Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Spes the Final Frontier

In the last couple of weeks at NoBoG the recently released game Black Angel has made it to table to confuse and bemuse amongst the stars Euro style.


Designed by the same guys that brought you the 2010 Euro game Troyes, the game borrows the core mechanics from that game, tacks on a bunch of extra things, twists a few others and spins the theme from the middle ages of Earth into the far future of spaaaacccce. Which is a rubbish description if you have no clue what Troyes is. Suffice to say, some people regard Troyes as the Best Game Ever, and so Black Angel comes with a certain amount of hype, glee and disappointment depending where you stand on Troyes.

Set onboard a sleeper colony starship that is safeguarding the last remnants of humanity - The Black Angel - the players take the role of overseeing AIs that are looking after the ship on its hazardous journey towards a planet called Spes ( pronounced confusingly "space", from the Roman god of hope ). Along the way you get to send your robots off to do various tasks around the ship and also explore the passing systems to fulfill abstract "missions" for various rewards. But as an AI governing your small army of robots, it's not all about sweeping the floors and flying around in your swanky scout ships, the Black Angel is under attack from an unrelenting alien species, the Ravagers ( *cough* Reavers *cough* you cant take the sky from me ! ), who are intent on destroying you, your robots, and your sleeping cryo colonists by turning you into tiny pieces of space debris. At which point everyone loses.

A semi co-operative ?! I can see how you'd think that, but actually no. Despite the game having a built in antagonist who can trash the ship and end with you all "losing", you still compare points - albeit much reduced - and see who the best loser was. In other words, it doesn't really matter at all and is not semi co-operative.

The game is strikingly colourful, with hot pinks and electric neon colours decorating space in something that's very far removed from your typical space trope of black and blue. The artist responsible for the design agreed to do the artwork but on one condition - they didn't want to do Yet Another Space Game that had a massive black backdrop with a few points of colour. Which is understandable but liable to upset some space purists out there. I can't remember the last NASA shot of space that was quite so... pink.
Space - a lot more Hot Pink than you might have guessed

There are arguably three main core mechanics to Black Angel. The first is that your actions are tied to the dice you roll. This is one of those, workers are dice, and you stick the dice on an action space kind of a game. This bit of the game is very close to Troyes in that each player has their own pool of differently coloured dice, there's a possibility of not only using your dice, but taking others dice, and you stick those dice down into action slots to perform an action. The Black Angel has six actions you can take, two each in three colours, and it is these you can place your colour matching dice into to activate them.
End game player tableau. Look at all those black bonus tiles ! Ridiculous !
The second main mechanic is your player tableau which forms a 3 x 3 grid where you can place "tech" tiles which give you bonus actions at the start of your turn. These are activated as a group either as a column or row, and with some funkiness about "injecting" tiles and pushing them all along, there is something to think about here about what kind of actions you want on your board, where they are being pushed to, and whether you can get nicely efficient rows or columns of actions to activate all at once, further complicated by end game scoring tiles really wanting to be pushed *off* your board in order to score more points for them ( but possibly destroying your delightfully efficient grid in the process ). If you've ever played Santa Maria with its 5 x 5 grid and column or row activations with dice, it's pretty much exactly this but in smaller form, and you can shuffle the tiles about.

The third main mechanic of the game is within the ever scrolling space exploration board. Here you can move your little robot scout ships out from the Black Angel to place missions on nearby systems. These missions either form a new action space for you to place dice on in addition to the six available onboard The Black Angel, or form bonus tiles that will trigger when they "fall off" the back end of the board. The space board continually refreshes, losing its rearmost set of hexes, and adding a new set of hexes at the front, pushing the Black Angel on towards its destination - and possibly triggering "ejection" missions.
The main Black Angel player board
Throw in some card hand management, a minimal sprinkling of resource management spending and a whole bunch of timing of when you go into a reset turn to reroll your dice, and you pretty much have the game.

Stripping the game down to its essentials, what you'll basically be doing in this game is trying to get some favourable missions to nearby systems, planning what actions you want to put in your tableau, having one eye on what scoring tiles you can pick up and in order to do all those things running your robots around the ship.

Enough of brass tacks. How does it play ? The game has a good number of moving parts to it which at first glance is tricky to wrap your head around. It's critical that you get out into space and place some missions down - these do you two things, earn you points and materials, but crucially when they are ejected, set you up to possibly allow you to score more points from your bonus tiles. The sheer variety of these missions is pretty much impossible to track unless you've played the game a lot - there are 60 of them, all with different costs and rewards. This is further complicated by the division of the entire game into three different colours - each colour can only be activated by the matching colour, bonuses will only stack on the same colour and so on. Meaning that you kind of have to track three separate states - how are my yellows doing, how are my blues doing, how are my greens doing, am I concentrating on blues, how many dice of that colour do I have ? Getting any bit of that wrong can lead you into awkward situations of not having much useful to do or doing something you probably don't care so much about. Painting yourself into a corner here where you've inadvertently screwed yourself over by either not having the right colour dice available or the right colour card is a real possibility and takes a bit of planning to avoid.

To do the oh so important space exploration malarkey, you're gonna quickly need to get some kind of robot and spaceship availability production going, otherwise you will be faced with having no robots or ships to go explore with. This is also something you're gonna need to keep track of, not only for this turn, but probably a few turns out. And to do that, you'll need to be aware of what cards you're burning to activate your tableau - and whether you've now run out of a colour and maybe need to trigger a dice to get some of those cards back... but that also requires you to have timed the action of that dice so you can properly use it.. and.... oook. If you get any of those things wrong, you're back to the whole I've painted myself into a corner issue again.

