Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Taking a Breather: D&D Encounters

Every Wednesday night for over a year, I've headed to my local game store to participate in the Dungeons & Dragons Encounters program. For the first bit I've been going as a PC, but starting with March of the Phantom Brigade, I've been running games as a DM. It was great practice to run games get comfortable with the role as well as meet new people and make some new friends. Tonight though, my seat will be occupied by another, as I am taking a hiatus.

I have enjoyed seeing the progression that the seasons have made and I applaud Wizards of the Coast for improving their program. Back when I started playing, the games were little more than dungeon crawls with a sprinkle of story. Since then the backgrounds and stories being told have been more interesting with some encounters actually offering players a meaningful choice as opposed to railroading them where the author wants then to go. But even with these improvements, I still recognize that I'm playing someone else's game. I'm telling someone else's story, and that's getting old.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Getting Rules Wrong

So many rules, so little time
I had some friends over last night to play some games and have some fun. We started with a 4 player game of Lords of Waterdeep, which I am still enamored with. Quick note on this before I move on, I just played a two player game with my wife over the weekend and it was interesting to see the difference in how the game scaled with a different number of players. In a two player game, each player gets 4 agents to place as opposed to only 2 in a four player game. This leads to games with more players feeling more tense and increasing the wish that you wish you had just one more move. The number of agents in the game remains relatively the same so the board will always fill up, its just a matter of how much you get to do before it does so.

We then played a game of Saboteur, which was pretty nice. Players act as dwarves trying to dig for gold that is placed in one of three possible locations. The catch though, is that there's a possibility that one or more of the players is secretly a saboteur, trying to stop the operation in its tracks. This is a great mechanic that adds some nice tension and really forces players to analyze each others movements to try to detect who the traitor might be. Even if the players figure out there is no traitor, the player who finds the gold first gets the highest reward, which still causes the players to try and slow each other down, just a little bit. I'd like to play this game again, hopefully with more players.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Arkham Asylum Is Crazy Good

When I got my PS3 a few months back, I knew that one of the first games I had to get was Batman: Arkham Asylum. It seemed like a no brain brainer; the reviews were stellar across the board and Batman is great character.

The Story
The game starts by setting up the story. Batman has just caught the Joker (again) and is delivering him to Arkham Asylum. They begin the long walk through the halls to the holding wing while being joined with guards, doctors and Commissoner Gordon. Batman thinks aloud that this time it seemed too easy, like the Joker actually wanted to get caught. The group finally reached a checkpoint that Batman would not be allowed to pass through, as his presence would greatly disturb the other patients, and that's when the real story starts.

As soon as the Joker is out of Batman's reach, he breaks free of his restraints and runs off deeper in the facility. It is also quickly revealed that his loyal sidekick, Harley Quinn, has already taken control of the main security room and is quickly able to head off Batman's pursuit. And thus Batman now has to explore the island of Arkham Asylum, which is not swarming with angry inmates as well as a handful of super powered criminals.

The Game
The highlight of this game is great mix of action and stealth. There are some rooms where you will be met with a large mob of released prisoners. At time like this you use the nice and fluid combat system to chain attacks together between enemies. You can punch, throw, block & counter, toss some batarangs and perform nasty finish moves that lead perfectly into each other. The controls for these parts are just wonderful.

On the other side of the coin are rooms that are rooms that swarm with armed gunmen, intent on ending Batman's career. These rooms feature the stealth aspects of the game. To survive, you need to stick to the shadows and air vents in attempt to take down the inmates one by one without alerting the others. This mix of gameplay styles really epitomizes the essence of Batman's character and how he operates.

The Goodies
At the heart of it all, this game is a love letter to Batman and a real treat to all of his fans. The game is littered with secrets and easter eggs that cover the gamut of his mythology, rogues gallery and secrets. The super villains that they used as bosses are a great selection and are done extremely well, especially scarecrow's very eerie and disturbing sections. There is plenty of content to keep a gamer going.

I'm glad I finally got a chance to play this great game and I'm looking forward to getting to Arkham City.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Lords of Waterdeep: Review

Lords of Waterdeep from Wizards of the Coast
Lords of Waterdeep is the newest Dungeons & Dragons board game from Wizards of the Coast. Hot on the heels of the Castle Ravenloft and the other D&D Adventure Game series as well as Conquest of Nerath, this one sticks out as being 'not like the others.'

