Sunday, 29 April 2007

Mr Skeletor's Mailbag, 30th April

Here is this weeks Mailbag. Got a few to get through so let’s dive straight in.

Ted “MIA” Torgerson writes:

Dear Great Mr. Skeletor:

My question is about sportsmanship in AT games. After I am eliminated from a game, is it okay if I just sweep the board with my right arm and scream, "What a waste of six hours of my life with you freaking losers!" That's what I usually do but lately I've been wondering if there is a cooler way to handle this situation? Likewise if I knock another player out I always ask him to grab me a soda since he is getting up anyway. Or should I just point my finger and laugh? Eliminating another player is my favorite part of the game. You know "see my enemies driven before me, hear the lamentations of their women" etc. etc. What's the cool AT way to dance on the other guy's grave so to speak?

Ted Torgerson

Firstly, I must congratulate you on that great opening Ted. Are the rumours true about you leaving board game geek to become the 5th member of the A-team?

Now on to your question. I must shamefully admit that I have never actually been involved in a game where someone has overturned the board. I have been involved in a few games where someone has cracked the shits and left the table, but that is the extent of it – I can only sit with envy when I hear tales of overturned tables or people tossing chairs around the room. Remember that when you sweep the board and prematurely end a game, you may have ruined the others night but you have created a lifetime of memories, similar to that shitty holiday that ended in a complete disaster but provided you with dinner conversations for the next 50 years.

The problem is you can’t do the same thing all the time otherwise you get predictable and boring like an “Everybody Loves Raymond” episode; rather you need to keep escalating. May I suggest next time you lose at Dune (playing your mates copy) you whip out a lighter and can of hairspray and make the planet go super nova? Not only would this make you an utter legend in gaming which people will speak about for centuries to come, but everyone else with a copy of Dune will thank you for making it all the more rarer when they sell it on Ebay to send their kids to college.

Eliminating other players is always good fun, especially when you do it even at the expense of winning the game – no win after all can give you the pure euphoria of seeing your gaming ‘buddy’ turn 18 shades of red. The ultimate grave dancing I think would be after smashing their last unit on the board and taking all of their lands to whip out some polaroids of you screwing his wife in positions that he didn’t even know she was capable of. In fact that would kick so much ass that if anyone films this happening and places the results up on YouTube I’ll grant you the keys to get into the secret section of the blog that no one knows about. It’ll certainly help pass the time while you are getting your face reconstructed.

Paul “I spell Vasel right” Hedrick writes:

Dear Mr. Skeletor,

As you know, many have named you the Tom Vasel of Fortress: Ameritrash
(with Barnes as F:AT's Thornquist, Robert Martin the Schloesser, and
Ken Bradford the "Franklin Cobb"): high praise indeed. And as you
also know, Tom Vasel is well-known for his gripping top ten lists,
which are renowned for their universal appeal; gaming itself might not
exist without lists like Top 10 Games to Play With Your Board of
Deacons, or Top 10 Games That Were So Nasty I Used the Word "Heck."

So how about a couple of top 10 game lists from you, Mr. Skeletor?



Err, what? How on earth did I pull being the ‘Tom Vasel’?

Number of reviews Tom V writes: 4,582

Number of reviews Mr S writes: 0 (1 if you count the one that got rejected due to people not liking me saying Runebound 1st edition was meant to suck more than a $20 hooker.)

Number of swear words Tom V uses: 0

Number of swear words Mr S uses: 8 (turned sideways.)

Number of users Tom V has had kicked off… I think you get the picture.

Regardless, here is a top 10 list for your reading pleasure.

Top 10 games where I enjoy scratching my balls while playing.

10. A game of thrones

9. Doom: the boardgame

8. Power grid

7. Combat commander: Europe

6. Loopin Louie

5. Titan

4. Bang!

3. Frenzy!

2. Scarab Lords

1. Busen Memo

Ryan “Naked Molerat” Walberg writes:

Dear Mr Skeletor,

I recently had a post on BGG deleted because I indirectly called Steve Weeks a douchebag. How do I best refer to someone as a bag of douche without having Dan Karp delete it? I was thinking of accusing Weeks of "douchebaggery" but I'm not sure if that's a word.

Thank you,
Faithful Reader

Well Ryan MS Word underlines “douchebaggery” in red, so it doesn’t seem to be a word. Then again it underlines douchebag as well, so maybe the Americans don’t have douchebags but still use chamber pots?

Your best bet at the moment is to put your insult into the tags section since it seems Daniel or the other admins aren’t scanning those as some people appear to have discovered, but I’m afraid it’s only a matter of time before Karp discovers this last bastion of assholeic freedom being the crafty fox he is.

Failing that you could simply just call Steve a douchebag in the comments section below, as to my knowledge Karp has no power on here. But if he does and you get caught I don’t know you.

Well this section is getting mega long so I’ll stop there – the mails I didn’t get to this week I’ll do next.

If you have any mail for this section write to with [mailbag] in the subject line. Your mail doesn’t have to necessarily be a silly question, if you write a good AT related article that you think deserves to be put above the comments section send it in and I’ll put it up for you and make your mum (mom) proud.

‘Till next time, Let’s Donate!

Friday, 27 April 2007

Buffy: "We fight monsters, this is what we do."

I spent last week fraternizing with the enemy . . . literally. I was staying with my brother, who is the second best Caylus player in the world (at least according to WBC). He also won the EuroQuest Caylus tournament, but it is more fun to call him the second best Caylus player in the world because it annoys him.

Anyway, we're pounding some crabs and Natty Bo, and the flesh is flying, which brings up the topic of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which leads to discussing Buffy the Vampire Slayer the Game. My sister-in-law, who is mostly a party gamer, gets interested and suddenly turns to my brother and says, "I want to play the Buffy game."

My brother just about swallows his tongue. He sputters, "You wouldn't like it."

Feh! For shame! He says this to a woman who was just about the best Mina Harker I've ever played with. So I have a date to teach the Buffy game to my sister-in-law this summer. The way I get my sister-in-law to play with me is . . . well . . . frankly, I lie like a rug.

Last summer I set up Fury of Dracula. Sis walks in.

I just hand her the Mina mini and say, "Your playing Mina."

She looks bewildered for a moment, but before she can say that she can't play because she is on the way to the Outlet Mall, I tell her, "It's really easy. It's a cooperative game. You play on a team like in Wits and Wagers. Your on the same team as the second best Caylus player in the world. Just do what he tells you until you catch on. The object of the game is to figure out where Dracula is hiding, kind of like you do in Clue. You just move one space per turn and then pick cards, like in Pictionary, except the game is about Dracula. You get to be Mina, the hot chick that Dracula bites."

Sis shrugs and says okay. A couple of turns into the game, she is on her feet telling all the boys to shut up because she has a good card to play, which she did. Half way through the game she wants to know why she has to fetch cards and never gets to fight anything.

I told her that Buffy the Vampire Slayer the Game is like Fury Dracula, but not the hunting part, just the fighting part. It takes place in a city after you have already located the Vampire. You just roll to move. Get next to the Vampire and kick him in the head. Easy. Also the two best hunters are the women, Buffy and Willow, so the boys have to be the ones who run around the board and fetch cards for you. That's when she said she wanted to play.

I won't lie to you all though. Buffy the Vampire Slayer the Game is a compact dungeon crawl that plays in 45 - 90 minutes. It has a fresh, modern feel. There's no geeky elves and orcs, or ugly space marines. The heroes are modern humans, the strongest of which is an attractive, fully clothed young woman with normal sized boobies. This might sound stupid to the guys, but I swear, whenever I try to get female friends to play Runebound with me, they take one look at the female character cards and I get a lecture on exploitation and distorted body image and anorexia and the whole world is going to hell in hand basket because they let 8 year olds wear halter tops to school, and OMG Bratz dolls. And I'm like crap, it's a game. You can use a meeple if it makes you feel better. But it's too late, and we end up playing something with a robber, or obelisks or trains instead.

