Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Talisman - One Silly Good Time

Last week we found ourselves in the Hobby Bunker needing a two person game. Rich stepped up and bought a copy of Talisman, 4th edition, so we could have something to play. What a great moment! I would have done the same but I had previously ordered Infinity and my impulse-buy points were all gone. Rich had played first edition back in the day and we settled down to see how to newest version held up.

Talisman is without doubt one old school game. The play takes place through moving a token around a rectangular board and seeing what happens when you land on a given space- pretty much the same as Monopoly. Each player starts the game by selecting a character. I always felt like the token in Monopoly should give you some special ability- the car should move faster or the dog could, well, that's where that plan falls apart. In Talisman your token does give you special abilities. Take the Prophetess and you can influence random events. Take the thief and you can steal from other players. Do you want to fight monsters? Then take a troll or warrior. There are more than a dozen characters to play and they have a variety of powers and advantages.

Once the players have chosen their characters they set up on the board. Each player rolls a die and may move that many spaces to the left or right. The player is likely to have to draw an adventure card on the space they land on and deal with whatever the card says. It may give the players a magical item, a faithful follower, or reveal some monster to fight. If you succeed at the challenge the card delivers you may improve your strength or spell casting ability. If you fail you may lose a "life," of which you have a finite number. After you resolve your adventure card the play moves on to the next player.

The goal of Talisman is to improve you character through these adventures until you can make your way to the center of the board and collect the Crown of Command. At this point the other players must catch the first soon or lose the game.

Rich and I enjoyed our game. I was pretty entertained as I acquired a unicorn and maiden follower for my Prophetess and then a gnome, which didn't make as much sense but was still pretty cool. Then I was turned into a toad and had to start from scratch but that was pretty entertaining as well. Through the coarse of the game we discovered hidden markets and sorcerers who would sell us armor and spells so over time we had locations we could return to to acquire more cool gear. In general we enjoyed the game's light tone and the character development that occurred as we moved along. I don't think i spent much time considering strategy, I just sat back and enjoyed the ride.

Talisman has received a bit of criticism for being very random. The adventure cards can deliver you a bag of gold or a powerful dragon. You may be forced to land on spaces that are unhelpful or even dangerous to your character. And you may struggle to get to an important space and consistently fail to roll the number required to get there. I think it's simplest to say that if a random game bugs you, just look elsewhere. If you find chance tolerable or even exciting then this is less of an issue.

Talisman is also very old school in that some of the characters may be stronger than others. It may also leave some players struggling to catch up to luckier, more powerful opponents. I think we see the same thing with games like Monopoly and Life. For this reason Talisman is absolutely not recommended for younger players who may find losing or perceived unfairness upsetting.

I enjoyed my game and I would happily play again. I see Talisman as a light and low key event rather than a competition. It absolutely has silly elements. There's a slight role playing quality in terms of watching your character develop and for me that's a bonus. The game itself is colorful and well put together. For people who are looking for an amusing way to spend some time this is a great game.

Talisman is available at most game stores, Rich got his at Hobby Bunker in Malden.

Pros: Light, cheery, full of surprises, role playing element

Cons: random nature of game means many many surprises

Beyond the Basics: You're not likely to become an "ace" Talisman player but there are some expansions to add a bit of variety

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Blue Moon - Great Game but Too Blue?

Blue Moon was released years ago. At the time it seemed like a small scale card game and in the days prior to marriage and babies I was looking for epic games that required hours to finish and involved lots of small sharp lead figures. Now I look for games that can be played quickly and don't have components that are messy or dangerous. The new world order, combined with a big sale at Fantasy Flight Games, promoted me to try Blue Moon.

I'm happy to say that this is a very fun game with a lot of depth and strategy to it. The gist of play is pretty simple. Each player has a deck of cards specific to a particular alien race. The basic box gives you two decks and you can buy addition decks separately. Through the game you draw cards from your deck into you hand and then play them on the table. The cards have a points value and if one player can't match or beat the points that the other player puts down they lose that round. One analogy might be the game of "War" if you had a hand of cards to choose from rather than just picking a card from the top of the deck.

Now given that I've disliked the game of War for forty years, why is Blue Moon any fun at all? The Blue Moon decks include a good number of cards with special abilities or effects. Further, each deck has some high value cards and some mediocre ones. Finally, each deck has cards with special abilities that can be played alongside your regular cards. Each deck has different special abilities so your game is going to change based on the alien race you're playing. The result is that a player has to decide when to use better cards, when to retreat before a stronger opponent's hand, and when to use the various boosters and support cards. Further, your game will vary based on which alien race you're playing.

We have played Blue Moon a number of times now and we've been struck by several good qualities. The simplicity of the rules is a real bonus. In addition the entire game may last only thirty minutes. The alien races are all very interesting and colorful and I like the idea that each one is going to play a little differently. I'm looking forward to seeing which is my favorite and developing some tricks and strategies specific to that race.

Simplicity, speed of play, and colorful components are all good things. Sadly, Blue Moon has two drawbacks. For one it may be difficult to find and you may have to order it from Fantasy Flight Games or Funagain. The second issue is a bit trickier. The artwork on the cards seems to feature very fit people wearing scraps of cloth or feathers. I'm not sure it's any more revealing than the outfits worn for beach volleyball, but do you necessarily want to buy your kids a game featuring scantily clad beach volleyball players, space aliens, or a mix of the two? The art has been a source of dismay for many parents and prospective owners of the Blue Moon game would be well advised to think about the issue before buying.

I think Blue Moon combines simplicity of play with room for strategic depth. If the game art doesn't offend then this is a great addition to the game library of older players and adults.

Pros: simple, strategic, fast, colorful art

Cons: Blue Moon has blue art

Beyond the Basics: lots of room to improve, master the various races and decks

Nice Sale at Funagain Games

I do recommend buying your games locally but Oscar Wilde says that nothing suits a long list of virtues better than an occasional vice. Therefore feel entitled to head on over to for a really impressive holiday game sale. They're letting popular and highly respected games like Dominion, Power Grid, and Carcassonne go at insane discounts. Don't let it slip by.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Holiday Gift Guide 2009

I've been musing over the various blog entries and feeling like some summary or assessment is in order. Given that both Gift Trap and Wings of War received positive reviews, is one better than the other? What's been truly exciting in 2009?

There's no difficulty in deciding the Most Exciting Game of 2009. Race for the Galaxy is overflowing with great qualities. It's simple, its components are beautiful, it has terrific replay value and you can improve your play with each game. There are two supplements that are decent values and add to the experience but you can play happily with just the basic box set. Race for the Galaxy is a beautifully designed game and has been the source of a great deal of fun across 2009.

