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

Sunday 26 August 2012

Beware Parties Bearing...

The truth of the matter is that Dungeons & Dragons has always had a slightly awkward relationship when it comes to Oriental fantasy. Whether it is the “Kitchen Sink” and complexity approach of Oriental Adventures for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition; the combination of the dual stats and the rich setting of Rokugan that brought together Alderac Entertainment Group’s Legends of the Five Rings and Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition; or the woefully underdeveloped, if brilliantly titled, Ruins & Ronin, written for use with the Swords & Wizardry White Box; the end result has never really been all that satisfying. So the fact that Rite Publishing has published a trilogy of adventures for use with the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game set in its own Japanese style milieu, Kaidan (currently on its own Kickstarter program), was not necessarily encouraging. The trilogy, entitled Curse of the Golden Spear is available in print via Cubicle Seven Entertainment.

Inspired by Japanese folklore as much as its history, the setting of Kaidan – which means “Ghost Story” in Japanese – consists of a number of islands that have long been isolated from the rest of the world for three basic reasons. The first is political, as gaijin or foreigners are forbidden from setting foot on Kaidanese soil by Imperial Decree; the second is physical, as the islands are surrounding by a great wall of forbidding fog that few sailors dare to penetrate; and the third… Well, that will be discovered by the player characters as they play through the events of the trilogy, beginning with Curse of the Golden Spear: Part 1 – The Gift. Given the name of the setting, it is no surprise that it focuses on horror and mystery as much as it does adventure and combat.

As the trilogy opens, the political bar that previously prevented entry onto the islands of Kaidan has been lifted. By Imperial decree, Kaidan’s ports have been opened to gaijin sailors and merchants; which is why at the beginning of The Gift, the party is aboard a ship sailing towards Kaidan. It is accompanying a merchant, Marl Tyro, who has an important gift that he wishes to deliver to Lord Hachiwara of Tsue-jo, daimyo of Oniba province on Yonshu Island. The player characters have been hired by Tarl to serve as bodyguards, not necessarily his bodyguards, but bodyguards for the gift itself, which is contained in a heavy mahogany chest.

Initially, the scenario focuses on the attempts by Marl Tyro and the player characters to get further than the “Foreigners’ Port” of Gaijinoshima as the papers necessary to travel beyond its limits and onto Yonshu Island seem to be unavailable. Mostly this will involve their dealing with some of Kaiden’s less than savoury inhabitants, though in Kaidanese eyes, they are only marginally less savoury than the gaijin player characters! Once off the island and onto Yonshu Island, the party must make its way by road to the city of Tsue-jo, their journey punctuated by various odd encounters or harried by bandits and other threats.

For the most part, The Gift is a “Road Trip” style adventure. For the most part, it reads and plays as standard Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder Roleplaying Game scenario, but the author does add elements that impart the difference of the setting compared to other occidental fantasy settings. Most notably in the dealings with the actual masters of Gaijinoshima, in an overnight stop at a cursed inn, and a contest with some of Kaidan’s outré inhabitants. The second of these, the overnight stop at a cursed inn, is perhaps the scenario’s set piece and its horror highlight, more than any other in the scenario, promising a night of bloody terror and nightmarish dread.

Despite these highlights, The Gift is not wholly satisfying as an adventure. Its central villain seems wasted, and its conclusion fails to answer any questions that the events of the adventure have raised and despite a final confrontation with the adventure’s villain, just seems to fizzle out. In addition, the adventure leaves it up to the GM to address the motivations of the individual player characters, The Gift not only suggesting several, but also working them into the four pre-generated adventurers that the adventure comes with.

In addition to the pre-generated adventurers, The Gift also comes with an array of Kaidanese monsters, a glossary, and an explanation of Kaidan’s cosmology. The latter is definitely different and it certainly figures in the course of the trilogy.

Physically, Curse of the Golden Spear: Part 1 – The Gift is neatly presented in full colour. The artwork is variable in quality, with some of its feeling a bit too randomly Japanese. It is a pity that not all of it is in colour though. The maps are decent though, but in places a little too large given the amount of information that they have to impart. Overall, the contents feel a little stretched over the course of the book’s sixty-four pages.

One of the reasons for examining The Gift was to see if it was in any way compatible with Alderac Entertainment Group’s Legends of the Five Rings and its setting of Rokugan. Although Kaidan and Rokugan share similar sources, the differences between the two are many, not least of which are the differences in their cosmologies and their effects on their respective settings, and their respective attitudes towards gaijin. Indeed, the presence of gaijin on the Emerald Empire’s soil has only been acceptable during very short periods in Rokugan’s history. Of course, the acceptance, even if only grudgingly, of gaijin on Kaidanese soil is the exact reason why The Gift works as a scenario. Nevertheless, there are scenes in The Gift that would make for interesting encounters in a Legends of the Five Rings campaign.

There is no doubt that the author of The Gift imparts the cultural differences between the oriental fantasy of Kaidan and the occidental fantasy of standard Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Another pleasing aspect of the setting is that Kaidan’s isolation makes it easy to slot in a campaign of the GM’s own devising, and thus would make for an interesting and perhaps lengthy excursion for a traditional Dungeons & Dragons style party. Although, moments on the journey are more interesting and more exciting than the journey itself, Curse of the Golden Spear: Part 1 – The Gift is a solid start to the trilogy.

Saturday 18 August 2012

Dave Gorman versus Boardom

Dave Gorman is a comedian who likes doing things. He hates to be bored. He is also a comedian who likes a challenge. He has in the past set out to prove that there are more people in the world named Dave Gorman than himself. Similarly, he has travelled the world in the search of “Googlewhacks.” Some of these have formed the basis for his comedy shows, in the case of former, “Are You Dave Gorman?”, and in the case of the latter, “DaveGorman's Googlewhack Adventure.” In both cases, the comedian has turned the activities into books as well. Sometimes he combines his activities with a comedy tour, such as “Sit Down, Pedal, Pedal, Stop and Stand Up,” in which he combined a comedy tour with a cycle ride from Britain's southernmost point to its northernmost tip. For his latest book, Dave Gorman has taken an activity and written about it, but not turned it into a comedy show. In Dave Gorman vs. The Rest Of The World, Dave Gorman is so bored that he goes out and plays an awful lot of games – with us.