One comment from the game on Monday halfway through the playthrough was "I don't think I'm clever enough for this game", and as you invariably cock something up in a screeching car crash of inefficiency at some point it maybe can feel a bit like a car ride where you're only somewhat in control of where you are careening. Everything in the game is interconnected, and pushing at something in one place can take away from something else in another area, possibly not to your overall benefit.

This general feeling of moving parts is also not helped by an absolute wall of iconography everywhere. Which makes it nicely language independent. But also raises a new hurdle of everyone having to understand the sci fi themed hieroglyphics plastered to missions, actions, tech and even the assaulting aliens.

Don't get me wrong. You can certainly play this game. No problem. Playing this game *well* however is another matter. And you'll know that you're not playing it well. It'll tell you. When you end up not being able to perform that action for lack of something. When your tempo is all over the place and you end up wasting cards.

Fortunately the game isn't anywhere near half as crunchy as it seems once you've learned how the game ticks along, and after you've played it once, the game is straight forward enough. Under a sit down and play this game for the first time kind of metric, I'd rate this game as a pretty unfriendly experience - depending on who you are this might put you off, or you might just be intrigued with the cool theme and interlocking actions. A combination of keeping track of states of your colours, your player tableau, dice, the chicken and egg nature of a lot of those factors, a bit of upkeep pain, a wide variety in missions and their points rewards and a wall of hieroglyhpics all add up to a bit of a beginner fog settling over the board.

After all that, overall the game is very nice, has a lot of different things to think about and has bags of replayability hiding within its broad set of interlocking mechanics. The theme is enjoyable if you like your sci fi stuffs and the ever moving space board is something pretty fun and unusual and ties in a beautiful way to track the game timer and is thematically very strong. There is a very fine balance in determining whether a mission card is worth it or not - the game is incredibly short action wise, you'll probably get something in the region of 15 ish actions before the game finishes, which means every action really does count. Something that is entirely not obvious on your first game. The game definitely has an edge of allowing you to happily do stuff that is appallingly bad for your end game, but it feels like you're achieving something Euro style. The game has numerous of these "Euro pit traps", be wary of blindly applying your expert Euro skills over to this game. The tip here is to stay very focused on what earns you points, and how many actions it takes to achieve those points. Laying down a pointless mission or two, or spamming for dice - or spamming for anything - is going to cost you.

The game is very much Troyes 2.0 Electric Boogaloo in my humble opinion, where the core mechanics of Troyes have been taken lock stock and transplanted into a sci fi theme, but with more bits on the end to increase complexity and in a move that feels like someone has sat down and said I like Troyes but how can we make it More. Some reviewers say the games are very different - I'd disagree, even to the point that the transplanted different colour dice from Troyes don't make a hell of a lot of sense in Black Angel. Whilst in Troyes thematically the dice are very seperate spheres of actions ( Red - Military, White - Religious, Yellow - Civil ), in Black Angel that thematic and actual action separation is gone, they are just abstract different colours for the sake of it. It feels super arbitrary and needlessly fussy in places. Of course it's a key part of the game, with everything divided into three colours, but to me it feels like the result of transplanting Troyes directly over without considering whether a modified design would actually fit better and make for a more streamlined elegant game without losing any of the breadth of strategic options available.

Nevertheless a great game when you get to it and have learned how to gauge its heart. But those with a nervous disposition and fans of lighter fare will probably want to stay away.

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Have I Got A Bargain For You

This week we have Bargain Quest, a kickstarter ( in all proper senses of the word ) game based on being a fantasy shopkeeper.



Not of course to be confused with afternoon British TV stalwart Bargain Hunt presided over by the will never not be creepy Lord Spraytan First of His Name, David Dickinson. But if Double Dee floats your boat you can imagine yourself in game slinking around dressed like a spiv to suddenly pop up out of nowhere, leer over an unsuspecting member of the public before disappearing the way you came with only the faintest smell of fake tan on the air. You do you fam.

A self published kickstarter from an unknown designer the theme of Bargain Quest flips the familiar trope of fantasy stuffs that sees you take on the mantle of derring hero thwarting all before you, to instead imagine you as the NPC the GM scrambles to plausibly flesh out when you turned left instead of right, and have you as a shopkeeper selling your crap fine wares to unsuspecting discerning shortly to be dead legendary heroes.

Gaining victory points from just amassing more wealth than everyone else being a no brainer, you also however gain victory points if the hero you just kitted out manages to successfully assault the villain threatening the village and, even more shockingly, survive the encounter. Glory by reflected association whilst doing little yourself. The best kind of Glory. The Glory of Management if you will. You can also imagine this a bit like sponsoring the hero with your gear. Like a football strip. If say Paddy Power existed in D&D. Or perhaps this Wizard sponsored by Johnny's Kebab Emporium. Come try our Rat on a Stick !

So with the premise firmly set, therein follows a modest card drafting and even more modest hand management game. Draft a whole bunch of interesting adventuring type items into your hand - each of which can appeal to different heroes, and each of which are more or less useful to their incumbent and priced somewhat accordingly.

Three heroes are set available to all, but crucially, each of which is only interested in and can only be equipped with items in their particular expertise and only has a limited amount of money to spend.
The hapless Heroes of Bargain Quest. David Dickinson not to be seen.


Players get to place one ( or two, or three ) items from their hand into their shop window, where, bizarrely, window display items cannot be bought, but will entice adventurers in to buy from your store." We're out of stock mate. Only got the one on display. No you can't have it. " . Players get to select which hero not already chosen comes to their shop to buy stuff, the turn order decided by whoever has the most exciting items in their window.

