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

Friday 27 June 2014

Psssh-ti-cooff Fun

If you have never watched Ivor the Engine, then you should watch this video before reading the rest of this review. Made by Smallfilms, also responsible for other classics such as The Clangers and Bagpuss, this BBC children’s television classic told the tales of the adventures of a small green locomotive who lived in the “top left-hand corner of Wales” and worked for The Merioneth and Llantisilly Railway Traction Company Limited with the help of his driver, Jones the Steam. Most of us will remember the colour episodes from the 1970s, but the original six episodes were made in black and white in 1959, making the series fifty-five in 2014. So it seems as good a year as any to celebrate the series by us helping Ivor the Engine out. Which is exactly what we get to do in Ivor the Engine, a new board game designed by Tony Boydell—whose previous game, Snowdonia, also involved trains and railways, and also happened to be set in Wales—and published by Surprised Stare Games.

Illustrated by Peter Firmin, the illustrator of the Ivor the Engine television series, the Ivor the Engine game asks the players to come to the aid of Ivor the Engine and Jones the Steam in rounding up lots of lost sheep and do any number of good deeds. Designed for three to five players, aged eight and up, Ivor the Engine is a game of tidying up sheep and fulfilling tasks that can be played in about an hour or so—arguably much quicker once the players know the game. The winner is the player who at the end of the game has the most sheep—gained in  rounding up sheep and completing jobs. 

It is played out over a map of forgotten corner of north Wales, with various locations such as Grumbly Gasworks and Gwynaudolion Halt, Mrs Porty’s House and Pugh’s Farm, Tan-Y-Gwlch and Dinwiddy’s Gold Mine, and towns like Llangubbin, Grumbly Town, and Tewyn. All of these locations are connected by branch lines. In addition, a main line runs between Llangubbin and Tewyn which allows direct movement between the towns. Most of these locations consist of a single large hexes, although some consist of two, so the players need to be careful with their movement.

Besides the board with its map, Ivor the Engine consists of a rulebook, several cardboard Trucks (the players' pieces), cubes of gold and coal, plenty of wooden sheep (sheep meeples or  ‘sheeples’!), wooden tokens to represent flocks of sheep, and various cards and cardboard pieces. The cards consist of Sheep Pens for the players and a mix of Job Cards and Event Cards. The cardboard pieces include lost sheep tokens, a pair of Sleeping idris tokens and a pair of Runaway Sheep Tokens, and an Ivor the Engine Token. 

At the start of the game, the map is seeded with sheep—the number on each location determined by the random placement of the lost sheep tokens; each player receives three Job Cards, a Sheep Pen and matching Truck, plus a single piece of gold and coal each. Each player also places his Truck on the board starting with the youngest player, who also receives the Ivor the Engine Token. Three Job Cards are laid out face up alongside the board in a Card Line.

On his turn, each player does three things. The first is to take a sheep from his current location and place it on his Sheep Pen. Second, he moves his Truck. He can move from his current location to an unoccupied adjacent location along a connected single-track branch line. He cannot move into a location if another player has his Truck there and he wants to move further, he must steam up and shovel more coal into the boiler, one piece of coal for each extra location. If a player starts at either the towns of Llangubbin or Tewyn, then a player can use two coal to travel from one to the via the main line. If a player needs more coal, then he can purchase more by spending gold.

Before or after a player has moved his Truck, he can play a Job Card. Each Job Card has a task and a location, a reward for completing the task—anyway from three to six sheep, and an action that a player can do instead of completing the task on the Job Card. For example, “Fetching  Mr Brangwyn’s pigeons from” … “Llangubbin” instructs a player to travel to Llangubbin where in return for fetching the pigeons, he will be rewarded with three sheep. Alternatively, the player can use the Job Card for the action, “Make 2 extra moves.” and discard the card. Other actions enable a player to take coal or sheep or gold, put sheep back onto a location (from the supply or another player’s Sheep Pen), or take cards from the Card Line. More special actions temporarily force another player to give up any sheep he collects as they run away—this is what the Runaway Sheep token denotes, or allow him to take extra Job Cards from the deck. He also takes a Sleeping Idris token to indicate that he misses a turn for taking this special action.