As a kid, Dave Gorman liked playing games. He liked going round to friends’ houses to see what they were playing, and then joining in. His starting point in Dave Gorman vs. The Rest Of The World is that as adults we do not do that. Playing games is not an adult pursuit, whereas going out for a pint or to a nightclub is, though of course, as you, the reader of this blog and I, know that to be anything other than the case. Plenty of adults do get together every week and play games. Sometimes more than once. It is just that such activity is not seen as normal or ordinary when compared to say, watching a football match or going to nightclub, but I digress... So the author decides to see if he can pop round the corner to friends’ houses and see what they are playing. Rather than ringing the one bell of the one house, and when the door was opened, asking, “Would you like to play a game?”, he asked on Twitter and got an awful lot of responses.

Born out of a desire to do something between the time that he arrives in a town and the time when he needs to be on stage to perform, Gorman finds himself travelling the length and width of the country – and not the world as the title of the book suggests – at what are essentially people’s invitations. So the question is, what does he get to play? He starts off with The Laser Game: Khet in Didcot and Ping Pong in White City. He plays Kubb in Milton Keynes and Kensington – not actually in Kensington, but near Liverpool Street Station. More interestingly for us he does get introduced to Settlers of Catan and plays it not once, but twice. Perhaps the book’s apogee when it comes to this type of Eurogame is when his holiday collides with that of Tim Harford in the Lake District. A well-known economist, Harford presents series on Radio 4 entitled More or Less, which discusses numbers and how they bear on recent news stories. Bar the likes of Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, Tim Harford is perhaps our best known board game player, having confessed to being a boardgamer in public. He exposes Gorman to Agricola.

It proves to be all a bit much for our Mr. Gorman. He does play other Euro Style games, and some are even mentioned in the back cover blurb, but none of them are mentioned in more than passing. Instead, the author concentrates on pub and garden games, and there is nothing as such wrong with that. Except that, if a game is mentioned on the back cover blurb, surely it deserves more than a mention in the book itself? After all, it might be that the reader wants to read about what a known comedian like Dave Gorman thinks of such a game. It might be that the blurb suggests that he tries a whole lot more of the games that the reader likes if that game is not all that well-known. It is not entirely fair to criticise the author on the basis of his preferences and experiences when it comes to playing games. It is clear that he has a preference for something that he can grasp immediately, usually something with a physical element, whether that is Darts, a game that he is known to be fond of, or Smite, a game that is wholly new to him.

Despite the slight interest that Dave Gorman vs. The Rest Of The World will have for anyone who enjoys board games, the book itself is well written, the author’s voice gently carries you along with an observed humour about the places he visits and the people that he meets, and he does include the rules for many of the games that he played – though not Agricola obviously. That would be bulk up Dave Gorman vs. The Rest Of The World enormously given density of the  Agricola  rulebook's rules. Yet given the array of games that he plays, the author leaves it up to the reader to go and find out more about them. An appendix detailing a little more about each game and where the reader might go to purchase said game would have been more helpful than the rules given for Texas Hold ‘em Poker given in the one appendix. Why not help the reader find these games for himelf?

Ultimately, the point behind Dave Gorman vs. The Rest Of The World is that there is no point to it, at least in comparison to other Dave Gorman projects. Can he find enough people named Dave Gorman in “Are You Dave Gorman?”? Will he find enough Googlewhacks in “Dave Gorman's Googlewhack Adventure”? Or rather that there is no drive to it, no sense of urgency. It is as meandering as the author’s journey up and down the country, a lazy if pleasant travelogue of a read that matches the holiday that the author took in getting to play the games described in the book. That is, until the book’s penultimate game, the playing of which takes an unnerving and unsettling swerve… This swerve though, is the book’s counterpoint to its actual point. That playing games as an adult can be as fun as when you were kid, that it is as fun as any other social activity.

In the meantime, Dave, if you are ever at a loose end, would you like to play Cards Against Humanity?

Friday 17 August 2012

Once in No-Man's Land

Call of Cthulhu has visited the Great War before, most notably with the scenario, No-Man’s Land, as has
Trail of Cthulhu with the recent Flying Coffins and the scenario, "Not So Quiet" from the anthology Out of Time. Yet neither has approached this period in as interactive a fashion as in Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land. This is a computer RPG which uses Call of Cthulhu for its mechanics under license from Chaosium, Inc. and is available for several platforms, including Android, iOS, and Windows, so can be run on your computer, your smartphone, or your tablet. The latter though, is the game’s natural home. That said, The Wasted Land has taken a while to get to the Android platform and be debugged, which has delayed my getting to write this review.

Anyway, as much as Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land employs the mechanics of Call of Cthulhu, it is not a true RPG. Not in the sense of a pen and paper RPG such as Call of Cthulhu, nor in the sense of a computer RPG. Rather it is a skirmish combat game, one that is Action Point driven and turn-based, much in the same mode as the classic computer games, Laser Squad and X-Com. The game has the player control up to six characters, and on each turn, the player will expend each character’s Action Points to move that character and have him attack his opponents – with an option for taking time to aim at his opponents – as well as to heal and even psychoanalyse his allies!

The setting is the Western Front in 1915. As related in his diaries, a British squad under Captain Hill must defend against a German attack that grows stranger and stranger. Not just ordinary German soldiers, but cult fanatics and zombies too! Fortunately, Professor Brightmeer, a Miskatonic University scholar on attachment to British Military Intelligence is on hand to inform Captain Hill and his men that a German occultist has turned to more outré means to bring about victory for the Kaiser! So begins the desperate search for the means to stop this dastardly villain, which will take the squad out of the trenches and into No-Man’s Land, before going underground over the course of eleven missions. Along the way they will avoid things as ordinary as poison gas and barbed wire, and things as otherworldly as spiders from Leng and giant walking tentacle plants.

