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.


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.


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.

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. *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 ?