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

Tuesday 28 April 2015

More is less

In 2009 James Raggi IV launched Lamentations of the Flame Princess with a very singular calling card—Death Frost Doom. Inspired by the dark imagery of his musical tastes and the horror he liked to read, Raggi’s scenario was unlike anything that the Old School Renaissance had seen, although in the five years since, he has brought numerous weird horror scenarios to the hobby—many of which I have had the pleasure to edit or review. Death Frost Doom was remarkable for its atmosphere, for it was a scenario in which almost nothing happened. Further it could be dropped into almost any setting. It consisted of lonely, snow bound and wind swept mountain, one with a dark, unspoken reputation that means that the local populace of the valleys below avoid it. This is despite their believing that the halls within the mountain are said to hide a great treasure, though one protected by an ancient, slumbering evil.

If the player characters ascended the mountain what they found was a lonely, mad old man, a strangely furnished cabin, and below it an oddly empty dungeon containing almost nothing and no-one to fight. Unfortunately, the locals are correct—the mountain does harbour an ancient evil and if the player characters are too curious, they will let loose not just the ‘Doom’ upon themselves, but upon everyone in the valleys below and beyond.If all goes well, the scenario is designed to end with the ‘heroes’ fleeing down the snowy slopes with an army of the undead hard on their heels, knowing that it is entirely their curiosity that has got them there. Also notable, was what replaced the things to fight and the things to kill of any other Dungeons & Dragons-style scenario were details that added atmosphere and a sense of the weird to the exploration before the ‘Doom’. Death Frost Doom remains a classic scenario, arguably one of the best published as part of the Old School Renaissance.

Arguably though, Death Frost Doom was not perfect. Its elements were disjointed and the only thing that would bring about its deadly denouement was player curiosity. The primary motivation for the players in the scenario—unless the GM added more—was to find out if there was more to the dungeon than was readily apparent. To answer the question, “Is there more to it than this?” It is some of these issues that the new, fifth anniversary edition of Death  Frost Doom addresses as well as answering that question. Co-authored with Zak Smith—best known for Vornheim: The Complete City Kit and A Red & Pleasant Land—the new edition comes as a handsome little hardback, complete with new artwork and new maps. This is a major revision of the scenario, one that does not violate either the scenario’s structure or its story, but adds detail and pacing that makes it much more of a coherent whole.

In fact, this new edition comes with a wealth of detail, begun in the cabin atop the mountain and here continued into the dungeon below. Here every room is fully detailed and many more of the rooms have a purpose, typically to hint at the secrets that lie at the heart of the dungeon. The stand-out room here is the Chapel, which in true grand guignol style includes a giant organ with human finger bones as its keys and human thigh bones as its pipes. The effect of this detail is to intrigue the players and thus push them to investigate further.  This process is also eased by the pacing—there is a timing mechanism, a countdown, that moves events in the dungeon onto its intended  denouement and the secrets themselves are ever so slightly easy to decipher.

Where the original dungeon had almost nothing in the way of NPCs, the dungeon now has a several of them, a set of vile creations that will have the players rueing that they ever encountered them.  They are though, evidence that the new edition there comes with a marked change in tone—twice. The first of these is in the horror, which as the scenario progresses becomes more physical  and sanguinary in nature. The second is Zak Smith’s writing style, which is lighter in tone than that of James Raggi IV and in places does suffer for it, descending as it does into silliness. Fortunately, enough of the Lamentations of the Flame Princess trademark ‘screw the players’ elements are present to keep the tone on track.

Lastly, what has been replaced in this anniversary edition is the secondary adventure, ‘The Tower’. To be honest, it is no great loss, and anyway, the inclusion of James Raggi’s retrospective of the original Death Frost Doom and its art is far more appropriate.

The new edition of Death Frost Doom is physically a far superior book. It comes as a handy little hardback, with better maps and much more oppressive artwork. Its contents are better organised and easier to spot on the page with pertinent facts highlighted in almost bullet point fashion.

There is no doubt that the original Death Frost Doom was a great dungeon. Seeing it back in print was always going to be welcome, but some of the changes in the anniversary are perhaps not so. The addition of the blood and the gore take away from the subtlety of the original, but the wealth of new detail more than makes up for that.  Death Frost Doom was, and still is, a great scenario, strong on atmosphere and rich in detail.

Sunday 26 April 2015

Load the train—faster! faster!

If you thought that at twenty minutes long that Yardmaster was too long a game, then there is a solution. Funded through Kickstarter and also published by Crash Games, Yardmaster Express is a micro game that can be played in ten minutes however many players you have. Designed for between two and five players, aged thirteen plus, in Yardmaster Express, the players attempt to build the most valuable train in a limited number of turns.

The game consists of one Start Player token, five Engine cards, thirty-two Railcar cards, and four Caboose cards. At the start of the game, each player receives an Engine card to which he will attach his Railcar cards and one player is given the Start Player token. This player draws a hand of Railcar cards equal to the number of players. He then takes his turn.

On his turn, a player draws one Railcar card and adds it to his hand. He then plays one card from his hand. Each Railcar card is two-and-a-half inches square and divided vertically in half. Each half of the Railcar card has a colour and a number on it as well as a Railcar. Both the colour and the  number on each side can be the same or they can be completely different. What matters is that when added to a player’s train, the colour or the number of the new Railcar must match the colour or the number of the last Railcar in the train. So for example, the last Railcar in Dave’s is a Green 2. Thus he can play either another Green card or any card with a value of 2. If a player lacks a card that he can add to his train, then he flip a card and play it as a Wild Card, in which it acts as any colour or number.

At the end of his turn, a player collects up his hand and passes it to the player on his left, who then takes his turn. 

Once a set number of round have passed—seven for two players, six for three players, and so on, then the game ends. The players add up the value of the numbers on the Railcars in his train—that is, both numbers on each Railcar cards—to get a total. The player with the longest run of one colour of Railcars receives a bonus equal to their number. The player with the highest total is the winner.

Now what is clear here is there is only the one hand of Railcar cards. It is this that is passed from one player to next, each time the holding player drawing and playing a Railcar card. The draw, play, and pass mechanic feels not dissimilar to that of 7 Wonders, though of course, there is only the one hand of cards whereas everyone has a hand of cards in 7 Wonders. The same two core choices are offered here as in 7 Wonders—does a player add a Railcar to his train because he needs it, or because it will prevent another player from adding a Railcar that he needs? This choice may not always be there, but it needs to be kept in mind when it is. The game though, is primary luck based, players relying on drawing the Railcar cards that they want to play rather than on cards that they want to prevent another player using..

