February 23, 2007

About Amazing Grace

As I said I would do here, I made my way tonight to see the newly released film Amazing Grace.

I lives up to every reasonable expectation, telling a solid story about the long campaign to sway the House of Commons against the slave trade. A strong cast is led by Ioan Gruffudd as William Wilberforce, assisted by a wide array of talented actors and the very capable direction of Michael Apted.

And while I found nothing bad about the film and even quite enjoyed it, I have to admit it had little to solidly recommend it, either. Now, if you're into British History and political drama (of the 'politicians debating and scheming' variety, not the intrigue and thrilling chase sort), or just love an uplifting tale of right triumphing by never being willing to quit, this is a good movie for you. But, really, just a workmanlike, solid, comfortable film, that might have been more with a somewhat more daring script, a bit less inevitability in its plot, or... I don't know, something.

Certainly not a bad way to spend two hours, but I have to admit I'd hoped for something special that was always just beyond what this film was reaching for.

Posted by ghoul at 08:34 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 09, 2005

Reviews and Comments (Part 4)

All right, as promised, the theme this time is Historical (or nearly so) games.

And the games are The Prince, Alexander the Great, Conquest of the Empire, Roma, Camelot Legends, 7 Ages, En Garde!, Kung Fu Fighting, and Heroscape Expansion Series Two - Utgar's Rage.

Okay, some of those are only distantly related to the Historic grouping, but it's my Staircase... I make the rules!

The Prince (subtitled The Struggle of House Borgia) manages to be the first real clunker in the Phalanx Games line, or at least the first I've encountered. The game claims to be about the political struggles within the high ranks of the Catholic Church of powerful and corrupt Italian families during the renaissance, but it's actually more about who can get a little lucky early and then run away with things while everyone else sits around wasting time. Also, for a game named for Machiavelli's famed book about cold-blooded, anything-to-win politics, this game is painfully polite and open. Nominally, you can make deals over each turn's Papal election, but since there are very few things you're allowed to trade, little can come of this. Add to this some really ill-thought game pieces (the VP track run from 0 to 96, then wrap around to 97-193 on ONE family's card, but to go from 0-108 and 109-217 on the other 4, for example; was 0-100 too outrageous to even attempt?) and you've got a game well worth avoiding.

Alexander the Great, however, serves to remind me how good Phalanx titles can be. This one is quite a surprise, since most of the games Phalanx has put out in the larger box size have been military, but this is a game of resource allocation and area control only vaguely modeled after Alexander's campaigns, here presented as 6 campaigns, in Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt, Persia, Parthia and Bactria, then India and the failed return toward Persia. The game is played in several rounds, and in each of these players set up a secret allocation of their resources among four categories (turn order, armies, city building, and temple construction). These are revealed and compared, at which time the winner for turn order can pick where they go in the turn (usually, they will want to go last); other players move in order by their current score. When it is your turn, you place your armies on the starting point for the campaign, then move them one, two, or three areas (perhaps leaving some behind, perhaps paying some extra cost due to rough terrain; costs come from either your city or temple building resources), then announce any temples or cities you'll try to build. Other players do the same. When all have acted, the player with the most armies in each area gets 2 points and someone builds any temple or city attempted. By "someone", I mean the player with the most resources allocated to that sort of building who moves to the area and announces an attempt. Completing a build costs that player 1 more than the 2nd highest number of resources (which might be 1 more than 0 if no one else tries). Success is worth 3 points for a temple and 5 for a city. If no one moved to the area marked as the campaign's end this turn, any unspent city and temple resources can be re-allocated (resources spent on turn order, used to pay for buildings, or still on the board as armies cannot be re-allocated) and another round is played. Eventually, someone will move to the last area and this round will end, especially since the longest campaign only has 7 areas in it. At the end of the game, bonus points are awarded for whoever built the most cities and temples in total and in each region. Each campaign is different, with more or fewer choices in movement, differently-placed city and temple locations, etc. Play for every point is quite competitive, and numerous options are offered. You can try for points from armies, from cities, from temples, from a mix. You can even (in the first 5 campaigns, but not the last 2) attempt to cut off some development by doing a rapid move to the campaign-ending space, leaving the other players positioned for future rounds that don't happen. All in all, a very nice game, and well presented with reasonably quality playing pieces (including nice little stand-up screens to hide allocation at the start of each round).

Conquest of the Empire is a huge game, from the 46"x36" map (covering the full geographical range of the Roman Empire, plus a bit they never got around to conquering) and some 350 player pieces, 50 neutral pieces, and 75 delightfully oversized coins (especially since most games are given to miniaturizing such pieces), not even including the cardboard counters (of which there are numerous) and a deck of cards. And, as if this wasn't enough, there are actually two games here, one the "classic" form, only slightly changed from its original 1984 Milton Bradley release, the other an all new game. The Classic form is just that, a classic. It's not a terribly realistic game, and it suffers from the fact that players must be eliminated to get to the endgame, which means some players will be sitting out the latter half of the game. Elimination is necessary, too, because without it you can have at most 5 active armies (4 under generals, one directly under your Caesar). Once you eliminate another player, you take over their 4 generals and thus expand your ability to act dramatically! Other than that, this is a fairly good game of conquest, development, and expansion. The new game, Conquest of the Empire II, is about as different as two games sharing the same pieces can be. This game is much more political, with armies used to defend or assault influence, but money and influence being what decides the game. Here, influence markers are purchased for each important region of the empire, with several available in each location. Majority means you get more points each scoring, so you want to keep up your influence. Also critical is an interesting alliance system whereby you can bid to form alliances among the players, forcing someone else to not attack you until the next round! Numerous action cards add lots of flavor to the game, and there's a nice little "Chaos" mechanic that costs you VP if you get too far outside acceptable Roman propriety. These are both really nice games, though I'd give a significant edge to the newer rules if only because they avoid elimination and have a certain time limit to victory. But they also emphasize politics over military, which is more to my taste. Someone who likes simple crunch and grind military games (ala the classic Risk) will likely find the Classic form of CotE more to their liking. Anyone who likes big, sweeping conquest games will like one or the other, if not both.

Sticking to Rome for a bit, we have Roma, a fairly straightforward little card game of two factions head-to-head in a political power struggle. Cards represent resources, either people of influence (merchants, senators, legates, or Emperor Nero, for example) or valuable structures (temples or the Forum, plus military hardware such as onager). The playing area is made up of 8 spots, each marked with a disk from "take cards" on one end, through spaces for die faces 1 thru 6, to "take money" on the other. Players will play their cards aligned with the die faces. Each turn, the player rolls three dice and then takes 4 actions, which can be 1) to play a card from their hand onto one die spot (either filling an empty one or replacing the current contents), at a cost in money; 2) taking money equal to the amount rolled on the die used; 3) taking cards equal to the number rolled on the die used, though only one is actually kept and the rest are discard; or 4) activating a card at a location the die roll matches (that is, a roll of 4 lets you activate the card played on your side of the "4" space). Each card has a different effect, some score victory points, some attack opposing cards, some allow additional card draws, or various other effects. When all victory point tokens are given to one player or the other (or if one player is drained dry of points), the game ends in victory for the player with the most. It's fairly simple, fairly quick, and a nice mix of random and strategic (a bit biased toward the random side). I'd be happier if it played about 10 minutes faster, or was a bit less random, but it's still a very nice game. One caveat... in an attempt to be as multi-national as possible, the cards are named in (roughly) Latin and are marked with fairly meaningful icons to indicate their power, but you'll still be checking to rulebook to identify effects more often than you may like. Still, a very nice, light game, bearing almost no resemblance to the big, heavy Conquest of the Empire despite the similar setting.

Camelot Legends isn't exactly a historical game, as the Knights of the Round Table are far more fiction than fact, but it's my blog, so I make the groupings. This is a nice little game, with lots of research behind it as nearly every significant character and storyline associated with Camelot makes an appearance, which is very impressive given the simplicity of the base game system. In effect, it's just this... There are 3 game locations (Camelot, Cornwall, and the Perilous Forest). Each player's turn, an Event is drawn, which might be placed on one of those locations or might be resolved immediately via a special rule, mostly commonly a bid. Then you check to see if you can complete any of the location events currently in play (usually achieved by summing up attributes from your knights and beating an objective printed on the event). Then you take two Actions, such as draw a character, play a character from your hand to any location, or move 1 or 2 characters from one location to another. Continue until the game is over (either all events are resolved in the simplified beginners game or a single difficult "final event" placed at the bottom of the event deck is resolved in the standard game). Whoever has the most victory points (won by completing events) at the end is the winner. Simple, yes. But wait, there's a complication... You see, almost every knight and almost every event has special rules, some simple, some quite complicated, that modify the standard play format. It's not a new idea (and hasn't been since Cosmic Encounters), but here it's taken to rather an extreme. Almost no two characters have even similar abilities, and by game's end there may be two dozen characters and events in play. Keeping track of everything is a challenge. But, I think, a challenge worth considering. This is an attractively produced (card are ranges from good to great) and well designed game, marred only by its potential for excessive complexity in practice. Maybe I'd play Shadows over Camelot before I'd play this, but it wouldn't be by a long margin!

7 Ages is an odd mix. It's an ambitious game, trying to do all of recorded history within one mechanic without getting silly, overly complex, or boring. It does a surprisingly good job at this, but it has one of the steepest learning curves I've ever seen, particularly for a game with so few rules. Opening the box is a decidedly old-school feel, as there are nearly 900 cardboard counters to be punched out and sorted. The map is huge, but just paper not a mounted board. And the big split that cuts right across the Fertile Crescent (i.e., the region where early play is very likely to focus) is just a wee bit annoying. In fact, graphic design is a major mixed back for this game. Play aid charts are astonishingly detailed without seeming cluttered, various terrains are reasonably distinct, and most spaces are large enough to allow play, but at the same time some spaces are amazingly tiny despite their possible importance (a problem caused by the real world not always making important places large, for certain, but no attempt is made to ease the problem via distortion or special play areas to expand on the undersized base location) and the cards are just astonishingly busy, to the point that many are tricky to read. This game is an interestingly lesson in elegance, which is that even that gold standard of game design can be taken too far. This game is often elegant to the point of confusion. Players control Empires, bringing them into play via cards then slowly expanding and developing them until they peak out and are taken out of play, to be replaced by a new Empire. Actual available actions at each turn are few (in fact, 7, plus a "wild card" that lets you defer choosing until you activate, but at a cost), and you select one action for each Empire you have in play each turn. Most of these actions are fairly easy to describe, and fairly easy to do. But the subtleties of their interactions... Wow! And add to this some very odd design choices, such as making each color of playing pieces slightly different (in number of each type of combat unit, or in the abilities each unit has), or the way some Empires naturally cannibalize others if they come into play in the right order, or the way some spaces on the board are specially valuable to some empires while almost worthless to others... In effect, if you don't spend a long time studying them game before trying to play, you'll miss out on just what many of the decisions you're presented with actually mean. This is a very complicated game presented in a form that is almost too simple to contain all its complexity. I'd love to really get into it, but I have a feeling it would take a half-dozen plays to get good enough to really enjoy its richness, and I can't imagine playing it that often at the frustratingly confused level it defaults new players to. Still, big points for taking an aggressive goal and doing an amazingly good job of it. Compare this to games it is similar to (say, History of the World or Vinci) and there's no contest; this is by far the richer and more worthy game. But I'd still probably pull down Vinci first. (Also, you have to take points away for one huge oddity of this game... if the first player has one of the right cards in their initial hand and chooses to play it, the game could start in Age 4 (the Renaissance), 5 (the age of Exploration) or even 6 (the age of Colonialization), ignoring the vast majority of history, which is to say ignoring just what the game is all about! There is an optional rule forcing the first empire to be Age 1. Why this should be an optional rule is beyond my understanding, as I'm sure several other things about this game are. I really, really want to like it... but I can't tell without spending hours of playtime with it I just don't expect to ever manage.

En Garde! and Kung Fu Fighting are going to suffer from being reviewed together... they're from the same publisher and share the same basic structure (draw cards, play attack to damage opponent, move to next player), but they really aren't the same game at all. KFF is martial arts combat the way the movies tell us it was (that is, nothing at all like it was). Players play cards to attack one another, or to enhance an attack, or to shift into various stances, or to draw weapons, or to block attacks, or to recover Chi (life points). Many combinations feed one another, such as Crane Stance giving a bonus to Fast or Kick attacks (and thus a really big bonus to fast kick attacks). Players play cards until there's only one standing. That's all. That's all you need! this is a fast, fun game and not to be ignored. It's only weak spot is that you discard unwanted cards and fill your hand at the beginning of your turn. This means you can't spend other player's turn planning your move and thus slows the game down (though it also means you're far less likely to have a Block card handy). En Garde! takes the same essential structure in a whole different direction. Here, instead of Chi you have Poise, and Poise is used both to record damage and to make attacks. A clever rule makes this slightly less dangerous than it might be... As long as you have at least 1 Poise when damaged, the worst an attack can do is drop you to "No Poise". You're only eliminated if damaged when already at "No Poise". And if you are at "No Poise", you can play any card you want for free! A cornered man is very deadly... Also, En Garde! expands dramatically on the simple attack/block pattern, allowing complex exchanges where the block leads to a riposte which itself needs to be blocked, back and forth until one player can respond no more, and only then is everything resolved. It's quite pretty, and offers a very decent simulation of cinematic swashbuckling fencing. What's that, you say? Kung Fu movies and Swashbuckling movies aren't history? Bah! If history can't make room for things this fun and interesting, who needs it?

Heroscape Expansion Series Two - Utgar's Rage... Well, I really like Heroscape, and more variety is a good thing. For the historically minded, this set adds a quartet of armored Knights and their commander, Sir Denrick, plus 4 members of the 4th Massachusetts Line. Yes, knights in shining armor and Revolutionary War soldiers. Heroscape is an odd history-and-fantasy-in-a-blender sort of game. The knights are reasonably tough and unyielding (and especially nasty to anyone who tries to disengage once in combat with them), their leader is especially good at smacking down Huge figures (you know, like Giants or Dragons), and the 4th Massachusetts lay down withering fire if they don't move. But those are the historical bits, and serve under the relatively "good guy" Jandar. The set is called Utgar's Rage, so most of the figures are on his side. Marro Drones offer us ultra-cheap, barely effective figures whose strength comes if you swarm the battlefield with them (which would require buying several sets), while the Minions of Utgar are bat-winged demons ready to swoop down and do some serious harm (especially since they deal double damage, 2 wounds per hit rather than the usual one). The Anubian Wolves and their leader Khosumet the Darklord are unpredictable werewolves, perhaps the deadliest things imaginable but perhaps accidentally killing one of their own each time they activate (you have to roll a die and find out!). Me-Buro-Sa is a mounted skeletal Marro-type with a 25% chance of paralyzing a nearby enemy at the start of each turn. Krug is a big bruiser who, just to be fearsome, actually has a tougher attack the more damaged he is! And, lastly, there's the Swog Rider, an Orc on a sabertooth tiger who gives a nice bonus to nearby orc archers but isn't actually a leader, so is fairly easy to take down. At GenCon, they were giving out a ranked-up repaint (same figure, different paint job) of this figure, Nerak the Glacian Swog Rider, who actually is a leader (3 life points), and who grants extra defense to nearby orcs, plus having a bonus while standing on a snow space (though, so far as I know, they haven't released any snow terrain pieces yet). All of these figures are attractive and well made, with special points to the bestial Krug and the shining armored knights. Heroscape is getting better all the time, and from the amount of space Hasbro gave it at GenCon (and the future products they displayed), it has no sign of dying off soon. In fact, I've already seen rumors that the next series has started appearing in stores, and it promises Highlanders and Shaolin monks!

And those are my comments. Do with them as you please.

Posted by ghoul at 05:53 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 07, 2005

You Mean What Now?

There's a word I use often in reviews that I know some readers understand, but I suspect others might not.

That word is "elegant".

When I say a game is elegantly designed, or that a certain mechanic or playing piece layout is an elegant solution to a problem, I don't mean the standard definitions you find at the top of that link. I mean something much more like the jargon definitions further down, from the mathematical use of the word. "Combining simplicity, power, and a certain ineffable grace of design."

An elegant solution is one that does its work as smoothly and just as visibly or invisibly as necessary. A very elegant solution might do several things at once, which is a real goal in games (board, card, and RPG) since "more rules" is almost always a bad choice (harder to learn, easier to get wrong, etc.). Or it might place the information you need commonly in a clear, handy place while less necessary information is hidden or even eliminated. True design elegance combines both, reducing the factors to a minimum and communicating them in a clear, ready fashion.

It has nothing at all to being fancy and everything to do with being functional.

I bring this up because elegance (or its lack) is likely to be a recurring theme in my Gen Con 2005 reviews.

Posted by ghoul at 11:49 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 05, 2005

Reviews and Comments (Part 3b)

Whoops, missed one!

Quicksand was lurking behind a stack of other games, and what is quicksand but fine sand and water?

The next set of games will be Historical (mostly) and should be posted by the end of the week, then a grab-bag set to wrap up the lot, hopefully by next Sunday.

Then I'll get into the RPGs.

Quicksand is a quick, easy board game for 2-5 players, likely taking around 15 minutes. Each player randomly and secretly takes on the role of one of six Explorers, nominally a Hunter, a Geologist, a Botanist, a Zoologist, a Jungle Lord, and an Archeologist, though the roles actually have no effect on the game. Each turn, a player may play as many matching cards as they wish, moving the character those cards refer to that many spaces forward toward the Temple. If the character lands on a space matching their color, the player may also discard a card (which is useful because you always draw back to 6 cards each turn). Mask cards and Mask spaces are wild, matching any character. There are also Quicksand spaces and cards. If a character ends their turn on a Quicksand space or if a Quicksand card is played against them, their counter is flipped over and it will take a character card to "rescue" them (flipping them back face-up) before they can move. The object is to get your character to the Temple first, but you'll need to keep your character a secret or everyone else will sink them deep, deep in quicksand. The game is graphically pleasing and smartly designed. Especially smart is that you fill your hand back to 6 at the END of your turn, so you can consider your move while the other players act. This will speed up the game considerably, and this is very much a "play quickly" sort of game. This one's fluff, but it's fairly decent fluff and there's nothing wrong with that!

Posted by ghoul at 06:31 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Reviews and Comments (Part 3)

I have finished a couple RPGs (okay, three), but I'm going to get most of the board and card games out of the way today so I can give the RPGs a more complete consideration. In the first group, I'm combining all the new games with some sort of watery theme, just because.

So, in the complete entry, you'll find quick reviews of Captain Treasure Boots, Caribbean, Oceania, Niagara, Parthenon, Amazonas, Santiago, and Atlas & Zeus.

Yes, watery themes are popular!

