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

Friday 31 October 2014

By evening's Dead Light

After the underdeveloped and uninteresting Canis Mysterium: A Scenario with Bite, the good news is that the second entry in the ‘one night of horror’ series of scenarios from Chaosium, Inc. combines Call of Cthulhu with survival horror to deliver both an ominous sense of the unknown and shocks and scares aplenty. Dead Light: Surviving One Night Outside Of Arkham can be run as a one-shot and is playable in an evening or single session, or it can be easily slotted into an ongoing campaign as a short side-track adventure. Further, and notably, it is written for use with the forthcoming Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, so can be used as a taster for the new mechanics, but like all Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition titles, Dead Light is relatively easy to convert back to previous versions of Call of Cthulhu. It can also be used as an introduction to Call of Cthulhu and to horror roleplaying in general, as the threat faced in Dead Light is something other than the traditional creatures and entities of the Cthulhu Mythos. Does this mean that Dead Light is not a Call of Cthulhu scenario? Of course not, for the tone, sense of desperation, and the fact that the ‘investigators’ can be still be driven mad all firmly place it within Lovecraftian investigative horror.

Written to be played by between three and six player characters—who may or may not yet be investigators—Deadlight opens with them on the road out of Arkham, heading for the town Ipswich. The weather has drawn in and the car has been forced to slow in the face of the heavy storm. Coming to the rescue of a dishevelled and bewildered girl on the road the travellers take refuge at the roadside Orchard Run Gas and Diner. Here they find succour and shelter as well as another mystery in addition to where the girl came from. What caused a local farmer to swerve his truck so leaving the road all but blocked and left him incoherent with shock? What follows should be a nasty night and in nasty weather, the threat revealing itself as it comes hunting for those trapped in the cafe by the storm, ratcheting up the tension between the investigators and the NPCs as their lives are threatened.

Where a traditional horror scenario might have achieved this with vampires, zombies, or serial killers, Dead Light does it with something unknowable and unworldly, even ineffable. The threat almost has a Science Fiction feel to it and that is perfectly in keeping with the nature of Cosmic horror. Even its origins are horribly rational and thoroughly in keeping with the wider miscegenation found in Lovecraft Country.

Whilst Dead Light is essentially a survival horror scenario, mechanically it is quite survivable. There are relatively few dice rolls to be made throughout the scenario and it is not particularly heavy in terms of investigation or the need to make investigative rolls. What this means is that the investigators still have their supply of Luck to spend when it really matters—encountering the threat in the woods! This does not mean that Dead Light is no less deadly or lethal, indeed the threat the investigators face is not just implacable, it is all but unstoppable by conventional means. Thus investigator who attempts to use brute force to stop it is going to end up sorely disappointed and quite possibly dead. What this means is that the investigators will need to look for the means to stop the threat—and doing so will reveal the origins of the threat and perhaps the human folly that led to its release.

The issue with survival horror and with a threat as deadly as that in Dead Light is that it is too easy to kill the investigators. Whilst the thing is hunting them and everyone at the cafe, the Keeper needs to pace the scenario and not have it hunt down and kill everyone. This does not mean that he should be lenient should a player have his investigator act foolishly, but with plenty of NPCs around to show how the monster works, the Keeper should sacrifice them and so hint at the thing’s lethality and give time for the investigators to uncover what is really going on. The danger here is that in the hands of an inexperienced Keeper, Dead Light has the potential to result in the death of everyone at the Orchard Run Gas and Diner—including the investigators. A more experienced Keeper will know to play and draw the events of the scenario and the deaths of everyone present out over the course of the evening.

Although ostensibly set in the early 1920s and in Lovecraft Country, Dead Light is not location or time specific. It would work in any period from the 1900s onwards. Likewise, it can easily be relocated to almost any country. All it needs is a stretch of road that runs through heavy woods alongside which stands a petrol station and a roadside cafe. The NPCs may well need some adjusting here or there so that they are not American, but such adjustments are minor and they are well drawn enough to fit any other desired location.

Included with Dead Light is a four page guide to using it with earlier versions of Call of Cthulhu. That said, even the possession of the rules for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is unnecessary to run Dead Light as it could be run using the Quick-Start Rules available from Chaosium. Further, Dead Light could easily be run before or after the investigators’ strange experiences in the classic scenario, ‘The Haunting’.