Yardmaster Express is nicely presented. The cards are of a high quality and a nice touch is the basic rules are printed on the Engine cards for easy reference. The rules are easy to read and learn. The packaging is nicely sturdy. The addition of the wooden Start Player token is nice too as is a mini-expansion and some variant rules.

Given the lack choices and actions—just draw a card, play a card, pass the cards on—Yardmaster Express is suited to a younger audience, rather than the suggested minimum age of thirteen which feels rather high. It also plays better with three or four players as with five players, the number of turns feels far too short. Yet despite its simplicity, Yardmaster Express is reasonable filler, one that fits easily into a bag and carried around.

Friday 17 April 2015

The Sixth Doctor

“Change, my dear. And it seems not a moment too soon.”

In coming to review The Sixth Doctor Sourcebook, the sixth entry in Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s celebration of Doctor Who's fiftieth anniversary for the Ennie-award winning Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game, it is appropriate—surprisingly appropriate—that the review begins with the Sixth Doctor’s most well known quote. For after the somewhat lacklustre tone and content of the previous book, The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook, and given the Sixth Doctor’s abysmal reputation, it may come as a surprise that this supplement is actually good.

For in writing this supplement, the author of The Sixth Doctor Sourcebook has had to overcome three hurdles—one of them very big and two of them not so big. The very big hurdle is that the Sixth Doctor is not popular. In fact the Sixth Doctor is arguably one of the most unpopular of incarnations of the Time Lord, being brash, arrogant, abrasive, petulant, at times callous, and possessing a dress sense that is arguably worse than that of Zaphod Beeblebrox. The first of the not so big hurdles is that the Sixth Doctor’s  stories are generally regarded as being of a poor standard and just like the character of the Sixth Doctor are not popular. In particular, his first full story, 'The Twin Dilemma' is held to be one of the worst stories ever filmed, though 'Time Lash' is not far behind (personally though, I quite like 'Revelation of the Daleks'). The second of the not so big hurdles is that the author has just eleven stories to detail and expand upon and that could have been an excuse to undermine the book’s usefulness and application if he had repeated the design of The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook and overwritten the story descriptions. After all, it would have been the easy thing to do. Fortunately, just like the Doctor and the personality of the Sixth Doctor, Cubicle Seven Entertainment has decided that ‘easy’ was not the best option in overcoming any one of these three hurdles. 

The two lesser hurdles, the unpopularity and the poor quality of the Sixth Doctor’s stories and the fact that there are just eleven of them are dealt within a very simple manner. The author focuses upon what can be done with each story rather than on the story itself. In practice this means that no summary is more than four pages long and whilst these are not always the most interesting of reads, they are at least concise, which is huge improvement over the overwritten summaries in The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook. This leaves more room for the stats and write-ups of the characters and devices in each story as well as advice on running the adventure and further adventure—typically eight pages of useful supporting material and ideas.  Again, a huge improvement over the supporting material in The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook.

Of course, this come with its own problems—stats for everything and I do mean everything! It is arguable, for example, whether stats are really needed for the watching Arak and Etta from the story, 'Vengeance on Varos', but the need for stats for the Varosian Guard Buggy is far less debatable. Or indeed the inclusion of stats for Ruth Baxter and Mr. Kimber from 'Terror of the Vervoids'. Nevertheless, there are lots of nicely write-ups scattered throughout the descriptions of the stories. This includes the obvious such as Gustave Lytton in 'Attack of the Cybermen', Sil in 'Vengeance on Varos', but also George Stephenson from 'The Mark of the Rani', H.G. Wells from 'Time Lash', and of course, Sabalom Glitz and Dibber from 'The Mysterious Planet'. 

The Sixth Doctor Sourcebook actually begins and is organised much like the previous books in the series. It begins with a good overview of the Sixth Doctor’s era followed by character  sheets for the Sixth Doctor and his companions—Peri and Mel as well as a discussion of the Sixth Doctor’s TARDIS. These are accompanied by various new Traits such as Have I been here before?, Positive Outlook, and Time Lord Mentor, plus a number of new Time Lord tricks such as Trance and Completely Impossible Escape. The latter enables a Time Lord to burn all of Story Points to escape certain doom, which whilst seemly appropriate also appears to be somewhat mechanically redundant. 

The bulk of the sourcebook is, of course, devoted to detailing the Sixth Doctor’s adventures. As already mentioned, these are well written and well supported, particularly in terms of further adventures. This continues a trend begun from the book’s outset, where the given further adventures are more akin to scenario outlines, and all of this in addition to the ideas often discussed in detail for each story. It is no surprise though, that 'The Trial of a Time Lord' gets a whole chapter of its own, discussing in detail the purpose of the trial, its location aboard the Time Lords’ Justice Machine, and of course, the Valeyard. In previous stories the supplement discussed both the Master and the Rani in detail, but they are known enemies with aims, advantages, and weaknesses, whereas the Valeyard is very much an unknown. Various ideas are discussed as to where the Valeyard might have sprung from and who he might be working for, some of them stemming from the Doctor recent adventures.

If 'Genesis of the Daleks' is, as discussed in The Fourth Doctor Sourcebook, is the opening shot in the Time War, then by the time of the Sixth Doctor’s stories, as extrapolated by The Sixth Doctor Sourcebook that war is really heating up, with the major powers in the galaxy—the Cybermen and the Daleks in particular—moving to gain the highly advanced technology needed to bring the fight to Gallifrey. An appendix explores how each of the Sixth Doctor’s adventures fits into the framework of the Time War, although of course, neither the Doctor, the Master, the Rani, or the Valeyard are aware of this connection yet. The accompanying adventure seeds do make more of this connection, as does a complete campaign outline that might just see the need for the Time War put on hold…

Physically, The Sixth Doctor Sourcebook is decently done. The use of black and white photographs in places feels jarring (if understandable if that is all that is available). The book feels a little overdone in places in terms of detail, but better to have it than not.

Where The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook was a disappointment, sadly showcasing the undevelopment of decent source material, then The Sixth Doctor Sourcebook is a revelation, showcasing how well disappointing source material can be developed. This development does come with the benefit of hindsight, the Time War being a modern addition to Doctor Who, but what the development means is that not only is the GM given lots of support, ideas, and adventure seeds to work with, but that also all of a sudden, the Sixth Doctor’s adventures look intriguing. Above all, The Sixth Doctor Sourcebook is a good sourcebook for the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game, one that sets high standards for the remaining titles in Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s celebration of Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary.

Where wolf?

