Monday, April 21, 2014

Review: Dread




Every role-player worth their salt understands the tension of rolling a 20-sided die in order to make a saving throw, especially those old-school gamers who remember when there was a saving throw category tauntingly labeled as "Save vs. Death Ray". Play stops as the player invokes whatever their dice-related OCD was and they shook the die in their hands a few times and send the icosagon bouncing onto the table evoking either triumphant cheers or mournful wails.

The problem with this tension is how fleeting it is. The tension starts with the DM telling you to make your saving throw and it only lasts as long as the die-rolling ritual, culminating with the die bouncing to its conclusion. As soon as the saving throw is made, it's back to swinging your two-handed sword once again.

Sure, your story, setting and theme can evoke a sense of tension, but the mechanisms of most games tend to breeze past the tension.

That is what Dread, the independent role-playing game by Epidiah Ravachol, tries to capture: the sense of on-going and sustainable tension.

However, Dread is not like most other role-playing systems. A lot of it differentiates itself from its brethren.

First of all, the system and mechanisms are not created for sustained campaign play. The system is designed to play single, one-shot stories, each with a suspense or horror theme. Most stories are generally resolved in just a couple of hours, making the play time roughly equivalent to the time it would take to watch a horror flick.

Next, characters are not defined by stats and numbers like most games. There are no abilities or even descriptors for the characters. Instead, character creation is based upon answering a questionnaire specifically tailored to your character. Questions might simply be "Why did you choose your major in college?" Or they may start to get deeper, provoking more thought into your character's personae, such as, "Your father beat your mother when you were a child. Why didn't he ever beat you?"

The thing about this method of character creation is that it immediately thrusts the players into the personae of their characters. And instead of min-maxing their numbers and stats, clever questions can deconstruction characters to instead expose their vulnerabilities--something that is crucial in a horror setting.

All role-playing can lend itself to an acting exercise of improvisation. However, what Dread's character system does is to reinforce it. Characters are not defined by the number next to their ability and take on an assumed mantle befitting that salad of numbers and skills. Instead, characters are defined in manners in which the Host (the system's version of the DM or Storyteller) can provoke. Instead of giving someone an 18 Strength to be the "strong guy" of the group, you can instead give a character the question, "Athleticism has always come natural to you and you are easily stronger than most of your peers. What happened that made you decide to hold back your full strength around others?"

This defines not just a character's trait, but a character's personae.

The next thing that sets Dread apart from other role-playing systems is its method of conflict resolution. Generally there are things that are trivial for a character to perform and things that are impossible for a character to perform in any role-playing system. There are rarely any systems involving the resolution of these since either resolution should be assumed. However, the meat of a game's system comes from how to resolve the things that occur in between.

Most systems would have you roll a die or dice at some target number to determine if you succeed or fail. In Dread, you play Jenga.

Jenga is a tower building game where the tower is made of alternating rows of three wooden planks. On a player's turn in Jenga, you pull out one of the wooden planks and place it on the top of the tower. With repeated pulls, the tower becomes more and more unstable and it will eventually collapse and fall when a player removes a plank or places it on top of the now-wobbly structure.

Conflict resolution uses this system. Players want to perform something and then must take a wooden plank from the tower and place it at the top to succeed. Generally, this makes checks easier in the beginning, but soon the tower becomes unstable. And, if a character attempting a pull topples the tower, they are removed from the game--generally by brutal death, although depending upon the situation, other means could be applied.

What this does is establish and build an ongoing sense of tension. Players can opt not to pull and instead fail their action, though with consequences. Players can also start to pull and, if they gauge the tower to be unstable, stop their pull and take the failure.

What happens is, as the tower becomes unstable, every player sees their character's impending mortality before them. In most RPGs, the tension and threat are not so visceral and you'll see players volunteering to head off to investigate the sound at camp in the middle of the night. However, the tension created by Dread and a teetering Jenga tower has players give pause. Straws may be drawn to see who goes. Or possibly no one musters the courage to go forth.

There are a few more mechanisms for resolving the Jenga pulls. A player could perform a trivial task, but opt to take a pull to succeed far and above normal means. Some actions might be difficult enough to require multiple pulls, each successful pull only completing a single portion of the deed. Finally, a player can opt to voluntarily push over the tower and topple it when making a check. If they do this, they make a heroic sacrifice. They succeed at the task they were attempting, but they are removed from the game.

A good host will use the questions answered by the players to the advantage of the theme. If a player answered that their character is afraid of heights, it might take them an extra pull to maintain their composure while trying to cross a rope bridge over a ravine. Similarly, a character who had answered that they had survivalist training might not require a pull at all.

