

The Groundwork - Setup
Even while covered, the lines are clear enough to easily infer
various borders.
A lot of places have tables set up as 4x4' because the big games use these, and if you're playing at home, you still are probably using a bigger space than the actual 3x3' game area. So even before talking about structure and aesthetics, you've got a pretty square that's exactly the size you need, and you won't be bumping the card or stick or whatever marking the edge of the space.

Then, it comes time to put down terrain. There are lots of places where a medium-large piece of terrain can get in the way. With the quick notation all over the mat, if you're decently familiar with potential objectives, you can avoid a lot of pitfalls immediately (though, of course, you can always mess stuff up, or at least I do).

Minimalist notation starts things off quickly.
And we're already at deployment, and I don't know about anyone else, but I feel like 2/3 of the time I play, I flip that tedious L-shaped deployment that takes a few minutes to measure and double-check. (I'm going to come out and admit it- not needing to worry about that was actually a big reason I started getting interested in mats...)

So, at this point, I feel like I end up saving at least ten minutes, and my game is on a pretty mat and not a homogenous grass umm, felt thing, or an unadorned table.

Contesting Territory - The Game
In my opinion, Malifaux gameplay is about basically three things: bluffing/concealing your choices, resource management, and complete knowledge of the current game state.

Even on a pretty cluttered board, the markings make the important
locations intuitively obvious.
I'm not sure much other than practice can help you with resource management, but the markings on deployment zones and objective zones makes the other two much easier- you can get exact or at least ballpark distances without measuring anything, meaning you don't need to so obviously check if you're in range of something you'd rather keep secret, and you don't need to worry about misjudging dramatically. Plus, it's a helpful reminder of what you should be focusing on, since it's so easy to get over-excited and push for that kill.

There are a few places where the lines start to get lost due to lower contrast on my mat, but I also chose one of the most colorful ones. Other than that, everything's very clear, and pretty minimally drawn. The only regularly important distances that aren't marked are 6" from the two irregular deployment zones (circular; L's), but when we were initially using the mat and complaining about this, it became quickly obvious that the extra information would not only clutter the aesthetic but become really difficult to parse, as some lines would start to cross and overlap in weird ways.

Eye of the Beholder - Aesthetics
The variety of color allows a hodgepodge of basing
styles, which I prefer, to organically fit in.
I really like my multicolored mat- I picked it because it doesn't mean I'm beholden to any specific color scheme on my bases. My only other experience with mats is a Fantasy Flight Games one (which is roughly the same material/weight, as far as I can tell), but I think Mats by Mars' more subtle patterns are way easier to read, where FFG's is almost like an optical illusion, and gets pretty distracting to the point where it's an eye strain. Also, the markings on it make it really useful instead of just an aesthetic square.

The mat does have some repeated patterns, which could be a turn off for some. One layer of texture is tiled, but this really isn't noticeable except in the thumbnail on their site, and some of the bigger detail are repeated with filters etc. I didn't find the stone tiling to be intrusive since, well, it's supposed to be basically regular. The repeated larger details was more obvious, but once you have terrain on the mat, that's already taken care of.

As the Smoke Clears - Conclusion
Time for another admission. I've had grand designs on making a cohesive, cool, fully custom table at more than a half-dozen times. I've half-succeeded maybe three, to the point where I'd made a big, unwieldy board that doesn't fit anywhere, or modular tiles that collapse nicely but don't perfectly fit together. And a lot of my other projects have gotten going but then the cool natural looking ground is actually uneven enough to make models not sit perfectly on the table, and generally makes it a chore to play on. It's kind of embarrassing.

Having played on this mat maybe a half-dozen times, I expect I'll never going back to making my own boards. I'll probably keep making some terrain elements, but having a well-marked mat, that doesn't have my pretty buildings and models on an ugly or impractical field, and can be rolled up and stuck in the closet, is just plain satisfying.

I (always) have some more of those grand ideas floating around, but having played around with this mat, I think in the future I'd work on getting a custom piece printed rather than try yet another awkward construction project, since the I think the mats hit just the right balance of practicality and aesthetics.

I guess, to reiterate the negative bits, if unreasonably anal about details (and this is coming from someone who illustrates, edits photographs, does layout, and paints for a living, and compulsively does that stuff anyways, when not getting paid to), that might be a barrier to wanting one of these. Or, if you don't like Malifaux but are still reading about accessories for it, I guess?

Yeah... really, I've got nothing. They're pretty affordable, don't take up any space, are pretty, and functional. If you play/expect to play Malifaux even kind of regularly, I'd highly recommend Mats by Mars.

Note: I received my mat as a review copy, but, as with all of my reviews (with complimentary materials or not), I tried to maintain my objectivity, and I never take pay for reviews.