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July 29, 2003

Favorite Games XXIV

Another out-of-print Avalon Hill fave today...

Merchant of Venus is a science fiction themed game because it had to be to sell... but it really isn't about space. The designer's notes admit that the game is closer to 16th and 17th century spice island trade than to anything scifi, but that's hardly a problem. After all, this has been done in dozens of similarly-theamed computer and board games before and since. What we get this time, though, is a delightfully quirky (sometimes downright silly) game of navigating through a semi-charted region of space, trying to discover cultures that will sell you cheap goods you can sell at a high price elsewhere. The goal is to make your fortune faster than the other traders can, because everyone will get rich here.

If the game has a flaw, it's the first thing you notice about it... it's busy. The board is covered in icons, and to those you need to add dozens of cardboard chits to randomize the locations of alien cultures and of numerous navigation hazards/lost relics/etc. Learning to read the board and work out just what your move rolls will allow is the steepest part of this game's learning curve. Once you get your head around the many symbols and their meanings, the next step is counting out good routes from system to system. The board is designed to offer several inherent "triangles" if the cultures appear in the right places, and there are also "tele-gates" that appear randomly and could end up creating several more via short-cut. Of course, you won't find out which culture is where until you go there and check.

First contact is rewarded with an IOU counter you can trade for goods or equipment later, and the first chance to buy up their inventory of goods and perhaps (if you have the money) build a space station or a factory there. Stations allow one to trade in orbit (so more trading can be done on a turn, and you don't have to pay the high movement point cost of taking off from the surface). Factories allow the production of higher-valued goods. Both give their owner a "cut" and all spaceports and factories count toward winning, so it's hardly like spending at all. There are, in total, 14 cultures you can discover, which may include fragments of your own (the players are merchants from the galactic core, which did not experience quite the collapse of this sector).

Goods are stored in your ship's hold for transport, and can be sold at any culture marked on their reverse (usually the next 4 cultures of a 14-culture circle... the exception is that culture 8 sells to 5 other cultures not 4 for complex reasons of the game's structure I'm not 100% sure I understand, but it's reasonably balanced anyway). You can buy up to a larger ship for more cargo space, or down to a smaller one to move faster. If you find a nice, short loop, you can make money very quickly. However, once a good is bought and sold, it vanishes from the board into "the cup". The Cup is where random counters lie, counters that add passengers seeking transit from planet to planet or heightened demand for certain goods or, once they are sold and put there, new production of goods. So, if you sell and return too fast, you'll find there's nothing left to buy next visit (though there will be more random items scattered around the map). This keeps the game from getting too deep into a rut, and offers other players a way to disrupt a hard-to-better cornering of the market (they can buy up one critical good and jettison it into space, denying you the profits... or just hold it in a huge ship making it impossible to produce more).

And I haven't even mentioned the funky rule-bending relics, player-vs-player combat via ship weapons, or the optional (and nasty) evil space-worm Rastur race that slowly infect the board. This is no German-style trading game with one overarching bid or trade mechanic; it is a complex game made up of numerous, individually simple mechanics (many of which might be their own German-style game, one of racing along a complex map, one of exploration, one of trading...). The result is a challenging and fun game with high replayability thanks to the very randomized board (though a much too long set-up/clean-up time because of all the different counters).

Unfortunately out of print since the late 80s and hard to find... but well worth it if you can!

Posted by ghoul at 06:09 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

July 27, 2003

Quick Question

How is it that a graphic novel this smart can become a film this stupid?

Posted by ghoul at 03:11 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 26, 2003

Favorite Games XXIII

Okay, today's game is more than 20 years old and very silly, but it's great fun to play, so it makes the list...

Amoeba Wars is a very silly game of exploration and conquest, with player in conflict with one another, with Doomsday Machines left behind by a collapsed space empire and with Amoebas larger than planets that we the reason that empire fell. The game board, representing the known galaxy, is divided into hexagonal systems, each with from one to six planets, with the more crowded systems being hardest to conquer. To start play, each player puts their starting fleet into one of the starting systems (in the six corners of the board), then the amoebas start a series random expansions, which helps to make each game different. After that, play proceeds in turns, but with a unique turn order mechanic. At the start of each turn, everyone plays a card (you have a hand of three). High numbered cards cause bad or neutral events (amoeba rampages, activation of the Doomsday Machines, at random if bad or by your choice if more neutral), while low numbered cards are positive ones (the ability to hyperjump parts of your fleet, or free extra ships). Whoever plays the highest card goes first can can use their own card and every one less than that... but must use all the bad cards. Deciding which card to play is a main strategic element here, as playing high gives you more special options and an earlier turn, but playing low gives you a better special benefit, though you probably have to share that with all other players. Complicating the decision slightly is the fact that some of the cards (the highest and lowest numbers) alter the normal rules in addition to their regular effects.

Once you've resolved all the cards, you can send your ships on a campaign of conquest, with the goal being to take over spaces that enable you to produce more ships, then a chunk of the central system, and in the end, Saestor, the capital of the lost empire (and the center hex of the board). Since only one player can win, the initial efforts to fight back the amoebas turns to infighting and backstabbing by the end. Combat follows two mechanics, one (vs. empty systems or systems infested with amoeba) cares only how many ships you have, the other (vs. other fleets or Doomsday Machines) compares firepower ship-to-ship. You have 5 types of ships available, from the small but almost weaponless scouts to the immobile but as well armed as Doomsday Machines monitors; you have to decide which to build (the more weapon-loaded ships cost more) and how to move them around to protect your borders and expand your frontier.

As an option, once you're used to the game, there are 8 special power cards, which you can deal out (on per player) to make the player empires non-identical. But, really, this is an add-on mechanic, and offers very little true variation from game to game (if there were 20 or more powers, it would be a much different story... but there aren't). I find this one holds up on just its base game play, and so can be enjoyed again and again just as it is.

It isn't a serious game, the mechanics make no illusion of representing anything. But when your lone scout holds off wave after wave of battlestars or when you manage to provoke an Amoeba to break open your biggest rival's defenses, you'll realize what a fun game this can be.

Finding a copy isn't easy, as Avalon Hill is no longer with us and this was never one of their biggest sellers... but it's worth if it you can find it. My copy is almost worn away.

Posted by ghoul at 06:14 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 25, 2003

WISH 57 - System and Decisions It Affects

Do you find that you play differently when you play in different game systems? For instance, do you approach D&D or Champions the same way you approach Vampire or Werewolf the same way you approach Amber or Nobilis? Do you build the some kinds of characters? What are some examples of different characters in different systems, and why do you think they evolved that way?

