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

Sunday 30 March 2014

Pagan Publishing's Peculiar

The early years of the 21st century was a fallow period for Pagan Publishing with no new material for Call of Cthulhu from the highly regarded publisher until the publication of the scenario, Final Flight, in 2007. That one-shot would be followed in 2009 by a sourcebook, which if it had been released by its intended publisher, would have meant that Pagan Publishing would have gone the whole decade without releasing any new material, let alone a sourcebook. The Mysteries of Mesoamerica began life as a project for author and illustrator, by Blair Reynolds’ RM308 Graphics & Publishing. Unfortunately, RM308 was unable to complete The Mysteries of Mesoamerica and it would be Pagan Publishing that brought the sourcebook to fruition, though five years on, the same cannot yet be said of The Mysteries of Mesoamerica’s sister book, Mysteries of the Old West. Despite his not publishing the book, Blair Reynolds’ touch is indelibly worked into every one of the sourcebook’s pages—The Mysteries of Mesoamerica is beautifully and thematically illustrated and laid out. This should be no surprise given the visual quality of Pagan Publishing’s earlier The Realm of Shadows, but to date, certainly no English-speaking Call of Cthulhu publisher has managed to release a book as visually appealing and as visually well designed as The Mysteries of Mesoamerica—though certain titles from Miskatonic River Press have come close.

The Mysteries of Mesoamerica: 1920s Sourcebook and Mythos Adventures for Mexico and Central America is a supplement devoted to the burgeoning field of Mesoamerican archaeology during Call of Cthulhu’s classic period of the Jazz Age. It has thus a diverse number of subjects to cover, both ancient and modern. These subjects include the various cultures that dominated the region of Central America prior to the coming of Christopher Columbus—the Olmecs, the Toltecs, the Mayans, the Aztecs, and others; their numerous deities and their religion—with its fixation upon blood, sacrifice, and death; their weapons of war and how they fought their wars; and calendrics, the highly involved means used by the pre-Columbian inhabitants to keep the time and organise their society. It brings the history up to date, covering the status of the countries of Central America—British Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico—during the first three decades of the twentieth century, as well as their geographies and politics. The Mysteries of Mesoamerica also details various figures of note that travelled throughout the region and brought to light the fantastic historical finds long left hidden under the region’s thick jungle canopy.

So what of the Mythos and The Mysteries of Mesoamerica? Right from the outset, its intent, as made clear in the introduction, is not to equate the deities of the ancient Mesoamerica with those of the Cthulhu Mythos. Rather, as the introduction also states, this is left up to individual cults and cultists to interpret however the Keeper wants. Examples of this underwrite several of the supplement’s scenarios. The supplement though, does present a means of combining Mesoamerican archaeology with Mythos in the form of glyphs for seven of the most notable deities of the Mythos. These can be used add flavour and detail to a Keeper’s scenario without his having to equate the deities himself.

The setting material in The Mysteries of Mesoamerica is supported by four scenarios. Three of these are set during the 1920s, so can be slotted into an ongoing campaign with little difficulty. The first though, is set in 1914, so is more difficult to run as more than a one-shot, though it might work as a prequel adventure that introduces a group to the dangers of, if not the Mythos, then at least that there is something outré out there and that it is very, very dangerous. (Indeed, it would make for an interesting first encounter for the investigators with the late, much lamented, Jackson Elias of Masks of Nyarlathotep fame). This first of the four is ‘The Well of Sacrifice’, which in the years since has gained a reputation as a sanguinary party killer. Written by John H. Crowe III—an author best known for the campaign’s Walker In The Wastes and The Realm of Shadows as well as the recent anthology, Bumps in the Night—it initially feels underwhelming with the investigators having already arrived in Mérida, the capital of the Yucatán in Mexico, having already worked at various archaeological sites in the region. The investigators have the opportunity to explore and catalogue a previously unknown city, but its ruinous condition leaves only one site of interest. Shorn of the Mythos, ‘The Well of Sacrifice’ is a survival horror scenario, one that is short and sweet, so it would actually work well as a one-shot or convention scenario.

Essentially, ‘The Well of Sacrifice’ sets the pattern for the following three scenarios—the investigators visit somewhere ancient, investigate the site, and then discover something inordinately evil that will probably be their undoing. Now to extent, this is symptomatic of the archaeologically themed scenario and whilst it is difficult to get away from, at least one of the other scenarios offers a variation upon this.

Brian Appleton’s ‘Menhirs in the Grotto’ moves the quartet on to 1923 and a dig near Texcoco, not far from Mexico City. Here a new Aztec site has been uncovered and the investigators and their employers have been permission to excavate it, although under the close supervision of the University of Mexico City. In comparison to ‘The Well of Sacrifice’, this is much more of a traditional Call of Cthulhu scenario, complete with strange deaths, curious lights over the site, and a cult with its own agenda. It is a well-executed affair, with much more going on around the site than in the other scenarios, but it is not quite as interesting as the third scenario, ‘The Heretics’. Written by John H. Crowe III, it is set in 1925 and as the title hints at, it casts the investigators between two rival Mythos sects, each with a radically different interpretation of a certain deity. It begins in the city of Mérida, where unlike ‘The Well of Sacrifice’, the investigators have time to conduct some research and enjoy some local colour—and are given the detail to do so—before moving off into the jungle. Once at the site, the ancient city of Mayapán, the investigators will eventually find themselves caught between the two cults as they battle for possession of a certain sacred site… Like ‘Menhirs in the Grotto’ before it, ‘The Heretics’ is an involving scenario, one which has a good build up to its hectic climax.

Rounding out the quartet is ‘The Temple of the Toad’ by Brian Appleton. A sequel to the Robert E. Howard story, ‘The Thing on the Roof’, it is set in Honduras in 1927. The investigators are asked by a colleague to join him in the search for the Temple of the Toad. A short if somewhat linear affair, it has some pleasing connections to the Call of Cthulhu canon, and a pulpier feel than the previous three scenarios. The scenarios in the quartet are a bit too spread out to be run as a continuous campaign and probably too similar in structure.

As good as the background information is and the scenarios are in The Mysteries of Mesoamerica, it is not a perfect sourcebook. The problem is one of support for the Keeper in helping him run scenarios and campaigns set in Central America during the period. There is no guidance as to how to set up a campaign in the region and no advice as to how to involve the investigators in general, let alone information about how they might reach the region. Some of this appears in individual scenarios, just as information about how to set up an archaeological expedition and its requirements are covered in one of the scenarios, but not in any campaign or setting advice. Outside of this, there is no advice as what types of characters are needed to play The Mysteries of Mesoamerica or what Occupations would be appropriate for the setting. Certainly, there is no advice on playing investigators or portraying NPCs from the region, whether of Hispanic or native origins.