Given the very modern proliferation of ‘hidden identity and deduction’ games, from The Resistance and Avalon to Nosferatu and Ultimate Werewolf, it is a surprise to see the original game that they are based upon back in print. Of course, Are you a Werewolf? is not even the original version of that game—as the rather interesting  History* of the game will testify—but it is the source from which many other games have sprung. Originally published by Looney Labs in 2001, the question is, can Are you a Werewolf? stand up in the face of so many hidden identity come latelies?

*Did you read the history yet? If not, why not? Personally I think it more interesting than this review.

Are you a Werewolf? is described as ‘A Game of Deception, Paranoia, and Mob Rule’ and is designed for between seven and sixteen players. It takes place in a village at a time when pitchforks and torches are de rigeur fashion items and a lynching is a seen as a good day out, more so because the village is beset by werewolves! The villagers know that there are werewolves amongst their number, but not who they are. Fortunately they have amongst their number an ancient wise woman who is a Seer capable of identifying werewolves. Unfortunately the villagers are stubbornly superstitious and know that the best way of de-werewolving the village is to lynch someone in the morning—and if that just happens to be the wise old woman who is also the Seer, well she deserved it because everyone knew that she could float like a duck, right?

The game consists of twenty cards and a rules leaflet, all done in black and white. Play requires a Moderator who receives the Moderator card and whose job it is to regulate the phases of the game as they pass from Night to Day to Night, and so on. Bar some blank cards, the remaining cards are identity cards consisting of one Seer card and two Werewolf cards with all of the rest being Villager cards. These cards are handed out, one to each player who keeps them secret from the other inhabitants of the village. They will include both the Seer card and the Werewolf cards. The aim of the game for the Villager players is to identify (and lynch) the Werewolf players before the lycanthropes can overwhelm the village and eat everyone, whilst the aim of the Werewolf players is to keep their identities very, very secret, and not so not get lynched whilst snacking on a Villager each and every night. If this involves eating the Seer, then they will have an advantage. Her aim is to help the Villagers identify the Werewolves, but she must  keep her identity secret because if the Werewolves identify her, then she will be the their target on the next night and without her, identifying the Werewolves is a whole lot more challenging!

Are you a Werewolf? is simple to play. Each Night the two Werewolves confer and select a Villager to chomp down on whilst the Seer learns the Secret Identity of one other player, be it Villager or Werewolf. Then in the Morning, everyone in the Village wakes up and discovers the dead player and what his Secret Identity is—that player is also out of the game. The remaining Villagers—which of course include the surviving Werewolves—must vote as to which one of their number they believe to be a Werewolf and needs lynching, and it is here that the mob rules. The victimised player must reveal his Secret identity and he too, is also out of the game.

All of this is monitored and marshalled by the Moderator. He has a little script which he reads out in order to keep the fear and loathing organised and running  along nicely.

Are you a Werewolf? is a light game of bluff and deduction combined with desperate persuasion that is easy enough to throw into a bag when going to a convention or any big social gathering or party. It works equally as well with non-gamers as it does with gamers because its rules are simple, the preparation time is minimal, and its theme is highly accessible—after all, everyone has seen a classic horror movie or two and with Are you a Werewolf?, the players get to be in their own horror movie! Indeed, playing Are you a Werewolf? gives everyone the chance to act (or roleplay) as much as they want and that can be as much part of the game as the deduction and the bluffing.

Physically, Are you a Werewolf? is very simple, being nothing more than a set of black and white cards and a small rulesheet. The latter expands a little upon the game play and gives some advice, but to be honest, the game’s rules would fit on one of its cards.

Playing Are you a Werewolf? is fun and the more you put into it, the more that you get out of it. If it has a fault, it is the elimination aspect of the game, but that is the point of it, plus the Moderator should really keep things moving lest they bog down and drag the game out. 

There is a place on your gaming shelf for Are you a Werewolf? It is simple, it is elegant, and it handles larger groups than most games. Whilst many titles since have offered greater sophistication and re-theming, Are you a Werewolf? offers a stripped back, more desperate playing experience.

Saturday 11 April 2015

Extracurricular Esoteric Endeavours

East Texas University offers all of the prestige and amenities of a twenty-first century educational establishment with the balmy climate of Southern USA and the charm of small town America. Located just outside of the town of Pinebox, it also offers encounters with ghosts, lycanthropes, vampires, witches, and spirits as well as an esoteric library, but of course, none of this makes the academic curriculum or the university prospectus. So when it comes to exorcising their room-mate possessed by an angry spirit, hunting a lupine stalker on campus, or thwarting a sorority coven hell-bent on getting good grades without studying, then the average freshman is on his own.

This is the setting for East Texas University, a setting and campaign supplement for use with Savage Worlds published by 12 to Midnight through Pinnacle Entertainment Group. Funded via Kickstarter and coming as a slightly undersized ninety-six page hardback, this is a horror and supernatural campaign setting in which the player characters are freshman at East Texas University discovering that there is much more to the world than they had previous imagined—much more! East Texas University comes with everything necessary to run a campaign, but the Kickstarter campaign also funded a plot point campaign, Degrees of Horror, available separately and designed to take the players from Freshman to Seniors through four years of college and four years of extracurricular occult activity!

East Texas University nicely uses the mechanics of Savage Worlds to model the progress of a student through college life. This starts with it mapping the character ranks in Savage Worlds to the academic years of American student academia, so Novice equates to Freshman, Seasoned to Sophomore, Veteran to Junior, and Heroic to Senior. Where a student has to pass exams to advance academically, in East Texas University he also has to pass them to advance in  terms of Experience Points, that is, he cannot expend Experience Points until he passes his exams. Typically this will be in the student’s Major, a subject of study that can be anything from Agriculture and Anthropology to Science and Speech & Communications, but whatever it is, it should be reflected by a skill. Similarly, a student should also have a Minor, but can have two Majors if he thinks that he can cope.

A student’s ability to pass exams is measured by his Academics secondary attribute, which like the Charisma attribute has a default value of zero. It can be modified by various new Edges and Hindrances, such as Test Taker or A.D.H.D. Failing an exam gets the student into some difficulties, but passing it will gain him certain random benefits, such as learning something, making a new friend, or gaining Administrative Privilege. Other Edges and Hindrances cover everything from Local Favourite and Devout to Annoying Room-mate and Party Animal. East Texas University being a supernatural setting means that a number of appropriate Edges and Hindrances are given in addition to the mundane ones. They include Demon Slayer, Faithful, Aura Reader, and I See Dead People, and what is interesting about them is that most are only available when a student has advanced a Rank or two—both in terms of academic year and character experience. Thus player characters grow into the more outré aspects of the setting, rather than turn up and be able to fight evil straight after the freshmen's faire.

