Saturday, May 27, 2017

Board Game Review: Dead Last

This image is a triptych of three photos side by side. On the left is a photo of the Yellow player card, standing on the table by means of a plastic base. The image on the card is a woman holding two submachine guns. The middle image is a set of voting cards, one each for the Black, Blue, Teal, and Red players, as well as the yellow Ambush card, and a gold bar card showing a value of four. On the right is a detail of the game box, showing the title against a splatter of blood, with four coloured sections behind it. The green section in the upper left has a man in silhouette, and the red section on lower right has a woman holding a gun pointed towards the viewer. The blue and yellow sections can't really be seen very well.

I got to play Dead Last recently. This was exciting, because I'd been curious about it for some time. Here are my thoughts on it. Starting with the numbers. Of course.
Strategy and Randomness are rated from 0 to 6. A 0 means the rated aspect plays no part in determining the game's outcome; and a 6 means that it is the only factor that determines the game's outcome. Complexity is also rated from 0 to 6; a 0 means that it's so simple a six-year-old can play it, a 3 means any adult should have no trouble playing, and a 6 means that you'll need to refer to the rulebook frequently. Humour can be rated as 'None,' meaning the game is not meant to be funny, or it may have one or more of the following: Derivative (meaning the humour is based on an outside source, such as a game based on a comedy film), Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Worthless: The design is ugly, andmakes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take. Gamer Profile Ratings measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.

Strategy: 2
Randomness: 2
Complexity: 1
Humour: Inherent
Attractiveness: Average
Average Length of Game Play: 30 minutes
Gamer Profile Ratings:
  Strategy: Medium
  Conflict: High
  Social Manipulation: High
  Fantasy: Medium

An Overview of Dead Last

Players all stand to inherit a substantial sum of money, but only if everyone else is dead. Thus, they must engage in collusion, secret alliances, and backstabbing to knock each other off and be the last one alive.

Here's how it works: each player has a colour. They stand their cards, which indicates their player colours, in plastic bases which hold the cards upright in front of them. They then hold in their hand a set of voting cards. These consist of one card for each other player, as well as an 'ambush!' card.

For example, if you are playing Teal, you have the Teal character card standing in front of you, and hold in your hands one card for each other player in the game (in a nine-player game, for instance, you may have a Red, Grey, Purple, Yellow, Pink, Orange, Black, and Green card in your hand). In addition to these eight cards, you have one of your own colour (in this case, Teal) that says 'Ambush!'

The round begins with players discussing who to kill. Such discussion does not have to be overt; in fact, it's generally better if it's not. You are encouraged to use any covert means you can: furtive glances, winks and nods, flashing cards, subtly pointing, nudging under the table, and so forth.

Eventually, everyone chooses a card from their hand. The card you choose will indicate who you're trying to kill. Everyone reveals their cards simultaneously. Whichever colour has received the most votes is the Victim. If there is a tie for most votes, then everyone in that tie is a Victim.

Victims are killed, and are knocked out of the round. They place their character colour card down on the table to indicate that they are out for the remainder of the round. Any player who did not reveal a card corresponding to one of the Victims is also killed (for example, if Green was the Victim and you played a Teal card, you are killed).

However, if a Victim has played his 'Ambush!' card instead of voting for another player, then he is not killed. Instead, he gets to choose one of his attackers to be killed in his place. This card must be used wisely, though; if you play your 'Ambush!' card and are not the Victim, then you are killed anyway!

Voting continues in this manner until one of three conditions are met:
  1. All players are dead. In this case, all players reset their character colour cards and begin a new round of voting.
  2. All but one player are dead. In this case, the surviving player takes all four of the gold bar cards in the centre of the table (more on gold bars in a moment).
  3. All but two players are dead. The two surviving players go on to play a Final Showdown. Each player secretly chooses one of three Final Showdown cards. They then reveal them at the same time. Final Showdown cards include Share, Steal, and Grab One & Go.
    1. If both players reveal Share cards, they each get two gold bar cards.
    2. If one player reveals Share but the other reveals Steal, the player who has Steal gets all four bars.
    3. If both players reveal Steal, then neither gets any gold bar cards; instead, they are distributed amongst the other players.
    4. If both players reveal Grab One & Go, they each get one gold bar card.
    5. If one player reveals Grab One & Go, but the other reveals either Share or Steal, the player with Grab One & Go gets one gold bar card, and the other player gets the remaining three.

Winning

The Gold Bar cards each have a point value from 3 to 5 listed on them. There are always four in the centre of the table. If, at the end of any voting round, there are fewer than four cards, the supply is replenished. The first player to reach the target point value (which depends on the number of players) is the winner.

