Saturday, October 24, 2015

Board Game Review: The Lord of the Rings

Not surprisingly, many games have been created based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. However, my favourite is the co-operative board game by Reiner Knizia, in which players take on the roles of the hobbits in the fellowship and attempt to carry the One Ring to Mordor where they must drop it into the fires of Mt Doom. Very much like the story in the books, no? Perhaps that's part of why I like it so much!

Let's look at the numbers, shall we?

Strategy: 3
Randomness: 3
Complexity: 3
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Pretty
Average Length of Game Play: 1½ hours

The game consists of several smaller boards: one main activity board and two double-sided scenario boards. The main activity board shows the overall progress of the group on their journey from The Shire to Mordor. Each side of the scenario boards represents one of the main conflict areas from the story: Moria, Helm's Deep, Shelob's Lair, and Mordor. It looks something like this:

The larger of the two boards, labelled 'Moria,' is the first scenario board. The smaller board above it is the activity board. The activity board has two parts: the upper part shows a sort of cross-section view of Middle Earth, with the Shire on the left, the Misty Mountains in the middle, and Mordor on the right. A token representing the fellowship starts in the Shire and is moved to the next area as the players complete each section. The lower part is the darkness/lightness track. Each player starts with his hobbit at 0, on the left, in the pure light, untainted by darkness. Another token representing the Eye of Sauron starts on the right (for easy games, all the way to the right on 15, for moderate games, at 12, and for hard games, at 10). As the game progresses, the players may have to move their hobbits towards the darkness, or events may cause Sauron to move closer towards the light. If ever a hobbit lands on the same space as (or passes) Sauron on this track, that player has completely succumbed to the darkness, and is removed from the game (if that player is the current ringbearer, the game ends with victory for Sauron!).

But most of the activity in the game takes place on the scenario boards. Moria is the first of these (unless you're using the Friends and Foes expansion), and is shown in the picture above. Once this scenario is completed, you flip the board over to reveal the Helm's Deep scenario. After that expansion is complete, you grab the second scenario board and play out the Shelob's Lair scenario, then flip that over for the final scenario, Mordor.

Each scenario board has three activity tracks, except Mordor, which has four. One of these activity tracks is the primary track for that scenario; once the primary track is complete, the scenario ends. The tracks cover one of four activities: travelling (represented by the feet icon), hiding (represented by a tree), fighting (a sword and battle-axe icon), and friendship (two hands clasped in a handshake). The main activity track in Moria, Helm's Deep, and Shelob's Lair is fighting, whilst the main activity track in Mordor is travelling.

Also on the left side of each scenario board is a list of six events. Some of these events can be somewhat beneficial, if you've completed certain requirements; if you haven't, the events are bad. Those events that don't have a potential beneficial option are just plain bad. The lower you go on the list, the worse the events are.

On each player's turn, he draws an event tile from the shuffled stack of event tiles (the Sauron expansion gives you a draw bag that makes it easier to work with the event tiles). Roughly half of these tiles have one of the event icons listed above (tree, handshake, feet, or sword and axe); if you pull one of these, then you move the marker on that track (if it's for an activity that's not on the current scenario board, treat it as a wild card). The other half are bad things, including: moving the ringbearer one space towards the darkness; moving Sauron one space towards the light; forcing the group to discard cards, shields, or life tokens; or move the marker to the next event on the scenario board and follow the instructions listed there. If you draw one of these bad tiles, you must suffer its effects and then draw again. You keep drawing until you get an activity icon.

Once you've done this, you may play up to two cards from your hand. Most of these have one or more activity icon; some have a star icon, which is wild and may be used as any icon. Some cards are grey and some are white; you can't play the same colour card. You have to play one of each. Whichever icon you play, you move the marker along that track on the scenario board. Most spaces give you something; many give you a shield (shields are most often used to purchase one of Gandalf's spells, but have other uses as well). Others give you one of three life tokens: a heart, a sun, or a ring. These are necessary at the end of each scenario board; for each one you don't have, your hobbit moves a space closer to the darkness. Some spaces have other effects, like giving you special cards (like Shadowfax, which has two travel icons, or Glamdring, which gives you two fighting icons), allowing you to move your hobbit one step back towards the light, or requiring you to roll the die (which is usually a Bad Thing).