Further mechanics enable the Dean—the GM in East Texas University—to create fraternities and sororities and their primary function, whilst rules cover student allowances, gear and vehicles—the latter including a table of glitches for that second hand car, and extra-curricular activities. Even the extra-curricular activities can grant some benefits, for example, Gaming grants a +2 bonus to myth, lore, and supernatural Common Knowledge rolls whilst Party Hardy increases the student’s Charisma by by +2 and grants him the Connections Edge, but at a penalty to his Academics attribute. This is all is backed up with a quick guide to American collegiate life and structure for those of us who are not American.

Our sample character is a scholarship student who is having to count the pennies in order to get by, including sharing a dorm room and taking a part time job at the local supermarket stacking shelves. This is currently affecting her studies, but not too badly. Sometimes she gets weird feelings about places and people, but so far that is all that she thinks that they are. Her extracurricular activities means that she has little time for a social life, not helped by her overbearing room-mate.

Adrienne Carter
Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d8, Spirit d6, Strength d4, Vigour d6
Skills: Driving d4, Investigation d6, Knowledge (Computer Science) d4, Knowledge (Journalism) d6, Knowledge (Literature) d6, Notice d6, Persuasion d6, Repair d4, Streetwise d4, Swimming d4
Charisma: 0 Academics: +2 (+1)
Pace: 6” Parry: 2 Toughness: 5 Bennies: 3
Hindrances: Annoying Roommate (Big Mouth), Poverty, Second Fiddle
Edges: Multi-Tasker, Psychically Sensitive, Test Taker
Major: Journalism Minor: Literature
Extracurricular Activities: Part Time Job, Student Organisation (Newspaper)

From haunted dormitories and details about law enforcement on the university grounds, in the town, and the county to desolate strip of woods known as The Burn and the best bookshop in town, the setting’s gazetteer covers not just the campus of East Texas University, but also the town of Pinebox and the surrounding county.  It is divided across two sections, one for the players, the other for the Dean. He is also given the write-ups and descriptions of numerous NPCs, as well as notable supernatural creatures, the selection of the latter having a particular focus on demons and ghosts. These combined with the Adventure , Party, High Weirdness, and Research Adventure Generator tables, should give the Dean plenty with which to create adventures of his own. Of the tables, the Research Adventure and Party Generator tables feel like they will get used up fairly quickly, but the Dean will probably get plenty of mileage out of the others. Several sample adventure outlines created using the tables are included.

Now where another RPG might simply offer magic and spells, East Texas University only gives Ritual Magic—and that is a good thing. Spells or rituals need to be researched, they need components, and they need time. They cannot be cast just off the cuff and even learning the new Ritualism skill takes time as it cannot be purchased at the start of a campaign. It is also dangerous, a table being provided for potential side effects when the casting goes wrong. Worse, there is also the danger that any ritual might turn out to be black magic, and typically any spell that harms another person is, and casting it has the potential to corrupt a player character. Besides supporting the rules for ritual and black magic, several new powers are also included.

As well done as East Texas University is, it is missing two or three things. The first of these is a map of the surrounding county. There are maps of both the university campus and the town of Pinebox, but not of the county, which is odd given that the gazetteer describes the nearby towns and places of note. Second, there is no discussion of the events and things that occur over the course of each semester, something that would be useful for those of who did not attend an American college. Third, there is no discussion of quite where Pinebox and thus the university, is in relation to the bigger towns and cities, which does leave the setting slightly isolated.  That said, the supplement does much to capture the feel of Texas, what with the list of phrases and slang and so on.Despite these issues, East Texas University is a nicely presented, well written book.

It should be made clear what East Texas University is not and that is a Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG. Now there is nothing to stop a group taking the rules in this supplement and making it so, but it would need some effort upon the part of the GM. After all, there is a Demon Slayer Edge already included. All it would take to set up this kind of game would be some adjustment.

Hunting monsters in RPGs is always challenging, but in East Texas University it is made more so because of the constraints placed on the player characters. Of course most of these will be academic in nature, but there are also social activities to distract the potential monster hunters, as well as social conventions that prevent them from running around armed for werewolfbear. Yet they are also occult and supernatural in nature, because the player characters arrive completely unaware of the town’s occult secrets and grow into the role of monster hunters, perhaps gaining supernatural abilities in the process. This is nicely modelled by the fact that the majority of them, along with magic, are unavailable at character creation. The design of magic in East Texas University also points to less pulpy tone and less flashy feel to the setting, one that feels more grounded than other monster hunting games—and that is due to the constraints placed on the player characters as part of the setting.

Overall, East Texas University is a pleasing and concise package. If you wanted to run a horror game set in the academic halls and small town of America, then this supplement is very good choice.

Monday 6 April 2015

Serves you Right

Looney Labs—best known for the FLUXX family of games—has opened a restaurant and wants to employ you in serving the best desserts that you can. For the restaurant serves only desserts and only desserts (or puddings), never starters, main courses, or the cheese board, and it does so to a clientèle that is very particular about what it does not like. Serve the right customers the right desserts and you can be the best waiter or waitress.

This is the set up for Just Desserts, a new card game from Looney Labs that is designed for two to five players, aged eight and up with a suggesting playing time of ten to forty minutes. It consists of two decks of cards, the Dessert Deck and the Guest Deck. The Dessert Deck consists of dishes such as Pecan Pie, Fruit Salad, and Baked Alaska. Each of these is named and illustrated and is also marked with one or more Taste Icons of which there are twelve in the game. For example, Fruit Salad consists of one Taste Icon, which of course, is Fruit; Pecan Pie consists of the Nuts and Pie Taste Icons; and Baked Alaska is made up of Fruit, Cake, Ice Cream, and Chocolate Taste Icons. The Guest Deck is made up potential customers divided into six suits (measuring jug/blue, spatula/green, mixer/red, oven glove/orange, chef’s hat/yellow, and rolling pin/purple). Each Guest is named and illustrated, given a card colour and suit, the Taste Icons that he likes and dislikes as well as his favourite desserts. For example, The Lumberjack likes Ice Cream and Cookies, but not Nuts, and her favourite desserts is Ice Cream Cone. Some Guests have more than one Favourite Desserts. For example, The Emperor likes Devil’s Food Cupcakes and Chocolate Angel Food Cake.

To win  Just Desserts a player needs to serve the right desserts to the right Guests. This requires that he successfully serves three Guests of the same suit or five Guests of different suits.

