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

Friday 28 November 2014

Staked Twice, Never Bitten

There are one or two facts that you need to know about Double Tap, the first supplement for one of the best RPGs—certainly the finest espionage and finest espionage/horror RPG—of 2012, Night’s Black Agents: the Vampire Spy Thriller RPG. Written by Ken Hite and published by Pelgrane Press, the player characters are ex-secret agents who have learned that their former employers are controlled by vampires and decide to take down the vampiric conspiracy before the vampires take them. As much a toolkit as an RPG, it gives everything that the Director needs to design and create his game, allowing him to design the vampire conspiracy and the vampire threat, from psychic alien leeches to the traditional children of Transylvania, and set the tone and style of the espionage, from the high octane of the James Bond franchise to the dry and mundane grittiness of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Essentially, Night’s Black Agents is your Schweizer Offiziersmesser of vampires and espionage.

The first fact is that as the title might suggest, Double Tap is not a supplement about guns—Double Tap being a shooting manoeuvre intended to ensure that a target is definitely dead by shooting him twice in the head—although there is a section about guns in the book. This of course begs the question, “Why exactly, is this supplement called ‘Double Tap’?”. Which is a perfectly good question to which there is a perfectly good answer in the last paragraph of this review. The second is that Double Tap is not the ‘Agent’s Companion’ for Night’s Black Agents. It is instead the ‘The Night’s Black Agents Expansion Book’, because it contains information for the Director as well as the players and their characters. Indeed, it has sections entitled ‘Agent’s Companion’ and ‘Director’s Companion’. Between them, the players and Director are served up a plethora of clues, benefits, cherries, manoeuvres, rules, gadgets and (yes) guns, and more—all delivered as an easy-to-digest, no-fuss, but some frills, in-country supply drop.

The ‘Agent’s Companion’ dives straight into a re-examination of an agent’s Abilities. Each receives a new overviews and a new focus, the latter less mechanical than a new means of applying it; a ‘Tactical Fact-Finding Benefit’ that showcases how might be used to best effect; sample benefits to be gained from spending the points from an Ability’s pool; and sample clues. For example, the new focus for the Accounting Ability is money laundering. It provides a short, but detailed description of how it is done; its ‘Tactical Fact-Finding Benefit’ describes how Accounting might be used to track down and use an illegal stash of guns to gain an advantage over the opposition; and how it can be spent to gain benefits on other Abilities when they are next used. The accompanying sample clues show how ‘following the money’ can lead somewhere interesting, and like the sample clues for the other Abilities detailed in Double Tap, can either be as is and added in game, or as models to adjusted for the Director’s own game. Other Investigative Abilities also include extra details, associated equipment, and so on, such as the list of British Police Jargon for Cop Talk, the most expensive hotels in Europe for High Society, toxins for Pharmacy, and what you pack in a ‘Bug-Out’ bag under Urban Surveillance.

Then Double Tap does exactly the same thing for an Agent’s General Abilities. Again, each of these is given a new focus, for example, Parkour for Athletics and Plastic Explosives for Explosives; new sample clues, and so on. Instead of ‘Tactical Fact-Finding Benefit’, they have new Cherries, the extra special benefits that come with having high Abilities. In general, these are not quite as interesting as those for Investigative Abilities, but the point of this re-examination is to make each and every Ability interesting, useful, and evocative. It highlights how every Ability can bear upon the game and how the Director should be bringing his player Agents’ Abilities into his campaign.

Double Tap then presents a number of new mechanical options or ‘Tricks of the Trade’, that work in conjunction with a player narration. All a player has to do is narrate the action to gain the benefit of an Ability refresh with these, just as with those in the core rules. In this they work in a similar fashion to the Thriller manoeuvres, like Gear Devil or Technothriller Monologue, found in Night’s Black Agents. They also push the levels of competence, so are suited to more cinematic games. The first is a number of new Thriller manoeuvres, the majority of which these are for non-combat Abilities, such as Grease Monkey for Mechanics and Verbal Trauma Unit for Medic. These are followed by a set of Achievement refreshes—inspired by computer gaming—that push up the cinematic aspects of Night’s Black Agents that little bit more, such as ‘Lifeline’ for climbing out of a window using knotted sheets or fire hose, or ‘Mother Superior’ for impersonating a religious figure! Tricks of the Trade’ continues with ‘Adaptive Tradecraft’, which takes ‘standard’ adaptive espionage or Tradecraft techniques and suggests how they might work when hunting vampires. Rounding this chapter out is a set of standard operating procedures, the Cartagena Rules. These are not for being spies in the field—Night’s Black Agents has the Bucharest Rules for that, backed up by the Moscow Rules in Double Tap—but for playing Night’s Black Agents. Their aim is to keep the game moving and enjoyable, to avoid it stagnating and getting dull, and being a set of rules, they are short and to the point. Good advice for players and Director alike.

