Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Dicing with Dragons

Dragon Slayer: The Dice Game with a Twist is a ‘Push Your Luck’ dice game released by Indie Boards & Cards, the publisher of notable titles such as The Resistance, Coup, and Flashpoint: Fire Rescue. Funded through Kickstarter, it is designed for two to five players, aged fourteen and more—though younger players could play it, and it can be played through in fifteen minutes or so.

In Dragon Slayer, each player is a doughty warrior, a fearless hunter of dragons, ready to be crowned ‘Master Slayer’. He must set out into the Mountains; locate each dragon’s Head to determine where it hunts, its Wings to see where it soars, and its Tail to find its lair; Axe in hand ready to slay the beasts and Shield held ready to withstand each dragon’s deadly Fire Breath. There are three dragons of increasingly difficult challenge—Blue, Green, and Red—that a slayer will need to kill again and again to be crowned ‘Master Slayer’. Unfortunately, every slayer has a certain pride and once he has one dragon kill under his belt, he can be goaded into continuing the hunt. Otherwise he will lose face (and points!). This is the ‘Twist’ of the title.

Dragon Slayer consists of twelve dice. Three dice for the Warriors, marked with Axe, Shield, and Fire Breath symbols; and three dice for each dragon, marked with Mountain, Dragon’s Head, Tail, and Wing, and Fire Breath symbols. There is a scoring track and tokens for each player to track his score, a simple chart to track each slayer’s hunt, and a Challenge Token for each player.

On his turn a player rolls both the Warrior dice and the three dice for the dragon he wants to hunt. His aim is to roll the Dragon’s Head, Tail, and Wings plus an Axe to kill the beast. As soon as any one of them is rolled, those dice are put aside and the player can keep rolling. Mountains and repeated results can be re-rolled. If the dragon rolls a Fire Breath—on the Dragon dice or the Warrior dice—the slayer can defend against with a rolled Shield on a one-for-one basis. If a slayer has not rolled any Shields, then he loses a Warrior dice for every unblocked Fire Breath dice. Once a slayer has lost all of his Warrior dice, his dragon hunt ends for that turn.  

Once a player has rolled a Dragon’s Head, Tail, and Wings plus an Axe to kill the beast, he can score it. Just two points for a Blue Dragon, four for a Green Dragon, and six for a Red Dragon. He can stop there or carry on, using any Warrior dice he has remaining plus the matching dice for the new dragon. He must defeat the other two dragons before he can attempt to slay again the type he just killed. Or another slayer could challenge him into carrying on. Refuse and the player loses half his points, the challenger scoring five points. Carry on and the slayer gets double points for every subsequent dragon slain, but if he fails at any time, he loses all points for that round! Each player only has one Challenge token, so it can only be used once.

For example, Debbie attempts to slay the Green Dragon. On the Warrior dice she rolls Axe, Shield, and Fire Breath, plus Mountains and Dragon’s Tail and Wings on the Dragon dice. She sets aside the Dragon’s Tail and Wings plus the Axe. Then she blocks the Fire Breath with the Shield and then rerolls the Shield, Fire Breath, and Mountain dice. The result is two Axes and a Dragon’s Head. This enough is to slay the Green Dragon and score Debbie two points.

Dave decides use his Challenge token to goad Debbie to continue, which she does against the Blue Dragon. This time she rolls Axe, Shield, and Shield on the Warrior dice, plus Mountains and Dragon’s Tail and Wings on the dragon dice. She sets aside the Dragon’s Tail and Wings plus the Axe. Rolling again, the result is a Dragon’s Head and an Axe and Shield, again enough to slay the Blue Dragon and score Debbie eight points—double the Blue Dragon’s value.

Debbie continues against the Red Dragon. This time she rolls Axe, Shield, and Fire Breath on the Warrior dice, plus Fire Breath and Dragon’s Head and Wings on the dragon dice. One Shield is used to block a Fire Breath, leaving one Fire Breath to get through. Debbie is forced to discard the Axe result, but can keep the Dragon’s Head and Wings. This leaves her one Dragon die and two Warrior dice to roll. This time Debbie rolls the needed Dragon’s Tail and an Axe, which scores her twelve points—again the Red Dragon’s value. Debbie has done well this time and was up to the challenge!

Once a player has scored forty points in slain dragons, play continues until everyone has had the same number of turns. The player with the most points scored wins and is crowned the ‘Master Slayer’.

Physically, Dragon Slayer is pretty little game, its artwork reminiscent of the Dragon’s Lair computer game of the early ‘80s. The dice in particular, are quite fine (though the standard retail version will lack the metallic inks etched into the dice), handle nicely, and have differently illustrated dragons. The rules feel underwritten and need a surprisingly careful read through given such a light game.

Easy to learn and quick to play, Dragon Slayer presents easy decisions—when to challenge, when to stop rolling, and which dragon to roll for. Do you roll for the Green Dragon and work up to Red or roll for Red and work down to Green as it is easier? Most likely a player will Challenge when another takes the lead and looks to be winning…

Of course Dragon Slayer feels not unlike Steve Jackson Games’ Zombie Dice, but it adds a decent twist and its genre is not as gruesome. Overall, Dragon Slayer: The Dice Game with a Twist is a nice filler and a nice addition to the ‘Push Your Luck’ style dice game.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

2004: Ticket to Ride

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, will releasing the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles to be reviewed. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.

For the fourth entry in Reviews from R’lyeh’s series of anniversary reviews, we look back to the year 2004 and the publication of a successful board game that has sold over three million copies in the ten years since. Ticket to Ride from Days of Wonder would win the 2004 Spiel des Jahres award, the Origins Award for Best Board Game of 2004, and the 2005 Diana Jones award, amongst others, and it has also joined Carcassonne and Settlers of CatanSpiel des Jahres winners both—in forming a triumvirate of gateway games. That is, games that can serve as an introduction to the hobby of playing board games, games that can be played by both board game enthusiasts and the family alike. This factor, along with its popularity, explains why Ticket to Ride has appeared on Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop series twice. First with Ticket to Ride and then with Ticket to Ride: Europe.

Designed for two to five players, aged eight and up, in Ticket to Ride the players undertake a race across the USA in the spirit of Phileas Fogg’s race around the world in eighty days. At stake is a prize of $1,000,000 for the competitor who reaches the most destinations and scores the most points. It is played out over a map of the USA and southern Canada marked with various cities connected by routes in different colours and of varying lengths.

At game’s start each player will receive a set of train pieces and some Destination Tickets. Each of these give two cities on the board that need to be connected, such as ‘New York to Seattle’ or ‘Duluth to Houston’. Completing these Destination Tickets will score a player points, but will lose him points if not completed. A player must keep one of the Destination Tickets he is given and can draw more throughout the game. He also receives four Train Cards. The Train Cards match the colour of the routes on the board and are used to claim routes on the board. For example, two four-space routes run between Denver and Kansas City, one in black, the other in orange. It would take four orange Train Cards to claim the orange route or four black ones to claim the black route. A Locomotive Card, which can be any colour, can be substituted in place of any of the cards. A player will score points for each route claimed and each route can only be claimed once.