What is important to know is that a player cannot complete a Job Card on a particular town or village until it has been cleared of sheep—the player who does so, also receives bonus sheep. What is also important to know is that when a player completes a Job Card he must read out the details of the Job Card. (A Welsh accent is not required for this.)

Lastly, a player takes a new Job Card from the Card Line, which is then refreshed. If the new card added to the Card Line is an Event Card, it has an event that takes effect immediately, is seeded with a single sheep, and a reward that takes effect at the end of the game. To select an Event Card from the Card Line, a player must pay a single piece of gold. For example, the “Bani Moukerjee” Event Card forces each player to move his truck to Llanmad or discard a sheep—this is the only time that the players’ trucks can be on the same location. If selected, this Event Card will reward a player with an extra sheep for each Job Card completed.

The end of game is triggered when one player ends his turn with a certain number of sheep, the number dependant upon how many players there are. Then everyone else receives one further turn to ensure that everyone has the same number of turns. Once done, everyone counts up their sheep and the player with the most is the winner.

Physically, Ivor the Engine is a lovely game. The artwork is delightful—both on the cards and on the board; the rulebook—which initially looks intimidating—is well written and easy to grasp; and the wooden sheep are, of course, delightful.

There are exactly two things wrong with Ivor the Engine, both to do with the components. First, the cardboard pieces used to represent the players’ Trucks are disappointing and add little to the game—wooden locomotives would have been far more in keeping with the charm and feel of the game.  Second, the flat wooden pieces used to represent the flocks of five sheep are equally disappointing, not to say dull, and add nothing to the game. It would have been nice if larger wooden sheep had been included to represent sheep. Of course, including such components would probably have increased the cost of what is otherwise a very reasonably priced game, but then, there is nothing to stop the owner of Ivor the Engine from replacing them himself.

At first glance, Ivor the Engine looks like a children’s game—no surprise given the source material. It is not that though, although it can be played by children. Given its length and subject matter, it offers a surprising degree of complexity that adult gamers will enjoy. There are plenty of choices to make—what sheep to take, which places to visit, and what Job Cards or Event Cards to select. The game is primarily competitive, although one player can block access to a location and some of the Job Cards give actions that target other players, so adult games can get cutthroat...

Unsurprisingly, given its theme, Ivor the Engine is also a train game, but in terms of complexity it lies somewhere between Ticket to Ride and a more traditional route-building, pick-up-and-deliver game such as Canalmania or Age of Steam. Although in Ivor the Engine there is no route-building, in effect a player is building a route by rounding up the sheep—once the sheep have been rounded up deliveries, or rather Job Cards, can be completed. Whilst there is no ‘pick-up’ aspect to the game, there is certainly delivery in the game in the form of the Job Cards. 

The complexity of Ivor the Engine means that it is not quite an introductory game—the game is more complex than say Ticket to Ride or Settlers of Catan, but not much more. For younger players that may mean that it is is more of a challenge, but for seasoned gamers, Ivor the Engine is pleasing light filler. Utterly charming, Ivor the Engine  is a delight, offering enjoyable play for casual and enthusiast gamers alike.

Sunday 15 June 2014

Your Westeros Primer

Having finally got round to watching Season #3 of A Game of Thrones and read both parts of A Storm of Swords, I can at last feel confident in avoiding spoilers in reading and then reviewing A Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide. This is the first supplement for A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Adventure, War, and Intrigue , the RPG published by Green Ronin based on the series of best-selling fantasy books by George R.R. Martin.  I have already reviewed the second supplement, A Song of Ice and Fire Chronicle Starter, as that contains no spoilers from either the books or the television series and is much of more of a gaming supplement than A Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide. This supplement though, is much grander affair, describing as it does Westeros in lavish detail, providing full details on all the major regions and principal players of the game of thrones.