‘Materiel’ puts gadgets, gear, and guns under the spotlight. To an extent, this section is in Q Branch territory, especially with its vehicle upgrades like oil slick dispensers and disposable car skins. Guns get the same treatment, but some of the special ammunition may have its uses in any style of game against vampires. Whilst a list of firearms is included, they are not necessarily there for the agents’ use, but rather to arm particular agencies.

The Thriller Chase rules in Night’s Black Agents turned up the action for chases by foot, by vehicle, and so on. ‘Thriller Contests & Manhunts’ does the same for Digital Intrusion, Infiltration, and Surveillance. What this means is that certain non-combat scenes—hacking attempts, stealthy break-ins and break-outs, and monitoring a suspect—can played out dramatically, even thrillingly, by making them intense contests. There are guidelines given to make each of them thrilling and how to use other Abilities during Digital Intrusion, Infiltration, or Surveillance attempts. Not every attempt or scene involving Digital Intrusion, Infiltration, or Surveillance need be run as a Thriller Contest, but when needed, now they can, and they give the player agents involved their moment in the spotlight. In similar fashion, the Manhunt rules up the ante for handling chases, especially where the quarry is trying to do more than just get away. Of course, this is all whilst the player agents are burned and out in the cold, no longer having access to the manpower or infrastructure to carry out a manhunt.

The remaining third of Double Tap is the ‘Director’s Companion’ and for his eyes only. He receives a good set of NPCs, ready to fill out cameo roles, and easy to portray and modify, that can be used as assets or clues. Accompanying these is a set of ‘Establishing Shots’, locations and scenes that the Director can set up a scene and bring it to life. Both sets are evocative and fun, as well as being easy-to-use tools. Double Tap also comes with four new monsters—the chupa, the ekimmu, the homunculus, and the penanggalan—and a complete vampire build in the form of the nosferatu, the latter being familiar to most gamers (and agents). Of course Night’s Black Agents has plenty of options when it comes to the Director creating or selecting a vampiric foe for his game, but these add more, especially given that there are notes included on how to turn these creatures of one legend into another. For the Director, a whole new story aid is provided in the form of the ‘Suspyramid’, which plugs into the ‘Conspyramid’, the structure that underpins the vampire conspiracy in Night’s Black Agents. It helps him run games in which the player agents not only dismantle the conspiracy, but set parts of it against each other. Rounding out the ‘Director’s Companion’ are notes on running Night’s Black Agents in other eras, specifically the Victorian Age, World War II, and the Cold War. These do feel a little underwritten, but they are really no more than notes. Of course, any one of these three periods would be worthy of a supplement in their own right.

Physically, Double Tap is a well-written, easy-to-read, and easily digestible supplement. Its contents are nicely supported by a good index and, for the Director, summary lists of the cherries and vampiric powers—both from Night’s Black Agents and Double Tap.

Companion volumes are not always the most interesting or coherent of reads. This is the danger of covering lots of different subjects under one cover, but Double Tap contains different things that are actually interesting. The new rules its gives are interesting and better than that, they evoke their genre and are fun in the process. If there is a downside to them, it is that they evoke the more cinematic side of Night’s Black Agents, rather than the drier grittier side. Nevertheless, Double Tap provides plenty of manoeuvres and tricks of the trade to ensure that a Director’s Night’s Black Agent is definitely fun.