At game start each player receive three Dessert Cards and three Guest Cards are played face up unclaimed. On his turn a player draws a new Dessert Card and a new Guest Card then does one of three things. These can be ‘Satisfy up to two Guests’, ‘Go back to the Kitchen’ (and draw an extra Dessert Card), or ‘Dump the Tray’ (discard Dessert Cards and then draw back up). To satisfy a Guest, a player matches the Taste Icons on the Dessert Cards in his hand with those on the unclaimed Guest Cards. For example, The Hippie likes the Ice Cream, Chocolate, and Fruit Taste Icons. A player matches these using the Fruit and Ice Cream Taste Icons on Strawberry Ice Cream and the Chocolate Taste Icon on Peanut Butter Cups—in doing so, he also ignores the Nuts Taste Icon on the Peanut Butter Cups as The Hippie does not mind Nuts. Having successfully served the Guest, the player adds her toward his winning total. Now The Hippie has two Favourites—Neapolitan Ice Cream and Banana Split—and if a player can serve her one of these, he not only adds The Hippie to the Guests that he has successfully served, he also gets a Tip, which means that he can draw an extra Dessert Card.

If at the end of a player’s turn there are two or more unclaimed Guests of a matching suit, then one of them must be discarded. Although added to the discard pile, he is regarded as ‘standing in the doorway’ and can still be served and claimed by another player. As soon as another Guest has to be discarded, the previous Guest has left and cannot be claimed.

This then is the basic game. Three advanced rules provide player interaction. ‘Poaching & Blocking’ enables a player to steal a Guest from another player by satisfying his preferences, though can be blocked if the owning player can re-satisfy his Guest. By ‘Opening a Buffet’ a player discards four Dessert Cards with single Taste Icons to force the other players to move one of their satisfied Guests back to being unclaimed. ‘Surprise Parties’ allow a player to interrupt another player either satisfying or Poaching a Guest by using that Guest’s Favourite dessert. Unfortunately, the player does not get a Tip for this.

Physically, Just Desserts is nicely done, with cheery, full colour artwork. The rules are well written and clearly presented.

One issue with Just Desserts is that the designer does overestimate the playing time—twenty minutes is a more reasonable estimate than the given maximum of forty. Further, matching the Taste Icons may be a little fiddly in places for some players. Another is that even with the advanced options—Poaching & Blocking, Opening a Buffet, and Surprise Parties—the game is not that complex and not that satisfying. At least not for the hardened gamer, but to be fair, Just Desserts is not designed with them in mind. Such a gamer will be better off with FLUXX or any number of deeper, filler games.

With its easy theme and its cheery artwork, Just Desserts is a light and likeable card game, best suited to a family audience with casual or younger players.

Sunday 5 April 2015

Can the dead not stay dead?

The End of the World is a new line survival horror RPGs published by Fantasy Flight Games. Licensed and adapted from quartet of titles originally published in Spanish by Edge Entertainment as El Fin del Mundo, each of the four titles explores four different types of apocalypse. The first, Zombie Apocalypse, deals with the rise of the dead; the second, Wrath of the Gods, with the return of deities intent on mankind’s destruction; the third, Alien Invasion, with the arrival of little green men; and fourth, Revolt of the Machines, with robots that strikes back. At the heart of each title in the line is a simple question… “Could you survive the apocalypse?” For the key feature of the line is that players create not ‘fantasy’ modern characters through which they experience the end of the world, but create versions of themselves and see how they might survive.

So, as the title suggests, The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse is all about the rise of the dead and how you—that is, the ordinary gamer sat reading this review—would survive. Further, it asks this again and again, presenting five ‘scenarios’ that take the player characters through the rise of the  dead and beyond. The inference is that this is done right from where you are sitting—round the gaming table with your friends—and into the neighbourhood where you live (and game). The question is, can this be done again and again with the players starting anew to face yet another performance by the cadaver cavalcade? Further, does The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse bring anything new to the zombie sub-genre?

To create a character—or rather to create a version of himself—a player assigns ten points across six attributes, each rated between one and five and paired into three Aspects. Each aspect consists of an offensive and a defensive attribute. So the Physical aspects are Dexterity and Vitality, the Mental aspects are Logic and Willpower, and the Social aspects are Charisma and Empathy. Once this is done, the process gets slightly complicated in that every other player gets to take a secret vote on each of a player’s pairings. A positive vote for an Aspect allows a player to raise one of the Aspect’s attributes by one whilst a negative vote forces him to lower an attribute by one. An equal number of positive and negative votes results in no changes being made.

The player then assigns a Feature to each Aspect. A Feature can be positive or negative, for example ‘Crack Shot’, ‘Deaf’, ‘Athlete’, or ‘Arachnophobe’. Only a few Features are listed in the rules, so the players may be on their own if they want fuller inspiration. A character can gain extra Features during the voting process for Aspects—if the group voted to improve an Aspect, then the player must accept a negative Feature and improve the Aspect or reject the group’s vote to improve the Aspect. Conversely, if the group voted to reduce an Aspect, then the player must either a positive Feature and reduce the Aspect or reject the group’s vote to reduce the Aspect. (Similarly, the only way in which a player character can improve is by the rest of the group voting for such changes).

Next, a player gets to write down his equipment he already has with him, that is, whatever he has on his person and perhaps in his bag—which in the case of most gamers is going to be dice, gaming books, and pens, plus a mobile telephone (and whatever might be to hand, depending on his location). Lastly, a player records any Traumas, the equivalent of wounds—physical, mental, or social—that he may be suffering from at the start of the game. This might be a broken arm, diabetes, depression, or acute shyness, but unless the Trauma is obvious, a player is under no obligation to  reveal any.

So the sample character is essentially me (and no, there was nobody around to vote on this when I wrote it up) and that really is what I have on me at the moment. I can also count myself lucky that I really do not have any Traumas.

A sample Player Character
Physical Aspects
Dexterity 2
Vitality 3
Mental Aspects
Logic 3
Willpower 3
Social Aspects
Charisma 2
Empathy 3

Physical: Shortsighted
Mental: Decently educated
Social: Smartarse

Backpack containing pens, business cards,  copies of Behind the Sofa: Celebrity Memories of Doctor Who, Doctor Who The Sixth Doctor Sourcebook, and Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime; warm clothing (great coat, woolen hat, gloves, and scarf); wallet (travel passes, cash card, £30 in notes and coins) and keys

To undertake any action a player rolls a handful of six-sided dice in two colours—white for positive dice and black for negative dice (of course, the two colours of dice can be any colour, but black and white is nice and simple). Positive dice come from a player’s attributes as well as any relevant Features and benefits from the situation, equipment, assistance from NPCs and other characters, whereas negative dice come from the difficulty of the task, from negative Features and Traumas, and from hindrances from the situation and equipment. Once all of the dice have been rolled, the dice are compared with positive and negative dice of the same value cancel each other out. Any remaining positive dice equal to, or less than the attribute selected for the test count as successes. Typically, only one success is needed, but the GM is free to require more and they are used in opposed tests and combat. Conversely, the number of negative dice leftover counts as Stress and Stress is where The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse gets slightly more interesting.

