Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Whither the International Gamers Award

The IGA nominations are out again for the German-style multi-player games. In the past I've refrained from commenting on them in my blog for a variety of reasons, but the list of nominations is interesting this year – not least because for the first time, it seems like they are making some effort to distinguish themselves by selecting quite a few off-mainstream games.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the IGA, at the end of the day it's just a bunch of guys who vote on games they like. This is not to denigrate the contributions to the hobby that some have made; Mike Siggins particularly is a person I have great respect for. But, I searched the IGA website to try to find defining information such as a mission statement (other than a rather generic and meaningless "pick the best games"), list of criterion for game inclusion (other than just the dates of publication), goals of some kind, or rules or guidelines for how the committee was selected, but couldn't. I've always been under the impression that, despite the presence of a few continental Europeans on the jury, it's sort of a nativist answer to the Spiel des Jahre (which has become increasingly irrelevant to the "serious" gamer) or Deutcher Spiele Preis (which has not); but this is speculation on my part. In reality, in the past the IGA has added little, if anything, to the awards landscape, being essentially an English-language relay for the DSP, except neither as reliable nor as transparent, and conveying significantly less information.

This year, though, things are a bit different; not many of these games are going to make an impact on the DSP. Is this a good or a bad thing? Let's check it out by handicapping the games. I'm going to ignore the 2-player category for two reasons: a) there is a strange dichotomy in the nominees that I can't quite get my head around, and b) I haven't played enough of the games.

Antiquity has no chance to win. It's a $100+ game, and it's long. Simple as that; you can't win the IGA without broad-based support on the jury, and this won't get it for practical reasons. While quite sympathetic to the new bias for small-press games, issues of quality aside this probably is too far off the mainstream of the IGAs traditional eurogame beat, too much of a niche game, and too expensive and generally unavailable to have been a serious nomination.

Carcassonne: The City
Being a part of the Carcassonne franchise, I don't think this one has a realistic shot. For me, Carcassonne jumped the shark with Builders and Traders, and around here, The City just didn't have any legs, as it tried unsuccessfully to lever the fundamentally non-threatening Carcassonne into more of a "gamer's game" package. I'll stick with Hunters and Gatherers.

This is too light to win, although its chances are not zero. That this nice but featherweight (and overpriced) game was nominated while the novel and genuinely interesting Saboteur was passed over is disappointing. Not that Diamant is a bad game, which it isn't ... but it's just not one that's going to leave much of an imprint on the landscape. Perhaps the IGA mistakenly thought that they, like the Spiel des Jahre, might get a cut of the retail price.

Around the World in 80 Days
This is also too light to win. It has a very distant outside shot, but I would be amazed. Another game that's a bit above average, but nothing special, and as a family game it seems out of place in this crowd.

This is an interesting game, but I'm not sure what it's doing on the list, especially with Breese's better Reef Encounter also nominated. A conflicted brain-burner. No chance; all but the most extreme Breeseophiles on the jury will go for Reef Encounter first, and Breeseophobes will avoid either (but Keythedral especially).

Louis XIV
For me personally, this is the winner, although not by a huge margin (and there are games that were not even nominated that I think are better still). Whether the game has serious replayability is an open question, but it's interesting and unusual, and the theme is passable. But given the lack of interest the jury showed in Traders of Genoa a couple years back, that they typically go for true big-box games (last year's Saint Petersburg being an exception), and the occasional mental block people have on the whole shields thing, a Louis XIV win is improbable I think.

Reef Encounter
Unquestionably Reef Encounter will appeal to the jury. It's a throwback to the late 90s and so has a nostalgia appeal to long-time gamers, it's a pretty good game, and it's just elitest enough (only available in limited quantities and extravagant prices ... but not too extravagant, and it has an impending reprint) to swing votes. All in all a very strong contender. While I certainly don't think it's the game of the year, if it wins it will be (given the reprint) probably the best choice the IGA has ever made in terms of doing something meaningfully different and trying to draw attention to a good but underexposed game.

