Friday, July 16, 2010

Ticket to Ride Update

I've been studying for an exam lately and that's left less time for board gaming. Ironically it's remained easy to whip off sessions of Dungeons and Dragons which may say something about the ease of running D&D after some thirty years of play. Last night I did my study session early and dragged Steve over so we could do a quick boardgaming session and have something to write about other than old school role playing.

Ticket to Ride is a new classic boardgame which has sold millions of copies and spawned a good number of expansions and sequels. I picked up Ticket to Ride: Europe (TRE) recently and last night we unwrapped it and gave it a try. TRE is now my favorite family boardgame and I'm looking forward to my next chance to play.

The rules of TRE are simple enough. You have a board with a map of Europe on it and several cities marked. Between the cities are train routes marked in a color- blue, white, green, etc. The players also have cards in their hand. Each card has a train car of a certain color- blue, white, green, etc. In your turn you can claim a train route by placing a number of cards down of the right color. If a route has three red spaces you need to place three red cards. You win points based on how long the route is.

In a player's turn you may claim a route, draw more train cards in the hopes of accumulating more red cards or blue cards or so on, or draw a bonus card which will give you extra points for connecting certain cities. The bonus card is a mystery, you hope the bonus is for cities you can easily connect but it may not be. There are a few more rules specifics but that's the main of it.

Our trial game moved quickly and we had very few rules issues. On our turn we would usually agonize about whether to grab some cards and hope to complete a long route Next turn, or just complete a short route this turn for some quick points. One thing we noticed is that there was very little down time between turns. This is not a game where four players will sit in boredom waiting for the fifth to complete some lengthy activity. As board games go it was really pretty dynamic and exciting.

We also realized that the short and concise rules still allowed a great deal of strategy. You may wish to accumulate huge numbers of cards before building routes, or to just build often. You may try and get bonus points for building specific routes. There seemed to be many ways to approach the game and people who want to play a "deeper" game will not be bored.

TRE was a very pleasant surprise. I think it's a terrific game for younger players and has huge potential for older ones. I liked the speed of play, the colorful board, and the simple rules. This game really does deserve the reputation it's acquired.

I got my copy at Henry Bear's Park but TRE is widely available.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Villains and Vigilantes - Back in Print!

My most successful and long lasting role playing campaign was played using the Villain and Vigilantes (V&V) rule system. V&V is intimately associated with old friends, favorite characters, and special times in my life. High school afternoons in a friend's basement, rolling up characters with a girl I had a crush on, late nights in college and convoluted storylines and plots which actually tied up at the end. In addition I think it's a terrific game system and ideal for old pro's as well as families and younger players. I am happy to say that Villains and Vigilantes is back in print and ready to entertain a whole new generation of players.

In a game of V&V the players take on the roles of - themselves! With superpowers. Play begins with everyone deciding just how strong, smart, good looking and intelligent they are on a scale on one to eighteen. This requires a bit of give and take as one can imagine. We were able to accept that we were all about average and left things at that. You then allocate super powers by rolling for them randomly on tables. Finally you fill in details regarding each character's powers and you're ready to fight menaces in your own neighborhood, college, or what-not.

V&V is a very old school game in that some people are going to get fewer powers and some powers are just lame. Players who expect to be smashing icebergs and deflecting bullets may be dismayed to get the power of "Enhanced Vision." Players can get several powers but there will absolutely be some with better or more than others. Prospective game masters and parents introducing the game will need to be aware of this factor and plan ahead. I might recommend DC Comics Legion of Superheroes Archives Volume 1 as a great source of adventure featuring characters with less that godlike powers.

V&V offers several terrific features. It has a very simple system for deciding how far you can throw a given object and what sort of damage it does when it strikes home. Everything from satellite dishes to mailboxes is a potential weapon or tool. Fans of superhero comics and movies will recognize the fun to be had in a shopping mall, construction site, or Rose Bowl Parade. This does require a game master to occasionally think in terms of set pieces- areas that are ideal for action packed battles and that are littered with appropriate props. For example, "the street" is a poor set piece. The local airport, with several small planes, a fuel tanker, several towers and piles of luggage, is a great set piece.