Dread does has a few potential flaws. First of all, it is not a fitting system for players who suffer certain physical disabilities. Second, poor players can ruin the theme. If you do not pull, you fail your action, but you do not die. So an intractable player could simply refuse to ever pull, assuming that they will then never die. However, players like that should not be playing a thematic game like Dread. So that is more of an audience problem than a problem with the system mechanisms themselves.

Next, the system does require the Host running the game to improvise in odd ways if a mundane task pull results in the tower toppling. If you are out investigating a sound in the middle of the night, trying to find the tracks of a stalking wolf, or if you are crossing that rope bridge across the ravine, a failed pull lends itself to easy and obvious methods of elimination. But what if you are giving first aid? Or translating a book? This requires the Host to be ever ready for potential methods of elimination.

Somebody is about to die.
An early topple could also eliminate a character prematurely. Having never played Jenga before, I was uncertain how stable the tower would be and how early we would see a topple. If there was an early topple, I decided that I would play it as if the character cheated death and knew it. Any action they took from then on would require multiple checks. This would have allowed the player to remain in the story until it reached a deeper point and would have also built more tension.

Honestly, when I first read Dread, I thought that the Jenga system was just a cute, quirky gimmick. However, after playing it, I see how it really captures the mood and brings in tension. There is a physical metaphor of your character's mortality teetering before the eyes of the players. I've seen players refuse checks and whimper as the planks are tested for stability. As the tower wobbled on the table before them, I've seen players immediately call out that they are not doing something, until another player steadied their resolve and stepped up to perform the task at hand.

Dread is perfect for setting the tense atmosphere of a suspenseful horror story. The character creation questionnaire has helped bring in a non-role-player into the story. But most of all, the physical representation of death sitting before the characters invokes enough suspense and tension to flavorfully propel the game.

This is not a system for everyone and, truth be told, it is a system that really only tells a limited genre of stories. However, what it does, it does well. I look forward to playing more Dread as a light RPG filler game and writing my own scenarios for it. If nothing else, this may become my new thematic Halloween game to play.

Review: Microscope




I generally play RPGs as the DM/GM/Storyteller. I enjoy the role. I enjoy facilitating the story arcs for the developing characters. My campaigns tend to be focused a little less in combat and more in character development, and fortunately, I've always had players who follow suit. For us, the story is the main emphasis about the game. As such, character arcs are very important. I doubt that there is a single character in any of my campaigns that did not have to struggle with moral and ethical decisions as the meat and drink of their arcs and development.

With our focus on these aspects of gaming, a vibrant world needs to be our backdrop. I've always kind of hated player made worlds because, ultimately, they lack detail--or at least publicly understood and known detail. So my campaigns always tend to either fit in pre-made system settings, such as the Forgotten Realms, or have followed (and incorporated) real-world history and setting for "Earth-based" games. The reason why I have always used these settings is simply I want the players to be familiar with their world and don't want them to be surprised by it. The characters live in their world and should be aware of it. As a player, nothing would infuriate me more than half-way through a campaign discovering that Giants were wiped out a century ago when I was building my character to become a Giant-Slayer. Or my character building with a goal to be a dragon slayer suddenly realizes that, in this world, all dragons are friendly and immortal. Or my cleric suddenly finds out that, well, his god is kind of a dick. So I use established worlds so that my players understand the basics and the histories of their stage and setting. My biggest fear in creating a world for my campaign setting is that I would create a history or relationships that were assumed to me and would be a surprise to my players half-way through the game.

Microscope is a game about building worlds and histories.

That is a little generous. It is difficult to really call Microscope a game in the basic understanding of games. It is more of an experience, or activity. Or perhaps an exercise. Microscope does not have any winners or losers. In fact, the game also does not have a defined ending. It could play on infinitely. However, the reality of it is that it ends when the players are finished.

The game begins with defining the Big Picture. This will be the history that you are exploring. These concepts are generally defined in a single sentence or two. It could be "The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Empire", or "Man's Colonization of Their Solar System". It is this concept that you will create a history for.

From there, you create Bookend Histories to signify the starting and ending Periods. They will become the first and last Period in your history. They are agreed upon by the players and are assigned either a light or a dark tone, meaning are the events of that time generally happy or tragic. You will ultimately be determining the history in between these Periods. For the Colonization of the Solar System, the staring Period could be "Apollo 11 lands on the moon". We are then starting with real-world history and likely assign it with a light tone. The ending period could be, "Man flees its dying solar system" with a dark tone.

After that, players create a Palette for their history. The Palette consists of things that either can be included or are banned for being included.  They are not to be the obvious ones, such as using a real-world setting and banning magic. But rather, there are things that should not be obvious, but will direct the histories. For example, setting a game in a fantasy world but banning dragons from the Palette, or including technology in it.