This lack of application also applies to the scenarios themselves. All four do take place in Mesoamerica yes, but they feel isolated from their contemporary settings. There is little within each of the four scenarios to indicate what is going on in the countries when and where they are set. Which seems a pity given the setting material presented earlier in The Mysteries of Mesoamerica.

Physically, The Mysteries of Mesoamerica is, as has already been mentioned, a beautiful book. Its layout is thematically crisp with rich detailed artwork. A nice touch is the R.I.P. notices for the investigators who died in the process of playtesting the four scenarios; each includes illustration of the investigator—or investigators, the dates of his or their deaths, and a poignant quote. The only downside to the layout is that the boxed text is slightly difficult to read, especially if the Keeper needs to refer to it in a hurry. The book includes an extensive bibliography, but sadly not an index.

The Mysteries of Mesoamerica is thus incomplete. Its source material is excellent, its scenarios are solid, and it is beautifully presented, but its lack of application, its lack of advice, and its lack of support for the Keeper, all undermine the intent of the designers and the publishers. Perhaps the most disappointing book published by Pagan Publishing, it nevertheless contains content that is solid and useful. Thus, The Mysteries of Mesoamerica: 1920s Sourcebook and Mythos Adventures for Mexico and Central America is Pagan Publishing’s curate’s egg.

Friday 28 March 2014

The Unforgiven

I begin this review with disclaimer. I edit books for Lamentations of the Flame Princess—not all of them, but enough to explain that I am involved with the publisher before I begin a review of one of its latest books, Forgive Us. I was not involved in the publication of Forgive Us, whereas I was involved in the publication of Scenic Dunnsmouth. Understandably, I am not reviewing Scenic Dunnsmouth, but you can read a review of it here. In the meantime, I feel qualified to review Forgive Us, a new scenario for use with Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying and other ‘Old School’ fantasy roleplaying games.

Written and illustrated by Kelvin Green, Forgive Us – Being A Chronicle of the Events Surrounding the Mysterious Disappearance of the Notorious Criminal Gang Known as the Tenebrous Hand. And Other Stories. is written for a party of characters of fourth level and above. It actually consists of three scenarios—‘Forgive Us’, ‘In Heaven, Everything is Fine’, and ‘Death and Taxes’. All three take place in the year 1625, in Norwich, a city that has grown prosperous from the manufacture of textiles. Thus unlike most Old School fantasy RPGs and in line with Lamentations of the Flame Princess’ recent releases—Better Than Any Man, Death Love Doom, The Magnificent Jan Van Ooms, and Tales of the Scarecrow, the trilogy is set during early modern period and does involve the use of firearms. None of the three adventures are connected and there is no advice as to how to connect them, although reasons are given for involving the player characters in each. One oddity is that only the first scenario, ‘Forgive Us’, is mentioned in the back cover blurb. A map of Norwich accompanies the book.

History tells us that Norwich was struck by the plague in 1625, but ‘Forgive Us’ gives an alternative to this outbreak of the Black Death. The scenario revolves around the activities of the Tenebrous Hand, a band of thieves who have grown so successful preying on the activities of Norwich’s rich merchants that it has taken over a single block of buildings in the city. Now something curious has occurred—it appears to be locked up and deserted. Certainly those who work in the legitimate businesses based in the block appear not to have gone into work of late.

Which depending upon the motivations of the player characters, is convenient—if they want to rob the Tenebrous Hand, or inconvenient—if they need to contact someone inside. Once the characters have gained access, the various businesses and buildings under the thieves’ protection are mapped out in some cartographic detail. The Referee will need to make up the particulars of each room as he goes, for only the most information is alluded to in the text.

In presenting an exploration of these buildings, the author presents a ‘dungeon bash’, but a ‘dungeon bash’ in which almost nothing happens and which feels all the more natural for not actually being set in a dungeon. It takes its cue here from Lamentations of the Flame Princess’ inaugural scenario, Death Frost Doom, being primarily driven by the players’ curiosity and the adventure’s presentation by the Referee. This is not to say that the scenario is without incident, but to an extent, the players will need to work hard to reach them. When they occur, they are quite, quite nasty…! There is every chance that the scenario will go wrong for the player characters, especially if it plays out like the movies that the author draws upon for inspiration.

‘Forgive Us’ is followed by two shorter scenarios, each suitable for single sessions. In ‘In Heaven, Everything is Fine’ something is not quite right in the village of Ashmanhaugh. The player characters travel there because they have heard that it is haunted or perhaps because they are looking for someone. There is, of course, nothing untoward in the village—everyone seems happy, prosperous, and pleased to see the characters. Then strange things seem to happen and the characters feel unwell. Does the strange tower in the woods have something to do with this? Despite its short length, ‘In Heaven, Everything is Fine’ calls for more effort upon the part of the Referee. Especially if the player characters visit the strange tower in the woods.

Lastly, in ‘Death and Taxes’, the player characters are asked to attend the funeral of a friend. Oddly, their friend’s daughter has gone missing and tax collectors have arrived to collect unpaid revenue that their friend should have paid. This is a short affair that easily slips in between other scenarios. 

Physically, Forgive Us is a pleasing black and buff book. The author not only writes the book, but is also its illustrator and cartographer. Not all of the artwork quite works, but the cartography is excellent, providing a level of detail that the Referee can work from to give descriptions of each—something that the text does not. This should not impede the experienced Referee though. If the editing needs a little tightening here and there, that is more an editor’s pedantry than anything that mars the book which is otherwise solidly presented.

What Forgive Us highlights are the parallels between Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay—particularly in the former’s aforementioned more recent releases set in the early modern age. After all, they share the same historical period, the same grim and gritty tone, and the same perilous sense of doom. Of course, it took an Englishman to bring these parallels to the fore. Thus it would be far from insurmountable for a GM to adapt the scenarios from Forgive Us to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay—at least for the First and Second Editions of the game. Adapting Forgive Us to Fantasy Flight Games’ Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Third Edition presents more of a problem. There is also the matter of Forgive Us’ English setting, as Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay never visited its British Isles analogue of Albion, but then any of the three scenarios in Forgive Us can easily be relocated to The Empire of the Old World.

Forgive Us would also work with another two British RPGs— one is Arion Games’ Maelstrom. It is set during the same period as the RPG and shares a little of the same tone, although its use of magic and monsters may be too over the top in comparison with Maelstrom’s restrained treatment of its outré elements. The other is Cakebread & Walton's Renaissance Deluxe, the Black Powder era RPG that covers the period between 1500 AD and 1800 AD.

