Category Archives: News and Articles

[CARD.BOARD.BOX] #7 – THE BEST OF 2011 PART 1: CARD GAMES, RPGS, AND MORE

It’s that time of year again, when I get up onto my pulpit and declare the best gaming titles of the year.  Who am I to do this?  What special qualifications do I have to make such pronouncements?  Hell if I know.  I run a gaming store and I have an online column, so that’s good enough for me.  And I did have a lot of people tell me that they missed it last year after I had done one for 2009.  So here we go.  Board games will, for the most part, be left to the next column, but for now, here’s everything else.  If you have yet to add these games to your collection, you’re missing out.

BEST ROLE-PLAYING GAME:  THE ONE RING: ADVENTURES OVER THE EDGE OF THE WILD

If you’ve spent any time talking to me at all over the past couple of months, this should come as no surprise.  Anyone in the shop who asks me about this game is likely to be assaulted by a frothy rant about how this game is the first time any roleplaying game has ever truly done justice to Tolkien and Middle Earth.  I’ve already yammered on about it a bit in my column about licensed gaming properties, and trust me, it’s worth the hype.  If you are a roleplayer and a Tolkien fan at all, you really owe it to yourself to pick this up.

The short pitch is this:  It’s five years after the Battle of Five Armies and the destruction of Smaug.  Sixty years before the events of the War of the Ring. So basically, for the length of the entire campaign the One Ring is sitting on Bilbo’s mantelpiece, effectively eliminating second fiddle syndrome.  Rules?  There’s plenty of crunch, but it’s all narrative.  The combat system is deceptively elegant.  Additionally, the designer keeps the tone of Middle Earth close to heart.  Characters have a “Hope” rating.  There’s a clearly defined moral compass (a rarity in RPGs) which is supported by the ruleset.  The designer also has the balls to say “No, you don’t get to be a wizard, because the only wizards are the five Istari, and you don’t get to be one of them.”   If you REALLY insist on being a wizard or simply MUST have some uber powerful magic item, then this isn’t the game for you.  Go write some Middle-Earth skins for your D&D game.  But if you want an RPG that’s really true to Tolkien in a way that no RPG has ever been, trust me on this one.  It’s perfect.

BEST ROLE-PLAYING GAME  SUPPLEMENT OR ACCESSORY:  SHADOWRUN RUNNER’S TOOLKIT

Now it’s no secret that SHADOWRUN is my favorite RPG.  But that’s not what this is about I promise you.  It would be easy to dismiss this box as an over-produced GM Kit and screen, and while it does have a GM screen, it is so much more than that.  How many times have you bought a “GM kit” for a game that includes a screen and a booklet or two that are basically useless?  Not this one my friends.

There’s an intro adventure.  There’s a booklet covering “Contacts, Adventures and Sprawl Sites” which is sort of an imagination starter for GMs needing to pull together a run on the quick.  There’s four laminated maps of common locations.  There’s six cardstock quick reference sheets that basically give you anything you could possibly need to look up that’s not on the GM screen proper.  And there’s an entirely new modular “kit” system for character creation.  Not as simple as pre-gens, and not as detailed as build points, but a happy medium.  But the best bits are probably the “Anatomy of a Shadowrun” book, which is one of the most useful tools  I’ve ever seen for any RPG ever. An invaluable tool to beginner and veteran GMs alike, it actually delineates how all the mechanics come together over the course of an adventure.  It’s a step by step walkthrough of a shadowrun with the applicable mechanics in the sidebar.  There’s also a booklet compiling tables from the main rulebook and all four supplementary core rulebooks.  Talk about cutting out downtime in the game!  And that screen, btw?  Easily one of the most substantial screens ever produced.  Only FFG’s Warhammer Fantasy/40K screens can even compare in quality.

And to round it all off, there’s a poster of the (gorgeous) Seattle skyline art from the screen, and a big ol’ SHADOWRUN sticker so you can pronounce your brand of geek from the back of your car.  All of this for forty bucks.

BEST NON-COLLECTIBLE CARD GAME:  THE DWARF KING

Enjoy trick-taking card games like hearts or spades, but wish they had a dash of the zany?  Or maybe a dragon or two?  THE DWARF KING is here to help.  One of the surprise hits of the year provides a different scoring condition each round (picked by the holder of the Five of Knights card), and sometimes, true to its trick-taking heritage, the only way to succeed in a round is to not take any negative points.  Hell, I’ve seen games played out in which the winner was the guy with zero points; the only one not in the negative.  Fast to teach and to play, but with infinite replayability, and it requires next to no space to play.  You could play on an airplane.

BEST CONTROVERSY:  Double-sided magic cards
Remember back when INNISTRAD was announced and there was a great uproar about how double-sided magic cards were going to ruin the game?  Or at least make drafts suck now?  Well, here we are almost ten weeks later, and surprise surprise, the game hasn’t imploded.  I applaud the MAGIC design team for continually pushing the envelope, even in ways that get some players all in a huff at first.  Sure, double-sided cards are weird, but so were Plansewalkers when they were first introduced (hell, I for one, still think the Planeswalker mechanic is clunky.)  But MAGIC, above all other games, is one that thrives on change.  Indeed, it lives and dies by change.  So bring on the transforming, double-sided weirdness in DARK ASCENSION.  I’m hoping for an artifact that flips into a Frankenstein-like monster if you cast Lightning Bolt at it.

BEST MINIATURES PRODUCT:  DREADFLEET

WARHAMMER PIRATES!  Count Noctilus, a Vampire leading a fleet of Undead pirates in an attempt to usurp the very laws of reality!  Captain Roth, a Pirate captain, driven by revenge, who after failing to convince the nations of the Old World steals the flagship of the Imperial Navy to form a Grand Alliance to take down Noctilus once and for all.

I honestly don’t know why this game hasn’t gotten more love.  Games Workshop backlash maybe?  Look, I know their models can be expensive, and DREADFLEET’s one-print-run-only, get-it-while-you-can sales pitch is a bit unsavory, I really recommend you give this one another look.  The fact of the matter is, this is a pretty bold release for GW.  The re-release of SPACE HULK not withstanding, GW hasn’t published a truly stand-alone product in a really long time.  This isn’t yet another miniatures system designed to sell you more and more miniatures.  In fact, DREADFLEET is barely a wargame at all.  You don’t build an army within a certain point bracket and then duke it out.  It is in fact, a super-narrative, character-driven campaign game, though it can be played in one-off stand-alone sessions.  Yes, it’s $115, but it’s worth every penny.  Ten ships, a pile of islands and shipwrecks, plus a handful of sea monsters and a few other bits besides.  Not to mention the stunning (and HUGE!) full color cloth playmat.  Plus LOTS of all new original John Blanche artwork.  This thing feels scrappy and dirty like old-school Warhammer.  It paints up beautifully, but even if you’re not a miniatures gamer, you could easily snap together the pieces, skip the paint, and have yourself a board game.   But it really does deserve to be painted.

Get it while you can.  Heh.

BEST FAMILY BOARD GAMES: 

MONDO

Mix CARCASSONNE and ZOOLORETTO and set a timer and you’ve kind of got MONDO.  With only seven minutes on the clock, players race to grab double-sided tiles from a common pool to create an environment on their personal world boards, hopefully without errors and while trying to score points for animals and fastest completion and yet keeping active volcanos to a minimum.  Two add-on modules and a more advanced world board create replayability and interest for accomplished or experienced gamers.

SURVIVE: ESCAPE FROM ATLANTIS

I grew up with this one.  In the annals of my personal boardgaming history, my copy of the Parker Brothers version of Survive is the one game that I regret not saving from my Mom’s basement when I had the chance.  Thankfully, Stronghold Games has republished this classic in a gorgeous edition with deluxe components and new content.  A sinking island and a sea full of sharks, aggressive whales and terrifying sea serpents!  Your people tokens have hidden point values which you must remember as you struggle with your opponents to have the most valuable tokens reach the safety of the outer islands.  This is one of those rare games that teaches very easily to the youngest of children, but there’s enough opportunity for for backstabbing to satisfy the most cut-throat of gamers.

So there you have it.  Not the official Games And Stuff Best Of list, just my own opinions.  I’ll have a 2011 Best of Boardgames list up in a few weeks.

-Paul Alexander Butler is the Store Manager of Games and Stuff and organizes the shop’s Tuesday Board Game Nights. [Card.Board.Box] is his monthly gaming column for GamesAndStuffOnline.com.  He is anxiously awaiting December 24th of this year, when Ryumyo will reveal himself and herald the birth of the Sixth World.

[CARD.BOARD.BOX] #6 – LONG HAS THE BLOOD OF MY PEOPLE STAINED THE SOIL OF KAMCHATKA

“Mystery is the catalyst for imagination”  -J.J. Abrams

*Ahem!*  SQUEEEE-AAW!  Is this thing on?  I have a confession to make.  I am a RISK fan.

Yes, yes, I know.  Despite all my hoopin’ and hollarin’ about “real” board games, and European style strategy, and complex abstracts… RISK will always hold a special place deep in this gamer’s heart.

In my rather sizable board game collection, I have two editions of both CITADELS and  WAR OF THE RING (my favorite games ever.)  I have two different versions of both CARCASSONNE and SMALL WORLD.  Two different editions of WIZ-WAR (soon to be three.)  Hell, I have at least three different CHESS boards.  But RISK?

I’ve got six.

Board games have always been a part of my life.  I have very clear memories of playing BATTLESHIP with my Dad.  Or OH, WHAT A MOUNTAIN! with my younger sister.
But RISK… RISK was the first “adult” game that I remember seeing people play.  The first game that, on some instinctive level, I just knew was somehow bigger.  That was somehow too much for me to handle at that young an age.  I must have been only about five or six the first time I saw my older brother and four or five of his friends getting the game set up.  I watched them all setting up their little plastic Roman Numerals like things were about to get serious (this was the early 80’s when Risk pieces were brightly coloured plastic I’s, III’s, V’s and X’s.) – like they were hunkering down for the long haul, preparing for some epic struggle that would conclude only after I had long since gone to bed.  I knew something big was about to happen, and man, I wanted in.

“You are about to play the most unusual game that has appeared in many years.  It is not difficult, but because it is so different, you will find it worthwhile to read the rules completely through before starting play.  No attempt has been made to teach strategy, as each player will develop his own as he becomes familiar with the game.”
-Introduction to the original Parker Bros. edition of the Risk Continental Game. (1959)

Back in the 1950’s American board game publisher Parker Brothers had a deal with French manufacturer Miro.  The two companies would frequently license their titles to each other for sale in their respective countries.  In 1957, Miro came to Parker Brothers with a game invented by a fellow named Albert Lamaorisse.  Monsieur Lamaorisse is perhaps best known for being the director of a film called “Le Ballon Rouge” (“The Red Balloon”) something that I know I was made to watch in my 8th grade French Language Arts class.  But more to the point, the game in question was called LA CONQUETE DU MONDE and after over a year of playtesting and tweaking, it was released in the US as the RISK CONTINENTAL GAME.  And now more than 50 years later we have seen countless variations and skins on the game, each with its own small tweaks.  Want to use the RISK ruleset to fight out the Clone Wars from the Star Wars saga?  Want to use your little plastic armies to decide which pantheon of Gods and Goddesses from the Ancient World will rule supreme?  How about fighting over the moon in the 23rd century?  All of these and more are available.

But all of this is history.  That’s not what I’m here to write about.  Today, I want to talk about the future.  RISK LEGACY.