Lords of Waterdeep is a euro-style, worker placement, resource management game. That's right. While the other games focus on groups of adventurers fighting through dangerous dungeons or battling waves of monsters, this game focused on the political power that lies in secret behind the scenes.

The Secret Lords
In this game, players take the role of one of 12 secret Lords of the city of Waterdeep. Each Lord has certain interests that they want seen accomplished in the form of quest cards (and in one case, real estate). Players then take turns dispatching their agents around the city to recruit adventurers, collect money, retrieve, construct buildings and more. After 8 rounds, the game ends, players reveal their Lord cards and the winner is announced.

The Meat of the Game
The core of the game is the deck of quest cards. They are the main source of victory points in the game. The quests are spread over 5 categories; warfare, commerce, piety, arcana and skullduggery. The majority of the Lords favor two of those types of quests and will award extra points at the end of the game for completing them.

To complete a quest, the players needs to have the appropriate resources in the form of adventurers (cubes representing fighters, rogues, wizards and cleric) and gold. These resources are collected by either dispatching agents to certain buildings on the board or through the use of the other deck of cards, Intrigue Cards.

Intrigue cards comes in three flavors; utility, attack and mandatory quest. Utility cards reward you directly and may even help other players. They allow you to do things such as collecting 4 four and one other player to collect 2 gold. Attack gold are direct attacks on other players, either stealing resources or forcing them to discard resources. Mandatory quests are also played on other players and force them to complete that quest before any other. They are generally good for slowing down your opponent and forcing them to waste resources.

The Lord of my Gameshelf
I am enamored by this game. I love playing it and when I'm not playing it I'm thinking about playing it. It just works so perfectly. The competition is tight and fierce and there are plenty of decisions to make. Even the end game gets tense as those final bonus points are counted up.

Marvel Heroic RPG: A Review

Marvel Heroic by Margaret Weis
I got a chance this last weekend to play the new Marvel Heroic RPG from Margaret Weis with two different groups, my home group and at my FLGS. I wanted to take a couple days before writing this to really make sure that I had a chance to think over my impressions of the game and now I can safely say that its great. I had a great time playing and was really impressed by the Cortex Plus system.

Cortex (Gets an A) Plus:
The Cortex Plus system is a dice pool mechanic, which means that you add dice to your pile based on what action you're trying to take and your characters data file (example: Captain America). Each character has stats for affiliation (whether they're alone, with one other hero or on a team), distinction (personal idioms and viewpoints), lists of their power sets and any specialties. Using Captain America as an example, say he is leading the New Avengers and going to throw his shield at the Grey Gargoyle.

He would get a d10 for being in a team environment, a d8 for leading by example, a d8 for using his super strength to throw, another d8 for using the shield as a weapon and finally a d10 for being a combat master. In total he would roll 3d8+2d10. After rolling, the player adds 2 of the dice to get a total and uses a third die as the effect die (the number rolled has no effect, just the size).

This system can take a couple rolls to really get the hang of, but once you've got that under your belt it becomes very fast to read down the page and add dice as you go. I also really like how it opens up the characters and power sets for interpretation and creative uses. If you want to use Cap's shield to deflect bullets, just use its durability instead, if you want to use it as a sled to go down the side of a building, use the durability and Captain America's acrobatic expert. The stats and power sets really become a toolbox and let the player decide how to use them.

A Story Telling Game:
My favorite thing about this game is that they really designed it to feel like you're playing out a comic book. Players rounds are compared to a panel in a book, so if it could fit in a panel, you can do it. This eliminates worry about timing details such as character speed that I feel can slow down other games.

For example, in one game, Matt Murdock (played by me) needed to run to the security room to retrieve his briefcase that contained his Daredevil costume. In other games, this could have easily kept me out of the action for multiple rounds, but it just took me saying what I needed to do and it was done. my actions could easily fit into a panel or two and thus I didn't need to worry about slowing the story down.

The initiative system also reflects the emphasis the game places on story. Essentially, after one character performs his actions, he gets to choose who goes next. This keeps the action focused on where the players want. Do you want to see how Carnage responds to Spider-Man jump kicking him? Or would you rather go and see how Iron Man is doing with the security system? This can also keep everyone alert to what's going on, as you never know when it will be your turn to roll.

