Monday, April 7, 2014

Freedom: The Underground Railroad

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There are a fairly limited number of core go-to backdrops for games: railroad building, renaissance Italy, Imperial Rome, the Age of Exploration, and trading in central Europe between 1500 and 1800 are the usual suspects. Generic Tolkienesque fantasy and generic sci-fi round out the mix. Freedom: The Underground Railroad is a refreshing break, chronicling as it does the struggles of a marginalized people against oppression during a particularly disgraceful period of American history.
Players take on the role of abolitionists in the northern United States from 1800 through the beginning of The War Against Slavery (1861). They have the dual goals of freeing slaves from southern plantations and smuggling them into Canada, and building the financial and political support required for the eventual destruction of the institution of slavery in the United States. Each turn, players free slaves from plantations and move them along the Underground Railroad, stopping in American cities before eventually finding freedom in Canada, all while trying to dodge the slave catchers who are moved randomly by the game system. Along the way, the presence of freed slaves can generate cash and support political fundraising. That cash can then either be used to further the operations of the Underground Railroad (buying conductor tokens, which power all this movement in the first place), buy the political support required to win, or activate historical Abolitionist personalities and organizations made available from a deck of cards. If the players can free a target number of slaves and gain enough political support as indicated by the number of players and difficulty level, they win. If time runs out, or if too many slaves end up on the plantations, they lose.
As a cooperative game, this all works quite satisfactorily. Players have different roles (Stockholder, Preacher, Agent, Conductor, Station Master) which give them special powers and some individuality. Cash is held by the individual player, not the group, and can’t be transferred, so there is a need to balance keeping each of the players’ options open as well as furthering the interests of the group. The tactical game of moving slaves north while dodging slave-catchers is a little more about chess-like evasive maneuvers than it is about risk-taking or pushing your luck, which seems a little inauthentic – but there is still enough depth to engage the multiple minds and spark interesting discussions as the players seek optimal moves. The flow of historical personalities, organizations, and events provides some nice historical touchstones. The base difficulty level is probably a little easy for the hobbyists who will be the primary audience for this game, so I do recommend the harder victory conditions to start. I also think the game’s playing time probably exceeds its range of experience unless you are really smooth cooperative game players, but it’s not by a lot. Freedom certainly isn’t on the level of the classics in the genre (Lord of the Rings, Pandemic, Forbidden Island, maybe Robinson Crusoe) when it comes to tight pacing and keeping all the players constantly engaged, but again, you can’t play those games allthe time and Freedom does attempt to cover a real historical period where not just real lives but the soul of a nation was at stake. That is Freedom’s most important and distinctive feature.
After my first play, I admit my impressions of how well Freedom succeeded in this were negative. It felt like it over-promised and under-delivered. The box art promises adventure, giving you a picture of a family of escaped slaves sneaking to freedom through the dark, armed and surrounded by unknown threats with nary a white person in sight. The game’s actual narrative, though, is the moral crusade of the mainly white, privileged northern abolitionists. The (escaped) slaves themselves don’t have a point of view in the game; they are just cubes being moved around at the players’ whims. The real pressure the players feel in practice is not to free as many slaves as possible, but instead is to raise as much money as possible to fund operations and buy all the support tokens which abstractly represent political clout. The event and personality cards tend to work in broad strokes (reducing the cost of buying tokens, moving extra slaves cubes, bonus cash), and so are a little flat except that some (Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglas) are better than others (John Greenleaf Whittier). This is a frustratingly common pattern, trying to tell the stories of the oppressed not through their own eyes, but through the privileged white outsiders trying to rescue them. In this case, it’s a game not about the people on the Underground Railroad but the peoplefinancing the Underground Railroad. Attempting the former would be something unquestionably worth doing. The latter, while set in an important historical period, feels pretty much the same as every other game out there: tactical positioning and resource management by privileged white Europeans, primarily men, designed by and for those same people.
My attitude softened with time, though. I played with a couple guys who never realized that slaves had to get all the way to Canada to be free, so I got to explain the Fugitive Slave Act and its importance as one of the causes of the Civil War. Prominent black and female abolitionists are well-represented in the abolitionist deck, and are nice touchstones that give the knowledgeable some conversation material, and the whole presentation can spark the curiosity of an interested player. The flavor text on the cards is in too small a type size to read under game conditions, but the historical illustrations and photos are nicely evocative. One shouldn’t allow the excellent to be the enemy of the good; just because Freedom had a real opportunity to try to push the gaming envelope in an overwhelmingly white, male hobby but decided to play it safe and by-the-numbers instead shouldn’t necessarily lead us to judge it more harshly.
So after my initial disappointment, I came to like it. I think a key to appreciating the game for me was reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent Team of Rivals, which inspired me to try the game after my initial so-so impressions. The book covers not just Lincoln and his cabinet but also focuses on the balance Lincoln had to maintain between the hard-line anti-slavery forces (represented in the book by Salmon Chase primarily and, indirectly, William Seward’s wife Francis) and the anti-immigrant and sectarian factions (who might be against the spread of slavery but were not abolitionists and for whom it was not a voting issue) in the Republican party. For me, coming into Freedom with a little knowledge of the fundamental, complicated, and lethal social conflict in this period of US history gave me the leverage I needed to enjoy the game for what it is. It’s too bad it doesn’t stand on its own a bit better, using the gaming form itself to more strongly convey a unique narrative viewpoint. But the fact of the matter is that Freedom tries, and while perhaps it doesn’t achieve everything one might hope for, it is still at the very least a qualified success, and does make a strong statement. It’s surprising to me how few games do.