The trick of using the real world as the game setting and having players act out themselves is also a great source of fun. It doesn't rule out hidden fortresses below the middle school or alien invaders landing at the local Dunkin' Donuts, but it does ground the game nicely. It also helps the game master who has trouble describing things, since local landmarks are easy to envision.

Finally, the rule system is robust and simple. It is an old school system and will not cover every possible detail your players raise. It may not simulate every superhero encounter perfectly. On the other hand, the rule systems I have encountered that do those things also seem dreary and unreadable. Villains and Vigilantes is neither- it's accessible and fun. I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in superhero role playing. Check it out at it's Lulu storefront.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Al Qadim - Arabian Role Playing Part 2

I spent some time last night trying to reconcile my affection for the Al Qadim setting with my mixed review of Arabian Adventures. In part I feel like AA delivered just the right amount of background to get me launched and just the right number of special rules required to simulate the region. I also recalled one of the first exposures I had had with Al Qadim, the free sourcebooks available from Wizards of the Coast.

Some time ago I downloaded these books and flipped through them. There's a lot of material to get through, one of the hallmarks of Al Qadim seems to be profuse background material. I stumbled across a mini adventure set at the Burning Pool of Natifa. The pool is an oasis inhabited by a ghost named Natifa.

"Near the southern edge of the pool stands a stone oven, along with a collection of gleaming copper pots, pans, kettles, forks, knives, and plates.

A ghost named Natifa, who appears as an elderly woman with rich brown skin and shoulder-length hair as white as a chicken egg, lives on the bottom of the pool. Natifa occasionally surfaces to perch atop the fountain. When a stranger approaches, Natifa may ask him to prepare her a meal. If the stranger declines, Natifa politely but firmly asks him to leave. If she is in a playful mood, she may toss a handful of flaming arafaj in his direction.

If the stranger agrees, Natifa asks him to name the dish he intends to prepare (the more exotic the dish, the more intrigued she will be). If the dish requires special ingredients, she will fetch them. The dish must be prepared on her stone oven, using her cookware and utensils.

When the stranger completes the dish, Natifa descends from the fountain to sample it. If the food displeases her, she casts it into the pool, throwing the stranger in after it, then disappears. The stranger will have to navigate the flaming arafaj to return to shore. If Natifa enjoys the dish, she shows her appreciation by aiding the stranger, usually by offering information..."

What an awesome encounter! There's drama, a reward, supernatural mystery, and humor. This spirit seems to permeate Al Qadim and make it a very entertaining setting.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Al Qadim - Arabian Role Playing Part 1

There are now four different Dungeons and Dragons campaigns going on amongst my circle of friend, one being run by someone who only started playing this year. I don't think I ever would have believed that I would someday complain about there being too many D&D games to play and yet that is now the case. Further, they're all different and all pretty exciting. I felt like it was time to try a new setting just so that my campaign could seem a little different. My wife also suggested that a game with more exploring and role playing and less hacking might be a good idea. With that in mind I picked up some copies of the main books for the Al Qadim campaign.

Al Qadim was the dungeons and dragons middle eastern setting. It was released in 1992 and saw some success before being discontinued as per the publisher's original plan. I picked up the main rulebook Arabian Adventures as well as a boxed set called Al Qadim: Land of Fate. For today's entry let's talk about Arabian Adventures.

Arabian Adventures (AA) is a well designed book. It's softcover with a fabulous illustration on the cover of a man on horseback being menaced by a djinn of some sort. This is only one of a dozen or so evocative colour illustrations the book provides. Some art in D&D is fair, some is ghastly, and the material in AA is just perfect- each one suggesting some interesting adventure that you might want to be a part of and each one really true to the original source material. Except with some dragons added. To be sure there are some black and white illustration in AA that are fair but the overall work is terrific.

Once you get past the pictures the AA book has a lot to offer. You get brief background material on the lifestyles of the people of Zakhara (the D&D middle east). This section is scanty and deliberately so but it introduces concepts such as social standing, how the citizens interact, and the roles of family and honor. I enjoyed this section and it did help to establish the game's setting.