Captain Treasure Boots is the newest Cheapass Games release. As such, it consists of a 4-page rulebook and 4 board sections (grids of water or numbered islands, printed in color, which seems lush by company norms), with an available bits set that adds dice, pawns, and the necessary small colored chips for play, in a box (also needed to play). The bits set costs more than the game (though you could easily assemble it yourself). Players are pirates cruising the islands for treasure. Each turn, dice are rolled to place treasure on the islands (chips drawn at random from the box). Then you roll to move your ship, likely to collect or safely deliver to port treasure and/or to line up cannon shots at other pirates (which lets you steal their treasures). Treasure comes in colors, each of which enhances some part of your ship (movement, accuracy of attacks, effectiveness of attacks, defense against attacks), plus Pearls (limited-effect "wilds") and Privateers (non-player pirates who move when doubles are rolled and mostly get in the way, though they can be sunk for points). When delivering treasure to port, you get extra points if you have more than one color to unload. The game is played until someone scores enough points to win. Nothing very sophisticated (and more than a little reminiscent of the much fancier, much more expensive, but also somewhat better Pirate's Cove), but certainly not a bad game for its very low price.

Caribbean is another pirate game, though this one is considerably trickier to master. The board is a fairly realistic map of the Caribbean Sea, with major ports and major pirate havens marked. There are three pirate havens of each color, and that is what the players control. Your objective is to lure the six pirates into bringing their booty (taken from the major ports, where it is seeded out randomly, 6 at the start of the game and 2 more each turn until all are placed) to your havens rather than to other players'. This is done by bidding. Each player has bit cards from -1 to 5, and at the start of each round you place six of those in a holder, one for each ship (the seventh is kept as a tie-breaker). Then, in alphabetical order (the ships' names start with each letter from A to F for simplicity), bids are revealed and the winner moves the ship a number of spaces equal to the winning bid, reduced by any "-1" tokens bid for this ship. Having a treasure sitting on a ship is risky, however, as other ships can steal that treasure by simply moving by! There's lots of potential for cleverness here, setting up chains of ships to rapidly move treasures across the sea. Also impressive are the ship pieces, three-dimensional stand-ups that clearly display their name (in 3 places, plus 2 more that just show the first letter) and have a convenient spot for resting the treasure in their hold. It all looks very sharp, and in support of a reasonably challenging and competitive game. Points are scored for being the first to seize a treasure (a flat 2,000) and for delivering that treasure to your harbor (4,000 to 8,000 depending on the source port, clearly printed on the treasure), and the game is played until someone scores 31,000, 41,000 or 62,000 points (based on the number of players). As is common in this sort of game, a two-player game could be highly competitive and strategic while a four-player game is fairly unpredictable and random. But since it looks to take barely over a half-hour to play, I see no problem with that!

Oceania is a rather unique idea, a game designed for 1 or 2 players. It is explicitly a simplification of Entdecker, a well-regarded older (1996) game. The theme is much the same, exploring a new land. Here, you sail into the unknown (an initially empty board, then later from already-explored locations), each turn drawing and attempting to place a tile that may contain water and land. If you can place the tile, you can also land a scouting party (valued 1, 2 or 3 from a fairly limited supply). If an area is completely walled off with land (that is, made so no new ship could get into it due to existing tiles, but not due to the impassible top of the board), "reserve" tiles are used to fill in. When the game ends (by either mapping the whole board or using up all the random tiles), each island created by the tiles scores its size to the player with the most scouts on it, with incomplete islands scoring nothing. This game is pretty, quick-playing (10-15 minutes!), and reasonably well explained in its rules (though the bit about the top of the board being impassible sea and thus not creating "surrounded" areas is more implicit than stated). The solitaire form leaves out the scouts, encouraging the formation of large islands by giving points equal to the square of each completed island's size, but penalizes the player by 20 points for every square left unexplored at game's end (and big islands risk being left incomplete). A nice, light distraction of a game, and small enough to easily carry along for whenever 15 minutes need to be filled.

Niagara is this year's Spiel des Jahres winner, so I expected great things. I wasn't disappointed. This is a unique little game, a combination of fairly simple strategy, fairly complex interaction, and attractive and significant game design. The theme is fairly simple, if just a bit silly. Fearless (and somewhat foolish) folk row canoes down the Niagara river, trying to collect the valuable gems that, for some reason, gather near the falls. (I'm pretty sure there are few gems to be found anywhere near Niagara, but it's a game, accept the fiction.) Each turn, each player selects their paddling speed (a card from 1-6, plus an "adjust weather" card), moves one or both of their canoes, and tries not to go over the falls. Since the rules force you to use all 7 of your cards before you can re-use any, you have to think ahead. You can move both canoes the full point score if you want, but you can only launch one canoe a turn, so unless one is already on the river you won't be able to move both. Rowing with or against the current is the same difficulty, and it costs 2 points to either reach out and take a gem or toss the gem you have to shore next to you. You don't score by doing that, though you can advance the more rare fall's edge gems to an easier-to-reach spot (though, of course, someone else might swipe it before you can). You can also steal gems from other players by landing on them (though only when moving upstream). You win by getting 1 of each of the 5 gems, 4 of any one gem, or 7 gems total back to the docks. Oh, but I left out the fun bit... The board, designed to be set atop the inverted box, is built with a sunken river track, with the water is represented by transparent plastic discs that slide along the path the board creates. Each turn, after everyone moves, discs are pushed down-river (carrying the canoes along with them, and perhaps over the falls, which actually means falling off the edge). The number of discs added is based on the slowest rowing speed played this turn plus a weather adjustment from -1 to +2 (it starts at 0, but can be changed whenever you play the "adjust weather" rowing card). The river splits near the end, and so the current might go either right or left (depending on the mostly-random way the discs physically move), creating unpredictability (and, thus, a small chance of surviving). Canoes pushed over the falls must be bought back with gems, so it isn't something you want to have happen. This is a great little game, with a strong (if slightly artificial) theme, great components, and very interactive play. A very deserving award-winner and well worth seeking out!

Parthenon is the least water-themed of the games in this group, but I feel it qualifies (and it's my blog!). Players are attempting to advance the development of their Aegean island, through production, trade, and development. Each season, the island produces goods which they can trade to other players (risk-free, except you might make a bad deal) or to the larger non-player lands. It is here that much of the game lies, and thus the semi-watery theme. Travel to Athens, Sparta, or Ionia is relatively easy (draw one hazard card); travel to distant Italy, Carthage, or Egypt is trickier (two hazard cards). One of the major decisions of the game is what to ship, where to ship it to, and what defenses to send along. (As an added risk, random cards determine 'harbor status' when you arrive, and just might make your trip a bust even if you do make it safely.) There's a lot of risk (and randomness) to this process, and managing that risk is how you get ahead. Now, sea trade isn't the only mechanism of this game... You also have to build with the goods your develop and receive via trade. Each player island has a unique mix of goods it can produce, and none is self-sufficient. The goal is to move beyond simple subsistence and develop a full culture, even constructing two "wonders". Each step along the way gives you additional options (some fixed, some random). But the game lasts only 12 turns, so you can't dawdle! Random events added each turn add to the unpredictability, potentially either helping or severely hampering development. How you manage risk is more important than how you manage the other players (though only slightly). Drawbacks? Well, there are a lot of cards (some of which probably should have been counters or tiny wooden blocks or tiny wooden buildings to ease the monotony) and the game really only works as designed at 3 or 6 players, with some specified adjustments at 4 or 5 to make up for the unequal resource distribution. And the rules are a bit long and somewhat more imposing than they really need to be. But this looks like a nice variation on the Settlers form (trading and development) that allows for more strategy and risk-management, and with no randomness in production (though far more in trade).

Amazonas is also only semi-watery, being a game of exploration and discovery in the Amazon jungle. But as the river dominates the board, I'm going to let it into this group (especially since it makes this group closer to 1/3rd of the remaining games I have on hand). The board, as I said, shows a section of jungle, with numerous villages connected by jungle paths or river routes. The object of the game is to manage a successful expedition, which is judged by finding numerous and varied specimens of fish, iguana, orchids, butterflies, and parrots, and also by dealing successfully with the natives and, as best you can, meeting the secret mission assigned you at the beginning of the game (which will state 4 villages you should try to establish research stations in). Each village allows 1, 2 or 3 stations, at increasing cost, shows what specimen you can gain by building here, and connects to other villages. Each turn, an Event card is flipped (half are bad, preventing jungle or river movement for the turn, halving income due to a fire, or subjecting players to theft of resources; half are good, granting rewards or chances to hire native guides). Each player then selects an income card which sets their base income and determines which specimen pays a bonus this turn (or, if they play their "Native" card, negates the negative effect of the Event for them only). Highest total income (including specimen bonuses) gets to go first, then 2nd highest, etc. Income is spent to place more research stations and thus gather more specimens. Each income card can be used only once until all seven have been used (remember this mechanic from Niagara above?), and the game continues for 18 turns (the size of the Event deck, so every event will occur once each game). At the end, you score one point per specimen provided you have at least 3 of that type (none if you have 1 or 2), plus bonus points depending on how quickly you got to all 5 types, less penalty points for each village on your secret mission you failed to visit. A fairly simple game, but with lots of options each turn. Good play will very much help you (though luck in the Event deck is also critical), and there are significant ways to hamper your opponents as well (mostly by building in the smaller villages to block the short routes to their destinations, if you can guess what those are). It plays in under an hour. A minor drawback is that it plays at 3 or 4 players only, but that isn't always a bad thing.

Santiago is a water game of a different sort, as here water is rare, the most valuable resource of the game. Play starts with a barren desert divided into grids, with a single spring bubbling up at one lonely spot. Each turn, various plantation tiles (crops of bananas, sugar cane, potatoes, beans, or chili peppers with space for one or two planters) are put up for auction. Win the auction, you get first pick. But if you lose the auction, you get something extra (in addition to the last remaining plantation)... You get to be the Canal Overseer for the turn! Once plantations are selected and placed on the board, one or more canals are built, extending from the stream or from previously-placed canal segments. This will irrigate adjacent plantations, allowing them to grow and flourish. Non-irrigated plantations slowly dry up (losing one planter a turn) and return to desert (when no planters remain and more drying is called for). The other players must propose canal options for the turn, and are required to offer a bribe to the Overseer to encourage their preference! The game continues through several rounds (11 for the 3 or 4 player version, 9 with 5 players). At the end of this, everyone scores their plantations, with continuous blocks of the same crop being worth more than smaller, less orderly distributions. Everyone can score the same block, so long as they placed some share of it, but you score size times the number of planters you have working that area, so every turn a plantation goes without water means fewer points for you! This game is fairly simple, fairly quick (plays in around an hour), but has very real strategy and solid, continuous interaction among the players. A solidly designed game, well-produced, and well worth play.

Atlas & Zeus is the last of the water-themed games in my GenCon purchases, and an opposite to Santiago as here the problem is too much water, not too little. It's actually a relatively straightforward game, with two factions of Atlanteans (those worshiping Atlas and those worshiping Zeus, as the name suggests) struggling to be the last ones left as the islands sink. Initially, 16 characters are distributed one each to 16 islands. Each turn, players schedule 6 cards (3 each) to occur. These cards can move characters, cause combat, adjust the order or the islands' sinking, or otherwise modify the board. Eventually, only one player's characters will be left, and they win. There's constant conflict, as the circle of islands contracts at least one each turn (sometimes faster, based on the cards). There's also more than a little strategy and bluffing/guessing, as you have to pick your actions well in advance of knowing what your opponent will do. Clever choices can make or break your side. The game is a reasonably quick play (30-40 minutes) and straightforward to learn, so not a bad little game at all.

Hmmm... seems I liked pretty much everything here, at least a little. Niagara, Parthenon, and Santiago are highest on my list, but anything here is well worth your consideration, and Amazonas very close behind (and gaining an advantage over Parthenon if longer, more complex games are not to your liking).

Posted by ghoul at 03:26 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 26, 2005

Reviews and Comments (Part 2)

I'm working my way through the next couple of RPGs (With Great Power... and Burning Wheel are my current top priorities, with Capes close behind), but I've taken a break for some of the smaller, quicker board game reads...

In the extended entry lie comments on Saboteur, Wench, the Hollywood Card Game, and MidEVIL.

Saboteur - First off, this game reminded me of something I should have known... just because I haven't seen a game mechanic before doesn't mean it's new. The mechanic for determining which players are gold-diggers (I would have translated this "miners") or saboteurs is very much like that used in Shadows Over Camelot, excepting that here, if there are more than 4 players, there will certainly be at least one saboteur. The game is fairly simple, with players laying out tunnel segments each turn to either try to connect to the goal cards (one of which pays off with gold if connected to the entry spot) or prevent the same, depending if they are a gold-digger or a saboteur. A few special action cards can modify the cards already in play or prevent a player from making progress until they find a "repair" card (reminiscent of the classic Mille Borne, which is never a bad thing). Gold-Diggers and saboteurs score points as teams, though the gold-digger who actually strikes gold and those counter-clockwise of that player are likely to get the most. All in all, an interesting game, probably just about as long as it needs to be (you play three full hands, starting the map fresh and re-assigning roles before each). It certainly makes the "want to play a couple of times" list.

Wench - I expected something fairly silly with silly-sexy art, and that's all this is. It's pretty much a standard "dump all your cards" game, much like the Cheepass classic Give Me The Brain only with scantily costumed babes on most cards and some rather unique card effects. Most cards require or are triggered by certain behaviors (resting your elbow on the table, cheering other players on, etc.). It's rather silly, and obviously intended as a drinking game (despite the long, lawyerly paragraph toward the end of the rules explaining that it really isn't a drinking game, but if you want to play it as one, you should obey all local laws, designate a driver, etc., etc.). Oh, and the cards are also marked with traditional 52 card suits and ranks, so you can ignore the game and just play poker (or, I suppose, a card-using RPG like Castle Falkenstein or With Great Power...). Bought on a whim, probably will do little more than sit around.

The Hollywood Card Game - Another quick and light card game. Here, a certain number of film and star cards are laid out each turn, and players go around the table claiming them, then assembling them into movies. The trick is that you claim them by column, putting a marker on the bottom card and shifting other markers on that column up. Thus, you won't necessarily get the card you claim! Completed films score points equal to the number of film cards of the same suit (they come in "horror", "action", and "romantic comedy") multiplied by the Star Power of the attached lead actor. Incomplete projects at game's end are worth nothing (except your largest, which is scored as if it had a rank 1 start). It's fairly abstract and a little arbitrary, but there are enough cards put out each round (and a couple of special actions each player can do once per game to modify the usual card-claiming order) to make it strategically interesting. This one will make the "play it to see if it works" stack.

MidEVIL - A successor game to the popular (and played out, probably one expansion set before they stopped producing them) Zombies!!! series, being a quite transparent but unofficial Army of Darkness game (unofficial because there is an official Army of Darkness game, and this isn't it). Instead of Zombies, we get Skeletons. And we're in the past. Oh, and the object is "find the graveyard, pick up the Necronomicon, carry it back to the starting space and end the curse" rather than "find the helicopter and escape". The general mechanics are familiar from Zombies!!!, but with the improvements of having done it before. Here, skeletons come in three colors, each equally easy to kill but worth different amounts (1-3 points) as rewards if killed. Thus, you have the added strategic choices around placing or moving skeletons to try to block opponents with low-point white skeletons while placing higher-value red or blue skeletons around for you to snatch up. Also, grey human figures are placed on the board which can be picked up for healing. There are lots of plastic bits in this game... 100 skeletons (40 white, 40 red, and 20 blue) and 56 humans (50 grey to use as markers, 6 in unique colors to use as player pieces), plus a deck of cards and 30 map tiles from which you build the board. This looks to be better than Zombies!!! because there's more to do and some real competition for the end-game rather than just (relatively) dumb luck of finding the helicopter. Points off for a 50 card deck with only one non-duplicate and for not clearly indicating passible from impassible squares on the map tiles. Probably best played after re-watching Army of Darkness as a mood-setter. Not that I ever have a problem with watching Army of Darkness.

Posted by ghoul at 03:44 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 25, 2005

Reviews and Comments (Part 1)

Here, I'll take a look at the games I read or experienced at the Con and those I couldn't pass up reading right away, either because they were too darn tempting or because they were nice and short.

Of coure, board games take a lot less time to read than RPGs, so this list is mostly them... Most of these comments are for games I'd already read or had taught to me at the con itself.

Under the fold, you'll find comments on InSpecters, Beowulf, Paranoia Manditory Bonus Fun, Poison, and Dungeon Twister.

InSpecters: I'd read the free start-up version, but that leaves out some of the really cool parts of this very clever RPG. InSpecters attempts to fix one of the more nagging RPG problems, the inherent frustration of playing mysteries (either as GM or as player). The fix used is simple and elegant... Rather than creating all the clues in advance and waiting for the players to find them, an InSpecters GM creates an initial mystery and sets its difficulty (the number of clues needed to solve it). The players then send their characters off investigating, using whatever skills or contacts they wish. The clues are created on-the-fly among the players (including the GM) and the solution to the mystery comes once there are sufficient clues to meet the difficulty requirement and a satisfactory linking story is developed, again on-the-fly among the players. Pure gold! Added to this is a clever setting (a parody of the dot-com venture capital world, here with startup paranormal investigators rather than internet companies) with a nearly perfect blend of seriousness and humor (think Ghostbusters, and done well rather than overdosed on the silly as the actual Ghostbusters RPG tended to be). Also present is a reality-TV-inspired "confessionals" mechanic, whereby a player can step out of the plot and do a direct-to-the-audience monolog, commenting on the goings-on either to set up a scene or the comment on other characters. But it isn't just fluff... the rules make comments made in confessionals a source of bonuses, so long as you play your character the way the confessional framed them. I love game mechanics that do multiple things at once, and InSpecters is a great example of this kind of elegance. Highest ratings (and I'm almost certainly going to be using it for a future AmberCon game)!

Beowulf: The Legend - I did not know this game would be at the con (it wasn't supposed to be released until this fall), but when I saw it, I made an immediate purchase. It obeyed my Reinier Knizia rule, which is (stated simply) "If it's by Knizia, buy it, then look at the theme". On Sunday, I carried the box back to the booth to have it signed by the creator, and since the line was short, I even got a brief summary of the rules from the man himself. I later got to play most of a game at the booth. Beowulf is set up as the maneuvering of the followers of the great hero to get the best leavings as the epic adventures occur. Cards come in suits representing Courage, Travel, Fighting, Fellowship, Wit, and Beowulf (a wild suit), and each challenge must be met with a specified combination of suits. The player who best meets the challenge gets first pick of the rewards, then continuing down the ranks. Rewards include Fame, Treasure, Alliance Scrolls (which are either Fame or Treasure, but in random and secret amounts), Healing, Cards, special single-use cards (representing unique treasures or the favor of the minor characters of the story), Penalty Markers, or Wounds. Yes, rewards can be bad; you don't want to come too low in the picking order or that's all you'll have to take. Each challenge has its own unique reward set, representing what can happen in the story at that point. It's a bit abstract (it is, after all, a Knizia game!), but it plays nicely and reasonably quickly (45 minutes to an hour, including teaching the rules). There is a Knizia scoring twist (he tends to always provide one)... At the end of the game, having no wounds is worth +5 Fame, having 1 or 2 wounds means nothing, but having 3 or more means -5 Fame per wound. Ouch! And it's quite pretty, with an L-shaped board, John Howe illustrations of Beowulf, Grendal, the Sea Hag, the Great Dragon, etc. It's not quite as deep a game as its larger-sized box implies (it's the same size box as the component-rich and long-playing Arkham Horror, for example), but it's certainly a worthy game.

