Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Zombies quickly slaughtering heroes!

The Growing Hunger expansion for Last Night on Earth comes with rules for a quick, two player version of the game. It is supposed to take about ten minutes and the goal is simple; one hero has to kill six zombies before the end of ten turns. It uses a modified board of only two pieces. They are set up to form a rectangle. Lately Mike and I have been sneaking in a whole bunch of these to get our zombie fix and it has been an absolute bloodbath for the heroes. I would estimate that we have played around 20 games and the hero has not won once. Zilch. As in zero. It’s been close a bunch of times, but in the end the zombies continue on their path of mindless destruction through small town America. Dark times indeed.

The game is certainly fun for what it is, a fast skirmish type of game, but it is filled with issues. The fact is that using all the pieces for the full game just does not translate well to this shorter version. The rules come with a couple of changes but they don’t really address all the problems. Any card that addresses two heroes (as in two in the same space or something similar) instead gives the player that drew it the ability to move the sun tracker a step in whatever direction they want. Considering the game ends in a zombie victory when the sun tracker goes to zero this is a really powerful change. I realize it works both ways, but it seems like there are more zombie cards than hero cards in this category. We just ignore the cards when they come up and draw again.

Another issue is the Bitten and I Feel Strange cards. Both of these do the same thing, when a hero takes a wound they essentially get infected. The next time they are injured, instead of taking a wound they turn into a zombie hero. This is bad enough in the full game, but in a game when there is only one hero it ends the game entirely. Bad news for the hero. Those cards are grossly overpowered in this type of matchup.

Additionally the game is very dependent on the hero that you wind up with. We always do a random draw for characters so pretty often you wind up with someone who sucks. In the normal game the high school characters are a mixed bunch. Billy and Becky are total wastes, but Amanda and Sally are pretty good. I still have mixed feelings on Johnny, I respect his ability but I have a personal hatred that I can’t seem to get past. But in this version? All zombie fodder due to the two health boxes, it’s just very hard to keep them alive. Plus, Amanda’s power lets her give an extra fight die to a male that she shares a space with. So that’s useless in the short game. The other night I was psyched when I got Sam the Diner Cook. He has four health boxes (the most in the game) and I drew the med kit (which heals you fully) in the beginning. I figured that with that combo I could just out slug the zombies. Until Bitten was played on me after the first fight, essentially nullifying all the health I had since the next hit turned me into a zombie. Ooh, I was so mad!

With a little bit of strategy the zombies can easily avoid the hero, making them run around the board and chip away at them. Usually the sun rises before the zombies are in any real danger. What needs to happen is the hero needs to get a gun early and have some luck with it in terms of holding onto it. Pick off the zombies and ride into the sunset. Eventually the hero will come out on top, but things are very grim most of the time.

The game is actually a lot of fun, I don’t mean to be so critical of it. But a little more thought should have gone into the rules, rather than just slapping it together and throwing it into the instructions. I really like the idea of the hero customizing the hero deck, maybe take 40 cards and shuffle them up. Lots of weapons and no lighters. But that takes time which defeats the whole purpose of this variant. Or maybe make a hero duo have to kill 10 zombies? Again, this is making the game longer.

So, it seems to me that I need to find a good, fast two player game. As far as two player games go my favorite is still Starship Catan, but I would love to find some others, especially ones that play quick. Like 20 minutes quick. Anyone out there have any suggestions?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Consorting with Random Pirates

During last night’s game of Pirate’s Cove we played with the random Legendary Pirate variant. Instead of the Legendary Pirate moving around the board in a sequential order we instead rolled at the end of the navigation phase to see where the pirate would dock. A couple things happened; we fought a lot more pirates, and we sort of had to rethink a lot of the strategy normally employed (at least I did).

