Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Science Fiction Month! Federation Commander

Starfleet Battles was one of my first important games. I purchased it in my teens and played the heck out of it for the next ten years or so. In hindsight I might put it high on the list of the top 5 games of my past (alongside Dungeons and Dragons, Melee, and Squad Leader perhaps). Federation Commander is an updated version of Starfleet Battles. The publishers were kind enough to send me a review copy and I was pretty excited to see how it compared to that special game from my past.

In Federation Commander (FC) you pilot a starship from the Star Trek universe into combat. Battles can involve two or more ships, space creatures, or other large menaces. Interestingly the license to publish a Star Trek game didn't allow including material from the later series' and movies, but does allow the publishers to include new aliens or ones glimpsed briefly in the animated show (the kzinti for example, otherwise known only to Larry Niven fans). The result is a highly detailed but separate Star Trek universe with dozens of ships types, various aliens and factions, and lots of opportunity for battles and engagements.

The rule system of the game is fairly simple. Each ship has engines that generate an amount of energy. For example the Enterprise might generate 30 points of energy. In a given turn you decide how to "spend" that energy. Moving, firing a weapon, and powering defensive shields all have energy costs. If you choose to move a great distance then you may not have enough energy left to do some other task. The key to the game is to spend your limited points of energy wisely.

The second basic principle of the game is that each ship has a number of components. Just like a home may have a kitchen, a water heater, and air conditioning, a starship might have engines, phasers, and science labs. If a ship is damaged by weapons it begins to lose some or all use of these components. For example a ship might have three phaser banks. If it is damaged by an attack it could lose the use of one of these and have fewer weapons to fire in future turns. Or it might take damage to an engine and have fewer energy points in future turns.

In the course of a game the players place counters representing their ships down on a map marked out into spaces. In each turn the players allocate their available energy and move their ships around the map. When you near an enemy ship you may choose to fire a weapon. Your opponent may fire back or "divert power to the shields!" If a ship's energy shields are damaged the player may turn in order to protect that shield until it can be repaired. Throughout all this the players keep track of their finite supply of energy and make sure that they have enough to do all the things they want to do.

In short, FC is a game of maneuver and a game of energy management. Good players conserve their resources until they are needed. They may circle and shift their ship to prevent accumulating damage on one side's shield. When the time is right they zip in at full speed and unleash photon torpedoes, disrupters, and various other Star Trek weapons.

My gaming group gave FC a test drive and I was happy to see that the game was even better than the original Starfleet Battles. Many of the rules and systems have been streamlined to speed gameplay and improve realism, not an easy thing to accomplish. For the old Starfleet players, I was struck by improvements in plotting movement, shield management, and damage resolution. Charts and information are presented in attractive and easy to read formats. The publishers have really responded positively to fan input and the result is a series of elegant tweaks to an already fun game.

My game group's response to the game does illustrate its strengths and weaknesses. The players who were motivated to learn, either through an interest in Star Trek or through an interest in battling starships, ended the session excited and wanting to play more. The players who were looking for a lazy way to spend an hour got frustrated by the rules and ended up playing Mario Kart on the Wii. I think that sums up FC. This is an awesome game for players who are excited and motivated to have Star Trek starship battles. Players need to be old enough to follow a decent number of rules and stick to them pretty closely. This is not a light or filler game, it's a fully developed wargame and needs a bit of attention to learn how to play. For players who are interested, however, it's perhaps the best space combat game available.

As an aside, the game is also playable with miniature lead and plastic starships. I can barely restrain myself from ordering dozens and starting to paint them as soon as possible. The miniature ships are certainly not for everyone but for the folks who like minis, they look pretty great.

Federation Commander is available through the company's website. I'm sure it can be ordered as well through stores like Pandemonium Books in Central Square.

Pros: One of the best space battle games available, if not the best. Star Trek ships!