Paranoia Manditory Bonus Fun Card Game - I love Paranoia. I have since it first came out, years ago. And now, there's a way to play Paranoia without the bother of a GM and thinking up original missions. Manditory Bonus Fun sets the players up as Troubleshooters in the insane dystopia that is Alpha Complex, nominally working as a team (though it's really every clone for himself). The game ends when one player dies for the 6th time (using up all their clones), at which point you check and see who has the highest security clearance and they're the winner. Until then, you deal out missions, resolve them by playing action cards (which can also have effects other than on the mission; in fact, each card has more than one possible use, though only the one chosen by the player takes effect when played). Players accumulate wounds and treason points, with the former possibly killing you directly and the later indirectly. Interaction is complex and often unpredictable, but great fun. The componant quality is a slight let-down (what art there is is mostly reprinted from earlier Paranoia products, often too small to really be enjoyed, and the markers are particularly dull, just colored circles with "Treason" or "Wound" printed on them), but the game is quite nice.

Poison - Another Knizia game, which meant I bought it as soon as I found the right booth. This one is a light card game, having four suits (three colors and "poison") of numbered cards. Each hand, players try to deal away all their cards onto cauldrons (you have to match the color already played on that Cauldron, except you can always tip in some Poison). If the card you play takes the total on that Cauldron over 13, you are forced to claim the cards. Every card claimed in a round is a point (Poison cards are 2 points), and you want the least points after one hand per player is played. Oh, but here's the Knizia scoring twist... Whoever captures the most of each color (not including Poison) doesn't have to score that color of cards (they "build up an immunity")! So what you get is a sort of Hearts-style trick-taking-avoidance (unless you can get the most) game, though with a rather unique way of defining "tricks". A nice little passtime game.

Dungeon Twister - This game was a big hit at Origins this year, which was interesting because it wasn't actually available there (or at GenCon, at least until Saturday). I've been told it's actually the first game to make it into the top 100 at BoardGameGeek without being printed in English first. And I can see why. This is a very pretty game, a cleverly themed game, and a very fun game. At first blush, it looks kind of like the classic Wiz-War, but in practice that resemblance is barely skin-deep; both games involve dungeons randomly built out of square map pieces that can sometimes be rotated to modify the map. That's it. Whereas Wiz-War is a highly random, very chaotic game, Dungeon Twister has no random elements except the map; whereas Wiz-War is single wizards (and possibly their summoned creatures), Dungeon Twister is teams of eight adventurers, each with their own specific abilities and talents. Players must allocate their action cards (which allow a different number of activations per turn, 2 thru 5) and combat cards (which add to the total on their side), with non-zero combat cards usable only once in the game and action cards only available for use after you've used them all. The object is to score 5 points, with points coming by getting a character off the opposing side of the dungeon board (that is, out through the opponent's starting row), killing an opponent's adventurer (that is, wounding them twice). Bonus points come for leaving the board with a Treasure or as the Goblin character (a weak adventurer whose only power is that he's worth 2 points if he can escape). Character art is excellent, the eight adventurers offered are nicely distinctive and all useful in different ways, and play is tightly balanced and tense. Magic items are distributed around the board (placed by the players pre-game, then located exactly on the map when it is revelaed by exploration in play) to offer even more special effects. Promised expansions (some already out in France) expand the game to 3 or 4 players and add additional adventurer classes to choose from. This is a game to watch, because it deserves to be a big hit. My only caveat is that my copy came with only 14 bases for the 16 stand-up adventurer pieces, so I have to raid another game to finish the set.

More reviews to follow.

Posted by ghoul at 05:46 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 27, 2005

Visiting the Factory

Dunno if I have too much to add... I may be (and, in fact, am) allergic to chocolate, but I'm far from allergic to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

(spoilers possisble... except, of course, most everyone reading this has seen the older movie or, I hope, read the book.)

I agree with Dorothea here and, linking to other comments and extending on her own, here. There's a fairly clear subvsersive take on class and labor relations here. Some of it is in the original, but the film certainly emphasizes these elements.

On less serious notes... the five kids around whom the story rotates are all very well done, with only one requiring a bit of updating to the 21st century (and the new Mike Teavee is annoying in ways the original can only approach thanks to the addition of video games and techno-child arrogance to the mix). And cutting back to only one parent on the tour with each child (the book allows for two) just keeps things from being far too crowded.

I was delighted to hear original lyrics (albeit significantly cut back and occasionally re-ordered) in the Oompa-Loompa songs, and thought Elfman's music was a very good match to the rather difficult material. "What?", you may ask. "Did you recognize the re-ordered lyrics while watching the film?" Well, no... though a couple did feel wrong to me, I had to check the book to know just why. And, yes, Elfman did re-arrange some lyrics here and there, as well as cutting a good bit (the original songs are quite long).

You see, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has been a favorite book of mine for some time. My copy, in fact, has my name and address written in the front cover, and from the address I can tell I've owned this copy for at least thirty years. I've read it a lot. I've seen the older movie version several times, though I've never been too taken by it. Wonka is too nice. Charlie is not nice enough. I mean, Charlie and Grampa Joe end up tripping over one of Wonka's odd confectionary deathtraps themselves, and that's just wrong in so many ways!

Does this new film have problems (other than, if you're opposed to the view it presents, it's take on labor and class issues)? Sure. Dahl's book had some rather pointed and nasty things to say about children and (especially) parents, and while the message is still there, the songs (which served in the original to hammer home the point) are cut and simplified to where they're more comic commentary than polemic (OK, maybe polemic wouldn't've worked in the film... but it's pretty clearly what Dahl wrote the book for). The added sub-plot of Willie Wonka's issues with his father are entertaining (especially since Christopher Lee is cast to give creepy gravitas to the role), but I'm not sure it doesn't actually undermine the "bad parenting messes kids up" message, since while Wonka is clearly "messed up", he's also a highly successful and beloved (if completely misunderstood and cut off from the world) candy-maker. Oh, and the extended ending does another disservice, at least in my book... It doesn't leave the original direct set-up for the sequel.

And Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator is a book I love even more than the first. I mean, how could I not hope for (as unlikely as it is) a Tim Burton take on the Vermicious Knids?

Posted by ghoul at 04:04 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 19, 2005

Some Less Conflicted Comments

Okay, so I was a bit divided about Batman Begins, but I'm less conflicted about the two TV series I watched yesterday and today thanks to internet downloads of international broadcasts...

So let me take a minute to talk about Doctor Who (2005) and Justice League Unlimited.

(Extremely limited spoiling again... but I'll go under a fold anyway.)

So, first, the Doctor.

I was introduced to the Doctor in 1979 thanks to the US publication of some episode novelizations. I was 14 and had slightly heard of the show reading science fiction fan 'zines of the era, but didn't really know much about it. The first of these was Terrance Dick's Doctor Who and the Day of the Daleks, adapting the 60th story of the long-running series. The story spoiled me for most of the series, unfortunately, as it actually featured honest-to-goodness time travel as part of the plot (all too often, the Doctor only travels at the start and end of stories, sticking around as if just another native during the adventure). Here, bad guys (the titular Daleks) use their limited powers of time travel to manipulate events to lead to their conquest of Earth, said manipulation made possible in the future because they have conquered the Earth. Except, of course, the Time Lords forced an exiled outcast of their race (The Doctor) to set things right.

And what a character this Doctor was. It was a 1972 episode, so the Doctor was Jon Pertwee, who came across as a brilliant but more than a bit cranky pseudo-Victorian scientist, assigned to assist (and be watched over by) a United Nations anti-alien task force. It was all a bit silly, didn't really make too much sense, and I loved it. Of course, I was reading a book, so the Daleks came across as the frightening, inhuman death machines they're described as, not the comic dodgem-cars mated with a pepper grinder I later saw them looking like on PBS re-runs of the series. No, to my imagination, they were something really frightening, a relentless, heartless killing wave that could be pushed back but never stopped. (Sort of like what the Borg were much later in Star Trek: The Next Generation, at least before they started humanizing them for "greater drama").

I eventually saw and read a lot more Doctor Who. I've seen episodes with all the various versions (a clever writers trick allows the Doctor to be re-cast with a new actor whenever needed), and liked most of them. I suffered through a painfully mistaken attempt to Americanize the series that, thankfully, lasted only one two-hour special. And then, for nearly than a decade, it went away.

And now, it's back. And is it ever!

Writer Russell T. Davis, clearly a classic Doctor fan from way back, somehow convinced the BBC to bring the Doctor back, this time with a bit less cheese and a bit more SFX budget (though it doesn't always escape its roots; often, though, that looks to be on purpose). A brilliantly funny man, Christopher Eccleston, was cast in the lead, and this Doctor manages to have all the best and worst of his past selves. He's cross, razor-tongued, quick to judge, impatient, sarcastic, reckless, and just a little bit too harsh in how he deals out "justice". He's also funny, charming, impossibly clever, and given to forming deep and unshakable loyalties to the right people. In this case, that's the sweet but apparently unimportant Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), with whom he happens to cross paths in the first episode (entitled "Rose", so you know where the real focus is).

Through the 13 episodes of this series, we also meet several other recurring characters, including Rose's mother (Camille Coduri), who never really understands what is going on; her boyfriend Mickey (Noel Clark), loyal and true but just a little bit wrong to make it onto the Doctor's team himself; Adam Mitchell (Bruno Langley), a near-future techno-nerd who is just a little too tempted by technology; and the roguish Captain Jack (John Barrowman), who can't seem to decide if he wants to seduce Rose or the Doctor. Plus tons of other interesting people, creatures, and things. The world is saved, the world is accidentally put in peril, the world is saved again. And a rollicking good time is had, including an amazing episode poking fun at BBC game shows (including an Anne-droid who mercilessly disintegrates the "weakest link"... voiced by Anne Robinson herself). And, in the end, it all ties up into a complex but astonishingly neat pattern.

And, amidst it all, the Daleks, still looking like they always have, are somehow made just as scary as they ever were in their descriptions.

This is worth checking out! And if the next series (coming in 2006, with a one-shot special for Christmas first) is anywhere near this good, then the Doctor is not going away again anytime soon! (And there are rumors I've heard about Cybermen, another old foe who could use a modern touch to make them as scary as they should be.)

Now, Justice League.

I commented in my Batman Begins review that I really like what the WB animated team has been putting together since they started Batman the Animated Series. Well, JLU is the culmination of that work, now broadened to include most all of the DC Comics universe (including many parts I never expected to see on TV). In the US, we've seen an excellent season so far, including some unexpected hostility between the government (especially a top secret group called "Project Cadmus") and some unlikely romantic sparks (or did anyone honestly see the Huntress and the Question as a couple in advance?). We've also had an astonishing degree of continuity, with references back as far as the first season of the Batman animated, and countless tiny plot threads, many probably not even intended by their original authors, picked up and run with.

Well, America, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

Canada's YTV has already shown the next four episodes, a four-part epic that brings everything to a head. (The one episode left in this season, "Epilogue", is an obvious afterward, an anti-climax, and shows there next Friday, but since I'll be at The Black Road, I'll review the series now.)

What the US is still to see is a story arc the likes of which was completely unexpected, even with the high-quality work this series has shown from day one. Even the titles were designed to tease and excite JLU fans.

"Question Authority"


"Panic in the Sky"

"Divided We Fall"

Well, if you're a JL fan from, oh, the second season and, say, episodes 37 and 38, you may think you see a thread in those titles. You're right. And you're wrong. You probably went down the path they want you to follow, and if so, they will surprise you at every turn. Dwayne McDuffie, the writer of this arc, proves deft and clever. He also proves to know and care for the DC Universe deeply. This is great TV.

Don't miss it. The next four weeks (and almost certainly five; I don't expect "Epilogue" will disappoint) are ones of the record books.

Posted by ghoul at 11:09 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

June 18, 2005

Rebooting the Bat

I'm not sure just how to express this. I haven't been this ambivalent about a movie in some time. But I'm just back from Batman Begins and I'm really not sure what I thought of it.

(Very limited spoiling in what follows, but I'll put it behind a fold anyway.)

Is it the first film version of the Batman to really have a coherent theme that fits the main character? No... I think Mask of the Phantasm achieved that, as did Mystery of the Batwoman. Maybe the first live-action movie to manage that feat, but I don't discriminate against animation. So it isn't unique there, and it doesn't even succeed quite as well as its cartoon predecessors, if only because it tries too hard and so drops a few of the many subplots it tries to juggle.

Does it do the best job of the live-action Batman films at keeping the focus on Batman/Bruce Wayne and not on the villains? Sure. But that's saying it's good because it doesn't make the mistakes that trapped others, not because it's actually good itself. Now, it does manage an impressive feat by having an all-star cast but still keep its focus mostly on its main characters, most of whom are lesser names. (And big props to the director for bringing along one of the lesser-known actors from his amazing Memento to give another fantastic supporting performance.) And it does so without forcing the big names into the background, because everyone gets a chance to shine. It's hard to fault the acting of anyone, except perhaps Katie Holmes, but that's more because she has no coherent role in the plot than any glaring problems with her performance.

As many reviews suggest, this film tries to "bring realism to the Batman story" Well, yes, it tries... but in many ways it goes too far with this effort, setting us up with a long prelude (it's easily an hour in before we even glimpse the Batman) of martial arts training sequences; repeated discussions on the nature of Justice, Vigilanteism, Right, etc; demonstrations of military prototype equipment; etc. But then, once the mask goes on, the film lets itself change gears and then action-movie rules apply. Both halves are reasonably well done, but the last sixty minutes of this movie takes place in a very different world from the first sixty, and the twenty in the middle don't manage to explain the changes.

It has very many good points, but it also is too ambitious, trying to be a movie with at least a half-dozen villains. We have two major, name supervillains (both excellently done), one named henchman of unusual skill (with countless unnamed henchfolk), a mob boss (built up too much for how easily he falls down), one name corrupt cop (with countless other unnamed), and the street thug who killed Bruce's parents (thankfully restored to his correct identity from the mistaken merger with the Joker in the Tim Burton Batman). They all have to get built up, they all have to get knocked down... and that's just too much for the film to manage. None of them quite get built up high enough to perform the role of a villain (that is, to make the hero look good when they are beaten). Meanwhile, it also wants to re-tell the Batman origin story (exceptionally well, and including many details often skimmed over, though with a few changes I could do without; the traditionalist in me really wants the Waynes to be leaving a Zorro movie, not the opera), establish its supporting cast (Alfred, Gordon, and a surprisingly good take on Lucius Fox, all of which manage to work because of the talented actors who establish their roles with expert craft even when given only limited screen time), and develop a love story (the most skimped-on subplot, painfully under-developed to the point where it is more distraction than anything else). This is just way too much to do.

And maybe that's why I came away feeling like nothing was quite complete, like there was a lot of good starts put there, but far fewer good ends. It's hard to dislike a film that does so many things as well as this film does, but it has to be admitted that it fails in around a third of what it tries, and some of those failure are painful to sit through, especially when there's so much done so well.

Am I glad this team wants to do another film (in fact, rumor says they want to do two more)? Yes, because I think they have the basics down better than anyone not working for WB's animation division, and because they could probably bring some of their dangled threads to completion with more time. Plus, I like superhero movies that are done well, and this one is done well (or, at least, isn't done poorly like I'm very worried this one will be). Still, this is no Incredibles or Spiderman (I or II).

So, a limited recommendation from me. You may find it too slow, too convoluted, too serious or too silly (and it can be both, depending on which half you're in), but if you like superhero movies, you could do far worse.

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May 19, 2005


When you tell a great story, it is possible to mess it up far, far more ways than anyone could list. There are many right ways and many, many, many more wrong ones.

You could decide to change everything and make it "better". Then you'd be last year's groan-fest, Troy.

You could decide speed, glitz, and a famous name is all you need, and you'd be the remake of Dawn of the Dead (and extra points for the ultra-bad choices made during those end credits!).

Or you could tell your story in leaden, plodding steps so everyone forgets why they ever even cared before you get to the big scenes.

Then, you would be Revenge of the Sith.

Oh, it has good spots. The action scenes are glitzy and sharp, even if they lack most of the originality seen in the first trilogy and the fluid continuity of the final duel in The Phantom Menace (a sequence which was perhaps the only really good thing about that film). At least Lucas does (mostly) avoid the over-editing, overly-shaky camera work that many directors use to hide their ill-choreographed action. And it mostly lacks the painful juvenile attempts at humor of the prior two prequels, but it's a movie that lacks a heart, told by a writer/director more interested in the colors of the various weapons his protagonists wield than in their characters. Numerous shout-outs to the fans of the original trilogy fall dead, especially the completely meaningless role given to Chewbacca.

There isn't a prize for simply not fumbling, and that's almost all Lucas achieves here. "Not as bad as the last two" isn't the same thing as "good." To be praiseworthy, you have to actually move the ball forward. And I was more thrilled by this story reading it second-hand from interviews Lucas has given over the years than I was watching it. Most of this film, I was just as bored as the actors seemed (with rare exceptions, mostly from those who took the director's effective absence as an excuse to munch the scenery until it was almost gone... so yes, you can chew on digital scenery).

I almost hate to quote this, because I disagree with it so vehemently, but this film pretty much exemplifies the something Laurie Anderson said in her early piece, United States Part One...

In science fiction, the hero just flies in at the very beginning.
He can bend steel with his bare hands.
He can walk in zero gravity.
He can see right through lead doors.
But no one asks how he is able to do these things.
They just say, "Look! He's walking in zero gravity."
So you don't have to deal with human nature at all.

I like my films to deal with human nature, especially my science fiction. Which, I guess, is why I'm so disappointed to be certain this film will make many times the money of, say, a certain other movie that manages that in spades.

Posted by ghoul at 08:43 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 25, 2005

More About New Games

For those who are interesting in my opinions after reading last week's big catch of new games, just look here.

These opinions are based on reading the rules and playing with individual ideas a bit, with the exception of the one game that offers solo play (and even there, solo play is minimally like the regular game). But I've read a lot of game rules and usually can reach a reasonable conclusion just from that. Still, conclusions about "this will get tedious before the game ends" or "the joke won't last out the game" are my estimates based on reading, not on play.

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January 17, 2005

Movie Break (and HeroScape)

This being NH (which didn't even get around to recognizing the day until after I'd moved here in 1999), there was no chance I had the holiday off, but I did call it a day slightly early in order to make it to an afternoon showing of The House of Flying Daggers. And that was worth it. Zhang Yimou has managed to move into the action film genre without losing any of the lush look and hyper-melodramatic romance of his earlier films (which I also love). This film, like Hero, takes a moment out of the rich history of China and fills in the blank spots with tragic characters caught up by events even their amazing skills cannot control. This is not a film to miss!

And, afterwards, I stopped by the local Toys R Us and found 2 of the 3 remaining HeroScape Expansion Sets (I'd found Snipers and Vipers on Saturday). Now I just need to locate the Grut Orcs and I'm caught up. I'm quite happy with the figures so far, both in appearance and in clever new additions to the game. And its just great that a set of Roman Legionnaires is now one of the larger unified-look groups in the game (only the Orcs have more).

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November 05, 2004


I don't care how good you think Pixar is.

I don't care how good you think Brad Bird is.

I don't care how much you're expecting of The Incredibles.