The last portion of the set up is the First Pass. Here, each player will add a new Period between the Bookend Periods or they will create and Event under one of the existing Periods. Periods are generally just large chunks of time unified by a singular theme or event--usually representing decades or even centuries. A period could be "The Reign of King Lucius IX". It is chosen to be either light or dark in tone and the player places it gives a little description of the Period. Events are specific things that occur during a Period and also have a light or dark tone. They are placed out under the Period to signify where they occur. Events under the above Period could be "Prince Lucius IX murders his father to ascend to the throne", or "Lucius IX marries Queen Alacious from the Stonewall Kingdoms". Multiple Events played under the same Period are arranged in chronological order.

Once this is completed, the game begins.

Each turn, someone begins as the Lens. The Lens chooses a Focus for the round. The Focus will be what everyone will be, well, focused on for the turn. A Focus is simply an idea that a player wishes to be explored further. The more specific the Focus, the more detailed the history will be. For example, wanting to Focus upon, "The first Tournament of Champions held by the King" will give more specific and detailed responses than placing the Focus as "The Slavery of the demi-humans". However, both are equally valid, depending on how detailed you want to be.

After the Lens determines the Focus, each player adds a Period, Event, or Scene that in some way relates to the Focus for the round (also choosing if it is light or dark in tone). If a Period is chosen, it is placed between two existing Periods to where it should be chronologically. If it is an Event, it is placed under the appropriate Period chronologically. Scenes are very detailed looks at certain Events. When someone chooses to add a Scene, they choose a Question to answer. It could be something answering motive, such as "Why did Prince Lucius IX poison his father?" It could be used to describe more general feelings and reactions, such as "How do the trade merchants feel about Lucius IX taking the throne?" It could even be unimportant to the grander scheme of the Event at hand, but could still be interesting to the players, such as, "Did the assassinated King's wife ever admit her love to her guard after her husband's death?"

After the Question is posed, the scene is set and players each play a character in the scene. Scenes are short and really just little vignettes, generally lasting no more than a couple of minutes until the Question is answered. Everyone should be playing with the idea of answering the Question in mind. The role-play can be free-form, involving inner monologues to describe motive or narrative scenes to dialogue with the other characters involved. Once it is completed, the question is written and added under the appropriate Event.

Once every player has added a Period, Event, or Scene, the Lens goes again, getting the final say in their Focus. The player to their right then chooses a Legacy from something that occurred based on the Focus. If they already had a Legacy from a previous turn, they can either keep their existing Legacy or replace it with a new one. It is simply something that they found interested and want to keep in play and explore a little more. That player then adds another Event or Scene based on their Legacy.

After this, the next player becomes the Lens and determines a new Focus.

As I said, there is no real ending and, as the name suggests, you can use the microscope to look closer and closer at events and scenes in history. But, when players are satisfied with what they have and it has served their purpose (which may simply be having fun), the game ends.

Microscope is an ambitious and entertaining enough idea in its own right to be interesting and grab my attention. However, the open-endedness and lack of real a real game there means it probably would not have gotten a lot of play more than a cursory glance and perhaps an experimental or novelty session or two. To be honest, as much as I like storytelling and storytelling games, the structure of it is a little jarring.

However, I found a purpose for the game that has made it quite useful. I've recently been talked into (or at least inspired by reminiscing) running another role-playing campaign. I've had a couple of ideas in the back of my head for a long term campaign, but I didn't want to approach it in the same way. My 3.5 friends have moved onto Pathfinder, which is not really set in a campaign world that is very well defined.

So, I gathered my players together and we played Microscope to create the history of the kingdom that our campaign will be set in. I wanted to solve the problem of my players not knowing the history of the world that they will be living in. Microscope solved that. In fact, my players intimately know their setting's history because they helped to create it.

I have to say that I really appreciated the system as well. We started with the bookends of human races first settling the region (light tone) and ended with the ascension of the new king (dark tone). It was noted that the campaign would be beginning directly after the last Period in our history.

I really appreciated this preamble to a role-playing campaign. Everything that was placed between our bookends ended up being a seed and inspiration for me as a Storyteller for the campaign. But what also works out wonderfully is the fact that the players had their hand in the creation of the timeline and history. Elements that inspired them were placed into the world. Not only do they have a knowledge of our world's history, but they were able to include facets that would inspire them as characters to be in this world.

While Microscope has limited use for me on its own, it has proven itself to me to be invaluable as a supplemental system for the start of any campaign that I will be running in the future. What is an interesting exercise on its own becomes something of immense thematic value when applied to a campaign. I have cards full of story seeds now, inspired by the ideas that the players in my game had offered. But more than that, they feel invested in the world.


