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  • This is Foundational

        This is core-game. This is foundational. This is learning for young players in a clean, accessible form. Truly elegant exposition, the game's pieces are reminiscent of the golden age of science fiction when concerns of form were more important than function, when art was what drew you into the story. Sputnik is beautiful to look at, a work of art as much as a game.

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        Don't come to the table expecting complex play. This game provides a solid platform, a foundation to teach young players about positioning, about blocking, about mapping and looking ahead to the next move. With no hidden information and the ability to set the board into any one of a million configurations you have the ability to handicap, to test theories, to set up curious scenarios that will bring your young player into the moment and to teach them the next level of gaming -- when the little changes in play produce important changes in the outcome. I play wide-open against my kids telling them that I am pulling no punches whatsoever, and letting them know that any win is theirs to cherish without reservation. On occasion it occurs much to their delight. Coaching is often nothing more than a pause of the hand, or a single word, even a breath, letting them know that there was a better option available, and given the simplicity of the play it is likely in their reach to figure it out on their own and make a change that will let them understand the difference.

        My initial impression of the game was that the directions were insufficient, lacking in clarity and thoroughness. But after a dozen sessions I have come to realize that I would change nothing. A game as open and simple as this needs to give you just a nudge in the right direction. You and, more likely, your children, are well qualified to fill in what remains of the rules, making the game you desire from the beautiful wooden pieces before you.

        Leave this one on the coffee table and watch the children play. A fine use of the money if ever there was one.

                 S.

  • This is not a blogparty…

     

    A last gasp?

    Yesterday was RD/KA!'s 7th birthday, one I honestly barely expected to celebrate after the fiasco that was the 5th birthday blogparty. But here I am, although it was just a quiet night in this year.


    The past couple of weeks have been crazy busy for me, what with 3 games sessions, another foray into the hustle and bustle of Glasgow’s thriving indie comics scene, a visit to the hottest happening in the Scottish gaming scene in longer than I can remember- plus another Claymore; on top of all of which I’ve just landed with family after a whirlwind of a long weekend at a convention in Bradford, where I met a host of new fellow games and comics geeks.


    So I’ve got loads of material and a lot to celebrate, but I’m totally exhausted and on holiday to boot. No promises then to those who’re wondering when promised articles will appear, other than that they will appear, and as soon as possible.

    The usual suspects?

    As proud as I am to be celebrating 7 years in the blogosphere, this really isn’t about me, it’s about you- my readers. Cheesy? No doubt, but it’s the knowing that you’re out there- each and every one of you, that picks me up and keeps me going. Thank you all, my dear readers, from your ‘humble’ scribe. ;)


    PS. I was so punchy in that last half-hour before midnight on the 13th that I couldn’t even stay awake long enough to cross-post this here. Which is why this is something of a ‘morning after the night before’ to a quiet night in. :-/

  • This Just in.... Puerto Rico Sucks.

    So I for some unknown reason agreed to play Puerto Rico last night for the 1st time in ages and it was one of the least fulfilling game experiences I have had in a while. I am not sure what I, or anyone for that matter, ever saw in that game.

  • This Saturday is brought to you buy the letters W, T, and F.

    So me and the fam are having a nice little lunch when my wife remembers what she had forgotten to do downstairs.

    She stops halfway down and ask," Billy... did you and Sofia spill any water downstairs?"

    "Wha--nooo... why?"

    "Oh fuck."

    Apparently the washing machine suffered some kind of sensor malfunction and never shut the water of when the basin was full. It did this for forty-five minutes.

    The next thing I knew, I was calling the shopvak a cockless son-of-a-whore, while my wife was calling in a clean-up up crew, and my eldest daughter was singing a little ditty about how she just pooped her pants.

    It turns out that she did, and that a small chunk of turd fell on the floor while she was dancing to the beat of her little impromptu jam. I had to pick up said turd with my bare hand before my youngest picked it up with hers. 

    She's still at the stage where everything goes into her mouth first.

     

    How was you Saturday?

     

     

  • This week's new game is.... not a new game. Welp.

    I got together with one of my Eve buddies (who lives in town, instead of half way around the planet, for once) for board games this week.

     

    "So - you said you had not played board games in a while, what sort have you played?" "Uh, I used to play Risk as a kid, and Monopoly... but I'm down for learning new things, I'm a clever monkey"

     I figured Theme would be a good thing, so he could ignore the mechanics a bit. By the time he had managed to find me in the bookstore where we were meeting (I got a nice book on the history of Flappers and a cheesy spaceship sci fi novel!) and food, it was quarter to 8. I had actually been thinking Runebound, or Moto Grand Prix - but since I had not really brushed up on the rules much, I ended up going for Galaxy Trucker. 

     

    There is a big difference between playing a game, even the 2nd or 3rd time, with someone who knows the game, and trying to explain something to someone completely unfamiliar with the standard bits. It's good demo practice to get a victim who is a blank slate, you don't find yourself comparing mechanics or assuming stuff. 

     We played through the training game with 8 cards to show the basic types of encounters, after building our tiny ships. There was one illegal join, which I pointted out and let slide. (In this game, you build your ship out of modules). That passed, we moved to a bigger ship, and he kind of got schooled because he did not build enough storage. The third game, was a great exercise in 'Watch a third of Thaadd's ship break off with 2 meteor hits' I can just picture my cute little astronaut looking out the rear view mirror to see almost a whole ships worth of parts left in the dust.  I let him finish his ship after the time ran out too, sometimes helping, as he seemed to have a bit of a problem visualizing the modules.

     

    Of the local internet spaceship nerds, there is a crew that are already playing Arkham (and pestering me about Android) and I want to try to get this new one up to speed so I can get a regular crew together.  The guy from last night is a huge BSG nerd too, and wanting to try that. I also like the idea of dragging gamers I know via the interwebs face to face and socializing that way. We all have stuff in common, despite our relative differences in occupation and sometimes age. I am finding myself more and more wishing there was a better  way to get some sort of play by webcam? something way for my friends who live in other countries to play. We're tossing around the idea of voice-over-IP RPGing. We already use the website 'Stickam' for web camera chatting some evenings. (Stickam is very NWS for browsing though, be warned.) Part of what makes me love boardgames is the face to face aspect - but some of the faces persist on having citizenship in other countries! There should be some happy medium....

  • This week's new game....

    ... was Kingsburg.

     I knew NOTHING about it, other than the fact the black dice are more likely to be requested for replacement parts. That the purple dodad is called an Envoy.  These are the things I learn about any game we do. 

     Even if I am not interested in a style of game, I tend to try to play it at least once, because I can get a better grasp of bits. First time I sent out replacment Descent cards for missing ones, I did not know the reference cards came in 2 different strengths. I sent out alot of missing 'Hide' cards for Fury of Dracula before I knew to tell people to check the location deck (as the card has a different back than they would expect)

     

    In any case, Kingsburg. "So, tell me what this game is about?" I asked the guy at the table who liked it alot and was teaching it. He proceeded to rattle off specific mechanics it employed. "No, I mean, who are these people? What is our goal?" 'Does it matter?' sigh...

     I decided I think the game is ok. I don't find it enough interaction for my preferred game. I can see there is a definate 'right' technique to win. Of the 4 of us playing, at least 2 were really into it, and myself and anther person were sort of hanging in there. It took 2 lunches to play. I actually won, by consistantly camping the queen, and building military buildings. I would play it, if it hit the table, but I would not suggest it. On the other hand, talking to the people after the game - the reasons I don't like it are exactly the reasons they DO like it. Variety of games to match the variety of players. 

     Tomorrow at lunch is either Drakon or Cave Troll. Not new, but not played for a while. Before we expanded out a bit, we used to crowd into the sales office or printer room (both of which are decidedly 'cozy' with 4 or 5 people!) and play during lunch pretty often. You can chat and be distracted while playing these games... Not sure, but thinking of next week's game being Fury of Dracula, which is not *technically* new to me, but I've only played it twice. I have a friend visiting from out of town this weekend, I really want to get my Arkham on, except he has played only a few times and my game currently has every f'ing expansion combined in. Desorting it down to a friendly learning mode will take like an hour.  Or i could just throw him to the wolves :D

  • Those Who Are Dead and Those About To Die: A Review of D-Day at Omaha Beach

    "You are about to embark upon the great crusade toward which we have striven these many months..."  Dwight Eisenhower

     

    D-Day at Omaha Beach is a solitaire war game put out by Decision Games back in 2009. In it you command the men of the 1st and 29th infantry divisions as they storm the beaches of Normandy on that fateful day in June 1944. Your mission, and let us not fool ourselves in thinking you have the option to "choose to accept it", is to clear those small valleys called "draws"  at the back of the beach so that the heavy equipment and troops of the second wave can push through and liberate all of France.  If you fail...so to does the invasion and that is not an option.

    The game is split into two different theaters of operations. The eastern half is assigned to units of the 1st Infantry and the west to the 29th. It is forbidden for units of either division to cross the dividing line that runs up the center of the map of their own accord. Thus as you play the game you are really playing two separate mini-games at the same time.

    Each turn follows the same steps. American units land on the beach, an event occurs, the Germans shoot at the Americans, then the Americans move and fire on the Germans. It sounds pretty simple but there's a little more to it than that.