On his turn, a player can do one of three things. He can draw two Train Cards, either face up or straight from the deck, or a single Locomotive Card; he can use Train Cards to claim a route; or he can draw new Destination Tickets. This sets up a dilemma for the player—does he take Train Tickets that he needs before a rival takes them? Does he claim a route before someone else does? If he takes new Destination Tickets can he complete them before the end of game?

The winner is the player who scores the most victory points, invariably because he has completed the most Destination Tickets and claimed the most routes. There is also an award for the Longest Route. Game play in Ticket to Ride is thus fairly simple, but challenging enough for the casual or family gamer. For the enthusiast, Ticket to Ride offers a number of strategies, such as attempting to claim as many long routes as possible or grabbing the short routes in order to block other players. Either way, Ticket to Ride is a gently competitive game that is easy to learn and easy to play.

It should be remember that what Ticket to Ride is not, is a train game. It has trains as a theme, but the game is about managing a player’s hand of Train Cards and collecting the right set of routes. That said, it can be seen as a stepping onto more complex train-themed games, for example, Ragnar Brothers’ Canalmania or Alderac Entertainment Group’s Trains

In the decade since its publication, Ticket to Ride has been supported with a family of core games and expansions. These enable gamers to play using dice rather than Train Cards or with new Destination Tickets, to play core games in Europe, Germany, and Scandinavia, and to take their trains onto maps set in Asia, India and Switzerland, Africa, and the Nederlands. The game has also been adapted to be played on PCs and tablets—both iOS and Android devices. This allows a player to enjoy the game by himself, against the computer or opponents around the world.

In 2014 Days of Wonder released Ticket to Ride 10th Anniversary Edition to celebrate the success of the game over the previous decade. Graphically, Ticket to Ride has been given a beautiful redesign and increased in size half again. This includes the size of the box, the map board, the cards, the train pieces, and the scoring markers. What will grab the gamer right out of the box is the board, because it is now in full colour with a colour background to the routes. The original map for Ticket to Ride was decidedly grey, but the map here is full of detail and geography, and the length of the spaces on each route is now a whole inch long!

Below the map, what will grab the gamer next are five colour tins—black, blue, brown, green, red. Each of these deep tins—labelled Black Powder Rail (black), Metropolitan Rapid Transit (blue), Dutch Flat Barrel Co. (brown), Hobo Caboose Central (green), Savannah, Florida & Circus Railway (red)—contains forty-eight sculpted, detailed plastic train pieces. These are not only visually appealing as they look fantastic when on the board, but they also bring a tactile physicality to the game. Similarly, the Train Cards have been given a major redesign. They are also increased in size to make them easier to handle and read, much in line with the Ticket to Ride: USA 1910 Expansion.

Notably, Ticket to Ride 10th Anniversary Edition includes not only the Destination Tickets from the original Ticket to Ride, but also those from Ticket to Ride: USA 1910. Together, the Destination Tickets from Ticket to Ride: USA 1910 implement three different variants in which to play Ticket to Ride. These are ‘1910’, ‘Big Cities’, and the ‘Mega Game’. The ‘1910’ variant simply replaces the Destination Tickets from Ticket to Ride with the ‘1910’ Destination Tickets and gives a thoroughly new mix of cities to connect. Instead of the Longest Route Bonus in Ticket to Ride, in the ‘1910’ variant, the Globetrotter Bonus is given for the most Destination Tickets completed. Each of the Destination Tickets in the ‘Big Cities’ variant is connected to one of eight cities—Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, and Seattle—which makes for a much more cutthroat game as the players compete to access the same connections. Lastly, in the ‘Mega Game’, all of the Destination Tickets are used, including those from both Ticket to Ride and Ticket to Ride: USA 1910, and both the Longest Route and the Globetrotter Bonuses are given out. 

Essentially, Ticket to Ride 10th Anniversary Edition negates the need to purchase Ticket to Ride: USA 1910—or at least it should have done. For unfortunately, there is a flaw at the heart of an otherwise beautifully done, pretty reprint. What the full colour rulebook, which includes the rules in several languages as well as in English, does not include are the rules for any of the ‘1910’, ‘Big Cities’, and the ‘Mega Game’ variants. This is a major omission, one that undermines the inclusion of the Ticket to Ride: USA 1910 in the Ticket to Ride 10th Anniversary Edition.

Another issue is with the train pieces. All except one set is easy to spot and that one is the Dutch Flat Barrel Co. pieces. The problem is that the tin for them is brown and the main colour for the pieces is also brown, but they are not brown in the game. They are meant to be yellow as in the original Ticket to Ride. Admittedly, each of the ‘brown’ train pieces has a yellow stripe down each side, but surely they could have just been yellow and another type of wagon created instead of the Dutch Flat Barrel Co. wagons?

Lastly, in the ‘Mega Game’ when the Longest Route and the Globetrotter Bonuses are given out, there is not a separate card for each. Instead, they are printed on the obverse sides of one card. The question is, what happens when one player is awarded the Longest Route Bonus and another the Globetrotter Bonus?

Make no mistake, Ticket to Ride 10th Anniversary Edition is fundamentally flawed and incomplete. Which flies in the face of Days of Wonder’s reputation for attention to detail. Nevertheless, Ticket to Ride 10th Anniversary Edition is still playable and the rules for each of the ‘1910’, ‘Big Cities’, and the ‘Mega Game’ variants are available online, but again this is not a satisfactory solution given that this is a highly expensive version of an existing game and a prestigious redesign of Days of Wonder’s flagship title. Ultimately, Ticket to Ride 10th Anniversary Edition is beautiful and impressive, both on the shelf with its black box and in play when the trains start being placed. Despite its flaws, Ticket to Ride is still a great game and the Ticket to Ride 10th Anniversary Edition is a pretty addition to any gaming collection.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Honour within the Moment

Most games about Japan focus upon that most familiar aspect of its history—the samurai. From FGU’s Bushido and AEG’s Legend of the Five Rings to Avalon Hill’s Samurai and dV Giochi’s Samurai Sword, the focus is upon the role and position of the military nobility that dominated Japan for eight centuries. Although the samurai have a role in the latest RPG to be set in historical Japan, they are not its focus. That RPG is World of Dew: A Blood & Honor Sequel, a Samurai Noir role-playing game in which the samurai and the samurai clans are in decline. It is set during the Tokugawa shogunate—a time of great change despite the order imposed by the new regime. Into their stead come vivacious geisha, ill-mannered gaijin, honourable yet-crooked yakuza, nosy police detectives, great sumo, greedy merchants, unfortunate ronin, and more. Inspired by the great Chambara movies like Seven Samurai  and Laura Joh Rowland’s Sano Ichiro novels, it is their stories—stories of corruption, greed, betrayal, lust, murder, cynicism, love, loss, and more—that will be told in the rain-soaked great cities of Japan in A World of Dew.