Where was I? Oh yeah, Buffy-dungeon crawl. The problem that I have with dungeon crawls is that they start out exciting, but about half way through they bog down and become dull and repetitive. Then there is the final excitement at the very end. Buffy has two mechanisms that keeps the game moving and changing. First, at the the beginning of the game four artifact cards are placed at the four corners of the board. One of these will make the forces of Evil obscenely powerful if the Evil player can get it and deliver it to the right character. The other three are also pretty spiffy. The beginning of the game, is therefore, more of a race than a simple slugfest. Get your characters to the artifacts, without getting them killed. By the way, getting killed is something that really happens in this game. Healing is very difficult. And when a character is dead, they are pretty much dead for the rest of the game.

The other interesting bit of the game is the phase chart. Some of the faces of the movement dice have a moon on them. If this symbol is rolled, a token is advanced on a circular path that depicts the various phases of the moon, as well as one sun symbol. If the token is on a New Moon, the Evil player has advantage. If the token is on the sun, vampires can not be outdoors. Any vampires that are caught outside when the sunrises take damage and have to run for cover. Finally, during the full moon, the character's that are werewolves transform and become super powerful and super fast. How strong you are, who's up and who's down can change at any moment.

The result of these two mechanisms, as well as the balances and imbalances between the two sides, results in a game that is more cat and mouse than the average dungeon crawl. It is about maneuvering and timing, rather than running out, guns blazing to meet the opponent head on. It's more like, wait for the right moment. Race in. Bitch slap the enemy and then run like hell. There are always tough choices, and all of them have risks. You constantly feel that you are are on the edge of losing, but that victory is almost within your grasp. Also it is just fun kick vampires in the head, or take a bite out of someone.

Finally, if you enjoy Buffy the Vampire Slayer the TV show, this game captures it's flavor and spirit. It's one of those games that when it is over, you remember the story you created by playing.

Menu suggestion: Bloody Marys

Cool Hybrid Incoming- DUEL IN THE DARK!

Last night at our regular Thursday night throwdown (the event F:AT’s own FRANKLIN COBB visited last week) one of my gaming buddies who is a 27th degree initiate in the Gathering of Friends turned up with a preproduction copy of Z-Man Games’ forthcoming DUEL IN THE DARK, designed by first-timer Friedemann De Pedro and due to be released sometime later this year. Apparently, they give these advance copies of games out at the Gathering like they do fortune cookies down at Imperial Lucky Magic Dragon Happy China Buddha Wok no. 3 but since I’m not on the list, I was thrilled to take advantage of this rare opportunity to get in an advance play of a game that I was already fairly curious about. I actually thought the copy was a finished production- it had full artwork, logos, and typesetting and for all intents and purposes looked ready for the retail shelf. The cardboard planes, clouds, and thunderstorms perched on their acrylic stands to indicate altitude looked better and more stylish than many games currently in production and I have to say that this game, even at an early stage, looks fantastic. The planes, clouds, and other airborne pieces float above a nighttime map of England and northern Europe on clear plastic posts. Closer inspection revealed that the copy was in fact a mock-up, but there was nothing unfinished or “early” about it- in fact, I believe that the game is in fact fairly forward-thinking (but perhaps a little short of revolutionary) in design as it further blurs the distinction between the abstract minimalism of Eurogame design, the specific theming and conflict inherent in American-style games, and the concept of conflict simulation and detail that characterizes wargames.

The RAF’s nighttime raids over Germany during the later years of World War 2 is not a very common theme even among more traditional wargames and it is one that is by default unheard of in Eurogames altogether. It’s an intriguing set-up for what is ultimately a very abstracted operational-level strategic bombing campaign not fundamentally dissimilar to much more complex games like DOWNTOWN, RAF, or HORNET LEADER. DUEL IN THE DARK presents an assymetrical situation for 2 players (with a solitaire option) in which the British player is tasked with planning a bombing run to strike a target city in Germany with the deeper and therefore more dangerous destinations in Deutschland yielding greater reward. Both ingress and egress must be plotted via compass cards and variable weather, indicated by the presence of clouds, thunderstorms, or fog, becomes a strategic consideration. A Mosquito escort is provided that can intercept fighters, drop spotting rounds, and perform low-level bombing of ground defenses. The German player plays the defensive game and gets to place 40 tokens around Germany that represent a few different types of ground defense units such as anti-aircraft batteries, radar stations, smokescreens, and so forth. Additionally, the German player has 4 fighter squadrons with which he or she must attempt to intercept the incoming bombers. Each “night” is played in six phases and a good half of each night is devoted to planning and setup with the rest representing the actual execution of the mission.

With all this talk of weather, altitude, ground defense, ingress and egress it all sounds very detailed- which it is in a way, given that factors such as the phase of the moon makes it either easier or more difficult to attack incoming bombers in full or partial moonlight- but the level of abstraction toes a dangerous line between specificity and meaninglessness. The systems which give the game a lot of atmosphere, like the ability to change altitude and the variable weather are really very simple and won’t cause you to go consulting charts or trying to figure out if any exceptions apply. The British mission is represented by one bomber, the escort is one fighter. Material losses are not measured in numbers of planes lost or by damage percentages but as simple victory points on a differential scale. If German fighters enter the hex with the Mosquito escort, the British player gets a VP. When German fighters intercept the bombing mission (typically by correctly guessing or deducing where it will move in its next turn), VPs are earned based on an abstract number of losses incurred based on the relative “difficulty” in attacking the squadron. Therefore, low-flying fighters attacking higher level bombers in a clouded hex will net less points than higher-flying fighters attacking low-level bombers in a clear hex in full moonlight. This mechanic characterizes the entire game- if a target is made harder to hit by altitude, weather, searchlights (they blind the bombadiers!), or smoke it “loses” less VPs to its attacker. There’s no die rolls or other “checks” in the system at all and it really only possible to “lose” units if the German player decides to ditch planes rather than refuel them.

At first, I thought that the game was going to be too abstract and without drama given that other than the initial weather draw there is absolutely no luck or random chance whatsoever in the game and all information- except for the British flight plan- is open. I was also apprehensive that the lack of material loss would result in an absence of any tangible risk or high-stakes gambling since there seems to be nothing to lose. Yet the game creates a real sense of atmosphere and several very neat mechanics (like the way the German fighters have a “range” that has to be balanced with fuel consumption and the necessity to land at airstrips to refuel- while also trying to interdict the bombing mission) provide a lot of really interesting choices. The British player can use the Mosquito to either cover the bombers’ move (thus incurring hits on intercepting German fighters) or to bluff, luring fighters away from the bombers’ actual path. The German player also has to contend with the fact that the bombing targets- particularly the more risky, long-range ones- are going to net the British player a lot of points, so the impetus to attack early and often is there and a lot of the really tense decisions take into consideration the amount of risk and possible reciprocal loss incurred by dogfighting and the ever-present specter of fuel expenditure. When all is said and done the VP system, albeit abstract, does a fairly excellent job of depicting a sense of relative success or failure of the British mission and the German defense- even without depicting actual loss.

DUEL IN THE DARK is a very unconventional game in every respect and as I stated previously it, more than titles like FRIEDRICH or WALLENSTEIN, blurs the distinction between game idioms to a great degree and I think it demonstrates a greater degree of ingenuity and creativity than anything the “name” Euro designers have been able to muster for the last decade. Additionally, it’s pretty rare to see a fairly heavy 2 player Euro-style game, let alone one with a rich, immersive theme. I am worried somewhat that Mr. DePedro’s design, however brilliant it may be in distilling some of the concepts and ideas of extremely complex wargames into a very accessible, playable package, might have trouble finding an audience. It is fundamentally a detailed conflict simulation with a wargame theme so the Euro crowd might balk. It’s not roughneck enough for the Ameritrash contingent and it definitely falls more into the Euro camp in terms of abstraction despite a good degree of theme/mechanic integration. Yet wargamers might admonish the lack of specific historic detail and the smaller range of variables. That being said, games like MEMOIR ’44 have straddled similar lines and found great success so the potential is definitely there for crossover appeal and I could easily see the DUEL IN THE DARK system applied to other air campaigns. I hope that DUEL OF THE DARK does well for Z-Man Games and Mr. DePedro because it shows us that Eurogames doesn’t have to be stuck in the rut of meaningless themes, abstraction, passive player interaction, and worn out mechanics that it’s been in for years now, and that genuinely innovative, compelling, and very fun games are still possible within the Euro design paradigm. I’m very excited about the game and it’s a definite purchase for me when it releases.

