Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Reading, Prepping, Playing

It's been a good long while since I did a post about the media I've been consuming lately.

See, I'm working on putting together a Legend of the Five Rings game. I know I mentioned this a while ago, but it's still in the works.  But I've been consuming a ton of related media lately.

I was introduced to Lone Wolf & Cub by the film series. At the time, I'd never read the manga. I'd never seen the TV series. It was all fresh and new to me.  The VHS packaging at the time included a small slip of paper with every installment that informed Western viewers of one of the cultural elements from the film that had been especially difficult to translate or that would not make sense without a bit of backstory. Well, Dark Horse has been putting out omnibus editions of the manga.  In fact, I linked to the first one above. And they don't need the little slips of paper (because they have glossaries at the end).  I'm reacquainting myself with the setting all over again - and loving it.

But Amazon saw what I was reading and had another recommendation for me: Samurai Executioner. I actually like it more than I like Lone Wolf & Cub. This, by the way, was a jarring realization. In many ways, Samurai Executioner is more approachable than the other series - and every story is another lesson on the nature of bushido. And it's not a lesson that's pounded at your repeatedly, either. It's from the same team that did Lone Wolf & Cub, so you know it's good stuff even before you crack the book open.

I'm also reading the Path of the Assassin series. I don't like it as well as I like the other two. It's less-approachable and the main character is someone that I (personally) haven't found especially likeable.

I have also pre-ordered The Usagi Yojimbo Saga. In fact, Volume 1 should be in my hands before this post goes live. Stan Sakai is another author who can lecture about bushido without making it feel like a lecture.  And it helps that Usagi is such a likeable character, even on his bad days.

In non-Japanese-flavored media, I was introduced recently to a book entitled Watson Is Not An Idiot. I'm reading the Holmes stories at the same time. I'm first reading the Holmes story and then I'm reading the essay about that story in the Watson book.  It passes the time.

In a similar vein, I've been reading These Are The Voyages - which is about the story behind the scenes of the original Star Trek.  I'll read a chapter of backstory and then watch that episode. It's probably how the writer intended for it to be read.

I've also caught up on the October Daye series by Seanan McGuire. If you like urban fantasy, I cannot say enough good things about this series. Book one is Rosemary and Rue - and it does an excellent job of setting up the world (and the reader's expectations). I've probably recommended it before, but I'm going to continue to suggest it to people who are looking for something good to read.

I should also post sometime soon about the TV I've been watching - this new season has launched a number of shows that I'm watching. And probably shouldn't be, because I do sometimes watch too much TV. But that's another post for another week.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Character Generation Project: Firefly

Those of you who are new to the blog can find out what this "Character Generation Project" is all about here. Stephanie's usual approach to character generation can be found here. In addition, there is a link to all of the project posts in the sidebar to the right.

Maragaret Weis Productions recently released a new Firefly RPG. And we're suckers for the setting.  It uses the Cortex Plus system, and so is radically different from the Serenity RPG that Steph made a character for waaaaaay back when.

So, without further ado, here is her character (click on it for larger) and questionnaire:

Which game is this for?  

How long did it take you to generate the character?  
About half an hour
Seriously. It was that fast. This game has some of the fastest character generation I've seen.

FireflyWhat was your character concept going into generation?  

A con artist masquerading as a Shepherd

Did you feel like character generation captured the flavor of the setting?   

How much control did you feel like you had during character generation?   
A good amount of control

Did the game help you make the character you wanted, or did it feel like you were fighting the game?
I wasn't fighting the game, and the process gave me some ideas to make my character better.
This is interesting, because a large part of character generation is choosing templates. The game calls them "Distinctions," and they are a factor in play - they give you more dice to roll.

Do you like the character you ended up with?  

Do you think your character fits your concept?  

Do you feel like your character would be effective and/or useful in a game?  
He’d be the one doing all the talking, but not one to actually fight or fly a ship
And I have to partially disagree with this - with a d6 Fight and a specialization in Fists, I think "Shepherd" Polk would do better in a fistfight than Steph suspects. And his d6 in Shoot won't hurt, either.

Was there anything in particular that you struggled with mechanically?  
I was a little confused about how to purchase skill specialties, but otherwise things went well

Did anything run more smoothly than you had expected?  
Everything was pretty easy.
Short of something in the vein of Feng Shui or Talislanta, I don't think she's likely to find much easier character generation out there.

