Friday, 30 March 2007

WAR OF THE RING- To Hell With Balance!

So I'm reading a post over at another popular board gaming site (not BGG)...there's a post on there discussing the in-the-works Collectors' Edition of WAR OF THE RING, one of the best games in recent memory. The extensive post represents a "modest proposal" to the designers of WAR OF THE RING that steps be taken in order to correct a supposed balance issue in the game- it seems some folks take objection to the fact that the Shadow player is the odds-on favorite while the Fellowship player is the underdog.


If I recall the story of LORD OF THE RINGS, Morder was pretty much kicking ass and the Free Peoples were losing hope quicker than a Hasbro Avalon Hill brand manager holding out for a promotion. Every victory won by Rohan, Gondor, and the Fellowship was a longshot, million-to-one odds sort of thing. You know- heroic last stands, defying notions of impossibility, and turning the tide to defeat insurmountable darkness.

One of the things that makes WAR OF THE RING a truly epic, masterful piece of game design is the degree of narrative and the way in which the story of LORD OF THE RINGS unfolds throughout the course of the game with both large scale, massive movements of nations as well as the effects of individuals working on an entirely different scale. As much as Knizia's game recounts some of the more human, intimate themes of the story WotR illustrates the grand, "widescreen" version of the events. And a key component of depicting this story is that things don't look so good for the good guys in the beginning. That's the challenge of playing the Free People- figuring out just how in the world you're going to keep all those freakin' Uruk-Hai out of the Shire and keeping future generations of Gondorians from speaking Black Speech. With perfect balance, much of the drama and tension of the game would be completely lost.

The idea of balancing the game is complete bullshit- doing so would eliminate not only a major theme of the game (and the story), but also the point of the Fellowship having to play a canny, daring game in order to make the 3-point shot into Orodruin. Imbalance also adds pressure and a virtual time limit to the Free People player's game- once those strongholds are under siege, it isn't hard to feel moved toward the "game over, man" fit-pitching like Legolas does in the movie right before the ladders hit the Deeping Wall. When the Fellowship wins it should be by a hair and as a result of smart strategy and taking advantage of the Shadow player's mistakes and misfortunes- not some "Bill the Pony" card or other mechanic that unnaturally shifts the balance of the game to parity.

Imbalance is also critical to depicting the Shadow Player's position in the game. The whole point is that Sauron is gathering an army to pretty much end the world, right? He ain't sending the B-team, and he's not pulling punches on the DEW (Dale, Erebor, Woodand Realm) line just so the Fellowship gets a fair chance. Mordor is poised at the beginning of the store as a gigantic black bulldozer cranking up to smash everything good and green against the brick wall of Isengard. What if Saruman said "We'll send 9,000 Uruk-Hai instead of 10,000 so they'll have a better chance of holding Helm's Deep." Bullshit, right? Right.

If there's anything that balances it all out, it's the same thing that tips the scales in the story. That wacky One Ring. Mordor can have every stronghold on the map under siege and have wiped out all 3 or 4 of the Dwarf units in the game and _still_ lose if those huggin' hobbits quit cuddling long enough to make it through Gorgoroth and send it back from whence it came. It's a deadman switch that the Shadow player has to react to and try to delay while also moving toward other objectives. Yeah, the weight of balance might be on the Shadow player, but the Free People have the nuke. A smart Free Peoples player will win the game almost every time against a dumb Shadow player, so if you think it's imbalanced- play better!

The poster ends by basically stating that the game somehow can't live up to its potential by having this "balance issue". Whatever. I understand and accept a lot of the criticism I hear about WotR (it's not the One True Infalliable Game at all, that would be DUNE) but to fuss, hem, and haw over "balance" in a game (and a story) built around imbalance is frankly ludicrous and just another indication of the artificial game design sensibilities that armchair pundits seek to impose on published designs. I guess those nutty game designers didn't consider matters like this when they conceived, designed, tested, and finalized a high profile game with a huge license, did they?

If you you don't like the assymmetry, there's PLENTY of other games that will accomodate you. Hell, LOTR: THE CONFRONTATION might be a better game for you. But in fact, I hope that the WotR crew does throw these guys a bone and add a card or two- the more copies they sell, the better. I just hope they leave a great game alone and turn a deaf ear to some of the nonsense. It seems that thousands and thousands of people have somehow managed to play this game without complaining about balance so there's no reason for a vocal minority to ruin it for the rest of us.

What's in a name?

Allow me to tell you a story.

A long, long time ago, in a country far, far away (if you happen to live in the US), I worked for an organisation called the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC). My job had nothing to do with physics - I worked on their website and intranet. One day PPARC decreed that an Electronic Records Management System (ERMS) must be bought and so options were investigated by a committee consisting entirely of managers. Because the committee consisted of managers who did not include or consult any technical staff the ERMS they decided on, Objective turned out to be a complete turkey. It turned out to be such a turkey in fact that in an all-staff meeting one of the senior managers who'd picked it diverted from topic and made a sudden and spontaneous attack about it being so crap that he'd never, ever use it himself.

Thanks for bearing with me so far, this is going somewhere.

A new project manager was bought in to try and salvage the software. She was very good indeed and things did improve a little bit. Then she decided to hold a competition to rename the software from "objective" to something more touchy-feely, reasoning that a new name might help dispel the negative vibes surrounding the old project. The winning name was "nemo". Various small in-office publicity events were held to mark the renaming and a bit of marketing was done. And, amazingly, everyone carried on calling it "objective" and thinking it was shit.

Which illustrates exactly why, whatever you think about it, the name Ameritrash is here to stay as a genre label for the games we love and why it's completely pointless to try and change it. Now me, I don't like it. I'd change it if I could, although I'm not entirely sure what to. The reason is simply that a small minority of the very best early Ameritrash games got designed and published right here in the UK by good old Games Workshop in the far-gone days before it became a great satan which nearly rivals Hasborg and Michael Barnes in the Big Book of Gaming Bogeymen. So maybe we should change it to "specialrealtionshiptrash"? Bit of a mouthful I suppose.

Anyway, whatever terrible sins GW have committed they have continued to support one or two of the better board games they put out, most notably the excellent and quirky Blood Bowl which manages to turn most euro-assumptions on their head by being random, violent, steeped in theme and yet at the same time amazingly brain-burning. But what happened to the rest? Well, for a long time some of them were fairly important collector grails, although not so much here in the UK where copies were a bit more common. But then Fantasy Flight Games picked up the licence for many of the titles and started releasing them, redesigned for more modern and euro-friendly sensibilities.

I am not privy to exactly what this licence covers. But I think it's an unfortunate although understandable decision that the two games they've chosen to re-release so far are in fact two of the best games from the GW stable and the ones in least need of a redesign. The reworking of Warrior Knights which attempted to make this marathon game shorter feels like a game which ends just as its getting interesting. The reworking of Fury of Dracula looks to me like the game was redesigned entirely around an attempt to solve a very minor problem (dracula cheating). Both have a slew of new euro-style mechanics that sometimes feel a bit bolted-on. Don't get me wrong here, neither are bad games, I just continue to feel that the originals are better.

This is a missed opportunity. I'm hopeful that FFG will look at publishing some more GW titles, primarily because some of them contained some fantastic gaming ideas which got bogged down by weak play or old fashioned mechanics - although there's also Space Hulk which deserves an un-tweaked re-release in its own right. There are some games which are just screaming for a redesign - here's two of them.

Top of my list is Blood Royale. On the face of it this was a fairly ordinary looking middle-ages wargame with economic and diplomatic factors. However in reality the game revolved almost entirely around building your dynasty - you started with a small royal family and had to go about trying to produce more offspring and marrying them off to the children of other players' families while hoping your older and more experienced characters avoided the grim reaper for another turn. The marriage arrangements, just like in real medieval diplomacy, formed the basis of the deals and contracts that were made between the players. As far as I'm aware this approach to an empire-building game remains completely unique. Sadly the game took far too long and eventually got bogged down in the absurdly complex interplay of all the treaties made but the core of the game were a bunch of solid gold ideas that have yet to be replicated.

I'd also suggest that someone take another look at Rogue Trooper. This was part of a short series of games GW released based on characters from the famous 2000ad comics, none of which were particularly good, although in the Judge Dredd one was sometimes amusing for allowing you to arrest Judge Death for crimes such as ... littering or jaywalking. Rogue Trooper was probably the worst of the bunch - a Talisman like game which involved moving across a board, drawing encounters and collecting stuff until you had a final, climactic encounter to win the game. Pretty yawn inducing stuff in the first place, but the problem was exacerbated by the fact that Talisman got away with it because of its fantastically diverse encounter deck, whereas the Rogue Trooper one was short and samey. But I digress. Rogue had one of the most ingenious and thematic solutions to the "problem" of player elimination ever. In the comic, Rogues' equipment was powered by microchips that had recorded the personalities of his dead comrades. In the game a player who died left a microchip on the board and these were massively useful pieces of equipment, so the remaining players then got in a race to see who could pick it up. Whoever claimed the chip got the benefits and also got to play with the dead player as a team - everybody wins! It strikes me that a redesign of this could be built around preserving and expanding this mechanic in all sorts of cool and interesting ways given how the mechanics devised for co-operation in games have expanded so much since it was first published. But I'd ditch the rest of the game before I started work.

