Friday, December 13, 2013

Discussion: Invest Me

When talking about Eldritch Horror's lack of focus on the character and personal stories, discussion came about on whether or not it is the job of a board game to force roleplaying onto the players. I agree that a board game should not. A group should be willing to bring that to the table themselves and our group does that in spades. We play Ladies and Gentlemen wearing tiaras and chomping on real cigar. Give me a dwarf character and I'll grumble in a gruff dwarf voice all night, bitterly complaining about everyone else. We'll build back stories for our characters and I'll help you to try to romance you. We've played String Railways speaking as train barons, trying to greedily expand through the land.

Basically, we bring the roleplay to our games and I love my groups because of that.

But what I want a game to do, and Eldritch Horror fails to do in my opinion, is to invest me in my character. If I have a character in front of me, I will play as that character, but the game should help me invest myself in the character.

But even without talking in a funny voice or doing actions that are sub-optimal, but totally in character, using props, or any other gimmicky shtick, games benefit from the player being invested in their characters. It makes decisions harder and more visceral. It makes the gaming more tense and the victories more stunning and the defeats more woeful. It enhances so much about a game well before anyone decides to talk in a crap accent for the next two hours.

So I just wanted to collect my thoughts and throw out there the different ways that board games can work to invest a player.



Give Your Character a Name
The only thing differentiating these two unique characters
is their hair color.
This is the simplest step to investing a player, but one that surprisingly pops up now and again. If I am playing Claustrophobia, I'll send the Condemned Brute off to hold the lines while I make my escape. But it would feel so much more challenging and raw if I had to decide if I was sending Gorik the Blacksmith's Son off to die for me. I mean, what would I say to his father, the blacksmith about his son's sacrifice? Even the main protagonist is simply called The Redeemer. Hell, Josh the Redeemer would be better. Level 7: Omega Protocol has a tactical roleplay feel to it, but the game would be improved so much more by simply naming the character "Team Leader" to Captain Reginald Greyson. Yes, we could name the characters ourselves, but without control of the stats and without that psychological impact of having a name on the sheet, I'll always just see "The Condemned Brute" staring back at me instead of "Skippy the Glanduarly Impaired". 



Give Me Something Unique
This covers a lot of ground. I could have a unique history. I could be a unique race. Or I simply could have a unique talent or skill or item. All of these makes a character stand out. If you are different from everyone else, then there is a reason why you would be better than others for some reason. A lot of games miss an easy opportunity to do this. In Eldritch Horror, Trish Scarborough begins with a .45 automatic pistol. That's great. But if she's not in play, that item is just shuffled into the asset deck. What if she began with a unique item of "Trish's Modified .45 Automatic". Keep the generic item in the deck, but now I feel more attached to this character. If she dies NO ONE else will ever get that gun. Most games with characters do, at least, give them unique roles and abilities which is good. But personalizing the character just a little bit more would make it so much better. Witch of Salem is a game that had a few problems, but a big one would have been solved by giving each character (who had their own name and portraits) anything to distinguish themselves from others. Each were exactly uniform in stats and ability.



Give Me Something to Relate To
Instant relatability.
Do you know what separates our game from video games? More of our female characters wear clothes. Sure, we still have those eye-rolling chainmail bikinis, but we are better than video games at capturing (or at least not offending) female gamers with our representations of female characters. And this helps female gamers to play as they have something to relate to. My daughter is seven and when she games, she is drawn to the female characters to play. She enjoys the game much more when she can be a girl. My wife is in her thirties and when she games, she is drawn to the female characters to play. She enjoys the game much more when she can be a girl. Robinson Crusoe didn't name their characters, but they gave a character sheet with a bit of character art on them. I could be the Cook and see a gruff, burly male cook. Or I could flip the sheet over and see a female cook. The stats are completely identical, but players can choose their gender and you can relate to the character. I'm fine with characters being set when they are named and have backstories, but this simple act allowed you to relate to your character more just by simply flipping the sheet over. It also broke down the awkward gender yin and yang role assignments. 



Give Me Choices (Even if I Choose Random Draw)
I like taking random characters, but I like being able to choose from a large selection. There should be different choices in characters, not just in play styles and roles, but also in appearance and race and gender. Nothing is more dull than my selection of characters being a bunch of white guys whose differing physical characteristics is their hair color. I want to be excited by the opportunity that I might play a female half-orc warrior wizard. This combines the desire to play something I can relate to as well as the desire for something unique. I might just feel more comfortable playing a female character and the choices allow for it. Or I might want to play a goblin berserker with rifle proficiency. The more diverse options you have, the more likely you will give someone the chance to playing something they want and invest them in their character.



Engaging Backstories
When done right, everyone will enjoy reading their character's backstory on the back of their card or sheet and it'll give you ideas of how your character might think or act. However, more often than not, the backstories are just banal fluff text. Here, I don't even care if you tread into tied, worn tropes. At least it is something we can relate to. Let me read my character's history and find out that I am the last survivor of my race. Or let me find out that my family was brutally murdered by the man I rescued and set free a year before. Or end it with the line "And he never thought he would love again." Anything to make the character's history compelling and interesting.