Each Aspect of a character—physical, mental, or social—has an associated Stress Track consisting of nine boxes arranged in a three-by-three grid. Damage comes from performing difficult tasks and experiencing traumatic events with damage suffered is marked off the appropriate Stress Track. If all nine boxes on a Stress Track is filled in, then the player suffers a serious trauma or even death. For the Physical Stress Track, this is probably death; for the Mental Stress, track this is irreversible insanity; and for the Social Stress, track this is catatonia. At just nine boxes in a Stress Track, your representation of as a player character feels weak, but as the player suffers Stress, he also builds up a resistance to it. This reduces the amount of Stress he suffers, so effectively the more Stress he suffers, the more he grows inured to it—so for example, the first time that a player loses an ally to a zombie attack, he suffers Stress, but happen enough times and he will be numbed to it.
For example, I and an NPC have gone scavenging in a chemist’s shop for first aid supplies, but whilst I have been successful in my mission, I have attracted the attention of the walking dead. Having raced to the back of the shop, we find the exit locked—and the door is heavy duty! The GM tells me that Dexterity is the involved attribute, so the target is 2. This gives me just two positive dice to roll, but fortunately I gain another for my ally and another for the crowbar I have learned to carry. Unfortunately, the GM hands me three negative dice for the quality of the door. 
I roll 1, 2, 3, and 6 on the positive dice and 1, 3, and 5 on the negative dice. The rolls of 1 and 3 cancel each other out, leaving 2 and 6 positive, and  5 negative. The end result is one success and one negative die—enough to get the door open, but in the process, suffer a point of Stress.
Combat is a little more complex than this. Here the number of successes count and are added as Stress to the target. Weapons add to the number of successes rolled, for example a pistol adds +3, whilst Resistance will reduce them. Stress can be converted into Trauma upon reflection, but the more severe the Trauma, the longer it takes to heal. So a point of Physical Trauma might be a twisted ankle, which takes a day and some simple first to recover from; two points of Mental Trauma could be a dread of the dead, which takes a week and counselling to overcome; and three points of Social Trauma a case of paranoia, which takes over a month to recover from. So the interesting thing here is that a player must maintain a balance between keeping Stress on his Stress Track because it will give him a certain resistance taking further Stress and having to remove it because it will ultimately kill him, despite the fact that removing it converts it into Trauma—and that hinders a player.

The rules are fairly simple, but they are not the ‘elegant narrative rules system’ that the back cover blurb promises. The problem is the difference between the effect of positive dice and the effect of negative dice. In the case of the latter, negative dice rolls are interpreted in narrative terms as Trauma and thus have an effect, but positive dice only generate successes and have no narrative effect. At its most basic in The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse, only the first success counts—what happens to the excess successes, if any? Arguably in an ‘elegant narrative rules system’ these excess success would have an effect. Now extra successes do have a mechanical effect in more complex situations—combat and opposed rolls—but still no narrative effect. Now the guidelines for running tests do discuss determining the results of a roll, but this is only to interpret the result and not apply any other benefit which a narrative rules system might allow for. This gives the rules an imbalance that an actual  ‘elegant narrative rules system’ would ideally lack and weighs an RPG that is already biased against the players further against them. Of course if this is a design feature, then sadly, the RPG does not say so.

In terms of settings, The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse offers not one, but five. They are scenarios in the proper sense, each ‘an imagined or projected sequence of events, including in particular several detailed plans or possibilities.’ Each is divided into two sections, the Apocalypse and the Post-Apocalypse. Specifically the Apocalypse details the opening events of the apocalypse—how and when the dead rise, what the players experience and how everyone else is coping with it, the nature of the corpse cortège and how they can be killed, a timeline of events from the start and into the future, a set of locations and possible encounters, and a set sample stats for the members of the undead and various NPCs. The Post-Apocalypse section details what the world is like in three or four years time and again gives a  set of locations and possible encounters and sample stats for NPCs. Each of these scenarios is twenty or so pages in length and in gaming terms is more of an outline for a mini-campaign rather than an actual scenario.

The first of the five scenarios is ‘Night of the Meteor’ in which the radiation from a passing meteor shower causes the dead to rise—and that includes undead animals too! So far so traditional, but the Post-Apocalypse section is a bit more interesting in that a medical corporation finds a vaccination for the problem and leverages this cure into a position of world domination. The second scenario, ‘No Hell on Earth’ sees the dead rise for no known reason and when no known reason can be determined, an Evangelist declares the cause to be due to Hell having filled up with sinners and there being no more so room—so the dead have to go somewhere. Which would be fine were there any connection with Hell in this scenario, but the concept here is that there is no known reason for the dead rise. This leaves ‘No Hell on Earth’ without any real hook or any aspect that might make it stand out from the zombie herd. What is distinctive about the scenario is how bland it is and how nearly twenty pages have been devoted to developing it to such an underwhelming effect when a page or two would have covered it.

Similarly, the third scenario feels just as underwhelming and overwritten for what it is. ‘Pandemic’ introduces rage-filled zombies created through a new virus that essentially makes the undead all but unstoppable. Fortunately the virus burns itself out, but by then it is too late and what is left is essentially a Mad Max-style world with the occasional zombie.

Fortunately, the fourth scenario, ‘It Ends with a Whisper’ turns out to be interesting and original. It draws upon the origins of the zombie myth, rather than from Hollywood, although its interpretation of Voodoo is of course, drawn from Hollywood, and combines it with the classic zombie. So you have both the living zombie and the dead zombie, a cabal of Voodoo practitioners use their knowledge and magic to topple civilisation and return it to an agrarian ideal. This adds more tension to the scenario when the players have to face zombies that are not actually dead and of course the possibility that one of the players might get turned into one a living zombie.