Dominion: Intrigue (D:I) comes in as a runner up for most exciting game. D:I has an elegant set of simple rules, great replay value, and gets better with each play. I do feel that it's a little too abstract to really excite me. In Race for the Galaxy you do have a sense that you're building a galactic civilization. With D:I the play is more along the lines of "how can I combine these cards in a clever way?" On the other hand, players who love abstract games may prefer D:I for just that reason.

On the other side of the coin we see Arkham Horror. This product boasts amazing production values and is not at all abstract. You march your adventurer across a board, collect equipment, and fight monsters. My wife prefers games with stories and for this reason Arkham Horror is a favorite of hers. Arkham Horror won't take top honors because while it is fun I don't feel it's as elegant a design as Race of D:I.

In terms of Best Game for Younger Players we're faced with a bit of a dilemma. Can you make a reasonable argument for spending fifty dollars on a eurogame for young children? I have my doubts and that's why I give the nod to Gamewright's Sleeping Queens. More of an activity than a game per se, it remains fun to play and pretty to look at. Plus it delivers good times at a very reasonable price.

In terms of the younger folks I'd have to mention Max, the game in which you get tiny forest animals past a mean old cat. Max is cooperative and simple but boasts a very modest production quality. Sadly I like my games glamorous like Sleeping Queens.

Blokus is a nice game for younger players. It's priced reasonably and has good replay value. I don't see it as being quite as exciting as the Queens though, so it remains runner up.

There are certain games that are Great Games for Larger Groups. Tops on this list is Bang! This game has been a consistent crowd pleaser with every group I've introduced it to. bang! is simple, fast, fun, and involves the entire group at almost all times. Unlike many of these games it's also priced affordably.

In terms of Miniature and Tactical Games the indisputable champion is Wings of War. This game simulates air combat in World War 1 with fair realism but uses simple rules and allows quick play. In addition the miniature aircraft are just stunning. For very little money you can lay down a dogfight of a half dozen colorful aircraft on your kitchen table. Wings of War is a fabulous marriage of great production value and beautiful game design.

I was very impressed with Federation Commander, the Amarillo Design Bureau's update of the venerable Starfleet Battles rules. Federation Commander does a great job of simulating Star Trek starship combat and keeps the rules to a minimum. Still, the "minimum" at this level remains more than many players will be comfortable with and the rules could be written more clearly. This game is ideal for the older player who really, really wants to fight Klingons. Y'all know who you are.

Finally we're left with Role Playing Game of the Year. I remain disappointed that the rpg publishers seem disinclined to produce introductory level games. One exception is the admirable The Zantabulous Zorcerer of Zo. This game delivers simple rules, a fun setting, good accessibility to younger players, and accompanies it with generous background material. It's a model for what an introductory game should be like, not to mention a game that more experienced players will enjoy as well.

I found Starblazer Adventures to be another game well suited to beginners. The rules are comprehensive and the product is an awesome value in terms of the content it delivers. The fact that it exists without a clear game universe (unlike, say, the Conan, Star Wars, or Ghostbusters role playing games) may create a slight challenge for the person running the game unless they are pretty familiar with science fiction concepts. Happily, there seem to be plenty of moms and dads who know the difference between Tardis and Star Destroyer and so for them Starblazer Adventures is a good option.

The majority of these games are available in local stores like Pandemonium Books, Hit or Miss Games in Lexington, or Complete Strategist in Boston. If not immediately available they can be easily ordered. I say keep the business local, most of these store owners care deeply about the hobby and are great resources if you have further questions.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Ghost Stories- Cooperative Supernatural Action

Ghost Stories is a cooperative game based on the movie genre of Chinese ghost fighting. For much of the American public this is about as obscure as you're going to get and that's a shame because the films and the game have a lot to offer.

Readers looking for some background in this entertaining field should consider movies like Chinese Ghost Story or Mr. Vampire. In a general sense these stories usually feature a cast of exorcists who use taoism to fight and banish various supernatural beings. This may involve the use of martial arts or certain magical substances- special grains of rice, magical scrolls, or special bells play a role. The movies assume that you understand why sticky rice repels the undead or why placing a scroll on a vampire's forehead will cause it to stand frozen in place. If you choose to just accept everything you see at face value rather than wonder "what's the deal with the rice?" then these films are outrageously fun.

In the game of Ghost Stories the players take on the roles of taoist ghost fighters. Your job is to protect a village from a relentless flood of ghosts and eventually defeat their leader, Wu-Feng. Each player has their own turn. During a given turn the ghosts are first given a chance to appear on the board and then may haunt part of the village. In the second half of the turn the play may move their figure around the village and attempt to banish one or more ghosts. If the players can banish all the ghosts and their leader then they win the game. In several cases players will have to act together to succeed, sharing gear or teaming up.

Ghost Stories adds drama and strategy through a number of details. There are a wide variety of ghosts which may appear and each has some special ability. Some ghosts are easier to banish than others and some may require the players to band together or share equipment. There are four ghost fighters in the game to choose from and each has a different set of special abilities as well. Finally, the evil spirit Wu-Feng will have different abilities in each game. The game delivers good replay value through the random assortment of foes and abilities to deal with.

In addition to replay value Ghost Stories has a number of other positive qualities. Firstly- banishing ghosts is fun. Working together is fun. Working together to banish ghosts is thus especially fun. For a certain group of players working together and using kung fu and magic to banish ghosts is just crazily outrageous fun.

Multiple reviewers have also agreed that Ghost Stories is hard. So hard to win that players are better off concentrating on the fun factor of banishing as many ghosts as possible rather than winning per se. This is hard to assess- we want to win in general but if we know we're not likely to then is it just as fun to play hard and see how far you get, only to try harder next time? For a lot of players that's a good time but for the player who wants to win on the first try Ghost Stories will be a frustrating time.

Speaking of frustrating, it appears as though the rulebook has been translated through several languages. I feel pretty experienced in rules reading but these were tough. After a few read-throughs I did get the ideas and it's not like the game is very complex, it's just that the rules are poorly explained. Further, there are plenty of items ("tao dice," "Qi tokens") whose purposes are not immediately apparent from their names. Be patient, their use is actually fairly simple once explained.

The second caveat to Ghost Stories is in its choice of language. Players are told they are banishing ghosts back to hell. The ghosts themselves have fairly spooky names like "flesh devourer" or "hope killer." This may be troubling for some parents who find that type of verbiage inappropriate for their homes. As an aside, the same warning extends to the films- they have sequences that are hysterical but also some spooky or sexual scenes- please preview before having your teens watch them.

I personally liked Ghost Stories. I like cooperative games and this one really has the players working together to accomplish their goal. The genre is one I'm fond of and the game really captures the spooky and silly flavour of it. Most parents have a sense of whether their children will say "fighting Chinese ghosts and zombies using magic? Count me in!" For those families this is a great product.

