Monday, December 27, 2010

All Flesh Must Be Eaten initial thoughts

With our current Shadowrun campaign having ended we’ve decided to play a couple of other games over the next several weeks before we start up another. Next up on the agenda is the zombie horror game All Flesh Must Be Eaten. No one in the group, including myself, has ever played this before so it will be a new experience for all of us. Character creation is scheduled for this week so I’m trying to learn the rules since I will be adding Zombie Master (ZM) to my resume. Going into the game I do have some concerns about how the game will go. Before proceeding I would like to say that All Flesh Must Be Eaten is the greatest name in the history of roleplaying games.

The zombie genre is characterized by hordes of mindless combatants overpowering a group of survivors who are, most likely, at each other’s throats. To me that does not sound like a great game to run. Except for the players being at each other's throats. Why? Well, for starters the main enemy that I will be throwing at the party is mindless. Not even mindless in the way that gnolls and robots are mindless, but more like masses of gelatinous cubes coming after the party. What do I do with that? I mean, I love gelatinous cubes. Once every other campaign it’s great for an unsuspecting rogue to get trapped inside and have their equipment eaten. But if the vast majority of the opposition are all cubes? Even the occasional ochre jelly wouldn’t be enough to spice it up. It’s hard to play it dumb. I’ve always taken the approach that I place enemies in the world and they have an agenda and then they just sort of do their own thing. Sure, I’m controlling them but they are really like windup toys unleashed against the players. I think with All Flesh Must Be Eaten I need to take a more active role in things happening to the party in relation to what they do. Normally I wouldn’t do that, but I think it might make for a better game. More dead ends when being chased (as opposed to Path A being a dead end, and Path B leading to freedom), more crumbling staircases, more party strife and the like. I think I would also like to experiment with more “smart” zombies, but that is a little further down the road.

The other aspect that really concerns me is combat. In general combat against great numbers of weak foes is about the most boring approach. It takes a while, the party is never really in danger, and there is not much reward for it. From time to time it’s fun to do and allows the party to kick some ass. Right when that wizard gets Fireball or the rigger picks up a new autocannon, hordes of enemies are great to just mow down like target practice. But when that’s the norm? I’m not so sure. But that’s the thing about zombies. They are scary because they are essentially endless. You can never kill all the zombies. I hope that the party doesn’t try to. And I realize that an adventure in AFMBE isn’t about killing the boss, it won’t be structured that way but I would hate to see things drag as a result slow combat. And since this is the first time that we are playing I imagine that things won’t be running at top speed.

I like games and I always excited to try new ones, as is the case with AFMBE. If nothing else we have a fun group of players and I’m sure that we will enjoy the game. There are several types of characters in the game, ranging from norms (just what it sounds like) to Inspired (who have magical powers). We have chosen to play norms because it seems most representative of the actual genre. I think it’s also worth noting that no one in our group is a total zombie fanatic (not that I know of), so I don’t feel a ton of pressure to adhere to the genre to a tee.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Incan Gold review

There is an awful lot of exciting adventure contained in this small card game. Incan Gold casts the players as members of a team exploring the tunnels of an Incan ruin, searching for gold and the rumored treasures of a lost civilization. Like in Forbidden Island, I’m not sure if I am taking on the role of a grave robber and looter, or someone with more idealistic views. I’m not sure it matters, I’m comfortable with both. What I do know is that Incan Gold is a ton of fun and is probably the best “fast” game that I’ve played. Three to five players can get in on it and a whole game can easily be completed in fifteen minutes.

The game is simple. Each round players decide if they are going to return to camp and keep what they have found, or they are going to try to find more treasure by continuing in the tunnel. Players reveal their choices simultaneously, so predicting what others do is a part of the strategy. If you go to camp everything that you have found so far is safely banked (or tented, as the case may be) and you are done until the next tunnel. If you bravely light up that torch and keep going, then the next card is flipped over and everyone still exploring splits whatever loot they find. This is usually a room of a variable amount of treasure. There are also artifacts that have a value determined by when they come up in the game. Sometimes there are mummies though! And also spiders, cave ins, fire, and snakes. Once a pair of the same hazard comes out the tunnel is done and anyone still inside loses everything that they have found that round. The game is played over five rounds.

One of the aspects that makes Incan Gold so much fun is that because it is so fast it gets you in the mood to gamble, which is when the excitement really comes in. Knowing that you are going to have another shot in a moment makes even the most conservative gamer want to roll the dice. Sure, the tunnel may be collapsing and filled with snakes, but the lure of gold is very hard to resist. The fun really starts when one or two players have headed back to camp like the wimps that they are, leaving the remaining players to get a larger share of the loot. I shouldn’t be so quick to judge, discretion is the better part of valor after all. And there are some clear advantages to bailing early and leaving your friends at the mercy of giant spiders. For one, you get to keep all your treasure. That’s big. And you also get any treasure that has been left out in the tunnel. When treasure is divided it is rounded down and any of the leftovers stay in the tunnel to be picked up by whoever gets to them first. This is also how artifacts are obtained.

Since players are really just making one decision over and over (stay or go) there is not a ton strategy, but the concept of greed is as ancient as mankind and doesn’t appear to be losing steam. It’s about how far you think you can push it. As more and more hazards pile up the chances of pairing one become much greater. As a result player leave, the shares get bigger and someone always gets greedy. I love it. And you think that you know who is going to do what, but your friends will surprise you.

I like the pieces of treasure in the game. They are turquoise, obsidian, and gold and it’s fun to put them inside of your own little tent. Other than that the game is just cards. The art is mediocre, but it doesn’t bother me much in this game. They are never in your hand, turn over real fast, and it’s just the same couple of designs over and over. Except for the artifacts.

Artifacts of the Incans

About the only aspect of Incan Gold that I do not like is the quality of the artifact cards. As far as I understand this game was originally released as Diamant, the only difference between the two games is the inclusion of the artifacts in Incan Gold. Thematically I like the artifacts, it’s always fun to have a little bonus pop up along the way and see how the players fight over it. However, the art on them is really just of odd. There is not a ton of art or production that went into Incan Gold, it’s a card game that doesn’t require it. But if you are going to include the artifacts then they should be cool. As it is, I don’t even know that they are. There is the weird tetris block looking man, some sort of crummy necklace that looks like it would behead you if it was worn, something that looks like a rocket ship with eyes, and a gold cup. A cup! Come on, the Incans must gave been hoarding better treasure. I don’t know. Yes, I am picking nits but I think that Gryphon Games blew an opportunity to do something fun with them.

Incan Gold is an awesome game. It’s fun for a casual, quick night of gaming when you play games. It’s great for new players since the rules and concepts are so simple. It’s great for kids for the same reasons. And it’s relatively cheap. A worthy addition to any game library.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Cleopatra and Society of Architects review

Ever the fickle diva, Cleopatra has demanded a brand new temple to honor her and has gathered a group of architects to construct the marvel. In Cleopatra and the Society of Architects players take on the role of the architects. Using a variety of materials they must construct the temple and impress the Queen when she comes to inspect it, lest she feed you to her crocodile! The game is for three to five players and takes about an hour. Like many games with a lot of components it appears somewhat daunting at first, but it is actually a very easy game to play. And a lot of fun.

Days Of Wonder have outdone themselves with the components of this game. The best part is clearly the actual temple, which is constructed over the course of the game. It consists of columns, obelisks, sphinxes, a throne and other parts that are culled from the local quarry in the hopes of pleasing the Nile Queen. I have to say, it’s actually really cool to assemble the temple piece by piece. There are a million games where things are constructed and usually the most that one can hope for is some cardboard pieces that represent the construct. This far exceeds that. The way that the game box is incorporated is very clever, the pieces looks great and they even fit well into the box when it’s all over. Well done. My only complaint is that due to the height of the palace grounds (built on top of the game box) it is hard for all of the players to see what is going on (I had a similar problem when trying to take a picture of it). The non-palace pieces are mainly little cardboard chips that represent points and corruption amulets (more on that later) and they are fine. There are also little statues of Anubis that each player gets. Who doesn’t like little statues of Anubis?

In many aspects the game plays a lot like Ticket to Ride (a favorite at our gaming table) in the sense that there are only two actions available to a player each turn; get resources, or spend those resources to build something. The resources come from the Market, which are three stacks of cards that the player can choose from. Players can take one stack, after which an additional card is placed on each of them. When the game is setup the deck is shuffled in a strange way so that some of the cards are face up and others are face down, meaning that the market stalls have face down cards in them so that you don’t always know what you get. Interesting. Throughout the game the stacks are usually of varying sizes, but you don’t always want to take the most resources because some of them are tainted. Yes, there are corrupt merchants out there and Cleopatra frowns on your association with them. Apparently the black market for Lapis Lazuli was thriving in ancient Egypt.