Character Art
Which tells more of a story from a glance?
Sure, art in a game means paying artists. However, your money is then supporting an artist. These days there aren't too many games that fail to produce character art. I don't mind bad artwork, but I of course, like it when it is pretty. But the art should show a bit of the character's personality or flair. Level 7: Omega Protocol's art is everyone in full body suit with their faces covered. Let me see my character's face. Flying Frog's games of Last Night on Earth, Fortune & Glory, and A Touch of Evil have somewhat cringy-worthy art design choices at times, but I love their character sheets. I look at the picture and I know so much about the character I am playing. It tells you a LOT about a character to portray them well. Although less common, this can also relate to miniatures. Claustrophobia has two Condemned Brutes in it. They are exactly the same models and builds and paints, except one is Condemned Brute with Brown Hair and the other is Condemned Brute with Blond Hair.



Personal Motives
This could be written into the backstory, but it can also be presented to players in much more engaging ways. Innsmouth Horror introduced personal stories for each of the Arkham Horror characters in existence. You had a backstory and a goal that you had to fulfill with trigger to pass or fail the backstory challenges. This was incredible. Players would have to try to save the world, but would also stop and try to resolve their pasts. We always played where the pass/fail card was hidden and only read once you passed or failed. This way, you didn't know what was on the line and the stakes were so much more higher.

But even non-customized, random personal goals help a lot. They give the character a unique purpose and direction, thus making your experience different from everyone else's. Secret goals or agendas can work as well, but once you start hiding information, the Battlestar Galactica traitor mentality pops into players mind and you might start playing a different meta-game.



Threat of Cinematic/Thematic Death
At least if I'm going to go, I'm going out
swinging and taking some of them with me.
You know what invests me in a character? The chance that he might die. I will innately fight to keep myself alive. But you know what invests me even more? The idea that I might die in some horrific, fantastic and thematic way.

What I love about Last Night on Earth is that Amanda the Prom Queen could be holding the keys to the truck to leave, but have five zombies in her space. So, Billy rushes to her space to defend her (I mean, he's always had a crush on her, but never said anything before). He gets an extra die in combat for being in the same space and Amanda and when the zombies attack, he can try to hold each of them off to let her escape. Yeah, he'll probably bite it and die horribly. But what a fantastic way to go out and the game allows--and even encourages it. And you know what the best part of it is? If Billy manages to fight off the zombies and survive and save Amanda, well, you know he's getting laid tonight.

I don't mind dying in a game at all, but give me a chance to have my dying moment be spectacular or cinematic. I won't seek it out, but I'll be invested post-mortum.



Chances to Act in Character
Give me a dwarf character and I'll be talking like a dwarf for the rest of the night. True, some groups might not play this way and would roll their eyes at me. That's fine. I don't need them. All I need is me grog anyhow.

But beyond silly voices, giving character decision points creates narrative. It isn't enough that a game has a location deck for each space. Then my decision is merely which space do I move to. When the location cards offer choices, it becomes more interesting. Arkham Horror and Eldritch Horror does this with their location decks. When I have an encounter in a location, the person to my left reads my card for me. They stop reading when I am required to make a decision or make a skill check. I don't know what the results will be if I fail, so it becomes more tense as I have to decide if I want to spend my hard earned clue tokens or not. In Arkham, it is even more tense because choices or bad rolls could easily see you devoured. However, we are making choices and we are making choices in character. I'm not reading ahead to see what would happen if I were to accept aid from the mysterious stranger. Maybe I'll get a spell. Maybe I'll get a spell but be delayed. Maybe he'll remove a Doom Token from the Doom Track, but I'll gain a Dark Pact. I don't know, so I can't weigh the results to the state of the game. Instead, I have to make the decision in character. The games we can do this in are so much richer.



Leveling Up
Anyone who understands this picture knows how
important leveling up is.
I am a roleplayer. There is nothing in the world as beautiful to me as being able to level up a character. Adding points, gaining health, getting a new ability... These are the nectar of the gods.

But as I level up a character, I am getting tokens and reward for the effort that I put in with that character. It is physically represented in some manner. But more than that, if my character were to die, I would now lose all of that hard work. Leveling up is good enough, but leveling up with a threat of death is even better.

I'm down to two health. I could fight that zombie, but if I fail, there's a chance I could die. But then I'd lose those four skill points I put into this character. I'd better back off and heal up first.

Right there, you've made a sound decision mechanically that also represented investment in your character and also provided a good, realistic story point. You've decided that you want to live. You might be a bit of a coward for it, but the game is more real because you don't want to die. And that's wonderful.



Phat Lewt:
This is another simple, basic way to invest players. I don't want to die because then I'll lose all of my cool shit. The real investment, however, comes from you dying and it being gone forever. Eldritch Horror does something where if a character loses all of their health or sanity, you can go to their location and pick up their belongings. Sadly, this loses that investment in keeping characters alive since you know you can always go and pick up their stuff if you need to.