There are also some yellow cards, which do not count towards the 'one white and one grey' limit, and have unusual effects, like ignoring missing life tokens, or allowing one player to pass a card to another player. Also, the ringbearer may put on the ring to skip over one or more spaces on any of the activity tracks. He normally suffers some ill effect for doing so, determined by a roll of the Bad Things die.

So for each scenario, you want to balance the main activity track (which gets you out of there quickly) with the other activity tracks (which usually have most of the life tokens, as well as offering other benefits; also, certain events require one of the other activity tracks to be completed to avoid suffering unfortunate effects), but don't wait around too long; the longer you're in a scenario, the more bad tiles you will draw!

Once you complete a scenario board, you suffer the effects of missing life tokens, and whoever has the most ring icon tokens becomes the new ringbearer. Then you move on to the next scenario.

If you manage to make it to the end of the main activity track in Mordor, you must make a series of rolls to see if you can resist the siren call of the ring and throw it into the pit of Mt Doom. This requires careful planning, teamwork, and more than a small amount of luck. But fear not; each player has a special ability (depending on which hobbit he is playing): Frodo can use any white card as a wild card; Sam can ignore some of the bad effects of rolling the die; Merry can ignore a single missing life token in each scenario; Pippin is immune to the 'one white, one grey' rule, and may play any two cards on his turn; Fatty gets to draw extra cards at the end of each scenario (I know he wasn't part of the original fellowship; he's included in this game anyway!).

Like most co-operative board games, I like this one a lot. It's fun, but suspenseful, and requires a lot of thinking and group planning. Plus, it captures the essence of the novels, which is a bonus!

Anyway, I think that's enough for today. I'll see you here next week! Until then,

Game on!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

My Ranking of the Star Trek Films

I'm going to do something a little different this week. I spent a good chunk of this morning reading some articles about how other people rated the Star Trek films, and it got me thinking about how I would rank them.

I know it's not about gaming per se, but Star Trek is at least as nerdy as gaming, and besides, there have been more than one game (some of them roleplaying games, even) set in the Star Trek universe. Anyway, it's my blog, and I'll blog about what I want.

So here we go.

Before we get started, I want to give you a little background. I grew up on Star Trek. As a young boy, I loved looking up at the stars and thinking about the vast cosmos in which we lived. So naturally, any story set in outer space strongly appealed to me. I watched Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica. I was a fan of the original Star Wars trilogy (although, apparently unlike other young male fans, I wanted to be Luke Skywalker instead of Darth Vader) ­– the new trilogy destroyed my love of the series so thoroughly that I no longer count myself a Star Wars fan at all; after I saw Episode II, I took a long hard look at the entire franchise and realised that the only thing about it that had kept me a fan was nostalgia – remembering the joy I had once gotten as a child from the films, but no longer had.

But of all of these, Star Trek has always remained my favourite. Unlike other fictional universes based around space travel, it focussed more on exploration and lofty ideals than on action.

As a child, I would watch the reruns every chance I got. When the first episode of The Next Generation aired, my father let me stay up late to watch it, even though it was a school night. I didn't get to see many episodes when they first aired; the time slot was too late at night. But I've since seen them all. Many of them didn't appeal to me; I found them boring or too focussed on technology instead of ethical issues or exploration. My favourite episodes are the ones that deal with fascinating moral dilemmas, like 'The Pegasus,' 'Who Watches the Watchers,' or  'The Measure of a Man.'