And thus we get to the crux of the game - there is some consideration going on when drafting - what are the current heroes looking for ? Melee things, magic, holy items ? What cards am I seeing in the round robin draft ? What should I place in my window to set my turn order, and what should I leave free to sell ? Placing great items in your window is all very well, but if that then leaves you with little to sell the chump coming through the door, that's not going to get you - or them - anywhere. Conversely, stick some crap in the window and keep the "good stuff" behind the counter is fine and dandy but ensures you'll have last pick of heroes and possibly be stuck with someone you can't cater to. Someone having more enticing items in their window than you and sniping the hero you had your eyes on is very real.
Heroes with money to spend and a villain to face down.

After everyone has sold crap to their sponsored customer the heroes go off to battle the visible villain and match their offence and defence against that of the bad guy. Heroes earn money for surviving ( Which is then used to buy stuff from your shoppe in future rounds ), and earn points for their sponsors by landing a hit and also surviving. After a round of adventure the heroes carelessly lose all their equipment and are once again available to all shopkeepers to squabble over. Or more likely most if not all of them die and a new set of heroes rock up to try their luck.

The game is short and not super taxing with a lovely theme and nice art that works really well and pitched from a viewpoint that is unusual in that it sets you to be the supplier rather than the hero. There is plenty of rich theme and fun to be had with the various items that you can grab from the deck, hitting all the familiar tropes of magic helmets, cat familiars, beserker axes, potions, scrolls and all sorts. It's nice, if you dig that kinda thing. Which I'd guess most RPGers will.
My Shoppe of Wondrous Delights. Nothing at all at the moment.
Might be getting a delivery later guv. Come back then. I Can order it in for you ?
A world before Amazon.
The game also has a somewhat cheeky undercurrent going on, with some items downright crap for heroes - the wineskin, appeals to all heroes, reduces defence by 1, and costs them 10 money. A poor way to prepare a hero. But does make you money. Or perhaps the swindler you can hire as a shop help, who simply fleeces the hero that walks through the door of 15 money with nothing to show for it. Harsh.

All of this can set up a bit of light narrative tacked on top of the game, which with the right crowd will make the game memorably funny. Like Honest Tim the Honest Shopkeeper - enticing heroes into his shop with a wineskin. No use to anyone. Just booze. The lowest of the low. Or at least we thought so until the next turn he simply had a "fake potion" on display. A bottle. Of water. In the window. Or at least you hope that yellow liquid is water. After selling a hapless Cleric some goods, Tim then proceeded in the following round to send out a thug to beat the hero up, leaving him senseless in some dark alley. See that holy cleric over there ? Go duff him up ! Shocking. The very worst kind of shopkeeper. Chaotic Evil. I suggested Tim was actually a criminal with an adventuring equipment fake front and a sideline in protection rackets. Honest Tim. A nice chap. Moral. Avoids social deduction games because it helps you practice lying. Not averse to beating up holy men in dark alleys however. Just beware if he ever opens a shop eh ?

An impressive Magic Lamp on display entices the young
hero into my shop. Who was doing astonishingly well until
the deck of random halved their surivability. BS ! TABLE FLIP !
 If there's one minor fly in the ointment to this easy going Beer and Pretzels kind of game then its the random card that gets dealt on top of a hero before they go fight the villain. These can range from - no effect, to effectively cutting your offence or defence in half ( or both if youre really unlucky ), to boosting both by 50%. There is no way to mitigate this. None. Nada. Pick a card, any card. Oh bad luck, you lose. WHAT ?! Needless to say this is monstrously swingy and can and often does make the difference between success and failure and who gets points regardless of your careful curation of equipment.

It does mean there's always a chance for you, and always a chance a smug player will get smacked down. But it works both ways. And is arguably too much. But also somewhat needed to make things a little uncertain. In any event should you really hate them you can just do away with them, or trim the deck to take the worst swingy offenders out. And in the end the game is not supposed to be an AP perfect information paradise, but more of a fun romp watching ill equipped heroes die at the hands of a Goblin King.

And for those that intensely dislike mean spirited take that kick your neighbour kind of games, Bargain Quest is light on the doing the dirty to everyone else kind of actions. They are in there, but none of them are terribly impactful. Think more an occasional light hearted interference rather than a devastating razing of your neighbour.

Bargain Quest - a great bargain ! *leers at you with a David Dickinson creepy ass smile*

PS. Do you think David Dickinson walks around everywhere like that ? A fanned fistful of 20's in his hand. Here he comes. To the supermarket checkout. Fanned 20's. David points at his fanned 20's and leers. Yes. Very nice David. Well done. No I don't have any bargains for you. Why are all these 20's smeared in orange ?

Glory to Rome

A sample set of the now complete custom personalised version of Glory to Rome !



Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Random Number Generator

This week the lovely looking Dice Forge made it to table at NoBoG, a simple fantasy themed game centred around how well you can roll a pair of dice.
Dice Forge box, a stylistic copy of Dark Crystal if ever there was one.