The other available action for players is visiting the quarry and building a part of the temple. Each temple piece costs some combination of resources (this is very similar to Settlers or Starfarers of Catan) to build. For example; building a sphinx costs a player one artisan, one stone and one marble. Completing a temple piece is also worth talents, (the fancy name for points) which ultimately decide the winner of the game. There are only a certain amount of each temple part available and this determines when the game ends. Each time a part is exhausted Cleopatra gets a little closer to her inspection. When five (of six) are completed the game ends and Cleopatra passes her final judgment on the glorious temple that has been built to honor her. The game ends rather abruptly, there isn’t a final go around or even much warning so it’s important to pay attention to what is left in the quarry or you may be left with a bunch of unspent resources in your hand. And that does not make Cleopatra happy.

Choosing which pieces of the temple to build appears to be one of the key strategies of the game. Some of them are just worth a lot more than others. The throne, for example, gets a player twelve talents, whereas a sphinx may only get you two. Huge difference. Building up some resources early on and then going for the high value pieces is the way to do it. Like TTR, it makes more sense to go for the big ones rather than an accumulation of smaller parts. There are also additional talents to be won when placing the mosaic tiles and the column walls, so competition to get these is the right spot adds another element to the strategy.

Throughout the game players get corruption amulets whenever they engage in shady building practices by using tainted building materials, dealing with characters like the Vizier and Courtesan and by hoarding more cards than the ten card hand limit. Each player has a little pyramid with a coin slot in it that the amulets go into, they stay hidden from the other players. I like having my own private pyramid that hides my shame from the other players, and the reveal at the end is rather tense. When the game ends the most corrupt player is eaten by Cleopatra’s crocodile and loses the game automatically. I think that’s a great feature. I also like that it’s fine to be corrupt, as long as you are not the most corrupt. I think there is a lesson in there.

I think I’ve said this before but I really like what Days of Wonder are doing these days. The games that they make are consistently fun, the rules are well presented and easy to understand, and the games usually have great components and themes. Cleopatra is another excellent addition to their catalogue. It doesn’t seem to have the depth of a great game, I’m not sure that there is really a variety of styles that can be rewarded. To me, a great game allows players to play in a variety of styles and be successful. Ticket to Ride and Starfarers of Catan are the first that come to mind, but Cleopatra is still a very good game and one that I think is good for luring in novice gamers.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

DM Theory: The Goblin Cave

It’s easy to think of role playing games as sprawling, epic adventures in which the fate of the very universe hangs in the balance. The players are heroes (or villains) in the utmost, with each of their actions sending ripples through the entire world that they inhabit. And while that can be true, there is also nothing wrong with the Goblin Cave (or as it known in some circles, Bargle the Wizard). Often players and DM’s get caught up in these gigantic story arcs that ultimately crumble under their own lofty ambitions, thus squashing a game before it ever has a real chance of succeeding. To those games I say, have you been to the Goblin Cave?

The Goblin Cave can take many forms but at it’s heart it is a straightforward adventure that allows the players to make decisions, roleplay, learn something about their characters and have a good time. It goes like this: the party is somehow hired to kill the bandits that are stopping the local caravans. They lay in wait, defeat the goblin bandits, find some way to track them back to their cave lair where they kill the leader of the crew. They probably find something in the cave (a map, a hostage) that plants the seeds for the next adventure. I know, it sounds totally simplistic and it is. But it’s also fun. And for new players and DM’s it is a great way to play the game in a relatively closed environment and figure out what it is all about. Think of the opening scene of a lot of action movies. In many cases it is just a way to meet the characters and highlight some key traits that will pop up later on. This is just like that!

Another nice aspect of the Goblin Cave scenario is there is no pressure to create some sort of lasting villain that always gets away and continues to harass the party at every turn. The leader of the goblins dies in the goblin cave and then he is looted by the party. He is recognizable only by his slightly better weapon than the one’s wielded by his minions (perhaps a short sword to their clubs?). Maybe he yells out to the party just as the melee is joined. If he needs to be a little more memorable than sometime earlier in the adventure the party can learn his name and a little physical description, so that the party knows who he is when they go up against him (“The goblin with the short sword and long red hair, that must be Greasy Garth!”). There is a sense of accomplishment when he is defeated, knowing that he had been wreaking havoc on the townsfolk and now that has been ended by the actions of the party. It’s an immediate reward for the group.

I’m a big fan of promoting discussions amongst the party regarding their motives and intentions. To me it’s kind of what makes a roleplaying game so much fun and different from video games and board games. And the Goblin Cave has many opportunities to get the players talking and learning about their characters. Why are they taking on this assignment? Is there a bounty on the goblin bandit? Do they feel the need to protect the community and undertake the mission for altruistic reasons, or do they just love violence and despise goblins? What happens when they find stolen merchant cargo in the cave, is it returned to the original owner or is it claimed by the party as loot? The point is that there is a lot that can go into such a seemingly simple adventure.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Ticket to Ride: The Sade Express

One of my favorite destination tickets in Ticket to Ride is Los Angeles to Chicago, also known as the Sade Express. Ever since I first heard the Sade classic song “Smooth Operator” the lyric “coast to coast/LA to Chicago” has stuck out to me for the simple fact that it makes no sense. LA to Chicago is not going coast to coast. I suppose that Chicago is a coastal city but invoking LA and traveling to the other coast really conjures up an east to west continental journey. While the lyric may be silly, the route is certainly a winner. A favorite of mine, that Sade Express.

What makes it a good ticket? Well, it’s worth sixteen points which makes it one of the more valuable tickets in the game. There are certainly tickets worth more than that, but I think that the Sade Express might be better than all of them because of the fact that you don’t have to enter into the labyrinth of small, time wasting connections that begin once you head east of the Windy City. The only tricky thing about the route can be getting out of Los Angeles, which can frequently get clogged up early in the game. Aside from exiting LA there are a myriad of ways to get from one way to another, and it is also possible to pass very close to many of the other major cities in the game and have a multitude of tickets contained within the Chicago to Los Angeles route. I’d like to think that Sade knew all of this when she penned Smooth Operator.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

DM Theory: Planning Too Much?

Running a successful, long term gaming campaign is a lot of work, and there is no guarantee that it is going to be worth it in the end. I’ve seen many games that lasted less time than a goblin in padded armor. So, what can you do to make your game fun and lasting? Well, there are a near infinite amount of ways to approach gaming but I can’t talk about all of them here. One that I would like to comment on is the amount of preparation that goes into a single session and into the ongoing campaign. Contrary to popular opinion it is possible to plan too much for a game, sometimes to the detriment of all involved.

If you are (un)fortunate enough to be the GM, DM, Keeper or whatever for your group there is no need to burden yourself with additional planning and long term masterminding that may never come to pass, or even worse, be forced upon the group of players. In my experience one of the worst things that a game master can do is to plan too far in advance, have the whole arc of the campaign scripted out before the first dice are rolled. It’s important to realize that the Game Master is just one half of the equation, with the players comprising the more volatile, explosive part of the game and the GM providing the framework that it can all exist inside of. It has to be a collaborative effort or it’s going to fall short. A couple of years back I was running a D&D campaign and when I was putting together my initial thoughts on the story I had in mind a plot involving the poisoning of the land by a clan of evil blighter type druids. Ultimately I assumed that the players would battle the druids and find their way to a mystical isle of legend where they could find the cure for the blighting that would be tearing through the land. I had some plot hooks that would interest all of the PC’s, but the PC druid was going to sort of be the driving force as to why they were getting involved in all of this. Well, guess what? The druid totally sucked as a character (she was fun and everyone liked her, but grossly ineffective) and wound up getting killed halfway through the campaign. But even before that I was able to adjust where the game was going by letting the players steer the course and in the end we had what may have been the best long term game that the group had experienced. It was a ton of fun. However, if I had spent a month writing up NPC’s, drawing maps and creating monsters I think that I would have been much more hesitant to scrap it. And this allowed me to adjust to what they did want to do, rather than just going along with what I had planned.

Another thing that is worth mentioning is that sourcebooks are there to help you. Honestly I’ve never been a big fan of the D&D books for specific locales (Greyhawk being the major exception) but the Shadowrun ones are great, as are a lot of other games. Use them, make it easy on yourself. Especially if you are new to running a game, piggyback on what others have done before you and play around and see what you and your group are most into. No need to reinvent the wheel.