Campaign Mode
Some of these ideas (especially Leveling Up and Phat Lewt) can be extended through multiple scenarios and the stakes of them are risen as they go. However, a campaign generally tells an over arching story and, hopefully, takes into account the victories and losses of the characters along the way. But playing the same character also builds familiarity, which means you are more knowledgeable about how to play your character. This also builds investment since you playing the same character invests you more.

Most games with a campaign mode don't allow for permanent death and equipment loss from it, and it is understandable since coming in with a first "level" character with starting equipment halfway through the dungeon puts everyone on their side at a disadvantage. However, there are games that still allow for it and I commend them. I don't think that the mechanisms or gameplay of the Pathfinder Card Game really invest me that much, but the idea of permanent character death during a campaign does. It hasn't happened yet, but we have an unspoken "no do-overs" rule in place for when it happens and that idea weighs on our decisions the further along we get.



So, at the end of the day, I want to feel invested in my character. We are an easy-going group of gamers who are eager to jump into any role. But there is nothing like feeling like it when a game brings that around and reinforces a character's worth by investing the player in it. And if I'm invested in my character, I'm invested in the game. I should not expect a board game to force me to roleplay. But have the expectation that a game will invest me into my character isn't too much to ask for. I'll do the rest. And quite possibly, with a shit fake accent.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Review: Eldritch Horror (and Comparisons to Arkham Horror and Mansions of Madness)


I am a huge fan of the Cthulhu Mythos and am able to look past many of Lovecraft's open flaws to really enjoy the stories he tells. I've enjoyed Cthulhu games in RPG, board game, LARP and video game mediums. While on the one hand I really enjoy the theme and setting, I sort of think that the overwhelming flood of Cthulhu games does diminish the quality of the mythos. It is sad to see a medium of sanity-ripping concepts boiled down and so adamantly described that there is no more real mystery left in them since everything is so defined in mechanisms and stats that, regardless of the game we are playing, a player can roughly calculate exactly -how- insane he may go by seeing a Deep One and react accordingly. 

That being said, Fantasy Flight has decided to add another game into the mythos universe and despite my reluctance to further define the mysteries, I greedily snatched up a copy as soon as I could. I also have and reviewed Fantasy Flight's Arkham Horror and Mansions of Madness. So I will compare and contrast the three games, summing up some of my more updated feelings on the earlier games since playing them many more times since my first reviews.



Gameplay:

Arkham Horror was originally our epic game and we loved it. The stories were wild and chaotic and we didn't mind the fiddliness and the bits because we ended up with wild narratives and stories and it didn't matter. We've easily played at least 50 games of Arkham Horror with its expansions over the years and it isn't until the last couple of years has it started to crack and fall apart for me. When the game works, it is a wild, fun ride. But when it doesn't work, it is a dreadful slog to get through the three to four hours until you finally can die and put the game away. The random and chaos can tell wildly fun stories when the stars are right, but they can also tell dull, boring tales of loss--not the desperate kind, but the slow, achingly drawn out kinds. I now have more games that are more competent at providing a compelling narrative, so my copy of Arkham Horror has started to collect dust.

I still respect the game and have fond memories, but it hasn't hit the table in a while. But overall, the mechanics rely so much on randomness--and not just from the dice, but rather from the decks as everything, from half of your starting equipment, to encounters, to combat, to rewards are completely random. Arkham is wild and chaotic and can create wonderful, memorable moments because of it. However, that randomness can also determine how much fun you have in the game. The Dilettante, Jenny Barnes, can randomly begin with a flamethrower, a .357 magnum and the Golden Sword of Y'ha-Tallia. Or, she might randomly begin with food, a bottle of whiskey and a warning mirror. Everyone is acting cooperatively, but randomness of card draws really determines who will contribute more than others. When it works, it is fantastic. When it doesn't, it is dreadful.

Mansions of Madness is a more personal narrative story telling experience than Arkham Horror. In Arkham, you are running around a town trying to save the world. In Mansions, you are running around a single house. While Arkham was wildly random and chaotic, Mansions was very tight and delicate--a single misplaced card in set up could break the entire game. The game also requires the Keeper to facilitate the story. A Keeper playing aggressively to win will. And it won't be fun. However, a Keeper playing to make things interesting and tense, will provide a good gaming experience, though not necessarily the most competitive one. I don't find this a problem necessarily, provided that the Keeper realizes his role and is fine with it.

Mansions gives everyone starting equipment. They have a choice between a couple sets of items, but everything is set. Mansions, however, isn't really that random. But it is like a play--the story and plot is set in stone. There is room for the actors to improvise a bit, but it is the job of the director (the Keeper) to make certain that the singular story is told. A good Keeper will see that someone is not doing much and intentionally bring them into the story to give them their moment in the spotlight, but ultimately, it cannot be played with complete malice. A poor director can ruin a good show.

Instead of wild randomness of getting items (available items are predetermined by the scenario, but seeded in random rooms), what Mansions did was introduce cards with mystery backings. I would cast a spell, but have to wait until I cast it to flip over the card to see what happened. Monsters were also variable and it wasn't until you attacked one did you find out if it was the tough one with a lot of health or the pushover. This was a fantastic compromise for the pure randomness, but still incorporating uncertainty.