Extreme Opposition
Every dice roll in MHRPG is an opposed roll, meaning that two players roll their dice and compare the outcome. If the attacking character gets a higher total, then the attack is a success. If the defender wins, then the attack misses and the defender has a chance to counter-attack. Everything flows, actions can lead into other actions. The game feels very organic and smooth as play proceeds around the table.

Never Split The Party (Unless You Want To)
In most games I've seen, it really behooves the players to stick together at all costs. MHRPG is designed so that sometimes it may be in your best interest to split up into teams of 2 or even go it alone. This leads to difference scenes being played simultaneously across a larger set piece.

I played the same event in both of the games I played in, the Breakout story included in the Basis Manual. What was really cool though, was that the story played out completely differently based on the characters that were chosen. In the first game, Iron Fist and Luke Cage were escorting Foggy Nelson to the lower levels while Iron Man and Human Torch were above ground when the event started. This caused the game to be broken into the two scenes. In my second game, all three characters (Spider-Man, Daredevil and Luke Cage) started together which had the majority of the battles to occur in the same area, although characters did split off from time to time to do their own thing. It was fantastic not to feel boxed in by what was written or by what the game master had planned for us.

What's Not Too Love
I'm trying not to lavish too much praise so I don't come across as a paid stooge (although I'd gladly become one), but I can't really think of anything I didn't like about the game. The only thing I can think of is just to make sure this is right for your group. If you want a more structured game where every conceivable possibility has a (mostly) clearly defined rule, then this may not be for you. This game rewards free play and open interpretation of the datafiles and rules.

I look forward to playing this some more and for more events and character to be made available. Especially the upcoming Annihilation book. I loves me some Marvel Cosmic.

Have you had the chance to play yet? Did you like it as much as I did?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Marvel & DC: RPGs

Battle of Champions
I've recently taken the time to  do a cursory reading of both the DC Adventures RPG from Green Ronin Publishing and the new Marvel Heroic RPG from Margaret Weis. Since the companies have always been the subject of debates comparing their take on characters and story, I thought it would be interesting to compare these two games. Keep in mind, this is not a review. I have yet to play either (I'll be playing Marvel this weekend, so expect an actual review next week) so this is based solely on my first impressions of the games.

Main Mechanic
Marvel: The Marvel uses the Cortex Plus system which Margaret Weis uses a variation of for all of their games, such as Leverage, Smallville and Supernatural. The basis of the system is a dice pool mechanic. On each character's datafile there are number of traits, distinctions and power sets with corresponding value that relate to sizes of dice, from d4 to d12. When performing an action or reaction, the players chooses one entry from each set of distinctions to form his dice pool. That pool is rolled, and two dice are chosen to make up a total with a third used as an effect. This is then compared to the opposing roll and the proper effect is carried out. There's a little more detail than that, but that's the basics of how the game is played. One of the great things about this book is that there are a lot of well-written examples of how the game is played in each section, which makes the rules very easy to pick up.

DC: DC uses the Mutants & Masterminds game as its base, which is a d20 system. I was able to grasp the basics of this game a little faster, because I'm already familiar with the basics of it from playing Dungeons & Dragons. This game also uses character sheets, but they list out more detailed descriptions of powers (from super strength to laser beams to teleportation) and skills (such as acrobatics, endurance and stealth) with positive or negative modifiers. When performing an action, the players rolls a d20 and adds the appropriate modifier. This result is then compared to a target number, weather is be the defensive value of the villain or an abstract number that represents the difficulty of the task being performed. If the total value equals or beats the target number, then the action is a success.

Marvel: The Marvel Basic Rules is a paperback book that retails at $20, which in my opinion is a fantastic deal. Everything you need to get started playing is in the one book. It starts with the Operations Manual (core rules), a two-part event (based on the Breakout story of New Avengers #1-6) and data files for 23 heroes (including stars such as Iron Man, Wolverine and Spider-Man). This is definitely one of the better values I've seen. A lot of games sell just the the player's book for $30, in addition to whatever the game master needs and a starting adventure.