Shadows Over Camelot
You probably know what I think of this game. If I had to make a bet, though, I think this has the best shot at winning, albeit not by a lot in a field that's a bit more open than usual. Days of Wonder is trendy, the buzz hasn't quite had a chance to fade yet, and it's possible the jury won't play enough to get to the seriously problematic back end. The IGA picked San Marco a couple years back, which was about the 12th-best game in the category that year, and a Shadows pick would ultimately be similar. I don't think Shadows rises even to the level of being average, but I'd overall give it a very slight edge over Reef Encounter for two reasons. Firstly, the IGA tends to reward broad-based support, and Shadows has better market penetration than Reef Encounter. Secondly, Shadows is closer to the somewhat lighter weight class that the IGA generally prefers.

Struggle of Empires
Well, you either like Martin Wallace games or you don't it seems. I like Age of Steam but am not generally a fan. Regardless, due to the length, and the free-for-all and wargamey nature of this game, I believe it has no chance to win. Age of Steam was mainstream enough to euro sensibilities to be a plausible contender (it didn't win); I don't think this one is, and you need across-the-board appeal to win the IGA.

Ticket to Ride: Europe
Maybe. TtR:E would be a better choice than a number of other games on the list, and it could get the required broad support, but would overall be a disappointing pick for a number of reasons, not least because the IGA desperately needs to distinguish itself from the other awards and one would hope that a "best of year" award might point you to a genuinely great game that you would not otherwise have tried. Most IGA consumers at this point are going to have heard of TtR:E and know whether they want to play it or not. I'd consider this a possible but dark horse candidate, and even though it's a good game it possibly should have been excluded on the grounds of being a "system" game.

No chance. The nature of the game will turn off too many jurors, and at the risk of sounding repetitive, you need across-the-board support to win.

This one is probably the most plausible dark horse candidate. Greg Schlosser is a big fan I think, and that may carry some lobbying weight. It's accessible, and while it's a niche game it's still generally available. Again, given the weakness of the field, Ys does OK – somewhere around 5th – but this is not a "best of year" type game, not by a far cry. I could come up with some way to spin it so that it comes out ahead of the other nominees, but even in a weak field I have to work at it. A sympathetic candidate, and really not a bad game, but it would ultimately not be a good choice.

Given the sense of weakness that the nomination list conveys, it raises the obvious question: what was missed? As it turns out, rather a lot.

Probably the most profound thing is that not even one of three very good to excellent Knizias were included – Palazzo, Tower of Babel, and Razzia!. And that's just the really good stuff; one could make arguments for other games (like King Arthur) over some of the entries. That none were even on the nomination list raises serious questions about whether the IGA is borrowing another feature of the Spiel des Jahre, an almost pathalogical anti-Knizia bias. The omission of Razzia! is perhaps understandable given its Ra heritage, but it's not a straight reprint and Diamant, Ticket to Ride: Europe, and Carcassone: the City are all highly derivative games. But not including Palazzo or Tower of Babel given some of the stuff that was nominated is mystifying.

Other titles that are inexplicably missing, again given the weakness of the field, are Shadow of the Emperor, Candamir, Mall World, 1825 Unit 3, Revolution, and Friedrich. The number of small-time publishers on the list is laudable, but why give spots to both Reef Encounter and Keythedral? The latter is a nice game, but nothing truly special (never mind the eligability time frame questions), and if you want another small-press game, Mall World is to me a stronger game and deserved to take its place. Candamir was not great in its original German incarnation, but the new Mayfair edition is vastly improved and easily deserved a slot over Carcassonne: The City (among others), and would have focussed on an American company beating a German company at its own game. 1825 Unit 3 is a system game, but so is Ticket to Ride: Europe, and again, 1825 Unit 3 is a very good game – although perhaps for the 2-player list. One could make a very strong case for Revolution: The Dutch Revolt and Friedrich also, especially considering the inclusion of the similarly-lengthy Antiquity and similarly-wargamey Struggle of Empires. All would also have helped tremendously in giving the nomination list some breadth, while currently it, like the Spiel des Jahre has become of late, feels to me like a victim of group-think.

And what about some of the very nice small-box stuff like Geschenkt, Saboteur, or even Garten-Zwerge e V? Perhaps there was some fear that the voting system would have essentially gaurenteed a Geschenkt win, but it would have been nice to see a few of the good small-box games recognized (esepcially since Diamant, a small-box game at a big-box price, was included).