    First things first. The board. I could try to dance around the issue. I could tell you it has a great personality and a wonderful sense of humor. I could tell you that it's visual appeal is unconventional but I won't. This board is ugly. It saddens the eye. It hurts the mind. It's cluttered and garish. So if you dare...witness the following image...

     

    The thing is though, this board is wonderfully functional. All those egregious colors and symbols and arrows and boxes which at first glance serve only to roil the stomach actually convey needed information in a fashion that is easy to see and grasp at a glance.

    The game is primarily card driven. Every phase of the game has one or more cards to be drawn and there is a large track at the top of the board to place the cards as you draw them. This serves to keep you from missing any steps AND if you forgot some aspect of a phase,  you can always go back and see what card you drew rather than rummaging through the discard pile not knowing exactly which card it was.

    The cards themselves are also loaded with information which is just as cryptic until you play the game and understand what a great job they do fulfilling their role. Does the event section refer to a special rule? Why, they put the rule number right on the card for easy reference. Genius! Such a common sense inclusion that is woefully lacking in many many other games.

    "What a plan. This vast operation is undoubtedly the most complicated and difficult that has ever taken place." Winston Churchill

    The set up for the game is fixed. There are coastal defenses of the Germans and off shore we have the initial units of DD tanks ready to land...hopefully. 

     

    In the actual landings these DD tanks, which were basically a normal sherman tank with water wings and a screw propeller, didn't fair so well on Omaha Beach. Out of 29 launched in the initial wave, only two made it to shore. My "Funnies" followed suit. I drew a card for each sector and by looking upon the landing chart and finding the symbol associated with each unit, I found how effective they were at reaching the shore. They could drift east or west, they could take casualties, they could be delayed and arrive on a later turn OR they could be eliminated and sink to the bottom. Out of 8 units, only one lone unit managed to land over on Dog Red beach.

    After landings have been determined a card is drawn and the "event" portion of the card comes into effect. These events can be good, such as creating an American Hero or stating that a German position is unable to fire, but more often it brings on German reinforcements or adds strength to existing German units.

    "We shot at everything that moved..." Franz Gockel, German Soldier at Omaha

    The next step is to find out who the Germans are shooting at and what sort of havoc they will wreak. This is done, as you may have guessed if your pattern recognition skills are up to snuff, by drawing a card. The color icons on the card tell you who is firing and the black symbol tells you who they are firing at. Depending on how near or far the American unit is and what type it is will determine how much damage, if any, it takes.

    "There are two kinds of people who are staying on this beach: those who are dead and those who are going to die. Now lets get the hell out of here."  General George A Taylor

    Up to now, the Americans have been the unwilling pawns of chance and fate but now they get to act! However, they are limited. Very very limited. Outside of infantry guys clawing their way up the beach to get behind some cover, each division of Americans is limited to two...TWO...actions. Two isn't very many. Certainly not as many as you'll wish to have because the actions themselves are very limited. Move one hex, attack one hex, shoot a tank or artillery unit at a hex. Your advance will seem glacial especially when you cross that killing ground where the German machine guns are just tearing your units up.

    Eventually, a precious few HQ units and leaders show up and then things begin to move. They can command all units near them above and beyond the two...TWO...actions you are allowed normally. Finally! Your units can attempt to make coordinated attacks and start to take some of those German positions. Heroes are also created through events and they inspire the units they are with to go above and beyond.

     

    After the Americans have done all they can do, we go back to step one and repeat. The basic scenario is 16 turns long with each representing 15 minutes of time from 6:00am until 10:00. The game takes a good three hours or so to play out.

    So how does the game stack up?

    Smoothness of Play:

    It may not seem it but in my description of how the game plays, I've tried to keep it simple. In actuality there is a lot to remember and a lot to keep track of. Which units have you moved? Who moved under a free action? Was that guy disrupted this turn or last? Did that guy start climbing the cliff this turn or last? There are status markers to help keep track but I found, especially later in the game when the unit density was increasing that it became a bit taxing.

    Also, I found that often, in the heat of battle, that I  forgot a few of the important rules that certainly affected the game's outcome. Specifically, remembering that the German's only fire on Americans when the symbol matches (unless the unfortunate American is in a "concentrated fire" space in which case everybody takes a hit) and the infiltration rule which gives the Germans a free shot if you attempt to sneak past one of their positions without first reducing it.

    Both of these complaints, though, are more a reflection upon my relative inexperience with the game and my ability to be methodical rather than on the game design itself.

    On the whole if flows remarkably smoothly. The rule book is a joy. It's not perfect but it is organized and it is clear with a few exceptions such as the American Control and Communication explanation as it relates to end of game victory. Anytime I had to look up a procedure or rule it was quickly found. Other wargame designers could take a few lessons on how to organize and write their own rules from this game.

    Challenge:

    The game delivers a great challenge. Time is a big factor in this game. You have got to move forward. If you don't the beach becomes over crowded and your guys start taking extra hits.  The tide is coming in too. You know that tank you left at the low tide water line...well guess what? That's right, it's under water now and destroyed. And that will happen. With such a limited amount of actions, each decision as to whom to move and where to move them is a heavy one. You don't have the luxury of wasting them.

    In the four games I played, I maxed out at 9 victory points out of the 20 that qualify as success.

    Also, if I do figure out how to be effective, I can then proceed to the extended game where you are tasked with moving farther inland and dealing with German armor. It takes the game from 16 to 32 turns. So there is plenty of gaming inside that box.

    Immersion:

    This, as you should know, is what I think is most important in a game. D-Day at Omaha Beach delivers this in spades. I wasn't moving bits of cardboard.  I was on that beach. I pounded the table when the currents swept two full infantry platoons far to the east and left them stranded out of the action. I cried out in horror as my men were mown down by the withering fire as they threaded their way through those exposed obstacles. I cheered in triumph when Thompson, a hero, led his squad in a victorious assault on the pill box at the entrance to Draw Easy 1!

    The paper AI is designed in such a way as to make sense. The positions taken by the enemy, the increasing strength of these reinforcements, and the priorities they follow when attacking all add to the story. The game, despite my earlier qualifications, flows and the ease of rule references keep the moments of disruption brief and infrequent.

    I can think of no better recommendation to give a game other than to say that after playing it for 4 hours, my first thoughts are of setting it up again and giving it one more try. It is that good.

  • Thoughts in the Dark

    Some thoughts and opinions on Escape the Dark Castle.

  • Thoughts on ConnCon 2013

     

    ConnCon, the convention that we North Eastern F:ATies have pretty much claimed as our own is about to wrap up and it was a damn good time. I arrived on Thursday and had a full four days of solid gaming.

    It will come as no surprise to people that have actually played with me that over that length of time I did not win a single solitary thing. That's one of the cool things about playing games with cool people is that the winning is really unimportant. 
    That being said, I have no desire to catalog a long list of the games I lost. Not only is that hurtful to my inflated sense of self esteem but I think such lists tend to be a little boring. 
    Let me then just give you a few flashes of some memorable moments as experience by me, your loyal and long suffering reporter.
    ....................................
    On Thursday night we met in the home of Matt's mom who lives a few minutes from the hotel. There are seven of us sitting around her dining room table,  playing Twilight Imperium 3, drinking beers and cursing each other with the most creative profanity we can create. 
    His mom comes home from visiting her mother in the hospital. She stands for a moment and looks at the seven of us loud, boorish, crass, half drunk hooligans laughing and throwing dice and says with a sincerity and a smile "This is nice. It's been a long time since I came home to this."
    The love and affection she has for her son was so apparent and powerful as she remembered those days gone by when he and his friends would gather around the table. Just one of the sweetest things I have been privileged to witness in a long time.
    ........................................
    Connecticut is a small place. Most people who live elsewhere when they think of it, if they think of it at all, have an image created mostly from old movies and the show "Who's the Boss".  Rustic  homes and trees that are always in the brightest stages of Autumn. 
    The reality is that for such a tiny place it has very distinct cultural areas. The Connecticut of the whaling coast in the South East is not the culture of the mill towns of the center, nor of the farming communities of  the North East. Different from all of these is the panhandle area near to New York City.  You can see the influence of that metropolis as you get closer. The type of cars change from Chevys to Mercedes and the women go from last seasons fashions to this week's and a man can walk with a sweater tied around his neck and not be thought odd.
    I thought these things as I sat in a local coffee shop having my breakfast.
    Strange how quickly a people's identity can change and how much more pronounced such differences must have been before the advent of radio and TV let alone the internet.
    ............................................
    If you pay attention to the gaming community you have heard the name of Geoff Englestein. He is a contributor to the most listened to gaming podcast "The Dice Tower" and has designed two published games . Oh yes, he is also a braniac in true classic super villain style. Except that he is a Brainiac for good!
    Well he has a new game coming out later this year from Stronghold which is titled "Warp Duel". Picture if you will a grid of space terrain, asteroids and nebula and such. Picture two ships locked into a battle to the death armed with torpedoes and shields. Picture a team of people running each ship. Now picture one person rolling a bunch of dice and allocating them to the other crew members based on the result so that they can purchase other dice with them. These new dice are then rolled and on certain results allow the systems of the ship to be activated so that the ship can move and fire and charge it's shields. NOW imagine that these two teams are each rolling these dice all at the same time in a race against each other to get their ship into position and firing faster than their adversary. If you can picture all that...then you have a vague idea of the dice chucking chaos of Geoff's upcoming game.  You may love it or you may hate it but I'll say this...you ain't seen nothing like it.
    .......................................
    I gave Jay the nick name of "The Most Dangerous Man in Gaming" because he really looks sort of intimidating. He runs a dark gritty bar in a dark gritty neighborhood in Brooklyn or Queens New York (sorry Jay I forget which) and I've no doubt that if you should get out of line in his establishment Jay would have no problem dribbling you out the front door like a drunken basketball. 
    This however is not to say he is mean or brutish. He is as nice a guy as you ever want to meet. Pretty soft spoken actually and no slouch when it comes to gaming.
    He sat down to play in the Here I Stand game and confessed that he felt a little nervous due to the complexity of the game and never having played before. Well he need not have. He ended the game with a victory in around two and a half hours. That may sound like a long time but consider that H.I.S. is normally an 8 hour game and you'll understand that this was quite a feat.  None of the rest of us. To quote another dangerous fellow..."Impressive. Most Impressive"
    ...............................
    I hate  being gouged. The hotel in Stamford has you by the balls and they know it. Stamford is a difficult town to negotiate and there is nothing closer than three blocks away if you want to get food. Just at the far edge of a fat man's walking range. 
    So you end up buying the grossly over priced food at the Hotel Rape Shop...erm...Snack Shop that is. $2 for a 39 cent bag of chips?...C'MON!
    ................................
    My step-daughter once listened in as Josh and I played a game at my house one day and asked my wife in all seriousness if we were actually friends. Trash talking at the table is not only one of the funnest aspects of game playing but those I play with take it to the level of an art form. Man I got my ass busted all weekend long.  I can dish it out too but I think, on the whole, I got more abuse than I gave. Funny funny stuff man. 
    ....................................
    The best part of any convention is getting to hang out with people you don't ordinarily get to see. The F:AT crew, though I may be biased, I think is really a great and fun bunch to hang around with. If you get the chance, and if you don't already, you should seek them out the next time you go to a con. You're bound to have a blast and probably a shot of whiskey.