Unfortunately, what Dead Light lacks is a set of pre-generated investigators. Their inclusion would have provided a ready reason for the player characters to be on the road to Ipswich and with the inclusion of integrated backgrounds, it could have added an extra degree of tension and interplay between the travellers that would come into play as events of the scenario play out. Possible ideas might be a family visiting relatives, college students returning home, mobsters on a job, and so on. This would bind the investigators together and make use of the guidelines on organisations to be found in the Investigator Handbook for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. It would alleviate the need to come up with reasons why newly-created random characters—an antiquarian, a dilettante, a doctor, and a private detective—know each other and are on the road together. Of course, this is not an issue for experienced role-players or when using previously played characters.

Physically, Dead Light is well presented. An edit is needed here and there, but the scenario is well written, the NPCs decently done, and the threat clearly explained. The maps are also good and much of the artwork can also serve as good hand-outs. If there is an issue with Dead Light physically, it is that the cover does not fit its threat as it is supposed to. It feels all too solid, too defined, whereas the descriptions given of the threat feel otherwise…

Although not quite suitable for an inexperienced Keeper, Dead Light is more than suitable for new players, whilst experienced players will enjoy an evening’s play up against something other than a traditional threat, whether drawn from traditional horror or that of the Cthulhu Mythos. Containing (almost) everything necessary to play an evening of survival horror tinged with Cosmic Horror, Dead Light: Surviving One Night Outside Of Arkham is a solid scenario and the best title released by Chaosium in years.

A case of the 'Curse of  Chaosium' crack’d…?

Monday 27 October 2014

2004: Dogs in the Vineyard

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


Picking titles from one anniversary to the next has proved to be easier for some years than others. 1984 was a particularly fruitful year, offering plenty of choices, but the subsequent anniversaries—1994 and 2004—in terms of RPGs and board games have been more challenging. 1994 is difficult because it was at the height of the Magic the Gathering boom, it was before Settlers of Catan would initiate the popularity in board games that we see today, and it was at a time when RPGs were tending towards generic rules. By 2004,  board games were truly on their rise to popularity that we know today, whilst RPGs tended to be dominated by their use of the d20 System, the mechanics derived from Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition. That though was in mainstream roleplaying…

By 2004, a publishing movement had arisen that if not in opposition to mainstream RPGs, were certainly outside it and definitely broke the model of how RPGs were played and what they focused on. Firstly, the games were self-published, self-promoted, and often, self-distributed; secondly, they focused not on broad settings with the GM serving as the ‘sole’ gatekeeper for the game, but instead concentrated on single genres, set-ups, and stories. They focused on character and story, often telling morally and emotionally wrought tales in which during the telling, the players had greater narrative input than in the traditional RPG. Their play was collaborative, not just between the players, but also between the players and the GM—and sometimes they dispensed with the GM all together.

By 2014—a decade later—it should be noted that whilst the ‘Indie Roleplaying Game’ movement is not dead, much of its design ethos and intent has been absorbed by the mainstream, most notably in the form of Evil Hat Design’s FATE RPG and the more recent Firefly Role-Playing Game from Margaret Weis Productions. No ‘Indie Roleplaying Game’ would win an Origins Award—the industry’s premier award, though Bully Pulpit Games’ Fiasco would be nominated in 2010.  A number of Indie style RPGs have won the Diana Jones Award, arguably a critically more prestigious award. They include Paul Czege’s My Life with Master, Ron Edward’s Sorcerer, and both Jason Morningstar’s Grey Ranks and the aforementioned Fiasco, the latter remaining to this day, the best known title to have come out of the Indie movement. The first games though, to offer this style of play are arguably Hogshead Publishing’s New Style series—The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Münchhausen, Puppetland/Powerkill (Puppetland has just been relaunched on Kickstarter), and Pantheon and other Roleplaying Games being notable entries—but they predate the movement and they were not self-published.

