Return to Arkham

Last night, some friends and I got together to try out the new Arkham Horror Third Edition boardgame from Fantasy Flight GamesThis new edition dropped about two weeks back, and I was initially pretty reluctant to buy it – I had pretty faithfully bought each of the Second Edition supplements that came out over the years1, so the thought of starting over with a new version that would probably spawn a whole raft of its own supplements was… uninspiring, let’s say.

Add to that the fact that we didn’t play AH much anymore because of the bloat. It seemed to take longer to set up, longer to play, and the rules kept getting more arcane2. There’s also a storage issue: Arkham Horror Second Edition is a huge game with all the supplements, and storing it all in a manner that makes it possible to actually keep the components sorted to minimize set-up times is a hassle.

But.

I love AH2e, even though the thought of setting it up and playing it is daunting. I loved the First Edition when I got it long ago, in the Before Times. So, even though I wasn’t planning to buy it, I was watching the pre-release information coming from FFG, curious to see what they were doing with the new version of the game. And that wore down my resistance3, so I preordered it from my FLGS4, and picked up my copy on release day5.

So. Let’s talk about the game itself.

It comes in the standard FFG-style square box. Stats on the outside say 1-6 players, 2-3 hours play time, and that it’s aimed at ages 14+. Nothing too startling about any of that, though I note that the play time estimate seems a little closer to our actual first-session play time than I expected, so it’s probably a closer time estimate than I’m used to seeing on board games. Also, it’s nice that the game works as solo play, but it’s a pretty elaborate set-up, so keep that in mind if you want to tackle things solo.

The premise of the game is the same as previous editions: your gang of desperate, soon-to-be-dead-or-crazy investigators roam the fictional streets of 1927 Arkham, Massachusetts, trying6 to keep unspeakable evil from wreaking havoc.

AH3e differs from previous editions in game structure by borrowing the scenario idea from Eldritch Horror and Arkham Horror Card Game. Where, in previous versions of AH, you picked the Great Old One you were going up against and that made minor changes to the game changes, in 3e you choose a scenario that changes pretty much everything: board lay-out, types of monsters, types of anomalies, timing mechanisms, objectives, everything. It also frames everything narratively, so it creates a more coherent story of the play experience7. So, for example, after we lost the game last night, we all agreed about the moment things turned against us, and what had happened in the game fiction – not just the mechanics – to do that8.

Set-Up

Like previous editions of the game, set-up is a bit of a fiddly job. There’s lots of cards and tokens, and a fair bit of sorting to get together the specific bits needed for the scenario you’re playing. I had planned to get everything set up before folks showed up to play, but then we changed venue, so I spent about 20 minutes to a pre-sort of the components to make sure the set-up process was a quick and easy as possible. Set-up on the site took around 10-15 minutes, and that included a fair bit of chatting amongst the players, so it can probably be cut down to less than 10 minutes with more deliberate focus. So, including sort time, set-up from box to ready-to-play looks to be about a half-hour. Slightly less than AH2e.

This is the board at the start of The Approach of Azathoth, the recommended first scenario. Note that I’m using the deluxe investigator figures from previous editions of the game, and I’ve got some nice plastic stands off to the side for the anomaly markers. Also, an official RickFest souvenir dice tower, limited edition.

Of particular interest is the modular board. It’s double-sided: you get five tiles with a total of eight different neighbourhoods. Two neighbourhoods – Northside and Easttown – have duplicates in the mix, to allow for a little more variety to the neighbourhoods that can be mixed in play. They’re nice, thick cardboard stock that lock together like puzzle pieces, along with the seven different street segments. The town is different for each scenario, and the board generally has a smaller footprint than the AH2e core game board9.

One really nice touch for this edition is the special cards for investigator starting equipment. In previous editions, if you were playing a character that started play with, for example, a car and a tommy gun, you had to search the appropriate item decks for those cards, pull them out, and put them with the character. Now, there’s a deck of investigator starting equipment cards, with the investigator art on the backs to make it obvious who they belong to. You still have to look through a deck, but it’s just one deck, and the card art makes it really easy to pull out the ones you need.

Note that each scenario has very clear instructions for setting up that mesh into the general set-up instructions. General set-up has you build the board, while the scenario card tells you what neighbourhoods to use and how to connect them. General set-up tells you to build the monster deck, and the scenario card tells you which monsters to put in it. And there’s a scenario-specific deck of cards that look like the neighbourhood encounter cards we’ve seen in previous editions that get put aside in a special holder. That sort of thing.

