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

Sunday 30 September 2018

Miskatonic Monday #13: The Parsonsville Horror

Between October 2003 and October 2013, Chaosium, Inc. published a series of books for Call of Cthulhu under the Miskatonic University Library Association brand. Whether a sourcebook, scenario, anthology, or campaign, each was a showcase for their authors—amateur rather than professional, but fans of Call of Cthulhu nonetheless—to put forward their ideas and share them with others. The programme was notable for having launched the writing careers of several authors, but for every Cthulhu InvictusThe PastoresPrimal StateRipples from Carcosa, and Halloween Horror, there was a Five Go Mad in EgyptReturn of the RipperRise of the DeadRise ofthe Dead II: The Raid, and more...

The Miskatonic University Library Association brand is no more, alas, but what we have in its stead is the Miskatonic Repository, based on the same format as the DM’s Guild for Dungeons & Dragons. It is thus, “...a new way for creators to publish and distribute their own original Call of Cthulhu content including scenarios, settings, spells and more...” To support the endeavours of their creators, Chaosium has provided templates and art packs, both free to use, so that the resulting releases can look and feel as professional as possible. To support the efforts of these contributors, Miskatonic Monday is an occasional series of reviews which will in turn examine an item drawn from the far reaches of the Miskatonic Repository.


Name: The Parsonsville Horror
Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: William Adcock

Setting: Jazz Age
Product: Scenario
What You Get: 890.83 KB, 18-page full colour PDF
Elevator Pitch: When the boss gets murdered on the road, have the striking miners all gone ‘Wobblie’?
Plot Hook: Discovery of a strange automobile accident makes the investigators best-placed to investigate amidst labour unrest.
Plot Development: The Red Creek Goatman walks at night, the Pinkertons assist, and a bloodline is tainted.

Plot Support: Ten NPCs; three clear handouts.
Production Values: Needs an edit and maps; light on art; clear layout


# Solid, on-the-road, side trek mystery
# Simple, strong plot
# Limited number of NPCs
# Does not shy away from period attitudes


# Needs a map of the area
# Needs a timeline
# Life in a striking mining camp undeveloped
# No red herrings
# Not easy to work into an existing campaign
# No pre-generated investigators, especially for a one-shot


# Strong plot 
# Underdeveloped supporting content

Saturday 29 September 2018

Mapping the Third Horizon

Surprisingly, Coriolis: The Third Horizon is just supported by two supplements. The Middle Eastern influenced Science Fiction roleplaying game, originally published in Swedish by Fria Ligan, but since published by Modiphius Entertainment following a successful Kickstarter campaign, is supported by The Dying Ship and the Coriolis Atlas Compendium. Both were funded by the Kickstarter, the first being a short scenario, the second an expansion of both the setting and the core rules—and the subject of this review.

The Coriolis Atlas Compendium can roughly be divided into three sections. The first is an examination of the major systems of the Third Horizon—the setting for Coriolis: The Third Horizon, the second explores two aspects of the setting’s deeper history, and the third provides several sets of tables to help the Game Master run her game. Of these, the first section can be read by both the Game Master and her players, whilst the second and third are for the Game Master’s eyes only. As with both the core rule book and The Dying Ship, this supplement is beautifully illustrated with grand vistas and panoramas against the black backdrop of space to give it quite a dark look and a lot of wide margins.

The first section presents details on six worlds and their systems—Algol, Mira, Dabaran, Sadaal, Zalos, and Odacon. Given the few pages devoted to each, it is no surprise that the description of each is really quite broad, never getting down to specifics. Most of the planets bear the scars of the Portal Wars and their populations are often rent by tensions between the Firstcome and the more recently arrived Zenithian Hegemony, mostly because the Zenithian Hegemony is seen to be exploiting natural resources. In places this has broken into armed conflict—of varying intensity—whilst on other worlds there is barely a whisper of dissent. Some cultural elements, such as the tradition of wearing masks on Sadaal, but on whole, these descriptions feel very light, more flavour than detail.

The light treatment continues with the ‘History of the Horizon’, which explores the backstory to the First, Second, and Third Horizons—something which the Coriolis: The Third Horizon did not. It covers a thousand years in a few pages, from man’s first leaving Terra (the First Horizon) to settle the first colonies (the Second Horizon) and eventually a war between the two which would force the next wave of colonies (the Third Horizon) to isolate themselves. Knowledge of much of this has been lost to history, but it provides the Game Master with much needed context for the setting as a whole that you really wish that it could have been in the core rulebook. The same section also reveals a major secret about the identity of the Emissaries, but little more than that is given. So what exactly the ‘aliens’ are up to and what their objectives is left up to the Game Master to decide or a future supplement.

Comparatively, the examination of the Portal Builders is much longer and more detailed. Primarily, this focuses not on who they were, since no-one knows and numerous theories abound, but on what they left behind in terms of ruins, such as the Monoliths of Kua—either ancient city or monument, but now settled by humanity; the Eye of Ekharan, a perfect ellipse orbiting the Amedo-B star, inaccessible due to the star’s gravity and radiation; and the Awadhi Sun Fan above the boiling planet of Denebula, whose blades shade and cool the atmosphere enough for foolhardy prospectors to mine it of its hargium gas. These add flavour without giving anything away about the setting. Not an issue for the Game Master wanting to make her own content up, but for anyone with a deeper interest in the setting, possibly a little frustrating.

A good half of the supplement is dedicated to sets of table. One set is for generating worlds and systems, since not all of the thirty-six systems and their worlds are fully explored. As well as a planet’s physical characteristics, there are tables for factions, inhabitants, and hooks which greatly flavour the world. A second set is for generating missions and rather nicely, these are broken down according to type, including agents, mercenaries, explorers, pilgrims, and free traders. The mission generator is not designed to provide a full blown adventure, but rather a solid hook and two or three elements that the Game Master can develop herself. The third and last set is the shortest and probably give the longest explanation. It is for generating interesting things to happen when travelling between systems. It covers encounters on planet too, and again, serves very much as a spur for the Game Master’s imagination rather than providing her with ready made content.

Physically, Coriolis Atlas Compendium is well presented, an attractive looking book with lots of good artwork. Unfortunately it feel as if there is a lot of empty space, and the fact there is, the blackness of space backdrop with occupies much of the margins. Now they are used in some places for sidebars and sideboxs of supplementary information, but often the reader is left wanting more in terms of content. What he gets instead is pretty space. One of which could have been used to list the book’s content , or indeed, its index.

Unfortunately, the Coriolis Atlas Compendium is a better compendium than it is an atlas. At the very least, an atlas implies the inclusion of maps and it is very much the case that the supplement has none. Even as a compendium, there is a definite sense of the ineffable about the contents of the Coriolis Atlas Compendium, as if it is going to  change the next time you open the book. Of course, the tables and their content is absolutely all there. The rest of the feels as if it is definitely not there and definitely not enough of it. The Coriolis Game Master is definitely going to want to have this supplement, as it expands upon the setting—though not too much, reveals some secrets, and provides a useful set of tables. Unfortunately, anyone wanting more detail about the setting of the Third Horizon will have to wait until the next supplement.