Cons: Not a simple game, teens and up

Beyond the Basics: Buy miniatures, supplements, clear off twenty feet of table space and stage massive fleet battles, the sky's the limit!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Science Fiction Month! Star Wars RPG

Well I was impulsive enough to buy this thing so let's talk about the Star Wars Roleplaying Game. Keep in mind that I haven't actually played it and so it's possible that if I did the fabulous nature of the game would be revealed with a burst of trumpets and fireworks.

In the Star Wars Roleplaying Game (SW) players get to play characters from the Star Wars universe. Your character may be active in the last days of the old Republic (roughly the time depicted in the fourth through sixth movies released), in the the days of the Empire (as seen in Star Wars and its two immediate sequels), or in the days of the New Jedi Order (as described in various comics and novels). The rule set describes how to make characters for the game and then gives rules for playing in the three eras. There are rules for using the force, flying space vehicles, and descriptions of various creatures and beings one might meet while adventuring.

The summary for beginner role players is that SW is a tolerable game. The rules are a little complex for my taste and are probably best suited for teens. The game seems strongly oriented towards combat and the system itself really demands the use of miniature figures to represent characters, enemies, and terrain features. I didn't walk away from the rules with a clear sense of how to start the game rolling although that may be because I'm not a huge Star Wars fan. This may be a game best suited for fans of the franchise, teen and up, who are looking to do some miniatures oriented role playing with a strong emphasis on combat.

Now, for those who care, let's get detailed. The SW game uses modified late edition Dungeons and Dragons rules and, coincidence or not, reads like space D&D. Players have a few character classes to choose from: soldier, jedi, noble, scout and scoundrel. Classes have a huge effect on character strengths, so much so that the noble and scoundrel should really never bother picking up a gun. The noble excels at providing support to other characters which allows them to perform better in combat. Like a cleric, for example. The scoundrel seems best suited for sneaking, gambling, hacking computers and being generally lucky. Kind of like uh, a thief. And the jedi has amazing powers with a limited number of uses per encounter, just like a magic user! In 2009 I think a worthwhile game setting deserves a game system tailored to the setting's qualities and simply using the d20 system seems a little lazy. Oh, and the scout is a space ranger basically.

From a personal point of view I'm also an "old school" style role playing gamer. I prefer resolving issues through role playing and a few impromptu die rolls instead of using lists of skills, talents and feats. SW provides an extensive lists of special abilities and stunts that characters can perform. In my experience having lists of special abilities acts to limit your choices just by suggesting that if an action is not on this list then it's out of the question to try. It would be myopic to ignore the appeal of the new school game but for my purposes it seems to stray from role playing to miniatures-based skirmish gaming.

The game does allow some crossover potential. For example you could play a noble who joins the military, lives as a soldier, and then gets her discharge and becomes a scoundrel. But that requires multiclassing and going through an experience level per class at minimum. So no interesting characters at first level. Of course with 1st edition D&D you could do such a thing by simply role playing it. Experienced players know by now whether they like lists of feats and directive class systems.

Let's move on to other irritating issues. The book covers character generation and basic rules but lacks any acceptable details on setting. I can't find anything about what nobles do, for example. If your character is a noble can they command troops? Do they get a castle, or a planet? If your character is a soldier how are the military orders organized? How does a scoundrel make money? Are there police to chase the scoundrels? Also lacking is any information on how ordinary citizens live. I suppose the message here is to read the novels, see the movies, and then play the game. From looking at the web site it appears like the message may also be to buy the rules and then buy four more supplements.

I think that covers the basics of why the Star Wars Roleplaying Game is such a disappointment. Space precludes complaining about the boring weapons list, short list of vehicles, lackluster space combat rules and minuscule creatures list. We'll also skip over how dull the jedi seem to be when in reality they should be a non-stop rocking good time to play. I am struck by the contrast between this product and the previously reviewed Starblazer Adventures. I think I could run a much more exciting Star Wars game with the latter. At least Starblazer gives you plot seeds, planet generation systems, and campaign ideas.