Microscope isn't the perfect game, but it is as close to a perfect campaign tool as you will find if you want to invest your players and you trust their ideas.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Review: Fiasco



I have ended exactly one long-term campaign in my experience as a Game Master. I've typically had endings in mind for all of the others, but eventually life and other obstacles have come in the way and prematurely ended those stories first. But the one campaign that had reached its planned ending resonates in my mind still to this day. It was a complete story for the characters and that was an amazing thing to pull off.

You see, that's my goal as a Game Master and my desire as a player; I want a compelling story. There are gamers out there who will scour every published book to try to min-max every detail about their character to tweak every advantage to squeeze in a +1 to their die roll. Games are about challenge to stats and ability and challenges to thought and morality are secondary. That's perfectly fine, but that's not why I play.

I play for the stories. And good stories need endings. Most of my campaigns end up being mapped out story arc-wise, but we rarely get to the ending. So something is lost in the process. For every campaign that I haven't finished--my Redham Thieves' Guild campaign, my Waterdeep campaign, the Silver Marches campaign, my Dreams of Carcosa Call of Cthulhu campaign--what I miss most about them isn't playing them, it's the idea that we'll finish the story. It's like reading a book and never getting to the last few chapters.

What I like best about Fiasco is that there are endings. The story is played to a conclusion and the conclusion system is absolutely genius. But, I suppose I shouldn't skip ahead to the ending.

Fiasco is a game by Jason Morningstar and published by Bully Pulpit. It is also a game about the phrase "It seemed like a good idea at the time." Basically, you will be playing out a Coen brother's movie type of caper. Things will go wrong. Stupid or impulsive plans will have disastrous results and things will go awry. But that is where the fun is.

First thing to realize is that you aren't playing to win. There are dice in the game, but don't worry about them. You aren't playing to win. You are playing to make a story.

The Set Up comes first. First your group (the game plays 3-5 players) agrees on a Playset. Playsets are the core of the game. They will determine your setting and everything about the story and Playsets vary from being set on a submarine to being a group of London gangsters to living in Salem during the Witch Trials.

Players sit in a circle and everyone places two cards between each player and their neighbor. Four six-sided dice per player are rolled into a center pile and the players will be able to pick dice from that pile, using them up. Dice are used to fill those cards between you and your neighbors. One card will always be to determine your Relationship with your neighbor--how you know one another. See, your character will know the player to your right and the player to your left, but may not have yet met their neighbors. The other cards will create either an Object, Location or Need associated between you and your neighbor.

Each Relationship, Object, Location, and Need will consist of a category and then defined by a specific detail. Each player, on their turn, takes one die from the pool and uses it to assign a category or detail on one of the cards out there. You don't have to define the cards between you and your neighbor; you could use a die to define anything on a card between other players.

For example, you could take a die and decide to give a category for possible between you and the player to your right. Your Playset could have relationship categories of 1-Family, 2-Work, 3-Friendship, 4-Romance, 5-Crime, or 6-Community. You decide that you want to somehow have a romantic connection to the player to your right and you take a 4 from the pile and assign the Relationship category of Romance. Then, the player across from you decides to further define your Romance. The Playset's details for Romance Relationships include 1-Former spouses, 2- Current spouses, 3-Life-long crush and Object of crush, 4-One time fling, 5-Lovers, or 6-Former lovers. They take a 3 from the dice pool and define that you and the player to your right are a life-long crush and the object of the crush. You don't immediately have to determine who is who, but as more and more things become defined, it starts to make sense and you can talk openly about ideas.

This creation of characters is brilliant. Players should openly talk about ideas as the Set Up is being played out. Relationships are important, but this process will also define Objects, Locations and Needs associated with the story. Needs often give motivation and could spark a lot of drive for the story. Locations help to define the setting and tie characters together. Objects tend to be... wild cards. There are generally a bunch of wild ideas for objects that help bring in a lot of quirk into your story.

Once the Set Up is finished, players talk about their characters and further define how they know their neighbors and further define their relationships. The end result is that you will have three to five characters all tied together by chance, fate or blood and differing attitudes and motivations between each. I might have a hard longing to fuck the character to my right ever since we were in middle school and the player to my left might be my AA sponsor who is overly obsessed with my recovery from alcoholism. I might not even have any idea who the player across from me is, but it turns out that they are my AA sponsor's dentist that share a Need to get rich through stealing a drug stash, and that crooked dentist also happens to be the father of my crush to my right. So we all tie together, bound by relationships, needs and other fine details. Once this is fleshed out, play is ready to begin.

Players put all of the dice back in the center of the table. It doesn't matter what number they are on, what is important is that half of the dice should be white and the other half should be another color (referred to as black).

Gameplay consists of players playing out scenes. These scenes are broken into two Acts. But at the end of the first Act, players roll for the Tilt--the circumstances and situations that will help make these terrible plans fall apart.

