Sunday, July 24, 2005

Euro update: Friedrich, Caravans of Ahldarahd, King Arthur Kartenspiel, Tower of Babel, Saboteur

Friedrich: To you wargamers out there who are curious about this one, sorry to lump it in with the euros; but this is more an extremely well-themed euro than wargame to my mind. At the end of the day, this is a card management game, especially for the Prussian player: you have a hand of "power" cards, and you have to use them most efficiently to fend off the encroaching powers, juggling the many fronts adroitly.

I wasn't as immediately blown away by Friedrich as I might have been given the strength and reputation of some of the folks recommending it. But I did rather like it, and I liked it more thinking about it in retrospect, which is a good sign (so many games wilt once you start thinking about them). There is excitement, there are tough decisions, and there is great historical flavor. It captures some of the great tensions of Hannibal, in the sense that you need to be able to play through a bad deal and then capitalize on the good ones. The playing time is a little long – plan on 3.5 to 4 hours – and there is some worry that the French position isn't all that interesting (and so the game might be better 3-player than 4). But overall, I quite liked it and will definitely be angling to play again. But I should disclose that I did get to play Prussia, certainly the most interesting player position.

Caravans of Ahldarahd: If a new company turns out a game that sounds interesting and isn't too pricey, I'm usually willing to give it a shot. This is rarely a percentages play, though, and BlindLuck Studios can't quite deliver the goods here. The concepts are neat: a game with personal boards where you can occasionally play on other players' boards, a cash-management/negotiation game with very tight cash, and the always-reliable bidding elements. But the balances are off. Cash is so tight you can't reliably do anything and can get in a nasty hole quickly with no hope of recovery, and there are not enough auctions to keep the game moving. You end up with a game with fairly boring auctions and that just has too much inertia. I think it's fixable (add more income possibilities and auction more stuff), but isn't that the game company's job? As is, I don't think the game works. I have some curiosity to play it again, but it's probably unlikely in practice.

King Arthur Kartenspiel: I bought this game in a moment of frustration, I think; after playing a run of interesting but flawed games, I craved more of Knizia's reliable excellence. Unfortunately, I neglected the 8+ age range on the side of the box (always a bit of a red flag for me personally), and on reading the rules, I didn't think there was enough there to keep me happy. This is Knizia, though, the master of getting lots of mileage out of a few rules; if you use the Profispiel rules, this is a good game. Not a brain burner, not really "meaty", but a pleasant, short, and modestly challenging game, on the order of his solid "Herr der Ringe ... Kartenspiel" games (which I always thought were a bit underrated), maybe a bit better, and the price point (under $20) is appropriate.

Saboteur: This is the "traitor" game that maybe Shadows over Camelot should have been. Players are dwarves trying to dig for the gold, but a few of them are saboteurs trying to make sure the group never gets there. The underlying game is pretty weak (it's basically Mille Bournes), but it's short, and allows the players to concentrate on the fun stuff, i.e., figuring out who the bad guys are. Three hands should take 45 minutes, everyone gets to have a crack at both sides most likely, and it scales well up to about 7 or 8. My only complaint is that it might be a touch tough on the Saboteurs in general, but overall this is quite clever and I like it, although the replayability is probably limited. If you like lighter stuff and routinely come up with larger numbers of players, definitely check it out. This is another game that benefits tremendously from being appropriately priced (only $15 list).

Tower of Babel: I'm up to maybe 6-7 plays on this and I definitely like it a lot; so far, this is the eurogame of 2005 for me. Even Kim, who was initially nonplussed, came around to it on our most recent playing as the strategies have become clearer, and she now enjoys it. For me, this is in the same weight class with games like Attika, Saint Petersburg, Ticket to Ride, and such, but is leaps and bounds ahead of those games in my opinion. It's a classic Knizia middleweight, in that despite being fairly straightforward, more depth and more strategies come into focus the more you play the game. It gets great bang for the complexity and time investment buck. The game could use a small player aid though; one of the obstacles for Kim was remembering the different ways to get points. Even though it doesn't have the weird scoring of some of Knizia's games, it seems like it's just a bit awkward if you haven't personally read the rules.