Monday 24 November 2014

Solo History

There are many gamers who will tell you that it was Vampire the Masquerade that got them into roleplaying. That was in the 1990s. There are many gamers who will tell you that it was Dungeons & Dragons that got them into roleplaying. That was in the 1970s and of course, ever since... There are many gamers who will tell you that it was another phenomenon, of the 1980s, that got them into gaming, certainly if they are British, that of the Fighting Fantasy™ solo roleplaying books. Created in 1982 by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson with the publication of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, in the thirty years since, some sixty or so titles have published in the series and some seventeen million copies have been sold. In their time, the Fighting Fantasy™ series has produced bestsellers, computer games, board games, and of course, a dedicated fan base. Now it has its own history book.

You Are The Hero: A History of Fighting Fantasy™ Gamebooks is that history book. Funded via Kickstarter, this is the definitive guide to the series and the phenomenon; a ‘coffee table’ style book lavishly illustrated with artwork that has both graced the insides and the outs of titles in the Fighting Fantasy™ series, from first—The Warlock of Firetop Mountain—to the last, Blood of the Zombies. This includes the book covers by the likes of Peter Andrew Jones, Ian Miller, Ian McCaig, as well as the internal illustrations of Russ Nicholson, Martin McKenna, Alan Langford—and more!

That more includes the original map for The Warlock of Firetop Mountain; original notes for The Forest of Doom; details about cameo appearances made by Livingstone and Jackson in Fighting Fantasy artwork; maps of the worlds and locations of the Fighting Fantasy series; plus the input of not just the artists and authors involved in every Fighting Fantasy title, but the fans too. The array of opinions given here are surprisingly frank. Most of them are as positive, even as gushing, as you would expect, but some are bluntly critical, in some cases by authors and artists of their own work. This gives the book a refreshingly engaging feel. Also explored are the other media where Fighting Fantasy appears—board games, computer games, phone games, magazines, and more. The book is thus thoroughly comprehensive, all but exhaustive in its coverage of all things Fighting Fantasy. Along the way it throws in fact after fact about the books, their creators, and the Fighting Fantasy phenomenon, all before bringing right up to date with the publication of Ian Livingstone’s Blood of the Zombies and the adaptations of the Fighting Fantasy series into titles that be played on tablets and mobile telephones.

To an extent, You Are The Hero is not just a history of the Fighting Fantasy series. It should be no surprise to the reader given that Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson created the series, that this volume also sketches a biography of the two men’s careers, and thus of Games Workshop and the games and computer industries in the UK over the last forty or so years. If there is an issue with You Are The Hero it is that it feels slightly rushed. It needs an edit in places and the layout is clumsy in places. Perhaps the book’s biggest weakness is its lack of an index, which is disappointing given that the subtitle of the book is ‘A History of Fighting Fantasy™ Gamebooks’—and that suggests that the book is intended to be reference work. The lack of an index is only a hindrance to that purpose.

There were ‘choose your adventure path’ style books available before the Fighting Fantasy™ series, whether that is the solo adventures for the Tunnels & Trolls RPG or my first experience with the genre, Mission to Planet L, part of the Tracker book series in 1975. Similarly there were various books and titles that appeared alongside the Fighting Fantasy™ series. Of course, they are not the subject of You Are The Hero, so there remains to be written a definitive history of the ‘choose your adventure path’ style book. Jonathan Green, the author of You Are The Hero and himself the author of four Fighting Fantasy adventures, is perhaps the man to write such a history… After all, he has already written the Fighting Fantasy chapter right here. As much a trip down memory lane as an informative and fascinating exploration of gaming before the digital age brought into said digital age, You Are The Hero: A History of Fighting Fantasy™ Gamebooks is the definitive guide and history to the phenomenon that introduced reading, interactive fiction, and fantasy roleplaying to a wider audience than ever before.

Sunday 23 November 2014

Your Gateway to Japon Games

Japanese board games have become very popular in the last few years, most notably Love Letter and Trains, both published by Alderac Entertainment Group and both winners of Origins Awards in 2014. What this means is that new Japanese board and card games are hotly anticipated, none more so than Machi Koro. In English, it is released by IDW Games, a publisher better known for its comic publishing. Machi Koro is a quick-playing ‘dice and card’ for two to four players, aged eight and up, in which they are each the mayor of a suburb whose residents want their district developed. Starting off with a Wheat Field and a Bakery, each player will race to build four landmark buildings—a Station, a Shopping Mall, an Amusement Park, and a Radio Tower. The first mayor to do so is the winner!