Launched via Kickstarter and published by Woerner’s Wunderwerks, as its subtitle suggests, a World of Dew is a sequel to John Wick’s Blood and Honor, the RPG that dealt specifically with tragedy and failure of the great clans during their height. It is a storytelling RPG in which the players take the roles of characters other than the samurai seen in Chambara movies—though it is possible to play samurai in the game. They will not only create their characters, but the city itself, populating it with places, people, and threats, before playing out mysteries and intrigues from one season to the next.

Although set during the Tokugawa shogunate, there is some flexibility as to when a game can be set. Suggestions include the period following the defeat of its clan enemies when Dutch and English Protestants feud against the Spanish and Portuguese Catholics for economic and spiritual influence; during the heights of the Shogunate’s power when Japan was completely closed; and at its nadir, when the West has forced it to open up to its merchants and its innovative technologies, bringing with it social conflict between ancient traditions and radical reform. Although there are no mechanical differences in terms of storytelling between these time periods, they nevertheless determine some of the outré character options available as well as the technology.

Each character is defined by his Giri, his Virtues and Aspects, and an Advantage, plus his Glory, Honour Points, and Ninjo Points. The Giri is his occupation or duty, which can be Artist, Doctor, Gambler, Geisha, Holy Person, Merchant, Police Inspector, Ronin, Servant, Soldier, Sumo Wrestler, or Yakuza, and which grants a character bonus dice, an ability, and a benefit. For example, Yakuza gains bonus dice equal to his Giri Rank when undertaking a criminal action condoned by his gang; the ability to gain Honour Points when protecting his gang and the locals of your district; and the benefit of help from his fellow gang members when given tasks by his oyabun. He has a reputation attached to his Glory Rank, such as “Fair Man” or “Skilled swordsman”.

His core attributes are his six Virtues—Beauty, Courage, Cunning, Prowess, Strength, and Wisdom. One of these is set Rank 4, two are set at Rank 3, two at Rank 2, while the last is a Weakness. He also has three Aspects, though he may have more depending on his age. There are only a few of these and they work as they do in Evil Hat Productions’ FATE Core rules. For example, a character has the Aspect, “Do not stand in the Melon Field” because he believes that face and honour are important. When a player ‘invokes’ it as “Do not stand in the Melon Field… under the Plum Tree”, he gains three dice in a difficult social situation to maintain his face and honour. When it is compelled, he tends towards over analysis and inaction. Lastly, he has an Advantage—it might be that he is a Prodigy at a sword or sumo school or he has gaijin gear or that he holds a Social Position. It is possible to take further Advantages, but at a cost of a Virtue Flaw for each one.

Our sample character is Sagara Kiosho. A former samurai, the dispossession of his clan and the death of his parents left him on the streets. Initially he had a little money, but this did not last long and within a few weeks he was penniless and alone. Worse, the weather turned and a chill turned worse.  The young boy was found and taken in by an Oyabun, Noboru, but by then it was too late—Kiosho was suffering from tuberculosis. He recovered, but has been weakened ever since, some days not having the strength to serve his adopted father. Kiosho tries to bring the honour upheld by the samurai despite the tasks that his adopted father assigns him. He wishes to know the circumstances that brought about the dispossession of his clan and has a dislike of authority of the shogunate. 

Sagara Kiosho
Rank 1 Ronin

Beauty—Rank 2
Courage—Rank 4
Cunning—Rank 4
Prowess—Rank 3
Wisdom—Rank 2

Glory Rank 1—“A fair man”
Honour Points 2, Ninjo Points 1
Desire: To discover how his clan was dispossessed

ASPECTS—“ Do Not Stand in the Melon Field”, “Luck Exists”, “Entering the Tiger’s Cave”
ADVANTAGE—“Prodigy”, “Blessed”
FLAW—Courage “Fear of Dishonour”

At the end of character creation, the players agree how their characters know each other and then dive into city creation. The GM may research a real city, but he should discuss with players what themes they want to explore, perhaps foreign trade, religious strife, smugglings, and so on. A city also begins with several locations, a stronghold and then a location for each of the player characters’ Giri—a gambling den for a Yakuza, a surgery for a Doctor, a sumo school for a Sumo Wrestler, for example. The players, now armed with five free City Points, work with the GM to add locations, threats, organisations, faces (NPCs), and other elements, each costing a City Point. When adding these elements, a player also assigns three True Things about each. Each of the locations not only forms the landscape for the adventures, but also places where Season actions can be spent. Further, each location provides a bonus. For example, bonus Beauty wagers and Rumours can be gained at the Geisha House.