Monday 24 September 2018

Miskatonic Monday #12: The Night Door

Between October 2003 and October 2013, Chaosium, Inc. published a series of books for Call of Cthulhu under the Miskatonic University Library Association brand. Whether a sourcebook, scenario, anthology, or campaign, each was a showcase for their authors—amateur rather than professional, but fans of Call of Cthulhu nonetheless—to put forward their ideas and share them with others. The programme was notable for having launched the writing careers of several authors, but for every Cthulhu InvictusThe PastoresPrimal StateRipples from Carcosa, and Halloween Horror, there was a Five Go Mad in EgyptReturn of the RipperRise of the DeadRise ofthe Dead II: The Raid, and more...

The Miskatonic University Library Association brand is no more, alas, but what we have in its stead is the Miskatonic Repository, based on the same format as the DM’s Guild for Dungeons & Dragons. It is thus, “...a new way for creators to publish and distribute their own original Call of Cthulhu content including scenarios, settings, spells and more...” To support the endeavours of their creators, Chaosium has provided templates and art packs, both free to use, so that the resulting releases can look and feel as professional as possible. To support the efforts of these contributors, Miskatonic Monday is an occasional series of reviews which will in turn examine an item drawn from the far reaches of the Miskatonic Repository.


Name: The Night Door
Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Jon Hook

Setting: Jazz Age/Lovecraft Country
Product: Scenario
What You Get: 13.14 MB, 40-page full colour PDF
Elevator Pitch: A friend in need, but someone’s burning down the house.

Plot Hook: When a friend’s family cabin goes up in flames, she needs emotional support, but it is not the only one.
Plot Development: Boy scouts to rub together, a dragon, and a Dover snake for dinner in the Well of Souls.

Plot Support: Six NPCs; twelve decent handouts; three pre-generated investigators.
Production Values: Needs an edit and maps; given art and maps scrappy.


# Short, focused investigation
# Limited number of investigators
# Limited number of NPCs
# Simple, straightforward plot
# Easy to add to a Lovecraft Country campaign
# Adaptable to the period of the Keeper’s choice
# Adaptable to Pulp Cthulhu


# Sanity rewards slightly high in places
# Missing useful maps of the Dover area
# Slightly Combat focussed
# Fire-based encounters underwhelming


# Reasonable one-session scenario
# Suitable for the new Keeper

Sunday 23 September 2018

Unstrange Things

From Tales from the Loop to Kids of Bikes, the genre du jour for roleplaying games is that of kids in peril, investigating mysteries that adults cannot see or do not want to investigate, and facing unknown horrors. Specifically set in the early 1980s and in general, inspired by the Netflix series, Stranger Things. Published by Bloat Games following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Dark Places & Demogorgons: The Roleplaying Game is a Old School Rennaisence roleplaying game, which as its title suggests and as its tag line—‘In the 1980s STRANGE THINGS happened everywhere!’—suggests is heavily influenced by Stranger Things. It is a roleplaying game in which you roleplay teenagers in a small town where strange things are happening. The adults are concerned, but unsure as to what to do; the local sheriff is out of his depth and wants everyone to remain calm; and Reverend Phillips calls for the real culprits to be banned—drugs and delinquency, punk and heavy metal, and of course, roleplaying games like Dark Places & Demogorgons!

Dark Places & Demogorgons is a Class and Level roleplaying game. It provides just five Levels and five Classes, although within each Class there are three subclasses, all of them highschool archetypes. The five Classes and their subclasses are The Brain (Kid Scientist, The Nerd, and The Geek), The Athlete (The Jock, Extreme Athlete, and The Karate Kid), The Outsider (Break Dancer, Goth, and Metal Head), The Popular Kid (Preppy, The Princess, and Teen Heartthrob), and The Rebel (Bully, The Hood, and Punk Rocker). Actually, this is erroneous, since there are in fact, fifteen Classes divided equally between five categories. This is simply because all of the aspects that a Class are provided by the subclass whereas the so-called Classes—The Brain, The Athlete, The Outsider, The Popular Kid, and The Rebel—contribute nothing towards character design or creation, let alone game play. Each Class provides some beginning skills, some attribute modifiers, a single ability, and some possessions and money. For example, The Kid Scientist provides Computer, Mathematics, and Mechanics & Science as skills; deducts one from the character’s Strength and Constitution, but adds one to Intelligence; and gets a +2 bonus with one of his beginning skills. He starts the game with a home computer, home chemistry set, a library card, access to the school computer lab and chemistry lab (the teacher trusts him), a bicycle, 4D6 dollars, a sack of illegal fireworks, a flashlight, and Devo’s new album. Higher Levels will add various skill bonuses and attribute bonuses.

To create a character, a player rolls three six-sided dice seven times and —Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma, and Survival—and assigns them to seven attributes in any order. A character has five Saving Throws—Courage, Critical, Death, Mental, and Poison—which are each rolled on four four-sided dice and modified by a character’s Constitution bonus, even the ones which are not physical, such as Courage and Mental. The question is, why are all of the Saving Throws based on the one attribute? Just two six-sided dice are rolled for Hit Points and once a player has selected a Class and subclass, he also gets to pick four more skills other than the beginning skills listed for his Class and subclass. No more than a single point can be assigned to any skill rank, which itself cannot be higher than a character’s Level. Any bonus from the associated attribute is of course applied to this. Fighting skills—Brawling, Martial Arts, and Wrestling—are also available. They provide set bonuses and only need to be purchased once as they do not advance in Rank.

Lastly, a player has the option to roll on the background table twice to add some interest to his character. There are a hundred entries, which might give a character an interest in Marvel comics, make him an exchange student, have a missing sibling, and so on. Some provide extra bonuses, others do not. Overall, the creation process is quick with relatively few decisions to be made.

Our sample character is Heather Robinson, a rich, preppy girl whose parents recently moved from California to small town America, her father a lawyer to set up a small practice having made his money in Los Angeles and his mother to become the weather girl on the local television affiliate. Heather did not want to come, but her parents promised her a new car on her sixteenth birthday if she did. Of course, the real reason her parents moved to the ‘middle of nowhere’ is to survive the coming apocalypse...