Pros: cooperative, exciting, great subject matter

Cons: terrible rulebook, spooky language may not be for everyone, esoteric subject matter

Beyond the Basics: good replay value and several supplements.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Dominion: Intrigue - Quick to Learn and Fun

I purchased a copy of bestselling Dominion:Intrigue (D:I) a while ago and had a chance to play it this weekend. While sales doesn't always guarantee quality my group found this to be a fun game with basically three rules. It's going to the top of my list of recommended games although to read about it doesn't do the play justice.

D:I is a sequel to the bestselling game Dominion. You don't need a copy of Dominion to play it but having one gives you more play options. Confusingly there is another sequel called Dominion:Seaside which does require a copy of Dominion to play. All the games have a similar structure. Players get ten cards and draw five randomly into their hand. Some cards may give the player money to spend, some may be "played" and cause some effect to occur. In a player's turn they may play one card in front of them and buy one card from an assortment in the center of the table. After playing and buying the player takes all cards (played, purchased, and any left in the hand) and places them in a discard pile. When you run through your original pile of ten cards you take all the cards from the discard pile, shuffle them, and start over by drawing five.

Given the relatively simple sequence of draw, play, buy, and discard what makes this game shine? The key to the Dominion series is in the cards which you purchase. In any game you have ten different types of cards to buy. these are called Kingdom Cards. Each Kingdom Card has some special power. One might give you more money to spend, one might allow you to buy another thing. Or one might let you play another card. In addition a player may buy more money cards. Once purchased these cards go into your discard pile and have to wait until the discard pile is reshuffled and dealt out. Imagine you buy Kingdom Card that gives you one extra gold coin. When that ends up in your hand later on you can play it and have more money to spend. Now imagine you use that money to buy a card that lets you buy two things instead of one. If you play that card later you could buy twice. Finally, imagine some cards allow you to play additional cards in the same turn. Suddenly you lay down a sequence from you hand which allows you to buy more stuff, play extra cards, and even draw more cards from your deck and play them as well. Discovering and playing out these sequences of cards is surprisingly fun and satisfying.

How fun and satisfying is it, really? We played with two people who were infrequent gamers. In the first few turns we purchased things fairly randomly just to see how the game would play. Ten minutes in and the turns were going fast and smooth and each of us was having a great time stringing together Kingdom Cards to create wilder and wilder combinations. With the possible exception of Bang! I don't think I've ever seen a game that people caught on to as quickly and had so much fun at.

Just to tie things up, the goal of the game is to purchase cards with victory point values. Victory point cards cost money and the cards with more points cost more to buy. In the end the players tally up their victory points cards and the person with the most points wins.

D:I is a simple game with the potential for complex strategy. Players must decide which cards to buy with the understanding that they can't choose when the card will pop up in their hand. Further, players must decide whether to spend on money cards, cards with victory points, or Kingdom Cards. You need more money to afford better Kingdom Cards. You can't win unless you buy victory point cards. There are lots of fun choices to make and strategies to try.

Another nice quality about D:I is that it's fast. Experienced players could probably finish a game in less than an hour. Of course if you finish quickly you'll want to play again. And again...

I highly recommend D:I for families with older children or teens. The rules are simple, the various cards are colorful, and the game is fast. There are a good number of Kingdom Cards in the basic set and you only use about half in any given game. This means that each game may play out differently as you combine different cards in new ways. Finally, the game has a collectible card game feel to it which may make it easier for kids who play Pokemon and Magic to grasp.

I got my copy of Dominion:Intrigue at Your Move Games in Davis Square. I've seen copies at Hobby Bunker, Pandemonium, and Hit and Miss in Lexington. This is really a classic-to-be and a great starter game.

Pros: simple, deep strategy, huge replay value

Cons: looks really confusing and dull until you play it

Beyond the Basics: awesome replay value in the single box, plus supplements!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Adventurers - Light Exploration Game

We have a very mixed opinion of buried treasure. In one hand it seems to exist purely for the purposes of being heroically unearthed and spirited away. On the other hand we expect that anyone who is even slightly too greedy in treasure hunting is going to get their due at the hands of some trap or hidden creature. The characters who finish the story basking on a beach in Aruba seem to know exactly how many rubies are appropriate to snatch from the Tomb of Mysteries. The publishers of The Adventurers work with this dynamic to create an adventure game in which players struggle to balance greed and caution. The winner of this game is the person who knows when to stop pilfering and start running.

The board for The Adventurers depicts a Mayan tomb replete with treasure chambers, winding corridors, rickety bridges and rushing rivers. The players compete to grab treasure from various parts of the tomb and then escape in one piece. Each player begins the game by choosing an adventuring identity and token. The tokens are nicely sculpted miniatures just begging for paint. Each adventurer will have some special ability that may prove helpful in the tomb- swimming for example. The players put their adventurer figures at the entrance of the temple and then take turns moving and grabbing treasure.

The play mechanics of The Adventurers are pretty simple. Each turns players roll five dice and try and roll high. For each high roll they get one "action." The definition of "high" depends on the amount of treasure you are carrying. The more treasure, the higher the roll required. Players use actions to move, decode traps, pick locks, and grab more loot. The key ability listed there is probably "move." In each turn a boulder moves along the main corridor and will eventually seal off the tomb entrance. In addition a room full of treasure also features walls which slowly close together. Through the game players will use their actions to seek out and grab treasure from various locations in the tomb. As the players merrily run amuck they must keep an eye on which exits remain viable or they run the risk getting trapped. Then they must escape over the rope bridge or through the underground stream. As before, these tasks are harder when carrying lots of goodies.

The Adventurers strikes me as a pleasing but ultimately light game. The players have the choice of different characters to play and each gives a different ability. There is some randomness to the traps and obstacles. Still, repeated plays of the game aren't likely to reveal some subtle depths of strategy. At the same time you could say the same about games like Sleeping Queens and Mousetrap. The Adventurers may be a board game which delivers the fun in terms of simply experiencing it, rather than through thought and strategy.

In that context The Adventurers has a lot to offer as a fun but light diversion. It's fun to gather treasure, it's fun to try and decide whether to risk carrying off just one more bag of gold, it's fun to see friends and family succeed or fall off rickety bridges. In games of course, not real life! One slight drawback to the game as a family event is that the illustrations are pretty sexist. The male adventurers are all sorts of humorous caricatures, the females all have skimpy outfits and gigantic, barely restrained breasts. Did we just travel back to 1975? I imagine playing this with my daughter and just grimace- which floozy would you like to play? Well, creative parents who care can come up with some creative solution.

Aside from the freakish retro sexism The Adventurers is a simple and light adventure game. Not a classic for the ages but pretty entertaining and a decent way to wile away a cold winter's day.

Pros: simple, easily grasped game dynamic

Cons: fire that illustrator!

