Monday, April 26, 2010

Uncharted Seas After Action Report

This weekend we ran through another game of Uncharted Seas and I like this game more with each play. In summary it's quick, exciting, "realistic" enough for me and pretty affordable. I wrote a review of the game some months ago. Let's get down to the details.

I commanded a fleet of humans against Tony's "Iron Dwarves." I had painted up his fleet in a Greek inspired color scheme of white with blue accents while mine was a crazy North African melange of reds, blues, purples and yellows (thanks to Color Schemes for Every Room, Annie Sloan). I'm not awestruck by Uncharted Seas designs but the ships are big and they look terrific on the table.

I want first and sent my light frigates ahead of my main body to screen. At that moment my plans fell apart. My ships zipped across the table and within seconds were being blasted into splinters by the Dwarves. First lesson- this game moves quickly, with long ranged weapons and fast movement rates. The surviving frigates took aim at the Dwarven battleship and unleashed a great volley which bounced harmlessly. Second lesson- appropriately enough smaller ships are pretty ineffectual against giant ones.

My fleet was pretty much crippled early on but Tony moved some of his ships ahead just to see what might happen. We exchanged some gunfire and cast some spells at each other which were fairly entertaining without being completely unbalancing. Then I found some Dwarven frigates in the path of my battleships and rammed them to see how that would go. It went satisfyingly poorly for the Dwarves and we then learned that ramming and boarding actions are fast, simple, and "feel" right.

The action ended with my colorful fleet at the bottom of the ocean and my battleship and one frigate sailing away in terror while the Dwarves popped open some retsina and celebrated. Through the entire action we managed a variety of situations smoothly. We had to check rules a few times but were always able to find the answer written in a straightforward and concise fashion. We didn't find any gaping rules holes and the playtesting seems to have been effective.

Our group enjoyed Uncharted Seas. It's certainly simple but not silly or arbitrary. A functional fleet is less than $50 and the ships are fun to paint. I don't see it as a classic game for the ages but we'll be playing again and I'd certainly recommend it as a good game for beginners and experienced gamers alike.

Pros: simple, fast, fun

Cons: fair ship design, ships are made of resin and can shatter if dropped.

Beyond the Basics: expansions are planned, plus there are only a hundred other naval battle rulesets out there.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Huzzah- Wargaming in Maine

Next weekend is Huzzah, a new wargaming convention being held in Portland, Maine. The schedule has a pretty good assortment of games, most aimed at older teens and adults. Many local conventions are a mix of board games, role playing, and miniatures gaming. Huzzah really concentrates on miniatures.

There are a number of reasons to consider the trip. The game selection is good and includes several that could be fun for beginners. My suggestions would include Aerodrome, Smoke on the Water, and Gangland. You'll also get to see more complex but very popular games like Flames of War being played and perhaps try them as well.

Huzzah is also fairly close by and there aren't many events like this in the area, Havoc and Northeast Wars (not Winter Wars, my bad) being the only two that come to mind. And Northeast Wars was canceled this year, which I think leads us to the next reason to attend.

This is Huzzah's first year. The group running the event has put a Lot of work into it and I think it would be great to respond. Huzzah looks very professionally organized but it is absolutely a labor of love by people with a passion for gaming. I'd encourage interested parties to get up there and show support.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Magic the Gathering - Fifteen Years Redux Part 2

My gaming group enjoyed Dominion and Race for the Galaxy and I wanted to try a more traditional collectible card game. We had flirted with Legend of the Five Rings and Game of Thrones LCG. The former seemed more complex than the group were ready for (although by reputation it's a terrific game). I dropped the latter as I got through book three of the Game of Thrones novels and quit in a frenzy of frustration and irritation. That left us with Magic the Gathering (MtG) and after some research we tried a low key game variant.

The rules of MtG are fairly simple, Players have a deck of cards and draw up seven into their hand. In each turn they can play "land" cards. Each land gives the player a point of magical power which they can use to cast spells or do some other task. The cards in a player's hand also include creatures which can be summoned and a variety of spells which can help or hinder. For example, you might summon a fierce mouse for 1 point, or summon a dragon for 5 points of magic. But you might summon a mouse and then play another card which makes the mouse grow to seventy feet in height with flashing eyes and electric tentacles. Or you might cast a banishing spell and send your opponent's dragon off to limbo. All this "spell casting" is based on which cards randomly end up in your hand and can only occur if you have enough land cards in front of you to pay the cost in magical points.

