Stroll on in to Next of Ken, where this week we're talking Arena: Roma II, Reiner's pre-Blue Moon "Lords" duology, Game of Thrones talk, and anticipation for Hotlanta, where Trashfest South awaits!
It Ain't Safe in The City, Watch the Throne
Going to lead off with talk about Episode 7 of Game of Thrones, so if you're spoiler averse, skip on down to the next section. I'm not going to go into too much detail, but it will be enough to spoil you if you're waiting to get caught up on DVR, On Demand, or downloading.
I knew that this would be the episode where things really came crashing down hard, and I wasn't disappointed. You'd be forgiven for thinking that this was not the case as the slow burn continued through a huge chunk of the episode, but then BOOM! CRASH! BLAMMO! Drogo got his motivation for war, the Iron Throne just got a whole lot more interesting, and allies and confidants turn out to be vile villains (SHOCKING~!)
Lord Stark is truly stranded in a nest of vipers without a friend...it's been incredible watching this noose tighten around him as one by one, his avenues for action have been robbed of him. He currently can't even lift his sword to help, and that has got to be crushing to a proud warrior like Ned.
We also had some scenes with Jon at the Wall, where he's the victim of a little betrayal/pettiness, coupled with his fear for his uncle Benjen's life. Benjen went off north of the Wall several episodes ago and hasn't been seen since. Ghost, his direwolf, finds an ominous portent that makes Jon even more afraid for his uncle's fate.
Tywin Lannister is finally featured in an incredibly cool scene where he's skinning a stag (symbolism, much?) while calming talking to Jaime about killing his enemies and preserving the Lannister legacy. Tywin is a cold-hearted, proud, very evil sonofabitch, and they did well by casting Charles Dance in the role. Dance is well-remembered by me for his creepy bastard roles in The Golden Child and Last Action Hero (I'm sure in his prolific film career, he's exceedingly grateful that those are the two roles I remember him best for!) Watching him gut an animal while calmly and coldly talking of Jaime dealing with Ned Stark once and for all was awesomely chilling.
An episode chock full of things deeply in motion after wheels had been turning for so long, the ending rips the floor out from under you. "When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die," Cersei Lannister tells Ned earlier in the episode. Seems Cersei has no designs on dying anytime soon.
Another stellar episode that has me cursing at the TV every week for the show having to end, and has me dreading the wait for season 2--something I haven't been able to say in a long, long time.
When you're 99 in the noonday sun, And a hundred and one in the shade
Alright folks, this is it--Trashfest South II is this week in Atlanta, Georgia. This ridiculously awesome 5-day Ameritrash extravaganza is certain to make grown men weep and Euro fans run for the hills. Hell, the gaming action is going to be so hot, it might actually be enough to keep the Lannisters' hands off of each other for at least ten minutes.
The festivities technically start on Wednesday as some early-arrivers will be heading to Steve Avery's pad. My brother and I will be caravaning with F:AT's own Pete "SuperflyTNT" Ruth, who in some weird bit of cosmic kharma will already be in Huntsville...and visiting the company I work for on business (no, we did not in any way plan this...scary shit, folks.)
We might make a pit stop at Dr. No's in Marietta, Georgia, a very nice-sized comic book and board game store that bucks the trend of game shops huddled in narrow storefronts in shitty malls.
From there, we'll make our way to Avery's house Thursday afternoon.
Personally, I'm hoping to get in some games of the following:
Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition (w/ Shards!!!)
A Game of Thrones w/Clash of Kings
Mare Nostrum (I need to see what all the fuss is about)
War of the Ring
Fury of Dracula
Doom and/or Descent
With Thursday evening, all day Friday and Saturday, and early Sunday, I'm going to cram as much gaming in as humanly possible. And don't worry, I'll have all the gory details from the veritable orgy of gaming next week.
Just listen at this line-up that Steve Avery posted to the forums:
What to expect:
For those of you who haven't made the trek before here is what you can expect:
Wed: Low key gaming at my place with the early comers and a few guests.- probably starting kinda late since it will start after we get back from the airport. If it is early, I'll cook if not we'll grab fast food on the way back.
Thurs: I'll set up the tiki bar and tables if the weather is nice. Then I'll go get the Keg. People will arrive throughout the day and some locals will show up after work. I'm guessing about 15 people. At 5 I'm picking up Billy and when I get back we'll cook out.