DC: The DC Adventures book is a hardcover book retails for $30. This also a pretty good deal as it includes almost everything that a player needs to play. It does have all of the rules as a well as a wide variety  of characters to choose from; 28 full character sheets of super heroes and villains. It does not however, have any introductory adventure included. It doesn't seem that complicated to make your own, just think of a story, throw in appropriate super villains and supporting cast and go. There are some good chapters on the history of the DC universe and some key locations. If you're new to role-playing though, and need a little more support starting up a game, you'll need to find something elsewhere.

Character Creation
Marvel: The character creation is Marvel is one of the most abstact takes that I've seen. It doesn't really focus on character balance, but instead focuses more on just building a character that is representative of who you want to play. There is no point budget or even set statistics.

The first thing to be determined is decided the character's affiliations, or how well they work solo, in a buddy environment or on a team. These are given values of d6, d8 or d10. Then there are distinction, which are three guiding phrases for the character. They can be catch phrases or ideal that guide the character and either be a help or a burden. Then there's powersets and specialties. These make up all the cool things that heroes can do. These are given values between dd6 and d12. There's really no limit to how many powers your hero can have, beyond what your fellow players will put up with. The manual even states to just do what feels right and you can always tweak it later. The final thing is creating milestone. These are the key way that characters earn xp. They are story points that the character will eventually have to deal with one way or another. For example, one of Captain America's milestones is that he puts the Avengers back together.

DC: DC takes a more traditional stance on character creation. The first thing you do is set a power level for your hero, whether it be more a more street level hero like Batman or a demi-god like Superman. This  choice will give you a certain number of points to spend. These points are used to add and upgrade powers, skills and other special features. This ensures a more balanced party and help the game master know how tough to make the adventure.

Additional Content
Marvel: The Marvel game is brand new and as of now, there is only the basic book available. There are already three supplements planned to come out later this year based on the Civil War, Annihilation and Age of Apocalypse story lines. These books are described as including full event adventures and more hero datafiles. I am looking forward to these, but I will say that Margaret Weis hasn't had the best track record of releasing books on time (if at all).

DC: Green Ronin currently has two supplements for the DC Adventures game, both of which are full of additional character sheets for heroes and villains. Additional content in the book is information on teams, side characters, animals and more guidance on creating your own characters based on existing creations. Again, there are no adventures available.

Final Thoughts
Marvel: I've been reading through a lot of RPG rules lately, just to see what else is out there, and Marvel just struck me as being very different. I was very intrigued by its focus on story and keeping the game moving as opposed to getting bogged down with loads of rules and exceptions. The couple paragraphs I wrote above cover just about 75% of everything you need to know, and the other 25% can easily be explained as you get to it at the table. Even the character creation is very abstracted and focus driven. I like the idea of just making what feels right. It may take a little more time to fully grasp but it really forces you to know who the character your playing is.

DC: On the opposite end is DC. Not that there's anything wrong with the system. It looks like it would be fun and I would enjoy playing it, it just didn't excite me. It may just be that I've mainly played D&D, but moving to another d20 game isn't that appealing.

I think its fantastic that the two games are so different. If you're a comic book fan and want to try out an RPG, one of these will be up your alley. If you just to tell stories, don't want to get lost in pages of rules and are ok with abstraction, then Marvel is where you should go. If you need more structure and want to ensure character balance then check out DC. Either way, I'm sure you'll have a good time. Even if you're more intrigued by the Marvel game but really want to play Green Lantern, or want to play a d20 game with Hawkeye, there's no reason that you can't create the appropriate character sheet and get your game going. That's the great thing about role-playing games. You can play who want to wherever you want.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Happy Easter with Chuck-It Chicken

I wanted to write something special for Easter, and so I looked through my collection to find something thematic. There's wasn't much but I did find Chuck-It Chicken!, published by Ravensburger Games.

This is actually one of my many great finds when perusing one of my local Goodwills. It was a steal at $2 even though it was missing some pieces. I figured I could make or find some kind of replacements. Worst case scenario, the board itself looked really cool and I only wasted a couple bucks, but luckily for me, a quick email to Ravensburger got me a full set of replacement pieces. I was quite ecstatic when I opened that envelope and realized I didn't have to worry about making pieces.