Dice are rolled whenever a risk is involved and whenever the outcome of the action will influence the plot or characters. The aim of any roll is to gain narrative rights—if the player fails the roll, then either an opposing character gains the rights or the GM does. If appropriate, a player gains six-sided dice from one of his Virtues, an Aspect, his Giri, and even his name. Other dice might come from tags that can be attached to places and the character. The player never has to roll more than ten on the dice, no matter how many dice he has to roll. This is enough to gain him the privilege of narration rights, but if he wants more than that, he can set dice aside as wagers. If he rolls more than ten, then for each of his wagered dice, he can add another detail.
Kiosho has been sent by Oyabun to speak to Sugu, a fellow gang member who Noboru suspects is not paying the full amount of the tribute he is due. Kiosho arrives at Sugu’s hangout to find it on fire! From inside the building Kiosho can hear cries of pain. Being brave and foolish, Kiosho dives into the burning building to rescue whomever is inside… So Kiosho’s player grabs up four dice for his Courage Virtue; a die for his name—though not for family name as that would not impress Sugu; and lastly, he invokes his “Entering the Tiger’s Cave” Aspect for another three dice. That gives him a total of eight dice to roll. Kiosho’s player believes that four are enough and sets aside the other four as wagers. The results of the four dice are 2, 3, 3, and 6 for a result of 14—enough for Kiosho to gain privilege.
For his privilege, Kiosho’s player narrates that he rushes into the burning building and manages to find Sugu. He takes two of the wager dice and narrates the following…
As he hefts Sugu over his shoulder, Kiosho hears the cry of a woman coming from another room…
…and when he goes to the rescue of the woman, he discovers that she is holding a piece of a kimono in her hand. The mon on the kimono matches his own…
Of the other two wager dice, Kiosho’s player converts them into Glory and gains “Brave before fire” as a Rank 1 Reputation.
Combat in a World of Dew uses the same mechanics—the number of dice to be rolled are determined and then any wagers are set aside in secret. Whomever rolls highest gains privilege and his wagers to add narration. The defeated opponent loses half his wagers, but can still use the remainder to add narration. With just one dice roll to determine the outcome, combat itself is very fast. It gets slightly more complex depending on the nature of the fight, whether it is a Strike—a surprise attack in which a player yells “Strike!” to attack first in a brilliantly elegant mechanic, a Duel, or Mass Murder. It also gets increasingly deadly, especially when katanas or firearms are involved. Injuries themselves are ranked from 1 to 5, with Rank 1 injuries healing in a day, Rank 2 injuries taking a week to heal down to Rank 1 injuries, and so on up to Rank 5 injuries that take a whole year to go down to Rank 4! In the meantime, others can tag your injuries for bonus dice! The aid of a doctor in a World of Dew is almost mandatory if a character is to survive, but even then this is not a game in which you should rush into combat unless you are sure of the outcome.
For example, Kiosho has managed to get the girl out of the burning building and then gone back into get Sugu. At this point the GM intercedes with a Story Point and inflicts a Rank 2 injury on Kiosho due to weak Strength Virtue. Kiosho has a nasty burn on his leg, but he does get Sugu and the GM does reward him with an Honour Point. When he gets outside, Kiosho finds Junzō and Norio—Sugu’s lieutenants—ready to remonstrate with him. Norio is holding the girl, but Kioshio is wary of Junzō who looks like he might attack. Before the gangster can draw his sword, Kiosho’s player shouts “Strike!”
As he shouted “Strike!”, Kiosho gets two bonus dice. He also gets a die from his Giri because he is involved in violence; three dice come from his Prowess, a die for his name; another two dice come from his sword school training and as a Rank 1 Ronin he adds +2 to the final roll. This gives him a total of nine dice to roll. Kiosho’s player secretly sets aside five of these dice as wagers.
The GM rolls for Junzō and Norio together. They are relatively lowly Yakuza so only have Prowess 2 each—which the GM combines to give four dice. They also tag Kiosho’s Rank 2 injury for two more dice, which gets him the reward of a Ninjo Point. The GM knows that Kiosho will be a better opponent, but Junzō and Norio are loyal to Sugu and are desperate to stop the ronin. So he only sets aside two dice as wagers.
Kiosho rolls 2, 3, 6, and 6. Together with is Giri bonus, he has a total of 19. Junzō and Norio together roll 2, 3, 5, and 5 for a total of 15. Kiosho has Privilege and three wagers to spend whilst Junzō and Norio, successful in their attack, have to discard half of their wagers, leaving them with only one. Kiosho begins the narration…
…Kiosho unburdens Sugu directly at Junzō who is sent sprawling and suffers a Rank 1 injury.
…Then draws his katana and leaps to attack Norio. (His player expends another two wagers to raise the Rank 1 injury to a Rank 3 injury). Norio suffers a savage slash across the face and falls backwards dropping the girl in the process. (At this point, Kiosho’s player lets the GM spend his only wager).
…Struggling from under his boss’ body, Junzō discovers Sugu’s pistol which had hidden in his kimono. He draws and cocks it, and sitting up, fires it at Kiosho. The ronin is hit in the back with a shot that will kill him. (Firearms are that deadly and inflict a Rank 6 injury! Kiosho will need to expend an Honour Point to lower this to a survivable Rank 5 injury, but not yet. Kiosho’s injuries will not take effect just yet. He still has wagers to spend).
…Kisoho drags himself across to Junzō to land one last blow before he collapses. This and raising the attack to a Rank 2 injury uses up his last two wagers.
Mass Murder is even deadlier because all sides keep their wagers if they roll successfully. World of Dew is arguably one of the deadliest systems available! It is also possible to spend wagers to establish true facts about the game. In contested rolls, both players get to spend wagers—all of them by the winner of the contested roll, but half of his wagers by the defeated player.

At the heart of the game there is an economy involving Honour Points, Ninjo Points, and Story Points. Drawn from a communal pool, Honour Points are spent to gain bonus dice in a risk, to add details to the story, create a Scene Tag that everyone can activate, or to benefit from a Location effect. A character can add to the Honour Point pool by undertaking a risk that is honourable or to the benefit of others. If Honour Points represent a character acting in the interests of society rather than himself, then Ninjo Points represent his desire. They only grant two bonus dice and they can only be used to help the character—not others—and only towards his Desire. Whilst Ninjo Points can be used to add details and create tags just as Honour Points can, only the character who created them can see them. 

Whenever a character spends an Honour Point or a Ninjo Point, it goes into the Story Pool as a Story Point. These can be drawn by the GM to actually to add to, or change, the plot. Further this can actually contravene a truth already established in the game—the only way that this can be done once a truth has been established. Essentially this is a means to add uncertainty to the game, even down to the author suggesting that the GM almost threaten to draw from the Story Pool!

t should be noted that this economy is only one way. Spent Honour Points and Ninjo Points go into the Story Pool, but spent Story Points do not go back into the Honour Pool. The only way to gain more Honour Points is earning them.

The characters’ adventures, or rather stories, take place across Seasons during which the characters have actions that they can undertake in addition to their stories. Usually these are built around the locations developed during the act of creating the city, so might include time spent studying at a swordsmanship school, crafting a beautiful piece of poetry, or rooting out corruption at the Magistrate’s Court. Locations may also generate trouble during a Season and this may lead to new stories.

Another area where a World of Dew differs from the more traditional Japan-set RPG is in its treatment of the outre. Simply, there is none and the game does not provide rules for the inclusion of the supernatural. This is not to say that it could not exist within A World of Dew—and the example of city creation suggests that it could—but the GM would be on his own if he wanted to add it. Magic could also exist in a World of Dew, but the guidelines given draw very much of the beliefs of the characters rather than on a codified set of rules. This applies no matter what the faith—Buddhism, Christianity, or Shintoism.

As a game of Samurai Noir, World of Dew is fundamentally different to the Noir genre as we know it in the West. In traditional Noir, the hero—of which Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe are the perfect imperfect examples—goes out to solve a mystery or problem through pure self-determination and individualism, which is anathema to the Eastern hero. He instead subsumes his self-determination and individualism into the greater good, adhering to his duty rather than his desires in pursuit of a mystery or problem. Thus a World of Dew presents a roleplaying challenge—one of course seen in other Japan-set RPGs—that is further exacerbated by the social upheaval that Japan is undergoing throughout the period described in the game. A social upheaval that seems to favour desire over honour...

The primary way in which a World of Dew enforces its genre is by asking the player to have his character do one radical thing—fail. The player in a World of Dew has a great deal of control over the narrative. He can spend Honour Points to add to the game and he can narrate events and add true facts using his wagers. When he does so, he creates truths—truths that unless the GM spends a Story Point cannot be undone. So it would be easy for the player to simply narrate his success, but that would not be in keeping with the genre. Instead a World of Dew asks the player to ‘fail forward’, that is to drive the plot forward with his character’s failure. Not just ‘yes’, but ‘yes and..’ as well as ‘yes, but…’ It is asking a lot of the players, but in playing the game they should buying into it anyway. This is in addition of course, to the players having their characters conduct themselves honourably in support of the greater good order to gain Honour Points. Not only is this very in-keeping with the Japan-set RPG, it also fuels the Honour-Story Point economy.