Name: Heather Robinson
Alignment: Neutral
Languages: English
Class: Popular (Preppy) Level: 1 XP: 0
Hit Points: 13 Armour Class: 10 Attack Bonus: +0/+1
Background: Mom is the the local weather girl (everyone thinks she is hot); your parents are Doomsday Preppers

Strength: 09 (+0), Intelligence: 14 (+1), Wisdom: 09 (+0),
Dexterity: 12 (+0), Constitution: 13 (+1), Charisma: 18 (+3)
Survival: 14

Courage: 16 Critical: 13 Death: 14 Mental: 7 Poison: 9

Daddy’s Money

Art & Music 1 (+2), Basic Athletics 1 (+1), Driving 1 (+1), First Aid 1 (+1), Intimidation 1 (+4), Outdoorsmanship 1 (+0/+2), Persuasion 1 (+4), Ranged Attacks 1 (+1) 

Golf GTI, very nice clothes, $5,000

For the most part, Dark Places & Demogorgons: The Roleplaying Game plays as a standard retroclone, but there are some changes to the rules. The first is the addition of Survival, which although rolled the same as the standard six attributes, is not an attribute. Rather, it is a pool of points which a player can use to re-roll any dice roll. This costs one Survival per re-roll and any failed dice roll can only be re-rolled once and the effects have to be applied. Although there is no limit on the number of Survival Points which can be spent during a gaming session, they can only be recovered at a rate of one per session. This sets up a tight economy of what are essentially ‘luck points’, which does not favour the players and their characters. This is partly exacerbated by the Difficulty Checks set for using skills—ten for Easy, fifteen for Medium, twenty for Difficult, and twenty-five for Near Impossible. Few player characters are going to have more than a +2 or +3 in their skills, so any skill beyond Easy is going to be a challenge. That said, the player characters are high school teenagers and they are not meant to be necessarily competent.

Where skill rolls are rolled equal to or over the Difficulty Check, those for Saving Throws are rolled equal to or under. The mechanics for horror and fear in Dark Places & Demogorgons are split between two different mechanics. In the face of a non-supernatural opponent or dangerous situation, a Courage Saving Throw and if failed, a character receives a +1 penalty on all rolls against similar situations in the future. In the face of a supernatural opponent or dangerous situation, a player must roll a Terror Check, this being made to roll equal to or over the monster or situation’s Terror value, typically eleven or more, depending on the monster. Essentially, this Terror value works as a Difficulty Check. If either the Courage Saving Throw or the Terror Check is failed, the player also needs to roll on the Failed Courage/Terror Effect table. If either roll is successful, a character does not have to roll for either again—he has conquered his fears. There is no explanation as to why the two different mechanics are used, why there are no bonuses to either roll, and so on. It certainly would not have been all that difficult to get the two mechanics to work the same way rather than confuse the issue.

Another change is in how and why Experience Points are awarded as well as a scaling down of the number that a player character needs to acquire a new Level. Five means of rewarding Experience Points are given in Dark Places & Demogorgons. These are Session Survival, Encounter XP, Exceptional Roleplaying, Discretionary, and HERO XP. The first is for simply for completing or ‘surviving’ a game session; the second for being involved in a combat situation; the third for good roleplaying; the fourth at the the Game Master’s discretion for solving puzzles, overcoming the odds, or being exceptionally lucky; and the fifth for being particularly heroic. Each session, a player character can earn a maximum of one Experience Point for Session Survival, Exceptional Roleplaying, and HERO XP, but two as Discretionary rewards, and three as Encounter XP. Which in the case of the latter, is three combat scenes per session. This is at odds with the intended aim of the roleplaying game’s “...leveling system which takes the focus off combat…” and that, “...Dark Places should not be in a combat heavy game.”

Of course, combat is not an unexpected feature of Dark Places & Demogorgons’ horror genre, but the fact that the rules do not reduce the emphasis on combat as they suggest they should is disappointing. Unfortunately, this is exacerbated by the underwhelming advice on running the game and not running it as a combat game. For game that is supposed to be one of horror and investigation, a single page devoted to the subject and then in hardly any depth seems inadequate, especially when combat gets four pages of treatment.

The other mechanics are drawn from Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition and The Black Hack respectively. One is the use of Advantage and Disadvantage dice, the other is the use of the Usage dice for equipment.

That said, there is a lot of support for the Game Master. For the players there is a list of sample characters and a quick list comparing aspects of today’s culture with that of the 1980s, but for the Game Master, a good half of Dark Places & Demogorgons is dedicated to setting elements—monsters, villains, scenario seeds, and background on Jeffersontown, Kentucky. So the monsters cover cult leaders, soviet spies, and ninja as much as they do banshees, bigfoot, ghouls, golems, rodents of unusual size, and vampires. There are also table for creating your own villains and monsters. The scenario seeds also built around monsters, from Alien Life Form and Chupacabra in Love to Taylor’s Lake Monster and Teenage Werewolf in J’town. Their inspiration is obvious, but then much of the genre that the roleplaying game draws is equally as obvious.

Jeffersontown, Kentucky or ‘J’town’, and its major gangs and factions, are described in just a few pages. This is where Annie Crow disappeared, Stanley Parker jumped off Popelick Train Trestle, and more, perhaps due to the feared Popelick Monster, Satan, or… Unfortunately, more attention is paid to listing what is in each of the town’s four districts than to giving a good overview or a map, so getting an overall feel for Jeffersontown is somewhat challenging—especially if the Game Master has to then impart that information to her players and their characters.

What Dark Places & Demogorgons also provides is the optional Psion Class with its subclasses, Experiment X, the Pyro, and the Telekinetic. The second and third of these represent characters a la Firestarter and Carrie, so have normal backgrounds and skills, whereas the first is something akin to the character of Eleven from Stranger Things and so does not. The rules for Psionics require a roll on the Psionic Activation Table to determine if a Psion can use his abilities. His player then gets to make a roll to use the Psionic power.

Name: Example 019
Alignment: Neutral
Languages: English
Class: Experiment X Level: 1 XP: 0
Hit Points: 05 Armour Class: 10 Attack Bonus: -1/+0
Background: Unknown

Strength: 09 (+0), Intelligence: 17 (+2), Wisdom: 17 (+2),
Dexterity: 12 (+0), Constitution: 13 (+1), Charisma: 10 (+0)
Survival: 07

Courage: 12 Critical: 10 Death: 14 Mental: 18 Poison: 9

Psionic Attack (1d6 damage, communicate with the Otheride* for one minute)


Dirty Medical Gown

* Whatever that is. Again, Dark Places & Demogorgons has little to say on the matter.

Physically, Dark Places & Demogorgons is decently presented and is nicely presented with a good range of art. The designers also include some high school photos from the period to add a little verisimilitude. 

Dark Places & Demogorgons is a game in which if you know your movies and you know its genre influences, then you can run it. If not, then Dark Places & Demogorgons may be a bit of challenge, since it is aimed squarely at the nostalgia market, for there is real no background detail given to the eighties other than listing a few differences. Similarly, the Game Master will be on her own in writing adventures as there is no advice of any substance to aid her in the process. Mechanically, it feels uninspiring and uneven, using too many different mechanics for too many different things for no real difference. Also the game is disingenuous in its use of its title, Dark Places & Demogorgons, not only because it does not include Demogorgon stats, but really it is not about running a game in the style of Stranger Things. It is more of an ‘80s teen horror’ roleplaying game, focusing solely upon the teenage protagonists and the monsters, and ignoring the world around them, which is not the point of its obvious inspiration.

