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.