In 2004, the most well-known were My life with Master and Dogs in the Vineyard. It is the latter, published in 2004, which is that year’s entry for the anniversary series of reviews. At first glance, Dogs in the Vineyard: A Role-Playing Game looks to be a Western RPG. It is set in Western United States, the indigenous population is not necessarily to be trusted, and the characters ride the land dispensing justice. This to an extent is true, but Dogs in the Vineyard is not as simplistic as that. The setting is the Western United States, specifically the Deseret Territory of pre-statehood Utah in the middle of the 19th century, isolated and wary of the Territorial Authority; the Mountain People may not be trusted, but they are to be brought into the Faithful; and the player characters are members of the ‘Order Set Apart to the Preservation of the Faith and the Faithful’, who ride from town to town, preaching and performing ceremonies—baptisms, weddings, funerals, and so on, keeping the peace, protecting the Faithful, ferreting out and punishing sinners, and bringing not only the word of The Faith of All Things in the King of Life, Reborn to the people, but also messages and the mail. They are the King’s Watchdogs, or ‘Dogs’, and are known for their finely embroidered coats that is their badge of office.

There is a certain historicity to this set-up. Parallels may be drawn with antebellum Utah—the Utah of the 1840s and 1850s, the mistrusted authority of the USA and Washington, DC, and of course, with the Mormon faith. On its first page, the author states that Dogs in the Vineyard is a fantasy inspired by the history, and although other options suggest elsewhere and elsewhen the game/mechanics can be set should anyone object to its depiction of Mormonism, Dogs in the Vineyard treats the religion with respect. Indeed, although it gives certain specific details, and that mainly for flavour and feel, it mainly presents the Faith as a moral code, which makes the mechanics and tone of Dogs in the Vineyard not only more easy to translate to other times and settings, it makes it much less offensive.

Each session involves the player characters, or ‘Dogs’, riding into town and interacting with the townsfolk as they carry out their duties. In doing so, they discover that someone in the town has fallen prey to the sin of Pride at a perceived injustice, which left unchecked has escalated to false doctrine and false priesthood. With the growth of sin in a town, the King of Life is likely to withdraw his protection and thus allow demons into the town. Their presence, left unchecked, will eventually result in sorcery and murder… The duty of the Dogs is thus to root out the cause, judge the sinners, and dispense mercy and punishment according to the tenets of the Faith. Then they ride out, leaving in their wake, a townspeople that may be shattered by their experience—several of them may be dead, and the town may be in flames. The Dogs may have suffered also, depending on the choices made and the relationships ruined. Between towns, they ride the beautiful Deseret Territory, reflecting upon their actions, readying themselves for the next town, or to retire as a Dog, their duty done.

A Dog is defined by several dice pools, the size of which are determined by the type of character, whether that is Well-Rounded, Complicated History, Strong Community, and so on. This sets the number of dice to assign to a character’s Stats—Acuity, Body, Heart, and Will; Traits—freeform aspects of the character such as ‘My Grandfather’s Hunting Knife 1d6’ or ‘I have a honey’d tongue 2d4’; and Relationships—ties to places and people, like ‘My brother Ned, who always seemed to pull me from the fire 2d6’ or ‘Under the green shade of the woods 1d8’. Lastly a player decides on his Dog’s equipment, generally a horse, guns (it should be noted that guns of this period are black powder, percussion cap, single-action weapons), perhaps a knife, and the coat that is his Dog’s badge of office. Lastly, each Dog undertakes an initiation rite whilst training to be a Dog. It is different for each character and serves as a means to introduce the mechanics of Dogs in the Vineyard. There is plenty of flexibility in character design and capacity for player input, but such freedoms back in 2004 were just a little daunting...

Our sample character is Sister Temperance Deakins, the adopted elder daughter of a family of undertakers. A foundling of the Mountain People, she was exactly what her mother wanted until her sister Prudence was born, all blonde curls and skin like milk. Temperance still had a place in the home and was put to the household chores or went with her mother to bring succour to the folk who had recently been bereaved. Only her Grandfather accepted her fully and never favoured Prudence over her. Prudence remains jealous that Temperance became a Watchdog and not her.