I also tend to enjoy those episodes that serve as character study (such as 'Lower Decks') or dealt with particularly interesting physics or temporal issues (like 'Cause and Effect'). But as a whole, I much preferred the original series, in large part because the characters were more compelling. Especially the three main characters (Kirk, Spock, and McCoy), who had a fascinating dynamic and played well off of each other. My favourite original series episode was 'The Tholian Web,' because I got to see Spock in command of the Enterprise. Another favourite was 'For the World Is Hollow, and I Have Touched the Sky,' in which not only are some fascinating social issues examined, but we get to see Dr. McCoy take centre stage.

I was never very fond of Deep Space Nine; the characters didn't appeal to me, and the stories weren't all that interesting. I did, at the suggestion of a friend, watch the entirety of Voyager, which was good, though not as good as the original series or TNG. There were some really good episodes (my favourite being 'Prototype,' which analysed some hefty social issues), but also some really hokey ones (in particular, I found the episodes dealing with spiritual topics, like 'Barge of the Dead,' to be most annoying, as they violate the Star Trek universe's lack of supernatural phenomena).

Anyway, that's a really lengthy prelude, but I think it's important to understand why I rank the films the way that I do. And with that out of the way, let's get to it!

Needless to say, there will be spoilers ahead.

Did you catch that? Because it's really super important. Let me say it again, just to be sure: if you have not seen the films I'm describing below, you will encounter spoilers ahead. One more time, for emphasis:

SPOILERS AHEAD.

12. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

This movie blows chunks. Ok, sure, several original series episodes dealt with the question of god or gods, but finding 'god' at the centre of the galaxy (to say nothing of the tired trope of 'there's an extreme radiation barrier at the edge/centre of the galaxy) was a little obnoxious. Not to mention that this film tried too hard to recapture the success of Star Trek IV with its lighthearted-humour, only to fail miserably. The worst moment was when Scotty hit his head immediately after saying that he knew the ship like the back of his hand, only to be captured upon knocking himself unconscious. If he had hit his head and continued on unimpeded, it would have been funny. Instead, it was lame.

The characters didn't have their usual charm, the story was lame, the humour fell flat, and the very premise was odious. I watched this film once in the cinema, and was so disgusted that I have not seen it since.

11. Star Trek: Insurrection

This movie was boring. As the Next Generation crew did not appeal to me like the original series crew had, it was harder for me care about what happened to them. But in this film, I just could not bring myself to care about what was happening. Especially since the script didn't seem to have been written by anyone who knew anything about the characters. For example, the scene where Troi and Crusher discuss the effects of rejuvenation on their boobs was appallingly out of place.

10. Star Trek: Nemesis

As much as this film was confusing, incoherent, and nonsensical, it didn't bore me as much as Insurrection did. Data's death was a serious anticlimax, and the story didn't make much sense. But at least I wasn't bored watching it. I don't really know what else to say about it. I've watched both this one and Insurrection at least twice (the second time, fairly recently, primarily to remind myself what happens in the films, as they were apparently not sufficiently memorable. Turns out I wasn't failing to remember anything important).

9. Star Trek: The Motion Picture

This film was actually, in some ways, the most boring of the Trek films. However, it had one thing going for it that Insurrection and Nemesis do not: it had the original cast. Getting to see Kirk et al helps to make up, at least in a small way, for the lack of affection I feel when I'm watching Picard and his crew. Especially getting to see the kolihnar ritual on Vulcan; that was a nice touch. And besides, the idea of a man-made probe returning to earth to seek out his creator is at least a moderately interesting concept, even if they did drag it out for twice as long as was really necessary and try too hard to achieve Star Wars-style special effects and a 2001: A Space Odyssey-style narrative feel.

An interesting side note, however: as I was fact checking this article, I found a video on youtube that condenses this film down into 10 minutes. It was surprisingly improved. I think that 10 minutes is probably a little too condensed; if someone were to edit this down into 45 to 50 minutes, I think it would probably be a really good film that was worth watching.

