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Saturday 19 December 2015

Reviews from R'lyeh Christmas Dozen 2015

Since 2001, I have contributed to a series of Christmas lists at Ogrecave.com—and at RPGaction before that, 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 tradition—in that the following is just the one list and in that for reasons beyond its control, OgreCave.com is not running its own lists—Reviews 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 annual Christmas Dozen, I can only hope that the following list 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.


Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City
(Osprey Publishing) $24.99/£14.99
In a first for Reviews from R’lyeh, a set of wargames rules makes its annual Christmas Dozen. Frostgrave is a skirmish miniatures game in which rival wizards and their apprentices lead warbands into the icebound city of ‘Frostgrave’ in search of treasure, relics, and knowledge lost to the cold centuries before. Both the background and the rules are simple, making it easy to learn by experienced wargamers and novices alike—and making it easier to teach too! The buy-in cost is also low, each warband needing just ten figures, and because the rules give plenty of options, it means that one warband is rarely going to be the same as any other. Frostgrave can be played in single one-off skirmishes, but the game gets better when played as a campaign because a wizard can learn from his experience and not only gain more spells, but get better at casting them! Miniatures are available for the game—though any can be used—as is a fiction anthology, Frostgrave - Tales of the Frozen City, and the first campaign, Frostgrave: Thaw of the Lich Lord.

Ticket to Ride Map Collection Vol. 5: United Kingdom + Pennsylvania
(Days of Wonder) $40/£25.99
New boards are always welcome for the classic Ticket to Ride board game and never more so with the line’s Map Collection series. The fifth and very latest Map Collection addition, not only adds two new map boards, it adds technology and shares, elements usually found in more complex train games. Even better, the new map boards includes a map of the United Kingdom so that now you can play across the nation that gave the birth to railways! On the Pennsylvania map, players now compete for shares as well as routes, giving them new ways to score points, whilst on the United Kingdom map, players need buy technological advances to build beyond England to Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and further… For long time Ticket to Ride fans, this expansion adds new rules and challenges, but without adding too much complexity that would make it that much more difficult for casual players.

Shadow of the Demon Lord
(Schwalb Entertainment) $49.99/£39.95
The end of the world is nigh! All that stands between the world and its destruction is the Veil, yet the Demon Lord rends at it, weakening it and spreading his influence in the real world beyond. Thus the trolls come out of the mountains, beastmen out of the Badlands, zombies from the grave, and cultists out of the shadows to spread fear and chaos, hearkened by the coming of their master. Perhaps though, there is a chance, just a slim one, that the Demon Lord can be stopped—and if not that, then at least the chaos and the horror held off, at least for a little while… This is the set up for Shadow of the Demon Lord, a dark horror fantasy RPG from the co-designer of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, inspired in part by his love of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Its focus is entirely upon the characters and the horrors they face, even beginning the game not knowing what career they will follow let alone what madness they will have to deal with, but once they progress, they are free to choose their path as they want. The RPG offers a wide choice of career paths, simple mechanics, and simplified level progression that means that characters gain a level every adventure! Perhaps the end is just the beginning?

Thunderbirds Co-operative Board Game
(Modiphius Entertainment) $69.99/£45
Calling International Rescue! 

Only the Tracy family and the amazing vehicles and gadgets of International Rescue stand between the disasters and the plans of the nefarious Hood that beset the future of 2065. In this co-operative boardgame, the players work together as the Tracy brothers, along with Lady Penelope, racing to stop one disaster after another whilst working to thwart the plans of the criminal mastermind known as the Hood. Based on Gerry Anderson’s classic 1965 Thunderbirds television series, the game comes with the famous vehicles, each a fantastic little model, and the disasters that we remember from on-screen. Designed by Matt Leacock—a name known for designing co-operative boardgames like Pandemic and Forbidden Island—the Thunderbirds Co-operative Board Game not only has charm and nostalgia in abundance, but succinctly captures the feel and style of the television series.