The Weekly AT Snapshot - 4/27/2007

Professor Euro Takes "AT-Verbrennen" to the Streets

Professor Euro, noted critic of Ameritrash games, has taken to the streets with his "AT-Verbrennen" Crusade. Euro delivers his trademark fiery orations to crowds of rapt spectators as huge piles of Ameritrash games burn in the background. Sandra Gustafsen, a mother of three, was seen tossing a vintage copy of Titan into the flames as her children cheered her on. Meanwhile, Euro preached to the croud, vowing to wipe out Ameritrash games once and for all with their sinful excesses of player elimination, luck, and fun. Then adjusting his monocle, he solemly returned to a pile of old Avalon Hill games and began to toss them one by one into the hungry flames. We will continue to follow this developing story.

This week's AT Snapshot was submitted by the FortressAT staff. If you submitted an image this week, don't worry - it's in the hopper for future columns!

Calling all photoshoppers and imagehounds! The Weekly AT Snapshot wants YOUR images! You send the picture, we add the back-story!

If you've got a great image that just screams Ameritrash, email us the URL. It can be an image you created or an image you found on the web. We don't care! If it meets our strict quality standards, we'll publish it in The Weekly AT Snapshot, instantly making you an undeniable global celebrity. We'll even pimp your website if you send us the URL for that. Send all submissions to the "fortressat" address with the word "Snapshot" in the subject line.

Thursday, 26 April 2007

Titan! Fucking Titan!

So I waited a few days to see if Matt was going to post about this topic since the game mentioned above is his stated favorite. I cannot wait any longer and I feel it is safe to say Matt had his chance.

Company that is doing a kick ass So unless you life in a news proof bubble or have been having an all out orgy with 10 incredibly hot chicks for the last few days you have probably heard that Valley Games, that little Canadian reprint of Hannibal, is now going to reprint Titan. (And Republic of Rome but more on that later)

True to form, I have just completed making 2 copies of this game for myself and my Little bro "Bobby Tweaks". I seem to have this innate ability to cause the reprint of long out of print games simply by either purchasing them or by making a home made copy. (Successors and Hannibal were announced hours after doing so) That's no big deal as my homemade version, complete with larger Masterboard, will certainly get used for the next 6 months until the reprint is available and there is always a small chance the new version will suck.

Anyway, I am fired up about the reprint for a number of reasons. First there is the fact that this game has caught on like wildfire with the group. We have played it 3 times in the past week and interest in learning the game (Read getting good at it) is high. Only a few nay-sayers have complained and that's a guy who complains about everything so we just ignore him. I am already looking at adjusting my schedule for the WBC to fit a schooling in Titan in, as are a few others in the group. So having a fresh version available will only help prolong the interest in this great game.

In addition to my own game groups interest in Titan, a reprint will increase general interest int he game. A game that is about as Ameritrash and they come. I have already heard some complaints on the geek about how Titan is old school with roll and move and the dreaded player elimination. This is total bullshit! Titan is a classic game, where the rolling to move (and the option not to) is part of what separates good players from those who bitch that they can't roll that 4 they need. The player elimination mean that you have to pay attention! You can just stroll around with your Titan stack and attack a random stack. You need to watch what people recruit, try and know where their Titan is and plan out your strikes carefully. Add to this the tactical battles where a skilled player may out beat out a stronger army and you have a game that is won most of the time by better play.

So lets all give a big cheer to Valley Games, if they come through with the products they have announced they will be doing more of the hobby than anyone else by making some fine, but hard to come by games obtainable by a new set of gamers.


Impossible Themes

I recently discovered, to my delight, that my cable TV company supplies me with a variety of old TV programmes on demand for free. Amongst the inevitable barrage of crap they have on offer there's some great comedy and Band of Brothers and I chose to start using my new service with some episodes of the latter.

If you've never seen Band of Brothers it's a ten-part series made by the same team who put Saving Private Ryan together about a company of US paratroopers in Word War 2. Unlike Saving Private Ryan the series is based on the genuine memoirs of the troopers - in fact each episode is prefaced with short talking-head interviews with the men themselves. It's absolutely brilliant - so brilliant in fact that I managed to get my partner to watch all ten episodes when it was first on even though she espouses complete loathing of all things combat-themed.

One of the brilliant things about it is it's realistic recreation of combat. The scenes are breathless, dangerous, confusing and yet somehow exhilarating, just as I imagine the real thing must be. I stress the word imagine here because of course I have no clear idea of what it would be like and nor, or course, would I want to. But I'm satisfied that at one level watching the programmes gets me as close to the experience as I'd want to be.

Another way in which I can get a different, equally distant angle on the experience combat is through playing video games. Shortly after watching Band of Brothers I picked up the game Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30. I'd avoided WW2 first-person shooters before because it seemed to be rather pointless and even somewhat disrespectful to release games of that theme that were so unrealistic in the sense that they let you play a hero-type, ploughing through swathes of Germans unassisted. Brothers in Arms is different - combat is deadly if you don't make use of cover, strategy or the AI-controlled allies that it provides. I think it's a fantastic game, and probably one of the most-played computer games I've ever bought.

Both the TV series and the video game are highly thematic in the sense that when enjoying them I feel completely immersed in the world that they're trying to create for me. I think that both have helped me learn about, and gain new perspectives on, the history of World War 2. In different ways they let me get as close as I'd want to to the lives of the soldiers who fought in the Western Front in that war. I also have a book by John Keegan called The Face of Battle which attempts to do a similar thing by looking at the experiences of soldiers in the battles of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme. While not so immersive as computer or TV again, in it's own way, it might be seen as a very thematic experience.

My dealings with WW2 board games on the other hand are decidedly un-thematic, at least in the sense of making me feel like I'm getting closer to the experience of being in combat or even commanding soldiers into combat. There's none of the feeling of fast-paced, dicing-with-death action even at squad level games. Rather the rules and the consideration of decisions and the poring over charts actually completely obscure any feeling of urgency you might derive from the game. You might argue that moving up to the strategic and operational levels might make the game more like the experience of commanding troops but I think not - battlefield command is hugely stressful in a completely different way. I read recently that both supreme commanders in the Battle of Stalingrad suffered with nervous afflictions. Even so, the computer still does a better job of being thematic - I've played a lot of the excellent freeware offering Steel Panthers: WW2 in which the complex mechanics governing movement and combat are all hidden under the hood. This allows a much more realistic simulation thanks both to the way the computer can handle levels of complexity that would swamp a real game and because it stops a commander trying to play the system rather than concentrating on tactics.

This isn't supposed to be a rant against wargames. I understand that in most wargames the focus is on creating a realistic simulation for the purposes of historical "what-if" scenarios rather than of creating an immersive theme. Rather I'm questioning whether theme is really something that boardgames are terribly good at providing - in most cases a boardgame is about learning to play the rules for best advantage, as opposed to live-action and strategy computer games which have the potential to be much more open ended. In a boardgame the rules have to be open, transparent and to some extent simple and short enough to be digestible, all of which leads to an inevitable degree of structure in the approach to play.

So this leaves us with the obvious question of why "theme" is considered such an important quality of AT games. Personally I've always had a slight problem with this definition - I play AT games partly because of the themes they choose rather than because the theme is strong. Rather I have a lot more sympathy with the view expressed by Jezztek in his eloquent definition of ameritrash over at boardgamegeek which emphasises the importance of drama and narrative over theme.

Nevertheless, there are a small handful of boardgames widely regarded as being extremely thematic to play. I want to devote the remainder of this article to looking at those games and perhaps trying to distil out the elements that make them transcend the ordinary strictures of mechanical boardgaming.

