Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Legend of the Five Rings

Some of you know this already, but there's a new Legend of the Five Rings game in town. Instead of being a collectible (or trading) card game, it's now a living card game.

What's the difference?

Barrier to entry. In theory.

Instead of random packs, when you buy a Living Card Game, you get the same cards in every pack. No more buying 600 booster packs in hope of getting that one rare card. Now you just buy the pack that has the card(s) you want.

So you buy a $40 starter to get going, and then it's $15 per month to keep up.

That's great! Right?

FFG has historically done a pretty good job with these. The Game of Thrones game was solid. Netrunner has fans, too. With good reason. They also did a Star Wars one for a while (EDIT: Star Wars: The Card Game is still a thing, apparently).

But there is a significant frustration with Legend of the Five Rings, and it has to do with the contents of the box.

L5R is set in the land of Rokugan. Rokugan is dominated by seven major clans, and the core set has cards for each of them. It's understandable - L5R fans are very vocal about dedication to their clan of choice, and leaving one (or more) of the clans out would have led to a major hue and cry.

There's already been some of this crying, as the core set doesn't allow for ronin/unaligned decks. Or monk decks. Or minor clan decks. Or Shadowlands decks. Or nezumi or naga or ...

Honestly, I don't have an issue with most of that. I expect we'll see all of these decks in expansions later. Storyline wonks will probably remember that the first edition of the card game didn't include Scorpions - they were added later, as they revealed themselves in the storyline.

Oh - right.  FFG has rebooted the storyline, too. I'm not sure where we are compared to the original timeline, though, because the presence of Scorpions has thrown me off. There are people who have issues with that, too, of course.

None of these decisions are necessarily bad. Including all seven Clans gives new players the chance to see what they like. That's good. It means the game is more approachable for new players.

The cards, by the way, look great. The included rules are (mostly) clear (more on this in a few). And it has two small training decks pre-designed. You can easily modify these training decks by swapping out all of the Lion for Dragon or the Crane for Unicorn or ... whatever. They're not great decks, but they'll get you through a training game or two so you can figure out where you want to focus your energies.

Here's the big problem, though:

The game includes deck construction rules. You need a minimum of 40 cards in each of two different decks. You are allowed to use any cards from your clan and any neutral cards in your deck at no cost.  You can add a second clan's cards to one of your decks, but there are limits on how many of them you can use.

There aren't enough cards in the box to create a tournament-legal deck. Even if you use all of the neutral cards in there, you can't build even one complete playable tournament-legal deck. You need to buy a second core set - which includes sets of cards that you probably aren't going to want to use. It's close, too. It's about ten cards shy. I think I'd be less irked if it were further off and this were billed as a "learn to play" set.

That's not just irritating. That's not even a minor thing. That's a huge issue. Suddenly this $40 buy-in has become an $80 buy-in. And that's just to hit the minimum level for tournament play. Serious players will need three starters for $120.

Once the first expansion drops the first week of November, you will probably still need a second core set. The first wave of expansions (they're releasing six expansions in six weeks - that is, "Instead of $15 per month, it'll be $90 in two months to keep up) also introduce the Imperial faction. So there will be cards in every pack that are Imperial. So assume they're introducing  cards evenly for each Clan.  Each pack has three each of 20 unique cards.  So I'm guessing that'd be ... two for each Clan, and three for the Imperials. That's already seventeen out of twenty slots. Leaving three neutral cards. But there are fourteen cards that they've already "spoiled." Two from each Clan. And half of those are going to be banned cards in organized play before they are even released.

Realistically, I think that they should have pushed the price point by $5 to be able to include enough cards that buyers would have a playable tournament-legal deck. And a full rulebook (more on this in a moment). This would not necessarily be a good deck or a competitive deck, mind you. But still a playable tournament-legal deck.  The other option would be different packaging - a base set that is 100% neutral, sold alongside clan-specific boosters. Or two-clan starters that - again - are playable right out of the box. Or do what FRPG and AEG did with the collectible game and release clan-specific starters that are playable as soon as you open them.

Why does "tournament-legal" matter?  Because even casual players tend to build to tournament-legal standards. When I still played Magic: the Gathering, we built tournament-legal decks for casual play. In fact, I've never played a deck for any game that wasn't tournament-legal, unless it was solely for teaching the game. Because almost every casual player wants to be a tournament player, even if they never sign up for a single event.