Most of the eleven missions involve holding off the Hun, either to defend a location or to get to a location. This has the characters dodging from cover to cover, searching for strongpoints where they can heal, researching documents, and more. For the most part, the missions are very linear, often with one safe path through the mission zone. Even when the characters have to enter patches of poison gas, they can be equipped with gas masks.

In between missions, characters are taken through two upgrade steps. The first sees their stats and skills improved. It is here that the mechanics of Call of Cthulhu are at their most obvious, though in a slimmed down fashion that focuses on those numbers necessary for combat. Skills, rated on a percentile skill, are arms and equipment, along with the First Aid Skill to heal the sick and the Psychoanalysis Skill to heal the mentally disturbed. Stats are rated on a 3 to 18 scale, and are improved to one of two ends. The first is to increase the number of Action Points that a character has in combat, whilst the second is to increase a character’s Sanity and thus his ability to withstand mental shocks.

A Sample Character: Captain Hill
The second upgrade step deals with equipment. Here a character can upgrade from his trusty Lee-Enfield rifle to a Hotchkiss M1914 heavy machine gun or a Winchester Model 1912 pump-action shotgun. There is a small armoury of weapons available, both guns and melee weapons, as well as gasmasks, armour, and even homing pigeons which will deliver requests for artillery support. Medical kits are also available as are books derived from the works of Freud that will help restore a character’s Sanity, whilst it is possible in later missions for characters to learn spells, although casting these greatly deplete the Sanity of the caster.

The mechanics of Call of Cthulhu also show within a mission. First in the use of the skills, though you see no percentile dice being rolled, and second, in the Sanity mechanic. Sanity is lost when attacking and being attacked by forces of the Mythos, and when too much is lost, a character can be paralysed with fear, sent catatonic, or even sent manic! The latter is incredibly taxing on the body, the sufferer usually ending up dead, but whilst manic, a character becomes a force of nature, able to charge the enemy and deal out damage aplenty.

The redoubtable Sid Brown alerts Captain Hill as to the imminent danger!
Whilst game play is simple, it is actually quite challenging in places, the final mission overly so, and it might take a restart or two to really get into the game. It does not help that game play is hampered by slightly clunky controls that sometimes will have you stabbing a stubby finger at the screen of your tablet in frustration. Another often annoying factor is that the missions tend to be very linear in nature – “Go there!”, “Do that!”, “Now exit over there!” – such that there is not a great deal of variety in terms of play. This is exacerbated by the fact that a lot the spells do not become available until last quarter of the game, limiting the option of creating variations upon the gun toting characters that dominate game play.

Inspired by the events of Lovecraft’s Herbert West: Reanimator, the game’s treatment of the Mythos is more pulp than purist as it mixes a number of Mythos entities together and its game play is all combat. Where The Wasted Land shines is in its detail and its atmosphere. Although a little anachronistic in places (easily portable machine guns in 1915?), all of the characters are well defined, and the battlefields feel suitably ‘gone to hell,’ literally a wasted land. The animation is good too – there is something quite unnerving to see a Dark Young lumbering towards your squad as they attempt to blast it to bits before their sanity is blown too. Overall, Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land is an engaging electronic treatment of Lovecraftian horror worthy of your time and a sequel.

By the way, perhaps Red Wasp Design and Modiphius Press should get together. A World War II Lovecraftian horror game for your tablet would make a great sequel.

Good Georgians Aghast

Just as Call of Cthulhu has its classic time frame of the 1920s, so too does Trail of Cthulhu with the 1930s. Yet just as with Call of Cthulhu, the clue orientated RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror from Pelgrane Press can easily slip the bonds of its natural home in the Desperate Decade to visit other periods. One author to follow this trend is Adam Gauntlett, who has already given us a a scenarios set during before the Great as well as a pair set during the Great War, such as the recent Flying Coffins and “Not So Quiet,” from the anthology Out of Time. Like those scenarios, Hell Fire is a one-shot affair designed for use with the six provided pre-generated investigators. Further, Hell Fire not only continues the trend away from Trail of Cthulhu’s core period, but exacerbates it by setting it in the 1760s, a period never visited by either Lovecraftian RPG, or indeed, rarely by any RPG, Rogue Games’ Colonial Gothic and the self-published indie RPG, Sons of Liberty, the Roleplaying Game of Freedom and Badassery, are rare exceptions.

Welcome to the mid-eighteenth century, an age of enlightenment and ennui, of privilege and propriety, of associations and assignations, of virtue and vice, and of scientific enquiry and salacious pornography. This is the age of the “belle époque” for the first British Empire, when there is much wealth to made from the colonies in the Americas, but the colonists themselves chafe under governance from London and will openly rebel within a decade or so. The protagonists of the scenario are all men and women of good standing, as well as members of an exclusive Hell Fire Club. They share an interest in fine dining, the finest of pornographic literature, Rational debate, and politics. Membership is of course by invitation only, and should word of their activities comes to the attention of society, then their fall from grace is assured, at best, scorned by society, at worst, locked up in gaol.

In order to fit the period, the author has radically altered the Skills list. Modern skills such as Psychoanalysis and Archaeology have been removed, the Piloting skill only covers boats, and the science skills have been amalgamated into one, The Sciences. Traveller is added as a new skill representing a character having visited countries and colonies outside of Europe and the Grand Tour, whilst Politics is a new interpersonal skill that allows characters to navigate the intrigues, politics, and careers of the period. Lastly and most importantly, the Evidence skill has been added for Hell Fire as well. It is not about collecting proof of certain activities having been carried out, that still being covered by Evidence Collection, but rather the evidence of the characters’ ill doings. Which of course, they will not want to be brought to light…

As in his previous scenarios, Gauntlett gives us the history too. Hell Fire comes with extensive notes on the place and manner of the Club during the period, as a guide to the pornography available and the art of duelling. The latter is accompanied by a simple set of rules to handle such matters of honour.