The playing time is thirty minutes and very simple. On his turn a player rolls the die and everyone will compare the result with numbers printed at the top of the building cards they have in front of them. This can generate money for everyone or just the current player, who is now free to spend it to purchase a new building or a landmark. A player can have multiples of one card type, but can only buy one card per turn.

Where Machi Koro gets interesting is how the cards generate money. There are four types. Blue cards pay out to everyone when their numbers are rolled; green only pay out on a player’s turn; red cards take money from other players they roll their  numbers; and purple cards provide an action rather an a pay-out. Note that red and blue cards pay out even when it is not a player’s turn. For example, the blue Ranch cards pay everyone one coin when anyone rolls a result of a one. The green Bakery pays out one coin on a roll of two or three on the current player’s turn only. The red Café allows a player to take a coin from the current player when he rolls a three. The purple Business Centre allows a player to swap one of his buildings with that of another player.

Initially a player will be only rolling one die. If he purchases the Station landmark, he can roll one die or he can roll both dice. This means that range of results is no longer one to six, but two to twelve, and it means that as soon as they are built, a new range of buildings and their dice results are available to him. The cards with ranges above five tend to be more expensive and have more complex effects, especially results for six, seven, and eight. For example, the green Cheese Factory, which costs five coins, pays out three coins for each card the current player has with a cow symbol on it—currently only a Ranch—anytime he rolls a seven. Building the landmarks will also give a player a benefit. The Station allows him to roll two dice; the Amusement Park lets him roll again if he rolls doubles, and so on.

Although designed for between two and four players, Machi Koro works better with three and four rather than two, primarily because there more participants for the cards to work off. Physically though, Machi Koro is nicely presented. The artwork on the cards is cute, the cards are easy to read, and the rulebook is very clear and very simple. The box comes with room for expansions, but the insert could have been better designed for that.

There have been comments that it is like Settlers of Catan without the trading or Monopoly without the mortgages. To an extent this is true. You are rolling for resources (coins) and you are buying properties as in both of those games, Machi Koro is a quicker, slicker game without the trading and without the mucking about with the banks. It is certainly better than Monopoly and whilst no Settlers of Catan, it is a well-designed little game. However, it is not perfect, but the first imperfection is not of Machi Koro’s own making. The first problem is that the game is slightly disappointing, but that can be put down to it having been overly anticipated, it having taken a year to reach us since it first appeared at Essen in 2013. Second is that its game play does not offer a great deal of depth or variety. Third, it does not offer much in the way of strategy and the primary means of getting money—the purchase of Ranches and Cheese Factories (the latter with its average roll of seven)—is obvious and difficult to counter. What game needs is an expansion and it needs it now. Two have been released in Japan— Machi Koro Sharp and Machi Koro: Harbor Expansion—and they need to be released in English before Machi Koro loses its popularity.

Now despite all this, Machi Koro will appeal to a wide audience. There one or two strategies in the game that a seasoned gamer will latch on to, but the dice rolling gives it a luck factor that will offset that to give everyone a good chance of winning. So amongst gamers it can be played to a cutthroat finish, but it also be played as a casual game. It is easy to play, it is fast to play, and it is easy to teach. This, when combined with thoroughly charming artwork means that Machi Koro is a good family game and if not quite a good gateway game, then it is very, very close.

Friday 21 November 2014

An Esteren Companion

To date, the French RPG, Les Ombres d'Esteren or Shadows of Esteren, published by Agate RPG, remains an intriguing game. This low dark, fantasy setting with Lovecraftian overtones has been explored in just two releases in the English language—Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue provided us with an introduction to the setting as well as a set of player characters/NPCs and three ready-to-play scenarios, while Shadows of Esteren 1-Universe presented that setting, the Tri-Kazel peninsula, in more detail. Both were beautiful books, but they also left much unsaid about the setting, in particular its secrets and the true nature of the world and the Feondas, the strange and hideous beasts that threaten the inhabitants of the peninsula. In addition, the books have their own problems. In places their writing has been obtuse, a problem that comes from their being translations of books in another language. This is not to say that the translations are poorly done, but they are not done by native English speakers and that does show in places. The other problem is the sheer density of text, typically written in character. This gives the world flavour aplenty, but it does sometimes make the setting inaccessible and details difficult to find.