Friday, March 21, 2014


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Agricola hasn’t come off the shelf in ages in my game groups. Interestingly, it seems like the game feature that gave it its initially high replayability (the vast array of occupation and improvement cards) is also the feature that eventually killed it, aided and abetted by PlayDek’s excellent iOS implementation. Playing quick games on the iPad – especially the solo challenges – by removing all the physical hassles of setup, moving bits around, and idly waiting for other players, makes it really apparent just how big a deal getting a good hand of cards is and how completely screwed you are by a mediocre hand. There is just no way to get the points you need to advance in the solo challenges if you didn’t get good cards. Using a draft to build your initial hand can help amongst highly experienced, similarly-skilled players, but it’s not a panacea.
Still, even though Agricola was always about a 7-rated game for me, I still had  fun with it for a while and it’s easy to understand why most gamers enjoy it. Building a farm is fun. The game understands the rules of Hamlet’s Hit Points and does a good job of maintaing tension throughout. The large number of cards do provide a lot of exploration fun. For several years it was a constant table presence. So I was onboard for Caverna when it came out.
If you’ve played Agricola, you basically know how to play Caverna: use your family members to plow fields, fence pastures, and get animals. Now, though, half your player board dedicated to mining and tunneling, which work how you would expect. There are action spaces for digging tunnels and caverns, furnishing rooms, and mining ore and rubies. Since we’re representing a family of dwarves now, there are also spaces for turning the ore you mine into weapons and going on adventures to pillage stuff (uneventful adventures admittedly, as they are completely risk-free, but still).
Although the decoration of both the physical components and the game systems are quite different between the two games, there are really just two big, fundamental differences.
Firstly, the harvest/feeding cycle has been both accelerated and made slightly more forgiving. You now will have to feed your family after most turns, so that’s tricky. On the other hand, most of the mechanics for turning stuff into food have either been eliminated or greatly simplified. Vegetables and animals just turn into food without the need to acquire fancy stoves. There is no “bake” action; if you want a better food exchange rate you just build a room in your cave (say the Brewery) that helps and it just does its thing without having to take an action. So there is substantially less time and fewer resources spent with the mechanics of producing food, which leaves more time for other things (mining and adventuring mainly).
Secondly, the hand of 14 cards you were dealt at the start of Agricola are gone. Replacing them are a tableau of 47 distinct furnishing tiles, rooms you can build in your cave. These all give either special powers (improving food production, animal husbandry, or mining operations; making weapons or other furnishings cheaper; and so on) or endgame victory points.
On the good side, the game feels more open, like the players have more flexibility to follow interesting and varied strategies without always being under the hammer of food pressure. In Agricola traditionally the first third to half (or more) of the game is mostly about establishing a food engine, which is mostly about playing the hand you’ve been dealt and/or trying to find an underexploited niche in the strategy space and is honestly not all that interesting. If you can do this you get to be a meaningful participant in the later portion of the game, where you try to diversify. Because you aren’t quite so constrained by food (although food pressure is still considerable), and the mechanics of food production are less involved, Caverna lets you spend more time on development, from an earlier point. With a number of additional ways to go now (adventuring, tunneling, mining for rubies and ore), as a player you feel more in control of your destiny. It’s also possible to do well, or even possibly to win, with a relatively small family.
Unfortunately, for me these good things are more than outweighed by the negatives. The main thing of course is the gargantuan level of up-front complexity. In Agricola you had to figure out what to do with 14 cards, a good number of which could be easily eliminated as impractical or only useful with synergies you didn’t have. Even this is not particularly easy. Caverna has 47 distinct furnishings on the table from the outset, very few of which can be easily dismissed. It’s extremely daunting, and possible to fully process only through repeated play (which creates the problem of making it exceptionally difficult for less experienced players to compete with veterans, to a  significantly greater degree even than Agricola). It’s also problematic that these small furnishing tiles have their text in small, low-contrast fonts that are unreadable at a distance and so there is no really good way for most of the players to access this vital game information. Imagine the 10 major improvements from Agricola, but now there are 47 of them and they’re printed on small tiles.
The other major issue is that Caverna, unlike Agricola, is a 100% open-information, completely symmetric worker placement game with limited randomness (and what randomness there is, is global, not individual). This raises all sorts of red flags. With every action space worth the same to everyone (because positions are symmetric), it becomes about system exploits – finding the under-costed or overpowered furnishings or combination of furnishings and figuring out which strategic paths (mining, farming, animal husbandry, adventuring) enjoy the most system support. While it’s true that there are other players playing the game and it may be better to follow a weaker path than compete with everyone else for a stronger one, and since all buildings are unique it’s possible for others to block you by snagging the key combo furnishing you need even if it doesn’t help them, nonetheless this adds up to puzzling, not gaming. Puzzling with insane analysis paralysis potential.
While it’s true that Agricola could be viewed the same way – as more about figuring out the puzzle of the 14 cards you’ve been dealt – it had the saving grace of being asymmetrical and having hidden information. So it was possible to have to guess about other players’ motivations, and be surprised from time to time. Likewise with everyone pursuing at least slightly different strategic paths as suggested (or dictated) by their cards, the worker-placement game of evaluating each space’s comparative “hotness” could be interesting. By contrast, in Caverna everyone is staring at the same options and the same board state and the only way to be surprised by what anyone else does is if you aren’t really paying attention (or can’t be bothered).
Because Caverna is complex, and because it does share many appealing features with Agricola (vicarious enterprise building, the constant pressure of feeding your family, exploration of a complex game environment), I did enjoy it for a few games. I burned out very quickly though, and after fewer than 5 games I don’t really have much desire to play it again.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