Almost inevitably my first pick is one of the pinnacles of AT design, the much-lamented Avalon Hill classic Dune. The theme in this injects itself on a number of levels. Firstly the variable player powers assigned to each house seem to be an excellent reflection of the supposed skills and traits of the various factions seen in the Dune novels. Secondly, and perhaps key in bringing the theme to the game, is the unforgiving and vicious nature of the treachery aspects of game - the intrigue created around the treachery cards and the inevitable stab in the back from your turncoat leader(s) do a fine job of recreating the smoke-and-mirrors paranoia of intergalactic diplomacy. Finally the physical layout of the board, with the rules for worms and storms and such, mimic the environmental factors that soldiers operating of the face of the planet would have to contend with.

My second choice is also one that many of you will probably have guessed in advance, and would get my vote for the most thematic game of all time - Fury of Dracula. Both versions of the game - FFG and GW - are highly thematic, but for me the GW version edges it, and that's what I'm going to focus on in this discussion. There are two things that make this game work for me. First and foremost is the balance between the asymmetrical vampire hunters and the Count himself. The ingenious idea of pitting three hunters versus Dracula creates a situation where the game can be set up to make the vampire player extremely powerful in comparison to the hunters without affecting balance, since the power differential can be corrected through the hunters ganging up. The power balance is further tilted by the hunters being in receipt of very little information about the state of the game in comparison with the virtually omniscient vampire. This creates a situation in which the Dracula player really ends up feeling like an immortal monster weaving Byzantine plots across Europe while the hunters play most of the game in a state of genuine fear and doubt - all while retaining a reasonably balanced game. The second element are the excellent components of the game which really evoke the late-Victorian setting of the fateful chase depicted in the novel.

Hopefully by now getting away from the obvious candidates my third pick is Space Hulk. I think that WW2 games attempting to be thematic could learn a lot from this, which manages to be a squad tactics game that derives a genuine sense of urgency from the simple expedient of placing a timer on the marine players' move. Doing this injects an exciting element of panic into what is otherwise quite a thoughtful and tactical game. The use of differing hidden information on both sides is also an important component in creating a claustrophobic atmosphere - the marine player can never know the precise number of the foe he's dealing with and the genestealer player has to contend with the hidden action points of the marines. And again the fantastic GW components also help.

My final pick, is Bootleggers from Eagle Games. While this looks like (and is) a somewhat garish mishmash of Euro mechanics shoehorned into an Ameritrash game the tie between mechanics and theme is actually very strong. In particular the area majority mechanic used to govern control of speakeasies seems incredibly reminiscent of the way mob bosses would have to use muscle in order to maintain presence in the marketplace. The rules around stills and whiskey production, while random, actually use the randomness to evoke the trial-and-error process of illegal spirit production and the greater chance of attracting law enforcement to stills that produce larger amounts. The crowning glory of the theme in this game though is the brutal free-for-all nature of trading and debate which rewards loud threats as much, if not more, than careful wheeler-dealing and at the same time has a built-in real-life policing mechanism to stop it getting out of hand: renege on too many deals and no-one will trust you any more. Playing this I always feel like I should be breaking out the trilby hats and the fat cigars.

So what can we derive from all this? Well, obviously the games above all differ in the way that they go about creating a thematic experience but nevertheless, I think we can use them to draw up a five-point list (in no particular order) for building thematic boardgames:

1) Hidden information is a great way of representing a number of different themes.

2) Don't be afraid of setting up asymmetrical games with flavour rules for different sides that help to set the scene.

3) Try and include some open mechanics (i.e. negotiation) which mirror real-life situations and come with similar advantages and disadvantages.

4) Implement your choice of the above rules without too much regard for game balance - it's important, but the theme comes first.

5) Provide good quality components that are designed to evoke the setting of the game.

Right, armed with this I'm off to design FFG's next bestseller. See you next year.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

BREAKING NEWS--The AT movement...older than you think

In a previous post, I suggested that the AT "movement" was at least a couple of decades old...which brought some extreme ridicule from fellow F:AT blogger Mr. Skeletor.

Pride wounded, heart heavy, I still had a nagging feeling in the back of my mind there was proof out there...somewhere.

So lo and behold, when browsing the web I found the proof I was after...and it brought back memories of reading Family Computing as a child back in 1986. So I present to you--proof that the AT movement dates back to the 80's, if not sooner!

Mr. Skeletor, I believe you owe me a strongly-worded apology. That is all.

A look at Fantasy Flight Games' upcomming 2007 releases

It’s no secret that Fantasy Flight Games is probably the most important Ameritrash game company in existence today. They more or less have the market currently cornered, with Steve Jackson games being no real competition, Games Workshop too fixated on their miniature lines, the new Avon Hill deader than Michael Barne’s sex life and Days of Wonder having a release schedule slower than growing grapes. Therefore their upcoming plans should be of interest to all readers of the site (unless you come here for the nude chicks on bikes found in the secret section.)

These plans for 2007 were just announced by the company, though I nearly missed them due to this mornings ‘days of our geek’ events. So let’s take a look at the rest of this years schedule:

You can find the press release list here:


Now this one is an interesting addition, considering FFG released a Beowulf game not so long ago. This one is based on the upcoming 3D animated film, so hopefully will be a tad more thematic than Knizia’s rather dry previous offering. Still, it’s interesting that they went for this title considering it could cause some product line confusion. The blurb has very little on game play so what it will consist of is anyone’s guess.


We already knew about this one. Next!


Ok, what the hell?

Now I realize WoW must be a massive cash cow for FFG (or anyone for that matter), but seriously, I already have a WoW game where I can play one of 9 classes and 8 exotic races, and you guys were the ones who sold that to me in the first place! So apart from a budget version of a game I already own, what else does this game offer me? Based on the description given, game play which sounds exactly like Runebound!

Even the title sucks. “The Adventure Game”? Well what was the other one, the misadventure game?

It may be early, but so far it seems like the FFG crew may need to take a journey down into a well of creativity and bring back a few extra buckets full!


Umm, which board game was this an expansion to again?

I’m actually quite looking forward to this one; I’ve heard rumors that this one mixes up the game play quite a bit and the main game does feel like it could do with another expansion or two to flesh it out more.


It’s a different topic to the norm, so it should be one to watch out for. I have a feeling I read somewhere it’s a card game made by a third party, but I could be wrong. Anyway I’ll keep my eye on it.


I was a playtester for this so am under an NDA and therefore can’t comment.

I will say though that since it seems Doom: the boardgame has been finished with, where the hell is my siege of the citadel / Blood berets reprint?


I don’t play CCGs and the last thing my wallet needs is for me to play CCGs. Still if you do play I’m sure you’ll be happy with this.


A couple of roleplaying games got announced. I keep my roleplaying to the bedroom, but I’m certain smelly dungeon master dorks all over are rejoicing at these releases.

I kid! I kid! I kid because I love! Now put that D20 down please…


I wouldn’t mind trying this game out but the release of it seems a mess, and I couldn’t work heads or tails of it out. Apart from that it looks fun, especially if you use the new 3D planes. I wonder if you can combine this with Tide of Iron to make one mega game?


As everyone knows I’m a runebound junkie, but even I’m starting to question if I need even more market items!

I was expecting more class decks next, but I guess there are no plans to expand on those.

I am excited for another big boxed adventure, you can never have enough of those, but I do wish that they would do some expansions for the existing ones. Yes I know, I’m asking for an expansion of the expansions!


I’m a playtester for this so I can’t comment on it.

Good to see there are plans for a fourth expansion though. Stick that up your ass dungeonquest fanboys.


Another game which was already announced.


Will this mark the first expansion that is released before it’s main game?

Interesting choice for a first expansion, guess they wanted to cover ground that Memoir ’44 didn’t. Bit disappointed there are no Italians though.

So there you have it. Overall I have to say I’m rather disappointed – I already knew about most of the expansions and the few new games that were announced seem to be retreads of other stuff. The 2006 lineup just seemed a lot more ‘fresh’.

Or maybe I’m just becoming a jaded ATer and need to get back into Euros?