The Star Wars Roleplaying game is available in many locations. I got mine at Your Move Games in Davis Square.

Pros: combat oriented miniatures based role playing game

Cons: Dungeons and Dragons in space, lackluster, skimpy on setting details

Beyond the Basics: beyond the basics you try either a real skirmish wargame like Chain Reaction, Necromunda or even Warhammer 40K, or a real character driven role playing game like Starblazer Adventures.

Science Fiction Month! Star Munchkin

In the role playing crowd a "munchkin" is someone who plays in a ridiculously aggressive fashion. Munchkins try and amass as much loot, magic items, and super weapons as possible, willfully ignoring the role playing aspect of the game. Steve Jackson Games satirizes this type of player with their bestselling line of Munchkin products. Lets talk about Star Munchkin today.

Star Munchkin is a card game. Players draw and play cards from a deck with the goal of killing as many monsters as possible and stealing all of their treasure. Players may also help or (more likely) hinder other players who are trying to do the same thing. In a given turn a player draws a card from the "encounter deck." This card may have an illustration of a silly space creature similar to the ones pictured at the left. Through a very simple mechanism the player can kill the monster and then "steal its treasure" by drawing a card from the "treasure deck." Each time a player kills a monster the player goes up a "level," becoming more powerful. If you reach tenth level (ie. kill ten monsters) then you win.

The challenge and fun of Star Munchkin comes from several elements. For one, the treasures, weapons, and monsters are all pretty silly. You can have a laser or a bazer or a bananafanafofazer as a weapon. I think there is a "fart grenade" but if there isn't it's probably oversight on the author's part. Monsters include space goats and space vampires. I'm not sure it's a funny game per se, but it is silly.

Players in Star Munchkin may work together, or they may try and sabotage each other's efforts. Say the monster you're facing is too tough. You may ask a friend for help and promise her half the treasure as a reward. Or say the monster you're facing is very weak. Another player may suddenly play a card that makes the creature "radioactive" and causes it to be much more fierce. You can imagine that if five people are playing a given encounter could get pretty crazy as some players act to help and others throw in additional challenges and difficulties. I like this element. It keeps people from getting bored as other players take turns. Further, an attentive parent can subtly step in and aid a child who's doing poorly.

Finally, Star Munchkin is simple. It has two pages of rules and you can learn the game in minutes. This is not a "minutes to learn, lifetime to master" game. It's a "minutes to learn, minutes to master" game. For some purposes this is a nice feature. A casual group of players can sit down and be rolling in minutes. If the group includes children or childlike adults who enjoy silly science fiction references and cartoons then all the better.

Of course, this is also a potential bug in that there are no "expert" Munchkin players. This is a light game at best. Further it has some non-pc issues, amongst them being the fact that you are killing monsters as opposed to reasoning with them. And then stealing their treasure. So folks bothered by that should steer clear. Finally, it uses the word "bimbo" on occasion which bothers me because it's such a dated, dreary concept. I've met foolish and good looking people of both sexes and I'm waiting for a pejorative term that's gender neutral.
In summary, parents looking for a light game that's good for a group may be very happy with Star Munchkin. Each time I've run the game I've had players announce plans to buy their own copies and that's always a positive sign. I got my copy at Hobby Bunker in Malden.

Pros: simple, fun, interactive

Cons: pretty non-politically correct.

Beyond the Basics: this is a pretty basic game. You can buy fantasy, Cthulhu, and pirate variants, as well as a board game and role playing game, but it's all basically Munchkin.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Science Fiction Month! Cosmic Encounter

Cosmic Encounter is a game that brings me back 20 or more years. We played it in my friend's basement in high school and in the common lounge in college. It's taken me a week to finish this entry because each time I start I begin to remember people and events associated with playing this terrific game. Clearly this is part of a particular personal era for me, and also a cultural era for the country as a whole. I don't think you could release a game called Cosmic Encounter today without some sense of irony but in 1977 the folks at Eon Publishing probably used the words "cosmic" and "encounter" on a daily basis. The game was a huge hit in the 1970's and has been reprinted several times, most recently by Fantasy Flight Games. Is the new version true to it's roots or is it twisting the knife of nostalgia in my chest?