High Frontier Colonization

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High Frontier is one of my very favorite games of the last 5 years, and I realize that somehow I’ve never written anything about in my blog. With the expansion out, it’s time to rectify that.
Four of us sat down to play the Colonization for the first time. It begins much the same as the classic game, with players starting on Earth with a bit of money and grand ambitions, trying to acquire the exotic speculative technology required to explore and economically exploit the solar system. Some of the most esoteric pieces of tech available are the game’s two solar sail thrusters: lightweight and requiring neither fuel nor propellant, but slow-ish and unable to carry much mass in a game that’s mostly about hauling around heavy robotic prospectors and refineries. Also, a major premise of the game is that on-site water is key to exoglobalization. The solar sails are primarily useful for exploring sunwards; as you may have noticed, the sun is hot and so there isn’t much water to be found in the inner system. For all these legitimate reasons, everyone else usually rolls their eyes when these come up, but me, I’m a sucker for a challenge. I snap up the Photon Kite Sail nobody wants, attach it to a Solar-pumped MHD Excimer Laser orbital prospector and start putting together a mission to Mercury. Mercury is tidally-locked with one side facing away from the Sun at all times, and so is believed to have significant amounts of water.
The problems with Mercury, like most things in this game, all revolved around gravity. The sun is massive, which makes maneuvering so close to it very difficult. Mercury is also large (on the scale of the asteroids that are the typical targets in High Frontier anyway), so it requires a lot of thrust to land on and take off from. The solar sail solves the problem of getting there by harnessing the solar wind for thrust, but is unable to move that much mass and the tech required to do prospecting is heavy. So it requires two missions – one to put a prospector in orbit, and a second to bring a refinery (I was lucky and got the CVD Molding refinery, a relatively light one). Then you’re presented with a new problem that the sail doesn’t help with at all: getting all that onto the surface. Unlike Mars or Venus, Mercury has no atmosphere to assist by allowing aerobraking. The only thing for it is to bring a powerful thruster or a lot of propellant (i.e., water). Mercury has too much gravity for any of the basic thrusters to land on without the ESA beamed power, and the ESA isn’t in the game, so I’ll need to bring 200,000kg of water to use as propellant for landers instead. So that’s a third trip in and of itself. This is all hugely expensive – I estimate the trips took 4 years each and a total weight of roughly 500,000kg of equipment, fuel, and propellant with a total investment of 20 WT (water tanks), the game’s unit of currency. Each WT represents 40 metric tons of water in LEO. Assuming the cost of the water itself is basically zero, the cost of this mission is roughly that of getting 800,000kg into LEO. By way of comparison, the ISS is about 450,000kg. Wikipedia estimates the cost of the ISS at $150 billion. There is probably a lot of politically-driven waste in there, but nonetheless, it gives you a sense of what these missions would cost given the current technology for lifting mass into LEO. It’s hard to imagine my Mercury mission coming in at less than $200-250 billion, all with no prospect of any return at all for 20 years. It’s outside the realm of possibility in the immediate future, but it’s not unimaginable. Apple alone almost had that in cash lying around at one point.
Anyway, despite a solar flare wreaking havoc with one mission and pushing the total duration out to about 15 years and causing a 20% cost overrun (yet another hazard of operating so close to the Sun), I got a factory set up on Mercury. This is now where the magic starts to happen. Mercury is a comparatively rare V (Vestoid)-type world, and the metals you can find there can be used to build some fancy high-technology thrusters and refineries. I finally dip into the expansion technology to pick up a Levitated Dipole ^6Li-H Fusion reactor to power an incredibly efficient thruster capable of reaching the outer planets (I’m eying Jupiter) at relatively low cost; its rate of fuel and propellant usage in game terms rounds to zero, although the amount of thrust generated is relatively low (making journeys longer and landing on large bodies difficult). My Mercury factory can also produce a Biophytolytic Algae Farm refinery, so I’m in good shape – only the prospecting tech needs to be manufactured and lifted from Earth.
One of the cool things about High Frontier is that it really gives you a sense of just how vast our solar system is, and how difficult it is to get to many places (and conversely, where the comparatively low-hanging fruit might be). As you look at Jupiter or Saturn and start counting burns and orbital transfers and how much propellant you need to get there and how much thrust it takes to land, you really feel just how difficult interplanetary travel would be with any technology that is currently at all plausible. Then, once you get your hands on one of the powerful reactors/thrusters in the much more highly speculative expansion,  you can feel the options opening up, that maybe, just maybe, you could set up on a moon of Uranus or Neptune, or make the fantastic voyage to the TNOs – things that seemed utterly impossible with the basic tech.
Anyway, once you get a high-efficiency thruster, you fully enter the Colonization phase of the game. The extraterrestrial manufacturing premise of the classic game requires a leap of faith, but not a huge one. It’s much harder to figure out a near-future scenario in which sending people into space makes any sense at all, given the truly enormous costs and risks and the fact that robots are so highly capable. So we need to do some satisfactorily plausible handwaving. The handwaving High Frontier Colonization does is to speculate that there is research that you could do at an extraterrestrial lab that you couldn’t do on Earth for whatever reason – either due to local conditions (vacuum, microgravity, something cool about Io), politics on Earth, or the fact that you’re screwing around trying to create a black hole or a massive fusion explosion and people get nervous when you try do that on or near to the only human habitation in the universe. Given how speculative the game becomes at this point, and the possible political and long-term technological benefits of having off-planet colonies, this works well enough. So the goal becomes setting up a personed lab at a remote science site, typically an exotic moon of Saturn or Jupiter or a comet. People require water, so places like Europa are attractive, but if you really want to support lots of people you’ll want to get to fantastically remote TNO’s where water is plentiful. The Bernals in which people live are heavy and hard to move – at about 600 tons (with needed generators and radiators) far heavier than anything in the classic game – so in most cases to even start to think about this you’ll need one of the gigawatt thrusters from the expansion.
Which, thankfully, I’ve now got. Like the base game, Colonization opens up a lot once you get a decent exofactory. Planning a mission to Europa is easier now I have a stepping stone on Mercury; the thruster and refinery fuel up and boost off from the factory there and rendezvous in LEO with a prospector built on Earth. The bernal itself has a mass driver, so it can make its own way for a little bit stopping off at tiny but accessible rocks like 65803 Didymos and loading up on dirt for the next “short” hop. On arrival at the Sol-Jupiter Lagrange point, the fusion thruster takes over navigating the gravitational complexities of the Jovian moons, parking the Bernal in orbit around Europa and landing a factory in the Conamara Chaos.
Now we’re cooking with gas, as they say. The Bernal around Europa becomes a lab, and the Islamic Refugee colonists in residence there (really, you probably don’t want to ask) can upgrade my gigawatt thruster into a Dusty Plasma terawatt thruster which is even lighter, more efficient, and faster, putting impossibly remote sites in range of exploitation. More importantly, it activates a Future, one of the victory conditions that makes Colonization quite different from the classic game: the Mass Beam Future. I honestly have no idea what this is beyond something that beams potentially a lot of power, but it requires factories on Mercury, Venus, and Io as “push factories” that can send power to remote spacecraft and outposts. Fortunately I’ve already got Mercury, and Io is reasonably accessible to Europa where I can build the technology (a Quantum Cascade Laser) to prospect and industrialize the waterless Venus.
Fulfilling this future and its very large chunk of VPs (12) is well within reach, but after 4½ hours it becomes apparent that Colonization has added a lot of time to High Frontier, and we are done. In fairness, the time required to play classic High Frontier is brought down dramatically with only a little bit of experience; my first game with just the basic rules was 4-5 hours, but after only a few games it settled in for us at about 2 hours or so for the 3-player game even with most of the advanced rules. We were a bit rusty on even the basic High Frontier rules after not having played in maybe 6 months, and I would expect experienced Colonization players could do the game in 4-5 hours, which is honestly pretty good given its vast scope (one of the other players was working on the Footfall future, which involves attaching a terawatt thruster to a synodic comet and pointing it at Earth, forcing the other players to turn their orbital prospectors into laser platforms and put warheads on their missile prospectors). But given the time commitment involved in learning the game, how many people are going to be able to become experienced players?
I love High Frontier, but after playing it about 20 times between the classic basic and advanced games, it had gotten a little bit tired. As strategies were explored and played out, it developed that asteroid exploration (usually Ceres or Vesta) was the way to win – consistent with the premise of the game, but it meant it ultimately lacked variety. Anything that would open things up again would be welcome.
So for me, playing Colonization was incredibly entertaining. No longer do you have to just get a couple factories to win, but you probably need to work with Bernals, colonists, high-power and high-efficiency thrusters, and transports, all of which have very different tech requirements from the traditional “cheap exploration-blitz” strategies. Moons of the outer planets, with their lab potential and rarer spectral types, become central to development in the midgame. In the classic game an early factory on a small, common C-type rock might be enough to bootstrap you to victory; now, although the game has become longer, its tableau is also vastly larger and encompasses a much wider variety of legitimate infrastructure bases.
It also does a few key bits of streamlining to the core game system, including an automated way to cycle the technology cards, less restrictive and much easier-to-play rules for factory products, and doubling the value of the income operation. While seemingly minor, these significantly improve the playability of the game.
Also worth mentioning, High Frontier Colonization will probably – like many Sierra Madre Games – benefit from a little bit of seasoning to taste with house rules. While I like the new event model and the politics rules now seem to work much better than they did in the original expansion, I’m not a huge fan of the occasional glitches and pad explosions and we may house-rule those particular events out at some point. In the classic game we ignored the combat and politics rules, and I think you could do that in Colonization also, although a couple futures may require combat. Shimzu’s and the PRC’s faction powers can be a little bit annoying, and tweaking them very slightly is unlikely to hurt (we play that you can only jump a if you immediately industrialize it, and I’m thinking about making Shimzu’s hand size larger but not unlimited). We also disallow tie bids for anyone except the auctioneer. Anyway, High Frontier is a game that supports modifying a little bit to adapt to your group’s tastes and play style, but – as always – you do want to make sure you know what you’re doing before you fiddle too much.
All in all, I felt like High Frontier Colonization is very successful at doing what it sets out to do. It’s longer and more complicated, and there is absolutely no way you should try to tackle this without a number of games of classic High Frontier under your belt (if you have a friend who absolutely insists on throwing you into the deep end, play the solitaire scenarios a few times first). But for fans of the original, Colonization is  worth it and, if you’re like me, it will help renew this endlessly fascinating game.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Numenera: The Beale of Boregal