It’s also very useful to have some key plot points or NPC’s that can be used in any location, that is to say that they are not tied to a certain inn or an event that will only happen if the party decides on a certain course. For example, the party is looking for a piece of information while investigating the disappearance of a college professor. You know that the info that they need is inside the head of a colleague of the professor’s. Now maybe that guy is usually hanging out at a certain watering hole, but he doesn’t have to be. Guess where he is going to pop up? That’s right, wherever the PC’s wind up. That seems simple, but look at it from the player’s standpoint. You have not railroaded them anywhere, they have been free to check out a whole bunch of places and ask around for this guy, which is good. Players don’t want to be told where to go. But in the end they find what they have been looking for and also get explore the location a bit. And you’ve really just created one NPC (of course, you are going to need to be able to adlib your way through some social encounters. If you can’t do this, you may be in the wrong line of work.)

In the end nothing is more important than understanding the group that you play with, and it takes time to breed that familiarity. But I know that I like to game every week and I don’t always have 10+ hours to set aside for preparation so I’ve learned to get by on less and less prep time. And some of the best sessions we’ve every had came as a result of having virtually nothing planned (don’t tell the players that) because it becomes a real group effort with everyone contributing to the action.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Castle Panic review

Building your castle right in the middle of the forest was probably not the smartest idea, so you shouldn’t be all that surprised that monsters are coming out of the woods to tear it down. Such is the dilemma of Castle Panic, from Fireside Games. Castle Panic is a cooperative game in which the players must defend their castle from hordes of goblins, orcs and trolls. The monstrous horde reigns victorious if they are able to destroy the castle, the players are triumphant if they defeat the entire gang of monsters laying in wait. Castle Panic is for one to six players and takes about 45 minutes. I think that it's a fun game and a great introduction to cooperative board games due to it's simplicity, but ultimately it lacks the depth and strategy that would allow it to be a great game. 

The castle consists of six towers in the middle of the board surrounded by six walls that help to defend it. Working from the inside out the castle is surrounded by several colored rings; swordsmen, knights, archers and the forest. Monsters in the forest are in wait and can’t be attacked until they emerge, monsters in the other rings can be attacked by the appropriate soldier. Example: a troll that has moved into the Knight ring in the green section can be attacked by a Green Knight card. Monsters are randomly placed in the forest when they come into the game and on each turn they move one step closer to the castle, ultimately destroying the walls and moving onto the towers. There are 49 monster tokens in the beginning of the game and the players have to defeat them all in order to achieve victory. The game sort of works as a puzzle as the players attempt to piece together the best offense by anticipating where monsters will wind up on a given player’s turn.

Each turn the players have a chance to trade cards with one another, and if the game has a key strategy it is trading cards between castle defenders. The strategy is simple to grasp and, unfortunately, does not get much more complex which does not bode well for repeated plays of Castle Panic. Most of the moves are self evident. If there is a goblin in the Red Archer zone and one of the other players has a Red Archer, you should trade for it. You can only trade once per turn so it is important to prioritize and make sure that the trade you make is the best one available. Aside from that you should just kill anything that you can reach.

The oddest thing about Castle Panic is the Master Slayer. When a player defeats a monster they claim it’s monster token and at the end of the game players total these up and the one with the most points is given the title of Master Slayer. So, everyone wins but one player wins more than the others? That seems real weird to me and does not mesh all that well with the team dynamic. I suspect that the designers probably added this to increase the competition in what is generally a pretty easy game. But I’m not so sure about it.

The game components are simple and do the job. There is not much to the game. Castle Panic consists of some towers, some walls, monster tokens and a deck of cards. The art is just okay. I would like to have seen some variation amongst the creatures that are attacking. The orcs all look the same as one another, they must have some real military discipline going in on those woods to get the traditionally chaotic creatures to all agree to the same uniform. I do like the Boss monsters that lead the others. The best components are the actual walls and towers. They are on little stands and lend some depth to the board. They fall into the unnecessary but enhances the game category. The board is sort of bland and the one I have is a little crinkled around the edges. I would like to have seen maybe some enemy encampments, siege engines, or really anything else put on the board just as a meaningless detail. As it is it is just a big field with circles on it.

I think that the biggest issue I have with Castle Panic is that it seems to be pretty easy. Actually, it seems to be real easy. I’ve played the game about a half dozen times now and only once did I actually feel panicked, which I sort of assumed to be the signature emotion of the game. A cooperative game needs to be hard. It is one of the reasons why Pandemic is such a success, most of the time you are probably not going to win. It’s creates tension and drama and a nice feeling of accomplishment when you finally succeed. Same thing with Shadows Over Camelot. There are suggestions in the instructions about making the game harder, the most difficult of which is the version in which the castle starts with no walls, just the towers to defend. It was close, but we were able to defeat that one as well and I’m just not sure where we take the game from here. I’m not sure how much our game group will continue to go back to this game since we will keep winning. I don’t need the ego boost that comes with continued winning, I’d prefer the challenge that makes a great game.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Game of Real Life

I was given the Game of Real Life by a friend, who had it given to them by someone else. Other than Hot Potato a game should not be passed around this much, so I was a bit leery about this game from the start. The Game of Real Life is a more realistic approach to the Game of Life, the classic game of happy endings. Apparently real life is filled with nothing but drugs, prostitution, early death and pain. I suppose that’s not entirely false and actually makes a decent premise for a game. Honestly though the game is not much more than a “roll the dice, move your mice” with some colorful details and some options along the way. But, like real life, much of the decision making is really out of the player’s hand. The game is for two to six players and should not take more than a half hour, considerably less if a couple players meet unfortunate endings. Which they probably will.

The best part of the game is the diary. All the players are given a diary sheet to keep track of their life events. It’s nothing all that special, but I like that the game creators wanted to put some sort of element into it that gives it some life. It’s nice to be more than just the sum result of some dice rolling and a score at the end. The problem is that you think that the diary will be a nice, flowing narrative of your character’s life when it is actually just a bunch of short sentences summarizing what happened to you. The game turn is very quick (just roll and read) so it does not leave you with much time to create flowery prose.

The object of the game is to be the player who has the most happy faces at the end of the game. Living for a long time helps because it allows you more time to collect happiness, but it is possible to win even if you die early if those are some real happiness filled years of youth. Happy faces are gained by all sorts of activities; marriage and kids, vacations, and many other things such as your own pizza, catching leaves on a fall day and seeing a unicorn in the forest. Strangely, the single biggest happiness provider in the game is found on the heroin chart. Granted, some of the other heroin uses create disastrous situations, so it’s not always a happy ending. It’s really not a happy ending in most situations. Cris, Mike and I played the other night. Mike was a drug addict witness to an infant having their throat slit, Cris was a prostitute that died in World War III and I perished in a nightmare of a nursing home. At least I made it to old age, not bad for someone who was disowned by their family, shot in a drive by and had some bad experiences with LSD.

The board itself is a blur of lines, small type, colors and some drawings. It is very confusing and the fact that the print is so tiny and facing off in all directions makes it very hard for the player to read what is going on. What space am I on? Can you read that for me? And the game pieces are rocks. Actual rocks. I suppose they are little bit glossy actually. I don’t mind the low-tech approach to the game, but the design of the board could have been a lot better. It’s not just that it does not add a ton to the game, but I would say that it actually detracts since it slows things down as you try to figure out the space that your rock just landed on. And the spaces are very little. Also, maybe we had too much wine when we were getting started but it took us several minutes just to locate the starting point on the board. Not a great sign.

The Game of Real Life is fine if someone wants to give it to you, but I’m not sure that I would recommend buying it. If you are used to Life and Monopoly than it will probably be exciting and funny and perhaps an impetus to look further into the world of board games, which is a great thing. I’m not saying that I will never play it again, but it is not at the top of the list.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sage Advice: An Archive of Bizarre Questions and Answers

In my formative role playing years I was a big fan of Dragon magazine. What I liked best about it were the insights into the games of other players. I really enjoyed the letters column and Sage Advice, where gamers would write in and ask questions of the gurus at TSR. Most of the time they could easily be answered by anyone who actually owned any of the books for D&D, but other times they were totally off the wall and represented, what I felt was, the real way that people play the game. Fortunately for all of us someone has taken it upon themselves to post years worth of Sage Advice and put it out there for all to read. Thank god for the internet.

This glorious page can be found here:

I’ve spent some time reading through it and I am happy to say that it is as entertaining as I remember. Some of my favorites include the following questions: “We are having an argument over an issue that has us divided. My friends say that with a ring of telekinesis they can make an arrow spin at the speed of light and then release it, having it do between 100 and 600 points of damage to their target. I say this is impossible! What do you think?” The Sage answer sides with the questioner, in case you were wondering it is not possible to do such a thing. Apparently the arrow would disintegrate if it was to spin that fast. Hmm.