Remember when I said I'd get back to the rules?  There's a notable issue with the rulebook: It's not in the box. There is a "learn to play" booklet, which will get you up and running, but for complex timing issues (and tournament play), you need to go to their website and download the 30-page rules "reference" that they created and chose not to include in the core box. And that rules reference? It's not printer-friendly and there is no printer-friendly version available.

I know that any rulebook for a card game is going to be art-heavy - and I'm okay with that. But a version without the background would be very welcome, because ink and toner are not cheap.  Not even close.

I have one core set right now. I need to play the demo decks a bit before I make up my mind whether or not it's worth spending a significant amount of money before I can actually play the game with my friends.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Another Kickstarter To Check Out

I don't know if you guys know this already or not, but I actually really like Dungeon Crawl Classics. In theory. I've not gotten it to the table, yet.

It's designed to be a game with an old school feel. A high degree of lethality is built into its core assumptions, and the "character funnel" where players start with half a dozen farmers and townsfolk who die off like crazy until someone gains a level and becomes the full-fledged PC is completely unique.

One thing that DCC did to keep that feeling of newness was to reject the (by now) standard sets of dice. Instead, the system uses a different collection that includes the d5, d7, d14, d16, d24, and d30. It hearkens back to when anything other than a d6 was new and weird.

Most of the DCC dice I've seen were made by Impact! Miniatures. They're good people who do good work, and they're always trying to push the envelope when it comes to dice designs.

The Impact! team have a new Kickstarter project to launch four new types of dice - a d17, d19, d26, and d28. These guys have created a number of projects, some of which I've backed, and they've always delivered (and on time, too).

Even if you're not interested in the new dice, you can use this project to get sets of DCC dice for less than you can find them elsewhere. And they're good dice, too.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Modern Art

I firmly believe that every single human being on the planet is very good at at least one game. Whether or not they are interested in that game or - honestly - ever even encounter that game is another question entirely.

For me, that game is Modern Art. The game's been through a couple of publishers - it was originally published in German by Hans im Gl├╝ck in 1992. Mayfair Games published an English-language version in 1996, and again in 2004. And this year, CMON tossed their hat into the ring. In between, it's been published in several languages by a bunch of different publishers.

Many (most, even) of these publishers have used new art.

Modern Art is a Knizia game. This means that it's mathematically sound. A lot of people dislike Knizia because his games often almost play themselves. This does not. This is an auction game, so players need to interact with each other, and that interaction can be unpredictable.

I first encountered this game in about 2001, when I was starting to spin away from RPGs and into board games again, and I'm very glad I did. This was one of those rare games that instantly clicked for me. Everything made sense.

Rules-wise, it's pretty simple. There are a handful of artists whose works are being auctioned off. Players are museum buyers whose goal is to make the most money by selling their works while simultaneously buying other works.

Each card represents one work from a specific artist, and each indicates what type of auction will be held for that piece. There are five types of auctions - free-for-all, once around, fixed price, closed fist, and companion pieces. The actual names vary depending on the edition and translation of the game. A free-for-all is a traditional auction with players bidding against one another.  Once around means that each player bids (or passes) once (and only once) in turn. A fixed price auction is really just a sale. In a closed fist auction, each player secretly bids by hiding money in their hand with a simultaneous reveal. Companion pieces aren't sold on their own - if you play one, you'll generally want to play it with a second piece from the same artist.  That second piece determines what type of auction it will be.

Companion pieces, by the way, are the one rule that I can find that's changed over the various editions.  If Player A plays a companion piece and can't (or chooses not to) play a second, then the next player clockwise can play the second piece from that artist. In the original German, the second player gets all the money from that auction. In the first Mayfair edition, the two players split the money from that auction (I don't know if it was changed for the second Mayfair edition).  In the new CMON edition, it's back to the original German rule.

The round ends as soon as a fifth card from any artist hits the table, and then players determine what each artist's paintings are worth. At the end of the round, all art purchased that round is sold to the bank. Only the three artists who sold the most works are worth points. The other artwork is worth $0. So bid wisely.

Artists who sell more works are worth more money at the end of the round. Artists who are in the top three for multiple rounds get to stack that value, so the best-selling artist in round one will always be worth more money if they're a best-seller in later rounds.

There are four rounds. After the fourth round, players total their money and the player with the most wins.