Familiar ?
Dice. The original Random Number Generator. In years ancient and dusty, dice were the venerable go to method of driving just about any kind of turn or event in a game. How far can you move ? There's a dice roll for that. Did you secure that lucrative career ? There's a dice roll for that. Did you just stab Fred successfully ? You get the idea. In fact so ubiquitous was the die that the idea of a game having any other kind of controlling mechanism was unimaginable. Gotta have dice innit. Otherwise how do you tell what's happened ? Just pick an outcome ? Ha ha ha ha ha. No. Dice inject that real world chaos, you need them. In every game. If you were being particularly special and bucking the trend just for the sheer hell of it, you might have got a spinner instead ( Game of Life ), or bizarrely, the "Pop-o-matic" a contraption formed from a clear plastic bubble, a bit of deformable metal and a die trapped forever within.
The Pop-O-Matic. If you're of a certain age you can
probably still hear the dink, donk, rattle of this going off.
An amazingly frustrating and unsatisfying way to
roll a die, unable to caress it lovingly to
encourage it not to screw you over or whisper
darkly to it that a terrible fate of the "bad dice bin"
awaited it were it to once again give you a crap result.
Scroll on to today and now dice have *mostly* been relegated to table top war games which still can't imagine a world in which dice don't determine whether you win or lose. Where dice do crop up in modern games they are often firewalled neatly behind Euro mechanisms, or constrained in their ability to rain pure Randomness onto the table, but even so, for some, any mention of dice in a game harks back to those dark old days when everything was a d6 lookup table.

So to Dice Forge. A modern game unashamedly powered by the continual rolling of 2d6. A bold strategy Cotton. Let's see if it pays off. The dice in Dice Forge are a little special. At the beginning of the game the dice have little variation in them - 9 out of 12 of the faces have 1 gold on them, but as the game goes on you have the chance to pop the faces off and replace them with whatever you can afford and fits your current strategy.
Buy new faces for your dice, pop off the old ones and add the
new ones. What new faces you choose and what you replace is up to you.

The game itself is very straight forward - roll dice and gain 1 of four resources, moonstones, firestones, gold or straight up victory points. Gold is used to buy different die faces, whilst fire and moonstones are used to buy cards from the table that have points and or powers associated with them. At the end of 8 or so rounds the game finishes and the person with the most points wins.

Everything that can be purchased in the game is limited - so getting to something first can be crucial, and getting to something powerful twice can be a game winner. Judging what balance of things to put on your dice - do you go for more stones, more money or just straight up points - and what card powers could help or hinder others is the key to winning this game.
A selection of new faces for your dice. Pay your money take your choice(s).
Are you gonna prioritize points, money choice or something funky ? Choose wisely.

The game is fairly short, plays quick with little downtime, and won't leave you agonising about what to do - the choices are straight forward and the complexity low enough that this is more of a kick back and relax kinda game than an Analysis Paralysis of perfect information deal. Building new faces on your dice is an innovative mechanic that is satisfying to do and doubly satisfying to see in the slow changing of probabilities in what you can potentially roll. Although the luck of the dice are the heart of this game, the amount of mitigation and control you feel about what results those dice can roll, and when to transition from setting up your dice to getting on with earning powers and points is very cool.  In fact if you squint there are some familiar tempos going on here - build your dice to get the results you need, then power on to use what you're rolling to garner points and powers, in much the same way that early stages of Euro games can often focus on building your engine or capabilities before you make a concerted effort for end game objectives.

Combined with the relatively short length of game and minimal downtime - all players get to roll their dice and gain stuff regardless of whos turn it is - means this game hits the sweet spot of random but not critically luck fest frustrating.
The main board - effectively a market place of cards on offer

There are however some rough edges to the game. Some choices seem overly powerful and promote a rush to who can get them first ( 6 gold die face I'm looking at you ! ). This combined without any decent kind of catch up mechanism can mean the game can be a bit of a runaway affair under the right circumstances. With all things being equal, a pinch of luck, and all players on the ball however, the number of times this happens should be fairly limited.

It also has to be said that despite you being able to determine exactly what your dice are gonna roll, if you spend all game hitting your best rolls and your opponent rolls nothing but crap, the game is going to be a foregone conclusion. Given the amount of dice being rolled however this is also unlikely to be a serious balance issue with timing of what to buy when arguably being more crucial than minor variations in luck. But with some exploitation of Over powered combinations and a bit more luck than your neighbour you might at times feel like there's little you can do except wait for it all to end ( but as that's not very long, that's not so bad ).

If you're being super objective about the game, then you can also say that the schtick of the buildable dice is pure gimmick. Effectively this is a deck builder but where you shuffle your cards after every deal - you choose what die faces to put on your dice, in the same way you choose what cards to stick in your deck. The game would be far cheaper, easier to handle and also way less visually and tactile impressive if the dice were replaced with a deck of 12 cards. You could also make a case for eliminating a greater range of luck out of the game by making players rotate through their whole deck like your typical deckbuilder, instead of always having a random result from that dice roll / shuffled deck.

Overall the game is gorgeous, fun in a very tactile kinda way, and seems like an all round excellent game for the younger player, whilst also being cool for the oldsters.

* One might argue that in our contemporary Euro dominated design world, the very opposite of die driven zealotry now holds true. Dice ? In a game ? But how can you successfully plan for the future ? Just leave it to luck ? Ha ha ha ha ha. No. Picking outcomes injects that real world planning into a game. You need it. In every game. If you were diving further down the rabbit hole of game design, you might come up with a theory** that stated the nature of early Ameritrash game design with bundles of dice and probabilities represents something deeply cultural about the Anglo Saxon mindset, and that the perfect information non random everything is based on The Precise Plan in Euros represents something deeply cultural about the German mindset ( Germans being the champions of the Euro design style ).

** I didn't say a good theory

Sunday, 30 June 2019

Who runs Bartertown ?

Aunty Turner. Makes you wonder why there aren't more
actual Mad Max games kicking around instead of clones of it.