Game Play

The game is broken into rounds, and each round has four phases:

  • During the Action Phase, each investigator gets to take two actions. There’s a list of eight or so standard actions – Move, Attack, Ward, etc. – and different cards and abilities can provide options beyond those.
  • Then comes the Monster Phase, when the monsters on the board get to move according to their AI rules, and attack. Attacks are nice and simple – they just do the listed damage to the investigator they’re engaged with. No rolling, so it doesn’t slow things down.
  • The Encounter Phase comes next. This has always been pretty much the heart of Arkham Horror games – you draw a card based on where you are in town, and read what happens to you. This is where you most often have to use your skills to prevent bad things and acquire good things.
  • Finally comes the Mythos Phase. In previous editions, this is when you would draw a card for the Great Old One and commit the appropriate atrocities. AH3e borrows the idea of the chaos cup from the Arkham Horror Card Game, putting a mix of tokens into a bag and having each player in turn draw two tokens and resolve them. The tokens are a mix of good and bad things10, and are set aside when drawn. Once the bag is empty, all the tokens are returned to the bag, and it starts again. This is one of the timing mechanisms of the game, charting the descent of the situation into chaos and ruin.

You run through each phase in turn, then go back to the top and do it again. Repeat until the world is safe or destroyed.

One thing of interest is that you don’t know what you need to do to win when you start a game. Goals are laid out by cards in the Archive, which is basically a choose-your-own-adventure-style deck of cards. You add one or two to the Codex11 at the start of the game, and these cards tell you your initial goals, the pass/fail conditions, and any special rules. When you meet the pass or fail condition, you’re instructed to flip cards and read the back, or add other cards to the Codex, showing the next step on the path to victory or destruction. This is the piece of the game that charts the overall narrative of the game.

Advancement of the game, both in good and bad directions, is governed by two factors: clues and doom

Clues

In AH2e, clues were a simple resource that let you reroll dice and seal gates. In AH3e, they are more narratively supported as actual clues: evidence your investigators can gather that’s related to the central mystery of the scenario, and then figure out to find the next goal. Clues are spawned in neigbourhoods when you pull the appropriate token from the bag in the Mythos Phase12. The card with the clue information has a back that matches one of the neighbourhood encounter decks, and you shuffle it into the top two cards of the deck, so the clue sits among the top three cards. Having an encounter in that neighbourhood thus gives you a one in three chance of a scenario-appropriate incident that provides an opportunity to claim the clue.

Clues can be spent to reroll one die on a test. This is not a terribly efficient way to use your clues. Most scenarios only advance in a positive direction when you add clue tokens to the scenario card. This is done with a Research action, which is an Observation test13 that lets you move one clue per success from your character’s card to the scenario card. This means that, to take a Research action, you must already have one or more clue tokens on your investigator. Narratively, gathering a clue means finding evidence, and Researching lets you figure out what that evidence means.

So, yeah, you want to add clues to your scenario card. The Codex will tell you how many you need to advance the plot, but adding more is not a bad thing, because there are some times you’ll have to spend them from the scenario card to advance the plot.

Doom

Doom is the flipside of clues14. It shows how bad things are getting in Arkham. In AH2e, doom was just a track on the Great Old One card that, when it filled up, woke up the terrible ancient evil to eat you all. In AH3e, doom is added to locations in neighbourhoods, and causes bad things to happen as it accumulates there.

In three out of the four scenarios15, getting too much doom in a given location creates an anomaly, which are 3e‘s counterpart to 2e‘s gates. Once an anomaly exists in a neighbourhood, any new doom is added to the scenario card. Doom on the scenario card is similar to clues on the scenario card: get enough of it, and the plot progresses, but not in a direction that will make the investigators’ lives easier. Let this happen too many times16, and you lose the game.

The way to prevent, or at least mitigate, this is the Ward action. If your investigator is in a space with doom, you can use one of your actions to test your Lore skill, removing one doom from that location for each success you roll. Keeping on top of doom is vital for keeping the game going long enough to have a chance of winning.

Our Game

Our game lasted about four hours, which is only an hour longer than the time estimate on the box. For a first run-through, that’s pretty good. I think I’ve already said a couple of times that we lost. Here’s pretty much the moment we really knew it was over.

Okay. We had just pulled a headline card (one of the other timing mechanisms in the game) that cost everyone 1d6 Health and Sanity, split however we wanted between the two stats. Everyone rolled 5 or 6, so we were all pretty beat up. Then, a Reckoning pull put a whole bunch of doom on the board, spawning three anomalies. We hung on for a few more rounds, and got things largely cleaned up, but the time spent cleaning up the current mess meant we couldn’t really work towards the actual goal, and it all fell apart.