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I finally got to play some Numenera. Kim had played an intro module atBigBadCon last October and really enjoyed it, so it wasn’t too hard to talk her into GMing a few sessions for us. She decided to run The Beale of Boregal, the first module from the core book, mixed up a little bit to both more fit her personal style and to be a jumping-off point for a longer arc.
My character is In Gwen Said (thanks, random name generator!), a Graceful Jack who Explores Dark Places. Ousted from the Explorers Guild by a rival and ostracized, Gwen is on the Wandering Walk – a mystical pilgrimage route through the Ninth World with no clear beginning or ending – as a sort of walkabout. Gwen links up with fellow-travellers: Kal, a swift jack trying to escape the consequences of the tragic accident that gave him a halo of fire; Vehm, a swift nano who fuses flesh and steel, who found it more convenient to leave town after he killed a high-profile criminal; Millord, the rugged glaive who howls at the moon and is on a quest to restore his family’s fortune; and Meck, the mystical nano who controls beasts and as yet has no backstory despite the best efforts of the character creation system.
The story starts off on the Wandering Walk with the standard meet-and-greet. Gwen and Kal are friends who did some artifact-hunting together in the past; all the other characters turn out, conveniently, to know each other in some way, so that helps. With pleasantries disposed of, the group sights a scutimorph on the horizon, with riders! On the off chance you aren’t familiar with scutimorphs, they are 6 foot high, 12 foot long millipede-like creatures that, as far as anyone knows, are untamable. So that’s kind of odd. The riders turn out to be a teenage boy and his badly wounded younger sister who, it seems, is telepathic or at least empathic. It develops that the two are fleeing a raid on their village, and looking for aid and healing. We don’t have the healing the girl needs, so we arrange for an escort to the spa town down the road while we trudge off to see what we can do for their village.
Said village is in the False Woods, so named (as quickly becomes apparent) because what looks like an orchard from a distance is actually a bunch of identical tubes, all hovering about 2′ off the ground, arrayed in neat rows and columns and supporting a net of some kind. And also, with scutimoprhs wrapped around them. As the villagers are trying to homestead on top of numenera they don’t understand, weird stuff has been happening: villagers are having bad dreams, animals in the vicinity are becoming unusually erratic and/or homicidal, stuff life that. After the nanos in the party spend a little time deciphering the numenera, to everyone’s general amusement, we follow the signs off towards the village of Embered Peaks which we suspect to be the source of the psychic disruption.
On the way we are ambushed by some Stratherian War Moths (because, if I’m a warped high-level nano wanting to bioengineer some killing machines, the first thing that occurs to me is to start with a moth). These would have been nastier if Kal had not remembered he had a cypher that could produce a large Wall of Cold, turning a highly dangerous encounter into a manageable one. Gwen shows off some archery skills, along with fast defensive maneuvering which leaves the moths blasting their heat rays at shadows.
On arrival at Embered Peaks, we find the small village in chaos. People are running around in madness. Houses are on fire. Millord detects a survivor in one burning building, and Gwen runs in along with Kal to try to effect rescue. Things start to go wrong when Kal decides throwing a small child out a second story window to safety is probably safe, and ends with Kal clinging to the other survivor and a Reality Spike mounted to nothing 20 feet off the ground while the house collapses around him and Gwen dances back out the front door.
Undeterred, at the heart of town we find a strange cult fiddling while things burn. Embered Peak’s claim to tourist fame is an oracle that supposedly lets people talk with the dead if they are in possession of the corpse, but in a way that a) only allows them to ask one question, and b) the answers are always lies. Gwen thinks this sounds not particularly productive, but whatever. It turns out to be trickier than you might think to formulate a couple of questions to ask that might ascertain the truth of the situation. This turns out to be important, as the numenera that powers this feat (and as a byproduct seems to be driving people in the vicinity to madness) is what looks like a person who has been hooked via tubes and wires to a giant artifact of some kind. The person has probably been there for a very, very long time. It’s really unclear to the party whether the person wants to be disconnected, put out of his misery, or what exactly and whether any of it would put an end to the ongoing situation. The local cultists are (perhaps unsurprisingly) not that helpful. After some back and forth in which Kal is revealed to have a complicated ethical framework, we try disconnecting. This gets awkward when the artifact itself seems reluctant to let its captive/host/symbiote go, and the party must fend off encroaching cables and tubes trying to capture them while disconnecting the captive. Eventually the captive is released! He seems to be a powerful fusion of flesh and numenera, so that’s a little scary, but he also seems grateful and non-homicidal! So that was probably the right answer. Problem solved. What’s next?
I’m a big fan of Monte Cook’s work – my favorite d20-style RPG by far was Arcana Unearthed/Evolved – so I came into Numenera with some confidence, even though the “billion years in the future” and “technology or magic – you decide!” hook didn’t immediately grab me. In the end, the game easily exceeded expectations and I enjoyed it as much as I have enjoyed any RPG I’ve ever played. The character creation process is genius (and easy), the system of GM intrusions is fantastic, and the rest of the system is very lightweight and extremely efficient. The game world of Numenera is rich and engaging. At a high level it has a similar aesthetic to Ashen Stars: take something familiar (the fantasy d20 tradition), and then “reboot” it by introducing a few quirky, disruptive elements to make it novel. Numenera has gone a lot farther down this path than Ashen Stars did, though. It has (like Arcana Evolved before it) jettisoned all the elves, dwarves, gnomes, orcs, and other baggage and completely replaced it with an entirely new, thoroughly-developed world designed both as a compelling fictional setting and as to support the peculiar requirements of the  roleplaying genre. The amount of creative effort that has gone into the setting is impressive: from all the strange creatures and races to the cyphers, oddities, and artifacts, there is a ton of depth here and it steadfastly refuses to fall back on cliches. There is a ton to like and I hope to be playing it for quite a while. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Distant Plain