It is a certainty that whatever wins the IGA (I'd handicap Reef Encounter or Shadows Over Camelot, with Ys as a dark horse and Ticket to Ride: Europe as a darker horse, Louis XIV the game that perhaps should win, and no other pick being at all credible), there will be a handful of fairly mainstream releases that I felt were significantly better that weren't even nominated. While I definitely respect the list's focus on smaller game companies, and in that sense I feel it's a significant step towards making the IGA at least somewhat relevant, given the apparent parameters of selection (i.e., that a number of games from major publishers were included) there are simply too many games on the list that are no better than average, and too many excellent and interesting games omitted entirely.

What does all this mean for the IGA? In an industry rife with meaningless awards, the purpose or relevancy of the IGA has never been clear. Given that until now it has done little but echo (with less information) the more prestigious, useful, and reliable Deutcher Spiele Preis, the IGA has yet to find the angle that will make it of interest, at least on the euro-style end (the "historical" end is another matter, and of some interest given the CSR Award's recent difficulties). The new emphasis on some decent, off-mainstream games is a step in the right direction, but it's obviously now a bit conflicted and still not there in terms of achieving both credibility and a clear audience. While giving an award to Ys or Struggle of Empires or Antiquity might set them apart from the crowd of people lining up to honor Ticket to Ride, it's not clear who the audience for an award that recognized these games would be, or if that audience would need or pay any attention to such an award in the first place.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Triumph of Chaos

The last two new wargames I've played, Grand Illusion and Empire of the Sun, left me feeling respectively slightly underwhelmed and extremely frustrated. So it was with some trepidation that I embarked on Triumph of Chaos, the new card-driven game from Clash of Arms based on the Paths of Glory engine. It's set during the Russian Civil War of 1918-1921, a confused affair involving almost anyone who could hitch a ride to the vicinity – not just Ukrainians and Finns and Cossaks and Tajiks, but French, Poles, Americans, Czechs, Japanese ... you name it. Anyway, the game looked quite cool, but the rulebook had typos. Some fairly serious ones. As I always say, if you can't use a spell-checker, what are the odds you have the attention to detail required to get all the details of a complex game design right? But in the end, I'm glad I tried it, and after an admittedly brief play it seems like the most promising new game of this type since Paths of Glory. It might even be able to cash in on the promise that even Paths of Glory itself couldn't quite fulfill ...

Triumph of Chaos can be described fairly easily, for the Paths of Glory fan: it uses the basic Paths of Glory engine, with some minor touch-ups for the time period (like planes, tanks, and cavalry), then adds a bunch of special rules for all the various factions for what should probably be a 4 or 5-player game. Of course, if you played with 4 or 5 players, most would have little to do most of the time, so for practical reasons you need a 2-player game ... which means keeping in your head a number of special rules for the Poles, Ukrainians, Finns, Central Powers, and so on. These rules daunted me and were my main reservation going into the game. They still do, and I still do have some reservations ... but they were not so bad once you sat down to play. It's just a fair amount of look-up when they come up. It's compensated for somewhat by the fact that the actual moving about of counters should be very familiar to Paths of Glory fans.

I think the coolest thing about Triumph of Chaos (other than the situation, which is inherently interesting and undergamed – Reds! is probably the best recent attempt, but I found that game underwhelming) is the tweaks that have been made to the card deck. Not only do you have both historical and hypothetical events, something I've always wanted in these games, but also many of the single-shot cards present you with a choice. For example, several White cards offer reinforcements, but you must choose whether to bring in (say) Czechs, Poles, or Brits. Once made, the card is removed, and the other options are lost for the game. Or you have to choose between troops and political events. Several cards enable one future event but prevent others. This added level of decision-making allows for interesting choices, and also allows the game to develop in more varied ways than Paths of Glory. This is a simple, rules-free upgrade and I like it a lot. Perhaps after a ton of play it will become clear which options are best, but for the moment it's fun to choose.

My only complaints about the game are functional. First, the map, while nicely done and on heavy paper stock, is going to wear rapidly just folding it and unfolding it. The heavy card used by Columbia, or by GMT in Europe Engulfed and their new "deluxe" maps is a vastly better solution. For a game that's potentially a real winner, I'd much prefer a durable heavy card map. Secondly, the faction reference sheets are a little weak. They are large and with a fair amount of wasted space, and keeping track of the faction special powers is critical. I'd much rather have had smaller, index-card sized reference sheets so you could keep in front of you just the ones you control.