Another: “What is the difference between chain mail and plate mail armor?” What kind of a question is that? There are dozens of books that describe both of them in detail. No one at this gaming table was able to answer this question? They had to write to a magazine? I love it.

Some more: “Will a monster join a character party if invited?” There are a lot of these subjective questions going on as well. Some of the others include “Is my character dead”, “What is behind the secret door” and “Is the sword I found magical”. The Sage Advice guy was a lot kinder with these questions than I would have been.

This also got me thinking about some of the questions that my game of 13 year olds would have asked back in the early 90’s. One of them would definitely have been, “Is a wish spell capable of giving the character an army of water breathing minotaurs? And, if so, what needs to be done to insure their loyalty? Is the promise of pillaging enough?” That was big in our game. Very important. I’ve also always wondered about “How many ballistas can fit onto the deck of the boat that my party stole at the end of the Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh?” If you are a player of a certain age the answer to just about any question should be yes. It just makes sense to try to do everything. And, in a way, it’s easy for the DM because they all lead to murder and treasure.

There is something inherently strange about asking questions about D&D, since there are specific rules for the game and the DM’s word is law for anything not covered under those rules. But at the same time I am so glad that people ask these questions.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Prime Runners: Shadowrun 2nd Edition

Lately I’ve been pretty obsessed with second edition Shadowrun. There are just so many things about the world and the game that I really like, as a result I’ve been buying up pretty much every second edition book that I can get my hands on. Some are replacements for ones that I had a teenager (that have all gone to some sort of abyss of old role playing material, my contribution to this netherworld is substantial) and others are new to me entirely. One of the best parts of this is that not many people seem to be playing second edition these days so the books usually cost more in shipping than to actually buy them. The point is that I have been reading a ton of these things lately and, while many of them are excellent, the one that most stands out to me is Prime Runners.

Prime Runners is a sourcebook, but it is not location specific. It is essentially a book of NPC’s of all types. When I purchased it I had assumed that it would just be page after page of elite runners, which seems pretty cool to me. I like reading about badass futuristic mercenaries. But it is actually way better than that and gives such an interesting view into what makes the Sixth World really tick. There are runners contained in it’s pages, but there are also talismongers, journalists, fixers, writers, athletes, and pretty much anything else that you can come up with. To see how a world really lives and breathes it would be not all that useful to just see the runners that operate in it’s seedy underbelly. But to see how many powerful people in the world interact with and use this seedy underbelly is something else altogether. How did that fixer with the suitcase nukes get to be that guy? Why has that journalist been able to survive and thrive in the most dangerous places in the world? It’s all in there chummer.

Like all the Shadowrun sourcebooks, Prime Runners is presented as the work of someone else. In this case two runners who decided to compile a directory of people that other runners would need to know. Good concept. And like other books it is filled with comments from others who have read and commented on the entries. I love that. Usually the comments present various opinions on the person in question and bring up rumors about them as well. Aside from that all the entries have the character’s motivations, history (or what is known of it) and hooks to get the players involved with them. It is well written, smart, interesting and funny. If you can’t get something out of this as a GM then you should probably retire your dice.

One other thing that I really liked about the book was that it showed what a really tough character looks like. Since Shadowrun does not have a level system for characters it is sometimes difficult to know exactly when someone is very powerful, so much of it depends on the particular situation that they are in. And the location sourcebooks rarely have the stats of actual characters in them, that just seems to be how they are. But this books peels back the curtain and shows you how a real wiz runner scans. Take for example Teachdaire, the elven assassin. This guy is no joke. Skills as high as 13, all custom delta-level cyberware and rating six hydraulic leg jacks. Okay, the leg jacks are weird but I would not tell him that. But that is what elite level looks like. Two things really stuck out at me as I read his entry. One, in a standup fight he is virtually invincible. Super fast, skilled and deadly. And two, that with a good plan he can be killed with one shot just like everyone else. And that’s what makes Shadowrun so cool. At least one of the things.

Another runner I would not cross is the combat mage Sukie Redflower. She is totally absurd, both in attitude and ability. But the book is filled with compelling characters. As I was reading through it I was thinking with each entry how I would fit that NPC into our campaign, and it wasn’t stretch for any of them. When I finished the book I had a year’s worth of adventures planned. Isn’t that what a good sourcebook should do?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Ranking the Pandemic Roles

Pandemic is a tough game. In addition to the horrendous surge of disease that is plaguing the world, there are also the questionable hiring practices of the CDC. Sure, some of the staff I understand, but others I really wonder about. How did they get a job with an organization that seems responsible for saving the world? And wouldn’t the CDC just send out the people best suited for the task? Maybe they were on vacation and no one could get a hold of them. However, the variable roles in the game are also one of the best aspects of the game so I’ve decided to rank all of the roles, including the ones that are introduced in the On The Brink expansion. Unlike the characters in Last Night on Earth none of the roles are wretched, they all have some use. Though the gap between the best and worst is still pretty large.

Dispatcher- In my eyes the unquestioned number one in the game. One of the most important tactics in Pandemic is to be able to trade cards between players and no one makes this easier to do than the Dispatcher. The ability to dispatch any player to another player makes so many things possible when it comes to trading cards. And on top of that they can also move other players around with their own actions, usually setting people up to be in a good position when they start their turn. Any group with a Dispatcher gets a big leg up when it comes to winning. Ideally the Dispatcher never even leaves the greater Atlanta region. The only downside is that the Dispatcher can be hard to use, often requiring the player to think a couple of turns ahead. Which I actually consider to be pretty fun.

Medic- The medic will not help you win the game in the curing sense, but no role is as productive when it comes to keeping the world safe. Being able to clear off all the infection markers with a single action is really strong, assuming that you can get them to the trouble spot. Once a cure is found they can also wipe out all the cubes without spending an action, making them the perfect partner for the Dispatcher to run them through an infected region and clean the whole mess up.

Researcher- Who doesn’t like the Researcher, the most giving of all CDC employees? Seriously, the Santa Claus of Pandemic is a welcome addition to any crew. For one action per card this lady (I think it’s a lady) can give city cards to other players as long as they are in the same place. One of the best tactics is to give away their initial cards on the first turn when everyone is in Atlanta, it’s a good way to get some direction early and maybe snuff out a color in the first two rounds if the cards cooperate a little bit.

Scientist- The object of the game is curing diseases and the Scientist does it better than anyone else. Needing only four cards (instead of five) makes them the ideal candidate to get the job down. However, they still need to get those cards and possess no ability to help with that. The Researcher, Dispatcher and Scientist make an awesome combo should you be so lucky to get them all together.

Field Operative- My favorite of the expansion Roles, the Field Operative has a cool mechanic that makes them very useful in finding cures. Once a turn when they remove cubes from a city they can put one of the cubes on their card. When they have collected three cubes of the same color they can then cure that color for only three cards. Awesome. I like this for a couple of reasons. Obviously it’s pretty powerful, it just takes a bit to develop. But I also like that it makes sense. This guy is out there collecting samples and then can use that evidence to find a cure. Though I am a bit concerned about their haircut, it looks like blonde noodles springing forth from their head.

Troubleshooter- The best preventative role in the game, whatever that means. The Troubleshooter works best in a game with four or five players when they can play the role of freelance operative, flying around and preventing outbreaks. The ability to peek at the upcoming infections is really handy, but if that is all they are doing they are nothing more than middle of the pack. The secondary ability of not discarding city cards to fly there is also useful, especially when it comes to trading since they can fly to a city that they have a card of. Makes it easier to trade.

Containment Specialist- Ultra specialized character that can be very helpful, though at times it’s power will go unused for long stretches. Perhaps the best character at preventing those horrid chain outbreaks, you just need to make sure that he is in the right location to take advantage of his unique skill set. Another character that works well with the Dispatcher, though really everyone does.

Generalist- That’s not a real job. How did they get hired? I wonder if the position was posted as Generalist on a government job site. “We are looking for someone who doesn’t do anything all that well but it useful to have around.” Each turn they get an extra action. It is what it is. Some turns it is very useful, other times it won’t make that much of a difference. About as average a character that you can be. And what it she holding in her hand? Is it for injections?

