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Saturday 20 December 2014

Reviews from R'lyeh Christmas Dozen 2014

Since 2001, I have contributed to a series of Christmas lists at Ogrecave.com, suggesting not necessarily the best board and roleplaying games of the preceding year, but the titles from the last twelve months that you might like to receive and give. Continuing the break with traditionin that the following is just the one list and in that for reasons beyond its control, OgreCave.com is not running its own listsReviews from R’lyeh would once again like present its own list. Further, as is also traditional, Reviews from R’lyeh has not devolved into the need to cast about “Baleful Blandishments” to all concerned or otherwise based upon the arbitrary organisation of days. So as Reviews from R’lyeh presents its Baker’s Dozenth’s Christmas List Dozen, we can only hope that the Baker’s Dozen below includes one of your favourites, or even better still, includes a game that you do not have and someone is happy to hide in gaudy paper and place under that dead tree for you.


Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set 
(Wizards of the Coast), $19.99/£16.99
If you are going to list some of the best games of 2014, then you have to deal with the ‘elephant’—or rather the ‘dragon’ in the room, for 2014 saw the return of the number one roleplaying game. 

Forty years after the original version was released, Wizards of the Coast published Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. This new version of the classic RPG is immensely accessible and very playable, and there is no better place to start but with the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set. It includes everything necessary to play: the basic rules, a set of five pre-generated characters, a good adventure, and of course, dice. This is a great way to bring old players to the game and a great way for old players to bring new players to the game, and the provided scenario, ‘Lost Mine of Phandelver’, is an excellent starting point, offering plenty of play before the DM (and the players) needs to invest in the Player’s Handbook.

Machi Koro
(IDW Games), $19.99/£16.99
Japanese games came of age in the English language hobby in 2014 when the highly regarded Love Letter and Trains both won Origins awards. This year they were joined by the easy-to-play and ever so cute, Machi Koro, published by IDW Games. It is a simple card and dice game in which all the players have to do is roll the die (or dice), check the buildings on their cards and get some income, and then buy another building or even improve their suburbs with landmarks. 

Each player is the mayor of suburb whose inhabitants wants better landmarks; build four landmarks and he wins the game. This is ever so easy-to-learn, quick-to-play, and can be enjoyed by the casual player and the seasoned gamer alike. Plus there are expansions to come which will provide more cards and thus more buildings. Which means more options. In the meantime, the core box for Machi Koro is simply fun.

You Are The Hero:
A History of Fighting Fantasy™ Gamebooks
(Snow Books) $45/£40
2014 was a great year for gaming and the history of gaming. You Are the Hero looked at one aspect of gaming history and then one aspect of that aspect… By that we mean that it explored the history of the British Fighting Fantasy™ series of solo adventure books rather than the history of the solo adventure books. This delves back to the origins of the publishing phenomenon that put The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and nearly sixty subsequent titles on the shelves of bookshops around the round and accumulated millions of sales, before going on to examine each and every entry in the series, and then the board games, computer games, magazines, and more. All commented upon by both the creators and the fans. This is also a history in part of the British gaming scene, but mostly it is a loving look at the Fighting Fantasy™ series that enabled us to go on fantastic adventures in the comforts of our own homes before the digital age.

Ivor the Engine
(Surprised Stare Games) $42.50/£25.00
Some games have ‘meeples’ or ‘my people’. Only one game has ‘sheeple’ or ‘sheep meeple’. That is, little wooden sheep; and that game is the most charming game of the year—Ivor the Engine.

Based on the BBC children’s television classic, this game sees the players come to the aid of a small green locomotive who lives in the “top left-hand corner of Wales” and works for The Merioneth and Llantisilly Railway Traction Company Limited with the help of his driver, Jones the Steam. Their prime task is tidying up all of the escaped sheep, but they can also complete jobs and so visit places such as Grumbly Gasworks and Gwynaudolion Halt, Mrs Porty’s House and Pugh’s Farm, and Tan-Y-Gwlch and Dinwiddy’s Gold Mine. Fans of the television series will enjoy the references, whilst those new to them will find them equally as charming. Although this looks a lot like a children’s game, it is competitive enough that experienced gamers can pick and play it with gusto. Plus it comes with little wooden sheep. Really cute little wooden sheep.

