Barnestorming- Temporum in Review, Shadows of Brimstone, Hardware, The Botanist

Barnestorming- Temporum in Review, Shadows of Brimstone, Hardware, The Botanist Hot

Michael Barnes     
 
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 Much better than Time Pirates.

On the Table

Wow, Temporum really took me by surprise. I thought it looked pretty cool, and it’s a Donald X. Vaccarino design so I figured it was worth a look. Rio Grande sent me a copy after a couple of months where I assumed my request fell on deaf ears, and I’m glad they did because this game is really neat. Most of the Donald X. marks are there- hugely variable setup, lots of card combinations, score-based outcomes and so forth but it feels completely unique and not redundant at all with his other designs. But it is also a game that I think is going to be sadly neglected and underrated by most, arriving as it did with almost no fanfare and a  sense that interest has turned more toward the vanity games offered through crowdfunding than a title designed by one of the more interesting creators in the medium.

It still doesn’t quite completely tell its story, which is also something of a Donald X. trademark, but the story that is there is a breath of fresh air in terms of science fiction themes. No space marines, no corridors, no marauding aliens. This game is about messing with time to fix the future so that you’re the ruler. There’s definitely an air of supervillany about the proceedings, and the “butterfly effect” theme is really effective.

Great stuff. Here’s the review. Like, right here because Nohighscores.com is down for some unexplained reason. Will post over there when we’re back online.

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History is going to remember Donald X. Vaccarino primarily as the designer of Dominion. His second Spiel des Jahres win back in 2011 for the much-better-than-expected Kingdom Builder will surely be noted, but in deference to the tremendously influential deckbuilder. His other designs- including Temporum, recently released by Rio Grande Games- will barely rate a footnote. It’s really a shame, because Mr. Vaccarino is a true auteur of the tabletop gaming medium, a creator with very distinct mechanical motifs, iterations and obsessions. It isn’t hard to play a Vaccarino game and see his mark in the wildly variable setups that alter the potential of each session or the malleable cardplay that combines with fixed elements to create a compelling space for discovery.

But one thing Mr. Vaccarino can’t do very well, at least as evidenced by his published designs, is tell a story. I think the man has the mechanical angle down, but from Dominion on there is a continued failure for his systems to connect adequately with narrative specificity or meaningful expressions of theme. It’s not a critical issue, because his games are usually fun and engaging even with threadbare associations to subject matter. Dominion is roughly about making money to build medieval stuff. Kingdom Builder does what it says on the tin. Infiltration could have been about a dungeon adventure or it could have been themed around French crime cinema.

This brings us back to Temporum, which is as expected a 30-45 minute medium-weight, card-driven title. As usual, every game is different (and defined) by a set of cards placed as part of the setup. But what is unexpected is that the game actually has a unique science fiction theme that has nothing to do with the usual space marines/space opera tropes. It is a time travel concept, wherein the players represent time travelers from the future messing around with the past to affect changes throughout time. But there is a somewhat sinister bend- the reason that the players are exploiting the “butterfly effect” is to rule the earth’s future in its proscribed fourth age. Which could be a nuclear wasteland, a technological wonderland or the Age of Cats.

The four ages are setup before play, with one card in Age I (prehistory and antiquity), two in Age II (middle ages to the 19th-ish century), three in Age III (Industrial Revolution through modern times) and four in Age IV (the future). The whole thing is set up like a pyramid, and each card represents a different event or time period from earth’s history. Each of these cards are connected to two cards via “Time streams”, and there is a marker underneath each. The markers line up from the first age to the fourth age along one time stream, you’re looking at the “real” chronological pathway. Player markers are placed on these cards to indicate where they are in history.

Gameplay is straightforward. Everyone starts with two player cards (representing various artifacts, organizations or other collateral) and some seed money to begin your quest through time. On your turn, you can alter the timestream by shifting the marker beneath the card you are on to the other option. Anyone caught standing on card that is suddenly not in the real timestream is moved to one that is. Then you can freely move to any of the four cards in the real timestream, and upon arrival you must perform the action indicated on the card.