Name: Sister Temperance Deakins
Background: Complicated History

—Stats— {15d6 dice}
Acuity: 4d6 Body: 3d6 Heart: 4d6 Will: 4d6

—Traits— {4d4, 2d6, 2d10 dice}
Measured shot 1d4
I am God’s Watchdog 1d6
I am an uneasy rider 1d6
There is always women’s work to be done, 3d4
I know the ways of Grief 2d10
I overcame my fear of guns 1d6

—Relationships— 5d6, 2d8 dice {Available: 2d6, 1d8 }
Blood 1d6
My pretty sister Prudence, jealous that I am a Dog, 1d8
My adopted Grandfather, who accepted me, 2d6

Colt Paterson revolver, 1d6+1d4
Big old nag, 1d8+1d4
Watchdog’s Coat 2d6 (Green with red piping and the Tree of Life embroidered in gold on the back).

Mechanically, Dogs in the Vineyard also departed from traditional RPGs in that its focus is entirely upon conflicts, including conflicts between the Dogs and between the Dogs and the townsfolk that they are passing judgement upon. Essentially with mundane tasks and mundane knowledge, it is accepted that a Dog either knows the information or not, or can undertake the action or not. In fact the GM has one simple rule to any situation; either say “Yes”, or roll the dice and begin a conflict—indeed this was its very first appearance in any RPG. Conflicts come into play when there is something at stake, for example, “I will impose my will as a Dog and convince the congregation that I bring the true word of the King in Life” or “I will chase down the sinner, Brother Nathaniel, and bring him to judgement”. Resolving the conflict involves Poker-style mechanics opposed rolls of dice pools. The base for each pool is a pair of stats—Acuity and Heart when talking, Body and Heart for physical actions that do not involve combat (for example, in a chase), Body and Will for fighting with fists, knives, and so on,  and Acuity and Will for gunfights. To this can be dice from appropriate Traits, Relationships, and Belongings. For example, in a situation where Sister Temperance has to use a gun, she rolls her Acuity and Will, Measured shot, I overcame my fear of guns, and her gun, for a total of 8d6, 1d4, 1d6, and 1d6+1d4.

The results are not added, but kept as single dice. Then those in the conflict make Raises using up the value of pairs of their dice, narrating what they say or do as part of the Raise. In response, a target can See this Raise by countering it with dice equal to the Raise. Two dice will block the Raise; using one die will not only stop it, but Reverse it and let the target keep and use the die in his next Raise; and lastly three or more dice means that the Raise has been partly blocked, the target Takes the Blow and suffers consequences after the conflict is over. Should one side of the conflict concede or run out of dice, he suffers Fallout and will gain possible consequences.
For example, as part of her duties as a Dog, Sister Temperance has returned home to discover that her sister Prudence dressed in black and mourning for her late husband, a man whom she did not love and did not want to marry. Now she has a child and is jealous of the perceived freedoms that Temperance has. She has been complaining to her father-in-law, the local Steward, seducing him with her words and persuading him that Temperance’s place is with her mother, not with the Dogs. He now preaches that no one born of the Mountain People can be called to be Dog… This is false doctrine.
Temperance confronts her sister. The stakes for the conflict are to force ‘Prudence to admit her jealousy drives her pride and her sin’. For this, Temperance will roll her Acuity and Heart Stats, I am God’s Watchdog and I know the ways of Grief Traits, and Blood and My pretty sister Prudence, jealous that I am a Dog Relationships. This gives her 4d6, 3d6, 1d6, 2d10, 1d6, and 1d8 to roll, the result being 1, 2, 3, 3, 3, 4, 5, 5, 6, 7, 7, and 8.
Prudence likewise rolls her Acuity (2d6) and Heart (4d6) Stats, Butter wouldn't melt (2d4) and Grieving Widow (1d10) Traits, and Blood (1d8) and I am jealous of my sister, the Dog (2d6) Relationships. She rolls 2, 2, 2, 2, 3, 3, 3, 4, 4, 4, 4, 5, and 7.
Temperance confronts her sister and says, “You have my sympathies sister, I know how grief must sit upon you.” and Raises with a 5 and 5 for 10. Prudence responds with, “What do you know of grief? You have lost nothing and gained everything!” and Sees Temperance’s Raise with a 3 and 7 for 10. Prudence then makes her own Raise with a 4 and 4 before saying, “You abandoned us, your family, just like your real family abandoned you!”
Temperance Sees this with her single 8—sufficient to Reverse the Blow and retain the 8 for her next Raise—responds with, “I was doing my duty unto the Faith and answering when I was called.” She then Raises with the 8 and a 7, saying, “And just as I was doing my duty by the King of Life, so were you!” 15 is far more than Prudence can See with two dice and is forced to use four dice—5, 4, 4, and 3—instead. The consequences are that Prudence suffers 1d4 in Fallout for each of the four dice used to See. Stung by her Sister’s words she flies at Temperance in a rage. What this means is that she Escalates and the Conflict now becomes physical!
Escalating is the only way in which a Dog can gain more dice. That is, switching up to more dangerous forms from conflict—from social conflict to physical combat to gunfights. Each time the combatants would reroll. Similarly, as the conflict escalates, the Fallout dice also escalate, from the d4 of Social conflicts to the d6 of hand-to-hand conflicts to the d8 of conflicts involving melee weapons to the d10 of conflicts involving guns.