The third release, Shadows of Esteren 2-Travels, suffers from similar issues, but not to the same extent. It does though, have problems of its own. Its structure heavily weighs in upon those problems. The original French version began life as two chapters—‘Cartography’ and ‘Canvasses’, but to these have been added three more chapters in the English edition of Shadows of Esteren 2-Travels. The first of these new chapters provides a full length, detailed adventure, the second gives yet more NPC/player characters, and the third some actual secrets to the setting.

Initially, the contents of ‘Cartography’, the first chapter, is difficult to digest. It consists of descriptions of different places around the Tri-Kazel peninsula. Little more than snapshots,  together they initially feel slightly incoherent, but it quickly becomes apparent that these are the reminiscences of a Varigal, one of the travellers and messengers who spread news and stories via the secret ways each apprentice learns. They are full of little details such as that narrow pass known as ‘Faol Ròd’ or ‘Wolf’s Breach is said to be haunted by a giant barbed wolf appeased every twenty years by the sacrifice of a hero or that the previous villagers of Aimliù were said to hear things upon icy winds of the sea and shied away from sunlight, which is why they were put to the sword before the War of the Temple. Eventually these reminiscences switch to providing more detail about particular places, such as the newly rebuilt city of Expiation, constructed by the Temple on the site of vile heresy  as a model of the perfect town should be, and the Carmine Chasm, a maze-like canyon uniquely home to blood red flora and known for its lamenting wind and the ‘white cross widows’, the small spiders that collectively weave great webs. These longer descriptions are more accessible, and thus for the Game Leader—the Referee in Shadows of Esteren—are much easier to bring into his game. Rounding this chapter are notes the geographical features of the Tri-Kazel peninsula and travelling them, including a nice guide to the ‘Stermerks’, the ideograms used by the Varigals to mark the dangers and difficulties upon the road.

Chapter 2, ‘Canvases’, presents five short adventures intended to be played in an evening or a single session. They are more like extended encounters as they do require the Game Leader to flesh them out and provide game stats for each the NPCs, which means that they are easier to adapt to a particular playing group. Unfortunately, the quintet is an uneven lot in terms of quality. They begin in uninspiring fashion, with a pair of familiar plots. In ‘Blood Feathers’, an exiled family has turned to preying on lonely and lost travellers, while in ‘The Disappearance’, the player characters fall in with the Tarish—the equivalent of the Gypsies in Shadows of Esteren—and are honour-bound to find out happened when both their companion and a beautiful girl disappear. The fourth Canvas, ‘Say it with Flowers’ is a murder mystery and again uses a rather familiar plot. This is not to say that a Game Leader could not run these three encounters well enough, but more that their plots do not evoke the game world as well as a Game Leader might like. 

Fortunately, this cannot be said of the third Canvas, ‘Night of Fright’, which finds the player characters in a village, unexpectedly and oddly alone. It is a terrific set-up and needs relatively little in the way of preparation compared to the others. The Game Leader should have plenty of fun with it and once he has run it for one group, it worth running again for another. Or indeed stealing it for another game and setting! The fifth and last Canvas, ‘The Shipwreck’ is not as fun as ‘Night of Fright’, but it does bring out much of what is interesting and unique to the setting of Shadows of Esteren—the tension between progress and tradition, and in particular , the ecological dangers of that progress. In ‘The Shipwreck’ the player characters come across a seaside village poisoned by the wreck of a Magientist ship.

The third chapter, the first of three wholly new ones to the English edition of this supplement is devoted to a single, lengthy scenario, ‘A Life Choice’.  It has the player characters hired to accompany a Magientist to reclaim her son whom she thought dead, but who was actually kidnapped by his father and taken to join what is essentially the equivalent of religious fundamentalist cult. Unsurprisingly, neither the father nor the head of the cult want the boy to go, and worse, the boy thoroughly hates his mother. There are though those within the cult that want out and are prepared to reveal its secrets, secrets that may aid the player characters in rescuing both the boy and those that want to leave. What ‘A Life Choice’ boils down to is a custody battle, and quite a meaty one at that. There is a lot of detail to the scenario and certainly plenty for the Game Leader and player alike to get their roleplaying teeth into. The initial parts of the scenario have room to expand it a little with other adventures, possibly with some of the Canvases given earlier in the book. The intent here is to turn it into a campaign of sorts, but even with the addition of those canvasses, or others of the Game Leader’s own devising, ‘A Life Choice’ is not quite long enough to be a full campaign. One issue with the scenario is that the writing is not quite as clear as it could be, so the Game Leader will need to give ‘A Life Choice’ a more careful read through than is the norm. Otherwise, this is a good, challenging scenario for all concerned.