8. Star Trek: Generations

This movie had potential. The attempt to connect the crews from the original Enterprise and the Enterprise D was a noble effort. Unfortunately, there were too many weak characters and shaky premises. I wonder if, had the film had a stronger script and didn't rely on so many of the obviously contrived deus ex machina elements necessary to bring Kirk and Picard together, the film would have been a better success. But from the first scene, with the slowly rotating champagne bottle, the pace was set a little too slowly, and it remained that way through most of the rest of the film. The bizarre scene on the 17th century sailing vessel in the Enterprise D's holodeck didn't really do much to add to the feel either.

7. Star Trek: First Contact

A lot of Trek fans really like this film. Quite frankly, I don't understand why. Sure, it's got the Borg, but I don't seem to find them as intriguing as most other Trek fans do. Sure, it's got a lot of action, but I don't watch Star Trek for the action. I'm here for character, exploration, and idealism. All of that is lacking from First Contact. They made the character of Zefram Cochrane an unlikeable jerk, they robbed Dr Crusher (probably my favourite character from TNG) of screen time, they focussed too heavily on the Borg Queen, and they spent too much time packing in action. About the only saving grace is watching Picard's inner turmoil regarding his experience with the Borg. I'd much rather watch numbers II through IV, VI, or one of the Abrams reboots.

6. Star Trek: Into Darkness

This may get me lynched by other Trek fans, but I don't care. Sure, it's a rehash of previous material. Sure, it tries to cheat its way into success by copying scenes from Wrath of Khan. Sure, it kills Kirk in a rather gimpy manner, only to play take-backsies by bringing him back to life. In fact, pretty much everything that happens after the restart-the-engines scene (including that scene itself) could be deleted from the film and the overall quality would skyrocket. But everything up until that point is still, in my opinion, good fun. I liked the character interaction between Kirk and Spock, as well as the development of the relationship between Spock and Uhura. The loose cannon aspect of Kirk's character in the opening scene is a nice touch. And sure, McCoy didn't get nearly enough screen time or character development, and sure, there's not much in the way of exploration, and only a hint of idealism, but I can't help it. For the majority of this film's duration, it's just fun. I can't help but get swept up in it all. I can't put it any lower on my list than this.

5. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock 

This is, admittedly, not a great movie. But as was pointed out in the cracked.com article that ranks the Trek films, Search for Spock is sort of the middle chapter of an unofficial trilogy, and that pulls it up a bit in my rankings as well. The characterisation is a bit weak, the villain a little pointless, and (I'll admit it) the lack of Kirstie Alley in the role of Saavik make this film a little harder to watch that it really should be. But the quest to rescue Spock after the climax of the previous film, the emotionally charged destruction of the Enterprise, and the resolution in which Spock is restored all serve to secure this film's place in the top 5 for me.

4. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

'The one with the whales.' That's how the Dork Spouse always refers to this one, as she is not as much of a Trekkie as I am and can't keep the movies straight by their numbers. And even worse, she always gets it wrong. I say, 'Star Trek 3 (or whatever number),' and she asks, 'Is that the one with the whales?' The one time I said, 'Star Trek 4,' and then looked at her expectantly, she said, 'That's not the one with the whales, right?'

Sigh.

Anyway, I hate to say it, but because of the comedic aspect of this film, it was perhaps the most popular with non-trekkies before the Abrams reboot, and I kind of resent that a little bit. Still, for all of that, it's a good film, with a strong story, good characterisation, and the humour is enjoyable. It's earned its spot at number 4.

3. Star Trek (the J.J. Abrams reboot)

There's not much idealism or exploration in this one. There is quite a lot of character development though. And, so help me, it is just fun. I'll be honest; I'm really disappointed that Abrams has abandoned Star Trek for Star Wars; I was really hoping that, now that he's got the rehash out of the way in Into Darkness, he'd be able to follow up with another really good reboot film that returns to the essence of what Star Trek is really all about: exploration, character development, and idealism that doesn't shy away from tackling some tough social and ethical issues.

2. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Not everyone likes this one as much as I do. I don't know why. The character development was superb, it talks about some very meaty social and ethical issues, there's some level of exploration (maybe not always exploring space, but still...), and there's even a decent amount of action and a sprinkling of comedy. What's not to love? Seriously, director Nicholas Meyer brings with him the exact same magic that made Wrath of Khan so wonderful. The only thing, in my opinion, that keeps this from equalling or exceeding Khan is the fact that we don't have the extreme tension resulting from the interplay of two old rivals who are very nearly evenly matched. This is the only film other than the reboots and Khan that I will be excited to watch multiple times.

And finally, the grand prize winner, in the top spot...

Drum roll please...

1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Yeah, no surprise here.

Anyway. I think that's plenty for this week. I'll see you back here next time. Until then,

Game on!

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Social Bias in Role Playing Games

As I get older, I learn more about how modern society tends to have implicit social biases. Not everyone in a society holds these biases, and those that do don't always have the same biases. These can take the form of racism, sexism, anti-immigrant attitudes, homophobia, transphobia, religious bigotry, political bigotry, and many other forms besides.

It may seem silly to be talking about this on a gaming blog, but I believe that games can help shape attitudes, as well as vice versa. I remember noticing many years ago that almost all of the characters that were created for games in which I played were Caucasian, and the majority of them were male. Even before I'd noticed that, it had occurred to me that I didn't always have to play a character of the same gender as myself. I've played many female characters; some of these I count amongst my most enjoyable gaming experiences. Michelle, the Silent Strider Theurge from Werewolf: The Apocalypse, was one such character; another was Sarah Storm, the cyberpunk piskie from Changeling: The Dreaming. I've also tried to break out of my own ethnicity as well; Michelle was of Egyptian descent, and I recall at least one character that I created who was African American (I never actually got to play that character, sadly).

Even as a GM, I can try to bring in under-represented minorities as NPCs. The session I ran last night involved a Native American NPC. The additional NPCs who will be making appearances later on in this story include a Kenyan, a Qechua, an Arabian, an African American, and a Japanese. One of these is also homosexual.

These are small details, and the players may well not even realise that they're there, but in my opinion, every little helps.

For that matter, I remember reading a short essay by Beth Kinderman on her old geocities page 'Revenge of the Gamer Chick' (which, thankfully, appears to have been archived). I found the paragraph regarding her Noghri Jedi character to be especially disheartening. The relevant portion of this paragraph is as follows:

I once participated in a Star Wars campaign where my character was a female, a Jedi, and a Noghri.  The Noghri are a race of small, lizard-like beings that are not terribly attractive to humans to begin with, and to make it even worse, I took the flaw Albino.  By all rights and purposes, this shouldn't have been much of a problem—the Noghri are rare enough that the average human in the Star Wars universe hasn't ever seen one, much less have the ability to apply a standard of beauty to them.  But my poor little Noghri encountered more hostility from players and characters alike than any other character of mine—even Lupe the three-eyed werewolf!  The other characters made fun of her appearance constantly (fellow Jedi included... way to roleplay their compassion for all life-forms, people), and she had a devil of a time getting any respect from NPCs.  I wouldn't have had a problem with a little friendly ribbing if it weren't for the fact that one of the male players had actually taken Unattractive Appearance as a flaw for his human male PC, and never suffered a social stigma or had the slightest problem because of it.  And after several sessions, I was even asked to make another character that would "fit in better with the rest of the PCs."  (I refused.)

This worries me. I understand that this is supposed to be a game, and we're all supposed to be having fun. It's not really the place to be tackling serious social issues. But I firmly believe that these little details add up. If we can't try to make a difference in these little ways, what does that really say about us? Besides, having a minority character in the gaming group shouldn't detract from the ability of that group to complete their mission, or from the ability of the players to enjoy the game. So why not add a little variety to the party?