Of the three scenarios in Forgive Us, it is the eponymous ‘Forgive Us’ that stands out. ‘In Heaven, Everything is Fine’ and ‘Death and Taxes’ are decent enough fillers, but ‘Forgive Us’ benefits from its detail and its scope being given the space. It presents a mysterious malodorous situation in a quietly entertaining fashion, punctuated by some short sharp shocks that work all the better for the scenario’s very ordinary setting. Overall, Forgive Us presents us with a trilogy of scenarios that are in keeping with the recent scenarios for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, but which are not authored by its publisher and are thus more like traditional scenarios and less belligerent towards the players.

Saturday 22 March 2014

Playing Fireworks Blind

Most co-operative board games have the players working against the clock or the game itself, sometimes with a traitor amongst the players trying to thwart their efforts. Battlestar Galactica, published by Fantasy Flight Games, and Grosso Modo Éditions’ more recent Nosferatu are typical of cooperative games with a traitor mechanic, whilst Z-Man Games’ Pandemic and Indie Cards and Games’ Flash Point: Fire Rescue are typical of co-operative board games without a traitor mechanic. These games have made the co-operative style of play popular and accepted, the board game Pandemic having made the breakthrough in 2008. Most co-operative games revolve around the players attempting to cope with limited information that they all share. In Hanabi, the players must share information about what each other has on their cards, but they will never know exactly what they have on their own cards.

Named for the Japanese word for fireworks, Cocktail Games’ Hanabi was the 2013 Spiel des Jahres Game of the Year Winner. The players are apprentices who are attempting to put on a firework display for the emperor, but have managed to mix up the powders, fuses and rockets. To succeed, they must launch the fireworks in the correct sequence, and if they do, they please not only the emperor, but their master too.

Designed for two to five players, aged eight and up, Hanabi consists of five sets of coloured cards—red, blue, green, white, and white, plus three red tokens and eight blue tokens. Each set consists of ten cards, each containing three cards numbered one, two numbered two, two numbered two, two numbered two, and a single card numbered five. The red tokens are failure tokens, indicating a poorly displayed firework; the blue tokens are clue tokens, used to impart information to another player about the cards in his hands.

A complete firework consists of a single colour that contains cards played in order, from one up through two, three, four, and finally, five. Completing a firework gains the players a blue token; playing a card out of sequence onto a firework, for example, playing a white-4 card onto a white-2 card, would earn the players a red token. If they gain all three red tokens, the game is over.
At game’s start, each player receives a hand of cards, either four or five, depending on the number of players. A player cannot look at his hand, but instead holds them face out so that the other players can seem them. Thus each player can see everyone else’s cards, but not his own.

On his turn, a player can undertake a single action. He can discard card to gain a blue token; he can play a card, either to an ongoing firework or to start one if there is not yet one of that colour; or he can expend a blue token to give a clue; giving clues lies at the heart of Hanabi. To give a clue, a player points to another player’s hand and imparts certain information about that hand. This can be about the cards of a single colour in a player’s hand, such as “You have a green card here” or “You have two white cards here and here”; or about the cards of single number in the player’s hand, such as “You have a three here” or “You have a four here and here”. The clues given must be complete—so if a player has two four cards, the informing player must indicate both of them. If a player discarded a card or played one onto a firework, then he draws a new card.

Play continues until either the players have acquired all three red tokens and thus lost the game; or all five fireworks have been completed in the correct order and the players have scored maximum points, or the deck has been exhausted. In the case of the latter, points are awarded based on the fireworks completed, the top card on each firework adding to the final score. A maximum of twenty-five points can be scored, with scores of between sixteen and twenty-four at least being memorable.

Hanabi is as simple as that. During play, a player is free to arrange his cards how he likes and to an extent can talk about his hand in general terms—only the other players can be specific about his hand and only after having expended a blue token. For a game as simple as Hanabi, it requires a great deal of thought and no little care, because it is a game about memory and deduction, that is remembering where your cards are in your hand and deducing which card to play next from the clues previously given. Essentially though, it is a game about communication and understanding that communication, and about remembering that communication. Get the communication wrong and potential points are lost as the wrong cards are discarded or played onto a firework.

Hanabi is also a filler game, play being expected to last no longer than twenty minutes or so. Unlike more recent filler games, for example, Coup or Love Letter, this one is not combative. Indeed, in comparison to many other co-operative games, Hanabi is benign, the players are not really playing against a game that is set up for them to fail, as in Pandemic or Battlestar Galactica. Even its subject matter is benign, but despite that and its benign mechanics, it is actually more challenging than your average filler game because it is asking the players to think and communicate. Also, where another co-operative bears repeat play by increasing the difficulty level of the game the players have to beat; Hanabi bears repeated play if a group wants to improve its score.

Despite its simplicity, Hanabi is clever because it gives us a new playing experience. One that emphasises communication and deduction to support its co-operative play.

Friday 21 March 2014

The TALENT Campaign II

The popularity of genres wax and wane as time passes, and so it is that the superhero genre is no longer as popular as it once was. Certainly not popular to be supported with regular supplements, but one exception to that is GODLIKE: Superhero Roleplaying in a World on Fire, 1936-1946. Originally published in 2002, Arc Dreams' RPG is supported by various supplements including a full campaign in the form of Black Devils Brigade: The First Special Service Force and the Italian Campaign, 1943–1944. This is now followed by a companion mini-campaign, Combat Orders No. 4 - The Courtyard of Hell. What separates the two are the Apennine Mountains and their differing scopes.

As its title suggests, Black Devils Brigade concerns the whole of the Italian Campaign, including the battle for Anzio and the eventual drive on Rome. Geographically, it is set entirely on the western side of the Apennine Mountains. The Courtyard of Hell takes place on the eastern side of the Apennine on the Adriatic Coast, in just the one location, that of the port town of Ortona. Located on a steep-sided plateau and comprised of narrow streets lined with stone buildings, the town was the site of fierce street fighting between the defending Fallschirmjäger troops and the attacking Canadians in the final weeks of 1943 that Winston Churchill came to call the battle for the town, ‘Little Stalingrad’.

In The Courtyard of Hell as in GODLIKE, the player characters are Talents, members of the Allied forces who have been ‘blessed’ with an amazing ability such as controlling the blood flow of the wounded, being able to map out a location with a shout, or smash open the armour on a Tiger tank with a single punch! The player characters are soldiers first before being trained to use their Talent effectively in battle, but as more and more Talents manifest on the battlefield, there is not always the time or the chance for newly expressed Talents to receive this training before being thrown back into fray. This often means that they will be prepared to face the Übermenschen, the Nazi Talents who are part of the SS and who revel in their powers and the Aryan ideals of the ‘Super Race’. This will be an issue in The Courtyard of Hell as will be a Talent’s Will. It is his Will that fuels a Talent’s powers and his ability to cancel out another Talent’s powers that can be lost in a contest of Wills with an enemy Talent.