    PS. If this blog post is appearing in Comic Sans font I apologize. That's what I get for writing it on my ipad.
     

     

  • Thoughts on Fallout 3's Operation Anchorage DLC

    I don't know about you guys but I love Fallout 3. It's a great game and in my opinion a worthy re-imagining of the Fallout universe and Fallout gameplay made to fit Bethesda's open world Elder Scrolls model.

    So of course I downloaded the Operation Anchorage Downloadable Content (DLC) just about the instant it came out. Yes thats right, I waited until the wee hours of 1/27 to get this.

    Was I disappointed with the 800 Space Bucks, err...MS Points (thats $10 for those not in the know) that I spent to get this DLC?

    Yes and no. Overall, I've got mixed feelings.

    The Operation Anchorage DLC allows your character to enter a military simulator (Matrix style) in order to relive the liberation of Anchorage in 2066. You get to command a group of commandos at times (including deciding what weapons they'll take) and you have access to a pretty cool new weapon: The Gauss Rifle, which is essentially an Uber energy weapon sniper rifle.

    So it's definitely a change of pace from the typical quests. No fetching items, no escorting characters, etc. This time it's you and your crew up against the Chinese Communists doing either run 'n gun action or making all stealthy like (you can chose to go at the missions alone.) The only problem is that it is far more epic sounding than it actually is. The first part of the DLC is cool enough, but the latter three parts sort of fell short and left me feeling "really, thats it?."

    I wanted more and I felt the the three objectives you had to take to beat the DLC were too short and too easy. Especially since you have that nasty Gauss Rifle which is more or less a 1 shot kill.

    Another gripe I have is that once you beat the simulator you can't reenter it. Why is this a problem? Well, I think it would have added some replay value to the Sim as you could try different things out (do the missions alone or with your crew.) Plus it's a simulator? Why can't the Tech run the sim again? Did she forget how the instant she turned it on the first time? But mostly it's annoying because there are 10 pieces of "Intel" you can find in the sim that appear in the form of White Briefcases. I'm a dummy and missed two. If you get all 10 you get a special perk (admittedly it isn't that good.) It just sucks I can't go back and look for the two i'm missing. It's not a big deal, and I don't care enough to replay it. But still. I want to find them.

    I guess ultimately there were a lot of cool ideas in this DLC for sure. The cloaked Chinese snipers were fun to battle. The lone vehicle you get to fight was great but far too easy to beat. Commanding multiple followers was also great except that your firepower was far greater than the enemies at all times. And mostly I guess i'm disappointed you didn't really get to participate in the Liberation of Anchorage. What you got to do was some Special-Ops to clear the way for the assault on anchorage.

    For those who've beat the game - remember the last quest? The epic feeling as you, the Brotherhood, and a certain giant special weapon attack the Enclave? Yeah, I was hoping for something epic in its scope like that in the Anchorage DLC, a DLC about a military operation. I mean would it been to much to have asked for if the final quest of the DLC involved your character in power armor amongst a bunch of other power armored soldiers unleashing hell on the Chinese Communist horde? Or perhaps I wouldn't have cared if the quests had been a tad bit longer. I think it took me around or under four hours to beat it all and I was by no means rushing through.

    Overall it's a fun experience that is too short and could have been so much better. You do get rewarded with some actual cool weapons , such as the aforementioned Gauss rifle and a pretty kickass sword. You also get some new armor and a cool stealth suit as well.

    If you love Fallout 3 i'd say you should definitely grab this DLC. Just make a save before you enter the Simulator, so if you mess up you can reenter it (or if you ever feel like replaying it.) And also keep in mind you really aren't getting a whole lot for your $10, so savor that experience.

    If you're on the fence about this I'd say skip it and wait for the February and March DLCs. The February DLC will see the player being able to travel to "The Pitt" AKA Pittsburgh. Sounds interesting at least and I like that it will most likely be an area you can revisit (unlike the sim which you can never reenter). The march DLC will raise the level cap from 20-30 so I expect there to be a fairly substantial amount of gameplay in that download.

    For the first Fallout 3 DLC I gotta say that Operation: Anchorage is a helluva lot better than Oblivions first DLC - the abysmally lame and retarded Horse Armor pack.

    Well, the next round of DLC comes out in February, so expect my thoughts on it then after i've completed it.

  • Thoughts on Magical Ath[e]lete

    borgnineIt's an undisputed fact that Z-Man Games' recent English-language reissue of Magical Ath[e]lete is the most exciting release of 2010 so far.  It's also been shown in clinical trials to be the board game most likely to cure Borgnine Spongiform Encephalopathy, a debilitating disease that I totally made up just now.

    Magical Ath[e]lete is such a wonderful game that -- even when I'm not playing -- I find myself marveling at the subtleties that make it great.  There are the surprising interactions between the characters of course, but there are other, less obvious touches, too.  I love the way that some characters (like the Priest and the Siren) keep the Athletes relatively close together in a pack so that they *can* interact.  It's brilliant, because it eliminates the need to impose a tedious, ill-fitting "come from behind" rule onto the race.  Games that are as pure in concept and implementation as Magical Ath[e]lete are precious and rare.

    There's one element of the game, though, that doesn't quite fit with the rest, and that's the Euro-style character draft at the beginning of the game.  It's next to impossible to reckon the qualitative value of each character, because:

    1. you don't know which other characters it will run against

    2. you don't know which other characters will be available to be drafted, so it's hard to budget your chips

    3. it's way too hard to anticipate the interactions with the other characters in the race, even if you do know who they are

    4. the interactions often depend on dice rolls that are purely random

    Of course, you can try to estimate the relative usefulness of each character, but there are so many unpredictable factors involved that any such estimate is bound to be extremely rough.

    I want to stress that THIS IS NOT A CRITICISM OF THE GAME.  I love unpredictability.  It's what lends suspense and drama to a game.  My concern is just that the auction-style bidding at the beginning of the game doesn't fit.  Eurogames use auctions to distribute game resources because auctions are "balancing."  By introducing an auction mechanic to distribute items that could otherwise have been shuffled and dealt out randomly, the Eurogame designer:

    1. ensures that no single player gets an unfairly powerful (or unfairly weak) selection of those items

    2. affords players some degree of control over their success in the game

    The bidding round of Magical Ath[e]lete is only somewhat successful in accomplishing these goals.  Even if all players agree that a given character is worth three points at auction, only one player will have the opportunity to buy it at that price, so fairness and control go out the window.

    Since there can be no doubt that Magical Ath[e]lete is a chaotic game, creating the illusion of fairness and control by tacking an auction onto it was a mistake.  Skipping the auction and simply dealing four or five characters face-up to each player won't make much practical difference to the way the game plays, and will shorten the game significantly.  Still, it would be nice to have some control over which characters you (and your opponents) get, and there are better ways to achieve this than an auction.  I suggest the following:

    1. shuffle and deal 4 (or 5) character cards face-up to each player

    2. once all cards have been dealt and all players have had an opportunity to see which characters are in the game, players pick up their cards; their hands are now secret

    3. each player passes two character cards face-down to the seat to his left

    4. each player considers the two cards that he received in step 3 and passes one of them to his left; he keeps the other one

    In this way, each player has passed one card to his immediate left and one card two seats to his left; as well, he was received one card from the player to his immediate right and one card from the player two seats to his right.

