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Sunday 1 January 2023

Reviews from R’lyeh Post-Christmas Dozen 2022

Since 2001, Reviews from R’lyeh have contributed to a series of Christmas lists at Ogrecave.com—and at RPGaction.com 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 (Post-)Christmas Dozen, I can only hope that the following list includes one of your favourites, or even better still, includes a game that you did not have and someone was happy to hide in gaudy paper and place under that dead tree for you. If not, then this is a list of what would have been good under that tree and what you should purchase yourself to read and play in the months to come.


Dice Men: The Origin Story of Games Workshop
Unbound ($40/£30)
Written by Sir Ian Livingstone with Steve Jackson, Dice Men is not a history of Games Workshop, but rather a memoir of its founding and first decade or so by the founders of the company, whose dedication and hard work would propel the both of them and the company to the forefront of the gaming hobby in the United Kingdom. The company went from producing wooden puzzles and games and importing the first copies of Dungeons & Dragons direct from E. Gary Gygax to a licensee for numerous roleplaying games, including Call of Cthulhu, MERP, and Stormbringer, and publishing its own titles such as Golden Heroes and Judge Dredd the Roleplaying Game—plus of course, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. The authors have delved deep into their archives and their memories to bring forth a fantastic array of photographs and treasures, and thus the book is a lavishly illustrated coffee table book that will bring back memories of a certain age.

Frontier Scum: A Game About Wanted Outlaws Making Their Mark on a Lost Frontier
Games Omnivorous ($25/£19.99)
This Old School Renaissance-style roleplaying game takes criminals to the Lost Frontier, an Acid West hallucination of the Wild West, in which the Player Characters must survive the weirdness, uncertainty, and loss, all of which infuses the landscape and its promise of renewal subverted by avarice and ambition. The Player Characters are desperate outlaws, at best searching for redemption, at worst trying to survive in what is a deadly game—especially gunfights. Fortunately, every Player Character can survive at least one gunshot by having his hat shot off! The roleplaying game includes the full rules and a setting, more enough for a mini-campaign. The Frontier Scum book itself is brilliantly done as a plain matte board book and a spine with no cover that makes the glue visible. The layout inside is thematically done as a Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalogue, which is absolutely perfect for the look and feel for Frontier Scum. This is a startlingly different version of the Wild West and Frontier Scum brilliantly brings it alive!

Regency Cthulhu: Dark Designs in Jane Austen’s England
Chaosium, Inc. ($44.99/£39.99)
Regency Cthulhu takes Call of Cthulhu into the late Georgian period and an age of manners and propriety when everyone—including the Investigators—is expected to conform to societal norms, and woe betide to anyone who does not, including those prepared to investigate the Mythos and cosmic horror. The supplement provides a good introduction to the period and a guide to playing good gentlemen and good gentlewomen, including rules for new Occupations, place in society, and Reputation, the latter actually working as the equivalent of Social Sanity! It supports this with a complete setting in the form of a rural Wiltshire town with lots of secrets and two good scenarios set in and around the town, which invite the Investigators to various social events and then hint at strange things going on in and round the town. Both setting and rules highlight the tension between a highly conservative and stratified society and the need to investigate the Mythos and the consequences of doing so, all of which serves to bring out the Regency period’s roleplaying and storytelling potential.

The Electrum Archive Issue #1
Emiel Boven & CULT OF THE LIZARD KING ($26/£20)
The Electrum Archive Issue #1 introduces us to the Science Fantasy world of Orn where the descendants of survivors transplanted by the ancient starfaring civilisation known as the Elders (who have long since disappeared) survive and explore the Elder ships which crashed to the surface and buried themselves in the surface of the planet long ago. The Player Characters—Fixers, Vagabonds, and Warlocks—search the wilderness for signs of Elder technology and Elder Ink. As Elder Drops, Elder Ink is a currency, but when vaporised and inhaled by Warlocks, it expands the mind and enables users to enter the Realm Beyond and cast spells known by the Spell Spirits. And the spells themselves are entirely random in their name and effect, so every Warlock’s spells will be different. The Electrum Archive Issue #1 comes with lots of flavour and detail, and includes six detailed regions complete with the plot hooks and events that will keep a gaming group busy for multiple sessions. The Electrum Archive Issue #01 is a great introduction to what is a weirdly inky, baroque, and alien planetary romance.