It's an interesting game - you want to sell art for as much money as possible. So you want people to think that the art you are selling will be the most popular art in the round. At the same time, you want to buy art as cheaply as possible - and you want the art that you buy to be the most popular art of the round. It means that you want to buy art for artists that you have cards for in hand, so that you can increase the value of what you've bought. But you also really want to sell art that will be worthless at the end of the round, because that's money in your pocket that your opponents aren't getting back.

It's a tricky game with a great deal of player interaction and not a lot of downtime. It's smart, it's fairly quick-playing, and it's just plain awesome. I heartily recommend this one.

As an added bonus, I'm really really good at it. I won't claim to be undefeated, but I'm close. This is the one game in my collection that people who game often with me will refuse to play because I win so consistently.

Have I mentioned, lately, that CMON is killing it with their game releases lately? Because they are. I haven't seen a dud from them in a while, now. Fantastic job, guys. Keep that up.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Powerchords

Remember two weeks ago when I mentioned Powerchords as a project that was much-delayed but where I wasn't going to harangue the project creator?

It was my longest-delayed Kickstarter project.

But the PDF arrived on the 16th and has since been released for purchase on DTRPG. I'd held off on posting about this last week, because I was hoping I'd have time to read it before posting about it, but there's just no way.

I'm still waiting for a print copy, but this has kinda knocked me off my step. Because I'd almost given up on this one.

I'm still reading it, but what I've seen so far is pretty good. It's not amazing, it's not earth-shattering, but it's solid. Solid enough that I would use this in an urban fantasy game. Not as a standalone, mind you, but most of that is because it's mostly systemless.

Either way, for those of you waiting for long-delayed or forgotten Kickstarter projects, this release is proof that completion is possible.

And there's a three-part post-mortem that's worth reading.  Part 1 is here.

Notable in the post-mortem? No excuses. No finger-pointing.  A lot of what is in there are things that experienced backers now see as "classic" crowdfunding pitfalls, but it's still very much worth the read if you have time to do so.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Star Trek Adventures Again!

I've now had a chance to play Star Trek Adventures, and I am pleased to report that my fears (what few they were) were (mostly) groundless.

The game isn't perfect, don't get me wrong, but it flowed reasonably well and it felt like Star Trek.  That second one is the more important qualifier for me.

Here's where I nitpick the game, though:

  1. The game mentions Communication Officers, but it's not clear which Attribute or Discipline is used for communicating (or languages).  The "Learn a new language" that's in the career events table uses Command, which makes sense, but Communications Officers are Ops Officers. Ops is Security and Engineering, neither of which is a perfect fit for Communications. Especially if they use Command. As to Attribute, I'm likely to go with Insight for learning from scratch and Reason for remembering a language you used to speak.
  2. The adventure that is included in the book starts with a roll that has no consequences for failure. If it were a Difficulty 0 roll, that'd make sense, but it's Difficulty 2. I patched this by deciding that a successful roll would put the party closer to their objective (giving them more time in the timed parts of the adventure and cutting out one or more of the combat bits, as appropriate). I understand that it's (realistically) probably there so that players have a shot at picking up some Momentum early, but that's not explained.
  3. I raised the question on the RPG.net forums of "Why Bajorans?" - the game doesn't support Bajoran characters very well. There aren't any good Upbringing options for them, and Bajor isn't a part of the Federation. The answer I got ("We know a lot about Bajorans and they're an interesting and popular part of the setting") made sense, but what didn't make sense is why there aren't Lifepath options tailored to them.
  4. A few things are trickier than they appear in character generation. For example, each Species in the game has one or more Talents that are only available to members of that Species. Several of my players took all of those Talents, not realizing that they're optional (except for Betazoids). And then they tried to take additional Talents at each step in the lifepath that grants them. In reality, being a member of one of these species just adds that Talent to the list you can choose from. Also, there's one part of Finishing Touches that caught most of us. There's a paragraph at the end of the section on Attributes that tells players to spend two more points on Attributes. There's a similar paragraph for Disciplines.
Again, though, it was fun. We had a good group of enthusiastic players. I didn't give some players enough of a chance to shine, and I also should have had them introduce their characters before we started, but that's on me. The next session will be better.

And the adventure, despite a few oddities, felt like Star Trek. And did a decent job of hand-holding people through the system's basics.

After the game finished for the night, I dug out my Mutant Chronicles book to compare, and ... it's like a completely different system. STA has six Attributes, MC has eight. MC has a fairly deep skill list, and each skill has multiple abilities that are connected to it. STA adds Values to the game, which help define the character as more than what's on the sheet. MC tracks encumbrance and carrying capacity and ... it's like comparing a bulldozer to a steamroller. Sure, they're both things you use when building a road, but they do different things and can't be realistically compared to one another in any meaningful way.