Once a player has summoned and cast spells they can send their creatures off to attack other players. The opponent then has to use their own creatures to defend and little battles ensue. Any attackers that make it through inflict points of damage on the player and if the player takes twenty points of damage they are out of the game.

Our group had a terrific time with MtG. We found that early in the game the players mainly try and get some land cards on the table. This is a little slow paced and until you have the land and the resulting magical points you're not likely to be doing any great feats. In the middle of the game the players start summoning creatures and playing other useful cards. Things then speed up and by the end the players are banishing, summoning, casting enchantments and doing all sorts of interesting things. We had to refer to the rules every now and then but every question had a simple answer.

In terms of pros and cons we enjoyed the variety of cards available. Each player had a moment where they unleashed some amusing of devastating creature and many had subtle and interesting special abilities. We liked the simple rules. The beginning of the game moved slowly as we got used to the dynamic but by the end we were having some exciting battles. Some multi player games can be dull as each player takes a turn but MtG allows players to cast spells during other people's turns so there was no dreary downtime. Finally, by the end of the game we could see some strategic elements and the possibility of getting better as a player.

On the down side the game did start slowly and I think some players were frustrated that they couldn't use some of their cooler cards right away. Once we understood that you just don't expect to cast awesome spells immediately that issue was resolved. I'm not sure if you can "come back" once you start losing. On the other hand this game seems to play fast so I suspect that a loser can get back in with another game quickly enough. Finally, we all did feel the pull to immediately start shopping on EBay for rare cards. Once you realize that just by adding the hologram mythic rare special edition Chromatic Dragon to your deck you'd be unbeatable it's highly tempting to do so. We resisted the siren call.

Our group had a great time with MtG. As about a million people already know this is a great group game. It's family friendly. It can be played in a low key fashion although it often may not be. If a parent thinks they can avoid the trader frenzy this would be a great game for kids and teens and a good choice for groups of adult friends as well.

Pros: simple, fun, some strategic component

Cons: risk of trading frenzy, potential to be a black hole money pit

Beyond the Basics: a new edition each year plus it's an introduction to resource management games of which there are many

Magic the Gathering - Fifteen Years Redux Part 1.

When Magic the Gathering (MtG) was first released I picked up a pair of starter sets and my girlfriend and I gave them a try. I remember thinking the game was a bit slow and didn't see the appeal and that was the end of that. Some time later my gaming group had a terrific time playing Dominion and I was left wondering if it was time to give MtG another try.

Readers are possibly already aware that MtG is a collectible card game. The game is played with a deck of MtG cards. Players buy cards to put in their decks. Some cards are more rare and also more effective than others. The cards are purchased, in theory, through "booster packs" which have a random assortment sealed inside. The game has developed so that some cards are highly sought after and since the booster packs are a shot in the dark a busy world of trading and card sales has emerged. I've witnessed high school students spending hundreds of dollars for sets of valued cards. That was chilling and creepy in several ways I can assure you.

I didn't want to enter into that world of collecting and trading. My last memory of being a collector and trader was selling Giant Size X-Men #1 for $30 in high school. Suffice it to say that it's worth a trifle more today. I turned to Boardgamegeek and got some good advice about a lower key way to play. Then I went over to Arlington's Comicazi and talked to the salesman there. He was very friendly and helpful and in the end I had a plan.
MtG can be purchased in starter sets and tournament decks. Either gives you enough cards to play a game. The people at Comicazi recommended giving each player a starter set. Then each time your friends play they buy a few booster packs as well. The players empty the boosters onto a table. They then take turns picking up a card until all the new cards are gone. In theory each person has a decent chance of getting some useful material. Apparently a similar system is used in some tournaments which highlight play ability over devastatingly tuned decks. Specifically this is called "drafting."
The Comicazi people pointed out that as long as the group played each other the decks would stay roughly equal in quality. Further, your expense would be roughly ten dollars for a starter deck and then five dollars for each booster. A single person could play many games and maybe spend less than thirty dollars. Finally, since the players have some choice over the cards that they draft they could over time seek out certain cards they prefer. The end result would be a deck which was somewhat personalized but at about a tenth of the cost and bother.