Eldritch Horror finds a nice balance between the two games in randomness. While is still does incorporate randomness into its systems, it is not the scripted game of Mansions and not so wildly unpredictable as Arkham. It is a full cooperative game, like Arkham, where the players are trying to stop an Ancient One from waking, but on a global scale rather than just working inside of Arkham. Starting equipment is set and equipment is obtained through mitigated randomness. Four random cards are drawn as the equipment available for purchase and are laid out for everyone. As an action, a player can try to obtain an item through an Influence die roll. If successful, they take items from the display, replacing them with new cards If they fail, they can discard a card and replace it with a new one, thus giving players a chance to "cycle through" bad equipment lots.

 A lot of the mitigation of luck plays through the game to "correct" some of Arkham's biggest flaws. You can move past locations with enemies now, so a bad draw for a non-combat oriented character doesn't mean fatality. Location decks are still used, and (until watered down with expansions) each location states what type of gains may come from the encounter. However, luck and randomness is still a factor because you do not know what kind of checks will be required for an encounter, so resolving anything from a deck is still somewhat blind. I may have an incredible Influence skill, but if the random card asks me to make an Observation check, I'm stuck with my random encounter focusing on something I'm no good at. The other downside of mitigated randomness is that you actually remove those strange, wonderful moments of laughter and elation when the completely unpredictable occurs. Arkham hit the table because of those crazy moments where things looked bleak and then you randomly drew a couple Elder Signs and a Motorcycle to pull of a surprising win.

Eldritch takes Mansion's system of cards whose effects you don't know until they are flipped. This is another wonderful way to incorporate uncertainty within the game without leaving it up to complete randomness. I was very happy to see how much this was incorporated into Eldritch.

Summary: Arkham Horror is wildly random and Mansions of Madness is tightly scripted. Eldritch Horror is much less scripted and mitigates all of its randomness, but almost to the point of there being very few surprises. The game is much more stable than Arkham, but at the cost of the fun when you actually reach a high peak on the Arkham rollercoaster.



Theme:

Arkham Horror's theme focuses on telling the story of the Investigators. Through all of the randomness, the focus is always on what happens to the Investigators. There are some slight variations depending upon with Ancient One is used, but for the most part, they only make minor changes. When an Investigator walks into the Bank in Arkham, you know that your encounter there will make narrative sense. You have a bank-related encounter. Later expansions even furthered the character focus by giving Investigators individual back-stories with goals which carry rewards or penalties depending on if they can solve their own personal crisis. If nothing else, Arkham succeeded in making you feel a part of your character's narrative arc because things happened to you.

Mansions of Madness has some focus on the characters, but its real purpose is to tell a single story. The actual, individual characters are less important than the story as a whole. While this isn't necessarily a bad thing, the number of stories that are available in the base game make is a little disappointing. Telling the same story with a whole new group of Investigators will still produce roughly the same story and resolution. I like the storied approach, however, the tightness of how the stories are resolved can cause issues and make both replayability and the ability to make custom stories more difficult than what they are worth. Expansions have added more stories to the mix, but I still have reluctance to go back and replay stories that I've already played with the same group.

Eldritch Horror's thematic focus is on the Ancient Ones. Characters are static and begin the same with no choices on customization. Narrative arcs are broken and disjointed. In Arkham, when I walk into the Bank, I have an encounter in the bank. With the larger scale of Eldritch, you lose that narrative focus. When I have an encounter in Eldritch in San Francisco, maybe I enter China Town. Or maybe I got invited to a fancy party in some rich man's estate. Or maybe I just visited a local shop. I have no idea what I am doing in San Francisco until I actually read my card. The Ancient Ones, however, have specific, personalized encounter decks and each require them to be defeated in their own personal, unique way. There is a narrative, but it is pertaining to the Ancient One.

Summary: Arkham Horror's focus is on the character and their stories and build up through their adventures. Mansions of Madness focuses on telling an overall story, with the Keeper setting the pacing of it. Eldritch Horror's focus on uniqueness is based around the Ancient Ones. It is their story and not the characters. For me, this is the least appealing of the approaches of the three games. With that character disconnect, you can't rally behind the game as well. Arkham tells a story about these characters. Mansions tells a story that you are a player in. Eldritch tells a story about itself (the game mechanism that you are battling).



Learning the Game:

Arkham Horror requires a lot of rules references. Even as grizzled veterans of the game and all of its expansions, moments pop up where you have to try to cross reference how something should be resolved. Our first game of Arkham was miserable because of how many breaks were in it to look things up. Our next game wasn't as bad. But it is a slow build up in getting comfortable enough with the rules to enjoy the character building stories and every expansion adds so many more rules conflicts and unanswered questions. At its core, it isn't a hard game to learn, but so many minor rules and exceptions pop up making it impossible to play without the rulebook within arm's reach.

