Wednesday, 4 January 2017

I'm Telling a Tale

Good evening, Board Gamers. Well, it's evening now I'm writing this sentence, but through the magic of the written word, you could be reading this potentially hours later. Please adjust greeting as appropriate. Another NoBloG, another writer: me, also known as "Chris."

This Tuesday saw a quite reasonable gathering of gamers, especially given the pre-term time of year and bum-freezing weather. (Am I allowed to mention bottoms in the NoBloG? Let's assume I am. Mine is chilly. Makes a change from the soggy ones they always seem to have on Bake-off.) There were new faces, too — fresh-faced due either to youthful vigour or the frigid air. After my late arrival due to an overly large dinner (I find it's the best kind, especially before an energetic round of gaming) folks were almost ready to settle down to play, and the main groups had already formed: New Angeles, Adrenaline, Kemet, Scythe and Dead Men Tell no Tales. I must apologise that this post has not been written in pirate-speak, but— wait, you know what, I'm not really sorry because it would have been bloody ridiculous.

Reading the residents of New Angeles the Riot Act.
It doesn't seem to be working.

New Angeles seems to be a cross between Pandemic and Dead of Winter: the goodies try to prevent a city from being taken over due to riots and the creeping influence of an evil government, whilst a potential saboteur attempts to set everything on fire. Not literally — put the jerry can down! At least, I don't think the naughty player is allowed to ignite anything, and the Tun was still fairly not on fire when I left it, though the same cannot be said for my pirate alter-ego, as I'll come to later. Anyway, then the goodies win if they meet their secret objective and the city isn't a pile of ashes and government agents, whilst the baddie has a special goal. Lewis and Sam managed to both win — Lewis by achieving economic dominance and doing better than three other corporations, and Sam by doing better than his target player. The other three — including the saboteur — lost.
The game's over and some people have won.
Others have lost. Losers!
There seemed to be quite a lot to the game and plenty of bits and pieces for people who like that kind of thing, though there was the incongruous use of a 5p piece to mark the Threat level. In this post-Brexit world, I suppose actual money is basically worth the same as bits of cardboard, so why not?

Shoot people! Avoid getting shot!
I think that's the general idea.
The players of Adrenaline were busy shooting each other. This seems appropriate, as it's supposed to be a bit like a first-person-shooter video game, although I think you'd have to get your face rather too near the board for comfort if you really want to get a first-person view of things. Still, whatever floats your boat and all that.
D4s - not just generators of
quadratic randomness!
Off in the lands of ancient Egypt we found lots of D4s on the board for Kemet. But do not be fooled, for those D4s do not merely look handily like pyramids, they actually are pyramids in the game! Though, point of order, Kemet designers: Egyptian pyramids are square-based, not tetrahedrons. I await the next release in which fair square-based D4s are included. Having said that I'm not holding my breath.
One of our newcomers was playing Kemet and, in his own words, was "actually enjoying losing!" That's a good sign. Losing is fun! The game revolves around buying special powers which combo in useful ways, with the two more experienced players already having double the powers of the less experienced two. Nevertheless, Monika (in the latter category) with a mere 4 power cards, was doing well enough to be described as "terrifying." Though there was some debate as to whether this was strictly to do with her prowess in the game, I think it would be both uncharitable and unsafe for me to firmly attribute it to anything but her strategic skills.
Stompy robots which haven't quite
started stomping on anything yet.
Then there was the much-hyped Scythe! Regular gamers and readers of the blog will know it well — I know it only by reputation and haven't played it myself. Pete, the buyer of this particular set, was very happy with it in spite of its lukewarm reception by some other Tun-goers, though he did say this was possibly due to a kind of reverse "buyer's remorse" effect in which he incorporates the hype into his very self, becomes one with the hype and, in turn enjoys the game regardless of any flaws. He was also said to be winning, which might have something to do with it, although having placed all of his workers, things were beginning to get expensive. The players were in any case having a good time of it, hype or no hype.

In spite of another player camping the fairly-important factory, bolstering his defences and buying POWER, the other players agreed Pete was still going to win due to actually being Terminator. Apparently he has some kind of heads-up-display in which all the various probabilities and pay-offs are calculated and displayed, allowing him to analyse out the best way to proceed at lightning speed. I wish I had that, as it would prevent all my fellow players getting frustrated at my own incredible ability: that of stretching out a single binary decision to take 5 minutes, every single turn. Unfortunately the game was over and packed up before I had a chance to check who did win, in the end.