What changes would you have made to the character generation process?  
It’d be nice to know up-front how many points I have to spend in the different areas.
The Signature Assets and Skill Specializations aren't explained up-front - they tell you what they are in loving detail and then tell you how much you can spend on them.

Did anything leap out at you as obviously broken or unbalanced?  

What led you to choose this game as the next one to make a character for?  
I love Firefly, and have been hearing good things about this game.
And not just from me, either. This game has been getting pretty rave reviews just about everywhere.

How would you compare your experience with this game to your experience with other games?  
Much easier across the board.
Is this a character you would be willing to play in a campaign?  
In fact, she wants me to run at least a one-shot. Personally, I'd like her to run a one-shot sometime ...

Does this character make you want to play this game?  

Do you have any other questions, comments, etc.?  
I really liked having the archetypes to refer to, as they gave me a good sense of what a character should look like.
Before telling players how to make their own characters, they have a dozen or so excellent examples of characters in addition to the cast of the TV series.

Have you given any thought to what game you'd like to do next?  
Possibly Burning Wheel.
Yep. From one of the easiest games to make a character that we own to one of the more difficult. I'm actually very curious what sort of BW character she'd come up with.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Best Games I Brought Back from GenCon: Hyperborea

Unlike Abyss and Cyclades: Titans, I'd never even heard of Hyperborea before GenCon.  I saw these large $100 boxes being unpacked and I asked one of the teammates for a quick overview.

"It's a fantasy-flavored 4x game with a deckbuilding element."

And that's ... that's actually a pretty good description.

Let me break that down a bit for you:

The game has its own setting.  I'd argue that it's "sufficiently advanced" rather than Fantasy - it's certainly post-Apocalyptic.  Players take the role of one of six different factions who are exploring territory that used to belong to an ancient civilization that "used magical crystals as their main source of energy," before it collapsed, locking its land away from the rest of the world. Only now that barrier has collapsed, and you are trying to seize power for your faction.

I'm not a player for whom the theme is usually a make-or-break, but it's nice to have a 4x game that isn't set in deep space.

For those of you who don't know, 4x stands for eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate.  It's a game where you are exploring a map, expanding your territory, using the resources found in the territories you control, and exterminating your foes.  Most 4x games on the board game end of things are crazy-detailed and crunchy.  It's not a category of game I tend to enjoy because there is often a great deal of record-keeping.

4x games tend to be very hit-or-miss for me.  I really enjoyed Twilight Imperium at first, but as time has gone by, I've grown less fond of it. Space Empires 4x was too crunchy and detailed for me. Eclipse was amazing.  This is much more on the Eclipse scale - I get the full 4x experience in a fraction of the time.

This has become a big thing of late. It's been around since Magic: the Gathering, but in recent years it's become part of gameplay rather than something you do between games. Dominion is the first (and still the best) example of how to do a deckbuilding game.  In short, you start with a limited pool of resources of which a number are drawn every turn. You use those resources to alter the mix of available resources.

In Hyperborea, the deckbuilding element has to do with cubes in an opaque bag.  Each turn, you have three cubes with which to program your actions.  You can see part of the player board in the foreground, here:

So how does it work?

At the start of the game, each player gets a faction.  Either chosen or assigned - it doesn't matter.  Each faction has two available special abilities. Players should choose one of these special abilities (which are unique to this faction).  I've played most of the factions, and they feel balanced - but we're not hugely experienced at the game, yet. I've only played seven games so far.

Each turn, you will start with one or more cubes to assign to slots on your player board.  Those slots make actions available to you - movement, combat, technology, and victory points are all things you can get.  You then use those actions to move around the board.  When you reveal an empty hex (by moving to an adjacent hex), it'll have cities and/or ruins on it.  The ruins will have tokens which grant additional rewards while the cities can give you actions. Ruins and cities are haunted by the remnants of the Hyperborean civilization which fell, so you need to slay the ghosts before using the space.

When you move a unit into a ruin or a city, they are stuck there until you perform a "reset" - which happens when you go to draw cubes from your bag and find it empty. During a reset, all of your cubes are returned to your bag and your units on the board are moved back outside of cities and ruins.

