Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Lord of the Rings - Better Late Than Never

The absolute first "new" game I received was The Lord of the Rings. My nurse at my Texas office got it for me for my fortieth birthday and set off a dire chain of events that now leaves me with several shelves full of colorful games and game related gear. Strangely enough the game itself was only played once. Texas is not a very boardgame conducive state as it combines perfect weather with inexpensive food and drink and thus people are less inclined to stay inside and play. I pulled The Lord of the Rings (LoTR) out last weekend and we gave it another spin. As an aside, I'm going to assume that readers are familiar with the books and characters, otherwise there is little reason to pursue the game.

LoTR is a cooperative game. The players take on the roles of the hobbits and try and get across the perilous map of Middle Earth without being corrupted by the dark force of Sauron. The specific game mechanism is fairly straight forward. Players receive a hand of cards. The cards have one of five symbols on them: feet for travelling, a tree for hiding, crossed weapons for fighting, shaking hands for friendship, and a star which acts as a wild card. At various points in the game players are faced with challenges and have to surmount them by playing the right type of card. For example, when the nazgul appear the players must "hide" by playing cards with trees.

The challenge of the game stems from not always having the cards you need and from finding ways to pool resources and help out the other players. Some special cards may allow you to "save" another players. At other moments you may pass some valuable card to a player in trouble, or even choose to suffer some minor drawback in order to protect another player from something much worse. LoTR really plays up the idea that the players are a fellowship and must work as a group to defeat the dark lord. There is no real individual glory in this game, just a series of close calls and the feeling that without your pal to the left your goose would have been cooked a long time ago.

The cooperative quality is of course of one of LoTR's great strengths. It's terribly satisfying to help the other players and it feels great to have them help you. In this regards LoTR is a pretty ideal family game. Everyone has a chance to help someone, everyone has a chance to be seen as a rescuer. And the whole group feels great if they finish the game and succeed.

The cooperative quality is also a slight flaw to LoTR. There is absolutely a strategic quality to this game. In our group, for example, we were decimated in our first game and in the second did quite nicely, mainly because we learned by doing. At the same time LoTR is as much an experience as a game. You play to share an adventure. I like experience games just fine, Sleeping Queens in another example and it's a terrific product. Mousetrap is another game that strays into experience play. LoTR strives to present a specific story with set encounters and events and that format may be too linear for some players or some moments. We had fun but I don't see playing LoTR with the same intensity we play Race for the Galaxy or Dominion.

I would absolutely recommend Lord of the Rings as a fun family game with a cooperative angle. Our group of gaming beginners had a good time and later asked why we hadn't played it before. I think you need familiarity with the books to get the full experience and it probably works best with ages ten and up. I got my copy years ago but I suspect it's still available in stores or through eBay.

Pros: Cooperative, team building

Cons: Linear, first game could be demoralizing

Beyond the basics: expansions exist, plus you can reread the books

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Uncharted Seas- Simple Naval Miniatures Game

The miniatures gaming world has dozens of sets of rules for playing out battles at sea. Typically the rule sets suffer from a few common issues- they may be excessively detailed, they may be historically flawed, or they may be simply dull. Sea Krieg, for example, is an insanely detailed rule set that we found almost completely unplayable. On the other hand, Victory at Sea has historical flaws that make it mildly to very irritating to players looking for realism. One solution to this issue is to create a game set in a fantasy world and make the rules simple and fast. Spartan Games sets out to do just that with Uncharted Seas.

In a game of Uncharted Seas players lay out miniature ships on a table or felt cloth and then "sail" them around a board attempting to sink their opponents. Rather than playing Swedes against Russians the players take the sides of elves, dwarves, humans, and other fantasy beings. This allows the publishers to avoid some issues of realism and historical accuracy. It does leave the question, however, of whether Uncharted Seas is actually fun.

Happily Uncharted Seas is actually a fairly fun game. Individual ships have a set distance they can move, which in some cases is modified by wind direction or some other variable. Ships also possess various weapons which they can fire or they may just choose to ram an opponent. Different ships and races have strengths or weaknesses which differentiate them. Dwarves use steam power to move their ships and while they move slowly they can ignore the wind. Humans use sails and so they may zip along or get stuck if the wind is blowing in the wrong direction. The ships of the orcs fire best straight ahead, the dwarves like to ram, and the elves can launch dragons to make aerial attacks.

Speaking of attacks, the combat system in Uncharted Seas is simple but not overly so. Players roll dice to "hit" an enemy and if they score enough hits the attack penetrates armor and does some damage. Larger ships require more hits before they suffer damage but may be easier to hit while small ships are hard to hit but fragile.

Finally, each player in Uncharted Seas has a deck of cards which give certain special abilities or bits of good luck. You have several of these cards dealt randomly to you and they may give you a bonus attack or defense or allow better movement. Primarily the cards add a random factor to the mix and while they aren't realistic they are exciting.

Uncharted Seas is sold as a stand alone set of rules and additional fleet boxes. Each box gives you enough ship models to play a good sized game. The models are made of resin (see photo to the right) and the samples I have seen are of good quality. They do need to be painted so this game is not ready to play instantly. The models also need to be glued together- again, this is not an instant play sort of game. I was not completely blown away by the models' art design but while the sculpts are not fabulous they do paint up nicely and look good on the board.

I found Uncharted Seas to be a fun and simple naval battle game. It's not groundbreaking, it's not artistically a masterpiece, but it is a very fun and playable game that's easy to get started and has good variety. I got my fleet at the Hobby Bunker- they were selling out so call ahead if you have an interest and see if a new shipment has come in.

Pros: simple, fast, fun

Cons: models require painting

Beyond the basics: Just the entire world of naval miniature gaming...