In each Act, a player gets to play out two scenes. When it's your turn to have a scene, you can either Establish or Resolve a scene.

If you Establish a scene, you make it up. You can bring in other players' characters if you wanted. Or you could ask them to play a role needed just for the scene. For example, I could ask the player to my left (my AA sponsor) to join me in a scene where I call him telling him that I am really thinking about having a drink because I don't think I have the courage to approach my crush without having a little "liquid courage" in me and it's driving me mad. But I'm not limited to linear scenes. Maybe I want a scene to further establish my longing for m crush and ask her to join me in a scene back in middle school. We play out a scene at a party and the first time she really notices me is when I start drinking. She's in middle school, so she thinks it's cool and I'm funny when I'm drinking. Or maybe I decide to have a scene with no other characters, but instead I ask another player to play a random bartender as I sit and commiserate and lay out my motives and pour my heart out in a scene of exposition. This is my scene and I can do whatever I want with it. When you Establish a scene, you are the director of the shot. However, during the scene the other players will assign you a die during your scene. If they give you a white die, then your scene should resolve well for you. If they give you black die, then the scene should resolve poorly for you.

So, if I'm talking to my sponsor and the other players give me a white die, maybe I decide that he's right. I don't need the drink. I'm not myself when I drink and I want her to like me. Or, if they give me a black die during my scene, perhaps I'll give my sponsor lip service and sigh as I hang up my phone and walk into the bar that I was pacing outside of when I called him.

If you Resolve a scene, you choose the die (and thus, the positive or negative result of your scene), but the other players are the director. Perhaps I ask to Resolve a scene and I take a black die--I want things to go badly for me. The other players create the scene for me--they decide that my crush invited me to a club to go dancing and that she's telling admiring stories about my funny drunken escapades. I play out the scene with her and she laughs about the things that I did and I smile and chuckle, playing with my 1-year sober chip in my pocket the whole time, but as she excuses herself to use the restroom, I walk to the bar and order a drink.

After your scene, you should have a die for that scene. You then give it away to another player. But don't worry about the dice yet or what they mean.

When you make a scene, you shouldn't be worried about "winning" the scene. In that sense, people who are overly attached to their characters or play to win can be a detriment to the story telling process. It's about the story.

Everyone should have two scenes per Act. After the first Act is finished, players roll for the Tilt. The Tilt adds a couple of complications to the story so far and really heats up the second Act. Players rolls the dice in front of them and the highest black result and the highest white result choose the Tilt elements, each picking a category and then defining the other's detail.

Tilt elements are much more open and less defined than the elements in the Set Up, and are chosen by a roll of the dice left in the dice pool. Perhaps one of the Tilt elements ends up being Guilt--Greed leads to killing. Or perhaps Failure--Something precious is on fire. Maybe it is Innocence--The wrong guy gets busted. These are fairly open to interpretation on who they can be incorporated, but these elements should play into the scenes in Act Two.

Act Two is played out exactly as Act One is as far as Establishing or Resolving scenes. The only difference is that you have the Tilt to consider. And at the end of these scenes, you keep the die instead of giving it away. The scenes should also be building to a crescendo toward the ending. In our scene above, perhaps it was played out that my AA sponsor and his dentist tried to score a bunch of pain killers to sell. The dentist knew where to get them and the AA sponsor knows a dealer from his pre-sober days. Maybe the Tilt comes in and the daughter is wrongly accused and arrested. Drunkenly, I decide a bold move to impress her as sign to confess my love and I decide I'm going to break her out of custody.

The scenes can go anywhere, but things are really heating up. If it seems right that a character should die, then the character should die. Maybe the AA sponsor's contact kills the dentist, or maybe even the AA sponsor becomes greedy and tries to eliminate the dentist. If you die and still have scenes to resolve, you can still have your scenes. Flashbacks work wonderfully in this situation and can poignantly or ironically foreshadow events that you know will occur.

After the last scene is finished, everyone should have some dice in front of them. Perhaps a mix of black or white. It does not matter. Everyone rolls the dice in front of them. The Black dice are totals together and the White dice are totaled together. The lower result is subtracted from the higher result and that gives you a number. Either Black or White.

With this result, you get your Aftermath. Your character's ending to their story. Having a Black result generally tend to be focused on the physical, while having a White result tends to be more social and mental.

But let's say the result is White Two. The result reads, "Merciless: You might not be dead on the outside but you sure as hell are dead on the inside. The emotional or mental wounds you have suffered will never heal. The future is a brick wall."