And thus, because of our failure, Azathoth arrived and destroyed all life on earth.

Sorry.

Tear-Down

Tear-down of the game took about 20 minutes, mainly because of the fiddliness of sorting all the various components. Most of the scenario-specific stuff auto-sorts itself during play, so there’s not a whole lot of messing around with doing that – just looking through the location decks for the scenario-specific clue encounter cards, which have a different enough face that they’re easy to spot. So, not a trivial clean-up time, but not overwhelming either.

Play Advice

After running through the game once, I have some advice to help it run smoothly and in a timely manner. These are mainly things I learned by not doing them well enough during the game, and regretting it. There’s no real strategy here, because I haven’t developed any beyond, “Clues good. Doom bad. Monsters bite.”

  • There are two-side player markers that you can flip to show that your investigator has acted. USE THEM. The Action Phase lets you choose the order in which your investigators act each round, and there are lots of moving bits to the different actions, so it can be easy to lose track of whether or not someone has acted. Use these markers religiously.
  • Appoint one player to monitor and announce each phase. There are nice reference cards for each player, so use these to keep track. Again, there are lots of moving parts, and there can be digressions in play because of various things triggering other things. Giving one player the responsibility to keep track of what phase you’re in and what comes next can really help avoid having to make timing corrections.
  • Read your whole investigator card. I mean, there’s some flavour text that you can avoid, but I almost missed the fact that the investigator I took randomly17 was essentially permanently cursed, only succeeding on 6s on his tests. Made him a real challenge. So, read the whole card, and all the starting cards you get, and keep track of your various abilities. There are a lot of them.
  • Read all of the cards that affect the entire game out loud. Other people hearing the stuff may be able to help you avoid misinterpretation and mistake. It’s a co-operative game, so use your team.
  • Spend a minute or so at the start of the Action Phase to strategize. You get to decide the order in which the investigators act, so take advantage of that to make sure you’re doing things efficiently and effectively.
  • Clear your schedule. This is a game that takes time and attention to play. Not paying close attention or trying to rush things will really impact your enjoyment of the game.

Conclusions

Four of us played, and we all had a lot of fun. One of the group is generally reluctant to play these longer games18, and even she said that she had fun, and was looking forward to playing it again.

The scenario-based design really works well to build a story out of game play, and to emphasize the mystery and horror aspects of the game, especially on the first play of any given scenario, when you don’t know how the story will unfold. It also provide a strong structure for future expansion releases.

The physical design and structure of the components is typically high-end for FFG games. I sleeved all the19 cards, because I think the game’s going to get a fair bit of play, and the extra sorting and shuffling you do with the scenarios is going to increase wear on the cards. I also use a cheap set of plastic bowls for the various20 counters and tokens used in the game, making it easier to draw them during play, rather than just putting them on the table in the baggies I store them in.

Also, it looks nicer.

Of the 12 starting investigators, 10 have shown up in previous AH family games21, and 2 are new to this game. That meant I had the deluxe, painted investigator figures for all but two of the investigators. I also had some nice plastic stands for the anomaly markers that I threw in the box.

The Broken Token, my favourite creator of deluxe game crates and game organizers, has a product page up for an Arkham Horror organizer, but no organizer product listed on it, yet. I’m watching that space, though22.

This game is, to my mind an improvement over the second edition in a number of ways, including speed of play, replay value, and mechanically supported narrative. It’s still a non-trivial investment of time and money, but if you liked second edition, you’ll probably like this, and probably like it more. And it’s nice to have an AH game that fits in one box again. So, if Lovecraftian board games are of interest, I strongly recommend you check this out.

  1. And there were a lot of them! []
  2. Ba-dum CHING! []
  3. So, congratulations to the FFG marketing department, I suppose. Working as designed. []
  4. Amuse N Games, if you care. You should. They’re pretty great. []
  5. I was surprised to also get the Deluxe Rule Book with my preorder. Thanks, Brian and Scotia! []
  6. Largely unsuccessfully. []
  7. This was implemented in Eldritch Horror specifically, but was a little rough there. The AH3e version of it is nice and smooth. []
  8. ONE stupid headline! Just ONE! []
  9. This may change with the supplements that I assume are coming, and will probably add some more neighbourhood tiles. []
  10. Mostly bad. The only really good one is the one that puts a clue on the board. The other “good” one is blank, so the goodness is just that nothing bad happens. []
  11. The game’s fancy term for an array of cards that charts the narrative status of play and current goals. []
  12. You also start the game with three clues on the board. []
  13. That is, you roll dice equal to your investigator’s Observation skill, and count each 5 or 6 as a success. []
  14. Literally, in this game, because the tokens for doom are the other side of the tokens for clues. []
  15. I haven’t looked carefully at the fourth scenario, yet, so I can’t speak to what doom does in that one. []
  16. As we did, last night. []
  17. Rex Murphy. []
  18. To be fair, the version of AH she’s most familiar with is 2e, which can take 6-8 hours or more to play. []
  19. Many, many. []
  20. Many, many, many. []
  21. AH2e, Eldritch Horror, Elder Sign, Mansions of Madness. []
  22. Now, the page shows the AH2e box and publication date, so I don’t know if they’re making a product for 2e or 3e. Fingers crossed. []