The Courtyard of Hell takes place in the last week of December, 1943. The soldiers of the 2nd Brigade, the Loyal Edmonton Regiment, the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, and Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry have recently made a hard fought and bloody crossing of the Moro River and now need Talent support in taking Ortona. The battle is depicted in thirteen scenes that take place between December 20th and December 27th, as the Talents, being among the first Canadians to manifest as Talents, are thrown into support the assault on the town. This will see them leading the attack on Ortona’s outskirts before becoming embroiled in street fighting against troops of the 1st Fallschirmjäger Division. Intelligence reports that there are Übermenschen in the town, including at least one flyer. What is curious about these Übermenschen is that they are not members of the SS as are most Nazi Übermenschen, but have remained with the elite Fallschirmjäger troops rather than transferring to the SS as is expected of all Übermenschen. Technically then, these Übermenschen are members of the Luftwaffe!

In the seven days of the battle for Ortona, the Talents will support tanks, fight from one building to the next, move heavy artillery, and come to the rescue of their comrades and civilians alike. They will also find themselves fighting Übermenschen other than Fallschirmjäger as the intensity of the fighting increases and Übermenschen of the SS are brought into to support the German defence of the town. Throughout, the Talents will be shadowed by newsmen and photographers who are eager to report on the success and activities of Canada’s first Talents in battle.

Based on a real battle, with two of the battle’s actual participants being included in the seven pre-generated Canadian Talents, The Courtyard of Hell is a combat intensive affair. Designed to be played by between six and seven players, guidelines are included to help the GM adjust the difficulty of the scenario’s encounters so that they can be played by a smaller group. Further support comes in the form of descriptions of the weapons and vehicles used by both sides; guidelines for handling large battles as well as a means to quickly set up interesting encounters using the ‘One Roll Cityfight’ rules; full stats for both the Canadian and Fallschirmjäger troops; and some twenty-four fully detailed and described Übermenschen in addition to the six pre-generated Canadian Talents.

In previous releases for Godlike, the design of the Übermenschen and the Allied Talents has been somewhat underwhelming, perhaps even unimaginative. Admittedly, it is not easy to come up with interesting Talent concepts, let alone create them on the limited number of points available during character creation. With over thirty presented in the pages of The Courtyard of Hell, there is a surprisingly degree of invention on show.

Physically, The Courtyard of Hell is generally well presented. In places it needs another edit and in places the text has faded to the point of near illegibility. The maps are also hard to read in places, primarily because of the difficulty of depicting the necessary detail in grayscale rather than colour. Otherwise, The Courtyard of Hell is decently illustrated.

The Courtyard of Hell is much more focused and much shorter affair than Black Devils Brigade, though the possibility of soldiers from the First Special Service Force being sent over the Apennines to fight in the battle for Ortona is discussed. It could thus be used as an extension to the campaign presented in Black Devils Brigade: The First Special Service Force and the Italian Campaign, 1943–1944, but even if not, it should offer several sessions of challenging combat. Well-researched, solidly-presented, Combat Orders No. 4 - The Courtyard of Hell presents the opportunity for the players to explore a heroically tough if little known battle of World War Two.

Friday 14 March 2014

Down with The Resistance

 In the near future, the government has become a ‘Corporatocracy’, the CEOs of the multi-national corporations forming a new ‘royal class’. Their greed has widened the divide between rich and poor until eventually, The Resistance grew out of the oppressed masses, dedicated to the overthrow of their corporate rulers. The efforts of The Resistance have not been in vain, sowing discord, intrigue and weakness in the political courts of the ‘noveau royal’, bringing the government to brink of collapse. With government so weak, now is the time for a powerful government official to manipulate, bribe, and bluff his way into absolute power.

This is the set up for Coup, a card game of secret identities, deduction, and deception set in the same universe as Indie Boards & CardsThe Resistance in which the players, as ambitious government officials, plot to be the one to overthrow the current regime. It is designed to be played by two to six players, aged thirteen and up, in roughly fifteen minutes. To win a player must end the influence of his rivals and force them into exile—there can only be one man to take the reins of government in this tempestuous time.

The game consists of fifteen character cards, six player reference cards, a bag of fifty coins, and an eight-page rules booklet. The fifteen character cards consist three each of five characters—The Duke, the Assassin, the Ambassador, the Captain, and the Contessa. Each of the characters can legitimately perform one or more actions, but often these actions will be ‘illegitimately’ performed by other characters. If caught doing so and challenged, then the player controlling that character will lose Influence. Lose enough Influence and the player is forced into exile and knocked out of the game.

At game’s start, each player receives two coins, two character cards, and a reference card that explains the actions that each player can undertake on their turn. The two character cards are laid face down and remain hidden until challenged. Certain actions allow a character card to be replaced, but because the two character cards represent a player’s Influence, if both are eliminated, the player is forced into exile.

On his turn, a player can conduct one of seven actions. The Income action allows him to take one coin from the bank. The Foreign Aid action allows him to take two coins, but the Duke can block this action. The Duke can also be used to conduct the Tax action and gain the player three coins. By expending three coins, a player can use the Assassin’s Assassinate action to remove one of a rival’s characters and reduce his Influence. The Assassinate action can be blocked by the Contessa—the Contessa does not have an action of her own, only this blocking action. The Ambassador’s Exchange action allows him to replace one of characters with a new one from the Court deck. The Captain’s Steal action enables him to take two coins from another player, though this can be countered by another Captain or the Ambassador. Lastly, by expending seven coins, a player can launch a Coup and remove one of a rival’s characters and so reduce his Influence. If a player accumulates ten or more coins, he must launch a Coup on his next turn.

Once a player has selected and announced his action, his rivals are free to respond with a challenge or a counteraction. This is where the game becomes interesting. A player can conduct the Income, Foreign Aid, and Coup actions with impunity (though Foreign Aid can be blocked), but every other requires that state that he has the appropriate character to conduct that action—the Captain to Steal, the Duke to claim Foreign Aid, or the Assassin to Assassinate, for example. Similarly, when issuing a counteraction, such as the Contessa’s ability to block Assassinations or the Duke’s to block Foreign Aid, a player must state that he has that character.

Of course, in stating that he has a character and is using its action or counteraction, a player might be bluffing. If either goes unchallenged, then play continues, but if he is challenged, a player has to prove that he has the character. If he does, the character is replaced by a new one from the Court deck, into which the old character goes and he does not lose any Influence. Instead, the challenging player loses a character and the associated Influence. If he does not have the character, he loses a character he does have, plus its Influence.

