Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Rediscovering The Classics

Steph's birthday was just a few moths ago, and I always struggle with What To Get Her. Because she's super-important to me, and a bad gift shows that I have not put thought into it.

She'll tell you that she'll love whatever I get her, but I've noticed that some gifts get used and some get shelved.

Her all-time favorite game is El Grande. It's a good game. It won a ton of awards in the mid-Nineties and is still a Top 100 game on the BoardGameGeek Rankings. Our copy was a bit long in the tooth, and has seen a lot of love, so I figured replacing it would be a decent gift.  Then Tabletop Gaming Deals on Twitter shared that the Big Box edition (which includes all the expansions) was cheaper than the core game alone (it still is).  So I bit.  And it was a good decision.

I've gotten to play the core game a couple of times since, and it reminded me of how much I love this game.  It's area control with drafting. Two things I'm terrible at.  But I'm ... okay at El Grande. And it's one of those games that I honestly don't mind losing at, because the gameplay is so much fun.

Then, a few days later, I was looking for something to play on Board Game Arena (which - again - is amazing), and I decided to play Can't Stop. Because it's easy to teach, light, fast, and fun.

But these two outcomes have me digging back into (recent) classics, looking for more fun things that I haven't played.  Carcassonne, for example, is a ton of fun in moderation. As long as you are not using more than the base game and maybe one or two expansions.  Catan is ... hit-or-miss. It depends on who you're playing with. Ticket To Ride is fun, but it gets super-repetitive super-fast.

So what twentieth-century games should I be looking into? What games are fun and good and short enough to be played in an evening with a mix of hardcore and casual gamers? What recent classics need more play than they get?

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Let's Talk About 5E, Shall We?

I eat a lot of Mexican food. Probably too much, actually. But when I go to a new place, I'll generally order either something I've never seen before or chicken fajitas.

"Something I've never seen before" is pretty obvious. Those are likely to be the specialty of the house and will set them apart from the tacos and burritos that are ubiquitous on Mexican menus.

Chicken Fajitas are a little less obvious - it's because chicken is a good platform to highlight unique or special spice blends. And I've never had two chicken fajitas that tasted the same.

My wife, by contrast, orders enchiladas. Most of the flavor of an enchilada comes from the sauce, and - much like fajita spice - that can vary wildly from restaurant to restaurant. Most Mexican restaurants have more than one enchilada sauce (and many of them allow you to mix and match sauces on your enchiladas).

So what does this have to do with Dungeons & Dragons?  Especially the fifth edition of same?

A lot, actually.

I've been playing D&D since I was ten. It was 1e at the time, and we played it on the playground at recess. I didn't get to play a lot, as my parents were part of the satanic panic of the eighties. This means I definitely wasn't allowed to own any books or dice.

Because of this, I played the simplest class. The one that had the fewest complex rules. In 1e, that meant I played a fighter. Why? Because the fighter's only real decision was "Which foe do I want to hit?"  Mechanically, 1e fighters were (and continue to be) super-boring.

By the time 2e rolled around, I was familiar enough with the rules that I was able to play something different. I dabbled with Wizards and Rogues before settling on (don't laugh) Bards. Because Fighters continued to be boring.

When Wizards dropped 3e on us, Feats made some interesting changes. Suddenly every class had interesting customization options (and Fighters were more interesting). Some of the fighter feats meant that there were occasional interesting decisions to be made. I only played a tiny bit of 3e (I was much more a DM than a player at that point).  By the end of 3e's run, however, it'd turned into an optimization game. "The best fighter takes and and ." Or "Check out this broken Feat combo!"

Pathfinder took the optimization aspects of 3e and turned them up to eleven. The game's power curve was structured so that players who didn't optimize were left behind. It also highlighted those parts of 3e that I didn't like, turning them into the focus of play. Note that I'm very carefully not saying "Pathfinder was bad." I'm saying, "Pathfinder wasn't for me."

Then we hit 4e. Suddenly every class was equally interesting. And theoretically balanced. Fighter powers/abilities hit harder or applied status effects (stun and knockdown were pretty common). Wizard powers/abilities did elementally-flavored damage and applied different status effects to foes. Feats were less-important than power selection.

And now we have 5e.