The Legendary Pirates are a pretty tough lot (I mean, they are Legendary for a reason), in most circumstances they will beat a player one on one, especially early in the game before the player has had a chance to build up their ship. Because of this they are usually avoided for the most part, even the ones that are a little easier to defeat will do a bunch of damage to your ship so it’s not worth a scuffle for a couple of victory points. The variant is entirely random so there is no way to predict where the ship will appear, it’s entirely luck whether or not it goes to the same island as a player which is sort of strange but also a lot of fun at the same time. The result was a lot more fights since they were hard to avoid. We (the players as a group) fought pretty well and wound up defeating three Pirates over the course of the game, which is higher than the typical number. At the end it was the dreaded Flying Dutchman that no one was able to get past. An interesting twist came about in the first round when the initial Pirate on the scene was the Cacafuego, which is actually just a floating treasure barge. Usually all the players will rush to it when it comes out and fight over who gets to plunder it, but with it’s location unknown it just sort of floated around the board until one (Katie) was lucky enough to have it land where they were.

I like strategy and planning so I prefer the typical method because it allows me to project my actions over the twelve rounds of the game, however the random Pirate is a good way to mix it up. The last couple of times that we played Pirate’s Cove the last round always had several players ganging up on the Pirate at Treasure Island and splitting the fame. So this was a nice little change of pace. I recommend giving it a shot if Pirate’s Cove is in your regular game rotation.

The other aspect of the game that I would like to comment on is the power of the Consort card. The Consort card is played by one player onto another during the navigation phase of the turn, the result of the card is that the two players split just about all of the treasure that the affected player receives (including victory points gained from burying treasure). I think it’s safe to say that this is the most powerful card in the game and can frequently turn the balance in the game, though defense can be played against it. The best way to use this seems to be to hold it until the last round of the game and play it against the player that has the most treasure in their hull, since it is just about guaranteed that they will be cashing in that turn. Using it earlier in the game runs the risk of getting nothing from it. The affected player can just delay burying treasure for a turn and look for an island that is giving something other than treasures (assuming they have a full hull). Now, the defense against Consort comes into play in the late rounds when the card is still out there (that is, it has not been used yet). Instead of waiting until the last round to go to Treasure Island it is smart to bury your treasure a round or two before that and then spend the last round(s) picking up Tavern Cards, Victory points, or even fighting a Pirate. I know, it requires some forethought and could work out poorly but there are few feelings worse than having to give six or seven victory points to your main rival and watching them become the most famous pirate in Pirate’s Cove.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Zombie Apocalypse- Last Night on Earth

Everytime that I play Last Night on Earth I am reminded of two things; how poorly written and confusing some of the rules can be, and how much of a fun, tense game it actually is. Most of my gaming takes place at night, but yesterday Mike and I found ourselves with some afternoon time available for gaming. We decided on LNOE, which in my opinion is much better as a two player game than with a larger group. The game is naturally zombies versus heroes so it makes sense to have it as a two player game. It works fine with multiple players, but when a gamer is controlling an entire side by themselves it really lets you develop strategy and execute a plan. There is something to be said for the heroes to all be controlled to by a different person, it sort of reflects the chaos of a real life zombie invasion, but it also really minimizes each players contribution to the game. A single hero may do very little on any given turn.

We went totally random in the set up and I wound up with the zombies and Mike got the heroes. We drew the Zombie Apocalypse scenario (from the Growing Hunger expansion) which has all sorts of crazy stuff going on in it. 21 zombies for me with autospawn. Well stocked buildings, search markers, extra cards, and respawning heroes for Mike. The goal of this particular scenario is for the zombies to destroy six buildings before the sun comes up (buildings are destroyed when a zombie occupies every space in the building and there are no heroes in it). It¹s a nice little change of pace since it is normally the heroes trying to accomplish a task, and the zombies stopping them. Mike wound up with a pretty good squad as well. To start off he had Jenny, Sam, Sally, and the kick ass Rachelle. With his bonus cards he got lucky and came strapped with some serious firepower (revolvers and pump shotguns), which goes a long way in this game.