As the scenario opens in London, the “investigators” are at a meeting with fellow club member, Bubb Pearce. The man has been placed in terrible bind. The notorious, though fashionable Lady Mary Protheroe has in her possession letters belonging to Pearce with which she is blackmailing him into marrying her with a threat of his Breach of Promise. The Lady also has knowledge of doings at their Club, and Pearce entreats his friends to obtain the letters for him so that he can break the woman’s hold over him. Yet it seems that the player characters’ efforts are insufficient, for Pearce quickly vanishes, leaving in his wake, the body of Lady Mary Protheroe… Worse still, this brings the activities of the Hell Fire club to the attention of the authorities, were its secrets to become public knowledge the scandal would be the undoing of them all. As trusted club members, the “investigators” must uncover the cause of Lady Mary Protheroe’s death and the whereabouts of Pearce, all the whilst ensuring that knowledge of club’s doings remain out of the limelight.

Chasing down Pearce leads the characters to investigate his activities, both commercial and covert. This reveals ties across the Atlantic to England’s colonies and across the Channel to England’s greatest enemy, but worse to London’s sordid and malodorous underskirts where something lurks working to find fresh hosts and vectors that it will see it spread its infection far and wide.

Structurally, Hell Fire is presented as a series of lines of investigation that the player characters need to follow if they are to reveal the nature of the threat. For the most part, the scenario is very player driven, with the antagonists rarely moving against the player characters. This gives it a more languid feel, with the danger that the characters could lose their way unless they are pro-active in their investigation. The upshot being that this potentially indolent nature of the investigation when combined with the occasionally prurient nature of the scenario means that Hell Fire is best suited to more experienced players and a more experienced Keeper.

Physically, Hell Fire is neatly presented, although in comparison with other Trail of Cthulhu scenarios, is missing the artwork of Jérôme Huguenin. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with the art of Olli Hihnala, but rather that it feels more traditional in comparison with other Trail of Cthulhu titles. The issue with Hell Fire is one of history. The period will not be familiar to every gamer and an introduction to the period might have been useful to the less knowledgeable so as to get across the nature of the period’s political and social clime. Such information would have also helped should a player want to create a character of his own. Similarly, a map or two would have helped, especially later in the scenario when it crosses the Atlantic to the Colonies. That said, the history presented here is interesting and the scenario does include one of the period’s odder figures.

Overall, Hell Fire does a good job of bringing Lovecraftian investigation to an interesting period of history, whilst the period itself brings a sense of Hogarthian horror to Lovecraftian investigation.

Saturday 11 August 2012

Wizards Go Euro

As the owners of the great Avalon Hill brand, it is no surprise that the board games published by Wizards of the Coast to date have fallen into the “Ameritrash” category. To label them as such is not denigrate them, for their emphasis has been highly developed themes, characters, heroes, or factions with individually defined abilities, combined with player-to-player conflict and a high level of luck. The publisher’s latest title has proved to be anything but an “Ameritrash” board game, but is instead a classic style “Eurogame,” which means relatively simple rules, a short playing time, a degree of abstraction rather than simulation, player interaction, player competition rather than player combat, and attractive physical components. What is more, this is a game based on Dungeons & Dragons, and specifically on the Forgotten Realms setting. Its title is Lords of Waterdeep.

Most Dungeons & Dragons deal with the themes inherent in those two words – “dungeons” and “dragons.” So they focus on delving into dungeons, facing dragons, and so on. Not so, Lords of Waterdeep. It is set in Waterdeep, the City of Splendors, the most resplendent jewel in the Forgotten Realms and a den of political intrigue and shady back-alley dealings where powerful, but masked lords vie for control of the city through of the region’s organisations that include the City Guard, the Harpers, the Knights of the Shield, the Red Sashes, and the Silverstars. They send out their Agents to acquire Buildings and access to better resources; gain Gold to make the many purchases necessary to ensure their rise to power; the means to Intrigue with their fellow Lords; and hire Adventurers whom they can send out on missions or Quests that once completed with spread their influence and gain them true power.

Designed for play by between two and five participants, aged twelve and over, once learned, Lords of Waterdeep can be played in an hour, no matter what the number of players. The box contains a game board, a rule book, five player mats, one hundred Adventurer cubes, one-hundred-and-twenty-one Intrigue, Quest, and Role cards, thirty-three wooden pieces that include the game’s various Agents and the score markers, and one-hundred-and-seventy card tokens that include the Building tiles and Building control markers, and plenty of Gold. All of which fits easily and neatly into the game’s insert tray that holds all of the game’s components almost perfectly.

Lords of Waterdeep’s game board measures 20” by 26” and depicts the city port of Waterdeep in Faerûn. Besides the Victory Point track around its edge and the spaces for the Intrigue and Quest cards, most of board has spaces for various Buildings that include Aurora’s Realms Shop, Castle Waterdeep, and Waterdeep Harbour as well as empty spaces where the players can put up Buildings of their own. Each of the Buildings provides a specific benefit. For example, the Aurora’s Realms Shop gives four Gold; the Builder’s Hall lets a player purchase an Advanced Building and bring it into play; Waterdeep Harbour allows a player to use an Intrigue card; the open-air stadium that is the Field of Triumph is where you can hire Fighters; new Quests are available to take at Cliffwatch Inn; and taking control of Castle Waterdeep lets you go first on the next round and draw an Intrigue card.

Besides the nine Basic Buildings marked on the board, Lords of Waterdeep includes twenty-four Advanced Buildings. These work in a similar fashion to the Basic Buildings, but the benefits provided by each are usually better. For example, when a player visits the Smuggler’s Dock, he can spend two Gold in order to hire four Adventurers, although only Clerics and Fighters; The Waymoot accumulates Victory Points that any player can visit and collect; and when at The Palace of Waterdeep, a player can direct the Ambassador at the beginning of the next round – and the Ambassador always acts before anyone else can take their turn. A side benefit to owning an Advanced Building is that when another player uses it, the owner gains a small benefit. For example, when another player uses the Smuggler’s Dock, its owner receives two Gold, and with The Waymoot or The Palace of Waterdeep, he receives two Victory Points. (This does not happen when a player uses his own building).