Friday: We'll stow all our sleeping bags, grab showers and I'll make a decent breakfast. Then we'll head over to Launius' clubhouse by 10. We'll stop for snacks (everyone usually brings a snack/or drinks to his gaming events.) Fast food and resturaunts are 5 mins away or you can graze on snacks all day. This is when the serious gaming starts and I'm expecting 50-60 people. We'll all head back sometime after midnight and possibly later.
Sunday: Probably get a slightly later start as some people are heading out. Franks place is a solid 45 mins away so we'll caravan on over and hopefully get there around noon.
Monday: I'll be heading to the airport early and everyone else will be heading out after breakfast.
It's too bad we've already coined the term "Trashfest South"...since Avery has been such a driving force behind this, a much better name would be "A Gathering of Tanktops."
If you sleep on your only chances, They’ll never come around again
I didn't really get a ton of gaming in over the Memorial Day weekend, though we did squeeze in some card games.
We have this tradition where my dad, my brothers, and my boys go to something called Dog Days in Ardmore, TN. It's a giant, open-air flea market that is truly potluck in what's going to be on sale and what you're going to find. It's definitely a tradition thing as we look forward to making the trip with my dad. Mostly I look for cheap music CDs and DVDs, and occasionally I'll find a decent boardgame that doesn't look like it's been peed on by the family dog.
This year, I picked up Pokemon Yellow for one of my sons, some Pokemon VHS for another son along with Animal Crossing Gamecube and a Gamecube memory card, and Justice League Heroes and two X-Men Evolution DVDs for yet another of my sons. My brother found a great three-disc live Springsteen boxed set for five dollars that looked new, and he scooped me up a copy of Yeah Yeah Yeahs Fever to Tell (long story on why I don't own their seminal LP release, but I'm glad I do now!)
The only boardgame I found that at first looked worth having was a Scrabble set for really cheap (good for keeping the tile holders and tiles) but I opened it to literally find grass, dirt, and bugs in it. Yeah. I had to pass that one up, I'm afraid. So a big strikeout on the boardgame front this time.
Two of the other traditions involved are unhealthy Hardee's breakfasts and staying up late the night before playing board games. This doesn't sound like much until you understand that we leave out for Dog Days at 5:30-6:00 AM Monday morning.
In years past, my brother and I have been fairly sadistic (read: stupid) in staying up late and surviving on as little sleep as possible. One year it was Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit until 2:00 AM; but the real "take the cake" was when we played War of the Ring until 4:30 AM. There's nothing like looking up and seeing daylight and realizing you haven't slept and have somewhere to be in an hour or so.
This year we were relatively sane. The night before, my brother, wife and I got in some three-player gaming in.
First up was Bottle Imp (Z-Man Games, 3-4 players, 45 minutes), the English version of Flaschenteufel. It's a fairly viscious little game in which you're trying to ensure you don't end up with the bottle at the end of a hand.
It's pretty amazing how thematic the entire game is, with such a simple ruleset and being, after all, a trick-taking game, not something usually rife with storytelling possibilities.
The deck is made up of 37 cards (numbered as such) in three different colors. The colors denote a general range of values, with yellow being low, blue being middle, and red being high, but there are exceptions--a couple of Yellows in the 20s, for example.
One card is the 19 and it has no color and is not dealt out, but instead represents the starting price of the Bottle Imp. Here's where the story comes into play--there is this Bottle Imp that, if you own it, will grant all of your wildest dreams and wishes. However, if you die while in possession of it, your soul is damned to eternal torment. The only way to get rid of it is to sell it to someone for less than what you bought it for.
How this translates into the game is how low-valued cards can become "trumps" in the right circumstances. Generally, the gameplay is straightforward. One player leads a card of a certain value, other players must follow suit if possible. Unlike a lot of trick-taking games though, if you can't follow suit but still play a higher card, the trick will be yours. Each card has a number of coins on it, and that's the number of points the card is worth at hand's end. It's from 1 to 6 coins, higher for the most part on higher-valued cards, but there are again exceptions.
The Bottle Imp though can turn a lower-valued card into a trick-taker. If someone plays a card to a trick that's lesser than the current value of the Bottle Imp, then that card instead takes the trick, but that person is now in possession of the Bottle. If multiple players play cards lower than the Bottle Imp's current value, then the person who came closest to its current value is the winner. From that point, that's the new value of the Imp. So while it starts at 19, if you played a 17 to a trick and no one played the 18, then the trick is yours, and the new price of the Imp is 17. From there, it works its way down as the hand progresses.
Really, it's an easier game to just sit down and teach to play than to describe.