If you are looking for game with which to run a Stranger Things style game and have some experience running your own adventures, then Dark Places & Demogorgons might be for you. After all, it provides you with all of the parts, if not the toolkit. If you are looking for a greater examination of the genre and helpful advice in running that style of game, then Dark Places & Demogorgons fails on all counts. There is good material in Dark Places & Demogorgons: The Roleplaying Game, but it completely fails to support it in terms of advice or genre, which comes down to just run ‘Monster of the Week’ and that is not good enough. Especially when it flags its inspiration so obviously.

Friday 21 September 2018

1980: Civilisation

For fans of Kingmaker—which I reviewed in 2014—the good news is that Gibsons will be bringing it back and republishing it. Equally as good news is that the publisher has in the meantime, republished another classic board game of that era—Civilisation. This is the father of all board games in which players build and develop their civilisations, from 7 Wonders and Antike to Stone Age and Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar, but this is no Euro game—and it is definitely not Ameritrash. It is a game that is epic in theme, epic in scale, and epic in terms of play. Its theme is that of its name: the founding of a civilisation, the growth of its population, and the advancement of knowledge, that will take its people out of the Stone Age and through the Bronze Age into the Iron Age. Its scale is from the Stone Age until 250 BCE, some eight thousand years, five hundred years at a time, all played out across the birthplace of classical civilisation—the Eastern Mediterranean. Its terms of play are epic in that it is designed for up to seven players and the full game takes as long as eight hours!

Originally published in 1980 by Hartland Trefoil and then Avalon Hill in 1981, Civilisation would win the Charles Roberts Award for Best Pre-20th Century Boardgame of 1982. Later published by Gibsons in 1988, it has been out of print for some years, but Gibsons have brought it back out once again, to no little fanfare. Indeed, at UK Games Expo 2018, it won the Judges’ Award for Best New Board Game (Strategic Style).

In Civilisation, each player takes control of one of seven cultures—Africa, Asia, Assyria, Babylon, Crete, Egypt, and Illyria (or Thrace)—and as nations, spread out from one territory to another, grow their populations, build cities and tax them, acquire goods and trade with other nations, acquire technologies in the arts, crafts, sciences, and civics, and so on. Sometimes they will war with their opponents, but it should be made clear that Civilisation is no wargame, and often, they will suffer calamities that their peoples must weather if they are to advance. The key to winning and thus developing the greatest civilisation the technologies, represented by Civilisation Cards, which provide both an in-game benefit and points, for without them, a player’s nation cannot advance through the epochs of time… All of this involves both Area Control and Area Influence mechanics and Hand Management, Set Collection, and Trading mechanics. The game does not use dice and there are no random elements to the game.

Designed for two to seven players, aged twelve and over, Civilisation consists of five of components—the board, seven sets of counters, seven Playmats, a set of Trade and Calamity Cards, a set of Civilisation Cards, and a rulebook. The large board depicts the Eastern Mediterranean divided into four differently coloured regions—Italy and the Balkans, Greece and Asia Minor, the Levant and the Middle East, and Egypt and North Africa, further divided into zones. Each zone is marked with a number indicating the maximum number of Population Tokens it can hold. Some are marked with a square to indicate a city site, a zone where cities are cheaper to build. Several zones are marked with floodplains and volcanoes and Population Tokens and cities in these zones are particularly vulnerable to floods and volcanic eruptions or earthquakes—both represented by Calamity Cards.

The lower quarter of the board is given over to spaces for the Progress Track, the Census Track, and a display area for the Trade and Calamity Cards. The Census Track is used to record a civilisation’s population total, from one turn to the next, whilst the Progress Track is used to determine how far a civilisation has advanced. It is divided into five epochs across the New Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. Each player and his civilisation with advance one square each turn until he reaches the end of an epoch. If the requirements of the next epoch have been fulfilled, then they can continue their progress. To enter the second epoch, a player and civilisation must have two cities; to enter the third, they need three Civilisation Cards from three different categories; to enter the fourth, they need seven Civilisation Cards; and to enter the fifth, they need Civilisation Cards with a total value of a thousand points. At the end of the track is a point value a player needs in terms of Civilisation Cards, his treasury, and the value of any Trade Cards, his civilisation needs to advance to the very end of the game.

It should be noted that length of the various epochs varies from civilisation to civilisation, as does the total number of points required at the end. This is a balancing mechanism to reflect a lower capacity to support high populations.

Each set of counters consists of fifty-six Population Tokens, twelve City Tokens, and four Ships. Each set is done in a strong colour and marked with an easy to spot symbol. The play mats have spaces to store a player’s stock of tokens and a civilisation’s Treasury. The play mat also lists the game’s thirteen phases. The Trade Cards consist of eleven commodities, which have a value between one and nine. They include Ochre, Hides, Iron, Papyrus, Salt, Grain, Cloth, Bronze, Spice, Gems, and Gold. They used to trade with other players, as well as to purchase Civilisation Cards. The more Trade Cards of a single type a player has, the more valuable they are. For example, each Ochre Trade Card has a value of one, but two have a value of four, three have a value of nine, four have a value of sixteen, and so on. There are eight Calamity Cards—Civil Disorder, Civil War, Epidemic, Famine, Flood, Iconoclasm & Heresy, Piracy, and Volcanic Eruption or Earthquake—which are marked with either red or black backs. The red-backed Calamity Cards—Civil War, Famine, Flood, and Volcanic Eruption or Earthquake—affect the player who draws them, but the black-backed Calamity Cards—Civil Disorder, Epidemic, Iconoclasm & Heresy, and Piracy—do not affect the player who draws them, but can be traded away to rival players who will be affected by them.

The Civilisation Cards are divided into four categories—Arts, Crafts, Sciences, and Civics, though some do fall into two categories. Each has a name, a cost to purchase using a mix of Trade Cards and Population Tokens, the possible credits it provides to purchase other Civilisation Cards, and an advantage, either reducing the effect of a Calamity Card or providing some sort of bonus. For example, Democracy reduces the effects of both Civil Disorder and Civil War; Cloth Making gives ships an extra move; and Coinage allows for changes in taxation. In addition, the cost of each Civilisation Card also represents the total value it contributes towards a player’s civilisation. So as well as costing two hundred points, Democracy increases a civilisation value by two hundred points. What is interesting about these cards is that some do posses prerequisites, Civilisation Cards which have to be purchased before a player can purchase the desired Civilisation Card and some Civilisation Cards provide points that can only be spent on specific Civilisation Cards. For example, Law is required before a player can purchase either Democracy or Philosophy, whilst Literacy provides twenty-five points which counts towards the purchase of Law, Democracy, and Philosophy. So what you have here is a rough ‘Tech Tree’, a path which leads from one technology or advance to the next, each relying upon the preceding ones to work and understand. Now it is only rudimentary, but it was the first time that such a mechanic appeared in a boardgame. Of course, it would not be the last.

