Monday, October 26, 2009

Campaign Journal #5- Lair of the Giant Snake

The party began the night’s adventure atop the mountains they had flown to after Henri crashed their boat along the rocky canal leading to the sea. While traversing the craggy landscape they had a pair of encounters; a trio of flying hipprogriffs were attacked by Glee the moment that they came into range, and then Romulus and Henri were surprised by a dire lion during their watch when camping. Neither battle was intended to be particularly challenging, though some hijinks ensued when Henri turned invisible and fled, leaving Romulus to deal with the enormous lion on his own. He scored a paired a criticals which probably saved his half orc hide.

For the first time they are also doing some traveling with young Fiona and some accommodations had to be made for the infant turned adventurer. Due to her entertaining whistling and ability to cast

Books About Games

It’s not possible to play games all the time, so sometimes I have to read books about games. Recently I’ve come across two that each present a different take on the world of gaming, and both I would recommend to the game enthusiast. The Elfish Gene is a personal memoir about growing up as a D&D player in the early years of the game, while Hobby Games: The 100 Best is a collection of essays about some of the more important board and card games out there.

In the Elfish Gene (2007) author Mark Barrowcliffe recalls the days of his youth in Coventry, England as a somewhat obsessed D&D player. Actually, really obsessed. To the point that it was pretty much his 24/7 existence for several years. At times very funny and at other times touching, the book does a really nice job of capturing the thrill of discovering the world’s greatest hobby and setting it against the awkward adolescence backdrop of being a youth in working class England. We learn about some of his characters, adventures, and even the shops he would game at. What I think that Barrowcliffe does best is somehow make the minutiae of RPGs not only seem like the most important thing in the world, but also accessible to someone that has not wasted away the hours of their youth in a dimly lit garage hoping to defeat a hydra or gelatinous cube. He includes enough references to the actual mechanics of D&D to keep the gaming audience happy (thoughts on the AC system, excitement over campaign settings, damage from various weapon types) but that’s not really the heart of the matter. Like any other memoir it is about a place and time, and Barrowcliffe paints a wonderful picture of his upbringing and what the hobby meant to him. Like many of us, he experience highs and lows through D&D (other games too, most notably Traveler and Empire of the Petal Throne) and learned a lot about himself through fantasy roleplaying. Corny and weird? Absolutely. But if you are reading this there is an excellent chance that you can relate. I’ve noticed that D&D and other games are becoming more popular. Maybe this is just a perception on my part, I suppose I could do some research to find if it is true, but I wonder if books like this will become more common. There certainly seems to be a market for it. I’d also like to add that he sticks to the subject matter, very few passages in the book do not relate directly to roleplaying, which is nice. There are a couple of humorous stories thrown in that deal with other issues, but there’s nothing wrong with that. If nothing else this book is worth it to read the story about how he learned to make fireballs using lighter fluid, balloons, and his DM’s bathroom.

I bought Hobby Games: The 100 Best (2007) thinking that it would be a ranking of the 100 best games ever made, but that’s not really what it is. The book is about 100 games, but they are listed in alphabetical order rather than in order of greatness. The essays are short (around three pages) and written by industry insiders and game creators, so it is not just the fan perspective that they are written from, but from what I guess would be considered the informed. The choices range from very obscure (such as Blood Bowl, I had never heard of it), to the routine (Settlers of Catan), and pretty much everything in between. As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about games it is very appealing to me to read what these industry folks think about what makes a game great. Some I agree with, others I do not. I even went out and bought a couple of these games based on what people wrote about them. I don’t think this book is for everyone, at times I wasn’t even sure that it was me, but if you are not interested in a certain game you can move on to the next one.

Solo games don’t interest me all that much, I like the social aspect of gaming far too much. It’s not the competitor in me that revels in gaming, but rather the same guy who likes to sit at a bar and chat someone up. But I can’t always do that. So these books are a nice way to enter into the world of gaming without actually having to go anywhere.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Campaign Journal #4- Come Sail Away. Or Not.

After having killed the forces guarding The Cage and exploring the prison, the PC’s decided to rest up a bit in the fortress. They have also chosen to take the small child that they found in the cell and bring her along on their adventures. Convinced that she is worth some money they are going to try and find out more about her.