    I claim that this method is much faster than the auction, but no less fair or tactical.  It might even be more fun.  Use the bidding chips to keep score, or donate them to your local Borgnine Disease research charity.

     

     

  • Threads of the Year: 2010

    I went looking for a Trash Talk  thread the other day and noticed there are some real gems out there created this year. Most threads die after a page or two, but there are some I think should be revisited whether they be helpful, informative, or just cool. I'm limiting this to threads started in 2010 to preserve my sanity.

    What XXXX have you been YYYY?

    Breaking my 2010 rule slightly, if only because this was the year that these finally spawned their own category, the Mos Eisley Cantina. The XXXX's range from bands, music, tv shows, movies, and of course games of board and video stripes. The YYYY's might be buying, playing, listening to, reading, &c. The content in them ranges from basically "Tweet" level updates to full-blown reviews. They are, for me, the best way to keep up with the community and they make me feel like Norm walking into Cheers at the end of the day. Or the middle part around lunch. Or before breakfast. 

    F:AT Arms Trade #4: Logan's Trade

    WOW. 198 items! ONE HUNDRED AND NINETY EIGHT. Mind you, we don't have a karma system, or a real enforcement mechanism, and international members from all over the place and a Math Trade got 198 items from 19 users. That's amazing. I hope the next one goes as well because I fucked up my wants last time and got Stratego instead of Hammer of the Scots....

  • Three hats: the three parts of creating games

     

    (While I begin by talking about RPGs, I am later going to generalize to all kinds of tabletop and video games - “sit-down games”.)

     

    When I used to write lots of articles about RPGs for White Dwarf, Dragon, and other magazines three decades ago, I mostly wrote two kinds of things: game rules, and advice about how to play and especially how to referee Dungeons & Dragons successfully.  I rarely wrote settings; and only occasionally in the magazines did I write adventures, which are a combination of rules and setting/story.

     

    When I thought about this further I realized that this can be generalized to any role-playing game: the person who creates the game is taking on three writing/designing tasks to a greater or lesser extent, the rules for the game, advice about how to play the game, and the setting (which includes at least the story that comes from hiSTORY) for the game.  Supplements to the game are almost always about setting/story, often with additional rules.  World-settings often include advice about how to use the setting, about how to successfully incorporate it into a campaign or base a campaign on it. 

     

    TSR published several settings for AD&D such as Dark Sun, Spelljammer, Arabian Nights, and Forgotten Realms, after the original Greyhawk setting.  Some of Greyhawk was included with the D&D/AD&D rules, because it was Gary Gygax’s original campaign, but for the most part the original rules assumed a more or less Tolkien-like fantasy setting without being specific.

     

    A world-setting supplement may be almost entirely about the “world,” about things like the geography of the world, how magic works in the world, who or what rules the world, and the history of the world.  If it’s the more narrow sense of setting, as in the context for a particular adventure, along with a story (more or less), then much of the “setting” is descriptions of locations and NPCs.  In adventures there are also rules in the sense of how the various obstacles to success work, as in “if the character walks across the pit trap there is a four in six chance it will activate and he will fall in”.  There may be additional monsters, magic items, and other explicit rules for play.

     

    The world-setting is like the background of a novel, or a sort of bible, with the story being the history of the world.  The adventure setting is much more like a short story or (sometimes) novella.

     

    Of course, some “world-settings” aren’t for an entire world, but may be for a single city and its environs (as in the Freeport series) or for a particular country or region (Arabian Nights).  They’re usually large enough to provide the basis for an entire campaign, and that’s why they’re usually called “world-settings”, for the player characters they arethe entire world.

     

    Video game RPGs, being based in software, usually tie world-setting and rules together inseparably.  If there’s a new world-setting, it’s usually an entirely new game to buy.

     

    Some TSR tabletop world-settings for first and second edition AD&D were later adapted, if only in a magazine (e.g. Spelljammer in Dungeon Magazine), for the Third Edition rules.  Settings generally can be adapted to more than one ruleset.  Tolkien’s Middle-earth has been adapted several times, and many other settings that originate in movies or novels are then adapted to several rule sets over the years (e.g. Star Wars).

     

     

     

    So you can write an RPG supplement that is almost entirely a description of a new world setting that can be adapted to many different games, such as the Freeport series and a great many other “D20" works.  Or you can write one that is specifically adapted to a particular game by including many rules for that game, for example the original Spelljammer setting for AD&D.  Or you can write an RPG supplement that has a specific setting and lots of rules for that setting, for example a dungeon adventure.

     

    The more rules you include the more there’s a need for playtesting, though I’m pretty sure that rules included with world-settings often get little or no playtesting.  Someone who writes rules and doesn’t include advice such as examples of how to play is probably not doing an optimal job.

     

    A Broader View

     

    You can write a set of RPG rules that has virtually no setting attached, for example the free-to-download Fate rules.  But that set of rules is probably going to include some advice about how to use it successfully.  Think about it, any example of how to play, unless it’s very specifically about a particular rules, is a form of advice.

     

    And of course you can write a supplement that is almost entirely advice about how to play RPGs successfully, either a specific RPG or RPGs in general such as Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering.

     

    Adventures can be largely about rules or largely about story.  In the early days the adventures tended to be about rules, partly because they were written by people who were longtime wargamers.  More recently, published adventures are much more often strongly story-based, partly because many of the writers are frustrated (or even successful) novelists rather than wargamers.  Also there are so many adventures available that many people who buy adventures aren’t likely to actually run the game, but like to read them - and naturally it’s the story that attracts them more than the rules.

     

    The easy-to-remember form of all this is that the person writing RPG material can be a game designer, a teacher, and a storyteller/historian, with the latter divided into “short stories” (the adventures) and long stories (the world settings).

     

    Not Just RPGs

     

    Once I arrived at this conclusion I realized that any tabletop or video game is a combination of these three things.  There are always rules or we wouldn’t have a game.  (Though some improvisational RPGs are pretty light on rules, these days.)  There is often advice about how to play the game in the form of examples of play if nothing else, but also strategy hints.  Completely abstract games have no setting or story, and there are many abstract tabletop games that are given a setting or story that actually has nothing to do with the game (this has been common in Eurogames).  But thematic games generally include a (his)story and setting, and many of the AAA video games are very thematic.

     

    Puzzles also can have these three elements, but frequently have only one.  Most puzzles include little or no advice about how to “play” the puzzle. Tabletop puzzles rarely include a setting/story, whereas many video game puzzles, such as “adventure games,” are heavily connected to a story.  But all puzzles have to include an objective, which is a form of “game rule.”

     

    Some toys have these three elements but typically a toy has neither rules nor goals, and many toys have no story - the “player” makes up the story.  So I can make paper boats - there are rules about how to make paper boats, but not what to do with them - and no particular story to follow: I make up my own.  So if I decide to put the paper boats in a tub of water, set them afire with burning paper airplanes, and sing “Stars & Stripes Forever” as they sink, that’s not something that was inherently part of the toy.  (My fifth grade teacher actually did this when she was a kid in days before TV - she was cool.)  Or if I have a set of race cars there’s an obvious implication that they’re going to be in a race but I have to decide everything else.  The striking thing about many modern commercial toys is that they almost always include a setting and often a story, so that the kids don’t have to figure out the main parts of usage themselves (with consequent deleterious effects on the development of imagination).

     

    In video games of course much of what we’re talking about is incorporated into the software and not something that someone reads.  The rules are enforced by the software so that the player must play according to the rules (barring glitches in the programming of course!).  The advice comes in the form of the tutorials, and sometimes in all of the hints/quests/other pointers that advise the player what to do.  But video games tend to be light on advice about how to play because the software forces the player to follow the rules. 

     

    The settings in a video game, whether short-term or long-term, are less often explicitly described than in published paper role-playing games.  This is partly because a video game offers other ways to describe and especially showthe setting, and also because video gamers generally don’t read about the setting even when their character finds a virtual “book” or scroll that describes some of the setting - they just don’t bother.

  • Three new Last Night on Earth variants available via Artscow.

    I've created three new variant decks for Last Night on Earth, and they're now available together in one deck via Artscow.  Here's the link: http://www.artscow.com/share/wrzxudx6xcqw

    Currently, the deck will run you $10.99 plus $6 shipping, so you might want to wait to order until there's a coupon code for card decks (which come up every so often).  Usually those will give you a deck for $4.99 with free shipping, which would make this a lot more worthwhile, no doubt.  I'll reply back to this post next time a coupon is available.

  • Three Yards and a Pile of Skulls - Blood Bowl: Team Manager

    As far as sports go, my first love is football. I was born a fan of the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Cleveland Browns, and I’ll most likely carry those loyalties to my grave. The football season is some terrific television. Like a weekly drama series, there are exciting developments every week, and then you spend several days gabbing about recent events. All of the nerdery that goes with the game does not come naturally to me, but the drama and narrative that develops over a season is unparalleled, and that’s what I love about it. That holds true of any sport, in fact. There’s an arc that forms over a season, and that’s really what makes sports fun to play and watch. 