Rounding out the quintet is ‘Under the Skin’ in which deep drilling—or is that ‘fracking’?—has released a parasite that infects mankind and turns them into the living dead. Worse, this affects all creatures, and even worse, dismembering the living dead does not stop individual body parts! The only recourse is for humanity to take shelter in deep bunkers whilst the surface is sterilised, again leading to a slightly more interesting post-apocalypse, somewhat in the vein of 12 Monkeys—although without the time travel.

So physically, The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse is well presented. The layout is tidy and the artwork decent, and even the index is reasonable—and yet...

The publication of The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse raises a number of questions. The first very obvious one is, “Do we need another zombie RPG?”. Any answer to that would be entirely subjective and is best left to the reader to decide. The second, just obvious one is, “Is The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse better than All Flesh Must Be Eaten?”. Fortunately, the answer to that is not necessarily as subjective and is an absolute, “No.” Simply, whilst All Flesh Must Be Eaten is a more complex RPG, it is also a more detailed, more comprehensive, and more deeper RPG, a better toolkit for creating zombie campaigns, whereas The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse is not as detailed, not as comprehensive, and not as deep. To be fair, The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse is not trying to be All Flesh Must Be Eaten, but the truth is, the comparison is inescapable and is always going to be made.

There are a number of failures in The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse. One is that it assumes that it takes place in the USA and its scenarios all start in America. The point of the line is that this is the end of the world and no one in their right mind would suggest that the USA is the world. The rest of the world barely gets a mention, which is odd given that The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse was originally a Spanish RPG. Of course, this also highlights the exact, one and only benefit to having an armed society like that of the USA—the survivors would have access to firearms with which to blast the members of the corpse cortège to bits. Another is that it never really addresses the replay value of the game and oddness of playing yourself in one scenario and once it ends, starting all over again in another which means resetting yourself to your base stats. Of course, The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse is not particularly innovative in terms of having the players play themselves. Fantasy Games Unlimited did that in 1979 with Villains & Vigilantes and so did Blacksburg Tactical Research Center with TimeLords in 1987.

A third failing is of the line as a whole and it depends upon if each of the books in the line will follow the same format, that is, forty-seven pages of rules and ninety-one pages of scenarios. If they do, then if you purchase one and then purchase another, then you are paying the same price for just two thirds of new content—and remember, The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse is not an inexpensive book.

Arguably, The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse is on a hiding to nothing. After all, how many zombie-themed RPGs are there and who needs a new one? Especially one that only brings one interesting situation—‘It Ends with a Whisper’—to the zombie genre. Especially one that employs a conceit like playing yourself which is going to be old once a group has done it twice. Especially one whose mechanics are not developed into the ‘elegant narrative rules system’ that the RPG could have had. Especially one that is overly expensive given how underdeveloped it feels.

There is room on the market for a light, narrative driven zombie RPG, but The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse is not that. Underdeveloped and underwhelming in an overdone presentation, The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse just does not bring enough fresh ideas to the zombie genre in terms of settings or rules.

Wednesday 1 April 2015

1973: Escape from Colditz

Last year’s review of Kingmaker proved to be surprisingly popular such that it got me thinking—what games of its era are worth revisiting? Only one game came to mind, a game from my childhood that like Kingmaker I played, but never owned. That game is Escape from Colditz, first published in 1973  by Gibsons Games.

Designed for two six players, Escape from Colditz is set at the height of World War Two. The Germans have selected Schloss Colditz as Oflag IV-C, a prisoner-of-war camp for ‘incorrigible’ Allied officers who had repeatedly escaped from other camps. To those incarcerated in Schloss Colditz, making escape attempts was not only their patriotic duty, but to an extent, also seen as a sport, as was making the lives and duties of the garrison as awkward as possible. The majority of the players in Escape from Colditz are Escape Officer who control  Prisoners of War (POWs) of certain nationalities—American (blue), British (red), Dutch (orange), French (brown), and Polish (green)—whilst one player controls the sentries of German security (black). The aim of the Allies is to get as many POWs out of Colditz and back to Allied territory—to make a ‘home run’ as the prisoners called it—as they can, whilst the German player must stop them.

To effect an escape, each Allied player must acquire equipment. First an ‘escape kit’, consisting of a compass, a disguise kit, food, and forged documents, and then second escape equipment, such as forged passes and keys to get past outer doors in the castle, rope to climb down out of the castle and then over the outer walls, and lastly wire cutters to get through the fences. To acquire equipment an Allied player must get two of his officers to particular rooms in the castle. For example, to acquire rope an Allied player must get two of his officers to either the chapel or store and then back to the Appel area in the centre of the castle courtyard. Similarly, to get a disguise kit, an Allied player must get two of his officers to either the Theatre or the Laundry and back to the Appel area.

In response the German player will be moving his sentries around the rooms and grounds of the castle, from the barracks to the sentry posts (and often back again) in order to monitor POW activities and to block potential escape routes. Once an Allied player has acquired equipment, his officers are subject to closer scrutiny and potential arrest and incarceration in the cells. If an officer is arrested in the grounds of the castle, the German player can confiscate equipment from his player as well as send the officer to the cells. 

To move around the map, both the Allied and the German players roll two six-sided dice and simply move. Rolls of doubles allow re-rolls and if a player rolls a three, seven, or eleven, he can draw card—the Allies draw Opportunity cards, whilst the German draws Security cards. The Opportunity cards do a variety of things. For example, Bribe a Sentry gets an Allied player more equipment, Hideaway enables him to hide equipment before the German player can confiscate it, Diversion allows him to send a German sentry back to the barracks, Tunnel (Chapel) gives him access to the tunnel leading out of the Chapel, and Staff Car presents him with the chance to steal the car waiting in the castle grounds and drive it to freedom. Various other Opportunity cards enable a player to move to various locations, get out of the cells, and so on. The German Security cards include Appel (Roll Call), used to summon all POWs back to the courtyard and search and arrest any that do not return, Tunnel Detected that enables the German to find a tunnel, and of course, the dreaded Shoot to Kill card that enables the German player to kill a POW who is outside of the castle walls! No player can hold more than three cards, but the Allies can freely exchange their Opportunity cards.

The play of the game typically proceeds with the Allied players collecting enough equipment, the German player marking the POWs as best that he can, until he is ready to make an escape. There are multiple escape routes, typically involving a POW climbing out of a window and then over the walls or cutting his way through the wire. Alternatives include taking a tunnel—there are three in the game and the player needs to have the appropriate Opportunity card, the aforementioned Staff Car Opportunity card, or a Do or Die card. The latter represents a last ditch bid for freedom, the player being given a random number of rolls—varying from one Do or Die card to another, each Allied player receiving a random one at game’s start—with which to get a POW to Allied territory. This is typically done at the end of the game to get one more POW home and it costs no Escape Equipment to use a Do or Die card. Should the attempt via the Do or Die card fail, then the escaping  POW is killed in the attempt and the player is out of the game.