The core actions are “play a card” and “score a card”. Playing a card usually results in earning some money as well as either generating a one-shot effect or establishing a permanent, lasting benefit that may enhance actions for the remainder of the game. Scoring a card means that you look at the bottom of the card, which indicates a coin price to generate X number of crown points. Combinations and exploits abound between these types of cardplay and the effects generated by the time period cards. Working them out is a big part of this game’s fun.

Along the side of the card-pyramid that represents all of earth’s history, there are a series of rows with columns for each player. Everyone starts with ten crown markers in the first age, and every time you either score a card or generate crown points from another effect, you get to move a marker down into the next age. So a three point gain would let you move one crown to age four, three crowns down to the next chronological age or two down one and one down two. Whoever has the most crowns in a given age “rules” it, and there are cards that have benefits specifically for rulers. So there is a touch of area control to consider but more than that, the goal of the game is to get all ten of your crowns into the fourth age, meaning that the ripples you made in the time stream have resulted in your ultimate domination of the future.

So effectively, the game is about making money and exploiting opportunities to eventually generate 30 points with which to move these crowns. At that level, the game sounds pretty dry. Even though I think that this is Mr. Vaccarino’s most successful game narrative and it offers by far his strongest, most specific theme to date, there is still something of a dissonance between the story told here and the  game functions, effects and their results. At worst, it sometimes doesn’t make sense  why some of the cards or time periods have certain effects. Mostly because there are really just a couple of actions aside from the playing/scoring of cards- there are also take-that discards, money thefts and other things that directly affect other players’ holdings, but everything remains fairly abstracted. It’s up to you to sort out how you effectively erased the Summer of Love or the American Civil War from existence using a Shogun’s sword and a golden goose with the help of a secret society.

That said, I do think that the science fiction theme here- changing the course of history by impacting the past- is especially strong despite the welcome lack of overcooked flavor text or sloppy chrome. And it’s really quite a cool game. I’m totally sold on the concept of these rival time-travelers bounding up and down the timestreams, causing reality to shift sideways, so to speak, while building up the resources to dominate time.

It says two to five on the box, but in my opinion this is really a three or four player game. Two lacks friction and seems to end before maturation. With five, the loss of control is palpable. Regardless of player count, Temporum is fun, unique and right on par with Mr. Vaccarino’s higher profile designs without feeling repetitive or redundant.

As a closing note, I want to highlight one feature that will likely go unmentioned in most reviews. This title, published by Rio Grande Games, sports a “Made in the USA” emblem on the box. I wholeheartedly applaud the decision to make this game in the USA, especially during a time when every single vanity game on Kickstarter and most of the titles from major publishers are being made under relatively obscured or even questionable conditions in China. There have been some complaints about the component quality- the player meeples and those timestream markers are too thin and/or small- but it’s not a big deal, does not affect gameplay and it’s all a no-brainer trade-off to support printing in America.

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So, I got to reconnect with Frank Branham and a couple of the Swamp Castle folks over the weekend so that was great. Except for the fact that we played Shadows of Brimstone instead of Psycho Raiders, but quite frankly it wasn’t the right crowd for Psycho Raiders. It really needs to be me, Frank, Sandi and the estranged Billy Motion for that one.

Frank liked Shadows of Brimstone a lot. I almost hated it, but we had a good time playing it. That said, I had more fun reading the ICE Roleplaying-ish mutation and injury tables than I did playing the eye-rollingly inept, sloppy and boring dungeoncrawler. So what, cowboys and tentacles.  It’s the same shit you do in all of these kinds of games but with different pictures and names. So much of the design is just inexplicable- you have to roll to move, combat is like three different rolls, and you draw a treasure card from a deck where half of the cards say…to draw  a card from another deck. Seriously?