Colt Express: Horses & Stagecoach
(Ludonaute) $19.99/£14.99
The trainrobbers are back! Plus they brought their horses with them and there is a stagecoach to rob too.

The Spiel des Jahres award winning Colt Express was one of the best board games of 2014, so it was no wonder that it was included 0n the Reviews from R’lyeh Christmas list of 2014. It is still a great game, but this year we got the first expansion—Colt Express: Horses & Stagecoach—which enables the players to not only rob the train of the core game, but leap from the train onto horseback, ride the length of the train, and then leap back aboard, or leap onto the stagecoach and rob that! There are more jewels and money to be stolen, hostages to be taken, an ornery old man armed with shotgun to contend with, and when things get bad, flasks of whiskey for a bandit to imbibe and refresh himself with. More options mean more chaos means more fun!

White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying
(Barrel Rider Games) $34.99
Taking the Old School Renaissance to the stars, White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying is inspired by sources including Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who and Firefly, but at its heart, this Swords & Wizardry-powered RPG is a Space Opera game through and through. Wearing its inspirations upon its sleeve, White Star devotes time aplenty to exploring the genre and its variations and different story types in depth and then discuss how to do them using the rules. This is helped by the familiar Dungeons & Dragons-style mechanics that also make White Star easy to play and easy to run, but there are plenty of optional rules that enable the GM to tweak the game to his tastes. (The designer has promised us a White Star Companion which will include more options and support. Lastly, the retro-future feel of White Star is echoed in its simple design, making it feel like the 1977 Sci-Fi RPG we never had.

Read the review here.

Machi Koro: Harbour Expansion
(IDW Games) $19.99/£14.99
One of the best games of 2014 was Machi Koro, the 2015 Spiel des Jahres nominated dice and card game about building your Japanese town better and faster than your rivals. Which is why it made the Reviews from R’lyeh Christmas list of 2014. As much fun as the base game is, it needed more Landmarks to make your town stand out and more Establishments to generate the income needed to buy those Landmarks. In 2015, Machi Koro received two expansions that did exactly that—Machi Koro: Harbour Expansion and Machi Koro: Millionaire’s Row. Of the two, Machi Koro: Harbour Expansion is the better expansion, slickly adding not only the cards needed for a fifth player, but a swathe of new Establishment cards that interact with each other and the cards in the base set. Even better though are the new rules that modify the Marketplace where the players can buy their Establishment cards. It just limits those available at any one time to just ten types—rather than all of them as in the base game—which forces the players to make more careful choices and breaks up the easy paths to victory of the base game. The result is a much improved, slicker game. If you own only Machi Koro, then definitely add Machi Koro: Harbour Expansion (and possibly think about Machi Koro: Millionaire’s Row), but if not, then Machi Koro: Deluxe Edition is the perfect choice (plus it comes in a tin!).

Read the review here.

The Dracula Dossier
(Pelgrane Press) $74.95/£49.95

In 2012, Review from R’lyeh liked Night’s Black Agents so much that it made the Reviews from R’lyeh Christmas list of 2012. It set the secret agents a la James Bond and Jason Bourne not against the traditional mundane conspiracy, but against a conspiracy headed by vampires! Now the horror-espionage RPG lives up to the author’s pitch for it as “The Bourne Identity meets Dracula” with The Dracula Dossier. This huge sandbox campaign works from the idea that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a fictionalised account of an attempt by British Naval Intelligence to recruit the infamous vampire that failed… Repeated recruiting attempts during World War Two and the War on Terror have only turned the vampire’s antipathy against us and now it is your turn to deal with the threat. This is of course going to be a mammoth undertaking and the campaign is equally as large—a giant set of clues, people, locations, and more designed to support the GM in running an improvised campaign and in doing so, complementing the toolkit aspect of Night’s Black Agents. It is also a fearsome work of the imagination that comes with gaming’s biggest set of clues—the annotated and redacted version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula!