I am personally very affected by system. In some ways, I see the game mechanics are the "rules of physics" the character's world follows, so some things follow from that.

In some games, this affects very basic things about my character... Some games require characters to fall into certain broad stereotypes by their role in the story (D&D prior to 3E was very much this way, as is Cyberpunk; D&D 3E and 3.5 are only slightly more flexible), others are more subtle about it (GURPS or Tri-Stat, which make it look like you can generalize, but can render you unable to do much effectively unless you specialize), while others can present a truly blank page (Everway, Over the Edge, Nobilis, or Hero Wars, for example) to the point that you may even be creatively paralyzed by the wealth of choices. If I know an idea won't work in a certain game, I put that concept on hold and use it later, in a game where it won't conflict with the rules of the world. Which is just what I'll do if my idea conflicts with the GM's presented setting. In that way, system is an extension of the setting, so the same setting in different systems will not produce the same game.

For example, Vampire and GURPS Vampire are remarkably different... Vampire characters have a certain distribution of attributes and skills that prevent them from being hyper-specialized or incredibly broad, while the GURPS version has no such limit. Thus, if I have an idea for a Vampire character who has just one power, but is amazingly good at it, to the detriment of all other, I can do reproduce my idea in a game character better in the GURPS version; meanwhile, if I want to play a character who fits well into the "chinese menu" approach of Vampire (pick one ability from list A, two from list B, a personality template from list X, etc.), I don't want to go to the work GURPS would require (or be presented with all the temptations to stray from my concept the flexibility of GURPS presents).

For another example, I have a standard character for two-fisted explorer action games. He started in Space 1889 and has cropped up in Dream Park (as a PC for the Dreamsmith's tournaments) and in Feng Shui (when the characters went back to 1850). He's big, charming, and dumb as a rock. He actually has few skills except his charm, which he uses to convince others that he's a hero; a pure Flashman-esque fraud. And that was easy to do in all of those system. But when I tried to do him in White Wolf's excellent Adventure! game, I found it impossible to make him anything except hyper-competent. There just isn't an option to do a PC who isn't pretty darn good at even what they're worst at in that system; well-rounded, highly-skilled characters are an assumption around which it is designed.

But most system effects are much subtler. Look at Champions characters versus GURPS characters. In early editions of Champions, players had 100 points to build their character, but could take up to 150 points of disadvantages. Three-fifths of your character was from disadvantages, so the cost of taking, say, half the maximum disadvantages was a character built to a scale 30% below all the others in the game. GURPS, meanwhile, had 100 point characters with 45 points of disads (including quirks), so less than one-third of your character was from disads and the cost of taking only half the maximum was a much smaller bite (around 15%). Silver Age Sentinels takes this even further, with 150 point characters and rarely over 25 points of defects. This inevitably distorts player decisions. If the only way to be sufficiently effective is to have a ton of disadvantages, I will take those disadvantages. And then I will do my best to make them limit me as little as possible, since I did not take them because they were character-appropriate, I took them because the system "made me". System distortion.

Of course these things influence what characters get played... If you play a character that doesn't work in the system, you'll probably become disappointed as the game goes on. You may not know why. You may just think the GM isn't giving you enough attention, or that you've squandered your opportunities, or that your luck has been bad, or you may blame another player for hogging the limelight. You may go to the GM and complain, or the GM may notice on their own and make changes to try to bring things around. But, all too often, it isn't because of anything you can put your finger on in how play has proceeded, it will be because your character idea conflicts with the mechanics, and so you will never be as effective as someone whose character does not. No matter how well the GM tries to patch things up.

And so, since I hate getting into that situation, I try to find an idea that works as well as one that tempts me to play it. In fact, I often find myself needing to curb my own munchkin-like instincts to find something that works better-than-average (and there is almost always such a thing, in even the best designed systems). It's also why I'm rather attracted to system-light or system-less games, which allow for more open and freeform character decisions without having to worry about accidentally picking one that doesn't work.

Posted by ghoul at 05:13 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

July 24, 2003

ReFi Fo Fum V

And it is done... the check is deposited, the payments to prior creditors are authorized, and all is well with the world (or, at least, my little bit of it).

Thanks, all, for the good wishes and reassurances!

Posted by ghoul at 09:57 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 23, 2003

Favorite Games XXII

A couple of my faves from the miniatures-happy loonies at Games Workshop today...

Space Hulk is a two-player game deserving of far more respect than it ever got. Players control either a small squad of highly trained Space Marines with top-of-the-line hardware or an endless horde of hive-mind insect-like horrors from a distant world. If it sounds like a certain James Cameron move, you'd be only half-right, but you'd be in keeping with many of the game's critics. Unlike the film, these Space Marines are in massive armor, called Terminator suits, that renders them the kings of the AD 40,000 battlefield, vulnerable only to the heaviest weapons and with enough firepower to cut down whole enemy squads in one burst. Meanwhile, their enemies, the Genestealers, are quick, crafty, and armed with claws that tear that thick Terminator armor apart like it was tissue-paper. It makes for a tense match-up. The game's main strengths come for the dramatically different way each side plays, but the good balance the game achieves despite that. Marines are few in number (many scenarios have a squad of only 5) and move openly on the board; marines armed with some of their better weapons (such as flamethrowers) have to keep track of ammunition. Genestealers, meanwhile, are represented by cardstock tokens ("blips" on the marines' motion detectors) as long as they are out of sight; when seen by a marine, these tokens can turn out to be nothing... or as many as nine angry monsters. Marines have all the advantages at range, but once it gets close-in, the two sides are about equal... And when it's dozens-to-one, being equal is being dead. By the book, the Marine player has to work under a time limit each turn, which prevents being overly analytic and often causes mistakes, such as walking down a path that will lead to more activated blips when a shorter alternate path existed, though the game works fine if you ignore this rule. Games can be played as simple bouts or as a series of missions, with pre-plotted campaigns included in the basic game and its expansions. Expansions also added additional units for both sides (Terminators armed for close combat, Terminator Librarians with psychic powers, Genestealer/Human hybrids who could use guns and psychic abilities), not to mention rules for bringing other Games Workshop 40K troop types into the game. Space Hulk wasn't cheap, due to the large number of plastic miniatures and cardboard hallways and rooms included in the box, but it was well worth the price. Games are tense, close-fought, and well-paced, with most decided only at the very end as the last couple of Marines struggle to meet the objective.