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

The Weekly AT Snapshot - Special Edition

Ubarose Joins "The Fortress"

Ubarose, a frequent contributor to Fortress AT has officially signed on as a member. We'd like to ask that you keep your comments civil and treat her with the proper respect. Rest assured that this is for your own personal safety - we hear she's a total badass with a Smartgun.

Please join us in welcoming Ubarose to "The Fortress"!

It Looks Like a Duck, Quacks Like a Duck....Part III

Well, sorry for the week's delay, but I was off in Atlanta on business (really, an elaborate, expensive ruse to boardgame and have the company pay for it).

When we left off, we had listed off several items that may or may not constitute a strong, definitive ideal of "Ameritrash". For the most part, save Production Values, I think we nailed a lot of them. To be fair, I think that "Production Values" is really a modern Ameritrash thing...AT titles these days are filled with tons of nicely-produced bits that we wouldn't have dreamed of getting for these prices several years ago. Some have pointed out (and rightly so) that *all* games these days have seen a general ratcheting up of production quality as boardgames fight to catch they eye on a crowded shelf. Therefore, I've given up tilting at that particular windmill, and concede defeat. do we apply what we've learned? I thought it best to take three seemingly similar titles, lay out the elements of them that would make them candidates for being "Ameritrash", and find out the differences that keep some or all of them out of this category.

As a disclaimer--I consider all three of the below games to be excellent. Do not mistake any of the discussion that follows to be criticism. This is, as Barnes would put it, "Ameritrash Academia".

The three games for consideration all share a similar theme--the "Dungeon Crawl". All have the typical fantasy characters and races, the dungeon setting, and the trappings you would expect from such titles in the form of spells, combat, dragons, and more. The games I've selected are Drakon 3rd Edition, Dungeon Twister, and Descent.

Drakon 3rd Edition:

Luck: Players have a hand of tiles that are drawn randomly. When players place tiles, they refill their hand with a random draw.

Theme: Six adventurers have been captured by Drakon and offered a sporting chance; the first of them to collect ten gold will be set free; the others will be dragon chow. The adventurers are all archetypes of the fantasy genre--a warrior, a wizard, a dwarf, an amazon, a thief, and a barbarian. They all have a one-off power relating to their "class" that gives them flavor--the wizard can walk through a wall, the thief can snatch gold from another player, e.t.c.

Conflict: This one's a little iffy, but it's there. Though you cannot attack another player directly, many tiles can be placed that allow you to trigger nasty effects for an opponent, including moving Drakon into their room which sends them back to the start and losing gold to boot. Other tiles include destroying other tiles in play, mind controlling your opponent, placing tiles that force your opponent to move a certain direction, steal gold directly from your opponent, and more. Also, some of the character powers directly involve affecting another player, such as the thief/rogue.

Production Values/Plastic Bits: This one cheats a bit because it wasn't until the third edition that plastic figures were added for each of the characters. Also, as stated above this is not as important of a consideration. However, it is difficult to look at the highly detailed miniatures and not give a nod here. Plus, the new tiles are nice and thick, and the overproduction even extends to having an elaborate, ornate token for each player that only serves to show if you've used your ability yet or not.

Player Interaction: With two, you are free to both go in your own direction if you so choose. This makes for a much less interesting game. With multiple players, you cannot help but interact with the other players--you are going to place tiles that mess up the plans of other players. And since there can only be one winner, you are going to be doing everything in your power to screw with them. You don't have the super-direct player interaction that you'd find in the typical AT title, but if you've played your cards right you can destroy their intended path, put nasty obstacles in front of them, or use other tile triggers to steal from them, force them off in other directions, or what have you.

The Verdict: So we seem to hit all the sweet spots, but I would not consider this a true AT title. Why? Look no further than the rules...the rulebook is four pages, and half of that is essentially a glossary describing what the tiles do (each tile has a symbol to show their effect). Since this information is duplicated on six player aids, this part is superfluous anyway, and you're left with two whole pages of rules.

Also, while the game has a dungeon-crawl fantasy theme, it is not far enough removed from the level of abstraction where you could strip the theme completely away and replace it without effort. The game could easily be re-themed to The Running Man, with each player representing a differenct convict with a one-time ability and Drakon representing Jesse Ventura's character or something. Hell, you could remove the theme completely and leave it abstract with generic pawns and score chits.

Lastly, while there is Conflict and Player Interaction, it borders on being too indirect at times. Maybe, just maybe, if you could move into a tile and fight with another player directly, that might do the trick.

My vote: Not AmeriTrash.

Dungeon Twister:

Luck: Dungeon Twister gets dinged here. The placement of the tiles for the dungeon has randomness to it, but the action from that point forward is all deterministic. You know how far you can move, you know how strong each character is in combat, and even the combat itself uses a deterministic card-driven "play a card from a limited pool to boost your strength" type deals.

Theme: Again, another Dungeon Crawl, but this time you have two opposing parties of adventurers (more parties can play with the 3-4 player expansion) who want to kill their opponents, escape out the other side and take a little treasure with them on the way. You have your typical fantasy characters--the rogue, the warrior, trolls, goblins, wizards--alongside the trappings of a fantasy game with fireball spells, spiked traps, and more. Still, this veneer of theme peels away more easily than Drakon, a point we'll discuss more in a bit.

Conflict: In this, Dungeon Twister succeeds in spades. In a two-player battle, it's definitely a zero-sum game--I kill your characters or steal from you your items, I twist the passages to block your movement, I attack you when I get the opportunity...there's no denying here that this has oodles of conflict. Your warrior charges me only to get a fireball in the face for his trouble...

Production Values/Plastic Bits: Not as relevant. The game uses character stand-ups and cardboard tokens and tiles. Still, it is notable that Asmodee wasn't satisfied with the components of the first edition feeling they were too flimsy and thin and sent out FREE replacements to first edition customers. The replacement stuff is indeed much thicker and sturdier than before. Also worth noting is that there were plastic miniatures released seperately, and these look very nice...but weren't released in the US, a bit of a head-scratcher considering our AMERITRASH HERITAGE. Since the expansions continue to be released in the US unabated, perhaps they'll reconsider.

Player Interaction: Bucketloads. You have to escape out through your opponent's starting area. No way to just "sneak around" your opponent--you've got to go right through his home base. You can move in and attack your foes. You can use the "Dungeon Twisting" mechanic to block your opponent in, prevent his chances for escaping, or corral him toward your waiting combat monsters. If one of you casually waltzes through the other side, something is VERY wrong.

The Verdict: This one has a decent enough ruleset to cover what is essentially a very different take on the dungeon-crawl/fantasy skirmish type game. They still aren't heavy by any stretch, but certainly more involved than Drakon's.

The theme criticism hangs over this game much more strongly than Drakon's though. This one is only a few steps removed from absolute abstraction; in fact, many gamers are quite surprised when they first try the game as it feels more like Chess than it does your prototypical AT title of old. You could easily change things up a bit and apply the theme of the upcoming Tannhauser to this, for example.

My vote: Not AmeriTrash.


Luck: Heh...where do you want to begin?

First off, Descent has something that the other two games distinctly lack--dice. When you question most players about what constitutes an American-style game, dice is usually front and foremost of the responses you'll receive.

When your warrior goes smashing into the skeleton hordes, you might know your odds of success, but the dice can still betray you. Every swing, every attack are governed by the whims of the dice (alongside whatever loot you can pick up inside the dungeon, of course).

The Overlord players similarly is governed by the same luck--his monsters attack using the same dice. On top of this, he has a hand of cards that are drawn randomly, granting him the ability to spawn certain monsters or affect the players in mean and nasty ways.

Is it governed by luck? Not at all. Strong tactics will certainly carry the day, just like any good game. However, there is the chance that Lady Luck can abandon you at just the wrong time...and as any good AT'er knows, that's when things get really interesting.

Theme: I know that some will argue with this point, but Descent achieves a level of marriage to theme that is not quite as easily stripped away. Characters have very specific stats and powers relating to them and what type of character they are; items grant very specific powers and abilities; the idea of a level is not to wander around and achieve some point-based goal but to reach the "end" of the dungeon level. In that regard, the players really are on a "quest" to achieve a tangible goal. True, the Overloard player is playing for "points" or kills, and the fact that players "re-spawn" after "dying" takes away from the theme a bit.