With that in mind, I resolve my character's story, giving a little vignette for each die in front of me, describing what happened in my character's epilogue. I mean, obviously from that ending, I didn't win and get the girl. I'm probably drinking again. I only really made an impression on her when I was drinking and I've realized that I hate myself sober. But with each die, you describe in a sentence or so the aftermath of your character.

But what is really interesting about the resolution is that the highest totals end up being the best outcome. That means that characters who had ups and downs tend to roll lower numbers as their black and white dice cancel out. Characters who were on top of everything (all white dice) tend to come out on top. But the best thing is the turn of fate for the schleps. If you have all black dice in front of you, likely from a bunch of scenes that went poorly for you, you will likely have a high black result for the aftermath. Your piss-poor fortune can turn for you. That is just... perfect.

What you end up with is a compelling and fun story. Things tend to get dark in Fiasco, but that's okay. In fact, that's great. The game's story feels like a movie and also is resolved in about the same amount of time it takes to watch one. Games run between two to three hours depending on the number of players.

The only issue that I have is that players need  to know to up the stakes. At the end of the Set Up, it is possible for players to seem rather mundane. You can still have good and compelling scenes that are interesting, but if everything is mundane, and aftermath result that involves death and dismemberment just seems too out of the blue. So players need to be aware of this and raise the stakes. Big plans and big ideas need to be tackled--and tackled poorly.

What I love most about Fiasco is the endings. We've all ended up with our just desserts. Everyone can build a compelling narrative to conclude their story and arc. And for someone who had too many campaigns that never had their endings, that is something amazing for me. Characters should have arcs. Stories should be more important than rolls and success. In fact, you should be willing to go with the fails. Failures are glorious and spectacular and that is what Fiasco celebrates.

The thing about Fiasco, however, isn't just that it is a fun little story that you create. It really could be used as part of a writer's workshop. The stories that come from it really could be movies or short stories. The Set Up process is the most compelling portion. It is amazing to see the chain of connections between players at the end of it. And the aftermath provides that resolution that I so often fail to achieve in storytelling games.

I very strongly recommend Fiasco. There are Playsets to cover any and all genres. And despite the dark themes that often present themselves, it truly is one of the funniest games I've ever played. It is a great creative exercise and one of improving not just characters, but scenes and stories. When you move away from games with Game Masters, you suddenly realize just how much everyone else around you can create and add. And it is much more of a marvel to see what you can create as a group instead of just seeing how they react to what you made.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Mini-Reviews: The "I Can't Get Up Enough Enthusiasm To Do A Full Review On These Games" Summary Spectacular!

As my board gaming hobby interests blossomed, display and storage for my games became an issue. We have a very large family room/gaming room and when we first set it up ten years ago, our bookcases were filled with books. Granted, two of the shelves were full of books for various roleplaying games and one full shelf on another was full of trade paperback comics. But as I started to get more and more board games, room was needed.

The regular books went first. Boxes of books lay nestled in our basement as shelf space was needed for all of the Arkham Horror expansion boxes. Next, some of the roleplaying books got tucked away. There was little chance of me inviting people over and an impromptu game of Mage: The Ascension was going to break out. However, there was a much greater chance of a game of Galaxy Trucker would be played instead, so it took shelf priority.

Next, we moved in a couple of other bookshelves from other rooms, removing the books and curios from them. So, unlike many houses, we do not have knick-knacks. Why would I have The Maxx action figure on a shelf where I could instead store a copy of Ghost Stories? Which would look better and be true to me in decor: a Precious Moments figurine or a copy of City of Remnants on the shelf?

Still, this was not enough room. Eventually there was overflow and my wife became a little annoyed at the pile of games stacked behind the bar in the dining room. To appease her, they were eventually moved downstairs so she didn't have to look at them and I didn't have to hear her disappointed sighs. 

But now shelf space is a premium for games in my house. The games on the shelves in the family room are the "keepers", the ones most likely to be played, and the ones with too much sentimental value to get rid of. The ones in the basement are the ones up for trade or sale.

As a new game comes in, we play it and if it is good enough, it finds a way to the shelf, replacing a game that will ultimately end up in the basement. Unless, of course, it is so good that I feel obligated to scavenge another bookcase for the family room (which I recently did).

These are the tales of those glorious games that I've recently played that are headed to my basement.




Village


Village is an awkward game in two respects. First of all, without the definitive article of "The" in front of it, it sounds odd referencing the game's title. But second, the game tries really, really hard to be thematic with an interesting narrative, but it ultimately just falls short.

Players control families in a small village, each trying to get their family's name to prominence within their community by excelling at specific deeds, including dying doing something. It doesn't matter if you were a shit craftsman, if you were the first craftsman to die, you'll be remembered and celebrated by the village and move into its annuals of history. Honestly, after playing Legacy: the Testament of Duke de Crecy, I realize just how incredibly thematic and narrative filled building family prestige can be in a game.