Beyond the Basics: if they like it a lot then go buy Labyrinth Lord, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (not 4th edition thank you) or Castles and Crusades.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

I'm Friends With the Cool Kids At Last

Are you curious to know what famous role playing game authors are up to? Many of them have Facebook pages! At last some purpose for this otherwise silly internet thing. Look for pages for Green Ronin Publishing, the man who brings us Grognardia, and the mastermind behind Elf Lair Games among others.

Legend of the Five Rings card game

The thrilling surprise that is Race for the Galaxy led me to look into other games that feature a multitude of cards. One of those was the Game of Thrones card game. Another is the Legend of the Five Rings card game.

The Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) franchise began is the mid 1990's and has spawned both collectible card and role playing games. It is set in the fictional land of Rokugan, a fantastic land that resembles medieval Japan. Over the last decade or so the setting has evolved. Various families and groups in the land have had their fortunes rise and fall. Fictional characters have appeared and risen to power or fallen into ignominy. One of L5R's allures is that unlike Tolkien's Middle Earth or Howard's Hyborea the background world is dynamic and changeable.

The L5R card game is collectible and much of the play resembles that of other similar games. Players begin the game with a starter deck of cards. They can buy "boosters" which give them new, randomly determined cards. The basic strategy of the game revolves around which cards to include in your deck when you play.

The rules for the L5R card game are available online. I printed them and they come out to a healthy thirty seven pages. Now some of this is the result of some great illustrations and some the result of a rules glossary, but clearly L5R requires a bit of reading in advance to play. In comparison to Game of Thrones the cards have more information and rules to pay attention to. I did my reading and then dragged an innocent bystander into a few games.

Our experience in game play was positive but not riveting. Players take turns drawing cards and then placing them on the table. Certain cards can represent locations, events, or specific characters. At some point players will choose to attack their opponents with one or more characters and the opponent must then choose character cards of their own to defend with. The characters have varying degrees of deadliness on the battlefield and certain events can make battles go one way or the other. Players can accumulate "honor" points and certain powerful characters will only be playable with higher levels of honor.

In a general sense a person is either going to love or hate this sort of game. My goodhearted wife tolerated it. I enjoyed the variety and color of the cards. Oddly enough, not knowing the full mythology of the L5R universe didn't seem to diminish the enjoyment of the game. I think that may be because the characters are portrayed so very very broadly. A noble appearing general in armor is probably heroic, a sneaky looking man in a black body suit is probably a spy, and a sexy woman in a one piece body suit is probably some sort of seductive personality. In contrast the characters in the Game of Thrones game were harder to get a grip on- in the latter's case the illustrations just depicted stressed out people holding swords. You could argue that this is because Game of Thrones has more complex characterization and I'm sure that's true, but it makes the game fiction harder to grasp without reading the background information.

My wife also found the basic idea of L5R irritating- that to have a good deck you'd better be prepared to spend money on boosters. I agree that this is a troubling concept and yet buying booster packs is fun and exciting. Who knows what will be inside?! I suppose I'll have to wear my "sucker" tattoo but building a deck seems like good fun.

In summary I didn't find the L5R card game to be another Race for the Galaxy but I think for people inclined to try a collectible card game it's a good product to consider. The rules are longer than Game of Thrones and the game may be more expensive in the long run but the ease of entering into the world is a nice selling point. One key issue with either game is that a single player with a deck is not going to have much fun. I would make sure you have a local community of players or a goodhearted spouse before investing in either of these games for a child.

I got my L5R cards at Your Move Games in Davis Square and at Pandemonium Books in Central Square.

Pros: fun cards, easy to get into the world concept

Cons: potential bottomless money pit, lengthy rules

Beyond the Basics: lots of replay value but beware the Beanie Baby phenomenon, any collectible item can become tomorrow's trash in a blink of an eye.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Game of Thrones card game

I've enjoyed George r. r. Martin's fiction for decades now. Some of his early work captured the mystery and magic of space travel in a way few other authors could manage. As the years have progressed his fiction has grown a bit less startling and inventive and perhaps more approachable to the general public. His fantasy series which began with A Game of Thrones is a prime example of this. I think it's quite superior to the majority of fantasy fiction these days but not quite as heady and imaginative as its predecessors. Nevertheless, Martin's early, edgy material didn't spawn a multitude of spinoffs including board, role playing, and card games. Let's talk about a recent product, the Game of Thrones Living Card Game (GoT) .

The 1990's birthed the concept of a collectible card game. This is a game in which players buy a starter pack of cards and then "booster" packs of additional cards. Each card may give you some new advantage or ability in the game setting. Some cards are quite common, others are rare and you might have to buy dozens of booster packs before coming across one. Or, of course, you could Buy a rare card from another player. Thus the issue of collectibility. And also the fantastic shadow economy that these games create in which teens and preteens throw down impressive sums for a rare card. This financial aspect has turned some people away from these games as they find the investment required to play to be off putting or perhaps just plain insane.

Fantasy Flight Games has attempted to bring new life to some older card games with the idea of a Living Card Game. They market the original games in starter and booster boxes but there is no longer a mystery regarding the pack's contents. The product is designed to suit a player or group of players who simply want to play without the trading, collecting, and selling. GoT is one of Fantasy Flight's first attempts at making the Living Card Game concept a success.

In GoT you control one of several noble families in an attempt to rule the land of Westeros. At the beginning of the game you get a deck of cards specific to your family or "house." Some cards may portray members of the family or other significant people. Some cards may depict magic items or armor. Some cards may represent locations like a fortress or events which could occur like a plague or battle. You shuffle your deck, draw seven cards randomly, sit down in a circle and you're ready to play.

The course of the game has three major phases. In one phase you "play" you cards and lay a certain number from your hand into the space before you. If a card is played it gives you some benefit. A knight may be able to fight in a battle later, a card depicting a fortress may protect you from attack, an event may give you some advantage or cause trouble for an opponent. You can play a limited number of cards so there is some strategy in deciding which to play at what time. Further, you draw cards randomly from your deck so there is no knowing what card will find its way into your hand next.

The second component of the game is challenging a opponent. You may challenge using force, intrigue, or make a political power play. As one might imagine, a knight will be more effective in force, a spy card would be helpful in intrigue, and a courtier might do well in political attacks. Again the players are confronted with some decisions to make- if you only have knights in front of you then you will be vulnerable to spies. Players who make sure to have a variety of forces in play will do better. Challenges are resolved using a simple mechanism with plenty of special rules and exceptions, all described in good detail on the cards themselves. In our playtest we found the challenge rules to go quickly and smoothly and we had several non-gamers taking part.