So if you happen not to have watched season #3 of A Game of Thrones or read both parts of A Storm of Swords, you do need to know that it does contain some spoilers. For in detailing the places and personages of Westeros and beyond, it focuses on places and peoples that do not appear until towards the end of both. It should be made clear that for the most part, these are not plot spoilers, but rather setting spoilers. Nevertheless, at least one plot spoiler is illustrated late in the book.

In keeping with the A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Adventure, War, and Intrigue, the setting for A Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide is in the immediate years before the events of Martin’s heptalogy—or is that octet?—begin. The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros are at peace under the reign of Robert Baratheon, who usurped the Iron Throne from the Targaryen dynasty, the last of the Targaryens are powerless exiles to the east, the wildlings beyond the Wall seem contained, and the first stirrings of winter have yet to come. The handsome hardback opens with a history of Westeros, covering from The Dawn Age through the Age of Heroes and Age of the Dragons to just beyond the War of the Usurper and Greyjoy’s Rebellion. It is followed by an examination of the culture of Westeros, covering laws and justice, customs, entertainments and pastimes, goods and trading, language, faith, and the Maesters—the latter the scholars of Westeros. Several sections here will be of interest to the GM wanting to run a standard campaign based around a house of the players’ creation as described in A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Adventure, War, and Intrigue. These include knighthood, social status and rank, and illegitimacy—the latter accompanied by the regional names accorded bastards in Westeros, Jon Snow of the North being the most obvious example.

This sets the stage for the bulk of the book. From King’s Landing and Dragonstone to The Stormlands and Dorne, the book details the history, geography and key locations, and the ruling House of its region, plus persons of note and notable personages, and the Banner Houses that owe fealty to the ruling House. So for example, the chapter detailing The Reach tells you how rich and fertile it is and of its rivalry with Dorne; of Oldtown, the city that is  home to the Maesters of the Citadel that was once Westeros’ premier city; and of the Maesters and how you would don the Chain to become one, before presenting House Tyrell. Some members of the House are simply given descriptions, but others are also given full stats according to the rules of A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Adventure, War, and Intrigue. In this case, they are Lord Mace Tyrell, his mother Lady Olenna Tyrell, and three of his four children, Ser Garlan, Ser Loras, and Margaery. Other persons of note are also given full write-ups, though these are less frequent. For the Reach, they consist solely of Samwell Tarly of House Tarly. Following the description of the Ruling House, the most notable Banner Houses are presented. These include major, minor, and landed houses as well as extinct ones. In some cases they are accorded a single line, others are a bit more detailed and thus interesting.

In each of the descriptions of the Seven Kingdoms, further aspects of Westeros are also given. In the case of The Reach, this is Oldtown and the Maesters, for the North, this the Night’s Watch, the neutral sworn brotherhood that mans the Wall against incursions by the Wildings, and for Dragonstone, it is background to the Targaryens, including write-ups and stats for Viserys and Daenerys, the surviving heirs. Accompanying the House descriptions and the Banner House descriptions are their castle names, coat of arms, and motto. In many cases, a very many of the Banner Houses have their coats of arms illustrated. Each of these chapters is accompanied by a decent map.

Having worked its way north from King’s Landing to the North and back down south again, the penultimate chapter in A Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide is the eponymously titled ‘Beyond Westeros’ as it takes the reader across the Summer Sea to the Free Cities, the Dothraki Sea, and beyond. There are no game stats or character write-ups in this section.

Rounding out A Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide is ‘Exploring Westeros’, a chapter of advice for the GM. This presents a look at the themes and feel of a Westeros campaign—noting that throughout, both are unlike traditional fantasy, either of certain novels and their bearing of rings or particular roleplaying games. It addresses the issue of running a campaign with a setting that has a particular plot—something that the A Song of Ice and Fire series has in abundance. There is a balance to be maintained the advice suggests between the players and their characters wanting to interact with the series’ signature characters and the influence and input from the player characters not derailing the plots and events that weave around the series’ characters. Essentially, what it comes down to is that a GM  and his players need to decide on the game that they want to play—one that unfolds alongside the events of the novels or want that goes off in another direction entirely. Completing the chapter is a number of campaign ideas that a GM could develop.