For those of you who are wondering, I haven't broken my self-imposed boycott of 5e. I received a copy of the Player's Handbook (PHB), Dungeon Master's Guide (DMG), and Monster Manual (MM) as gifts from a friend.  I spent the next few days following that gift reading the 5e PHB and ... meh.  I don't get all the love it gets.

One friend, when he saw that I had 5e in my hands, asked if I was "finally tired of that tactical combat simulator" that 4e was.

I've got news for you, Matt: All editions of D&D are tactical combat simulators. And 4e is the best/most interesting of the bunch for most classes. Every edition of D&D has fallen desperately short when it came to mechanically rewarding non-combat encounters. Which means that 5e is - for what I want in a game - significantly less-good than 4e. Because it's a less-detailed tactical combat simulator.

Reading through 5e, it's like a bizarre cross between 2e and 3e. There's good in there, mind you, but for the most part it strikes me as a huge step backwards.

The only real "killer app" of 5e is the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanism. And possibly "Inspiration," which lets you trigger Advantage.

I did what I often do when I confront something that is so popular that I just plain don't understand: I went online and asked my friends. Here's what I heard from them:

  1. Combat in 5e is faster. This is both bug and feature, as you can have multiple small combat encounters in a single session, but big set-piece battles are less interesting.
  2. Classes in 5e have three sub-classes that characters move into at 3rd level. Only one of the Fighter subclasses is boring 2e Hit 'Em more/better.
  3. There are fewer ways to apply fewer status effects in 5e, which is cleaner and easier to understand for newer players.
  4. Combat in 5e supports "theater of the mind" better than 4e and 3e. While you can use a map and grid, it's not as strictly required as it was in those editions.
  5. DIY players have an easier time tweaking 5e, as 4e was so tightly interconnected. Creating a power here-and-there for 4e was simple enough, but creating new classes was a lot of work.
Even a lot of 5e players expressed frustration with how boring and limited it felt after a very short time. One friend said, "Loved 5 E at first, got bored with it after a couple of years." And that was pretty close to consensus.

5E hits on more cylinders than 4E for me and also has some good ideas. I have played it several times and will likely play it again. 
All things considered, I would still prefer to play OSRIC, Advanced Labyrinth Lord, Blueholme, or Low Fantasy Gaming.

Other games came up, too. Both OSR retroclones and newer branches of the d20 tree (Pathfinder and 13th Age especially). And games that aren't from that family (Fantasy Age got a lot of love).

Indie gaming legend Ron Edwards left a long comment that I'm going to quote in full, here:
I just played 5E for the first time, just a couple of days ago, as a player. It struck me as a very 2000s game, maybe even 2010 on the nose. That's not a slam, but identifying it very much as of its era, and not any kind of old-school whatnot which in this case makes most sense as precise marketing.
More importantly, as a game, it is caught like a writhing insect in what I called The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast. If I play my character, in the sense of all this characterization and agency that the creation process fires up, then the DM cannot create the story, as everything about DMing and especially the published scenarios and campaigns emphasizes. And vice versa, perhaps especially, vice versa.

Everything for the player presumes a DM who isn't actually the DM as written/encouraged, and everything for the DM presumes players who aren't actually those players as written/encouraged. The net effect is almost always the same: the players are reduced to posturing, establishing and repeating tropes, and (eventually) goofing in order to enjoy themselves, as the DM waltzes them through fights that lead to clues, and clues that lead to fights. 
Exalted, all over again, and that's merely a refined point of reference among a sea of game texts of this kind. 
As with so many of these games, the solution is obvious: pick one or the other, and ignore, as in obviate, reject, abandon, defy, reverse the text and most of the rules concerning the one you didn't pick. But that solution is not arrived at very often. The more usual one is to play while insisting loudly online that this is the most awesome thing ever, then to limp along wondering about or resigned to the necessary outcomes of the Impossible Thing, and eventually to shift into lonely fun with one's extremely expensive purchases.
 There was also a ton of nostalgia for 3.x.  Publisher/designer Cam Banks said (in one of his comments):
When I moved to 4E, I hit a wall with the way the game was designed to centre around powers/techniques/etc. As a 3rd edition designer, I knew that system back to front; I could come up with stats and monsters and spells on the fly, and I even ad hoc'd a prestige class for a player (and wrote the whole thing up the next day). 4E was an inscrutable black box by comparison. I ran it like I ran 3E, and stumbled. I couldn't make my own classes easily, I couldn't eyeball anything, even with the famous page 42. It was extraordinarily frustrating because I liked what they were doing with the game, but the game didn't let me in.
 Peter Darley said:
It seems like D&Ds primary strength, in any edition, is to be a lowest common denominator. I don't think I would ever chose to run or play it given the universe of games available, but since not everyone likes the same stuff, D&D is often something that people can agree on.
 I had more than fifty comments on that post.  I'd link to it, but it's on Plus and Google is shutting that down next week, so the link would be useless.  There was disagreement, but not much. And it never got heated.