    Blood Bowl: Team Manager is the first game I’ve played that actually encapsulates a season of football in an hour or so. And really, it does a pretty good job. In fact, it’s one of the best games of 2011 because it knows that it can’t translate a football season perfectly. Instead, it abstracts the whole thing in smart ways, and leaves a very accessible game that still feels like football. And not just any game of football: this is Blood Bowl. The classic Games Workshop game is still a favorite among hobbyists, but it’s hard for fans to play the game the way it is meant, as a multi-team league. There’s a lot of time and commitment that goes into a Blood Bowl league, and it’s more than most gamers can set aside. Fantasy Flight games has once again taken a classic GW property, and translated it into a really good game. 

    Let’s me clear though, this is not Blood Bowl. There aren’t any minis or measuring. The setting has instead been transported to a $35 card game that represents a complete season of Blood Bowl. Each player takes ownership of one of six teams, like Orcs or Wood Elves, and take part in a five-round season to see which team can get the most fans. Each round, a series of matchups are placed face-up. Players take turns placing individual players on the match-ups, which commits a certain amount of star power to that match-up. The side with the most star power at the end gets a nice reward for their trouble, and the loser has to content themselves with a much smaller payout. Each player has a couple of skills, like the ability to pass the ball or tackle another player. Tackling is my favorite part of the game. The tackling player rolls dice depending on how his star power compares to that of his target. Odds are the tackle will succeed and knock down the opponent, but there’s a chance it’ll miss, or even knock down the tackler. Winning matchups brings your team rewards like new players, coaching staff, team improvements, and fans. 

    That’s the bones of a pretty good football game right there, but the setting really is what makes this game fun. In short, this is a very funny game. Blood Bowl is a setting that embraces the most violent parts of football, and it does so with glee. The illustrations are gruesome to the point of hilarity, and each match-up contains little bits of commentary that makes me smile without fail. One of the most important parts of the game is cheating. Several players “cheat” by placing a token on their card. At the end of the game, that cheating will likely result in a reward, but it could get them ejected. And each team really has their own personality. The Wood Elves have a high-flying offense. The Orcs love to hurt their opponents. And the Dwarves basically play the card game equivalent of Tresselball.

     Like last year’s very good Death Angel, Team Manager uses randomness in all the right ways. Each die roll is tense and has very high stakes. It can be the difference between a huge reward when you miss a crucial tackle. And there are few things as groan-inducing as having a player ejected for cheating, while the refs swallow their whistle for the guys who cheated twice as much as you. That will probably drive a lot of people crazy, but it works well in a football game. Football always has bizarre twists of fate and extenuating circumstances that affect the outcome. This game captures that capriciousness very well. And yet, I never feel like I’ve been screwed too hard. The decisions definitely matter. In a four-player game, there can be as many as five match-ups, and you only have six cards to play. That makes each play a tough choice, and there’s a lot to consider each turn. It’s a simple game, but it invites analysis. 

    That’s probably a bigger problem than it should be. I tend to play with thinkers, and that will definitely add time to the game. It wants to be about 45-60 minutes, and with familiarity it could probably get there easily. But new players will push the time closer to 90 minutes, and the really slow ones might edge 2 hours, which is way too long. I also have some theoretical reservations about the two-player game. Normally a game will use headline cards, which give a little effect to the rest of the turn. They are fun and add variety, but they are left out of the two-player game as written, and I don’t know why. However, that’s a very easy fix, and in practice it barely registers at all. It actually plays very well with two. Also, with new players, you might get a player from another “race” on your team, like an Orc playing for the Skaven. That’ll annoy some people, but those people will mostly be sticklers. It doesn’t bother met at all, and is also easily fixable. 

    I’m impressed by Blood Bowl: Team Manager. It reminds me a lot of Space Hulk: Death Angel from last year in the sense that it takes a pretty rich board game experience and distills it into a small box of cards. Both designs utilize randomness to add tension and excitement. The difference is that Team Manager is much more accessible, and a lot more replayable. The fact that FFG included six playable teams is to be commended, and between the teams, players, and improvements, each game will shake out differently. And if you strip back the layers of rat-men and minotaurs, it’s just a good football game. But then, why would you do that? Blood Bowl: Team Manager brings forth the promise of its setting in a great way. It would seem that FFG has a better handle on Games Workshop products than Games Workshop.

    Check out this review on my blog, The Rumpus Room, where Matt Thrower won't review the same game two days before I do.

  • Three's Company - My top 15 three player games

    3iscompanyThree's a crowd, Three's company but some times it's hard to find a good three player game.  With 2 players I can always play a war game.  There are tons of great games for 4 - 6 players.  And with 7+ you usually end up playing a party game.  But with 3 it's a little more difficult to find good games.   The problem with 3 player games is preventing the 2 against 1 situation that tends to come up in every game.  Or if you can't prevent it why not embrace it and create games that are designed to be 2 against 1.
    My criteria for my top 20 for 3 players is that playing with 3 players is the sweet spot or the game plays equally well with 2 or 4 players.  I've also included games that have some degree of interaction.  Other peoples list may have low interaction games like Dominion, Race for the Galaxy, etc. but I'm not into that kind of game.  For me game like Arkham Horror, Ti3, Doom were taken off the list for me because both games play better with 4 players than with 3 players.

    So here' my list of 15 games to play with 3 players

    #1 War of Ring (hardcore fans of the game will only play 2 players but 3 works real well)

    #2 Friedrick (long but doesn't feel long, I still haven't play Maria maybe that's #1)

    #3 Starcraft (Scales well from 2-6 but works real nicely with 3 players)

    #4 Age of Steam (3 players is as good as 4 or 5 players)

    #5. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (3 is great number for this game)

    #6. Caylus (2-5 players but I'll never play 2 or 5 players)

    #7. Nexus Ops

    #8. Middle Earth Quest

    #9. American Megafuna

    #10. Talisman (can be played with 2-50 people but 3 - 4 is the best)

    #11. Prophesy, World of Warcraft, Dungeon Quest, other dungeon games, etc.

    #12. Parthenon: Rise of the Aegean  (2005)

    #13. Wallace game (Byzantium and God's Play Ground)

    #14. Android

    #15. Attika - A unique Euro from 2003

    So what's your favorite 3 player games?

  • Thrilling Tales of Adventure! [Pt. 1]

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    For the past two and a half years, most of my free time has been consumed by the development of a pulp hero adventure boardgame. The design has gone through three complete overhauls, which have been particularly arduous because the game is so card dependent (there are over 600), and each revision has necessitated a near-complete rewrite of all of the cards. A few weeks ago I finally managed to finish the third complete prototype (above), and this past week a gang of hardy playtesters were finally able to put it through its paces.

    I got the idea for Thrilling Tales of Adventure! after reading Roberto Di Meglio's preview description of Marvel Heroes (a game he co-designed with three other Nexus designers). The notion of each player controlling both heroes and a villain was interesting, and he mentioned the use of "Plot Points" as a kind of currency used to buy actions within the game. Those two concepts, combined with my own desire for a game rich in "emergent" narrative,  sparked the fire. For some reason I can't recall, pulp adventure leaped to mind as the theme for my pie-in-the-sky game, and I ran with it. So I guess a good mental image there is me running with a flaming pie.

    At the outset, I hadn't read a lot of actual vintage pulp. My  love of the genre came mostly from having seenRaiders of the Lost Ark at age 14 in 1981, reading old Lee Falk Phantom comics and a couple Lester Dent's Doc Savage novels, playing Justice Inc. (a Hero Games RPG) in high school, and lovingThe Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai to death. The greatest impression pulp had made on my psyche, though, was via the glorious cover art that graced the old magazines themselves. When I was 7 or 8 years old, my parents bought me a copy of the Steranko History of Comics , and I spent countless hours scrutinzing every miniscule cover reproduction therein. Although those covers were mostly for comics, they shared a lot of the same artists as the adult pulps, and pulp paragons like the Shadow and the Spider figured prominently.

    Steranko History of Comics Vols. 1 & 2 

    In all of my armchair game designing, and in all of the games I love to play most, theme is vital, but the marriage of a compelling theme to fitting and solid mechanics is what really makes a game great. I always start with a theme I want to see in a boardgame (other back-burner designs include a post-apocalyptic empire builder -- Dune meets Nausicaa -- and a boardgame adaptation ofPride & Prejudice), then try to find mechanics that reflect what I consider to be the key qualities of that theme. This is a kind of "outside-in" approach, where the final desired shape of the thing is known, but under all those great elements -- Fiendish plots! Narrow escapes! Death traps! -- is a kind of enormously complicated Rubik's Cube of interacting mechanics with which I have to wrestle.  Iknow the game I want is in there, but finding it is a heck of a puzzle. And I always sucked at Rubik's Cube. 

    I liked the meta-narrative notion of each player controlling both his own heroes and the villains that would oppose the other players, and I liked the idea of Plot Points that you could use to direct that narrative, but both of those concepts had to be jettisoned after I took them as far as I could in the first and second iterations of the game. Putting each player in control of a hero and a villain just felt wrong during testing, and the Plot Points (as I conceived of them anyway, having not played Marvel Heroes at that point) were too tedious to manage by half. In the current version, there can be 1-4 Hero players, working individually or teaming up (as they see fit) to oppose a single Arch Villain player. Plot Points have been replaced with a simple action point system (or "Moves" in TToA terms), with each Hero having 5 to spend each turn.