“Well, this is new.”
-Introduction to the Hasbro/Parker Bros.  Risk Legacy (2011)

Coming to hobby stores this November is RISK LEGACY.  (To be released everywhere else in the world as RISK EVOLUTION, but let’s not get me started on that, shall we?)
So what’s so fancy about this RISK?  The board looks like a pretty standard issue RISK world map, but without any names on the continents.  That may be your first clue.  Actually, upon opening the box and tearing the shrink off the board, you’ll notice a label on the back of it which requests that the players SIGN their names to the board, stating “We, the undersigned, take responsibility for the wars that are about to start, the decisions we will make, and the history we will write.  Everything that is going to happen is goiing to happen because of us. ”

And that’s the core of what’s about to happen.  Here’s the hook.  The game is designed to be played as a campaign, a series of 15 or more games with some pretty high stakes on each outing.  You see, during gameplay, and especially immediately after each game, the board will be marked.  With stickers.  And pen.  Permanently.  Some of the cards will be altered.  Some will be destroyed.  Ripped up.  Thrown away.  Every decision you make could alter the game board, or the strength of the factions, or the value of any given territory or continent.  Cities will rise and fall and the names of the victors will forever be etched upon the surface of this new world.

Additionally, inside the box are four sealed envelopes and two sealed compartments, each of which will only be opened when certain game conditions are met.  Inside are new rules, new components and… who knows what else?

When I first read about this I thought it seemed gimmicky.  Then I read the official solicitation from Hasbro and thought they might be on to something.  A lot of questions immediately arise, but most of them were quickly answered.  Yes, the “campaign” such as it is, is intended to be played over a series of fifteen games.  And after about 15-20 games, all modifications to the game board or components will have been made.  However, at that point, you’ve now got an utterly unique version of RISK, that has a rich back history of wars, feuds and betrayals.  And because you lived through it, you are personally invested in it.

I think it’s worth reading designer Rob Daviau’s designer notes at Boardgamegeek.  Of particular note is the fact that the germ of the idea behind the design was the desire to “up the ante” on the decision making process of a board game.  In most games, and RISK in particular, every decision you make during game play is important, but what if every decision was really important?
**

We have been lucky enough to have a pre-release copy of RISK LEGACY here at the store, and along with a hand-picked group of players, George and I have been playing every Wednesday night for over a month now.  Simply put, it’s amazing.

The ability to permanently alter the game board means that each individual game cannot truly be played as such.  Every action and decision will have ramifications over the course of the campaign.  And of course, I’m not just talking about stickers here.  Anybody who’s ever played RISK knows that it’s as much a game of diplomacy as one of dice rolling combat.  So when player Geoff Sprague (representing the Khan Industries faction) offered me a truce in the first game, only to betray me later on… well, that’s had some consequences.  Many of which are still being played out four games later.  It didn’t help matters that when Geoff signed the board to notate his victory, he utilized the provided extra space for a bit of smack talk by simply writing “I offer you a truce.”

And those sealed envelopes?  J.J. Abrams, film director and creator of the “Lost” TV series, gave a talk at the TED conference a few years ago, which speaks to the power of mystery.  (It’s about 18 minutes long, but it’s also worth checking out: Click here.)  He makes a point that mystery drives creativity.  And that’s exactly what happens.  RISK LEGACY seems custom-tailored to create a play environment that encourages free form storytelling and narrative building.  Something that you really don’t see in board games outside of Adventure style games like TALISMAN or RUNEBOUND, but in those games obviously, the players are following a pre-written story instead of coming up with their own stuff on the fly.

The other thing is that those envelopes provide a sense of momentum to the games that would not otherwise be there.  Each one provides a brief narrative explanation for the new components in them, and while usually the contents supplement existing rules-sets, sometimes entirely new mechanics are introduced.  So not only is the board changing, but the way the game actually plays out is altered, sometimes even modifying win conditions.

It would be difficult for me to overstate just how exciting these past few weeks with RISK LEGACY have been.  There is yelling and laughing at the table, and there is discussion of strategy and diplomacy throughout the week leading up to our Wednesday night game.

There has been a bit of controversy surrounding the news of this game.  Many hardcore board gamers balked at the idea of ripping up cards or writing on their game boards, suggesting that it was just a marketing scheme from Hasbro.  To them, I say: get over yourselves.  I’m gonna go on the record here and say that RISK LEGACY is every bit as revolutionary as MAGIC THE GATHERING was when was first released.  Yeah, I said it.  I’m not suggesting that it will necessarily have the impact on the industry that MAGIC did, but it is -that- fresh and new.  An utterly new way to approach a board gaming experience.

-Paul Alexander Butler is the Store Manager of Games and Stuff and organizes the shop’s Tuesday Board Game Nights. [Card.Board.Box] is his monthly gaming column for GamesAndStuffOnline.com.  He is currently hibernating with his fellow brothers from the Enclave of the Bear plotting the overthrow of the Khan Industrial Machine.  The Citadel will not fall.

FROM THE FORGE – AN ELECTRIFYING STORM STRIDER CONVERSION

warmachinelogo3For those of you that don’t know me, I’m Michael, one of the Press Gangers at Games and Stuff. I’ve been playing Warmachine/Hordes for about two years, and Games Workshop games off and on since my misspent youth. I play Menoth and Legion and have just enough Cygnar to be dangerous. In fact, the only Cygnar I own are the Storm-nouns, I just love the idea of an electric army, all dangerous and sparky.

And what could be MORE dangerous and sparky than a 20-foot-tall-lightning-shooting-steampunk-spider-legged-attack-bot thing! As soon as I saw the Storm Strider model I knew I had to have one, it’s easily my favorite-looking of the new Battle Engines, and it fits perfectly with my army.

Of course, I can’t leave well enough alone, and I also knew I wanted to, shall we say, enhance the model. The opportunity to really take the model to the next level was too hard to pass up, but I didn’t know what to do. That is, until I saw a PP Insider post, with the throw-away line, “and then I’ll add the plasma ball to my Storm Strider.” Now we’re talking.  Now just the hard part, getting from this:

 

to this:

stormstrider1
stormstrider2I’ve had the opportunity to do two of these conversions now, so I’m providing a write-up of the process and pitfalls to look for. Because I did two and have pictures of each from various stages of completion you’ll see two different looking models through-out the article. Each was built essentially the same, using the same process; the only real difference was some improvements made after learning lessons on the first model (primarily related to the design of the base).

Step One– Parts

 

stormstrider3You’ll need a Storm Strider…obviously. The ones I’ve bought have needed only minor clean-up of the resin and metal parts. it really is a beautiful kit, and if you’re just doing it stock, it’s very simple to assemble. One thing that you’ll need to know for this conversion though is if you bought the kit very early (I think it was only the pre-release convention sales version) there is a chance you have the resin catwalk piece. I’ve only ever gotten the metal catwalk, and it makes a difference for the electrical wiring later in the project.

 

stormstrider4You’ll need the plasma ball itself. I picked up this one from Amazon. At 23 bucks it’s not the cheapest conversion, but this was the only plasma ball I could find at this very small size (about 1.5” diameter).

Additionally, because it’s meant to run off a cigarette lighter I knew I’d be able to replace the adapter with 12v batteries, which ended up being pretty important. Here’s a picture comparing it to the stock part:

 

stormstrider5You’ll also need a bunch of other electrical doo-dads. I have a selection of switches, wires, battery holders, all available at Radio Shack. The only thing to be aware of is that the 12v batteries I was using, called A23 type, are not widely available (though you might get lucky). They’re used primarily for wireless entry systems for cars, but you can often get them on Amazon, and they’re not too expensive. I used three the first time I did this conversion and four of them the second time. The A23 is nearly the same size as another battery called an N-Cell, but the N-Cell is only 1.5v, and that’s not nearly enough for this project, so be careful which you buy. On the plus side, because they’re so close in size you can use N-cell battery holders in your project, which I was able to find at Radio Shack, though A23 specific holders are available, you need to special order them. I got mine on Ebay.

You’ll also need whatever other basing materials you normally use. Ghool has a phenomenal Storm Strider here and others I’ve seen take excellent advantage of the huge base real estate the Battle Engines give you. The Storm Strider in particular, because of the legs, allows you to really go hog wild with basing details. With this conversion project you’ll need a pretty tall base, or at least a base that’s tall in places, because the transformer for the plasma ball is about 1.5 inches tall, and just small enough to fit under the Storm Strider’s legs.

 

stormstrider6stormstrider7stormstrider8My Cygnar army is based on industrial-factory bases I made using plasti-card and various wires, etc. This was a natural fit for the Storm Strider and also meant I could be pretty casual about having to hide all the switches and wires and batteries, since everybody knows factories are just wiry electric death traps. For my second conversion I made the base even bigger and more elaborate, because bigger is always better.

 

Step Two – Assembly

There are other guides for assembling the Storm Strider available online, and I’d take a look at those for specific guidance, while I’ll just highlight what I did differently and show some pictures of the process.

Clean the plastic parts of mold lines, wash them to get rid of the release compounds, and file the metal parts; basic model prep stuff at this point. I elected to mount the two riders to separate painting rigs, since I knew they’d be going on last. I also just about fully assembled the model before painting and putting it on the base. There are only a few places that are hard to reach when the model is fully assembled, primarily the inside of the legs, but those would be easy to prepaint .

stormstrider10For the most part the Storm Strider goes together easily; everything fits snugly, but with enough play that you have some flexibility in posing the model. You’ll see that I’ve pinned every joint, that’s because I really like pinning and it makes the model totally bomb-proof. In order to hide the wire for the plasma ball you will have to drill out one of the legs for a wire channel. I elected not to drill out the metal leg in the first model, since exposed wires fit with my basing scheme and also because I wanted to get the model on the table. In the second conversion I have taken the time to drill out the whole leg, but that was also because I reposed the leg anyway, so I had it already pretty cut up.

stormstrider11In terms of prepping the model for the plasma ball, you only need to make sure that you drill out a wire channel through the metal gantry part and the resin leg-hub piece. Depending on how you decide to hide the wires you might need to drill a lot of material out of the hub. For my first attempt I drilled straight through, for the second it was a more complex path for the wire.

stormstrider12I also found that the plasma ball sits better on the model if you clean out most of the material in the center of the gantry piece. If you don’t the ball sits higher in the model than the resin part would and you have to adjust the arching arm’s position by tilting it back slightly (very slightly). If you lower the ball in the gantry ‘cradle’ you can leave the arm in its stock position.

I elected not to add anything to the ball. I tried recreating the little button-nubbins that are on the resin piece with some success, but when I put them on the ball it just didn’t look right. The one thing I did do was try to cover the plastic seam that runs around the equator of the ball with some plasti-card, this wasn’t too hard to do and gave me a place to add some color to the otherwise pretty plain (when it’s off) clear globe.

Step Three – Electrics

Depending on how comfortable you are with electricity, wiring and soldering this might be the hardest part of the project, but the reality is we’re dealing with very safe levels of current and relatively simple wiring circuitry.

Here is a diagram for the circuit we’ll be building:

stormstrider14A plasma ball is a pretty cool piece of tech, invented by none other than Nicola Tesla and perfected by Bill Parker at MIT. It operates by running a high voltage at very low current through a near vacuum of gas, usually helium or neon. The Wikipedia article for how they work is here.

Because the ball functions as an open-nded capacitor there is only one wire leading to it, simplifying construction of the circuit. The transformer runs off the battery pack and there’s an on-off switch. I’ve elected not to open up the transformer package, in the interest of, “leaving well enough alone”. But I did rip one up as a test, and if you were looking to save space in the base you could take off the plastic shielding, but you’d have to be much more careful about not shorting any of the components.