Firefly Role-Playing Game
(Margaret Weis Productions) $49.99/£31.99
Although we got a good taster of the game last year with Gaming In The ‘Verse, this year we finally got to see how shiny the Firefly Role-Playing Game really is. It lived up to that tag, because the game not only takes you step-by-step through every Firefly episode, but through the rules at the same time, so the original television series truly serves as a big set of fat examples of play. It is a great way to learn the Cortex Plus mechanics—the best yet—and once learned you can play out the further adventures of Mal Reynolds and the crew of the Serenity, or even better create your own crew and your own ship and chance all of the possibilities and dangers of being out in the Black. With the Cortex Plus rules, everyone’s character comes alive, not just what they do, but also what they hold dear and what just might make life difficult for them and their crew. Life don’t go easy in the ‘Verse and the Firefly Role-Playing Game is designed to bring that to your adventures and make them as dramatic as Joss Whedon’s Firefly.

Colt Express
(Ludonaute) $54.99/£27.99
There is a train coming down the track—and you are going to rob it! The year is 1899 and the Union Pacific Express is heading out of New Mexico with the Nice Valley Coal Company's weekly pay aboard. So you and fellow bandits have boarded the train and must race down the carriages, stealing bags of money and jewels from the passengers, punching and shooting at each other, climbing up to the roof (and running along the rooftops), all trying to get to the front of the train where Marshal is guarding the $1000 payroll. 

In this fun game, the players take turns to program what their bandits will do over the course of each round. Some of these actions will be seen by everyone, but whenever the train goes through a tunnel, none of the bandits can see what each other is going do. Once everyone has programmed their actions, they are revealed in order, and guess what? No plan ever survives contact with the enemy, or in the case of Colt Express, contact with rival bandits, the passengers, and the Marshal. So plans go awry, punches are landed where you never expected, gunshots miss, and some rotten stinking, varmit steals the loot before you do! All of which takes place aboard a fantastic cardboard train that comes as part of the game. So get ready for some schemin’ and stealin’ and see if you can leave the Colt Express with the most loot!

Designers & Dragons
(Evil Hat Productions) $80
2014 was an important year for the roleplaying hobby. Not only was it the fortieth anniversary of the original version of Dungeons & Dragons—and thus of the very hobby itself—but it also saw the return to our shelves of the very first roleplaying game with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. So there has never been a better year in which to look back at our hobby and that is exactly what Shannon Appelcline has done with Designers & Dragons, a four volume examination of the roleplaying hobby, decade by decade, publisher by publisher, trend by trend, from 1974 right up to the present day. In the process updating the original series that ran at RPG.net and was previous published by Mongoose Publishing. A useful reference for the ‘grognard’ looking to refresh his memory or delve into some nostalgia as it is for the newcomer wanting to know where it all started, Designers & Dragons is the definitive history of the hobby.

Player’s Handbook
(Wizards of the Coast) $49.95/£29.99
When you have exhausted all of the possibilities of the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set or want to more choices when playing ‘Lost Mine of Phandelver’, its included scenario, then what you need is the Player’s Handbook, also published for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition.

This new volume gives everything that player needs to play (minus dice) and gives him choices aplenty in terms of what he can play. All the classics are present—Elves and Orcs, Fighters and Wizards, plus Dragonborn and Tiefling, and Sorcerer and Warlock; and then all new in this edition, character options that support actual roleplaying rules. The Player’s Handbook not only supports playing adventures of the DM’s own devising, but also those published for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, and then for almost every scenario published in the last forty years (with just a very little work, of course)! This is an easy-to-read, easy-to-grasp introduction to the world’s number one roleplaying game—and it is truly great to see it back on the shelves at our games stores.

Star Realms
(White Wizard Games) $14.99/£12.99
Star Realms is a deck building card game of starship combat. Specifically designed for two players, it sees them start small with just some Scout ships to generate money and Viper ships to inflict damage on the enemy. With the money a player can buy better ships, bases, outputs, and more from four factions. These include the Blobs with their strong combat vessels, the Machines which destroy their own ships and enemy bases, the Star Empire which can quickly bring its own ships into play or force the enemy ships to retreat, and the Trade Federation which generates wealth and Authority (the game’s equivalent of health points).

Each player is free to purchase ships, bases, and outposts of whichever faction he can afford, and with both players buying from the same deck, the competition is on—not only to see who can generate money enough to purchase ships and build a good deck, but also use the deck to the best of its ability to destroy his opponent! All of this—just 128 superbly illustrated cards—fits neatly into a tiny box and is just as easy on the pocket!