    What has remained through all three versions is what I consider the core mechanic of the game (and one of my own invention): cards that can be linked in variable sequence to create a story. In game terms, these are called Adventure cards, and although there are a number of other different kinds of cards (items the heroes can carry, twists the arch villain can play on the heroes, etc.), about 90% of the 600 cards are Adventure cards. Each Adventure card is a modular story element, which can be "linked" to other Adventure cards, either in "Plots" custom-built by the Arch Villain player, or in  "Wild Adventures" which the Hero players can explore on the fly.

    There are 7 basic types of Adventure cards (Hooks, Clues, Locations, Minions, Villains, Allies, and Treasures) spread throughout 8 different decks (City, Country, Sea, Mountain, Jungle, Desert, Polar, and Underground). Most Adventure cards are unique, and each one carries specific link possibilities. Here's an example of an Adventure which I just drew at random for this blog entry:

    The potential links for each card are shown along its lower left edge, and if you examine the icons you'll see how each one links to the next card in the sequence. The "Concerned Scientist" card has a bunch of links that could have taken this Adventure out of the City, as indicated by the different colors (top to bottom that card's links are City, Country, Mountain, Desert, Jungle, Polar, and Sea), but I just kept drawing from the City deck because I was lazy.

    I played and loved the original Tales of the Arabian Nights game in the 80s (and am eagerly anticipating the Z-Man re-release), and in high school I took a stab at a card-driven fantasy adventure game along similar lines, so the basic concept of a game with a flexible, unfolding narrative has been nagging at me for a long time. This card linking system basically allows you to do away with the paragraph book (for those of you familiar with Tales of the Arabian Nights), at the expense of a more detailed narrative and the wealth of choose-your-own-adventure options that that game provides. But there are advantages to the economy of space enforced by the cards, chief among them the power of suggestion.

    I write and draw and teach comics for a living, so the relationship between words and images arranged in sequence is something I think about a lot. When you provide a player with just a few key elements -- in this case, a card title, an image, a line of flavor text, and a card-specific mechanic -- he or she will instantly string them together with the next ones in the sequence to create a story. It's not always the most logical story, but the players will always make "sense" of it. The linking system tends to keep things from getting too out of hand, but I can always fall back on the fact that a lot of those old pulp stories were full of some crazy shit.

    Sheesh, this was originally meant to be a simple account of a recent playtesting session, and I'm running on and on. I guess I've been wanting to talk about this for a long time, and completing the third prototype (which was a fucking bear) has opened the floodgates. Without any further backstory, I'll just try to summarize how the session went.

    The assembled playtesters were students and alumni of the Center for Cartoon Studies , where I teach. We had played about half a game previously, so they were familiar with the basic  rules, but this would be the first complete run-through. There were three Heroes (chosen from a lineup of 10) this time around: The Amazing Uri ("Former Magician to the Tsar"), La Gaucha ("Argentine Vigilante" -- think female Zorro), and Jack Snapper ("Salty Sea Captain"). Each Hero has a rating in three stats (Might, Speed, and Wit), a Home Base, a special ability, and a starting item or ally. Two people actually decided to play the Arch Villain as a team -- not something designed into the game, but it worked out just fine.

    The game plays out over 16 turns divided into three Acts. Initially, the Arch Villain has no specific identity. In Act I ("Our Story Begins"), the Heroes concentrate on successfully resolving their initial Wild Adventures, while the Arch Villain player starts constructing and Plots. At the start of Act II ("The Plot Thickens"), the AV player must select a specific Arch Villain to play (there are 10 to choose from), and the Heroes either continue on Wild Adventures or try to thwart any Plots that have been put into motion. At the start of Act III ("The Thrilling Climax!"), the AV player reveals which Arch Villain was selected in Act II, and sets about trying to complete that Arch Villain's Master Plan. Each Arch Villain has a unique Master Plan, such as the construction of a death ray or trying to encase the planet in ice).

    There are three categories of resources in the game: Heroism/Villainy, gained through the successful execution of good or evil deeds; Theme tokens (of five types: Criminal, Military, Science, Occult, and Weird), gained through linking cards of the same Theme; and cards themselves. Heroism/Villainy points are the closest thing to experience points in the game, and are spent on general effects like bonus dice to combat rolls. Theme tokens are spent on Theme-specific powers, like spells (Occult) or inventions (Science). Finally, any cards in your hand can be are discarded to power basic abilities, such as firing a tommy gun or researching something at a library. 

    The game starts off with each Hero in media res --  as if we've come upon them near the beginning or in the middle of one of their usual adventures. This idea was new to this iteration of the game, folded in after previous versions proved slow to start out of the gate, and I'm happy with the addition. I'll just outline each hero's first turn to give you an idea of how the Adventures play out, and then summarize the rest of the session instead of taking you through every turn. As I describe what happened to the characters, actual cards they encountered will be noted in bold. Other narrative details were made up by the players as their adventures unfolded.

    ---------- 

    La Gaucha's tale begins when she encounters a Dead Soldier during a routine patrol of the Pampas outside of Buenos Aires.  Examining the area for clues, she finds a set of Tracks leading to some nearbyRuins, where a search through theRubble turns up several crates of anOpium Shipment, clearly secreted after some intended criminal exchange went awry. She turns the illegal cargo over to the local authorities before heading back to Buenos Aires in search of more wrongs in need of righting.

    Meanwhile, across globe in Shanghai, Jack Snapper and his faithful monkey sidekick, Mister Mate, have inherited an old map from Jack's deceased pappy. The map depicts a land mass in the midst of a formerly uncharted area of the Pacific Ocean. In hopes of discovering some buried treasure or other fortune, Jack and Mister Mate set out on Jack's tramp frieghter, the the S.S. Hibernia. After smooth sailing across Open Sea, they negotiate a Deadly Reef without mishap, and continue across more Open Sea until a purplish land masscomes into view on the horizon. Reexmining the map and deciphering his father's cryptic notes, Jack realizes that they are approaching none other than the Lost Continent of Lemuria!

    Uri's story starts in his Magician's Garret (every Hero has a unique Home Base) in Petrograd, with a loud noise at the door. He opens it to discover a Bullet-Riddled Body, clutching a scrap of paper on which is scribbled a library reference number. Uri takes a carriage to the Petrograd Library, where he locates the book referred to by the scrap of paper. Inside the book, he finds a Map Drawn in Blood, which details a portion of the city's Sewersystem. Reluctant to risk soiling his fine suit, he nevertheless descends into the depths, and follows the map through a long Tunnelof older construction than the rest of the sewers, emerging eventually into a strange Hall of Planets. Starlight is channeled down into the dark chamber from the surface in a single beam, which illuminates an engraved map of the world at a specific spot in the Amazon jungle...

    ----------

    In addition to controlling all Minions and Villains the Heroes encounter throughout the game, the AV may play Twists (traps, hazards, and obstacles) directly on Heroes, so he or she can actively try to thwart a Hero's attempt to successfully resolve a Wild Adventure.  In this game, though, because the AV players were playing the AV for the first time, they concentrated on building Plots, and only played a couple of Twists in the latter part of the session.

    Act I saw La Gaucha and Uri successfully complete their initial Wild Adventures, but Jack Snapper would end up exploring the vast continent of Lemuria for most of the game. He successfully battled enough enemies (smugglers and cannibals among them) to keep him neck-and-neck with the other Heroes in terms of Heroism points, and he always had the option of abandoning his Adventure, so I don't feel like this was a flaw. In fact, the guy playing Jack had probably the most fun, due in part to "Bottle o' Rum," Jack's special ability, which grants him +1 Might and -1 Wit before any fight. Jack basically brawled his way drunkenly across Lemuria, the most memorable battle being between him and a "Firebox" -- a sort of flamethrower robot --  amongst the ruins of a lost city.

    As the jungle burned down around him, Jack eventually succumbed to smoke inhalation, and despite Mister Mate's best effort to defeat the Firebox by throwing rocks at it, the thing eventually left them both for dead and continued on its swath-cutting way across the landscape.

    When Act II began, the AV players took stock of their accumulated Theme tokens before choosing which Arch Villain they would be for the rest of the game. The AV accumulates Theme tokens whenever cards with matching Themes show up in a given Adventure. A card's Theme is denoted by Theme icons just below the card's type icon. In the three-card example above, the grey circle bearing the ringed planet icon in the upper left indicates that the Ancient City has a Weird Theme, whereas the Firebox falls under both the Weird and Science (lightning bolt) Themes. The AV gains 1 Theme token of a given type per previousy revealed card of matching Theme, so the rewards grow rapidly with each successive match.

     I came up with this concept as a way to reward the AV for building Plots that are thematically coherent. As the AV player, you're not obliged to link matching cards when building a Plot, but you will be more powerful in the endgame if you manage to do so. Which brings me back to the AV players choosing their Arch Villain at the start of Act II. You can choose to be whichever Arch Villain you want, but you'll be more powerful if you choose one whose Theme matches the Theme of the tokens you have in the greatest quantity. The AV playtesters had far more Weird tokens than any other, so they settled on one of the two Weird Arch Villains. The Hero players would be in the dark about their choice until the beginning of Act III.