Depending on how your base is designed you may leave the batteries exposed (I have for ease of access) or you might have them accessible from the underside of the model. You can see the two approaches I took to the wiring in the following photos:

 

stormstrider15

 

Both work fine; both were easy to assemble, but the more space you can give yourself for the better off you will be. The batteries in the first are wired in stormstrider16parallel, keeping the voltage at 12v for the transformer. On the second conversion I wired 4 batteries in a bank that doubled the voltage (pairs in series wired to each other in parallel). The stormstrider17effect of this is to overdrive the transformer, greatly increasing the lightning effect’s intensity. Since the model isn’t on permanently and the batteries are easily replaced I’m not too worried about longevity or heat.

I’m using a toggle switch in these conversions, though any switch, even a push button will work, and it’s just a matter of finding space for it.  If I could find a mini-Frankenstein switch (properly called a ‘knife switch’) I’d be using that instead.

If you don’t have any experience with wiring and soldering I would recommend you check out your local library for resources or the internet, there’s lots of good stuff online, or try the book Make: Electronics which is what I used to teach myself.

Unless you want to solder at the base of the plasma ball (which I wouldn’t recommend) you’ll need to at least string the wire for the ball through the leg of the Storm Strider before completing the electric assembly. This really should take place as you’re doing the rest of the assembly, since it’s the only wire that needs to be ‘in’ the model.

Remember earlier how I mentioned the metal gantry versus the plastic gantry was an issue? Here’s why (so far as I can tell, let me know in the comments if I’ve got it wrong). The ball is a capacitor that’s pretty much constantly discharging into the air. Essentially the air acts as a ground, which works because the electrode for the ball (the center ball) is in a near vacuum and there’s very low resistance to the high voltage current. When you touch the ball your hand provides a much better ground, which is why the arcs will follow your finger.

The metal gantry, since it doesn’t touch the ball, doesn’t act as a ground, but does act as the second plate of a capacitor, charging and storing energy with no place to go. If you have a metal gantry, but stormstrider18don’t give the energy anywhere to go (i.e. ground) then the plasma ball won’t arc. Essentially it ‘fills up’ like a regular capacitor. Again, this is what I think is happening, and this theory was good enough to fix the problem.

There is an additional wrinkle (which I learned by experimenting, so let my pain be your gain). Namely, the gantry is a large enough capacitor to store enough power, and has enough voltage, that if you let it charge up you can get an arc in regular air, and those arcs will be strong enough (even though they’re only 1/16-1/8 of an inch) to burn the tips of your fingers and make your hand feel funny for a day or two. This interaction is really the only “dangerous” part of the whole build, but even then, what’s a little danger when you’re doing SCIENCE?!?

The solution I came up with, (and it’s by no means the best), was to ground the gantry to the positive terminal of the batteries I’m using. The transformer is already dumping half its load back to batteries, so I’m not too concerned about the effect of doing this. You can see the way this looks on the model here. The wire on the right with the triple connection to the batteries is this ‘ground’ off the gantry. You can see how I’ve disguised it as part of the model by having the helpful gobber plugging the Strider in.

I’ve improved this on my second model by hiding this “grounding wire” in a second leg of the model. This just doubled the amount of drilling I had to do, and made the sequence of assembly a little harder. Essentially you have all the components strung out with the wires running through them then you assemble and pull the wire tight as you go.  The wiring diagram again, with this gantry element added:
Step Four – Final Assembly and Painting

stormstrider19Once you’ve gotten everything wired up, you can test your construction. It may take a second to light up, but if you’ve followed the diagram it should work. Make sure you’ve accounted for the gantry issue; that took me a long time to figure out.  Click this link to see a video of the model running after I first put it together:

Here is the model assembled, ready for painting.

stormstrider20

 
For this model I did my highlighting with

stormstrider21an airbrush for the first time, and it was a really interesting experience, but probably material for another article at some point. Suffice to say that the Storm Strider is a delight to paint. It’s an opportunity to try metallic techniques, and has some very stormstrider22nice areas for shading and Object-Source Lighting. I really enjoyed the painting the model, and there was not anything particularly difficult about it, though you should look out for the inside of the legs, as they will need to be prepainted.  Also, the sphere itself should be covered in tape to keep it paint free.

Here are final pics for the two conversions I’ve done. If you have questions or comments please let me know.

stormstrider23

 

Michael Pokorny is an avid miniatures and board gamer, and a fan of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. His he currently experimenting with a double-headed paintbrush and is actually looking into getting them manufactured.  Next up for him is the Vessel of Judgment! (and building a photo booth).

stormstrider24

G&S STAFF ON HALLOWEEN BOARD GAMES

It’s that time of year when gamers of all stripes start thinking about busting out the apple cider and big bowls of candy corn to host a Halloween gaming extravaganza.   A little bored with breaking out ZOMBIES! again?  Played one too many games of MUNCHKIN CTHULHU?  The Games and Stuff staff is here to help, with suggestions for board games that bring a little more theme and atmosphere to the proceedings.

GEORGE: The folk of Miller’s Hollow have worked hard this autumn and the harvest moon now squats full and red above twilight corn fields. It is this very moon which calls the howls of werewolves, beckoned to feed on the villagers and their peace.

werewolves-of-millers-hollowTHE WEREWOLVES OF MILLER’S HOLLOW is the most successful iteration of the card game also know as “Mafia”. It is a hyper-affordable party game – it can support eight to twenty-nine players – and pulses with Halloween atmosphere and fun. The game is entirely boardless, with the participants gathered in a big, social circle in the fashion of duck-duck-goose. The game pits the majority of the players (villagers) against a specially chosen few (werewolves) in a struggle to survive. If the werewolves are wiped out, the village of Miller’s Hollow is safe for one more year. If the werewolves cull the population down to a draw (equal numbers of werewolves and villagers), the town is devoured in an orgy of carnage and blood-soaked man-beasts frenzy in triumph.

Once you and your fellow villagers and werewolves decided they’ve gotten the hang of the basic game, special characters that subtly (or radically) alter game-play can add additional spice to the mix. The hunter, the seer, the cupid, and the witch are all examples of these more eccentric villager types.

There are two versions of the game currently for sale. The very reasonably priced basic set retails for $12.99 and the deluxe version (called “The Village) includes an expansion and premium components for $29.99.  Get this game for your Halloween hoedown. I promise you won’t regret it!

BetrayalHEIDI: Every neighborhood has one; the old, run down house with weird occupants or no occupants at all.  Children walk past on the way home from school, but are sure to stay to the far side of the street.  They dare each other to peak into windows or touch the railing on the rotting front porch. How many times have these relics begged for us to sneak in and take a look around? What harm could that do, really?

BETRAYAL AT HOUSE ON THE HILL (now in its second edition) begins with simple curiosity.  Each player chooses a character and the group starts to explore.  The players build the house room by room, creating a new game board layout every time by placing tiles which are picked at random.  Some rooms hold treasures and tools, while others bring you one step closer to the inevitable.

As with all haunted horror movies, this house has secrets and these secrets will turn one player against the others. When “The Haunt” triggers, the game changes from curious exploration and creepy adventure to one of horror and survival.  Perhaps your buddy the high school jock decides he must kill you all.  Maybe a ghostly bride has set her eyes on one of your number.  Possibly, the house begins to inexplicitly fill with water, threatening a watery grave for everyone except the possessed player.  With 50 different scenarios, you never know which direction the game will take you or who will ultimately betray the group.

This is a great game for 3-6 players, age 12 and up, with enough suspense and chills to thrill new and seasoned gamers.   Give it a try this Halloween! I double dog dare you.

PAUL: It is the year of our Lord 1802. The small and secluded village of Shadowbrook has seen a string of disappearances and murders, most grimly and foul.  A person foolish enough to walk the streets at night will find terror and death as his only companions.  But a small group of outlanders have arrived in town, and have found the faith and courage to hunt down and face the ungodly nightmare that haunts us all.  The village elders have gathered to take counsel, but there are whispers and rumours, that Shadowbrook is rotting from within, and perhaps our heroes will find naught worth saving.

Touch_Evil_board_game_dA TOUCH OF EVIL is an adventure game like no other.  There is much that you will find familiar here, what with players taking on the roles of unique characters, fighting beasts and collecting items, but with four different Villains (including a Spectral Horseman and The Scarecrow alongside the more traditional Werewolf and Vampire) the game is truly different every time, as the Villain chosen defines not only the final Showdown, but also the nature of the horrors that you will face from turn to turn.  The Village Elders may each be a boon or a hindrance to your quest.  Perhaps Lord Hanbrook, having been seduced by promises of power and riches has become a Servant to Darkness.  Maybe Sophie, the Midwife has a heart that burns with a warrior’s spirit and when pressed, can become a powerful ally against the darkness.  The first player to make the best use of items, Elders and Investigation Points to track down and slay the Villain wins the game.

This thing just stinks with theme.  You can smell the fetid wetlands beneath the trees and the nightsoil beneath the town’s windows.  Think of the movies The Brotherhood of the Wolf, or The Village.  There is not a card or mechanic that is wasted in this regard… everything you do adds to the atmosphere.  It even comes with a CD of original music to help set the tone.  I know some gamers are put off by publisher Flying Frog Production’s use of photo-shopped images instead of artwork, and I was too at first, but trust me, within the confines of the game’s componens, it works.  And once you’ve played through it a bunch of times, lo and behold you can switch over to the advanced game, wherein gameplay becomes fully cooperative, and chances are NONE of you will live to see another sunrise.  There’s also two expansions available, one a HERO PACK, and the larger boxed SOMETHING WICKED, which adds four new heroes, four new villains, piles of new cards and an all new board to explore the wilderness surrounding Echo Lake.

madnesscoverSARAH: I’d like to say that if I had to choose a favorite Halloween game, it’d be a toss up between MANSIONS OF MADNESS and GLOOM. While both games offer the opportunity to get your spooky storytelling-mode on (with a side of despair thrown in for good measure), mechanically and mood-wise, they function so differently that it’s impossible for me to choose just one.

A gameplay hybrid of DESCENT and BETRAYAL AT HOUSE ON THE HILL, the Lovecraftian MANSIONS OF MADNESS pits well-loved Arkham investigators against a changing house full of eldritch horrors controlled by a Dungeon Master style “Keeper”. The game offers a variety of pre-made scenarios with different secrets, strategies, and endings to be discovered. With a penchant for all things Cthulhu, it’s not a surprise that at least one Arkham-flavored game would make the cut for my favorite, but while games like ELDER SIGN and ARKHAM HORROR are fun in their own right, niether provide the immersion in story quite like Mansions.

Gloom Logo Sketch

If I’m feeling a bit more on the silly side, I will break out my copy of GLOOM. It’s a fun little card game (that looks awesome, by the way) where you play Edward Gorey-esque families all marching miserably to the grave! As you play events, disastrous or delightful, on your or your opponents’ families, you’re encouraged to provide creative narration about what led to, say, the head of your household being eaten by bears, or poisoned at dinner. The player with the most forlorn family at the end of the game wins!

Last NightED:  My favorite halloween game has gotta be LAST NIGHT ON EARTH.  This scenario-driven zombie board game drips with atmosphere, from its graphic design through its mechanics, all the way to the trademark soundtrack CD included with every Flying Frog game.

