Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Star Trek Adventures

It hasn't come up much, here, but I am a huge fan of Star Trek.  When I was younger, I was very much the stereotypical Trekkie. I was rarely found without at least one Star Trek novel in my backpack, I could ID a dozen or so classes of starship (both Federation and hostile), and I could rattle off numbers and statistics and trivia like nobody's business.  I was obsessed.

So it's appropriate that the first RPG book I ever owned was for FASA's old Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game. The book was the Star Trek: The Next Generation Officer's Manual, and I owned it long before I owned a copy of the game. I didn't even know it was a game book (and neither did my parents, or I would never have acquired it ...).

One of my first gaming experiences was with FASA's game. I won't say it was a good game, but it wasn't bad. We were handed pregens by the GM, and we went from there into a more-or-less typical D&D-style hack-and-slash adventure with phasers instead of crossbows and Klingons instead of orcs and so on.  It was oddly dissatisfying even at the time, because this isn't what Star Trek was about.

A few years later, I acquired a copy of the game, and I even ran a few brief campaigns. I tended to base the campaign premises off of some of the novels (which still, I think, was not a bad idea - depending on the novel). One of my favorite games was set on the USS Excalibur (before the M-5 insident as seen in "The Ultimate Computer"), and I based it on the novel The Abode of Life (which I need to re-read to see if it's held up as well as I remember).

I loved character generation in the game. The guided lifepath was a great way to handle it, and it allowed for a great deal of diversity in characters (and skill levels). I read somewhere that Gene Roddenberry also really liked the lifepath process, and made it a condition of the license for future Star Trek roleplaying games.

Fast forward a decade or so, and Last Unicorn released Star Trek: The Next Generation Roleplaying Game. Mechanically, it was very different from the old FASA game. Its production values were very different. Instead of three little blue books, it was one glossy hardcover book that was quite a bit thicker than the three blue books combined. And it still had a lifepath for character generation. They also published a Deep Space Nine game, and a classic 'Trek version.

I never actually got to play LUG's version of the game. The friend who was going to run a campaign dropped off the face of the earth before the campaign started. And then the license expired and someone else picked up the ball and ran with it.

Decipher, who I knew from the TNG collectible card game, had snagged the license after LUG was bought by WotC and lost it. Decipher's Trek was similar to LUG's in presentation, but it was two hardcovers (at first), one for players and one for the GM. It still had a lifepath, but the system was almost d20, only with multiple d6s instead of a single d20. I bought it. I read it. I ... wasn't interested in playing it. It just ... didn't feel right.

Last year, Modiphius announced that they had acquired the license. They did a huge open playtest (that I did not participate in), and early reviews were ... pretty good.  So I did a bit of research, and I discovered that they'd be using their house system - the 2d20 system.

I grabbed Mutant Chronicles (another universe that I have a deep fondness for), and started to learn the system. And I was ... nervous. The 2d20 system has a lot of moving pieces, with multiple player currencies in play.  I didn't understand how this system was getting such rave reviews for Star Trek.

I backed Conan on Kickstarter, and it's that same system. And Conan was ... okay. Not amazing, not game-breaking. Still a bit clunky with all those currencies to keep track of. My fear for Star Trek grew. But I resolved to pre-order anyhow.

When the pre-order went lived, we bought in that first day. GM Screen + limited-edition core book.  A short time later, we had the PDF (because Modiphius is really good at getting the PDF out there). And I read the PDF. Devoured the PDF.

It's still recognizably the 2d20 system, but it's both streamlined and altered. Where Mutant Chronicles has a sizable skill list, Star Trek Adventures has six skills, and they related to the various departments found on a starship - Command, Conn, Medical, Science, Security, and Engineering. Want your character's stats to be more detailed than that? Use a Focus to narrow it down.

This change streamlines the system quite a bit, and, at the same time, results in the sort of hypercompetent characters you tend to see in Star Trek.

Star Trek Adventures also added character values. They're almost like Aspects in Fate - they define your character, and you can pull a couple of mechanical tricks with them, too. This increases the feel of Star Trek. It means that the game is about your characters' beliefs and goals and - yes - values, just like the TV series and movies have been.