This week the glorious El Duderino ( or just Dave if you prefer ) brought along the fairly rare to be seen game The Pioneers Program a kickstarter game all about building up your base of power in a post apocalyptic wasteland whilst fending off mutants and other players alike.

This game had a very modest kickstarter back in 2016 ( to the tune of a little over £16k ), before being released to the wider public as a very low print run kinda game. If you've never heard of it or seen it before, that'll be why.

Gameplay wise you'll be building your own little tableau - your base - and filling it with structures - such as farms, armouries and schools - as well as personalities and varied items. Some of these things will supply you with resources - food, money, research and "response" -, and some of these things will demand you spend resources on them or have them leave your compound in disgust about not being paid.

Along the way you'll also probably be picking up cards to beat other players over the head - stealing their stuffs, or having hordes of mutants attack them - or even allowing you to conduct a raid in person on their settlement, either to burn their crap down, or steal their stuffs for your own gain.

Played over a variable number of rounds - from 7 to 9 - the game is won when either one of the players is on 4 victory points at the end of the round, or the final game round plays out - in which case whoever is furthest up the VP track wins.

To go with its more Euro tableau, lightest of light engine builders the game also unashamedly has one foot in the Ameritrash camp. Combat is settled by dice. 2d6 to be precise, with a light helping sprinkle from the modifier and reroll fairies. And the game also rather aggressively relies on players beating the crap out of each other to prevent a win. Munchkin style.

Throw in a truckload of post apocalyptic flavour, characters ripped from a number of IPs, a dusting of Borderlands, some mutants, attack dogs, katanas and automated turrents and that's pretty much it.


Which all sounds pretty good if you're into your post apocalyptic take that kinda gaming. Really good. There are some issues with the game however that prevent this from being a truly great game. Despite the simplistic mechanics and easy setup the pacing is questionable, the game getting in the way of you actually enjoying yourself or being able to do much of anything. Like a lot of kickstarters that roll down the conveyor belt, I was left with a feeling of a combination of nice ideas and theme, but when you get down to the brass tacks of crunchy design - how the game performs once you take away the theme and chrome - it's design has warts and you feel like its either had arse all playtesting, or the playtesting has not been critical enough ( I suspect the former here ).

Overall pacing wise the game probably breaks down into 12 or so meaningful actions in a game. This is a ludicrously small number of actions in a 90 minute game, and really is the core of the feeling you get of struggling to get anywhere. *

Progression from a small HQ to a medium HQ or gasp a large HQ also gets embroiled in pacing issues. It's going to take you between a third and half of the game to reach a medium HQ if you absolutely single mindedly dedicate yourself to this pursuit and are *lucky*. Which then has a knock on effect on Research - it's only really viable at Medium HQ or bigger, and even then is going to take 3 or so actions ( a turn and a half out of those 7 - 9 ) to finish. All the whiles someone could have beaten you there and made your research useless, or you've been attacked and had some of your stuffs stolen / burned down - or in game mechanics terms, you now get to repeat a couple of actions / turn again. Why this matters is simple - a bigger HQ gets you a Victory Point - and increases your storage and income. And getting a research project finished gets you another point.

You can palpably feel the drag in the game. This game caters for up to 6 players, but boy oh boy, when your single action consists of *literally* just picking up a card from a deck, or even worse, just giving you a couple of response tokens as you take the "plan" option, my god, the downtime and lack of interesting choices.

Gahhhhhhhhhhh.

Interestingly with five of us playing this, the game is supposed to have a line in attacks from mutants and ascended from the wastes - but because of the limited number of turns you get, and therefore a very limited card draw we didn't see * a single attack *. Not one. Zip. Nada. Which I think gives a good insight between the intention of the game, and where it actually falls because of some of its design choices getting in the way. This was actually a repeating criticism at the end of the game - that half of the things on the box art just never made it into our game. Pacing. Issues. The game haz it.

Apart from pacing there are some other really questionable bits of design going on that feel like they've been lifted from other games without any real understanding of how that works in *this* game. The market being one of them. Like many games a selection of cards is on offer in the market giving you a number of structures or much more rarely a personality that can join your compound, and like many other games the cards are priced depending on the position they are currently sitting in. The problem is that the prices range go from 0 to 6, where getting anything beyond 2 money at a time in the game is a herculean effort - more likely it's gonna take you multiple *turns* to get more than 2 money. The discrepancy between how much a card costs to buy, and how much you've got to spend just seems... utterly random. Like mashing mechanics together and never checking how much income you're likely to get and whether those costs on the cards are actually feasible. Bizarre ! Given how the game runs you've got to say that the pricing progression of cards in the market is just plain wrong and should probably run something like 0 to 3, in a 0,0,1,1,2,2 kinda deal. Often in the game with money being so tight, the free market card would disappear leaving all the other players with shit choices of cards they can't really afford. The market also doesn't clear every turn - instead just shuffling one step down at the end of a turn. Given the game can be just six turns long... yeah... you're probably only ever going to see a very small spread of cards from the whole deck at any given play.

With all that being said, lets backtrack this a bit. Pioneers Program is not a bad game. Far from it. It's a kick back and enjoy the ride kind of a game with a really rich and lovely theme that does a good job of pulling you into the whole thing. A post apocalpytic Beer and Pretzels kind of a game - one that's not going to take too much thought about strategy, has some laughs rolling dice and stealing your mates money, and has a brutal kick your neighbour mentality to spice up the table talk. And in my opinion is definitely worth a play or three.

