Sunday, December 27, 2009

Hey Travelers, Don't Bother Calling

In a previous post I expressed my love for the Travelers, the mysterious race of intergalactic merchants from Starfarers of Catan. I mentioned how I wanted to hang out with them, that they seem cool. I wanted to be friends. Well, I take it all back. If I was to spend any time with them it would merely be to kill them, Tro-Taphon specifically. I blame him for my Starfarers loss the other night, no one else. Just him.

The 5-6 player expansion for Starfarers adds the Travelers to the game as a trade outpost, previously they were just a very generous black ball encounter. It is indisputably the best trade post in the game and the one that all players try to reach first. All of the cards are very good, but the Small Donation card has got to be the most valuable in the game for several reasons. Here is what it does: It allows the player to ask the lead player for a specific resource. If the lead player does not have the card then Tro-Taphon and his scumbag friends take an Upgrade from the lead player’s mother ship. An upgrade! That is absurd. I’m taking this very personally, it’s true. But it is a killer.

So, here’s what happened to me last night. We were playing a five player game of Starfarers (Mike, Katie, Tozer, Danielle, and myself) and I jumped out to an early lead on the strength of some colonies and fame rings. Mike eventually wound up getting a trade ship to the Travelers and got Tro-Taphon on his side. It was a great move for Mike, especially since he was in last place and wasn’t looking to be the lead player anytime soon. Since my lead was pretty substantial I wound up being the victim of his Small Donation for the majority of the game. I lost several resources to him, but the worst part was the lost freight ring and the four lost cannons. I had an abundance of carbon so I was working on a cannon strategy in the hopes of fighting a bunch of pirates and freeing some pirate planets. That went down the drain real fast since I was losing a cannon just about every turn. At one point I had seven cannons (I had picked up the plus two cannons from the Scientists) and was one move away from freeing the (7)Pirate planet. That was the closest I ever got to it. The game unfolded in a wretched manner and Mike wound up winning. I finished with 14 points.

I guess my question is if the Small Donation card is too good? Is it unbalanced to the point that it is foolish not to get it? Let’s see, the only reason to not get it would be if you are in the lead since it won’t help you at all as long as you are winning. You could even make the argument that it would be worth taking it just to prevent someone else from getting it. Compared to other cards it yields much more over the course of the game than a typical card from another trading post. I’m going to make some vast generalizations in an attempt to quantify exactly what this card is worth. Here goes. In an average game of Starfarers there are going to be about 18 turns. Small Donation is going to be one of, if not the, first trade cards picked up. We will say that someone gets it on turn 5 of the game (it is at the far end of the board, so it takes a little while to get there) and begins to use it on turn 6. That is twelve turns that they will have it, and let’s predict that they will take the lead on turn sixteen. That means it will be yielding resources for ten turns and it is guaranteed to produce something every turn. A smart player is going to ask for a resource that they know the lead player does not have, so for seven turns it will yield an upgrade (all of which are worth two resources). Following my fuzzy math that card has yielded 17 resources over the course of the game, plus has the additional effect of taking those resources from the lead player. Wow, that’s a lot. Does anything else even come close? Let’s compare it to some others.

A card from the Scientists is worth four resources (some combination of a booster and a cannon, or two of one type) plus a little bump up since it allows you to get your cannons over six and kill that one real tough pirate. I’ll be generous and say that they are worth five resources each. How about the Green Folk? At most they will yield an extra resource every other turn over the course of the game. Say you get to it early and it starts to pay off right away, it might be worth nine resources over the course of the game. The Merchants are hard to quantify since they allow you to convert your resources into others at a more favorable exchange rate, but it’s really an improvement on something that any player can do regardless. The trade goods one is the most useful, but since it is only usable once a turn I doubt that it is worth more than a couple of resources a game. Let’s be generous and say it’s worth eight resources over the course of the game. What about the Blue Folk? They seem to be sort of a mixed bag of usefulness. Let’s go with the one that is similar to Small Donation. The card (I can’t remember the name) allows the player to take a random card from up to two players, as long as the players have more victory points than the player taking the card. That one is pretty good. It has the potential to generate two resources a round, but they are random so not worth as much as picking a resource. This one puzzles me. I am going to say that it will be useful for half the game in all, but for half of that will only yield one resource. That’s a total of 15 resources, but since they are random I’d say that it is worth about 12 resources altogether. Plus the same bump that Small Donation gets for taking resources from someone. What does this all mean? It means that Small Donation is probably the best card in the game. I can’t even think of the last time we played Starfarers and it was not one of the first cards taken, which shows how highly valued it is.

Am I bitter? Sure. But it’s not so much because I lost but rather that this one card seems to be grossly out of line with other cards in the game. It doesn’t seem fair, not particularly to me but just in the general sense. The point is that if I ever run into Tro-Taphon on the street I’m going to tear him a new mouth.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Campaign Journal #11-The Long Awaited Temple. At Last.