Talisman is an often-reprinted GW boardgame, which unfortunately has become somewhat less great with each edition. Of course, considering how well it started, that's not quite as negative as it sounds. Players take on the roles of various adventurers wandering a danger-strewn fantasy world trying to get to the Crown of Command, an artifact that will give them everything they want. On their way, they must face dangerous terrain, fickle magic, deadly monsters, and each other. An exceptions-style game (ala Cosmic Encounter), each character has a special ability or two to help them out. Most of the game, you move by rolling a die and deciding which way (clockwise or anti-clockwise) to move, and thus which of two spaces to land on. Some spaces have pre-printed hazards, some require you to draw from a deck. Most encounters result in you either gaining new treasures, companions, or powers or losing existing treasures, companions, powers, or life points. To win, you must get enough power to fight past the Crown's guardian spaces (the middle of the board is made of up some pretty ugly hazard spaces), then use the Crown to eliminate all other players. The basic game had numerous characters, monsters, spells and treasures, but expansion sets really brought the game into its own. They added additional sub-boards (for a city, a dungeon, and even the veil of time itself), many more characters, numerous new monsters (one whole set centered around adding Dragons and dragon-related treasures to the mix), and even alternate end-games. It's random and pretty silly, but it's a great sort of beer-and-pretzels fun. Newer editions got fancier (three dimensional boards, miniatures rather than cardstock stand-ups for your character), but that made the cost so high you couldn't pack in all the expansion sets, and that's no good. Oh, the game has flaws (the Crown of Command end-game leads to a sometimes long and tedious series of die-rolls before you actually get to win, for example), but it's still one of the greats. Certainly worth digging out and playing whenever willing folk are at hand.

Funagain Purchase Links

Posted by ghoul at 06:19 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 21, 2003

Role Call 25 - Idealism

What qualities would your ideal game group possess?

I would want a good mix of folk... Players with different interests are players interested in playing different types of characters, which leads to characters with more differences, and very different characters lead to an easier time giving each character a share of the spotlight.

I would want at least two or three people who care about game mechanics and around the same number who don't at all, because both perspectives are critical to getting it right.

I would love having most everyone be willing to GM, allowing for rotation (and perhaps even for a chance to really play Rune!).

I would hope we'd have other interests in common, and would go to movies or other non-gaming events in groups or sub-groups because that's the sort of things friends do.

I would welcome a healthy desire to experiment, as I've got lots of games and game ideas I'd love to try. And it takes a special group to be willing to experiment, particularly to go through learning a new game and setting only to have it fail rather than flourish, and that will happen sometimes.

I would want the game to be enough of a priority that people plan for it and around it, though I don't mind the occasional conflict in schedules.

I would really like it if they were less than 120 miles away (which is the biggest flaw with my face-to-face gaming situation currently).

(Some of these answers will change if I'm to be GM or player with this group... But not most of them.)

Posted by ghoul at 03:14 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 20, 2003

Wish 56 - With Friends Like These...

Do your characters have friends and associates who play a regular role in the game? What about henchmen and hirelings in the old D&D sense or Champions-style DNPCs? How does your group handle playing them? What sorts of things are they used for in the game? Is their influence good, bad, or indifferent?

Currently, I'm a bit scant on characters with friends and associates who aren't also PCs (with one exception, detailed below). Ezhno has a trained falcon. Nikolao has the household serving-girl he rescued from being caught up in suspicion as part of the plot to kill him by installing her has his lover. Both of those probably fit better into the prior questions.

But despite current trends, I've had PCs with NPC friends quite often. It's a common behavior in Amber play for me to do so. Kyle McNaly had a coconspirator/magic student. Scout Carter had a bodyguard assigned by the King. Having non-Amberite NPCs hanging around is fairly risky given the sort of power-plays that often go on in Amber games, but it's also fairly true to the books (the Corwin/Ganelon relationship before we find out who Ganelon actually is serving as an example). I've yet to have an NPC companion in an Amber game who didn't have at least a couple of significant secrets...

The "DNPC" (plucky reporter, sidekick, girlfriend-in-peril, etc.) is also a great role in the superhero standard, and I've done more than a bit of use of that, with mixed results. Unfortunately, gaming doesn't quite work as well as the comics here, and NPCs with low point totals are way too fragile in most supers games to replicate the survivability of a Lois Lane or Jimmy Olsen without lots of GM fiat. It's a problem with the exponential power issues of the game mechanics... Or perhaps with the artificiality of the classic comic book scenario.

Among my current PCs, there is one notable exception. Gevrok has Leadership (the d20 feat that lets you gather an NPC following) and he and Rilla are companied by NPC lizard-man Druid (whom he and Rilla rescued from a Hydra) named Thyssn. The fact that Gevrok can only really even talk to Thyssn via an interpreter and that Thyssn just makes the freak quotient of the party even higher. A half-orc, a half-dragon, a lizard man and Rilla, who's just a normal person... No wonder she frequently dies her hair odd colors. Also, Gevrok recently acquired (from a friendly Baron) a squad of crossbowmen to assist as well... and promptly lost all but one of them to a Fireball (after failing to cast the "Mass Resist Elements" he had prepared for just such an occasion). We haven't had another session for him to be all guilty over that yet. This is working out fairly well, though, a Gevrok's oddly anarchic style of leadership lends itself better to smaller groups. He'll learn from his mistake and do better next time.

As for playing them... GMs differ in preference. Some allow the NPC to be an extension of the player who "paid for" them (via whatever game mechanic offers that option), and I'm all for that... it's simpler in stress situations. The GM then takes over the NPC's voice during dialog scenes, of course. Other GMs prefer the NPCs stay under GM control, which adds to their work-load (not, IMO, a good thing), but also adds to the potential for a surprise (potentially a nasty one) from the NPC now and then. And that's a good thing.

Posted by ghoul at 08:28 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Favorite Games XXI

Vroom! Today is race day here in New Hampshire (or, for me, it's massive traffic day, as the people trying to get to the race back up all the inadequate local roads for miles).

I'm not really a NASCAR fan, though. My tastes go more toward Formula One racing, and today's games are two dramatically different takes on that sport.