So please FFG, dig out those design resources and take another look at the GW back catalogue - but now you've done the obvious titles, try and take a look at the mechanics that are worth salvaging as well as whole games!

So please FFG, take a look at this, extract the good stuff and build us a cool, streamlined game around it!

Thursday, 29 March 2007

Twilight Imperium III SE - How I didn't waste my cash.

Every year for my birthday, I host a game day. Now this in and of itself is no big deal, I often have friends over to play games and most of the time we spend a good chunk of time rolling dice or moving cardboard bits about. The birthday bash is a little different. Instead of the normal lets figure out what to play last minute, as all of our games nights usually are, I get to pick the schedule.

My usual plan is to use this to play the longer, more involved games in my collection that see little play time during the rest of the year. (This is most of my games) In the past this has met with mixed success. Two years ago I tried to play A game of Thrones, I failed. Part of this was my fault, I was not prepared enough to drive this game. I was constantly looking up rules and clarifying things. The other part is that this game sucks, and so combined it was a train wreck.

The following year I was a bit more timid, we played the new version of Conquest of the Empire, with the hacked up Struggle of Empires rules. This went over pretty well with most players liking it and saying they would play again. (we have not) This was a much simpler game and the experience, while good, left me feeling that I didn't try hard enough. (We did play Gangsters after this, so thats a bonus!)

This year, determined not to be a slacker, I went all out. The game was going to be Twilight Imperium III. A game I had owned for more than a year (got it 50% off at Borders clearence) and has resigned to probably never play. The inital press on the game and my bad experience with AGoT had me worried that FFg was going to be similar to Eagle in that I would have to try before I buy, due to the games being half-baked. This was before I saw what was added to the patch.... err expansion. Shattered Empires added all the right stuff to TI3, addressing most of the major complaints about the original and adding in just enough to keep it fresh.

So I picked up a copy ASAP and started learning the game. With my past mistakes as a guide, I knew there were a few things that had to happen before I played. First, I was going to know the rules to this thing inside out. I joined an online game at and began to learn the ins and outs of this system. Second, I was not going to over do it with the optional rules.
One of the mistakes I made with AGoT was that I included too many options, It slowed the game too much and I lost pace, people got bored and it all went south. Determined to not do the same thing again, I spoke to anyone who would talk to me about the game. I asked what options were the best. I read through session reports and tried to see what players liked and disliked. I talked ro Rober Martin, and he insisted that I use the Age of Empires option. (This turns the objectives up at the start of the game.) Also I knew that the simulated early turns were going to be a must. I wanted to use all of the new cards, so this meant using a house rule on the Bureaucracy card. (We added to Trade Goods to it, thanks again Rob)

Due to the fact that everyone playing was a newbie, I mandated that all were to read the rules or suffer that pain of me galling them a "sucker of a thousand cocks". I compiled a 3 page rules summary, a spreadsheet of all the races, a spreadsheet of the action and political cards, a picture of the mapboard, links to the full rules for both the game and the expansion, and pictures of each players pre-determined race mat and emailed everyone in the game.

We got going at 3pm, and I had set an end time of 8:30pm. I knew we would not finish and informed all the player that this would be the case. The idea was that we were going to see if we could learn the game, and if we liked it we would then be able to play again and cut the play time down. Everyone agreed and we got going. In the end it was a huge success, we extended the playtime until about 10pm and made it through 4 full turns and a part of the 5th (one player was able to get a large lead and so we didnt finish the 5th turn.) A good time was had by all. Not a single player disliked the game and all were willing to have another go at it. A success beyond what I could have hoped for.

So if you want some advice on how to play this game with a bunch of newbies... email Rob Martin :) I will be happy to help as well.


Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Eurogame Ludicrous Theme Hall of Fame- LOS MAMPFOS

Here at Fortress Ameritrash, one of the things we all agree on is that theme, a sense of narrative, and a tight fit between those traits and solid mechanics are chief among the qualities that make a game great- whether it's from the US or Luxembourg. We've often criticized Euros for their lack of these characteristics and we have chafed at some of the more nonsensical themes (penguins) that the genre is known for. Today I came across a new title that surely must be entered into the Eurogame Ludicrous Theme Hall of Fame- LOS MAMPFOS.

Now, don't consider this a review because I've never played this game from Zoch Verlag and I likely never will- for one thing, I'm not a big Rudiger Dorn fan (outside of TRADERS OF GENOA) but I'm also not a big fan of a shitting donkeys theme. I like WWII and robots much better.

Yeah, that's right. The theme of the game is that you feed these gigantic, squatting wooden donkeys oat biscuits and then they move around these fields. The rules have that irritating Euro-cloyness in describing what you actually do in the game- "once they are well-fed, they lift their tails up and let the recently digested biscuits drop onto the grass." Which is a nice, Euro-way to say "the donkeys take a dump". The goal of the game is literally to collect different colors of shit (which are of course wooden discs). It appears that the usual assortment of "clever" movement rules are there along with some kind of card drafting and selection wheels but it's all just a distraction to picking up donkey turd. The ad copy tells us that the game is " for sombrero wearers with a good memory – and a preference for donkeys’ droppings".

All that being said, it looks like the mechanics clearly illustrate and specify the donkey shitting theme. Which in terms of theme/mechanic integration is more than can be said of say, TIGRIS AND EUPHRATES.

Now, don't get me wrong...Zoch has done some really neat games for children (JOCHEN DER ROCHEN, for example) and I'm sure the game is targeted toward kids who giggle at the thought of poo- but I wouldn't be surprised to see a cluster of adults gathered around LOS MAMPFOS at the next big game event, tee-heeing their way through this madness yet snubbing the themes, dice rolling, and graphics of AT games as "childish" or "immature". If I were an outsider to the hobby and walked in on that scene, I would run home screaming and burn every copy of MONOPOLY or TRIVIAL PURSUIT in my closet to avoid being associated with such an awful, degenerate hobby.

But now, if FFG were to redo it with a shitting Orcs theme...that might be a game.

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Heavy Metal, Man!

One of the big arguments during the AT vs. Euro War was that it's dumb to classify games. We should just call them all "games" because that's what they are. Anything else is a waste of time. Of course, when you take this argument and look upwards, you realize that it's a load of crap. After all, why not just call everything "objects". It would be so much easier than classifying "food" separately from "sewage". Of course, McDonalds never bothered to differentiate between the two but that's a different story.

Enter Heavy Metal.

If you're one of the uninitiated, you think it ends there - a genre is a genre. But if you're a true fan like Billy Sparkles, you know that Heavy Metal is actually equivalent to one of those big mega-corporations that basically owns everything on earth. There's a ton of different kinds of metal! Here's just a few. I'm sure Billy could at least double this list:

Alternative metal
Avant-garde metal
Bay Area thrash metal
Black metal
Blackened death metal
Christian metal
Classic metal
Death metal
Doom metal
Extreme metal
Folk metal
Funk metal
Gothic metal
Groove metal
Industrial metal
Nu metal
Oriental metal
Power metal
Progressive metal
Shred metal
Sludge metal
Speed metal
Symphonic metal
Technical death metal
Thrash metal
True metal
Viking metal

The point is, people like to classify things. It makes them happy. They jump for joy, run in circles, and clap their hands twice. Well, maybe not Metal fans.

So when you cry foul that board gaming has what, five genres, be glad you're not a Heavy Metal fan like Billy Sparkles.

Thoughts on Marvel Heroes

Superheroes have been the recipient of various board game and roleplaying game efforts over the years--some good, many awful, most of them completely forgettable.

One thing many of them share in common is the "Run downtown to beat up the bad guys!" syndrome. Think about it; in Heroclix, you have two sides setting up for battle, and they essentially rush out towards the middle and lock horns. Even the old TSR roleplaying treatment of Marvel mostly degenerated into this for us....a typical scenario was, "Doc Ock is downtown, robbing the bank! You heroes start here, and go get him!" The map was plopped down, tokens placed, heroes moved, toward the inevitable battle that awaited..and was, for all intents and purposes, THE entire game. The battle was all, and that's all there was.

When I found out about Marvel Heroes, of course I was naturally excited. What was even more exciting was that it was being developed by the same team (Marco Maggi, Francesco Nepitello, Roberto Di Meglio) that developed the phenomenal War of the Ring, easily one of my favorite games of all time and by far one of the best treatments of the Tolkien saga that has ever seen manufacture.

Admittedly, I was initially concerned when I first saw the board and read up on development of the title. The board was obviously abstract; and what do you mean this isn't a skirmish-level treatment of battles between my favorite superheroes?

Turns out, I needn't have worried. Once again, the team has nailed it--though it isn't a perfect game by any means, it is a solid, unique treatment of the superhero game and blends nicely the Ameritrash idea of gameplay with enough Euro elements to bring us a great entry into that growing buzzword of game development--"The Hybrid".


It's a well-known fact: I'm a bits whore. Not to the degree where I'll buy a game blindly for nice bits (if that were the case, I'd no doubt have a copy of Sid Meier's Civilization by now), but there is no denying that I prefer my games to have quality bits.