Shadows over Camelot Update

I have now played a couple more games of Shadows over Camelot, and I wonder if my review was actually too generous. Quite simply, I realize that I find the game boring. In my last game, I noticed that I was rarely doing anything at all. A couple other Knights and I had gone on the Grail Quest; every few minutes I was just flipping a black card, reading the text, and playing a grail card. I had literally no decisions to make for probably 20 minutes. Then I moved to another quest (Picts) which also offered me zero turn-to-turn decisions. Finally I got to think a bit during the endgame as we figured out how to pull out yet another loyal Knight victory. The only thing I was doing most of the game was watching for the traitor. But since there seems little opportunity and even less motivation for the traitor to really be traitorous (at least not in any way the other players could possibly detect), and since as it turned out there was no traitor in the game anyway, even that wasn't very exciting.

I am almost at the point of being done with the game, after only 5 plays or so. I'd play again if friends wanted to, but I'd strongly argue for smaller numbers of players (4-5) and with the more-likely-Traitor rules – I don't think I would play with 7 players again; too tedious.

It's been a source of some disappointment that my lukewarm review has been essentially the only one that has any reservation about the game at all; both Tom Vasel and Shannon Applecline have had unreserved praise for the game (Tom tells you flat-out to buy it, regardless of your gaming tastes). The main dispute in the boardgamegeek reviews seems to simply be about just how great a game it is. The only exception seems to me the usually incredulous Rick Heli; even he speaks in solid positive overall terms, but at least he does mention some of the issues, and his Geek rating is a modest 7. While I won't say that the people who like it are wrong, or that there couldn't be overall strongly positive reviews for a game I'm not that impressed with, still the fact that the reviews have been so uncritical (with the exception of Rick's) has certainly been a disappointment to me – especially given that the actual BoardGameGeek users have been somewhat more reserved in their response, at least by the standards of major new releases with flashy bits.

If our hobby ever wants to seriously broaden the player base, we're going to have to start acting less parochial. My theory is that there is no such thing as a non-gamer; everyone has played games. It's just that they don't have exposure to good, more sophisticated games, for reasons that may be part cultural, but perhaps are mainly due to the stranglehold of Hasbro, Toys R Us, and Walmart. It's not a matter of selling people on games; it's a matter of directing them to the good ones in our niche. There are, after all, probably hundreds of thousands of people playing Scrabble in America, which is a fairly euro-ish game, and games like Pictionary, Trivial Pursuit, and Cranium have sold a lot of copies. Generally uncritical reviews are not helping our cause. People may have time and energy for the couple best or most appealing games, and will not give our branch of the hobby a second chance if they play a few games that don't grab them. It's the job of the reviewer to point them, and the gamers who indirectly recruit them, towards the great games as quickly as possible. Compare to movie reviews; people in general clearly have an appetite for concise, well-written, critical reviews. Why are game reviews different?

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Arcana Unearthed: Plague of Dreams, part I

After having finished my preparations, and getting the party together, we begin.

[Warning! There are a few (fairly minor) spoilers for the module ahead. Nothing critical, but you've been warned.]

The adventure begins in the small town of Gahanis, roughly in the middle of Dor-Erthenos, or the lands of the Diamond Throne. Gahanis is a mining and commercial town in the foothills, know for the quality of their ore. But it seems they are having problems with bandits.

The characters are contacted by the Jaren, a highly secretive trade guild, with a proposal to kill two birds with one stone: the bandits have stolen a book that is of value to the Jaren. However, the bandits left a survivor in the raid that took the book, and that survivor identified two bandits as local residents of Gahanis who must have been feeding the raiders information. The Jaren believe they are currently hiding out in Battlehome, an old, abandoned Giant fortress a couple hours hike outside of town. If the characters could capture the bandits, retrieve the book, and keep the whole thing hush-hush, they would be well rewarded.

A cursory background check into the two bandits turns up the fact that one is a warrior and one might be a low-level Runethane, so it would be best to watch for traps. With that out of the way, it's off to the Keep.

Battlehome turns out to be part dungeon crawl, part background spiel. The main historical event in the Arcana Unearthed setting is the war between the Giants and Dramojh, which lasted 200 years and ended about 350 years ago. Prior to that, most of the races of AU (with the exception of the Mojh, who didn't exist, and the Verrik) had been enslaved by the Dramojh for over a thousand years; even the Dragons had fled before their power. But the Giants fought them, eventually exterminating them and then taking on the role of Stewards of the Land.