Pandemic: The Cure
(Z-Man Games) $49.99/£37.99
Ogrecave.com has been a fan of Matt Leacock’s Pandemic since it was released in 2008. The infamous co-operative game pitches four players against the game itself as they race to find the cures for four diseases that are ravaging the world whilst trying to prevent them from spreading and further outbreaks from occurring. That though was a board and card game, but now the designer has turned the Pandemic concept into a fast playing dice game: Pandemic: The Cure. Now the players not only have to rush from continent to continent treating diseases, they also need to take and collect samples enough to roll for a cure! In the original version of Pandemic, the diseases were represented by cubes and their appearance controlled by city cards, but in Pandemic: The Cure the diseases are represented by dice—dice that are rolled to see where they appear and then if the players have collected enough, rolled again to see if a cure can be found for the disease—and until a cure is rolled, the samples have to be stored somewhere and that somewhere is the players’ dice. Which means that the players give up possible actions in order to focus on a cure. Pandemic: The Cure is quick playing dice game that presents as much challenge as the original Pandemic, but in a slightly different fashion. Just remember to wear gloves—after all, the diseases are the dice!

Mindjammer: The Roleplaying Game
(Mindjammer Press) $54.99/£34.99
In this FATE Core powered Science Fiction RPG, the New Commonality of Humankind is spreading out from Earth using relatively recently discovered faster-than-light technology and rediscovering colonies founded centuries before using generation ships. Yet as these lost colonies are found and reintegrated into interstellar culture, the New Commonality of Humankind finds itself facing cultural adulteration from these previously isolated worlds. This sets up the central conflict at the heart of Mindjammer, played out on a frontier of old new worlds as a space opera with Transhuman elements, that plays out across the physical universe as much as it does the virtual world known as the Mindscape, a shared reality that connects all of the Commonality. This is a setting in which it is possible to play a sentient starship, the memories of a dead man downloaded into a robot, a genetically engineered soldier, and more. Mindjammer: The Roleplaying Game is a game with not just the scope to play out a campaign in its highly detailed setting, but also the capacity to be taken apart and used as parts of kit for the GM to create and design aliens, technologies, worlds, and more to create a campaign of his own devising.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig
(Bezier Games) $59.99/£47.99
Have you ever wanted to build Neuschwanstein, the ‘Swan Castle’ of King Ludwig II of Bavaria? As pleased as he is with that castle, the good king has asked you to build the biggest, the best, the most extravagant castle ever—all subject to his mercurial nature and whims. Which means that each of the architects/builders must build their castle at one room at time, even as they are actually selling rooms to their rival builders!

Beginning with a simple foyer, a player tries to build the most fantastic castle possible, whether that is outside, upstairs, or downstairs in the storerooms (and dungeons). Every turn is challenging because the player take turns being the Master Builder who sets the prices for the randomly drawn buildings and gets paid when his rival builders purchase them. As the game progresses, a player will add new rooms and as he completes each room by ensuring that all entrances of the room are connected to other rooms, he will score points and gain special benefits, such as another turn, more points, or more money. At game’s end a player can score bonus points based on the random goals set at the start of the game. The random nature of King Ludwig’s whims and thus of the game means that Castles of Mad King Ludwig is worth playing again and again—after all, everyone loves castles and getting to build castles is the best way to show this love.


So that was the Ogrecave.com Christmas Dozen for 2014. Yet, 2014 also marks the Ogrecave.com Christmas Dozen’s ‘Baker’s Dozen’, the thirteenth year of the Ogrecave.com Christmas Dozen. So only seems fitting that for this thirteenth list, it should be a Baker’s Dozen—meaning thirteen entries, not twelve! Thus we round out this year’s list with the other elephant in room that just snuck under the wire to qualify for 2014 and not 2015, where the elephant is both the setting and the price!

Star Wars: Imperial Assault 
(Fantasy Flight Games) $100/£79.99

There is no bigger game in 2014 than Star Wars: Imperial Assault and no board game with a bigger canvas! This is a miniatures game in which the heroes of the Rebellion are pitched against the Stormtroopers and the villains of the Galactic Empire in two modes. The campaign game sees a group of elite Rebel operatives on desperate missions to undermine the Empire which ruthlessly protects its interests and holdings, whilst the skirmish game is a two-player head-to-head fight between Imperial and Rebel strike teams for the same objectives. 

The game comes packed with detailed miniatures and full colour interlocking map sections, as well as the Luke Skywalker Ally Pack and the Darth Vader Villain Pack, giving another miniature each and yet more missions. This is a big game on which to play out a big story, whether exploring the events of the Star Wars tale and bringing back your Rebel operatives back again and again, each time getting better and better with successful missions, or designing armies to pitch against each in skirmish mode. Star Wars: Imperial Assault offers play aplenty and being set in the Star Wars universe means that there are expansions and thus more play to come!

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