The game comes with twenty beautifully detailed figures. To be honest I was expecting the pre-painted figures to be this good but they are top-notch. They could use a bit more detailing, but that can be left up to the more enterprising painters among us--of which I am most definitely not one.

You also recieve some custom dice, a nice-sized board of Manhattan, tons of villian, hero, and story cards, and thick cardboard tiles for depicting wounds, trouble markers, and other needed game indicators.

I had read that the bases of the heroes are packed in the box a little snugly, and I will warn you that this is indeed true. It's not a big complaint--just be careful the very first time you remove them. If they prove cumbersome, you can simply bag 'em and put them back in the box--there is plenty of room to store them this way, so you never have to worry about that again.

All in all, the components are high-quality and exactly what you'd expect from Fantasy Flight Games.


Each player chooses from one of four of the most popular teams in the Marvel pantheon--The X-Men, Fantastic Four, The Avengers, and Mavel Knights. The game depicts not one battle between heroes and villians but rather a sort of "campaign", if you will, of heroes attempting to fight various crimes and deal with villains throughout the city. Using an action point system very much like many Euros, you attempt to maximize your actions to score the most points.

Certain heroes are better at dealing with some types of crimes than others, some heroes are better served in a Support role, and some are your obvious bruisers who will gladly go out and seek a fight.

Juggling your resources adds a nice level of strategy to the game, as you will not have enough points to always do what you want to do. On top of this, because you alternate actions with your opponent(s), you have to make sure that you don't get your desired scoring opportunities stolen from you.

Each turn, new "Headlines" are added to the board, and these correspond to the different areas of the board. Some are low-level crimes with low "Trouble Levels" but also have very low point rewards. Others are obviously major crimes (such as a poison cloud being unleashed on the city) and have much higher Trouble Levels.

Trouble Levels are the capital that the other players will have to use against you as you attempt to troubleshoot and score the various crimes. Each player has a separate hand of villain cards that they may play to stop your heroes from achieving their goals. This uses the familiar mechanic of other players playing the "bad guys" during your turn to slow you down rather than direct interference from the other heroes. I agree with this mechanic because while heroes do come to blows from time to time in the comics--most notably Captain America and Iron Man during Marvel's crossover "Civil War"--the focus should be on heroes versus villains, and it is here.

At any rate, villains cost Trouble points to play, so the higher the Trouble Level, the stronger the villian that might be played. Low-level guys like Bullseye cost a measly 1 point, but the heavy-hitters like Juggernaut are going to cost a lot more--but be capable of more damage.

Villains also serve dual purposes--each villain card has a secondary effect that can be used during battle to help the primary villain. Once the villains and his helper cards have been played, we get down to an old-fashioned Ameritrash dicefest, but with a nice twist. Each hero and villain have up to three color-coded powers that they can use during a round of combat. During combat, one player is considered to have the initiative, and will attack first. Hits are counted (and additional dice rolled based on whether you have "Boosting", a gameplay element covered better in the rules) and then the defender rolls to try to negate these hits. If the attack isn't blocked, the defender suffers a point of damage. If that character or villain has damage equal to his "KO" level, he is defeated--in the case of the villain, he is discarded and the heroes can continue Troubleshooting the headline; in the case of the hero, they are sent home wounded. If that was the last hero available to fight, the Troubleshooting action is a failure, and the villain is either discarded or may be added to the "Most Wanted" track if they have the appropriate icon, to show up later and cause more havoc for the heroes.

After each round of combat, there is an Outwit roll. This roll will inflict an additional point of damage for the loser, and the winner will gain initiative for the next round of combat. So the power you choose for a combat round will be dependant on whether you have the initiative, the strength of the attack you anticipate, and if you expect the round to progress to the Outwit roll (and if that roll is important for you to win).

For example, Thing has an attack that lets you roll 5 dice (a very large attack) but only 2 dice on defense and 1 on Outwit; this is when you expect your opponent to have a glass jaw and go down after this hit. However, he has another attack that is low attack and defense (2 dice each) but a strong Outwit roll of 4 dice. Sometimes the choices are obvious, other times you will need to choose which of your options actually suits you best for this round of combat.

There are other elements to the gameplay going on. One is the "Story Deck", a nice little side item that can allow you to score points by manipulating it. This is an attempt to bring in story-based elements to the game, such as Sue giving birth to Franklin (she is QUITE the trooper to be out there battling up until her very delivery!), but mostly this part of the game is quite abstract. It gives you a little "Oh, cool!" part of the game when something happens that involves your team, but the end result is the same--1 VP. You can also trade these story cards in for Team Power-Ups, giving your team permanent benefits for the rest of the game.

The last part I haven't really talked about are the Mastermind villains, also a very cool part of the game. Each team has a fabled nemesis--for example, Magneto for the X-Men and Dr. Doom for the Fantastic Four. One of your opponents will have control of your team's nemesis. Certain headlines have an icon on them indicating that there is potentially Mastermind involvement in the crime, and if you troubleshoot these headlines you will have to suffer addtional meddling from that Mastermind, including added points for playing villains and even battling the Mastermind themselves in combat. These Masterminds have their own "Master Plan" cards that they can try to play, and if they're successful, they become all the more dangerous.

Though the heroes can evade combat with their nemesis, by doing so they become all the more stronger, and the final Master Plan card each may Mastermind may play will dock the hero player a whopping five points--a *huge* sum when the base scenario only involves playing to 15!

There are other elements that add Marvel flavor, including Ally cards that can tag along to help the teams, and Hero cards that can be played for thematic or dramatic effect. Also, taking a page from the best of Euros, the game has some catch-up to the leader gameplay mechanics, including making the Mastermind of the current point leader into something called the "Archnemesis", allowing that Mastermind to interfere in crimes whether there's a Mastermind Icon or not!

My Thoughts

Marvel Heroes hasn't been as warmly received as I expected. There have been a lot of criticisms as to its abstract nature, and more than one player was disappointed to find out that it wasn't a tactical fighting game between heroes and villains. I think this was a wise--and refreshing--decision, as making another game like that would've put it in the same camp as Heroclix and Hasbro's upcoming Marvel Heroscape game, which cover that exact same ground.

As far as abstraction, I think a level of that is necessary, given that the game is trying to capture a larger scale while keeping playing time reasonable. The game is meant to comprise several issues of a comic, with each "Headline" making up one or two issues of that comic, and the Mastermind's involvement being a larger story arc.

Some felt that the "play to 15" element was bland, reducing the game to a scoring exercise with superhero window-dressing. To some degree, that is true; however, the game ships with several scenario cards that change the victory conditions to some that are more thematic (in "The House of M" scenario, each team will have to deal with Magneto himself in a more powerful form during the endgame, and victory will be decided by who defeats him.) This keeps the game fresh, as you will have to play the game differently based on the specifications of the scenario.

I think the dice-based combat system also keeps the game firmly tied to its Ameritrashy combat roots--you simply cannot have superhero battles without chucking dice! Plus, choosing your powers during each round adds decisions and flavor to each battle.

There is no denying that the Euro influence is showing here, but I think in all the best ways. Juggling heroes, action points, and other resources gives you that "the heroes can't be everywhere at once" feeling, just like the comics. The abstraction of movement is more the result of 'pulling back' from the action, and I think that's acceptable given the scope of the game and what it's trying to accomplish.

The Verdict: Marvel Heroes is a find Euro/AT hybrid featuring some of comic's finest. The production value is high, the gameplay fast (a game should finish in less than two hours), and it scales well from 2-4 players.

I think that the abstraction level is high in some regards, and I cannot disagree that the game could've used with a tad less of it. The Story Track, despite its coolness, is really just additional fluff that you will be "gaming" in order to score points off of rather than feeling like its depicting actual events in the Marvel universe.

It also sits in an uncomfortable spot for a hybrid. The theme is going to be seen as "kiddie" or "geeky", the dice are going to turn off Euro gamers (though I think they are implemented very well in this game), and the abstraction is going to bother theme hounds.

Could it be better? Yeah, I think there are spots where the game stands for a bit of room for improvement, but my overall view of the game is that it's an excellent, fresh take on the superhero boardgame. Marco, Francesco, and Roberto have delivered a strong sophmore effort--a tall order after their incredible first breakthrough offering--and I look forward to seeing more of what these guys do in the future.

It's obvious that they're on to something in terms of developing strong hybrids, that's for sure. Thumbs up for "Marvel Heroes".

Score: 8.0/10.0 (Excellent)

Monday, 26 March 2007

TIDE OF IRON delayed until May?!

Well, the news has come down that TIDE OF IRON, the latest aircraft-carrier sized box of AT wonder and joy from Fantasy Flight Games has been delayed until May. It had been delayed until April. And before that to March. You get the picture.

The reason stated by FFG appears to be that there were "concerns" about warping boards, which of course you would have seen if you'd read any of the early bird reports as posted online. After the public outrage over everything from the warping boards of RAILROAD TYCOON, the bent rulebooks of SHOGUN, and the infamous unremovable box lid of MISSION RED PLANET I have to say that Mr. Petersen and company have made the right decision- I'd hate to see yet another flagship title in the FFG stable get waylaid by crybaby complaints levelled by anal retentitve gamers apparently incapable of dealing with minor manufacturing difficulties. Warped boards means bad buzz and bad reviews, as we've seen time and time again.