Then I dug out my copy of the new 2d20 Conan game, and it was different from either of the other two. Closer to Mutant Chronicles, yes, but still different (and not cross-compatible).

The lack of cross-compatibility is a little bit annoying, to be honest. I was hoping to use MC monsters or Conan spells to represent various species and powers and abilities in STA. I still can, it'll just take some work.

All in all, this is definitely a line I will be supporting (with the exception of the books that Skarka has worked on), and I'm very much looking forward to playing more.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Back To The Table Again

I am of the opinion that that you should not let games in your collection stagnate.  Go back and dig out some of those games that haven't seen the table in a while and see if they've held up.

Last weekend, I had a chance to do exactly that. I dug out Pix. And I'm glad I did.

Pix was part of a rush of "drawing games for people who can't draw" that hit a few years back. It was a good time, honestly, because I can't draw.  Pix also hit when 8-bit nostalgia was peaking.

Pix is a bit overproduced. Players are each given a magnetic board, twenty black magnets, one red magnet, and a small red carat/arrow magnet. The magnetic boards are color-coded, because two players will be interpreting each word.  And everybody "draws" simultaneously.

Everybody.

So in a six-player game, there are three words that need guessing.

You "draw" by placing the magnets (called "pixels") onto the grid on your magnetic board.  Once someone finishes their drawing, they call, "PIXEL!" and flip a timer.  Everyone else has until time runs out to finish their drawing.

Then you start with the player who flipped the timer. They and their color-matched opponent (who drew the same word) compare pixel counts. Each black pixel is one pixel, the red pixel is four pixels. The arrow is worth two pixels (and doesn't have to be on the grid).  Lowest total goes first - they flip their board (and the timer) while the other players try to guess the word.

If they succeed, the artist and the person who guessed correctly each get a point.  If they don't, the other player with the same word flips their art (and the timer) and people get to keep guessing.  If someone guesses it on the second piece of art, then both artists (and the correct guesser) gets a point.  If they still can't figure it out, the card has a one-word hint that can be given. At this point, only a correct guesser will score points.

You then proceed to the next word, and the next, and the next.  And then you'll deal out a new card to each set of players to draw.

The game plays for three rounds. Most points at the end of three rounds wins the game.

It's a unique experience. I don't have any games that are similar (Lego Creationary is the closest I can think of). And it's just ... fun.

The game isn't flawless, however. The word list has a few words that are crazy.  Like "Chalet." I'd never guess that word. Not in a million years. I'm sure it's more commonly used in Europe than it is in the US, but ... wow.

It's also worth noting for Americans that the game is European (Swiss), so the clue for the word "Goalkeeper" is "Football," for example. Whereas we'd call it "Soccer." There are a few other similar "gotcha" words hidden here-and-there throughout. This isn't a problem, it's just something that players should be aware of. When we played last weekend, I didn't read the clue as "Football," I read, "Soccer" to the other players.

Word list aside, however, it's worth tracking this one down. It's a fun game and it plays fairly quickly - and it supports up to nine (!) players.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Feet To The Fire

I try to use this blog to write about things I love. Highlight the good in our little community of gamers. Show off awesome games and say great things about good people.  But I can't do that this week.

A couple of weeks ago, we passed the sixth anniversary of the funding Far West on Kickstarter.

For those of you who aren't aware, Far West has become the poster child for poorly-run Kickstarter projects. Six years, no game. And the author/designer/publisher has given more than a few release dates, all of which have (obviously) been broken.

So I tweeted about it on the anniversary, which led to this conversation:


I took this screencap from Tenkar's Tavern. I couldn't grab it on my own, because Skarka blocked me on Twitter. Which is fine - that's his right. His Twitter, he decides what appears in his feed and what notifications he receives. If I cared enough to check, I could open Incognito Mode or Private Browsing or whatever and read his tweets that way.  But - honestly - the only thing I care about from Skarka right now is Far West. And, even that, I don't care about that much.