Heat: Pedal to the Metal
Days of Wonder ($80/£60)
From the designers of Flamme Rouge, the board game of cycling ‘Grand Tours’, Heat: Pedal to the Metal is a board game of tense car races in which drivers jockey for position, manage their car’s speed and energy, requiring careful hand management of movement cards to ensure they can keep ahead of the pack and if not that, then at least, keep up. The base game is fast and furious, with a real sense of speed as the cars career around corners and accelerate onto the straights, but expansions and advanced rules add weather, road conditions, and events, which can make even a single race more challenging, let alone a whole championship. Designed for solo play or up to six players, Heat: Pedal to the Metal can be played by the family, but the expansions will appeal to petrolheads and board gamers alike as it lets the players race like it was in the sixties!

The One Ring: Roleplaying in the World of Lord of the Rings
Free League Publishing ($49.99/£45)
The new edition of The One Ring moves the highly-regarded roleplaying game set in Tolkien’s Middle-earth two decades on and the focus from Rhovanion, the region to the East of the Misty Mountains, to Eriador, the region to the West of the Misty Mountains. The One Ring Starter Set began with The Shire, but the new rulebook explores far and wide beyond its borders as well as tidying and streamlining the mechanics. The Player Characters step out into the wilderness to find adventure and perhaps curb the influence of the Shadow which threatens to sow chaos and undermine society as its forces search for signs of the One Ring. This has all been redesigned in a style and look that echoes that of the classic editions of The Lord of the Rings trilogy published by Allen & Unwin, and has a more scholarly feel as if Bilbo himself sat down to write it himself.

Everybody Wins: Four Decades of the Greatest Board Games Ever Made
Aconyte Books ($29.95/£24.95)
Board games have come a very long way in the last quarter of a century, but as authors James Wallis and Sir Ian Livingstone explored in Board Games in 100 Moves, their history goes much further back than that. Now James Wallis returns to explore the history of board games from a different angle—through the boxes, boards, cards, and meeples of the annual Spiel des Jahres winners in Everybody Wins: Four Decades of the Greatest Board Games Ever Made. This is a history of some of the best games ever published—as well as some of the near misses—that tracks the massive rise in popularity of the board game as well as the themes, the changes in design, and trends in the hobby in that time. This is a great read for anyone who loves board games and wants to know more about them and the genesis of the hobby. Beautifully illustrated with many titles from the author’s own collection and engagingly written, this is the history book that board gamers will want on their shelves.

Gran Meccanismo: Clockpunk Roleplaying in da Vinci’s Florence
Osprey Games (£25/$35)
What if by 1510, Niccolò Machiavelli, the military commissioner of the Republic of Florence, had persuaded Leonardo da Vinci to stick to engineering rather than painting? What use could the genius’ designs have been put to in the defence of the republic? Now armed with primitive computers run on water clocks, spring-powered tanks capable of withstanding any cavalry charge, their canons blasting way left and right, and gliders flit across the perfectly blue Tuscan skies delivering messages, intelligence, and reports of troop movements to the city and her military commanders. The Republic of Florence is once again a growing power, but her neighbours are jealous of the new technology and the question is, just how much information is being controlled and compute by the calculating devices. Gran Meccanismo is a Clockpunk roleplaying game of intrigue, invention, and war—no surprise since the Player Characters might find themselves crossing wits with Machiavelli, avoiding the charms of Lucretia Borgia, and entering into philosophical discussions with da Vinci himself! Gran Meccanismo: Clockpunk Roleplaying in da Vinci’s Florence combines fast-playing, easy to grasp rules with a setting that not only can genuinely be called unique, but one to which your first response should be, “That’s a cool idea!”