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Although I wasn’t very impressed by Andean Abyss, I’m still intrigued by the idea of GMT’s COIN game system, so I went up to EndGame in Oakland to join in their biweekly(ish) wargaming group to try to give A Distant Plain a fair shot.
I’d actually played the game once previously in a near-final playtest version, and hadn’t been very impressed. It’s sill unconscionably long when payed to 5 propaganda cards, easily 6+ hours if the game goes the distance (today we played to the 3rd propaganda cards of a 4-card “short” game in 4 hours). The green faction (the Warlords here) is still pretty boring and basically just doing the one or two things that they do and praying nobody notices; however unlike the Cartels in Andean Abyss, the Warlords in A Distant Plain face extremely daunting victory conditions. The pacing is still pretty slow unless players make a conscious effort to move the game quickly. It’s still completely bewildering the first time you try to play it as each faction has its own set of actions available, and there is a proliferation of different levels players are competing on. The Government wants to control population and pad their Swiss bank accounts but doesn’t care whether their citizens are actually happy; the Coalition wants people to support the government at low cost but doesn’t care about military control; the Warlords want to keep the the state destabilized; and the Taliban just wants everyone to be unhappy.
The magic in A Distant Plain is the relationship between the (Afghan Central) Government and the (US-led) Coalition. Broadly speaking, the idea of the game is that there are two fronts in the war: the military battle for control of territory, and the battle for the hearts and minds of the population. The Government’s  goal is to physically control territory; they are only interested in hearts and minds to the extent that it allows them to engage in graft without the population immediately going over to the Taliban. The Coalition is interested only in hearts and minds, but you can only win hearts and minds by first militarily controlling territory. The two players don’t trust each other, but do have to share a checkbook and have some joint military command. Only one can win. Cue endless and entertaining bickering. This is the soul of the game and does capture the incredibly fraught relationship between the US and Hamid Karzai.
By contrast the positions of the Taliban is fine but far less interesting, and probably not going to keep you going for 4+ hours. The Warlords probably only have about 2 hours in them. So play the short game.
The other important thing I think A Distant Plain improves over Andean Abyss is that it amps up the power of the event card deck. In Andean Abyss, players seemed to quickly figure out that most of the events were really hard to justify taking given the opportunity cost (i.e., not moving pieces on the board). More powerful events mean more get used, which means more flavor, more tension, and quicker play – all good. One player felt like it might have gone too far, but I feel that’s unlikely. Whether it’s hit the sweet spot is hard to tell for sure obviously – this is a rather involved game – but it’s clearly closer.
Like Andean Abyss, A Distant Plain is a complete-information whack-the-leader and be-ahead-at-the-end game with simple and open scores. It’s not great, but at least at this point you should know what you’re in for. You need to be able to enjoy the journey here more than the destination.
Also like Andean Abyss, I remain somewhat frustrated by how superficially A Distant Plain treats the subject matter. For example, A Distant Plain portrays the Government as corrupt by making its endgame victory condition goal being corrupt (each time they take a Govern action, they convert support for the government into patronage, and win on a combination of military control and patronage, not support). There is no sense of or examination of why the Government is so corrupt, or the fact that the only way the US or the Afghan Government actually win this thing (or even establish the foundations for legitimate counter-insurgency) is by hacking away at that corruption. As long as that corruption is a fact of the game, the Coalition might as well go home. The  government was and is so weak because the real power outside of Kabul resides with warlords, which drives corruption at the center. But in A Distant Plain, the Warlords are just a warmed over version of the Drug Cartels from Andean Abyss. A Distant Plain would have been more interesting and authentic – at least if it’s really attempting to be a game about COIN – if it had not been satisfied with just having a great Coalition-Afghan Government relationship, but had attacked the relationship between the Warlords and the Afghan Government and the Warlords and the Taliban with the same vigor.
I also have to say I find the area control mechanics of the cubes-and-cylinders game not very evocative of the violence that has wracked Afghanistan. You’ll get some sense of the human cost inflicted on the Taliban as those units routinely get wiped out by Government and Coalition offensives and airstrikes, but the Taliban doesn’t seem to have the incentive or means to inflict damage on Coalition or even Government cubes. “Good guys” going to the casualty box will be a rare occurrence unless the Taliban can snag a good set of capabilities cards, and should not tax your conscience.
If you’re interested in the topic of counterinsurgency in general and Afghanistan in particular, I recommend Max Boot’s Invisible Armies, which is a solid survey history of insurgency and counter-insurgency. Also Fred Kaplan’s The Insurgents (not those insurgents) and Daydream Believers, as well as his many columns for War Stories over at Slate, in which he has discussed the surges and the complicated relationships between Washington and Kabul at some length. While I think A Distant Plain does an interesting job of tackling elements of the war, to me it relates the stories of the battles but not the actual fundamentals of counter-insurgency. Perhaps due to the currency and rawness of the topic it couldn’t do any more, but if that’s the case, why make it?
I’ve saved the worst for last, mostly because it’s the least interesting, but the design of the action cards which are central (and crucial) to the game is truly awful. The pictures are small and busy and you often have to squint at them to make out what’s going on. The text size is small and low-contrast and hard to read even when you have excellent light and are looking right at it, which of course you almost never are because it’s right across the board. The sandy background further disrupts the already terrible readability. It’s unforgivably bad and is a significant obstacle to enjoying actual face-to-face play (does all playtesting take place over VASSAL these days?). These needed to be either on larger cards with bigger fonts, or the pictures needed to be ditched, or something, because a crucial element of the game is borderline unusable.
So I won’t deny there are a number of things about the game that bug me, some of them pretty significant. I’m trying to decide if the fact that it has one really great thing plus a generally more nuanced and interesting texture than Andean Abyss makes it worth playing. I don’t have a definitive answer, but I do think it has a lot more going for it than the previous game did. Even if it’s not a panacea, the central driver of the US-Afghanistan relationship gives the game a soul that Andean Abyss lacked. The better and more interesting event mix gives the game a bit more energy and motion. I think if you know what you’re getting into and set expectations appropriately it’s worth a shot, although some experience with the much shorter Cuba Libre will be valuable in making it less daunting. Just stick to the short game, and make sure the pace moves.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Pathfinder Adventure Cardgame

For a guy who ostensibly thinks dungeon-crawling is stupid, I sure have played a lot of games in that genre of late. The latest is Pathfinder: The Adventure Card Game, a cooperative game from Paizo Publishing, and it's not bad.