The more I drilled into the PDF, the more excited I got. Your ship is treated like another character, with its own separate character generation process. You're not limited to the eight PC species included in the core book, and they give a few guidelines for creating your own species. It's simple enough to homebrew ship classes that you find elsewhere.

There are still a few currencies for players to keep track of - they can spend Momentum or add Threat to the GM's pool or spend Determination on a roll, and some of these things go to party pools and some go to the GM's pool and some are just ... spent. It's not a completely intuitive system (like I'd prefer), but it's solid and seems functional without a huge number of "Gotcha" bits.

My good friend Wade went to GenCon this year, and he texted me on Thursday morning. Modiphius' first sale of the day was a copy of the core book. For me. "But Eric," I can hear you saying, "Didn't you already buy the limited edition book?"  Yes. I did. But I am a player who likes having multiple copies of the core rules at the table. That way, the GM has one to reference, and so do the players. If there's a rules question in the game, there are two sets looking for it. With PDFs, I can hand both physical copies to my players and search the PDF, resulting in three sets of eyes looking to answer questions.

The only real bad thing about Star Trek Adventures is that it's sucked me back into Star Trek fandom. And not a little bit, either. I am all the way back in. I went out to the garage and I dug out Mr. Scott's Guide to the Enterprise, and my Star Trek Technical Manual and my Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual and half a dozen other "in universe" books with varying levels of canon compliance. I filled my Kindle with novels and novellas. And I started playing Star Trek Online (which - for the record - could do with a decent help guide for the PS4 version).

And I've decided to run a campaign again. But, looking at advancement in Star Trek Adventures, I think it'll work really well for a new-to-me structure of game. What I'm doing right now is assembling a player pool. A large one. More players than any GM ever wants around their table.  When I have an episode idea, I'll figure out when I have time to run it, and I'll send a message to my players. That message will read something like this:
Season 1, Episode 1: "Pilot, Pilot, Who's Got The Pilot?"
The Tethys' new helmsman has disappeared in transit to the ship. It's up to an away team in a runabout to follow his path and figure out what happened to him. 
This episode is for four to six players, and will be played on Date at Time.
 Then I wait.  The first six players who let me know they're available at that date and time will be the featured characters for that episode. If I don't get at least four players for that time, I go back to my calendar, figure out a different date and time, and try again.

Most of the advancement in this game is small. "Lower one number to raise another." That means that if Player A makes it to 15 sessions and Player B only makes it to two or three sessions, there won't be an overwhelming experience advantage for Player A. And it feels "in universe" accurate to have different characters featured periodically.

It also means that grown-up players with busy lives who can't make a regularly-scheduled game very often should have no problem still fitting around my table occasionally.

So thanks, Modiphius. I look forward to exploring the galaxy with you.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Good Game Stores

About a year ago, I wrote three posts about the FLGS and where they fit into gaming for many folks (especially, of course, me).

I left a couple of things out of the second article in the series, and I want to rectify that now.

Before I do this, though, I want to emphasize that I'm talking about good Local Game Stores. You'll find that, as with any industry, there are bad game stores that don't deserve your money. Even if it's the only game store in town.

Again: I'm blessed, because I live in the Greater Seattle Area, where we have a ton of good game stores. And I've been doubly-blessed because two of the best ones have been the two closest ones for a long time - first the late, lamented Phoenix and now Fantasium.

A good game store does special orders for you.  I can't call Amazon and say, "Hey, I don't see this game on your site, can you track it down for me?" If it's not on their site, I can't order it. But when I go to Fantasium, I can ask them, "I don't see on the shelf - is that something you can get?"

The same applies to pre-orders. I can call Fantasium and tell them, " is releasing in a few months. Can you get one in for me?" And they will.  I can't do that with most online retailers. Of course, a game-focused online retailer (like Funagain) will often put things up for pre-order as soon as pricing is announced.

In fact, Fantasium's special order system is the best FLGS special order process I've ever experienced in a game store. I suspect that this is because Fantasium was a comic book shop first, and then grew into being both a comic book shop and a game store.

The most important thing that a good game store does, though, is that is good game store becomes family.  I'll admit that I'm not as close with Paula and Rachel and Brian and Sarah and the rest of the Fantasium crew as I was to Brian at Phoenix. But I'm getting there. Slowly.

