Saturday, June 24, 2017

My Personal History of Roleplaying Games

I spent some time chatting with a friend recently. In the course of the conversation, I ended up describing to her how I got into gaming, and which games I've played, in rough order from earliest to most recent.

It occurs to me that this may be of interest to others, if only in part because my path into gaming was so very different from that of most other gamers. So I think I will describe it to you, my faithful readers.

It's all my father's fault, really. When I was a teenager (15 or 16, as I recall), my father brought home a number of Marvel comic books. He was an executive in the regional offices for Hardee's, the fast food restaurant, before it was purchased by Carl's Jr. At the time, Hardee's was considering doing a merchandising promo with some Marvel characters, and so he brought home a handful of issues of various titles for research. There was an Iron Man, a couple of different Spider-Man titles, an Incredible Hulk, and so forth. But the two that caught my attention were the Uncanny X-Men #258 and Wolverine #23.

The X-Men comic featured Wolverine very prominently, and between the two books, I found myself strongly drawn to the character. He was, perhaps, the first example of an anti-hero that I had really encountered, and paved the way for me to be drawn to such anti-hero types in the future. I became quite fond of Wolverine, and began collecting his comic. One day, in one of the issues, I saw an advertisement for the 'Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game Book #3: Night of the Wolverine.' According to the advert, this product allowed you to take on the role of Wolverine as you attempted to thwart the machinations of one of the many enemies of the X-Men.

I was intrigued.

I went down to the local comics and games shop and bought a copy. I rushed home, eager to explore this adventure. Although the book claimed that you didn't need to know the rules to the TSR Marvel Super Heroes roleplaying game in order to play, there was much I did not understand in this volume. I was able to work out some of the details through guesswork, but I never felt comfortable enough to try the game myself.

One day, I happened to mention this dilemma to my friend Blayke. He informed me that he owned a copy of the Marvel Super Heroes core rulebook. He loaned it to me, and I read it. Then, one day, on our lunch break at the high school we both attended, we went across the street to the house of a friend of his, where he GMed the first rpg session in which I ever participated.

After a couple of sessions, I decided I needed to at least try the granddaddy of all rpgs: Dungeons and Dragons. I bought the 'red box,' and brought it home where I began to read the rulebook. I was disappointed to discover that I did not find the game appealing. There were two major complaints I recall having with it: the different mechanics that it had for each different type of roll, and the armour class system.

I found it to be very frustrating that there was a different type of roll for each kind of action. You had to roll one kind of die to attack, and you wanted to roll high, but you had a different kind of die for saving throws, and you wanted to roll low, and a still different kind of die for special abilities (such as the thief's 'find traps' ability), and so on.

Also, the fact that the type of armour a character wears has no effect on the amount of damage that character takes also bothered me. The idea that 'armour class is the difficulty to hit and do damage' never sat well with me. Putting on plate armour doesn't make me harder to hit than if I were wearing leather armour. In fact, it would make me easier to hit, as I'm now a slightly larger target, and slower from the weight of the steel! Furthermore, if I were wearing plate armour, and an opponent struck me with, say, a sword, I wouldn't take as much damage as if I had been hit with the same sword whilst wearing leather armour. But according to the D&D rules, it doesn't matter what type of armour you are wearing: you'd suffer the same amount of damage.

Anyway. After that, I met John. He was a serious gamer, and had tried many different games systems in his life. We became good friends, and he introduced me to many different rpgs: Tales from the Floating Vagabond, Shadowrun, Paranoia, Call of Cthulhu, and Rifts. I read the rulebook for TORG, although I never got a chance to actually play a game of it.

Before long, John and I ended up as roommates. This occurred shortly after he had discovered GURPS. We played that game often, and I became enamoured of the system. It was more realistic than other games I had played, and the system of advantages and disadvantages allowed for a more detailed personality in the characters than I had seen in other games. I began purchasing supplements, and was soon very familiar with the workings of the system.

I continued to game, and played with many more people, experiencing (at least briefly) games such as Albedo, The Whispering VaultCyberpunk, West End Games' Star Wars, Blue Planet, and Toon. But in 1993, my main gaming group began to play Vampire: the Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse. Before long, those were the primary games we played. We'd still dabble in other settings, but for several years, the vast majority of our games were in one of the original World of Darkness settings.