The last element of the game is that each turn the players choose different positions within the court of Westeros. You may choose to be tax collector, for example, and as a result you get more revenue in that turn. The game adds a nice twist by dictating that some positions cannot attack others, and that some may help others. The result of this is that if one player is a huge threat you can jockey for a position that they are prohibited from attacking. Further, players are pretty much forced to alternately cooperate and clash. I like this touch as it reinforces the idea that the fighting here isn't personal, it's all business. In one turn you may slay someone's knight and in the next defend their castle. I feel this is a nice element in a game for teens as it keeps things from becoming personal and bitter.

We enjoyed GoT for several reasons. I liked the different qualities of the families in play. One family specializes in resolute fighters and giant winter wolves. One family excels in sneakiness and intrigue. Players will have different play experiences depending on which house they play. The variety of cards within each deck was also interesting and there seemed to be a variety of ways to score points. I felt like overall GoT had good replay value.

My wife liked the sense that there was a story associated with the game. While she hadn't read the books the various characters seemed interesting and evocative. As a fan of the books I got much more from the game. Potentially someone with no experience in the fiction could be a little left in the cold by the game and that is a downside to GoT. Still, whether you know the story of Nymeria the giant wolf or not, a giant wolf is pretty cool in itself.

The play itself went smoothly and fast. We look for games we can complete relatively quickly and GoT was satisfyingly speedy. Further, the process of challenges, counter challenges, battles and escapes was pretty exciting and kept people's attention. Players do very little sitting and waiting in GoT and that's appreciated.

Finally, GoT is a Living Card Game after all. So I ran out and purchased some booster packs to see what they had to add. I found that they contained more interesting cards and were pretty well designed to offer something useful to all the houses in play. I feel a desire to get more and more boosters so I'm not sure that GoT is quite the money saver it touts itself as but I believe it's less expensive that a typical collectible card game. The booster are arranged in a groups and the grouping is a little esoteric. Look for guidance as to what to buy on the Fantasy Flight Games GoT forum.

In summary, I found a lot to like with GoT. The rules are smooth and fast moving. The box set gets you started with a satisfying set of cards. The political element and maneuvering is a nice touch. The story is interesting, especially if you know the fiction. This of course leads to the downside. If you don't know the fiction you may find the whole thing a little pointless or boring. I wouldn't get this game as a surprise for someone. I would recommend it as a game you and your teen should check out together, however, and if the teen is interested, then grab it. I got my copy at Pandemonium Books in Central Square.

Speaking of buying into game concepts that are completely foreign, we'll talk about Legend of the Five Rings next.

Pros: affordable, good game concept, fast paced, fun

Cons: relies on a somewhat obscure fiction series

Beyond the Basics: Hundreds of new cards to buy and lot of replay value here

Friday, October 9, 2009

Carnage - Gaming Event in Vermont

Carnage is a gaming convention held yearly in Vermont. This year the event takes place over November 6th through 8th. The web site is strikingly hard to navigate but the events listing (called a "pre-reg book," look to the right of the main page) is impressive. The selection of games to choose from is really superb. There are some great new and old board games, some role playing games I've been looking forward to playing, and some collectible card games that would torch my wallet and yet look pretty appealing as well. Interested parties should check it out!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Castle Panic - another fun coopertive game

It wasn't long ago that the only cooperative games on the market were those produced by Family Pastimes. Not to knock that outstanding publisher but it's been exciting to see the cooperative game niche really expand in recent years. Let's look at a recent product which I believe hails from my old home in Texas.

Castle Panic is a game in which the players attempt to defend their castle from advancing goblins, orcs and trolls. The board is set up with a castle in the center and rings of territory surrounding it. The farthest ring can be reached by archers. The next closest ring can be reached by knights. The absolute closest ring can be reached by swordsmen. Through the course of the game various monsters appear outside the farthest circle and then begin to advance towards the castle. The player's challenge is to activate and use their archers, knights, and swordsmen in the best fashion and prevent the monsters from reaching and destroying the castle and its walls.

The specific rules system is hardly more complex than the basic game concept. Players have a hand of cards representing archers, swordsmen, etc etc and play them during their turn. Cards may slay monsters, repair the castle, or some other useful task. In a given turn players refresh their hand and then play as many cards as they wish. In each turn a player also draws monster tokens randomly and places them in the forest around the castle. The monsters advance automatically once placed.

The game system has some variability built into it. Some monster tokens represent stronger enemies. Some cause a special event to occur such as forcing the players to discard certain cards or causing a huge boulder to appear and roll towards the castle. The variability, along with the inexorable march of the monsters towards the hapless castle, adds a good amount of drama to the game.

In the end drama is what this game is about. It's exciting to work with your friends to defend the castle and slay monsters. It's exciting to see them steadily advancing, or to suddenly draw the "Goblin King" token and find yourself awash in goblins. I have my doubts about the strategic qualities of Castle Panic, this is more just a fun, cooperative romp.

I think Castle Panic is a great game for players old enough to cooperate and play as a team, but too young for more sophisticated games. I'm not sure I see this as a great crossover game that adults can play as well. Still, as a choice for a fun evening with the kids I think Castle Panic has lots to offer.

Castle Panic is published by a smaller company. interested parties could special order it or contact the publishers, Fireside Games.

Pros: cooperative, exciting, great gripping concept

Cons: not a deep game per se, good for younger players.
Beyond the basics: pretty basic, really, but probably lots of replay value till the kids grow out of it.

Roots of Role Playing - Harold Lamb

This strays a bit from the topic of gaming for children but I think it's interesting to look back at the roots of the hobbies we enjoy. In this case we're talking about the roots of the role playing game.

Gary Gygax lists a number of authors as influences in the development of Dungeons and Dragons. One of the more famous of these is Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan, Kull, and many other famous pulp fantasy characters. I think Howard had a rare gift and his work is well worth seeking out. Nevertheless it is hard to deny that Howard's talent only went so far. He wrote fabulously but remained within a certain range.

I was very excited to discover Harold Lamb, a writer from a period slightly before Howard who seems to possess the ability to fully develop the pulp adventure story. I started with Lamb's Cossack stories, happily collected and available on Amazon or through the library. His first few pieces are capable but unremarkable. They're short adventures set amongst the Cossacks and while pleasant are burdened by some irritating antisemitism. Suddenly in the third or fourth piece Lamb seems to find his muse and the writing just begins to explode from the page.

To offer more detail would spoil some surprises that Lamb throws the reader's way. Suffice it to say that his stories become fantastically exciting while remaining historically rooted. Many authors of the day worked within the bounds of "historical fiction" but seemed to stray from reality as the mood struck them- Dumas being an admirable example, Talbot Mundy less so. Harold Lamb seems intent on remaining as accurate as possible to setting and culture while continuing to deliver the thrills and hair raising adventures.