So the long and short of it, for me, is this:

If I am forced to play D&D and am given a choice of edition, I will still choose fourth edition. I can see some of the appeal of fifth, and I might play it a bit to see how it compares to second and third, but I don't see anything there that I can't easily find in a dozen other games.  Realistically, though, I'm more likely to play something else.

I didn't get into it here, but it's worth mentioning that the DMG for fifth edition is quite good with some solid advice that applies regardless of the game being played. It's a shame that the game itself is so uninspired.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Still There?

*tap, tap*

This thing still on?

I've been super-quiet here for ... months, now. Not as long as I'd thought, mind you, but a long while. And I'm about to spin it back up again for a couple of reasons:

  1. Google Plus is shutting down.  G+ is where I've been spending most of my game-related discussion energy, and it's been a really good place for that.
  2. I've finally (mostly) adapted to my work schedule. It's not ideal, but I'm now more-or-less functional again.
I'm not going to hold myself to a post a week, because then I feel guilty when I miss a post. I'm going to post when I have something to say or want to share something.  No more, no less. I'm also going to continue to be mostly-idle while Plus is still around, because - frankly - I get a lot more interaction on Plus than I do here. And I've grown to really value that interaction.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Sublime Joy of Losing

You all know how much I love playing games. And I hope you all know that I'm decent at a lot of games. I'm really only good at a small handful of games. I'm a mediocre-to-good player at the vast majority of games that I enjoy.

And that's okay, because it gives me a chance to lose sometimes, even against new players.

Losing is one of my less-secret gaming joys. I love losing.

Losing doesn't mean I didn't play hard. It doesn't mean I threw the game. Losing means someone else was better than I was (for most of the games I play).

When I'm new to a game, I like watching experienced players destroy me so I can learn the strategies they use. I can see how the various pieces fit together into a win.  At that point, I'm often just working on figuring out how the game itself works - what behavior it rewards and what it doesn't.

With "point salad" games, I'm often feeling out if I can single out one element and ignore the others. In 7 Wonders, for example, new players often try to bulk up on military cards. Don't get me wrong - military is great, but it's not The Key To Victory most of the time. It's one part of this nutritious breakfast the win, but it's not the whole thing by itself.

Once I reach the skill level of mediocre at a game, a loss means that either I tried a new strategy that didn't work out or I'm facing someone who is better than I am at the game. Or both. Or sometimes my opponent is also mediocre and her half-baked strategy is better than my half-baked strategy.

A few weeks ago, I had a chance to play CIV: Carta Impera Victoria with some friends. The game is fast-playing, and I'd played it a couple of times - enough that I wanted to play with some of its possibilities and see if winning was still viable.  So I used a military discard strategy - it left almost no cards in my tableau and reduced my opponents' tableaus to almost nothing.  It got expensive fast, though, because I was discarding two cards for every one card I removed from their tableaus.  I didn't win, but I learned that playing "pure" discard is not a path to victory. On the other hand, I also learned that some discard can frustrate your opponents and cause them to stumble.

Most of all, though, I love losing at games at which I consider myself skilled, because it means I still have a lot to learn.  I've been playing on boardgamearena.com lately. I'm a premium member, so I have access to Dungeon Twister. I've tried a variety of tactics against a number of players with mixed results. I'm currently 6-4 at the game online, and every one of those games was fun for me. I especially love the game where I messaged my wife, "I just moved my Warrior one space too far. It's probably going to cost me the game." And it did.