Your player board has two actions in each category, with spaces for cubes that are color-specific - you can only have cubes on one action at a time. In general, the top action is less-powerful, but has a multicolored space that will accept any non-grey cube. Advanced technologies give you more actions on which to spend your cubes - some of them are better versions of the board actions, some of the modify the effects of the board actions, and some of them are practically identical to the board actions (but they allow you to take that action again without needing to reset first). Of course, advanced technologies also add grey cubes to your mix, and they're not exactly useful.

There are three ways to trigger the end of the game:
- Get all of your available pieces in play
- Gain a twelfth victory point marker
- Gain a fifth advanced technology

Once this happens, everyone else gets a last turn, and you move on to scoring. Points are scored for victory point markers, combat victories, cubes in your bag, bonus tiles, advanced techs, and territory control.

It - for me - scratches a similar itch to Eclipse, but it's different enough that I don't think I'm wasting space by owning both. And this plays much more quickly - I've gotten through two games in an evening. And it always leaves me wanting more.

The game was available at GenCon and will be at Essen, and then it has its broader release next week.  I heartily suggest you take a peek.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Best Games I Brought Back From GenCon: Abyss

Last week, I talked about Cyclades: Titans. This week, I'm going to talk about Abyss.  And then, next week, I'm going to discuss Hyperborea.

As you may recall, I've always been a big defender of so-called "Gateway Games" - that is, games that can be easily used to hook new players into hobby gaming. Either because they look non-threatening, because the rules are fairly simple, or, ideally, both.  At the same time, a good gateway game has enough meat to keep the rest of us entertained and engaged.

I think Abyss has potential to be the next great gateway.

Unlike the last few posts, I don't have gorgeous photos of Abyss to share. Not because they don't exist - they very much do - but because I've been focusing on using my Lytro more, and card games don't tend to photograph well via that particular device.

This game, by the way, is very well illustrated.  It's beautiful. One could even say it's "lavishly illustrated." So it's worth photographing.

Abyss is surprisingly simple. On your turn, you'll take one of three different actions.  You can go fishing for an ally, you can grab a bunch of face-down allies from the board, or you can spend your allies to hire a lord.

The rulebook, of course, has different terms for all three actions.

The first available action involves flipping small cards face-up one at a time until you see one you want.  But there are two small wrinkles: Your opponents always have the first shot at luring an ally away from you by spending pearls. The good news is that pearls spent in this manner go to you. The bad news is that it can be frustrating to turn up that Rank 5 Starfish card only to have one of your opponents snatch it away from you.

The allies are broken into five different factions, and are valued from one to five.  There's only one five-ranked ally per faction. So the active player will almost never get the first five to turn up. After that, it depends on opponents' finances - the first opponent to snag an ally on your turn pays one pearl. The second pays two, and the third pays three. Since you only start with one pearl, you're more likely to be able to keep that powerful ally early in the game than you are later in the game.

Also in this same deck are a bunch of "monster" cards.  When you pull a monster, you can either fight it and claim your reward (victory over monsters is automatic), or you can let the threat grow a bit so that the next time a monster is turned up, it's worth a larger reward. The low-level rewards are pearls and victory points.  As the menace grows, however, you can also get keys to unlock locations (more on these later).

And, lastly, there are a limited number of slots for these cards across the top.  Whenever you fill the last slot, you must either claim it (if it's an ally) or fight it (if it's a monster). As a consolation prize, you then get a bonus pearl from the supply.

Any allies you didn't claim are then sorted by faction, turned face-down, and placed with the rest of their faction.

This is how players can grab that second option I mentioned above - you choose a faction and grab all of the face-down allies from that faction.  In theory, you can get a ton of cards like this.  In practice ... well, you can get a ton of cards, but they aren't especially powerful.

The final action you can take is hiring the Lords. But you can't just spend any ally to hire a Lord. Each Lord can only be hired by a specific faction (or factions in some cases). You can also spend pearls to make up the difference if you're a bit short. When you recruit a Lord, choose the lowest-valued ally that you are spending for the recruitment and place them face-up on the board.  Discard the other allies you are spending.

Lords are how you'll score the bulk of your victory points in this game. Most of them have additional special abilities, to boot.  And some of them have keys pre-printed on them.