‘Figures of Tri-Kazel’, the fourth chapter, describes and illustrates eighteen new NPCs. At least one of these appears in the previously presented chapters, but this is not followed through with the rest, though is nothing to stop the Game Leader from adding the NPCs to one location or another. The chapter also includes some details on the setting’s ‘Mysterious Powers’, in particular how they are used by some of the NPCs given earlier. Whilst useful for those NPCs, in the long term, these powers are limited in their application as just how often can a Game Leader use them in his campaign? In general though, as well designed as these NPCs are—including stats, personality, description, and associated rumour—and as beautifully illustrated as they are, they do feel out of place in Shadows of Esteren 2-Travels.

Rounding out Shadows of Esteren 2-Travels is ‘Bestiary’, the fifth chapter which presents a mini-menagerie of monsters. Stats are provided for several mundane creatures, but what will be interest to the Game Leader will be the full stats and full write-ups of ten the strange and deadly Feondas! Of course their inclusion is only to support the scenario and Canvases that appear elsewhere in the book, but they do provide us with a glimpse of the distantly forthcoming supplement, Shadows of Esteren 4-Secrets. As with the NPCs, each creature write-up includes the stats and general description. Each creature also has its own particular powers and several come with supplementary information or associated rumours. All are nicely detailed and even those that feel a little unoriginal, like the Vampire Bats, are well done and come with more flavour than they might have done in any other horror RPG. Most though are original and interesting and should test the player characters. Of course, the problem with it being a glimpse is that we are left wanting more and there is at least one more book  to come before the publication of Shadows of Esteren 4-Secrets. That wait is frustrating, more so given that no ‘real’ secrets are given away, we are not told the true nature of the Feondas, but we are least given the opportunity to examine some in detail—and a very welcome opportunity it is too...

As with the first two releases for the game, Shadows of Esteren 2-Travels is a full colour book that is beautifully illustrated. The artwork is excellent, being evocative and eerie throughout. Surprisingly, the writing is better than in the previous two supplements. It is not as dense or obtuse as in Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue or Shadows of Esteren 1-Universe. That is primarily due to shorter pieces, especially in the snapshot descriptions of the various locations given in Chapter 1, ‘Cartography’, though not in the full scenario, ‘A Life Choice’, which as has already been mentioned, will need a careful read through before being run.

Although lacking access to the original French version of this supplement, from examining just the contents of the first two chapters of the English language version of Shadows of Esteren 2-Travels, it suggests that the original version had more of a focus. With three extra chapters, the English edition loses some of that focus and has a disparate feel to it. This is not to say that the new content is not useful or interesting. Some of it, particularly the secrets at the end of ‘Figures of Tri-Kazel’ and the  ‘Bestiary’ of chapter 5 support both the scenario outlines of ‘Canvases’ and the longer scenario that is ‘A Life Choice’. The NPCs are another matter and they do feel lost amongst the rest of the book.

Overall, Shadows of Esteren 2-Travels is more accessible than previous releases for Shadows of Esteren, but not as focused or as detailed. This makes it more of a companion supplement than one that concentrates on the single subject. It also means that there are several sections of the book that contain material that will need the Game Leader’s attention and development in order to be of full use. As to the parts of it that are good—‘Cartography’, ‘A Life Choice’, and the ‘Bestiary’, not forgetting ‘Night of Fright’ from ‘Canvasses’—they are more than worthy of a Game Leader’s attention.