There is very little in Lamb's work that is overtly related to fantasy- no elves or wizards. Nevertheless, his themes of adventure, quests, travelers in strange lands and amongst strange cultures all echo across the decades into the role playing games we enjoy today. I highly recommend them to anyone with an interest in adventure tales or historical fiction. They're appropriate for good readers and with the exception of one early story are notably free from the racism and sexism so common in that period's literature.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Days of Wonder Contest

It appears as though Days of Wonder is running an essay contest on their Facebook page. Prospective players may log into their own Facebook pages and through some Byzantine process enter to win a free game.

At first this seemed pretty awesome but a word of warning, it turns out the process is rather complex. You need your own Facebook page, a Days of Wonder Online account, and you have to play Ticket to Ride or Gang of Four online. Then you have to write a story about a Days of Wonder game experience and post it on your Facebook page. Your odds of winning increase if you post a new essay each day. Your essays have to remain on your Facebook page through the duration of the contest.

At first this seemed like a terrific idea, at least until I started reading the details. You could in fact start to rack up the online Ticket to Ride games and cover your Facebook page with inspirational essays and testimonials. Days of Wonder games are truly quite fun and the essays would be an improvement over Facebook's incessant "What Breed of Cat are You?" questionnaires. Or you could spare yourself all that work, bring your own lunch to work for a few days or babysit or walk someone's dog and just buy a Days of Wonder game yourself with your hard earned or saved cash. The latter sounds easier to me.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Careers- Classic, Revolutionary, and Fun

I was feeling like the game writeups were beginning to stray a bit towards the older kids and then I stumbled across a great classic game for younger players. I didn't play Careers as a child but now I wish I had. The game of Careers is superficially a classic American boardgame in which players circle a board by rolling dice and moving a token. Upon closer examination it's a very clever game design with huge replay value and speaks volumes about the directions chosen by game designers in the 1950's and 1960's.

Players begin a game of Careers by deciding their "formula for success." This is an amount of fame, happiness, and money which they will be aiming to achieve. Each quality is given a number and the total must add up to sixty. For example, the Phish band music lover might seek a happiness of forty, fame of fifteen, and money of five. The formula for success is kept secret. Each player will have a different formula and will thus play the game slightly differently. And in future games might choose a different formula and have a completely different strategy.

The gameplay is fairly simple. Players roll dice and move along the outside track of a gameboard in a way similar to Monopoly. In Careers, however, you have much more control over your token and extra places to take it. If you land on an Opportunity space you can turn and move along a short inside track simulating some career- "Explorer" for example. Completing a career path may give you points of fame, happiness, or money. Different careers will give different proportions of these, "big business" for example yielding more money.

The game expands on this basic concept. Players keep track of their careers. Some can only be started if you have completed other simpler vocations. For example, you can be an Explorer for $600, or for free if you have been an Engineer or gone Prospecting. If you "go to college" you have access to medicine and law careers, plus a salary bump on any career. A simple score sheet allows players to track their experiences.

Finally, players can accumulate "experience cards." These cards allow you to move an exact number of spaces rather than rolling the dice. Imagine in Monopoly when you desperately need to roll a four. In Careers you can choose to use a card to do just that, but then that card is gone until you earn another.

Briefly, Careers is an amazing game. Players can simply enjoy amassing careers and money and laugh about going into Hollywood or on a Florida Vacation. At a deeper level players can use the cards they accumulate to control where they land or when. Players can buy these cards from each other at whatever price they feel is fair. Players can spend money to "buy into" certain careers or try and get in through accumulating experience. There are a huge number of strategies possible for this game and the ability to choose a different formula for success in following games adds vast replay value. Again, Careers can be played simply if desired but players seeking a deeper game will absolutely find it here.

Better writers that I have expanded on how groundbreaking Careers was in 1955. The game designer, James Cooke Brown, took the square game board and literally thought outside the box by creating inner tracks and adding player control over movement. He then added a secret victory condition which the players choose, multiple ways to accomplish goals, "unlockable" areas, and a system for trading between players during the game. I had thought Barbie Queen of the Prom to be clever (which it is) but Careers takes clever to a whole new level. It's sad that designers chose to dumb down boardgames during the next few decades. It's not that they didn't have examples to work from, they simply chose to set the bar as low as possible.

Careers is released by Winning Moves, based out of Danvers, Massachusetts! Their web site lists several local toystores as stocking their items. I might call ahead and if it isn't in stock, ask them to order it. I don't think you can keep it more local than buy ordering a locally produced game at a small local toystore.

Pros: complex and satisfying, great replay value

Cons: may be too complex for some younger kids, probably Monopoly age and up at least.

Beyond the Basics: great replay value

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Race for the Galaxy- Now Online!

I was pretty excited to hear from my friend Steve that Race for the Galaxy (RftG) is now playable online. I think RftG is one of the best games in recent memory and it continues to be entertaining and challenging after multiple plays. Now you can play against strangers across the globe via Game Genie online.

The Game Genie site uses scanned cards and the resolution is not terrific. As a result you need to know the card values to play, otherwise you'll be squinting at the screen and trying to guess what "Improved Logistics" or "Runaway Robots" gets you. I suspect this is why Rio Grande Games approved the site's use of the game. It won't prevent any sales of the game, but just allows fans who already know the game to play at work.

Which I, for the record, have not done. Yet.

Barbie Queen of the Prom on Sale!

Funagain has put their replica copy of Barbie Queen of the Prom (QoP) on sale. This is the reprint of the first edition of the game. It's a beautiful product and lots of fun for the right players.

In QoP the players compete to see who will be, well, queen of the prom. You achieve this by getting a dress, a date, and becoming president of a school club. Players move their tokens around a board and hope for lucky die rolls that will allow them to earn money, go shopping, and otherwise advance their goals. In terms of rules this is a classic "go around a board" game not unlike Monopoly or Life.

This edition of QoP shines in several ways. Firstly, the art design is just spectacular. The outfits, the illustrations, and the colors perfectly capture the era at play. For whatever reason it continues to look appealing forty years later while more recent editions simply look dated (compare Barbie's potential dates from the original and updated 1980's editions).

Secondly this is a game which appeals to the ironic and tongue in cheek player. It's all very amusing to see retro outfits, prices, and social mores. Your hip cousins will find the game to be so cool.

Thirdly, the game is fun because it touches on a very real desire. Many of us would love to be queen or king of something. I held the prom in disdain (although I also had no chance of a date so some of that scorn may have been protective) but if there had been a Dungeons and Dragons Prom? To be the most popular boy with a 5th level Paladin? I would have given all my possessions to be king of that prom.

Clearly QoP is a dated game with many dated concepts. It is not multiracial, it does not acknowledge single parent families, same sex parents, or two working parents. Many of us (myself included) feel that society has benefited from progress in these areas. I don't believe that in playing QoP you are espousing a restrictive view of gender roles, family, and race but another person could reasonably feel otherwise and certainly this game is not for them.