Mansions of Madness is a little more streamlined, but it takes a game or two to really feel how it plays since it isn't the most intuitive set up. You draw cards for combat, so maybe you have a shotgun and are incredibly accurate, but you instead unpredictably decide last minute to smack the zombie with your rifle butt with your miserable strength. But more than the non-intuitive approach and desperately complex, delicate and long set up time, the Keeper needs to learn the pace of the game before it can be enjoyed. A competitive Keeper will destroy the Investigators. But one who understands the pacing of the game will create a good story.

Eldritch Horror streamlines Arkham's rules and really makes everything so much more intuitive. However, I do need to point out that the rulebooks that come with the game are terrible. It comes with a 16 page, heavily illustrated, and example laden rulebook. It also comes with a 16 page, virtually illustration-free Reference Guide. Yes. The Reference Guide actually contains more rules than the rulebook. In playing our first game I spent ten minutes looking through the rulebook reading and rereading all the combat examples trying to find out if an Investigator could use two weapons. I found nothing. Eventually, I stumbled upon the Frequently Asked Questions in the Reference Guide and one of the questions was "Can I use multiple weapons during combat?" I can't help but think that maybe this question wouldn't have been so frequently asked if they just put it in the actual rules.

Summary: While Arkham Horror isn't really that complex of a game, it goes out of its way to make things as confusing as possible and most games have a few moments to pause as you try to work out how something works, or in what order it should be resolved. Mansions of Madness is a little cleaner, but the learning curve is on the Keeper to know how to provide the pacing of a story. Eldritch Horror is a fairly intuitive game, with the most complex portion being the Mythos Phase (which is good, because a veteran player can control it, allowing newer players the simplicity of their turns). However, Eldritch tries too hard to clean up the rules and exceptions to stream line it by actually removing the rules from the rulebook. Instead, simple answers need to be found in the embarrassingly long Reference Guide and FAQ.



Playing the Game:

Arkham Horror was the wild, "big game ender" to my early gaming days. We loved it, but we were also much more naive gamers back then. I see the flaws in the mechanisms now when I play it. I can still enjoy it, but I am experienced enough now to see when a game comes part and why. When it works, there is nothing in the world like a good game of Arkham Horror. However, at three to four hours and so many other games on my shelf now, there isn't a need to take that risk. But Arkham Horror is the old girlfriend in my collection. Occasionally I'll think back on our glory days and the good times. I'll forget about the arguments and insanity and tears it brought me and I'll be bored and maybe a little tipsy and think about reaching it down from the shelf. Sure, Agricola has always been there for me. She's been steady, reliable and consistent, but maybe I want something wild again. Just for one night. And so Arkham hits the table. We go through the motions and I remember her flaws and I sigh. We'll finish it up and I'll put it away and feel awkward about it in the morning and I'll try to make it up to Agricola again.

Mansions of Madness is a complex game that I don't mind introducing to new players. As the Keeper, I can make things as interesting or hard as they can take. I can involve them if they seem to be lacking something to do. It is a great way to introduce non-veteran gamers to something a little more deep and meaty, while still being able to control the situation well enough that a bad bit of luck ruins their experience and scares them off. I'll still play it with my veteran groups, but the long set up time and lack of replayability in stories makes it a hesitant hit to the table. If I get a couple of new scenarios, we may happily play them and then once they're all finished, we'll pack up and game and it'll collect dust until it has something new to offer again.

Eldritch Horror is also another game that I wouldn't hesitate too much about introducing to newer players. The gameplay is clean and the game's mechanisms are solid and interesting, but if I were introducing the game to a group of people who I wanted to get in some light roleplaying with, I would not choose this one. It is easy to sit back and admire the game's clever and clean mechanisms, but that character disconnect breaks what draws in many players--feeling invested in their character. Eldritch will also probably make its way to the table with my veteran groups, but not with the enthusiasm that Arkham used to in her glory days.

Summary: Arkham Horror has outlived our group, though we still have fond memories of it. Mansions of Madness is a good introduction to deeper story games for newer players with a good Keeper. Eldritch has a bit to offer both newbie and veteran, but ultimately, it feels sterile in some ways. In Arkham, I would shout out, "I don't believe that just happened!" In Eldritch, you nod and say, "Hm. That's pretty clever how that happens."



Overall:

Eldritch Horror is a difficult game to review. Its most fitting comparison is with Arkham Horror. While it fixed every single problem that I would have said that I have with Arkham, it also took away a lot of what I liked about it as well. You no longer focus on the narrative arc of your doomed investigator in a desperate battle. Instead, you follow the interesting mechanics and personal story of how the Ancient One awakens. I would have loved this if the stories were still there. Travel is long and you rarely share locations with another player since it take so long for global travel. This is fine, but even that removes some of the team building story dynamic. Instead of randomly passing by Sister Mary who hands you off the tommy gun she picked up, you make plans to meet in three turns to hand someone something that is probably almost as good in their hands anyway.

Mechanically, the game is beautiful. Everything happens for a reason and the Ancient Ones do have a bit of a unique feel to them due to their own personalized Encounter Decks. The wild randomness is gone, but it is not tightly scripted play, so easily broken by a misstep or a misunderstood clue.