I had at least a taste of other games after that. I've played at least one game of each of  Adventure!, Little Fears, Hero System, and 7th Sea. But after 1995, my favourite game by far was (as readers of this blog will already know) Changeling: the Dreaming. After 2003, it was almost the only thing I played. I tried my hand at the D20 Star Wars, because I was desperate and I had met a couple of people who were playing it. But apart from that, until 2012, when I discovered Fiasco, and then last year, when I was introduced to the FATE system via the Dresden Files Roleplaying Game, Changeling and (to a lesser extent) GURPS were the only games I played.

I know there's not really much of a point to this, aside from explaining why I'm familiar with so many different roleplaying games (and so many of them being so unknown to so many other gamers). But I hope at least that you found it interesting. If not, I'm sorry. Try again next week, when I will talk about something else. Until then,

Game on!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Board Game Review: Wrong Chemistry

For those of you who follow me on PinkFae gaming, you may have noticed that the site is having issues. The owner appears to be having issues in her personal life. Which is totally understandable; I've been there. But this just happens to come at a time when I am supposed to be writing reviews for a couple of Mage Company's games. I had wanted to wait for the PinkFae site to be up and running again, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen for some time. So as much as I am disappointed to have to do this on the Game Dork blog instead of the PinkFae one, I don't feel I can wait any longer. So today, for my entry on The Game Dork's Gaming Corner, I am going to review the copy of Wrong Chemistry that was very kindly sent to me by Mage Company.

Here is my rating system for those of you that need it:

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: 4
Complexity: 1
Humour: Implicit
Attractiveness: Pretty
Average Length of Game Play: 45 minutes
Gamer Profile Ratings:
  Strategy: Medium
  Conflict: Medium
  Social Manipulation: Low
  Fantasy: Medium

An Overview of Wrong Chemistry

The game components. The box, with its cover art of a stereotypical mad scientist holding a large glowing sphere that contains the schematic image of an atom (the circle representing the nucleus and three oval orbits of the electrons around it), sits next to the tokens, tiles, and cards. In the centre is the main playing area: six yellow hexagonal tokens surrounding a blue hexagonal token with the 'Wrong Chemistry' title on it. The yellow tiles each have a large round wooden token on them, alternating black and white. A few extra tokens sit nearby, with the draw pile of the card deck next to them. On the other side of the tiles are two blue cards, the 'Restartium' and 'Extramovium' cards. In the front are nine cards from the deck, arranged in three groups. The first group has three sample green cards, worth one point each. The next group has three purplish-red cards, each worth two points. The last group of three contains red cards with three points each.

Players have taken on the role of mad scientists, trying to devise various chemical elements in their laboratory. They score points (called 'ideas' in this game) for each element they create. They do this by recreating patterns shown on the cards in their hand. They have four energy points to spend each turn to move the tokens and tiles in their attempt to duplicate the patterns on their cards. The game ends once the deck of cards is exhausted, and whoever has the most 'ideas' is the winner.

A Turn in Wrong Chemistry

Players (two to four) have a hand of four cards. On a player's turn, he has four energy points to spend. An energy point allows a player to:
  • Take a token off of one of the tiles.
  • Place a token on an empty tile.
  • Move a token from one tile to any empty tile.
  • Move an empty yellow tile anywhere they like, so long as it is adjacent to at least one other tile (either yellow or blue). The blue tile, being the centre of the atom, may not be moved. Doing so would cause a nuclear explosion! At least, that's what the rules say...
  • Discard a card from your hand.
Once you have duplicated the pattern on one of your cards, you may play that card on the table in front of you. Although the pattern does not have to match the orientation on your card (in other words, you can rotate your card freely to attempt to duplicate the pattern), it must match it in all other respects (empty tiles on your card must be empty on the board as well; the layout of the tiles must be the same, etc). Here is an example of a completed pattern:

The card 'teen' next to the tiles and tokens laid out in the pattern displayed on the card. 'Teen' (a play on the element 'tin') is a two point card, indicated by the number 2 printed inside a light bulb symbol in the upper left and lower right corners. The pattern shown on the card indicates that there are two yellow tiles in a row extending from the upper left side of the blue central tile and two more in a row coming out from the upper right side. Both rows have a white token on the tile adjacent to the blue central tile, and a black token on the further tile. There is also an empty yellow tile on the lower right side of the blue central tile, and the sixth yellow tile is on the bottom side of the blue central tile, this one with a white token on it. The art on the card shows the two mad scientist characters that appear on every card are dressed in high school cheerleader outfits, holding pompons. In the upper right and lower left corners is another cheerleader with pompons, standing behind a white rectangle which shows the atomic number and periodic element symbol for tin (50, Sn), the real-world element that this card is parodying.