Whenever a player loses a character, either from a lost challenge, an assassination, or a Coup, the character is not discarded, but left face up where the other player can see it. Thus they know which characters have been discarded and to an extent, can count cards…

Play continues with the bluffing and challenging until there is only a single player left. He has won and can launch the Coup. Players need to be careful with their challenges as losing characters and Influence means reducing their choice of actions that they can prove if challenged. They should also be aware of any rival accumulating enough money to launch a Coup, which cannot be blocked. Although bluffing is part of the game, a player should also be prepared to use the characters and their actions he has as he can prove their use. Do that often enough and he might be able to bluff his way through a turn. Of course, a player may have to bluff because he does not have the characters he needs.

Physically well-produced, Coup’s cards have an Italianate, almost Dune-like feel to them. That said, the game’s theme is light and easy to grasp. The game itself is simple, and like any decent filler, plays fast enough to repeat once or twice in a session. 

Monday 10 March 2014

Monograph Misfire I

Since 2003, the Miskatonic University Library Association series of monographs has been Chaosium, Inc.’s way of making other works available to players of both Call of Cthulhu and Basic RolePlay. Bar the printing, each monograph’s author is responsible for the writing, the editing, and the layout, so far the quality of entries in the series have varied widely and has led to some dreadful releases. Fortunately, Return of the Ripper: An 1890s Scenario for Call of Cthulhu and Cthulhu By Gaslight is far from dreadful in terms of both editing and layout, and potentially far from dreadful in terms of storytelling and writing.

Supplements for Cthulhu by Gaslight are rare, either as titles available via standard distribution channels or as Monographs, but the truth is that in coming to Return of the Ripper, I bring a personal prejudice. The truth is that I dislike bringing Sherlock Holmes into my Victorian era roleplaying and I dislike bringing in Jack the Ripper into my Victorian era roleplaying, and I particularly dislike bringing in either into my Lovecraftian investigative horror roleplaying set in the Victorian era. I have no issue against Sherlock Holmes, enjoying both the fiction and the adaptations, particularly the radio versions starring Clive Merrison, Michael Williams, and Andrew Sachs, but Holmes is such a towering force of intellect and deduction that for him not to have deduced the existence of the Mythos, let alone determine the identity of the Ripper, seems absurd. Holmes is also so singular a figure and so synonymous with the period that the players are likely to obsess over him, their wanting to gain an audience with him and potentially his insight in-game. Further, he is a fictional character, and there are invariably enough fictional elements in my Lovecraftian investigative horror roleplaying and those elements are Lovecraft’s. Lastly, he is too easy a device to use to denote that it is the late Victorian era such that his use as a device is lazy writing. Basically though, his inclusion in Victorian era roleplaying is anything other than obligatory.

As to Jack the Ripper, his use suffers from many of the same problems as Sherlock Holmes, but the tendency of roleplaying writing is to present the Ripper killings as a mystery to be solved. This runs counter to the nature of the crimes and their inexplicable nature – there is no explanation to them 125 years after they occurred and their perpetrator likewise remains unknown. In presenting the Ripper killings as a mystery to be solved, the answer in Lovecraftian investigative horror roleplaying is always somehow related to the Cthulhu Mythos. It is rarely done well and it invariably detracts from the horror of the killings themselves.

Fundamentally though, the use of either Sherlock Holmes or Jack the Ripper in Victorian era roleplaying is a cliché. The use of both is just plain boring.

And so to Return of the Ripper, which as the title suggests, is about Jack the Ripper and being written for use with Call of Cthulhu, does involve Lovecraftian investigative horror roleplaying. With those black marks already against it, the monograph brings with it an awful lot of baggage of its very own. The author of the Return of the Ripper is William Barton and he also happened to write Cthulhu by Gaslight. As the author of the latter, Barton originally intended to include Return of the Ripper in the original 1986 Cthulhu by Gaslight boxed set as a counterpart to the scenario, ‘The Yorkshire Horrors’, but it was deemed too long and unsuitable as it provided a ‘supernatural’ or Mythos explanation to the Ripper killings. Of course, as the author points out, Chaosium would go on to publish a scenario that gave a Mythos explanation to the predations of the Ripper – ‘Signs Writ in Scarlet’ from the 1993 anthology, Sacraments of Evil. Slip forward fifteen years and Chaosium’s Monograph programme enabled the author to bring what would have otherwise have been a lost scenario to print.

Return of the Ripper is set in the London of 1893. As it opens, there has been a brutal slaying of a prostitute in Whitechapel. This is only five years after the body of Mary Jane Kelly, the last of the victims of the most infamous murderer in history, Jack the Ripper, was discovered. Never caught, has ‘Saucy Jack’ returned to enact his bloody killings once again?

Designed for a group of between four and eight investigators, one of whom should have some experience with the Mythos and possibly know the spell, Elder Sign, it is also suggested that such a group consist primarily of inquiry agents and journalists. Indeed, a group of merchants will directly approach a player character inquiry agent to gain his aid in ridding the East End of London of this foul threat. Alternative hooks are given for journalists, scholarly experts, and so on. Once they decide to probe the killings, the investigators must negotiate with the police; question the inhabitants of the notorious slums; search for information ahead of rival sleuths, and more… The Ripper though, is not the only outré threat that stalks the fogbound, ill lit streets of the heart of empire. Determining the nature of both these threats and the identity of the Ripper will be difficult and not just because the investigation process is difficult, but also because presenting the Return of the Ripper is equally as difficult.

It is telling that the author of the Return of the Ripper states up front that the scenario “…is less linear than many CoC scenarios.” for the Return of the Ripper is anything other than linear in structure. Which is odd given the linearity of the author’s most well-known scenario, ‘The Curse of Chaugnar Faugn’ from Curse of the Chthonians: Four Odysseys Into Deadly Intrigue, but what the Return of the Ripper actually is, is a toolkit to create an investigation into a second series of Ripper killings. Along with hooks to get the investigators involved, the Monograph includes details of their enemies and allies, places of interest, clues and rumours, extensive encounters, and more. Indeed, there is everything here and more from which the Keeper can draw to help him craft a solid scenario, except that is, any sense of narrative structure, and worse, the ‘more’ of Return of the Ripper is a serious impediment to the Keeper in constructing that narrative.

The ‘more’ of Return of the Ripper is that it is ferociously overwritten and it suffers from the repetition of detail after detail, especially with regard to villains of the piece. It is easy to see how the original manuscript ballooned from sixty to over three hundred pages, because simply it is all here. Every possible encounter, every little detail, all are covered, and whilst this admirable, it makes the Monograph hard to read, let alone digest and begin to put together as an adventure.