Epidemiologist- The ability to trade cards easier is very good, but the Epidemiologist gets the short end of the stick as far as this ability is concerned. The issue is that it is capped at being usable once per turn, which is okay but definitely inferior to the Researcher. Also, being able to give cards seems to help more than being able to take cards from players (which is what the Epidemiologist does). This is one of the roles that I’ve just never seen be all that useful during the actual course of the game. Additionally the fact that the woman’s face appears to be melting makes me nervous.

Operations Expert- It’s not so much that the Operations Expert is bad, being able to easily build stations is actually really nice, but the problem is that he becomes quickly obsolete. Once they build a couple of stations they can’t really do all that much. If you happen to have the New Assignment special event it works great here; build some stations and then bring in someone who can still do their thing. The added ability to discard any card at a station to fly somewhere is nothing all that great, but at least it let’s you put a station anywhere that you want. Oh yeah, it’s the On the Brink version that we are discussing here. The original killed himself in shame.

Archivist- Weak. A hand limit of eight cards instead of seven is okay, but it really doesn’t stack up to just about any other power in the game. The more useful ability is the one that allows the Archivist to bring a city card back from the dead, but it’s really an ability that takes a lot to make it work. Chances are it is something that you will want to use during the end of the game when you need a certain color. In order to yield some results the Archivist has to get to the correct city, get the card and then get it to the appropriate player (assuming it is not the Archivist) and give it to them (or more likely have the player come to them and take it). That’s a lot of work in a very time sensitive game.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Forbidden Island review

Without knowing much about it I picked up Forbidden Island for a couple of reasons. It was cheap (only $16, which is stupidly cheap for board games), had very nice packaging and it was by Matt Leacock, creator of the awesome Pandemic. I was a little hesitant because it was purchased in a toy store that had pretty much just stuff for little kids and I’m 31 years old. But I bought it anyway and I’m very glad that I did. The premise is neat; a group of adventurers travel to the infamous Forbidden Island to loot it of it’s four treasures. The only problem is that the ancient civilization that guarded the treasures has booby trapped the island, making it a watery grave for anyone who tries to steal the valuable artifacts. It is for two to four players, should take less than a half hour and is very simple to learn and play.

When I started to read through the rules one thing became clear right away. This game is Pandemic, just with a different storyline. Honestly, it plays almost exactly the same. Instead of curing the four diseases the players have to find the four treasures by using four matching treasure cards. Instead of outbreaks and infections in cities certain island tiles become flooded. Instead of Infection cards we have Waters Rise, which causes the deck to be reshuffled and increases the number of flooded tiles each round. Even the player roles are very similar. It may not be the most original game concept, but that does not take away from the fun of it at all. It’s a great game.

One thing about Forbidden Island that is top notch is the art and packaging. The game comes in a nice looking tin and everything fits easily inside of it. The island is comprised of randomly placed tiles (so the layout is different each time) and the art in them is super cool. They are all sort of ominous and forbidding (maybe that’s where the island’s name comes from…) and each one unique. They are not generic things like mountains and coast, but Breaker’s Bridge and the Cave of Shadows. The Coral Palace may be my favorite. Seriously very cool. Everyone that I have played with has commented on the art. But the best part is the actual artifacts that you have to collect. Each one of the four is represented by a little figurine and, like the tiles, are really very nice. I think that my favorite is the Ocean’s Chalice because of the tentacles on the stem of the goblet, but I would listen to arguments for all of them. One aspect of them that I really like is that they are in the game just to be a nice addition, they are not necessary at all. They could easily be represented by cards, but the makers chose to throw in a nice feature that really enhances the game (this does not always work, see Hera and Zeus). It’s nice to see the creators go the extra bit and also not gouge the consumer for it.

The game itself plays very quickly and does a remarkable job of creating tension and a total feeling of hopelessness. Great. If an island tile becomes flooded after already having been flooded once it is then removed from the game, causing a gap in the island. Depending where the hole in the board is it could prove lethal for our intrepid band of adventurers (though depending on how you look at it, they could easily be called robbers. I sort of like the grey morality of just who these people are). One of the mechanics of the game that I really like is that in order for the players to win they not only need to get all four treasures, but then the entire group needs to make it back to the helicopter and fly off the island together. If there is one thing I’ve always felt was odd about Pandemic it was that the game just ends when the fourth cure is found, it seems sort of abrupt. Not so in Forbidden Island. It also reinforces the camaraderie that is necessary to win the game. These adventurers are not leaving anyone behind, even if it means their death as they wait for the Diver to get there. The Diver, by the way, is the Operations Expert of Forbidden Island. That is to say that they are the character that no one wants to be.

So far we have played four games of Forbidden Island and as a group we have two wins and two losses. For what it’s worth both wins came with three players and both losses came with four, so maybe the game is harder with more players (which I think is also true of Pandemic). I kind of went into playing thinking that it would be easy, but it’s not. Much like Pandemic there are numerous ways to lose and only one way to win. The game can be enjoyed by older players but it is also a great introduction to games for a younger player. If I knew any 10 year olds I would buy this for them in a second.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Zurich is a Trap: More Thoughts on TTR Europe

I’m sure that Zurich is a beautiful city and it’s residents lovely people, but to me it is nothing more than a horrid trap encased by mountains. At least as far as Ticket to Ride Europe is concerned, which is more and more becoming the lens through which I view geography.

At first glance Zurich seems so appealing. It has four routes that run through it and it connects to a bunch of major areas, it has a great location. So why is it such a trap? Well, for starters every one of the routes that run into it is a tunnel which means that you will probably not be getting a real good return on those trains you put down. Plus, they are all real short. Three routes of two and another of one. No thanks. Like I’ve said in the past I think that TTR-Europe is really a game of board control and getting value out of each of your 45 trains. Not to say that tickets are not important, just not as important as in the original version of TTR. Zurich can be part of a winning plan as long as you just dip into it and get out, spending three turns or so placing trains through the mountains definitely puts you at a disadvantage.

The two games (TTR and Europe) are virtually the same, so why the difference in strategy? Well, the map of Europe is sort of a mess and certainly uneven. There are some very strong regions to claim (mainly the upper right section of the board) and others that are not very conducive to winning (such as Zurich and the surrounding mountains), and if you can lay claim to the high value areas it gives a distinct advantage when it comes time to tally those points. More and more my strategy is to get three or four tickets that work well together and end the game. It’s been working well for me lately. Being the player who initiates the end game is more valuable than an extra ticket or two, at least I think so. If I don’t get one of the 20+ point tickets in my initial draw I try to end the game quickly by focusing on routes of four or more trains, anything less than that may not always be worth it. Of course the chance of all of your tickets fitting neatly into four train routes is nonexistent, but I use that as a guideline when trying to figure out where I am going.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Shadowrun Campaign Journal #3

After a session which consisted mainly of downtime investigation and off color jokes the party was eager to make something happen. Bring a little action to the shadows of the Outer Edge. Gathered in Mr. White’s warehouse they discussed their options and worked out some potential plans. The ultimate goal was to flush out the Trashcan Man and free themselves of his blackmail, but being the wily raccoon shaman that he is that was not going to be easy. They checked in with their contacts again but not much was moving on that front so they decided to set a plan in motion. Puppy picked up the waitress at the local Long John Silver’s, but she did not yield as much information as Puppy was hoping that she would.

The party assumed that if they made some sort of move on the drug dealer Dark Cloud that Trashcan Man would be in the area watching it go down. Why would he be doing that? Well, his covetous nature made them think that he would want to be involved in whatever was happening, but also as a blackmailer he would probably want to record the whole situation as a future source of income and manipulation. With this in mind the party rolled over to the area of Dark Cloud’s warehouse, not entirely sure of what was going to happen.

Most of the party sort of had their own desired outcome for what they wanted to happen and how it was going to happen. They considered trying to have a face to face with Dark Cloud and let him know that there was a hit out on him. They also toyed with the idea of ignoring him all together and looking for an alternate way of getting Trashy to make an appearance. There was also some debate about the use of the infamous autocannon. Katsin was dead set about not using it, while Mr. White was extremely anxious to bust it out and mow down some degenerates.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Shadowrun Campaign Journal #2

The party started the night in Mr. White’s warehouse, licking their wounds from the previous encounter. Both Puppy and Phil the Kill had serious injuries so they decided to hole up a while and do some healing. Mr. White did some computer recon to learn about the fallout over the shootout at Morpheus’ Throne. Apparently the police thought it was the work of some amateurs considering the haphazard way that everything seemed to go down. The party seemed to get a kick out of that, especially since the police were right. There was a mention of some military grade weaponry used in the fracas, this seemed to be of some concern to the local police force.