Formula De is a detailed (if abstract) simulation of racing, complete with scaled-down boards representing famous grand prix racetracks of the world and rules that nominally simulate the details of Formula One racing. Most significantly, the game simulates the various "gears" of the car by using custom dice, of various sizes, from four to thirty, but usually not numbered in the familiar 1, 2, 3, etc. progression (though, to aid in quick recognition, the number of sides is always the largest number on the die). These dice are used to determine the number of spaces along the track a car moves in a turn, and you can shift up or down a die size every turn before rolling. Curves are represented by a rule requiring a minimum number of turns you must spend in the curve without tire damage or spinning completely out of control. This requires the familiar gear-down in to curves, then accelerate out into straits of F1 racing. Because of the time it takes to play, though, races are abstracted down to only a few laps (typically three), and the random factor in movement makes for a large number of overtakings (particularly relative to modern F1 racing, which has very few). Pit stops are allowed via advanced rules (letting you replace tires and fuel, but at the cost of a much slower pass along the starting stretch), and can be very critical if done properly (though not as critical as pit strategy is in the real thing). Weather (that is to say, rain) is nicely simulated, complete with a possibility that a race will start cloudy and turn to either rain or sun as things progress. Rules for "slipstreaming" reflect racing as it was over a decade ago more than as it is today (back then, getting right behind another car was a good way to steal some of its speed and thus pass them up... today, it's a good way to lose your downforce and spin out of control). Some of the rules are very unique for a boardgame... For example, playing with "time trials" has you trying to zip around the track alone while counting the turns it takes and timing yourself, in order to determine starting order. This is a very long process to just set up the board, but nicely in keeping with how it's actually done at the races! The game is very mechanical and not nearly as realistic as it tries to be (for example, the limited size of game boards forces them to dramatically reduce straits on most tracks, making high gears all but useless on most courses), but the level of detail gives it a very nice feel and presents you with choices at least representative of what drivers and team managers have, if not perfect accuracy. This game gives you a very good chance to pretend you're Michael Schumacher for at least a little while. Note, though, that it all but requires 4 or more players and is best played in long series of races, so unless you have lots of friends who are race fans and boardgame fans, don't expect to get too much of a chance to play this. The rules are fairly simple to learn (the more complex bits are optional and can be added as you get comfortable with the basics). The game isn't cheap, particularly if you want a good selection of tracks, but it's well worth it for fans.

Formula Motor Racing is a light, silly game from Knizia, breaking his normal mold of having a simple yet strategically rich game leading to a mathematically complex scoring system. Here, he sticks to traditional (before changes in the current season, that is) Formula One scoring (10 points for first, 6 for second, then 4, 3, 2 and 1 for the following spots), with each player represented by 2 cars (a team). But, where Formula De tries for (and roughly achieves) some degree of simulation, FMR is just a series of unpredictable card-plays, each of which can change the situation so dramatically that there's really no hope of serious strategy; any situation you set up with your play is unlikely to stay around until your next. Each player's team is two cars of the same color (tiny plastic cars are provided), and all the cars (including any with no player attached) are placed in a line. Each card then moves one or more cars forward or backwards in the line. Most cards affect on car of a certain color (the player of the card chooses which of the two cars of that color to affect) and the car immediately behind it ("in the slipstream", to again use a trick no longer actually representative of F1 racing). Other cards cause delays due to a fumbled pit stop, make a random car to spin out, crash, or fall to last place. The race ends one round after the last card of the deck is drawn, so some cards will remain unplayed, but not many. After each race is scored, the cars are left in their current order, cards are collected and reshuffled, and another game is played, repeating the process until a full series (however long you decided on) is played. Of course, there's more luck to each race than anything else (to the extreme that I've seen unplayed colors win over all human-controlled teams), and there may not be anything but luck at play in the game as a whole (excepting a lot of chances to play spoiler by piling bad cards against the race leader)... But despite that, it's a fun game and well worth sinking an hour or two into a long, fast-paced season of "racing". This game is the choice for quick pick-up play, and appeals far more broadly than Formula De. Fun, but lacking in any significant simulation.

Funagain Purchase Links
Formula De
Formula Motor Racing

Posted by ghoul at 06:56 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 18, 2003

ReFi Fo Fum IV

Closing done (signed my name way too many times), last-minute confusion on the rate solved (the bank never told the closing company I had locked in a lower rate about a month ago), and now it's just waiting for the check (3 business days).

So it seems to have all happened as hoped for!

Posted by ghoul at 12:05 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

July 17, 2003

Favorite Games XX

Just a quick entry today, as I'm mostly absorbed in reading through D&D 3.5 just now...

Caesar and Cleopatra started life, if rumor is to be believed, as a preliminary design for a Risk card game, but the license deal fell apart and the game had to be re-theamed. This didn't hurt it one bit, as the game has more of a political feel than a military feel to its style. Two players struggle over control of 21 Patrician cards, divided into Senators, Praetors, Quaestors, Censors and Aediles by use of Influence cards and Action cards. Influence cards represent people used to sway the opinions of the target Patricians (by any means... both factions include pretty boys/girls to appeal to the patrician's baser instincts) and Action cards represent more direct intervention (in the form of specific rule-bending effects). Players choose their initial hand of 10 Influence cards at will, then shuffle the others, and they sort the Action deck based on their strategy, which makes this game significantly less random than most card games.

Play proceeds as alternating turns in which a player may either play cards or discard and replace some or all of their hand. If you choose to play cards, you can play an action card and one or two Influence cards, one face-down or two face-up, played on a faction of your choice. Then you re-fill your hand (with Influence or Action cards, your choice) and draw a card to determine which faction holds a vote this turn. (Occasionally, there will be no vote as the card turned will say all the Patricians are busy at an orgy. Those Romans...) When a vote happens, you turn up all face-down cards, total Influence, and award a card of that type to the stronger party (unless one side has a Philosopher in play, in which case the weaker side wins). The stronger side then gives up their best Influence card played on that faction, the weaker their worst, and play continues.

When the game ends, players score 1 VP for each Patrician taken, plus 1 for taking the majority of any group, plus another 1 for taking all of a group (not easy to do), plus 2 for matching a secret victory condition each is dealt as the game starts.

This game is very fun and competitive, particularly since both players have the same options available (though there is different art and names on each side's cards, the effects are the same) and the only true difference is their secret bonus VP condition (which might even end up the same, if luck goes that way) and the shuffle of their Influence cards. Careful play, particularly in not using too much power to win a card, is critical. Select your initial hand and order of action cards with care, and you'll have quite an advantage.

Funagain Purchase Links
Caesar and Cleopatra

Posted by ghoul at 06:20 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 14, 2003

Favorite Games XIX

A couple of oldies-but-goodies in the favorites today...

Titan is a board game classic. Players serve as commanders of armies of powerful monsters, lead by a Titan. The armies form "legions" of from 1 to 7 creatures, traveling the world (a hexagonal board with inflexible directional icons limiting movement to certain routes), trying to land on terrain where they can recruit even more monsters to their side. Then the legions do battle, until only one Titan remains. The concept is simple, and most of the rules are fairly straightforward as well (complex by European game standards, but relatively simple for an 80s war game). The game is significantly random, but rewards careful play significantly, so a skilled player (which essentially means someone who plans to keep their recruitment options ever-expanding) is much more likely to win in the end. This game ate up many an hour in my college days. It has flaws, mostly because early movement on the crowded board can bring two unprepared Titans into battle, and once your Titan is defeated, you're out of the game. Typical games have one or two players eliminated very early, then the remainder playing it out indefinitely (games frequently last hours). Individual battles are also a bit long to resolve, since only the players involved really have anything to do. But, despite this, Titan is a great fun game.