In a game of Cosmic Encounter each player plays a different alien race. In the original version the races were completely alien- they resembled gas clouds, thorny hedges, or plankton. Cosmic indeed! In the new version the races are modified to resemble classic science fiction beings or creatures- insect-like or lizard-like in many cases. Sorry gramps, times change. Each player controls five cardboard planets. In the course of the game your goal is to get tokens representing your race onto five planets owned by one or more of the other players. If you have five such "colonies" then you win.

In a player's turn they draw a card from the Destiny Deck. The Destiny Deck tells you which player your going to try to invade using the Hyperspace Gate. Who ever loses the battle has their ships sent to The Warp! Man, I can't write this without breaking out laughing, it's such a trippy game. So why should anyone who didn't live during the 1960's and '70's play it?

The rules are actually incredibly simple. They're ultimately the same as the card game "War," the higher card wins. In this case there are a few tricks. One is that you can ask other players to help. You can invade Grant's planet and ask Mia to be your ally and loan you ships. Then Grant may offer Mia a better deal and ask her to be his ally, or he could ask Anand for help. Other players may or may not join in the fray and it's great fun to beg or wheedle people into joining in. As an aside, this is also a time for parents to step in and help a child who is doing poorly, just to prevent sad feeling at the end of a game.

After choosing allies the players draw cards from their hands and reveal them. You add the number of allies you have to the card and the higher number wins the encounter. If the attacker wins they get to land on the planet. Losing ships get sent to a waiting area, The Warp, where they can be retrieved later. The cards allow another trippy 1970's event, however. One or both players may play a "Negotiate" card. If both play this card then all allies go home and the two players have a chance to reach a deal. If they can within the time limit then both sides benefit. If they fail both sides are penalized. If only one player tries to negotiate then that player loses the encounter but gets compensation cards. This dynamic of negotiate or fight is the subject of millions of dissertations and studies since it touches on such a fundamental issues- "should I be aggressive and risk defeat, or try and negotiate, knowing that I could lose out if the other person is aggressive?"

Finally, the game gives each alien race some special ability. It may be to lose fewer ships in an encounter, to look at other player's cards, or some other trick. The alien abilities add variety to the game and deliver lots of replay value. In addition the publisher has given the alien abilities a rating with some being appropriate for beginners and some better for more experienced players. I think that's a very nice touch.

The deck of cards also includes special event cards of various sorts. These can temporarily change your power or add some new effect to the game. For example the Cosmic Zap (heh) card can take away someones alien power.

I am pleased as punch with the new edition of Cosmic Encounter. It remains a terrific game in several ways. It's simple. There's room for victory through negotiation. There's huge variety and replay value. The concept of allies allows parents to make sure no child loses catastrophically. Finally a lot of the unique '70's quality of the game is retained. I do miss the old aliens but in the scheme of things the new publishers have done a very respectful job of updating this old classic. This is a great basic strategy game for multiple players and might be considered a top 50 classic game in it's own right.

Cosmic Encounter is available at Pandemonium Books, Games People Play, Hit and Miss in Lexington, among others.

Pros: simple, many ways to win, could have multiple winners or cooperative successes

Cons: expensive game, although well worth it in my opinion

Beyond the Basics: endless replay value and multiple complex strategies are possible.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Why it's Science Fiction Month

Science Fiction Month! Race for the Galaxy

Race for the Galaxy is a relatively new Rio Grande Games product. In this game players "discover" planets. Through the course of the game they then "colonize" and "develop" the planets. The winner is the player who has the most extensive and successful space empire. Race for the Galaxy has been a huge success for Rio Grande, let's see why that's been the case.

