Wednesday, August 15, 2018

DramaSystem

We played Hillfolk again a few weeks ago. The first time we played (almost exactly a year before), I was ... uncomfortable. It was a little unsettling.

This time was better, but Steph asked me aftewards (in private), "Do you even like this game? Because it doesn't look like you were having fun."

Wade (the GM) is a fantastic GM. In fact, as I write this, he's at GenCon running Hillfolk and 13th Age and GUMSHOE and whatever else Pelgrane asks him to do. Because he works hard and does a good job. And I desperately want him to write a book about his GM Prep, because these days, he seems prepared for nearly anything.

So let me tell you about Hillfolk.

I was a Kickstarter backer, because Robin Laws writes good games. Because Robin Laws thinks about games and implications and stories and how games and stories differ.  Hillfolk is a good game, but it's utterly unlike anything else on my shelf.

There are games out there with emotional mechanics. Shadows of Esteren, for example, uses character motivation to provide bonuses and penalties to actions. Smallville uses bonds between characters and character ideals as the basis of which dice you're going to use for any given roll. FATE has a ton of potential for dealing with emotions.

But Hillfolk isn't like these games. For one, all of those games follow a more traditional model of "GM establishes a scenario." That's not to say they're traditional games, because they really aren't. But the in-play experience is frequently very similar to other games.

Smallville comes closest to Hillfolk in terms of "how the game works." Players start out by establishing relationships to one another, and the GM just sets the overall tone. What drives play is interaction between PCs rather than interaction with NPCs (including foes).  That is to say, the GM's footprint is very small. I'd wager you could play this game GM-less, as long as all of the players understood the setting (or were willing to embrace one anothers' setting ideas and modifications that came up in play).

Hillfolk's key conceit is that every character has something that every other character wants from them. It can be approval. It can be respect. Or trust. Or ... well, just about anything, as long as there is an emotional component to it.

Wade would turn to me in character generation and say, "Eric, what does your character want from Stephanie's character?"  And I'd explain what I wanted/needed and why. And then Wade would turn to Steph and ask her, "Stephanie, why is Eric not going to be able to get that from you?"

The game is written to simulate a weekly dramatic TV series. Campaign play is not only possible, it's also encouraged so that you can learn more and more about your characters and the world they inhabit.

A session involves each player "calling" a scene. They set the scene and then who is in that scene with them. And then they play in character, trying to get emotional concessions from the other character(s) in the scene. It can get pretty intense.

At the end of a scene, players gain (or lose) tokens based on how that emotional demand was answered.

On paper, there are a lot of things that I really really like about this game. It's got some fantastic series pitches (much like a TV series pitch), and there are some great ideas in there.

In practice ...

So here's the thing. Every RPG's play experience depends on the synergy between the players. I'm including the GM as a player, here. And that applies equally to every single game. If I'm in Jim's game, but I don't like one of the other players, it's going to cause me to shut down a bit.

Hillfolk requires that you play it with a group that you know and trust. And not just trust. You need to be able to trust their ability to interact with you emotionally.  And yes, I know, "It's not you, it's a character!" But every character contains a kernel of its player.

I often struggle to trust my wife with my emotional state. There are things that I bottle away. So a game that depends on being open with emotions is ... foreign to me. Strange, awkward, and a little uncomfortable. Even when I like everyone who is at the table.  And that's where Hillfolk lives for me. It's a great game. It really is.

It's just not for me.

And I'd never have realized that had Steph not asked me about it.

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Argent: The Consortium

There are a lot of games where the victory conditions are slightly different every time you play.  With Fluxx, for example, there is no way to win until after the game has started.

With Killer Bunnies and the Quest for the Magic Carrot, the win condition is simple: Have the magic carrot.  But no-one knows which carrot is magical until the very end of the game. It's really a kind of lottery game - you grab as many carrots as you can in order to tip the odds in your favor, but the winner (in the end) still comes down to the luck of the draw.

I've had Argent: the Consortium for a few years, and it just doesn't hit the table often enough.  Its win condition is closer to that of Killer Bunnies, but it's also its own thing.

Argent is a game where you are trying to become the next Chancellor of Argent University. It's a magical university, and people often draw comparisons to Hogwarts flavor-wise (only Hogwarts is a high school, not a university).

Each round, players will take turns placing workers (with special abilities), casting spells, or taking other actions in order to gather power to sway voters to their cause.

There are twelve voters in the game, and two of them are public. The other ten voters are pull randomly from a deck of cards.  There are ways for players to be able to peek during the game (and thus adjust their strategy), but not everyone does.

The two public voters are "Most Influence" and "Most Followers."  Both Influence and Followers are gathered over the course of the game. "Most Influence" is the most important voter, as it breaks all ties. Other voters will give you votes based on how learned you are or how invested you are in one of the factions in the game. There are a couple of "second-best" voters, who vote for second place in one of the categories, and so on.

The whole game is all about gathering stuff. You want to gather followers and influence and magic items and spells and knowledge and money and ...