There is one possible issue with the Civilisation Cards and that is the total number that a player can hold—eleven. If a player purchases too many of the cheaper Civilisation Cards, he may not gain enough points to advance along the Progress Chart and so win the game. So he needs to be careful in what Civilisation Cards he purchases.

Game set-up is relatively straightforward. The Trade Cards are placed on their respective spaces on the board with the Civilisation Cards alongside the board. Each player chooses a civilisation—this being done in randomly determined order—and places a City Token and a Population Token in their civilisation’s starting zone. Each player places tokens on the Progress and Census Tracks. The number of players determines which civilisations and which regions are used in a game (though oddly, Italy is not included in the locations, pointing towards needing a second edition of the rulebook). Each player puts his Population Tokens into his Stock space on his Play Mat; these will move into his Treasury space as the game proceeds where they can be spent.

Game play in Civilisation consists of thirteen phases! These are ‘Collect Taxation’, ‘Population Expansion’, ‘Census’, ‘Construct Ships’, ‘Movement’, ‘Conflict’, ‘Build Cities’, ‘Acquire Trade Cards’, ‘Trade’, ‘Acquire Civilization Cards’, ‘Resolve Calamities’, ‘Return Excess Trade Cards’, and ‘Alter Progress Marker’. This looks like a lot, but many of these phases are quite simple and relatively short. Some though are quite involving, and they are the meat of the game.

In the ‘Collect Taxation’ phase, a player adds two tokens from his Stock into his Treasury for each city his civilisation has; in the ‘Population Expansion’ phase, he adds Population Tokens to the zones in which he already he has Population Tokens; and in the ‘Census’ phase, he counts up how many Population Tokens has has on the board to determine his turn order in the ‘Movement’ phase. In the ‘Construct Ships’ phase a player builds ships and pays the upkeep costs of the ships he already has. Ships allow a player to pick up and drop off Population Tokens as they sail along the coast. Once his civilisation acquires the Astronomy Civilisation Card, a player’s ships can cross the open sea zones on the map. Ships allow Population Tokens to move longer distances and en masse. In the ‘Movement’ phase, a player can move as many of his Population Tokens he wants one space each and ships up to four spaces each.

The ‘Conflict’ phase is where the game begins to get interesting. Each zone has a population limit. If two or more players have Population Tokens in a zone that together exceed this limit, then war ensues. Cities are considered to be equal to six Population Tokens, so war always ensues if another player moves into that zone. Its resolution is quite simple—the players take it in turn to remove one Population Token, starting with the player with the fewest number in the zone. This continues until the zone’s population limit is not exceeded. In this way, the player with the highest number of Population Tokens will defeat the other. It is also possible to attack and sack a city, but this requires an invasion with at least seven Population Tokens by the attacking player.

In the ‘Build Cities’ phase, if a player has six or more Population Tokens on a zone with a square, he can build a city. If the zone has no square, it needs twelve Population Tokens. Any Population Tokens in excess of the population limit on any zone are returned to the player’s stock as those zones cannot support them. Cities need to be supported by two Population Tokens each in play and the maximum number of cities a player can have is nine. It is possible to lose a city if it not sufficiently supported. Once a player has determined the total number of cities he has, in the ‘Acquire Trade Cards’ phase, he can draw one Trade Card for each city he has. This is mandatory, and a player must draw one Trade Card from each stack starting at the first and going up in order. There is the chance that a player will draw a Calamity Card during this phase. The red-backed Calamity Cards are obvious in play and will affect the player who draws them, whilst the black-backed Calamity Cards are kept secret and can be traded in the next phase.

The ‘Trade’ phase is open to everyone, players bartering with each other in attempt to get more cards of a single type as together they are more valuable. Trading is necessary because in the ‘Acquire Trade Cards’ phase, a player can only acquire a single card of any of the trade goods available. To trade, a player has to offer at least three cards, declaring both what one of the cards is and what the total value of the cards are. So for example, a player might say, “I want Bronze. For that, I am willing to trade Cloth. My three cards have a total value of nine.” Since the value of Cloth is five, the other players may have some idea as what the other Trade Cards might be as they must add to four to make the total of nine. So they might be Salt and Ochre, worth one and three respectively, or they might be a Grain card, worth four on its own, and a Calamity. The ‘Trade’ phase can last as long as the players want or a time limit can be set, but in order to trade, a player needs a minimum of three Trade Cards.

Using the combined value of his Trade Cards and possibly tokens from his Treasury, a player can buy in the ‘Acquire Civilization Cards’ phase. A player can only buy one Civilisation Card of any one type, but can buy multiple Civilisation Cards on his turn. Expended Trade Cards back on the bottom of their respective decks on the board. The effect of Civilisation Cards come into play as soon as a player acquires them. This can be important because some of them ameliorate the effects of Calamity Cards. For example, a player who holds Grain Trade Cards can offset the effects of the Famine Calamity Card if he also has the ‘Pottery’ Civilisation Card.

In the ‘Resolve Calamities’ phase, civilisations suffer the effects of the Calamity Cards their players have either drawn—if red backed—or received in a trade—if black backed. No civilisation can suffer the effects of more than to Calamity Cards in a player’s turn. What is interesting is that many of the Calamity Cards do not just affect the player holding them in the ‘Resolve Calamities’ phase—they can affect rivals too. For example, the Famine Calamity Card forces a player to lose nine Population Tokens, but he can instruct the other players to lose up to twenty between them as well. The Epidemic Calamity Card works in a similar fashion. All resolved Calamity Cards go back at the bottom of the Trade Card decks they are drawn from.

Lastly, in the ‘Return Excess Trade Cards’ phase, each player reduces the number of Trade Cards he can hold to six, and in the ‘Move Progress Marker’, each player moves his marker on the Progress Track along one space, taking into account the requirements to move into each of the epochs. Once done, the turn is over, and the next one proceeds until the game ends and there is a winner.

It should be pointed out that not all of the phases will necessarily come into play, especially in the early part of the game where the players will be primarily concerned building their civilisation’s population up enough to build a city. Once a player has a city or three, then the game picks up and becomes more complex as trading increases in importance. Once this happens, Civilisation becomes a balancing act between a player’s Cities, Population, Stock, and Treasury. Not enough Population Tokens and Cities will collapse; not enough Tokens in his Stock for Taxation and a player’s Cities will Revolt and join another civilisation; not enough Population Tokens and a player make not be able to withstand an invasion by a rival. Notably though, the Calamity Cards can upset these balances and a civilisation that suffers the effects of one too many Calamity Cards is greatly hindered or or even destroyed. Coming back from these effects can be challenging, but they can be offset with the right Civilisation Cards. The fact that once their effects have been applied, the Calamity Cards are returned to respective Trade Card decks means that they will cycle through the game, appearing again and again, throughout the game and history. The Calamity Cards also serve as a means to rein in any civilisation which advances too quickly in comparison to its rivals, although of course, its player needs to be amenable to trades. Otherwise, a runaway civilisation may be difficult to catch up with.

