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.