Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Weekly Game Night - 7 Players -- Too Many?

Well, it's summer, and that means that I may actually have some time to blog.

This week's topic: a weekly game night with seven players.

With the summer, my son is free to join TJ, Tom Grant, Kevin and I for our weekly gaming sessions. I love having a son who is growing into a gamer.

Of course, Kevin's son is also home. AJ is a very established gamer. Kevin even jokes that AJ used to be "Kevin's son" at conventions, but that now AJ has eclipsed him to the point where he is now considered "AJ's dad." Another great addition!

And my nephew Brian is around. He's on summer break from UVA and he's oh so close to becoming a gamer. A must have.

And, I know this makes 8, but our next door neighbor, Isaac, is also available to join  us. One of Owen's friends, intelligent, loves games.

I think have too many gamers is a good problem to have. In general, that is the case, but when you have seven show up for a game night, it becomes slightly problematic.

Suddenly, we are desperate to find the right game. I am somewhat reluctant to split into two tables, but seven is so many.  Diplomacy would take seven, but, sadly, I don't own it. How about Struggle of Empires? Hmmm...I'd hate to play a game that is not really in its best light, especially one of my favorites.

So we ended up playing the following over the past two weeks (both with seven players):

1. Liar's Dice - my first experience with the actual Richard Borg design (I guess it's actually called Command and Colors: Probabilties?), but I had a great time. My wife and daughter, both non-gamers, were a little distressed by the noise of the dice cups (okay, actually the noise of the dice cups and the raucous exclamations and laughter that followed).  But the addition of the "star" spaces and the wild results themselves made this a much more interesting game than the Pirates of the Carribean version I had been playing. The simple mechanism the board uses to help you figure the probabilities is also an excellent addition. But this game is, sadly, a bit light for our game nights these days. Great filler, great family game (anyone got a copy for sale?), but not a go-to game for game night.

2. The Resistance - Says it takes 5 to 10, and, again, it lasts 15 to 30 minutes, but it's again an intense 15 to 30 minutes. The simple mechanics and required teamwork of voting people into teams and trying to make  sure each player is loyal to the cause (and, if you're a spy, to make sure the others don't figure out who's against the cause) makes for some very interesting late game (okay, 20 minutes into the 30 minute play time) discussions. An interesting situation arose in our game where two spies were on the same 3 person away team. Unfortunately for the spies faction, both spies played their "fail" cards. Suddenly, it became easier for the rest of the Resistance to figure out who was loyal and who was not. One of the spies should have ducked, playing his "success" card, while counting on his fellow spy's play of the "fail" card. Educated guessing is at the heart of any game, and this simple game gets to that core. Truly fun, truly interesting (I actually want to try this with the expansion some time), but, again, a short game not worthy of filling up a 5 hour game night.

3. Seven Wonders - I'm coming around to thinking that this is an excellent design, particularly for larger groups (I realize this puts me about 3 years behind the curve). Simultaneous decision making and playing make for a quick game where number of players has little effect on game time. This game also has one of my favorite things in the gaming world - multiple paths to victory. Another thing I love in games is improvisation. I like being able to make educated guesses and having the ability to make some assumptions (such as "AJ is playing for the green cards" - seemingly a safe assumption in any Seven Wonders game), but I also love the way that a game can throw something unexpected at you, forcing you to adjust your strategy. So, multiple paths to victory combined with forced improvisation? You had me at "hello." But, again, a short game that really can only be played so many times in a row.

So where does that leave me? In short, it leaves me with two many players for one table. We're a bit crowded (especially with Seven Wonders), even to the point where in Resistance, I could not figure out who the third spy was! (It was Isaac, who had inadvertently outflanked me when we did the "eyes open" reveal, and what are you going to do, exclaim, "Wait, wait. Let's keep our eyes closed a few minutes longer..."?). So, in the future, we'll probably be splitting into a 3 player game and a 4 player game.

That, of course, presents a new problem --when you divide into 2 tables, is there always an "A" table and a "B" table? Hmmm...

Possible Future topics - six player games, zombie games, ASL, Polis

Monday, February 11, 2013

New Year's Resolutions Revisited: What Counts?