The game is a quite faithful port of the Pathfinder/D&D3 roleplaying experience, minus the actual roleplaying (which is traditionally optional anyway). You've got a character with strength, dexterity, wisdom, and so on, each rated as a die size (d4, d6, d8, etc., but ironically not a d20). Encounters (which can be monsters, barriers, allies, treasures) have a target number which you need to beat to successfully navigate. You can play cards from your character's personalized deck and use your inherent special powers to boost your skills, and occasionally your allies can help you. Track down and kill the episode's Villain, usually cutting a swathe through his or her Henchpeople on the way, and you win. After the game, you can rebuild your character's deck using cards you've acquired during the adventure to make him or her more potent next time.

The mechanics of this are simple and nicely done, but not particularly noteworthy. What I think is interesting is looking at how the game approaches the question of how to balance narrative scripting against gameplay variability.

Cooperative games usually need to provide some kind of narrative experience to be successful; they can't just be intellectual puzzles. There are obviously a lot of ways to do this, but the general idea is to give the series of challenges the players must overcome (and rewards they receive for doing so) some sort of structure designed to engage them. This can be entirely narrative, with the challenges having some attached title or flavor text which is read aloud with the story becoming emergent as the texts are read (as long as they are coherent enough that players can improvise logical connections). Or the structure can be much more constructed and explicit, with challenges and rewards designed and ordered to produce an intended overall emotional story arc.

Examples of games which use the first idea are easy to find; successful examples include Robinson Crusoe, Tales of the Arabian Nights, and Ghost Stories (or Arkham Horror, Shadows over Camelot, or Defenders of the Realm, if you consider those games good). You have a huge supply of little storylets, which are pulled out more or less randomly and translated into game-mechanics form. A windstorm hits (reducing your shelter level), your lack of Courtly Graces offends the nobility (and you become Scorned), or whatever. As they are read they form a timeline you can create a story out of.

This has the gameplay advantage of making the tasks you are facing varied and unpredictable, and differ greatly from game to game. It also allows the players to do their own storytelling when the events remain within the bounds of the somewhat plausible. The huge disadvantage, as anyone who has a basic understanding of literature or music will tell you, is that we have a pretty good understanding of how compelling narratives are built, and this is most definitely not it. Stories have build-up, carefully managed cycles of tension and resolution, anticipation, and suspense. None of which you can reliably do if you’re just pulling random storylets.

Still, I think there is nothing inherently wrong with this way of doing things. For example, while Nuclear War or Fluxx aren't particular good games by 2014 standards, they do have delightful anti-establishment or satirical aesthetics that are both completely coherent and tied up with their total randomness (and, it bears mentioning, their brevity). Or a game like Once Upon a Time, where the players' attempts to create signal out of noise and find ways to creatively link events is what the game is. So clearly it's possible to do great work this way. But it's also an easy and unfortunate default pattern when a designer is unskilled, or when a game doesn't have a strong creative vision or anything particular to say. If you look at a big and intricate game like Battlestar Galactica, where the fictional world it's designed to emulate has a clear authorial style, it's hard to see the merit in having the players interact with a simple, random, unstructured throughline.

The opposite end of the spectrum is Knizia's highly structured Lord of the Rings. Here, the story events and the challenges associated with them are laid out in a strict order. You're going through Rivendell to Moria to Rohan, and that's all there is to it. You face the same challenges (and narrative elements) in the same order each game. There is this still quite a lot of randomness in the timing of the events and resource flows, as random draws from a bag of tiles trigger various game elements, but the story events that drive the narrative are scripted.

This strong structure gives the gameplay itself the ebb and flow required to make the story engaging. The designer can directly tweak and manage the flow of challenges and rewards to manipulate the moment-to-moment game tension, hopefully giving us both high-tension action scenes and rewarding us with moments of rest and refresh after we get through. This can, when well executed, give us a far more visceral engagement with the game because it goes after our emotions very directly. Pandemic does the same thing: the structured way the decks are manipulated (pre-stacking the player deck, the stacking and re-stacking of the infection deck) alternates high-risk and high-tension periods where you are firefighting crises with lower-risk infrastructure-building and research-gathering periods.

Even though for all these reasons I think of the structured narrative as "the right way" and the random event firehose as "the wrong way", in truth it's a continuum and structure is certainly not an end in and of itself. The goal is to modulate the players’ sense or risk, to feed the dread of anticipation and allow the relief and accomplishment of a challenge faced down, and that requires both a degree of predictability as well as significant risk and therefore uncertainty. Clearly you can go too far in trying to organize your narrative – making the story predictable and boring – just as you can make a game too random and disjointed. It wouldn't be hard to argue that Britannia, for example, is too well-organized and that it needs more uncertainty to maintain tension. My experience though is that cooperative or narrative-driven games almost never err on the side of being too structured.

The interesting thing about Pathfinder is that from the long view it resembles classic, unstructured, firehose-driven games. You have a box containing a very large number of cards that the characters can encounter, and you randomly pull some of them out and deal them into piles at different locations to explore. When you explore, you just draw a card from a location deck and do what it says, with perhaps minor assistance from the other players. The Villain is dealt into one of these piles at random and you just need to plow through the decks to hunt him down. If your goal is hunting the bad guy, there are no percentages in going to the Apothecary before you hit the Treacherous Cave; the Villain is equally likely to be anywhere. It’s eerily similar to Arkham Horror's "go to a location and random stuff happens for no particular reason".

But Pathfinder combines straightforward gameplay with just enough structure to make decision-making and task allocation interesting and have a real but measured sense of risk. Each location has a clearly specified mix of cards that go into the deck: monsters, barriers, weapons, armor, spells, items, and allies. The mix is listed on the top of the location card, where you can always look at it and know what you’re getting in to. So unlike in Arkham Horror, when you go to a location you have a pretty clear idea of what you might get out of it and which character is best suited for the challenges it might present (the Thief for the location with the barriers, the Fighter for the place with the monsters, the Sorcerer for the place with the allies). Still, while the Fighter may be the best person to take on the monsters in the Desecrated Vault, there is still usually the possibility that he’ll run into a barrier or trap that’ll hose him, so there is almost always still some risk. And there are balancing factors; maybe you really need to find a better a weapon, so a trip to the Garrison is worth the risk of facing monsters. More likely, you don’t have a character who is ideally suited to exploring a location, but someone has to do it, so you need to figure out who is going to sign up for the increased risk (because you always have to face the card you draw, teaming up is actually not particularly useful). Additionally, once locations have been cleared of Henchpeople, they need to be “closed”, secured against the Villain’s return. This involves another test, and the character best suited to exploring the location may well not be ideally suited to closing it. Opportunities to close a location are infrequent and valuable and you want someone who is able to do it there when the opportunity presents itself, which is another matter of risk management. This all adds up to a significant amount of nuance and randomness, but because the general contours are spelled out and what needs to be done is clear, it’s interestingly tractable. You always know what you need to do to make forward progress, and you can make judgements about risk and reward that can pay off or not.