Now granted, when a game is seriously screwed up in production there's definitely a call for something to be done and it might very well be the case that the boards didn't pass quality control...but I can't help but think that this is one of those situations where fear of the Almighty Internet Opinion may have had a huge influence on the decision- which is really a shame if it's as minor a problem as the reviews I've seen have noted (some didn't even mention it at all, others noted that it was easily corrected). I'd hate to be in Mr. Petersen's shoes, looking at releasing a game that a lot of money has already been invested in that you know is going to get nitpicked to death by armchair critics unaware of the cost and effort of reprinting major components of the game. And given all the internet flak FFG has unfairly recieved for releasing supposedly "unfinished" or "beta" games, I'd probably hold it back myself.

God knows how many games I've purchased over the years that have a bent board or some other wonky component...and god knows how many times I've managed to somehow get by without ever posting to the world my sheer and utter disgust with a company for making such inferior products and how I will "vote with my dollar" by never buying their crap again.

So since ToI is delayed, it might be a good idea to look at some other ways the game might better please the online boardgaming community, what with their high standards and all. I'd like to propose the following changes that should be easily completed by May:

1) Make sure I can remove the box lid in under .5 seconds.

2) Make sure that the game will fit EXACTLY into the box yet somehow magically have enough room for all the expansions. Without there being too much air in the box.

3) There should be a plastic tray specifically designed to hold each and every single piece in the game.

4) Please use the highest grade cardstock known to mankind with white edges and stainless steel card protectors included in the box.

5) Please remove all luck elements from the game. Combat can be effectively modeled through card drafting and auctions rather than dice.

6) I expect there to be a detailed order of battle included in the game along with designer notes detailing every single mechanic and how it accurately models real world situations, physics, and historical realities.

7) No swastikas. Please use the MEMOIR '44 model of "not talking about the war", so to speak.

8) I would advise another 5 years of playtesting to ensure that every possible eventuality is covered and addressed in the rulebook (which should remain under 10 pages).

9) $79.95 retail is ludicrous for a game that does not have wooden pieces. Even though BATTLELORE was $70 it promises to be more value for the money sometime in the future.

10) I expect a complete and full apology included in the box from Christian Petersen addressing the ISC problem. I would like to see this in every future FFG production.

With these suggestions in place, I believe that ToI will truly be ready for primetime and completley impervious to attack from the harsh opinions of the online boardgaming world.

The Rules of this House.

One of the more common complaints expressed by those who hate Ameritrash is the constant crow cry of a game being ‘unbalanced’ or ‘broken’. It does make some sense that this occurs in these brand of games really, after all the more complications and exceptions you place onto a rule set, the more chance you have of breaking it in some way. It is for this reason that fans of the game begin developing house rules as a ‘fix’, which of course leads to the second crow cry from many of our gamer cousins.

“House rules?!?! After I paid all of this money for the game the designer expects me to do his job for him as well?!?!”

I find that attitude somewhat bizarre. Not slapping on 1 or 2 minor house rules to fix a problem is like refusing to look out the window before you head off for a walk, because well the weatherman should bloody well just get his forecasts right in the first place damn it! I often wonder how such people would act when in the market for a new home – would they knock back the perfect house just because they don’t like the wallpaper or because the kitchen needs a little remodeling?

House rules normally are very simple to implement, and with the advent of the internet you don’t even need to come up with them yourself, you can simply apply other people’s ideas if you lack the imagination or time to come up with your own fixes. Of course, a lot of this comes down to a simple question – is the game worth ‘fixing’ in the first place? That’s a subjective question, but I personally like to divide a rule set into 2 parts, the core rules and the chrome.

The ‘core’ rule set is the ‘skeleton’ of the game, so to speak; the main mechanic that drives the game and which all other rules hang upon. Eurogames tend to be built almost exclusively of a core rule set. If the core rules are broken then in most cases anything short of redesigning the entire game won’t help. An example of this for me is Medevil; the core rule set is so bland and uninspiring that I simply don’t think it’s worth playing, and therefore I won’t bother trying to develop house rules to make it play better. I’ll just play something else entirely.

On the other side there are the ‘chrome’ rules. These are the touches and extra bits which are hung onto the core rules to bring more flavor and nuisance to the game. Ameritrash games tend to have a lot of these, and it’s normally these rules which cause problems. The good thing is that because chrome rules aren’t part of a games foundation but rather more like its branches, they can be altered a lot more easily without sending the entire game crashing down, due to them having a lesser impact on the rest of the game then core rules do. That is why this is the ideal level to be applying house rules at. As an example I will use the game Doom. I love the core mechanics in this – the combat dice are brilliant, the scenario base a lot of fun and the options one is given throughout play I find very interesting. On the other hand I don’t like how hard it is for the marines to win – the balance is simply too skewed away from their survival for me to have much fun with it. Fortunately addressing this issue is simply a matter of tweaking the chrome rules a bit; be it changing the way ammo is acquired, giving the marine more armor or lives to increase his chance of survival, or simply designing easier adventures. Such fiddling around the edges are unlikely to affect the game in ways you can’t foresee, but can address the problems you have with it to make the whole experience much more enjoyable.

So when people argue that they should not be forced to implement house rules in order to fix a game, I simply argue why throw out a perfectly good game just because it has one or two issues you don’t care for?

Of course, ‘fixes’ are not the only reason to implement house rules, the other big reason is to customize the game and give it your own personal stamp. You see this all the time in other hobbies – car enthusiasts will buy parts to modify their vehicles and customize it, people who love to cook will experiment with spices to give the dish a bit of their own signature, photographers will experiment with light and lenses and so on. Tinkering with something you enjoy is a lot of fun, and house rules are really nothing more than taking a light hand at playing designer. And really, who is more qualified at custom building your ultimate game experience than you yourself?

So while a nice set of problem free rules is a great thing, one should not be afraid of pulling out the hammer and have some fun nailing in a few house rules. They aren’t quite as sacrosanct as Matt Thrower would have you believe.

The Shock of the Social

I played Railroad Tycoon for the first time this weekend, a game I'd snapped up when poor old Eagle Games (the only other committed publisher of AT games besides FFG) went bust. Game went down pretty well with my friends, and although I'm lukewarm about the theme and the board is annoying on multiple levels I'd give it a cautious thumbs up.

One of the game mechanics is an auction to see who goes first each round - highest bidder pays the money and gets the honours, then it follows clockwise. So the person sitting to the left of the high bidder basically gets a free advantage. At some point during the game we played I was one of two players left in the auction, and after my opponents had made a bid increase I voiced my concern that it was really worth my while upping the bid again, just by way of table chat, you understand. The player on my left, who was out of the auction, then offered to give me $1000 if I'd increase my bid by the same amount. He'd be going last if the other player still bidding won so it was totally worth his while to effectively bid a small sum for the chance to go second. This caused uproar round the table with some players condoning the action, others condemning it. In the end, to silence the fuss I increased my bid, won the auction and took the $1000 and gave it to the player who'd remained silent during the argument!

The point of this lengthy introduction is to illustrate a source of fairly fierce argument amongst gamers of all stripes which is the legitimacy of allowing negotiation and social interaction in games which do not specifically set it down as part of the rules. There are a number of games which are built around the concept of negotiation but there are equally a number of games (Puerto Rico is a good example) which say nothing about negotiation in the rules but which would be easily and completely ruined if two players started conspiring together. The largest class of games is a third, to which Railroad Tycoon belongs, which fall into a grey area between the two in which negotiation is not discussed in the rules but it's impact upon the game is less clear.

I kind of have a silly thing about rules - I regard them as being fairly sacrosanct to the point where I'm unwilling to add house rules or variants even to improve games that are obviously begging for changes. After all the rules are the rules - without them you don't actually have a game at all. Plus I think it's kind of fun to enforce silly rules, like demanding to be called the Lord of Catan after winning a game of Settlers. So I'm totally siding with the legions of fans who ask that designers actually make a point of saying in the rules whether or not negotiation and/or resource exchange (which often accompanies it) are allowed as part of the game. At the moment the unwritten consensus seems to be that unless it's specifically listed as an aspect of the game then it's not allowed which I think is a great shame. A number of games I'm fairly fond of (Citadels for example) say nothing about it in the rules but would be spoilt for me if they excluded plotting and conniving from the game experience.

I think this state of affairs has arisen because a lot of Euro fans really don't like the chaos and unpredictability that trade and negotiation can inject into otherwise pure and balanced game designs. Indeed I've seen people complain that after a while all games which include this play element eventually turn into the same meta-game where negotiating and trading over favours and alliances effectively becomes the game, relegating other mechanics to the background and rendering all plays strikingly similar. When I first heard this point of view I thought it interesting and quite possibly accurate, although I personally don't seem to tire of the meta-game because it offers huge variety even within the strictures of being a similar experience every time - far more so than the limited play options that seem to arise from game designs that follow their fundamental maths too closely. But on inspection I'm not entirely sure that the argument holds up.