The big issue with Civilisation is its playing time and the commitment this requires. A playing time of six to eight hours for the full game is not be sniffed at and takes dedication upon the part of the players. The game is also longer the more players there are involved, but that said, the game plays better the more players there. Not only is the competition for territory fiercer, but there are more opportunities for trade and interaction, for forming alliances, and so on. Nevertheless, Civilisation is no casual game. That said, the rulebook does offer options for simpler versions of the game and shorter versions of the game. The simplest version, ‘The Game of Nomads and Seafarers’ omits most of the phases and therefore the rules, whilst the ‘The Game of Farmers and Citizens’ omits just a few of them. The shortened versions use the full rules, but play stops after the winner reaches the ninth, twelfth, or fourteenth space along the Progress Track rather than the sixteenth. Of these, ‘The Game of Nomads and Seafarers’ is too simple, whereas ‘The Game of Farmers and Citizens’ serves as a better means by which to learn the basics of the game.

Physically, Civilisation is reasonably well presented. Certainly, the board is nicely mounted, and its presentation of the Eastern Mediterranean makes good use of strong colours. The cardboard counters are clear in their design and colour, if a little small on the board to handle easily. The game’s cards are clear and easy to read, but for long term play, it might be a good idea to put them in sleeves. The reference cards feel as if they could have been sturdier and whilst the rulebook is generally well written, its use of orange as the colour for its titles on a cream background does make finding things not as easy as it should be. One issue is that the box is a bit tight to get everything into the insert tray once each of the sets of counters has been stored in zip lock bags, something that is really necessary lest the counters are left to slosh around inside the box. Overall though, the game’s production values are adequate by modern standards, but decent by the production values of when Civilisation was previously published. (That said, higher production values would have increased the price of the game.)

The designer, Francis Tresham, has said of Civilisation, “I regard this game as my masterpiece.” It easy to see why. No game does the sweep of history quite as well as Civilisation, the players being able to chart the rise—and possible fall—of cultures and civilisations over the course of centuries, spreading out to build cities, discover their neighbours and trade with them, make advances in knowledge and belief, go to war and withstand calamities, and perhaps, survive long enough to become the greatest of civilisations. It does all this—eight thousand years of history—with simple, elegant mechanics that are easy to learn and easy to play, but not necessarily easy to master as there are some subtle nuances to them. Civilisation is a classic piece of board game design and an influence on many games since, a great strategy game and a great history game. Gibsons should be applauded for making it available once again.

Tuesday 18 September 2018

Friday Filler: Ticket to Ride: New York

Fourteen years on from its first publication by Days of Wonder in 2004, Ticket to Ride has sold millions of copies, been the subject of multiple expansions and core sets, won the Spiel des Jahres, and remained a classic piece of Eurogame design. Fourteen years on and it is still one of the best gateway games into the hobby. Having previously gone around the world with Ticket to Ride: Rails & Sails, the very latest entry in the series is perhaps the smallest, certainly the most urban! Ticket to Ride: New York takes the series away from the Mauve Age setting of the previous games into the future of the 1960s. Instead of racing across the United States of America, Europe, the United Kingdom, and so on, it takes the players to the Big Apple for some big changes in a small game!

Designed for two to four players, aged eight and up, Ticket to Ride: New York sees the players racing up, down, and across Manhattan with a diversion across the East River to Brooklyn, not in trains as in every other Ticket to Ride game, but taxis! This is the first of many changes to the Ticket to Ride series. These changes primarily stem from the game being smaller—a smaller board with fewer destinations and fewer routes; each player having fewer trains (or rather fewer taxis); and there being no scoring track around the edge of the board. Instead of the latter, the game includes a scoring pad and a pencil. The game includes just forty-four Transportation cards in seven colours plus multi-coloured cards. As play progresses, the players will draw these and then use them to claim routes on the map. The other cards are the eighteen Destination Tickets each of which connect two of the Locations on the map. These range in value from three to eight points, which a player will add to his final score for each one he completes and subtracts from his score for each one he fails to complete. The map itself, from Lincoln Centre and Central Park in the north to Wall Street in the south, marked with just fifteen Locations, connected by a series of coloured routes, the colour of these routes matching the colour of the Transportation cards. Some locations are marked with a number ‘1’, such as Empire State Building and Chinatown. If a player connects to these in the course of connecting the Locations on his Destination Tickets, then he scores an extra point at the end of the game for each one. The player who has the most points at game’s end wins the game.

Play in Ticket to Ride: New York is the same as standard Ticket to Ride. Each player starts the game with some Destination Tickets and some Transportation cards. On his turn, he can take one of three actions. Either draw two Transportation cards; draw two Destination Tickets and either keep one or two, but must keep one; or claim a route between two connected Locations. To claim a route, a player must expend a number of cards equal to its length, either matching the colour of the route or a mix of matching colour cards and the multi-coloured cards, which essentially act as wild cards. Some routes are marked in grey and so can use any set of colours or multi-coloured cards. No route is longer than four spaces and a player will score points for each route claimed.

All of which points to standard Ticket to Ride game play. What marks Ticket to Ride: New York as being different from that standard game play is most obviously its size, but once it reaches the table, what marks it out as being different is its speed of play. With fewer taxi pieces—fifteen as opposed to the forty-five in standard Ticket to Ride—a player has fewer resources and with fewer routes to claim, play is quick. The shortness of the routes means that a player will spend less time drawing Transportation cards, rather than having to draw again and again in order to have the right number of Transportation cards needed for long routes—routes five, six, and seven spaces in length are common in standard Ticket to Ride. Removing the scoring track from around the edge of the board also speeds game play as the scoring takes place at the end of the game rather than at the end of players’ turns.

The playing time for Ticket to Ride: New York is listed as being between ten and fifteen minutes. For experienced gamers this is about right. Anyone new to the game or at the younger age of its suggested age range might increase that a little.

Physically, Ticket to Ride: New York is very nicely produced. Everything is very bright and breezy. The taxi playing pieces are cute, the cards are very clear and easy to read, if perhaps a little small in the hand, and the rules leaflet short, but easy to understand. The re-theming to New York and the 1960s adds a certain charm.