Battlehome is a Giant fortress from the time of these battles, so it has lots of interesting background flavor – an intricate and interesting defensive network, as well as Giantish living quarters. There are also a few fairly low-level adversaries, including some flying dire bat things and some Goblins. While none of these seriously threaten the party (and they actually avoided the most serious encounter), the damage adds up, and by the time they are facing down the two bandits, things are a little tight. But they manage to beat them over the head with saps and take them prisoner. While they find some maps and accounting records implicating the prisoners in the bandit raids, they fail to find the critical book – only a hint that it has been removed to the Lake of Lost Voices, a place of dire reputation to which no reasonable people from Gahanis travel.

This was my second attempt at actually running a game since college, and I was a bit anxious since my most recent attempt to do a D&D session was not, I felt, particularly successful. I felt it went OK overall, although I think the party missed some of more interesting stuff in the module by not doing much background research in Gahanis before heading out to the Keep, and then once in the Battlehome things got a bit bogged down at times. I took away a few lessons from this:

It's good to give the party a little bit of meta-game information up front. If people are expecting a classic D&D-style dungeon crawl (which this does appear to be on first inspection), of course they aren't going to bother with doing a background check on the Jaren, asking around for what people know on the Keep, etc. – they're just going to head out and start killing stuff. I think it's OK to let people know ahead of time what to expect from the module in terms of the meta-game.

In our D&D group, we do a lot of drawing. When the party enters a room, we tend to draw stuff out on a battlemap and play out all the battles as tactical games. When the party is in a dungeon-like setting, we tend to draw everything. I think doing this was a mistake for this module. In most of Battlehome, there is a lot of ambiance but not much real danger – except for the couple high-end encounters, there are only some minor skirmishes, but not much that's worth actually pushing around metal. In order to keep the pace moving, I think it would have been better to just describe everything as the party explored it, allowing the party to give meta-commands (like, "we'd like to explore the central tower"), and then just running it as a narrative if there wasn't anything threatening in the central tower instead of the classic: "You see a door. What do you want to do?" "We listen at the door." "Nothing" "We open the door" "There's a room with some stuff in it, and another door". This is unnecessarily time consuming. I could have instead just given a running narrative, with the characters interjecting stuff as they had additional questions or more things they wanted to do, and that would have made the whole thing run more smoothly. And several of the skirmishes could have been run abstractly rather than getting out the grid.

The other thing I wish I had done was to provide all the characters with some basic personality sketches. I don't know what they would have been exactly – maybe something along the lines of "Lito is a lighthearted guy who enjoys telling tall tales and taunting his enemies" – but given that many in the group were basically new to roleplaying games, I think it would have helped. They wouldn't have to be long; something simple and specific would do. I know when I go to Origins, the characters I get usually have these background sketches, but sometimes it's hard to know what to do with it when it's more of a rambling background piece instead of talking about the character's actual personality.

Still, though, all things considered, I think it went well; people seemed to have fun, and most have signed up to continue playing. I learned a lot of good stuff too.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Origins Report – Wargames

Last year I ranted about the state of wargames at Origins and the fact that CABS seems to be mismanaging them to death, and said I'd run my own events. Which I did. It turned out to be a bit of a saga.

The whole point of this exercise was to get a couple events going that would be differentiated from CABS, so I was disappointed when the prereg program for Origins got screwed up and all the wargames had their descriptions dropped and replaced with "NULL. CABS" (as I mentioned last year, virtually all CABS events are fictional, which I assume most people know at this point). Fortunately the online program was still OK. Fast forward to the event ... I arrive Thursday morning with about half an hour to spare. I get in line at the "Game Masters" queue. I stand there for about 15 minutes and, I kid you not, it does not move. Figuring at this rate I was going to be there for hours, and I don't really need a "Gamemaster" ribbon, I go right to the preregistration queue instead, which takes me under 5 minutes. Dana Lombardy, from L2 Design Group, was behind me in the Gamemasters line ... hopefully he had more luck. Anyway, I get the onsite program, and look for my event to see where it's located. "CABS War Room". OK ... but there is no map in the program indicating which of the many rooms that might actually be. After being misdirected a couple times, I finally find it, virtually unlabeled, in the most obscure corner of the convention center. Every other event type has a front desk with someone who actually cares and coordinates the events, manages table setup, etc., but not CABS, so I just pick a spot by the door.