Consider. In the first instance we have the sort of negotiation offered in multiplayer conflict and empire building games which I suspect is the genre most people have in mind when they make this complaint. Games like Diplomacy and A Game of Thrones are completely built around this aspect of the play whereas others like crusty old Risk (much improved in its latest outing) don't strictly forbid it and a lot can be added to the play experience by allowing it. These games are basically about effective lying - you need to persuade other players that you're either not a threat or are offering a very serious threat in order to get them to behave in a way that suits your purposes regardless of whether you actually plan to attack them or not. Play enough of these games and they will, eventually, turn into the same meta-game already described.

But wait - there's lots of other games which encourage different types of negotiation. Games like Traders of Genoa and to a lesser extent Settlers, described above, encourage players to negotiate around trade. This is entirely different - here you're not lying to try and build alliances or protect weak fronts but instead your negotiating over value and there's no need to lie - the drive to negotiate comes from either hidden information or a simulation of market conditions. Other games, such as Titan allow some limited negotiation based on circumstance and assessment of the relative players' skills. Games with co-operative elements like Fury of Dracula encourage positive negotiation within small groups or indeed amongst all the players if they're playing against the game system itself. I'm sure I could expand this list if I tried, but frankly I'm getting bored, so let's move on.

A long, long time ago over on BoardGameGeek there was a brief trend for making geeklists based around online personality tests. I'm dubious about these sorts of tests but I'll admit that as long as you're painting with very broad strokes they can offer some sort of insight and interesting information. It seemed at the time that most of the respondents to these lists came out as being categorised in varying degrees of introversion - maybe not surprising for a self-labelled "geek" site. But not me - I kept coming out as an extrovert. There's been a lot of discussion about the demographics of the Ameritrash fan movement - age, occupation, martial status and so on - but I'd like to suggest that the introvert/extrovert division is another guide for whether people are likely to prefer Euro over AT games. A lot of AT games encourage a loud and boisterous game experience and negotiation of some kind or other is a cornerstone of that kind of gameplay.

So that brings us back to Railroad Tycoon, based on the classic out-and-out Euro design Age of Steam. It is in fact a Eurogame much beloved by the AT crowd not an AT game itself. So was the player to my left right or wrong to offer me the $1000? On the right side we might offer that here's a solution to the oft-quoted problem of RRT taking the AoS mechanic of allowing turn order to proceed in order of bid value amongst all players and turning it into a winner-takes all scenario that hands a bid advantage to the player of the left of the winner for no cost. On the wrong side we've got the suggestion that AoS was playtested with the rule that a player who passes is out of the auction, making passing a more difficult decision and that by offering a bribe, a player can circumvent this stricture and unbalance the game. Who was right? Answers on a postcard please to ... the comments button.

Friday, 23 March 2007

From the Hip- FIRE & AXE

So last night we gave Asmodee’s newest issue FIRE & AXE a shot and I have to say up front that I thought it was pretty damn good- it’s a reissue of the Ragnar Brothers DIY-published VIKING FURY. If you don’t know who the Ragnar Brothers are, go pick up a copy of HISTORY OF THE WORLD. We played with a full table including Fortress AT’s very own Robert Martin, GREAT CHILI COOKOFF designer Dan Baden, Billy Motion (of Billy and Mike Con fame), and a mysterious figure known only as…The Beekeeper. The game was about 2 hours long, but that included a very long conversation between Martin and Motion about scripting languages or some other nonsense. That being said, the game moves at a relentless pace- turns are short and the overall sense is that this a game that _moves_- lots of action and decisions with little time for overanalysis.

First off, the game looks fucking great. Asmodee has really stepped up their production- MALL OF HORROR and MISSION RED PLANET looked great, but FIRE & AXE is a total knockout- it’s easily on par with a Fantasy Flight or Days of Wonder production with great graphic collateral, high quality miniatures, and excellent layout. I guess since the game has a UK origin there’s no bizarre translation issues as in Asmodee’s last two titles. The board is gigantic, so all the whiners who have a problem with that, get your bitchin’ motor running. It’s one of those games that just looks bad ass when it’s set up.

It’s a pretty simple game, I’ll let the celebrity game writers out there meticulously rewrite the rulebook via bullet lists for their reviews elsewhere. Basically it’s a trade and raid sort of deal- players represent somewhat abstractly the Viking hordes of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway you load up Drakkars with marauding Norsemen or with trade goods like ivory and then send them out to sell goods at various European ports, raid cities, or establish settlements. Each turn you’ve got 7 days (action points) to do things, and there’s a pretty neat weather system that establishes how many “safe” days of sailing there are in each of four cardinal-point regions. There's a pretty simple die roll system to raid/settle and there are some nice detail touches like the fact that regions that have been traded to are more “receptive” to Viking dominance.

One of the main things I liked in FIRE & AXE is something I really enjoyed in NEXUS OPS, TI3, and a couple of other recent games- mission based objectives. In the context of this game they’re “Sagas” that give you short-term goals such as trade or raid a certain port or set of ports. One of the key points of conflict in the game is that you can actually exploit the hard work of others and effectively steal a Saga by being the player to actually complete the conditions- despite the fact that another has done 2/3 of it for you. It creates a lot of grudges, hard feelings, and vendettas- things I’m pretty sure we here at Fortress AT thrive on. If that’s not enough, there’s also some savagely nasty Rune cards that do any number of hateful things to other players and you can also influence the weather to make getting around difficult in certain regions. Probably the highlight of the game was when the Beekeeper beat me to a Saga card…in retaliation I played a Rune card that caused a sea serpent to attack his man-filled ship. I rolled like a champ and every single Viking got eaten. Valhalla!

It’s a point-based game and there’s LOTS of ways (and strategies) to get points and bonuses- there’s even a “Bloody Axe” bonus to the player who raids the most cities. Robert played the entire game solely to win the “Bloody Axe”, and it cost him the game. He was not a diversified Viking. I won the game, largely due to a bonus from collecting a majority of Sagas completed for Norway and Sweden. Interestingly, because of the way the timing works with the Saga cards it seem like it would play quicker with more players.

So to sum it up- so far FIRE & AXE is getting a pretty strong recommendation and it looks pretty promising in terms of longevity thanks to a cool theme, fun mechanics, smooth gameplay, a reasonable duration, and some built-in variability- I think it’s a lively, exciting hybrid that has PLENTY to appeal to AT sensibilities yet it has enough Euro innovation to keep it concise and structured enough to avoid going longer than a game of its depth and character really should. Rules are fairly easy but more importantly they feel thematic and there’s very little that feels unnecessarily gamey or abstract. It’s not one of the Great Games of Our Time and it doesn’t represent a new game design paradigm, but as a meat-and-potatoes game that offers a really good time it completely works for me- and it’s also a great example of how hybrid designs are the best thing going in games right now.

Ken's Top 10: Collectible Card Games

Though I have as of late heaped tons of scorn upon the collectible model of gaming, it wasn't always that way. In fact, I can directly thank Collectible Card Games (CCGs) for keeping me tethered to the gaming world long enough for me to discover boardgaming again.

So, in tribute of this fact, I thought I would list my top 10 favorite CCGs...ever. I wondered about the relevance to "Ameritrash", but then realized that CCGs are essentially Baseball Cards combined with Dungeons and Dragons....I just don't think it gets more Ameritrashy than that.

10.) RAGE

Well, I can already sense your disappointment in the way this list has started, so let me come to the defense of this practically forgotten CCG. The premise was simple; you have a pack of werewolves, and you either want to outscore your opponent or eradicate his tribe. Points were scored by moots ("votes", or political actions) or by straight out combat with either "Enemies" in a central area of the board or by fighting your opponent's werewolves.

The fun of the game lie in combat, combat, combat. Long story short, you could really heap some abuse on your foes, using cards with charming titles such as "Entrail Rend", "Spine Crushed", and the ever-popular "Mangle". When you had multiple people involved, the fun multiplied as the number of foes to brutalize increased. And the more players there were, the more "political" you needed to be...the winner was often the one who flew just under the radar long enough before going on a killing spree.

Why it isn't #9:... Unless you're a BIG fan of combat, you may very well not enjoy this game. Only about 20% of the cards in this game are useful (assuming you have access to all of them...some of the rares are so broken, you'll be screaming "WTF?"...The "politcal" actions were often very weak and difficult to pass, making fighting the usual path to victory. The lack of depth hurts this one quite a bit, but it really is a blast to play.


Hey, I admit it. I'm a HUGE Tolkien fan. I played the fun-but-oh-so-convoluted ICE Middle Earth game (and still have the headaches to prove it). So I jumped at the chance to play a game based on the new movies coming out.

The game is based on the premise of moving the ringbearer (Frodo, though sometimes Sam lends a hand) from the first site of the game all the way to the last. Along the way, your opponent will try to impede your progress, using ferocious beasts like the Witch King and the Cave Troll to try and stop you cold (or, better yet, eradicate your Ringbearer). There's going to be a LOT of fighting along the way, but I believe Sam said it best: "There are some things worth fighting for."