Further, the game may be seen to suggest that a teen wishes only to be popular, successful, and well dressed. We would hope this was not the case and in a perfect world we and our teens would be mainly interested in the well being of our fellow human beings. I do not believe the two are completely mutually exclusive, happily. I believe that many teens and adults do wish to be popular, successful, and well dressed. I also believe that all of us have the potential to go further in our moral development. In that process, however, it may be fun to play a game where we struggle to find the cutest date and the best outfit.

Pros: simple, fun, beautiful art, retro-ironic

Cons: socially dated with some risk of offending

Beyond the Basics: this is a basic novelty game, but may turn your child into a graphic designer. If they start mentioning Eames and Haywood-Wakefield next you'll know for sure.

Song of Blades and Heroes - fight on!

The talk recently about plastic miniatures does raise the question- say your child has these figures, what could a beginner do with them? Or say you've picked up some of those cool Papo or Schleich knights. Is there a set of rules for having small battles with them? Up until recently your choices might be limited. Games Workshop publishes the Warhammer system but it may not be well suited to beginners, being potentially expensive and somewhat complex. Other options have also struggled with issues of complexity, expense, or availability.

Ganesha Games out of Italy publishes the "Song of..." series of gaming rules. Their flagship product is Song of Blades and Heroes (SoBH). This is a slim paperback book with rules for conducting battles on the tabletop between small groups of fighters. The initial book deals with fantasy battles so the combatants may be barbarians, wizards, wolves, or dragons. SoBH is simple and elegant and may be the best introduction to tabletop battles for older kids.

Players in SoBH begin with game with several figures. Each figure represents a knight, warrior, or some creature. Each figure is also assigned a number which measures how effective they are at fighting and a number which describes how well trained and motivated they are. A giant worm could be very effective in combat simply because it's fifty feet long, but perhaps not so well trained or motivated. In contrast a brave hobbit might be very motivated but perhaps just not all that dangerous.

In the course of a game your figures are placed on a tabletop decorated with small plastic trees, castles, or whatever you have handy. Players alternate moving their figures around and take turns casting spells, swinging swords, or shooting bows at each other. You roll dice to see if your attacks are successful and can potentially cause your opponent's figure to fall down, run away, or disappear from the battle. Let's talk about three issues that come to mind:

Firstly, we know from history that most combatants leave battles by receiving an injury or running away. Thus it is not unrealistic to tell younger players that the losing figure has run away, limped off or been taken captive. Tactical games often simulate fighting and combat but you can be historically accurate without being gruesome.

Secondly, these games benefit from "terrain." This is any item that makes your tabletop look like a forest, desert, or spooky cave. Be creative, make it yourself, use Playmobil gear, use JR Miniatures products, the sky's the limit. In Texas we had two fellows of about 5 years old who made terrain from PlayDough for our World War 2 games. They felt so involved and were really proud of the bridges and trees they had built.

Finally, let's consider the rules themselves. The game revolves around the idea that your figures may or may not do exactly what you want them to do. You roll dice and based on how you roll they may be very active or just sit there. The game adds a twist- your figure can do one thing with each high die roll and you may choose to roll one, two, or three dice. Thus, if you are very lucky your figure might have three high die rolls and do three things. However, if you roll low on two or three of those dice then nothing happens and the other player gets to go.

Say you have four figures. You could play it safe and roll one die for each. Your figures will only get to do one thing at best but all of them have the chance to go. On the other hand you could roll three dice and maybe the first figure will get to do three things, or maybe you'll roll low twice and your turn will end.

This gambling concept has the potential to be quite exciting. In our test game the experienced gamers took to it and enjoyed the tension of deciding whether to play it safe or try and really motivate their troops. On the other hand the younger players may find this counter intuitive and frustrating. In fact, it might be accurate to say that SoBH is probably more of a game than a historical simulation and if your 8 year old complains you can congratulate her on her judgement.

That being said the SoBH line is well written, inexpensive, and generally well put together. We played with the basic book and the King Arthur supplement. The latter is a labor of love and a terrific product. There are two fantasy supplements that are fair and include rules for magical spells. In contrast the Napoleonic supplement is fairly weak and best passed on unless you collect Napoleonic rulesets like my friend Rich.

I would wholeheartedly recommend SoBH as a game for older kids and up. It is only a rulebook and you'll need to buy your own miniature figures and terrain. For many families who already own the figures this is a great way to put them to good use.

The SoBH line is available through the Ganesha Games website. I found the official site to be a little lacking in detail but interested parties can get a better set of product descriptions through Wargames Vault.

Pros: simple and fun, a good value for the price, an interesting game mechanic

Cons: younger children (pre-teen) may find the game mechanic frustrating

Beyond the Basics: huge replay value and many interesting supplements

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Test Drive Update - Arkham Horror

I think this is probably a commentary both on the game and my wife but she and I recently ran through at least five rounds of Arkham Horror. I feel pretty lucky to be married to someone who will engage in such geekery but for now let's see how the game measured up after so many plays.

Arkham Horror was reviewed earlier but briefly it's a cooperative game in which players move around a board fighting monsters and having supernatural adventures. I'm happy to say that some elements of the game really shine after multiple playings.

Firstly, this is truly a cooperative game. Not simply because the players win or lose as a group, but also because the players need to help each other to succeed. We had our best success when we would plan out how our characters in the game would support each other: "OK, I'll fight that zombie so you can run past it and get to the church and remove my curse." Now some players may be put off by this need for coordination but I think teens could get a real charge from "teaming up" with their parents to defeat a menace. I know for me it made any victory all the more satisfying since it was sared.

Arkham Horror also delivers in variety of play. The characters have "encounters" in the town. They may meet a wandering creature, find a hidden scroll, or be whisked off to another dimension. There are enough options and possible events to give the game huge replay value. You also have a number of strategies to try and after many games we haven't found a single approach that's foolproof. The end result is a lot of replay value.

Finally, Arkham Horror is a sort introduction to role playing games. You have a "character," they acquire items, skills, and spells, and then they have an adventure. This is a nice choice for those people who have a secret goal of introducing everyone in their family to role playing.

Arkham Horror does have clear caveats. I think it's best for teens and up, it is an intimidating game to first examine and the rules could use some editing. You will not just dump this on a table and play "out of the box." With a slight amount of work, however, this is a very satisfying game.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Test Drive Update- Scotland Yard

I recently dragged several non-gamers into a game of Scotland Yard to see how it would fly. Our options for the evening included Settlers of Catan and Bohnanza so expect some test drive results of those games in the future.

Scotland Yard has one player trying to escape from the other players across a map of London. All the players move their play tokens through a series of bus, subway, and taxi routes. The person being chased ("Mr. or Ms. X") has to tell the other players which sort of transportation they are using and the detectives use deduction to guess where the criminal is located.