Anyway, I liked Triumph of Chaos, and look forward to playing some more.

Monday, August 8, 2005

Arcana Unearthed: Plague of Dreams, Part II

[Warning! There are a few spoilers for the module ahead. A little more than last time. It probably won't damage the experience if you ultimately end up playing the module; but you've been warned.]

After picking up the bandits Merill Yanis and Den Rudiger, the party heads back to Gahanis to collect on the first installment of the reward. The Jaren reluctantly pay up, but remind the characters that what they're really after is the book, the Inmagus Libellum, so get out there and retrieve it! The items in the bandit lair point towards a base at the Lake of Lost Voices.

Some basic information gathering in Gahanis regarding the Lake reveals that a) it's haunted, and b) you're nuts if you want to go there. With that, the party heads out.

It turns out that the lake really is haunted, it's not just a rumor set up by the bandits to protect their lair. On the other hand, it's not that haunted, so there might be some of that too. Charn, the Litorian Totem Warrior (Wolverine) of little willpower, is almost convinced by the voices speaking to him in his head to take a permanent swim in the lake, but resists.

The party scopes out the place... Lake? Check. Beckoning yet foreboding opening on the far side? Check. Raft? Check. Taking some minor preparations to avoid the siren call of the lake, they head out.

It turns out that the opening on the other side is the entrance to an ancient temple used by the former residents of the city in this location, which came to be suddenly and sadly located at the bottom of the lake, much to the inconvenience of its residents at the time. They seem to be a bit bitter about this situation but, being dead, have little they can do about it other than being annoying. The party wanders through an ancient temple in the lower floors, dealing with a few assorted dungeon staples (giant spiders, dire rats), before coming to the stairs up to the main area used by the bandits. This is where the real adventure begins.

The party comes up with a clever plan to draw out and ambush the single guard watching the back door, which works to perfection (despite a botched sneak roll by the Verrik Magister Sfiri, which is matched by an equally incompetent Listen roll by the guard). Sfiri then makes amends by immolating a bunch of guards playing cards in a giant hall (for reference: Bandits have about 7 hit points. 1st level D&D Wizard: Magic Missile, 1d4+1 vs. one target. 1st level AU Magister: Fireburst + Fire template + 20gp Gem component give you a 3d6 blast in a 5' radius. One of the features of AU that I like is that it's "smoothed the power curve"; in D&D, 1st-4th level Wizards are almost completely worthless, but 10th+ level Wizards are overwhelmingly powerful. In AU, 1st level Magisters, while still not as powerful as fighter types, are at least respectable, and their power doesn't get as ridiculous later either).

There then followed a cool chase scene in which the party ran headlong after the fleeing bandits, rolling up their upper defenses one outpost at a time as the bandits retreated in confusion. Lito the Champion of Freedom used his Burst of Speed feat at absolutely the perfect moment to trip the fleeing bandit lieutenant before the upper defenses could get organized. The final showdown with the Litorian Warmain leader is not without some pain (Lito, always on the pointy edge at this point, gets knocked out), but the party is victorious.

It turns out, of course, that the ending is not quite as the Jaren made it out to be. There is the book, yes, but there is also another artifact related to it ... whose nature is unclear. Should the party keep it? Destroy it? Return it to the Jaren? And why is the Blue Knight after it? To find out more, you'll have to play the adventure yourself.

This half of the adventure went more smoothly than the first, as I picked up a bit of steam with my DMing. As mentioned last time, I did away with most of the drawing of maps, and played a more descriptive and abstract style, with only a few critical combats being played out on a battle mat. I ran the combats in a much more rapid-fire style, which certainly befitted the chase scene at the end (this was unplanned, but worked out quite well).