In the spirit of seeking knowledge and acquiring more games for the shelves and empty spaces of the house I purchased four tournament decks of Magic the Gathering: Shards of Alara. That evening I subjected my gaming group to Magic the Gathering.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Walkerloo - A Nice Introduction to Toy Soldiers

I recently got a call from a friend who asked if he could bring his son over to look at my miniature toy soldiers. In one sense I was thinking "h*%# yes!" since I think miniature gaming is a great hobby. In another sense I had some qualms since most miniatures have sharp edges, small pieces, they're time consuming to paint and of course they contain lead. The call left me wondering about the best way to introduce younger folks into the hobby of miniatures and toy soldiers.

I'm not even sure how I stumbled upon Walkerloo Toy Soldiers. These are cardboard flat soldiers patterned after several regiments that fought at Waterloo. In one gesture you eliminate lead, sharp edges, expense, and hours of painting. Now to be sure I rather like hours of painting personally but as a gift for kids this just can't be beat.

The Walkerloo website also offers several rulesets for use in playing with your soldiers, one written by another Mike Fischer! You can buy various packs of soldiers to suit your needs ranging from squadrons of cavalry all the way to a mammoth box with hundreds of foot and several dozen cavalry figures.

There is one caveat. The illustrations are generally charming and full of character. Some of the figures are depicted in the process of being shot. To death. Parents are Highly Encouraged to consider ahead of time whether this is a level of realism that is excessive. One could pull those figures from the pack if they seem to cross the line.

I love the Walkerloo figures. In general I have an affection for "flats." They're colorful, old school, and affordable. These figures are obviously a labor of love as well as a business venture and I think they're a great introduction to tactical gaming and toy soldiers.

Mutant Future- Fun and Free

I first heard about Mutant Future over at Jeff Rients' highly entertaining blog. But maybe in a sense I first heard about it twenty years ago at Waterloo Games on Long Island. Gamma World was one of the first generation role playing games released by TSR in the 1970s. The rules were quite similar to Dungeons and Dragons but the setting was a distant future after an apocalyptic war. Our gaming group never tried Gamma World. It seemed poorly supported compared to Dungeons and Dragons and the cover was both evocative and creepy. The emphasis on crazy mutations and dangerous radiation also just seemed depressing.

Twenty years down the road a number of publishers have begin printing versions of old school games like Dungeons and Dragons and Runequest. Mutant Future (MF) is Goblinoid Games version of original Gamma World. Our gaming group was looking for something different last night so I ran an ad lib game and we had a terrific time. In MF your character can be a human, a mutated human, a mutated animal, an android or a mutated plant (!). To my surprise no one chose to be a mutated plant, a character class which sounds incredibly entertaining. Instead the players chose android, mutated human, and a walking, speaking, mutant goat. The players roll dice to determine their character's strength, intelligence, and so on just as in D&D. As in the original Gamma World the attributes are pretty similar to D&D. The players then rolled for a random selection of mutations. One player discovered that he could reflect attacks- for example if he was stabbed with a spear the attacker would suffer the damage. Ironically that character also had the "prey scent" mutation- he had some unique scent that attracted predators. The android player got the ability to turn into a thirty foot python at will. In addition he had photosynthetic skin but slowed down in the dark. In general the mutations are entertaining and completely unbalanced. More on that later.

In the game the characters had to track down the population of their village which had mysteriously emptied one night. They tracked the villagers across the nearby burning sands under the hot, oblong sun. Oblong? Then they came to a wall painted the color of the sky that stretched far to the left and right and up to the sky, with a door in it. Of course by this point the players suspected they were actually in a huge room of some sort, perhaps an underground habitat or generational starship. Once through the door the encountered some mutant tiger mummy women and rescued their friends from a pack of intelligent walking dogs with shotguns (thanks Jack Kirby!). In the end they met with the "old man in the cave" but none of the players watched much Twilight Zone so the reference was wasted.

MF was a great time. My players are not interested in learning new game systems and MF is basically D&D with mutant powers so all the game mechanics were familiar. I struggled to find a setting that wasn't depressing but once I hit upon Starlost meets Kamandi the adventure flowed smoothly. The rules are well written and include all the information you would need to play, and they're free!

There are some downsides to MF. The mutant powers are random and completely unbalanced. We just accepted that and I made sure each player had something amusing to do. Competitive players may have trouble either accepting weak powers or holding back from dominating the game with better powers. A sense of whimsy may be key here.

The other potential issue with MF is that it has no clear setting other than "post apocalypse." The game master (actually referred to as "Mutant Lord") will need to come up with the setting and that may require a bit of thought or just some visits to the video store to review The Road Warrior, Delicatessen, or Six String Samurai.