I give folks about 20 minutes, but nobody shows up for Rommel in the Desert. I didn't expect a huge turnout, but was a bit disappointed that I got nobody at all. However, given the difficulties, I'm not sure it was a huge shock.

After this, I was ready to just say screw it, I am not dealing with wargames at Origins again. There are tons of other things to do which are not completely screwed up. This year the War Room was even more anemic than last year, with barely enough draw to eclipse the Star Fleet Battles area. I doubt wargames at Origins will recover until they are wrested from CABS (personally, I think the vendors – GMT, MMP, Columbia – are going to have to take charge; I have to assume that the fact that few if any of their games are getting organized play and visibility is not helping sales).

However, I came back for my Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage event the next day, because I knew I had a few pre-reg online signups. We ended up with 6 at start, which worked out quite well. I put the two newbies at one table, then we drew lots for the other two games. As luck would have it, I was the only one in a game that was a mismatch, with my Carthaginians winning early on about the end of turn 7 when the Romans could not remove a PC, but just a little bit after this another player showed up, so I was able to match him up with my opponent. The other two games were quite close - Kim's game came down to a card play on the last turn (her Romans won due to a last minute Celtiberian defection). The newbie game took quite a long time, so I don't know how it ended up.

Even though my game was a mismatch, it was still fun and I think my opponent learned a lot (primarily, that the Romans can't be that aggressive early in the game ... things don't get truly desperate for quite a while). Kim enjoyed her game quite a bit, and I think the new players (one of whom I ran into at our friend Mark's Carabande game) did OK. So despite my previous vow, I will probably end up running Hannibal again next year.

There were a handful of interesting new releases in the dealers' room, and I ended up buying:

Triumph of Chaos: This is a new game of the Russian Civil War from Clash of Arms built on the Paths of Glory engine. I'm really trying to not buy these new releases until I get the rules or some early reports, but they had a good convention discount, and despite being burned multiple times I'm still a sucker for these card games, I guess (although I almost certainly would have waited if it was from GMT). The core rules look very sensible, but I am a bit scared of all the special rules for the 18 different factions.

Fire in the Sky: Another game with a minimalist cover (I like it), this new MMP release is interesting in that it's an import of a popular Japanese game and so may, unlike many games these days it seem, have had some adequate playtesting. Another game I might have held out on, but they had a nice discount. I'm looking forward to playing this one, as it looks interesting and unusual, and the system looks quite clean and professional.

ASL Starter Kit #2: On the scale of wargames these days, the ASL Starter Kits are ludicrously inexpensive (only about $20). I wasn't hugely excited about the first, infantry-only one, but now with some guns I'd like to give it a spin sometime. I'd like to have a good tactical WWII game that isn't out of hand, complexity (ASL) or playing-time (TCS) wise, and ASLSK looks reasonably promising. Why no concealment rules, though? That's a head-scratcher.

Speaking of which, Band of Heroes, the WWII "sequel" to Lock 'n Load, wasn't at the con – Mark Walker said sometime around late August. I'm still torn on pre-ordering it. Unfortunately, the graphics and graphic design for the new game weren't that impressive, which is unfortunate given the now much higher price point. I like Lock 'n Load quite a bit so I'll probably end up buying it, but it's not a done deal.

I passed on GMTs Men of Iron. I've liked Cataphract and The Devil's Horsemen, but the $65 price point on Men of Iron (no convention discount) seemed truly excessive for what, 5 small battles? Most of which are probably unbalanced? I also saw a few folks playing a very nicely produced Gazala game ... but then I saw the Avalanche Press logo, so I passed.

So, some good new releases, and with Shifting Sands hopefully being released at WBC, this year could end up being a pretty good year for wargames. But the genre continues its slide towards oblivion at Origins, which is a shame, but there is still WBC and MonsterCon is going strong, so you've got some options.

Origins Report – RPGs

Although Kim and I are primarily board gamers, over the past few years the focus of Origins has slowly been shifting to RPGs for us. The good reasons are that we've found a group (Amorphous Blob) that generally runs events that we really enjoy and because as we've become more experienced we're enjoying the RPGs more. The unfortunate reason is that the situation with board games (wargames in particular) has been slipping a bit.