A lot of people hate losing because they believe that losing means you are a bad player. This is not true at all. It means your opponent was better. Or you made a mistake. Or you're having a bad day. Or maybe the dice turned against you. These things happen, and none of them mean you're a bad player.

Even in high-level tournaments, most players don't win. Keep that in mind. There are many games where a draw is simply not possible. And, yes, at the higher levels of many games, sometimes that win does come down to luck of the draw.

Losing is as much a part of playing the game as winning. In many cases, I'd argue that it's more a part of the game because of the number of players involved.

So when you lose, just look at the game, figure out what caused your loss, and try to do better next time. Because more often than not, you will.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Room 25 (Again, Some More)

I know I've talked about Room 25 in the past, but there is a new expansion for it and I'm excited all over again.

I'm going to start with a broad overview of the game, and then get into the details and the nitty-gritty.

Initially, there was just Room 25.  The base game held up to six players and had a couple of modes of play - fully co-operative all the way to (my favorite) semi-cooperative play. It was good. It was fun.

It's a programmed-action game, where everyone programs one or two actions at the start of the round and then triggers them in turn.  The list of actions wasn't extensive, and the game wasn't too complicated.

The goal was to move your characters through a complex to find Room 25, and then slide that room out of the complex and escape.  Before time runs out.  But each room was different. There were rooms that would kill you. There were rooms that would trap you. There were a handful of harmless (or even beneficial) rooms, too.  So you couldn't just go charging boldly ahead through the complex.

It was one part Cube, one part Running Man, and a lot of fun.

It came in a small box, and didn't get a lot of notice when it was released, as it came out in the middle of a flood of really good games. It's hard to stand out when you're a great game in a small box, especially when there are larger boxes around.

I can't find just the base game for sale anywhere other than the BGG Market, where there's a US version for $10.

The year after the base game came out, they released Room 25: Season 2.  It added two new characters (bumping the player count to 8), gave special abilities to the characters, added Adrenaline, and a bunch more rooms. It took a good game that was already fun and made it great. It also replaced the grey minis that came with the base game with color-coded figures (which still had differently-shaped bases for colorblind players).  They also released those figures separately for those people who didn't want to buy the expansion.  And Season 2 came in a large box with room for all of the base game components (other than the box).

As much as I enjoyed the base game, Season 2 kicked it up a few notches. To the point where I don't suggest that people buy just the base game.

Nothing was released for the game in 2015.

In 2016, though, Room 25 Ultimate was released. Ultimate is the base game + Season 2 in one box with a combined rulebook. And some minor rules tweaks and clarifications.  If you're just now getting into the game, I heartily recommend that you start with Ultimate.

In 2017, Room 25: Escape Room was released, giving us Puzzle Mode.  Players now had to solve a puzzle (complete with a decoder) in order to escape the complex.  Puzzle Mode is a 100% Co-Operative mode of play.  And, of course, it had a few new rooms to shake things up a bit. It's compatible with the old base game and with Ultimate both.

And now Room 25: VIP has been released. In VIP, it's possible for one player to be (*gasp*) a VIP. And, because the VIP is famous, he (or she) doesn't truck with that whole "advance planning" thing. They're also impatient, and so the VIP must move every round. Otherwise the players lose (and the Guards win). VIP also included sleeves for the rooms - with so many sets from such a span of years, not all of the tile backs matched exactly, making it possible for some players to be able to determine which room was which. The sleeves fix that.  Of course, it includes 40 sleeves. If you have everything so far, you'll need more than that - you can purchase additional sleeves directly from Matagot. Shipping isn't too bad on them, either. I kept my original Base Game and Season 2 separate and sleeved my Ultimate + Escape Room + VIP. It took one extra pack of sleeves, with a few sleeves left over.

There have been three promos for the game so far.  The Audience is a die that the first player rolls each round that will impact play. You just need one of these dice and the rules from BoardGameGeek.

There is a Mr. Tom's Hall room, and there is a Raptor Room.

I've managed to track down Mr. Tom's Hall, now I just need to find a Raptor Room ...

VIP also included a couple of blank paper templates for creating your own room.  I'd love to see what kind of custom rooms the rest of you can come up with. Just comment on this post, and I'll see it.

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.