Roles vary according to the number of players, but both sides of the zombies vs. heroes conflict are represented in every game. Each scenario has specific goals that the heroes need to achieve (like rescuing “innocent” townsfolk from the zombie invasion) to triumph.  The zombie players win if the heroes fail.  LAST NIGHT ON EARTH’s replayability and game time (it only takes about an hour) push it from the realm of a good game to a great one.  And at only an hour, it’s not so difficult to get your non-gamer friends on board for a session.  With so many zombie themed games out there these days, LNOE is the surefire winner of the bunch.  Make sure it hits your gaming table this Halloween.

The Games and Stuff Staff wishes you and your friends and family a Happy Halloween.  Try to be nice to all those trick-or-treaters dressed up like nerds this year.

[CARD.BOARD.BOX] #5: HOBBY GAME LICENSES PART 2 – ONE DOES NOT SIMPLY WALK INTO MORDOR

All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost; The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost.  -J.R.R. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings
(This is part two of a discussion of licenses in the gaming hobby.  For part one, click here.

Star Wars, Schmar Wars.  Let us now discuss the license that basically gave birth to this industry.  The Lord of the Rings.

A quick search on the web turned up no less than forty-four board and card games and about a half dozen RPGs connected to this property over the years.  Most of these have been real stinkers (slinkers?) but there have been some really glorious ones too.  One could argue that Reiner Knizia’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS cooperative game from 2000 started the boom of cooperative games currently on the market that most people like to credit to PANDEMIC (which wasn’t released until 2008).  Knizia’s design does what any good co-op should do, which is provide difficult prioritizing decisions for the play group.  What makes it feel especially LotR-y is the fact that the scope of the game covers the entire novel (from The Shire to Mount Doom) and it occasionally becomes necessary for one player to sacrifice themselves so that the others may continue.  Self-sacrifice is of course, one of the broad themes in Tolkien’s work.  Fantasy Flight Games has recently reissued a visually redesigned and more affordable version of this game as part of its Silver Line, so it is once again widely available.  And at less than forty bucks, it’s less expensive than a week’s worth of lembas bread.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE CONFRONTATION and THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE DUEL are also both simple, excellent games that manage to feel properly respectful of the source material without drowning in minutiae.  (The former is still available in an expanded “deluxe” edition.  I like to think of it as a Tolkien-fied STRATEGO for grown ups.)

On the other end of the spectrum, in my geeky Tolkien elitist opinion, is the new THE LORD OF THE RINGS CARD GAME from FFG, and just about anything that Games Workshop has done with the setting.  FFG’s new co-op card game has a solid design, if a bit mathy, but at the end of the day, it could have had any setting slapped onto that puppy.  It could have been “The Neverending Story” Living Card Game and it wouldn’t have made a lick of difference.  There is not a single mechanic that seems to have been designed with Middle Earth in mind.  Add up power levels of characters to overcome the current row of challenge cards, occasionally confront monsters head on, add a few variables, rinse, repeat.  It also doesn’t help matters that all story continuity goes out the window when you’ve got a viable deck built out of old Bilbo, a Gondorian noble, and Eowyn traveling together on a hunt for Gollum.  WTF?  I’m all for alternate takes on well-known events within a setting, but in this case, it seems like just so much number crunching without any supporting narrative.  Not that any of this stopped the game from becoming FFG’s fastest selling ever.
Games Workshop’s takes on Middle-Earth, are as you might expect, large miniatures combat games.  For me though, LotR has always been a tale about small struggles, personal conflicts to drive the greater good.  Huge fantasy armies massing for combat without the proper context is just WARHAMMER.  Which has its place and all, but is not what I expect out of a Tolkien game.  GW has the license for The Hobbit too, to tie in with the upcoming movies, although other than a BATTLE OF FIVE ARMIES game (which they’ve already done, albeit special order only) I can’t imagine what this particular company will do with it.
The only way one could pull it off is…well, what  Roberto Di Meglio, Marco Maggi, and Francesco Nepitello did with their board game called WAR OF THE RING.  (NOT to be confused with Games Workshop’s miniatures rules set by the same name.)  But if you read the previous installment of [Card.Board.Box] then you may recognize those names as the ones behind AGE OF CONAN.   Now, before we continue, let’s make one thing perfectly clear:  WAR OF THE RING is my favorite board game ever.  I did after all, drop four hundred big ones on the collector’s edition of the game.

As its name would suggest, it is, on its surface, a war game.  The narrative begins right after the Council of Elrond and continues until one of four things happens: The Ring is destroyed; Frodo becomes corrupted; the Shadow armies overwhelms the West; or the Free Peoples manage to pull off a very difficult military victory.  Yes, four different victory conditions, two for each of the very different sides.

And while for the Shadow player the game does play much like a war game, it is more subtle than that.  Each of the five Free Peoples nations must be convinced that trouble is on their doorstep, and the Free Peoples player cannot readily put any forces on the board until that happens.  The easiest way to do that is to break off members of the Fellowship to travel around and spread the word.  Think about it, poor confused Theoden is being deceived by Wormtongue, sitting on his throne in a fog, and it takes Gandalf the White and the Three Hunters to snap him out of it.  The trick for the Shadow player is that if he strikes too soon, he will speed up the political rousing of the Free nations and allow them to fight back in earnest.  It’s all about timing.  Bring out the Witch King too early, and the Free Nations will *know* something is up.  The flip side of this is that for the Free Peoples player, dunking the Ring in the fires of Mt. Doom is the surest path to victory, so by breaking off too much of the Fellowship to prepare the West, you are leaving Frodo vulnerable.  Similarly, the Shadow player must manage his resources in such a way as to get a bunch of troops on the table, while keeping the progress of the Fellowship to a moderate to slow pace.  Will you send the Nazgul to support your armies of Orcs, or will you send them on a hunt for the Ring?

I could write an entire article about this game alone, as many and varied are the nuances and strategies.  And with much of the action being supported by multiple card decks, fans of the novel will find just about every tiny detail possibly showing up in a given game.  Even some of the ones that Peter Jackson’s lovely adaptations failed to include.  Want to take over the Shire with Orcs and Wargs from Isengard?  It can happen.  Want Prince Imrahil to ride north from Dol Amroth to support the effort at Pelennor Fields?  You can do that too.  It might just mean the difference of a piece or two on the board, but knowing that those two pieces are Prince Imrahil’s men really contributes to the story that’s unfolding.

It should be noted however, that you are not railroaded into a particular chain of events.  While I complained about a lack of narrative structure in the LotR Living Card Game, in WAR OF THE RING events can unfold in very different ways from what we are used to, but the supporting mechanics give them all a place in the overall story.  In this manner I compare WAR OF THE RING to that other classic war game on a board, AXIS & ALLIES.  A&A is cleverly designed so that strategically, things are very likely to play out as expected in history.  For example, the easiest way for the Americans to get a foothold in Europe is by storming Normandy with amphibious assaults.  In WotR, the fastest (and most dangerous) way to get the Fellowship across the Misty Mountains is by cutting through Moria (and probably losing Gandalf in the process.)  But that’s not always the way it happens.  We’ve all certainly seen games of A&A in which the war was taken to American soil by the Japanese.  And I know I have played out games of WotR where crazy stuff happens.  Like Gandalf and Gimli leading an army of Mirkwood elves to successfully cleanse Moria of Orcs.  Or Aragorn dying at the Battle of Helm’s Deep and Boromir living to lead the forces at Minas Tirith.  Or Uruk-Hai laying siege to the Grey Havens.  Despite this, through it all, the game just feels right.  Attention to detail and tone go a long way.  The mechanics serve the story that we all know, and the story serves the mechanics.  RISK: THE LORD OF THE RINGS this is not.

It should be noted that just recently, it was announced that Nexus Games, the producer of this fine game (as well as AGE OF CONAN) had gone belly up.  It wasn’t a week later that a new publisher, ARES GAMES, announced that they had picked up the rights to WAR OF THE RING and would be releasing Nexus’s planned revised edition before the end of 2011.  This edition will be incorporating the larger, tarot-sized cards of the limited Collector’s Edition from a few years ago, plus a few other component upgrades and rules clarifications.  The planned expansion for AGE OF CONAN is now likely M.I.A. and I can’t imagine the game will be reprinted after the current batch has run out, although there are currently plenty of copies floating around out there.

Second Fiddle: The Role Playing Game
So a couple months ago, it was announced that Cubicle 7 had acquired the role-playing game rights for The Lord of the Rings.  My first thought was “Ugh, another Lord of the Rings RPG?  When will they learn?” Then I noticed that Francesco Nepitello was the name attached.  Yup, one of the guys behind both WAR OF THE RING and AGE OF CONAN.  That got my attention.

THE ONE RING: ADVENTURES OVER THE EDGE OF THE WILD is, by most counts, doing Tolkien role-playing right.  Why bother creating your own Dunedain Ranger to putter around Middle Earth when all the cool shit is happening with the Fellowship far away from you?  THE ONE RING is circumventing this problem by focusing the scope of the proceedings to the geographical area surrounding Mirkwood and the area East of the Misty Mountains, while setting the story in the time just following the destruction of Smaug.  Subsequent books will increase the area of influence and progress the timeline a bit, so that if you choose, you can run a long, multi-generational campaign which culminates right around the time that events of THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING begin.  Or you can keep things a little more grounded and stick to smaller obstacles in the region.  At Origins this past June, I got a peek at the game as it went to press.  One of a Player Character’s attributes is hope.  HOPE.  Yeah, this is gonna be good.  Games and Stuff’s George got a chance to briefly talk to Francesco at Gen Con 2011 while reporting for MTV Geek:  You can check out his blog entry here.

THE ONE RING: ADVENTURES OVER THE EDGE OF THE WILD was released at Gen Con 2011 and should be on shelves early in September.  I can’t wait for what promises to be a very different sort of adventure in Middle Earth.  (Note: George was kind enough to lend me his copy of THE ONE RING that he picked up at Gen Con.  I have now read through most of it.  Not only is it good, it’s really good.  Easily the best Middle Earth RPG ever.  Yes, better than MERP.  Preview article coming soon.)

So.  Playing in the shadow of your favorite heroes has long been a challenge of most licensed RPGs.  We all know that the Death Star gets taken out by a young moisture farmer in an X-Wing, right?  So why bother?  Margaret Weis Productions (MWP) is tackling this problem head on with their new MARVEL RPG announced at Gen Con.  And they’re doing it in a manner that is the polar opposite of THE ONE RING.  How?  You don’t have to worry about playing in Wolverine’s shadow when you ARE Wolverine.

After the initial core rulebook release, MWP will be releasing a series of “events” that are tailored after all of those big Marvel cross-over events that the comics publisher is so fond of doing.  So first up, for example, will be “Civil War”.  The trick is, instead of the players taking the part of some third string super hero chumps, the adventures are designed so that the players take on pivotal roles such as Captain America or Iron Man.  Guidelines are included for the GM to manage events if things end up with radically different results than the original story went, and there’s nothing stopping the players from running those home-brewed characters in pivotal roles themselves if they really want to.