The game started off slow for me as I was having a hard time getting my zombies out onto the board. And with small numbers it was easy for Mike to pick them off with his many guns, he knows better than to get close to the brain hungry zombies. We had also ruled before the game that the buildings that were only a single space (the morgue and something else) were only rooms inside of another building, so they did not count as a destroyed building. They also did not get a free search marker. Eventually I was able to get some large numbers of zombies on the board and start to do some damage, in two rounds I was able to destroy three buildings and kill Jenny (though she was promptly replaced by the far superior Amanda). I will give Jenny some credit though, she held out for a bit and took some zombies with her. I¹ve never thought much of Jenny but on this day she did her farm proud. On the other hand, my zombies were fighting like wimps all day (lots of 1¹s and 2¹s) and I really struggled in fights.

While all of this was going down Rachelle was absolutely wreaking havoc on the zombie population with her firearms. I tried my hardest to keep my zombies apart from one another to avoid the blast of the shotgun, but then she would just use the revolver and pick them off one by one. She was a force to be reckoned with. I think that she is my favorite character, or my least favorite on this day. She starts with a gun and a flashlight, which is very good in itself. But then she also has a power that lets her ignore a wound on a roll of 6. It doesn’t work all that often, but when it does you sort of fall in love with her for being such a tough chick.

For a couple of turns I felt like I was on pace to win this thing and then everything started going wrong. I had destroyed four buildings and I had masses of zombies getting ready to overrun two remaining structures. A gruesome battle in the supermarket left Sam the Cook dead. Johnny the Quarterback appeared in his place and in a single turn, using his blitz ability and some well played cards by Mike, managed to take out five zombies and nullify the threat to the high school. I was devastated. I still had a shot as a fifth building had gone down and I was massing to take over the supermarket. The problem is that I was running out of time. The other option that opened up to me was that I had killed three heroes (Rachelle died a hero, I¹m sure that the police force honored her in some way), so one more death would win it for me (if the zombies kill four heroes victory is automatic). I had enough zombies to take over the supermarket but Mike brought Amanda and Sally to the vicinity and the zombies were lured away from the building (and victory!). On the last turn of the game all I had to do was defeat one of the two high school girls and I would win. Mike just needed to survive. I got to give it up to Mike here, he totally had the right strategy. He didn’t need to kill the zombies or charge into the building, all that he needed to do was lure them out and he put himself into a position to do so.

My rolls were pathetic and I had nothing all that useful in my hand. I had shambled a couple of zombies to the space and the fight wound up being seven zombies versus the two girls, but in the end the girls survived and the town stood for another day. Amanda has a great ability that lets her hide and potentially cancel any fight that she is in, and she was able to get rid of two of them that way.

What LNOE does well is create very dramatic situations that often play out until the very last turn of the game. It¹s a lot of fun. The characters all have distinct personas and as they move around over the course of the game they develop personal histories unique to that game. Maybe I get too into it, but I definitely get invested in what is happening with them. It is also nice to play a game that is not operating on a grand scale, such as colonizing alien galaxies and saving the world from invading orcs. Everything in LNOE is on a small scale. Small town being invaded by zombies, there are a handful of survivors left to battle them. We know all of their names and what they have, what motivates them and what they can do. They fight with jumper cables and meat cleavers.

Back to the point that I raised earlier about the rules being confusing. A lot of the text is worded in ways that make it difficult to understand how an item or event is supposed to operate. For example, the pump shotgun. Do I roll a die for each zombie in the space, and if any of them are a one is the gun out of ammo? Or do I roll them all and then roll a separate time to see if any ammo remains? I think that myself and Mike are fair with rules so we were able to come to fairly simple conclusions and keep the game moving, but with larger numbers or less experienced players it could really be an issue and slow down what is otherwise a very fun experience.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Point Buy and the MAD Monk