I don't care how many times you've watched the trailers and wondered how it all fit together.

Because it all doesn't matter.

You are just not ready for how good this movie is.

Think Spider-Man 2 is the best superhero movie of all time? It's not even the best superhero movie of 2004, my friend.

Go. Watch. Be amazed.

And be warned, you who are making Fantastic Four, that the bar has been set really, really high. You do not want to be thought of as a second-rate Incredibles rip-off, but you'll have to work very hard to avoid it. Get cracking!

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September 07, 2004

Hero and Related Observations

While in NYC this past weekend, I went to see Hero with Jeanne.

First, let me state the obvious. This is a great film. It's particularly a great film for fans of Feng Shui, as it has some of the best named character versus massive numbers of mooks fights I've ever seen. Add to that a great director and quite possibly the finest cinematographer working today and there's a film that's just a joy to look at. The story is both deceptively simple and, in the end, deceptively complex, which is a nice trick by the writers. The acting is top-notch, but it was that aspect of the film that triggered an unusual reaction.

At the most intensely dramatic moments of the film, the audience laughed. Not just a few of them (there's always a few odd reactions with NY crowds, particularly in well sold showings like this one was), but a fairly significant number. Jeanne and I talked about this after the film, and I came up with a theory.

I think this one can be blamed, if that's the right word, on The Method.

This "naturalistic" style has dominated most of English-language stage, TV, and movie acting for decades. But in much of the rest of the world, theater is still full of ritual and artifice, explicit techniques and repeated affectations. And so, at the height of the film's melodramatic scenes, much of the audience, familiar with naturalistic, often minimalist, acting, found the performances comical for their extremes of emotional display. But I have to think they lost something there. I'm not coming out against natural-style "method acting", I'm just saying there are some situations that are better served by the "classical" approach, in particular romantic melodrama like much of Hero revels in. And too much exposure to natural-style acting (or perhaps its just a lack of exposure to "classical" acting) can damage audience's ability to recognize and respond to the more stylized form with anything but laughter.

And that's too bad.

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August 30, 2004

Return to the Staircase

I've been neglecting this blog for too long... time to start posting again.

This last weekend was my birthday, and this year my regular "whale watching trip" happened on the day. The weather was great, we happened upon another semi-sleeping finback, and a good time was had by all. We even seem to have avoided sunburn except in hints.

Prior to that, I've been dealing with the car issues detailed in the last posts before this one... This whole mess had a happy ending because the good folks at PriusOnline pointed out that all Prius come with free road hazard coverage, as compensation for the need for not-exactly-cheap tires. And, after some paperwork, I was reimbursed 100% for the replacement. The fender-bender mentioned here did no real damage at all.

Work issues have kept me grinding and made me look for pretty much anything to do that didn't involve looking at a computer screen once I was home. I hope I'm past that because, if FedEx tracking can be believed, I have my birthday present to me (a dual 2.5GHz Power Mac G5 with a 23" cinema flatscreen) that will be arriving tomorrow. I do tend to over-spend on me...

I've also been making slow but steady progress through my backlog of DVDs, anchored by watching pretty much all of The X-Files in fairly rapid succession. I'm not quite done yet (there's two seasons to go, most of which I've never seen before), but I'm well reminded why I liked this show when it was on. And that while its best is very good, it had some real stinkers as well, mostly when they tried to tie into recent headlines too much or went for laughs rather than scares. None of which is to say that Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose and Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space' are anything but gems, but most of the other funny episodes run out of steam with at least one act still to go. And rarely, if ever, does good seem to come of them letting the actors write or direct.

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July 06, 2004

Does Whatever A Spider Can

Well, it wasn't perfect, but it sure was good!

Spider-Man 2 is the sort of sequel we need more of. It's completely aware of its role, it restarts and expands upon pretty much every tread of the first film, and because of that it almost feels like we just got to see the next few reels of a single project. The cast is solid, both the returning actors and the wonderful new Doc Ock. Here we get another man driven insane by the source of his powers, just like the Goblin in the first, but that's where the resemblance ends. Gobby was driven by anger and revenge, Doc is trapped in his obsessions, willing to do anything to prove he was right. Add to this Molina's willingness to let Doc be the tubby scientist left bare-chested for scene after scene and you have a perfect recreation of a comic-book character I never expected to see actually moving around.

Meanwhile, Spidey's cascade of life's little tragedies continue. If things went well for him, he'd be another superhero. Oh, he gets something of a happy ending, but there's still a lot of mess in his life. There's two or three more villain's I've already spotted set-ups for, and I was much more a DC fan than a Marvel fan in my heavy comics reading days.

They over-compensated a bit for the first movie's biggest problem (a lack of facial expression visibility), but when that's the biggest flaw of a film, I really can't complain.

Sam Raimi really has a nigh-perfect grasp of how to do Spider-Man, and we can only hope for more and more.

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May 14, 2004

I Had It Coming

I knew better than to hope.

But at least I was let down quickly. When the very first scene of Troy was of Agamemnon completing his conquest of all of Greece (something he didn't do, or even try to do), I was worried. When the second scene was introduced via subtitle as taking place at the "Port of Sparta", I knew this wasn't made for me (Sparta being famously land-locked). By the time they let on that the 10 year epic tale of Troy's fall was to be compressed to barely a fortnight, I was numb to the pointless revisionism.

So I just sat back and looked for the good amidst the mess.

And there was some.

Troy looked very nice, particularly the Hittite/Babylonian influence in their statuary. The armies both looked about like they should (based on Homer's descriptions, which most would say are anachronistic of the actual war, if there was one). O'Toole was great even when given nothing but crap to say. Pitt was fine as Achilles when action was required (and terrible for everything else). Bana was very good as Hector for all purposes. The duel between Achilles and Hector was quite good, particularly early on when they were doing spear and shield work (far less common in movies than swordplay); it was, however, little like Homer describes.

But, overall, an unsatisfying experience, primarily because a modern screenwriter decided he had the talent to improve on the dramatic structure of one of Western Literatures greatest works. It doesn't need its heroic deaths re-ordered (and several completely inappropriate ones added), it doesn't need its heroes motivations re-imagined (if Achilles acted out of love, it most certainly wasn't for the utterly unimportant Briseis), and it certainly doesn't need this film version.

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April 16, 2004

Had To See This On Opening Day

Just back from Kill Bill vol 2.

It's a very different film from vol 1, just as the distinct chapters of vol 1 differ from each other. And, in that way, it's several different movies inside itself. An Italian suspense/horror inspired film, a Shaw Brothers martial arts film, a noir double-crossing criminals film, and an oddly quirky mother/daughter bonding film, even bits of a cute little romantic comedy. It can be all of those because QT is a very talented man, and can splice together things that don't really work together in any lesser work. He's also too bold and cocky to realize it won't possibly work, the perfect man to make it work in spite of everything.

Not nearly as much an over-the-top splatterfest as vol 1, the violence here is more direct and personal than the mass bloodlettings of the Crazy 88. I don't recall a nearly perfectly black screen accompanied by sound effects being nearly that affecting before (and I have seen it tried). Bill is every bit as creepy and charming as he needed to be, Elle is a perfect dark mirror of The Bride, and Pai Mei is as delightful an Old Master as there has ever been. You'll be glad to know these people, and just as glad that they're fictional. Plus, little BB has great taste in bedtime videos (I missed the next lines I was laughing so hard).

Some parts would have worked far better had Mirimax just let the 3 to 4 hour original edit come out, and I'll be looking forward to the re-combined DVD version I'm sure we'll see before too long, but you'll miss too much if you don't see this on the big screen.

And stay through the credits... Q&U have a final little "gift" for the patient.

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March 25, 2004

Some More DVD Watching

While prepping for AmberCon, I watched some DVDs. Brief reviews follow, mostly written during the flight out and pre-empted in importance by the ADRP/GoO announcement once I got here.

21 Grams - Wow. Just wow. Another time-jumbled movie like Memento or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but this time there's no plot reason pushed at us for this, it's just the way the story comes to us. Though filmed in chronological order (from articles I've read), it is shown in a shuffled fashion, sets of episodes that orbit around the critical events that bring three characters together in tragic ways. The acting is superb from all three leads (Sean Penn, who would have deserved an Oscar nomination for this had he not already had one for Mystic River), Benicio del Toro, and Naomi Watts), none of whom are given an easy character. The complex storytelling presents the viewer with a puzzle, but not one too hard to re-assemble. And since we often have seen aftermath before event, the worst moments are heightened by our knowledge of what is inevitable. Just fantastically done.

On the Waterfront - A classic, and well deserving of that label. Brando shows the power that made him a star with none of the quirks and wanderings that can overwhelm his skills in later films. Yes, the story is a self-justification for a director who gave in to the HUAC and named names, but it's still an excellent film, and even a persuasive argument if you accept the director's allegorical replacement of Hollywood's casual communists with Jersey waterfront union mobsters (which I don't, quite). The much-parodied "I could'a been a contender" scene is deserving of every bit of its immortality.

Dawn of the Dead - The original, and something of a classic in its own way. Certainly a convention-busting film for the US market, and a savage parody of the consumer culture. But, really, not the greatest film ever made in terms of acting or careful production. I'm hoping to get to the new "re-working" of this film sometime soon, just to see if they can maintain the good bits without adding too much clutter.

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March 20, 2004

Sunshine on a Rainy Day

Spring is (essentially) here in New Hampshire, and that means cold rain/snow mixes and general gloom for just a bit more, when the green will take over from the sticks.

But today, I took a break from prepping my game world and my AmberCon characters and went to see a film. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the newest film to spring from the complex, surrealistic pen of Charlie Kaufman, and it has many traits in common with its earlier siblings.

This time, reality's little twist isn't a door into an actors head, a writer caught in his own screenplay, or a CIA-recruited game show producer. Instead, we get the temptation of memory removal. A chance to lose parts of our past we don't want, gain a fresh start. But nothing is really that simple, particularly not in a Kaufman story. No, bad memory and good are hopelessly entangled, and we can't give one up without losing the other. That is the assumption the film starts with, and from there it gets more interesting.

Told in a complex time order reminiscent of Memento (a personal fave), this film lets us watch a relationship form, mature, shatter, and reform (maybe), though with some very unique complications. Jim Carrey (think The Truman Show, not The Mask) and Kate Winslet are entirely up to the challenge the material presents, as are the all too human memory removers, including a very non-Frodo Elijah Wood. In fact, the only thing I'm not sure it up to the material is the director. I haven't seen his previous Kaufman-penned film (Human Nature), but having seen what others have done with Kaufman, I have to say I found this under-stated. Well done, don't get me wrong, and sometimes delightful for its quiet presentation. I like the effects as memories fade particularly... words on signs go first, sometimes with the camera looking dead at them, but more often than not without us quite noticing when they started to fade. But after earlier, flashier presentations, I found this just slightly underplayed behind the camera. Some of the more impressive ideas and effects were almost lost by fairly direct staging and filming.

But this is at most a quibble. If you're at all interested in a romantic comedy that will make you laugh and make you think, then this one's worth your time.

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January 21, 2004

And None To Go

I sat down and watched the last two DVDs I already owned for the top 100 films list...

Once Upon A Time In the West represents a move in Leone's westerns from the more comic elements of the Man With No Name trilogy (which I love) to more gritty melodrama. And to actually filming in the American West. The familiar deliberate (some would say slow or even glacial) Leone pacing is on display, the cinematography is amazing, and the story... Well, what we have is good, but it's told in a rather disjointed style, making it seem more complex and confusing than it actually is. Still, the characters are striking and bold, the acting perfectly matched to the Leone style (which means the actors often stand in place as another part of the carefully framed set), and the tough guys are classic. The Ennio Morricone music (essentially one theme repeated over and over again) doesn't quite work for me, particularly the numerous times when it is halted mid-theme to comment on the on-screen action; this seems too comic a technique for the film. Still, that's just a minor flaw. Well worth the 2 and a half hours!

Amelie is another recent film, sitting a bit higher on this list than it probably deserves, but still well deserving of a viewing. Here, we have a charmingly off-beat story of a strange French girl, not quite part of the world she lives in, trying to decide if she's willing to engage with others or remain aloof, manipulating events but not letting herself join them. Much of the film is told to us by a narrator, who gets to explain each character as we meet them and to comment on everything we see, often playing up minor-seeming events to monumental importance... And, within the world of this film, he's always right. The characters are alternately charming or disturbing (depending on what role they play in the tale), and the central two are oddly likable despite their quirkiness. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, more known for seriously offbeat work like Delicatessen or City of Lost Children here tones down the weirdness just enough to keep this film tangential to the real world, resulting in a seriously fun romantic comedy. Maybe not in the top 25 movies of all time, but certainly well worth seeing.

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January 19, 2004

Two Down

Found time over the weekend (once gaming was done) to watch another DVD.

Touch of Evil was Orson Wells's last Hollywood film, and it features all the innovations that mark his work but are so tricky to even notice today. Wells invented and/or celebrated many of the uses of the film camera that are now commonplace, including long tracking shots (the opening is nearly 4 minutes of uninterrupted tension, as we wait for a bomb we saw planted to explode), unusual follows (that same opening follows the car with the bomb through busy streets and a customs station; later shots follow actors from the street through the lobby and into an elevator), and sharp use of shadow (it's a black and white film that revels in black).

Today, this film is more remembered for Charlton Heston's unlikely casting as a Mexican policeman, Wells's fat suit (which proved prophetic of his later appearance), and some cheesy, dated drug references. But, particularly to the directors who would anchor the New Wave in France, this film was a call to arms. And, as a big fan of directors like Wong Kar Wai and John Woo who started with the New Wave to develop their own style, I can't help but like this glimpse of how it all started.

(I watched the DVD version of the approximate "director's cut", a re-edit of the film based on an extensive memo by Wells after he viewed the studio edit, which he felt dramatically undercut the style and point of his film. He was probably right, as few people at the time understood or could approximate the powerful originality of Mr. Wells.)

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January 16, 2004

One Down...

Well, last night in an attempt to withstand the cold, I wrapped up with some hot popcorn and cider and watched one of the movies on this list that I hadn't seen yet.

Donnie Darko is at #92 on the list, and likely will drop off in time. The list (which is from the IMDb) is significantly time-sensitive, favoring more striking recent movies dramatically. This film really isn't "top 100" material, and is taking a spot other, superior, films will eventually assume.

Which is not to say that Donnie Darko isn't a very good movie, because it is. It nicely twists the audience between wondering if it is a psychological thriller or a science fiction movie, if Donnie is crazy or if he's actually experiencing something otherworldly, and the performances are quite solid (though I agree with several reviews, the fact that Drew Barrymore was, at the time of release, the films most bankable performer resulted in her scenes being under-edited, especially given how tight most of the rest of the film is). In a clever (if a bit artificial) bit of information-era cross-pollution, some of the critical questions of the film are only answered by exploring the movie web site (the DVD contains the crucial screenshots as a supplement); this doesn't really make the film better, but it does create an artificial "mystery cult" surrounding the film, which may well explain why it makes the IMDb list. I would recommend seeing the film before hitting the website, however, as knowing the answer (if you work it out, and it isn't all that hard) spoils some of the film's misdirections.

All-in-all, a good way to spend a cold New England evening.

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December 27, 2003

Again Reviewlike

I took my niece and nephew to LotR:RotK and again was just amazed. And they liked it, too (except Camille covered her eyes rather than see Shelob).

And, again, PVP says it just as well as I could.

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December 17, 2003

Kinda Reviewlike...

I could do a review of Trilogy Tuesday...

Or of Return of the King.

But, instead, I will simply point to this, which says it all.

And that way I can go catch up on my sleep.

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November 10, 2003

Consolation Prize

One good thing that came out of my stop at the movies yesterday...

I got to see this trailer spread wide over the screen, and without even knowing it was coming. (The trailer, I mean... the movie is one I've been following news about for a while now.)


I’ve seen lots of attempts at this story that fail for being half-assed and unwilling to even attempt the epic scope necessary to do it right. This trailer shows me that, no matter what else might happen, this film will not be insufficiently epic.

Now, I suspect it still won’t approach this comic in providing the depth and detail this story demands… But it simply doesn’t have the time for that.

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November 09, 2003

It Could Have Been Worse...

... if they'd been actively trying to make it so.

There will be spoilers here because... well, who cares? Either you've already seen this and they spoil nothing or... well, they spoil something already completely spoiled by its makers.

The Matrix: Revolutions continues the textbook example of how to watch a work stumble down chapter by chapter. The first was original, hip, smart, and, above all, carefully structured. The second was dull and empty, repeating the first in ways that ensured lack of originality. It failed to update itself to stay hip. It was full of characters too dumb to let the movie be smart. And it meandered pointlessly from set piece to set piece in defiance of storytelling structure.

And now the third and (if fate smiles upon us) final chapter.

Nothing original. The same SFX, and now steals from other movies... The Zion battle armor is lifted directly from Aliens (a film it is foolish to invite yourself to be compared to)... but at least in Aliens the driver was exposed because it was a cargo hauler forced into military duty. Here, the driver is exposed because... well, I suppose because the people of Zion are idiots. It certainly wasn't to let us see the faces of characters we knew and wanted to cheer on, because no character we knew from chapters 1 or 2 donned a suit.

Nothing hip. Zion is still the land of the unwashed, despite all the cool tech they have. The Merovingian's techno-goth-leather club was embarrassing in its "we're still hip, see?" desperation.

Nothing smart. The character's actions were dumb, dumb, DUMB! It takes no study of strategy to know that a "hopeless last stand" made with 2/3rds of your forces just means both it and the hopeless stand-after-the-last-stand will both fail. And what kind of general has a perfect weapon that instantly destroys all of his enemies and designs his strategy not only without using that weapon, but in such a way that using that weapon when someone else brings it to save the day costs him significantly? And let's not even get into the fact that Neo still seems to have forgotten all the abilities he learned at the end of the first film and reverted to brain-dead punch'em'up as his best option.

And structurally? After the crazy-quilt final action scene of the second part, here we see the perils of the other extreme. Here, a pair of sequences that happened simultaneously and begged to be edited together to provide tension for both (the "next-to-last" stand of Zion and Neo/Trinity's race to the machine city) are allowed to run back-to-back, unmixed, turning both into monotony.

And the great, deep questions of "what is real"? Abandoned. Worse than abandoned, turned into jokes as the miscellaneous "programs" (the one faction in the series we know isn't real) are given center-stage in the conclusion.

Yes, there are a good number of visually spectacular bits, but they are in service of nothing at all. This is a glitzy, big-bucks, and no doubt destined to be hugely successful bad movie in every significant way.

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October 26, 2003

Eddie in Boston

Julia, Lou, Pat, Betsy, and I made our way to Boston's theater district last night for the show. Well, they went up in the Matrix, I drove along behind in my Prius because I was heading home after rather than back to Fall River. But we had dinner together (a very unique and tasty curried swordfish at Legal Seafood), then made our way back to the theater for the show.

A very similar show to NYC, showing less variation than I had expected from looking at videos/tapes from earlier tours that he's released. Less than 10 or 15 minutes of significantly different material (and a good bit of that caused by a dropped microphone that he turned into an asset for a couple minutes of physical humor). But still, Eddie Izzard is well worth seeing any chance you can get, and much of the material in the Sexie show is strong enough to enjoy again and again. Of course, making Trojan War references (and there's a lot of them in this show... "Somebody's breaking into that island.") always work for me.