Tuesday 18 November 2014

Tangled Trains

2014 is the year that Japanese boardgames—particularly the Japon Brand—break out into the mainstream. After all, two Japanese games won Origins Awards in 2014, both published by Alderac Entertainment Group. Love Letter won the Origins Award for Best Traditional Card Game and Trains won the Origins Award for Best Board Game—how long until one wins the Spiel des Jahres? Of course, Japanese boardgames have not sprung from nowhere, there having been a number of them published in English over the past few years. Among the first was String Railway, designed by Hisashi Hayashi, who also designed the excellent Trains and recently had the interesting Sail to India published by Alderac Entertainment Group.

The 2013 UK Games Expo Best Abstract Game Winner, what sets String Railway apart from almost every other railway board game is in the title. Railway board games fall into two types. One uses hexes with players laying railway tracks to connect towns and cities, whilst the other has the players drawing lines with crayons on a map to connect towns and cities. In String Railway the players connect railway stations, not by hexes or crayons, but string—thick, bright lengths of string.

Now published by Asmodée Éditions, String Railway is designed for two to five players, aged eight plus, each of whom is the president of his railway company. A game lasts about thirty minutes and the aim is to have the most profitable railway by game’s end. 

Its play surface is the table itself with the play area formed by a string loop that is pulled out to form either a triangle, a square, or a pentagon, depending upon the number of players—a triangle for three players, a square for four or two players (in a two-player game, each player plays with two starting stations and two sets of strings), or a pentagon for five players. Inside the play area is placed a grey loop to represent the mountains and a length of blue string that runs to the edge and represents a river. Each player then receives five strings of various lengths and a station of the same colour, the latter being placed at a corner.

On his turn, a player draws a station from the deck of thirty-four station cards. He is free to place this station wherever he likes, but he must also use one of his strings to connect this new station to a station his network is already connected to. He is free to run the string through any other station he likes as long as the new station is placed at the end of the string.

The player then earns Victory Points for the station he has placed and any stations that he has run his new placed string through. Each of the eight types of stations scores differently. For example, the Central Station scores three Victory Points, but can only be connected by five players; an Urban Station scores a player three Victory points when placed, but will lose him a Victory Point to a rival if another connects to it, up to a maximum of five players; and a Scenic Station will earn a player one Victory Point if placed on the plains, but five Victory Points if placed in the mountains. Victory Points are lost if a string crosses either the river or another string. Of course, the player with the most Victory Points is the winner.

Play quickly becomes harder and harder as more strings are placed. Players will work hard to place their stations where they can score, but their rivals cannot and work harder to place their strings to their best advantage. Even if that means pulling them to their full length or twisting them again and again; this is what makes the game fun.

String Railway is a nice looking game and the rules are easy to read. Its core mechanics are tile drawing and placing and route-laying, both quite conventional, but the placing of the strings gives the game a physicality that very few games possess. The fact that each player only has five strings means that each only has five turns, making the game quick. (The fact that both players have ten strings in a two-player game is offset by the number of players). Everyone’s last turn usually takes a little longer as they try to maximise points, but that is true of many games. 

Bright and colourful, String Railways is a solid filler. In adding a physical element to the train game genre, String Railways shows how messy and tangled up the laying of railway tracks can get.

Thursday 6 November 2014

Dirty Pool Old Man

Back at the turn of the millenium, John Wick was contracted to write Play Dirty, a column about game mastering advice for Pyramid Magazine, Steve Jackson Games’ online weekly. Over the course of the eleven columns that he would write for Pyramid Magazine, Wick would arouse controversy, ire, and irritation. His columns were a real talking point for the magazine. Subsequently, they would be collected and published by Wick himself in 2006 in a volume entitled Play Dirty. The book also included the original column that appeared at the website www.gamingoutpost.com which would spur the then-editor of Pyramid, Scott Haring, to engage Wick as a columnist. As Wick launches Play Dirty 2: Even Dirtier on Kickstarter, it seems appropriate to look back the original essays and see what made them so controversial.

So what is the fuss all about? Well, the GM advice in Play Dirty is about doing one thing. It is also about not doing one thing. The thing it is about doing is the GM entertaining his players. The thing it is not about is the GM being fair or even honest to the players. Play Dirty is about the GM doing anything and everything to ensure that his players have a good time—and that includes lying, cheating, and stealing; being mean—even cruel; and when it counts, being a bastard. All in the name of good storytelling and good drama. 