But I cannot forgive the lack of character focus. That is what made Arkham Horror great. We played the game as roleplaying light. Anyone who will excitedly tell you a story about Arkham Horror invariably is telling you about something amazing his character pulled off or failed spectacularly at. But our games of Eldritch Horror have instead resulted in outbursts with confused faces saying things like, "Wait a minute. China Town? What the fuck am I doing in China Town?"

I never loved Arkham Horror for its mechanics. I loved it for the wild ride. I don't mind the wild being lessened for the consistency that Arkham didn't have. But instead the ride is solid and stable, but the most marveling comes from the landscape of the mechanisms you pass instead of that desperate battle with dynamite or suddenly finding yourself up against Cthulhu by yourself while in another world, or Silas Marsh embracing his destiny and what he truly is.

It is a beautiful game of interesting mechanisms and fixes to Arkham Horror. But, sadly, our characters are no longer the focus. And, for that reason, I doubt it will make a lasting mark in our game history like Arkham once did. And none of this is even to mention that the name just sounds like a terrible mash up of a random Lovecraft Mythos term + Horror.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Social Deduction Games: How Many Different Ways Can I Tell You That I Am Not A Werewolf?


Social Deduction games really covers a large range of games. Most of them involve hidden roles and perhaps even hidden team or hidden traitor mechanisms, but usually they all require some amount of bluffing. And I like bluffing in games. Why do I like bluffing games? I don't know. You see, I am a terrible liar. I am absolutely miserable at it.

Aha! I fooled you. I am actually quite a good liar. That was proof right there.

But anyhow, my wife is amazing at deduction. Logic games are her forte and she'll suss a logical deduction problem before I've even really parsed the question. But, when the human element is added, it becomes something completely different. I love social deduction and bluffing and trying to determine who is lying.

Social Deduction games tend to be able to be grouped into two different types. The first are large games with many mechanisms and moving parts. There is gameplay there beyond simply trying to determine teams and roles and who the traitor is. With a slight bit of tuning, these games could become pure cooperative games. Games like the excellent Battlestar Galactica (reviewed here) and Shadows Over Camelot fit into these categories.

However, the second type of game strip away most of the mechanisms and the game is really how players interact and determine information. These are the purest of bluffing and social deduction and, currently, among my favorite games.

  

Werewolf


Werewolf is probably the most well-known of the pure social deduction games. Everyone sits around as one person moderates the game and gives everyone a random role, which also assigns you to a team. There are two basic teams in the game: the Werewolves and the Villagers. The moderator passes the rounds in the game by moving the game from night to day. During the Night everyone closes their eyes and only the Werewolves open them. They choose one Villager to kill in their sleep. When the moderator moves it to the day phase, everyone opens their eyes and that player is revealed to have been killed and is eliminated from the game. Now everyone still alive engages in a discussion to determine who to lynch during the day. 

The Villagers win by lynching all of the Werewolves, while the Werewolves win if ever there are more Werewolves alive than Villagers in the game. The Villagers, however, also have a Seer. Each night, the Seer can point to one player and the moderator lets them know if they are a Werewolf or not. However, the Seer cannot reveal information too bluntly, since then the Werewolves will simply kill him during the next night.

With newer versions of the game, more and more roles have been added to the game, giving it a lot of diversity. Werewolf is one of the most pure social deduction games, as there really is little to go on other than following conversations and relying on hunches and hoping someone's words or even body language reveals information. I love Werewolf even though I have never actually played it. Each and every time it's been played, I've been the Moderator and, frankly, I love the role. It is such a fun game to watch, which is part of the reason why player elimination is not so bad.

Games are usually short, but if there is a downside to it, it is the fact that it requires a lot of people for a really interesting game. I would not play it with less than about twelve players. However, the positive side of that is that there are plenty of other social deduction games that span a smaller range of players.

Werewolf is a classic game that is deserving of its status. There is a reason why it is a classic. This is a game that can be introduced to non-gamers and it creates situations and circumstances that are very fun and memorable. Five years ago, at my daughter's second birthday party, we entertained the adults with a game of Werewolf. It was a group that was mainly made up of non-gamers. We still talk about those half dozen games to this day. However, to keep the game fresh, I would highly suggest using one of the Ultimate Werewolf editions since they offer such a variety of roles.
  


The Resistance


The Resistance is another pure social deduction and bluffing game, though it plays with only 5-10 players and runs in about 20-30 minutes. In this game, players are either members of the resistance or they are secretly spies working against them. The Spies know one another, but the game revolves around the each round's leader choosing teams to go onto missions. If there is a Spy on the mission, he can sabotage it secretly and the mission will fail. There are five missions in total, and if 3 of the 5 succeed, the resistance team wins. If 3 of the 5 fail, the spies win. There are really no special roles in the game and it is pretty pure. 

After my first plays of the Resistance, I was not impressed. However, I warmed up to the game and played it more and enjoyed it. But, I've reached a peak with the game and I've stopped enjoying it.