They smile when they see me, and they notice when I'm not there for Beer & Board Games. Which is good. I was in the other day picking up some sleeves, and Paula mentioned that they'd been missing me on Saturdays (I've been roleplaying on Saturdays). It was a fantastic feeling to know that I'd been specifically missed.

And it doesn't feel like a generic retail smile. It doesn't feel like they miss my money. It feels like they miss me. I've spent time chatting with Brian about Guild Ball (which you really should play if you haven't).

Gaming is one of my personal stability anchors. When I have a rough day, I don't go to a bar. I go to a game store because the people there understand me and can communicate with me in ways that no-one else can.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Gamethyme's Game of the Year

Those of you who keep track will remember that this week is GenCon.  Even though I'm not going this year, I'm still using this date to award my Game of the Year award.

This game is given to the best new-to-me game since the previous GenCon. It's an arbitrary cut-off, and it's never going to be exactly a year, but it works for me.

This year has been a good year for gaming. Terraforming Mars, Krazy Karts, Captain Sonar, Potato Man, Grand Prix, Subdivision, and Patchwork were all among the new-to-me this year. And they are all fantastic games that are well worth your time.

But, for me, the most fun I've had this year was a game called Adrenaline.

The game had a lot of early buzz, and I was interested as soon as I learned that it was by Czech Games. I don't think I've ever been disappointed by one of their games.

When I learned that it was an attempt to capture that First-Person Shooter (FPS) feel, I got even more interested.  I think I've discussed this before, but I really like FPS games, even though I am really terrible at them. Really terrible. There's a reason most of the videos on my YouTube channel are titled, "Watch Me Die At ."

The previous game I'd played that was themed around FPS gaming was Steve Jackson Games' Frag. And Frag just left me cold. It was too dice-heavy, with a ton of tokens and markers for special conditions.

So I'll admit - I was a bit nervous about Adrenaline.  Obviously, because it's my Game of the Year, these fears were unfounded.

Opening the box, I was greeted with five brightly-colored and well-sculpted characters. They're not pre-painted, but every one is sculpted in a different color.  There's no mechanical difference between the characters, but the rulebook has bios for all five of them that succeed in parodying the bios you see in games like Overwatch.

The board is multi-part and double-sided. This means that there are four different board layouts possible. While you can use any layout with any number of players, it's generally better to use larger setups with more players (the game plays from 3-5 players).  Each room is made up of 1-4 spaces, with three spawn/weapon points on the board.

In Adrenaline, you get two actions per turn, with three options to choose from:

  1. Fire a weapon
  2. Move one space (and pick up ammo or weapons)
  3. Move two spaces
There are no dice, no special conditions. There's no "on fire" or "pinned" or anything else.  Most weapons are line-of-sight. If you can see your foe, you can shoot your foe. And that line of sight is very simply defined - if you're in the same room, you can see them. If you're next to a door into their room, you can see them. A few weapons have special rules regarding range. One weapon can only be fired at foes that you can't see. One weapon can fire through walls at unseen foes.

To fire a weapon, you lay it down in front of you (face-up) and apply its effect. Most weapons have two firing modes - one is free, but the other might cost you a few extra ammo tokens.  Weapons do damage to foes (obviously). Some of them move your foes around, some of them move you around. Some weapons also mark your target. A mark is a promise of future damage. If I mark you, then the next time I shoot you, that mark turns into damage.

Once a player has taken enough damage that a kill is inflicted, the game pauses for a second for tabulation. The player who hit the foe first gets a small number of points. The player who inflicted the kill gets a certain number of points. The player who inflicted the most damage gets points, then the second-most, and so on. The game encourages you to spread your damage around so that you'll get at least a few points every time someone dies.

At the end of your turn, you can spend ammo cubes to reload any weapons you've fired. Weapons that do more damage usually require more cubes, and there are three colors of cubes. Each weapon requires a specific blend of cubes to reload.

The game ends after a certain number of kills have been made.

There are a few more nuances to it than that, but that's the broad sweep of play. There are a few variants included in the rulebook for people who don't want to play just deathmatch all the time.