In the beginning of the game players are dealt a hand of cards. The cards are illustrated either with a picture of a planet or a picture of some improvement, concept or organization that one could find on a planet. Examples of the latter include "Genetics Lab," "Rebel Base," or "Colony Ship." Players begin play with a single planet in their empire and the hand of cards.

Over the course of the game players choose how they want to improve their empire. One player may wish to "explore" and draw new cards for their hand. A different player may wish to "develop" a planet, or "settle" and place a new world down in their empire. Over time certain planets may receive improvements (like a genetics lab) and be more productive. Having a hand with many cards increases the chances that one will be the sort of improvement that helps the most. Players can then exchange goods produced on planets for victory points.

The game is ultimately scored on victory points. You can get points for having a productive planet, for accomplishing certain goals (such as having many mining worlds), and even for having planets which consume goods. This leads us to the game's strength, and potentially its weakness as well.

I think there's a lot to like in Race for the Galaxy. The rules are fundamentally simple. The concept of exploring the galaxy and managing planets is exciting (to me at least). The components are good quality and well designed. Further, there aren't many similar science fiction games available at such a reasonable price. Finally, the game is subtle and complex enough to satisfy serious gamers.

This leads to a few caveats. There are many different strategies for winning Race for the Galaxy. The variety of planets and possible improvements is terrific, and also potentially intimidating. There are worlds that must be conquered and multiple ways to accomplish the conquering. While the specific rules are short and simple the cards all provide exceptions and special rules. The result is a manageable game with a multitude of variations. For this reason I can see Race for the Galaxy appealing to two groups of people. Serious gamers love the game- it's a big bestseller. In addition players of collectible card games (like Magic or Pokemon) will find the rule structure familiar. That being said, casual gamers or people who want to learn and master a game in one setting will find Race for the Galaxy to be way too complex.

I personally like the game and would recommend it to older players with motivation. There are expansion sets available and the game looks to have huge replay value. The box says ages 12 and up, I might add a few years to that unless your 12 year old was really interested and good at managing rules. Again, card gamers may have a head start.

Race for the Galaxy is available at Pandemonium Books in Central Square and at Your Move Games in Davis Square.

Pros: Exciting and challenging, you're building a space empire!

Cons: Not a game to be picked up and played in an hour, expect to Learn the rules

Beyond the Basics: Huge replay value and many expansions

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Science Fiction Month! Starblazer Adventures RPG

The folks at Cubicle 7 Entertainment were kind enough to send me a copy of their latest role playing game, Starblazer Adventures. I was pretty impressed with the game, especially as a good choice for beginner players.

Starblazer was a British comic book published in the 1970's and 80's. The title was a short story anthology in which a given issue would tell a self contained story. Some characters might return in future issues but each comic was complete in itself. For this reason there is no single "Starblazer Universe" in the same way there is a Star Wars Universe. A better analogy might be with television shows like CSI, in which self contained stories are told in a variety of locations and with a variety of characters.

For people who like a summary quickly, the Starblazer Adventures game has several appealing qualities. The rules are liberally supplemented with examples and explanations and written in an engaging and informative style. It's relatively easy to create a character and the system is well suited to new players who have a specific idea in mind, for example, "I want to be a space pilot who can use kung fu and climb like a ninja." Finally, the rules for play are straightforward and can be simplified or beefed up depending on your own preference and the abilities of your players. I would absolutely recommend this game for people looking for an approachable science fiction role playing game.

Now off to the details. The rule system is related to the rules of Zorcerer of Zo, reviewed here months ago. Players create characters and describe their characters' strengths and abilities. The game provides clear instructions as to how many strengths and special abilities a character may have, and provides explanation on how to make these descriptions work in play. One noteworthy quality of Starblazer Adventures is that virtually all character traits and qualities can be expressed in descriptive words rather than numbers. This is in contrast to many traditional role playing games in which a number might be used to describe a character's strength or intelligence.