This year I had signed up for a record for me of 14 hours of RPGs: two D&D events, one Arcana Unearthed, and one Paranoia. Due to my illness, I was only able to make it to one of the two D&D games and the AU, and was really only able to fully participate in the AU.

The AU game was the personal highlight of my shortened con, though, as it was being run by Monte Cook, the designer. The adventure he ran was a heavily modified version of The Severed Oath, a module available on his web site. The theme remained similar, and it used the same characters, although the details were altered enough to make it unrecognizable. I played the Mojh Mage Blade Karzagedaren. Kim played the Giant Champion of Life Tor-Gerren. 

I had a little trouble working with the Karzagedaren character – he was supposed to be a strong-willed, impatient warrior – but I found it hard to find his zen. I, like others I've talked too, have been drawn to the Mage Blade class because it's the sort of spell-slinging warrior you always wanted but just flat-out can't do in D&D. But I actually wonder if it's one of the weaker classes in AU from a roleplaying perspective. Compared to the wonderfully thematic Akashic, Greenbond, Oathsworn, Unfettered, and Champion (just to pick a few) with their easy roleplaying hooks, the Mage Blade is a little generic.

Kim had better luck with her Giant character – Tor-Gerren was a noble sort and had some good roleplaying tie-ins in the adventure, so she was able to really get into the character. It helped that she was devastating in combat, as she had enough Giant racial levels to become Large, which means a longer reach and bigger, more damaging weapons. Of course, when it came to time to sneak around a bit, that's a bit hard to do when you're 12 feet tall and wearing Full Plate. And the 20 foot movement was kind of a bummer.

I had a good time with this, and it was a pleasure to meet with Monte Cook (and get him to sign our Arcana Evolved book!). He also introduced us to Tact-Tiles, which are a great alternative to the traditional battle mat. He has his own writeup of Origins on his website, which is a good read.

My other event was a D&D adventure from Amorphous Blob, which was more in the roleplaying/humor vein. A Wizard hires the party (which is all 12th level – I was a Ranger 8/Arcane Archer 4) to rid him of a pesky dragon that has taken up residence in the mountain next door. However, the more the party delves into the problem, the more things are not as they seem. For one, there are large numbers of demons wandering around for some reason. It turns out that this is more in the way of a suburban squabble over a fence than anything else, and the Wizard (who might be a weasel) may have summoned a high-level Demon Prince from the Abyss to kill the Dragon, but there was a miscalculation of size which left the huge demon bound and trapped in a tiny room from which he could not escape, but the gate to the abyss was jammed open, letting smaller demons through. The party had to sort out this mess, eventually convincing the Dragon and Wizard to make up and combine their might to seal the gate and unsummon the Demon.

This was an amusing and very entertaining adventure, and I had the opportunity to play with some very good roleplayers who really got into it. I think there was all of about 1 combat sequence which lasted only a few minutes (it was amusing too ... we had to take down two Demons, so all the spellcasters in the party just took a couple rounds to pour every enhancement spell in their arsenal into our Dwarven Warrior, who then single-handedly ran screaming towards them and took them out with a few quick axe blows).

I had to bail on the Paranoia game unfortunately, but Kim played and had a very good time, so she'll be running a session or two for our local buddies sometime soon.

I didn't buy any new RPG books at Origins, as GenCon is where most of the new RPGs get debuted it seems, but I did pick up a set of Tact-Tiles, and I added to my collection of Iron Wind Metal's Arcana Unearthed figures a few minis appropriate for my current game. Iron Heroes, the next "Variant Player's Handbook" from Malhavoc (Monte Cook's label) which will be released later this month, looks extremely promising and might be something to move on to in a year or two. But for the moment, between Arcana Unearthed, Paranoia, and D&D, I'm pretty much set.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Origins Report — Board games

Palazzo: This was my first game of the con. After my Rommel in the Desert fell through, I headed straight to the Dealer's Room. I was there a little early, so after fleeing in terror from some sort of bizarre Origins Awards ceremony, I went straight to the Rio Grande/Decision Games area to give this a try. I liked it a lot. I think the most notable thing is how it manages to find a nice balance between control, randomness, complexity, and game length. It's a short, simple, and somewhat chaotic game that nonetheless has plenty of interesting choices, good for the times you want a fun game with some strategy that isn't going to hurt your brain. Not as good as San Juan, but certainly at least as good as anything else in the low end of alea's range (Royal Turf, Edel Stein & Reich, Louis XIV).