I guess now, though, I have to wait until the next DVD/CD release.

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October 13, 2003

How to Use Up Time

So, I haven't been blogging much even since getting my login fixed... and here's a brief summary of why, given as reviews of my various distractions...

Kill Bill vol 1 - Caught this on opening night with Julia, Lou, and Pat, and got exactly what I was expecting going in. Oh, perhaps not the sharp diolague Quentin Tarantino is known for, but I knew that was unlikely given the type of film he was making here. This is a film created out of QT's love of action cinema, assembled out of bits and pieces of other films, combined with a deft touch and occasional winks toward the audience. The whole film changes flavor several times, as it moves from 70's American action movies (esp. the "blaxploitation" sort), makes a brief stop-off at the ultra-low-budget splatter work of Hershal Gordon Lewis, then jumps boldly into Japanese anime and samurai films, with all the exagerated fountains of blood those demand. The fight scenes have good flow and development (which is what this summer's Matrix sequel lacked) and the plot, even though told out of order, is quite easy to follow (unlike the incoherent Once Upon A Time In Mexico). The performances are caricatures, but that's what they should be for this sort of film. QT's usual talent with music shines through, with music that seems on the surface to be completely out of place crafted to fit perfectly into scenes. I'll be back on 2/20 for vol 2 (though, like others, I'd've been happier with just one movie). If you're a Feng Shui player like I am, you'll need to see this one... It steals from all the right places, and the result is a great new source for additional theft.

Bubba Ho-Tep - Had to travel to NYC to catch this one, but it was worth the 5 hour drive and the 40 minute parking hunt. Wow! Made on the cheap with only two real name actors (Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis), this film tells us of two elderly men in an East Texas retirement home. Once claims to be Elvis (he traded places with an impersonator to escape the pressures of fame), the other President John F. Kennedy (the CIA dyed him black so no one would believe his death was faked). Strange things start to happen, and these two find it's because a mummy is devouring the souls of the home's residents, and so it's up to them to save the day. Despite the ludicrous set-up and a bit of R-rated material (particularly involving Elvis's physical condition), this is a film done with surprising gentleness and respect for its two main characters, filmed as if everything they believe is true... even if it probably isn't. The original short story by Joe R. Lansdale (which could be found here if it wasn't out of print) is followed with unusual loyalty, and the low-end production values don't get in the way at all. This is a film far better than it has any right to be, and deserves better distribution than it has gotten. Go to it if you have the chance!

Eddie Izzard Circle (DVD/CD) - Eddie's 2000 tour, which I saw in Boston, has been released in both video and audio formats. Both are the same NYC show, and the supplements on the DVD reveal that it was a problem-plagued night, with severe sound issues. Perhaps that is why the audience is a bit removed and Eddie's flow a bit jumpier than usual. Still, some of the material is quite good (God explaining the origins of the dinosaurs, Darth Vader ordering lunch in the Death Star canteen), and even the weaker bits are still regularly laugh-worthy.

Eddie Izzard Sexxie (NYC) - Now this was much more Eddie, in my opinion. The venue (City Center) is large, but Jeanne and I had seats in the front row of the top balcony, so once we got over the vertigo, we had a great view. Eddie gave us an evening with a wide range of material, moving from how much fun it can be to have breasts to the aspirations of ditch-dwellers, veering through the Trojan War and the discovery of fire, letting us know how hard it can be to travel with a passport identifying you as being from Yemen in the post-911 world, and asking just what it was that happened on November 9th anyway. That he could get away with 911 jokes (albeit fairly mild ones) in NYC shows how well he can read and capture an audience. He didn't get much into the history and religion material that filled Dress to Kill and Circle, though the same sensibility filled this show. I'm looking forward to seeing how different it will be in Boston on 10/25...

Alias (Season One DVD set) - I didn't watch this show originally, except for the two part Quentin Tarantino guest appearance about halfway through this season, but I kept hearing good things about it. And those things were VERY much deserved. This is quite a show, with some very nice action spy style missions (particularly for a TV budget) and some even better behind-the-scenes cross and double-cross goings-on. It's a dense show, with lots of complicated backstory, but it's worth the time and the DVD sets (the 2nd season comes out on December) make catching up quite possible.

Neverwhere (BBC TV, DVD set) - Gaiman wrote it, and as with almost everything he has done, I loved the book, which was written after this series was made. Low BBC production values fail to quite manage the wonder of this series, which imagines a fantastic world running in parallel to the London Underground and peopled with beings who take their name from the stops (from the Black Friars to the Angel Islington). The production is quite well done for its obvious budget and time constraints, and the strength and creativity of the story manage through. Highly recommended.

Two Plays for Voices (CD) - Gaiman translates two of his short stories to audio plays, the Sci Fi channel and Seeing Ear Theater get Bebe Neuwirth and Brian Dennehy to star, and the result is an astonishing two hours. Snow Glass Apples gives us a perspective on a familiar tale Walt Disney would not approve of. Murder Mysteries offers us the tale of the first murder investigation. Both are imaginative, bold, and creative. Both are performed and produced beautifully. And aren't I lucky to have a two hour drive that I make quite regularly?

Monstrous Regiment - The newest Discworld book from Terry Pratchett, and still going on quite strong. Well, perhaps not as strongly as the last few (The Wee Free Men, Night Watch and The Last Hero were all spectacularly good), but still very enjoyable. We follow Polly, a strong-willed and clever girl who decides she needs to join the army in order to find and rescue her brother. So, she cuts her hair, tries to manage walking and spitting properly, and gets some critical advice on using socks to create the necessary illusion. From there, it's on to join a unit made up of the last few folk left to recruit as her land struggles with admitting the war is lost. Not a good first book, as it features many other Discworld characters (from The Truth and the numerous Guards books) and many jokes that work only because they were set up in previous books. But certainly not a dud, and some very interesting new ideas to keep the Discworld fresh, including a god who's gotten so old and faded that his commandments are starting to read like crank letters to the local paper.

Quicksilver - The first book of Neil Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, which threatens to be 3000 pages when it's all done. This book is nearly 1000 on its own, but reads along at a brisk pace and keeps you wanting more. Connected more than a little to the spectacular Cryptonomicon, this book is set (mostly) in the mid to late 1600s and deals with the scientific, social, and political revolutions of that era, as observed by the Waterhouses and Shaftoes of this earlier era. Newton and Liebniz create calculus while we watch (and, as he managed to make modular arithmatic and cryptanalysis approachable in Cryptonomicon, Stephenson manages to summarize the essential nature and usefulness of this discovery so anyone can follow it), the crowns of Europe strugle for dominance while we watch, and more than a few surprises are slipped in. There are a few anacronisms (some quite humorous, others annoying), a few odd affectations (particularly in spelling certain words... why fancied should be phant'sied while other words that have changed since the 17th century are unaffected I don't know... and I don't think ninnyhammer was ever spelled "ninehammer"), and a very incomplete tale... But I'm very much looking forward to the next ~1000 pages (The Confusion) come April!

Illium - Another opening chapter that left me hanging. Dan Simmons is back to his science fiction roots after a period writing crime fiction, and Illium is as dense and intreguing as Hyperion, plus adds tons of Trojan War material. I'm a real sucker for Homeric material (far moreso than I am a fan of the Caucer and Yates material that inspired Hyperion), and this is as good a work with that source as I've seen, keeping me happy even where it tries to be revisionist. Take a re-staged Trojan War being watched by nanotechnology-empowered "gods", add a post-technological Eloi-like population left behind on Earth, mix in two literature-obsessed robots designed to explore Jovian space, and sprinkle with inexplicable (at least so far) references to Shakespear's The Tempest, mix together in frequently unexpected ways and add a cliffhanger that promises even cooler stuff to come and you've got Illium. I expect more than a year until it picks up again with Olympos, and I'm not going to manage it well.

Yeah... I've kept busy.

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October 04, 2003

Quick Movie Review: Once Upon A Time In Mexico

Odds are, if you plan to see this you already have, so this probably comes too late...

But despite being a fan of action movies in general and the first two films of this loose trilogy in particular, I found this one to be a disapointment. Oh, the action scenes are nicely imagined (though too many are edited until their flow vanishes); Johnny Depp follows up his Cap'n Jack Sparrow from early this summer with a sharp performance as CIA Agent Sands, a man of rather distinctly unique methods; and the look is quite good (particularly knowing that it was filmed on video).

But the story is incoherent. Too many characters crowd the story, many of whom serve no apparent purpose except to crowd the story. Characters change sides before we even figure out what side they were on, and long before we care. Major set pieces exist just for themselves, advancing the plot not one tiny bit. While I'm pretty sure I know what happened, I'm quite sure I don't understand what half the characters were trying to do.

I've made more sense out of Hong Kong action movies watched in Cantonese without subtitles (and no, I don't speak a word of Cantonese).

It's fun to watch, and the action scenes are well worth ripping off for Feng Shui play... But I like there to be just a bit more effort taken to tell me a story, not just wow me with visuals.

And there wasn't nearly enough Salma Hayek.

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August 19, 2003

Favorite Games - Appendix

This was suggested by a reader... I am going to list the prior entries in the Favorite Games articles and add a note on number of players, with particular attention (boldface) to those that work especially well for two-player play.

I'll even add extra emphasis (!!) on those two player games that I think are paricularly good. Which will be most of them... They are my favorite games, after all.

En Garde - 2 Player only (!!)
Settlers of Catan - 2-4 Players (2-6 with expansion set), best at 4+
Ursuppe - 2-4 Players (2-5 with expansion set), best at 4+
Kill Doctor Lucky - 3-7 (or more), best with lots
Lord of the Rings - 2-5 (2-6 with Sauron set), best 4+
Lord of the Fries - 3-8, plays well at any
Battle Line - 2 Player only (!!)
Munchkin - 3-6, best with lots
Lost Cities - 2 Player Only (!!)
Cosmic Encounter - 2-4 (or more with expansion sets), best 4+
Samurai - 2-4, plays well (but differently!) at all numbers (!!)
Bohnanza - 2-7, best with several
Apples to Apples - 4+, best with lots
Gold Diggers - 2-6, very different (more strategic) game with fewer players
Kingdoms - 2-4, more strategic with fewer players
Dog Eat Dog - 2-6, fighting dogs useless at low number of players
Wiz War - 2-4 (or more, depending on expansions), best with several
Tigris & Euphrates - 2-4, dramatically more strategic at 2 (!!)
Family Business - 2-6, poor at 2, best with 4+
Courtisans of Versailles - 3-6, best with several
Who Stole Ed's Pants - 3-4 (played in teams at 4 for a different game)
Money - 3-5, best with several
Buttonmen - 2 (variants allow for more)
Ra - 3-5, best with several
Abalone - 2 (3-6 with expansions), best (by far) at 2 (!!)
Illuminati - 2-6, best with 4+
Brawl - 2
Galaxy: The Dark Ages - 2-5, best with more
Diceland - 2 (or more with website rules), best at 2 (especially Diceland: Ogre) (!!)
Carcasonne - 2-5 (6 with expansion), much more strategic at 2 or 3
Kahuna - 2 (!!)
Titan - 2-6, best with more
Nuclear War - 2-6, best with more
Ceaser and Cleopatra - 2 (!!)
Formula De - 2+, best at 3+ (in teams) or 5+ (running single cars)
Formula Motor Racing - 3-6, best with lots
Space Hulk - 2 (more in certain scenarios)
Talisman - 2+ (best with several)
Ameoba Wars - 2-6, best with several
Merchant of Venus - 2-6, best with several
Quirks - 3-6, best with several
Kings and Things - 2-4, best at 4
The Awful Green Things From Outer Space - 2 (!!)
Warhammer Quest - 1+ (expect to die lots playing solo), best with 3 or 4 and no GM

Additional Note for 2-player games: Lost Cities, Kahuna, and Caesar & Cleopatra are part of a series of 2-player games published by Kosmos in Germany and released by Rio Grande Games here in the USA. Several of the other games in this series (Odin's Ravens, Balloon Cup, Hera & Zeus, Babel, and Hellas) missed my "favorites" list only because I haven't played them enough to assure myself of my opinion. It's rather hard to go wrong with this series, as the games are reasonably priced (mostly under $20), have high production quality, and are cleverly themed.

Posted by ghoul at 08:48 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

August 13, 2003

Favorite Games XXVII

One entry today, which straddles the line between board games and roleplaying games to great effect...

Warhammer Quest is the end of a fairly short series of games from Games Workshop (sometimes in cooperation with Milton Bradley). These games played on the popularity of Dungeons and Dragons, but instead of being roleplaying games themselves, they were made up of pre-set adventures with pre-determined characters, then supplemented with low-cost but reasonably high-quality miniatures and detailed board art. Heroquest and Advanced Heroquest (which actually had very little in common as games went) were the first real generation, and they found a bit of a market, but were flawed in their implementation and required lots of repeat purchases (or home-brew game design) to expand the options of play beyond the published adventures (some of which never made it out of the UK, much to the disappointment of US-based fans). AHQ introduced a detailed random dungeon generation rule set, but suffered from several clumsy rules and limited expandability.

WQ was a second full go at the idea and was much more successful at achieving its goals. This time, rather than just giving us game-mastered adventures with rules balancing play (as HQ had done... the GM role was very thankless), a heavy emphasis was placed on GM-less adventuring, with random tables, card decks, and monster behavior rules serving to replace the "creative" portion of the GM's role... and with surprising success! There were 30 plots provided (6 each for 5 objective rooms), and the rules randomly generated the dungeon from entrance until the objective was found. And, with that many plots before you started repeating, it was fairly easy to replay several times without boredom setting in. Add to this a "Roleplaying Book" that expanded the monster lists, spells, and treasures, plus adding wilderness events and town events for things to do between dungeon adventures, plus options for even more once you add a GM (a GM is needed to open the possibility of doing things there aren't specific rules for, as that takes an intelligent arbiter... and the GM can design custom adventures rather than just using random ones!). Characters were thin, based around a miniature and progressions of abilities by level, but numerous expansions added more and more interesting options (including a delightfully comic Ogre PC in one of GW's many magazines). Expansions also added even more treasure cards and other fun variants.

Warhammer Quest isn't really a full-featured roleplaying game, even with a GM (it's too limited in what it provides mechanics for, so it remains just more than a miniatures game with pretensions... but, then, Dungeons and Dragons was originally rules expansions on Chainmail, so there is a precedent), but it's great fun to play, and completely addictive. It can also serve as a good stepping-stone from board games to full RPGs, particularly if you start off with the simple game, slowly (over several adventures) add more and more complex rules options, then a Game Master... In the end, you're almost all the way, and you've been having fun at every step. Is there a better way to learn?

Sadly, GW found far more of a market for their miniatures battle games than they did for this delightful hybrid product, and so it's been out of print since the late 90s, with pretty much only fan support (of which there is quite a bit, if you look).

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August 07, 2003

Favorite Games XXVI

Whoops! I missed putting up a Favorite Games entry on Monday! That means today, I'll provide two titles, both by the clever designer Tom Wham...

(By the way... my list is coming to an end. I've had a request or two for follow-ups that will keep me going for a bit longer, then I may take a break through the end of the month before starting a new series. If you have a request or suggestion, feel free to drop me a note!)

Kings and Things is an odd game of almost-random armies in combat over a very random board. The board is built randomly of hexagons of various terrains, upon which you build castles and send around armies to conquer your neighbor's land. The "things" of the title are numerous creatures (plus a small number of income-enhancing terrain modifiers, special characters and magic items), drawn at random as you recruit each turn. Some are tough, some are weak. Some can fly, others barely walk. And most require a specific terrain to "support" them (forest creatures require you to control a forest, for example). However, in a delightful twist, you can bluff your army bigger with unsupported counters... Counters are moved around face down, and a large stack can trick enemies into giving up when they really could have won. Of course, as soon as an unsupported counter is revealed, it goes away, so bluff carefully. The object is to build a citadel then either prevent others from building one to match you or conquer an opponent's to give you a pair. Play with several players (4 is the full complement) and expect a bit of complex silliness. Games with fewer players must use a smaller board and are, in general, less interesting. This game went through several versions, from "King of the Tabletop" in Dragon #77, though an edition printed by West End Games in the USA and Games Workshop in the UK (which, in a much-used state, is the one I own), to the current edition from Germany (with much nicer bits, as one would expect from a German edition). Look this one up for your local gaming group; it's best near its full complement of players.

The Awful Green Things From Outer Space is a wonderful game, originating in Dragon magazine (just like Kings and Things above, though in a form much closer to its current one). It's a two-player game with distinctly asymmetric positions. One player is the crew of the Znutar, an exploratory ship that just picked up something unpleasant. The other player is that something, a quick-reproducing alien life form that wants the ship for itself. The crew (who are odd little cartoon aliens themselves) use weapons that are unpredictable when employed against the Green Things (you draw a random effect the first time you use each weapon), and some make things worse, so you have to experiment carefully and optimize what you learn; never experiment with an area effect weapon on a crowded space, just in case it decides to be beneficial to the Green Things this time around. Try not to let yourself get cornered and do NOT let the Green Things cut off a section of the ship to use as a breeding ground... you won't like that one bit! Meanwhile, if you're playing the Green Things, isolate the crew away from good weapon sources (for easier munching) and find a nice defensible corner to grow reinforcements in. The current edition (from Steve Jackson Games) has some expanded rules to let you take the fight out the airlocks and onto the outside of the ship... but it also has rather disappointingly average counters, not up to quite the abuse repeated play will put them through. Of course, at under $15, you can just buy a second copy when this one wears out.

Funagain Purchase Links
Kings and Things
The Awful Green Things From Outer Space

Posted by ghoul at 06:44 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 01, 2003

Favorite Games XXV

Another sadly nigh-forgotten classic today...

Eon games gave us Cosmic Encounter, but that wasn't their only product; pretty much every game with their simple "Name in a box" logo on it was a treasure. Near the end of their existence as a company, in 1980 and 1981, they produced Quirks and its two expansion sets, their last product (if memory serves) and, excepting CE, the one I enjoyed the most.

Quirks is, at heart, a simple game. Players compete to assemble plants and creatures to occupy the ecological niches of the game world. The most successful plant, herbivore, and carnivore rule the "top niche", and the object of the game is to have your creations in all three top spots, and to successfully defend against a challenge. Plants and creatures are assembled from 3 cards, representing a top (A), middle (B), and bottom (C) for a plant or a head (A), body (B), and tail (C) for an animal. Each card you can use has a trait or feature, a picture of an animal or plant that exemplifies it, and a few letters from a name. An assembled plant or animal, then, looks like three bits grafted clumsily into one, and their name will be the same (Tawsock for a long-toothed creature with furry paws and an electrical shock tail, for example). As a bonus, if the head of the Herbivore matches an icon on the top of the plant, it gets to "eat" the plant and is stronger. The same is true of the head of the carnivore matches the icon on the tail of the herbivore.