My Thoughts

This game is quick and bloody. It's also quite humorous; players are constantly bantering as they try to convince one another to target a certain player, or talk smack amongst each other. And when the cards are revealed, there is often much shouting of 'Ohh!' as players realise their plans have been thwarted by someone not going along with their plan.

I remember one round in particular in which I was about to choose a colour card from my hand, when I suddenly realised that I was feeling very suspicious about the other players. I can't say what it was that tipped me off, but I put the card back in my hand and chose the 'Ambush!' card instead. It turned out to be a good thing I did, too, as every other player had chosen my colour.

However, the rest of the game did not go so well for me. As I've mentioned in the past, I find social cues more difficult to read than most. This means that I am often at a loss as to how other players are trying to get me to vote. So many of those subtle social signals that make up the fabric of most people's daily lives go completely over my head. That made this game very hard for me to play well.

I know I wasn't the only one. One of the other players announced at one point that she was a high-functioning autistic, and she was suffering the same problem I was (though probably on a larger scale). 

So ultimately, this game is really going to appeal to people based on their existing social skills. Unlike with most games, which provide a framework for social interaction, Dead Last relies specifically on those social interactions.

Of course, that doesn't mean it's a bad game. Just that its appeal will be somewhat limited in the arena of players. So give it a try! Heck, even if you're socially inept as I am, give it a try anyway. You might find it works for you in a way that it did not for me. But whatever you decide to try, remember as always to 

Game on!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

'Realistic' Fantasy

Some time ago, I wrote an entry about players who get upset about rules in RPGs that don't accurately emulate real-world physics. In that entry, I pointed out the oxymoronic attitude of demanding that a rules system that mimics in excruciating detail realistic swordfighting but have no problem playing an elven wizard who shoots lightning bolts from his fingertips.

I stand by that attitude. If you're going to let your demand for realism impede your own ability to enjoy the game (let alone other people's), then why are you playing a fantasy game in the first place?

But this entry is not about that phenomenon. I'm not going to stress about the physics of the setting. Instead, I'm going to stress about the setting itself.

Don't get me wrong. I'd never let this issue get in the way of me or anyone else playing whatever game they want in whatever way they want. It's just something I tend to think about on occasion.

I was thinking about it today as a result of a map I was working on. I adapted this from one I found online several years ago. I think I used it in the GURPS Fantasy/Supers game I ran for a friend, but I could be wrong. Anyway, I've had it floating around for many years, and I'm still pleased with it for many reasons, not least of which is because of the aesthetic quality of the map itself. So I decided to make a digital version of it. Here it is:

A map of a medieval/fantasy village called Fos. A river runs from the upper left towards the centre, snakes around some trees, then bends towards the lower left corner where it runs off the page. On the left of the river are many buildings of various sizes, with several roads passing amongst them. Some of the buildings are colour coded to indicate the locations of smiths, taverns, woodworkers, and tailors; others are labelled (including the town hall, inn, mill, marketplace, and two temples of different fictional religions. Three bridges lead across the river, with the main road passing by some more roads and buildings on the right side of the river. Many trees are scattered throughout the village, as well as several clumps in the upper right corner, where a ridge provides some alteration in the terrain.

One of the things I most like about it is that the buildings and the layout of the town itself are based on what I know of early medieval towns.

For example, before the advent of automobiles, it was extremely uncommon to have streets laid out in grids. There weren't districts like modern cities have (such as residential areas and business areas), but instead, homes and shops are intermingled throughout. Especially in smaller villages such as this one, homes weren't multi-room affairs, but small shacks that consist of a single room with benches to serve both as seats and beds, with a place for a fire in the middle.

Here's what I mean: just outside of the city of York in northern England is a museum called Murton Park. A large section is a recreation of a small Viking village. Here are a few photos to give you an idea of what it looked like, based on archaeological and historical evidence:

The first photo, of a small group of people standing next to a long building with several smaller houses nearby, shows the longhouse, which served as a meeting place, for village business, festivals, and the like. The rest of the buildings were more like the houses on the right of that photo, and in the second photo (the one that shows several of the smaller houses with a narrow road wending between them). Each of these was the home of a single family, who shared the one room that made up the house. The last photo shows the interior of one such home; just a single room with benches to sit and sleep on, and a small fire pit in the centre.

This is, of course, just one basis for a fantasy town. Depending on your preferences, you might base it on more 'high medieval' designs, such as the layout of the German city of Marburg in the 12th Century. Or you might model your settings on how the Greek city of Aigio looked in the 6th Century.