While taking shifts on guard duty, Romulus spotted some movement in the valley leading to the prison. After a moment Romulus recognized the figure as Al’londia, who was trying to silently communicate with him. Unable to figure out her message, eventually Mgabwe flew down to her and brought her into the fort. Al’londia informed the rest of the party that there was a group of mounted knights traveling in the valley to the prison, one of which had a banner bearing the symbol of the DuChamp family affixed to their saddle. They also appeared to have a captive with them. Knowing that they were going to arrive at the fort in the next couple of hours the PC’s got

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Shadows Over Camelot: Session Review

I’ve mentioned before that when it comes to cooperative games our group has really been struggling of late. I’m not sure why this is, but one game that has been a particular thorn in our collective side is the otherwise excellent Shadows Over Camelot . We have a lot of fun playing it, yet in the end the ominous clouds swell over the Round Table and reign supreme as Camelot falls. Perhaps that makes it seem a bit dramatic, but it’s the truth. One thing I will say is that we’ve gotten slightly better each time we’ve played it. We had the four person crew the other night, strapped on our plate mail, and decided to give it another shot. Going in we realized that helping each other out and behaving like gentlemanly knights was the path to success, we made that our primary strategy. No one would be running off on foolish quests for glory while the kingdom crumbled. We randomly drew knights as follows; I was Sir Percival, Katie was the Saracen Knight Palamedes, Mike the valiant and pure Sir Galahad, and Nick was King Arthur. We were ready to go.

In the first couple of rounds Percival and Arthur joined forces to defeat an army of invading Picts, earning some cards and our first white sword. That will teach those barbarians! Throughout the game we all frequently used the ability to sacrifice a life to take an extra action, usually when moving to a new area and then to immediately play a card. It’s very helpful. Knowing that if you defeat a challenge you will earn more life lessens the blow of the heroic sacrifice. Our victory was followed by a brave display of arms by Sir Galahad in the Black Knights Tournament, besting him soundly (despite the presence of what Mike deemed, in knightly speak, “a combatant of Jet Li type prowess”). In the meantime Palamedes was struggling by himself to save Exaclibur. Two other issues had arisen as well; the Lancelot Quest was bordering on being unwinnable due to the accumulation of several cards for Lancelot and none for us, the Grail Quest seemed extremely dire as well. The Dark Forest card came into play shortly after the victory in the Tournament. This card prevented any knight from playing a Grail card until a quest was successfully completed. At this point we were not even close to winning any, having just completed two. Plus, the Grail cards were piling up. The Grail Quest is sort of a big deal, it’s worth three swords for either side and a ton of white cards if the knights win it. This was where we really came together as true Knights of the Round Table. We all hustled to over to Excalibur to lend support to Palamedes and save the legendary sword. With the four of us working together on it we saved the sword from plunging into the murky depths of the lake. Fittingly it was Sir Palamedes who earned the sword (fitting because he has been there for a while and prevented it from being lost). Not only did we earn more white swords but we were now able to continue the quest for the Grail since the Dark Forest card was now out of play.

Right around this time we also discovered the great pairing that is Arthur and Galahad. Arthur has the power to, once a turn, give a card to another knight in exchange for a card. Galahad can, once a turn, play a special white card in his hand for no action point. Whenever Arthur had a special white he would pass it on to Galahad who could play it without the cost of a point. It worked out really well for all of us, especially since the special whites usually benefit the whole company it did not matter who played it. The net gain was several actions over the course of the game, which really goes a long way. The good knights were able to put their egos aside for the greater good of the kingdom.

At this point we had four white swords and two black ones, we could see how the end game was going to play out. To insure victory we needed to have seven white swords and last until the Round Table had a total of twelve swords. Galahad, Arthur, and Palamedes all went over to the Grail Quest to save the cup. Percival (myself) had nothing to contribute to the Grail Quest so I traveled to Camelot and began to battle the siege engines that were building up. The Knights had been unable to play any Grail cards for a while since the Dark Forest card was in play, so we had a bunch built up. The three of them were able battle the forces of evil and had the Grail on the verge of victory. Palamedes then played the Heroism card, which would earn us an extra white sword if we won. On the next turn Arthur saved the sacred cup and earned us four (!) more swords, bringing our total to eight! Victory would be ours if we could survive. With the Grail and Excalibur quests completed the siege engines were coming at a furious rate and Percival was being overwhelmed as the lone warrior defending the castle. The other knights joined him in defense, battling the invading forces. Palamedes fell in battle on the fields of Camelot, but was saved when Arthur, brave King that he is, sacrificed the recently earned Grail to provide him with new life. Such camaraderie.