One final tidbit regarding licensed RPGs.  Just last week, Archaia Entertainment (publisher of the MOUSE GUARD RPG) announced a DARK CRYSTAL RPG due for release at Gen Con 2012.  The Dark Crystal is one of those licenses that I hold very near and dear to my heart, and initial reports of the game allowing players to create Gelfling characters to run around in the “world of the film” had me wanting to scratch out my eyes as if I had stared directly at the Great Conjunction.  Not only does it make any sense that there would even BE any Gelflings other than Jan and Kira, but what’s the point?  Crystal healed. UrSkeks reborn. The End. Gah.
But further evidence reveals that the publisher is printing a new comic series later this year that takes place in the thousand years leading up to the film, based on a story draft by none other than Brian Froud.  If THAT is the setting of the game, I’d be on board.  More than on board.  I would be as excited as a Podling at a gardening festival.  We shall see.  (If anybody is not convinced of the rich mythic potential of this setting, see if you can track down Froud’s The World of the Dark Crystal book.  Though it now demands a premium price from collectors.)

At the end of the day, licenses are important to gamers for a wide variety of reasons.  The ones that are important to us help to shape and mold our creative selves.  In many cases, they were our first introduction to imaginative fiction, and the very thing that lead us to gaming in the first place.  The opportunity to revisit those worlds and create our own stories within them is too powerful a prospect to ignore.  But these things must be handled with care.  One does not simply walk into Mordor. You can’t just stick a logo on a box lid and expect the game to evoke the setting.  It’s gotten to the point that any time a new game is announced based on a property that I love, my first response is “how are they gonna screw it up?”

Ya know what?  Let’s view this from a slightly different perspective.  It’s time to fire up the WayBackMachinetm again.  Now now, I don’t want to hear any complaining, it will be fun this time.  There ya go.  Strap on the helmet.  Yeah, bite down on that piece.  Hard.  It’s to make sure you don’t crack a tooth or bite your tongue off.  Hush.  All settled in?  OK.  *click!*

It’s early in the 21st century and you are a grown man.  You’re crying in your hands because you just heard that “Firefly” has been cancelled.  You have no idea what you’re going to do with your free time now.  Things are looking down.  You haven’t been this depressed since the stillbirth of the Babylon 5 spin-off “Crusade”.  Oops.  We’re not back far enough.  I really need to get that thing fixed.  Let’s try it again.  *click!*

It’s 1983 and you are a young boy.  Two of your favorite things are playing with your G.I. Joe figures and watching The A-Team every Tuesday night.  *click!*

It’s 2010, and the last year has seen both a G.I. Joe live-action movie, and an A-Team one as well.  Which one was better?  Haven’t seen them?  Go Redbox that shit.  I’ll wait…

Back?  OK, by now it should be obvious that the “A-Team” film, while far from a cinematic masterpiece, was a fun bit of diversionary entertainment.  There were some nice references to the TV show, and the new B.A. managed to somehow feel like B.A. and yet not be Mr. T.  They even slipped in a nice arc about why he was afraid to fly.  Perfect mindless action fun, just like the TV show.

“G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra”?  It hurts, doesn’t it?  I know, I know.  You can cry on my shoulder all you want.  It’s OK to show emotion, man!  Don’t be ashamed.  I know I moistened my Larry Hama -penned G.I. Joe comic books with tears of sadness after seeing that celluloid nightmare.  I mean, c’mon…  If not for the presence of Snake Eyes or The Baroness, would you have even recognized that movie as a Joe movie if it had been called something else?  What’s with the third tier characters?  What’s with Breaker being an Arab?  Liquid metal face Destro?  Futuristic body suits?  Marlon Wayans?  For the love of Serpentor, MARLON WAYANS?!?!?  Nothing looked right.  Nothing felt right.  Don’t try to reinvent the wheel, people.  Just nail the tone.

And that’s all I’m trying to say.  Tone first, people.  Get the tone right, and we can forgive most other mis-steps.  And speaking of G.I. Joe, will Hasbro PLEASE let Avalon Hill make some giant G.I. Joe adventure board game?  Money in the bank.  Just sayin’.
-Paul Alexander Butler is the Store Manager of Games and Stuff and organizes the shop’s Tuesday Board Game Nights. [Card.Board.Box] is his monthly gaming column for GamesAndStuffOnline.com in which he writes about games. And stuff.   He is currently deep in the Wilderland outlining a planned epic-length campaign for THE ONE RING RPG.  When he comes up for air, he can be found hiding in the swamps of Louisiana making out with Zarana.

[CARD.BOARD.BOX]#4: HOBBY GAME LICENSES PART 1 – I DEMAND A GOOD GAME, BY CROM!

He had expected an image, probably carved with the skill of a forgotten art.  But no art could mimic the perfection of the figure which lay before him.  -Robert E. Howard  “The Servants of Bit-Yakin”

The hobby gaming industry is one that is in love with licenses.  We love our Star Wars and our Lord of the Rings and our Star Trek.  We love our Dresden Files and our Evil Dead and our Aliens.  We love Babylon 5 and X-Men and A Song of Ice and Fire, and the list goes on and on.  But the fact of the matter is that many gaming companies seem to think that making a game based on one of these beloved settings is a sure fire way to a great game (and great sales.)  Most of the time, they’re wrong.

For every BATTLESTAR GALACTICA board game (great!) there’s two score IMAJICA Collectible Card Games (awful).  For every STAR TREK EXPEDITIONS (surprisingly good!) there’s a dozen A WHEEL OF TIME RPGs (don’t ask).  For every good Cthulhu game there’s at least three crappy Cthulhu games.  (That’s a column onto itself.  Don’t get me started about the crimes against Lovecraft.)

The mass graves of the hobby gaming world are filled with the corpses of ill-advised attempts to capture the look and feel of a beloved novel, movie, or TV series.  And sure, while many of us may have fond memories of playing some of them, the fact of the matter is that very few of these games will be listed among your favorites after the buzz of the original movie or whatever has worn off.  Things have gotten slightly better in recent years, but that’s not saying much.

One of our regular gamers in the shop recently expressed his dismay with one company in particular, and I asked him to put it in writing for me.

“Insofar as licensed RPGs are concerned, some of the biggest design failures in recent memory were the first few offerings from Margaret Weiss Press.  In the case of both Serenity and Battlestar Galactica there was no real integration of system and setting. At that time the Cortex system was a vague and sloppy set of rules that banked on the tunnel vision of super fans that merely need the slightest hint of a game to animate their participatory fanfic. Although they’ve learned from their mistakes and added some more thematic mechanics to their newer games, I truly believe that the Cortex system would be virtually unsellable if it were not bolted to major television intellectual properties”

Now he was speaking of RPGs in particular, but he gets to the heart of the matter.  Rarely do the game mechanics reflect the tone of the license.  The vast majority of licensed games feel like the mechanics were designed in a vacuum and then the licensed property was painted on as the final step.  The rules do not inform the setting and visa versa.

Rogues in the House
One particular victim of this sort of “design” over the years is our Cimmerian barbarian friend.  To wit: The CONAN COLLECTIBLE CARD GAME.  Each player controls his or her own version of Conan in an attempt to be crowned king.  Really?  Four different Conans running around?  And all of them seeking to become king?  For fans of Robert E. Howard’s stories, this is just wrong on so many levels.  And the less said about the various Conan RPGs made over the years the better.  And now a 15-card MUNCHKIN: CONAN THE BARBARIAN pack is on the horizon.  While I understand the appeal of this sort of thing, for a Howard purist, this is practically sacrilege.  Do we really need Conan presented in a tongue-in-cheek humorous way?  Please, didn’t Conan the Destroyer do enough damage?  “Groo the Wanderer” exists for a reason.

Now with a promising new movie on the horizon (Look, it’s Khal Drogo!) gamers may very well be hunting for a hobby game that does Howard’s amazing creation some justice.  What’s that you say?  You’ve heard whispers of a Stygian Snake Cult that has somehow uncovered a good Conan game that’s been under our noses for years?  Can the serpent worshipers actually be speaking the truth?  Aye.

AGE OF CONAN: THE STRATEGY BOARD GAME is just that game.  Released in 2009 by Nexus Games and distributed by Fantasy Flight Games, AGE OF CONAN is designed by Roberto Di Meglio, Marco Maggi, and Francesco Nepitello, and the mechanics are loosely based on their earlier WAR OF THE RING board game (more on that title later.)  Right off the bat, you notice something different about this Conan game.  It’s game played across three ages, with each player controlling one of four kingdoms in Hyboria.  AGE OF CONAN is a fairly straightforward war game with the addition of one havoc-wreaking mercenary/pirate/barbarian Cimmerian running around the board occasionally throwing his lot in with one side or another and generally making life somewhat complicated for everyone around him.  And while the various nations are busy fighting over territory, subjugating native populations and swindling gold out of each other, Conan is completing the various quests and adventures that we are all familiar with from Howard’s wonderful stories: “The Tower of the Elephant”… “The God in the Bowl”… “The People of the Black Circle”… “The Frost Giant’s Daughter”.  These quests serve as a timer, determining when each age ends and the next begins.

Who gets to play Conan himself?  Nobody.  And everybody.  After each adventure, players bid cards to control Conan for the length of the next one.  Clever manipulation of Conan during these jaunts around Hyboria can result in treasures and glory for your kingdom, much like the various nobles and kings manipulated Conan in.. wait for it…Howard’s original writings! Sense a pattern here?

Not only that, but in what must be one of my favorite board game mechanics of all time, during the third and final age of the game, if certain conditions are met, a player may attempt to crown Conan as his king.  I have only seen this tried in about half of the games that I have played over the years, but when the stars are right, a player can attempt this risky maneuver to shore up victory for himself, or as a hail mary pass to win the game despite being otherwise out of contention.  Successfully crowning Conan won’t win you the game outright, but it will end the game and alter scoring conditions in your favor.  If you fail?  The game still ends, but Conan decapitates you for your ignorance and the remaining players do a final scoring with you, naturally, out of the running.

Yes, there are some dissenting opinions on this game out there, but I largely blame the slightly obtuse rulebook.  Once you get one session under your belt, the true brilliance of the design really shine through.  Yes, it’s a war game, but in a lot of ways, it scores like a Euro-game.  At the end of the day though, this is the only time our Cimmerian friend has been done justice in a game of any sort.

It should be noted that just recently, it was announced that Nexus Games, the producer of this fine game had gone belly up.  The planned expansion for AGE OF CONAN is now likely M.I.A. and I can’t imagine the game will be reprinted after the current batch that FFG has sells through, although there are currently plenty of copies floating around out there.
A New Hope
The question arises, why is it that more often than not, licensed games suck?  I think the answer lies in why we find them so appealing in the first place.  Sticking a license on the box… it’s basically gamer short hand.  Especially when dealing with a role-playing game.  Think about it.

Let’s say your gamer group is really into space-faring laser-blasting science fiction stuff.  All things being equal, which game would you prefer to introduce to your group?  TRAVELLER?  Or STAR WARS?  I thought so.  I mean, why bother trying to explain some vast new setting when you can just say “we’re playing Star Wars.”?  BOOM!  Everybody immediately knows the setting and everybody is immediately emotionally invested.  All the dirty work is done for you.  Where the problem arises is when the publisher lets all that good will and built-in resonance do all the work for them.  If you’re gonna create a Star Wars game, you are gonna need to work to make sure that the tone and feel of Star Wars comes through!  Otherwise, you’re just being lazy, and if you’re slapping that logo on all those books and boxes without designing mechanics and game play to specifically dial in to the setting… why bother?  You’re just gonna make a crappy game that causes explosions of NerdRage.