Blame that on the popularity of the MMORPG, I suppose, where gamers expect to die, respawn back in town, and wander back to their original carcass to pick up whatever loot they had left.

Still, to that end, the theme is very strong, with mechanics that obviously serve the theme and not as easily stripped away or distilled into a more abstract form.

Conflict: Conflict here takes on a bit of a different form in that one group of players is working against another, and the adventurer players do win or lose as a group. However, this sort of mechanic serves games such as Fury of Dracula quite well, and in no way detracts from the conflict of the game system.

Players have direct goals that are in opposition to one another and this of course results in a zero-sum game where I win, you lose. The Overlord wants to stop the players; the players want to reach the end of their quest. There is no way for these two goals to co-exist--and this strikes at the heart of what people refer to when they say Eurogames are lacking in "conflict". Too often, the conflict in a Eurogame is not zero-sum; our goals are not mutually exclusive.

I realize that I could define the word "conflict" better in terms of this, but I think the AT fans know what type of conflict I'm talking about. In Carcassonne, I can play a tile to finish a city before you were ready....oooooooh.

Here, I can have my dragon chomp your warrior clean in half. HUZZAH~!

Production Values/Plastic Bits: "Over the top" doesn't begin to cover it. A glut of plastic miniatures, thick tiles, tons of cards and tokens, cardboard doors with stands, character cards, this is a veritable orgy of bits. Fantasy Flight Games is unashamed to take up the banner of AT and does so with some real panache here.

If you have a bits fetish, you will need counseling after looking at this. If you need advice for a good therapist, I have a few on my speed dial.

Player Interaction: Hand-in-hand with conflict here. Players on the side of the adventurers must interact and plan how best to use their resources...who should smash what monster? Who needs to stay back and heal? Can you provide enough cover for the sorcerer to do his thing?

The Overlord's entire game is based upon stopping the adventurers, and he will do this by directly interacting with them, by attacking them, playing cards against them, doing whatever it takes to slow them down. Again, the interaction comes from having mutually exclusive goals--no player can be passive lest they give the win to the other player via inaction.

The Verdict: What more can I say? This one has all the tickmarks of an AT production and then some. A meaty rule set. A not-easily stripped away theme. Rules and mechanics that solely exist in service of that theme. Random dice that although you can play the odds, they can still betray you. Nasty player interaction. Combat. Killin'. Dragons. Monsters. Swords. Treasure. Plastic pouring from the box the moment you open the lid.

My vote: AmeriTrash.

The Wrap-Up:

This is another time when I am welcoming your feedback and thoughts on this evaluation.

One thing I thought was worth further discussion was this idea of "zero-sum" conflict. In Drakon and Dungeon Twister, it is arguable that both do NOT have "zero-sum" conflict until the game reaches a certain point. For example, the amount of gold in Drakon is an endless resource; you and I can move about, content to collect our gold independently of each other. A gold piece gained for me is often not a gold piece lost for you (barring the "steal" tiles, of course).

The game reaches a point where it is zero-sum, of course, but it is only at that point where ALL games become zero-sum--at the point of declaration of a winner. That tenth gold piece in Drakon represents that point. Up until then...these are just arbitrary VPs that can be pulled from a infinite supply, and only at the end do our goals come into conflict with each other.

I feel that a lot of Eurogames are like this--in that we can co-exist, gain points without interfering with one another, and a point gained for me is often not a point lost for you. It is this particular type of conflict that I think helps us differentiate between the genres of games, possibly moreso than any of the other defining elements. Theme is important, but as demonstrated above theme alone is not enough, it only gets the game's foot in the door (so to speak).

There are also those who argue that theme is only applied in such a way that it helps us remember the game's mechanics, and to some degree I can agree with that. But it's obvious that in many games--particularly AT titles--that mechanics exist solely to serve the theme.

Thanks for reading, and I look forward as always to your excellent feedback.

Sunday, 22 April 2007

Mr Skeletor's Mailbag

Here is this week’s mailbag, with comments from you the readers about the articles you have read on this website. There is a movie starting in 5 minutes that I want to watch so let’s get right into it…

Manolito writes:

Dear mister Skeletor,

I used to think that I was a pure amerigamer. But
something happened to me that made me doubt. As a
teenager, I bought and played lots of Games Workshop
Games. I even went to London one christmas and bought
a few GW games amongst which "Railway Rivals". I
always thought that it was good clean english/american
entertainement and I enjoyed it a lot. It was a train
game, but with dices and funny pencils to draw the
train lines on the board. Great gimmick and hours of
fun ! I just discovered yesterday, 15 years later,
that "Railway Rivals", which looks like a pure classic
GW game, was in fact the... Spiel des Jahres 1984 ! My
whole world fell apart !

How could the guys who brought us "Battlecars" and
"Talisman" published a SdJ ? Now I don't really know
who I am and where I'm at... I enjoyed for years a
SDJ, and it made me feel so weird and guilty now.
Where does ameritrash starts, where does it end ? I
feel completely confused and need help, badly...




We will forgive you for your minor transgressions. Back in 1984 Europeans actually had some taste in games, before the spreadsheet bug hit and they all started praising crap. I blame the fall of the Berlin wall for that.

Anyway, it’s ok to have a euro or 10 in your collection, just don’t overdo it eh? I’d be worried more about the fact you own a rail game, which possibly indicates a father fixation from childhood with Tomas the Tank Engine. Best go check yourself in to a clinic.

Well that’s it for this week. As you can see the response was staggering. If you would like to write some mail for this segment the address is Please place [mailbag] in the subject line.

Friday, 20 April 2007

The Weekly AT Snapshot - Now With Pictures!

Rio Grande Games to Publish First AT Game

Rio Grande Games, spurred on by the runaway success of Days of Wonder's
BattleLore has announced an upcoming Ameritrash title called
Ameritrash Horde.

Designer Bubba Krauss:

"Ameritrash Horde is basically the AT vs. Euro War in a box.
It's a siege game - the Ameritrash Horde is trying to breach the
insurmountable Caylus Wall. The AT players use the patented new
Shooting/Stabbing/Punching SystemTM
, a highly thematic version of Rock-Paper-Scissors. The Euro players work feverishly in the King's mud pits
building bricks for the Caylus Wall by bidding on dirt and moving cubes
around. The AT players win if they breach the Caylus Wall and
eliminate all the Euro players, forcing them to fetch chips and soda.
The Euro players win if they get enough victory points to "impress" the
AT Horde into a hasty retreat."

On the Game's Collectibility:

"We're very excited about the collectible aspect of the game. You
have your common pieces (orcs, merchants) all the way up to your
rares (Michael Barnes, Aldie). Yep, there's even a
Banning of Michael Barnes card. Not to worry, everyone's favorite
villain can return as Barnes The White after he is removed from the game.
We'll also be introducing one ultra-rare figure, available only at Cons -
Mr. Skeletor in Drag. This piece ends the game immediately
and is a designed for those moments when the game has broken
down into a huge argument over whether the game is balanced or not."

So Keep Your Eyes Peeled For...Ameritrash Horde!

This week's AT Snapshot was submitted by Mike Chapel - sworn enemy of the
AT Movement. Congratulations Mike - you're a real man!

Calling all photoshoppers and imagehounds! The Weekly AT Snapshot wants YOUR images! You send the picture, we add the back-story!

If you've got a great image that just screams Ameritrash, email us the URL. It can be an image you created or an image you found on the web. We don't care! If it meets our strict quality standards, we'll publish it in The Weekly AT Snapshot, instantly making you an undeniable global celebrity. We'll even pimp your website if you send us the URL for that. Send all submissions to the "fortressat" address with the word "Snapshot" in the subject line.

Thursday, 19 April 2007

Session Report--Atlanta Debauchery

Ameritrash...alive and well in Atlanta, GA.

I had to travel to Atlanta on business so one of the first things I did was look up Robert Martin and Michael Barnes to see if I could hook up for a gaming night. They have a weekly gaming night every Thursday at Mercer College.