As par for the course, the cards are gorgeous, using nicely captured images from the films. And much like another certain Decipher CCG, you're going to get a chance to use even the most minor of characters to help you in your quest ("Albert Dreary", a card from the first set, is based on the brief cameo by director Peter Jackson that literally lasts 3 seconds).

Why it isn't #8: As fun as skirmishing is, it sometimes feels like that's really all there is to it--move, skirmish, move, repeat. The game also suffers from a lack of different paths to victory...either get the ringbearer to the end, or kill (or corrupt) your opponent's ringbearer. This leads to some fairly limited gameplay.

Also, there are some balance issues, with about 30% of cards actually being useful...suffering from the "rare cards are better" syndrome that plagues lots of games (some early cards are so good Decipher has had to ban them, a practice they once promised they'd never employ). Still, this is a solid game with a huge following--and rightfully so.


Raw Deal simulates the battle of superstars as they try to outwrestle and outsmart your opponent. You play maneuvers and actions in hopes of depleting your opponent's "arsenal" (read: deck) and scoring the victory. However, you aren't helpless during an opponent's assault--"reversal" cards can help you prevent your opponent from crushing your skull with a bonecrunching piledriver or body slam.

So how did this game, based on the silly antics of professional wrestling, end up on a list of "Best" CCGs? It's mainly because of the diversity of strategy present. Each wrestler has a certain special ability that you can abuse to help achieve your goals. Some wrestlers, like Chris Jericho, specialize in stripping your opponent's hand of cards. Others, like Kane, focus on dealing direct damage to your opponent. Essentially, if it's a strategy you've seen in other card games, it's one you can pursue here. Use Flair to control your opponent's resources...or the Undertaker to slowly turn your discard pile into a growing resource of its own. Aggro, control, discard, lockdown...*all* of these strategies can be pursued in Raw Deal. And since some of your actions and maneuvers will be more important than others, you'll find yourself trying to bait your opponent to reverse the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Raw Deal has been dubbed "Chess with Chair Shots"--a description I can wholeheartedly endorse--and even if you AREN'T a pro-wrestling fan and don't know your Triple H from your Kurt Angle, there's probably something here for you to like.

Why it isn't #7: Well, I'd be fooling myself if I didn't understand that hey, the license just isn't for everyone. Unforunately that can detract from the game itself (which would ironically work with multiple licenses and concepts--change "maneuvers" to "military attacks" and you can see where I'm going). Also, the Ultra-Rare chase cards can be tough to come by, and are necessary for a number of decks to work properly. Not all the useful cards are rares--but you're definitely going to need multiples of some of the "staples", which can put you at a disadvantage over someone who does have them.


Okay, I also have to admit I'm a huge Lovecraft fan, so naturally I had to give this little niche CCG a try. In Mythos, you play the role of an "Investigator" trying to get to the bottom of some very mysterious happenings in jolly old New England. Of course, the things you find out just might drive you mad!

You try and complete "stories" by travelling around using location cards and play each of the pre-requisites of the story. For example, one story may require you to have a certain mix of allies and artifacts in play as well as travel to a certain location. Most of the time these stories mirrored existing Lovecraft tales, a very nice touch. In order to slow your opponent, you could play monsters that if not defended against would drain their sanity. You immediately lost the game if your Investigator "went insane" and lost all sanity points. A dark (and darkly humorous) game that will really sit well with fans of either Lovecraft or horror tales in general.

Why it isn't #6: Unfortunately, the game's mechanics rewarded a player a bit TOO much for driving an opponent insane. This lead to games of pure "monster rush" strategies, which really detracted from the point of the game (telling stories, more or less). In tournament play, in fact, games were four players to help curb this type of strategy. Still, it really takes some of the fun away when you try and play a deck about "The Shadow Out of Time" and your opponent is simply intent on attacking you instead of accomplishing anything on his own.


Something's weird in the wild west, partner. In Doomtown, you play as one of many factions who have some sort of agenda (or something at stake) in the wild west. The game is all about playing locations and getting influence and victory points in order to establish dominance.Oh, and you play poker to settle gunfights.

Yep, that's the really neat twist on Doomtown...when your dudes square off in a gunfight, you draw "poker hands". Each card in your deck serves a dual purpose; it also has a suit and card value associated with it. And since you could "stack your deck", well, it ain't uncommon to see four kings...of clubs. Doomtown is a great game in which you "build the board" as you go, and your gunfighters move from site to site trying to either control locations or smoke out your opponent. It's your choice, partner.

Why it isn't #5: Speaking of cheatin' was a little TOO easy to cheat. This lead to some fairly degenerate strategies early on, particularly "flush" decks. And the cards to penalize your opponent were often not severe enough! Add to that fact that in the early going some of the factions were hideously unbalanced (Sweetrock, anyone?) and alot of gamers were turned off by the game in the early going. Some of these issues were addressed eventually, but most of the time "house rules" were the only things preventing some rather unfun gaming sessions. Too bad--Doomtown's combat is likely the most innovative we will ever see.


A brilliant game of tactics, intrigue, and honor, L5R stands tall in the crowded field of CCGs. Different clans war with one another to either crush the others, achieve enough honor to be elevated above their foes, or to find true enlightenment. Of course, much blood and political intrigue will stand in the way of victory, and many issues will have to be settled on the battlefield of war.

Each player has "provinces" which represent the resources available to that player. Each turn new resources are revealed and gold can be spent on hiring personalities, followers, and items for battle. You can hamper your opponent's efforts by sending your troops to attack your opponent's provinces. If you ever reduce your opponent's provinces to zero, you have achieved a Military Victory.

But not so fast--some personalities won't work for you if you don't have high enough "honor". In fact, achieve high enough honor through a variety of means, and you will achieve an "Honor Victory". And "Enlightenment Victory"...well, it's a tough one to pull off, but it is there if you want to try it. A flexible, open game that is rife with strategy, you'll definitely want to give it a try.

Why it isn't #4: There is one facet of the game you need to be aware of: The "Big Battle" syndrome. You see, whenever your armies square off, you compare power vs. power. If you lose, even by *one* point...the entire losing army is destroyed. ALL of them. Couple that with the unpredictability of combat (certain cards can remove personalities from battle or kill them outright) and one simple mistake can cost you the game. Also, it is worth mentioning that in a two-player contest, it is nigh impossible to come from behind and snatch victory away from your opponent. Usually, the loser of the "big battle" is done for good, no matter how many provinces are left under his control.


Jyhad is a game depicting the struggle of Vampire clans battling for supremacy. Each player undertakes the role of ancient vampires pulling the strings of underlings to accomplish your dastardly deeds. Working from a starting pool of 30 "blood", you spend this to bring locations, vampires, and items under your control. You then use them to attack or undermine your opponent's efforts to win the game. But watch out--the more you spend, the less you have--and run out of blood, and the game's over.

Jyhad succeeds on so many levels because of its depth. Some vampires have "titles" which grant them rights to call Votes (usually represented by cards). Some of these votes (unlike Rage) can have drastic impact on the game, and buidling a viable political deck is fairly easy to do. Likewise, some clans prefer brutal fights, and their gifts support such endeavors. The combat system itself is fairly deep, having its own phases, and covers hand-to-hand, the use of weapons, the elements, and even the range that combat takes place. Get two combat decks together and you're going to virtually be playing a miniature game of chess during combat, which is often visceral and thrilling.

Lastly, some clans prefer to eschew combat and utilize stealth to destroy an opponent's resources. They can do alot of damage this way, but most decks oriented this way are in some DEEP trouble if the combat fiends ever get their hands on them. With multiple players, there will often be layers of things going on, and if you don't pay attention (and occasionally wheel and deal) then you aren't going to last long. A very "elegant" CCG, indeed (with apologies to Mr. Barnes).

Why it isn't #3: Well....let's just say that a multiplayer game of Jyhad can take a while. A LONG while. I once participated in an eight player game that lasted four-and-a-half hours. Now, I enjoyed every minute...but the game length can DEFINITELY be a huge stumbling block for some players, and I can understand that. Honestly, though, if the game were sped up or some of the elements removed, it wouldn't be the same game at all. Also, in two-player most of your outcomes are easily predictable, so these contests are generally not much fun at all. Oh, and since the game received a rename after it's first set, you'll have to use sleeves if you want to mix the cards. Despite these flaws, it truly is a great game--but you've been warned on the time thing.


Okay, stop me if you've heard this one. Future setting--mega-corporations are corrupt--and "hackers" are the new "anti-heroes" who use their "l33t skillz" to strike back at these corporations and essentially make a living. Sounds like just about every Cyberpunk story since...well...Cyberpunk, doesn't it?

In Netrunner, you take on the role of either the dastardly corporation or the plucky "Netrunner". The corporation wants to protect its resources and advance its agendas at all cost; the runner wants to expose and destroy these resources and agendas and score a little coin for himself. That's all well and good, but the beauty of this game is in the gameplay. The corporation can create "Data Forts", which are merely face down cards that usually represent some agenda (though they can be traps, too). Then, they can fortify these areas with "ice", nasty programs who will have to be dealt with before the runner can access what's inside. Fortunately the runner has the aid of programs who can help him defeat or shut down these counter-measures. A cool concept here is that the corporations hand, deck, and even discard pile are legitimate targets for the runner to attack, and have to be defended as well. A very high concept game that is a real blast to play, especially if you're into the setting.