The Metagame
(Local No. 12, LLC.) $25.00

2015 was a good year for party style games, with Code Names, Love 2 Hate, and Spyfall all being released and all being good games, but there was one card game in 2015 that outshone them all—The Metagame. This big box of cards might look like the infamous Cards Against Humanity, but where that game was in black and white and contains one basic game in a big box, The Metagame comes in a white box, its cards in colour and black and white, and it comes with six games rather than one. The cards are divided between Opinion cards—such as  “Which is the most useful on a desert island?” and “More Myth Than Fact”, and Culture cards that range from Enron, Brie Cheese, and World of Warcraft to The Vagina Monologues, Riverdance, and Romeo and Juliet. The games include trying to match Opinion cards with Culture cards, guessing when the things on Culture cards appeared, debating both Opinion cards and Culture cards—and more! The Science Fiction Expansion Pack and the Film 101 Expansion Pack are both available and add to the mix and the fun. The Metagame is both a good family and a good party game and can be played with anyone.

Tianxia: Blood, Silk, & Jade
(Vigilance Press) $44.95/£29.99

With the release of Jadepunk: Tales From Kausao City and Feng Shui 2: Action Movie Roleplaying, 2015 was a great year for the wuxia genre, but if Reviews from R'lyeh had to choose one, it would be Tianxia: Blood, Silk, & Jade. The setting is the classic Jiāngzhōu, the ‘border land’ on the edge of the ‘Divine Realm’, which has a reputation for banditry, gangsters, and corruption. Pirates, like the Blue Carp Brotherhood, led by the infamous pirate king, Fish-Eye Cheng, prey upon the boats moving up and down the Silk River whilst Five Demon Forest is known to be a haven for the bandits and thieves that prey upon the Jade Road, but is reputed to be haunted too. Jiāngzhōu is also home to the Wuxia, the ‘Wandering Swordsmen’ and ‘Knight Errants’ who lead lives often independent of society. Many are mercenaries, some follow their own paths, but all seek to become masters of Kung Fu. This broadly drawn setting is ably supported by delightfully cinematic Fate Core rules and solidly done new martial arts rules which in combination emulate the classic tales and action of the Wuxia genre.

Read the full review here.

Eyes of the Stone Thief
(Pelgrane Press) $49.95/£32.95

In traditional Dungeons & Dragons the megadungeon is a static construct, a fixed structure dug deep into the earth that bold adventurers will delve into again and again, exploring its secrets and facing its threats. Plus, if it is a ‘Living dungeon’ then perhaps its denizens will change and react in response to the player characters’ action. In 13th Age, the storytelling, action orientated interpretation of Dungeons & Dragons-style gaming, the dungeon is definitely living and it is far static, swimming to the surface to devour whole towns and cities. Designed for characters of Fourth to Eighth Level, Eyes of the Stone Thief, at first the adventurers will have to venture inside to rescue someone, but once it has their scent, the dungeon will begin hunting the adventurers! Which means that the adventurers will have to go back in to stop themselves from being hunted down… Can they stop this 'Moby Dick' of a dungeon before it gets them?

Pandemic Legacy
(Z-Man Games) $69.99/£54.99

Since 2008, Pandemic has been the touchstone by which all co-operative boardgames have been measured. It set the standard, combining an engaging theme with elegant mechanics that see the players trying to find the cures necessary to stop four diseases that threaten to become pandemics and overwhelm the world. Last year Reviews from R’lyeh liked the stripped down, faster playing dice-based variant of Pandemic the Cure, but this year Pandemic fans were faced by not just a new challenge, but a whole new set of challenges joined by secrets and surprises. For Pandemic Legacy answers the question, “What would happen if what you did in one game of Pandemic carried over to the next… and the next?” In other words, with Pandemic Legacy, the original Pandemic becomes a campaign, with chances that the characters played in game being hurt, killed, or hopefully getting more capable, with diseases becoming more virulent or less deadly, cities being saved or lost, and even worse, government funding being cut—all depending upon how well the players do! Ultimately every copy of Pandemic Legacy becomes a game of its very own, unique to the playing group that played through it.

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