Like the game board, the twenty-four page rulebook is done in full colour. It is well written, with quite a lot of information that includes plenty of examples. There is also a reasonable amount of background information too; enough that fans of the Forgotten Realms will appreciate the references, but not enough to overwhelm the casual player who does not roleplay, or who does not play Dungeons & Dragons. Overall, the rule book requires a careful read, but the rules themselves are fairly easy to grasp.

There is a player mat colour coded to each of the game’s five organisations – the City Guard, the Harpers, the Knights of the Shield, the Red Sashes, and the Silverstars. Each mat has spaces for his Agent Pool and other resources, plus his Completed Quests, as well as indications around the side to place his Active Quests, Completed Plot Quests, and his Lord of Waterdeep card.

The game’s one-hundred Adventurer cubes are divided into four colours – white, orange, black, and purple – representing Clerics, Fighters, Rogues, and Wizards respectively. These are the game’s primary resources, which along with Gold, are what a player will need to complete Quests.

At the heart of Lords of Waterdeep, and what the players are trying to complete, are its Quests, represented by the Quest cards. There are sixty of these and they come in five types – Arcane, Commerce, Piety, Subterfuge, and Warfare. Each Quest card gives the requirements necessary to complete and the rewards it grants when completed. For example, the “Domesticate Owlbears” Arcana Quest card requires one white and two purple – or one Cleric and two Wizard cubes, and rewards the completing player with eight Victory Points, one Fighter or orange cube, and two Gold. A second type of Quest card is the Plot Quest card, which when completed gives an extra reward throughout the rest of the game. For example, the Skulduggery “Install a Spy in Castle Waterdeep Castle” Plot Quest card requires four Rogue or black cubes and four Gold to complete, and when done do so, not only rewards a player with eight Victory Points, but for every subsequent Skulduggery Quest completed, rewards him with another two Victory Points.

The cards that the players will use throughout the game are the Intrigue cards. These tend to grant a player extra Adventurers or extra Gold, or penalise rival players. For example, the “Spread the Wealth” Intrigue card gives both its player four Gold and another player of choice, two Gold; whilst the “Assassination” Intrigue card forces every other player to discard a Rogue or black cube from his tavern on his player mat. If a player cannot discard a Rogue, he must pay two Gold to the player who put the Intrigue card into play. Another type of Intrigue card is the Mandatory Quest which when given to another player forces him to complete that Quest before any of the others before him. For example, the “Stamp Out Cultists” Mandatory Quest Intrigue card forces a Lord to expend a Cleric, a Fighter, and a Rogue cube to complete it before moving onto his other Quests. Sadly, he only receives two Victory Points for completing it.

The first card though, that each player will receive is a Lord of Waterdeep card. Each one of these depicts one of the members of the secret council that governs the city, along with their name, some flavour text, and an effect that in providing a benefit at the end of the game will influence a player’s actions during the game.  For example, Nymara Scheiron gives a player an extra four Victory Points at the end of the game for each Commerce and Skulduggery Quest completed, whereas Larissa Neathal gives six Victory Points for each Advanced Building she controls at the end of the game.

At the start of the game, each player receives a player mat, the Building control markers, and Agents, all of the same colour. The number of Agents received varies according to the number of players. With fewer players, each player receives more Agents; with more players, they receive less. This is the game’s core balancing mechanic. However many Agents a player starts with, every player receives a further Agent at the start of the second half of the game. Each player receives two Quest cards, two Intrigue cards, and a single Lord of Waterdeep card. This last card is kept hidden until the end of the game when everyone works out their final score. Lastly each player receives some Gold, the amount varying according to play order. The player who goes receives just four Gold, the next five, then six, and so on until the fifth player – if there is one – receives eight Gold. This is the game’s second balancing mechanic.

The game is played over the course eight Rounds. In each Round, the players take it in turn to assign a single Agent and then if they can, complete a Quest. Each Agent is assigned to a space on the board in an available Building or Advanced Building space. When he does, the Agent gives the player the benefit from that Building. Most Buildings have a single space, so that once an Agent has been assigned there, no Agent can be sent there to make use of its benefit, though some Intrigue cards allow a player to assign an Agent to an already occupied building. Thus if a player wants to purchase and construct an Advanced Building, he must assign an Agent to the “Builder’s Hall” before anyone else, or wait until the next Round. In which case, he probably wants to assign an Agent to Castle Waterdeep gain the opportunity to go first at the start of the next Round. Otherwise, a player must assign an Agent to another Building.

Two Buildings – Cliffwatch Inn and Waterdeep Harbour – have multiple spaces, so that more than one Agent can be assigned there, even by the same player. The former is the source for new Quest cards, while the latter allows a player to use an Intrigue card. Once an Agent is assigned, if a player has sufficient Adventurers, and sometimes Gold, to complete the requirements given on a Quest card, he can complete it and score Victory Points for doing so.

Lastly, and after all of the Agents have been assigned, any player with an Agent assigned to Waterdeep Harbour can reassign that Agent to any remaining unoccupied Building. This rewards the player for his cunning in sending an Agent to Waterdeep Harbour and playing an Intrigue card. The Round is over, everyone receives their Agents back, and a new Round begins until all eight have been played. At game’s end everyone counts up the Victory Points gained form completed Quest cards, plus unassigned Adventurers and unspent Gold, and the person with the most is the winner.

Lords of Waterdeep plays at reasonable pace, once the rules have been grasped, and offers a decent amount of game play and replay given how simple the rules really are and how light the game is. This is helped by the variety available in the Quest and Intrigue cards, but mostly in the Advanced Building cards. With twenty-four available, it is unlikely that all of them will come into play. The game also scales well, playing as well with two players as with five.

In terms of game play, Lords of Waterdeep rewards careful planning. Each player needs to be looking at what he needs to complete the Quests that he has in front of him. Of course, he also needs to get to the Buildings that he wants, but with rivals competing for the same space, this is not possible, so a player should also try and get the best out the available Buildings that he can. This can be alleviated if a player goes first, but in general, the closer a player is to going first the better. There is also some advantage in purchasing and constructing the Advanced Buildings as they provide more spaces where an Agent can be assigned. Further, if another player uses one, then the owning player also gains a small, but sometimes important benefit.