For example, rather than saying "my character's strength is 17," the players would say "my character is "strong as an ox"." This is called an Aspect. Other aspects could include "Honest face," "stalked by ninjas," or "climbs like a monkey." Each of these is a fun way to describe the character and suggests both advantages and difficulties that could come up in a game. Players choose thier own aspects and can be as precise or as silly as they wish. Aspects come up during play. They may create an advantage in a situation or the game master could bring it up to make a situation more exciting or complex.

In addition to Aspects all characters will have Skills. As you might guess these are things the character is good at doing. Skills range from starship piloting to investigation. They're typically the sort of things that a person would acquire from training rather than personal qualities like Aspects. Skills are also qualified verbally, one might be "great" at driving and "fair" at sneaking. For an example I've included a sample character sheet here on the left.

As with all role playing games the remainder of the rules concern how to succeed at various challenges which may occur during the game. Say for example that the character above has to sneak into a spacecraft hanger. The game master would say "OK, to sneak and not be noticed you need to roll two dice and get a nice high number. Roll too low and you've failed and someone notices." The player would respond "Lucky for me I have Stealth skill so I can add 2 to whatever I roll. That skill has made it much more likely that I'll make it inside safely." That dynamic is repeated with some variation and fine tuning throughout the game- roll two dice, add in any bonuses you can get, and try and get a high number.

In honesty the rule system is slightly more complex than the above. There are a variety of twists as to how Aspects come into play and how they may help or hamper the character. There are also some additional rules regarding special "stunts" a player may do during the game which act as extra interesting or unique abilities. Nevertheless as a whole the rules are very approachable and manageable, certainly more so than recent editions of Dungeons and Dragons for example. I believe a parent with virtually no experience in role playing games could get Starblazer Adventures running with little trouble.

I love the character and rule system of this game. Role playing is about characters and their adventures. The rules concentrate on just that- what Aspects make this character unusual and fun? Are they "sworn enemy of the Red Star Gang?" I just made that up but it suggests adventure right off the top. Maybe the character is stuck in the desert but gets across driven by a unyielding desire to bring the gang to justice. Maybe the character is approached by the Federal Hill Gang and they offer him the secret of the Red Star's HQ, but only if he helps them rob a outer space bank! What a dilemma.

The system is also much more approachable for a role playing beginner. Other games might ask "what level of pilot skill do you want to purchase?" What? Level? Purchase? In this game the player says "I want to be an awesome pilot, good at kung fu, and I want an alien dragon who rides on my shoulder." As good as done.

The rule set does also provides the reader with an unbelievable wealth of background information. Do you want rules for starships? Alien empires? Giant space monsters? Robots? How about ideas for plots and sample planets? You may or may not need any of these things but if you do then they will be found within this very complete product. In addition there are dozens of pages of evocative comic art like the panel to the left. This rule system is as complete as it can get.

Readers may be struck by the book's length- six hundred pages! Be forewarned that this is largely the result of examples, explanations, and advice. I think this could be a very intimidating book to look at but once you begin reading you find the authors have gone out of their way to make sure every rule element is well explained. In fact I'm not sure I've ever seen a set of rules that is better presented. Again, this is a terrific product for beginners and don't be put off by the size of the book.

In summary I think Starblazer Adventures has a lot to offer. It's ideal for an experienced game master to use to introduce new players to role playing. An inexperienced game master might need to do a bit more background work on creating a setting but would be rewarded by the simplicity and elegance of the rules. At present it's a favorite role playing game for general science fiction and one of my top recommendations for new players. You can buy Starblazer Adventures through the company's website. At present it's available in pdf form but expect the book form to be available soon.

Pros: simple elegant rules, good for beginners

Cons: Big rulebook, wealth of material may initially seem intimidating

Beyond the Basics: Good for beginners but plenty there for experienced players and role playing purists.