Eldritch Horror

Trying the solo version of Eldritch Horror.

Trying the solo version of Eldritch Horror.

Last night, I had a bunch of friends over, and we played a game of Fortune and Glory and a game of Cards Against Humanity1. This afternoon, after I had cleared up all the game stuff from the table, but before I removed the table leaf and pushed the table back into the correct position, I decided to try out my newest board game: Eldritch Horror, from Fantasy Flight Games.

Eldritch Horror is another Lovecraft-themed game from FFG. It’s got the same basic underpinnings as Arkham Horror or Elder Sign – it’s a co-operative game, set in the 1920s, with a Ancient One trying to break through into this reality and mess up all the furniture2. It differs in scale; it covers the entire globe, while AH is a town3, and ES is a single museum. So, your investigators have to travel the globe, tracking down clues and information to prevent the Ancient One from winning.

Complexity-wise, EH falls between AH on the high end and ES on the low end. There are more moving parts and options and special rules than in ES, but not nearly as many as in AH4. Turn structure is a simplified version of AH turn structure, with three phases for players:

  1. Action Phase. Players get two actions. This is stuff like moving, resting, acquiring assets, resting, etc.
  2. Encounter Phase. Players get to have an encounter. They may fight a monster, or draw a special encounter card, or what have you.
  3. Mythos Phase. Draw a card to see how the Ancient One tries to screw you over.

Turns seem to tick along more quickly than with AH, and possibly even more quickly than ES, once you remove the fact that I was relying pretty heavily on the rulebook and reference guide while trying to get the hang of the way things work. All in all, I got set up and through five rounds in about an hour, with two characters. About half that time5 was me checking the rules to see what I was supposed to be doing. So that’s about ten minutes set-up, the big part of which is building the Mythos Deck6 and sorting out cards that don’t get used with the Ancient One, leaving about a minute per phase per player.

Of course, if you’re not playing solo, some of that time savings from not relying on the rulebooks so heavily will be eaten up by discussion, planning, and socializing. Still, compared to about five minutes per player per phase in AH, you still come out ahead if you double the EH turn esitmate.

Right there, that’s enough to make me like the game. I mean, I love AH, but it is a huge investment of time to set up and play. A version that sets up and tears down quickly, with speedy play, is just what I want, and I’d have been happy if that was all EH brought to the table7. But there’s a lot more than that.

I mentioned while describing the set-up that you use subsets of different kinds of cards during the game – building a Mythos Deck from a larger assortment of cards, for example. You also have some specialized decks for the various8 Ancient Ones that you must battle. These decks allow the game to build strong narratives for each of the different Ancient Ones, setting different goals and tactics for each one.

To defeat each Ancient One, you must complete three9 Mysteries. These are unique to each Ancient One, and are related to the trademarks of the specific Ancient Ones. For example, you may have to investigate the strange meteor that landed in Tunguska if you’re facing off against Azathoth, or explore newly re-risen R’lyeh if you’re dealing with Cthulhu, or defeat the Dunwich Horror if Yog-Stothoth is your opponent, or break up horrid witch cults in remote corners of the world to beat Shub-Niggurath.

In addition, there are specialized research cards and (for some) encounter decks. These, coupled with the special ways the different Ancient Ones advance the Doom Track, add a lot more consistent and10 interesting narrative to play. Facing off against Azathoth is qualitatively different than dealing with Cthulhu, which is great.

There’s also a mechanic for scaling the difficulty of the game based on the number of players. A set of crib cards show you how many gates, monsters, and clues get spawned at the appropriate times, as well as the position of the initial Doom Track marker.