All of the Buildings in Lords of Waterdeep can play an important role during the game, but three tend to be more favoured than the others. They are the Builder’s Hall, because it allows Advanced Buildings to be purchased and constructed; Waterdeep Harbour, not just because an Intrigue card can be played, but also because an Agent assigned there can be reassigned; and lastly, Castle Waterdeep as it grants a player an Intrigue card and means that he can go first in the next Round.

Agents though, are in short supply, even after the extra one is gained at the start of the game’s second half. This means that the players must assign them with care so as not to waste their action.

Physically, Lords of Waterdeep is very nicely put together. All of the playing pieces have been done in wood and the rest of the pieces in sturdy card, though the Intrigue, Quest, and Lord of Waterdeep cards have been done slightly too thin a cardstock. The rulebook itself is bright and attractive and easy to read. For an American game, the look and feel of Lords of Waterdeep is anything but that. It has the look and feel of a Eurogame.

In terms of theme, the grimy fantasy of the Waterdeep of the Forgotten Realms does not feel pasted on, a common complaint with this type of game. This is not to say that the mechanics behind the rules of Lords of Waterdeep could not be taken and have a new theme applied to them. It would take some effort, but in the meantime, the Dungeons & Dragons theme is applied with great care, and it is a theme that avoids many of Dungeons & Dragons’ clichés, primarily because it removes the concept of going on adventures and down dungeons. This is done by placing the players in the role of hiring the adventuring parties rather than being part of them – as in so many other games.

What is telling about Lords of Waterdeep is that Wizards of the Coast describe the format of this game as being “Non-traditional.” This is an odd claim for the publisher to make. Lords of Waterdeep is not a Non-traditional game. It is more or less, a traditional Eurogame, with worker placement and resource management mechanics similar to those found in well-known Eurogames such as Agricola, Caylus, and Puerto Rico, amongst many others. All games and mechanics that the designers at Wizards of the Coast and in particular, the designers of Lords of Waterdeep will be familiar with to some degree. The only way in which Lords of Waterdeep is Non-traditional is that it is not a classic American or Ameritrash design, and to describe it as “Non-traditional” is to belittle both this design and Eurogames in general. Certainly, it shows a wilfil ignorance upon the part of the publisher.

Although its various bits and pieces and possibly the business of the rulebook make Lords of Waterdeep look more intimidating than it really is, Lords is really a medium to light Eurogame that is just a step on or two up from introductory games such as Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride. Certainly, it is much lighter and less complex than similar games such as Caylus and Agricola. Similarly, the game’s Dungeons & Dragons theme might be off-putting, but it never imposes itself on the game or its players. What is pleasing about the game is that the designers have achieved a balance between the theme and the mechanics that will attract both Eurogame players and players of Dungeons & Dragons players, but whilst both will be attracted to the game, Lords of Waterdeep is still more Eurogame than a Dungeons & Dragons game. Above all, Lords of Waterdeep is an enjoyable, decently themed Eurogame that uses familiar – almost traditional – mechanics to good effect.

Tuesday 7 August 2012

The Gloom that overcame Glaaki

Back in 2004, Atlas Games published a card game of a singularly ingenious, yet depressingly design. It told the story of how the members of four families were driven each to a mournful end after a life time of ill omens, distressing events, and ennui to end it all. The cleverness of the design lay in the nature of the cards, for they were not cards at all, but each was a slice of thin, transparent plastic marked with various icons, images, and pieces of text. Game revolved laying cards upon the top of various family members, the transparency of the cards enabling various elements of the cards underneath the uppermost one to remain visible and in play until such times as they were covered up, their effects negated and replaced with the uppermost icons. In addition, the design of the game and its theme, inspired by the art and stories of the artist, Edward Gorey, enabled the game to work as a story telling game too, letting the players narrate how each member of his family was driven first to despair, and then to his or her death… The game in question was Gloom – The Game of Inauspicious Incidents & Grave Consequences, and it would win its publisher, and its designer, Keith Baker, the 2005 Origins Award for Traditional Card Game of the Year.

In 2011, Keith Baker returned to Gloom. Not though to provide us with another expansion, but rather to explore a new theme using the same basic format and mechanics. That new theme draws from a source as uncaring as that of the original Gloom before going on to exacerbate it with elements that are in turn batrachian, inhuman, and tentacular, if not to say, wholly unwholesome. The theme in question is the works of H.P. Lovecraft, and the new game is Cthulhu Gloom -- The Game of Unspeakable Incidents and Squamous Consequences.

As with the original Gloom, the aim in Cthulhu Gloom is to drive your “family” down a path of horror and madness to an untimely death, suffering the most horrifying stories possible, all the whilst attempting to keep the members of your opponents' family happy, healthy, and annoyingly alive. This done by playing Modifier cards and Event cards on top of the Character cards, the aim being to drive each character’s Pathos as deeply into the negative so as to give the lowest Self-Worth score possible before doing them in by having them suffer an Untimely Death. A game comes to an end when an entire family has been eliminated, all of its members having fallen prey to the same inevitable inter-dimensional doom that will befall us all – though the fate of the family members in Cthulhu Gloom will at least be more entertaining. In a non-Euclidean sense, that is... At which point the Pathos inflicted upon the dead members in each family is totalled, along with any points gained from Story Cards played. The player whose family has the lowest Family Value – or the highest negative Family Value – derived from the Self-Worth scores of those Family members who met an Untimely Death wins the game.

More recently, the original Gloom has been the subject of an episode of Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop. It is worth watching to get an idea of how the original Gloom is played and thus an idea of how Cthulhu Gloom is also played.