As a bonus, this is one of the very few CCGs that actually plays better out of a starter than with preconstructed decks. One factor cited in less-than-stellar sales of the game was the fact that you could purchase two double-starters and be perfectly happy with that gameplay experience for quite awhile...hardly the CCG method of sales, for sure.

Why it isn't # 2: Remember the whole "rares are better" mentality that plagues LOTR and other CCGs? Well, it's in full effect here. A person with more rares is obviously much better off, and I simply don't agree about that being a good thing for CCG design. Also, there are some balance issues between the runner and the corporation that become evident after much playing and tweaking. Still, you could do worse off than give this CCG a "run".


Star Wars lets you take the roles of Han, Luke, Leia and even Vader, Boba Fett, e.t.c. to take control of the galaxy. You "build the board" as you go along, and try and control strategic locations that will help you damage your opponent. Add that to a nifty resource mechanism (your cards are your life are your resources) and a miles-deep combat system, and you can easily see why this is (almost) the King of CCGs.

When Star Wars debuted, it was to great skepticism as well as great excitement. The property as a whole was seeing a huge upswing after being dormant for several years, with new novels, toy lines, and other merchandise being introduced. Thankfully, the game was released during the era of CCGs where CCG designers were not afraid to make "gamer's games", and even though the learning curve was steep gamers quickly found there was plenty of strategic depth in Decipher's Star Wars CCG.

Basically, if you could do it in the movies, you could do it here.

The game ran all the way through Episode I, before it died an unjust depth so that WotC could publish Garfield's rancid dice-based version.

My advice? Battle through the intense learning curve. It's worth it.

Why it isn't #1: Oooh, boy. You ever tried teaching this to someone inside an hour or two? Three? A day? To say Star Wars has some *serious* rules complexity going on would be like saying that Matrix Revolutions was *slightly* disappointing. Layers upon layers of rules await the unitiated, and the learning curve is steep. Some of the rules ultimately add nothing to the game (Bluff Rules? Asteroid Rules?) and some will cause you such rules headaches that even pros still wrestle with them.

Star Wars, however, remains that "enlightened" state of gaming...once you "get it", it's in you forever. Like in the Matrix, where they stare at the code and see "Blonde, Brunette, Redhead" you'll soon reach the state where you look at the table and see "Force Drain, Destiny Draw, Crushing Battle." One of the best of all time, if not for......


Look, I'd be lying to you if I said I didn't try to displace this one from the top spot. In actuality, the fact of the matter is this: Magic is the grandaddy of CCGs, and if you doubt its quality and staying power, simply note that IT'S STILL HERE while many others on this list are already gone.

I'll break it down for the one or two folks who never played or at least witnessed a game: you try and use your lands (resources) to cast creatures and spells to knock your opponent's life to zero. How many ways can you do that? Well.....that's the real beauty of Magic, and why it's still alive and kicking. Every time you sit down to build a Magic deck, it's like an open canvass. How do you want to defeat your opponent? What do you want to do? If many of these other CCGs are capable of accomodating so many strategies, it's only because Magic invented them in the first place. Aggro? Control? Counter? Direct Damage? All here.

The flexibility of the game is staggering, and literally every deck you build can feel and play differently. I may not actively play Magic anymore, but even *I* know a masterpiece when I see one.Is Magic perfect? Well, let's not go that far. The "Type II" format has been both condemned and praised (sometimes in the same breath). Magic's a "money game" no doubt about it. Because whole sets of cards rotate out of the competitive environment, you're going to be chasing a lot of cards and spending a ton of cash. However, if you just want to play with friends--well, you're all set. Everything's legal!

Also, of all of the CCGs listed, Magic is one of the few where decks full of Commons can still be viable. I'll never forget competing in a big tournament in Memphis with a deck of 20 multi-lands, 4 Juzam Djinns, a Black Lotus, and more "power cards" that put the value of the deck over $1,000 (this was in 1995...I shudder to think it's value now). I was put out n the quarter-finals by a kid running Kird Apes, Scryb Sprites, and Giant Growth. Total value of the deck: probably less than $20. Yikes. "Humbling" doesn't cover it.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

"We could always do DRAGONLORDS"

The gamers’ lust for gaming is not yet slaked.

As they stand around, engaging in debate over what will be next on the table, eyeing piles of games freshly mined from closets deep and arrayed like treasures laid forth for presentation as indecision begins to set in.

But hark! A clarion call, a rallying cry is sent forth to these gamesters-

“We could always do DRAGONLORDS.”

Robert Martin stands by his proclamation as the gamers furrow their brows and shift nervously, desperately trying to shift the conversation toward other, more mutually agreeable games. He shrugs, nervously fingering the black linen box embossed with a diabolical red foil emblem, looking for all the world like a box set of some obscure Finnish metal band.

“I’ve got the Advanced Game Expansion and CRYSTAL OF POWER too.”

The gamers agree, with great trepidation, and sit around the garish board as Robert produces beautifully painted metal miniatures- some painted completely one shade of red, other painted head-to-toe in spray paint green. The blobby plastic bits of the first edition, defiant in their failure to take the shape of orcs and elves, are still there to supplement these elite warriors.

“I’m really proud of these- I keep them on the mantle at home in a glass case.”

Robert reveals his piece de resistance- metal dragonlord miniatures painted with at least 3 different colors of paint. One green, black, and red. One white, black, and red. Blood seems to seep from one Dragonlord’s face, making his entire face appear stained with vermillion. We’re stunned, but silent. Only laughter can break the aura of fear and madness these lords of dragons have inspired within us.

“OK, it’s basically RISK mixed with TALISMAN…on your turn…”

3 hours pass by. Many, many dice are rolled. Blobby pieces scurry about the board, spraypainted gold rocks are exchanged for more blobby pieces and occasionally a boat. I go into the wastelands, get a Dragonlord, and then enact a holocaust of little blobby guys.

“Well, you pretty much won so we can quit unless you just want to finish.”

Robert Martin begins to pack up the board, lovingly wrapping his beautiful miniatures in toilet paper to preserve their custom finishes. In his heart, a deep sadness begins to swell as he realizes that his prized Dragonlords Krodark Bloodhammer and Crallagh the Unsavory will likely not see action again, at least for another year. It is an autumnal sadness, as he packs away the game. He must know that his satisfaction in finally bringing his favorite game to the table must carry him through an unknowable number of seasons. But still, he’ll bring the game every session…just in case some unknowing gamer can be lured into play. And hoping against hope, when game selection time dawns again, Robert will say:

“We could always do DRAGONLORDS.”

The New Avalon Hill..."Wha Happin?"

I was re-arranging my games stash this past weekend and took a few moments to look over one of my "grails"--the game that brought me to Boardgamegeek in the first place--Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit. I've mentioned that game no telling how many times, did a very favorable review of it on BGG, I put it in my top 10 boardgames of all to say I think very highly of it is an understatement.

I got to thinking, though, while I looked at it--there on the front was the Avalon Hill logo emblazened on the front. Now, of course, this wasn't "Avalon Hill" as most gamers used to know no, this was the NEW Avalon Hill, as acquired by the Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast conglomerate.

Of course, you may have read that as of mid-to-late last year, most of the "new" Avalon Hill's offerings were being put to pasture. Games such as Betrayal at House on the Hill, Nexus Ops, Vegas Showdown, Monsters Menace America, and several others were essentially being euthanized. This explains why you can wander into almost any Toys 'R' Us these days and find several of them sitting on the shelf with a $20-or-less price tag.

One question should enter the mind of the Ameritrash fan as you evaluate this situation--what happened? You look at this line-up, and it looks custom-tailored to the Ameritrash fan. Plastic, heavily-themed dicefests, accessible...

So...yeah...what DID happen?

A History Lesson

There is absolutely no doubt the impact and influence that the old Avalon Hill company had in the boardgaming industry. Founded by Charles S. Roberts (you know, the guy in whose name they award the wargame of the year to), Avalon Hill was for a long time considered the creme de la creme of hobbyist boardgaming. The impact on the wargame genre alone is staggering--many of the concepts that are carried forward even today were pioneered in some of the earliest Avalon Hill titles.

Though I personally associate the old AH primarily with wargames, I was surprised to find that (according to Wikipedia) only about half of their titles were actually wargames. Here is an excerpt from that selfsame Wiki article:

"While wargames were always what Avalon Hill was best known for, Roberts had founded it as a company for adult (that is, thinking) games. His own favorite game that he designed during his time with the company was Management. Through much of its history, wargames were only about half of the Avalon Hill line. The non-wargame side of the line picked up several good titles such as Acquire and Twixt from the purchase of 3M's line of games in 1976. During the 1970s, Avalon Hill published a number of tabletop sports simulations, culminating in the popular Statis Pro line in 1978 which was based on the names and statistics of actual players."

At any rate, like many prominent hobbyist companies (such as the also legendary TSR) AH floundered as the 1990s wore on. By 1997/1998, the company was no longer financially viable, and would have winked out of existence save for the fact that all of its assets--including intellectual property rights--were purchased by Hasbro for a reported $6 million.