Chuck-It Chicken has the players trying to get one of their chickens to the top of the rooster at the top of the board. Each player has a team of three chickens of their color, but wearing different types of hats; safari, football helmet and baseball cap. On their turn, each players rolls 2 dice and moves their chicken that matches the hat rolled. Each die also has a chicken symbol and if that gets rolled, thats where the real fun comes in.

Attached to the large rooster, is a small slide. If a player rolls the chicken symbol, he can choose to roll an egg down the slide, aiming to knock his opponent's chicken back to the bottom. This is made a little difficult by the random bouncing of the egg and the various barriers that chickens can hide behind. This adds a great dexterity element to the game and makes for some fun and tense moments. Especially when you actually knock over one of your own chickens and you have to suffer the heckling of your opponents.

This is a great, fun little game that kids would get a kick out of. The components are brilliant and really sell the light and fun theme. I'm hoping to get this to the table today, just to say I did. Who knows, it just might become my new tradition..

What about you? What are you playing today? Anything Easter themed?

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Commands & Colors

Richard Borg is most known for his design of the Commands & Colors series of games. The series started with the design of Battle Cry, a Civil War themed war game with easy to learn mechanics and fast gameplay. The system is best identified for three key elements; a hex board divided into three sections (left, middle, right), units being divided into categories (whether is be color or type) and cards that are used to activate certain units.

The game board also features a modular and customizable design. The board itself is bare and has no features, but the game comes with stacks of hexagonal cardboard terrain features that quickly turn a large, flat field into a hilly landscape or a dense forest. These terrain pieces allow for an almost endless variety of scenarios and battlefields.

The differentiation of the units is important in combat when it comes to the attacking die rolls. The dice have different colors or symbols that correspond to each group, depending on the game. When attacking, a certain number of dice are rolled, depending on the attack value of the attacking squad and the object is to roll the symbol corresponding with your target. For example, in Memoir '44, if you are attack a tank, you want to roll the tank symbol and in Battlelore, if you are attacking a red cavalry unit, you want to roll the red helmet. This mechanic makes combat very fast and easy to follow but still adds a nice amount of luck and tension.

The deck of command cards come in two varieties, section and tactic. The section cards allow you to order a certain number of units on the different parts of the battlefield, such as move 2 units on the left flank. The tactic cards are much more powerful and versatile, allowing for things such as order 4 infantry units anywhere on the board, or allowing certain units to move father or attack with additional dice.

Since the publication of Battlecry, there have many other games in the series covering a wide range of time periods. Commands & Colors: Ancients warfare from the begging of military history (3000 BC) to the  Middle Ages (400 AD). This installment also has expansions that add in other armies such as Roman, Greek and Egyptian. Next up (chronologically) is Commands & Colors: Napoleonics, which depicts the campaigns in the Napoleonic Era, focusing on England against France. Then there is Memoir '44 which takes place in World War 2. The base game is Axis against allies, but this one also has many expansions that add in Russia, Japan and various terrain types. Battlelore is a fantasy-themed version of the system that is based on the Hundred Years War and features dwarves, giant spiders and ogres as unit types.

Despite using the same basic system as the skeleton of the game, each game has its own personality and tweaks to the ruleset. Some games focus more on keeping your units in tight formations while in others you can spread out more. Some rely more on ranged attacks while others have more melee combat. Battlelore also has an additional deck of cards called the Lore Deck which allows the players to collect magic points to spend on powerful attacks and maneuvers.

This year will see the release of two new games into the family. Abaddon is a sci-fi themed game that features giant mechs in battle. This one is interesting because it does differ in some of the key elements that I mentioned above. First and most obvious is that the board uses square spaces, not hexes. Also the funtion of the cards and dice are switched. With the dice being used to select which units can be ordered and the cards are used to resolve combat. I am interested to see how these changes will affect the gameplay and the experience.

The other new new release is Samurai Battles. This one features combat in feudal japan between armies of samurais. The interesting thing about this one, is that the game actually comes with two completely different rulesets. It has the Commands & Colors rules as well as rules based on the Art of Tactic game designed by Konstantin Krivenko. This is the one I am most looking forward to as I am very curious how the two systems will compare.

All in all, I a fan of the Commands & Colors system. I haven't played as much as I'd like but I love Memoir '44 and Battlelore is pretty good too (although a little clunkier, in my opinion). I hope to one day be able to play more in the series to really get a good understanding of it.