Physically, A Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide is nicely presented with lots of full colour, painted art that presents another look and feel to that depicted in the television series. The book is nicely written and an enjoyably clear read, and the maps are good too.

There are one or two issues with A Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide. As good as the maps are, the book could have down with more. In particular, no maps are given for the lands to the East. Given that they figure strongly in the novels, the lack of maps is a disappointing omission. Similarly, more maps of other locations would have been nice too. Maps are given for King’s Landing and the Red Keep, but not for many of the other castles or big towns in Westeros. To an extent, not all of them are detailed in the novels, but this is a roleplaying supplement after all, and some GMs like to have things quantified. Having already mentioned the plot spoilers in the art in the rear of the book, it should be pointed out that the choice of characters given full stats seems odd given that they are not connected with any particular character or House. This sort of heralds the importance of their roles in the novels.

If you happen to have read A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords, and watched the first three seasons of A Game of Thrones, then there is much to be enjoyed in A Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide. You could ignore the game game stats altogether, because really, they do not take up all that much space; if you did, then what you would have is a well written and informative sourcebook for both the books and the television series up to end of book #3 and season #3. One that complements them both, though the books more so than the television series. As written though, A Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide is a roleplaying supplement and both the source material presented here and the accompanying stats ably support that aspect (the latter without being unobtrusive). The advice in the last chapter is a pleasing if concise counterpart to the material presented earlier in the book and is good corollary to the advice given in A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Adventure, War, and Intrigue.

Thus A Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide is a good sourcebook for the A Song of Ice and Fire novels. It is also a good roleplaying supplement, expanding upon the information given in A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Adventure, War, and Intrigue. So A Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide succeeds twice.

Sunday 8 June 2014

Empire Building Filler Thriller

Eight-Minute Empire could be described as wargame. It has armies, their leaders contest for territory, and at the end of the game, the leader who holds the most territory wins the game. It is though not a wargame—certainly not in a traditional sense—but is instead a Eurogame that combines area control and card drafting mechanics with a set collection mechanic. It is a little game with big themes that can be played through in the eight minutes of the title with just two players, but just twenty minutes with the maximum number of five players.

Published by Red Raven Games, inside Eight-Minute Empire’s small, square box can be found one double-sided map board, a four-page rulebook, forty-two cards, and five sets of armies, forty-four coins, and ten Goods Tokens. The map board depicts various continents broken up into regions, connected by safe sea routes. At the centre of the map stands a city—this is the starting point for the game. At the top of the map is a line of numbers—[0], [1], [1], [2], [2], [2], and [3]. These are the costs that a player will have to pay for the cards placed in the corresponding line placed at the top of the board. The cards are marked with an order that the leader will give his armies and with a Good such as a Carrot, Pine Tree, or a Gem. A leader will gain more Victory Points if he has managed to collect these symbols in sets by the end of the game. The five armies—in blue, green, pink, red, and yellow—each consist of fourteen cubes (the armies) and three discs (the cities). The coin tokens are used to purchase cards and the Goods tokens replicated the symbols on the cards and are used as part of the game’s advanced options.

At the start of the game, the cards are shuffled and six laid out at the top of the board face up. Each player receives his armies and some coins. Initially he will use these to bid on who goes first in the game, but their primary use is to purchase cards. He will also place three armies in the starting region. On his turn, he will purchase one of the cards at the top of the board, the cost being determined by its position in the line. Cards towards the left are free or cheap and get progressively more expensive to the right.