The game is out of print, but a dedicated fan base has given us Colossus, a fully implemented Java version, complete with several sets of optional rules and extensions beyond the already-great basic game. The AI is capable, multiplayer by internet is supported... but it's very slow on Macs. Still, better computer Titan than no Titan at all!

Nuclear War is a card game in poor taste and perhaps less funny now that the Mutually Assured Destruction days of the Cold War are behind us, but still great fun to play. Players are dealt populations to defend and cards (mostly warheads and launchers, but also Propaganda and special purpose "Secrets" and "Top Secrets") with which to do battle. War is to the death, and it isn't uncommon that no one wins in the end, as an eliminated player gets one last chance to use every warhead they have in a final strike, not to mention that the largest warhead can destroy the world as a random side-effect. The game is played with a clever pre-planning requirement, where cards are placed face-down two turns in advance. This mean you need to think ahead, because the card you plan now doesn't take effect for two turns, and the game could be very different by then. Propaganda cards steal population, but stop working if war begins. Launchers can carry warheads, but only up to a certain size. Warheads kill both a base amount and additional from a spinner (and, after later expansion sets, a die as well). Interceptors can be used to block incoming warheads and to swipe the initiative (skip any players between the attacker and you and make it your turn). Expansions sets Nuclear Escalation and Nuclear Proliferation add newer weapon technology (the original game was published in 1965, the expansion in 1983 and 1992, so fun like space-based launchers, stealth bombers and cruise missiles are hiding in the expansions), more weird Secrets, and even "countries" with special powers (unfortunately, not perfectly balanced against one another). The game is goofy and random, but a very fun kill-your-friends passtime. Anyone who pronounces it "new-cue-ler" is my first target...

An only somewhat loyal computer version was available briefly, as was a series of randomly-packaged expansion cards to try (unsuccessfully) to play on the early Collectable Card Games craze.

Not all of this series is currently available, but you can find most of it here, at the publisher's web site. There's even a couple of "bonus packs" available there, adding more cards, countries, and a set of rules and pieces necessary to combine Nuclear War and the train game India Rails in order to play out a conflict between the world's two newest declared nuclear powers (and if that isn't in poor taste, I'm not sure what is).

Posted by ghoul at 06:22 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

July 12, 2003

Wish 55 - By Any Other Name

How do you choose character names? What makes a good or bad name for a character? What are three examples of really good (or really bad) character names, and why are they so good or bad?

Names are important... Names are used too often to ignore, and potentially can be employed to seed your character with background/personality info from day one.

I have one primary tool, The Melting Pot Book of Baby Names. This is as good as baby name books get, sorted by ethnic origin and meaning. The name origins and meanings I'm going to quote below come from this book.

Now, for my own game world, I tend to design in linguistic rules for each culture, which suggest the forms names should take. This helps to avoid the random run of phonemes that some fantasy games can offer. Gevrok, for example, is a name that fits my idea of Orcish language's sound, with its hard G and K sounds.

I like my current names for the d20 games I play in... Ezhno is a Native American name, meaning "solitary, a loner", which fits his gruff, somewhat anti-social manner. Valentin is a Swedish form of a Latin name, meaning "strong, brave", which fits his tall and blonde appearance and his proposed prestige class will result in "strong" being a very appropriate descriptive. My character name in Passions of the Tide was also carefully considered... Nikolao is a Hawaiian variation on Nicholas, a Greek name meaning "victory to the people"; a nice name for a populist rabble-rouser in an underwater culture, I thought.

I used to be a lot sloppier about names, and I still have something of an attraction to exotic or difficult to pronounce names (Ezhno or Nikolao, for example). Tongue twisters like Menikamorthphan are just silly, but I played such a character in my early gaming days. I try to restrain myself.

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July 11, 2003

Favorite Games XVIII

A couple of competitive two-player games today. Well, actually just one title, but thanks to a dramatic variant rule, a game that can be played two very different ways.

Kahuna is an odd little game, simple to learn but deep and even a bit subtle in its strategy. The game is one of building bridges (via magic, the rulebook tells us) between the twelve islands of an archipelago. If you can control more than half of the bridges connected to an island, you control the island. Each turn, you can play up up to 5 cards, each of which names an island (the deck is made up of 2 cards for each island). If there is an empty potential bridge space connected to the island on your card, you can place a bridge of your color on it. If there's already a bridge there your opponent built, you need two cards (either one of each end or a pair of either end) to remove the existing bridge, then optionally a third card (of either island) to build a bridge of your own color. If, after placing your bridge, you now control more than half of the bridges to any island, you take control of it; you mark it with a marker of your color and remove all bridges the other player has connected to it. This can cause a cascade effect, where your opponent loses control of islands that was based on bridges now removed. Then you draw one card, either from the deck or from 3 face-up cards always available beside the board. The game is played through the deck 3 times, with intermediate scoring such that winning the first round (having more islands at the end) is worth 1 point, winning the 2nd is worth 2 points, and winning the third and final is worth the margin of your victory in number of islands. The board is not reset between rounds, so coming back can be tricky, but is far from impossible.

Actually, the game described above is the US version of the game, created by the translator (apparently intentionally, as he felt it made for a better game). The original game is strategically trickier, not allowing you to place bridges if one end would be on an opponent-controlled island, but making replacement of a removed bridge free (but only if post-removal both islands are uncontrolled). This version (presented as a variant in the US rules) is much more of a challenge, requiring more planning to break up power blocks once they get established. But both versions are good (in my opinion, the original is better, but only slightly), quick-to-learn and strategically rewarding two-player fun for 30-45 minutes. And the game is an attractive little package, with a nice board, two dozen standard sized playing cards (with color pictures of their island), wooden bridge pieces and control markers in black and white.

Funagain Purchase Links

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July 09, 2003

Role Call 24 - Burnout

Have you ever felt like it was time to take a break, short or long, from roleplaying?