Tower of Babel: This was about my 5th play on this game, and I still like it a lot, for a lot of the same reasons I like Palazzo, plus the advantage that as in Modern Art, you're always doing stuff. Having played Ticket to Ride recently, I sometimes find it frustrating that that game seems to be "think ... sit around ... sit around ... sit around ... think ....". Tower of Babel is a much more continuous experience. Combine all this with a game that has considerable subtlety, and I think it's a winner. The first game I played, I focused on the huge points available for the chits, which was good for a win. But as I've played more, it's become clear that there is a lot more to the game than that.

Although it didn't bother me much, Kim had a real problem with the graphics of Tower of Babel, which are weak for a euro. Compared to the colorful and elegant graphics of classic Hans im Glück/Knizia games like Samurai, Tigris & Euphrates, or Amun-Re, the graphics on Tower of Babel are flat, colorless, and cold. The board is also much too large; the smaller-size box (like Saint Petersburg or Carcassonne: Hunters & Gatherers) would have been more appropriate in my opinion.

Revolte in Rome: I didn't get a full game of this in, as the dealer's room was closing just as Kim and I were hitting the mid-game. This is a pretty straightforward dice game. You've got six numbered slots in front of you into which you can play cards with special powers. Each turn you roll three dice and can use the numbers rolled to activate cards in the matching slots. You can also use the dice to draw cards or take income. You then try to whack your opponent. This seemed kind of neat to me, but it didn't quite grab me. It's a long-ish game, similar in flavor to (although much less involved than) the Settlers Card Game, and about the same length. I'd like to give it a try again, but I felt the price point, even at $25, was a bit high. I'd pay $10-$15.

Arkham Horror: This is a new Fantasy Flight release, I think available for the first time at the con. As I mention in my recent Shadows over Camelot review, meaty cooperative games are few and far between. I came in really wanting to like this. Unfortunately, the demo situation was suboptimal and we were not taught the game very effectively. Still, even once we got started, I had a hard time liking the game. It's got the usual wonderful Fantasy Flight physical components, and it seems like it's also got the classic Fantasy Flight lack of development: it didn't seem like there was a lot of tension or much in the way of interesting player choices. My suspicion is that the number of players makes a huge difference here – I suspect the "sweet spot" is somewhere around 4 (we played with six). Like Doom: The Boardgame, it seems poorly scaled for differing numbers. There was still some cool stuff about the game, and the atmosphere is much better-done than in the wretched Betrayal at House on Hill (which won an Origins Award, by the way). I'd still like to try it again, but it's been bumped down my play list.

One of the very cool things about Origins is that every so often you randomly run into interesting people. Richard Launius, the designer of Arkham Horror and nice guy, stopped by our game for a while. We also got to play a prototype game with Richard Garfield and his daughter, also very pleasant folks.

The Motley Fools' Buy Low, Sell High: This is a remake of the old game Palmyra. When I first played Palmyra some 7-8 years ago, I wasn't that impressed with it; but when I got a copy of Buy Low, Sell High "for free", I figured I'd give it another shot. I enjoyed it. The new theme works better for me, the game is simple and plays quickly, and like most Knizia games is it more subtle than it appears on first inspection, and that's always a good sign. On the other hand, it's over-produced; this is a small card game in a huge box with custom-made plastic bits, and with a correspondingly high price tag. I liked it, but I'm not sure it's worth the price or the space it takes up on the shelf.

Dealers' Room: This was the thinnest year in memory for board game purchases. The only traditional board game I bought was Palazzo. I wanted to buy Arkham Horror but couldn't do it after playing and in light of Fantasy Flight's track record. Mayfair didn't have much new except a Phalanx game, but I need another Phalanx game like I need hole in my head. None of the new Queen games from Rio Grande were really grabbing me. Face 2 Face had the new edition of Rheinländer, but I sold my copy of the original years ago because it could never get any traction and got only a handful of plays. So things were a bit thin overall on the board game side.

Next up: wargames.