But patience is required and it's just a shame that for such a well presented game and background theme, the game doesn't do a better job of upping the action and really making the fur fly. All too often you're left sitting on your ass waiting for the next turn already. This is one game where I would definitely like to see a few house rule tweaks to increase the flow of cards at the very least.

But then I feel this is often the fate of Kickstarters. Vanity projects without any "mean" editors ready to slice up your lovely design or tell you just how shit that downtime is. I feel like this is probably the biggest problem with almost everything that rolls off the Kickstarter conveyor belt - lack of lengthy feedback and true constructive criticism tackling the ugly parts of someones dream game. In fact I'll go one step further given the abundance of mediocrity that gets shoved out the door, I'm going to say that you actually need someone to just be downright super mean and overcritical with game design - so that by the time you've ignored half of it because it upsets your sensibilities, maybe you'll take to heart some of it and end up with a tighter game. If there's an overemphasis on being nice and not having critical editors maybe you need a hard compensation the other way, and roll in the super picky game review troll. Ultimately I think all games could do with a bruising round or two with the game review troll.

I guess in the end such games serve a dual function - one is giving the gaming public a new game to play, good, bad or just meh, and the other is about fulfilling a designers dream of pushing out their idea into the world. You can totally fulfill a designers needs without having anything like a good game. Designer is happy. The gaming public less so as they pick over yet another mild disaster in a colourful box.




* Crunchy technicals on pacing. I've spent a fair bit of time with a bunch of Euros analysing how many turns / actions they give you, what feels short, what feels long, yada. Take something like Agricola, something of a gold standard in Euros. The minimum number of actions there is 28. The maximum number is tricky to ascertain, but is most certainly North of 45. At the other end of the scale - same designer - take something like the much shorter and less involved Glass Road. Theoretically you'll get to take a minimum of 12 actions - but whilst possible you've got more chance of hitting that than winning the lottery. In actuality you probably end up on average with around 22-24 actions. And Glass Road feels short. Very short due to that compressed number of actions. Or lets look at Broom Service. A push your luck game that if you play terribly can be brutal and see you taking no actions for the entire game ! Again although theoretically possible, this isn't going to happen, unless you really are playing to lose on purpose, and in practice you probably get to play something in the low 20's action wise, with a maximum of 28 actions.
Any game in the low 20's in terms of actions is gonna be short, or feel short in terms of development. Next time you play a game of any reasonable length, count how many actions you get to take for the game.

The problems with Pioneers is that the game give you two, count em, just two, actions to do in a turn. And remember the game lasts from 7 to 9 turns. This means you're gonna get a minimum of 14 actions and a maximum of 18 actions in the entire game - not supposing you pick up a much coveted bonus third action in a turn - which to be fair you can probably expect to do at least once during the game ( but overall even a few of these don't change the length that much ).

In terms of Stuff You Get To Do 14 - 18 actions is a very small number of actions for something sorta riffing on a Euro tableau builder that lasts for 90 minutes and worse still is that a fair number of those actions will be taking filler actions just to prep for some other action - to play cards for instance you need to spend a response token. How do you get response tokens ? By taking an action just to get your response income - 1 to 3 of them. That's right. Spend one of your precious actions just taking tokens so that in your next action you can actually play a card from your hand. And how do you take a card ? Spend an action to pick up a card. So 14 - 18 actions is not *meaningful* actions. I'd probably guess you get something like 10 - 13 meaningful actions in a game.

Eesh.

I think one of the key design mis-steps here is the mechanic of requiring a token in order to play a card. This puts a nice hurdle in the way of picking up a card - oh cant play it, I need to take a turn to pick up some tokens first. Particularly as other people can steal those tokens away from you. I'm really not sure why this needs to be a thing - letting people play cards as and when they get them, or saving them and then playing them would do no harm to the game. Potentially - without any kind of hand limit, there might be a scenario where you could pick up cards all game long, then spam them out at the end, but this is easily solved either with a hand limit, or limit the number of cards that can be played in a turn. Having tokens keyed to just being able to use a card is a needless step here. Even the spend an action to pick up a card feels needlessly slow - my whole turn is just to pick up a card from this deck ? Oooookkkkk. Ooh look. It's a piece of crap that I can't use. Well don't I feel special now. I think another design tweak here where you just automatically pick up a card on every turn - and if you want to you can spend an action to ooh, I dunno, look at the top 3 and pick one - would have done tremendous things for the pace of the game. It also starts to make sense why the winning VP count is just four. Because you're struggling on your ass so much just to do anything, seeing 4 VPs is quite the thing. I think increasing the card flow, allowing people to play cards as they like, and maybe doubling the VP count would massively increase the interaction and cool things to do in this game.. and... allow you to actually see most of the aspects of this game rather than missing half of it.


Thursday, 20 June 2019

Don't get cocky kid

This week I managed to get to grips with FFG's new Star Wars themed romp around the galaxy board game, Star Wars : Outer Rim.

 Just in case there was any doubt that this was in fact a Star Wars IP thinger, they put Star Wars right in the title, making it easy for you, the avid Star Wars punter, to ensure you buy all things Star Wars. It's Star Wars. You love Star Wars. Buy Star Wars. If that wasn't clear enough they put a picture of the Millennium Falcon on the box along with some pew pew. You see ? Star Wars. The fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy.

Star Wars Outer Rim. You can tell it's Star Wars because it has a Tie Fighter
and the Millennium Falcon on the box. Plus pew pew. And an asteroid. Always. Asteroids.