We were in a strange position at this point. We had the game won once more swords were added to the table. However we did not want to leave Camelot to complete another quest because of all the siege engines, so we bided our time. Eventually the Black Knights Tournament was lost, placing a 12th sword on the Round Table. Sure, we were a bit ashamed to lose to such a coward, but the war was won! There was much rejoicing in the halls of Camelot that night.

I think that we took a big step forward in team tactics with this victory. Shadows Over Camelot is a game that really requires everyone to work together, the lone knight does not stand a chance. We also realized that it is very hard to win the game if the very difficult Grail Quest is not won. Seven black swords loses the game for the knights, and that quest alone provides three of them. I think that we did really well. At no point were we ever in serious danger. We recognized threats before they became mortal danger, cooperated, and helped one another. Perhaps we are actually ready to try the game with a traitor. And honestly the best part of this game is speaking in that bizarre Knightly vernacular that is encouraged by the game designers.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Campaign Journal #3- Prison Break(in)!

We started off the night’s adventuring with the PC’s having just survived an ambush from a group of medusa archers. Post battle Romulus climbed up to the ledge that one of the archers was attacking from to discover that there was a cave that led further back into the mountains, there was also a similar one on the opposite side of the valley. I was a bit surprised to see how eager the party was to explore the cavernous tunnels, though it was somewhat in character for the group. If there is even a chance that there could be some gold stashed away they are all about it. At this point Al’landia decided to head back into the valley from the way that they came to cover up their tracks and see if they were being followed (the player for Al’landia was unable to make the session, so this was her exit). Romulus threw a rope down to the rest and within moments they were creeping through a narrow corridor, heading deeper into the mountains. Again they were let down by their perception abilities (Spot and Search in this case) and walked right into a trip wire that sprung a falling rock trap. It didn’t do a lot of damage, but certainly served as an alarm for whoever may be lurking in the darkness.

The God of Cheap Game Pieces

Zeus and Hera deserve better. I think it would invoke the wrath of two of the major gods from the Greek pantheon to see that they have been reduced to poorly produced line drawings on second rate wood tiles. Especially since they don’t even seem to serve a real function. I should explain. Zeus and Hera is actually a pretty decent game, replaying it recently I realized I liked it more than I remember and the strategy involved is more complex than I had given it credit for. But the thing that really stood out the most to me were these horrendous wood tiles that serve as Zeus and Hera for the game. Every other character and effect in the game is represented by cards. Cards that work fine, I don’t think that anyone has ever played the game and felt that they were not getting the full game experience because it lacked crappy wood tiles. And if not for these two useless components the game would just be cards and could fit easily into a much smaller box, which would be an asset for the game and broaden the appeal. You can travel with it, it fits in your pocket, etc…Instead the box is mainly empty except for this silly plastic tray which is in there only to accommodate the wood tiles.

The art on the wood pieces reminds me of Stratego, sort of these strange gold etched outlines. Zeus is green, Hera is purple. Both are awful. Rio Grande games must have received an extra shipment of wood pieces and felt the need to convert them into something and Zeus and Hera drew the short straw.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Campaign Journal #2- Bowerstone and Beyond

The campaign started with the party being filled in on their recent happenings. They had been contracted by a longtime employer named Vespian the Black to deliver a package to the port city of Bowerstone. The job paid not a great deal (500gp) but the party was looking to relocate after burning some bridges in the area that they had been operating in as of late. Greedy mercenary types tend to do that. The party was aboard a merchant ship called the Holy Diver, captained by Thelonius Seasworn, and as they approached the city I gave them some background on the region.

