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.