Matt adding MORE FIRE to a ship with already
And now to the game I actually played, and thus a little more detail, though perhaps I should keep quiet as Dead Men Tell no Tales. This is certainly a gorgeously-designed piece of boardgamery — every card and token has scintillating artwork, the tiles representing the burning, sinking undead pirate ship (I think a large proportion of NoBoGers would already be sold) look great, and even the little tokens to represent the undead deck-hands who hinder your actions and movement through the ship are made from wood with a tiny skull-design printed on. There's a handful of red and yellow dice which also look nicely dyed, though sadly you never get to grab a bunch and roll them all at once, since they're almost never rolled, and always placed with an explicit number facing upwards, then later manipulated.
The game has a cooperative treasure-extraction-fest, your objective of removing five (in easy mode) of the six treasure tokens from the burning ship to your dinghies being harried by the ghostly and/or skeletal crew and facing the ever-rising danger of fire which spreads through the ship. During the initial turns of the game, the players place tiles representing newly-explored sections, Betrayal-style. Each tile gets a dice representing how badly the fire is raging in that section and a token representing potential goodies guarded by undead crew or trapdoor from which spring bony lackeys. As the ship is built up your team of (living) pirates must travel through, trying not to overheat from the fire, killing the pirates which guard the treasure, and removing to the waiting launches. You usually have 5 actions per turn with a wide choice, including movement (incurring damage by traversing hotter sections), quenching flames, grabbing loot and psyching yourself up for battle.
The early stages of the game

You can lose by several mechanism, two of which are central: fire and deckhands. Every turn, a card is drawn which tells you which fire dice to increase. If any die would be turned to a six, that section explodes. When a section explodes, anything on it is lost which could mean you run out of crew-members or treasure. If too many sections explode, the boat sinks (though on the plus side, it will then cease to be on fire, so that's something to be happy about.) Also, an exploding section increases the blaze in each adjacent tile, leading to potential chain-reactions of orange-red boomy death. Ow. Each of these cards of doom also has the potential to spawn a deckhand out of each trapdoor, or spawn deckhands into each room connected to a trapdoor, limited by how many deckhands are on the trapdoor tile already. If you run out of tokens for them, you lose. This and the increasing fire lead to rising tension and lack of control which should be enjoyable for all.
The game is of course not perfect. While the theme is well tied in and excellently evoked with the artwork, the board you get looks nothing like a ship. This matters less with Betrayal or Carcassonne, where your twisty haunted house or weird, partial collection of cities and pointless roads don't seem to need to resemble anything practical. Here it's a shame as other aspects of the theme are so strong. Some of the special abilities could do with clearer text — which are free actions and which augment your existing actions, for example? Both should be explicit. We also missed a change to the damage-taking rules for when you're carrying treasure which could easily have been printed on your cheat-sheet card. But the fundamental gameplay seems very strong, and the mix of mechanics and great style definitely makes for an enjoyable play.
Our first playthrough: two sections have exploded
and the third is coming soon, spelling our doom.

We played the game twice and lost both times. It's clear that we weren't playing optimally, and that you really need to make your actions count. Too many actions wasted making your battles with pirates safer means you can't tackle the fire or skeletons (who are quite weedy compared to the full undead crew) properly and this contributed to our downfall (spewing flames and gunpowder as we went) both times. The first game though also had a definite streak of bad luck: we got several nearly-exploding tiles early on in the game and very quickly lost one room to explosion, luckily with just a trapdoor. My strategy of acquiring as many swords as possible was dispatching the undead foe one after the next, but playing it safe (if you can call striding through a burning ship full of zombie-buccaneers and charging at them with two swords "playing it safe") meant that my section of the ship was rather more on fire than ideal, and after a little while the next section exploded, taking with it one of the six treasure chests. We only needed five, but unfortunately there was not enough time to quell the flames which were already consuming the vessel, and before long a third section containing a second chest loaded with booty succumbed to explosion (why do pirates insist on storing so much gunpowder around? The undead ones especially quite clearly never attended their health and safety briefings.) The reward now too little, we had to call the mission off and return to shore, covering our faces with our dashing tricornes in shame.
The second round went rather better, especially with keeping the fire down. It certainly presented an ever-rising threat, as after one run through the deck of doom-cards you're very likely to have a bunch of tiles all with the same fire level and ready to all be simultaneously increased by the next unlucky draw. However, it was the skeletal scoundrels pouring out of the trapdoors which got us — if you have a couple next to each other they each cause the other to more frequently produce skellies. Eventually the bony tide swamped us, and we were pulled down with the burning ship.

So, I'm afraid I won't be able to join you all for NoBoG next time as I'm currently sitting in Davy Jones' locker, feeling quite soggy and (un)dead. At least I'm not on fire any more, and those ghost pirates are quite friendly when you get to know them.

There were also fillers such as the classic Resistance, with suspicion and cries of innocence being thrown in all directions, but that is all I've managed to register in the cold, silicon databanks of my robot mind. Oops, I went a bit too far in the Terminator fantasy, there, didn't I? Still, a guy can dream. Of electric sheep, I guess.

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