Glee has some ranks in Knowledge (Local) and it has been established that he and Romulus have done some traveling in their careers as mercenaries, so he was the vehicle through which I imparted some background on Bowerstone and the entire island. They knew that the island had been ruled by the same ruling family for some time, the DuChamps. It was also a region that has a lot of racial diversity, just about all of the major humanoids are represented. It was also established that at some point in the past orcs were a slave class, though now many have been integrated into the mainstream. The party is aware that there are two other major cities on the island; Ocrist and Thundra. Ocrist has served as the seat of power for the DuChamps for quite some time. Glee and Romulus had gotten mixed up in their preferred line of work some time ago, but they had no specific contacts or allies in the area.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Pandemic: On the Brink

After months of waiting for my preordered copy of the Pandemic: On the Brink expansion to arrive, I was finally rewarded with a package in the mail the other day. That night I got together with Mike, Katie, and Jesse to play the new game, but I did have some questions going into it. The truth is morale has been real low lately with team games. Between Pandemic and Shadows Over Camelot we are really struggling, victories are few and far between these days. While I was going through the rules for On the Brink everything in there told me that this just a way to make the game harder. The game comes with three variants on the traditional game; Virulent Disease, Mutation, and Bio Terrorist (in which the game is turned upside down by having one player go against the others) all of which just seem to increase the difficulty level. Did we really need this, seeing as how we routinely get our butts kicked? So we decided to not play one of these new games right away. Fortunately for us the expansion comes with a bunch of other things which increase the fun of an already very enjoyable game.

One of the best aspects of the expansion is these really cool plastic Petri dishes that are used for containers for all the cubes and pieces for the game. Previously players had no choice but to put all the components in the small bags that the game came with, which really isn’t all that bad. But the little dishes are real cool and fit into the theme of the game, they have little stickers to go on them that make them look like hazmat containers. An excellent touch. Plus, it does make the game a bit more organized. What they really should have included was something to put the cards into, instead of that bizarre, ninth rate cardboard monstrosity that the original comes with. Really, what is that? Maybe next time. The game also comes with some smaller pawns which is good because the pawns were way too big, it was sort of awkward when you were on a space with another player or a couple infection cubes.

Aside from the new scenarios the game also comes with eight new Special Event cards and seven new Role cards. Additionally there is also a revised role card for the Operations Expert, which I find to be hilarious. Ever since we started playing Pandemic the Operations Expert has been the most maligned of all the roles, drawing that in the game was essentially the kiss of death. There was something charmingly morbid about being him actually, so it was very funny to see the game designers essentially acknowledge this by issuing a “patch” for the Op Ex. In addition to his awesome normal power of building research stations, he can now also discard any card if he is at a station to move anywhere on the board. It’s not a bad power, but it’s still not great. What it does is allow him to fly all over the board and quickly build stations anywhere that the group wants. Certainly makes getting around much easier.

Much like the original five roles, the new seven are a mixed bunch of usefulness. The Generalist looks like she may be the winner of the bunch since she gets five actions each turns, instead of four. That’s real good. The Troubleshooter is also excellent. He can peek at the infection deck at the start of his turn, allowing him to sniff out trouble before it happens and he also can use cards to fly around without discarding them. The Epidemiologist can take cards from other players, much like the Bizarro version of the Researcher. The Archivist can have eight cards in his hand! He can also take city cards from the discard if he is in the matching city. Eh, nothing special there. There are also some others that I have not seen in action yet, so I will reserve judgement on them but all of these news cards really just decrease the chance that you will get the Dispatcher or the Medic, which still seem to be the best cards. Have these new roles actually made the game harder?

Like the new roles, I have not had a chance to see all the Special Events in action. We just took all the new cards and mixed them in with the old, so I am sure they will come up at some point. I think that my favorite is New Assignment, which allows one player to draw a new role during the game. The other night when we first played with the new cards I, ironically, drew the improved Operations Expert. I was able to build several stations in a hurry and then Mike used it on me to call in some useful backup. The card is sort of unclear if the draw should be random or chosen, but we went with random and I would up with the Researcher. Some of the other new Events include one that allows a player two extra actions on a turn, the ability to remove five cubes of a color immediately when a cure is found, remove any three infections cubes on the board, and a couple others of varying power. The rules also recommend putting two Special Events per player into the deck, which is a boon to the players if you have three or more going at it. The original game had five cards, so it equals a gain for the CDC.

I don’t mind that we keep losing at Pandemic, but I don’t understand why it keeps happening. I feel like we have pretty solid strategy, understand the game well, work as a team. Yet we always seem to come up a turn or two short. What usually gets us is that we run out of cards in the Player Deck, despite making curing our top priorities. The other night everything seemed aligned for us. We had the Dispatcher and the Medic, used the Event cards well, and we still came up short.