It has certainly happened, and I even did so for a short while. For a good time before my move to New Hampshire, I was doing no face-to-face gaming at all (excepting at Origins, GenCon, AmberCon, and AmberCon North), but I was heavily into gaming via CompuServe RPGames forum. However, that forum didn't really survive the reorganization of CIS (and the noise and bother that proceeded the dissolution did a very good job of reducing my interest). I followed many others to DreamLyrics, where I got into a few games for a while, but the involuntary break in the interim proved easier to take than I had expected. When I moved to New Hampshire, I was without easy connectivity for a month, and short on free time for a few months following that (buying a house, getting into the pace of a new job, wrestling with actuarial exam time requirements, etc.). That period caused me to fade out of DreamLyrics and, at the same time, most non-convention gaming as well (and, since I'd moved further from Origins and GenCon than a convenient drive, I'd stopped attending those as well).

It wasn't really a full break... I still organized and GMed at AmberCon North in this period, but for a 6 or 7 month period, that convention was pretty much all the roleplaying I did.

After a few months, though, I got myself back into the mood and started back into gaming, first with a PBEM game, then by joining into regular face-to-face gaming in Fall River, MA, both as a player and as a GM. Currently, I'm playing in two games there (one bi-weekly, one monthly), but am not actively GMing (my Feng Shui game is suspended pending being able to assemble a critical mass of players for the last session and I haven't started something new just yet). I've recently gotten into a new PBEM (James Kosub's Passions of the Tide) and I'm doing some preliminary work on developing a new game or two as GM. And I still am part of the organization of ACN.

Did the break help? I think so. It helped me regather my ideas, re-think some of my assumptions about roleplaying, how I did it, and how I wanted to do it. Shifting back from PBEM to F2F was really only made possible thanks to the gap as well, since PBEM will, if allowed to, take as much time as can be poured into it.

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July 08, 2003

Favorite Games XVII

Another open and improving series of games today...

Carcassone is a tile-placing game with enough variety and strategy to satisfy almost anyone, which explains its 2001 Spiel Des Jahres (Game of the Year) victory. The game starts with a single tile in the middle of the table, and each turn you add one more tile to slowly build a complex network of city walls, roads, fields and cloisters. Tiles must be placed to keep various features (roads and city walls, especially) contiguous, though scoring points tends to require actually completing multi-tile combinations to your best advantage (a feature is "complete" when the new tile closes it off, preventing other tiles from being added later). After placing tiles, you also place followers (small wooden men in your color) to claim scoring rights to features, which means you have to be careful not to complete a feature until you have assured yourself a majority position. Otherwise, someone else may claim the points for your tile placement. The game continues until all tiles are placed, at which point some additional features (incomplete cities and roads, plus fields formed into units by the interruptions of roads and city walls) are scored and the winner is found.

There is a limited availability expansion set, now included in the English Language basic game, that adds 12 tiles of river to create a larger "seed" for the map and some additional limitations on cities, roads, and fields (since they usually cannot cross the river). This set makes the early game more interesting without making scoring or strategy dramatically different.

The Inns and Cathedrals set, originally just called Carcasone - The Expansion adds just what it says... Inns and Cathedrals, new tiles types that add more ways to gather points. Also added are tiles to record scores when they lap past the scoring track provided in the basic game (a fairly common occurrence even before the additional scoring options of this set are added) and special "large follower" men (one for each color) that count double for determining who controls a feature. Also added are some new tiles that allow for more complex combinations (a cloister with a road running out both sides, or two city walls on either side of a crossroads), making for some new patterns previously not possible. Oh, and Follower pieces are added to allow a sixth player, though my experience is that this game becomes dramatically more random and less strategic the more players you put at the table.

The fairly new Traders and Builders set adds trade goods, generated by city tiles marked with appropriate icons. When you complete and score a city with one or more trade goods, trade good tokens are given to the player who completed the city (which may not be the player who scores the points for the city, a nice option that gives a reason to complete another player's city). At the end of the game, whoever has the most of each type of good gets extra points. Also added are builders and pigs (one for each player), special sorts of followers who have unique effects on scoring or tile placement (the pig increases the value of a field if you have other followers farming it, the builder may let you play more than one tile in your turn. Also, as a note of practicality, this set adds a cloth bag to draw tiles from, made necessary because the inevitable minor color shifts in printing make it too easy to tell tiles from different expansion sets apart if they're just shuffled face down.

If Carcassonne has problems, it has two... One is decision agony, particularly as the game gets near its end. Every move then can be vital, and every point the decision between wining and losing. An egg timer or a deal to let players draw their tile (in secret) at the end of their turn and plan while other players place could help (of course, you'll want to limit table-talk in this last option). The other maybe-problem is that, as expansions are added, it becomes harder and harder to keep up with all the scoring options and complexities. No one item is too difficult, but there are a lot of them to keep straight.

It is in that second way that Carcassonne - Hunters and Gatherers helps. It isn't an expansion set, but rather is a new game built on the same basic concept as the original, only shifted back in time from medieval city building to tribes of hunters in conflict over rich fields, rivers, and forests. Play is familiar, except for changes in the art (roads become rivers, cities become forests, etc.). Added to the game are huts (placed beside rivers to score bonus points in the end-game), and animal icons in the fields, most of which are worth bonus points (the exception being Tigers, who eat a Deer icons in their field, negating bonus points those Deer would have scored). There are also "bonus tiles", won by finishing forests, some of which have unique icons (and thus unique scoring effects), others of which are just very nice tiles. The advantage of this set is that, while it is nearly as complex as Carcassonne with all expansions, it is more unified in its design and flow, less pieced together, and so the various special rules are a bit easier to keep in mind as you play.

But however you choice to combine this, you aren't likely to find a better game for people who like this style. The pieces are thick and study, the art is quite good and only rarely leaves the exact edges of features even slightly in question, and if you can work people up to the full rules, you'll find it just gets better and better. There's a lot of randomness to the game (more if played with 5+ players), as you have no control over what tile you will draw, only over where you place it. But good decisions are rewarded, and good planning (in placing your followers) is key to winning. This is not a game to pass by, and I'd expect to see more for it in the future.

Funagain Purchase Links
Carcassonne - Inns and Cathedrals
Carcassonne - Traders and Builders
Carcassonne - Hunters and Gatherers

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July 07, 2003

Look What I Found

I was digging around on an old disk and found this... At one point, I had a web page of cute kitten pictures, but I lost most of them. This one seems to have survived.

So, here's a chance to meet Lightning and Thunder (as of four years ago...). This picture was taken about 2 days after I got them to my house (from their birthplace in Brooklyn, NY). I came to their room (they were still limited in range in the house... to the pantry/utility room) and there they weren't. I panicked for a bit, looked around, moved a couple semi-heavy boxes, looked around a bit more, then decided to get rid of the pair of socks I had carried downstairs and look around some more.

I heard a small mewling sound as the socks hit the laundry basket...