Putting aside the scenario’s use of the Ripper Mythos, Return of the Ripper also makes extensive use of the Holmes Mythos, the Cthulhu Mythos, and to a much lesser extent, the Dracula Mythos. Of these, the use of the Ripper Mythos and the Cthulhu Mythos are to be expected, but the use of the Holmes Mythos is jarring, with various characters turning up and references being made, one of which is made into Ripper’s minion. As for the man himself, Return of the Ripper is set in 1893, so as far as anyone knows, he died at the Reichenbach Falls the previous year, so at least he cannot appear to break the scenario. Brought all together and the Mythos mix feels as if the author is over-egging the pudding. As does naming one of the villains of the piece, Macabre, which as surname is about as subtle being hit over the head with a sign that reads, “My name is Lord Villainy Villainous McVillain, High-Chief Villain of the Clan McVillain and you can tell that I am a villain by the way I twirl my facial hair.” How are the players expected to take such a name seriously?

In addition, the author makes use of a number of skills that are not part of the Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition or earlier edition rules. They are at least explained in an appendix, rather than the Keeper being expected to refer to either The Gaslight Companion or A Cthulhian Miscellany. The first of these Monographs is yet to see print, although the second one, also by the author of Return of the Ripper, is in print. None of the use of the skills listed in the appendix is obligatory, and indeed, it could be argued that some of them are redundant. For example, ‘Observation’ is more Sherlock Holmes than Call of Cthulhu and does little more than Spot Hidden does; ‘Deduction’ is equally more Sherlock Holmes than Call of Cthulhu and does little more than an Idea roll does; and ‘Seduction’ is just a variation upon the Persuade skill.

Physically, Return of the Ripper is reasonably produced for a Monograph. Some art is used to break up what is mostly dense text, but it is not always as clear as it could be. Similarly, the maps are not always as clear, and there could have been more maps of the scenario’s various locations.

Return of the Ripper certainly makes demands of the Keeper to run and present, hampered as it is by the absence of a narrative structure upon which he could hang the elements given in the Monograph. Further, it demands that he and his players accept the idea that there is a Mythos explanation behind the Ripper killings and that Sherlock Holmes actually exists, which for some may be too big a pair of hurdles to overcome. If they can, then there is material enough to support an investigation into the Mythos activities of the Ripper, but it will be hard work.

Thursday 6 March 2014

Screen Shot III

How do you like your GM Screen?

The GM Screen is a essentially a reference sheet, comprised of several card sheets that fold out and can be stood up to serve another purpose, that is, to hide the GM's notes and dice rolls. On the inside, the side facing the GM are listed all of the tables that the GM might want or need at a glance without the need to have to leaf quickly through the core rulebook. On the outside, facing the players, can be found either more tables for their benefit or representative artwork for the game itself. This is both the basic function and the basic format of the screen, neither of which has changed all that much over the years. Beyond the basic format, much has changed though.

To begin with the general format has split, between portrait and landscape formats. The result of the landscape format is a lower screen, and if not a sturdier screen, than at least one that is less prone to being knocked over. Another change has been in the weight of card used to construct the screen. Exile Studios pioneered a new sturdier and durable screen when its printers took two covers from the Hollow Earth Expedition core rule book and literally turned them into the game's screen. This marked a change from the earlier and flimsier screens that had been done in too light a cardstock, and several publishers have followed suit.

Once you have decided upon your screen format, the next question is what you have put with it. Do you include a poster or poster map, such as Margaret Weis Productions included in its screens for the Serenity and BattleStar Galactica Roleplaying Games? Or a reference work like that included with Chessex Games' Sholari Reference Pack for SkyRealms of Jorune or the GM Resource Book for Pelgrane Press' Trail of Cthulhu? Or a scenario such as ‘A Restoration of Evil’ for the Keeper's Screen for Call of Cthulhu from 2000 or the more recent ‘Descent into Darkness’ from the Game Master’s Screen and Adventure for Alderac Entertainment’s Legends of the Five Rings Fourth Edition. In general, the heavier and sturdier the screen, the more likely it is that the screen will be sold unaccompanied, such as those published by Cubicle Seven Entertainment for the Starblazer Adventures: The Rock & Roll Space Opera Adventure Game and Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space RPGs.

So how do I like my GM Screen?

I like my Screen to come with something. Not a poster or poster map, but a scenario, which is one reason why I like “Descent into Darkness” from the Game Master’s Screen and Adventure for Legends of the Five Rings Fourth Edition and ‘A Bann Too Many’, the scenario that comes in the Dragon Age Game Master's Kit for Green Ronin Publishing's Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying Set 1: For Characters Level 1 to 5. I also like my screen to come with some reference material, something that adds to the game. Which is why I am fond of both the Sholari Reference Pack for SkyRealms of Jorune and the GM Resource Book for Pelgrane Press' Trail of Cthulhu as well as the Loremaster's Screen & Lake-town Sourcebook for Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s The One Ring: Adventures over the Edge of the Wild RPG. Which is what I will be reviewing today.

As the title suggests, the Loremaster's Screen & Lake-town Sourcebook consists of two elements. The first is the screen itself, whilst the latter is a location and background sourcebook for The One Ring. The Loremaster’s Screen is a four-panel affair. On the outside is a good aerial shot of Lake-town to out over the Long Lake to where the bones of Smaug still lie just off the shore. On the inside is an array of some twenty-four tables, beginning skill and trait use on the left before working through combat on the middle two sections to encounters and possible dangers on the left. An additional trio of tables cover various additional page references. The tables are all clear and easy to read, made all the easier by colour coding. Some further page references would have been useful, in particular to the places in the book where the tables are taken from. That said, a Loremaster should have no problem working with the tables on this screen.

The Lake-town Sourcebook presents the first real location to be described in depth for The One Ring. This is not the Lake-town of The Hobbit, but what was rebuilt in the wake of Smaug’s attack upon the trading port and the dragon’s death at the hands of Bard, now the king in Dale. It is a larger, more prosperous, place, the safety engendered by Smaug’s death and the founding of two kingdoms in the north enabling trade to grow and people to travel further. At the heart of the slim, staple-bound is a stunning map of the town, one that grants a feel for the place rather than an exact set of town plans. Each of its six districts – the Artisans’ District, the Elven Quarter, Merchants’ District, Residential District, Shipyards’ District, and Town Hall’s Quarter – are described in detail enough for the Loremaster to use without overburdening him with facts and are each accompanied by stats and write-ups for the typical NPCs to be found there. Thus Barding Nobles and Dwarf Notables are to be found in the Town Hall’s Quarter, whilst Hospital Healers are to be found in the Residential District.

For Loremaster and player alike, the supplement includes a list and explanation of the things that the heroes can do during the Fellowship Phase of the game. These purchasing items at the market, collecting herbs from the nearby marshes, and even receive a title and thus become a citizen of Lake-town! The latter of course requires that the heroes’ deeds come to the attention of the Master of Lake-town and the town council. In addition, the heroes could attend ‘Dragontide’, the three-day annual celebration of the death of Smaug, part of which consists of an archery contest – such a contest and other events of ‘Dragontide’ are also detailed in Tales from Wilderland, the adventure campaign/anthology from Cubicle Seven Entertainment. Lastly, the adventurers might venture out into the Long Marshes, probably to locate and collect herbs, though that has its dangers in the form of Hobgoblins, Marsh-Hags, and other ‘marsh monsters’! 