Physically, a World of Dew is tidily presented with some beautifully vibrant art. Its main weakness is the lack of an index, but otherwise the book decently written with solid advice for player and GM alike. Some players though, may balk at being penalised with an Honour Point for causing a distraction!

As an RPG design, World of Dew is a very contemporary design, with mechanics that encourage a certain style of play, but still with the need for a narrator or GM. It is a storytelling game that takes its cue from a haiku, A World of Dew, and is about the struggle within a moment, one at a point of change, all caught within the dewdrop. World of Dew is beautifully immersive, drawing in the GM and player alike with the chance to tell stories in a fascinating period of history, one at a point of change. 

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Time for Tea

If you are of a certain age, then you may perhaps associate ‘elevenses’ with sticky buns and hot cocoa served at a certain  antique shop on the Portobello Road by its owner, Mr. Gruber. A more modern reader or film goer might associate it with the meal served somewhen between second breakfast and luncheon. Most of us though are not bears (from darkest Peru or elsewhere) or indeed hobbits, so we shall have to make do with elevenses, that quintessentially refined repast consisting of tea—never coffee (how uncouth), sandwiches, cakes and biscuits, served from a tea trolley at precisely 11 o’clock to one’s guests.

Elevenses is also the name and subject matter for a card game from Australian publisher, Adventureland Games, successfully launched on Kickstarter in 2013. Now the publisher being Australian could have led the game to be called ‘mornos’, but fortunately, Elevenses - The Card Game of Morning Tea has nothing to do with the Royal Australian Navy. Instead, it is a game in which respectable 1920s socialites strive to serve the finest morning tea!

Designed for between two and four players, aged eight and up, Elevenses is a hand management game that can be played in thirty minutes. It consists of forty-four Tea Party cards, four player aid cards, a Sugar Bowl card, six Special Guests, a Starting Server cards, and thirty wooden Sugar Cubes.  The Tea Party cards are actually four identical sets of eleven cards, each set having a different coloured back for easy identification. The cards in a set are numbered consecutively and include a Tea Trolley (1), Tea (2), Milk (3), Sugar (4), Cups & Saucers (5), Fine China (6), Biscuits (7), Sandwiches (8), Cakes (9), Servants (10), and Elevenses (11). Each card is marked with its title and number, a piece of colour text, a rather charming watercolour illustration, an action, and possibly a number of silver spoons (these are Elevenses’ victory points).

For example, the Tea (2) card has the colour text, “My tea is the finest tea in town!”; a single spoon; and the action, “Choose a player. Flip one of her spread cards valued 2 - 9 face-down.” Other cards force everyone to pass cards round the table, force a player to swap cards with another, force a player to reveal his Kitchen, and so on. In general, the higher numbered cards have more silver spoons on them and actions that often hinder a player rather than help him.

Each player is attempting to arrange his Spread in the correct order, getting each of his cards in their right position so that he has as many silver spoons out as possible when he—or another player—plays his Elevenses card. Each player’s Spread is made up of two rows of four cards, the remaining three cards forming his Kitchen. At the start, each player shuffles his set, lays eight cards face down to form his Spread, and looks at his Kitchen.

On his turn a player can do one of two things. He can play one card from Kitchen to his Spread face up and enact its action. This must be in the correctly numbered position. Two cards—Tea Trolley and Servants (10)—can be alongside the Spread, but not on it. Or he can arrange two of his cards on the Spread, essentially moving into their right position, but leaving them face down. Once a player has four or more cards face up on the Spread, then he can play his Elevenses (11) card. This marks the end of the round. The player with the most visible silver spoons wins the round and is awarded two sugar cubes taken from the Sugar Bowl card. The player with the second most visible silver spoons is awarded one sugar cube. Play continues with more rounds until one player has won seven sugar cubes and thus served the finest tea and won the game.

Now if multiple players have more than seven sugar cubes, then they give each other a kiss on the cheek, and agree to share the victory! How very polite.

Tactically, Elevenses is a light game. If a player has to swap or pass a card, it should be card that the other player has already placed in his Spread. This presents the other player from playing it again—plus it gives the play of Elevenses that little bit of an edge. If he has it in his Kitchen, a player should know when to play his Elevenses card, ideally when he will score as many silver spoons as he can or when he can prevent another player from playing more silver spoons.

The advanced version of the game adds six Special Guests. Each is a member of polite society and each has specific requirements. In particular, three cards that need to be face in a player’s Spread. The Special Guest is kept hidden until it has been fulfilled when it scores a player more silver spoons.

Physically, Elevenses is a lovely game. It has a genteel charm, the art is a delight, and the addition of the wooden sugar cubes is a nice touch. Another nice touch is that barring a little bell, all of the rewards from the Kickstarter edition are in the retail version too. Elevenses - The Card Game of Morning Tea is a charming little filler that plays better the more players there are, a delightful blend of art and theme with indecently quick game play. 

Friday, 3 October 2014

Of Mice and the Moon

Conduct scientific research! Undertake ground-breaking feats of engineering! Manage the greatest minds of the age! Get some dullard of an accountant to manage your finances whilst you prepare for the greatest endeavour of all time—getting to the Moon! The year is 1898 and Her Majesty Victoria, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Queen, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India, has decreed that only the British Empire can put a man (or woman) on the Earth’s nearest celestial neighbour. The race is on for the honour of fulfilling Her Majesty’s dream, one that will see England’s many Clubs or Leagues desperately designing and building mad-cap rockets and launching them into space!

This is the subject for Rocket Race: A Steampunk Rocket Building Card Game from Triple Ace Games. Better known for its RPGs such as Sundered Skies, All For One: Régime Diabolique, and Leagues of Adventure: A Rip-Roaring Setting of Exploration and Derring Do in the Late Victorian Age!, this is the publisher’s first non-RPG design. It is set in the same world as Leagues of Adventure and was a big hit at UK Games 2014 where its Preview Edition of one hundred copies were quickly snapped up. Now the game is coming to Kickstarter.

The game comes in Standard and Advanced versions. In both, the aim of the game is to get a rocket to the Moon. To do this, a player must assemble a rocket, which must consist of a capsule, a propulsion system, and a steering mechanism, with up to three accessories. Their attempt can be affected by Events such as bad weather or sabotage, but eventually one League will ensure that Her Majesty prevails!