A New Promise

Despite many of the opinionated railings you will read these days about "Hasborg" and its mistreatment of the Avalon Hill name and product line, the beginnings of the new Avalon Hill were actually quite promising. In 1999, under the Avalon Hill name two old favorites were re-released with a deluxe treatment: Acquire, replete with nice plastic building pieces, and Diplomacy, with heavy, sturdy metal pieces. Also 1999 saw the Avalon Hill branding get applied to the Axis and Allies brand (a brand with a long history and a soft spot in the hearts of most AT fans) in the form of Axis and Allies: Europe, an attempt to expand the venerable old line and expose it to new fans.

While those were indeed promising beginnings, the line would really take off in 2000. That year saw the release of Richard Borg's first commercial entry in his now monstrously popular Commands and Colors system in the form of Battle Cry. Another old favorite saw re-release, again with deluxe plastic treatment--Cosmic Encounter. Also that year saw the released of the aformentioned Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit, widely heralded as one of the best movie/game conversions ever (the venerable Dune would probably be considered a closer adaptation of the novel rather than Lynch's barely coherent film, and the AH version predates the film by several years anyway, leaving TQG with a strong claim to "best film game").

Taking a moment to pause here, it's obvious that rather than just using the Avalon Hill name to "cash in"--as they certainly could have--Hasbro was making a real effort to connect with the hobbyist market here. Though SW:TQG is certainly accessible and easy to learn, it is miles above the typical two-page of rules affair that you would normally find on the Wal-Mart shelf of Hasbro offerings. The Queen's Gambit was populated by a metric ton of beautifully crafted plastic bits, a three-dimensional palace, hit points, attack and defense dice of varying colors and strength, the idea of a "decoy" queen, rules for the "Gungan Shield", threaded turns with pseudo pre-programmed instructions, and the need for balancing *four* theaters of action that involved a more complex set of victory condtions than your typical Hasbro customer might be used to.

Also looking at this line, these were games that were near and dear to the hobbyist gamer's heart. Cosmic Encounter? Diplomacy? Acquire? Not to mention that the AH line provided a new avenue for Hasbro to publish strong hobbyist titles such as Battle Cry, which went on to father incredibly popular titles such as Memoir '44 and Battlelore.

As time wore on, more and more titles saw release under this branded line. Risk: 2210 demonstrated that there was indeed life after the vanilla Risk that most hardcore gamers left for dead many, many years ago. The Axis and Allies line continued to expand with D-Day, Battle of the Bulge, Pacific, and even a new Revised version of the basic game that addressed several of the old balancing complaints that fans had with the original version (including the dreaded "SUPER BOMBERS" that always wrecked every game in which they made their wretched appearance....gah, bad memories, bad memories!!) Another old favorite returned in the form of Roborally, and the stream of re-issues and new hobbyist titles continued with games such as Monsters Menace America, History of the World, Nexus Ops, and even a surprising entry into the Eurogame-style market in the form of the acclaimed Vegas Showdown.

Old Habits (and Grognards) Die Hard

Man, that's a pretty beautiful picture I painted up there, wouldn't you say? be honest, both as a gamer and a student of business, the failure of the AH line mystifies me. (Much as the swift death of the Sega Dreamcast back in the day, but let's not go into that here). I mean, on the surface, it appears that the new AH was firing on all cylinders. Re-releasing old favorites? Check. Releasing new titles with hobbyist leanings and nice plastic bits? Check. Hobbyist titles appearing in mass market stores, expanding the visibility of the hobby and improving their accessibility? Check.

(I mean, think about it. Remember in the old days when you could wander into Toys R Us or Kay-Bee Toys and find good boadgames to buy? Sitting right there nestled amongst the Monopolies and Lifes would Avalon Hill title. Or a Gamemaster title such as Shogun/Samurai Swords. For awhile once the new AH brand resurfaced, those days were back! You could find these games at both outlets. Heck, Hasbro was even one of the original publishers of one of Reiner Knizia's masterpieces in the form of Lord of the Rings, a game I saw sold at Toys R Us, Kay-Bee...and Wal-Mart! Think about that!)

But old-time fans of AH were not amused by the stylings of the "new" AH. With each subsequent release, there were more and more grumblings. THESE weren't the types of games that the REAL Avalon Hill would release, many would say. (Never mind the factoid I found out above about only 1/2 the titles of the original AH being wargames). Also, much was made about the games that Hasbro weren't releasing--chief among them being games such as Dune, Titan, and Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage.

Other Problems

Another problem that seemed to plague Hasbro's AH was the fact that each game released seemed to have some "issue" that was a sticking point for a vocal segment of fans. Cosmic Encounter was lacking its expansion content as well as some stacking issues with the plastic components. Diplomacy fans were not fond of the new metal pieces which made on-board calculations/examples more difficult. Betrayal at House on the Hill had many, many misprints in its documentation and on some of its game components. Monsters Menace America was plagued by an end-game problem that ruined the entire game for some. Roborally and Vegas Showdown were both cited as having poor components (thinner boards and plastic 'bots for Roborally, and admittedly lame paper player mats for Vegas Showdown).

There was another problem too that was less visible but certainly did not help matters. Two of Hasbro's best designers are undoubtedly Craig Van Ness and Rob Daviau. Either one or both had hands in designing some of the best of the best of Hasbro's/AH's offerings, including Risk: 2210, Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit, Star Wars: Epic Duels, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (generally considered one of the best TV adaptation games made), Battleball (think an entry-level Blood Bowl), Axis and Allies: Pacific, and both are the creative minds behind current Hasbro mass-market/hobbyist behemoth, Heroscape, which continues to receive expansion after expansion with no end in sight and will be receiving a licensed treatment this summer in the form of Marvel Heroscape, a game that looks to be a real threat to Wizkid's Heroclix.

Something happened though roughly around 2004--and I do not have a definitive time frame on this--but Hasbro essentially "handed off" the AH line to its subsidiary, Wizards of the Coast. What this unfortunately meant was that neither Rob nor Craig made the leap with the change (as can be heard on their Geekspeak appearance in late 2004 to which they no longer had knowledge--or even the capacity to speak about--future plans with the AH line).

Did this lead to the decline in quality? That's possible. Several of the later games that had component issues were actually released during WotC's watch, leading to the impression that AH games were beginning to "cheap out" on components. Ditto printing errors that plagued Betrayal, though Wizards did provide new rule books via their website. A few pretty craptacular games saw release with the AH stamp during this time too--Sword and Skulls (think "Pirate Monopoly") and Rocketville, and game supposedly carrying the pedigree of Richard Garfield of Magic: The Gathering fame but by all reports turning out to be a rancid, random blind-bidding fest with little creativity or fun.

That's not to say that there weren't gems in there too, especially when talking about Vegas Showdown. This game took a lot of Euro elements and blended them with an appealing Americanized theme, in the process winning Games Magazine Game of the Year award in 2006 and finding itself nicely nuzzled at spot #124 as of this writing on Boardgamegeek's top games listing.

Where We Are Today--$19.99

Needless to say, coming off the success of Vegas Showdown it was quite a suprise when it, along with most of the other AH hobbyist titles were put on "discontinued" status and marked down to firesale prices for $19.99. Those may not seem like clearance prices, but one only has to look at all the cool plastic bits inside each copy of Nexus Ops to know that this is a below-cost sale. (In other words, think of what you normally get for a $20 game, such as Fantasy Flight Games Silver Line...usually a deck of cards, some chits, MAYBE a plastic piece or three).

What's worse is that in many Toys R Us, they're still sitting, even at this price. I was in a Knoxville store two weeks ago and they had almost all of the AH discontinued titles for $19.99, still sitting there. Obviously, something wrong happened here.

Did Hasbro/WotC misjudge the number of these titles to be made available? That's possible. When you deal with a large company like Hasbro, the term "niche" has a very different meaning indeed. An independent publisher might be thrilled to sell 5,000 copies of a title, but for Hasbro that isn't even worth firing up the production lines over.

Did the new AH underestimate the "bad" weight the name would bring with it along with the good--in other words, would they have been better off 'retiring' the AH name to avoid expectations from older AH fans who didn't understand that without Hasbro, the name would have completely faded from view?

Worse, did Ameritrash fans--whom many of these titles were obviously aimed at--"betray" their heritage by skipping "Hasborg's" offerings, or refusing to see past some issues in these titles that for other games, from other publishers they would've gladly houseruled or played through in the past?

I don't know. Here's the part of the article where I turn the floor over to you. I want to know...what happened? Except for the negative connotations of "Hasborg", I'd like to know where the new AH went wrong. Because from all reports, the days of new hobbyist titles from AH are over, and we'll only be seeing Axis and Allies games including the collectible miniatures as part of this product line from now on. Once these AH titles are gone, that will leave Hasbro's own Heroscape as the only product on mass retail shelves with any foot in the hobbyist market at all. Isn't that a bad thing? I don't know. You tell me.

Sound off! I'm especially interested in hearing from fans of the old AH line as to why, exactly, you felt "betrayed" by the new AH line. Thanks for reading!