Bones Deep
Technical Grimoire Games ($30/£30)
Bones Deep begins with a genuinely weird premise—that after you die your skeleton hatches from your corpse and goes in search of a near life and to find itself as far away as possible, on the sea floor. Literally, ‘bones deep’. Together the skeletons explore the strange, often lightless realms of the sea floor, armed with a few skills, a little magic, and a desire to both own and create some memories of their own. Bones Deep is packed full with a briny bestiary and descriptions of some twenty locations, including ‘The Bottom of the Barrel’, a meeting place for undersea creatures specially constructed with an air half and a water half so that crabs, fish, wizards, witches, skeletons, and any other creatures can meet in safety, stories, and more. This is a fantastic undersea sand crawl which uses the simple mechanics of Troika!, but takes into account the very different physics of the bottom of the ocean. 

Judge Dredd: The Game of Crime-Fighting in Mega-City One
Rebellion Unplugged (£40)
Remember the good old days when you could arrest Judge Death for the crime of Littering? It was possible in the classic Judge Dredd board game designed by Ian Livingstone and published by Games Workshop in 1982. Rebellion Unplugged brought this fondly remembered game back in 2022 allowing players to return to the streets of Mega-City One and bring the law to its 800 million citizens. Their task is to respond to crimes and their perpetrators, making arrests, and proving themselves to be the most productive Judge—and so win the win. The original game involved lots of luck and plenty of intervention by the other players in an attempt to stop a player and his Judge from arresting high value criminals and crimes. The original game has bags of theme, but its high luck and high player intervention make it very much an Ameritrash design. The new edition—some forty years on since the release of the original—keeps the same game play, but adds extra rules which bring more detail and depth to game, including Specialist Judges such as Cadets, Special Judge Squad, PSI-Judge, and more. The result is that players can play the game like they remember or use the new rules for a new experience. Either way, Judge Dredd: The Game of Crime-Fighting in Mega-City One is a light, highly thematic, and most of all, fun board game that fans of the iconic law man of the future will thoroughly enjoy.

Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons
St. Martin’s Griffin ($29.95/£22.99)
If one of the most interesting histories of roleplaying and TSR, Inc. in particular, was 2021’s The Game Wizards by Jon Peterson, then arguably its counterpart and equal was 2022’s Slaying the Dragon by Ben Riggs. The Game Wizards charted the first half of the TSR, Inc.’s history and Slaying the Dragon explored the second half from the ousting of E. Gary Gygax and takeover by Lorraine Williams through to the company’s purchase by Wizards of the Coast. It is a fascinating tale of missed opportunities and mismanagement of property after property in a failed search to find that one thing that would transcend the publisher beyond its roleplaying origins. It is not a definitive history of the company during this period, since Lorraine Williams is not interviewed, but nevertheless this is an engaging read from start to finish, providing anecdotes and insight down the path to TSR, Inc.’s sad ending.

Odd Jobs: RPG Micro Settings Volume I
MacGuffin & Co. (£34)
Technically, if you are going to cheat on a list of the best games of 2022, then you had better make sure that the  recommendation you cheat with, is worth it—and Odd Jobs: RPG Micro Settings Volume I is definitely worth it. This hidden gem is contains not one, not two, but eleven, fully supported, mini-campaigns, all systems agnostic and all lasting no more than four sessions (but can go on longer if you want). Covering a diverse range of genres, including Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Christmas campiness, and all sorts of weirdness. Religions done as start-ups, complete with a OSE or ‘Oracle Spiritual Exchange’ tracking the number of worshippers, essentially The Big Short, but literally with faith. Soul retrieval from the dead across the Solar System in Ghostbusters meets Office Space. Evil Wizard’s staff and familiars filling in for him after the wizard is killed. Nuns seconded in disgrace to an abbey in France which might just stand over a pit or it might stand over a hell pit in Seventies hellish horror. And what if Atlantis, after it sunk, became the Las Vegas of under the sea? Deep One mobsters anyone? Odd Jobs: RPG Micro Settings Volume I is a superb collection of ideas and set-ups, offering shorter, more focused, and engaging campaigns that can go on for as quick as you or as long as you want, and for the game system you want.

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