To do so, Wick not only gives the reader tricks, traps, and tactics aplenty that will enable the GM to get down and dirty with his players, he illustrates them with anecdotes from his own games and those of others. For example, in Episode 0, ‘Hit ‘Em Where It Hurts’ the author examines the weakspots of every player character—his Disadvantages—and shows you how to punch them hard. Not out of spite or because he can, but to maximise their drama potential. After all, is that not why the player took those Disadvantages? Well sometimes not, because they are often just a means to gain more points to make the character stronger elsewhere. In one example, Wick shows us how he had an outwardly helpful and friendly NPC push the heroes about in a Champions campaign by using (NOTE, not threatening) the heroes’ dependents and their luck, pushing their immunities and their psychological limitations, and so on. In Episode 7, ‘What’s It Worth?’ he talks about player assumptions, that they assume that they are doing the right thing, that they are the protagonists, and that the world revolves around them. Other episodes make Darth Vader the good guy, explain how the players can get involved in running a city campaign with the GM, how to deal with problem players, make combat lethal, and so on and so on. There is even an episode entirely for the players about how to play dirty with the GM.

Not all of the episodes are adversarial, or at least not confrontational. For example, Episode 3, ‘The Living City’ describes a means for the players to get involved in running and adding to a city campaign. All in the name of good drama—plus cutting down on the GM’s workload of course. Yet there are many episodes that are adversarial. Take for instance, in Episode 2, ‘The Return of Jefferson Carter’ he describes how he makes a player roleplay his character whilst the character is stuck in prison. For six weeks.

That is being adversarial. That is being a bastard.

The question has to be asked, “Did you really do that John? Did you make a player sit and seeth for six weeks? Or were you simply trying to make a point?” (Technically, this is three questions, but all of them have to be asked).

It does not help that throughout Play Dirty it feels as if John has got up on stage, cane and straw boater in hand, a gleaming smile plastered across his face and preached at us. Play Dirty involves chest beating aplenty and all of it John’s. Yet if none of his advice is intended to be fair or honest in application, then why should his tone and writing be fair, honest, or even measured?

Now the original Play Dirty columns appeared in 2000—plus the last column that appeared in 2003 for Pyramid’s tenth anniversary—and were brought to print in 2006. As the author states in 2006, they were written by a younger version of himself, a brasher, more pugnacious version. It shows. In many cases it feels like Wick’s advice is obvious and that what he has done is taken said advice and ‘turned it up to 11’, but even by 2006 that advice had entered the mainstream. Perhaps not to the extremes that Wick pushes it, but it was there. By 2014, some fifteen years after the advice was first written down, it is no less useful or at least no less thoughtful, but it does feel staid. That in part is because the gaming hobby has aged and moved on, and few gamers have the time to devote to the type of game that this advice applies to—the long game, the campaign game. Even by the time that Play Dirty was published as a book, gaming had moved on with the advent of the Indie Roleplaying  movement.

To be honest, John Wick’s advice may not be to everyone’s taste. It is likely to be too ‘unfair’, too confrontational, and too much in their face. If applied, it is likely to upset their players and thus the apple cart that is their game. To some, John Wick’s advice is bad and John Wick’s advice ruins games. If this is the case, then Play Dirty and thus Play Dirty 2: Play Dirtier will not be for you. Perhaps instead Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering by Robin D. Laws will be of use to you. (In fact, I might just dig out my copy of that and review it…)

Physically, Play Dirty is a plain, buff book. There are no illustrations. The words draw the pictures for you.

Play Dirty is a quick and easy read. In fact, I read it on my commute to work and back again today—not all of my commute as reading and walking is not the safest of activities. Indeed I suspect that writing this review will take longer than it did to read Play Dirty. (I was so keen to start the review that I cut myself shaving for the first time in decades. So, Mister Wick, your book has blood on its pages).

Now to the point. Is Play Dirty a good book? Is its advice useful and helpful? Well yes, no, and yes. Yes, because its advice can be taken and applied with the end result being a good game, even a memorable game. No, because it is not going to suit every game, every GM, every set of players, or every campaign. It has the potential to upset each and every one of them. Lastly and most importantly of all, ‘YES’.

Yes, Play Dirty is a good book and its advice is useful and helpful. For this very important reason. It will make you think about your game. Even if you never apply the advice in its pages, it will make you think about your game.