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about monks lately, mainly because I just rolled one up for a new campaign that started a couple of weeks ago. I know that monks generally get a bad rap with the enlightened community of roleplayers; they have weird skills that don’t synergize, they depend on too many attributes (they are considered MAD- Multiple Attribute Dependent) , other characters are better at the things they are supposed to be good at. I suppose that there is some truth to that, but I find monks to be excellent characters and among the most well rounded in the game. But it is true that they are dependent on just about every attribute, and I think that is why many people don’t like them. I was thinking about this the other day and it occurred to me that most people use a point buy system for scores, rather than rolling for them. Using a point buy effectively eliminates the chance of creating a good monk, which is why many people (and when I say many people I am referring to most posters on message boards) think that they are crap. On the other hand, I always roll for scores and I got some really awesome ones with my last go around for character creation. Monk wasn’t even on my radar but when I saw what I had (17, 16, 16, 14, 13, 12 before racial adjustments) I felt it was my obligation to go and create a good monk, which I think is absolutely one of the coolest classes around.

This is yet another reason to stay away from a point buy system (also see here). It takes a truly exceptional individual to be a monk; they are disciplined, agile, skilled martial artists. Not easy to do. They use their fists to battle people with swords and smite powerful wizards. Not everyone should be one. A point buy does not create an exemplar of human (or gnome or dwarf) achievement, but rather an individual who excels at one or two attributes and is wretched at the rest of them. It is great for making the intelligent but feeble wizard, or the learned druid but a monk requires a special type of person who only comes along every once in a while.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Shadows Over Camelot review

The siege engines gather in front of the gates of Camelot, the Holy Grail is threatened by evil forces, and a traitor lurks in the Round Table. Clearly, there are ominous Shadows Over Camelot. From the excellent minds at Days of Wonder comes Shadows Over Camelot, a cooperative game for three to seven players that will valiantly attempt to defend the Arthurian realm from invading forces. Each player assumes the role of a famous knight from Arthurian legend, such as Sir Galahad or Sir Percival, and performs various quests in conjunction with their knightly peers in an effort to save the realm from near certain doom. There is a ton to like about this game, so let’s get into it.

The components of the game are among the best that I have ever seen, for both the aesthetics of them as well as the functionality and their relation to the actual game. The board itself has a lot going on and one of the criticisms is how big it is, I hope you have a large gaming table to accommodate it. But everything on the board serves a function so it is at least not wasted space. Some of the quests (The Holy Grail, Lancelot and the Dragon, and Excalibur) are even double sided, so when they are completed they flip over to reveal a new addition to the board. All of the knights are represented not by generic pawns but by very nice figurines, each of which is unique and has a nice colored base for easily identifying your character. The Picts, Saxons, and siege engines also have figurines. Well done. There are two decks of cards (White and Black) that are high quality and, I must say, shuffle very nicely.

Components are nice and all, but a game is really made with the mechanics and game play and in this area Shadows Over Camelot does not disappoint. Despite all of the pieces and length of the rulebooks (yes, there are two of them) the game is surprisingly easy to figure out, though winning is pretty difficult. Like all cooperative games there is a negative element to each turn. In Camelot each player has a choice at the start of their turn; lose one life point, place a siege engine in front of Camelot, or draw a Black card from the deck. All of these options stink, which I suppose is the point. After choosing one of these dreadful options the knight then gets to do something heroic, like moving. There are several options available to the player (moving, performing a quest related action, playing a Special White card) but the difficult part is that a knight can only perform one action a turn. A second action can be performed but it costs a life point to do so as the knight extends himself to heroic lengths, and it can’t be the same action that was performed initially. Many of the quests require multiple cards to complete and the limited actions make it hard to do so and really reinforce how the knights must work together to complete quests, rather than splitting up and tackling separate adventures. Play progresses very quickly, which is nice, since there are only two actions on each players turn.