Because of the lack of roles, there is little variation and our games follow a bit of a script now. Mission 1: Pass whether there are spies on it or now. Mission 2: Include the members of the first mission and add another one. It should likely fail now. Mission 3: Slight variation to the team to test members. Essentially, I could flow chart out how each game would play. Part of this is that I play this with the same three groups of players, so we have developed patterns to "solve" the game. However, this exists because of the lack of variation in the game.

The game desperately needs more roles and special powers to create a more dynamic feel after many games. It is a decent game, but ultimately one that is surpassed by a number of other social deduction games that have come out since.

  

The Resistance: Avalon


Avalon is a little more than a reskinning of the Resistance theme to a King Arthur setting, though that is what it primarily does. The gameplay remains essentially unchanged, but the game has introduced a few roles to the teams. Most of the roles are basic, but it has given enough of a dynamic feel to the play that I would not go back to playing the Resistance if Avalon was an option instead. The problem is that the game doesn't have enough roles and variation to fully push on past the flowchart feel, but it does still create situations where something dynamic can occur and throw people for a loop. 

Between the Resistance and Avalon, I feel that Avalon is the better game between the two, but it still didn't quite solve its own problems. I wouldn't turn down a game of Avalon if offered, but I would be less likely to suggest it knowing that other short social deduction games without player elimination exist in my collection.

  

Two Rooms and a Boom


I did a full review of Two Rooms and a Boom here. I've now played the game with as few as six players and as many as thirty-eight. The game is surprisingly resilient. However, the game is still best with more than ten players. While I am a fan of the game, there are certain limitations that it imposes. First of all, the game requires more space to play it in and having at least two rooms really is optimal. Next, the game offers so much variety in roles with such a range of powers that it really takes an experienced player to figure out which roles work best with others and which roles negate other roles' powers. The game can be played without a moderator, but I still prefer moderating it. It really is a fun game to simply watch. In a lot of ways, this has replaced my suggesting Werewolf to be played when I am at a large gathering. However, space is key, so Werewolf can still end up being the more advantageous play. The other downside is the theme. With some players and non-gamers, it is hard to convince them that playing a game where someone is a suicide bomber trying to murder the President is a fun activity. I've also probably been placed on many watchlists for reviewing the game now.

Still, Two Rooms and a Boom is a lot of fun. However, this is one of the few social deduction games where you can blatantly show your card to another player. So, to be honest, it is less a social deduction game and more of a social negotiation game. However, it still has the elements of bluff and hidden roles and pure lying that endears it to me.

  

Ultimate Werewolf: Inquisition


Inquisition fits in nicely for the Werewolf theme if you don't have the twelve players I would prefer to play the game with. It plays 3-12 and plays in about 30-60 minutes depending on the number of players. Unlike most social deduction games here, Inquisition actually has a bit more of a set up. Players are either on the Werewolves' team or the Villagers' team and are sent to a village to try to find out who the werewolves are. In this case, the villagers are represented by face down cards. Players take turns using locations in the village to either peek at the cards, move them around, or amass vote cubes which will be laid at the end of each day to determine who the players lynch. Then, during the night, one column of cards is chosen by the leader player and is passed between players with their eyes closed and the werewolf players may open their eyes to change their order. Once the stack of cards has made it around the group, everyone opens their eyes and the bottom card in the stack is killed and removed from play. Werewolves will be trying to put villagers down the bottom, but they are in a bad position if the column only contained werewolves and had to kill one of their own.

For a social deduction game, it is rather fiddly. It is a slightly awkward and convoluted set up and passing the stack of cards with your eyes closed is awkward. The game works best when each player helps the game by holding the stack for a few moments, whether they are werewolf or villager, in order to create tension and suspicion. But ultimately, I've still played with players who quickly pass the stack to the next player as fast as possible while loudly declaring, "Here," so that everyone knows that they did not mess with the stack order.

The other oddity of the game is that even if you are determined to be a werewolf, the other players cannot stop you. They simply don't trust your word anymore when you peek at a card. But a team out outted werewolves can still win by good choices and blocking options of the other players to stop them. The game then becomes one of determining how to best manipulate the mechanisms to win, rather than figuring out who is on which side.

Ultimate Werewolf: Inquisition isn't a bad game, but it the hidden roles can be less important than determining which mechanisms work most to your benefit. It's like getting a handjob from a really good looking girl. You can't really argue that it isn't fun, but at the same time all of the elements of something much better are present and you'd rather being doing that instead. I'd rather be playing Werewolf or one of the other social deductions games instead.

  

Mascarade


Mascarade is another odd social deduction game, because often your own role is hidden from you. At the start of the game, everyone is given a role, face-up so that everyone can see who you are. Everyone begins with 6 coins and the first to get 13 coins win. Now, some roles give you powers such as collecting 2 or 3 coins from the bank. Other roles let you steal coins from your neighbors or take 2 coins from the person with the most coins. One role lets you get the coins amassed in the Courthouse (more on that in a bit). Another role lets you switch your coin stack with another player's stack. There are other roles as well that let you change roles of other players or peek at them or so forth. Now, once everyone has looked at their role and everyone else's, the cards are flipped face down. And during the first round, you take your card and any other player's card and hold them under the table and switch them... or not. You then place one card back in front of you and one in front of the player you took it from. They have no clue if they have their start card or your card now. And you, hopefully, know who has what.