However, what this structure doesn’t do is give you any overall sense of pacing or drive. Some locations are more dangerous than others (sometimes significantly so, often not), but the game never modulates its moment-to-moment tension. You’re never forced to run the gauntlet before you want to or go into panic defense mode, nor are you given a moment of respite to recover and gear up after facing something particularly dangerous. Pathfinder's time pressure is just a 30-turn clock you need to beat – an arbitrary, inorganic limit. Compare to Pandemic, with its beautifully organic ebbing and flowing threat and pressure, where you need to win before the diseases do. By comparison, Pathfinder just has a time limit because if it didn’t there would be no game. Given Pathfinder’s source material this is fine, time just isn’t a dimension of traditional D&D stories; for structural reasons D&D-style RPGs in general have a difficult time managing time as a storytelling pressure. But this is a boardgame, not an RPG, and there is no need to be bound by a stricture of the original format.

Interestingly for a game that lacks any kind of strong overarching narrative, Pathfinder eschews any sort of explicit textual elements. Cards have illustrations and more or less descriptive titles but no flavor text. There are no “event” cards which add dramatic twists or change the rules or environment. The only real explanation of what you’re trying to accomplish comes up front, when you select the adventure to go on and get a few perfunctory sentences of flavor on the card that also outlines the locations, Villains, and Henchpeople involved (location cards also have some static descriptions, but they are in practice invisible because they're on the back of the card). This makes the experience somewhat generic. The box says it’s the “Rise of the Runelords Base Set”, with the “Rise of the Runelords” being the long-form adventure arc which wends its way through the base game and 5 expansions. But there is no sense that this is taking place in anything other than just a generic D&D fantasy world. If the premise of the story is that there are Runelords and they are rising, the game doesn’t exactly go out of its way to fill you in on what’s up with that.

What this long arc does capture, though, is very distinctively D&D: the slow, grinding out of improvements to your character and his or her equipment. You wade through monsters and challenges and maybe you’ll find a longsword to replace your short sword. The upgrades to your character and availability of new cards to add your deck are sporadic; after four games, you may have a better weapon or one more spell, or you may have basically the same deck you started with and one minor skill improvement. After you make it all the way through all the adventures your character will have accomplished quite a bit in the end, but that will be a lot of hours of gaming and the rewards for risking death each time out are very incremental. That’s fine, it’s the D&D tradition, but in the context of a boardgame it feels wrong. If this is the route we’re going to go, I’d like more intense pacing. Personally, I’d much rather have multiple, complete 6-episode arcs which have a quick pace and you can play a character through and then move on to the next story with a fresh character. The 36-episode monster arc just seems like a huge time sink. This feels to me like a back-port from MMORPGs, and not really appropriate for a boardgames.

Still, when all is taken into account I do like Pathfinder: The Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords well enough. The pacing of the long adventure arc is probably too slack to keep me interested for that long, but the individual adventures are playable, quick, simple, and are structured well enough to provide both meaningful decisions and some tension. It’s certainly not in the same league as Robinson Crusoe, Pandemic, or Lord of the Rings, but you can’t play those games all the time and some of them require a significant energy investment while Pathfinder is more lightweight. Besides, D&D is more than a game now, it’s become something of a cultural touchstone. While the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game may not exactly be a work of game design brilliance, it is a workmanlike game that has a huge weight of tradition behind it.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

13th Age

I've been fed up with D&D and its many incarnations (basically D&D 2, 3, 3.5, and 4, Pathfinder, and other d20 knock-offs) for some time now. The picayune rules complexity is painful and unwelcome; the generic European medieval fantasy gameworld is bland and uninspiring; its core activity of killing things and taking their stuff is vaguely unsettling; and the constant repetition of the same storytelling tropes has become tiresome. With small-press and indie RPG publishers doing so many interesting things, it's time to move on. My tastes now run much more towards a game like Arcana Evolved, a game based on the D&D 3.5 rules but one where Monte Cooke's wonderfully imaginative and well-realized world, driven by a distinctive creative vision, justified the complexity. Or Robin Law's Ashen Stars, which uses a simple, highly playable and player-driven game system in a terrifically-realized setting. Nonetheless, I was optimistic about 13th Age. The promise of a streamlined game system and higher expectations for player engagement appealed to me, but a d20 game based in a traditional D&D-ish fantasy world makes finding players much easier. Here was the possibility of happy compromise.

If you’ve played D&D4, the rules transition to playing 13th Age is relatively painless (and only somewhat less so, although perhaps a little more fraught, if you’re coming from D&D3 or Pathfinder). Your character sheet will look much simpler, but entirely familiar. You roll d20s for checks. At-Will/Encounter/Daily powers define your character. Healing surges, saving throws, and attacks and defenses are all still there. Combat no longer uses a map grid, but otherwise has a similar feel. D&D4 may have had a variety of issues, but it did good work in terms of filing off needless rules complexity and making D&D a more playable game and less about searching for rules exploits. 13th Age pushes even further in this direction.

Although 13th Age races and classes are defined similarly to D&D4, they are clearly homages to incarnations past. They’re all here: Fighters, Wizards, Clerics, Rogues, Bards, and so on. Barbarians are simple to play, have only a few powers to activate even as they go up levels, and just wade into melee and kick ass and take names. Fighters are more sophisticated and have a variety of combat maneuvers that can trigger on every die roll. Rogues and Wizards reclaim their place as the most intricate classes, requiring both the management of lots of abilities and the creative use of strong but situational powers. Notably, Paladins are both playable and interesting, a first for a fantasy d20 game I believe (I can’t personally speak to Bards). Initially I was pleased to see D&D4's movement towards balanced classes, but I soon realized the fix (giving everything a high degree of symmetry) was as bad as the original problem (the classes no longer felt distinctive). 13th Age gets this right.

So far, this “just” adds up to a more skillfully executed version of D&D. 13th Age brings 3 key new ideas: character backgrounds, icons relationships, and one unique things  (there are some other ideas, including a magic item system that promises more than it delivers, but these are the big ones). Some aspects work better than others, and they all highlight both the potential and the pitfalls of the game.