Here's what got played:

Alien Chariot Racing Game That I Don't Remember the Name Of: We started off with an old chariot racing game of some kind provided by Steve Avery. We had six players and the rules explanation was...uh....well, let's just say this game has a lot of weird stuff going on, 50 different ways to take damage, lousy components, but a hell of a lot of theme.

I managed to wipe out on the very first corner after my beasts frenzied, I got run over by both Robert and Michael, but I did manage to to at least stab the other players a few times. Steve won.


At least it was fast. Ameritrash? Uh...yeah. Except the naff components, this was lots of rules (I still am not sure what the heck was going on for most of the game) and tons of flavor.

Mission: Red Planet So I get to choose from a fat stack of games and I see this game. I'm a big fan of Citadels, so this should be awesome, right? The game played fast and was pretty much over before I knew it. It's all area control with Citadels roles tacked on.

Robert ran away with the win with 48 points, I had 30 for second place. With so few turns (only 10) you've pretty much got to play your turns like a machine, it's totally an efficiency exercise with a ton of randomness in it. It's not bad, but I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I'd hoped I would.

It's important to note that it took Michael about twenty mintues to get the box lid off.

The Gothic Game: Both Mike and Robert insisted that we were going to play this one. I'd never heard of it, it's a roll and move game with a macabre sense of humor. I mean, the Dracula figure is a penis-shaped pawn. You roll a dice every turn and that's how you move. Every room has random cards that make all kinds of crazy shit happen to you. You want to talk narrative? Here's how my game went:

1. Wander around the entrance
2. Taking damage by being in the same room as a guy who'd had crap dumped all over him...literally
3. Finding a spiked dog collar that never was useful, but was certainly fashionable
4. Getting bitten by a poisonous asp that I couldn't manage to dump on anyone...this paralyzed me long enough for a vampiric Barnes to slaughter my little guy.

There was even their variant where if you didn't use the little cup to roll the dice, you instantly died. Everyone kept trying to pass just the die to everybody so they would be killed by the mysterious "Must Use The Cup" Phantom.

This is a game all about just making a's not about winning (I'm not sure you can even plan on trying to win this)...I was offed too quickly to see some of the cool stuff, apparently Barnes' vampire ended up taking a beating and an eventual bath in the Moat. My corpse laughed at him.

At this point, a cool guy named Will had set-up War of the Ring. Seems like my love for the game made me a big target for an opponent for him. I wanted to get in on the Dragon Dice but I love WOTR and I didn't want to let Will down after he'd setup the board. (Heh...yeah, like I was going to pass up a chance to play my favorite game.)

We used the expansion which was my first time trying that out. It was weird that it didn't make as big a splash as I thought, but just the addition of Galadriel is HUGE. I had an extra die pretty much right away. I played the Freeps because Will had played three times in a row as the Shadow. He had been teaching other players (the same as me, each time I've played it's involved teaching someone else) so he was glad to get a chance to play with someone who he didn't have to teach.

I'd been tangling with him some militarily because moving the Fellowship was risky (he'd have three-five eyes pretty much all the time) but I kept pushing them when I could. Like I said, Galadriel was huge because Lorien was never even attacked.

Once my defenses started crumbling I pushed the Fellowship pretty hard...Will was surprised because I burned Elven Rings early and often getting them moving. I hit Mordor with 3 corruption and in a good position militarily (most of my strongholds were reinforced). However, over the span of the next two turns Minas Tirith fell faster than expected thanks to Siege engines, and I hit TWO eyes in a row moving through Mordor...taking 8 corruption, all the way to 11. I moved again and drew a one, which Gollum nullified by revealing us.

It wasn't enough as one stronghold I hadn't defended well (The Gray Havens) came under assault via the Corsair ships. It was all "Hulk Smash" and the hopes of the Free Peoples were crushed. Didn't matter--the next tile I would've drawn would've killed me.

It was an awesome game night. I saw the website that Robert is working on, it looks awesome--you guys are going to be impressed.

Ameritrash is definitely alive and well in Hotlanta.

Play This Game- DRAGON DICE

Every day I get an email containing a list of games received by my favorite distributor so I get a heads-up on what all has come in for the day. Usually, it is piled high with tons of things I could really care less about (Reaper miniatures, anyone?) and I try to keep abreast of what all is new and noteworthy out there but occasionally something turns up that surprises me. A few weeks ago, I saw that there were apparently new starters sets of DRAGON DICE released. I thought, “certainly this can’t be that TSR game from 10 years ago- who still plays that dead game?” I did a little research and found out that not only does the game enjoy a loyal cult following, but also that through the efforts of a fan-founded small publisher called SFR, Inc. and the dedication of company president Chuck Pint the game is far from dead- in fact, SFR has been releasing DRAGON DICE products, licensed by TSR, for years and these new starters were simply a continuation of their efforts to return the game to the public eye. I remembered that my erstwhile gaming buddy Robert Martin had mentioned both that it had a 5 ratings average on Boardgamegeek and that the average was likely an indicator that it was a really good game. Plus he thought the dice were cool, and I think it’s safe to say that most of us here at F:AT like dice.

So we took the plunge, purchasing several of the 2-player starters and I have to admit I felt that pang of reckless trepidation that comes with buying into a collectible game- exacerbated by the fact I was buying into a game that for the gaming mainstream was practically forgotten as one of the many failures of the post-MAGIC collectible gaming gold rush. Sure, the dice looked great but aside from a general lack of interest from our gaming cronies there was also an 146+ page rulebook, extensive spell and effect lists, tons of unit types and races, and the inevitable specter of rarity looming large over the game. We were hoping that the game would be a fairly light, 20-30 minute game where we could basically just throw dice at each other and wage a little war but it looked like the chips were stacked against it- which come to find out, is kind of the story of this game’s life.

The good news is that it turns out that this underdog of a game is a genuine buried treasure that reveals its greatness not in the first two or three games but in the fourth, fifth, and other games beyond as the subtle strategies of army composition, movement, tactical withdrawals and redeployments, and the interaction of the races with terrain become apparent and crucial to winning the game. The first few games, in fact, are likely to be disappointing as most players will dismiss the game as little more than dice rolling- but there is far more here than its early abandoners will ever get to appreciate. There is some really nice design here (thanks to Lester Smith, known in board game circles primarily for his work at GDW including MINION HUNTER) and it is a far more interesting and exciting dice game than the tedious yet hugely popular TO COURT THE KING.

Despite the intimidating rulebook, DRAGON DICE is mechanically a very simple game. Each turn a player gets to make two “marches”, which basically mean making a maneuver and an attack. Then the player gets to withdrawal units into an off-board reserve area and/or return units from that area into play. Every contest in the game is resolved by rolling every die in a given army at a particular location- so if the army is taking a melee action, you roll looking for melee results, if you’re casting spells you roll looking for magic results. The system has a little HEROQUEST in it, particularly in the save rolls where you’re rolling for shields against hits. In a nice design twist, “face” results that depict the unit’s portrait count as wilds for whatever you’re rolling for so no roll is ever impossible.

Therefore, DRAGON DICE comes across as a dicepool game with a fairly abstract territorial control theme. Players assemble armies of units- each represented by a d6 (or a d10 for monsters) with faces that coordinate to a unit’s abilities. Therefore, a cavalry unit will usually have more “maneuver” icons while an archer will have more face-space devoted to missile results. Units come in three sizes (corresponding to rarity) and provide 1-3 health points, which is also the foundation of the point-based army construction rules. At the beginning of the game the players divide their forces into three armies, one to defend the home terrain, one to attack an opponent’s home terrain, and one to place on the “frontier”, a terrain die placed in the middle of the table. The game plays fine with 2 players but multiplayer contests are exciting and often tense affairs of convenient alliances and beat-on-the-leader struggles as a player gets close to winning.