Playing a card in this manner does not end your turn; if you have energy points remaining, you can continue moving tokens and tiles. Thus it it possible to score more than one card in a turn. I've heard of people scoring three cards in a single turn.

In addition to the actions listed above, there are two blue cards on the table which may be used by any player. The first is the 'Restartium' card. This card may be used only once per turn; you should rotate the card 90┬║ to indicate that you have used it this turn, and return it to its original position at the end of your turn so that it is available for the next player. It does still cost an energy point to use this card! However, using this card resets the tiles and tokens to their starting position. Thus, if the tiles and tokens are in a highly scattered state as a result of previous players' actions, such that it would be easier to start over than to try to work towards a pattern in your hand, you can just reset the board and start fresh.

The second blue card is 'Extramovium.' This card can be used multiple times per turn, and does not require an energy point. However, you do have to discard one of the cards that you have already scored to use it. For each card so discarded, you gain three additional energy points on this turn. This card allows you to score the higher-point cards which have more complex patterns requiring more than four energy points to create. In practise, of course, you'll want to score a lot of one-point cards early in the game to serve as fodder for later in the game when you want to get those hard-to-get three point cards.

At the end of your turn, you must draw until you have four cards in your hand again. Reset the 'Restartium' card if you used it this turn. Then inform the next player that it is his turn.

More About the Cards

The deck contains 54 cards, each of which corresponds to one of the 103 elements on the current periodical table. The expansion (Expand your Lab!, which I will review at some point in the future) contains the rest. But for the base game, it uses only 54 of the better known elements. Each card is a pun on the element it represents (such as the element Germanium, represented by the card Germanyum, illustrated with the German flag and other symbols of Germany). However, each card is also denoted with the correct atomic number and elemental symbol for the corresponding element (in the case of Germanyum: 32 and Ge). The rule book even contains an accurate periodic table, which is colour-coded to indicate which elements are represented in the game. In this way, Wrong Chemistry might be used as an educational tool to help students learn the periodic table.

Additionally, there are two mad scientist characters that appear on each card, engaged in some activity in keeping with the pun of the card's name. For example, on the card that corresponds to Uranium (92, U), the title is Urineium, and one of the characters is sitting on the toilet holding a giant cotton swab with a drop of yellow liquid hanging from one end, with the other character holding a roll of toilet paper.

Ending the Game

The game does not end when the draw pile is empty, but when a player is required to draw and cannot fully replenish his hand back to four cards. At this time, the game ends immediately. The player with the most 'ideas' (that is, points for scored cards that he has played in front of him) is the winner. If there is a tie, the winner is the one who has the most points in a straight of consecutive atomic numbers. So, for example, if two players are tied with 13 points, and one player has scored Manganiece (Manganese: 25, Mn), Iron (Iron: 26, Fe), and Kobold (Cobalt: 27, Co), he would have a straight of three cards, each worth one point, for a three point streak, whilst the other player had only two cards with consecutive numbers, say, Baron (Boron: 5, B) and Carbone (Carbon: 6, C), each also one point, then the player with the three-card streak would be declared the winner.

Final Thoughts on Wrong Chemistry

This is not a serious game by any means. There's not a whole lot of strategy; it is, after all, difficult to know what the board is going to look like when your turn comes around again. Not knowing what cards your opponents have makes it difficult to intentionally arrange the board to make it harder on the next player. In fact, I have seen it backfire when someone attempts to do so. One player will say, 'I have two energy points left, but I can't score any of the cards in my hand, so I'll move a couple of tokens and/or tiles to make the board harder for the next player to score,' only to have the next player say, 'Thanks! You just made it easier to score this three point card!'