It's bright, it's fast-playing, and it's just ... fun. I've enjoyed every game of this I've played.

I heartily recommend this one.

And there's an expansion releasing at Essen this year ...

Wednesday, August 09, 2017


I always do the writeups after each session of our ongoing Legend of the Five Rings game. As the GM, I accept that as part of my responsibilities.

After our most recent session, Steph said to me, "You always make the game feel so much more epic that it does at the table." And I didn't have a good answer for that.

For me, epics are about the sweeping arc of story.

Interestingly, the dictionary defines epic as being "a long narrative poem recounting the deeds of a legendary or historical hero."  As an adjective (which is how we're using it), it's "relating to or characteristic of an epic or epics."

I set my L5R game in the past of the main story arcs described by the card game. In fact, I found a gap where very few events are mentioned in canon. And I did this deliberately - I have a couple of players who are very familiar with the canon.  I also warned them that we might not adhere to canon. The players have the ability to change the future in a limited degree.

But here's the thing that I think everyone missed:

Their characters are historical heroes.  We're telling the past of the setting. For them, yes, it's now, but for the players (and people familiar with the setting), it's then. My players' characters are currently only Rank 1. They're small fish, and I've already got them swimming with sharks.

Right now, they're trying to foil an assassination plot. The original target of the plot was the Imperial Governor of the Clear Water City, but a couple of idiots realized they could tweak the timing slightly and assassinate the Imperial Heir, who was coming to visit.

The party is so far out of their depth.  But the players aren't fully aware of how deep they are right now, which means the characters aren't realizing it.  Which sets them up for bigger and more challenges down the road.

While the story itself isn't epic in the sense of "huge, broad, and sweeping," yet, it's going to get there. These PCs are going to have the potential to change the face of Rokugan.

Small deeds - little things - snowball over time. And these guys are doing a ton of little things.

I can't wait to see what they do to the setting in the fullness of time.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Hitting the Table: Gekido: Bot Battles

Let me start with a heads-up for you: I'm going to say a lot of things that make this sound like a bad game. There are a number of things about this game which deserve criticism. But - and this is a significant but - I still think this is a fun game that is worth having in your collection.

At Origins, I spent a lot of time around the CMON booth. It's where a lot of my friends family were.  The first game that I demoed in the booth was Gekido: Bot Battles.

Remember how Rise of Augustus is often described as "strategy Bingo" when introducing it to a new person? Gekido is "strategy Yahtzee."

The game is themed around an arena battle with robots trying to destroy one another.  Each turn, you pick your target and then move and attack them. You can also hold your move until after the attack.  The arena is only nine spaces, so getting them in range is very rarely a problem.

All attacks are melee attacks with a range of "adjacent."

To attack, you roll dice. You get a total of three rolls, and can keep as many (or as few) dice as you want after each roll, trying to get specific combinations.  After your first roll, you need to lock dice into the attack you want to use.

Some attacks have a feedback issue - if, after three rolls, you haven't completed your attack, then you take damage instead.  More difficult attacks do more damage.

This all seems pretty straightforward so far, right?

Now let's add the wrinkle (that also adds most of the problems):

There are a ton of ways you can modify the outcomes.

As you take damage, you unlock powers. Some powers are simple (take less damage on attacks, for example).  Some powers are less-clear ("force an opponent to re-roll their dice").  There are also terrain modifiers for the board. And, of course, there are cards that can be used as part of an attack (or defense).

You can only use one power per roll. Keep in mind that each attack can be up to four rolls. And that's where this game introduces Timing Issues.

Each attack goes like this:

  1. Attacker rolls dice
  2. Attacker assigns dice to their board to choose an attack
  3. Repeat until either the chosen attack is successful the dice have been rolled three times.
But now we add powers, and the timing of power use is not in the rulebook.  There are some powers that let you roll additional dice (or that short your opponent a die for their first roll). Those are clearly played before Step 1. There are other powers that are clearly played after Step 1.

But what happens if I use a card to flip a die and then my opponent wants to force a re-roll?  Whose action takes priority, here?

Remember: Each player can only use one power per roll (whether it's the robot's powers, a card, or a board effect).