At this point, as is pretty much typical with anything with the Disney pew pew aggressive over saturated merchandising  Star Wars theme, the game features the familiar ( and dare I say cliched to death at this point ) touchstones of the Star Wars milieu but taken from the point of view of a jobbing bounty hunter / general scoundrel sleazing your way around the Outer Rim. You can probably already fill in half the details of what this includes. Millennium Falcon. Check. Han Solo, Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian. Check. Boba Fett, Firespray, Greedo. Check.

As a player you get to be one of the jobbing characters from the Star Wars IP and get to pick from a set of 8 including Han Solo, Jyn Erso and Lando Calrissian at one end of the iconic spectrum to Doctor Aphra and Ketsy Onyo at the lesser end of that spectrum.

Once you're all setup with your character and a starting ship the game settles into a turn structure of move a number of spaces, pick up / drop off / buy stuff and resolve an encounter all of which potentially is driving you towards the end game goal of reaching 10 fame before anyone else.
Han Solo on a starter ship. Like the scoundrel I am, I have not bowed to
convention and placed my character card in the character card slot. Such a rogue.

The games main shtick here is a series of Gopher Tasks which allow you to steadily accumulate more stuffs that makes you more capable via gaining new equipment and hopefully along the way completing some of those more tricky Fame Gopher Tasks. You have a movement stat - how many spaces along the Monopoly game board you can travel, a pew pew stat - how many dice you roll, and a shield stat - how many pews you can take before dying. But don't worry. Dying isn't as bad as it used to be. Dying just means you kinda lose a turn and then bounce back as good as before.
Excitement abounds. It's like being a delivery driver.
But in spaaaaace. Which is where the excitement comes in.
The epitome of a Gopher Task. Is this good game design ?

If you've ever played any kind of MMO or Computer RPG you'll be familiar with the gopher task premise - Go Here, Kill 8 Badgers*, Return for A Reward. Well Done. Boy Have I Got A New Job For You. Go Here Kill... 12 Badgers*, Return for A Reward. Rinse and Repeat. The eponymous Gopher ( go for this, go for that ) Task.

The game is also interspersed with bits of narrative polish, allowing you to encounter other iconic members of the Star Wars galaxy and have them talk to you a bit and potentially offer you some choices. Orrrr if you're not friendly with them a bit of a fight. The game tracks your reputation with four different factions - The Empire, The Rebels, The Hutts and The Syndicate. Being on Good or Bad terms with these guys will indicate the kind of response you're likely to get when say, bumping into Greedo ( a Hutt man.. alien.. thing.. if ever there was one ). I bumped into Greedo as Han Solo on my first turn. Which was charmingly bang on the nose thematically. Retcon controversially however, Greedo did in fact shoot first when I encountered him and shot me in the ass whilst I singularly failed to shoot him. This event would mark the beginning of my long and comedic career in the Outer Rim as Han Solo generally failing dice rolls and ending up being shot in the ass.

Luck. Outer Rim haz it. Tasks are invariably passed or failed at the whim of a dice roll. The collection of said tasks is also open to the vagaries of one of a number of Deck O' Cards. As is what you encounter. Pull a card. See what it says. You've won second place in a beauty contest. Collect 20 space bucks and Advance to Go move to Tattoine. Kongratulshuns. You've just been attacked by a sand snake. Roll for combat !

Boba Fett. Who went on to turn his own crew in for the bounty.
One way of dealing with difficult employees I guess.


Said dice rolls do have a degree of mitigation to them. You can be unskilled, skilled or super duper in a particular kind of challenge, which changes exactly what a "success" is and when it comes to combat - either melee or ship combat depending what you're doing - you can obtain all sorts of bells and whistles to give you an extra dice here, a reroll there or a stomping of opponents dice entirely over there. But make no mistake. Lady Luck is sitting at the table of STAR WARSSS Outer Rim and dicking you over nicely. If you dislike dice determining if you win or not, Outer Rim is gonna be like a Wookie with a temper losing at Holochess for you.

So, overall. Is it any good ? It depends what floats your boat.

Outer Rim is a laid back, none too serious, highly thematic, lightly narrative, RPG lite move and fight kind of a game. If you like games telling you stories, and dice telling you which outcome is gonna rule your day, and collecting new and shiny crap to kit your character out with, then Outer Rim is a real nice experience. If you're at all into Star Wars, then it's likely that the emergent stories that occur to you and your fellow players, the epic failures or jammy successes are going to be enjoyable to you. One caveat is that the game is long. Too long in my opinion. A game that almost certainly falls into the Takes Too Long For What It Is category. But this is going to be somewhat dependent on player count as the player downtime is of mid length depending on how much narrative is going on or how much players are dithering. Player downtime is considerably not helped by a game mechanic wherein when you die, you kinda end up missing your next turn. Did you like sitting on your ass waiting for everyone else to have their turn ? You did ? Well guess what buddy, due to dying last turn, you get to skip you turn and do it again ! You can just feel the quality excitement oozing from the design can't you. For the record, I'd guess our game took around 3 hours to bang out with a rules session included ( which arguably pushed the time up to around 3 hours 15 ish ). I think a game like this you want to be tops of 2 hours.

Sam entirely nailed the nature of the game when he said it was basically Star Wars Talisman. On reflection this is exactly what Star Wars Outer Rim is - it's Talisman that has been altered enough not to be sued, set deep in Star Wars IP. The parallels between the games are significant, choose your character, gain stuff, gain crew/characters, movement to spaces to do stuff, hand in stuff to get rewards, dice based, card deck based luck, level up, alignment/reputation changing what happens to you, slow RPG lite progression. So similar is it that I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Outer Rim is indeed a Talisman reskin project. Suitably pitched to allow FFG that no longer has GW rights to not be sued into oblivion for game stealing by the litigious trigger happy GW.