Having dispatched with the winter wolves the party decided to make camp in their mountain lair. Shielded from the elements and easily defensible it made a good temporary base. During the night while on guard duty Glee heard the sound of some falling rocks not far from their location, he awakened Romulus and the two of them stared out into the night, scanning the area for the source of the noise. They spotted a lean, muscular figure climbing across the face of the mountain opposite where they were, several hundred feet on the other side of the valley. Before they could react the figure disappeared into a small cave opening on the side of the rock.

The next morning Glee and Romulus filled the others in on what happened during the night. Packing up they traveled along the mountain tops with the goal of ultimately winding up above the cave opening that they had seen. After being on the move for about an hour they came across a herd of mountain goats, they were doing goat like things. One of the goats seemed larger than the others and had a long black beard. Immediately suspicious of anything even slightly abnormal the party attacked the strange goat, sending arrows and fireballs it’s way. The goats did not last long; some were pierced by arrows, others done in by a fiery ball of destruction, and others leapt to their death in the confusion. Expecting to find the corpse of a wild shaped druid the party was somewhat surprised by what appeared to be body of an ordinary goat. Suspicious indeed.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Pandemic: On The Brink- Virulent Strain

Just when we were starting to get the hang of Pandemic and reel off some consecutive wins we decided to start to use the On The Brink expansion, thus once again endangering the world and setting back our success considerably. On The Brink comes with a bunch of goodies including new Roles, Special Events, and extra scenarios. Of the three additional games in the expansion the Virulent Strain challenge is currently my favorite.

In the Virulent Strain challenge one of the four viruses takes on deadly new properties. It¹s virtually the same game as the original Pandemic, except that the Epidemic cards are replaced with new Virulent Strain Epidemic cards. Otherwise it plays the same way. All of the new Epidemic cards function just like the Epidemic cards from the original set (i.e. Increase, Infect, Intensify), except they all have one added nasty effect that impacts the virulent strain for that game. When the first Epidemic card comes up during the game the color that currently has out the most cubes becomes the virulent strain for the rest of the game; making it tougher, harder to cure, and usually more abundant as it seeks to infect the known world. Or at least one localized quarter of it. The added effects vary from card to card and depending on when you get them in the game can be completely lethal. Some of them are one time effects, others are continual and will torment you until the game comes to it¹s (bitter) conclusion.

One that I’ve found to be particularly difficult is the Complex Molecular Structure, which increases the number of cards needed to cure the virulent strain by one. This can be an absolute devestator of an effect if there is no role suited to curing with fewer cards. Needing six cards of a color to cure a virus (out of a total of twelve) is crippling in several regards. First off, when playing with three or more players each player is most likely not going to see six cards of the same color over the course of the game (they are probably not going to see five either) which means that the difficult practice of trading cards will have to come into play. Second, it also means that only six cards of a particular color can be discarded over the course of the game, either from chartering flights, building stations, or discarding for being over the hand limit. Getting the right cards into the right hands is really the key to the game. A lot of it also has to do with the number of players. Have too few players and you will wind up discarding cards that will come back to haunt you. Have too many players and the Player Cards will run out after each player has only had a couple of turns, thus really limiting the chance of getting the needed number to cure.

Slippery Slope is another one that will push the world to the brink of extermination. A continuing effect, it causes each outbreak of the virulent strain to move the Outbreak Marker two spaces instead of one. That can end the world in a hurry. Of course, not all are deadly as these two, but none of them are pleasant.

One of the aspects of the On The Brink expansion that I find interesting is that, unlike most game expansions, it just makes the game harder. A lot of expansions do nothing other than introduce new characters or make the map bigger, ultimately making the game easier in some cases by giving the players a larger arsenal of options to work with. Not so with this one. Additionally, the Virulent Strain contains eight Epidemic cards, allowing the players to really test their skill by having one more potential epidemic than in the original game. I have to say that I think that Pandemic is absolutely one of the best games around, probably the best game that we’ve added to our group since the classic Starfarers of Catan. Having an expansion that really enhances the game only makes it that much better.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Campaign Journal #10- The Battle of Bowerstone

…as the party stepped out of the Church and into the street it was obvious that combat was imminent. A group of a dozen half orcs armed with longswords and shields were quickly approaching, looks of anger and revenge flashed on their piggish faces. The party surveyed the area and also saw two more figures, an archer on an adjacent rooftop and the elven female spellcaster who was part of the ambush on the party several nights prior. Everyone leapt into action, thirsty for blood and fighting for survival!