Here's the thing, though: Far West isn't my most-delayed or latest Kickstarter project.  That honor goes to Powerchords. But I'm not holding Phil Brucato's feet to the fire the same way I am Skarka for a few key reasons:

  1. Brucato has never failed to treat his backers with respect. I'm sure he's had bad days, and I've a hunch he's bitched about us from time-to-time in private or to friends. And that's fine. But it's never spilled over into his comments or updates.
  2. If you ping Brucato by e-mail, he responds with an update (by e-mail). Yes, he needs to update the Kickstarter, but the fact that he is willing to fill us in is significant.
  3. If I were to ask Brucato for a refund, I would get it. I asked Skarka for a refund, and was turned down. I ended up going to my local attorney general, and managed to get a partial refund. 

Far West isn't the only project that has been delayed by its creator's illness, either. Lee Garvin, author of Tales from the Floating Vagabond spent some time in a coma. But he's kept his backers more-or-less updated and has kept his spirits up. And he's treated his backers with respect.

What baffles me is how many people in the gaming industry are being apologists for Skarka. Sean Patrick Fannon, for example, responded to my anniversary tweet with this:


So I guess I won't be buying Savage RIFTS after all. In fact, I'm a lot less likely to buy any Savage Worlds product because of this kind of attitude. See, I believe in getting what I've paid for. It's a quirk, I guess.

Skarka will argue until the cows come home that we "backed a process, not a product." And he'll highlight that Kickstarter T&C have changed. And they have. They're less restrictive than they were. They used to required the project creator to complete their project and ship the promised goods. Now they only require that the project creator do their best and issue refunds if they can't complete the project.

Their guidelines that were live during the project included this paragraph:
All projects must offer rewards. Kickstarter is not a general fundraising site, it’s a form of commerce and patronage. If you’re not viewing rewards as core to your project, Kickstarter may not be for you. Please note that raffles, discounts, coupons, financial returns, and investment offers are prohibited.
That's right: According to Kickstarter themselves, this is a form of commerce and patronage. Commerce and patronage. Commerce, of course, is "the exchange of currency, goods, and/or services for other currency, goods, and/or services." Other definitions suggest that it's "the activity of buying and selling." At present, Skarka's backers have given him currency and have received scorn, excuses, and arguments. And, of late, silence.
At the time, their FAQ also included this:

Who is responsible for making sure project creators deliver what they promise?
Every creator is responsible for fulfilling the promises of their project. Because projects are primarily funded by the friends, fans, and communities around its creator, there are powerful social forces that keep creators accountable. Creators are also encouraged to post regular updates about the progress of their project post-funding — communication goes a long way.

"Powerful social forces" would suggest that Kickstarter believes that a project creator's peers would hold them accountable. But they're not.

Last week, I wrote about Star Trek Adventures and how excited I am for the game in general (and the one I'm running in specific).  I almost didn't buy in at all, because Modiphius has hired Skarka to work on the line.  As it is, I won't be buying any of the products that Skarka worked on, because I vote with my wallet. Skarka will not be receiving a nickel from me (even indirectly) until Far West is released. This makes him unique on my personal boycott list for a couple of reasons:

  1. He's the only individual on the list. Ever. I won't buy Palladium Books product, but I won't single out any PB employees or freelancers and refuse to buy their work from other publishers. Update: my good friend James reminded me of a couple of individuals who are on the list that is forgotten about, so disregard this point.
  2. It's the only item on my list with a set end condition. Most of the companies on the list are there until they "change their anti-fan behavior," which is vague and subjective. "Until Far West is released" is oddly specific.

Modiphius has stated publicly that they'll make it known which products he worked on, so I don't have to worry about buying a book and then finding out later that he'd worked on it, which is a relief.

Had he treated his backers with respect or even given me a full refund when I requested it, I wouldn't be carrying this grudge now. I was a $75 backer. now I'm a $10 backer - but it's past the point of money for me. Now it's principle.

I backed Far West because I was a fan of Skarka's work. Hong Kong Action Theatre! had some very interesting ideas about the intersection of character and role. UnderWorld was ahead of its time in a lot of ways. It was urban fantasy before urban fantasy was as explosively popular as it is now. But after this fiasco, I will never buy Adamant Entertainment product again. Or the product of any future publishing companies that Skarka creates when Adamant eventually fails.

I'm only one person. I only have one wallet. And there's not a large crowd reading this - I have no illusions. I'm a small blog in a small corner of the internet. Honestly, my personal boycott is not likely to be noticed by Modiphius or Evil Hat or Cubicle 7. Well, noticed in their bottom line - it was (partially because of) my posting on Twitter that got Modiphius to disclose which products Skarka worked on.