The game itself played pretty smoothly. The deductive player caught on quickly and was able to track Mr. X's likely position with frightening accuracy. The player who likes strategy was able to circle the area and use the transportation system to his advantage. The complete beginner player took a few turns to catch on. I played Mr. X and barely stayed a few spaces from the pursuers.

I really enjoyed the game, especially the excitement of being chased and almost being caught on several occasions. The other players had mixed feelings. It's probably simplistic and obvious (although it wasn't to me until this game) but Scotland Yard is great if you love chasing and being chased. It also absolutely requires a desire to think systematically and logically. This is a game for people who can manage chess or Clue. On a positive note it did take perhaps five minutes to explain the rules and even the absolute gaming beginner was playing with ease in a turn or two.

After our test drive I'd continue to recommend Scotland Yard for families looking for an exciting chase game. Keep the caveats in mind however, impulsive players may find the system too stuffy.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Axis and Allies Naval Miniatures Game

Since we're touching on the subject of plastic miniatures in tactical gaming let's look at another option. In years past Avalon Hill was the world's greatest wargame company. It was like the Cadillac of game companies. This is not to slight their competitors but AH was really the awesome giant in the field. It was the pinnacle of cool for a certain geeky type of teen. The years have passed and Avalon Hill is now a company with a fairly limited range of products, the most successful being the Axis and Allies game. That franchise has been expanded in recent years to include some collectible miniatures games.

Collectible games are based on the premise that you buy a package of game tokens- cards, figures, pieces of some sort. Some of the tokens are common, some are found less often. The rare tokens are usually especially powerful in the game milieu. It's rather like buying a big bag of office supplies knowing that you're fairly likely to get paper and pens but only one bag in twenty will have a stapler. As you could imagine the stapler becomes a highly sought after item and people in the office might trade thirty pens for one rare stapler.

In the Axis and Allies Naval Miniatures Game (AAN) players purchase a starter set which gives them enough ships for two players, along with game rules, maps, dice and counters. The players assign each other a few ships and lay them out on the game map, which resembles the ocean and may have some islands upon it. The rules provide you with a mechanism for sailing your ships, firing at enemy ships, sending in waves of attack bombers, dealing with submarines, and other aspects of naval combat.

The game system in AAN is simple and intuitive: guns are assigned a certain number of dice to roll when firing. The larger the gun the more dice are rolled. The player counts up the number of times they roll four or more and compares that number of successes to the targets protective rating. Roll enough fours and you damage or sink your target. The game system includes rules for air combat and submarines. These are also based on attempting to roll a number of successes versus some target number. Roll well enough and you may shoot down enemy aircraft or damage submarines.

There is much to like about AAN. The rules are clearly written with plenty of examples and diagrams. There are a number of special rules and modifications to take into account specific differences between certain ships and aircraft. And the ships look pretty decent. In many ways this is a very nice introduction to tactical gaming at a decent price.

A few caveats come to mind with regards to AAN. This is certainly not a very accurate simulation game and if or when your child is looking for more detail and historical backup then it's time to move on. At the same time I have noticed that with games of this sort the more realistic they are the more interminable they are, to the point where the most realistic war-at-sea games are almost unplayable. The only other caveat to AAN is the collectible element. It does set the player up to throw down more and more money just for that elusive ultra-rare ship. In AAN's favor I don't see this as being as addictive as Magic or Pokemon (though I'm sure Avalon Hill wouldn't mind if it were) so the money drain risk is probably slight.

I like Axis and Allies Naval Miniatures Game as a good introduction to naval strategy and tactics. For very little investment you can give this genre a spin and if it's appealing move on to more realistic games.

Pros: Cheap and easy introduction

Cons: will cause historians to roll in their graves

Beyond the Basics: a gigantic hobby, a wealth of literature, art and history

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Miniatures Review - Victrix Napoleonics

On occasion I'll talk about miniatures gaming here on the blog. As one might gather, miniatures gaming makes use of miniature figures of some sort. Examples might be soldiers, aircraft, or spaceships. Usually these figures are moved around a board designed to look like some sort of terrain. In the above examples you might have a board depicting a field in Spain, the sky, and an area of space with asteroids and planets. For more examples turn to Historicon, a large convention dedicated to miniatures gaming. One drawback to miniatures gaming is that the miniatures in question are traditionally made with lead. This of course makes their use by children a little questionable at best. Recently we've seen the appearance of high quality plastic miniatures. Let's talk about one brand today.

Victrix is a new company operating out of the United Kingdom. They manufacture a line of miniatures depicting soldiers from the Napoleonic wars. The figures are sold in boxed sets, each box delivering a set of troops appropriate to a certain country and location. For example, I'm working on a box of French Napoleonic Infantry 1807-1812. When I'm finished I'll have sixty plastic soldiers, ready to use in table top battles.

Victrix sells their plastic soldiers as components which need to be assembled. You get a collection of arms, heads, rifles and backpacks along with instructions as to how to glue them together. This, of course, leads to one of the downsides of the plastic soldier. Assembling these figures takes a good amount of concentration and careful work. In addition the instructions are not absolutely the best. Once you get into a groove the soldiers come together nicely but this is not an activity for someone who is unmotivated.

Once the soldier is assembled it's ready to be painted. This is the second potentially tricky issue. Painting detailed miniatures can be a lot of fun or a real ordeal. Parents should think ahead and decide whether their child will find the job fun or frustrating. I recommend praising the teens for any work they do and then noting improvements in their technique over time.

The end result is a gang of soldiers ready to be pushed around the table and fight with other gangs of soldiers. Victrix includes a simple set of rules for Napoleonic battles in each box to get people started. I think the Victrix line has a lot going for it. It's relatively inexpensive. I'm very, very happy about the lack of lead. The miniatures are nicely detailed and proportioned. I have about a dozen done so far and with my mediocre painting skills they still look terrific.

On a down side they require some concentration to construct them correctly. I don't see these as being an introduction to hobby painting. Rather, they're a great next step for someone who knows that they want to play with miniatures and would like to avoid to lead. For interested teens and their parents the Victrix line is an awesome value.

The Hobby Bunker stocks Victrix products and the staff can give you tips on how to construct and paint them. They also have painting guides to help you pick colors for the troop's uniforms. Playtime in Arlington also stocks inexpensive acrylic paint and supplies for assembling and painting plastic figures.

Pros: Awesome figures, inexpensive, no lead, a great stepping stone towards a terrific hobby

Cons: tricky to put together, mediocre instructions, potentially intimidating

Beyond the Basics: for the interested teen this is the gateway to geekery. Also the gateway to a fun hobby filled with history that can last a lifetime.

Note- painted miniature the work of Andrew Taylor.