One difference between Gloom and Cthulhu Gloom is the nature of its families. In Gloom, the members are for the most part, related by blood. In Cthulhu Gloom, this is not necessarily the case. So whereas the Whateleys are all related as members of the old Dunwich family, and the Marshes are all related as members of the old Innsmouth family, the members of the other two families in Cthulhu Gloom are not. They are instead members of the faculty or students at Miskatonic University or staff and patients at Arkham Sanatorium. Thus, they are a family by association.

Designed for two to five players, aged thirteen years and up, Cthulhu Gloom is intended to play in an hour. The game comes with twenty Character cards, fifty-four Modifier cards, eleven Event cards, twenty Untimely Death cards, and five Story cards, along with the double-sided rules-sheet. Of all the cards, the Character cards, each of which has the name of the character, an illustration of the Character, and a piece of flavour text on it, do not have any game effect icons or text on them. The Modifier cards all also illustrated, but have one, two, or three icons on the left-hand and right-hand side of the illustration, place a game effect described in the text below. The icons on the left are always Pathos Points, the values ranging from +25 down to -30; whilst the icons on the right are either Effect icons, which indicate how and when the game effect takes place, or Story Telling icons – Blank, Goblet, Horror, Investigation, Madness, Magic, or Romance – which have two uses in the game. When a Character has certain icons visible on him, it allows other cards that require those icons to be visible to be played on him. The other use is if the game is being played as a Storytelling Game, in which case the icons are used to help tell the story of how the Character came to his Untimely Death.

For example, the “Gibbered with Ghouls” Modifier card has an illustration of a Ghoul on it, and to the illustration’s left is a single “-10” Pathos Points icon, whilst to the illustration’s right, is a Persistent effects icon (meaning that the card’s effect continues until covered with that of another card), plus a Madness and a Horror icon. The game text below tells the player that whilst his draw limit is decreased by 1 card, he can now draw from the top of the discard pile as well as the draw pile!

Event cards lack the illustrations and icons of the other card types, and once played from your hand, are discarded. For example, “The Thing on the Doorstep” allows a player to move one Untimely Death card from a dead Character to another along as the soon-to-be dead Character has negative Pathos Points, or “The Voorish Sign” which can be used to cancel another Event card when it is played.

Story cards also lack icons, but they do have dramatic and powerful effects when played and can benefit a player’s Family Value at the end of the game. For example, “The Call of Cthulhu” requires a player to have two Madness icons visible, but at the end of the game, all of the Pathos Points for a player’s Characters count towards his total Family Value, whether they are alive or dead! This is a very powerful card!

Lastly, the Untimely Death cards, one for each of the Family members in Cthulhu Gloom, are all illustrated with a skull. Some also have Pathos Point icons or blank icons that cover up Storytelling icons, but all have a small piece of game text that can be positive or negative. For example, the “Wasted Away” Untimely Death card adds an extra -10 Pathos Points if the Character it is played on has a Madness icon visible. Once an Untimely Death card is played on a Character, he and his cards are set aside. He is out of the game until the end, although he can be affected by certain Event cards.

At the start of the game, each player receives his Family, or four of them in a four-player game to prevent the game from going on too long, the discarded Family members combining to form a fifth Family if there is a fifth player; and a hand of five cards. Two random Story cards are placed in the middle of the table.

On his turn, a player can take two actions. He can play a Modifier card on any Character still alive – this will alter the Character’s Pathos Points and Storytelling icons, and give an effect too; play an Event card for a one-time effect; play an Untimely Death card on any character with negative Self-Worth score; claim a Story card and its benefits, though it is only possible to have one of these; discard his hand, or pass. These actions can be done in any order except that an Untimely Death card can only be played as a first action. A player cannot place a really good Modifier card on one of his Characters to make his Self-Worth score even worse and then protect the newly depressed Character by playing an Untimely Death card. He must wait until his next go to play the Untimely Death card as his first action, giving every other player the opportunity to improve that Character’s Self-Worth score and so make the playing of the Untimely Death card less attractive.

Strategy in Cthulhu Gloom is simple. Decrease your Self-Worth of the characters in your Family whilst attempting to improve that of characters in rival Families. In other words, make them have a less miserable time than yourself! A player should not refrain from having a rival Character suffer an Untimely Death, especially if his Self-Worth is not very low. This effectively takes that Character out of the game and prevents his Self-Worth from being lowered even further.

In addition to keeping a careful watch of the Self-Worth of each of the Characters in his rival Families, a player should keep an eye on the icons and the text visible on their cards. By covering these up with the icons and text on other Modifier cards, a player can stop negate the effect of a good card or reduce the number of Storytelling icons in play and so prevent an effect from a Story card, for example.

As clever a design as Cthulhu Gloom is, and Cthulhu Gloom is a clever design, it suffers from the same issues as Gloom did. The cards are too small. Not too small for a player to read them when they are in his hand or in front of him on the table, but too small to be read by other players sat round the table. Which leads to a lot of peering at other players’ Families and the cards played on them, and this has a disruptive effect as from a distance the cards appear to be a little too busy. In some ways, this fussiness seems strangely appropriate, but it is almost as if the game would have been better if the cards had been double the size… Of course, the cost would have been as proportionately large as well.

Physically, the cards in Cthulhu Gloom are well done, and pleasingly illustrated by Todd Remick. If there is a physical issue with the cards it is that in places it appears that the Storytelling icons do not match. This had me looking for a “quarter Moon” icon until I realised that it was actually a simplified Madness icon. The rulebook requires a care read through though, as the game actually looks more complex than it is.

Although not mechanically any different from the original Gloom, this is a well done reiteration. Where it improves on the original game is its theme, as thematically, Cthulhu Gloom is highly entertaining, especially if you know your Lovecraftian fiction. The game takes a slightly “tentacle in cheek” approach to its source, one that is just humorous enough to entertain, but not so as to detract from awfulness that will be inflicted upon the Families. Cthulhu Gloom is a fiendishly luminescent design with a fussiness that complements the theme and the source. Mannered and maddening, Cthulhu Gloom -- The Game of Unspeakable Incidents and Squamous Consequences is satisfyingly sanity sapping.