Okay. A couple of my game-related resolutions are already causing me consternation:

The resolutions in question are as follows:

1. Play 12 new games.

2. Record all plays in BGG and record 100 plays over the course of 2013.

Let's take the second one first.

There are two main questions I have here. The first is "Do games like King of Tokyo count?" Tough one. Certainly these games are fillers and are not ones I take seriously (until last session when I won two games in a row -- suddenly this games seems much more strategic!). But I have two main reasons for counting these. The first is simple. I'm new to recording games and was curious whether I would actually hit the century mark. I want to hit 100, so I count them. The next reason is perhaps a bit of a cop out. I have dedicated some amount of my gaming time to this and it does involve a board so it counts. I play games for three reasons: to appreciate the way the game's problems are solved by the rules, to enjoy the company of my friends, and, finally, to win (not my number one concern, mind you!). The game definitely takes care of the first two. The game captures the fun yet unrealistic silliness of giant monster movies. And it also allows us to yuck it up quite a bit. So, the verdict is...count it!

The second question is "How do I count games like Descent?" We recently started a Descent campaign (an item on my gaming bucket list!), and we were able to make it through the introductory scenario (Ettin -- dead!) and through phase I of the Castle Daerion adventure. So, how do I count that? Is it one session of the game, kind of like a roleplaying session? Or is it two scenarios, each one counting as a play? And add to that the fact that the second scenario we played was really only half of a larger scenario. Or is each chapter its own adventure? We talked about this one. I was going to count each chapter as one play, so that night, I would have recorded two plays. Tom Grant says each adventure is a scenario, so go for it. If you played two ASL scenarios in a night (a loooong night), it would count as two plays, right? So why not Descent scenarios? But TJ, always ready with an answer, made the possibly valid point that the scenarios had two chapters, so the scenario wasn't a play until both chapters were completed. Fair enough. In Descent, the first chapter has an effect on the second chapter of an adventure (whether that effect is significant is debatable). Also, at the start of chapter 2, you are forced to keep the damage you attained at the end of chapter 1. Hmmm...that's a fairly strong connection (until, of course, my healer character casts what I like to call "rain of neosporin" -- feel my soothing wrath!). So I guess they both have a point. At the end of an adventure's second chapter, you lose the damage and fatigue. Seems like a breaking point in a scenario. So, the verdict? Two chapters count as a play! Right after this posting, I'll go and change my plays for that night from 2 to 1.5.

Now for the new games. The question here is "How do you count expansions?" I have been playing War of the Ring with the Lords of Middle Earth expansion. Is that a new game? Generally, I would say how much does it impact the play of the game? Let's look at two expansions that have hit my table since Christmas.

First up, the Power Up expansion for King of Tokyo. In this expansion comes the new character Pandakai. Okay, not much there. But the evolutions are pretty significant. It makes the hearts doubly useful, but most importantly it puts a lot more power into the game. Three hearts are not that hard to get, and now my Cyber Bunny is pimped out pretty early in the game and is fighting pimped out giant apes and mechanical dinosaurs. This is, in the end, a significant change. The game becomes longer as players choose fewer Victory Point dice and fewer claws in lieu of hearts. And every roll ends up with an exception and a bump by the end of the game. I don't think this is, in the end, a good change. It's kind of like hitting too many home runs in baseball. Sure, when the game was juiced, a lot of runs were scored, but the best games, the classics, were still the 1-0 pitchers' duels. Power Up adds too much power to a game that is defined by its lovable simplicity. And that significant a change definitely counts as a new game.

Second up is Lords of Middle Earth. The Balrog is back! The Lord of the Nazgul is back! Elrond! Galadriel! Cool new dice! But, in the end, this expansion is not nearly as significant as the old Battle of the Third Age expansion for the original War of the Ring game (well, not the Richard Berg original, but you know what I mean...). The dice end up being in play for a somewhat limited time(because they are eventually "replaced" by the regular dice of the Witch King and Gandalf the White), and only one can be used per turn. So there is a minimal expansion of each turn (advantage to the Shadow Player as more actions only means that the Fellowship's moves become just that much more dangerous). The Balrog is so brittle as to be almost unuseable. He does a nice job of clogging up Moria, though. In the old expansion, the seige weaponry had a huge effect and could really change a game. And the old game had those battle games (another bucket list item). So, what's the verdict? For The Battle of the Third Age, count it! It's new enough that the seige weaponry can really ruin your day if you don't prepare for it. And those Corsairs can be pretty interesting, too. But for Lords of Middle Earth, while it adds a dash of spice to one of my favorite games, it does not change the recipe enough to count as a new game. So the verdict here is no, not new!

Well, everything clear as mud now? Some future topics I'm considering are: Descent Second Edition comments (you might call it a review), Andean Abyss comments (same), Mage Knight: The Lost Legion expansion, and a one day at Prezcon AAR.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Thank you, Alan Poulter

In a recent news update from CSW, I was disheartened to learn that Alan Poulter, who ran the site for twenty years has decided to step down as webmaster. I want to say that web-grognards was boardgamegeek before there was a boardgamegeek, but I don't have my facts straight to back up such a claim. I can say, however, that web-grognards was a place for wargamers long before we were welcome on boardgamegeek.

I first encountered site way back when I was a young teacher in 1994 or 1995. It was in the heady early days of the internet and it was powerful - in the site's primitive text-based format - to see that there was a community of wargamers out there, that I was not alone.

The site really was a database, very much the way that boardgamegeek is a database today. But this database was for wargames. It was hard to navigate. It was not particularly well organized (for instance, reviews, replays and variants were almost haphazardly placed in game's listing). There were even some games on there that didn't seem like wargames and some surprising exclusions. But it was awesome. Derk has described unlimited access to BGG as "trying to sip water through a firehose." That's what web-grognards was for me. I was gladly sipping through the firehose.

I could never get the contest. I spent most of my time working through the alpha listing of the database or clicking somewhat randomly on the many options available for the site. I registered for the opponent finder sites (to this date, no opponent has "found me" this way, although I did find one or two short term opponents). I searched the  facebook myspace geocities-style pages that it linked to and found, many times, the first steps toward finding extremely useful information. I'm pretty sure it was where I found my 90's gaming obsessions, including ACTS, AboveTheFields, and The Diplomatic Pouch. And I'm pretty sure that's where I first discovered that the World Boardgaming Championships exist (forgive me if I didn't understand yet that it was more con than sporting event - my first trip I expected to be a spectator!).

So, passes to a new webmaster. I have to admit that CSW and BGG take up almost all of my wargame surfing these days. But I just want to thank Alan Poulter for all of his hard work. I learned that other people played games, that they loved the hobby enough to obsess about it, and that I could read their obsessive collections, creations and writings.

So, Alan, thanks again...

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Year's Resolutions 2013 (Gaming and otherwise)

If you really knew me -- you'd know that I am one of the many people who make New Year's resolutions. If you really really knew me, you'd know that I am one of the few who actually follow through on them. I went from someone who hated running to someone who runs 3-4 times a week (sometimes up to as much as ten miles) due to a resolution. I lost seventy pounds due to a resolution. I like to call this "being goal oriented." My wife calls it "being obsessive." Either way, I can do a resolution.

So here are my resolutions for 2013:

1. Enter all game sessions on BGG - In short, I just don't do this enough. I know some who will enter all of their sessions, including electronic games on their iPad. I'm not going to do that (yet). I plan on logging and correctly dating all of my face to face play sessions for 2013. I think it would be cool to look back at this point next year and see what I played and when. It might reveal a bit too much about my gaming tendencies (in short, I haven't been playing wargames as much recently), but, for a year, I'll try it.

2. Play 12 new (to me) games this year - This has been a resolution each of the past two years and it has been easily achieved. I love discovering new games, especially rich and original new games. Games discovered in 2012? Andean Abyss, Mage Knight, King of Tokyo, and God's Playground to name a few (probably should write more on this later, huh...). So an easily achievable one here.

3. Have 100 face to face plays this year - I've never kept track, but I think this is easily achievable. I log about one session a week with some lapses. Let's call that 40 sessions. Many of these end with more than one game played. Let's estimate that at 20 more sessions. There's Pseudocon, WBC, Micropseudocon, and possibly Prezcon. I'll estimate an average of 5 sessions at each for 25 more sessions. I'm up to 85 without counting playing with my son Owen or my family. I also have probably low-balled the convention estimates and the "second game in an evening" sessions. I think it will be close, but I think I'll get it done.

4. Play the following games:
a. Descent Campaign - Oh, I'm intrigued by this one. I've enjoyed the few sessions we've had and I can't wait to play the game in its true light, the campaign. And I'll almost certainly acquire the expansion.
b. Star Trek Fleet Captains - I love Mage Knight. And I tried to get this one played, but really was not ready for it. So while my first abortive plays seem to indicate that this is no Mage Knight, I am curious. I have to get over my irrational hatred of those damned stat-wheels at the bottom of the figures.
c. The War of the Ring expansion Lords of Middle Earth- obtained (and the obsessive side of me acquired the Treebeard figure), now must play it. It is my precious...
d. Mage Knight with the Lost Legion expansion - Did I mention how much fun I've had playing Mage Knight? Well, consider it mentioned. An expansion can only expand the fun, right (yes, I'm intentionally ignoring expansions such as King of Tokyo Power Up and the incredibly overrated Cities and Knights of Catan...)
e. Full ASL - Yes, I need to play this. This is the one resolution I keep failing on. I. must. get. my. son. trained. in. this.
f. Tide at Sunrise - obtained at the MMP end of year sale. Short rules. Nuff said.
g. Kingdom of Heaven - Played once at WBC. Interesting time period. My son is interested. I should be able to get this one on the table. When did 32 pages of rules become long?

5. Write twelve blog entries. I feel like I have things to say. I also feel like my need to say them right cripples me. Time to get over myself and find some time to write.

6. Design a second prototype game - "Second?" you ask. Yep. We'll see what happens. The first is kind of a fantasy roleplaying dungeon crawl game. Without the dungeon. Or the characters. Oh, hell, I'll just have to keep working on it. (One problem is that this market is getting decidedly glutted. I may have to re-theme.)

And, since  you're all my closest friends, here is a glimpse at the other resolutions:

7. I have a weight goal for the year. If you really really really knew me, this would be no surprise. The fact that I'm not going to share the number would also not surprise anyone.

8. I will read every day toward my goal of reading every book selected for inclusion on the AP Literature Free Response Prompt. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel! Right now, I'm reading All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren. It's pretty damned good.

9. Finish a short story. I have one. It's pretty close to being finished as a draft. It will need a major rewrite.

Well, that's it. Here's wishing you all a Happy New Year!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Graphic Novels: The Grendel Omnibus, Volume 1

Grendel started (for me, any way) as the short Devil by the Deed segments at the back of the Mage comic books. Their style has been described as more like a "stained glass window" and the prose, no-bubbles, unconventional panel style was striking, as was the story of the costumed man who was better and smarter than everyone else and so eventually ended his boredom in the only way he could, through crime. I think initially the idea of being different than everyone else (maybe with some level of contempt for them) appealed to me, but over time I've grown to appreciate Matt Wagner's signature title for a number of reasons.

And let's face it: Grendel is Matt Wagner's signature title. I thought in the 80's that it would be the potentially epic Mage, but Mage has really only become an occasional departure from his work on Grendel. Consequently, he Omnibus really ends up being a collection highlighting the length of Wagner's career (well, maybe not the entirety -- but I'll get to that in a bit). Collected in this volume are Devil by the Deed (in its black, red, and white incarnation), the anthologies Grendel: Black, White and Red and Grendel: Red, White and Black, and Wagner's most recent version of a Hunter Rose story, Behold the Devil. Let's treat each in turn.

The "Stained Glass Window"
style of Devil by the Deed
Devil by the Deed is an interesting telling of the Hunter Rose story, and the first exposure many had to this title. It is told in that unconventional, stained glass window style, solely through prose (that is, no bubbles). When I first encountered Devil by the Deed, it was a series of short  appendices to the individual issues of the Mage series. I love the story of Hunter Rose. He is a bored young man who turns to crime in order to find a challenge in his life. I think at least part of it was the whole idea of being bright and bored which appealed to a young Jason White for some reason. Hunter takes on the persona of Grendel, a costumed assassin, and eventually grows into a crime lord who takes over the entire eastern seaboard of the United States.

But two things make Grendel work. The first is his adversary, Argent. Argent is a wolfman, seemingly a nod to the Native American wendigo legend. He is allegedly hundreds of years old and a transformed shaman. He is the crimefighting mirror to Grendel, incredibly violent, but, through his choice of targets, on the side of "good." While both are incredibly violent, Argent is successful through his aggression while Grendel is successful through his calculating coldness. Argent is strong and savage, Grendel is lithe and civilized. Argent is an outcast who lives on the streets, Grendel is a socialite who is among the highest social circles. And, in the end, Argent kills Grendel but is crippled in the process.
Grendel and Argent

The other thing that makes Grendel work is the presence of Stacy Palumbo. She is orphaned three times, once through her parents, once when her guardian Uncle Barry tries to double cross Grendel and is poisoned, and, in the end, when Rose, her guardian after Uncle Barry's death, is killed. Here is the innocent counterpoint to both Grendel and Argent. Their love of Stacy and her love of each of them is what makes each character just a bit more sympathetic. Hunter Rose cares for her as a reincarnation of the deceased love of his life, and, in Stacy's presence, Argent goes from monster to teddy bear. It makes what could be a hackneyed storyline somewhat original and the fact that Stacy herself is the one to ultimately double-cross Grendel is a great and fitting twist. She ends up the central character in an incredibly dark denouement. Her decline is what moves Grendel from an interesting story to a brilliant one.

The three-color anthologies are interesting in their style. They were inspired by the less interesting Batman Black and White series. The Grendel series works better because of its one defining voice: Wagner's. Batman Black and White gathered the writing talents of the day along with the drawing talent. The result was an impressive looking set of short vignettes, but one with a number of different visions for Batman. Each issue read as disjointed, with no central story and a menagerie of "Batmen" running through its pages.

The Grendel series, though, was, first of all, more adult, both with the "Red" violence and with its occasional sexuality (with one annoying tendency of Wagner to depict sexual excess through one act again and again). And Wagner writes every story, drawing a couple, but having a number of the famous comic book artists of the day (Mike Allred and Tim Sale being a couple of them) draw the rest. The stories have a number of original story-telling styles (including a series of haikus), but Hunter Rose's story from Devil by the Deed (along with a couple of other canonical moments, again, to be mentioned later) remains the thread holding them all together. Some of the images and events mentioned in Devil by the Deed are expanded upon and given a new perspective. Not every story hits a home run, but a number hit doubles and triples. It is definitely interesting to get a new perspective and new details on some of the aspects of Hunter's life and career.

The Omnibus closes with what I think represents both the best and worst of Matt Wagner, the Grendel mini-series Behold the Devil. There are two main stories. The first involves the people in New York who are investigating the Grendel killings: an investigative reporter and the head of the NYPD's Grendel Task Force. The two are also having a secret (and decided R-rated) affair. While they love each other, they also have certain professional obligations that mean that they have to hide facts from each other. As the reporter begins to truly close in on Grendel, he closes himself off from his lover for her safety and because of her concerns for his safety. The climax to this story is poignant and dark and, really, a perfect Grendel story.

The other story involves Hunter himself. Rose kills a lieutenant in the world of organized crime then begins to attempt to manipulate the rise of the victims. He becomes convinced that he is being watched, which leads to carelessness resulting in violence Rose did not foresee. Okay, I'm still with you. He ends up wrong-footed in dealing with some rising crime figures, and even with Argent himself. But the supernatural resolution of this internal conflict is somehow unsatisfying. The artwork for the "watcher" is somewhat ridiculous, and the resolution is a weak attempt to allude to Wagner's follow-ups to the original Grendel story. It's almost an advertisement for future Omnibuses (Omnibi?). Wagner's story is at its best as it gathers complexity. But there is always a tipping point with complexity where it moves from fascinating to either confusing or ridiculous. The whole premise of Behold the Devil is that it's an account of the pages missing from Hunter's journal. The supernatural element almost makes me wish they had never been found. But the human element of the story, the reporter, the police officer, even Rose himself and his sudden unexpected vulnerability, make it quite a good read.
The "baser nature" from Behold the Devil

For me, that is where Wagner has always been at his best: in his depiction of the smaller characters who get caught up in events and people that are decidedly larger than themselves. They rarely come out of it alive (think of the characters in Mage). Hamlet says "Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes/Between the pass and fell incensed points/Of mighty opposites" and Wagner is at his best in capturing these moments. The smaller characters have histories, dreams, quirks. And they get caught up in the fights of "mighty opposites," one of them being Grendel himself. You sympathize with them, you root for them, you feel the fear as they slowly realize what they have become caught up in, then you lament whatever terrible price they pay for their involvement. 

Danger and Vulnerability
Wagner's other strength is the art itself. Wagner's style is one that does not try to recreate reality (like an Alex Ross or a Todd Macfarlane); instead, it tries to capture emotion and convey an effect. The characters many times move in dramatic ways or have exaggerated expressions (sometimes with cartoony stars and spirals in the eyes). And there is just a pinch of circa 1985 Japanese Manga. It works, combining these elements into a style that seems to have both danger and vulnerability.

I have forgotten to mention one story, Sympathy from the Devil. It is a testament for tolerance of homosexuality, which I fully support. But I'd rather keep Grendel (and maybe my comics in general) out of it, preachiness doesn't play as well as the interestingly gray area that comes with rooting for an assassin.

I also have to take a second to lament what was not included. First off comes the imperfect but fun Batman/Grendel crossover. The first crossover involves Hunter Rose and was, for me, a great moment in crossovers that I thought I'd never see. It, too, showcased secondary characters who were complex and interesting.

The other unfortunate omission is the exclusion of Wagner's original Grendel comics, compiled in Grendel Archives. While I understand that Wagner considers these a "draft" and that it may represent something of an embarrassment for Wagner, I think they would make an interesting inclusion because they make sense of certain elements of the Grendel storyline. The whole (prematurely ended) storyline in the Archives is told through the frame of Hunter and Argent talking after their climactic rooftop battle. Hunter tells of his past; Argent tells of his own (in detail unheard of until the never-to-be-reprinted Silverback miniseries). And  half of the issues end with cliffhangers.

This may be the most revealing element of these old comic books. I always thought that the abduction of Stacy by a child pornographer was awkward and tacked into an otherwise fine story. But in Grendel's original storyline, Grendel comes to retrieve Stacy after his fight with Argent only to find she's...gone! It works as the end of a comic much better than it works as a seeming distraction in the middle of a longer story.

Stacy's being the one who discovers her poisoned Uncle, while fittingly traumatic in her whole tragic story, is another cliffhanger ending. While this one works better in the eventual retelling of the stories, it still is interesting to see it in its original context.

The Archives also give many stories in the Black, White, and Red storylines a precedent. Grendel killed the King, the master assassin, in the original series, so the short in BWR is a retelling (admittedly a better one). At the end of Red, White, and Black, we see Hunter's last words to Argent, which are all the more interesting when we know that it comes at the end of a lengthy discussion of their mutual history on that rooftop.

So, I love the Omnibus for what it is: a nice collection of the Hunter Rose stories. I wish it was even more inclusive, but I accept that it is not. Batman/Grendel is almost certainly tied up in rights red tape and Wagner has never really been comfortable with the original Grendel comics seeing the light of day. I highly recommend the Omnibus as an intro to the Grendel story, the fascinating story of a young man's rise and fall due to his misplaced loves. I'm glad it's out (and available on my iPad!) and it portends more collections of some of my favorite graphic reading experiences. Go out, grab the first Omnibus and look forward to the next one, the almost-as-iconic Christine Sparr story.

Potential Future Blog Entries: Titan, Star Trek the Animated Series, Descent, God's Playground, Eclipse

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Weeknight Game Session: Twilight Imperium III

Well, it finally happened. I've played That Game.

I have heard about TI3 so many times. And dodged playing it so many times.

Why? Was it the memories of our sixteen hour Throneworld session scarred into my brain? Was it my growing fear that 4X games have...well...too many X's? Was it my concern that it was more Trash than Ameritrash?

And that box is just so friggin' big!

Well, whatever worries I had, they were unfounded. I had a great time playing what I believe is probably a great game. I look forward to playing it again.

Let's start off with the circumstances with which I played it. I am a man who feels regrets, especially about the possibility of games unplayed. As some of you may know, years ago I was stranded in a sixteen hour Throneworld session that has scarred me for life. You may further know that one time, against my better judgment, I played Knizia's Lord of the Rings co-op fest and ended up spending one whole day of Pseudocon playing in what we still refer to as "co-opacon." It's so easy in a con situation for one regrettable gaming choice to fishtail into another then another and for you to spend the next few weeks bemoaning lost opportunities where you could have been playing 4 or 5 games that you enjoyed rather than the 1 or 2 that you merely endured.
Weekly Gaming Knight -
A Hero for Our Times?

Enter the Weekly Gaming Night (it's so awesome, maybe it should be a superhero - Weekly Gaming Knight - protector of your gaming interests).  What it allows me to do is to play a game with no real fear of missing out on something else. It's a great, low risk place to experiment with a game. I've had many games in mind for this, and my friends TJ and Kevin have given me great opportunities to play things and take gaming risks that I may not have taken outside of a WGN.

So when Kevin's son AJ, on his last multi-player gaming session before he returned to college, broke out his newly-purchased TI3, I was in. Not just in, but WAY in.

AJ had played a couple of times in the tournament at WBC and was able to effectively get Kevin and I up to speed quickly. So, this will be brief as I will not make any major judgments until I've played it more than once. But...

First off, I found that I like the selection of "offices" more than I had expected to. I remember Joe Steadman complaining about the change from TI2 to TI3, especially as it related to what he called the "Puerto Rico" element of the new version of the game. Needless to say, I was concerned.

But the offices had minimal similarities to Puerto Rico. Sure, there is a reward for choosing an office that has not been chosen in a while (a very nice reward, it seemed). There are also advantages to the primary ability of an office along with each office allowing all players to do something. The offices drive the action.

But, for whatever reason, they reminded me more of the action cards in Runewars. They really allowed the player who had chosen the office to perform the primary action, then everyone was able to perform the secondary action. I actually like the Runewars implementation better, where whether or not the secondary effect of the card takes place is more depending on a player's choices, rather than the choices of the other players.

I also appreciated the known nature of the planets. I am of the opinion that the 3X and 4X games have, well, too many X's. TI3 has eliminated one of these "X's", eXploration. And it works. You need to establish your economic and production bases early, and the unpredictability of the random encounters of a Stellar Conquest or, worse, a Space Empires, can leave a player crippled. In TI3, you have an idea of what you can do and what you can't and you can adjust your strategy accordingly.

I found the unique characteristics of the races well done. Each race had its unique ability but it also
the various branches of the "Tech Tree" allowed for each race to start off with a technology or two, further enhancing their unique advantages. (By the way, which "X" is the whole "Tech Tree" aspect of these games, maybe "eXacting research"? eXcellent education system"? hmm...)

One other unique aspect to the races was the inclusion of the flagship. Each flagship represented a kind of "super-ship," capable of the key abilities of any one other ship, but only counting one toward the stacking limit. This ship also had unique abilities. Through manipulation of each ship's statistics in addition to a unique "power," each ship became most effective in certain situations - maybe combat, maybe ferrying troops, maybe exploring and conquering worlds.

The game played fairly quickly as a three player. I can definitely see, with larger numbers, the game bogging down as you watch player after player eXplore and eXterminate. I do think that the offices effectively divide up each player's turn so that, at any one time, you're not waiting for a player to complete every aspect of his move.

All in all, I'm glad to cross this one off my "bucket list" and I look forward to playing it again. Will I play it at a con? Hmm... Remains to be seen. I still think the game could drag on. The end game is there for the taking in each game, but I've seen enough of these games bog down as each player "turtles" and avoids taking those VPs that will end the game. So, the verdict's out on that one. I'd probably play with players I know are fast and who already know the game. But I'll probably still confine this one to Weekly Gaming Night play sessions.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Gaming with Owen: War of the Ring

My son Owen and I have continued our series of plays, but this is the first time I've blogged about it. However, I hope to make "Gaming with Owen" a regular segment in this blog.