Once the swapping round is completed, players take one action on their turn. They may a) Peek at their card and see what it is, b) They may swap cards (or not) under the table once as they did in the set up round, or c) Declare their role.

Now if I declare that I am the King (who gets 3 coins as his action) and no one challenges my assertion, then I do not flip over my card (I might not be the King--I may not even know what I am) and I collect 3 coins. However, if anyone else challenges me and claims that they are the King, we will have to reveal. In fact, several people at the table might claim that they are the King. It is even possible that everyone will. But anyone who has declared themselves the role in question then flips over their card. Whoever was the King, gets three coins, even if it was not their turn or action. Everyone who revealed and found out that they were not the King as they declared has to pay 1 coin from their stock to the Courthouse. However, they have flipped their card and now know what they are--unless someone swaps with them before their turn arrives.

Mascarade seems like such a random game--and it is--but it also has such discrete and clever mechanisms to it that you don't even observe as you play. For example, the games will never go on to long because the Judge's power is to claim all of the coins in the Courthouse. So, as more and more people incorrectly claim a role, the Courthouse becomes richer and richer and eventually the Judge will be able to win. Other roles add money to the game and make it competitive.

Unlike most social deduction games, however, this is a game not of pure bluff and strategy, but rather lying and chaos. Personally, I do not think that this is a bad thing. I have a lot of fun with chaos and lying, but any attempts at long term strategic manipulation are thrown right out the window the second someone grabs your card and pulls a possible switch under the table and you are left as helpless as any other player.

I like Mascarade a lot. It is very accessible to new players and it also levels the playing field between them. I may have 100 games of Mascarade under my belt, but the moment the rookie potentially swaps my card, I've lost all of my knowledge and they have more power over me because they know which card they gave to each player. Mascarade is a wonderful and fun game and while not a pure in the social deduction as most of the other games here, it is still a marvelous time. I also highly recommend the promotional character of "The Damned". When someone reveals their card and they are The Damned, they are eliminated from the game. This adds a level of tension and strategy to the game and I really wish the role was included in the base set for how much it changes the play and makes the game more interesting.

  

One Night Ultimate Werewolf


One Night Ultimate Werewolf tries to bring in the tension of the last rounds of a game of Werewolf and condense it into a ten minute game experience. To me, it doesn't quite do this. The last rounds of Werewolf are full of paranoia and hunches and really a lot of luck. It is quite fun and quite tense, but One Night creates a different experience.

Here, players have perfect knowledge of what occurs, but it is just a matter of who is going to share what.

With One Night, players are given their roles and there is a team of Werewolves and a team of Villagers. There is only one lynching round. If a Werewolf is lynched, the Villagers win. If a Villager is lynched, the Werewolves win.

Everyone receives their hidden role and three extra roles are placed face down in the center of the table. The game begins with the Night Phase. Everyone closes their eyes. The Werewolves open their eyes and spot one another. If there is no other werewolf player, a lone wolf may peek at one of three cards in the center. This is important because he can bluff to be that role since no one else will be it. The Seer then looks at one other player's role or two of the face down cards in the center. The Robber then takes one other player's role card and gives them the Robber. The Robber looks at the new role and they are now on that team. This means that if the Robber stole a Werewolf's card, the player who was the werewolf (whose eyes were closed) still thinks that they are a werewolf, but are instead now a villager and the Robber is now secretly a Werewolf. The Troublemaker then switches any two players' roles without looking at them. If you are a generic Villager, you keep your eyes closed the entire time. Players then all open their eyes and try to figure out who to lynch.

My first games of One Night were difficult. None of us were certain on how much information to share. My first game, I took the lead and as the Seer, I knew who a Werewolf was. I declared it openly and as we all declared our roles, I found out that the Troublemaker swapped my card with the Werewolf player's card and I had now adamantly proven to the group that I was the Werewolf and should be lynched.

It took a few games to learn how much to lie and hold back and see if you can catch other players in their lies. Because of this, it has a little bit of a learning curve. If everyone is honest, the game has perfect information for you to track back and figure out who is who at the end. However, this perfect information can be to your detriment because you begin uncertain if you are still on the team you began on. I've been a Werewolf and lied that I was a Villager. Once someone claimed to be the Troublemaker and swapped my card with another player, I immediately said I was the Werewolf and that they now were. I would have been screwed, however, if it turns out that someone was bluffing as the Troublemaker to see if they could get more information.

While the game isn't easy to "master", I love it. It is simple and despite the elements of perfect information being present, it really is one that relies upon bluff and trust more than most of the other games listed here. Making the game even easier to run is the fact that there is a free app that will walk you through the night phase in the beginning.

Scaling from 3-10 players, One Night Ultimate Werewolf is probably going to be my go to social deduction game for 5-10 players. I have about a dozen or so games of it under my belt now and I am still learning how to lie in this game. Numerous roles exist beyond the basic ones I mentioned as well to offer a large amount of variety without creating opportunities to "solve" it.