After a couple of days of laying low they decided to contact Zapper and get their payment for killing Handsome Dick. Phil and Katsin met up with a grim faced Zapper who had some bad news for them. First, he informed them that they had all been had by his employer. The “Aztechnology” corp man does not exist, Zapper thought the whole thing was a setup and that there was no money for any of them. Someone just wanted Handsome Dick, and perhaps all of the Silver Streaks, dead. Secondly, he played them some video footage on a small player of the incident with the Silver Streaks. Clear as day they watched Mr. White unload with the autocannon, reducing some gang members to red mist and tearing apart a section of a building in a hail of lead. There was also footage of the inside of the bar showing the rest of the crew doing work. Zapper told them that the footage was going to be released to the police unless the party cooperated with the wishes of the mysterious client. Zapper apologized to the group and assured them that he had no part in this and was very sorry that they were being manipulated this way. After a perception test Katsin believed him, but the party seems unlikely to ever trust Zapper again.

With the blackmail in place the party was assigned a new job. In the Outer Edge section of Seattle (the same area that housed the once semi-prominent Silver Streaks) there is a drug dealer named Dark Cloud. He is to be killed. They were given the address of his warehouse but not much else. Now is where things started to get interesting…

Monday, July 19, 2010

Shadowrun Campaign Journal #1

I’ve decided to run a Shadowrun mini-campaign over the next couple of weeks. It has been a couple of years since I have played Shadowrun and probably 15 years since I have been a GM for the Seattle based cyber punk RPG. I’m looking forward to it. I also don’t feel like buying some new books for a game that is only going to last a couple of weeks so I am sticking with the one book that I have; the 2nd Edition basic book. Also, none of the players in the game have ever run the shadows before and Shadowrun (especially 2nd Edition) is not the most novice friendly game. So I’ve decided to do a stripped down easy version of the rules with an emphasis being on quickness of play and a good time. We will see how it goes.

For the sake of brevity I made all the characters ahead of time. Yes, I understand that creating a character is a ton of fun. But so is playing and I wanted to get down to it. We only have a couple of weeks before D&D picks back up. We got together and the players decided to randomly pick the people that they were going to be playing. I gave everyone a basic history of the Shadowrun world so that they understood exactly where they were in time and space. Everyone seemed into it. In my opinion the strength of this game has always been the universe that it exists in. It’s just pretty awesome and has a ton of possibilities for adventure. I also explained that there was really no such thing as alignment and as good and evil, just varying shades of grey. I think that they liked that as well, knowing that they were free to indulge whatever they wanted to without having to adhere to some sort of ideology that may or may not apply to their situation. After the intro we stacked silly amounts of six sided dice on the table and I distributed the characters. Let’s meet the party.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Some Thoughts on Ticket to Ride: Europe

Having played Ticket to Ride until the board was literally torn apart we decided to segue into Ticket to Ride: Europe and try our railroad baron skills on the continent. The Europe version is not that different from the US version. Obviously the boards are different, with the European one being slightly more confusing and seemingly possessing an abundance of small routes (the avoidance of which may be a key to victory). The European version also has cards that are meant to be held by actual human adults, unlike the original version which was presumably played by pixies and hobbits. It is shocking what a difference the size of the cards makes, it is a huge improvement. The major differences in the two games are the European inclusion of tunnels, ferries and stations. Tunnels and ferries make it a bit harder to grab a certain route, while stations finally provide a solution for when one of the jerks that you play with gets a route that you really wanted. And there is an eight train route!

Tunnels are routes that are marked with a black outline, almost like brackets going around the train cars. Typically they are routes that run through mountain regions, though this is not always the case. When a tunnel route is claimed the top three train cars from the draw pile are flipped over and for each one that matches a train used to claim the route, the player must pay an additional train of that color to make it through the tunnel. Since any flipped locomotives are an automatic match it usually winds up costing an additional train card for the route, though sometimes you get lucky and don’t have to pay anything additional. The other night I got hit hard when all three matched and I didn’t have enough to cover the newly inflated cost. If that happens all the cards go back to your hand and your turn ends. In a game that is so dependent on the economy of actions it is devastating to lose a turn. It also stinks to have to pay four trains to claim a route that is only worth three trains. Personally I try to avoid the tunnels for those reasons, but there are plenty of them on the board and almost impossible to get around without needing to use some of them. Looking around the board many of the tunnel routes are in prime strategic locations, so essentially you are paying for nice real estate.

England has to be connected to the rest of Europe in this game and since there are no trains that run on water it’s time to board a ferry to get there. It’s not just England though, numerous ferries dot the landscape of Europe and, like the tunnels, require a higher price for their services. Rather than requiring trains of a certain color to claim the route, ferries require a certain amount of locomotives (wild cards) in addition to matched colored trains. This certainly puts a new spin on the wild card, which was always great to have but never a necessity. I always hated having to pick a wild from the board since you only get one card instead of two, but with ferries they become much more valuable. My least favorite route is now London to Amsterdam, a measly two train route that requires two wild cards to claim it. Really? I spend two wild cards and all I come away with is two points. Though, like with the tunnels, it’s interesting to see how real world geography is impacting the game. Think of how different the original version would be if Denver (which is about the most popular city in TTR) only had tunnels running out of it. If nothing else it certainly changes things, which is what a board game sequel should do.

Of all the additions in this game the only one that I really don’t like are the stations. Each player begins the game with three stations and they can be placed on any city in the game for a cost in train cards (one for the first, two matching for the second, etc..). Having a station in a city allows that player to use any one route of another player’s coming out of that city for completing a destination ticket. It does not count towards getting the longest train, but it helps a player get a route that they may not otherwise get. To me Ticket to Ride has always been sort of a cutthroat type of game. If you sit on your cards for too long you get screwed out of the routes that you really need. Balancing when to build routes, hoarding cards, and exposing your routes and intentions have always been essential to playing a winning game. The stations provide a way around that. Maybe I’m just mean but I sort of like it the other way better. Unused stations are worth four points each at the end of the game so there is an incentive to not use them up. I do also think that the European map is much more cluttered than the US one, so it is more likely to result in people getting screwed out of a route. Edinburgh and the southern part of Spain are both very limited areas and being denied there can really mess your game up, so I could see why players would use stations. I just don’t like them.

The other interesting aspect of the game is an eight train route, exciting because the original version did not have anything larger than six. The route runs from Petrograd to Stockholm and if eight trains seems too easy it is also a tunnel. Meaning that it could conceivably cost as much as eleven trains. Ouch. It is worth 21 points so on a per train basis it is worth about the same as the six train route. Is it worth it? I think the best thing about it is being able to get eight trains out of your hand at once, that can really end the game in a hurry. Being able to catch your opponents off guard with incomplete routes is a great way to win the game and this helps with that. A lot. Say it is nearing the end of the game and you have 15 trains left to put down. You get that Stockholm to Petrograd tunnel up and running and suddenly the game can be over in two more turns with the right cards. Much sooner than people were expecting I would wager. Strategically it is not the greatest route, mainly because going through Sweden and Denmark is sort of difficult, it is normally prized real estate. If you only need to get to Stockholm it can work out pretty well for you. Eastern Europe has the best routes in the game so Petrograd links up with all sorts of good stuff.

Ticket to Ride:Europe is certainly a worthy sequel to the original. I would still recommend the original to someone who had never played either, but only because it is slightly simpler to learn. Not that either of them are difficult. Plus, it’s nice to brush up on my turn of the century European geography. I also feel that the two have different strategies, what works in one game may not work in the other. I am still learning the nuances of the European board and the destination tickets, which are very different. The original game has an even mix of points on destination tickets, ranging from small to very large. The Euro game has primarily smaller valued tickets with only six routes being worth 20 or more points. Scoring from trains on the board becomes more valuable in the Euro game because of this, which is why those short routes will really slow you down. But, like I said, it’s an excellent game.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The best and worst of Shadowrun

After D&D the first role playing game that I ever got into was Shadowrun. I don’t remember what got me started, I assume I saw it at the game store or read about it in Dragon or something, but I immediately thought that it was a super cool system and such a great counter to D&D. So much about it was very different and new, but it had some consistent anchors to the familiar world of fantasy gaming that I knew. There were orcs and magic and rumors of dragons, but there was also dermal plating and boosted reflexes. Something called a rigger and street samurais. I’ve played in a bunch of Shadowrun campaigns over the years and the game is always a good time, but I have to be honest that the mechanics of the game are pretty awful. Sometime in the semi near future I plan on running a mini campaign when our D&D DM is away so I have been doing some thinking about it lately. Here is my list of the best and worst aspects of Shadowrun.