I, for one, will continue to push the envelope of what I can play. I will also encourage others to do the same. I hope that you will too. Until next week,

Game on!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Board Game Review: Sushi Go

Hello and welcome to another week of the Game Dork's rantings! It's time for another board game review, and this time around, we're going to do a card game called Sushi Go, by Gamewright Games. It's a fun little card game with an interesting mechanic! The object is to score the most points by picking the tastiest (and therefore most valuable) items from the conveyer belt at a sushi restaurant.

Let's start things off right:

Strategy: 2
Randomness: 4
Complexity: 2
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Pretty
Average Length of Game Play: 30 minutes

Players start off with a hand of cards depicting various kinds of sushi, or other items associated with sushi (such as chopsticks or wasabi). The hand size depends on the number of players. Each player chooses a single card to play, and they all play that card simultaneously, so you don't know what anyone else is going to play until you've already played your own. Then (here comes my favourite part), each player passes his entire hand to the next player. This means that you won't know what cards you'll have available to play until the next round. This is important, because most of the cards rely on multiple-card combinations!

Let me show you what I mean:



Nigiri is the most straightforward of the cards. Each nigiri card is worth 1 to 3 points (egg nigiri is 1, salmon nigiri is 2, and squid nigiri is 3). However, if you play a wasabi card, it's not worth any points on its own, but it does triple the point value of the next nigiri card you play! So it can be worth a lot of points, but playing it can be risky, because not only do you not have any way to be sure that there will be any nigiri cards in the next hand that is passed to you (or any subsequent hands; the nigiri doesn't have to be played immediately after the wasabi, it merely applies to the next nigiri card you play), but now that you have a wasabi card showing on the table in front of you, the other players will know that they don't want to pass you a hand containing a nigiri card (especially if that card is a squid nigiri!).

Dumpling is the only other card that is worth points by itself. However, the more dumpling cards you have, the more they're worth! A lone dumpling card is worth 1 point. Two dumpling cards together are worth 3 points. Three of them give you 6 points, whilst four and five are worth 10 and 15 points respectively. So they can be worth a lot if you have enough of them, but it can sometimes be hard to get a lot of them, especially if the other players notice what you're doing and start playing the dumpling cards before they get to you so that you can't have any!

Maki rolls are worth points to whoever has the most of them (and it's not the player with the most cards, but the most maki rolls; you may notice in the photo above that the maki roll cards—the red ones on the lower left—have one, two, or three maki roll symbols in the top. At the end of each round, players count the number of these symbols that they have in total). The player with the most gets six points, whilst the player with the second most gets three points.

Sashimi and tempura are worth points if you have combinations of them. Every two tempura cards you have are worth 5 points together, whilst you get 10 points for every three sashimi cards you have.

Chopsticks cards aren't worth any points by themselves, but if you have a chopsticks card on the table, you can swap it out for another card in your hand at any time. It's a placeholder that essentially allows you to play two cards at once on a later turn. This can be very useful if you've got a wasabi card and a squid nigiri card in the same hand and you want to play both of them!

The pudding cards are the most complicated. They are also not worth any points by themselves. Like maki rolls, they give points to the player with the most of them, but they're not scored at the end of each round, like maki rolls are. They're scored at the end of the game. The game consists of three rounds; players are dealt hands, and play through all the cards in those hands, three times, scoring the cards they have in play at the end of each of those rounds. Then, at the end of the game, the player with the most pudding cards gets six points, whilst the player with the fewest pudding cards loses six points! So you don't want to skip these cards, because even if you don't get any points from them, not having any will guarantee a big loss!

This game is super fun, quick and easy. I always enjoy it when we play. It's fun to weigh your options; do I play the wasabi and hope that I get a good nigiri card later on? Or do I play it safe and stick with a dumpling that will guarantee me at least one point? On the other hand, the player next to me already has two sashimi cards; do I want to pass him this hand with the sashimi card still in it and give him ten points? Or do I play it to prevent him from getting those points even though it means I won't get any points either?

Anyway, that's it for now. Tune in next time, when I talk about something completely different! Until then,

Game on!