Rocket Race consists of fifty-seven cards, two six-sided dice, sixty cog counters, and the rules booklet. The cards are done in full glorious colour and depict the components and accessories that go into building a rocket, events that might help or hinder the process, and for the Advanced version, the Leagues themselves, plus their Workshops and Workshop Accessories. The components and accessory cards are each marked with a number that goes towards the Reliability total for a player’s rocket, plus a research cost used in the Advanced version. Every card is fully illustrated and titled, and many come with a piece of colour text. For example, the Capsule, ‘Martian Salvage’ has the text “I managed to secure one of the Martian landing capsules used in their abortive invasion from the Aegis of Terra. Oh wait, that’s supposed to be a secret. Forget I spoke.”; the means of Propulsion, ‘Giant Helium Balloons’ has the text “Do balloons float upward? Is the Moon not up above us? Then my logic is sound!”; and the Steering Mechanism, ‘One Hundred Hungry Mice’ has the text “The Mice will naturally be drawn toward the Moon, which is made of cheese, which in turn tip the craft to point in the right direction.”

In the standard version of the game each player begins with ten tokens, each representing his finances and resources he has to devote to the rocket building project. On his turn a player turns a card over from the deck and everyone gets the chance to bid or pass on it using their tokens. The highest bidder gets the card and has to put the tokens he bid to win the card actually on the card—this represents the card’s development time. At the end of the turn, any player with tokens on a card can remove a single token. Once a card no longer has any tokens, its development is complete and it can enter play. This applies not only to the components and accessories needed to build a rocket, but to Event cards too.

Once a player has assembled a rocket—complete with a capsule, a propulsion system, and a steering mechanism (plus any accessories)—he can launch it into the heavens. To do so, he adds the total of the Reliability factors on the cards and rolls two six-sided dice. If the result is equal to, or lower than, the Reliability total, he has successfully landed on the Moon and may bask in the glory of his achievements. If not, he has crashed on take-off, must discard a random card from his rocket ship, and begin again! The winner of course, is the first player to successfully land on the Moon.

Thus the standard version is a simple bidding game with limited resources and a simple balancing mechanism. Bid too much on a desired card and it not only takes too long to develop, it reduces the finances a player has to gain new cards. Thus smaller bids will invariably bring cards into play quicker and give a player greater control over his finances. Of course, a player can make bids to drive up the cost of card without any intention of buying it, but that might not go his way...

Where the Standard version of the game will support as many as six players, the Advanced version is for two to four players. It adds the Leagues of Adventure proper, makes use of cards that will enhance each League’s laboratory, and the advanced options on each of the Event cards. Each player is assigned a League and a workshop card. Each of the four Leagues—Aegis of Terra, Daedalus Society, Lunar Exploration Society, and Society of Aeronauts—sets a player’s starting values in three scientific disciplines, Chemistry, Engineering, and Electrics. Each  workshop has a track for each of the three scientific disciplines. Finally five cards are drawn from the deck—which now include the Workshop Accessory cards—and laid out in a row.

On his turn, a player can undertake two actions, selected from two sets of options. The first set of options are Launch, Scientific Research, or Event Acquisition, whilst the second consists of Component Acquisition or Discard. Launching a rocket works just as it does in the Standard version; Scientific Research allows a player to increase a single scientific discipline and roll for the chance to increase all three; whilst Event Acquisition lets a player take an Event card from the line. During Component Acquisition a player can use up the points he has in scientific disciplines to purchase components and accessories, whilst if he has not taken an Event card or any components or accessories, he can Discard a card from the line.

The Standard version of Rocket Race plays in about ten minutes. The Advanced version is double the playing length, and is slightly more complex. It also feels slightly more random than the Standard version, with less skill involved, whereas the Standard version gives the player some decisions to make in what to bid for and for how much. Both versions could benefit from more Event cards to encourage more player interaction. Nevertheless, both versions are decent fillers and both are let down by the flavour text that is printed just that little too small. (It should be noted that the publisher will address the size of the text with the new edition launched on Kickstarter and will offer more Event cards as stretch goals as part of the Kickstarter).

What Rocket Race really has going for it—and what it has not in spades, but in whole shedfulls—is charm and flavour. The cards themselves are a delight, beautifully illustrated, and the flavour text has a certain tongue-in-cheek humour.  Rocket Race: A Steampunk Rocket Building Card Game is an amusing, if simple diversion that brims full of derring do, erratic scientific endeavour, and of course, the best use of One Hundred Hungry Mice ever!

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

1984: Squadron UK

2014 is the thirtieth anniversary of one of the few home-grown RPGs to be published by Games Workshop. Originally self-published in 1982, Golden Heroes was a British take on the superhero genre and the superhero roleplaying game. Although very much of its time, the 1984 edition from Games Workshop brought innovations and concepts to the genre that emulated the comic books it drew from, particularly in its combat system and in its campaign ratings which were used to track a hero’s place in society and how he engaged with it. The RPG would receive two good scenarios—Legacy of Eagles and Queen Victoria & The Holy Grail. It was also supported with a number of scenarios and articles in Games Workshop’s house magazine, White Dwarf. Unfortunately, the game would go out of print in 1986 and receive no further support, but it has always been remembered with a certain fondness.

Squadron UK: The British Superhero Role-Playing Game is by the same designer and is essentially the sequel to Golden Heroes, but is once again self-published. It also remains unashamedly old-fashioned in its design. The core of every character is rolled up rather than designed using points as in almost every other superhero RPG—this includes rolling for powers, backgrounds, and skills; its uses lots of different types of dice; and damage is divided between dice rolled to inflict killing damage and dice rolled to inflict stunning damage. Despite remaining unashamedly old-fashioned in its design, it also retains three interesting innovations. The first is that its method of character creation, one that combined random elements with the dedicated design input from the player. The second is that time is handled in panels, as in comic book panels. Plot panels handle scenes and montage panels handle training scenes, whilst combat panels handle the knockabout action seen in Four Colour comics. The third are its derived characteristics—Esteem, Sleuthing, and Fate—that reflect how a player and his hero plays Squadron UK, and thus his place in the campaign that the GM is running.

Perhaps the most radical of the three innovations in Squadron UK is that first. Character creation involves the rolling of random elements—a superhero’s powers, background, and so on—before his player explains where the hero got his powers from and how they work—essentially designing his origins and his abilities. This forces a player to give his character no little thought in coming up with a rationale for him. At the start of the process, a player receives eight points—at least in the Basic Game, it may vary according to a GM’s campaign; these are spent on rolls on the Superpower Table and to upgrade powers already rolled for, plus a Background, such as Magical, Rich—Inherited, or Psionic. The system eschews the usual lists of disadvantages, but allows a character a small bonus to a power if his player decides to have his powers come from a device or unnatural means rather than be innate or be as a result of the superhero being a mutant. Four core attributes—Strength, Endurance, Dexterity, and Agility—are rolled on four six-sided dice, the lowest being dropped. Note that there is no Intelligence attribute. A hero’s IQ or brilliance can be measured by backgrounds such as Brilliant Scientist, but is otherwise down to the player to portray.