I would recommend MF to anyone looking for some light, simple role playing fun. It's a great product and I'm glad we gave it a try. Download your copy at the Goblinoid Games website.

Pros: Well written, fun, free game

Cons: subject matter is potentially depressing, totally unbalanced powers

Thursday, April 1, 2010

When the party ends- RPG conflict

I had an interesting experience recently which playing Dungeons and Dragons. The other players were mainly beginners and the party had just discovered some treasure. To make a long story short my character found several magical rings and took them all. Another player demanded that they be shared and when I decline his character drew a weapon and insisted at swordpoint. The situation was quite awkward and left many of the players wondering. How do you manage that type of conflict at the role playing table?

Even as I write this account the essential difficulty of the situation becomes clear. The players each have a character and they act out what the character is doing. So Mike Fischer isn't taking the magic rings, it's Ashraf the Illusionist. And Joe Smith isn't pulling a sword and demanding they be shared, it's Krunk the Dwarf. Some players might argue that any behaviour is acceptable if it fits what the fictional character would be prone to do. If your character is a thief then she could and likely should steal from the other members of the party. If your character has a short temper then you should act that out.

I think the role playing realism approach has some merit. I like role playing and being true to your character makes for some unpredictable and exciting games. Further, you could argue that role playing an unusual or complex personality is a real achievement in terms of your own creativity and acting skills.

In the end I decided that while you can justify inter-party conflict as role playing that doesn't make it fun for me personally. Granted it's not "against the rules," and may even be supported by the rules. Nevertheless it just wasn't fun. Specifically: it wasn't fun for me. So how does this apply to gaming in general, or anyone else in the world?

If you're assembling a gaming group or starting out games it may be a good idea to talk about what the player's goals are. You could ask whether everyone is comfortable with aggressive styles of playing, with triumphant yells or competitive comments. If you're playing with children you might take a more directive role and help them grow into good social gamers. I've encountered skilled teen players who are shunned because their aggressive style is just too irritating for the other people in the group.

The role players may want to discuss the levels of realistic violence and drama they're comfortable with. One player may feel that graphic descriptions of combat are uncomfortable. Another player may be unwilling to play in a game in which the characters can turn on one another. Or all the players may agree that the game is a free-for-all and that any level of mayhem is acceptable.

In the end I decided that whatever the arguments for or against inter-party conflict were, for my purposes it just wasn't fun. At age 45 any free time is pretty precious and there's just no point in sitting through a game that's not enjoyable. At the same time I resolved not to antagonize the other player by appearing as though I wasn't sharing. His time is just as valuable as mine of course and in the end the point of the game is to have fun as a group- otherwise you'd just be playing solitaire.

Frog Juice - With a Name Like That...

As I study for the medical boards the posts are going to come less frequently but today lets drop our age range a bit and talk about another product from the reliable folks at Gamewright, Frog Juice.

This game has such an appealing title that many kids could probably be handed a collection of almost any items, be told they were components for playing Frog Juice, and they'd probably have a great time. Purists can choose to follow the rules of the game, which are happily fairly simple. The basic premise of Frog Juice is that players compete to collect cards. At the end of the game the number and type of cards you've collected earn you points.

The specific mechanisms of Frog Juice are straightforward and sneak in some basic math skills. Players have cards in their hand with number values. "Toads," for example, are number 3. There are cards laid out in front of all the players. To capture a card you have to play a card from you hand of the same value. You can also capture cards adding up to the card in your hand, so a card valued at 11 could capture a 5 and a 6. Finally you can add several cards from your hand to capture a card valued at the total. So a 4 and a 3 from you hand can capture a 7. Cynical readers may claim that this makes Frog Juice simply an adding game!

Cynics be gone because Gamewright has tossed in their customary collection of game tweaks. There are special cards that allow players to steal other player's collected cards, or allow players to grab all the cards in the center of the table, or allow players to prevent one of the above from happening. Finally you can cast a spell card and collect cards directly from other players hands. The variety of special actions and spells keeps Frog Juice sufficiently unpredictable and funny even as the players exercise their addition skills.

There's a lot to like in this game. There is some strategy, there is luck and there are some sweeping magical cards. The game's small size makes it good for car trips or quick games in some boring setting and it looks like a good vacation game to be played at grandma's house. It's got spells and witches and teaches kids to add and subtract, plus a funny name. What's not to like?

Pros: funny, educational without being prim

Cons: its a fun filler game, hard to criticize

Beyond the Basics: learn to add and the world is your oyster