The Lake-town Sourcebook also adds a new option for the players – a new Culture and the possibility of playing one of the Men of the Lake. Enterprising and wealthy, with a love of the new things that the trade brings to the town, those Men of the Lake that answer the call of adventure are certainly more determined than their merchant and craftsmen brethren. This shows in their Cultural Blessing, ‘Tenacious’, which enables them to learn and gain extra Experience Points from surviving dangerous situations.

Our sample adventurer, one of the Men of the Lake is Hakon. From a wealthy mercantile family, Hakon dutifully became an apprentice trader, but was more interested in the traders and where they came from, in the songs they sang and tales that they told. He always wanted to a minstrel, having learned the songs that his nanny had taught him. For the moment, his family accepts his desire to see beyond the coins and ledgers, the markets and the trade boats, the fine goods and rich furs that is their day-to day concerns. One day, they expect him to return to the fold, in the meantime his father continues to run the business. 

Name: Hakon
Culture: Men of the Lake Standard of Living: Prosperous
Cultural Blessing: Tenacious (When wounded or suffer negative consequences, spend Hope to gain an Experience Point) 
Calling: Wanderer Shadow Weakness: Wanderering-madness

Specialities: Minstrelsy, Folk-lore
Distinctive Features: Fair-spoken, Merry

Body (Base/Favoured): 5/6
Heart (Base/Favoured): 7/10
Wits (Base/Favoured): 2/4

Personality Skills – Awe 0 Inspire 0 Persuade 2
Movement Skills – Athletics 2 Travel 2 Stealth 0
Perception Skills – Awareness 1 Insight 2 Search 0
Survival Skills – Explore 0 Healing 2 Hunting 0
Custom Skills – Song 3 Courtesy 3 Riddle 3
Vocation Skills – Craft 2 Battle 1 Lore 1

Great Bow 2, Sword 1, Dagger 1
Parry 9 Damage 2

- GEAR -
Travelling gear, Lyre, Sword, Great Bow & Arrows, Dagger, Shield, Mail Shirt (Armour 3d) & Iron & Leather Cap (+1 Armour)

Trading (At ease when negotiating the buying and selling of items, or even information...)

Experience 0 Valour 1 Wisdom 2
Endurance 29 Fatigue 9
Hope 15 Shadow 0
Weary 0 Miserable 0 Wounded 0

Rounding out the Lake-town Sourcebook is a sample character and a pre-prepared character sheet. Both the Lake-town Sourcebook and the Loremaster’s Screen are well presented, although the cover slip that comes packaged with the Loremaster's Screen & Lake-town Sourcebook is somewhat redundant given that information it details can be found on the back of the Lake-town Sourcebook. If there is a downside to the sourcebook it is that it could have expanded its scope a little, just to cover the Long Lake, certainly as far as the bones of both the old Lake-town and Smaug are concerned. Nevertheless, it nicely presents a location without overwhelming the Loremaster in detail, something that another published might have been tempted to do. Despite being a staple-bound book without a cover, the Lake-town Sourcebook is surprisingly sturdy, though the Loremaster will still want to handle it with some care.

The Loremaster’s Screen is exactly as it should be, a useful tool to have in front of the Loremaster during play, whilst the Lake-town Sourcebook adds to the setting of The One Ring with material that the Loremaster can really make use of. Overall, this makes the Loremaster's Screen & Lake-town Sourcebook a pleasing package, one that a group playing The One Ring should get plenty of use out of.

Monday 3 March 2014

Tales of the Star Guard II

One of my favourite RPGs from 2011 is Cosmic Patrol, Catalyst Game Labs’ Science Fiction RPG inspired by the Golden Age broadcast Science Fiction of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet and X MINUS ONE as well as the writings of Robert A. Heinlein, Poul Anderson, and E.E. “Doc” Smith. It is a light storytelling RPG in which the characters are stalwart members of the Great Union’s last line of defence against a dangerous universe. As Patrolmen, members of the Cosmic Patrol, the player characters crew rocketships sent out to explore the galaxy, to investigate its strange phenomena, protect the Solar System, and respond to emergencies as necessary. The mechanics are kept light with everyone taking it turn to narrate scenes in the current adventure with heroics being encouraged. Plus the little rulebook is a work of art itself, looking exactly like a handbook for the Cosmic Patrol itself.

The first supplement for Cosmic Patrol is Into the Cosmos: A Cosmic Patrol Sourcebook. As befits a first supplement, it is a companion volume to the core rules. It adds further detail to the setting of Cosmic Patrol, presenting further threats and rumours, a guide to the rocket ships and other vessels to be found in the Great Union and beyond, detailed dossiers to support many of the threats, and almost two dozen Mission Briefs—enough to keep a Cosmic Patrol campaign going for session after session. As with the core rules, Into the Cosmos is presented as a small red handbook, lightly illustrated with solid line art. Unlike the core rules, Into the Cosmos has much more the feel of being a roleplaying game supplement and less of the feel being the Cosmic Patrol handbook.

It opens with ‘When in Doubt, Doubt’, a short piece of fiction about a Cosmic Patrol Intelligence Service agent infiltrating a Hakhaze base. A solid little tale, it throws a different light on Cosmic Patrol operations, one that is borne of necessity give the realities of the situation out in the Deep Black. It introduces a new race, the Hakhaze, which is one of the new races detailed in Into the Cosmos’ Gazetteer. The Hakhaze are a humanoid symbiotic species consisting of a reptile with a fungoid outer shell, which like many species the Great Union has encountered, is extremely warlike. Others include the mysterious Ro-Men, who not only capture other intelligent species, they also make them wear helmets that both make them slaves and dissolve their skulls! The Gazetteer also discusses the uses and dangers of the Fractum Drive which powers all Great Union interstellar rockets, what might be out there in the galaxy, the exploration of the jungle world that is Neptune, the Cat People of Annora, the Great Union’s manufactory behind Mercury, and an update about the Automen on Venus. All in all, it is an eclectic mix, but each of these little essays is informative and adds interesting detail to the Cosmic Patrol setting. Many are of them are further supported by the Dossiers section, which include Hakhaze, Ro-Men, Neptunian Frog Men, escaped Robots, and more, all written up and ready to bring to a game.