I really like this game. It's primarily worker placement supporting point salad, and there's nothing new in the game. It's not hugely innovative, either. It just ... works.

I'm not saying the game is without flaws, mind you. It's a huge table-eater. Each player has a player display in front of them, and then there is the (modular) board and four lines of cards and their decks as well as supplies for gems (mana) and coins ... If you think your table is large enough for this game, it probably isn't. Unless you're only playing with three players, in which case ... maybe.

Fun is also highly dependent upon which rooms you have.  The last time we played (with a random selection of rooms), the only way to get money was to choose that option when one of your mages was wounded and sent to the infirmary. At the same time, there was a room in play where the top reward was 3 Buys. That room was only very rarely occupied over the course of the game.

The game leans a bit random. There are, as I mentioned, four decks with a number of face-up cards available, and there are times when nothing available is worth going for. Or when only one or two cards are worth the struggle.  I've played entire games where people only bought new spells to change the available in hopes of something useful appearing.

But with the right rooms, this game is just fun. There are enough decisions to be made that it's not dull, and the decisions (and the order in which you make them) matter.

Second Edition is now out - I have the first, but I also backed the Kickstarter for an upgrade kit. It reduced the footprint of the game by a small percentage and reduced some of the fiddliness at the same time. The rules themselves are (so far as I can tell) unchanged.

It's solid and worth a look.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Gamethyme's Game of the Year 2017/18

Let's get this ball rolling again, shall we?  And what better place to start than with my annual Game of the Year award.

A quick reminder: I give this to the best new-to-me game played in between GenCons (even if I'm not going to be at GenCon).  And this year's crop?

Amazing.

Azul. Century: Spice Road. Sagrada. Photosynthesis.

In a normal year, any of these four would be standouts. In a normal year, there wouldn't be four games that are so close.

Narrowing these down to one game has been crazy-difficult.

And, by the way, all four of them were recommended to me by the staff at the FLGS. Thanks, Paula and Brian!

Here's a bit on each of the four short-listed games:

Azul is this year's Spiel des Jahres winner. It's a big deal and a well-deserved award. Players are trying to complete mosaics by drafting tiles onto their tableau. It's simple enough that I can play with my nephews, but complicated enough that I really like it.  Scoring is a bit fiddly in a few points, but - that aside - it's a solid game that I very much enjoy playing.

Sagrada is almost a brain-burning version of Azul. Dice are drafted based on their color and number and - again - placed in a player's tableau. Every player has a "hidden" objective (that isn't that secret after a few rounds) and there are a handful of public objectives that everyone is vying for. Players also have access to tools that might break the rules for a turn for them.

Photosynthesis is a luck-free game that comes 100% down to skill in play. Players are trying to help their trees grow and thrive while blocking access to the sun for their opponents' trees. It's cutthroat, and very tightly constructed.

Century: Spice Road is an engine-builder. I usually refer to it as a slow-motion deckbuilder. Each turn, you can buy a card (into your hand), buy a victory point card, use a card from your hand, or you can pick your used cards back up. There are no extra actions available - you get one action per turn. Period. And then you're done.

All four of these were solid games that saw a lot of play this year. All four of them are games I keep coming back to with different ideas both for how to advance my play and how to hinder my opponents.

There were other good games I played, too. This year really provided a bumper crop of really good games. Rising Sun, for example, was a ton of fun when I played it. But I only got to play once, and it's really hard to judge a game fairly after only one play (with that said: I want to get it to the table again).

Only one of game, however, can win this year.

For me, that game was Century: Spice Road.

Not everyone agrees with me - the folks at Shut Up And Sit Down, for example, didn't like it that much - and they are absolutely entitled to their opinion.  But I really like Dominion, and this game scratches a similar itch without the drawbacks that you can get with Dominion.

No. Really.

It's quicker to set up (and clean up). There's no "near-infinite actions" combo that will allow someone to take a ten-minute turn that gets them no closer to victory. There are no weird card interaction issues that occasionally pop up. There's also not a ton of opportunities for Analysis Paralysis (AP) - I'm not saying it doesn't happen, but it seems to be less frequent with this one than with many games.

While the art isn't amazing, it's also long ways from terrible. I've played (and liked) games with worse art. While good art is nice, it's not a deciding factor for me. I'd rather play a good game with bad art than a mediocre game with fantastic art.  The overall graphic design of the cards is clear - the art is there so it's not a mostly blank card, and it fills the space without interfering with necessary game information. And there are Dominion cards with worse art, so there's that.

Most of the time, you actually have to make a decision. There are occasional turns when the best possible play is obvious, but they're few and far between. But rarely is it an excruciating decision, either.

It's a solid game that has seen regular replay around my table. And I expect that Century: Eastern Wonders will see similar play (especially with its ability to combine with Century: Spice Road to form Voltron a third game).

So, because I find myself regularly looking forward to playing this one and being excited about getting it to the table, Century: Spice Road is my Game of the Year.

Thanks to Plan B Games for publishing this one, and thanks to the crew at Fantasium for introducing it to me.