Play proceeds, with players trying to fight their way into the lower niche with an incomplete creature... just (AB) or (AC) rather than (ABC) or use their incomplete creature plus a new card from their hand to challenge for the top spot. Each card has a code, and each code translates into a point value. The highest point value in total wins, the loser is driven into extinction. Since three extinctions will cause you to have to leave the game, most players will back down if victory doesn't seem likely. If you don't feel like challenging, you can "mutate" your creatures in play, replacing one of its cards from your hand or the deck to try to improve it.

Adding to the uncertainty is an ever-advancing Climate Track. Every trait is strong in some climates, but weak in others. Fins are great in the ocean, not so handy in the desert. Each turn, the acting player can advance the climate track one or two spaces, either to linger in the current climate a bit longer or to rush forward as quickly as possible.

And that's pretty much it... A simple, straightforward game in rules, but with countless new and unexpected combinations that will show up in play. And the expansion sets added even more cards, and thus even more traits and creatures. Too much repeat play could result in players who knew the score values of various cards too well to ever mistakenly press their challenge (the rules don't allow you to check your score prior to deciding if you're going to withdraw), but if played occasionally and casually, this game is quick, easy-to-learn and great fun.

The market could use more games like this today, and it's style is very much like many Euro-games (such as Ursuppe). So why isn't this getting reprinted?

Posted by ghoul at 06:00 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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 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 20, 2003

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 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 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

Posted by ghoul at 06:43 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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

Posted by ghoul at 12:19 PM | Comments (2) | 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

Posted by ghoul at 07:33 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 02, 2003

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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June 29, 2003

Favorite Games XIV

Just one game today, but it's a doozy...

Brawl is the other game supported by the website www.beatpeopleup.com, another Cheapass Games work of stunning simplicity and amazing originality all at once. Brawl is the second of three games Cheapass Games has released that fall into the "real time cardgame" category. That is, rather than politely waiting on your next turn, players in Brawl play as fast or as slow as they like, resulting in a game that can take less than a minute. If you don't think on your feet, this isn't for you... though the various decisions in Brawl are fairly straightforward, the game situation is ever-changing and you must keep up to use your cards to their best. As play progresses, you draw cards from your deck one at a time and decide if you should play it or discard it. The top of your discard pile is also available to pick up and play. In essence, though, you get your cards in random order and either use them or toss them away. It's fast and messy, and you have to make the right choice or a valuable card goes to waste.

At its base, Brawl is a game of trying to win the majority "base cards" by having more Hit cards on your side than your opponent does. Hit cards represent blows landed in the fistfight Brawl nominally recreates, so if you can connect the most, you win. However, when playing Brawl you must "follow suit" on cards, meaning that once the color you need to play on a base is established, you have to play cards that match that color. Hit cards come in three colors, and different characters have different mixes; sometimes it's even a good strategy to play a hit on your opponent's side of the table, just to lock that base into a color their deck is short on. There are several other types of cards, including Blocks (which prevent additional hits from being added until the block is dealt with), Nulls (which make the base they are played on worth nothing toward victory), Doubles (this base scores as two for victory), Reverses (which make the base they are played on score in reverse... fewest Hits wins), and more. Most dramatic are Clears, which let you sweep a base off to the side... it no longer exists for purposes of this game, and all cards played on it are out; characters with several Clears can be very difficult to overcome (though there are Hold cards that make a base Clear-proof). At the bottom of your deck are three Freeze cards; when played, these lock a base as it is (no more cards may be played on it). Once all bases are Frozen, the game is over and you can determine the winner. One common strategy in Brawl is to observe that you're currently winning and flip through your remaining cards as fast as possible, tossing straight to the discard so you can get to your Freeze cards. Best hope your observation is still valid when you're done, though.

Brawl is an amazingly fast game, to the point that it often takes longer to clean up the cards afterwards (as the two decks will get severely intermixed) than it did to play. However, card design is elegantly done to aid in this... Each card has large art of its fighter as the back, so it's quick to identify which card belongs in which deck. Also worth note is that each card identifies on its face how many like cards are in this deck, so you will know at once what you can expect in the future (without having to consult the website or count through your opponent's deck, neither of which are possible during a 20-30 second Brawl game). There are around 15 decks in print (including one featuring Ting Ting, a character from Shadowfist and Feng Shui who is a most righteous kicker of butts), and the earlier decks describe themselves as "easy", "moderate", or "advanced" so you can tell how tricky they are in play (essentially, how dependent they are on using cards other than hits and blocks to achieve victory); the Cat Girl set is considered all "moderate", so they aren't labeled. Balance is fairly good (the website identifies which decks people consider superior and why), and variety is high.

Learning to play takes minutes, playing takes seconds. What's not to love?

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June 26, 2003

Favorite Games XIII

Two games of the "classic" variety today... And a special bonus.

Abalone is a game almost without peer, in my opinion. There just aren't that many simple, clean, easy-to-teach abstract strategy games of the caliber of chess and checkers that were invented in the last 20 years, and I think Abalone fits that description. It is a simple game of marbles on a hexogonal board. The board is designed to that the marbles can be pushed in any of the six directions, and this is how you move in the game. A line of 1, 2 or 3 marbles can be moved in any direction (by pushing one end or by shifting them to a parallel spot). If you move them by pushing one end, you can also push along a smaller number of your opponent's marbles (2 can push 1, 3 can push 1 or 2). The object is to push your opponent's marbles off the board while preventing your own from being pushed off. Simple, direct, but strategically unique. Unlike chess, the strength of a piece is less determined by its position or type than by its connections with others, by which direction the lines it forms can be moved. Unlike checkers, the act of taking a piece often puts you at risk of losing piece immediately, so you have to plan how to withdraw safely from attacks you make. It is a game of two forces meeting and probing one another for weaknesses, shifting and trying anew, reinforcing or withdrawing when their own weak spots are hit. I liked this game enough that I took a copy to work several years back and introduced it to the chess-players I worked with. Together, we developed a full notation (complete with an ability to back-off moves to a prior state of the board), wrote up over two dozen "puzzles" (find the move that guarantees a win) and played game upon game. If there's a flaw here, it's in the need for a chess-clock to control time and prevent endless maneuvering in the safety of the mid-board. But chess clocks are easy to get, and with just that addition there's nothing like a good game of Abalone. (There are variations of Abalone for 3 or more players, but the game is at its best in its original, 2-player form.) This game has had a very hard time catching on in the USA (it's gone through at least 4 publishers that I know of), but it's well worth giving it a look.

Illuminati is a card game with which only a few can compare. Years before Magic, this was the game you could find people playing over and over, trying to find new and interesting combinations. (Comments here will specifically focus on the 1999 Deluxe Illuminati edition... but I've been playing this one since it first came out, and loved it despite the tiny, hard-to-shuffle cards). It's a simple game at heart (most of the greats are). Each player takes the role of a secretive conspiracy trying to conquer the world. Each turn, you look at the cards that are available (groups both real and fictitious that you could use to enhance your control of the world) and try to work them into your power network (a layout of cards arranged so arrows point out of one card lead to arrows pointing into others). Sometimes you want to control them, sometimes take them away from others, sometimes destroy them utterly; it all depends on which Illuminati you are playing at the time, and that's what makes the game so good. Like Cosmic Encounter, every game can be different, because each Illuminati has its own special power and its own victory condition. There are fewer Illuminati than there are aliens in CE, but Illuminati also has the large deck of groups, which make it so you never know what pawns you'll play with this game. Add in expansion sets for more cards or for more options in play (the "Y2K" set adds Illuminati, groups and special cards to the deck, while the "Brainwash" set adds the option to shift world opinions and so enhance or weaken all groups of certain types). There's a lot of luck to play (you can't make any action automatic, so there's always a 1 in 12 chance of failure no matter how well you set it up), and a fair amount of repetitiveness in the mid-game (turn up a group, spend to get a 10- control chance, take it over, shift to a more defensible spot, move to next player), which are the two things that keep CE rated slightly higher to me, but Illuminati is still well worth getting to know. (The Y2K expansion set is scheduled to be re-printed very soon, by the way, and contains several cards that are well worth having, including the Church of the SubGenius!)


Illuminati had a brief period as a CCG, in the form of "Illuminati: New World Order". INWO isn't a bad game at all, but the CCG format invites (in fact, encourages) you to pre-build decks with specific combinations of cards, whereas the fun in Illuminati was always the unpredictability of what groups would show up this game and the need to plan a strategy based on whatever you were given. INWO was fun; Classic Illuminati is more fun.

Special Bonus Review: Dice Games Explained Properly is an invaluable little book by Reiner Knizia (you thought I'd left him out of today's reviews, didn't you?). In it, he offers the rules and strategies for over 150 dice games, some traditional and some original, along with a good chapter on calculating probabilities, advice for how to determine good bets when gambling with dice, and countless observations on which mechanical ideas and strategic options are interesting and worthwhile. Games are nicely organized within large families, then by progressively more complicated mechanics within each group. Variants in both names and rules are given in case the game is called something different or played differently in some parts of the world. The book could use a fancier layout (it is very tricky to tell if a paragraph is more comments on the previous game or transition into the next, for example), but you simply will not find a book about games that offers more breadth and depth of insight, from the simplest of dice games to the reasons behind arbitrary-seeming casino behavior. This one is pure gold, wrapped in a very reasonably priced paperback cover.

Funagain Purchase Links
Illuminati Y2K
Illuminati Brainwash

Posted by ghoul at 05:51 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

June 23, 2003

Favorite Games XII

Another take on bidding and scoring by Reiner Knizia and a look at one of the simplest yet strategically deepest games yet from Cheapass Games.

Another note... In order to allow time for other things I do (like the morning stuff that made this entry slip to an afternoon posting), I'm going to shift these Favorite Games entries to every 3rd day rather than every 2nd. It isn't because I'm running out of games (far from it!), but it will allow me to get some other things done between writing mini-reviews.

Buttonmen is a game that looks really simple, but isn't (though it is easy to learn). The basic rules are direct enough... each button has a name and picture of a fighter and a few numbers in circles (usually 5, sometimes fewer, and for some sets more). These numbers represent die types (and sometimes special powers). Usually, one (or more) of your dice is marked as a "Swing Die" and can be set to any size from 4 to 20 (some Swing Dice are marked with different letters to indicate different ranges); you pick swing dice in secret before the match. In a fight, you roll your dice and your opponent rolls theirs. Then, alternating starting with whoever rolled the lowest number, you remove one opposing die at the cost of re-rolling one of your own. You can only remove a die via "Power Attack" (one of your dice is greater than or equal to the target die) or "Skill Attack" (one or more of your dice sum up to exactly the target die), and you must re-roll all dice used in the attack. The match ends when neither player can make an attack, and your score at the end is the size of all the dice you capture plus 1/2 the dice you successfully defend (usually only one player will have any defended dice left, but special die powers and restrictions can result in an early end to the match). Normally, you play a series until one player wins 3 matches (with the loser changing swing dice after each match). There are numerous special types of dice to complicate things, but let us stick to just the basic game for now... There's a ton of strategic depth here. When I attack, do I use my big d20 showing 18 to power through anything I see, or do I leave it 18 so it's harder to beat itself and re-roll my two d12s showing 3 and 4 after skill attacking a d8 showing 7 (because, after re-roll, they should be better defended)? Or should I target the d12 showing 2, and if so with which of my d12s? And what about swing dice? You have to pick them very carefully, as one too big makes you slow and gives away too many points, while one too small makes you weak on attack and defense. The strategy is deep (even without the numerous special die types), but not distractingly so. Games take only minutes and require minimal hardware (buttons and dice... though you may want some special colored dice to represent funky powered dice or oddly sized swing dice... I doubt you'll find a d19 out there, so you'll need to pick a d20 in a distinctive color and re-roll any 20s). Buy-in is easy (the rules are on the ButtonMen web site, along with several articles on strategy and a nearly-complete list of buttons), and all you need to do is pocket some dice and wear the button around any gathering of gamers... someone will challenge you to a fight. Buy some buttons (they usually come in two-packs for under $5) and take on a friend! Many (but far from all) ButtonMen can be purchased directly from Cheapass Games, others from various licensed sources.

Ra is another Knizia bidding game, but similarity with Money ends right away. In Ra, players bid to collect tokens representing various parts of Egyptian civilization (thinly... as is common in games from Dr. Knizia, the theme of this game is in the art on the pieces far more than it is in the game). The game is played in three rounds, called Epochs, and there is scoring and the return of some (but not all) tokens collected between each. Auctions are initiated partly by players' choice (if the current available draw of tokens seems worth bidding to you) or by occasional draws that force an auction. Various token types are received when you win an auction... Monument tokens are scored only at the end of the third round, but are worth a ton if collected into proper groups. Pharaoh tokens are worth a good bit if you have the most and cost you points if you have the least, but otherwise are worth nothing (and are returned to the box unlike most other counters are retained between Epochs), Nile and Flood tokens are worth a point each as long as you have at least one Flood token, but none if you have just Nile (and Flood tokens, but not Nile tokens, go back to the box between Epochs). Gold is always worth points and does go back to the box. Civilization tokens are worth a lot if you have 3 or more different ones, and you take a big hit if you don't manage to get any (and they all go back to the box each round). Bidding is done using Sun counters, which are also used for scoring in the 3rd Epoch only; when you win a bid, your winning counter is used to start the next bundle to be bid on. In essence, there are 6 ways to get points, each by its own rules, and some of them penalize you if you don't at least make an effort toward them. This requires careful budgeting of your Sun counters (only bid when it's worth it to take what is available), but also not letting the tokens you need to avoid penalties (such as Floods or Pharaohs) get all bought up before you get some. And be careful... there are "disaster" tokens that make you discard tokens if they're taken as part of a bid. The game takes a bit of careful teaching the first time through, but it's rewarding and highly interactive, so you'll come back to play it again and again. Also, the pieces are quite attractive and durable, so you won't regret pulling this one out for another play.

Funagain Purchase Links

Posted by ghoul at 05:21 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 21, 2003

Favorite Games XI

And now, let us proceed to corner the world currency markets and blame someone else when things go wrong. Sounds like quite a plan.

Who Stole Ed's Pants? is a game of investigating a crime most heinous, finding who committed the foul act, when, and where, so he can be turned over to the Law and Justice can be done. And that is an outright lie. Instead, this is a sweet little game of framing someone for the crime (while others try to frame you), because finding out the truth would be too much work. Though the game, witnesses (6 each in 6 suits, representing professions like Merchants and Circus Performers) allow you to establish suspicions and place blame (if your source is trustworthy enough relative to others'). Suspicions come in the form of Fact and Evidence cards, which use silly details to build a fragile case, just enough to feed the rumors. When all the cards of a type are drawn, the round ends with everyone scoring points for all suspicion currently pointing at them. A second round is played (though facts established in the first are not re-shuffled... so the second round goes a bit quicker than the first), and when that is over whoever has the most suspicion (total of both rounds) is obviously the thief. In the four player game, the player across the table is also locked up as an accomplice. Play is quick and a little goofy, as some of the fact and evidence cards are laughable if considered as "evidence" (you can prove someone "looks like a pirate" by displaying a pet parrot, for example). Lots of play relies on keeping your supporting witnesses sufficiently credible (and, in the four player form, your partner's witnesses as well), and a sudden shift of witness type credibility can change things fairly dramatically. A fun little pass-time for a hour or so, reasonably easily taught (though it's worth reading the rules carefully and playing a round to get a handle on things, as some bits are subtle), and quite replayable. And, under all the silliness, there's a good bit of strategy as you try to manipulate the witnesses and facts to maximize other's supiciousness while minimizing your own.

Money is today's Knizia selection, a deceptively simple game of bidding and gathering cards. There are 7 suits (illustrated as world currencies), each containing 9 cards (3 20s, 3 30s, one each 40, 50 and 60... so not denominations you're likely to see often), gold coins (each worth a constant 10) and "play money" (one card for each player, used to allow bluffing in the bidding). Play consists of each player getting dealt a hand of cards, then 2 available spreads of 4 cards are laid out. All players now bid in secret... Highest bid (total face value of cards played) gets to go first buying what they want... one of the 2 4-card spreads or another player's bid (which can sometimes be nicer). You pick up what you bought and replace it with your bid. After all bidding and buying is done, you refill the 4-card spreads (which may have shrunken if someone bought them with a bid of fewer than 4 cards, as will often happen). When all the cards have been dealt (and one last bidding round completed), you score everyone's hand. As is common with Knizia, scoring is the heart of the game... Each currency is worth its total face value if you have 200 or more in it, or total face less 100 (but never less than zero) if you have less than 200. Any set of all 3 20s or 30s of a suit give a bonus 100. Three full rounds are played to smooth out the luck factor a bit (a mechanic Knizia likes... he praises it highly in his book on dice games). This is a light game, but offers chances for bidding, bluffing, and risk-taking, and so has enough strategic depth to be worth your time. It hurts when you pick the wrong currency to buy up early (Knizia also likes games where you need to bid on things before you really know what they're worth)... but when you get it right, the points reward you. This one just works.

Funagain Purchase Links
Who Stole Ed's Pants

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June 17, 2003

Favorite Games X

Here's two games of backstabbing and treachery (a popular theme), one an absolute classic and the other an odd European game (to which I gave done more than a little surgery in the past)...

Family Business is a card game of good old fashioned gang warfare. Line your pal's men up against the wall and mow 'em down in a new St. Valentine's Day Massacre! Each player has a cast of famous gangsters to try to defend (though identity is irrelevant) and a hand full of contracts, hits, and various other cards. Play moves around the table (mostly), slowly building up a list of at-risk gangsters, until the list gets long enough that one starts dying each turn (cards can start this war early, call it off for a moment... or accelerate it to double speed!). The right cards defend you from Contracts (and can swipe turns from other players, too), a few others can pull you out of danger, or just re-arrange it so others go to their maker before you. The last man standing takes the prize. A quick, fun game with lots of options and chances to backstab right at the best time. Occasionally you can get a stinker hand and just suffer for the whole game (and, once people realize you're weak, a feeding frenzy is likely to follow, taking you out of the game rapidly)... But when that happens, it's time to shuffle and play another round. Newer printings include rule cues on the cards that help to reduce the need to refer back to summary cards (or the rulebook) for clarification (though you'll memorize the card effects quickly enough).

Courtisans of Versailles is a game I've barely played... and yet have played many times. Why do I say this? I'll get to that later... Players here take the roles of the heads of powerful families in the French Court, maneuvering for positions, undercutting one another with the king and queen, going off to war, or being sent to the Bastille. The board is just a record-keeper, showing where each player's fortunes stand with the royals, most of play happens with a thick deck of cards. Cards are used to attempt to get a title, to trap another player in a duel, to slip poison into an unwatched drink... All in an attempt to gather as much value into your family's coffers. Some cards require influence (including most of the good ones), some suddenly lead to death... even of the king or queen (which can really help if you're deep in the doghouse with the potential target). Clever play can get you to the throne (though it isn't easy), or at least to a time as the King's mistress or the Queen's favorite, which gives you almost unlimited influence... until you get found out. Choices are a bit short of players who end up low on influence with both King and Queen, but it's always possible to bribe another player to talk you up (or get yourself killed... you come back in a turn playing a relative, and get to randomly generate starting influence). Fun will be had, and at least a bit (likely a lot) of genteel backstabbing will occur. Rules are provided in English, but there are a few bits where the translation is a little unclear... You'll manage to figure out what they mean with minimal puzzling, I'm sure.