One other mechanic deserves mention here: double-sided cards. These are Condition cards and Spell cards, which have information on two sides. Players can freely read the top side, but are not allowed to turn them over to read the back side until something specific directs them to do so11. For Spell cards, this is usually casting the spell. For Condition cards, it’s when a certain symbol comes up on a Mythos card, indicating that a Reckoning is due. The cards flip over, you get to read the consequences of your leg injury acting up on you or your bank loan coming due or the downside of messing with powers man was not meant to know.

Players win if they complete the three Mysteries of the Ancient One before the Doom Track reaches zero. Well, they mostly do. When the three Mysteries are completed, there are instructions on the Ancient One card as to what to do next. Sometimes, that’s it, you’ve one. Other times, you must face the final Mystery that is printed on the Ancient One card itself.

The Ancient One wins if the Doom Track reaches zero before all three Mysteries are solved, or if all the investigators are eliminated.

I do worry, however, about replayability. There are only the four Ancient ones included in the game, and each has a deck of four Mysteries, three of which get used each game. Right there, you’re only looking at sixteen combinations. But there is a lot of other stuff going on, too, that adds variety to each game, so it’s entirely possible that my concern is completely misplaced.

Another concern is a common one to Arkham Horror and Elder Sign12 : once your character starts doing well, he or she can get stuff to help him or her, like gear and allies and spells and so forth. But if you need to succeed at a couple of encounters without that kind of help to get the game currency you need to get the stuff that helps you. If you take some time to get rolling, it can be very frustrating13.

On the up side, it looks like the gate and monster holders from Litko that I got for AH will work just as well with EH. I’ll have to check to see if I have the character figures for the investigators in EH, too.

So, final evaluation? I like Eldritch Horror. It fits nicely into the complexity/duration gap between Arkham Horror and Elder Sign, and does some very cool things that neither of those other games do. It’s not just a simplified version of AH, though it is that too. But it’s a great game in its own right.

I’m glad I bought it when it came out. I’m looking forward to playing a full game with real people.

  1. I lost both games pretty badly, but still had an awesome time. []
  2. And, by “furniture,” of course, I mean, “reality as we know it.” []
  3. Or a couple of nearby towns, with the expansions. []
  4. Caveat: of course, there haven’t been any expansions for EH, yet. This may change; the expansions sure ratcheted up the complexity of AH, after all. []
  5. Maybe a little less. []
  6. You use a subset of all the Mythos cards in each game. []
  7. As it were. []
  8. Four, right now: Cthulhu, Azathoth, Yog-Sothoth, and Shub-Niggurath. []
  9. Or four, for some Ancient Ones. []
  10. To my mind, anyway. []
  11. This is a little like the Danger/Cliffhanger cards in Fortune and Glory. []
  12. And, indeed to other games with similar rules for getting various stuff to beef up your character, such as Fortune and Glory. []
  13. Trust me. That’s how I spend a lot of these games. []

Central Canada Comic Con 2011

This weekend is Central Canada Comic Con, and once again, I will be there with the good folks from Imagine Games and Hobbies running demos of board and card games on Saturday and Sunday. I’ve made my selection and packed my bags1, so it’s just a matter of hauling them down to the convention centre Saturday morning and setting up.

Last year, I tried the sign-up thing for running the games, and it was a complete bust. The few people who did sign up for a game didn’t show, and I deferred demoing games for interested folks because it was almost time for a game that never happened. So, this year, it’s catch-as-catch-can; come find me in the gaming area, and if I’m not running a game for someone else, I’ll set you up.

Here’s what I’m bringing with me:

  • Legend of Driz’zt
  • Conquest of Nerath
  • Escape From the Aliens in Outer Space
  • Deluxe Illuminati
  • Elder Sign
  • Mansions ofMadness
  • Berzerker Halflings From the Dungeon of Dragons
  • Cthulhu Dice
  • Zombie Dice
  • Fury of Dracula
  • Battlestar Galactica
  • Carcassonne
  • Chrononauts
  • Fiasco

In addition, I’m going to bring along the Leverage RPG and The Dresden Files RPG, and am ready to demo either one. These take a little more time, though, so I recommend you get to me by early afternoon if you want to try either of those. And if you can supply a full roster of players (3-5 for Leverage, 3-7 for DFRPG), that’ll make it far more certain that you get to play. Figure three hours for either of those.

So, if you’re at C4, and you’re interested in gaming, come see me, whether to play or just talk about games.

I’ll be there.

  1. I’ll try and get a picture of them up – my bags are awesome! []

What I Did On My Christmas Holiday

Been a little quiet around here, huh? Christmas does that. Lots of family stuff going on, both for me and my gaming group. But I’m trying to get back to some more regular gaming – and blogging – now. And to start off, I’m going to do a bit of a recap of what I’ve been up to over Christmas.

  • Castle Ravenloft – I demoed this boardgame at C4 this past year, but there’s a real difference between co-ordinating a demo and actually playing. It’s quite a fun game. Three of us played, and we got through two scenarios that evening, with time left over to play something else. The speed of play is a huge bonus, in my opinion, and the randomness of the game means there’s good replay value. In short, it looks like they’ve taken all the cool stuff of Descent and weeded out the things that made Descent ((To be clear, I like Descent, but it is a long game, and doesn’t quite have the cool to justify the length of play.)) take forever – prep time, convoluted combat, adversarial plan, things like that. The downside is that it’s only good for five players, currently, though the forthcoming Wrath of Ashardalon, which is supposed to be compatible with Ravenloft, should address that.
  • Chrononauts – We got in two games of this card game after playing Ravenloft. It was so good that I went to the game store the next day to buy a copy for myself1. The rules are very simple, but the strategic play involved in trying to change the right lynchpins in the timeline so that the ripples bring about the future you need is quite deep. Again, fast play and great replay value, as everyone gets two different goal cards each time you play.
  • Battlestar Galactica – I managed to get in two games2of this, finally getting a chance to try out at least part of the Pegasus expansion. In addition, I’m currently involved in a play-by-forum game with some friends. It’s still a fantastic game, but the urgency and tension that you get playing face-to-face is mitigated somewhat by the delay in playing online.
  • Arkham Horror – Lately, whenever we play this, we play without the extra boards. Otherwise, there’s no hope of actually finishing a game with my group. But I have added the figures for the investigators and some nice little accessories from Litko to enhance the experience. We faced off against Ghatanothoa last time, and we kicked his ugly ass back out of reality. And only one investigator was devoured!
  • Shadowlands – After a lengthy hiatus, my friend Clint got us back to his D&D 3.5 campaign, and it felt good to get back.
  • Gammatoba – My Storm Point crew has voted to go with my Gamma World pitch, and we’re running a short game set in the ruined wasteland of Red Valley, where the brave initiates of the Fort LoGray Legion are venturing into Great City One to prove their mettle and achieve full membership. That starts this Sunday.
  • Dread – After hearing a lot about this game, I finally bought it and am about half-way through reading it. It’s got some great ideas, but I’m a little concerned about whether it would fit my game group – specifically, the idea that players are out if the tower falls. In general, I don’t like elimination mechanics in games, and especially in RPGs, and having the chance that a character just dies and is out in the first five minutes of play is not something I’m comfortable with. That said, the recommendations for pulls make it look like one pull per five minutes of play making for things getting tense as you near the four-hour mark. I’d have to see it in action, I think, to judge it fairly, but it makes me uncertain.
  • Leverage – I’m a fan of the TV show, and The Quickstart Job looked cool enough that I bought the main book3, and I was completely blown away. I’m putting together a group to run The Quickstart Job, and then I’m going to have much more to say about this game. One thing I’ll mention here is that, while The Quickstart Job seems to do a good job of introducing the style of the game, it leaves out a number of the really cool parts of the game4.
  • Smallville – I picked this up on the strength of Leverage – they both use a tweaked set of the Cortex rules system. I had passed on Smallville earlier because everything I had read about said that it focused more on the teen soap opera dynamic than the superhero facet of the setting. And that’s right, but the way the rules have been tailored to do that is worth the read, even if, like me, you never intend to run the game. If nothing else, the character creation process, which creates the rest of the supporting cast, themes, locations, and basic plotlines as a byproduct of building the characters, is immensely lootable.
  • Fiasco – I didn’t get to play as much Fiasco as I had hoped5over the break. But I did have several people express real interest in giving it a try when things settled down. So, there’ll be some games in the near future6.
  • Bookhounds of London – Picked up the preorder for this. I’ve only just scratched the surface of it so far, but it looks amazing. But you knew that, right? I mean, it’s written by Ken Hite, fergawdsake!
  • Writing – I set myself a goal of 1000 words per day for the novel I’m trying to write. I didn’t live up to that, but I did manage about 11,000 words in total. That’s not too bad, and gives me a strong foundation for the rest of it. I just need to make working on it a more regular part of my day.

So, that’s the way the Christmas vacation shaped up for me. It’s got me pumped about gaming in the coming year7, so expect to see me going on at length about various things in the near future.

