Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Carson City - Western Town Building Game

After my tenth round of listening to Dwight Sings Buck I thought it might be nice to review a western themed game. Happily I was able to track down Carson City, a town building game which is about to appear in a second printing.

In the game of Carson City the players compete to build and develop and area of western desert. Some players may build mines, others hotels or ranches. There are a variety of ways to score victory points and the winner is the person with the most points after four turns. The basic mechanism of play in Carson City is straightforward. In a given turn a player may claim some land, build structures or roads on land, rob another player's building, or simply try and earn money based on how many building or followers they have. A player may try any one of the above or do several. At the end of the turn victory points are added to the player's total and the next turn begins.

Carson City adds a number of twists to the gameplay. Each turn the players choose a "character" that they will be for the duration of the turn. each character gives some benefit in play. For example, the person who is the "grocer" can earn much more money for their buildings. The "settler" gets a lot of land immediately for free. Players have to decide which character is going to help them the most in a given turn.

There is also a limit on certain actions. For example, only one player can collect victory points based on the number of buildings they own per turn. Certain buildings may be present in limited supply. Whenever two players want to do the same action the fight a "duel." Duels seem to be best avoided so the result is that you may not be able to do exactly what you want in a given turn and there may be some racing to see who can build the church or collect income from property at any given time.

The concept of changing your character each turn combined with being able to earn victory points in several ways is pretty typical of contemporary gaming. There does not seem to be a single "best" way to play Carson City. You can try robbing other players, building property, having lots of followers, or just earning lots of money and then buying victory points with the cash. In one sense it makes for lots of interesting strategy and good replay value. In another sense this can be baffling and irritating for some beginners. Some players find that a lot of choices is overwhelming. If your target audience includes a lot of players of that sort then Carson City will be a huge disaster.

I think Carson City has a lot of potential to be fun. It mixes concepts form many other games in a way that verges on derivative rather than inventive but I think that just makes it a "B" game rather than a classic like Race for the Galaxy or Citadels (both of which have elements that end up in Carson City and are themselves based on earlier games). I would recommend introducing Carson City in the sense of "let's just try this and see how it goes," rather than "this is exactly how to win, now let's aim for exactly that goal." I think players will discover the game's flow through playing it and as they do they will find fun strategies and ways to score. That was how my players approached Dominion and that became a gaming stable. Hopefully your crowd will feel the same way about Carson City.

I haven't checked but I suspect you can find Carson City at Pandemonium Books in Central Square.

Pros: lots of options and surprising ways to win

Cons: potentially too many options and surprising ways to win

Beyond the Basics: Decent replay value and a good introduction to other similar games

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Traveller - Old School Science Fiction RPG

I was lucky enough to grow up near Waterloo Hobbies on Long Island. Waterloo was a very well stocked game store and I spent hours there swimming happily through a sea of role playing and board games. As many people know the first generation of fantasy role playing games (rpgs) was dominated by Dungeons and Dragons. Authors of the day also delved into genres like wild west, superheroes, and science fiction. The most famous science fiction rpg at that time was Traveller.

Ironically I found Traveller consistently frustrating and underwhelming throughout high school and college. The game is set in the future and there are spacecraft and a variety of planets to visit. The original books, however, give no setting whatsoever. You are in The Future, but the social structure, government, star atlas, and all other background details are absent. Further, the equipment available to you is essentially no different than what's available at the present day. Admittedly you may purchase a laser rifle but there are no phasers, blasters, light sabers, force fields or androids. I missed the color of amazing weapons and bizarre aliens that Star Trek (and later Star Wars) flaunted so shamelessly. Further, characters in Traveller were generally military veterans with a few randomly determined skills. I put down the rules for twenty years.

Last night I pulled the set back out and ran a beginner's game for some friends. Interestingly it was a good success. A lot has changed in the gaming world in twenty years. Contemporary science fiction games are tremendously colorful and dripping with exotic weapons, genetic abilities, aliens, and nanotechnology. Two examples include Dark Heresy and Eclipse Phase. Yet my players won't go near either of those games because they are so very detailed and rich in setting. Playing either requires several hours of discussion and character generation.