Of the eight vessels described in Into the Cosmos, three are particularly suitable for use by the player characters in Cosmic Patrol. They include the three-man Patrol Cutter, the twenty-five man Patrol Cruiser, and the one-man Intel Rocketship, the latter introduced earlier in ‘When in Doubt, Doubt’. Deck plans are given for each, but given the genre, it seems disappointing that the decks are horizontal along the length of each ship, rather than organised deck by deck vertically down the ship. This also means that these rocketships land on their bellies rather than on their tails, which would seem more in keeping with the genre. Other ships described include an Eiger Empire Attack Saucer, an Uth Hive, a Pirate Rocketship, and a Ro-Men Spereship.

Rounding out Into the Cosmos is a collection of twenty-three missions. Each consists of a narrative introduction, setting details, the scenes, plus a listing of its Objectives, Clues, and Tags. They begin with ‘Vo’s Fractum Cat’ in which the crew of Patrol Ship must go to the rescue of vessel with malfunctioning experimental equipment and ‘The Great Green Blight’ in which they must find out why the wary Frogmen of Neptune have turned aggressive. Other Mission Briefs will find the crew making mail runs, surveying asteroids, investigating both Eiger and Uth activity, going after pirates, going to dinner, and more. The almost two dozen run the gamut of genre clichés, but this should not be held against them. After all, certain clichés are part of the genre, and anyway, it is what the players and their characters do with them in the course of play that matters.

Despite it being a little book, just one-hundred-and-thirty-eight pages long, Into the Cosmos could do with an index. Finding things can be difficult. Another issue is the cost—it is not an inexpensive book. Nevertheless, Into the Cosmos provides excellent support for any group’s Cosmic Patrol game. Not just the Mission Briefs, which provide immediate support, but cues and inspirations aplenty with the support material.

Saturday 1 March 2014

Going Dutch

With its fourth entry in the Ticket to Ride Map Collection, Days of Wonder has gone Dutch. Like the previous Ticket to Ride Map Collection: Volume 3 - The Heart of Africa, Ticket to Ride Map Collection: Volume 4 - Nederland includes just the one map as well as a new mechanic that makes game play tighter and ultimately forces a player to pay heavily in terms of points if he is not quick enough. As with the other titles in the series, it requires a base set to play, either Ticket to Ride or Ticket to Ride: Europe.

The map in Ticket to Ride Map Collection: Volume 4 – Nederland is laid out vertically, much like the maps in Ticket to Ride Map Collection: Volume 3 - The Heart of Africa and Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries. A riot of verdant green, cut by innumerable rivers and canals, and bound by the North Sea to the West, the Netherlands’ rivers and canals are bridged by Double-Routes, there being more Double than Single routes. Each route has a value attached to it between one and four. This is its Toll value.

Ticket to Ride Map Collection: Volume 4 – Nederland also includes a set of forty-four Destination Tickets, five sets of Bridge Toll Tokens, and a set of Bonus and Loan cards. These Destination Tickets are of higher value than normal, six of them being worth between twenty-nine and thirty-four points and another seventeen being worth between seventeen and twenty-six points. The Bridge Toll Tokens are done in thick cardboard and valued either one, two, or four. 

Designed for between two and five players, the expansion mostly plays just like any Ticket to Ride map, except each player receives forty rather than forty-five trains, and five Destination Tickets of which he must keep three. He also receives Bridge Toll Tokens to a value of thirty. During his turn, a player can draw Train Cards as normal; draw more Destination Tickets – four, must keep one; or play Trains to claim a route. Claiming a route is where this expansion differs from other Ticket to Ride boards. When a player claims the first route of a Double-Route, he must pay the value next to it as a Toll in Bridge Toll Tokens to the Bank. If another player later claims this Double-Route’s second route, then that player pays the same Toll in Bridge Toll Tokens to the player who claimed the first route.
For example, the Double-Route between Den Helder and Haarlem has a Toll value of two. Richard claims the first route using four orange Trains Cards and pays the required Bridge Toll Tokens to the bank. Later in the game, Debbie finding that she needs the same route, uses four blue Train Cards to claim the second route. With Richard having already claimed the first route, Debbie must pay the Bridge Toll Tokens not to the Bank, but to Richard.
Obviously claiming the first routes of a Double-Route before anyone else is the key here. In doing so, the player who claims the first route is likely receive the value in Bridge Toll Tokens he paid to the bank from the player who claims the second route. Since this gives an advantage to players who start earlier and can claim routes faster, later players start the game with some bonus points. As game’s end, the players are awarded points based on the number of Bridge Toll Tokens they have in relation to each other. Should a player run out of Bridge Toll Tokens, he can take a Loan Card for each route claimed. Doing so means that a player cannot score any points based on the number of Bridge Toll Tokens he has at game’s end.

In addition to the new rules that make use of the expansion’s Bridge Toll Tokens, Ticket to Ride Map Collection: Volume 4 – Nederland gives rules for two other ways of playing the Dutch map. The first is as per the standard game, but without the use of the Bridge Toll Tokens, the Bonus Cards, or the Loan Cards. The second is a two-player variant that uses the Bridge Toll Tokens. It actually uses a dummy player as a third participant whose actions are determined in a semi-random fashion by the text at the bottom of some of the Destination Tickets. The effect of this randomness is to make this two-player variant a much more tense playing experience because the dummy player’s actions are not as predictable.

Physically, Ticket to Ride Map Collection: Volume 4 – Nederland is as attractive as the other maps available for Ticket to Ride. As pretty as the map is, the choice of font is too pretty, especially for casual play. Too often a player has to study the map to work out where the various towns and cities are, more so because their names are given in a slightly illegible font. This is offset by the Destination Tickets which clearly indicate where the two towns or cities that need to be connected are on the map. The various Destination Ticket and Bonus and Loan Cards are equally as attractive, though not as flawed. The game’s major flaw is the inadequate packaging – the space in the tray provided to store the Bridge Toll Tokens is utterly insufficient. It is possible to store them underneath the tray, but that was certainly not Days of Wonder’s intention.

In comparison to other Ticket to Ride maps, Ticket to Ride Map Collection: Volume 4 – Nederland might be seen as being complex and indeed, it does add another degree of resource management in the form of the Bridge Toll Tokens. That said, what Ticket to Ride Map Collection: Volume 4 – Nederland brings to the Ticket to Ride family is a means to turn on the pressure during the play. That is, claim the first route of a Double-Route as there is a chance that you will get your Bridge Toll Tokens back when another player claims the second route. Essentially this adds an economic aspect to the game in that paying Bridge Toll Tokens to the Bank when claiming the first route of a Double-Route actually serves as an investment in which the player has the potential to recoup the investment made.

As with any new Ticket to Ride map, Ticket to Ride Map Collection: Volume 4 – Nederland presents challenges anew and should be welcomed for that. Its ‘economic’ complexity relative to other entries in the Ticket to Ride family makes Ticket to Ride Map Collection: Volume 4 – Nederland suited to play by the Ticket to Ride enthusiast rather than its original family audience.