Each town is a scenario in itself and there is plenty of advice for the GM on creating towns and the hierarchies of sin that beset them. Essentially sketching them out in broad detail along with the various NPCs and their desires—NPCs always want something of the Dogs as they are the final arbiters in any situation—so that the GM can add further details as play progresses. Especially helpful here are the details on everyday life in the Vineyard and the constrictive expectations of everyone’s role in society, as they add flavour and they are reason enough for one of the Faithful to doubt his place or suffer from jealousy. From this of course, it is relatively easy to step onto the hierarchy of sin. What the GM is not doing is setting up a plot or a story to tell, but rather leaving it up to the players’ Dogs to decide what they do, where they go, and who they speak to, and ultimately how they resolve the situation that a town is hiding.

The core of the advice on running Dogs in the Vineyard is twofold—“Escalate, escalate, escalate” and “Drive Play Towards Conflict”, supported by the simplicity of “Roll the dice, or say yes”. What this means is the Dogs and thus the players are constantly being pushed to confront the evidence of the sins that lurk in every town and the sinners themselves to force them to admit their guilt. Then of course, to make and pass moral judgements upon the sinners. Whilst the towns themselves are unlikely to be memorable—though the GM is free to add as little or as much detail as he wants—it is the sins of the townsfolk that that mark one town from another and make them memorable. Certainly it is what the Dogs will reflect upon as well as the judgements passed after they leave the town.

One aspect of Dogs in the Vineyard that the GM can set ahead of time, or indeed can be agreed upon by the GM and his players is to what degree the supernatural actually plays in the Deseret Territory and in undermining the people of the The Faith of All Things in the King of Life. It may not exist at all, except in the minds of believers, but the threat may truly be real, with an unbeliever willingly accepting possession by a demon or a sorcerer, a false prophet, having a demon at his beck and call.

Physically, Dogs in the Vineyard is an imposingly simple book with a beautiful cover. Inside, the book at first looks surprisingly plain and the artwork is disappointing. The later is still true a decade on, but my opinion of the book’s look has changed in that time. With the layout and the choice of font, handled by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, Dogs in the Vineyard has a period feel and a plain, unadorned feel that lends it a certain charm.

In comparison to the mainstream in 2004, Dogs in the Vineyard was a truly focused and moral game, one that was truly radical for its time. Although Poker-style play underlies the game’s mechanics, their  application as a means to escalate and drive conflicts forward was radical, not to say daunting. The game’s mechanical focus on conflict was equally radical, but its advice to “say yes, or roll dice” has very much become part of mainstream roleplay design and theory. Radical also was the game’s focus on making moral judgements. There had been RPGs in which the players and their characters passed judgements before, most obviously the Judge Dredd RPG, but that was really a satire in which the law was enforced unflinchingly and unfeelingly. In Dogs in the Vineyard the judgements are made on a moral basis and that ultimately is the game’s great strength.

To be truthful, there were few great RPGs being released in 2004, or in any of the opening years of the 21st century and arguably not from mainstream publishing. Dogs in the Vineyard: A Role-Playing Game is one such great RPG. Its mechanics were and remain elegant, its design as an RPG as morality tale delightfully radical, and it is still one of the best RPGs to have come out of  the ‘Indie Roleplaying Game’ movement.

Thursday 23 October 2014

Dicing with Dragons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 18 October 2014

2004: Ticket to Ride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 10 October 2014

Honour within the Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sagara Kiosho
Rank 1 Ronin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 9 October 2014

Time for Tea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 3 October 2014

Of Mice and the Moon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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