Now, why do I say I have barely played this game and yet have played it many times? Well, this game underwent a bit of re-working (mostly filing off names and replacing them, though I've added a few custom cards each time we've played it) to become Courtiers of Kolvir, a game I've presented to great results at AmberCon North and The Black Road. Anyone who doesn't think Oberon's court in the days long before Zelazny's Amber novels was just as outrageous as the Sun King's wasn't reading the same books I was.

Funagain Purchase Links
Family Business
Courtisans of Versailles

Posted by ghoul at 06:04 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

June 15, 2003

Favorite Games IX

Two games today that couldn't be more different... a game of random, unpredictable magic and a game of careful, deep strategy.

Wiz War is a classic game by Tom Jolly (another name that will quite probably crop up a couple more times before we're done), sadly currently out of print (though there are rumors it may resurrect soon). The basic game is simple... a dungeon map is build by assembling several square map pieces, and wizards start at a "home" square on each map, after placing two treasure chests on two other, marked, spaces. These wizards are, for reasons of their own, engaged in a contest. The object... to steal two treasures from their opponents and return them to their home base. The basic game, as in Cosmic Encounter, is quite simple. The catch comes from the hand of cards each player has. Most are spell, many are very odd spells. Spells that summon creatures (who usually fight much better than wizards), spells that create traps (which can prevent or slow movement down the hall leading to a treasure), spells that rotate board segments (making even the map itself unpredictable), spells that let you flick a d4 onto the board and whatever it hits stays where it gets moved to (i.e., that are just weird). The game is unpredictable, highly competitive and has a huge "luck" element. But it's a perfect "beer and pretzels" style game, just great for blowing off an hour or two trying to trap your friends in a giant thorny rose bush while you run off with his treasure.

Tigris & Euphrates is the opposite extreme, is one of Renier Knizia's best. This is a deeply complex tile-placement game, starting with a map that is roughly based on the historical "fertile crescent" (modern day Iraq, but don't hold that against this brilliant game). Nominally, the game is about building civilization out of four basic building blocks (tiles representing Settlements, Temples, Farms and Markets), but as is often the case with Knizia, the theme is far in the background of the game's brilliant mechanics. This time, play is a complex series of tile and Leader placements (you normally place two a turn, in any combination you choose). Leaders are critical, as they are what allows the scoring of points. Each player has one leader for each type of tile (and you may pick one up and move it if the location has become less than optimal). When a tile is placed adjacent to a kingdom (that is, to any group of tiles containing at least one leader), the player controlling that kingdom's leader of the same type as the tile gets one victory point. Yes, you can get a point based on my play... and yes, there are times when it is worth-while for me to intentionally give that to you (usually in order to set up a second move that gets me far more). When Kingdoms merge, there is an instant conflict between any matching leaders, so at any time there will only be one to score. Group enough tiles of one color together and you can build a Monument, generating even more points. There are more complexities (leaders must be next to Temples, Farms can only be placed on rivers, catastrophe tiles that let you "destroy" earlier tiles, etc.), but this gives you a good view of the essentials except for one thing... the object of the game. And, in typical Knizia fashion, it isn't what you'd expect. Rather than trying to score the most points overall, the object is to score the most points in your worst color. This means, as with Samurai, one must focus on balance. Getting a dozen more Temple points than anyone else doesn't win you anything if you barely scored any Farms. T&E is a great game for 2-4 players, though it plays very differently with each number... it is intensely strategic at 2 players, but the fact that 6 pieces will be added/moved between your turns makes it less predictable at 4. People who like games where thought is rewarded will love this one, because each tile placement can prove critical. Settle down for 90-120 minutes of intense fun (if it's taking longer, you may want to consider a chess clock or egg timer to limit over-analysis of each move). This one is an absolute treasure. And don't let the fairly steep price scare you... this is a quality game with quality pieces, of wood (for the leaders, monuments, and victory point pieces) and very thick cardboard (for the tiles... plus there's a bag to draw from so it's easier to store and randomize them), so you get your money's worth.

Funagain Purchase Links
Tigris & Euphrates

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

June 13, 2003

Favorite Games VIII

Today, we build our castles in a dangerous land full of dragons and trolls, then we turn into stray dogs and try to beg for bones. And who says there's no variety in life these days?

Kingdoms is another Knizia game that shows his mathematical background. In this came, players go around the table slowly filling in a 6 by 5 grid with tokens (ranging from -6 to +6 in value with no zeroes), special tokens (a gold mine, two mountains and a dragon), or castles (ranging from 1 to 4 in value). When the grid is filled, each player scores the total of the tile values of non-castles in each row or column times the total value of their castles there, except that gold mines double any row or column they are in; dragons negate any tiles valued +1 on better, leaving only the -1 to -6 tiles and other specials; and mountains split the row and column they are in into parts, each scored individually. The object of the game is to put your best castles in the most positive row and column in each of 3 rounds of play (the board is cleared and tiles re-shuffled between rounds, except that castles valued over 1 are removed from play once used, so they must be placed with care). Of course, by the time you know it's the best row or column, someone else will be putting their castle there, so you have to take a gamble now and then. Is it really a game about building kingdoms while avoiding dragons and trolls (the -6 value tile)? No... it's a game of claiming positions on a grid to try to maximize your positional value. But, at heart, it's a good game, though one with a small degree of luck based on the order in which tiles are drawn (an optional rule suggests playing with all tokens face up, removing all sign of luck and making for a more intensely strategic game). Play is quick (unless someone tries too hard to optimize each move, which may slightly help him win but reduces everyone's fun and so should be discouraged with either an egg timer or a mallet, depending on how much force you feel is needed) and results sometimes wildly unexpected (mainly because it's very easy to disrupt other people's strategy through placement of powerful tiles like the troll or the dragon), making for a fun time at the game table.

A Dog's Life is a more thematically sound game, since it takes its odd premise in pretty much every direction one could hope for (and a couple I would never have expected in a game). The premise is simple... stray dogs wander the city, begging for scraps, rummaging through garbage, delivering newspapers, and trying to find bones that can carry home and bury, all the while avoiding the dogcatcher. Yes, it sounds very silly, but it actually makes for a fun little game, even if (like me) you're more of a cat person than a dog person. There are six different dogs in the game, represented by attractive little plastic minis (full color!) and by a unique deck of action cards for each. Each dog's deck is different because each dog is good at some things but poor at others... Belle the poodle can beg most anything out of a restaurant staff, but if she gets into a fight against Grouchy the boxer, he'll take whatever he wants and put her in the pound, licking her wounds. And that is both the strength and the flaw of this game... You need to learn and master the strengths of each dog to win. But some dogs (the fighters) are much weaker in games with less than the full 6 players (because the other dogs just stay away). We have made a house rule that you can draw again if you don't want to play your first pick to try to avoid this problem. Additional rules in the game cover a wildly-moving dog catcher (each player moves it at the end of their turn, so it tends to swerve around a lot) and critically important rules for what the rules call "piddling on a lamppost". This is important because you can use this to block off streets against other players' dogs, who have to stop and sniff away all their remaining action points if they encounter a marked lamp. Control of the map (particularly if the dogcatcher is nearby) is a critical strategy in this game, the one significant part that isn't luck-based at all.

Yes, it's silly. But it's also fun. And there's nothing wrong with that. It isn't strategically deep (in fact, it's very luck-driven, as even the best begging dog can draw a "nothing" when begging, just as the best run-and-dodge dog can get snatched by the dogcatcher), and dogs need to eat a LOT more than really makes the game fun (close to half your actions will be spent seeking food rather than trying to win... which, by the way, is done by burying bones in your home territory). Still, it's a nice light game to play, particularly if you aren't too shy to make silly bark and growl sounds to "get into character".

Funagain Purchase Links:
A Dog's Life

Posted by ghoul at 06:05 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

June 11, 2003

Favorite Games VII

Today's pair are brought to us by the good folks at Out of the Box Games.

Apples to Apples is, quite probably, the finest "party game" I've ever seen. It is a game you can teach in minutes and that can be enjoyed by pretty much anyone of reasonable literacy, and it is endlessly, reliably, fun. The game itself is simple... Two types of cards, Red Cards which contain Nouns (people, places, things, the occasional generic term like "my high school prom") and Green cards which contain Adjectives ("Dramatic", "Complicated", or "Fancy", for three examples). Cards also contain simple definitions, quotes, or other identifiers to assist someone not familiar with the word or name in question. Each turn, one player takes the role of Judge and turns up one Green card. Every other player then selects the Red card from their hand that best matches the adjective on the Green card, playing it face-down. "Best" is intentionally subjective... Play to the Judge, because the Judge will decide (after shuffling so the source of each card is unidentifiable) on their own criteria. Whoever's word is chosen wins the round, and you play to a total score based on the number of players. That's it. (Well, actually, there are a handful of alternate ways to play presented in the base game and with each expansion set, of which there are four, but those are all optional additional fun.) The game plays quickly and socially, and all sorts of fun can be had just trying to make people explain why they Judged as they did. Two "Junior Age" editions also exist (using simpler vocabulary and fewer people not currently in the news), and if you just don't have the words you want, there's always these. This couldn't be more recommended as a ready passtime, or as something to take to your next non-gamer gathering (family event, church social, or whatever you gather for). It's all but assured to be a hit. The only disappointment, to me, is the art... It's by John Kovalic, but it consists of the same cartoon apple (colored red or green) over and over. A little variety would add to the game, but it's plenty good even without that.

Gold Diggers is an ultra-simple Knizia game, at least on its surface. When you get a little deeper, it shows some bits of strategy behind its apparently luck-heavy structure. Written for 2-5 players ages 7+, it might seem impossible that there could be any real strategy here, but Knizia is a better game designer than that. Gold Diggers features 3 types of cards, representing Mines (there are 6 and they are used to form a board rather than shuffled into the deck), Characters (5 for each mine) and Gold (real gold ranging in value from 1 to 8 nuggets and "fool's gold" worth zero). The mines are placed across the table, and each turn you play either a Character (on the appropriate mine) or a Gold card (on any mine of your choice with less than five). If you play a Character, you have the option of "staking a claim" on the mine they are associated with by placing a chip on the mine (you can, at most, stake 3 claims in the game, so there are 3 chips in each player color). When the last card is played (there are exactly 60 cards and exactly 60 places to play cards), you total up the gold in each mine, divide by the claims (rounding down), and get each player's score. Simple, but there's enough strategic choice, even with only 3 cards in your hand, that skill does play a part in winning (though luck can still betray you, such as if you never draw a Character card). Still, as with many high-luck games, playing multiple rounds and totaling the score can level out the random parts. This game plays in minutes (10-20), so that's easily done. This time, John Kovalic does provide some fun art (the pun-laden character cards will provide a giggle or two). And for the price (under $10!), this game is very hard to beat, even if it lacks the strategic density of others. It's quick, cheap, and fun. What more could you want?

Funagain Purchase Links:
Apples to Apples
Gold Diggers

Posted by ghoul at 06:31 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

June 09, 2003

Favorite Games VI

The series continues, this time with an award-winning pair, one of conquering Japan and the other of cornering the bean market. No, really.

Samurai is a Knizia game that looks like it's more thematically firm than it actually is. Play is on a hexagon-divided map of Japan, with extra islands added to the south and north, respectively, if a 3rd or 4th player are added. The map is speckled with cities, into which are placed (at random) three types of tokens, indicating influence with the nobility (tall conical hats), the clergy (small Buddha statues) or the common folk (rice paddies); larger cities contain two or, for the imperial capital of Edo, three different tokens. The object of the game is to "capture" these markers by having the most influence of the appropriate type when the last of the land areas around the city is filled. Each turn, you place a counter on one hex. These counters can be political, religious or common influence (with a rating of 2, 3 or 4) or they could be samurai, who apply toward all three "suits" (but rated 1, 2 and 3 only). There are also special counters, including ships, ronin, and some special effect tiles (no attempt is made to tie them into the theme) that let you move around things already placed, under certain situations. Most of the special counters also are marked as "fast", so allow you to play an additional counter after them. Each player has their own set of the same counters, though they are shuffled and played out from a hand of only 5 (an optional rule allows players to intelligently select rather than shuffle their initial hand of 5 counters, which makes for a significantly more strategic game). Scoring emphasizes balance rather than simple overwhelming force. A player who wins the majority of 2 castes wins, but this usually only happens in a two-player game. Otherwise, players who won no majorities are eliminated (you need strong support in at least one area to even have a chance) and the players with one majority compare their total wins of their non-majority token types. Thus, the best strategy is to win a slight margin in one caste, then a good healthy number in the other two as well. Of course, everyone else is trying to do the same thing...

Game bits are of considerable quality here. The board is a nice puzzle-cut modular design to let it grow as more players are added. The reward tokens are simple but attractive black plastic and the player counters are thick cardboard hexes that fit nicely into the spaces of the board (just a little bit of space to spare). Players are also given small stand-up screens to let them hide their hand of tiles and scoring tokens from each other. A well designed package to support an elegant, highly strategic game. But it really has very little to do with Japanese history, despite the Japan-shaped map, piece design, and artwork.

There is also a nice computer version for PC and Mac (non-Carbon, but it runs fine in a Classic window) from Klear Games (time and feature limited demo is available for download). While its AI is pretty sound (albeit far from immune to defeat), there's also an option to play real people over the net, and that can result in considerably more challenge.

Bohnanza is a game that sounds like it shouldn't work. Players take the role of bean farmers trying to grow various types of beans, then harvest their crops for cash. Doesn't sound interesting? Well, don't let the theme turn you off, because this is a very nice game of strategy, trading and set-building, easy to learn but with sufficient depth and strategic variety to stand several replays. The style of play is unique, and is what makes the game work. Every player has a hand of cards which must be kept in order (you may not under any circumstances arrange your hand... with one vital exception to come below). Each turn, you must play at least one card (representing a type of bean) to one of your fields (you initially have two, and may purchase a third during play). Each field can have only one type of bean in it, so if the card you must play doesn't match, you may have to sell off a field. And, as fields get more valuable the more beans you get into them, selling early is rarely what you want to do (and is exactly what other players want to force you to do). Next, you draw two face-up cards and try arrange trades. Trading is the way players can get bad cards out of their hand, because any trades end up face-up in front of the player and are planted (put into fields) immediately at the end of trading (which may require selling fields), so the card you trade away gets out of its spot blocking up your hand. Then you add more cards to the back of you hand to fill it. This makes for some delightful strategy, as players try to trade off beans they don't have decent sets of (or that are just ill-timed in their hand, coming up sooner than they want to sell a field), but never want to give away too much. Good graphic design is shown by printing coins on the back of every card... When you sell a field, you flip the cards over, keep the appropriate number for the type of bean and size of the field when sold, then discard the rest (the only problem there is a need to shuffle thoroughly, as the discards are inherently clumped into groups of the same bean). Silly theme? Yes. But this is a very high quality game, particularly for its low price (under $16 for the US edition, which includes cards for more players that were an expansion set for the original German game) and large number of players (up to 7, which makes for wild trading rounds and cutthroat competition for the really valuable beans).

Funagain Purchase Links:

Posted by ghoul at 06:43 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

June 07, 2003

Favorite Games V

A game of exploring the secret places of earth and a game of conquering the galaxy. A nice pairing, don't you think?

Lost Cities is Knizia again, a sharp two-player card game of exploration. Cards are numbered 2-10 in five colors, each representing a different area of exploration (jungle, arctic, underwater, etc.), and can be played only in ascending order (that is, once you've played the 6, only the 7 or higher can be played on your side of the table in that suit). Each player tries to build the best expeditions they can, one card a time, with the value being the sum of the cards played minus 20 (though if no cards are played, the value is zero), plus an additional 20 if you managed to accumulate 8 or more cards. This rather mathematical scoring scheme is typical of Knizia, but it works quite well. It is unwise to start any expedition you can't make at least moderate progress in, and the -20 cost to play the first card represents that well. Investor cards (3 per suit) multiply the eventual score of a column, but must be played before any other card, and do trigger that -20, making it possible to score as little as -80 for an expedition with full backing but no progress made. Also interesting is the discard mechanic. Discards go face-up to a stack for each suit, and the top of each stack can be drawn from by either player in the future (rather than taking a card from the face-down deck). Thus, you have to watch what you throw away, lest your opponent find it valuable. Or, if you're feeling daring, you can use the discards as a temporary holding place for a card you can't use now, but may want later. And, with as many as 5 face-up cards available, sometimes even the drawing of a card takes a thought-out decision (5 known cards plus one from the deck to choose among). There is a lot of luck to the game, which is why the rules suggest playing three (or more) rounds and totaling your score from each rather than just one play, which is fine because each single play goes by fairly quickly. Card art is interesting, showing progressively more interesting hints of what the expedition discovers as the card value increase. There is also a board that isn't strictly necessary to play, but since the whole package still comes in under $20 (under $15 from the link below!), I can't complain too much about it.

Cosmic Encounter is an absolute classic, a game that serves as a direct ancestor of all the Collectable Card/Miniature/Bard Games that have flooded the market for the last several years. You see, Cosmic Encounter was the first (or at least the first successful) game based on the the idea of having fairly simple rules but numerous special exceptions, governed by the player role or by cards drawn and played. I was introduced to it as "every player has their own way to cheat", which is as good a description as any. This made Cosmic Encounter an infinitely re-playable game, as every game has a new and likely unique mix of player options. The actual base game is very simplistic, as you send a small number of your units to attack other player's planets while defending your own, with both players inviting the rest of the game to ally on their side if they wish. Attack Cards are added to each side, the higher total wins ("Compromise" cards can be played to give up and take cards from your opponent's hand if they played a normal attack card, or start a round of negotiations for a deal if both players Compromise). If that doesn't sound overwhelmingly interesting, it's because it really isn't. It's the powers and the funky edicts/flares/moons/lucre that make the game the classic that it is (okay, maybe not lucre, which came in a very late expansion and always seemed too patched-on to flow with the game). Originally, the game was released (by the defunct but regularly brilliant Eon) as just its base self, with only a handful of alien powers. The really good stuff came in a series of 9 expansion sets, each adding new aliens (if memory serves, their final total was 75), new rules, new variety. Unfortunately, the original publisher went away, and CE has since been given 3 re-workings, only the middle of which (by Mayfair Games) actually managed to replicate the full range of the original game, and even expand on it a bit (with some new powers and a few new cards of significant impact). The most current edition, from Avalon Hill/Hasbro, looks by far the best with fancy plastic space ships replacing the familiar round cardboard disks of earlier editions, but is only a slight peek at this great game, lacking most of the options and alien powers that make CE such a great game, and it seems unlikely that it will be expanded to show its true strength. Which is really a shame, because this is really not a game where less is more.

Just an additional note... there is a new online version of Cosmic Encounter out there, and it's getting fairly good reviews, though it's still far from the complete game. It's adding new alien powers quickly (including some new ones created just for them and taking advantage of the computer to do things that would be hard with real cards, boards and pieces), which is a good sign, but it has a long way to go to be even half the game I wasted many a college night playing (thanks again, Alex, for letting your set take all the abuse endless gaming put it through!). Because, as I said about the board version, in this game it really is all about how many options for weirdness you have to choose from. Still, if you are curious, it's worth a bit of time trying it out!