  1. I also got the three supplements for the game, and am looking forward to trying them out. []
  2. In one of them, I finally got to be a cylon! []
  3. I’ve received the .pdf, but no sign of the printed book yet. I’m anxiously awaiting it. []
  4. In addition, it looks like the fight rules have changed between The Quickstart Job and the release of the main book. I like the new changes – they make things faster and more cinematic. []
  5. As in, I did not get to play any Fiasco. []
  6. Yes, Karla and Ryan, that means you. []
  7. Like any more pumping was necessary. []

The Stars Are Pretty Good

So, last night I got together with some friends and we* tried out The Stars Are Right, from Steve Jackson Games. The game was originally released by Pegasus Spiele in German*, and SJG has translated it into English.

I picked the game up at GenCon this year, read the rules, and got thoroughly confused. The rules are not badly written, but there are a couple of layers of complexity involved that lead to some obfuscation of exactly how simple the basics of the game really are. I wanted to sit in on a demo, but timing never worked out. I did manage to watch a demo for about five minutes, which did a whole lot to clarify how things work.

The idea is that you are a cultist trying to summon the Great Old Ones, their servitors, and minions. Most of these are worth a certain number of victory points*, and you need to accumulate 10 victory points to win. To summon a creature, the stars need to be right, hence the name of the game.

The stars in question are double-sided tiles set in a 5×5 grid representing the night sky. You need to be able to find the constellations (i.e., the combinations of tiles in the correct relationships with each other) printed on the bottom of each card. If you can’t find the right arrangements of stars to summon anything in your hand, you need to rearrange the sky*, by discarding one of the cards in your hand and using the rearrangement icons it represents perform one (or more) of three possible actions:

  1. Push a row or column one space, sliding the end tile around to the beginning of that row or column.
  2. Flip a tile over so that it shows the stars on the opposite side.
  3. Swap the places of two tiles that are side by side.

If the stars are then right, you summon your creature, have the option to discard one card from your hand, and draw up to your maximum hand size. Next player’s turn.

As I mentioned above, there are a couple of layers of complexity to the game that, when spelled out in the rules can conceal these simple basics. For instance, most of the minions have a special power that is active either as long as you have a summoned minion in play, or kick in when you discard said minion from play. And all the other cards have a special feature that lets you trade one type of star-shifting action for either a different kind of action or multiples of the same action. You need to have the card summoned and in play to take advantage of this, but it can lead to long chains of swapping types of action to give you the shifts you need.

Oh, and there’s four “suits” of cards, each based around one of the Great Old Ones you can summon. Having greater and lesser servitors of those Old Ones summoned and in play can give you bonus constellations when summoning their specific Old One.

See? It gets a little complex and difficult to explain until you actually play it.

Add to that the very visual nature of the game and the demands it makes on your spacial awareness and imagination, and the game winds up feeling very different from most other games you play. There is a learning curve, here, and it’s a pretty steep one, based on my observations last night, but we all agreed that, given time and repeat plays, it could wind up being very fast. It’s mainly a matter of training your brain to work with the kinds of visual patterns the game uses.

The nature of the game produces one interesting artifact that came out during play last night: most of the players felt that it wasn’t worth their time to try and plan ahead based on the arrangement of stars, because it would change three more times before it got back to them. I’m not sure how much that thinking prevails with repeat play – maybe players learn to anticipate the possible conjunctions more – but it struck us as very difficult to make any predictions.

The game also provides very little interaction between players. There are one or two minion cards that let you steal from someone else and things like that, but mostly it’s just a race of individual achievement. That said, especially during this sort of learning period, there was a lot of table talk and anguished cries as someone messed up a star arrangement that someone else was really hoping would last until his turn.

All in all, the game was fun, and everyone agreed that they’d like to play again. Next time, I want in on it.

 
 

 
 

*And by “we,” I mean “they.” The game is listed as being for 2-4 players, and we had five, so I sat out and acted as coach and rules-looker-upper*. Back

*It’s a word if I say it’s a word. Back

*Also, in Germany. See how that works? Back

*Minions are worth 0 points, lesser servitors are worth 1 point each, greater servitors are worth 2 points each, and Great Old Ones are worth 4 points each. Back

*Technically, you rearrange the sky before summoning, but in play, you’re generally making a decision about whether you invoke or not based on whether or not you can summon something good with the current arrangement of stars. Back

No Roles II – More Board and Card Games

Way back here, I said I was going to talk about some other board and card games I enjoyed in my next post.

Well, obviously that didn’t happen.

It’s been more than six months since that post, and I’m finally getting back around to it. Here are some brief discussions of other games I like.

Beowulf the Legend

From the good folks at Fantasy Flight (as usual), this is another very beautiful, high-quality game, with a wonderful set of rules. It’s a lot of fun to play. The concept is that the players (and it works with 2-5, though really you need 3 for it to be really fun) are members of Beowulf’s warband, and travel with him, helping him out in his adventures. The one who earns the most glory for himself by the time Beowulf dies at the end (Ooops! Spoiler!) becomes king of the Geats, and gets to preside over this tribe of folk as they wither and vanish from the earth.

You don’t have to play out that part, though.

It’s a bidding game, essentially. Everyone has a hand of cards with various suits for Fighting, Courage, Wit, Traveling, and Friendship, and you play these in various episodes throughout Beowulf’s story to help him achieve his goals. The person who helps the most gets first pick of the prizes, the next gets second pick, and so on. Some of the prizes aren’t such prizes, if you follow me; they’re things like wounds or misfortune. Other prizes are much better, being glory, treasure, alliances (which can be either glory or treasure), and special cards that help in play.

The thing that really makes this game shine, though, is the risk mechanic. It turns a fairly tame bidding card game with an interesting background into a full-on Viking game of boasting, challenging, and gambling. See, you may not have the suit of card you need to bid in the current round. In that case, you can risk, and draw two cards from the deck. If you draw a card of an appropriate suit, you bid it and hopefully stay in the game. Cards of the wrong suit are discarded. If you don’t get a single card of an appropriate suit, you take a scratch (three scratches make a wound, which can negatively impact your final score).

Strategy-wise, the game is all about risk management. You want to make sure you have the cards you need for the coming challenges, so you need to look ahead and plan accordingly. You want to take risks either for really good prizes or to avoid really bad prizes. You need to be able to judge whether or not taking a given risk is worth it to you at the time. And you need to be able to shrug off all the other Vikings in the game calling you a coward if you don’t take the risk.

It’s a lot of fun.

Now, I have been informed by a female friend of mine that this is very much a “Guy Game.” I don’t know how true that is, but I’m a guy, and I love it. I say give it a try, even if you happen to be a woman.

Gloom

This is a card game from Atlas Games, created by Keith Baker, the mastermind behind Eberron.

In general, I’m a big fan of the folks at Atlas, not least because the inestimable Dr. Michelle Nephew was very good to me while I was writing for them. And they published one of my favourite RPGs in the whole, wide world: Unknown Armies.

This game has nothing to do with any of that, but I felt it needed to be said, anyway.

In Gloom, you take control of a family of unfortunate people, and try and make them even more unfortunate. The art is very reminiscent of Edward Gorey, and the themes are very Lemony Snicket, as you play misfortune cards (“Pursued by Poodles,” for example; there’s a lot of alliteration in this game) on your family. These cards drop the score of each of the people in your family down into negative numbers. Then you kill them, freezing the score. In the meantime, you try and play fortunate cards on your opponents, raising the scores of their families. Once an entire family has been wiped out, you total all the scores, and low score wins.

The cards use a clear substance (mylar, maybe?), allowing you to stack fortune and misfortune cards on top of your character cards without obscuring the portrait and name. There’s a clever mechanic with the positive and negative scores appearing in different positions on the card, so that sometimes a new card with cover an old score, and sometimes it won’t. Only visible scores are counted, which leads to some strategizing about who gets what card, and the different deaths can also affect scores.

It’s not a complex game, and the strategy isn’t very deep, but it’s quick to learn and quick to play.

The really fun part about the game, though, is the rule that you have to tell a little story about the cards your playing, building on the cards already in play. You can’t just lay down the card “Mocked by Midgets.” You have to explain why they were mocking, and why it had such a negative effect. The absurd downward spiral of the characters really makes the game.

There are also three expansions for this, but I haven’t played with them. They look interesting, though.

Three Dragon Ante

I never expected to like this game, it being a kind of fantasy poker released by Wizards of the Coast a few years back. But you know, it’s a good game. Like poker, the game is fairly simple in principle and rules, but gets increasingly interesting as you learn it and begin to unpack the strategy in it. Play is generally fast, and fairly exciting, with pots shifting and changing fairly quickly. It does a good job of keeping the players in the hands, as opposed to the way poker encourages folding early.

It’s not a terribly deep game, and I could wish for cards that were a little less cartoony and a little more medieval in flavour, but it’s a good game to sit down with a bunch of friends for an hour or so of pretend gambling.

And now that I have my Campaign Coins, it’s probably time to give it a try again.

That’s it for now, though. Give some of the above a try.