Once you have three keys (it's possible but rare to have more), you get to add a location to your play area.  Locations are essentially bonus points that help focus your Lord and Ally purchases. One location might give you bonus points based on the number of Starfish Allies you have recruited to your cause. Another might give you bonuses based on one of the factions of Lords.

Play continues until someone has recruited their seventh Lord. When that happens, everyone else gets one last turn. Then everyone can add the lowest-valued ally of each faction from their hand to their play area.

And then you count your score. Lords + Locations + the highest-value Ally from each faction + monster tokens.  Highest total wins.

It's really that simple. One of the least complicated games I've played in a very long time. But do not confuse "least complicated" with "worst" or even "least interesting."  Early in the game, fishing for allies is hugely important. But later in the game, you will find the decision-making process a bit less easy. Because what's more important - pulling enough allies to buy that Lord you want, or taking a crack at getting a more powerful Ally that you can use for that same Lord (but which will let you keep a more powerful Ally face-up)? Or maybe you need to grab a Lord right away to keep him out of your opponents' hands?

As I said: One of the best games I brought back from GenCon.  This one will hit the table regularly on Wednesdays almost without a doubt.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

The Best Games I Brought Home From GenCon: Cyclades: Titans

For more than a month, now I've been posting about games and noting that they may not be the best games I brought home from GenCon.

This is, by the way, not to cast any sort of aspersion on those games.  I did not bring a single bad game home. It's just that the games we had in the booth this year featured an unusually strong selection.

But three games from this year will, I think, hit the table more than the others. If it's left up to me. And, now that Essen is upon us, it's about damn time I actually just told you about my favorite games from this year's crop.

Well, three games and one expansion.

It's important to note that these are in no particular order. I think all three are equally good for completely different reasons.

Those three are Abyss, Hyperborea, and Cyclades: Titans.

This week, I'm going to talk about Cyclades: Titans. I'll talk about the other two in coming weeks.

Those of you who saw me at GenCon probably saw me running demos of just one game.  Cyclades: Titans. I did brief demos of some of our other games (Black Fleet and Madame Ching being the two I did the most demos for).

Those of you who know me from home know that I'm a big fan of Cyclades.  It's not a perfect game, but I do think it's an often-overlooked gem. The first expansion - Cyclades: Hades fixed many of the issues with the game and made it a deeper and richer experience.  But I have one friend at home who won't play it.  "I shouldn't have to win an auction in order to move my troops," he argues.

Cyclades: Titans changes this. It also completely replaces the board with a new double-sided board. Instead of focusing on a host of smaller islands, the game is now based on one or two larger islands (depending on the number of players). And Kronos, the father of most of the Gods, also makes an appearance as an additional God on whom players may bestow their offerings. There are five powerful artifacts which are shuffled into the creature deck, pieces for a sixth player, and a handful of "specialized" Metropolises.

The new board focuses the game more on army movement. It doesn't devalue Poseidon at all, however, because travel by boat is still the fastest way to get from one space to another. And there are several islands with significant income which are not available without the aid of Poseidon. Kronos doesn't have is own type of building available - he just adds (for free) a building of one of the Gods which was resolved before him. And you can buy a Titan with the favor of Kronos.

The biggest change to the game comes from the titans themselves. The Titans function like generals - they allow you to move your armies without the favor of Ares. At first glance, this seems to devalue Ares, but you still need the favor of Ares to build armies in the first place.  Yes, you can move a Titan without an army, but he functions just like a normal troop (other than when you are allowed to move him).

The artifacts serve to slow the Pegasus-seeking strategy that the base game often turns into. At the same time, they provide a new win condition: If you can collect all five, you win!

As to the sixth player: The game rules mandate that a six-player game is a team game (players divide into teams of two). In theory, you can play a six-player free-for-all. But I very much do not recommend it, because there aren't enough spaces on the board to reasonably capture (or build) enough structures to get even one metropolis with that many people fighting for space.

The game is compatible with the Hades expansion, but the rules warn that using both expansions together will lead to a very long game.

I spent four days straight teaching (and occasionally playing) this game. And I'm not sick of it.  There aren't many games I can play so continuously.

In short: I recommend this expansion. If you were a fan of the original, this brings more to the table.  If you were not a fan of the original, then it might change your mind (depending on why you aren't a fan).