Funagain Purchase Links:
Lost Cities
Cosmic Encounter

Posted by ghoul at 07:07 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

June 05, 2003

Favorite Games IV

This time, a strategically deep, subtle game and a goofy toss-cards-around game...

Also, there is an improved set of links for those who, after reading these mini-reviews, decide they'd like to check out a game or two.

Battle Line is our Knizia game for this entry. This one is a two-player card game that nominally simulates battle between Alexander the Great and the Persian King Darius. But this thematic bit is not really important, as you don't even determine which player is which historical figure until during play, and may never know if the two leader cards don't come into play; as with many Knizia games, the theme is mostly an excuse to hang an abstract mathematical game from. This time, the game is a progressive effort to build up 3-card sets at each of nine "battle flags", where each card represents one of 10 different troop types (numbered 1 to 10, named and illustrated in ascending order from lightly armed skirmishers to massive battle elephants) . Sets made up of the same troop type, troops of the same color, or troops of types that form a sequence are superior to random sets (you could think of them as 3-card poker hands, if you like), so players carefully decide where to place their strengths to form the best formations. You play only one card a turn, and all cards are played face-up, so both players know everything about the game except what is in the other player's hand... and their devious little mind. Victory is achieved when you win either 5 battle flags (the majority) or 3 adjoining battle flags (a breakthrough). Each flag is decided when it becomes obvious that your set overpowers the opposing set. Note that this can become obvious even if one or both sets is incomplete! If, by counting face-up cards, you can demonstrate that no card still unplayed would result in the weaker set winning out, the stronger side takes the flag immediately. This rule results in some odd strategies, such as trying to lure your opponent into playing a second card toward a set you know (because the card they need is in your hand) they'll never be able to complete, or playing a card to show it isn't available, thus demonstrating a set at a completely different flag to be a loser. That latter strategy can result in you taking two (or, rarely, three or more) flags with one play! There are also "tactics" cards that keep the game from being too predictable, because they do things like modify the set rules for a single flag or cause a card to change sides. This is a very fun game of abstract strategy, with enough depth to require thought, but with sufficiently limited options each turn to avoid the game bogging down into unending quandaries about what to do next. Play is quick (20-30 minutes), so you can even go for a "best two out of three" play to minimize the impact of luck.

Munchkin is a light, silly game mocking dungeon crawl RPGs. Player take the "roles" of various dungeon invaders though you can change exactly roles pretty much at any time if, say, you get bored with being an elf (something that usually happens right when a monster that specializes in eating elves shows up). Play consists of tossing out cards to fight, then gathering up treasures and experience when you win (or taking damage when you lose). Other players can toss in cards to help or (more commonly, unless you bribe them) harm your odds against the monster you find. The object of the game is to be the first character to make it to Level 10 thanks to your monster-killing prowess. Expansion sets (2 so far) add even more silly roles, monsters, magic items, et al, to the mix, which just increase the silliness. This is a fun game to just sit around and read the cards (and enjoy the John Kovalic art)! But unlike many games that are just fun to look at, this one is also fun to play, preferably with as many people as you can gather to increase the madness (and the likelihood there will be at least one player currently in the role that your nastiest cards target!). Space Munchkin takes the same game into SciFi with minimal changes (in fact, the games can be somewhat intermixed if you like), and there's also Munchkin Fu that promises Martial Arts smackdown silliness (I will admit that I haven't actually seen it yet). And, on the even sillier side, there are three familarly-titled volumes that translate the cards of Munchkin to d20 rules (with allowances for a drastically increased power curve), in case you like your dungeon crawling this silly.

And yes, this was on the list to be included before Jenn's comment, though it's nice to know I'm not alone liking this one (though, with Munchkin, I would have felt pretty safe assuming that).

And here's an additional note... Many of the games listed here and in previous entries are available for purchase at Funagain Games. Here's a convenient set of links for the available games mentioned so far (and yes, these are "associate" links that gives me a little bit back on any referred sales... do support your friendly local game store first, but if they can't get the title, do give the folk at Funagain a try!). Future "Favorite Games" entries will include these links as well, at least as long as the games are available (sadly, not all the games I have already listed are, and I'm sure some future faves won't be, either).

Funagain Purchase Links:
Settlers of Catan
5-6 Player Expansion
Seafarers of Catan
Seafarers 5-6 Player Expansion
Cities and Knights
Cities and Knights 5-6 Player Expansion

Ursuppe Freshly Spiced Expansion

Kill Doctor Lucky (director's cut)

Lord of the Rings
LotR: Friends and Foes Expansion
LotR: Sauron Expansion

Lord of the Fries (special edition)

Munchkin II - Unnatural Axe
Space Munchkin

Posted by ghoul at 06:34 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

June 03, 2003

Favorite Games III

I've already built up a list of some 32 titles for this series, so at a pair every other day, this won't be done anytime soon. And that's the limit only if I don't think of (or acquire!) other games deserving mention before I wrap this up.

But here's the next installment, a "lordly" pair if ever I've seen one...

Lord of the Rings is another Knizia creation, this one an ambitious attempt to create a game from the highly popular books (and initially released the summer before the first of the movies came out to get that tie-in as well). In this game, the players (in the roles of the hobbits, including the often-forgotten Fatty Bolger as a 5th player option, allowing from 2-5 people to play) cooperate against a difficult series of game boards, trying to maneuver through the various obstacles (Moria, Helms Deep, Shelob's Lair and Mordor) on their quest to destroy the ring. Yes, I said cooperate. This is a game that is either won or lost by all players.

Most of play is done by trying to match cards of certain suits (conflict, friendship, travel, hiding, and the wild suit of magic) against the current challenges, and do so rapidly as the challenges get nastier if not quickly overcome. Every board has tracks for three of the suits (Mordor has all four suits, making it even nastier), and an Event track, representing plot events that act as a time limit on finishing the other tracks. Each hobbit has a unique "power", essentially one rule that applies differently to them than it does to everyone else, as a way of differentiating them. The non-hobbit members of the Fellowship are abstracted into cards that help push past big challenges, and the Ring is the ultimate tool for evading danger... but using it carries a major risk, as it can move the Ringbearer closer to Sauron on a critical corruption chart. Players must get the ring to Mount Doom before they are pushed to Sauron's location on that chart by game events gone wrong and use of the Ring. It isn't easy, and the game suggests an aggressive means of cranking up difficulty (essentially starting with Sauron much closer to the hobbits) as players get better at the game.

Also available for LOTR are two supplements. Friends and Foes adds two new boards to play through -- the fairly easy Bree and the fairly nasty Isengard -- plus scary monsters that start trailing the party but which, if overcome, can allow some boards to be "skipped", though at a price. For example, if the Fellowship can evade all pursuit through Bree, they can avoid Moria, but at the price of giving up most of the rewards that would have come from visiting Lothlorien and starting the next board with several newly drawn Foes on their tail. Also, each Hobbit gains a second power, though this one can only be used once per game.

The newer Sauron expansion is an even more dramatic change to the game. When using it, one player stops cooperating (or a 6th player joins in), taking on the role of Sauron, now intelligently throwing dangers in the Fellowship's path, though limited by the cards and tiles he draws and by the Fellowship "activating" him when taking risky actions (of course, risk is unavoidable in their quest, so Sauron won't sit quietly for too long). Also added is a direct mechanic for the Black Riders, traveling up and down the Corruption board, from Mordor to the hobbits then back. If they complete the cycle, it's all over for the good guys. Game balance still favors the hobbits over Sauron, but not by much.

As a whole, this game is a lot to learn (the rules re-write at the site linked to above clears up a few points from the original rules), but it's manageable, especially if you grow into the rules one expansion at a time. This is a very challenging game, however, and you can expect to lose and lose badly if you don't work out how to cooperate effectively. Scan ahead on the boards as soon as they come up to work out which sub-quests you need to complete first, or you'll give up some of the nicest benefits (for example, at Helms Deep you must work fast on the "Friendship" track or you won't get help for the Riders of Rohan, and that is quite a loss). Throughout the games, in the rules and on the board and cards, is full color art by John Howe, one of the two main conceptual artists of the Lord of the Rings movies, so the look of this game is very well matched with the films. Also, there are many little game bits, from an oversized plastic ring (complete with the traditional lettering), a haunting Sauron piece and, with the Sauron expansion, a very imposing Black Rider. The hobbits themselves are a bit chintzy, but that's a small problem in such a lovely game.

Lord of the Fries is my second choice from Cheapass (though their whole catalog features only a couple of clunkers), an odd card game of the rummy family, only here the meldable combinations are the ever-shifting makings of various combo meals at a zombie-staffed fast food joint (the same place as their earlier and almost equally fun Give Me The Brain). The target hand at any time is the "order", chosen from a menu, which might range from simple to very complicated. There is a fair amount of strategy in card-passing and in order selection, but not overly much. For the most part, it's just "try to get rid of all your cards", and that's easy to figure out. The current "deluxe version" comes in color and with several alternative menus (though no longer in the cool chinese take-out box that was used to pack it briefly), creating even more game play alternatives, and still at a price well below most any other game anywhere near this much fun.

Posted by ghoul at 01:05 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

June 01, 2003

Favorite Games II

Here's another two games, including the first of what will undoubtedly be several Cheapass Games and, in what will likely prove to be a rarity, nothing by Knizia...

Ursuppe (preferably with the "Freshly Spiced" expansion set that adds another player and many more gene options) is a great game with an odd theme -- your species of amoeba trying to out-evolve other players' species. The central mechanic is a bit icky, since each turn you must eat one food cube of all colors not your own and then excrete 2 cubes of your own color... Think about just what that means you're eating. Eeeew! This is not the "circle of life" from that Disney song! Still, play is clever and reasonably quick (one and a half to two hours), with lots of strategic options in where you move your amoebas, in how quickly your multiply, and in what traits (represented by gene cards) you choose to evolve toward. It's easy to get lost on pursuing a personal goal and not even realize you aren't winning the game... And that means you get a chance to "win" against the goal you decided to achieve even if you lose by the official score. The pieces, solid wood and plentiful, give the game a good, solid heft for its price (it barely fits back into the box once assembled!), even if they are just wooden polygons not remotely amoeba shaped. And don't worry... the game is printed with German and English rules, and with double-sided cards, one side (with color art) in the original German and the other side (with B&W art) in English.

Kill Doctor Lucky is a Cheapass Games favorite. In effect (and with apologies to William Goldman), this is the "good parts" version of Clue. Here, instead of stumbling around a mansion trying to figure out who killed someone, you get to stumble around trying to kill him (but only if no one can see you). It's a light, silly game, somewhat flawed by its length (it goes on a bit longer than the joke lasts, unless someone gets unusually lucky early on) and the occasional ability of one player to create a situation where they get 3 or more (sometimes many more) turns in a row, skipping the rest of the players. Cheapass is currently selling the "director's cut", which features more jokes on the cards, some optional rules (some of which serve to shorten the game to a more reasonable length), and an alternate board which dramatically changes gameplay (yes, you still get the original board). As is the norm at Cheapass Games, you get quite a lot of fun in a simple package for a very reasonable price!

Posted by ghoul at 06:00 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 30, 2003

Favorite Games I

As some readers here know, I'm a pretty serious fan of board and card games as well as RPGs, so I thought I'd start a series here of micro-reviews of favorite games, just to help spread the word a bit.

I have no idea how long this will go on, but I have a lot of favorite games, so it might be quite a while. Except several swings to the land of Cheapass Games and more than a few mentions of the name Reiner Knizia.

I'll start with the favorite, a game I'm rarely without just in case I have 15 minutes and someone interested in playing. En Garde is a Knizia classic, a card game of fencing that, despite its simple and highly mathematical mechanics, achieves a very good feel in play. It's easy to learn, as the rules teach the game in three levels, starting extremely simple and slowly adding the more complex parry and advance-and-attack rules. It's a small game (just a couple dozen cards) with only a few "bits" (cards you lay out to create a board and dice printed with fencer silouettes to use as place-markers), but it packs a lot of fun into a small package.

Settlers of Catan is also an easy choice. Players are in the role of tribal leaders on an island trying to build up from a couple villages to a thriving urbanized culture more quickly than do the other tribes on the island, building with a set of 5 resources developed at random each turn. Trading between players is all but required, as another player will likely be the only easy way to get the resource you need. Some people dislike its high "luck" element (resources are produced at random and if your numbers don't come up, you lose out), some people make it take forever by playing too seriously (the style of game really calls for quick, light play), but if you can avoid taking it too seriously, it's a great way to pass some time. Almost anyone, even non-gamers, can quickly come to understand its goals and methods and become a reasonably good by their third or fourth game. And, if you keep the game quick, it plays fast enough that you can get through several games in an evening. The expansions are more for the pure gamer crowd (particularly Cities and Knights set), as they add complexities and length for strategic options that casual players aren't likely to appreciate, but the basic game is pure gold.

Posted by ghoul at 10:10 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

May 28, 2003

The Newest Diceless Game

Well, if the general RPG market isn't ready for diceless, we're about to find out through a high-profile failure.

It's fairly easy to figure out that I lean toward the side of diceless RPGs. After all, there's links to the AmberCons website here on the Staircase, including AmberCon North for which I currently serve as Treasurer after three years as Con Chair. I'm by no means a purist, though, as anyone looking at my list of current game plans or active games will see (and I did just run a diced Amber game at The Black Road). I think dicelessness works well when the assumption of success (baring active resistance) is justified, which means, in my actuarially-biased view, it fits well for high-powered characters (Amber or Nobilis, for example) and less well at more realistic ability levels (where random factors matter about as much as character ability, if not more).

So, this leads me to some comments on the new Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game...

Superheroes fit into my above-made category of "high-powered characters", so by that standard, a diceless mechanic could fit for superhero gaming. But, traditionally, super-hero RPGs have been dice-heavy, with highly random (high variance) mechanics trying to capture the "cinematic" nature of super-hero tales. So here's a new game that flies in the face of that convention, using the ultimate in low variance game mechanics - one with no random factor at all - to simulate the highly cinematic (as can be seen from the success of recent movie translations, such as Spider-Man and X-Men) Marvel Comics universe.

Confusing high variance dice mechanics with "cinematic" mechanics is a common mistake in the RPG world. By making the dice range huge, game designers and players seem to think, you can allow for the extremes of astounding success common in cinematic genre, and that is somewhat true. However, to get a cinematic genre feel you need to encourage the players to take risks, to ignore obvious dangers in favor of the flashier solution, and only then to succeed despite the odds. And, of course, this is exactly backwards of how reality shows people react to riskiness; in a highly uncertain situation, the best course of action is to hedge your bets, to take a conservative tack, and get a more reliable if mediocre result. Instead, the way to encourage cinematic action by players is to make success more likely and to make the price of doing things the showier way negligible or even negative (that is, it's easier to succeed if you swashbuckle). Feng Shui does this, and that's a large part of why it works so well as a cinematic RPG. Games that go the high-variance route tend to end up patching with some form of "hero points" to smooth over the times when high variance results in excessively bad results (which, with most die mechanics, it will do with exactly the same frequency as it does excessively good results).

Well, with a few missteps, Marvel Universe takes the "reduce randomness to increase cinematic feel" to its logical extreme, "eliminate randomness and perhaps maximize cinematic feel". If I know that Daredevil can always survive a leap off a 10-story building thanks to his Acrobatics skill, then as player I won't even consider the elevator. And if I know the thug's pistol isn't ever going to hurt the Hulk, then as player I'd just have ol' greenskin stomp forward ignoring the bullets.

But Marvel Universe isn't quite as simple as that. Every character has their skills and powers, but in each "panel" of the story (the game uses comic-book terms for game time, so round of actions by one character is a "panel", the full round of all active characters is a "page") every player needs to allocate energy/attention among their options (attack, defense, skill use, etc.); the rating a character has in any one power or skill tells us the maximum they can allocate to it. Allocation is done by moving small glass stones around on your character sheet. It's all pretty mechanical, feeling more like I'm playing Star Fleet Battles than an RPG, but once you get the hang of it, the idea isn't an inherently bad one. Almost all characters can use up energy far more quickly than they can recover it (usually you recover only half or one-third of your maximum reserves after every panel), so there's even some strategy to the game (lots of trying to second-guess opponents and allocate lots to attack the same round they under-allocated defense).

From a bit of toying with the system, it's very clear that standard powers (called "Actions") are nice, but powers bought up to what the game calls "Modifiers" are far better. You see, modifiers don't take any energy to use, they just kick in whenever they apply. So, for example, the Hulk gets several "stones" worth of defense because he's pretty much made of armor. Bullseye gets a handful of "stones" as a bonus to any ranged attack he makes, because he's deadly with anything. This means someone playing the Hulk only needs to allocate energy to defense against very strong attacks, and if you're fighting against Bullseye, you'd best keep a half-dozen or more points in defense every panel or you're going to get badly hurt. And if the Hulk faces off against Bullseye, the two effects pretty much cancel and we're back to the normal rules (so Bullseye best watch out, because that's really his best trick and the Hulk has several others, including the highest Strength in the game by quite a margin).

Tons of special cases and odd effects exist, making the comparison of action value to resisting value more complicated, and usually those are good things (such as Spider-Man's ability to re-arrange his allocations after seeing everyone elses', simulating his "spidey-sense", or the Black Cat's bad luck power that makes any success by less than a given point margin into a failure). With proper expansion (the base game is only barely adequate in the range of special effects it describes), this could make for a very strategically rich conflict resolution system.

Shortcomings? Well, the game has a few. The small size of the book (128 pages) requires them to under-detail many of the rules, leading to some very confusing table entries with little or no explanation. Examples are also in short supply; there are plenty of sample characters at nearly 40 (though they aren't given with their point costs, so you can't use them as ready examples of character creation), but far too few clear examples of play. And some of the game's mechanical concepts are subtle, the sort that good examples are by far the best tool to explain. Some rules also seem to contradict the general feel of the game. For example, there's a penalty for "showing off" with your action, which seems counter to the whole cinematic feel I went on about above. But, I think, the difference here is that the game encourages the player to show off, but tries to discourage (via increased chance of failure) the character showboating. A little self-defeating, perhaps, but not hard to patch up. And the transformation rules (for characters who have two or more forms) discourage slight transformation (some changes in abilities, but most skills remain unaffected) in favor of the extremes (Hulk or Thor-like models, where the transformed form lacks almost all skills of the base self).

Also, the game is a bit pricey for its size ($25 for 128 pages of a comic-book-sized hardcover volume). But don't fall for appearances... This is a fairly meaty game, and one that, with a little GM work and time spent figuring out its workings, will probably reward you with fun play. The highly mechanical play may frustrate some people, there's some subtle strategies to point allocation that may discourage some folk who like things simpler, and the dicelessness will upset the pro-dice partisans, but I think the game stands on its own reasonably well against the strong range of super-hero games already on the market, and against the earlier attempts at a Marvel RPG. For more information, examples of play, some sample pages, and the official FAQ, check out the official MURPG page.

I know I'm working on a simple scenario to try to tempt friends into playing so we can check the whole thing out for real.

Posted by ghoul at 01:15 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack