Saturday, May 23, 2015

Story versus Action

I was unable to post an entry last week. I apologise. It has been a crazy spring season. Although it's not technically summer yet, my 'summer season' began today, so I expect fewer obstacles for a while.

Today, I want to talk about an exchange I had on Tuesday. I was at the weekly meeting of the local board game club, when two young men walked into the building and said that they were hoping to get to attend, but would need to ensure that they had a ride home. I offered my services. So they stayed, and games were played by everyone present, and at the end of the night, I ferryed them to their residence.

As we were driving, we the conversation turned to role-playing games. They asked me if I had ever played Dungeons and Dragons. I informed them that yes, I had, but that I was not a fan of the game, because it emphasised hack-and-slash over storytelling. They attempted to defend their beloved game, saying the usual things like 'It's not the game that determines the story's structure, it's the GM,' and 'We've played in games that have great stories.'

Which is true, to an extent, but what they don't seem to notice is that the game's mechanics have a distinct effect on the types of stories being told. I've talked about this before, but only in passing.

Don't get me wrong. There's a place for hack-and-slash gaming. Some players prefer it, and despise elements such as characterisation and emotional realism getting in the way of vicarious violence. That's fine! If you prefer that style of play, then more power to you!

However, not all players are drawn to that style of gaming. I am an example; I've mentioned many times here that I am a storyteller player type. For me, the draw of RPGs is directly linked to the personalities of the characters, the interactions between them, their emotional involvement with each other and their environment, the events that happen between combats.

Combat is nice, and in most cases, essential to the game. But it's not the only thing that makes the game interesting. I don't care how many XP I gain by killing monsters.

And that's one area in which a game can have a significant impact on the types of campaigns being run: experience.

  • In D&D, you gain a certain amount of XP for each monster you defeat, and also for the treasure you collect. I haven't played 4th or 5th editions, so I don't know if that's changed, and I am aware that many groups use house rules to enable XP accrual for other activities as well, but that's the main source. And if that's the way that players earn XP, that's what they're going to focus on doing.
  • In the original World of Darkness (Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, Changeling, etc), you gain experience for a short list of possible criteria: did you learn something? Did you play in character? Did you roleplay in an entertaining way? Did you display heroism? Were you successful in your mission? Did you overcome challenges and obstacles in your story?
  • In the original Call of Cthulhu, there were no experience points at all. Instead, for each skill you used in the course of a game session, you rolled that skill, and if the roll fails, you gain one point in that skill.
These are just a couple of examples. There are many many more systems out there.

But it's not just the experience system that affects a game's tone. The mechanics have a lot to do with it as well. For example, in D&D, the vast majority of the rules (including spell casting) focus on things that you can do in combat. There are not a lot of rules for events such as seduction. Usually, when such occurrences do arise, they toss a single skill roll at it and consider it good.

GURPS has a lot more rules covering non-combat situations like seduction, sex appeal, performing arts, and so forth. The Storyteller System was perhaps the best of the mainstream games to tackle such non-standard scenarios.

All of these mechanics influence what gamers are capable of trying in a session, and resultantly, what they will try.

To sum up, let me describe a character I once tried to play. Some friends were playing D&D, and I was invited to join. I wanted to explore the limits of what was possible with this system, so I created a monk whose weapon proficiencies were all of a non-lethal variety, such as 'net' and 'lasso.' It was difficult to do, and although I only ended up playing in one session with this group, I had looked ahead to see what abilities I would pick up as I gained levels. Sadly, it soon became apparent that I would have quickly gained more weapon speciality slots than there were non-lethal weapons available to fill them.

In the end, the point I'm trying to make is that, while the GM and players do have a significant effect on the tone of the game being played, the game itself really focusses the sort of games that can be played using that system (and, more importantly, the stories being told). As I've said before, there's nothing wrong with playing whatever kind of game most appeals to you. To each his own. However, just be aware that different systems lend themselves to different play styles, and not all players will like specific games.

That's it for this week. I will see you again here in another week's time. Until then,

Game on!

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Board Game Review: Eclipse

Before I start the actual post, I wanted to mention that this is not a review of the interstellar conquest game by Asmodee. Instead, this is about the two-player abstract strategy game from Gigamic Games.

That said, this post would normally not be a board game review. But this past week has been so ruddy busy and stressful, I simply don't have the time or the energy to think of anything more in depth right now. So I'm going to take the easy route and review another board game.

There's a booth at Scarborough Faire in Waxahachie Texas that sells board games and card games. I spent some time looking at their wares, and decided to pick up a simple little wooden game called Eclipse. Now I will review it for you. Starting with the numbers:

Strategy: 6
Randomness: 0
Complexity: 0
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Pretty
Expected Length of Gameplay: 20 minutes

Eclipse is a very simple little strategy game. The board is a wooden disk, about 25 cm (10 inches), marked with holes laid out in a hexagonal grid. The pieces are small wooden spheres, most of them linked in pairs by chains. Each player's set consists of two pairs linked by short chains, and three pairs linked by slightly longer chains. In addition, there is one larger sphere that is not linked to any others. The linked pairs are called 'satellites' and the one larger unlinked sphere is called the 'comet.' The object is to immobilise your opponent's comet.
The game begins with each player's pieces arranged on his or her side of the board. Players take turns moving one piece. The comet may move to any empty adjacent space, and is allowed to cross the chains of your own satellites in doing so, but is not allowed to jump over the chains of opponent satellites. A satellite moves to any space that it can reach within the limit of the chain linking it to its partner satellite. If a chain is placed across another chain, as in the case of the pieces in the top centre of the photo above (the chain that links the satellites of the darker colour is on top of the chain linking the two of the lighter colour), then the satellites whose chain is on bottom cannot move until the pieces that have trapped them have moved.

If, at the end of your turn, your comet has no available legal moves, then your opponent wins the game.

That's it.

Like I said, it's a very simple game. There's not a lot of depth to it, but it's fun for a quick match. It's all strategy, with no randomness at all, so in a way, it's like a super-simplified game of chess. The addition of linked pairs of pieces makes for a nice touch, in my opinion, It changes it from a standard move-and-capture game like chess or checkers to a slightly more esoteric game in which the placement of your pieces changes the way you are able to move. You cannot just charge across the board, but must move two pieces in tandem, leap-frogging them over one another to make any progress.

It might not be enough of a game for serious strategy enthusiasts, but as a quickie between longer games, or if you don't have a lot of time, or especially for younger players who can't yet grasp the subtleties of grander games, it can be fun on occasion.

And that's it for this week. As always, I wish you a fond:

Game on!

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Board Game Review: Asphodel

Remember last week when I promised I would post a review of the game my friend has created and is playtesting? No? Well, I did. So now I will.

Asphodel is a strategic game of ghostly skirmishes. At the mouth of the river of the dead sits the spectral city of Asphodel, made up of the ghostly echoes of locations from the realm of the living. Places that may be many miles apart in the world of the Quick are jumbled together in the necropolis where we lay our scene. It is here that the various factions of the dead battle for the resources they need to move on and leave the afterlands for their eternal reward. You control one of these factions, and must manoeuvre your ghosts to strengthen your own position whilst undermining the efforts of the rival factions.

Welcome to the afterlife.

Although this game is still in prototype format, it works as well as any fully-produced game, so I will review it in the same manner. For starters, the ratings:

Strategy: 4
Randomness: 2
Complexity: 2
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Pretty (keep in mind this is a prototype I'm using; there's a very good chance that once the game is produced, this rating may increase to Ideal)
Expected Length of Gameplay: 45 minutes

The game consists of two types of components: cards and dice. There are five Faction Cards, each representing one of the factions:

  • The Drowned - These are the ghosts of people who died at sea, or in a river, or otherwise suffocated in liquid.
  • The Gremlins - This faction represents the spirits of those who died via machinery, such as industrial accidents, car crashes, a mishap in building some mechanical contraption, etc.
  • The Poltergeists - Members of this faction died as a result of violence, either as a victim or through the perpetration thereof.
  • The Mystics - Consumed by a thirst for knowledge, these ghosts met their demise in the constant search for enlightenment.
  • The Burned - Ghosts from this faction were killed by fire, electricity, or some other sort of energy which fatally chars the body.
The factions do not have inherent abilities or advantages, but each one is affected by most of the locations in different ways. Which brings us to the other type of card: Locations. Each of these cards represents a specific place within the city, from the Oil Well to the River to Downtown to The Strange Old House. Each Location has an effect, which can be used by any ghost in that Location. Some of the cards have unique effects, but most of them contain one of these basic functions:
  • Summon - A ghost on one of these locations can bring a banished ghost back into the city.
  • Resolve - Locations with this effect allow a ghost to increase his Resolve by one.
  • Extra Move - A player can use this effect to gain an extra movement on his turn.
  • Attack - When triggering combat after moving from this Location, a moving ghost does an amount of extra damage (listed on the card).
  • Defense - If a ghost on this Location is attacked, he reduces the amount of damage he suffers by the amount listed on the card.

Many of the cards grant these effects only to one or two specific factions. For example, The River allows the Gremlins and the Drowned to gain one Resolve. Other factions get no benefit (or detriment) from this Location.

In addition to the cards, the game contains dice. There are five of each colour, one set per faction. Dice are not rolled in this game, but instead, each die is a ghost. The factions have five ghosts apiece, and they are placed on the board such that the number on top represents the amount of Resolve the ghost currently possesses. Resolve is the energy of the dead, the strength and resilience of the ghosts. The higher the number showing, the stronger that ghost is (and the closer to Transcendence, the passing on from the afterlands into whatever awaits in the next stage).

To set up, you deal out the Locations to each player. Each player selects five of the locations from the ones he was dealt to place in the play area as part of the city of Asphodel. It is possible, due to this mechanic, that a faction may have no beneficial Locations in the city. To offset this, players are allowed to draught one location before the cards are shuffled and dealt.

Once the city is laid out, players then take turns placing their ghosts in the city. They cannot place a ghost in a Location that contains dice of a rival faction, and there are no more than two ghosts allowed in a single Location (unless the card says otherwise, as with the Mountains card in the photo above). The total Resolve of all a player's ghosts must be eighteen (that is, a player has a total of 18 pips showing on the tops of all his dice in play during the setup phase).

After setup, play proceeds clockwise. On your turn, you may perform either or both of these two actions:
  • Move - Move a single ghost into an orthogonally (that is, not diagonally) adjacent Location.
  • Activate Location - A ghost may make use of the effect listed on his current Location.
If, after both of these actions have been taken once (or passed), the active player has any ghosts on a Location occupied by ghosts from a rival faction, then combat occurs. All ghosts involved in combat inflict damage equal to their current Resolve to their opponents. So, for example, if the Mystics use their Move action to move a ghost with a current Resolve of 4 onto a Location which contains a ghost from the Burned, which currently has a resolve of 3, then the Mystic does four points of damage to the Burned, and the Burned does three points of damage to the Mystic. If a faction has more than one ghost in a combat, then their total damage is distributed to their rivals in whatever manner the rival sees fit. For example, imagine that the Poltergeist player moves a ghost with a resolve of 6 onto a Location occupied by two Gremlins, one with a Resolve of 4 and the other with a resolve of 5. The Poltergeist does six total points of collective damage to the Gremlins. The Gremlin player chooses how to distribute those points. He may choose to have both ghosts take three points of damage (reducing his ghosts to a 1 and a 2). Or he may assign four points to the ghost with 4 current Resolve, and the remaining 2 to the other one (which would banish the weaker ghost and leave the stronger ghost with a score of 3). In any case, the Gremlins do a total of nine points of damage to the Poltergeist, which is more than enough to banish it.

If the defender is on a Location that grants a bonus to defense, then the damage to each defending ghost is reduced by that amount (or, if the Location grants a negative, as in the case of The Strange Old House in the second photo above, it increases the amount of damage dealt to each ghost). If the attacker moved from a Location that grants a bonus to attack, it does that amount of extra damage (or, contrariwise, that much less damage if the location has a penalty to attack).

Once a ghost is reduced to zero (or fewer) points of Resolve, it is Banished. It is placed on the player's Faction Card, with a 1 showing on top of the die, and must remain there until a ghost still in the city is able to Summon it.

On the other hand, if a ghost would have his score raised to a 7 through the use of the Resolve effect of a Location (some other card effects can also accomplish this), then that ghost Transcends. It is moved to the player's Faction Card with a 6 showing on top.

Once any player has no ghosts left on the board, because they are all on his Faction Card as a result of being Banished, Transcending, or any combination of the two, players complete the current round so that all players have an equal number of turns. The player with the highest number of pips showing on all dice (including those on the Faction Card) is the winner. In the case of a tie, the player with the higher number of Transcended ghosts wins. If there's still a tie, the player with fewer Banished ghosts wins.

This game is very much like Dominant Species, in that there are a number of weighty decisions to be made on most turns. It's a very thought-intensive game, requiring a player to judge the relative benefits and merits of each action. The strategy is complex and shifting, and it's very easy to find that the comfortable lead that you had a few turns ago has slipped away. You are required to have a careful balance of strategies; you cannot win by pursuing a single course of action. Just as one example, it is guaranteed that a player who plays aggressively offensively, attacking at every opportunity, will lose the game, and it is equally assured that a player who takes no offensive actions at all will lose.

I love this game. It is a lot of fun, but is simple enough to be explained to new players in a relatively short amount of time, and it usually lasts a short enough duration that you can play several games in an evening (or switch off and play something else as well, if that's your preference). Everyone I've seen playtest it has also enjoyed it (and there was a lengthy discussion of the mechanics and strategy of the game, as well as suggestions for additions, expansion, etc, after one particularly intense game; this seemed to suggest very high interest from those players as well).

The game, created by John Trobare (whom I've mentioned here before), is likely to be going on Kickstarter relatively soon. Keep an eye out for news of that here! But until then, I hope you enjoyed this review, and as always, I wish you a fond

Game on!