Backgrounds replace D&D skills. Concrete skills (run, jump, diplomacy, etc.) are gone. Instead, you write backgrounds for your character, which can range from the straightforward to the esoteric: "temple guard", "reformed thief", and "hellhole commando" are some examples from the book. My last character, a dark elf paladin, had "Emissary of the Court of the Stars" and "The Queen's Executioner". If you need to make a skill check, just see if one of your backgrounds applies and use it as a bonus. This is terrific and gives you a lot of interesting leeway to both bring your character to life in a mechanically useful way, and add your creative voice to the setting (who knew the Elf Queen used elite assassins?). More games should do this.

Replacing the bizarre pantheon of D&D deities, 13 Age gives us 13 Icons – the mortal but incredibly powerful movers and shakers of the 13th Age world. Some of these are cool and add depth to the setting: The Archmage, The Crusader, The Great Gold Wyrm, and The Three. Some of them are startlingly generic: just the names of The Dwarf King, The Elf Queen, The High Druid, and The Orc Lord tell you most of what there is. All characters start with relationships with a couple of them, either positive, negative, or ambiguous. You roll a die for each of your relationship points at the start of a session, and 5s and 6s create “story hooks” which bring that relationship into that evening’s play. I like this is theory, but unless you’re playing in an extremely improvisational style, in practice it is at best a bit awkward. The throughline of 13th Age is still largely about killing things and taking their stuff, so GMs are going to spec out combat scenes (much easier than any version of D&D, but still some work) and work out the general adventure flow, so these relationship rolls serve mainly to provide riffing possibilities or flavor. Which is OK but not spectacularly interesting, and they also have a big risk: they can significantly damage party cohesion. If one player has picked the Crusader and the GM uses one of her relationship rolls as the hook for the adventure, how does she convince another player whose relationships are with the Elf Queen and the High Druid to come along? These icons have rather different agendas. 13th Age provides no inherent glue to keep parties with relationships to different Icons from coming apart. The first thing you need to figure out as a GM is how you keep your players together and focussed. These relationship rolls are sufficiently awkward that I suspect many GMs will end up looking at their players’ icon relationships and just regard them as story requests, and ignore the die-roll mechanics associated with them.

Lastly, the One Unique Thing is the simplest but also the most interesting aspect of your character. Usually just one short sentence, it describes what makes your character different from everyone else. The rules and examples give you significant leeway in interpreting just what “unique” means; you can go with “unique in the party” or “unique in the entire game world”. Some of the examples from the book are pretty mundane (“I am a former cultist”? Really?), and my preference is to be aggressive about making your uniques interesting and truly unique (my paladin’s was “I am the only elf who can withdraw from the mystical Elven dream consciousness”). Low-level D&D characters have always had the problem that they are generally incompetent and unremarkable stereotypes. Giving them a unique thing means everyone has a sense of destiny, even at low level (never fear, your one unique thing doesn’t have to be an accident of birth or ancestry, it could also be something earned or experienced prior to the start of play). One way to think about a unique thing is that it can be intriguing but non-specific – perhaps a question you don’t know the answer to that the GM can use as a hook to play off. But, it doesn’t have to say anything about the future; it could be something memorable that you did in the past that can give your character depth. To me, the best ones are the ones that say something about both your character and the world. The game itself doesn’t give what I would consider firm guidance on this though, it gives you a few soft suggestions and lets you figure out how you want to use them.

This I think is an example of where 13th Age, for all its many virtues, falls short because it hedges. It doesn’t have its own  premise, its own reason for existence, or if it does it doesn’t go all in. If you pick up Numenéra or Night’s Black Agents, those games are in no doubt about what they are trying to do creatively, and deliver what they promise. 13th Age is instead relying on you to tap into your long history of playing D&D and D&D-like games to bring along the elements of D&D that you like and meld them with the ideas in 13th Age. In terms of tapping into the largest available market of gamers, this is obviously great. In terms of presenting a game with a clear creative vision of its own that might compel you to play it, not so much. This wishy-washiness of how to play the game’s simplest, most important core idea – the uniques – is one way this plays out, but there are other important ways too. The gazetteer of the world is less than 20 pages long (counting art) and consists mostly of tropes and vague descriptions, and is too high level to be of much use once you get down to brass tacks and try to set actual adventures in actual locations. Only a few of the Icons have more than a column of useful text attached to them, while many – The Elf Queen, The Dwarf King – have perhaps two meaningful sentences of description, far too little for them to be useful as anything more than an access point to your repository of bad fantasy tropes regarding Elven Queens or Dwarven Kings (dwarves never being rules by queens, and elves only rarely by kings).

That might be fine, but let’s be honest here, these tropes are boring, predictable, and generally suck. It’s not enough to just do D&D with a better rules set that is more about creative play and less about creative rules exploits. I want to care about the world I’m playing in, to be part of the group not just because they needed a cleric and my character was available at the time.

So I find myself conflicted about 13th Age. The game design is great and is mechanically by far my favorite in the “kill monsters and take their stuff” genre. Not a high bar admittedly, but still! I love the backgrounds and the One Unique Things. I am less enamored of the fact that the gamemaster has to do so much heavy lifting to make the game work: flesh out the details of all the lightly-detailed icons and figure out what they are up to in her world; fill out the too-sparse bestiary; figure out some way to make sure the party is coherent; not just police the inevitable “awesome at everything” backgrounds and “I’m the only person who can fire at-will 10d6 fireballs from my eyes” uniques, but fill in all the guidance that the book lacks on how to corral players and the GM into a coherent campaign style that will produce interesting and useful uniques. Giving players freedom is great, but in order to be productive, that freedom requires constraints. Specifically, it requires the constraints of a setting. 13th Age seems to want to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to be innovative and give players agency and all that, but it doesn’t want to scare off D&D and Pathfinder players by putting a stake in the ground. So it waffles. There is nothing more deadly to a creative enterprise than waffling.

For a sense of comparison, I’ve run both 13th Age and Ashen Stars recently. By virtue of Ashen Stars’ clear premise, strong setting, and clean system, I was able to put together my first story arc and successfully run it with less than an hour of prep time. By contrast, prepping an adventure for 13th Age was a time sink because so much world creation still needs to be done – fleshing out and determining the motives of the icons, figuring out their organizations, building cities, working with players’ varying and sometimes conflicting uniques, and so on. Because 13th Age lacks a Premise, the resulting chaos demands to be sorted.

I have nonetheless enjoyed playing 13th Age as a mild rebuke to the overwrought D&D tradition. The game system is elegant and does reward player creativity. It's easy to get into and lively. But for me, the bad fantasy genre of D&D-style roleplaying that 13th Age is channeling is not really in my blood, so 13th Age needed to do more than just show up and look cool to win me over. It fills a niche, and it’s a game I’ll probably enjoy playing from time to time, but for where I am in my roleplaying career it’s still not the answer.