But for a simple, light game (especially one that's suitable for younger players – though certainly not for little kids), or as something for a break between heavier games, Wrong Chemistry certainly delivers. In fact, I'd say the only flaw this game has is that many players take it too seriously. It seems to me that Wrong Chemistry is intended to be a lighthearted romp for a quick laugh. But several of the players with whom I've played have taken it very seriously. They'll sit there on their turn, painstakingly analysing every card in their hand, trying to tease out some strategy for scoring the maximum number of points from one turn. There's certainly a place for that; I don't think you should just randomly move tiles and tokens around hoping to randomly get some points. You do need to consider a planned approach to your actions. But when one player takes ten minutes or more for his turn, much of the enjoyment of the game is lost.

That said, I certainly do not regret owning this game. In fact, a very good friend liked this game so much that he bought a copy for himself after playing his first game with me.

So, I will see you back here next week for another exciting adventure in games! Until then, have fun, and remember to

Game on!

Saturday, June 10, 2017

More Resources for Gamers

You may remember that a few months ago, I posted an article that was essentially a series of links to websites that would be of use to both players and GMs in creating both worlds and characters. It included a twitter feed that generated a random map once per hour, a website with story idea generators as well as name and race generators, another website with generators for many different kinds of names, a third website with generators for personalities and other things, and a random city map generator.

I have a few additions to make to this list of resources. However, whereas the links in my previous article all had to do with preparing for games, the two I have today are more for setting the mood in the game itself.


The first one is Crysknife007, a YouTube channel that describes itself as 'Ambient Geek Sleep Aids.' At this moment, it has over 600 videos, most of them being ambient engine noise from various spacecraft from nearly any sci-fi film or television show you can imagine. These videos come in varying lengths, from one to twelve hours, enabling you to sleep all night long to the ambient noise of the engines from the original Battlestar Galactica. And not just engine noise; there are videos of the ambient sounds from Decker's apartment in Blade Runner, the ambient noise from the Star Trek Holodeck, or even the ambient sounds of the railgun from Quake 3.

Now, of course, if you're as big a game dork as I am, you're probably thinking, 'This would make excellent background mood settings for my sci-fi games!' And I agree. In fact, the GURPS Firefly game I was running was going to use the 'Firefly: Serenity Ambient Engine Sound' as a mood enhancer, before the group collapsed.

There's much more than just sci-fi and video game ambient sounds. Many of the more recent videos are simply generated noise of various types (there's one that's a combination of pink noise, brown noise, and blue noise), as well as ambient sleep sounds created from the actual electromagnetic emissions produced by various bodies in our solar system (planets and moons). I'm sure creative GMs can find use for these sounds!

Tabletop Audio

If you're looking for more evocative audio, you might head over to Tabletop Audio. This website is a collection of ten-minute audio files designed to help evoke the feeling of various settings that you might encounter in a roleplaying game. There aren't as many tracks here as Crysknife007 has, and they're not as long, but they have much more than just sci-fi audio. At this moment, they have audio for wild west settings, horror, traditional fantasy, modern urban soundscapes, early twentieth century settings, generic natural soundscapes, and much much more.

These come in a variety of formats: some are purely ambient noise (such as the track '747 Interior'), others are purely music (like 'Protean Fields,' which aims to evoke a Lovecraftian feel). Some are a balance of music and ambiance ('Super Hero' being one such example). Others are an unbalanced mix: either Music + Minimal Ambiance (for instance, 'Dark City,' for dark modern action/suspense games) or Ambiance + Minimal Music (like 1940's Office).

The Tabletop Audio Logo: The head, neck, and wings of a dragon spreading above the text 'Tabletop Audio: Original, 10 minute ambiences and music for your games and stories,' on a background of stars seen through a pale blue-green nebula.

The website is entirely advertisement free, and is powered by donations (they even have a Patreon), so you won't be bothered by annoying pop-ups or other intrusions.

I do hope that you find both of these resources to be useful in making your games even more immersive and enjoyable. Have fun playing with these new tools, and be sure to come back next week. Until then,

Game on!