Henri lobbed a fireball at half the approaching group, burning the lot of them but they remained on their feet. Romulus and Glee paired up and tried to take out the other mob, working together with their team flanking tactics and cutting through flesh as if it was paper. Mgabwe started to buff up before heading into melee and was struck by a cluster of arrows from an unseen assailant, he spied a ninja on the roof of the Church for a moment before the figure vanished. Finally becoming comfortable in her support role, Lela went about buffing up the party with haste, bardic music, and healing when they needed it. I was surprised to see the initial onslaught of the party focus on the rank and file goons that were approaching them, rather than on the clearly more dangerous trio that was beginning to do some serious damage. A ray of enfeeblement from Mgabwe left the archer too weak to pull his composite bow, but the mysterious ninja moved around the battlefield invisibly and caused some grievous wounds with sudden striking nunchakus.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Campaign Journal #9- The Day the Music Died

The party decided that they were done with Bowerstone and were ready to move onto other adventures. I agree, four whole nights of gaming is a long time to spend in one town, even if it is as seedy and filled with adventure as Bowerstone is. However, before leaving there was the small matter of the Association and a certain do-wop group that needed to be taken care of. The group spent about half a day getting some more supplies around town to prepare for their journey back into the mountains and towards the medusas, the goal being to make it to the far off temple that they had seen perched away atop the mountain range. Also, Lela penned a letter to Mrs. Goldborn informing her that she would not be making it to her scheduled performance for the birthday party.

No one likes a bully and the party decided that before leaving they would kill the lead singer of the Dockside Boys, the charming Swooner Simon Schooner. After seeing Simon interact with Abraham at the Squires Club they had pegged the crooner as a rat, since he had seen the party leaving the docks after stealing a package, which then led to the initial encounter with Abraham. Simon had to die, it was that simple. Plus, Glee has had a long standing hatred of the man since first encountering him on the street. Smart enough to realize that murdering the well liked and well connected Schooner will probably spell the end of their time in Bowerstone they planned their assault very carefully.

Touch of Evil - The Delion Dryad

Poor Shadowbrook.  As if it’s not bad enough that this quaint hamlet is constantly under assault by evil Scarecrows, savage Werewolves, and Vampires that turn into mist, but now it has fallen under the enchanting spell of the Delion Dryad!  The Delion Dryad scenario for Touch of Evil is available free from the Flying Frog website (get it here), which is pretty awesome.  Touch Of Evil is not a particularly cheap game, usually going for around $50 so it’s very nice to see the designer encourage players to create their own scenarios and also to give away some free content.  Well done.

Cris and I played a cooperative game the other night against the Dryad and we found her to be a pretty challenging opponent.  The Dryad starts the game with a six combat and four wounds, unlike all the other villains who have five and five.  But there are numerous ways for her to increase her wounds throughout the game, so don’t expect to fight a lightweight.  The earlier a showdown can get started with the Dryad the better off the hero(es) is, but there are a couple of obstacles in the way.  For starters the Dryad has the Sorceress ability which protects her from heroes who rely only on brute strength.  If a hero has a Cunning and Spirit combined score of less than eight only sixes will hit the Dryad in a fight, so only a foolish hero will jump into an early showdown (the otherwise feeble Victor Danforth is the only one who meets this requirement at the onset of the game).  Shadow of the Season grants the Dryad an extra wound marker every time the Shadow Track passes into a new stage, either back or forth so the players needs to be careful if they move it around or the Dryad will continue to grow in power.  Additionally, the Dryad has the potential to lure town elders to her side for the showdown to protect her with the Enchantment ability.  Whenever a “Murder” card is played or a one or two rolled on the minion chat there is a chance that multiple elders will have enchantment markers places on them, the more they have at the start of the showdown the better chance that they will join the evil nature spirit and crush Shadowbrook. 

The minions following the Dryad are a mixed bunch.  She has wolves, which are nothing special and usually pretty easy to deal with.  However the Living Trees are another matter.  They are automatically placed in a random location each mystery phase, which means that it does not take very long for evil plants to overrun the board.  Pretty early in our game the other night all four corner locations had Living Trees, which made it very tough to get anything.  I was Thomas the Courier and was knocked unconscious at least three times by them in the first several turns of the game, the fact that Thomas is sort of a wimp wasn’t helping.  The Trees have four wounds and three fight dice, but they only hit on a six when attacking.  But their blows are fierce and do two hits each.  On the bright side any hero with a torch gets a +2 to their fight dice, making the torch a cost effective way to do battle.  Plus, they are worth five investigation points. 

Also on the minion chart is the Creeping Brambles event, which is sort of feast or famine for the players.  When it comes up every hero has to make an Honor 6+ test or lose D6 investigation, however each success garners the hero a +1 Cunning, Spirit, or Honor marker.  That certainly helps to get past the Sorceress power, but can completely sap a players investigation reserve and thus delay when the player can fight the Dryad. 

I consider the Dryad to be a rather capable opponent.  Cris and I were victorious against her, but by the time we won Thomas had been knocked unconscious in the showdown and the shadowtrack was down to one, so it’s not like we had an easy time of things.  Honestly, if it was not for Isabella’s Manipulation ability we would have been done for.  Strategy wise it’s hard to say who works best in this scenario.  Because of the Dryad’s abilities and some of her minions all of the stats are needed, so a well rounded character probably works best.  Especially if they can avoid fights early on and get an item or two to help out against the Living Trees which are going to be all over the place.  The torch can be discarded against the Dryad for an extra four Fight Dice, which makes it almost a must have for this scenario. 

I think that anyone who plays Touch of Evil should immediately go and download the Delion Dryad.  It’s free and it will show Frying Frog that they should make more free scenarios.  Sounds like a win win situation.