Ticket to Ride: New York might be seen as a taster version, an introduction to the Ticket to Ride family, but it does not feel like that. Plus, for a younger audience, it already has that in the form Ticket to Ride: First Journey. Rather, with its short playing time, reduced number of components, and smaller amount of space it takes up—not just in terms of the box it comes in, but also when out on the table, what it suggests is that Ticket to Ride: New York is the travel version of the game as much as anything else. Its short playing time also makes it the ‘filler’ version of Ticket to Ride too, a version of Ticket to Ride when you do not want to play Ticket to Ride.

Overall, Ticket to Ride: New York does not offer anything new for fans of the Ticket to Ride series of games—really more of the same, but faster. As a travel version, its short playing time and its smaller size means that it fills a certain niche.

Sunday 16 September 2018

The Symbaroum Campaign I

In comparison to many other roleplaying games, the pattern of support for 
Symbaroum, the near-Dark Ages fantasy roleplaying game from Swedish publisher, Järnringen, distributed in English by Modiphius Entertainment, has been to focus primarily on scenarios. The Copper Crown, Adventure Pack 1 in the Symbaroum: Gamemaster Screen, and Adventure Pack 2 have supported the roleplaying game with an array of interesting and challenging scenarios. The exception to this is, of course, Symbaroum’s only supplement, Advanced Player’s Guide, but the amount of content to play ramps up with the release of Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden

Published following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden is actually the inaugurial part of Chronicle of the Throne of Thorns, a seven-part campaign! In actuality, not all of the book is devoted to the campaign itself. It is divided into three sections. The first provides a description of Thistle Hold and its unhappy neighbour, Blackmoor; the second an expanded section for the Game Master on a variety of matters; and the third the start of campaign in full. It should be noted that the first section, devoted to Thistle Hold and Blackmoor, is designed to be accessed by the players, especially those players with characters who have been moving in and out of Thistlehold for a while and got to know their way around and a little of people’s attitudes (and in the process, have earned the fifty Experience Points needed to play the campaign). The rest of the book is very much for the Game Master’s eyes, for not does it contain the first part of the campaign, it also reveals secrets about Thistle Hold—and beyond!

The first section is ‘The Hunter’s Harbour’, which expands upon the description of Thistle Hold in the core rulebook, which focuses upon the fortified town’s taverns, inns, places of entertainment, and the like as well as various trading establishments. This focus is intentional, since it reflects life for many in the town, for most go out to eat and drink rather than do so at home. Certainly this is the case for the many treasure hunters who have struck it lucky with a find in the Davokar forest and want to enjoy their new found wealth instead of spending time in their rented rooms. So, there is a range of malted beers to be had at the Brew and you can eat cheaply and tastily from the offal menu at the Slaughterhouse; games of chance and strategy can be played and bet upon at Benego’s and bets can also be placed on Fight Day at the Abomitorium where fights between gladiators and beasts dragged from Davokar are staged; the wealthy and the well-behaved can stay the Court and Harp where Queen Korinthia stayed or if you are lucky and wealthy, stay at the Winged Ladle, the inn built into the crown of a tree! Establishments where the welcome matches the price are also available. Also detailed are the important organisations and factions in town—the Sun Temple, the Merchants’ House, the Monastery of the Twilight Friars, the town seat from where Mayor Lasifor Nightpitch and staff govern Thistle Hold and access to Davokar, and so on. Many of these factions and organisations have a role to play in the Wrath Of The Warden campaign.

Where the description of Thistle Hold adds to and builds upon material contained in the core rulebook, Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden expands beyond the frontier town’s palisades to gives details about Blackmoor. This is essentially a suburb of Thistle Hold, a tent town where those who cannot afford to live or trade behind its wooden walls. Without Thistle Hold’s regulations, Blackmoor has a deserved reputation for lawlessness and a higher turnover of residents, but there are some sections where order is kept. The description of both Thistle Hold and Blackmoor runs to just over twenty pages, but this is only the publicly available information, including updated maps of both locations. There is more information in the Game Master’s section—‘In the Shadow of the Beacon’—which reveals the secrets of each of the new locations, mostly minor secrets, and mostly tied up in Thistle Hold’s relatively short past, but included are one or two major secrets to Symbaroum and its setting that should be all but impossible for the players and their characters to ever learn. The players and their characters may encounter some of these secrets, certainly some of the mysteries to Symbaroum in the course of the campaign.

The other two parts of the Game Master’s Section discuss ‘Goal Orientated Roleplaying’ and provide a host of supplementary mechanics. The latter, whether the monstrous trait of Fire Breath, the Raise Undead ritual, an array of artefacts, or the rules for conducting research or handling fleeing and following, are not actually new. They previously appeared in Adventure Pack 1, but are reprinted here because they pertain to the Wrath of the Warden part of the campaign. If the Game Master does not have Adventure Pack 1, then their inclusion is undeniably useful, but if she does, there is an undeniable redundancy to this section. ‘Goal Orientated Roleplaying’ is new though, and looks at the type of adventure or scenarios where the players and their characters set out to achieve objectives such as establishing outposts and going on expeditions into the Davokar Forest. Five steps—or phases—are discussed for each and these are designed to work with the suggestions and tables found in Adventure Pack 1 for going on treasure hunts. To accompany these new guidelines, two sets of ruins are included as possible goals or objectives for the player characters. One is a former villa, the other small castle and estate, both quite rich in terms of the loot to be found, but both nasty pockets of corruptions and danger. Of the two, the castle is more involving and presents more opportunities for roleplaying, but both are easy to drop into an ongoing campaign. Like the start of the campaign which follows the Game Master’s Section, neither is designed for inexperienced characters. That said neither is suited for inclusion in Wrath of the Warden, but could be used prior to the Game Master starting the campaign.

The last section in Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden is the start of the campaign proper. As the opening part of the Chronicle of the Throne of Thorns campaign, Wrath Of The Warden has some requirements. First, it is not designed for new characters. Instead, they should have at least fifty Experience Points each. Second, they should have the reputation of being prepared to deal with the evils of the Davokar Forest that sometimes beset the town. Third, they should have played through the scenario, ‘The Mark of the Beast’, from The Copper Crown. If successful, this should have favourably established their reputation. In fact, playing through the whole of ‘The Chronicle of the Copper Crown’—consisting of ‘The Promised Land’ from Symbaroum Core Rulebook and ‘The Mark of the Beast’ and ‘Tomb of Dying Dreams’ would go some way to providing the fifty Experience Points needed to be ready to play Wrath Of The Warden.

More than half of Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden is dedicated to the first part of the campaign. Like the previous two sections, it is divided into three parts, in this case, three acts. Of these, the first and third are quite linear in structure, the second and middle much more open with the player characters being left to decide what actions they want to take, lines of enquiry they want to follow, and who they want to speak to. Although there are several diversions and plot threads which will take them outside of Thistle Hold, for the most part, the bulk of the action takes place within its wooden walls. At its most basic, this part of the campaign concerns itself with the fate of a potential new patron who promises much if the player characters come to work for her. Unfortunately, a great disaster strikes Thistle Hold and this patron goes missing. Finding her will lead the player characters to come into contact with the great and good, the greedy and the ambitious, and the dissolute and the driven of Thistle Hold, many of them the town’s notables. The good news is that many are willing to help, though they might have a task for the adventurers in the meantime, which leads to a wide variety of tasks to undertake and things to do. The bad news is there are factions in the town who do not want them to succeed. 