The point is that many fantasy settings suffer from what Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá termed 'flinstonization:' the tendency to view the past through the filter of what we know in the present. But how much more interesting, how much more exotic, would these fantasy worlds (which are supposed to feel exotic; after all, they are 'fantasy' worlds) be if we changed up such simple things as how the towns are laid out, and why.

Anyway, that's what I was thinking. I may make more maps like this for people to use. Keep an eye out. Until then,

Game on!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Playing the Villains

A few months ago, I posted an entry about the various forms of heroism that can be encountered in mythology and literature. In it, I took a brief look at some of the different definitions of what it means to be a hero.

But what if we look at the other side of the proverbial coin? What about playing the villain?

This is not a new idea. In 1971, author John Gardner used one of the primary villains of the Beowulf saga as the protagonist of his own novel, reframing the story so that it was no longer a simple clear-cut case of a hero fighting against evil. A few years ago, Disney reworked their Sleeping Beauty film to tell the story from the point of view of the villain, whom they transformed from a malevolent being into a redeemable character motivated by revenge. Alan Moore's comic Watchmen was a deep look at the nature of the 'good vs evil' trope to examine the real world version of the phenomenon. Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles recasts the monsters of folklore into dynamic characters with motivations and goals of their own, not always driven purely out of malice. This concept was further explored in the first of the World of Darkness games: Vampire: The Masquerade, as well as most of the follow-up games. Then, in an additional twist, the antagonists of the primary character groups in those games were expanded as well, to give players the option to play characters who were seen as monsters by the monsters. For example, in Vampire, where the monsters become the protagonists, the Player's Guide to the Sabbat allowed players to take on the role of the antagonists (the hedonistic, often malevolent counter-sect to the 'good guy' sect of the Camarilla). This trend continued in Wraith: The Oblivion with the Spectres sourcebook, and in Changeling: The Dreaming with The Autumn People and The Shadow Court (examining two different version of 'the enemies' of the fae).

Even in the most basic of all roleplaying games, it is possible to play evil characters. Dungeons and Dragons allows players to choose one of three 'evil' alignments (Lawful Evil: those who hold 'demonic' agendas, but maintain respect for honour, reliability, and accept tradition and systems of authority; Chaotic Evil: those who not only have 'evil' goals but actively rebel against normal systems of societal interactions; and Neutral Evil: those who work towards 'evil' goals but do not feel compelled to either follow nor rebel against authority and social customs.

This concept of playing the 'villains' is parodied (or perhaps merely highlighted) in many works. The Order of the Stick #497 includes an evil adventuring party using the Plane Shift spell to enter and attack spirits in the Lawful Good afterlife. Earlier, in strip #194, they had the story's antagonists (who are very clearly of an Evil alignment) fighting off a series of Good-aligned monsters in a castle, inverting the usual trope of heroes wandering down corridors fighting Evil-aligned monsters.

The point is, this is neither new nor uncommon.

Now, of course, there are some stories (and, resultantly, some games) in which the concept of 'good vs evil' is eschewed for a more real-world paradigm, in which every person is the hero of his own story. This maps very well to the aforementioned Watchmen comic (less so to the film), as well as the original X-Men films (especially the first one, from 2000) in which Magneto and the other members of the Brotherhood of Mutants are, though unquestionably the antagonists of the story, working for a goal that is at least somewhat altruistic. By most normal definitions, this precludes the characters from being described as 'evil.' This situation is grounded in the reality of the comics on which the films were based; in the original Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars, when the Beyonder brings various superheroes and supervillains together to explore the concept of 'good vs evil,' he has no concept of what the comics normally treat as 'good' or 'evil,' and so must devise his own criteria. He settles on the definitions of 'fights for him/herself' for evil and 'fights for others' as good. Using these criteria, he places Magneto in the 'good' camp, because Magneto doesn't fight for himself, but for the protection of all mutants. This led to the character being considered one of the universe's superheroes for a while (even joining the X-Men for a time).

But regardless, there is certainly a justification for playing one of the 'bad guys.' To paraphrase the character of Lenny Nero from Strange Days, '...everyone needs to take a walk to the dark end of the street sometimes. It's what we are. Now, the risks are out of line. ...So you [write up a character and roll some dice], get what you need, almost as good as the real thing, and a lot safer.'

That's one of the things that is so enjoyable about RPGs. You get to be someone else for a while. Every now and then, it can be cathartic to slip into the persona of a villain and indulge your darker impulses. And for that, it can be fun on occasion to play the 'bad guys.'

Next week, we'll look at this topic a little more. In the meantime, go forth, play some games, and don't forget to

Game on!