But ultimately, Village ends up being too much of a Euro game for its own good. You end up working to get cubes of a specific color in order to pay for actions for other cubes of differing colors to ultimately get some victory points. It's very nice that the tried to make the cube collecting more thematic and that the orange cube represents "skill", while the green cube represents "persuasiveness", but ultimately, the mechanisms of the game take precedence and the cubes don't feel like they represent anything other than simply something you need to get to pay for something else you need to get in order to cash that in for victory points. The game wants to be thematic. It really does. But it ends up being like a Chinese Restaurant hanging up red, white and blue streamers on the Fourth of July. It's just window dressing and it doesn't fit. Village would have been better to have just embraced its Euro design and forgone the attempt at theme entirely as to not disappoint gamers like me and not to put off Euro mechanism masturbation fanboys who scoff at the intrusion of theme.




Eight Minute Empire


Have you ever thought, "Gee, I'd really like a dudes-on-a-map area control game with strategy and competing for both limited resources and area control on a tight board, but I'd like to finish before the oven preheats so I can cook dinner?" Nope, me either. I'd rather a game that did all of that, that I have to break as I eat dinner and look at and contemplate the map and my moves.

Eight Minute Empire, however, is a clever design, but just not an incredibly marketable one. Granted, it was a huge Kickstarter overfund and raved about to the point where a sequel game is being made. So marketable isn't exactly the right word, but it still is.

You see, the game is kind of cute and clever, but other than snowball hype (the result of both Kickstarter and Boardgamegeek hotness), the game shouldn't be as big as it is. You have a map and cubes that you can spread out and move around to try to control the most areas. You take your actions by purchasing cards for sale, each with a different set of actions on them. The cards also have resources listed on them, which are worth points depending on the sets you have. So you could purchase a card for its action or for its resource, but if you can find one that has both that you need, it would be even better. There are no teeth in this game, since you don't battle other players, but simply try to have more of your cubes than he has in a territory. A couple of cards allow you to remove 1 cube, but that's as nasty as it gets. And the game plays in about 8-15 minutes.

So it is not deep enough to satisfy my want for something strategic or conquest oriented. Even though I can technically build cities, it does not satisfy my need for a civilization building game. And for difficult, meaningful decision-making choices, I don't feel like deciding if I would rather get a card that moves four of my armies or a card that gives me another carrot really satisfies that urge.

So, does it work as a light filler? Well, yeah, I suppose a bit. But it plays too short to be useful for that. Seriously, if I had ten minutes to kill before another game ended or more players showed up, I'd just shoot the shit for ten minutes. Or scratch my balls for ten minutes. Both of which would feel more productive and social. So, yeah, it's clever and it's cute, but it's not really the useful of a game.




Krosmaster Arena


My daughter loves Skylanders. Part of the appeal is the different characters and the fact that you have these cool looking little min figures to put on your Summoning Portal. Krosmaster Arena seemed like a great choice for her. It is a duel area game where you are essentially just directly slugging it out with one another, but with really gorgeous miniature figures and cardboard, three-dimensional landscape.

However, Krosmaster Arena is too complicated for its cuteness and too cute for its complexity. To be fair, the game really isn't that complicated for a seasoned gamer. Each of the characters has a character card and each of those have unique abilities and powers and attacks. The three-dimensional map makes line of sight rules a little easier to visualize. However, for a game where half of the female figures are cute, big-eyed pixie girls who carry around teddy bears, it seems too complex.

Honestly, it wouldn't surprise me if certain gamers
have characters like this in their favored porn.
At the same time, there is meat to this game. The game does offer some good potential for small scale tactical combat between teams of players. The team building can create some interesting synergy and the play through can be interesting and deep enough that I would not mind playing it with some of my tactical skirmish war-gamer friends. However, seeing the cute grins of the figures and saying things like "Alright, my character will use his Pudd Thud attack on your Ally McZeal for 3 damage. Then My King of the Gobballs will use his Gobbolob attack on your Clot the Crapulous for the kill" will just end up turning off those more "serious-minded" tactical war-gamers.

I'm sure there is an audience out there for this game, but at the entry price and all of the figures to purchase, I just don't know how much of one there is. For me, I enjoy the game and don't mind the cute and silly. But I know that I'll be hard-pressed to find opponents who don't find it either too cute or too complex.

And as a side-note, this game is not in the basement. My daughter still enjoys the game and she'll take out the figures to play with them and they'll all have tea parties and talk about their dresses.