While we’re on the topic, if there’s one license that tends to elicit the most NerdRage or Joy from gamers, it’s Star Wars.  I think it’s safe to say that more games have been made from this property than any other.  And with good reason.  It is a deeply, deeply beloved world and over the years, the comics, novels and TV shows (the “extended universe”) have added to an already full and rich background.  It is ripe for the picking.  Alas, unexpectedly, Star Wars has rarely gotten a fair shake in game form.  I know STAR WARS: THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT board game has its followers, and so does the SAGA edition RPG, but other than that?  YOUNG JEDI?  STAR WARS RISK?  Please.  Roleplaying games are of particular note.  No Star Wars RPG has ever lived up to the setting’s potential in my opinion.  There are some interesting things about all of them to be sure, but none of them ever felt truly right.  They all lack a certain starwarsiness, and they all suffer from second-fiddle syndrome (more on THAT later too).

Now, that being said, literally as I was writing this column, Fantasy Flight Games announced a broad and comprehensive licensing deal with Lucasfilm.  I daresay this news was the buzz of GenCon this past weekend.  First up is X-WING, a tactical ship-to-ship combat game using pre-painted minis in the style of WINGS OF WAR; and the cooperative STAR WARS Living Card Game.  Both will take place during the classic trilogy’s continuity.

The deal covers board games, miniatures games, and… RPGs.   A new Star Wars RPG can’t be far away (indeed, FFG has confirmed that work is apace).  I am hopefully optimistic.  Why?  One word.  WARHAMMER.  Fantasy Flight Games took over the WARHAMMER FANTASY and WARHAMMER 40,000 RPG rights from Games Workshop and Black Library a few years ago, and the results have been outstanding.  Games Workshop is notoriously protective of their intellectual property and yet FFG has not only managed to present the depth and scope of the settings while keeping Workshop happy, but they are pushing thematic boundaries in a way that Workshop themselves haven’t done since the REALM OF CHAOS books in the late 80’s.  So yeah, I am charging up my lightsaber in anticipation.


Stay tuned for HOBBY GAMING LICENSES PART II in the coming weeks.

Paul Alexander Butler is the Store Manager of Games and Stuff and organizes Board Game Night every Tuesday at 6pm.   [CARD.BOARD.BOX.] is his monthly gaming column.  Thirty years ago he stole the large jewel known as “The Eye of the Serpent”  from a poorly guarded tower and now rules his ophidian worshipping minions from the Mountain of Power.

THE PROBLEM SOLVER

I was recently having a discussion with a friend of mine who is not, by nature, a ‘gamer’ and he made an interesting comment: “Why do you need to have more games than just the ‘classics’ like Chess?” This is actually a reasonable question. After all, Chess has been around in one form or another since about 600AD, a lot longer than SETTLERS OF CATAN. Chess exemplifies the maxim of, “simple to learn, a lifetime to master”; Chess has a long history of organized and competitive play around the world; Chess has an organized system for players to rate and match themselves against any other player; Chess is strategic and tactically complex in a way few other games approach; and most of all Chess is fun!

But even listing all those elements, why do you never see gamers playing Chess? Why does everybody own a Chess set and so few people play it regularly in their hobby game time?  I believe the reason is tied into being a ‘gamer’ and what that means.  First though I want to revisit that conversation with my friend, because I think it highlights the key difference between ‘gamers’ as a type and other people and it helped me to clarify why gaming is such an important hobby to me.

I believe the fundamental difference is that ‘gamers’ view game-playing as a skill or an activity unto itself, while non-gamers see game playing only as a skill of playing that particular game, like Chess. Gamers might play Chess to enjoy the interplay of strategy and tactics, of planning, of the social pleasure of victory or defeat, but a non-gamer might only see playing Chess as a way to practice and improve your ability to play Chess.

My friend actually espoused this viewpoint in our conversation, “there are so many things to know about Chess that I don’t see how I’d have time for other games, if I got into it.” I think that this is the attitude of an athlete, not of a gamer.  An athlete usually picks a sport or a skill and practices it, and trains their body and their mind to the performance of that skill, and, at a very high level tends to not practice other skills in other sports choosing to focus on achieving excellence in one area rather than in every sport. Similarly for high level Chess players, there are reams of books written about strategy, and lists of moves to memorize for efficient play, and an endless lifetime of the pursuit of excellence in that skill, but to what extent does being excellent at Chess help you win at CARCASSONNE?

A gamer, in contrast, is practicing a different set of skills, not the skills of soccer, or of Chess, but the skill of ‘game-playing’ which is, I believe, as valid and valuable as the ability to kick a ball, or know the opening to Kasparov vs. Deep Blue.

What is the skill of ‘game-playing’? What are you learning when you pick up a new game, and more importantly why is it valuable, fun and for some gamers, so compelling a hobby?

A short list: the ability to socialize in a confrontational environment; the ability to prioritize actions in response to novel situations; the ability to develop strategies in a new environment; the ability to adjust those strategies as the environment changes; the ability to process new instructions; the ability to be a gracious loser and a humble winner.

In short, you’re practicing and learning valuable skills for LIFE, not for games, when you pick up a copy of Dominion and I strongly believe that in doing so you’re putting yourself ahead of non-gamers. Take a look at that list again. Every one of those skills is valuable in a work or professional environments, some of them are critical to successfully navigating the modern world. They’re valuable in relationships, negotiations, novel problem solving. I’m pretty sure I’ve used the decision-making skills I learned playing Magic when I was fixing my sink, not because I knew how to play Magic, but because I knew how take a situation and say, “okay, I’ll try this…that didn’t work, now I’ll try this other thing…hmm, that was better, what if I change it a little and try this last thing.”

There are studies indicating that game players do in fact see benefits of the kind described above. The work of James Paul Gee and Jan Mcgonigal are good places to start for further reading. Additionally, there is anecdotal evidence that employers are using game playing as a litmus test for certain kinds of skills in the workplace, and more to the point, as evidence of a particular worldview.

The only way I know to develop this viewpoint, and to grow those skills is to play games. Certainly it’s the most fun way! But not to play the same game exclusively, because then you’re not learning to play games, but to play a game, and that’s less useful than developing the wider toolbox of skills described above.

The gamer is ultimately a highly trained, engaged, curious problem solver, whether the problem is defeating your friend in WARHAMMER, scoring points in LOST CITIES or yes, even checkmating your opponent in Chess. You’re developing your ‘gaming-brain’ or your ‘decision-making muscles’ every time you pick up a game, and more importantly every time you pick up a new game. You learn these skills, which are inextricably about coping with novelty and change, best when you face new situations, new rules and new games.

The skills of gaming, and subsequently the hobby of gaming for many, are the skills of breadth, of taking a large number of experiences and a wide body of knowledge and applying it to new situations, rather than taking one domain, or one situation and studying it completely. Both are valuable, and both can be fun, but as I think more about raising my new son I know I’ll be leaving a copy of SETTLERS in his room, and hoping someday he can beat me at Chess.

Michael Pokorny is an avid miniatures and board gamer, and a fan of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. His current project is an extensive conversion of a Warmachine Cygnar Storm Strider involving a live plasma sphere.  (Article coming soon!)

Deck of Many Things: Hollow Earth RPG Spotlight


hex_cover“First we discovered that the Earth is round.  Then we discovered that it’s hollow.  Now we must keep its secrets from falling into the wrong hands.”

And so begins the promise of the HOLLOW EARTH EXPEDITION RPG (HEX) from Exile Game Studio, a largely overlooked RPG originally released in 2006. Like many of the folks who haven’t given a serious look at this RPG until now, I am truly impressed by the incredible production quality and depth of content that this exciting pulp treat has to offer.
First, let me start by saying this game is not the multi-purpose pulp adventure do-it-all system of your dreams. What HEX does manage to be is something far more interesting than what most of those games have to offer. Whereas pulp games like White Wolf’s ADVENTURE! and Evil Hat’s SPIRIT OF THE CENTURY provide a rationale for party cohesion and just enough setting to have one at all, HEX goes all in on isetting and, in this reader’s humble opinion, scores maximum marks. Set against the backdrop of the tumultuous 1930s, the Hollow Earth is a massive (how massive, the Gamemaster must determine) underground series of interlocking worlds where nearly any pulp situation could occur. Dinosaur-hunting on the ridge of an active volcano? Deciphering Atlantean scrolls inside an ancient Viking tomb? Derring-do and treasure hunting while being chased by monocled Nazis cruising the underworld in giant mole-machines? Yes. All that and more can be set within HEX’s historically rich and fantastically fecund setting.
So, rather than sit here pitching this thing, let me now serve you the heaping platter of meat…

SETTING
The setting of HEX is a glorious one. In addition to the color I’ve provided above, the setting has other strengths in both its presentation and content that should mean a lot to aspiring gamemasters and players alike. The core book chapter entitled “Setting” is actually a tease to some degree. In this early chapter we are given a wonderfully fast-paced yet detail-oriented tour of the 1930s. In addition to listing the usual world-changing events, the chapter is treated in such a fashion as to denote specifically what a character living in that era would actually know. Certainly mad scientists and scholars of the arcane will have their secrets, but what about the private eye who lives a relatively isolated day-to-day punctuated by back alley murders and empty bottles of gin? What would that guy know? The setting chapter of HEX does a really could job of answering exactly these kinds of questions.

Before we get to the truly crazy stuff, I’d like to add that reading the sample characters (provided on full color pages a la Shadowrun) give a really good sketch of the game’s tone as well as the setting itself. These are the types of characters that pursue the Hollow Earth’s mysteries. These brave, mad, and obsessed individuals give great clues and inspiration for both the character creation process as well as providing some nice hooks for potential HEX sessions or even entire campaigns.
Now for the awesome. Chapters seven, eight, and nine of the core book cover the Hollow Earth itself; these are the enemies and organizations with whom the PCs may have dealings, as well as a catalogue of subterranean fauna and flora filled with evocative descriptions and rules for using them in your games. I am not going to go heavily into the Hollow Earth chapter because it is a minefield of setting spoilers. All I’ll say is that getting into the Hollow Earth is not always as easy as finding a big hole at the North Pole and sailing your air balloon into its whirling, pterodactyl-laden heart. Sometimes it’s a riddle, a piece of unimaginable weird science tech, and sometimes it is something altogether beyond the ken of normal men and women. A la Shangri-la!
hexmanCHARACTERS

Although I spend most of my time as the Gamemaster, I love picking up a new gaming book, flipping through the character generation system and then trying to think of all the badass things that a character in that game would allow me to experience. After only a few peeks at HEX’s character options my brain exploded with ideas and I found myself immediately desiring to start up a game . On the way home from Origins 2012 (where I took my first serious look at HEX), I’m quite sure I must’ve said “I must own Hollow Earth” at least half a dozen times.

The core book offers a variety of style-rich human archetypes that the pulp player is sure to embrace. The dying moneyman, the fortune hunter, the occult investigator, the mad scientist, and the jungle missionary all bring about images of flickering black and white film clips of Johnny Weissmuller beating up pirates on a massive tree branch suspended over a rushing waterfall; or Buster Crabbe blasting Ming’s lackeys on some psychedelic space-scape crawling with giant lizards. In addition to these versatile concepts, HEX’s designers provide some very cool talents and flaws (often called merits or disadvantages in other systems) for customizing your player character and developing a solid backstory and personal pulp style.