The Quests are good. They are different enough from each other to make them stand out, but also similar enough in how they work that everything sort of flows. It’s not like learning new rules for each segment of the game. Just about all of the quests involve playing cards down on the board in an effort to beat the enemy in that area (cards are gained in several different ways, the most prominent being a return to Camelot). Several of them are making what is essentially a poker hand of Fight cards. Example, to defeat the Lancelot quest the knight must put down a full house (three of a kind and a pair) and have the total face value be higher than that of Lancelot. Each Quest has a reward for completing it successfully, and a penalty for losing it. Most of the time white swords are placed around the Round Table for victories, while black swords are placed around the table to show the spread of treachery and chaos throughout the land.

The final wrinkle to the game is that one of the brave knights of the realm may actually be a traitor. At the start of the game each player draws a loyalty card. Seven of them have the knight as loyal to Camelot, while the eight is a traitor to the cause. The traitor will be secretly working against the others and trying to cause the downfall of the kingdom. The identity of the traitor is unknown to the other players and it is the job of the traitor to remain secret for as long as possible, sowing dissent from the shadows. There are a couple of things that I really like about this. One is that not only is the traitor unknown, it is not even certain if there is a traitor in the game at all. With eight loyalty cards and a maximum of seven players there is no guarantee that there is a traitor present, which sort of keeps everyone guessing. Players can accuse another of being a traitor, but if they are wrong they must suffer the ill effects of a fractured Round Table. Another aspect that is very cool is how the rules are structured to support a hidden agenda and mystery. All discards are placed face down, which allows a traitor to potentially discard valuable cards without anyone knowing. Also, players are forbidden from expressly talking about cards in their hands or cards they have placed face down on the board (usually to be battled by a knight at some point). However, players are encouraged to hint at the value of cards and to do so in a bizarre, corny knight talk (which is actually quite fun). Such as, “Clearly the Black Knight has sent a scrawny squire to this years tournament” which would allude to the value of a face down card in the Black Knights Tournament Quest as being of low value, and thus easily defeated. Or, “The Dragon on the far side of this bridge is known throughout the land for his voracious appetite” would mean that the Dragon card is of a high value.

Shadows Over Camelot is also a very difficult game. We’ve only played a couple of times but we are yet to win, and to be honest it hasn’t even been close. There is one way for the player to win, to have a majority of white swords around the round table when a 12th sword is placed. There are multiple ways to lose; 12 siege engines around Camelot, a majority of black swords at the round table, or for all knights to lose their life points. Throw a traitor into the mix and the games becomes that much more difficult. I’ve read a couple of reviews that state that the game is actually on the easy side, so maybe we just need to figure out better strategies. Either way the game is a lot of fun and highly recommended.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Campaign Summary

Our most recent D&D campaign ended last week so I thought that I would take this opportunity to look back on the campaign that was and see how it all went down. It was the third campaign that I have run with this group of players and I feel that it went pretty well. In some ways it was very similar to others that I have run, and in other aspects it was very different. I enjoyed it and I think that the players did as well, so I guess that it can be considered a success.

The campaign ran for 34 adventures spread out over around nine months, we played pretty much every week and each session lasted about three to three and a half hours. That’s a substantial amount of dungeons and dragons and allowed a lot of time for both character and plot development, though I’m not sure that we reached our potential in either realm. There were two major reasons for this and both of them were deliberate on my part. The first of which was that I decided going into things that I was going to make this game a bit more lethal than some I have run in the past. I’ve never been a cupcake DM and have certainly slaughtered my share of PC’s, but based on the type of world that the game was set in I felt that the environment should be particularly harsh and challenging. The end result was the death of five PC’s (which actually isn’t all that bad, though also many near deaths along the way), and another who was retired about half the way through the campaign. There were five players in the game and a total of 11 PC’s. No one was resurrected, death was final. I have to say that I like what death brings to the table. When the PC’s know that the chance of death is real it makes surviving that much more rewarding and that is a real nice gaming experience as far as I am concerned. I wanted to have that in the game, but it also has the negative experience of preventing some long term plots from developing. The fact is that many quests are character driven and when characters are coming through a revolving door they frequently have entirely new agendas than their predecessors. It sort of made it tough to move forward some plots. On the other hand it sort of pushed the spotlight to some NPC’s that were continually featured since the theatre of operations for the campaign was a relatively small area that was constantly departed from and revisisted.