The best:
1) Cyberware. Totally bad ass. Internal implants that link your eyesight to the barrel of your gun? Check. Air filtration built right into your respiratory system? Awesome. Boosted reflexes that keep you twitchy and three times as fast as anyone else? Required for any chummer to survive when the drek hits the fan. Essentially the magic items of Shadowrun, cyberware allows your character to far surpass what a normal human is capable of.

2) Native Americans. When magic returned to the world of Shadowrun one of the first people to get on board were the Native Americans. Embracing their shamanic past, America’s first people reclaimed the heartland of America and now wield more power than ever before. It’s not just the Indians though, the history of Shadowrun is well thought out and interesting. Dragons appearing in Japan, corporations running the show behind the curtain of glass and steel skyscrapers, and Goblinization. This is a very engaging and fully formed world that Shadowrun exists in.

3) Lethal combat. If a bunch of jacked up, cyber enhanced gun jockeys are having it out in the street with flechette loaded assault rifles people are going to die. And they do. In mass quantities. Lethality in Shadowrun is no joke. Even if you are heavily armored Troll with dermal plating, two well placed shots are going to take you out. It is not easy to keep a character alive in this game, which I’m fine with. This is a risky line of work. If you can’t handle character death I suggest that you leave the shadow running to someone else and go play 4th edition D&D.

The worst:
1) Too many D6’s. I have a lot of D6’s, more than any reasonable human being could possibly have a need for. Except if you play Shadowrun. Since the game only uses the D6 and most checks are opposed successes it requires an obscene amount of dice. More than most players would have. More room to roll them than most tables have. When dice are cutting into space that could otherwise be used for food, there is a problem. And that is a lot of math that tends to slow the game down. Now in it’s 4th edition, the game continues to stubbornly stick to this clumsy system. I don’t get it. I’m not sure what advantage it is providing. Though it is sort of fun to roll that many dice at once.

2) Deckers. You can’t have a futuristic cyberpunk game without computer hackers, known in Shadowrun as deckers for the hooked up cyberdecks that they carry. I get it, in the future information is a big commodity and these guys know how to get it. What they also know how to do is slow down the game for everyone else while they spend a half hour hacking into some mainframe and fighting lethal programs as the rest of the party stands around. In the last couple of games that I played in everyone agreed to just sort of outlaw deckers for that reason and either have an NPC replace their skill set or just make all computer type stuff kept to a minimum. And really, who wants to be a decker? They make clerics look popular.

A couple of years ago I was awakened real early one morning by a phone call from an unknown number. I answered it and was met by a cold voice saying, “You ready to run the shadows?” It was silent as they awaited my response. I was clueless but eventually put together that it was someone that I had played Shadowrun with years ago inviting me to join him in a new game. Unfortunately at the time my schedule was not very conducive to another weekly game so I declined, but I always loved that phone call. That is one of my favorite aspects of Shadowrun.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Mindbender prestige class

Similar in ability and methods to the Cobra villain of the same name, the Mindbender prestige class puts an emphasis on manipulation of all sorts. It is certainly not the most powerful class out there, but damned if it is not one of the coolest.

Gaining to access and unlocking the secrets of the Mindbender is not all that difficult, especially for a character that has an interest in what they have to offer. Non good alignment is a must, as are four ranks in Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate and Sense Motive. It is also required that the prospective Mindbender be able to cast Charm Person and have a caster level of 5th. The obvious choice here appears to be the Beguiler since they actually have the skill points to get what is required, however they actually make pretty poor Mindbenders. Truthfully all full casters do, which we will discuss below in a moment.

I really like this class a lot, but it would require a Mindbender to convince me that the vitals of this class are not among the worst in the game. Ready for this? Poor base attack, two good saves, 2+ skill points, d4 hit points, and spell casting advanced at every other level. That’s a tough pill to swallow, especially the spell casting. (This is the best class that there is, trust me.) Powerful class features can certainly make up for this, the problem is that everything that the Mindbender gets is not as good as the Enchantment spells they are missing out on by losing the spell levels. (High levels spells are a waste of your time.)

At 1st level the Mindbender gets telepathy, usable as much as they want. Awesome. Telepathy is a powerful ability (though not over the top) and in the hands of the right player/character can be a lot of fun and really enhance some role playing. Unfortunately the lure of this at 1st level seems to make this class a one level dip for that ability. Which is too bad because there are some good opportunities for the right character at higher levels. The Mindbender has two signature abilities, the first of which comes at 2nd level and is called Push the Weak Mind. It is essentially Suggestion which a longer range and duration that can be communicated telepathically.  Now we are getting into some serious Jedi type stuff. (Like I said, it’s a phenomenal class.) That is actually pretty powerful since it has long range and can be sent right into their head it allows the Mindbender to stay hidden and work their manipulations from afar, free from danger. Or from a crowd. Or from right next to the person. 2nd level also brings a skill boost of ½ the Mindbender level to Buff, Intimidate, Diplomacy, and Sense Motive. It’s good to see that they are not relying solely on their magic as their power grows. I know that the bonus is not huge, but Bluff and Diplomacy are two of the very best skills in the game, so who wouldn’t want some free points in them?

The other signature ability is Eternal Charm at 4th level, which is Charm Person with no duration. In a heavy role playing game, or one in which the PC’s return to areas and deal with NPC’s repeatedly this is a cool ability. Knowing that someone in town is always on your side is nice. Especially if it’s a shopkeeper or an informant, someone who can help out. As the levels increase the Mindbender can have more and more people under his influence. (Like you.) The bottom line is that Charm Person is not all that strong though. I sort of think that at this level a good Diplomacy check can probably accomplish the same thing. I do really like the somewhat arrogant and aggressive name of the ability though.

Other abilities come as well. Mindread, some Dominate, increased caster level for enchantments. (What a plethora of incredible powers. I’m impressed.) But ultimately the lost caster levels rule this out for anyone wanting a real powerful character. So, is the Mindbender doomed to be a one level dip or an NPC, or can it fit into the role of a PC? In the game I am currently playing I am a Hexblade, serving as the secondary melee combatant for the group, as well as the primary “face.” I still have a couple of levels to go before I qualify (caster level 5th is a drag) but I am considering (will be) taking a couple of levels of it. The way that I look at it is that the lost caster levels aren’t going to kill me since the Hexblade casting is so crummy to begin with, and by the time I reach 10th I will have pretty respectable combat skills and can afford to lose a little base attack. I really like the telepathy, the skill boost, and all the charms should work well for me once I use the Hexblade curse on unsuspecting villagers. If I was the main melee character or a full caster I’m not sure I would consider it, but it works with the role that my character seems to be taking on in the party.

In conclusion I think that the Mindbender is a tricky class but also (the best prestige class available to anyone. Why would someone play something else? I have no idea.) one that seems like a ton of fun to play. Much like the Green Star Adept and Duskblade synergizing so well, I think that the same can be true of Hexblade and Mindbender. They just sort of blend well together.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Smallworld review

This tiny peninsula just isn’t big enough for all of us. Or even a couple of us. Such is the premise of Smallworld, another excellent offering from the active minds over at Days Of Wonder. In Smallworld 2-5 players vie for control of a small piece of land by using the races of the area to control patches of earth and spread around the region. The catch is that races quickly become overextended and forced into decline, which is really just a reason to dip into the supply and introduce some new genocide to the region. Great family fun! The game is played over a set number of turns and the winner is determined by who has the most points (gold). It should take about an hour and a half to two hours.

This game is all about the over crowding of a small environ- ment and the actual board does a great job of presenting that concept. Actually there are four boards for the game depending on how many players there are (okay, it’s really two double sided boards), each with fewer and fewer number of regions to conquer. And an actually physically smaller board as well. By the second turn of the game pretty much everything has been conquered and it’s time to start making some enemies by bullying people out of there turf. Land changes hand pretty frequently here. The artwork on the board is good, each different land type is clearly represented and there are a bunch of little details that breath some life into the landscape. I especially like the magical towers that dot the world, ringed with arcane energy it’s not very hard to imagine devious wizards concocting foul schemes within. The races themselves are all represented by small counters, colorful little tiles also with nice depictions. The reverse side of the tile is primarily grey and is used when a race goes into decline. The Ghouls might be the best looking of the bunch (don’t tell the Amazons I said so), though they are all pretty good.

The game turn is very easy and really only consists of two phases. First, a player deploys their forces over the board and conquers new territory, which is just about numbers. An uninhabited land requires two tiles to take over, add an extra for each occupying force on the space. Those hills with two Halflings on them? That will require four of your Giants to take over. Once a turn a player can also call in reinforcements in the form of a die that may allow you to take over a land that you were otherwise short on. When conquering is done, rearrange your forces for defense. The second part of the turn is scoring, which is usually a point for each occupied territory plus any bonuses that may result from a Racial or Special Powers.