    [End of Pt. 1] 

  • Thrilling Tales of Adventure! [Pt. 2]

      

    We have another round of playtesting scheduled for this Sunday, so I need to get the rest of this account down before my memory is cluttered with a whole new session. I'm running out of steam a little, since a lot of work demands are encroaching on my free time, somy apologies in advance for the fact that the level of detail here will taper off as this entry proceeds.

    When last we left our intrepid Heroes, Jack Snapper was knee deep in Lemuria, The Amazing Uri's attention had been drawn to the Amazon Jungle, and La Gaucha had just finished patrolling the Pampas. The Arch Villain had been chosen but not yet revealed.

    Before heading to South America, Uri decided he needed some muscle, so he took a train to Irkutsk to pay a visit to his old friend Unegin Dash. Unegin, a hardy Mongolian tracker, agreed to accompany the Russian magician on his investigation, and the two began the long journey to the Amazon. In game terms, Uri had the Unegin card (an Ally) in his hand, but had to travel to Irkutsk or Peking in order to recruit him. To recruit an Ally, you usually have to travel to a specific City. Recruitable Allies are all in the White Deck (from which only the Heroes may draw; the AV player has his or her own similarly "private" Black Deck), so often Hero players will draw for Allies and try to snag any that are close by. Each Hero can have up to two Allies.

    Upon reaching South America, Uri and Unegin travelled up the Amazon toward the latitude and longitude that had been indicated by the Hall of Planets (see Pt. 1). At those precise coordinates, they discovered a Hidden Airstrip, and began a cautious reconnoitre from the safety of the jungle. They observed a number of native workers clearing brush and prepping the landing strip, overseen by an imposing figure who could only be some sort of shaman. From the grotesque stains on the shaman's lips, Uri surmised that he was none other than Yellow Mouth, a cannibal witch doctor known in European occultist circles, said to be hundreds of years old as a result of his horrifying diet.

    Uri and Unegin managed to dispatch Yellow Mouth with little trouble (I'm foggy on the details), and wrapped up their Wild Adventure in time to begin tackling one of the Arch Villain's Plots. Two Plots popped up on the map in Act II -- one in Rome and one in Calcutta. Uri crossed the South Atlantic to Lagos, where he recruited Professor Gundu, a Nigerian Magician, and with a full entourage began making his way to Rome. La Gaucha, who had followed a Wild Adventure into the Australian Outback (where she defeated the renaminated fiend known as General Riktus), boarded a steamship at Perth and headed for Calcutta. Meanwhile, Jack Snapper continued his drunken stagger through the steaming jungles of Lemuria.

    Besides Jack's run-in with the Firebox, there were two other really memorable incidents in the game. The first was when La Gaucha and Fuego, her faithful Argentine Criulo (a breed of horse -- who knew?) followed clues from Calcutta into the Asian Jungle, and came across an Abandoned Campsite. The AV players noticed that the campsite card had a Trap icon on it (which means Trap Twists can be played there), and, having not tried playing any Twists yet, they decided to throw a Pit Trap at La Gaucha to see what would happen. The Pit Trap card reads "Target Member with lowest Wit;" La Gaucha has Wit 2, and Fuego has Wit 1, so Fuego became the target. The horse failed his Speed Test to leap aside, and suffered 2D of damage, which killed him instantly (docking La Gaucha 2 Heroism and netting the AV 2 Villainy). We all imagined La Gaucha riding into the trap on horseback and leaping free of her noble steed as it was impaled on the spikes below.

    The other really funny moment for the players happened when Uri was scaling the Swiss Alps with his entourage, and (after escaping from an erupting volcano and battling an unholy brotherhood of slave-trading monks) came face to face with Black Angel, the voluptuous mercenary siren, in her mountaintop Observatory. Black Angel has two special abilities: .45 Automatic, which allows her to discard 1 for a simple Might bonus during a Challenge, and Seductress, which allows her to discard 2 before the Challenge starts in order to force the opposing male Ally of her choice make a Wit Test or become her minion on the spot. Much to Uri's dismay (and everyone else's great amusement), the AV discarded 2, chose Unegin, and cackled with glee as Unegin failed his roll. So the strapping Mongolian tracker, once Uri's trusted right-hand man, became his instant enemy. Did I mention that Uri had seen fit to equip Unegin with a Tommy Gun back when they made a pit stop in Rome?

    Amazingly, Uri and Professor Gundu marshalled their resources at the right moment. After surviving one round against Unegin and the lead he had begun to spray their way, Uri made use of his inherent Puff of Smoke special ability, which allows him to instantly escape from his current Foe. This effectively allowed him to sidestep Unegin and take on Black Angel herself. The best part about the fight that ensued was that the player who was controlling Uri had finally wrapped his head around the combat system, and through a series of careful choices was able to execute Gundu's special ability (Black Fire) twice, which was enough to send Black Angel screaming to her death from the top of the observatory. It was a narrow and well-earned victory.

    On the turn after Black Angel's demise, Act III began, and the AV's true identity was revealed: Malevola, Queen of Planet X! Her Master Plan is to "Lay Waste to Planet Earth," which is accomplished in game terms when she destroys a certain number of cities. Her arrival is heralded by the appearance of the X-ian Ark, a vast space craft that sets down on any Country, Desert, or Polar space, whereupon it begins to disgorge X-ian Behemonths, giant War-of-the-Worlds-esque walkers that can incinerate entire cities at will.

    I won't go into the endgame any more than that, other than to say the Heroes won the day.  There were some balance issues with the final Act, some having to do with the overall mechanics, and some having to do with Malevola's Master Plan itself. We discussed a few possible Act III tweaks and I'm implementing some of them in time for this Sunday's test.

    The main positive thing that I took away from this session was that everyone involved had a lot of fun. There was a lot whooping and hollering at the moments of high tension or hilarity, to the point where I was worried about disturbing the neighbors. Everyone involved was very eager to come back the following week, so overall it was very gratifying. I had made so many changes over the preceding year, and altered so many of the game's basic mechanics, that I had no idea whether it was going to even be playable, so it was a huge relief to see apsects of the game unspool almost exactly as I imagined they would.

    And some others, not so much. The game is 16 turns long and took about 4 1/2 hours to play, which is longer than I'd like. My playtesters are still learning the rules, and this next session will surely move quicker now that they have a better handle on things, but I'm looking for ways to tighten up the play time. 16 turns seems to be just about the perfect length in terms of each player being able to play through at least a couple of Adventures before the final Act, so I can't see trimming there.

    Hero player turns are uneven; some turns, all a Hero will do is move five spaces on the map and nothing else, while the players before and after might negotiate a series of entertaining obstacles and fights. Downtime seems to be a bit of an issue; no one ever seemed bored, but as it stands now you can't really affect another player's turn unless you are the Arch Villain. In previous versions Hero players were allowed to play positive card effects on one another, so I might bring that option back.

    The two other main points of feedback were that they wanted the game mechanics to encourage teaming up more actively, and that in the endgame they felt the need to travel greater distances with greater ease. There are rules for teaming up, but they rely on the players being self-motivated to do so. This next session I may just emphasize that it's an option always open to them and see if that changes the way they play. The late game traveling issue I'm trying to address by instituing air travel that's always accessible, but costs Heroism to use. We'll see how that goes as well.

    Thanks for reading, everyone, and thanks again for the votes of confidence. This will likely be the only playtest report at least until the summer, when I'll have many more sessions under my belt and a cleaner running engine. 

     So tune in next... season (or the one after) for another exciting epsisode of Thrilling Tales of Adventure! 

    ;) 

      

  • Thrilling Tales of Adventure! Vol. II, Chapter 1

    [This is a playtest report for Thrilling Tales of Adventure!, a pulp adventure boardgame that is currently in development. You can peruse previous playtest entries starting here].

    The year is 1928. After recovering from the terrible toll of the Great War, human civilization has entered a new golden era. Industry is booming, science is opening up new frontiers, and the world looks forward to a bright future. But beneath the hustle and bustle, evil spreads like poison. The criminal underworld extends its despicable reach; military dictators forge dreams of iron and blood; deranged geniuses distort the boons of science to terrible effect; eldritch forces stir in the bowels of the Earth. Worst of all, some diabolical intelligence seems to be pulling the strings, orchestrating these forces toward some unknown, horrific goal.

    But fear not! Rising to face this threat is a breed of rare individuals, heroes the likes of which the world has rarely seen. Intrepid souls, determined to defend the downtrodden, punish the wicked, and untangle the thickening web of corruption and trickery. What adventures await them? What tales will be told of their extraordinary deeds?

    Before these tales are told, let's meet the three heroes upon whose shoulders the fate of the world resides,  this time around:

    Doktor Radium, the brilliant German scientist, starts at his Laboratorium in Berlin. He is accompanied by Gunther, his faithful (if slow-witted) dogsbody.

     

    radium1


    Of the 4 potential unique Advantages available to him over the course of the game, Doktor Radium chooses to start with German Discipline.




    Each Hero also has a unique starting Adventure in play when the game begins, to set them on their way. Doktor Radium's initial Adventure is The Curious Doktor. The entries on this card marked by green and red hourglasses indicate what will happen if this particular Adventure is brought to an heroic or villainous conclusion, respectively. A white entry is always addressed to the active Hero player, and a black entry is always addressed to the Arch Villain player.