The powers themselves are broad in nature rather than being specific, a player being expected to define the exact details of his super abilities. A player cannot have more than three levels in a power at game’s start, but there is room for a character to develop. Every power comes with a list of suggested gimmicks—a player can select one for each level his hero has in the power. For example, with the Marksmanship power, a hero receives a bonus to hit and to the damage roll if he spends time aiming. This increases each level. Gimmicks for Marksmanship include reducing a targeted opponent’s Dodge roll and bouncing missiles off other surfaces. It is also possible for a character to take a power at a ‘Half Level’, meaning that he does not get its full effect, but it does have plenty of potential for development. For example, the ‘Half Level’ for Marksmanship simply adds a small damage bonus. All of the powers in Squadron UK are described in an appendix at the back of the book; this makes them easy to find.

Every character receives five Common skills and several Trained skills. The number and levels of the latter depends on how good his attributes, as does another derived attribute, Psyche. The lower the levels of a hero’s attributes, the more points he has to assign to Trained skills and the better his Psyche, that is, his mental fortitude. Essentially, the level of a hero’s Trained skills and Psyche both serves as a balancing mechanism and an emulation of the genre. That is, physically weaker or less capable heroes tend to be better skilled and possess a greater mental fortitude.

Lastly, a player really needs to define his hero’s origins and how his powers work. This is an exercise in player creativity and rationalisation, and whilst it may run counter to the design of other superhero RPGs in which points are spent to design the character that the player wants and wants exactly, it has always been a core feature of Golden Heroes and this sequel. The aim is to include all of the hero’s powers in the origin story, otherwise the hero loses unused powers.


Tonbogiri is the living embodiment of an ancient Japanese spear and the dragonfly that landed upon its blade and was cut in two.  He is a fearless warrior and an honourable opponent, charged to live up to all of the ideals of the Japanese Samurai. Not only is he agile, but he can also fly while gripping the spear. In battle he can throw the spear or engage in melee with an opponent, as well as use it to parry attacks. Currently, his ordinary identity is that of Michael Kurita, a student studying English.

Strength 10 (+5) Endurance 15 (+7)
Dexterity 07 (+3) Agility 13 (+6)
Psyche 12 (+6)
Kill Points 56 Stun Points 61
Knockback 25
Move 5

Esteem: 10; Legality 2, Memorability 2, Heroism 3, Relationships 2, Success 1
Sleuthing: 5; Powers 1, Detection 1, Contacts 0, Exposure 2, Accessibility 1
Fate: 9; Scruples 2, Victories 1, Public Reaction 2, Extrovert 2, Home Life 2

Background: Immortal—Legendary
Acrobatics (+3 to Dodge rolls, +5 to Agility rolls)
Energy Blast (Thrown spear)
Flight/2 (Movement 10 per panel; no visible means, can strike a blow in passing)
Protection (All damage divided by 2; -3 to Agility rolls; automatic change)
Weapon/2 (Tonbogiri, +4 to Dexterity rolls, +2D10 damage; missile/melee weapon, indestructible)

Common Skills:
Etiquette 10, Language—Japanese 11, Literacy 11, Negotiation 10, Swimming 11
Trained Skills:
History—Japanese 12, Language—English 12, Mythology 12, Occult Knowledge 12, Weaponsmith 12, Weapon Skill—Spear 11

Light Costume (+1 to Dodge rolls), Tonbogiri (spear)


Mechanically, Squadron UK starts out simple, but in places does get a little complex. It starts with the basic mechanic, which involves rolling a twenty-sided die to get higher than 18 for a complete success, or 15 to 17 for a partial or minor success after adding suitable modifiers. When applied to damage, a hero or a villain rolls ten-sided dice if the roll was a success and six-sided dice if it was a partial success. Before damage—and with most attacks, this includes killing and stunning damage in the same attack—is rolled, a target has a chance to dodge or parry the attack, but if he fails, he takes the damage, but the damage can be subject to dividers that reduce it. Which means that the game play can be a little fiddly in parts.

One genre fitting aspect of combat in Squadron UK is its use of ‘Panels’ as a means of handling time in combat or action scenes. How many Panels the characters have each round depends on their Initiative rolls, but their use is quite flexible in that a character can use future Panels in order to make Dodge attempts or in some cases, attempts to Parry. Overall, combat is otherwise is very knockabout, back and forth, nicely handling the feel of combat seen in comic books.

To support what has so far been the core rules, Squadron UK includes a short adventure, ‘Consequences’ as well as some fairly broad advice. The adventure itself serves as a decent introduction to superhero roleplaying and playing Squadron UK, although it needs a careful read through as it is written in an almost stream of consciousness style, the story developing as it goes along. The adventure is nominally set in the English city of Birmingham and whilst it can be set in almost in any twenty-first century modern city, residents of Birmingham may spot a satirical dig at the city here and there. That said, very little of the city is present in the adventure.

The advanced rules in Squadron UK opens up a whole host options. These include dedicated superpower tables so that players can create particular archetypes such as the Blaster or the Brick and suggestions for achieving balance in character creation, plus suggestions as to how the game system can adjusted. The advice is more detailed; covering as it does campaign set-up and play, adventure design, and the game after the campaign has ended. This is supported by a mini-campaign entitled ‘Squadron: Birmingham’, which takes place in the same city as the earlier ‘Consequences’. It showcases an example of a campaign with its settings adjusted, in particular characters begin play with six powers rather than the usual eight; it is a campaign of fixed length; and is intended to take novice heroes and push them towards becoming members of the local superhero team—Squadron: Birmingham. The campaign consists of a mixture of adventures and sections where the GM is expected to develop adventures of his own. There is a certain pleasure in this campaign in that makes fuller use of the city of Birmingham—on a personal note, two of the notable scenes in the campaign can be seen from my bedroom window!—and while a series of photographs are used to illustrate the campaign, the city is relatively easy to research and find both further illustrations and inspiration. One downside for the GM is that like ‘Consequences’, ‘Squadron: Birmingham’ does suffer from being written in a stream of consciousness fashion, so it does need a careful read through. Here is a sample character for a Squadron: Birmingham campaign.


‘Girl Power’
Henrietta ‘Harry’ Fawcett is a driven woman, attempting to live up to her father’s high standards. He expected little of his daughter, but much of his sons, and so ‘Harry’ Fawcett has striven to outdo her brothers at every turn, becoming not only a better athlete and sportsperson than them, but also better academically. She enjoys sports of all kinds, has obtained her pilot’s license and enjoys skydiving and judo. She is also a noted biochemist, currently having developed a formula that gives the subject great strength and endurance which she hopes will find a use medically. Currently she is on her way to the University of Birmingham to begin studying a Master’s Degree. She carries several doses of the formula and it takes roughly a minute for it to have an effect once injected. So far, she is the only subject of the formula.