There is no map or physical territory in the game, rather each piece of terrain is represented by a two-color d8. When armies are at a terrain, the number on the die indicates their relative range (ahem- more on this in a second) and the possible action there based on proximity- magic, missle, or melee. Victory is earned by the player who manages to maneuver any two of the terrain dice in play to their 8th faces, where the occupant can perform a special action each round depending on the icon there (such as recruiting dead units back into play or receiving special magic abilities). Each race has some sort of terrain advantage, so Amazons get to use their maneuver results as missile icons on the flatlands (chariots!) and Coral Elves get some save bonuses fighting in aquatic coastland terrain. The concept of proximity and possible actions coupled with the objective of advancing terrain is not unlike UP FRONT and its use of relative range- of course, it’s a much simpler system here but it works well and provides some interesting choices on when to push forward with a melee-heavy army or maneuver the die back to missile and magic for armies focusing on those types of combat

The magic system works along the exact same principals as the rest of the game, with armies rolling for magic results and potentially doubling face results at terrain that matches one or both of the units’ color. The spells are very powerful (expect the usual suite of fireballs, resurrections, blessings, and so forth) and a summoning spell is in fact how the titular dragons enter play. These dragons, keyed to different colors of magic, are DRAGON DICE’s equivalent of a nuclear bomb. Each army gets to bring one dragon to the game for every 24 points of forces and when one of these d12 meat grinders hits the table there’s sure to be dwarves/elves/goblins/whatever shaking in their boots. Dragons are placed at a terrain and are rolled each turn that an army has units there with it- regardless of who they belong to since the dragons once summoned have no allegiance. They tend to do massive damage and can potentially wipe out an entire army. They’re also equipped with five automatic saves unless they roll a “belly” icon which makes them more vulnerable. An army that slays a dragon gets to promote all of its units there, which is great if you’ve got 1-health units surviving and 2-health units in your dead unit area.

This is the kind of game where all this won’t make a lick of sense to you the first time you play and you’re likely to wind up just pushing dice around the table and seeing what happens. I had that same sense that I had when I opened my first starter for MAGIC: THE GATHERING and likewise after a few games I started seeing how it all worked together- combinations, possibilities, balancing the odds. This is when the game gets really, really good and becomes much more than just rolling dice- in fact, our hopes for a simple 20-30 minute mindless game were pretty much crushed when we realized that this is a game with deep, rich strategies beyond our expectations. Sure, there’s still a huge amount of fun, dramatic luck but planning your army and knowing where units need to be and when they need to be there to get the most out of their capabilities is as much a part of the game as rolling dice.

Fortunately, we haven’t seen rarity or “power” units turn out to be a significant factor in our games- the big three-health dice are really good and offer a lot of icons in their specialty and usually a couple of special abilities, but they’re completely balanced by the fact that you can field three one health units for the same cost and when it’s time to roll you’re rolling three dice at different odds than rolling one. Plus you have the added advantage of being able to distribute your force more widely. The monsters are a little different, costing four health each (which also means their icons all count for four results) and they generally have a lot of special icons that have a wide variety of hurtful effects. But you’re still rolling these guys in a fistful of other dice, so here again army composition and careful manipulation of your force pool pays off big time.

I have very little to complain about with DRAGON DICE- I think the game is very nearly “great” and it really is a shame that it has been relegated to cult-at-best status for all of these years. The balance of complex strategy to simple gameplay is almost extraordinary and I think you’d be hard pressed to find a 30-45 minute game that offers both solid tactical and strategic decisions as well as a huge amount of drama. The game is very abstract and narrative is pretty much limited to however you imagine these armies squaring off and frankly I feel that those are the only real strikes against it apart from some complaints I have about the production of the support material. Some have complained about the symbols on the dice but once you figure out the system behind the iconography (which is different for each race, adding a lot of character in a simple way) it’s easy to identify what everything is at a glance.

However, I believe the game makes some egregious production mistakes in terms of the rulebook and the player aid cards provided in each starter. At 146 pages, the rulebook has turned off several potential players in our group despite our constant assurances that it’s really only about 14 pages of rules. The rulebook contains all the rules for promo dice, the MAGESTORM expansion set (which adds artifacts, terrain features, and Dragonkin units), all the spell lists, a glossary of the special action icons, fluff material about each race, and more. Yes, more. It’s really too much for a starter set and the game would really have benefited from a concise, “quick start” guide to get players up and running within 20 minutes of opening the box. As it stands, it’s a comprehensive and authoritative resource for those familiar with the game but completely daunting and intimidating for new players. The player aid cards are also a huge misstep- they offer spell lists and costs but no descriptions of the spell effects! Instead, the players have to stop the game for several minutes to wade through the manual and figure out what they can cast, how much they can spend, and what each spell does. Simply providing small cards with a list of spells for each of the two races in each starter would have done _wonders_ toward making the game more accessible, which is what this game needs more than anything else after 10 years of existing under the radar.

So in the end we have a scrappy, quirky, and completely compelling game that got kicked out of Club Mainstream yet was rescued from complete obscurity by hardcore fans and devotees of the game- that’s a true contribution to the hobby if ever there was one and it makes writing reviews and commentary online look pretty paltry by comparison. Now all DRAGON DICE needs is to find an audience, and I feel confident in giving the game a strong recommendation to fans of American-style games who are looking for something unusual and aren’t afraid of the Eurogamer-horrifying combination of words “collectible dice game”. Which isn’t to say that the casual Eurogamer wouldn’t enjoy the game, given that it fits into the parameters of simplicity, brevity, and relative strategy they demand- but no doubt the game will likely be enjoyed at its fullest by the dice-chucking, dragon-loving, and cheering hordes of the Ameritrash vanguard.

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Why Ameritrash Is Gay.

Title speaks for itself really.

1. People insist we aren’t treated as a minority group.

Despite the blatantly obvious bias against AT on other websites such as Board Game Geek, the euro crowd will forever deny it exists. “Oh, you get treated like everyone else!” they cry, while creating the 400th geeklist about the best games to teach new gamers, which of course does not contain one ameritrash title. I guess new gamers are too young to hear about our horribly perverse lifestyle.

2. People want us to keep our ‘lifestyle’ to ourselves.

Most normal gamers don’t mind that we play the games we do, as long as we keep our behavior in our homes where they don’t have to see it. Just create 2 threads about AT at the same time and watch the posters from euroland descend upon the threads en masse, stating that they are sick of reading all this AT stuff!

3. We apparently have an ‘agenda’.

Very similar to the ‘gay agenda’ which the tin foil hat brigade insists exists; we too supposedly have an ‘agenda’ according to our detractors - we are simply about stirring trouble, causing chaos and bringing down God’s wrath upon everyone’s head. We don't like or are interested in boardgames at all. Won’t somebody please think of the children?

4. The people against us never admit to being trashophobes.

“Oh I’m not a homophobe! Why some of my friends are gay!”

“Oh we aren’t all about Euros! Why some of my gathering of friends played Descent and Loopin’ Louie in the back corner!”

5. We love theme, flashy presentation and cheesiness.

"The game is all that matters" my arse. We want nice bits, cornball settings and situations, and over the top artwork. Plus we love toys.

6. We believe the longer the better.

No quickie fillers for us thanks. We prefer it to last all night.

7. We know how to party.

Playing Eurogames is akin to going to the opera – I don't care how sophisticated it's meant to be, it’s fucking boring.

Ameritrash is like a gay mardi gras – people tut-tut that we shouldn’t be engaging in such boisterous and uncivilized behavior while we are busy having the time of our lives.

8. Church groups hate us

My copy of DOOM still has water damage from the time when Father Panteloni tried to exorcise it.

9. We love a good catfight.

No passive aggressive bullshit for us. If we have a problem with what someone has done we aren’t afraid to let them know by calling them names, throwing things at them or diving across the table in an attempt to claw their eyes out.

10. We actually know how to make fun of ourselves.

Clearly a trait the Eurosnoots sorely lack.

So be loud and be proud my brothers!

On Monday I will be starting a “mailbag” section, where I will personally respond to comments or questions about our old articles (think 60 minutes.) If you want to write in and get your name above the comments section, send you emails to with [mailbag] in the header. Otherwise I’ll just invent some fake mail to make it look like we have fans.