RULES
It is not a usual thing for me to jump up and down about the elegance of rules. Rules have always been a sort of irritating tether for my imagination, feeling like a quantitative stage hook that pulls me out of immersive role-playing and turns my attention to some crappy, mathy bits. For as long as I have gamed, I’ve favored ultra rules-light systems that dissolve into the background of the narrative, only being present as a passing permission for me and my friends to create stories and worlds we can run around in.
The UBIQUITY system used in HEX is a pretty simple little machine with some really cool, freeing features and options.
Perhaps the most flamboyant aspect of the system is the style point mechanic. Style points are a means by which the GM can provide individual rewards without disrupting the pacing provided by general advancement and experience points. With style points, player characters can augment skills, cause talents to flare to truly cinematic levels, and even soak or avoid damage in situations where it would otherwise be impossible. These style points generally flow in tight little cycles between scenes and encourage players to do things in accordance with their motivation.
Motivation is another cool bit, similar to the drive statistic in Pelgrane Press’s TRAIL OF CTHULHU.  It is that which moves your character to action, something that he or she seeks that will actively get her into trouble.  It’s the sound in the dark that the campers must investigate and the song in the night that draws pirates to wreck their vessel upon the jagged rocks. Is your character so motivated by truth that she’s willing to sneak past a gauntlet of heavily armed Thule Society super soldiers?  Or is your character so consumed with greed that they’ll omit the fact that acquiring the Atlantean weather control device will endanger the entire expedition, forcing them to traverse a well-known Tyrannosaurus feeding ground?
Beyond these bits the game unfolds in a fashion very similar to White Wolf’s current version of STORYTELLER, working with small dice pools formed by combining attribute, skill, and occasionally a funky talent bonus (similar to the way feats augment skills in the last two and a half editions of Dungeons & Dragons). The types of dice used are entirely up to the players and GM, as successes are not a target number, but any even face of any sized die. As long as the die has an even number of sides, you can use it in HEX. In addition to fast die-reading, the game is sped up by a cool little system of using averages for routine and routine-for-the-freakishly-competent actions. They make some special UBIQUITY dice that apparently speed things up even more but I haven’t really looked into these as I was entirely happy with plain old six-siders.
Combat is fast and narrative with a quick resolution system for determining conditions and wound penalties. None of it is particularly crunchy but, taken as a whole system, HEX provides a robust basis with enough granularity that it feels like traditional RPG combat, neither bogged down by heavy scripting, cluttered by weird narrative novelties, nor diluted by an awkward and removed directorial perspective that makes the game feel like you are discussing it rather than actually playing it.

Hollow_origSUPPORT
What I’ve covered above is pretty well covered in the core book, a well-produced hardcover coming in at about forty dollars. The core book, with a negotiable amount of elbow grease, will provide a ridiculous number of play hours. In fact, the material that your brain starts spitting after casual contact with this fine game may very well persist for years. Nonetheless, there are three supplements thus far…

First there’s the Hollow Earth Expedition Gamemaster Screen. Made from a similar stock as the sturdy cover of the HEX core itself, the screen provides a good selection of reference rules for the GM. Weapon damage charts, condition summaries, and various sorts of modifiers are printed in easily readable font and organized for maximum content. In addition, there are some extra GM-oriented bits in a thin booklet that fits neatly within the screen.
Next, there’s Hollow Earth Expedition: Secrets of the Surface World – a guide to what’s going on up top while you are running around down below. It’s filled with a bunch of new character options including the types of folks that’d be involved in surface based capers but could just as easily end up in the belly of your subterranean HEX campaign. This is also where you find the full psychic and magic rules, as well as expanded material on weird science and surface world adventure locations.
Finally there’s Hollow Earth Expedition: Mysteries of the Hollow Earth. This book provides rules for making your own creatures as well as systems for shamanism and alchemy. Beyond this, Mysteries of the Hollow Earth offers guidelines for playing those characters that are native to the Hollow Earth. Beastmen of several varieties, titan berserkers, and crazy humans who call the Hollow Earth home all become totally viable player options with the inclusion of this sourcebook. In addition more setting details are given about some of HEX’s best known underground locations as well as some of its most mysterious.
And as if that weren’t enough to keep you neck-deep in pulp craziness, the next announced supplement is Hollow Earth Expedition: Revelations of Mars. Although I’ve only seen the teaser, the book promises Martian locations, alien tech, and character options tied to the Mars setting. Yeah. I’ll pre-order mine yesterday, please.
Sound appealing? Feeling a little daffy? Want the skinny on this entire Hollow Earth rumpus? Well, strap on your bullwhip, get on your stegosaurus, and prepare to fight those Nazi-controlled molemen like you never have before!

DoyleMap

[CARD.BOARD.BOX]#3: I ASSASSINATE THE MAGICIAN – THE GAMES OF BRUNO FAIDUTTI

BrunoFaiduttiUnicorn“I hope there’s no god, since the very idea of Creation seems deeply obscene.”  -Bruno Faidutti

I am in love with a Frenchman named Bruno.

You see, some people have a favorite film director.  Some people have a favorite band.  Or maybe a favorite dessert.  Yeah, I’ve got those things, but I’ve also got a favorite board game designer.  Yeah, I know.  You wish you were as cool as me.  But if you’re reading this column, you’ve got at the very least, a passing interest in board games, so if you’re not familiar with Mr. Bruno Faidutti, allow me to make introductions.

Bruno Faidutti was born in 1961 and is a sociologist and historian.  He lists Blade Runner among his favorite films and Gogol Bordello as one of his favorite bands.  Kurt Vonnegut, Neil Gaiman and James Joyce are but a few of his favorite authors.  He prefers Jerzebiak brand vodka.  He wrote his thesis for his History PhD on unicorns!  In fact, you can download it directly from his fabulous website… provided you’re willing to read it in French, that is.   Said fabulous website (www.Faidutti.com) also includes his “Ideal Game Library” which is a comprehensive list of every game Mr. Faidutti thinks should be in the distinguishing board gamer’s collection.  (For any of you out there who are fans of horned mythical beasts, but are not francophones, allow me to instead recommend Chris Lavers’ enlightening book The Natural History of Unicorns.  No, it’s got nothing to do with gaming.  Screw you, it’s my column!  Just read the damn book.)

At any rate, Mr. Bruno Faidutti also designs board games.  And in my opinion, Bruno Faidutti designs excellent board games.  Many designers have a design signature that is apparent in most of their work, and Faidutti is no exception.  Social games are his trademark, and his games tend to highlight bluffing or even intimidation over raw tactical thought.  Being able to out-maneuver your opponents is rarely as valuable as being able to out-guess them.  Faidutti’s games are not usually the sort of affairs where one can analyze every possible outcome to maximize your position; too much is left to the whim of your opponent.  Figuring out the odds means nothing when your opponent can find success by making the most ridiculous move possible just to screw with you.  Knowing exactly how any turn is going to play out is an impossibility.

CitadelsNowhere is this design strategy in better evidence than in Faidutti’s best selling game, CITADELS.  First printed in 2000 and later published in no less than 16 different languages, this was the game that introduced me to Bruno Faidutti, and it might just be my favorite game of all time.  It’s certainly my favorite in its weight class.

In a nutshell, the game is played like this:  you’re playing cards from your hand to the table in front of you, the cards representing districts in a medieval city.  You can only play one card per turn, and you must pay the gold value of the card to add it to your city.  Once a player has eight districts in front of him, the current round is played out and then game ends, the player with the most valuable city winning the game.  That’s basically it.  The trick is that each round, every player secretly picks a character from a shared deck of eight special character cards.  The character that you choose determines not only when in the game round you get to play, but gives you one special ability that enables you to somehow manipulate the cards, the other players, or your income.  Not all the characters are always available, but because the remaining character cards are passed to the player on your left after you choose yours, you will always have a few good hunches as to which characters the players before you have chosen.  This last tidbit is the heart of the game.  Can you guess which player has chosen which character?  Are you certain that Jeff has chosen to be the King again this round, or has the rat bastard picked the Thief, thinking to rob you of your lawfully gotten gold?  (My apologies to Jeff for using his name as an example once again.  Play enough games with me over the years and that’s what happens.  That, and I write a ludicrously lengthy Shadowrun campaign which culminates with your beloved character having a mental breakdown and effectively choosing to kill himself.  What?  Oh, right.  Board Games.  *ahem*)

I have introduced CITADELS to countless people over the years, gamer and non-gamer alike, and it’s always a crowd pleaser (crowd indeed: it plays well with up to eight!)  Within the gaming realm, for me there’s nothing quite as satisfying as successfully pegging which character a CITADELS opponent has chosen so that you can get the desired result.  Whether it’s assassinating the King to keep him from gaining the Noble district gold bonus and winning the game, or stealing from the Architect because man, you just knew that guy was gonna pick the Architect ‘cause he had that big old pile of gold sitting in front of him.

DragonstonesCards

Over the years, Mr. Faidutti has implemented the basic idea of choosing special characters (each with a special power) into a number of different variations for different games.  Designed with Michael Schacht (he of Zooloretto fame), FIST OF DRAGONSTONES, though now criminally out of print and unavailable, was the follow up to CITADELS, and combined the “special power” mechanic with a blind bidding system and a rotating cast of special characters.  There are no hands of cards to be managed, just some lovely wooden coins and glass “Dragon Stones”.  It’s a much faster and more confrontational game.  Deciphering the “group think” is more important here than in CITADELS, as one must attempt to predict how the entire group will respond to any given character’s availability.  Adding to the tension is the fact that a player’s resources are hidden behind a cardboard screen.

MissionRedPlanetIn the same broad family is the more recent MISSION: RED PLANET, which Faidutti designed with Bruno Cathala (CYCLADES).  The same core mechanic of character cards, each with a special power is utilized here, but every player has their own deck, and there’s an actual board used in this game, bringing a simple area control mechanic into the fold.  It’s almost like what would happen if CITADELS and EL GRANDE had an illegitimate love child that was raised on Jules Verne novels.  It’s got rocket ships; mining accidents on the surface of Mars; secret agents in space; off world bombing… but really, all you need to know about this game is:  steampunk-themed board game.  The market is starting to see quite a few games with this theme, but Red Planet remains the best.  Why this game never took off I can’t understand.  (Took off?  Ha!  Get it?  Took…   off?   Rockets?  Never mind.)  Easy to learn, and with a short playing time, it’s become a favorite of a few of my gaming groups.  MISSION: RED PLANET is also out of print, but there are still quite a few copies floating out there in the distribution channels as of this writing, so it should be available from most shops.

MysteryAbbeyBoard

Finally, one could argue that MYSTERY OF THE ABBEY (designed with Serge Laget) is part of the same board game family tree, but instead of special character cards, the special abilities come from the locations that you occupy on the board.  One part The Name of the Rose and one part CLUE for adults, MYSTERY OF THE ABBEY takes the whodunit idea of CLUE and makes it a much more social affair, requiring you to ask very carefully worded questions of your opponents.  By the midway point of the game, one is forced to make three and four step deductions based off not only your opponent’s answers, but the kinds of questions they themselves are asking.  So I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me! A few event cards thrown into the mix keeps every game fresh and can even add some party game style silliness.

Something else you may have noticed is that Bruno Faidutti really likes to collaborate with other designers.  I find that this keeps his works fresh while still maintaining that certain Je ne sais Bruno.   (Mr. Faidutti himself would probably be appalled at my attempt at French humor.  What can I say?  After taking four years of the language in High School all those many years ago, I find myself in my thirties and more capable of speaking Indonesian.  I’m not joking.  My cousin can speak Russian fluently.  In fact, he once traveled to Russia to study for a semester but decided half way through to quit and take a train across Mongolia instead.  He returned home only to move to Los Angeles.  None of which has any bearing on anything, really.)

