Sunday, January 31, 2010

Roots of Role Playing- Eric Carle's Dragons!

Some of us spend our time wondering how to introduce our children to dragons, mermaids and the like at a young age. I've been disappointed at how few books there are for younger children with what I would call decent art and appealing stories. My trips to Barnes and Noble have been busts so far and the 1st edition Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual is less appealing to 3 year olds that you might guess.

For these reasons I was thrilled when my wife brought home Eric Carle's Dragons Dragons. The book has illustrations of a few dozen creatures and each image is accompanied by a poem. The images are fabulous. Carle has a reputation for cute children's books but his work here just slightly more mature- still approachable for children but fun for parents to look at as well. I don't have much of a taste for poetry but the majority of the pieces are light-hearted and even a little silly. And if the poem doesn't grab you the artwork certainly will.

Dragons Dragons is a fun book for any child. It's also a nice item for role playing parents who want to give their kids a glimpse of fabulous and awesome creatures that could crop up in some rpg later on.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Totalcon 2010 - Nice Boardgaming Array

Families interested in board gaming could take a look at Totalcon. This is a yearly event held in Mansfield, MA, that offers a wide selection of games to try. I think the selection of boardgames this year looks particularly promising. If you have any interest at all then this is a fine chance to try a bunch of games and see which ones grab you. Note that there are special activities for younger players and that each event is classified as introductory or as requiring some experience.

Take a look at the Totalcon website for more details. The event occurs feb. 18th through 21st, 2010.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Command and Colors Ancients- Awesome!

My wargame club recently began its fall project and my role is to paint the small metal soldiers that will represent the French troops. It seems that to depict these soldiers I'll have to paint several hundred tiny metal men. As I tried to swallow that task I reflected that miniature wargaming certainly has a significant built-in barrier to new players. How do you welcome interested people and then suggest that they launch into such a potentially time-consuming hobby? One answer is of course that it's fun to paint tiny metal figures! Another answer may lie in boardgames that act like miniatures games but without the ridiculous time investment. Command and Colors: Ancients (C&C) is one such example.

In a game of C&C each player is in charge of an army and their role is to sweep aside or defeat the opponent's army. Instead of a million metal men the players use wooden blocks with illustration of soldiers, horses, or elephants on their sides. A player's unit of Numidian cavalry might be depicted by three blocks with pictures of men on horseback on them, for example. The players lay out their armies on a board marked with spaces. Then in a given turn a player might move some of their units several spaces across the board, and if they're close enough to the enemy, "battle" them by rolling dice. Lucky die rolls might cause the opponent to retreat or disappear. If the attacker is unlucky the opponent may be given a chance to fight back. The turns alternate and each player gets a chance to move units, maneuver, and attack as best they can. Usually a game ends when one army has lost a good number of units.

C&C has a few rules that keep the play simple but satisfying. Both players have a hand of cards. Players in charge of historically better led armies have more cards in their hand at any time. In their turn a player chooses a card, places it before them, and follows the instructions on it. Cards usually allow you to move a certain number of troops on a certain part of the board - "Move two units in the center of the board," for example. The cards are dealt randomly so you may not have the exact card you want, rather you just have to make due. For example, you may have powerful troops on the right and have to wait a while until dealt a card allowing you to move troops on the right. The limited set of options at any time is meant to simulate the limited control generals in Classical periods had over their troops. Giving one side more cards simulates the higher quality of leadership they had in that battle.

C&C includes a dozen or so sample scenarios based on real historical battles between Rome and Carthage. Players may command spear armed infantry, bowmen, chariots or elephants. These two elements contain both the strengths and weaknesses of the game. In terms of weaknesses C&C is going to be pretty dull to anyone not interested in the battles of ancient Rome. Hard as it is to imagine, some teens and adults may not care a whit about such things, or would rather be battling space marines or sherman tanks. This game is obviously wasted on anyone disinterested in ancient battles.