Kittens In Laundry

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July 06, 2003

Game Store Pilgrimage

Spare time over the holiday weekend allowed me to make a trip into Boston and Cambridge to stock up on some new titles...

Not much of a pilgrimage, really, as it's mostly just a trek along Mass Ave... But that's more than enough challenge for me. I don't exactly like city driving.

Still... new games are now on hand.

RPG Purchases:

Tri-Stat dX. Yes, I know it comes out in PDF for free on the 10th, but for under $10, I'm willing to support the people who founded ACN (plus BESM and SAS are good RPGs, so the generic engine backed out from them should be worth a read). Functional, art-free layout to maximize the information in its 90-ish pages, but it looks to be a very promising latecomer to the generic system "wars".

Testament. d20 gaming in the Old Testament biblical era. Bought more just to see if they really can do it (and to get some nice bronze-age details for other projects). A quick flip-through shows interesting-looking treatments of the different peoples/cultures of the region and some promising mass combat rules. And there aren't many RPGs where temple prostitute or desert hermit are major PC classes.

Board Game Purchases:

Balloon Cup. Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) nominee card game of balloon racing.

Queen's Necklace. Card game of jewelers seeking royal influence in pre-revolutionary France.

Message to the Czar. Board game of messengers trying to squeeze into crowded inns while getting a message from their village to the Czar.

Der Weisse Lotus (The White Lotus). Game of Chinese political unrest in the 14th century, as recommended to me in comments to my Favorite Games reviews by Scott.

Atlanteon. A new Knizia abstract game of Atlantean civil war (or of tile-placing to optimize total forces, ala Samurai but with a simpler overall structure and an optional touch of Battle Line in the mix as well). I do hope finding this isn't a warning of things to come, though.

Should keep me in reading materials and neat new passtime options for a while.

Posted by ghoul at 01:57 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 05, 2003

Favorite Games XVI

Another family of games today, this time one still in development from Cheapass Games...

Diceland is an odd style of game. It's part miniatures game (of the MageKnight variety, with custom individual units whose powers and abilities are encoded on their playing piece), part dice game (the playing pieces are large eight-sided dice, usually thrown randomly onto the table), and part physical activity (new dice can be thrown to collide with and shift existing dice... and, in fact, this is a central strategy). And, in total, it's an amazingly original sort of play, supported by some very clever game piece design to make the whole thing possible at a very low price.

Playing pieces in Diceland are eight-sided dice. Each die comes as unassembled cardboard, ready to be carefully punched out, folded, and all the right tabs inserted into all the right slots. This takes the fairly small initial package, roughly the size of a thin paperback book, and expands it into a fair number of hollow (and all too crushable) dice 2" along each side. A good box will be needed to carry them once they are assembled. The dice stand up to play quite well, but you'll want to protect them during transport.

When you have your dice, each player selects a force (usually made up of a small to moderate number of dice) and play begins. Players alternates turns, in which one die can either be added to the table (by tossing it on) or a die on the table can be maneuvered (flipped to another side by pressing down one top corner... which both moves the die and changes its facing an usually its attack options) or its powers/attacks used. Many dice have special attacks or powers (varying depending on which face is up) that let them do all sorts of odd things. Strange things such as enhance the attacks or defenses of allied dice, repair allies, confuse or paralyze enemies, leap off the table to be thrown again, summon additional allies into play, or even activate all their allies (letting you move or shoot more than one die in a turn). Careful balance of these powers is a major strategy element of this game. Every side of every die has one or more attacks, arrows pointing out to show the sight lines (most dice can't shoot behind themselves, for example), with color, number and shape indicating the type, strength, and range (respectively) of the attack. Every die side also has a block value (given in a small shield). If hit, they will either be eliminated or forced to flip down one face (from 6 to 5, 5 to 4, etc.), depending on how the attack strength compares to that block value. Dice that are eliminated must sit out at least a turn before being returned to play. Some dice are immune to some attacks, which is indicated by coloring their block shield the color of any attack they would be immune to. When you eliminate a die, you score points based on its strength (stronger dice are worth more points). If you knock a die off the table, your opponent scores points, so collisions need to be used more subtly. Unless, of course, the die is more dangerous in play than the loss of points costs you... The game is played to a victory point total.

That's really about it. The rest of the game comes from the cleverly designed dice, many of which show great care in balancing out their facings, attacks, block numbers, and special abilities. Each die also has art on each side (the same illustration, repeated), and surprisingly communicative icons and codes to give all its combat options. The design is elegant and clear, far easier to learn to read than you probably expect.

Diceland: Deep White Sea is the original set. It is made up of 5 teams of 5 dice each, colored to indicate alliance. Each die represents one crew member from one of the groups trying to capture a lost ship on a dangerous ice planet. The teams are reasonably balanced, though some require more careful use of their funky powers than others. Rules exist (in later sets or on the Diceland web site) to create more personalized teams. Do check the website for a rules change made since this set was printed (which allows dice to maneuver on the turn they are thrown if they choose to do that rather than shoot)... it's minor, but adds a lot to the game.

Diceland: Space is made up of two sets of 25 dice each, representing ships from the fleets of several alien races. There are 8 total races, two with 11 ships each, two with 8 ships each, two with 5 ships each and 2 with just one ship each... but those two single-ship sides are monstrously good ships. Teams are less certain in this set, with "army construction rules" added to the basic game to let each player assemble their own force. Smaller ships have reduced survivability (they are still 8-sided dice, but are numbered 1 to 4 twice). Space also adds some new powers to the game (Shields that let you ignore small attacks, cloaks that make you invisible to most attacks), but is sufficiently compatible with the original set that you can mix them up in a fight. Though it does seem weird to have huge starships battling individual people on a reasonably even footing...

Diceland: Ogre is a licensed product, mixing the mechanics of Diceland with Steve Jackson's classic board game Ogre. The scenario is familiar to any Ogre player... a giant, nearly unstoppable cyber-tank against a force of much weaker but far more numerous defenders. Most of the trappings are kept (the Ogre has expendable missiles it can fire, the defenders have a Command Post they must defend and can target individual bits of the Ogre to nibble it to death), but the Diceland style adds new twists. For one, the Ogre itself is a double-sized die, four inches to the side, so it dominates the table (and is very hard to shift via collision). Also, the Command Post gives the defenders a free "command all" power, so it can activate every allied die on the table rather than just one per turn. The Ogre must work fast and focused or it will get swarmed or nibbled to death. And the defenders must slow the Ogre down as much as they can and hope they can achieve critical mass of units to overcome the massive armor of their enemy. The game allows you to play either an Ogre Mark III or Mark V (a larger army is available to the defenders if you go with the Mark V). The Ogre set is smaller than the others (only 18 dice, one the double-sized Ogre), but also adds two control sheets (one for the Command Post, one of the Ogre), and is still well worth the very reasonable price. And you can mix in dice from the earlier sets if you don't mind extreme weirdness in your Ogre game.