I thought it was an excellent trick-taker, different in many ways to others I'd tried. The interplay of trying to force someone to take the bottle by playing the correct suits is great, but screwing up even just once can cost you the entire hand. And low cards have a real prominence in this game that they don't in others--whether it be as a card that can take the trick but still leave room to be undercut, or dangerous potholes that can get you into a world of trouble. I would've gladly featured this in my trick-taking review round-up last week, but just consider this a bonus feature.
We did some three player Haggis as well and even though I lauded it for its good fit as a two-player, it is even better with three. You use all five suits with 3 players, and only 3 cards are in the Haggis, meaning that there's more card interplay and strategy is even tighter. You're playing a game of chicken with your wild cards, trying to lure the other players into committing theirs to tricks that won't win them the game, or set you up to power combo your way out of the rest of the hand. It's different in that it pays to find an opening and be extremely aggressive, because really there aren't as many points to be won from tricks as there are from going out against players who still have several cards in hand. In our games it wasn't uncommon to get 30 points from going out, and only 12-15 from tricks. As we get more familiar with the game, betting will become a much larger part of it, I'm sure--up to another 30 points if you successfully bet and go out first.
The last game played this weekend was Reiner Knizia's Money! (Gryphon Games, 3-5 players, 30 minutes) with the family. I thought it was a decent filler where players are trying to bid and collect sets of money. It's definitely light and fluffy but the cards with their currency design are sharp, and even as fluffy as it is it still feels like three times the game that For Sale! does. For Sale! is one of those games that just washes over you so quickly, you forget you even played a game. "I won? Hmm. How about that." Keeping this one on tap as a family card game, it's decent.
I know I failed you all by not getting enough games in with plastic mens this weekend, but after Trashfest, I will have more than compensated. That I promise you.
Coming of Age Two, Brand New
It's a generally held truism that, for the most part, sequels suck. Whether it be movies, TV shows, or whatever, sequels are too often cesspools founded by lack of creativity, and moreover just cash grabs on something that worked the first time. It's why we celebrate sequels that don't suck, such as Empire Strikes Back, Godfather II, or Cabin Boy 2.
"Neither!" --Ken B., Fortress Weekly
Board games are a different beast, I think. A lot of times a game's design is two parts ingenuity and one part borrowed before pen ever hits paper. And that's a best case scenario.
There's the same cash grab at work in the board gaming industry. There's a rush to create "franchises", develop a revenue stream instead of something that is worth existing on its own merits.
However, there are times when a designer borrows or supercedes his own work, the gamer benefits. Assuming a designer pays attention to feedback, to what works and what doesn't, in theory the game that emerges from that process should be a better experience.
Here are two examples from opposite ends of the spectrum. First is Reiner Knizia's Scarab Lords/Minotaur Lords pairing of card games from Fantasy Flight from several years ago. It preceded his Blue Moon games, though the influence on the later design is obvious. Each involves cards battling in 'elements'--figuratively in the Lords games as Religion/Military/Economy, literally as Earth/Fire in Blue Moon.
They resemble ladder climbing games, as players want to have the higher value in the battled element.
Now, I didn't play either of the Lords games back when they released, so I'm probably not a fair judge here. And I like a lot of what the two games did. For one, you had two pre-made decks in each that had a certain theme, whether it was cheap fast hitters, or disruption, or special power combinations. The games also included a very cool sideboard mechanic built right into the game, where players played a best of 3, and in between each game they could go to a communal sideboard and tweak your deck. The winner of a match had to sideboard first, and any cards in the sideboard were fair game, so you could take cards that your opponent had left behind in the sideboard, if you wanted to.
Where both Lords game flounder though is by having too many theaters of conflict. Not only is it divided into Religion/Military/Economy, but there's an Upper and Lower level for each. You win by having dominance in two of the three of both lower and upper level.
But there's no theme to upper or lower, so it's not clear what that represents really, and it just clutters the conflict in a bad way. This is bad because it actually leads to less interaction. Why go after your opponent's beefy military force in the upper level when you can set up camp in the lower level and exert dominance of your own there?
Something else they did that was weird was that while the two games were compatibile with each other, the backs for the sets were different. Ordinarily not a problem, but it messed up the sideboard system when you're using decks from cross sets, rendering one of the coolest parts of the game neutered.
Despite all that, I would play either Lords game on occasion, because there are some cool card interactions, like cursing your opponent's biggest hitter and playing a card to destroy a cursed card.
Blue Moon took this overarching gameplay concept and streamlined it into one theater, the current element of which is chosen by the loser of the last duel. It sounds like I'm championing "elegant" design here, but the net result is the interaction is ramped up. There's nowhere to hide. With only one place to do battle, it's either bring it, or retreat.