Critically speaking, the comparison to Talisman also possibly exposes Outer Rims modern gaming flaws. Back in ye olde days of the mid 80's, the design of Talisman and its luck heavy, dice heavy, tromping around a Monopoly style board and overstaying its welcome in Monopoly fashion was acceptable and fun and largely pitched to a young teen market that had nothing else like it - which was great ( I played countless hours of Talisman back in the 80's ). Today in a much more savvy world that understands what Ameritrash is and isn't, a couple of decades of some superb game design and improvement in game mechanics Talisman wilts under the glare of progress. No doubt about it, Talisman is still loved by some, and continues to be enjoyable to a new set of gamers, and for a once in a while outing can be a blast from the past, but, also without doubt is the fact that Talisman is now seen as rather quaint and clunky and not great, and in some cases generates a good deal of hate for its lumbering, luck filled nonsense than can stretch on for hours on end. Indeed I have often heard Talisman whispered about darkly in the same kind of horrified gamer tone levelled at Monopoly with The Family.

In the end I can see this being something of a Marmite game for many gamers - an "ok" game for some - an enjoyable dive into being a Star Wars mileu scoundrel for SW fans that are into laid back luck games - and an overly long Talisman reskin where luck decides your fate after 3 hours of tedious Gophering for the disgusted.

Personally speaking I quite enjoyed my time with the game. Not something I'm ever likely to go back to ( a bit like Talisman ... unsurprisingly ). I enjoyed the fact I got shot by Greedo right off the bat, had stupid Leia give me a shitty job and ended up with a crew of nothing but Wookies. I liked the various narrative bits of colour that cropped up and made the game more than just a deck draw game. But it is a bit of a zone out game. No thinking required. A bit like watching MTV back in the day - background noise, and if you "watch" it for too long your brain turns to mush and you end up turning into a sofa zombie. I disliked the fact it went on for way too long for what it was. That you have no real impact on what anyone else is doing. That dice will either make you or break you - after possibly spending 20 minutes moving around the board to find that, oh yes, you failed that dice roll, screw you. Or in Sam's case, spend 4 turns failing to roll the required strength test and doing arse all in your turn.

RATING :
If you're a munchkin kinda player into Star Wars : 8/10
If you're ok with long luck based games : 6/10
If you despise dice and think Talisman sucks ass : 2/10


* As it's Star Wars of course you wouldn't be killing Badgers. How ridiculous. How unimaginative. Ha. Only stupid fantasy games would have you do something so stupid. Star Wars is of course a rich and diverse setting, and you'd actually be killing... Womprats. See how much better that is ? You could even get a title for it in the old online Star Wars game. Womprat Slayer. https://swg.fandom.com/wiki/Womprat_Slayer *polishes badge*. Envious. Aren't you.What do you mean it's just another shitty Gopher Quest. You're just jealous you don't have the Womprat Slayer you filthy casual. To be clear, Outer Rim the board game, I'm sorry - STAR WARS : Outer Rim the board game, has no womprats. Instead it has tasks such as "Deliver Droid Parts to Tatooine". This translates in game as, move 8 spaces over there to Tatooine and place this card at the bottom of the Cargo Deck to get 5,000 space bucks. Is this better ? Debatable. No Badgers were harmed, which I guess is a positive ?

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Ketchup

Well, hello, NoBlog. Long time no see!

What's been going on ?

Eh yeah. You've been out of the loop a bit haven't you. Well we successfully completed the whole NoBoG venue move malarkey and moved from the Mash Tun to St. Andrews Brew House. Which went astonishingly well. No complaints. No problems. Happy faces. The space is lovely for gaming, much more of a inviting community spirit than the Tun and the food and drinks are great ! You can now get a cheeky pot of chips or sausage roll whilst you game, or if you're into that, a proper dinner ! I heartily recommend the steak pie with mash and vegetables.

Sounds good. Anything else ?

We've stress tested St. Andrews with a fairly high player count of 54, got a loose agreement to use overflow tables in a pinch where the pub isn't busy downstairs, and got some backup tables of our own to use. But to be honest, the space is a good fit for where we are currently size wise.

Which is ?

Typically somewhere in the high 30's low 40's of a Tuesday. And Mondays are typically in the high teens. Unless you count the RPG'ers. Then we're consistently in the low 20's ish.

So no venue issues then !

Well. St. Andrews is sometimes booked out. So we have to have alternatives for booked out days - of which so far there's only been one. We've started to use the Coach & Horses in Bethel Street as a small Monday venue for days when St. Andrews is booked. But so far we haven't come up with a plan for hosting alternative site Tuesdays.

So what happens on Tuesdays that are booked then ?

Good question. The standing idea was to possibly use our former venue the Mash Tun as an alternative site in all cases. But since leaving the Tun, the not so great council reviews of the health standards there, and the ever present general management woes, stock issues and high prices, people don't seem fantastically enthused on going back. At all.

Understandable. So. Backup Tuesday plans ?

Yeah. Don't have one at the moment. Everyones just enjoying being in a great space and not having to worry about venue issues ! The Tun refit was postponed a little and is due to kick off in the Summer, so after the refit, maybe the Tun will be a new and awesome place to game, and we can use it as a backup site ? I'd personally be really interested in seeing what the Tun ends up looking like after the refit, particularly with an eye on the size available, tables etc, but I'm not sure the NoBoGlins agree. Otherwise, if it's not the Tun who knows. But I'm sure we'll cope.