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Downside of the Golden Age

As I've mentioned many times, we are in the midst of a Golden Age of board games. Lots of amazing new games are being published every month. If you go down to your local Board Game Cafe (assuming you're lucky enough to have one in your town, and if you aren't, maybe you should try to start one up!), they'll likely have hundreds, if not thousands, of different titles from which to choose. And that's not counting the ones they don't happen to have at that particular location, to say nothing of the out-of-print titles that are hard to find!

And that is an incredible thing.

To have so many options... to have hundreds of games you can play. You can seriously play a different game every day for a year. Two years, if you have access to a good supply, and maybe even more if you're in a place with a vibrant gaming community!

Which is both a good thing and a bad thing (a 'bood' thing, to coin a portmanteau as was suggested by a typo that I just made). Yes, it's amazing to have so many games to play. What a wonderful opportunity, if you don't normally like games, to keep trying new ones until you find a game that you do like! But then what happens if you find such a game, and you want to play it again? Will the other people at your gaming table be willing to play that one a second (or third, or fourth, or seventy-sixth) time?

That's a problem I'm actually facing myself lately. There are so many awesome games out there, and so many of my gamer friends are always so excited to try new ones, or to introduce me to ones that they've just discovered, that I find I seldom get to play the same game twice.

In my normal Friday night game group, for example, which I've been attending now for some three years or so, I can think of only three games that I've played more than once (those being the Asmodee Eclipse, Between Two Cities, and Terra Mystica). Every other game we've played, even if someone says, 'Hey, that's awesome! I want to play it again!' has been preempted in favour of something that we've never played before ('Here's a new game that I just bought! I think you'll like it! Let's try it out!').

In some ways, this is my own fault. In making that resolution to play 80 of the top 100 games, I've set myself up to need to play a whole bunch of games once only. But even so, there's another aspect to this phenomenon: the inability to improve one's skills at a certain game (or type of game).

What I mean by this is: I suck at economic development games. Apparently, the way my brain is wired, I'm just not very good at forging a strong foundation in the early stages of a game that will provide a strong power base later in the game.

I refer here specifically to my experiences with Terra Mystica and Scythe. I've played Terra Mystica twice; the first time, I was so focused on learning the rules that I did incredibly poorly in terms of strategy and any attempts to win the game. The second time I played, I felt more confident in my understanding of the rules, and was able to pay more attention to the gameplay itself. I still lost very badly. By the time we'd moved into the endgame, I felt as though everyone had managed to build up a solid economic foundation for themselves, such that they had built almost all of their buildings, and were pumping out resources with nothing else they needed to do except dominate their opponents.

Except for me.

I was still struggling to build my third building. There were so many buildings I hadn't yet completed. Despite my best attempts to lay a solid foundation in the early stages of the game, my decisions simply had not borne fruit.

This led into my experience with Scythe: as I was learning the rules, I realised that it was going to be a similar type of game to Terra Mystica. Since my previous plan (lay a solid foundation early to enable a broad range of options later) had failed so spectacularly in Terra Mystica, I decided to instead decide on a specific goal (I chose to focus on getting victory stars in military might, combat victory, and enlistment goals) and only acquire economic power if it would directly feed into that goal.

The same thing happened. Just as I felt I had finally set myself up to spend the next few turns achieving those goals and was ready to make a rush for the goal line (so to speak), the other players dropped all of their victory stars at once and ended the game. Just like with Terra Mystica before, I felt like everyone else was finishing off their victory just as I was starting to finally develop a foundation.

I'm getting off topic here. My point is, I'm clearly going to need to play these games many many times (preferably with someone explaining to me how the strategy and economics of these games work as the game goes on so I can learn the dynamics of such games) before I'll ever be any good at them at all.

And like I've said before, it's not about winning. For me, games are usually a structure enabling me to enjoy social interaction more than they are a competition. But if I'm going to lose, I at least want to feel like I had a chance to win. With economic development games like Scythe and Terra Mystica, I always come away feeling like I am just an incompetent moron with no chance at all of ever winning. That sort of feeling doesn't really let me enjoy spending time with my friends.

But because we are in a Golden Age, and there are so many thousands of titles already existing and so many more being created every day, I will probably never have a chance to play either of those games again. The people I play with will almost always want to play a new game that we've never played before.

So that's a downside of being in the Golden Age.