Saturday 4 August 2012

Four for One: a Campaign

One of the problems with All For One: Régime Diabolique, the RPG of swashbuckling action, manners, magic, and monsters in seventeenth century France is a lack of support for it. Or rather, one format of support for it. For the truth is, the publisher has released some thirty adventures and supplements for it since the RPG’s release in 2010, but the majority of them appear only in PDF format. Fortunately the publisher, Triple Ace Games, has released two titles for the game that can be found on the shelves of your local gaming shop, All For One: Richelieu’s Guide Compendium Une and Le Mousquetaire Déshonoré. Both titles are also available as PDFs and both actually collect individual titles that are available separately. Where All For One: Richelieu’s Guide Compendium Une collates supplementary information that further details the setting, Le Mousquetaire Déshonoré brings together a quartet of scenarios that make up the basis of a mini campaign. It is this latter title that is being reviewed here.

Le Mousquetaire Déshonoré is designed for beginning characters who are members of the King’s Musketeers. Whilst working for Lieutenant Jean-Marc de Guerre, the player character Musketeers will find themselves sent on missions that will take them back and forth across France, from the heart of Paris and France’s borders with the Spanish Netherlands during a Habsburg invasion to her coasts in the fogbound North West and then the disgruntled South West. There is room in the campaign for slightly experienced characters, but it is really intended for use as a starting campaign. There is also room between the four parts of the campaign that takes place over the course of a year or so, for a GM to add his own adventures so that the campaign’s story can be extended and leavened out.

As the campaign’s title, Le Mousquetaire Déshonoré suggests, the plot behind the campaign revolves around a dishonoured King’s Musketeer. He is not known to the characters, although he is connected to one of them, and his search for revenge will draw them into his plans.

Subtitled “Revenge is a dish best served cold!”, Le Mousquetaire Déshonoré opens with “Désir Mortel.” The player characters are assigned the task of investigating the deaths of Sergeant Roger Dupin, Paul de Chamest, and de Chamest’s manservant near the village of Champs-Saint-Denis. Seigneur Dupin had offered to sponsor de Chamest , a young noble from Champagne for induction into the King’s Musketeers. The scenario, a mix of investigation, combat, and interaction, feels quite traditional in terms of storytelling, coming with it as it does with more victims, obstructive authorities, and a certain sense of misdirection. That said, the adventure contains lots of period detail and plenty of room swashbuckling action. One nice touch is that the adventure opens with a set of opening scenes that are tailored to the player characters’ Flaws. So for example, a character with the Flaw of Lustful can play through an opening scene that finds him awakening in the bed of his latest conquest only to find that her husband is home early! These are lovely inclusions and not only help to get the scenario and the campaign off to a colourful start, they also give each player a chance to shine.

The plot underpinning the campaign gets underway properly with the second scenario, “Le Baiser de la Mort.” As the Habsburg invasion of North East France continues, the player characters are once again tasked to investigate the death of a former musketeer, this time one Francois Joubert. Joubert had been tasked with delivering payment to a mysterious agent, Le Faucon. It is known that payment was made, but no information was forthcoming from Le Faucon, and now Joubert is dead. The trail takes the characters to mysterious and fabled island of Mont Saint-Michel, the waters around it increasingly fog bound, the monks that serve at its famous abbey, acting increasingly oddly, and Cardinal Richelieu’s having taken an interest in the Musketeers’ mission. This is a much more complex affair with a lot more going on, with multiple plot lines and numerous antagonists. That said, the setting itself nicely corrals them and keeps everything from sprawling out of control.

By the end of “Le Baiser de la Mort,” the player characters should be aware that a mysterious man known as “Delmar” is plotting against both them and the King’s Musketeers. Not only is this “Delmar” someone that is known to those who once dealt with the same outré threats to the King and to France that the player characters deal with now, but he also happens to be an ex-Musketeer! As “Rançon de Sang,” the third part of the campaign opens, the player characters will be able to gain further information about their antagonist from a very famous ex-Musketeer as well as an inmate of the Bastille. Visiting what is perhaps the most famous prison in France proves to be disturbingly genteel, although it does bring the characters to the attention of Cardinal Richelieu, again… Further information comes from an old contact that not only is another of “Delmar’s” ex-colleagues still alive, but also that his daughter, Jeannette d’Aronde, has been kidnapped! Duty-bound to rescue her, the player characters must travel to Bordeaux where all evidence points to a famous pirate as being the kidnapper!

Given the intrigue of the first two parts of Le Mousquetaire Déshonoré, “Le Baiser de la Mort” initially feels a little slow with little to punctuate its opening series of roleplaying encounters. Fortunately, once the player characters are out of Paris and reach Bordeaux events pick up a pace with plenty of opportunity to swashbuckle!

The campaign comes to a close and a finale with “Le Mousquetaire Final.” With no more leads as to the whereabouts of “Delmar,” the player characters are initially caught up with preparations for war with the Habsburgs, but their attention is fully piqued when Delmar first strikes from afar using magic and then forces them to act when he kidnaps their superior, Lieutenant Jean-Marie de Guerre. Of course, he is laying a trap for them, but what choice do the player characters have? Worse the trail forces the characters to confront the worst excesses of a French army on the march and leads them into the notorious Gévaudan region…

Physically, Le Mousquetaire Déshonoré is well written and well presented. It could do with an edit here and there, and is a bit lacking in certain places. The fact that the book contains black and white art instead of the colour art of the PDFs is understandable, but it would have been nice if the NPCs had been illustrated and some maps had been included. Neither is wholly necessary to run the campaign though. In terms of writing, the conclusions to each scenario and to the campaign itself feel underwritten and abbreviated, but with a little roleplaying upon the part of the GM should get around this.

There is nothing to stop a GM from running one part of Le Mousquetaire Déshonoré after another, but the campaign works better the more adventures that a GM runs between its parts. The adventures themselves present an excellent mix of intrigue and interaction, action and adventure, swordsplay and swashbuckling, making Le Mousquetaire Déshonoré an excellent way to get your All For One: Régime Diabolique campaign off to an entertaining start.