    Rockwell Jones, former pugilist turned private eye, starts at114 West 86th St. (his office in Chicago), withhis faithful companion, a.45 automatic.




    Rockwell chooses Ace Detective as his starting Advantage.



     

    Rockwell's starting Adventure, In Walked a Dame, sets him up in classic gumshoe style. But who knows where this apparently simple case will take him?

     

     

    Rounding out the trio of do-gooders is Grigor the Great, the mysterious Russian magician. Grigor starts at his Magician's Garret in Petrograd, and has no starting Ally or Equipment.

     

     

    Choosing from among his 4 prestidigitation-based Advantages, Grigor settles on Sleight of Hand. In addition to the ability explained in the card's text, this Advantage carries the "Lockpick"  icon, which he can use in situations that call for that particular piece of incidental equipment.

     

     

    Grigor's introductory Adventure, Stolen Secrets,  pits him against an as-yet-unknown trespasser who has made off with some of his precious repertoire. Will Grigor be able keep his secrets safe?

     

     

    Opposing these three is the Arch Villain, a shadowy entity whose true form will only become known in the last Act of the game.

     

    The Arch Villain!

     

    The stage is set!

     

     

    How will the Arch Villain's plots manifest, and what will the Heroes do to thwart those plots? Tune in next time for another chapter of Thrilling Tales of Adventure!

    [Continue to chapter 2]

  • Thrilling Tales of Adventure! Vol. II, Chapter 2

    As noted in last week's entry, each Hero begins a given session of TToA embarked on his own trademark introductory Adventure, represented by a Hook card. These Adventures are relatively easy, usually taking about 1-3 turns to complete, and give the Heroes a chance to build up a little before they tackle the Adventures constructed by the Arch Villain player.

    This week, we'll start following Doktor Radium on his introductory Adventure, which he managed to wrap up on the first turn of the game. My description here is lengthy for the sake of explanation, but the player's turn went by quickly.

    It all began with the good Doktor's insatiable curiosity:

    radium3

    Each Adventure card has a set of "links" along its lower right edge, showing what types of cards can follow that card in the Adventure. In this case, The Curious Doktor has only one possible link, a City Clue (the light gray rectangle indicates a card from the City deck, and the magnifying glass indicates a Clue). At this point I should explain Moxie and Menace, and the concept of "having the upper hand" in the game.

    Each Hero player has a personal Moxie level and a personal Menace level, each of which can vary according to in-game actions and events, to a minimum of 0 and maximum of 10. Moxie, symbolized by a star icon, is gained by defeating bad guys, completing Adventures successfully, and the like; the Hero can spend it to do things like activate special abilities, buy new Advantages, and add bonus dice to die rolls. Menace, symbolized by a skull and crossbones icon, works the same way, but is spent by the Arch Villain player to enact various nefarious effects. To determine who has the "upper hand" at any given time, the active Hero's Moxie and Menace levels are compared: if he has more Moxie than Menace, he has the upper hand; more Menace than Moxie, and the Arch Villain has the upper hand. Ties on even numbers break in favor of the Hero, while ties on odd numbers break in favor of the Arch Villain. It took me a long time to arrive at the Moxie/Menace mechanic as a balancing device against the more random aspects of the game. Here I owe Thomas Denmark a debt, since the mechanic was directly inspired by the Bane/Boon mechanic in his Dungeoneer game. Having the upper hand can be vital, because all ties in the game break in favor of the player who has the upper hand when the tie occurs. 

    In addition, if the active Hero player has the upper hand when it comes time to reveal the next card in his Adventure, and if the Adventure is being built on the fly (i.e., it was not custom-built by the Arch Villain player), that Hero gets to choose which linked card to reveal next. In this case, even though Doktor Radium has the upper hand, there is no choice to be made, since there is only one available link. The Doktor Radium player just draws the next City Clue card from the City deck and adds it to his Adventure:

      

    Doktor Radium, hard at work in his Laboratoriumin Berlin, has received a Coded Message. How can he resist such a tantalizing challenge to his intellect?

    Each time a new Adventure card is revealed, the first thing the active player does is examine the "theme column" under the card's icon in the upper  left. From top to bottom, the theme column consists of icons representing TToA's five major themes: Criminal (hand), Military (shield), Science (lightning bolt), Occult (pentagram), and Weird (ringed planet). A theme icon can be grayed out, indicating the card does not possess that theme, or colored red, indicating that it does possess that theme. Coded Message possesses Military and Science. The active player compares these themes to all preceding cards in the Adventure, and if each theme matches the theme of at least one preceding card, the Arch Villain gains a theme token of that type. In this case, we see that The Curious Doktorpossesses only one theme -- Science -- so the Arch Villain player gains a Science token. The Arch Villain needs theme tokens to use the more powerful thematic twists at his dosposal, but they are most important as the primary currency for completing his Master Plan, during the game's final act.

    Next, Doktor Radium resolves the steps on the card. Coded Message has only 1 step, "Decrypt," which calls for a Wit test. A test roll is made by rolling 1D6, adding the value of the stat being tested and any other modifiers, and comparing it to the test rating. In this case, Doktor Radium has Wit 4, and needs a 7 to succeed at the test. He gets +1 to his roll for being a Scientist, and 4+1=5, so he will only fail if he rolls a 1.

    Now, any time a player makes any kind of roll, he may spend Moxie to add bonus dice to that roll. The cost is 1 Moxie per bonus die if a Hero is making the roll, and 2 Moxie per bonus die if an Ally is making the roll. You can add 2 bonus dice at most to any given roll (for a total of 3D6 maximum), and after all dice are rolled, you choose 1 die to use. In other words, the dice are not added together; bonus dice just increase your chances of getting a high roll.

    In this case, Doktor Radium is confident of his powers of decryption, and does not elect to buy any bonus dice. He rolls  1 die and passes the test easily, which triggers the "thumbs up" result for that test ("sender identified"): he gains 1 Moxie, and is able to examine the next Villain in the Adventure, but since this Adventure is being built on the fly, there is no Villain to examine.

    The body of this card has been resolved, so the Doktor proceeds to the link array along the right edge of the card, to see what card will be revealed next. Links to a wide variety of Locations and Destinations are available. The Doktor still has the upper hand, and it's in his best interests to keep the Adventure local (leaving Berlin would force him to expend valuable actions), so he chooses the topmost link, a City Location. The next City Location in the City deck is drawn and revealed:

    The Coded Message leads Doktor Radium and Gunther to the Pawn Shop. No themes are highlighted in this card's the theme column, so the Arch Villain gains no theme tokens. The first entry on this card is a card ability, "Close quarters," which inflicts a Speed penalty on all characters that occupy the Location. The shape of the icon indicates that it applies whether the characters are in a fight or not, and the color of the icon -- split white and black -- indicates that it applies to the Hero (white) as well as the Arch Villain (black).

    The second entry is an optional step, since it says that the active player mayspend 1 action to attempt the described test. A player only has 2 actions to spend on his turn, and as the game progresses time becomes increasingly valuable, but the Doktor is not feeling any pressure on the first turn of the game, so he decides to spend 1 action to rummage through the shop to see what he can find. He fails the test, but decides to use his German Discipline Advantage (see last week's entry), and pays 1 Moxie to re-roll his test die. The second time he passes the test easily, and chooses to find a Gadget (as per the test's "curious curio" result).

    At this point, enjoying the completely optional storytelling aspect of the game, the players decide that the pawn shop is actually the storefront for the Doktor's laboratorium, and that he's rummaging through his own inventory of inventions to find something useful. Doktor Radium's player draws the next Gadget from the Valuable deck:

    Obviously one of the Doktor's more useful castoffs. When a player "finds" an Item, as in this case, the Item is not added directly to his Adventure, but may instead be either immediately equipped or discarded. The Doktor chooses to equip the Magnetospherehimself. He could give it to Gunther, but its ability depends on Wit, so Doktor Radium is clearly the more competent operator. Each Hero or Ally may only carry up to 2 Items, and the distribution of Items among party members may be rearranged at any time, except when the party is in a fight.

    Doktor Radium's player examines the available links on the Pawn Shop card and daringly chooses the dark gray link with the white compass rose icon, which indicates an Underground Location. After dusting off the magnetosphere, the intrepid scientist and his musclebound sidekick descend into the shop's cellar.

    And wow, what a cellar. What is that, an old well? into what dark depths is that coded message leading our hero?

    Suddenly, Doktor Radium's player is confronted with a difficult decision. The test required to successfully descend into the pit is of average difficulty, but failure means defeat (i.e., death for an Ally, unconsciousness for a Hero). If he had a rope, the Doktor could avoid the test entirely, but he has no rope. To proceed, Doktor Radium and Gunther will each have to take the test. Doktor Radium is weak (Might 1), but German Discipline will allow him to re-roll his test dice, so his chances are decent. Gunther has Might 3, so he will only fail on a roll of 1, but losing his loyal sidekick on the first turn of the game would not bode well.

    A dank wind blows up from the black pit in the middle of the cellar. The Doktor decides to send Gunther down first. The walls of the pit appear to offer little purchase, but Gunther shows no fear. Without hesitation, the faithful bodyguard moves to the edge of the pit and prepares to descend.

    Tune in next week for another exciting installment of Thrilling Tales of Adventure!

    [Continue to chapter 3]