One of the great things about this game (and something that really appeals to a strategy/analysis nerd like myself) is the endless combination of Races and Special Powers. And by endless I mean 280 possible combinations. There are 14 Races and 20 Special Powers which are randomly paired with one another as the game progresses. Some combinations are really great (like Flying Sorcerers) and others make world domination an uphill battle (such as the Hill Tritons). It’s really up to you, make the best of it. There is something exciting about the initial draw and the six combinations that come up for choosing. The catch is that for each Race that you pass up on to get to another you have to pay a victory point. Is it really worth paying four gold for those Pillaging Orcs when you can have Underworld Elves for no cost? Hmmm.

Going into decline is a key part of the game, an interesting mechanic, and really what separates this game from being a fantasy version of Risk. When you’ve decided that the glory days of your current race are behind you, you may choose to send your race into decline and choose a new one. When in decline the race loses the Special Power attached to it, though it stays on the board and continues to gain points for you for as long as it is alive (which probably isn’t going to be too long now that you’ve abandoned them). However, you may no longer move them around or conquer any new lands (the Ghouls are the exception to this. Ferocious undead that they are, they continue to feast upon the living even once their creator has written them off). The bad part of going into decline is that choosing to do so is your turn for that round, except if your current race has the Stout Special Power (yes, Stout Ghouls are pretty awesome), so it’s the only thing that you will do. It seems that over the course of a game you will probably play three races. Figuring out which Races and Special Powers work best at different phases of the game is a key ability in Smallworld.

I do really appreciate that some attempt was made at organ- ization in the game design. Too often it’s just not considered in game design and games with a lot of pieces wind up being a mess (see Pandemic and Last Night on Earth). Smallworld could very easily have gone down this road. Instead they did two things right that really enhance the game experience. One is a tray to organize the multitude of game pieces (Flying Frog games, I am staring directly in your direction). There are 14 races and each has around 11 little tiles, that’s a lot of pieces to just be floating around. Since they are constantly used it is important that a player can access them easily. A well organized tray makes a huge impact on the game, and cuts down drastically on set up time. The other time saving organizational aspect of the game is a little more obtuse, but appreciated none the less. This game has a lot of pieces which were all punched out of larger sheets. In the instructions for the game it recommends if you store your games upright or if you travel with them upright that you should place these extra sheets at the bottom of the box. What this does is raise all the trays and boards by about half an inch, thus making them flush with the top of the box. The result is that the loose pieces don’t move around as much. I can’t say that it is perfect, but it’s better than it would have been. As someone who frequently travels with games I really like it. It also makes me think that the designers are actually players and care about this stuff.

I think that Smallworld is a really fun game. Like most games from Days of Wonder it is above all things playable. What does that mean? Well, to me it means that a casual night of gaming meshes really well with it. The rules are easy, play moves quickly, it doesn’t take hours to complete, and most of all it is fun. I know that seems like common sense but some games seem to get so bogged down in a weighty mechanic or too many actions that all the good aspects of the game get buried under the bad parts. It’s not good for anyone. Games shouldn’t be about a designer trying to prove that they have come up with a way to revolutionize the field, they should be about getting together with your friends and enjoying it. The group of people that I play with usually meet on week nights, like to have a couple of drinks during the game, and don’t want to spend hours interpreting abstract concepts (though we certainly have). Days of Wonder has a formula that works really well and I hope that they stick to it.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Green Star Adept review

I’ve thought for a while about how to say something positive about the Green Star Adept, the much maligned and very bizarre prestige class that slowly transforms the character into some sort of weird green robot like monster. It has awful requirements, an odd assortment of abilities, and really does not do anything all that well. It’s not a full caster, has virtually no skill points, and does not particularly excel at combat. As far as I can tell it’s pretty good defensively, so at least it has that going for it. And it gets to turn green by eating metal.

My biggest issue with the Green Star Adept is that I just think it is really lame. Who would want to be this character? I suppose that if you have played every other type of character it would be an interesting role to get into, but other than that? I just don’t know. Eating metal? I think that it just falls very far from the realm that I view as medieval type fantasy. Then again I also do not understand why anyone would want to be a Warforged either.

The requirements at first seem like standard fare for a caster/melee gish; +4 base attack, Combat Casting, and Arcane caster 1st. Just like the Abjurant Champion! Unfortunately the similarities end there. It also requires 2 ranks of Decipher Script, Knowledge (Architecture and Engineering), Knowledge (Geography), and Knowledge (History). Plus, 8 ranks of Knowledge (Arcana). Seriously, this is one knowledgeable character. But to what end I have no idea since the class has nothing to do with any of those skills. Especially Decipher Script. You would think that such a wordly individual would know to not each metal. The tough thing here is finding a class that can get into at a reasonable level. A wizard seems like the best choice, except taking this class as a caster is a horrible waste of time. It’s not as bad as a melee class, but which one? Since it requires arcane casting the options are really Hexblade and Duskblade. Dipping into another class to meet the requirements really seems like going down the wrong path. Duskblade has all those skills as class skills so it probably makes the most sense (we will just pretend that taking this class makes some sense), unless your human Hexblade has a high intelligence. Our earliest entry is looking like Duskblade 5.

The other strange requirement is consuming several ounces worth of Starmetal, a magical metal infused with power and the source of the Green Star Adept’s myriad of mystical abilities. I would hope that any DM running a game with a Green Star Adept would make sure that the metal is obtainable, especially since the character needs to continue to consume Starmetal in order to level up. Though it would be really funny if a character got all the requirements for the class only to find that they existed in a world devoid of Starmetal. Sounds like the basis of a great campaign.

Now that we’ve navigated the treacherous waters of class entry, what happens now that we’re there? In general not too much, but paired with the right class it is much better than I had initially given it credit for. As a class the Duskblade is a front loaded powerhouse with fragility problems. The Green Star Adept matches up pretty well with it, really the only good match that it has. Our green friend has a medium Base Attack, d8 hit die, a good Will Save, increased casting at every other level, and 2+ skill points. It’s like a lot of other classes, nothing special there. It also receives a slew of other abilities that continue to scale upwards as the character grows in power.

The best of them is probably Damage Reduction/Adamantine equal to the class level. That’s pretty solid, no pun intended. For a “glass cannon” style class like the duskblade it becomes even more valuable. At 1st level it also adds it’s entire GSA level to it’s caster level, which is very nice for some of the variable effects that go along with spells. It sort of softens the blow of losing five caster levels in order to turn into a statue.

Star Metal Rigor has the character trading some agility as they slowly transform into a construct. Basically dexterity goes down while both strength and natural armor go up. It caps at 10th level with a total gain of 6 strength and natural armor, and dexterity decreased by 3. Unless you are a ranged character or a rogue that’s a pretty fair trade. It also makes up for the loss of a couple points of base attack.

The other really nice class skill is the fortification which gives immunity to sneak attacks and criticals. It starts at 25% and moves up over the levels. Both sneak attack and criticals can mess a character up in a hurry so it’s a bonus to not have to worry about those all that much, especially since I think that the awkward green man is not going to be hiding from many rogues. They also get something called Unnatural Metabolism which gives a +2 saving throw bonus to a variety of effects. Among these poison and death effects are the best. The bonus increases to a maximum of +6.

Additionally there are also some other perks that they get along the way; a natural slam attack, darkvision, immunity to sleep and drowning, and no longer needing to sleep, eat and breathe. The slam attack is totally worthless but the others have some use in game. But mostly they just add to the whole living statue gimmick that the class has going on.

At 10th level the Green Star Adept receives it’s capstone ability Emerald Perfection. This ability is not just useless, but it has a negative effect on the character. Really, this class should be looked at as a 9 level prestige class. At 10th level the transformation has been complete and the character is now fully a construct. It gets immunity to all of the same effects that tie into Unnatural Metabolism (which is like taking a retroactive dump on that class feature), fortification becomes 100%, immunity to any Fort saves, and no longer ages. That’s an allright set of class features. However an equal amount of horrible things happen as well. They lose their constitution score (and all associated hit points), die immediately if reduced to 0 hit points and can’t be healed by cure spells. No thanks.

The Green Star Adept is not as bad as I initially thought it was, but it is still completely uncool. I could see it as an NPC, maybe some sort of guardian keeping an engineering ancient artifact safe in exchange for a steady diet of Starmetal. Or an obsessed artist looking to create the ultimate artwork…himself! But as a PC? I don’t think I could do it.