It makes me all the sadder that I apparently lost my Blue Moon set during one of my two moves over the past couple of years. At one point you couldn't give Blue Moon away, but all the sudden it's OOP and commanding high prices. Kinda blows my mind that Fantasy Flight would let Blue Moon go out of print since it really is a good game with several different decks and a customization system, but I guess since Reiner "finished" his work on it, it's not something they can sell you every month at $10 a pop.
But I digress.
Arena: Roma II (Stefan Feld, Queen Games, 2 players, 20-40 minutes) is the other sequel I'd like to look at today. First up, I love the name as it's actually named like a movie--"ARENA: ROMA II. This time...it's personal."
Long-time Fortress fans may remember that I tagged the original Roma as a "Euro Game that Doesn't Suck" way back when, and that opinion still holds today. Roma is a fun dice-roller where you line up your cards, trigger them on dice rolls, and either outrace your opponent to the piles of VPs, or destroy your opponent's stuff and bleed them dry.
If Roma had a hole in it though, it was that honestly there were two prevalent strategies. There was the Forum, and there was Destroy Shit. That was it. If you pulled a Forum early, good for you; it was off to the races. Otherwise, you were looking at putting together a military effort to blow up your opponent's dudes and buildings really quickly.
Having played Arena: Roma II, I'm happy to say that this is a sequel that improves on the original, while incorporating and keeping the original completely relevant.
The basic rules are the same. You have a series of spots marked with a die value 1-6, and you spend gold to put your cards in those slots. When you roll dice on your turn, you can activate whatever card is sitting in that spot. Think of it as a customizable Kingsburg that doesn't suck royal ass, and you'll start to get the picture. The bad part is that at the start of your turn, you lose a VP for each spot you don't have filled. The early game sees you with no money, no cards in hand, and two spots empty, meaning you're bleeding right from the start.
There are two other uses for your dice; one spot allows you to place a die there and collect that many coins (important since you start the game broke.) Another slot allows you to draw X number of cards and keep 1, discarding the rest, where X is the value of the die you place there. Again, important since you are empty-handed at the start.
Arena offers more wrinkles though, in the form of a different focus on card design with broader types of cards, as well as the Bribery mechanic. Instead of players having to rely on points from the Forum, there are now other cards that allow you to ditch cards in play to earn VPs for them. There's also a card that drains the common VP pool of 3 VPs, useful for shortening the game and increasing your advantage.
Also, positioning is far more important in this game than in its previous incarnation. While some cards were concerned about being directly across from your opponent's cards, many of the military/offensive cards could do their thing wihtout worrying about their proximity to the target card. With many attack cards in Roma II allowing attacks only directly in front and diagonally, where your cards end up is more important now than just "put the useful stuff down on the low numbers."
The Bribery slot is an optional rule. If you use it, it counts against you as an empty slot when unfilled, but once a card is there, you may place one die there, pay as much gold as the die's value, and then activate the card. Bribery is once per turn, but it's a useful place to put something you want steady access to, even if it costs you.
What this all adds up to is a steadier, more interactive gaming experience. Cards can end up in 'dangerous' slots based on their proximity to attack cards. Bribery allows you to ride out certain strategies, allowing for a variance in your gold supplies. I think that Bribery may lead to more "rich get richer" gameplay if one player can get and keep a card there and trigger it every turn, so I like what it adds but see it as being a spot you really need to pay attention to.
I was told that this game is getting difficult to find, but there were a few copies still available on Amazon. If you're at all interested in playing Roma, I'd tell you that if, held to gunpoint and forced to say, I'd suggest the sequel as being the superior game.
What's cool though is there are other ways to play. You can play a "VS." style game where one player uses Roma and the other Roma II's deck, and you battle each other, using only your own draw deck (in the base game of each, the draw deck is communal.) You can also mix the two decks for one mega-deck experience, though they have different backs. If that bugs you, you can always sleeve 'em. Last is one I haven't had a chance to try, and that's each player has a copy of Roma I and II and custom builds a deck from that. I like the game a lot but I'm not sure I want to plunk down more $$$ for another copy of each game, so playing that way will have to hold off for now.
Thumbs up from me for Arena: Roma II. Good stuff. (Photo of Arena: Roma II credit: Ender's Game, Boardgamegeek.com)
Well, that's going to do it for today. Next week, I'll have all the details on Trashfest South. Prepare for embarassing stories about your favorite F:ATtie forum dwellers, and possibly pictures of Matt Loter's junk. You've been warned.