Steam Park


Steam Park held great potential. You are creating amusement parks for robots in a Steampunk world. The have wonderful three-dimensional pieces to build your park with, expanding out your rides to fill your map. You have an incredibly stylistic artwork style that looks like something from Tim Burton's Beetlejuice, you know, back from that period when he movies were new, interesting and good. You have a rulebook that doesn't take itself seriously and has a lot of cute snark throughout it. I mean, with all of that, what could a game like this be missing?

It turns out, compelling gameplay.

The game has a strange mix of genres. Your turn begins with quick die-rolling, with the first to "lock in" their dice to the rolls they wanted getting the best bonuses. So it begins with a frantic race theme, like a competitive Escape: The Curse of the Temple. Afterward, you spend your dice to expand your park, build new rides and attractions, attract visitors, and to clean up after what are apparently the sloppiest robots ever. Oh, you can also use your dice to use your hand of cards as well, which essentially just score you some quick points, but the cards in your hand give you a direction on what you will want to build.

Looks like old-school Burton creative design, feels like
modern-day Burton fluff and soullessness.
The building and expanding, however, is very simplistic. If I have a card that gives me points for every Purple Space in my park, then when I build, I'll build purple rides. But the thing is, the cards are unique. No one else will be scoring point for Purple Spaces. So as soon as I take my first purple ride piece, I most likely will not have any competition for the rest of them. In fact, you can spend your time leisurely building rides at your own pace and focus primarily on cleaning your park from robot waste and you'll probably do pretty well.

The problem is that the game just isn't that deep. I kind of like the quick rolling to see who locks in their dice first. There are choices to be made--do you finish first for the bonuses, or do you risk going later to get better results on your dice. But in the end, how you spend those dice isn't that compelling, making the frantic rolling of the open of each turn less interesting in the process.

My daughter likes this game and it's easy enough for her, but none of us are so invested in it that I won't trade it away at the first decent opportunity.




Coup


This game is incredibly popular and it baffles me. I get the bluff and I get the deception behind it, but it is essentially Counting Cards: the Game.

Honestly, there are a lot of group hidden role and bluffing games that I own and my various gaming groups absolutely love them. In fact, we excel at them. We could play a game of One Night Ultimate Werewolf and everyone could be a villager, but each of us would have lied about what we were at least three times a piece to try to draw out more information from other players.

But Coup doesn't offer the great bluffing opportunity that other games do. Perhaps it would just take more plays for my group to "get" it, but it went over so poorly that I don't think that it would be worth the struggle and attempts when there are so many other games out there that do offer the same thing, but so much more uniquely, interestingly and funly.

And I don't care what spell-check is saying. Funly is a word.




Sentinels of the Multiverse: Vengeance Expansion


I'll start this off by stating that if my wife is reading this, she doesn't have to worry. I'm not really trading this one away. However, it still belongs on this list.

Sentinels of the Multiverse is a very established game now and probably one of the better superhero themed games out there. If I were to ask you what you favorite aspect of Sentinels of the Multiverse was and you said "Why, all of the bookkeeping for the villain, his multiple effects and how you need to reference all of the cards in play to see what it affects and trying to remember his specific immunities and damage types and what triggers which effects, of course!" well, then, you're in luck and I have just the expansion for you! Instead of doing the bookkeeping for just one villain, now you have to do the bookkeeping and card cross-referencing it for up to five villains at once!

Sentinels used to be one of my favorites, but we played it too much. And from repeated plays, I realized something about the game.

First of all, each player has their own deck of specific cards for their hero and each and every one plays uniquely and is quite compelling. The first few plays with a hero is phenomenal as you try to figure out the deck and how it works best and the synergies between your cards and powers. But then you learn the deck. And the game isn't so compelling anymore.

There are two types of deck-building card games out there. Games like Netrunner and Magic: the Gathering have you build and customize your deck before you play it. In these games, deck creation is actually a HUGE part of the game and can often even more fun than playing the deck. Sometimes I want to just play games to figure out how to tweak my deck better. I don't care about the games. They are an annoyance to go through to build my decks, where I really sink my teeth into my decision making.

The other type of deck-building game builds them on the fly. Games like Dominion or Thunderstone where the game revolves around making your deck as you play, building and weaning while trying to make the deck as functional as possible during this transition. These games often bring interesting challenges to them as well. You have to watch other players, making certain that they aren't building quicker decks that will win before you can create yours and you need to compromise your designs.

Sentinels is neither of them. Decks are preconstructed. But after you've "figured out" a hero's deck, the compelling bit of the game is gone. You know the deck well enough that card play becomes instinctual with no hard choices or decisions to be made. At least with Netrunner or MtG, you have the joy of tinkering with decks afterward to meet new, unforeseen challenges.

But with Sentinels, everything is the same. Learning the game is compelling and exciting as you discover what works with what. But after the learning, you are left with playing the game. And, sadly, it doesn't offer any surprises.