Suddenly the timing looks like it could be this:
  1. Attacker may activate a power or play a card.
  2. Defender may activate a power or play a card.
  3. Attacker may react to defender play if they did not do so in in Step 1
  4. Roll dice.
  5. Attacker may activate a power or play a card if they did not do so in Steps 1 or 3 above)
  6. Defender may activate a power or play a card if they did not do so in Step 2 above
  7. Attacker may react to Defender play if they have not used a power so far this roll
  8. Attacker assigns dice to their board
  9. Repeat until either the attack is successful or the dice have been rolled three times (four if an "extra re-roll this attack" power was used).
"React" is defined as "may play if the Defender did and may not play if the Defender did not."

Here's the thing, though: This timing sequence isn't spelled out in the rules. Maybe it looks like my nine-step list, only it should say "Defender" where I typed "Attacker." Maybe I need to flip "Defender" and "Attacker" only in steps 1-3 or in steps 5-7.  There are four different timing options, there.

This forum thread suggests that the process is:
  1. Defender may activate powers and/or use cards
  2. Attacker may activate powers and/or use cards
  3. Defender may play the "Cancel" card
  4. Roll Dice
  5. Defender may activate powers and/or use cards (if they have not already done so this roll)
  6. Attacker may activate powers and/or use cards (if they have not already done so this roll)
  7. Defender may play the "Cancel" card
  8. Attacker assigns dice to their board
  9. Repeat as needed.
There is still a minor issue with that thread as posted - it doesn't address the "only one power/card per roll" thing with regards to the Defender's cancel option. But that may be just for simplicity's sake in the post. The poster (Sean Jacquemain) is someone I know and trust (he's a former Asmodee Demo Guy, and an all-around great guy).

I may put together a reference with that timing that I can laminate, print out, and keep in the game.

Again, because this bears repeating occasionally while I tear this game apart:

This is a fun game. It is the only board game that we brought home from Origins that was 100% new-to-me. We'd planned to bring Delve home, and there are a few other games that we'll be picking up when they appear at Fantasium (which reminds me: I need to e-mail them to touch base ... ).

The game has a handful of (minor) component-based shortcomings, too.
  • The floor tiles are blank on the back. Had they been double-sided with different terrain on both front and back, there would have been a wider variety of arena types available. It's a missed opportunity, but not a deal-breaker.
  • There are only nine floor tiles, and there are a limited number of ways to assemble them into a "legal" arena, because four of those nine are corners and one of them is the center. It's another missed opportunity to make the arena more dynamic and interesting.
  • The insert is weird. It's plastic-molded to hold the robots perfectly, which is fine, only one robot is on the back of the insert (so you can see it through the window on the back of the box). So you need to remove the insert to put the game away. 
  • The game includes two kinds of dice and there are two spaces in the insert that could be for those dice, but it's really not clear. 
  • There's no space in the insert for the board itself. If the board were a traditional four-fold (or even two-fold) board, that'd be one thing. But when the board is nine separate squares, there really should be a spot for it in the insert.
  • The insert won't hold sleeved cards.  This is a very minor complaint and should be filed under "Eric whining."


I don't buy games I don't enjoy enough to want to play them multiple times.

There is errata for this game (follow that link and scroll down). Honestly, it's very minor. Two boards say "upgrade" when they should say "power" instead. Of course people are complaining about it. Personally? Errata happens. And sometimes you only find rules flaws once a game is in the wild.

So now that all that negativity is out of the way, let's talk about the fun of the game:
  • Timing issues aside, the game is very simple and easy to learn. You can almost play it with eight-to-ten-year-old children. And there are probably children in that age who could handle it.
  • The included bot figures are adorable and awesome. Which improves the Kid Appeal.
  • The dice are brightly-colored, and the player control boards make it clear which faces are opposite one another for purposes of "flip."
  • The bots themselves not only look different, they also (mostly) play differently, as each bot has a different set of powers and the attacks do different amounts of damage.
  • Each bot has a "duel" version for two-player games as well. Again, these play differently from the non-duel versions of the same bots.
  • There are six bots, and the game caps at 4 players. This, combined with the (somewhat) modular board means that it won't be The Same Game every time you play. The fact that there are cards is a further level of randomness to shake things up a bit.