Tactically, the German player needs to monitor the Allied players for signs of an escape attempt and move his sentries accordingly. The Allied players should get their escape equipment as ready as quickly as possible and during this opening stage of the game, playing Escape from Colditz can be quite tense as a game of ‘cat and mouse’ ensues between the Germans and the Allied POWs. Here the POWs can run interference, ‘voluntarily’ turning themselves in to send a nosy German sentry back to the barracks whilst he takes the offending POW to the cells. Once enough escape equipment has been assembled, the Allies should ideally stage their escape attempts en masse and at separate points round the castle . So for example, whilst the Americans and the British make their out of the tunnel from the chapel, the Polish should be climbing out of Officers’ Quarters and up over the wall, and so on. Ideally, this should overwhelm the German player who will never quite have enough decent rolls with which to capture the escaping Allied officers. Still, the escape attempts should be not only tense, but also exhilarating affairs as one POW after another attempts to make a home run. 

On the other hand, a failed escape attempt, is not only disappointing, but it can also feel rather deflating. After all, the player has been busy assembling escape equipment and having used it in the attempt, now has to start going round the castle collecting it again if he wants to make more attempts. Plus of course, his failed escapees are now in solitary (and have to roll doubles to get back out).

The need for the Allied Escape Officers to coordinate their escape attempts and the fact that they can swap or give each other Opportunity cards means is that Escape from Colditz is a co-operative, or rather, a semi-cooperative game because the Allies need to work together to affect successful escape attempts. That said, there can only be one winner, either the German player because he has stopped all escape attempts or one of the Allied players because he has got the most POWs home. Even so, Escape from Colditz does not come with set objectives. Typically all of the players agree on a time limit and the number of successful escape attempts needed for an Allied player to win. Two hours is the suggested time limit and two escapees the recommended number. An Allied player wins if he manages this in the time limit, the German player wins if he prevents anyone from doing so. 

Physically, Escape from Colditz is a very nicely put together game. The trade dress and the graphic design is excellent, with extra flavour text on the Opportunity and Security cards adding historical details, the card holder for the game’s card being made to look like a Red Cross parcel, the front of the rules sheet being the same as the sheet issued to POWs  advising them not to make escape attempts. All of these extra details add verisimilitude to the game’s theme, but none add as much as the map board. This is a large affair, providing a stunning depiction of Schloss Colditz and its environs in wonderful detail. 

Thematically, there can be no argument that Escape from Colditz is a triumph. The addition of the cover sheet to the rules advising that escaping is not a sport and the Red Cross parcel packaging for cards adds nothing to game play, but everything to the feel of the game. As does the beautifully functional map of Schloss Colditz. Yet the game is unbalanced in terms of the number of players—too few Allied players and the Germans have an easy time keeping an eye on everyone and foiling escape attempts; too many players and it is a lot easier for the Allies to make escape attempts. Equally, the game is also mechanically flawed. The ‘roll dice and move’ mechanic feels dated, but arguably it does feel suited to the game. Worse though are the ambiguous rules, which all too often leave situations open to interpretation, such that house rules are needed. Admittedly, Escape from Colditz is a forty year old design, and whilst it definitely shows, the game is not unplayable, not unenjoyable, and worth replaying once in a while. Its age though makes it a very interesting game.

 No game comes with the cultural weight of Escape from Colditz. It is ‘boys’ own adventure’ that evokes the using of a stick as gun to fire at the German enemy when you were children, of the comic book Commando War Stories in Pictures, of Saturday afternoon war movies like The Great Escape, The Cruel Sea, In Which We serve, and of course, The Colditz Story,* of the proverbial ‘British stiff upper lip’ and sticking it to the Hun, of “For you, the war is over”, and so on. This is hardly surprisingly given when the game was published—the early 1970s—a decade when the war was still strong in our collective memories. This cultural weight is enforced by the authenticity of the details in the game—the notice informing the POWs that escaping was not a sport, the replica Red Cross parcel used to hold the cards, and so on—but perhaps most obviously by the fact that the game’s co-designer, Major Patrick R. Reid M.B.E., M.C., had been been a prisoner at Colditz and had indeed escaped in 1942.

*Most of which have the actor John Mills in common…

It tied into our toys too. The game’s primary publisher, Parker Brothers, was owned by the American multinational, General Mills, as was Palitoy, the British toy company best known for Action Man, essentially the British equivalent of G.I. Joe. Numerous uniforms and outfits were manufactured for Action Man, including an Escape from Colditz Boxed Set, the contents a German Sentry outfit, Escape Officer outfit, escape equipment, forged documents, maps, card sentry box!

Of course, unlike other games that put the one or more players against the Germans, Escape from Colditz makes it personal. Those other games are typically war games like Squad Leader that play out at the impersonal squad-to-squad, tank-to-tank, battalion-to-battalion, or army-to-army level. Escape from Colditz places you at the head of an Escape Committee up against one player alone—whomever is playing the German security of the castle. And you hate him for it, just like you hate the Germans. Which was fine in the 1970s. Forty years on and it is no longer politically correct to hate the Germans—almost as if we have gone on a cultural diet. After all, the Second World War ended seventy years ago, the Germans are are an economic, rather than a military powerhouse, and arguably, the Germans lead the European Union. Nevertheless, that does not stop us from poking fun at the Germans, often relying on stereotypes and jokes that are a hangover from the war.

Playing the game almost forty years on is thus a different experience, more jokey, but still laced with many of the same clichés that the war engenders. It is also different experience because game design has moved on and we have been exposed to wider and better game design so that the flaws in Escape from Colditz are more apparent. The best that can be said here is Escape from Colditz offers more thematic than mechanical depth, but is still a very enjoyable game despite its flaws.

So in 2015, one wonders why the game is not in print? After all, any number of games have been reprinted and and updated from the 1980s, so why not this classic from the 1970s? It is no surprise that that an updated version was published in Spanish by Devir Games in 2006, since the sequel to the original, Después de Colditz, was published in Spanish in 1986. Yet there is no English language version currently in print. There can be no doubt that the game is ripe for an update—even if my long hoped version in which the Germans are controlled by the board and the Allies play in true co-operative fashion, is unlikely to happen, but with Fantasy Flight Games publishing a Spanish RPG, perhaps the time is right?

[Thanks to J-P Treen and his wife and his family for hosting my recent game.]