Among his other designs are INCAN GOLD (designed with Alan R. Moon of TICKET TO RIDE fame) a press-your-luck style mining themed game; the recent BUGS & CO, a fantastically manic real time set collection game that plays in about 90 seconds for up to eight players (designed with Tom and Yako, the crew behind JUNGLE SPEED); RED NOVEMBER (designed together with Jef Gontier) a cooperative game of drunken Russian gnomes aboard a doomed submarine (revised edition due out soon!); and DOUBLE AGENT, a two player spy-themed game which only came out a couple weeks ago.  It reminds me of Richard Garfield’s underappreciated PECKING ORDER, but with an extra layer of bluffing.

Finally, I would like to shine a light on some of Bruno’s releases from the last couple years that didn’t quite get the attention they deserved.

PONY EXPRESS, on which Faidutti shares design credits with Antoine Bauza, is silly fun in a box.  Players race to be the first to reach Sacramento while being forced to deal with hostile Indians and gunfights with the other players.  Utilizing poker dice (familiar to anyone who’s played DICE TOWN) players move their pawns based not on the poker hand that they roll on the dice, but the poker hand that they claim to have rolled on the dice, provided no other player calls their bluff.  If that weren’t enough, when dueling with other players or fighting off injuns, players literally throw the dice at the pawns on the board in an attempt to hit their targets.  But be careful not to shoot any innocent bystanders or you’ll go to jail.  A silly, silly game which hides a surprising amount of depth.   Even better with some adult beverages thrown into the mix, especially considering there’s a Saloon mechanic that would facilitate said beverages nicely.  This is now on my short list of favorite party games.  Alas, it too has gone the way of the dodo bird, and it is getting rather hard to find.  If you manage to find a second-hand copy of this riding around somewhere, I would highly recommend scooping it up. Is it basically poker-fied LIAR’S DICE but with a board game racing element thrown in?  Sure, but it’s got a lot more character.  (What’s LIAR’S DICE you say?  “So any crew member can be challenged?”  “Aye, anyone.”   “I challenge Davey Jones!”)

LetterOfMarqueLETTER OF MARQUE, from 2009, is taught in a couple of minutes and played in half an hour or less. It’s a quick little time filler of a game wherein Bruno’s trademark bluffing and guessing style is at the forefront.  In fact, bluffing and guessing is about all there is to this simple game.  Well, that and cute little brightly colored sailing ships.  A player sends merchant ships out to sea, each of varying treasure value, but must secretly decide if you’ll utilize one of only two available cannons to arm the ship. Of course, like most things Bruno has his hand in, all is not as it seems.  At first play, one might even be prepared to dismiss this game as too lightweight or even for children, but it quickly becomes apparent that there are multiple layers of bluffing to delve into.  Do you defend the most valuable merchant ships?  The ones of mid-worth?  Or do you arm the lowest value ones, which should be the easy targets?  With only three attacks possible per player, and limited options each turn, it is easy to lose track of which ships are unguarded, particularly in a five player game (which is where this title really shines.)  Specific information about your opponent’s game has already been revealed, but in the chaos, you’ve forgotten the details.

IslaDoradaArtLastly is ISLA DORADA, which was released last year through an arrangement between Fantasy Flight Games and Fun Forge.  This game actually has a really strange history, having originally been designed as an expansion board for Alan Moon’s ELFENROADS, but morphing into something much bigger over the course of the decade.  Faidutti himself does a much better job of covering the history himself, so I won’t attempt to do so here. (But you can click here to check it out.  Yes, it’s in French, scroll down for English.)
The game has absolutely gorgeous art, and manages to feel rather unlike anything else, despite being based on previous game designs.  A crashed airship on a tropical island leads to the survivors arguing over directions as they bicker over hidden treasures and curses.  In fact, all the players share a single pawn and there is a heated struggle each turn over where to move it.  The trick is to get your opponents to move the thing where you want it to go, but make them spend the resources to do so.  Don’t let its simplicity fool you, once your gaming group gets a session or two under your belts, the wacky randomness will give way to some serious bluffing and maneuvering.
Bruno Faidutti’s designs manage to split the difference between raw strategy and the social mechanics more common to party games or poker, and I find that his games manage to appeal to hardcore strategists and more casual gamers alike. It was no surprise to me that Nexus Games picked Bruno Faidutti and Serge Laget to launch their Nexus Design Series with AD ASTRA, one of my favorite games released in 2009, which I discussed briefly in the Best Of list I compiled for that year.
With most of Faidutti’s designs, your brain will burn as you try your best to outwit your opponents, but you’ll be laughing the entire time.  It’s this lovely dichotomy that makes Bruno Faidutti my favorite game designer, and every new release bearing his name becomes a priority for me to investigate.  With CITADELS alone, he would have left his mark on the gaming world, but lucky for us, he continues to be amazingly prolific.

What’s next for him?  Be on the lookout for THE DWARF KING from Iello, coming soon.  It’s a new spin on the classic French trick-taking game BARBU, and I will be buying it without knowing much else about it.  It’s a Faidutti design.  I am at the point where I just blindly buy anything with his name on it.
Paul Alexander Butler is the Store Manager of Games and Stuff and organizes Board Game Night every Tuesday at 6pm.  [CARD.BOARD.BOX.] is his semi-regular gaming column.  Prior to 2008, Paul had never lost a game of Citadels.  These days, he loses all the time.

[CARD.BOARD.BOX]#2: HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE WITH FIREBALLS

“Do not meddle in the affairs of Wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.”  -Meriadoc Brandybuck

It is often said about the classic 1959 board game DIPLOMACY that it’s a great way to destroy friendships, or at least a great way to temporarily turn your friends into bitter enemies.  I believe the same can be said about 1983’s WIZ-WAR, except in the latter case, you’ll be laughing the entire time.
First produced independently and later printed and distributed by Chessex, Wiz-War was printed in at least seven editions over the years – probably more, I can’t keep track.  Creator Tom Jolly has gone on to design such notable games as CAVE TROLL and DRAKON, as well as the innovative DISK WARS, arguably Fantasy Flight Games’ first gigantic success.  WIZ-WAR, meanwhile, despite being a cult classic, and having been successful enough for two expansions, has languished out of print for some time.  Published sporadically by Chessex over the years, most editions were simple little cardboard and paper affairs, with only the most recent iterations even being in color.  For whatever reason, Chessex has allowed the game to stay unavailable, despite frequent rumblings that a new edition was on the way.

Yet the influence of this tiny little game is widespread.  DUNGEON TWISTER is obviously a cousin of WIZ-WAR.  Celebrated RPG writer John Wick (LEGEND OF THE FIVE RINGS; HOUSES OF THE BLOODED) wrote an essay on WIZ-WAR for Green Ronin’s Hobby Games: The 100 Best book and it puts this little rant of mine to shame. (Every self respecting gamer should own that book, by the way)   No less than Richard Garfield has said that WIZ-WAR was an influence on the design of MAGIC: THE GATHERING. 

It’s easy to see how that happened.  WIZ-WAR is a game of dueling wizards, played on a maze-like board of dungeon corridors.  The more players, the bigger the dungeon.  Every player has two treasures in their home corner of the board.  The goal of the game is to capture any two treasures (other than your own) and return them to your home base.  You can also achieve victory by simply killing all of your opponents.  A simple hit point system is used and every player has a hand of cards that represent spells that can do a wide variety of things – such as throwing fireballs or summoning monsters to attack your rivals.  Finding the right combination of cards for any given attack can sometimes be devastating to an opponent.  There are also counter-attack cards that can be played as interrupts.  And counter-counter-attack cards.  Any of this sounding familiar?   Some of the spells that result in the most fun are the ones that can change the very nature of the maze by creating pits, destroying walls, or rotating entire sections of the board.  When all else fails, one can simply punch an adjacent wizard.  And let me tell you, there’s something sickly satisfying about a game of dueling wizards that can end with one well timed punch to the face.

And talk of face-punching leads me to the real joy of this game.  It’s not so much about strategy and planning as it is about trash talk and scheming.  How close any player is to winning is right there in front of you at all times.  I think I have yet to play a session of Wiz-War without something like this occurring:
Mike: “Dude!  Why are you attacking me?  Joe is like two turns away from winning?”
Phil: “Yeah, but you locked me behind that door.”
Mike: “That was twenty minutes ago!  You’re gonna hand the game to Joe!”
Phil: “Yeah, maybe you’re right.  OK, I hit Joe with the fireball instead.”
Joe: “Idiot!  Don’t you see what he’s doing to you?   Who do you think Mike’s Wraith is gonna attack next turn if you kill me now?”

Yeah, it’s a great game.  I imagine certain MAGIC: THE GATHERING COMMANDER players might really get into this.

Wiz-War was one of the first games I bought at a convention (Origins 1991, right here in Baltimore) and it proved to be so much more than just Con Trash.  (Con Trash, for the uninitiated, is any of a number of low-budget, dumb-fun little games that specifically appeal to the gamer demographic.  You play it at a convention and have a ball with it, mainly because you’re all hopped up on nerdy con goodness.  Then you buy it and it goes home with you to sit on your shelf where it will never be played again.  But I digress.)  Wiz-War hit the table again and again and again.  And years later, when I saw a new edition, I bought it all over again, as my original copy was so worn by that point.  Not that that stopped a buyer in Sweden from paying $90 plus shipping for my old copy just a few years ago.  Clearly, this is a game that is well loved by many.

So why am I talking about a 27 year old game that’s been out of print since the nineties?  A forum post by Tom Jolly in August of 2008 states the following:
“Hi, all.  The good news is, with some negotiation, in a few weeks I should have a contract in hand canceling the Chessex contract and replacing it with one from a much prompter company which shall, for the moment, remain nameless. But, WW will be out in less than 2 years once the contract is signed, and it’ll look *nice*.”

Over a year later (Nov. ’09) he posted this:
“Well, the contract with The Company Who Shall Not Be Named is all signed as of a few months ago (I’m slow in the “delivering news” department). So now it’s just “wait for publication” in 2011. As for expansions, I have no idea how much of anything they’re going to incorporate from the basic game and the 3 expansion sets (one never published). They’ve got an awful lot of material to choose from, but publication is far enough off that they haven’t started pinging me yet for comments and suggestions.”

And now (June ’11) Jolly is soliciting gamers’ opinions on cards for the new edition (http://wizwar.com/wizboard/viewtopic.php?t=1857).  Also, after months of speculation, it is now commonly believed that the publisher will be Fantasy Flight Games, although it has not been officially announced.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is worthy of a naked happy dance.

Additional information seems to indicate that the “mystery publisher” required exclusive computer rights, and that the organization is also one known for making very well produced and good looking games.  Additionally, Jolly suggested that it’s possible that instead of typical expansions, the company might look into releasing new cards in a staggered CCG type format, though he’s admitted that he’s gotten no direct intel from the company on this, but it’s merely conjecture on his part.  All of this has the internet abuzz with guesses about WIZ-WAR’s future publisher.  Although again, current scuttlebutt is that the mystery publisher is in fact Fantasy Flight.  Ooh.. does this mean we’ll see some sort of weird board game/LCG hybrid thingie?

At any rate, according to my calendar, we are now just about halfway through 2011.  Is a new Wiz-War on the horizon?

Paul Alexander Butler is the Store Manager of Games and Stuff and organizes the shop’s Board Game Night every Tuesday Night at 6pm.  [Card.Board.Box.] is his montly gaming column.  At last count, he had over 200 board game titles crammed into the tiny bedroom of his tiny apartment.  Nothing says “Den of Love” like a floor-to-ceiling wall of board games, eh?