Right after WBC, Owen indicated to me that he wanted to play War of the Ring again. It was something of a revival of a game that Owen had cut his gaming teeth on. I was interested in teaching him Titan (because of the free-form nature of the WBC tournament, which would mean he could jump in at whatever time he pleased), but for some reason (maybe the 2nd edition "upgrade kit" I bought, maybe seeing others play it in open gaming), he was more interested in WotR. We decided to try out the new upgrade (but that meant no expansion! -- well, not yet). 

We also had to work this into a schedule involving a return to soccer and a return of the 9pm-11pm open gym sessions at his high school. Oh, and I'm back at work, too (for those of you not in the know, I'm a high school English teacher). So, while we were interested in playing right after we got back from WBC, we didn't actually end up playing until this past weekend.

We played two games of War of the Ring, one on Friday night and one on Saturday. Both were Shadow player wins, probably due to the inability to get the Fellowship up and going. When I defeated Owen as the Shadow player, it was a military victory, with orcs trundling out of Mount Gundabad to add Bree, The Shire (Shire...Baggins...) and the Grey Havens to the already taken lands in Gondor. When Owen won, it was due to Frodo succumbing to the One Ring's corruption at the foot of Mount Doom. Oh well. 

On my BGG profile, I have War of the Ring listed as my number two game (ASL is number one). I don't see it moving down any time soon. Our two plays were great and really highlighted the game's key positives for me.

First off, the action dice. I find dice in general problematic (look out, sounds like a blogging topic). They seem to add randomness and "spice" to games that would be decidedly uninteresting otherwise. Not so with War of the Ring. In general, you can use all of your action dice for something. The Shadow player may get a number of "Eye" results, crippling his armies, but this usually will slow down a Free Peoples player significantly in their quest to destroy the One Ring. The Free Peoples player may get too many military results, but the most militaristic result gives him the option of moving armies OR mustering more forces, which he is always in need of doing. Add to this the ability to add more dice and more actions to the game by meeting certain conditions and the adding of minions for the Shadow player and the adding of the more significant characters (Aragorn the Heir and Gandalf the White) for the Free People. 

Another factor limiting the wild randomness found in many other dice games is War of the Ring's inclusion of the Elven Rings. For each Elven Ring,  you can change the result of one action die. Carefully and strategically used, the Elven Rings can change disastrously bad rolls into tactical opportunities.

I think my favorite part of War of the Ring, though, is the two sided gameplay. The Free People play entirely differently than the Shadow. As Free People, you need to advance the Fellowship. As the Free People, you need to be careful with your troops because, if they die, they ain't comin' back. As the Shadow player, you need to be an offensive juggernaut, while protecting Sauron from those nasty Ents that can pop up.

The hand size limit is also an simple but interesting factor in the game. There is a "use it or lose it" feel to the card play many times (although, late in the game, I may come close to running out of cards). The cards can be used in two ways (as an event or as a combat card), and it can be a somewhat agonizing decision as to how to use them. Many times, the most useful combat card is also the most needed event in your hand (for instance, one for the Free People that allows you to force the redraw of a Hunt Tile, but also can be quite powerful if used appropriately in combat).

So the game plays out with you trying to:

1. Get the Fellowship to Mount Doom (or prevent that!).
2. Take Victory Point spaces while protecting your own.
3. Moving your nations up on the Political Track so that you can eventually build troops.
4. Manage your hand of cards (and manage your decks at some level - I hate to have the trek up Mt. Doom start without all of my special Hunt Tiles in play!).

The rules are so simple, yet I love the feel and play of the game. I've recently had something of a love affair with Middle Earth Quest, but Owen's insistence on playing War of the Ring recently has really reminded me of how superior a game it is.

Can't wait for the new expansion (Lords of Middle Earth). I would put it on my BGG Secret Santa list, but, come on, can I really wait that long??

Upcoming Topics: Titan, Dice and/or Randomness in games.