Strength 16/37, (+8/+18) Endurance 16/36, (+8/+18)
Dexterity 09/(+4) Agility 16 (+8)
Psyche 09 (+4)
Damage Bonus +4/+25
Kill Points 69/138 Stun Points 64/132
Knockback 32/83
Move 6

Esteem: 10; Legality 2, Memorability 2, Heroism 3, Relationships 2, Success 1
Sleuthing: 5; Powers 1, Detection 1, Contacts 0, Exposure 2, Accessibility 1
Fate: 9; Scruples 2, Victories 1, Public Reaction 2, Extrovert 2, Home Life 2

Background—Brilliant Chemist (+15)
Endurance/2 (+5 to Knockback, 50% less sleep)
Martial Arts (+1 damage on natural attacks, +2 to hit, Judo Throw)
Strength/2 (+5 to Knockback, does not appear strong)

Common Skills:
Computer Use 9, Literacy 9, Negotiation 10, Swimming 13, Weightlifting 13
Trained Skills:
Computer Programming 8, Driving 8, Electronics 7, Pilot 8, Sky Diving 16

Protective Costume (Kill Divider/2)


One of the more notable features of the original Golden Heroes was its Campaign Ratings. In Squadron UK, these are replaced with three derived characteristics—Esteem (charisma), Sleuthing (crime detection), and Fate (luck). They are each made up of several other factors which are not set during character creation, but after the end of the first scenario as they reflect a hero’s performance and his deeds, rather than straight numbers. Initially this is slightly problematic as there are some skill values derived from them, but once a scenario or two has been played this is not an issue. One new feature is the use of montage panels that enable a player to describe how his hero is improving himself and so increasing his skills and—ever so slowly—his powers also.

Physically, Squadron UK is available in various formats—black & white or colour, softback or hardback. In black & white at least, its images are poorly reproduced and typically too dark. The writing also lacks polish and the layout is scrappy in places. Certainly a second edition would require a good edit.

There is an undeniable sense of nostalgia in returning to a game like Squadron UK. It is an undeniable improvement upon its forebear; streamlining many of the rules whilst retaining the best features—character generation that combines random elements with the need for a player to create a rationale, the use of the derived characteristics, and the knockabout combat system. Its improvements include a simple experience system with the use of montage panels, solid advice in terms of campaigns, and a decent mini-campaign. Squadron UK: The British Superhero Role-Playing Game might not be as slick as more modern superhero roleplaying games, but it makes up for that in terms of its charm and character.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Your Manhattan Project

The main problem with The Manhattan Project is its theme. As its name suggests, that theme has to do with the design and building of the atom bomb. For some, this may be in poor taste. Which of course means that any board game or indeed computer game, like say, Civilisation, in which nuclear weapons are deployed and detonated, is in equally poor taste—if not more so. That said, no nuclear weapons are detonated in The Manhattan Project and nobody dies, either through atomisation or radiation poisoning. Some of your workers may get sent to the mines though…

Originally launched on Kickstarter and published by Minion Games, The Manhattan Project is a worker placement game for two to five players, aged thirteen and up. They each take control of a country’s atom bomb project and attempt to build the most effective program. Starting with a few workers and a small amount of money, they train engineers and scientists; construct buildings—universities, factories, mines, and reactors; build up their air forces—bombers and fighters; research bomb designs; and conduct espionage against each other, all in a race to see who can build the biggest bombs (and score the most Victory Points).

All of which is built around a simple mechanic—worker placement. Each turn a player must either place his workers on the board or retrieve them. When placing them, a player must place one worker on the main board, but can place as many workers as he likes on buildings of his own. When retrieving them, he must remove all of those he has placed.

The game revolves around the Main Board. This has spaces for the Building Cards—six initial cards followed by the regular buildings; spaces to place workers to gain money, engineers, scientists, workers, fighters and bombers, and yellow cake—which is turned into Uranium and Plutonium; conduct airstrikes and repair buildings; and fuel tracks to monitor how much Uranium and Plutonium each player has, as well as how many spies he can send to make use of other players’ empty buildings.

Each player has a Player Board. Here he tracks the number of fighters and bombers he has and places any buildings he has purchased. A player also has four labourers, but will gain up to four engineers and four scientists as play progresses. If these are not enough, he can hire contractors, but they will not stay under his control for long.

Initially, each player has limited options. He can only place a single worker—which has to be on the Main Board—and needs not only scientists and engineers, but also buildings of his own if he wants to place more workers on subsequent turns. As the game progresses and he gains more workers and buildings, he will have more options for placing his workers—and even more if he has invested in espionage and can send his workers to the other players’ buildings. A player does not have to place all of his workers on a turn, but he must place one on the Main Board at the very least.

When a player runs out of workers or because he wants to, he can retrieve all of his workers. He can start placing them again on later turns, but part of playing The Manhattan Project is knowing when to retrieve and when to place them. It is a matter of timing, more so when espionage is an option and other players’ buildings are available.

Each building gives its benefit as soon as its requirements are fulfilled. This might be as simple as one or two workers or specific worker types to get their output, which can be more workers (including contractors), money, fighters, bombers, or yellow cake. Alternatively, a reactor might require several engineers and scientists and several pieces of yellow cake in order to produce the Uranium or Plutonium. These have to be placed in one turn rather than added bit by bit.

Eventually a player will want to build a bomb. This works the same as any other building, but requires Uranium or Plutonium as well as engineers and scientists. Once built, a bomb adds to a player’s Victory Point total, but he could also load it onto one of his bombers for more Victory Points. Alternatively, if it was a Plutonium device, a player could implode it. This would destroy the bomb, but any subsequent Plutonium device the player builds will be worth more Victory Points.

Apart from espionage, another way of a player interacting with his rivals is to attack them using his air force. To attack another player, he sends his fighters to attack his target’s fighters and then his bombers to target and damage his rival’s buildings. This stops his rival from using them until they are repaired.

Physically, The Manhattan Project is nicely and engagingly presented in a style that apes the look of government style art of the 1940s. The rulebook is also well written and easy to read and understand.

Unfortunately, The Manhattan Project is not perfect. Arguably, the use of espionage is too powerful—though it is a great way to win—and cannot be blocked or stopped, except by the targeted player placing and keeping his own workers on this buildings for as long as possible. The Air Raid mechanic is either too powerful or not powerful enough, as any attempt to destroy another player’s fighters leaves both sides vulnerable to bombing raids. Lastly, the appearance of the building cards is too random; beyond the first six, any card can appear in any order and this can all too often affect the flow of the game. Less effective buildings will sit on the board because no one wants to buy them, whilst a slew of good buildings will force a flurry of activity to buy as quickly as possible. Perhaps a more structured draw could have been included, so that the buildings get progressively better and better as the game progresses?

Put these issues aside, for this is an excellent game. The game play is very tight, with almost no luck involved. Above all, The Manhattan Project is a pleasing meld of theme with mechanics that reward efficiency.