In comparison we were able to create characters for Traveller in thirty minutes. Then I plonked the players down in a derelict spacecraft and let them search for escape pods while being chased by mutants. The players immediately grasped the ideas at play- flickering lights, ship is lurching, and those packs of howling creatures with blue spears are probably unfriendly. As a side note I ran them through the movie Pandorum (an underrated American remake of Eden Log, an underrated French SF film). Everyone had a good time and will probably play again, at which point I'll run them through a version of A Planet Called Treason.

For purposes of the blog I mention Traveller because it has good potential as a beginner's rpg that a parent could run for teens. The rules are simple, the characters are easy to create, and you can be up and playing in no time. The downside to the game is that you have to supply your own science fiction universe but if you're creative (or, like me, just read and watch a lot of SF) then this shouldn't be a problem.

I would guess that a teen who enjoys Traveller may move on to some of the games listed above, or others on the market that deliver more color and detail. That's what I did. But that doesn't downplay the accessibility and ease of play of this old school game.

You can find Traveller on eBay, or you can buy a collection of the rules from Far Future Enterprises. The Far Future collection represents the original set of rules which have been revised multiple times in the last few decades. Mongoose Publishing has the latest version. This version seemed at first glace to be more complex than it should be, without the exotic color of more modern games- thus a sort of lose-lose.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Dungeon Alphabet - a Fun Impulse Buy

In recent years we've seen a resurgence of conversation online regarding the Dungeons and Dragons "retro renaissance." This is the practice of playing original edition D&D, often in the way it was first played back in the early 1970's. In some ways the concept of the retro renaissance seems funny to me because I've always played first edition D&D. I suppose that made me both behind and ahead of the times. The other aspect of the "renaissance" that strikes me is that the historical Italian Renaissance shook the world and led the great advances in a variety of fields. In comparison the D&D Renaissance could simply be some older guys with blogs waxing nostalgic in the midst of a role playing mid life crisis.

So having established that I'm a D&D fan but not expecting Carla Bruni and Nicolas Sarkozy to join the Obamas in rolling up some characters anytime soon, let's look at a fun new product I picked up this weekend. Goodman Games recently published a hardcover book called The Dungeon Alphabet (TDA). This book contains twenty six entries related to D&D, arranged by letter of the alphabet. So, for example, "P is for Pool," and "K is for Kobold." Each entry is accompanied by a page or so of text and a table which allows you to randomly pick a certain type of pool, kobold, or what not. Some of the entries are really quite inspired- under "W is for Weird" you can roll up weird discovery number eleven:

"A cloud of glowing dust motes floats in the air in some difficult to reach place (in a high balcony, on the far side of a deep chasm, or atop a stone pillar."

Now for those readers who are not experienced in old style D&D, let's explain why that entry is so fabulous. When players encounter this they are intrigued- glowing motes, could these be related to treasure, could they be magical, could they be a trap or some portal to another location? And then the players have to decide how to examine them- climb a wall, cross the chasm, search for some hidden route. In a few sentences the dungeon master has created an exciting mystery with a challenge, some risk of hidden danger, and some hint of a cool reward. An experienced dungeon master could really ad lib the rest, just sitting here I can imagine an invisible treasure chest that glows, a will o' the wisp that lures victims into peril, a collection of gold that magically floats and allows anyone carrying it to levitate as well, the possibilities are endless and this is one of hundreds of entries.

The randomized charts are also appealing to old school players simply because random events are so very old school. A contemporary D&D adventure tells a grand story with characters, plot developments, emotional twists and complex metaplots. Old school games feature crazy magical pools, traps, baffling magical items and a sense that the world is endlessly surprising and mysterious. At their worst old school games can seem a little unreal, but at their best the excitement of discovering a mysterious fountain with a single black goldfish swimming in it and a sealed and unknown potion in its center is just terrific. A fountain! Is it magic? What's that potion? A trap? And the goldfish? Is it guarding the treasure or an innocent pet? Who wants to try drinking from the fountain? And off we go...

TDA is priced at ten dollars and this is the deal maker for me. The book is charming but it is basically a few dozen randomized tables. Ten dollars is exactly the amount that makes this a fun purchase. The book isn't designed to change anyone's life, just breath some fun and flavor into your games. I've already gotten my money's worth just from the pleasure of ready the entries and my players and going to love some of these pools, traps, doors, and "weird." I got my copy of The Dungeon Alphabet at Pandemonium Books in Central Square.