Purchasing a card gains a player its Goods symbol and an order that he can give his armies. This order may be to place armies (from his reserve onto the board), move armies (already on the board), move armies by sea (already on the board along a sea route between continents), destroy armies (remove an army from the board), or build cities (in a region where a player has armies). Some cards give a choice of options, others two options, while others give the player the choice of Goods symbol at the end of game to add to the sets he is collecting.

Each player has two aims in the game. The first is to dominate as many regions as possible—a player needs to have the most armies in a region to hold it, though having a city in a region will also contribute towards the number of armies in a region. The second is to collect sets of Goods tokens. At the end of the game, a player will receive a Victory Point for each Region he controls and for each Continent he controls. He will also receive Victory Points for each set of Goods cards he has, the number varying from one Good to another. For example, three Carrots scores a player one Victory Point, five Carrots two Victory Points, seven Carrots three Victory Points, and eight Carrots five Victory Points, whereas one Gem scores a player one Victory Point, two Gems two Victory Points, three Gems three Victory Points, and four Gems five Victory Points. The player with the most Victory Points is the winner.

The Eight-Minute Empire rulebook does feel a little cheap, but it is clearly written. The other components are all of a high quality. It could be argued that the auction at the start for first player delivers little given its potential cost. One way to balance this would be to have an auction at the start of every turn, but the game does not include enough gold for this. If it did, it would also mean that the players might have too much gold with which to purchase their cards. Another issue might the game’s lack of theme. My suggestion would be that the Emperor’s sons’ rivalry threatens to erupt into civil war, so he directs his sons to take their armies and compete for dominance without course to open conflict.

Interestingly, the game’s feel and flow will be influenced by the cards drawn. For example, the lack of Sea movement cards would limit travel to other continents, concentrating the contest for territory to a limited area, whilst lots of them, would enable the players to spread their armies and vie for wider regions. Balance this against the need to collect Goods for sets and limited gold to spend, and a player has some tight choices to make over the course of cards he must choose—varying according to the number of players, more players means fewer cards. Eight-Minute combines tactical play in its armies and area control with strategic decisions in the Goods needed for sets in a pleasing presented and re-playable package. The result is that Eight-Minute Empire is a rather charming little filler.

Tuesday 3 June 2014

Command Arrows

Lords of War is a tactical fantasy battle game published by Black Box Games. The winner of the award for Best Strategic Card Game at UK Games Expo 2013, it pitches two armies into a fierce confrontation that can be played out in roughly thirty minutes. Designed for two players aged twelve and over, the original set consisted of Lords of War: Orcs versus Dwarves. It was quickly joined by Lords of War: Elves versus Lizardmen and then by Lords of War: Templar versus Undead which was funded via Kickstarter.

Each set is described as “Dual Deck Expandable Gaming Cards”, which means that the army decks from each set are interchangeable with those of another and that the cards in each army deck are also interchangeable with those of any other. This means that each army can be modified with cards from another deck and that rather than battles being fought between the armies in one set, they can be played out as 'Templars versus Orcs', 'Elves versus Dwarves', 'Lizardmen versus Undead', and so on. In this review, the Lords of War: Orcs versus Dwarves set will be under the spotlight. Not only because it is the first set in the line, but because a confrontation between Orcs and Dwarves is very traditional when it comes to fantasy battles.

Each set consists of two armies—represented by two thirty-six card decks, plus a rules sheet and a Battlemat. The latter is marked with a seven-by-six grid of spaces upon which the game’s cards will be placed and is done in a slightly mottled, golden brown. (The colour varies from set to set, so for example, the Battlemat in Lords of War: Elves versus Lizardmen is green, representing the swamps or forests that they fight over rather than the mountains or rough terrain of Lords of War: Orcs versus Dwarves). The rules sheet is large and double-sided, but is only done in black and white. It is easy to read and does a decent job of explain the rules. What stands out about Lords of War: Orcs versus Dwarves—and any of the three sets to date—are the cards that form each army and are the heart of the game.