Granted, we only played the “starter” mission, which had no discernable narrative other than “walk down the hall, shoot at stuff, find a random clue token” and there are tons of campaign elements (mostly fucking tables upon tables of options- talk about spreadsheets) that we didn’t really see. I looked over all of the materials including the upgrade paths for each character and I just did not see anything that would prompt me to want to play any more of it. Campaign mechanics don’t matter if the core game sucks. +1 stats and the ability for the saloon girl to buy a “tiny hat” can’t save it. The mutation that puts a portal on your chest  which can produce monsters or treasures  is a funny idea, but it’s still just a stale, uninteresting game.

But I will say this- the game did _move_. It didn’t bog down, even though it did that Warhammer Quest thing where a card suddenly puts like 10 monsters on you and we were playing with five. And I did like the lantern mechanic that sort of encourages players to stay close to each other. But by and large, this thing is a $150 turkey that feels just as sloppy and Kickstartery as you’d expect.

We also got to try that Cheating Moth thing, which was kind of a mess. Kobaykawa was quite interesting, a Raj-style minimalist bluffing game that takes about 10 minutes to play. I’d like to play it some more. The less said about The Crazy Chicken Game the better.

Another game of Imperial Assault…I finally stomped the Rebels, they pretty much just cruised through the other missions. It’s pretty stupid when an AT-ST just suddenly spawns on one of these tiny maps. I keep thinking that if they just did some more development on it- not just scenario writing- that there would be a really great game here. But things like the scale just feel totally fucked up, and it constantly feels like everything is point-blank melee instead of shootouts. The mission with Han

On the Consoles

Pretty much just Skylanders and Smash.

I’m not going to play Dragon Age: Inquisition. Sending back to Gamefly. Completely disinterested in virtually everything that game is offering.

On IOS

Man, I’ve gotten a lot of play out of that Ascension: Realms Unraveled expansion. I think it is by far the best Ascension release yet.

Finally got 80 Days.  It’s OK, I guess. I’m lost on the steampunk crap and it seems quite a step down from their Sorcery! titles. I do love the presentation, beautiful interface.

Started up Dream Quest again too. I lost all of my progress, which sucks.

On the Screen

Hardware is back on Netflix. Did you watch it like I told you to? I hope you did because Hardware RULES. It’s one of my favorite movies, I think. It is by far the best effort at making a 2000AD “future shock” type story, and it has this crazy mix of SF satire, early 1990s cyberpunkisms, Argento-style slasher movie stuff, and post-apocalyptics. There’s really nothing else quite like it, a very unique film from an exceedingly unique director. Richard Stanley never really amounted to much, but between this film and Dust Devil he at least turned out two really great, really unusual genre films. He was signed to direct that Island of Dr. Moreau film with Marlon Brando but apparently had issues (like everyone else) with Val Kilmer so he was fired. What a great film that turned out to be.

Watched Solomon Kane again last night…love that movie. Low budget, but they really make the most of the atmosphere and setting.

On Spotify

Can somebody page Jonjacob? Boy, have I got some records for you. It’s a one-man black metal act called The Botanist, and as you might expect all of his material is themed around plants. Lyrics are mostly about this botanist doing things like raising a mandrake army to destroy humanity and reclaim the earth for plants. It’s all very Swamp Thing. But here’s the kicker. This guy is a drummer primarily, and there is no guitar on the records at all. It’s just drums and…hammered dulcimer.  This stuff is brilliant. The newest one, Flora, is probably the most accessible for Deafheaven acolytes. Earlier releases are cruder/more perfunctory, but this is the really good one.

I’ve also been catching up on some other metal from 2014…Atriarch’s record is great, it’s kind of a hybrid between black metal and Christian Death-style death rock. So it’s  right in the ol’ wheelhouse. Foreseen is a band out of Helsinki that does old school bullet belt thrash along the lines of Exodus or Nuclear Assault. GREAT stuff, definitely check it out if you liked the Power Trip record. They’ve got a track called “Bonded by United Blood” that is sort of a joint tribute to Exodus and Agnostic Front. This is some serious moshing music. Thantifaxath is really good so far. Don’t care for the Mutilation Rites or Indian records.

Barnestorming- Temporum in Review, Shadows of Brimstone, Hardware, The Botanist There Will Be Games
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