More dice are coming soon (an expansion set for Space is due out within the month), so this game isn't even near to done showing its potential yet.

And at under $15 per set (Ogre is $1 more), there's a lot of fun in each little packet.

(There is another game, also called Diceland, published by Kidultgame and distributed by Mayfair in the US. From its rules, it looks interesting, but don't confuse it with the game reviewed here. The Cheapass Diceland is something entirely unique.)

Funagain Purchase Links
Diceland: Deep White Sea
Diceland: Space: Garthans vs. Muktians
Diceland: Space: Terrans vs. Urluquai
Diceland: Ogre

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July 04, 2003

WISH 54 - Playing Hook-y

Do you like to have bits and pieces from your characters’ backgrounds appear in the game? Do you write hooks into your character background for the GM to use in the campaign for your character? Do you like it when the GM gives you a background hook into an adventure or scenario with a previously unknown hook, such as creating an old friend of your character’s who is somehow involved? What are some examples of cases where hooks have worked or not worked for you?

Character Hooks are pretty much a must, especially in PBEM games, which is where most of my RPG playing over the last decade or so has been (especially, as often mentioned, on CompuServe). The best GMs take pride in a deep background, giving lots of places to attach to, and lots of trouble that can result from doing so. And I was often somewhat too generous, sending characters with so many mistakes and entanglements in their background there was little need for the GM to add more plot... Which sometimes (rarely, thankfully) resulted in almost unplayably conflicted characters.

I have one character (Thonia, previously mentioned here) who was designed with so much in her background that we actually only ever played her there, detailing and backfilling what was originally imagined as background... In over four years with the character, we didn't get it all done, so we never got to the character as originally imagined. In fact, we eventually changed some dates so her background was present-day and she could meet some other PCs. We were having too much fun filling out the background to even want to jump forward to the "mature" character.

Nikolao in Passions of the Tides has several background hooks as well, a few of which have already dragged him around, some or still sitting quietly not making trouble. I don't expect that to last.

My current face-to-face characters are a bit less hook-y... Ezhno was designed with an intense dislike of his native folk and followed the group hook (an NPC we all had met in the past calling in a favor) as an excuse to get away from it. Running from your background isn't exactly a background hook, though. And Valentin is designed with his background planned to be a plot point at a specific point in the future (coming soon now, in fact), as it's his ticket to a rather distinctive prestige class.

Posted by ghoul at 06:10 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 03, 2003

Newest Online Boardgame 'Zine

How I can go on without posting a link to this?

(Giggle at or be offended by the concept. Then do read the articles. There's some very good ones there.)

Posted by ghoul at 12:46 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 02, 2003

ReFi Fo Fum III

Well, the call came.

Appraisal came to a sufficient result (there was very little reason to doubt that it would). Thanks to my earlier obsessiveness, all paperwork is in place. I've even been assigned a time and day on the busy schedule of the closing company.

So, I just have to wait until the 18th, go to the right place downtown (about 1 mile from here, and on the main drag so easy to find), sign my name one hell of a lot of times, and this is all behind me.

(unless something goes wrong... can't help but stay a little tense about that...)

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Favorite Games XV

Three games that are one today. That is, a game, a reworking of the game, then another reworking from a couple of years later, showing how even Reiner Knizia can get better over time.

Actually, I'll be almost leaving out a step... I don't own the first game in this "family", a game of steeplechase called Grand National Derby. It was published in 1996 in Germany, and was a relatively straightforward game. It is played in rounds to simulate the jumps of the race, with one horse dropping out each round. Players place bets on the horses as the race goes on (in this way, the game is similar to Gold Diggers), but only 3 horses finish the race and the earliest bets win ties, so that requires you to make your bet before its clear your horse will finish. Players determine which horses continue in each round by playing numbered cards (cards are color-coded to match a particular horse, and new cards replace older cards), with the lowest numbered horse at the end of each round (the round ends when all horses have numbers played on them; each new round starts off fresh) dropping out. Straightforward, simple, and just the start of what is to come.

Titan: The Arena was the next generation of this game, published by Avalon Hill in 1997. Steeplechase is re-worked, the horses becoming monsters from the board game Titan (which sits later on this list, so just be patient) fighting it out. Added to the original game are several new ideas... Monsters have special powers, which can be used when you play a number card on a monster you have the most bets for; these powers are very significant and add a lot of strategic depth to the game. "Spectator" cards are wilds, able to be played on any monster, not just the ones they match, and when that is done, they neutralize the creature's power until another card covers them. "Hidden" bets become available, where you can keep other players from knowing exactly where you've placed your bets (but don't count toward activating monster special powers). Referee cards can reveal your secret bets or allow you to pick up a card and put it in your hand to be re-played later. Unfortunately, all this cleverness resulted in a very tricky game to teach/explain, and the rulebook is quite terse, and contains examples that aren't very clear (often because they try to show pictures of the game in play, but lack the space so print them very small... so small that they can't be read, and so don't serve well as an example). Titan: The Arena was fun to play, once you figured out how, and offers a good mix of luck and skill (because even if you draw all the best cards, you still can lose if someone else manipulates their bets and creature powers to negate your cards).

Galaxy: The Dark Ages is the third generation of this game, published in 2000. This time, the game is moved to outer space, with the horses or monsters of prior games replaced by various alien races, and number cards now represent various classes of spaceships. Added this time are additional powers for the lower numbered cards (making them more useful to play even if you don't want that race eliminated at the end of the round), Technology cards that are more interesting than Referees in T:TA, and the ability (with limits) for newly played ships to attack other cards, offering even more strategic options (dice are used to give weaker ships a chance to best stronger ones). Monster special powers become "Governor" abilities for each alien race. "Bets" are now bases on each alien race's world, and can still be played in secret if you wish (only visible bases count toward being governor, as with secret bets before). Best of all, the rulebook (by GMT Games) is given the space it needs, with large type, careful organization, and numerous clear examples. This helps a game that was already good become great. It's still a fairly complicated game for the beer-and-pretzels crowd, but the examples make it comprehensible and teachable. This game is best when played at its full 5 player complement, as the complex interaction to capture governorships reduces to simplicity with only 2 or 3 players, but with that one caveat, G:TDA gets my highest recommendations.

Funagain Purchase Links
Galaxy: The Dark Ages

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