All of the cards are done in full colour by artist Steve Cox, each one depicting a single warrior or unit in a style reminiscent of Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy Battles. Which is no bad thing since it gives the game a certain familiarity. Besides its illustration, every card has a name; a number of Attack Aarrows that determine the direction in which the unit can attack—forward, back, to the sides, and diagonally out of the corners; and a Defence Value. Each Attack Arrow also has an Attack Value attached to it. The more Attack Arrows a unit has, the greater its flexibility on the battlefield, both in attacking enemy units and pinning them in place.

Every card also has a Class—Infantry, Cavalry, Spear, Ranged, and Berserker. Infantry units are generally balanced in terms of their Attack Arrows, Attack Values, and Defence Values; Cavalry units tend to have broad Attack Values, but low Defence Values; Spearmen have low Attack Values, but high Defence Values; Ranged units can attack enemy units at a distance; and Berserkers have limited Attack Arrows and high Attack Values, but low Defence Values. Every unit also has a Rank from Recruit and Regular up to Command and General. Six of the cards in a deck are Command units and one of these is the army’s general—unlike the standard units, they are all named. 

Throughout the game, each player will have a hand of six cards. At the start of the game, this hand will consist of five cards from his shuffled deck and his army’s General. Once each player has placed a unit in one of the Battlemat’s starting positions, the game begins. A turn consists of three phases.

In the Deployment phase, a player places a unit on the Battlemat orthogonally or diagonally adjacent to an enemy unit so that one of its Attack Arrows points at the enemy unit. A support unit like a Ranged or Spear unit can also be placed adjacent to any friendly unit so that its Attack Arrows do not engage it or it is not engaged by friendly Attack Arrows. This means particularly with Ranged units that they can be placed behind friendly units away from the front lines and enemy units that would attack them directly.

During the Elimination Phase, every unit on the Battlemat attacks—including those of both armies! Thus, if the combined Attack Values of the units attacking an enemy unit via their Attack Arrows exceed the enemy’s Defence Value, it is eliminated. This has to be done unit by unit until every unit on the Battlemat has been checked to see that it has not been eliminated. The result of this is that a player has to consider both how his unit can attack and how his unit might be attacked. 

The third and final phase is the Reinforcement Phase. During this, a player can either refresh his hand back up to six or have one retreat from the Battlemat into his hand. The latter unit must not have been placed or fought that turn, or be engaged by an enemy unit’s Attack Arrows. It is possible to pin an enemy unit to prevent it being removed from the Battlemat during the Reinforcement Phase.

The battle proceeds until one army can defeat four of its opponent’s Command units or any twenty of its units. Then it will have won the battle.

The key to Lords of War is positioning the units so that they make the best use of their Attack Arrows and avoid being subject to attack in return. Placement is all important to controlling the battlefield and as a game progresses, it becomes more and more difficult to find the weak spots in an opponent’s defences. The choice of army will also influence a player’s actions—with the Lords of War: Orcs versus Dwarves, each side has its own strengths. The Dwarves have better Defence Values, whilst the Orcs have better Attack Values.  

As good as Lords of War looks and as simple as the rules are, what it lacks is flavour. There is some that comes through in the cards, but there is none in the rules. For that the purchaser needs to visit the publisher’s website for the background to the game, where he will also find rules for multiplayer battles and more advanced rules. Whilst simplicity of the design does make Lords of War easy to play, the lack of flavour does leave the game lacking substance. Another issue is that there is a certain artifice to the game in that it does not feel as if you are fighting a battle except in an abstract way. This is fine in a game like Chess, but in Lords of War it feels as if you should be fighting each other for something rather than a simple stand-up confrontation because the art on the cards suggests so. Hopefully, the Terrain & Weather Expansion Pack will go some way to alleviate this issue and provide the game a bit more substance as well as variety.

Lords of War: Orcs versus Dwarves is a pleasingly simple combat card game that offers tactical challenges and thoughtful play without overwhelming the participants. The design is attractive and easily expandable and should also serve as solid introduction to wargaming fantasy battles too.