The second aspect of the campaign was that it was a very open ended world. I took a couple of weeks to create a world and figure out what was happening in it, I did this before knowing what type of PC’s were going to be adventuring it. I wanted to have an actual living and moving world that the PC’s were dropped into and had to react to, rather than having a world that was built to facilitate their adventuring needs. Things went on that the PC’s never knew about, when they left certain areas events occurred and moved forward without them. I wanted it to be open ended and give them a chance to pursue what their characters wanted to do, which they did. I would not go so far as to say that they were lawful, but they were not nearly as chaotic as I suspected that they may have been given the loose constrains of the environment. The world was essentially a frontier region that the civilized arm of the human kingdom was expanding into. There were nonhumans (primarily orcs) native to the region that did not like this presence encroaching on their land. This was the area that the PC’s were dropped into. There was also a long standing pagan type god native to the region that was beginning to reawaken, with all the new life in the area feeding into his power. The land to the far south through the mountains was thoroughly unexplored. There were two primary human settlements in the area, one of which would be overrun before the campaign ended.

With eleven PC’s in the game most classes were covered at one time or another. Let’s see if I can remember them; two rogues (one had some fighter), two clerics, a duskblade, a hexblade, a ranger, a barbarian, a druid, a sorcerer, and a wizard. One of the rogues died on the second adventure. The Ranger made it to the highest level, getting all the way to 9th level.

On a selfish level I feel that this campaign was a great exercise for me as a Dungeon Master since I was constantly kept on my toes. It was a lot of fun trying to stay a step or two ahead of them, only to find out that I was walking down the wrong path. In the end I did get a little burnt out and it did not end nearly as well as I was hoping. But I still had a blast the whole time.

Murdero, I Wrote

I had not played Murdero since the initial play (which you can read about here) and decided to pull it out for a quick session last night. After the first game I had some mixed feelings but thought it had potential as a two player game and I was eager to try it out with that format, but last night we wound up having three instead. After playing through it again I can safely say that Murdero is not a particularly good game. It has several weaknesses, the most glaring of which is that it is just not that much fun. More often than not I felt as if I was just crossing my fingers and drawing a card or two each turn. The game leaves little room for strategy or decision making which are two things that I know that I am into, and I imagine most other gamers are as well.

I do feel that we got as much fun out of it as could be reasonably expected, maybe even more than should be expected. Mike, Katie, and myself are fun and we know how to play games. We laughed at all of the ridiculous, formulaic quotes that are on the cards (We even made up some of our own like “Rebecca Lane never killed people. Until she did.”), imagined ourselves piecing together the crimes, etc. We did all of it and more that could be expected to make the game fun and it just wasn’t there. Murdero is really just about card farming and a whole bunch of luck, neither of which are really stand out elements in a game.

One of the aspects of this game that really became apparent to me on a second play is just how useless the majority of the Action cards are. A handful of them have value (Overtime is exceptionally good, Sabotage is useful, and Real Estate is almost too good) but most of them are total garbage. The Alibi’s are almost pointless since it is so hard to complete a set anyway (especially with four players), by the end of the game we were laughing each turn when The Don’s Alibi was discarded for a second draw. I think it happened in literally every game that we played, which to me says that the card is sort of irrelevant. Each of the action cards has a use, but they are often so circumstantial to render it almost pointless to hold onto. When faced with the option of holding it or discarding for a second card in a turn the choice is really a no brainer. Take the card.

Murdero definitely worked better, in a mechanical sense, with three players than with four, so it is also a decent assumption that two players would improve it further. But maybe not. I could envision a two player game just to be a constant drawing of cards until someone closes out a set, which does not sound like much fun. This is the only rummy style mystery card game that I’ve played so I am not really sure how it fits into the genre. Despite the play of Murdero I would be willing to give others a play and see how they are.