The book follows with character generation rules based on second edition D&D. I was pretty disappointed with this section. While the rules introduce twenty character classes the majority seem either boring or potentially exciting but with boring special abilities. I think this is why I don't play second edition at all and probably my dismissal of this section is less a critique of the book and more a critique of second edition itself.

Happily the rest of the material is interesting and useful. There are lists of equipment and Arabian themed weapons. There are new rules that apply to adventures in the setting, rules regarding armour use in the heat, the "evil eye," social standing and so on. I personally love the idea of making armour too hot to wear routinely. In this setting fighters are still best for melee but they're less likely to stomp around encased in enchanted mithril plate mail. A thief with a ring of protection might be equally safe as a fighter in chain mail, although certainly less able to shrug off multiple blows. I suspect games of Al Qadim will include far more thieves, monks, and illusionists than I'm used to seeing.

The AA book winds up with new spells for an Arabian setting. Some of these are pretty weak or specialized for survival in the sands. I suspect that first level players are still going to memorize color spray or magic missile but as a magic user's spells expand they may wish to choose "wind compass" or "fire truth" (detect lies by means of the motion of a nearby flame).

I plan on using the AA material and ignoring the new classes. The cultural notes are interesting, the campaign setting is exciting, and the colour illustrations just terrific. I think we'll be doing more chats with djinn, more lock picking and swinging from ropes, and more planning before combat. I would absolutely recommend this book as a great campaign setting for D&D, and perhaps a better one than most for the kids.

Next, lets talk about the Land of Fate boxed set!

Fantasy Rules! Rules May Indeed Rule

In the wake of the Splintered Light sale I went off and ordered a generous number of undead and forest animals and then spent some time wondering just what on earth I was going to do with them. Other than paint them of course. It's strange that despite the fact that there are thousands of fantasy miniatures on the market there is really only one well known game for their use, Warhammer Fantasy, and that game has some flaws. As in a lot of flaws. This is not to say that there are dozens of sets of rules for fantasy battles. It's just that each set of rules is beloved by a fairly small number of players who will complain bitterly that other players lack the sense to recognize the awesomeness of their favorite game. I set out to find a set of rules that I could champion in the same lonely fashion.

The Splintered Light sale gave me the option to build a decent sized army so I started looking for rules involving battles between larger groups of figures. After some searching through The Miniatures Page's archives I settled on the Fantasy Rules! (FR) line. The company that publishes them has several versions for sale, the Tournament and Campaign Edition (FR/TCE) seemed like the best place to start.

So far I'm pretty optimistic with FR/TCE. Each player needs an army of figures mounted on 40x40mm stands. You can build from scratch and attach about six figures to a stand. A medium sized army is twenty units or one hundred and twenty minis. For this level of play that's not excessively many although it's more than some may like. Experienced players may note that they can double up existing Warmaster or Field of Glory stands to create their fantasy army.

This brings us to the next feature of FR/TCE, which may be a perk or a flaw depending on your perspective. The rules are designed to accommodate virtually any fantasy army. Dwarves, elves, garden gnomes, flying carpets, werewolves, you name it. In one sense this is terrific news. I can paint up twelve vampires and use them to lead my already painted medieval Italian army. Note on the right, for example, that the "Greek army" has both monsters and ordinary troops. Players who already own miniatures may be halfway done with their fantasy armies and not realize it! In another sense this could lead to people playing progressively more silly armies like the pebble army or the invisible army featuring unpainted bases with nothing attached to them. I suppose every player will just have to decide how they feel about silly armies.

My preliminary readthrough of FR/TCE looks otherwise promising. The thrust of the rules seems to be that certain types of units do better against certain other types and I enjoy that style of play. There is a basic rule mechanism dealing with overall army morale and a force that takes many casualties seems like it will start to fracture and become unresponsive. I'm not finding the rulebook to be terrifically organized, better than many but not at the standards of Warhammer or Warmaster for example.

So where might this leave a reader with the same interest, or a reader who might want to introduce their child into the fun of giant battles between elves and orcs, or say between vampire "newborns" and allied werewolves and vampires? I think the rules system looks like it could be fun. I think the book could use some editing and formatting but its not impossible to decipher. I'm going to try and play a game in the next few weeks and we shall see whether Fantasy Rules! rules or not.