Even during the linear acts of Wrath of the Warden, there is a good mix of action and roleplaying, but this really ramps during the middle act, combining it with a strong investigative thread. The Game Master should have fun too, as she will have a good sized cast to portray from all walks of life. The campaign also fairly detailed, it will require no little preparation upon the Game Master’s part, especially the second act, which makes very good use of the content presented earlier in the book. To facilitate the investigation, the campaign also comes with a handful of very nicely produced handouts, though it will probably be a good idea if one of the players takes notes the campaign proceeds.

With so many NPCs to be found in the campaign, it might have been useful for there to have been a set of portraits to show the players. The other thing which is missing is a good clue tree. There is a flow chart, but this feels clumsy and linear, not really effective as it needs to be to support the sandbox aspect of the otherwise strong middle act. The advice could have been stronger for what the Game Master needs to do should her players take their characters deviate wildly from the linear flow chart.

Physically, Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden manages to both impress and depress. Impressively, the book is laid out in Symbarom’s house style in full colour and illustrated with some stunning pieces of art. Not all of this art is new, but as it does provide superb depictions of Thistle Hold, this is less of an issue that it might have been. A nice physical touch is that it includes two bound bookmarks, which makes marking important information a little easier. Depressingly, Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden is not so badly edited as dreadfully localised. There are some very clumsy turns of phrase in the supplement’s writing, which are highly indicative of the publisher’s need for a professional English language editor.

Even at its most basic, Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden expands greatly upon the settings of Thistle Hold and Blackmoor and there are secrets here enough for the Game Master to weave into her campaign and add mystery aplenty. The material also provides solid support, in conjunction the content in the core rulebook, for Wrath of the Warden which follows. Wrath of the Warden is rich and meaty in terms of content, grim and perilous in terms of tone, providing multiple sessions of roleplaying as well as setting everything up for the next part of the Chronicle of the Throne of Thorns.

Friday 14 September 2018

Idolatry not Ideal

Marked ‘Module 1’, Idol of the Orcs was the first official scenario to be published by Goblinoid Games for use with its retroclone, Labyrinth Lord. As the first release, it is a low level adventure, an introductory adventure, one with a familiar set-up and a familiar Dungeons & Dragons enemy. Designed for characters of between First and Third Levels, it takes place in a region recently beset by surprisingly well organised Orc attacks upon local farms and passing travellers. The adventurers are charged with the task with striking at the Orcs in order to put an end to this menace, their having been tracked back to the Caverns of the Sacerns.

The blurb on the front hints that there is something behind the Orc activities, a sinister voice giving the tribe instructions from the darkness, a demonic force which lies at the heart of the Orc lair. This is the first of several clever ideas and elements contained within the pages of Idol of the Orcs, but between them are long strands of somewhat bland game play that detract from the scenario’s cleverness. The cleverness comes in the form of just four rooms or encounters—and that across three levels of a dungeon and some forty locations. The first of these is how the Orcs are getting their new found direction. At the end of their lair is a cave with a demonic idol and it is this which has been giving them orders and advice in return for sacrifices and worship. Yet the idol is simply a statue and a hollow one at that, and there is somebody inside giving that advice in a nice nod to The Wizard of Oz. Take that one step further and then that somebody is not actually evil just desperate, which sets up a good roleplaying scene for both the Labyrinth Lord and her players. The other rooms involve a strange magical item which gives out some random effects, some beneficial, others not; a mysterious encounter with a drowning person; and an inflammatory final experience in a chapel. There are of course other rooms and encounters to be found throughout the dungeon, but these are of lesser interest and between them there is much tramping around and various fights which do not really matter.

Rounding out the scenario is a pair of appendices. The first of these is Appendix A, which gives ‘Suggestions For Better Game Play’. This gives advice on handling treasure, both monetary and magical, how to be better dungeon explorers, to be prepared, and to know when to quit. It is solid advice, perhaps even familiar advice to more experienced players, but anyone coming to Labyrinth Lord—and thus Dungeons & Dragons-style play—for the first time, it is useful. The second appendix, Appendix B, provides seven pre-generated adventurers of First and Second Level, all very easy to use.

Idol of the Orcs is well written, the illustrations are good, and the burgundy and white trade dress is singular and attractive. The maps are also clear and easy to read, although terribly inspiring in their design. One definite issue is with the Rumours Table, which lists sixteen rumours and then provides a method for rolling them that makes some impossible to learn. (The Labyrinth Lord should not double the roll of an eight-sided die, but add eight instead, or simply add four more rumours so that she can roll a twenty-sided die instead.)

There is a longstanding piece of advice that when writing a review that the reviewer does not tell the author how said reviewer would have designed the thing being reviewed. This reviewer and this review will adhere to that advice. Instead, it will make some suggestions as to how make Idol of the Orcs a more interesting adventure and a more enjoyable adventure for the Labyrinth Lord and players alike. First, lay some clues pointing towards a change in the raiding pattern of the Orcs, from disorganised sorties to well planned attacks, to suggest a change in their behavior and so add a mystery to the campaign. Ideally, these should be placed around and about the caves where the Orcs have their hideout. Second, add some clues about the caverns and their use prior to the Orcs occupying them. This should be hints and rumours rather than anything definite. Third, let the player characters encounter an Orc raiding party and learn something from it. Perhaps one of the Orcs lets slip about its new master or the Orcs seem particularly cunning… Fourth, change the profession of the clue giver from a midwife—after all, what player character in a Dungeons & Dragons-style adventure is in the habit of visiting a midwife? Five, give the players and their characters the chance to explore the rumours presented in the introduction. Sixth, add some clues in the dungeon to the secrets of the deeper levels. Seventh, add some more of the interesting rooms that are the highlight of the adventure. There are probably more things which could be done to Idol of the Orcs to make it an interesting and exciting adventure, but these are just some starting points for a Labyrinth Lord wanting a fixer-upper.

Ultimately—and as written—it is impossible to really recommend Idol of the Orcs as a first scenario for Labyrinth Lord—or any other retroclone. Its set-up is underdeveloped, its dungeons are linear and simplistic, and there really no reward for the player characters to go deal with the threat which triggers the adventure. Perhaps though, it could serve as a project for a Labyrinth Lord or Dungeon Master to develop into something more and work into a campaign setting of her own. Until then though, Idol of the Orcs is a disappointing first ‘Official’ scenario for a retroclone as solid as Labyrinth Lord.