In terms of strengths, then, this game is a fantastic simulation and ideal for anyone with an interest in ancient battles. In summary, C&C illustrates well a variety of factors which were crucial in these contests. We see light cavalry zipping around the board but running the risk of retreating off the map at some inopportune moment. We see the importance of maintaining a strong battle line. We see elephants running rough over formed troops but vulnerable to light infantry and slingers. Players will tend to win battles if they use their troops in their historic role- skirmishers in front, flanks protected with cavalry, archers disrupting enemy lines, and so on. New players may not know any of these things in their first game but after several plays they'll have received a crash course in ancient history.

One other drawback of note is C&S' card system. It's not unreasonable that ancient generals had some limits in their control of their own troops and one could imagine an army's wing sitting and picking their teeth rather than charging at some crucial moment. Nevertheless the card system does veer away from "simulation" and towards "game". Serious ancient battle wargamers may find it too game-y. Further, very casual or younger players may prefer a game in which they can move all their troops in each turn to their heart's content. I personally find the card system exciting and challenging but players looking for non stop charges and attacks may look elsewhere.

I would recommend Command and Colors: Ancients for anyone with an interest in gaming ancient battles. I think it's a terrific game in it's own right and a fine introduction to tactical and miniatures gaming as well. The rule book is a bit long but the basic system is simple and should be approachable to interested teens and up. I got my copy for the Holidays, you might order yours from the Hobby Bunker in Malden.

Pros: simple, fast, great historical battle game

Cons: requires interest in historical battles

Beyond the Basics: multiple expansions exist and there's plenty of room for tactical improvement

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Citadels- Better Late Than Never

Many years ago I discovered modern European games and went out to buy a few. Most lay unplayed on the shelf as my Texas friends preferred to hike, swim, relax in the sun, or sip margaritas in the warm evening's air. The brisk Boston weather is better suited for indoor activities and recently I unpacked Citadels to give it a spin. After several rounds of gaming I can see why this is such a popular and well reviewed game.

In a game of Citadels the players compete to see who can build up a city area fastest and best. In a given turn a player will have a hand of cards, each depicting a building or city area- "Tavern" for example, or "Palace." During a turn you may choose to get more cards for your hand or get some gold coins. You can then spend gold to build your tavern, palace or what have you. When a player builds something they put their card in front of them and return the cost in gold coins back to the bank. Finally the turn moves to the next player.

Building things has some simple dynamics. Larger building and sites cost more gold, so a tavern is cheaper to build than a palace. Players may have to wait to collect enough gold to build what they want and they may have to choose to collect more cards if the ones in their hand are unsuitable for some reason. Victory is simple as well, the first person to build eight things ends the game- the remaining players finish the round and then everyone totals up the cost in gold of all their buildings. The person with the most expensive array of buildings is the winner. There are a few details to scoring but as you can see this is a very simple game.

Citadels becomes a brilliant and satisfying game through a simple mechanic. In each turn a player chooses a "character" to be. Examples include "thief," "king," or "bishop." Each character comes with certain special abilities. For example, the thief gets to steal gold from another character. The bishop gets extra gold for each religiously themed building they own. Imagine that you've built a temple and a monastery and that this turn you really need gold in order to build some extra fabulous site. You might try and be the bishop. You collect extra gold and can build your palace. But next turn you could choose a different character in order to accomplish a different goal.

In our trial game the players found that jockeying for the choice characters was a lot of fun. Some characters can allow you to steal or interfere with other players and so in addition to giving gold and perks your choice could decide who has their building demolished or who gains or loses cards. The rules managed who can pick a character first and ensured that we all had our moments to get the special abilities we needed. The strategy of picking the right character at the right time adds huge depth to this simple game.

Citadels had a few more strengths. One is that it works well with a big group. we played with seven. Further, it's a quick moving game and you could probably finish in thirty to forty five minutes. The game is also quite inexpensive compared to some eurogames that retail for fifty or more dollars. Finally, the game is quick enough that you rarely get a staggering victory or humiliating loss, a nice touch if playing with people who hate to lose.

I would recommend Citadels to anyone looking for a simple and quick group game with the possibility of deep strategy. Children ages ten and up could probably play well and teens will grasp the deeper nuances after a few rounds.

Pros: simple, deep strategic potential, fast play

Cons: may be of little interest if the theme of building cities is uninteresting

Beyond the Basics: Insane potential for strategy and improvement, several expansions