The module itself is pretty nice, but I ended up cutting out large swathes of the second part. There is a lot of exploring the temple that the party could have done, but they didn't seem to be getting into that stuff, so I deleted almost two-thirds of the very dungeon-crawly lower level of the temple on-the-fly. I'm happy with this decision, as it takes a lot of time to play and none of it was that relevant to the adventure in my opinion, it's just some weird stuff for the party to play with (unlike some of the cool ambiance in the Giant fortress in part one, which helped to set the background of the world). I'd also suggest that the Blue Knight probably needs to be souped up just a bit unless she's taking the party on under very favorable circumstances (for her, anyway). I don't consider my party to be heavily mini-maxed for combat, and still they just didn't have much trouble with her. I'd suggest making her a level or two higher. I had intended to have her escape using an item she had, but a critical hit at an awkward time meant she couldn't. She's an interesting enough villain that keeping her alive would be good for the health of the campaign. If she were two levels higher, I think the party would still have been able to take her on, but she would almost certainly have been able to escape barring appalling luck.

All in all, it worked out well, and now we'll be moving on to Siege on Ebonring Keep, by Mystic Eye Games. It's designed to be run back-to-back with Plague of Dreams. Plague was cool, but a bit combat heavy, so I hope to mix things up a bit more in the next module. Siege is much more customizable, and now that I'm getting more comfortable with the DMing thing, I hope to put more of my own stamp on it.

Tuesday, August 2, 2005


Troubleshooter Team 25142R12491 was created by the Computer on 5/12/3027, and composed of Aldridge-R-RPH-1, Homer-R-VRC-1, Bruce-R-PQR-1, Oin-R-BAC-1, Fred-R-RCK-1, and Harry-R-DAM-1. This team was summoned to appear in the mission briefing office at 8AM on 5/13 in order to repair a sabotaged HotFun food dispenser in sector ZZA.

They arrived at the briefing area 8PM on 5/12. Due to Communist sabotage, the elevator was malfunctioning. In gross disrespect for computer property, Oin-R destroyed a crowbar vending machine in order to allow his fellow troubleshooters to get out of the elevator. Oin has submitted "Equipment Complaint Form B4379-10(398)/7R". This paperwork is still in the system, and whether termination is warranted will be determined at a later date.

Due to the team's failure to report to the briefing room by 5PM on 5/12, briefing officer WHO-O-3 was terminated on completion of the briefing; she was clearly actively working against the Computer. This left the Troubleshooting team, whose highest clearance level was RED, without sufficient authority to leave the briefing room. From the video record it is unclear how they left. This is suspicious.

Upon leaving the briefing room and acquiring some equipment, the team headed out to the site of the non-functioning HotFun machine. There appear to be some serious irregularities in the Equipment Request Form, which may indicate that the Equipment Guy, Homer-R-VRC-1, was working on behalf of a secret society or some other treasonous organization. It is unclear why this mission required several pounds of high explosives, although the request form mentions something about "killing commies". Further investigation is required.

Upon arrival via trans-tube at sector ZZA, the troubleshooter team found that the Computer had, in its infinite wisdom, coded access to the sector as BLUE (which was beyond their clearance of RED). Two troubleshooters were immediately terminated for attempting to enter anyway. The Cleanliness officer was tardy in cleaning up the mess created and is probably a traitor also – this created the opportunity for the remaining Troubleshooters to proceed. The BLUE guard who was stationed there has been terminated. The level of treasonous activity here was quite high.

This is where things become murky. Troubleshooter Bruce-R-PQR appears to have damaged Computer property with a chainsaw of unknown origin, and the fact that he survived a large explosion probably indicates he is a mutant also, and therefore should probably be terminated twice. Aldridge-R-RPH was terminated several times by the team for has blatant and futile attempts to prevent repair to the HotFun machine, and is now Aldridge-R-RPH-5, whom the Computer has faith will be a loyal citizen. Harry-R-DAM-1 was personally responsible for creating a huge mess when the HotFun machine came back on line; it is suggested that the Cleanliness Officer, Oin, be terminated.

The HotFun machine does appear to be working now. It is unclear whether the Troubleshooter team had any part in this.

Total Terminations:
Aldridge-R-RPH: 4
Homer-R-VRC: 2
Bruce-R-PQR: 0
Oin-R-BAC: 1
Fred-R-RCK: 3
Harry-R-DAM: 2

Bruce-R-PQR was an obvious traitor and the fact that he escaped termination is suspicious, and may implicate the entire team. This might explain the fact that compared with overall statistics on Troubleshooter missions, this represents a fairly low number of terminations, despite the fact that in reviewing the video records it appears that there was considerable treasonous activity that escaped notice, and this analyst's conclusion is that they are all a bunch of commie mutant traitors.