D&D – Pelor & Vecna

We decided to have a “bonus” session over Thanksgiving for those in our D&D group who were interested; we ended up playing with 4. Kim was originally going to run a module, but she’s been swamped at work, so I decided to run one for the first time in the year and change we’ve been playing.

All my ideas for a module centered around the temple of Pelor. Interestingly, all the deities in D&D are very pagan, they are always just explained in terms of what they are gods “of”, and never what their followers actually believe. So firstly, I fleshed out the followers of Pelor a bit to get a handle on their angle. Interestingly, this didn’t help much when it came to actually running the adventure – I didn’t feel I could put all that much in without turning it into too much lecturing, not enough action – although it did help provide the inspiration to a great degree.

My first idea was a mainly “social” type adventure, in which the characters are tasked to track down a prophet of Pelor who (interestingly) is a merchant and doesn’t realize he’s a prophet of Pelor, deal with a merchant guild trying to assassinate him, and convince him to come study with the church for a while. Promising, simple idea (the adventure had to be completed in one session), until I realized the sum total of the social skills in the party were a paltry 4 ranks of Diplomacy on the Cleric. Clearly, something a little more standard was going to be required.

So, inspired by Dan Brown’s recent The DaVinci Code, we instead went on a quest to retrieve some long-lost records of ancient knowledge, hounded along the way by some followers of Vecna. I liked how some of the stuff worked, was not happy with others. The part I was most disappointed with was, unfortunately, the encounters. I had seriously misjudged how powerful the adversaries needed to be, and wasn’t as good at making on-the-fly decisions as I had hoped. For example, the party was ambushed by handful of Rogues and a Wizard. I had taken measures to ensure the bad guys were ready (their Wizard had detected the party in advance with Clarivoyance and prepped a Mage Armor for a couple of his buddies and a Phantom Steed for his own escape if necessary – ordinarily a fairly worthless spell due to the long casting time). I figured the ambush would be pretty threatening given everyone was a rogue and getting good sneak attack bonuses on the first round. Then, at the last minute, I all of a sudden worried it might be too deadly, and gave the Druid and Ranger (with big spots) probably a too-easy spot check. Then I completely forgot to give the ambushers the full benefit of cover and concealment when the party started shooting back. This combined to take an encounter that was probably only modestly challenging to begin with and make it too easy. This was the encounter I screwed up the most, but in general I was not happy either with how well I ran the battles or with how well I had been able to scale the challenge. This was a problem because D&D is of course to a large degree about the encounters, as you have a lot of tactical options and they are interesting to fight generally – but only if there is serious risk, which I think the party never felt there was.

There also ended up being a couple holes in the plot. I had a high level Rogue/Assassin that I had determined was going to ambush the party at some point. Unfortunately, the place where he ended up doing it (the very end, at an underwater location) made no sense. He should have done it in a city, which would have been far more interesting (is the Mage willing to use his Fireball when he is blasting civilians?), instead of popping up inexplicably at the end. The place where I had intended the ambush to occur (and where I think I had the most interesting encounter set up), the party ended up bypassing since it was somewhat peripheral.

Anyway, if I run an adventure again, I’m going to have spend a lot more time prepping myself on the combats. While I haven’t GM’d in probably 10 years, and never did it much, I do remember this has always been a weak point in my game. Even figuring out what I wanted to do with the combats wasn’t enough to keep me on the straight path once the game started.

Relief of Helm’s Deep!

Now, what we’ve all been waiting for … the Relief of Helm’s Deep scenario from The Two Towers. This is one of the biggest scenarios in the entire system, with 24 Riders of Rohan, 10 Warriors of Rohan, and every hero on record going up against almost 80 Uruk-Hai. This scenario looked absolutely amazing set up, with the hordes of troops everywhere, but we discovered embarrassingly that nobody had a digital camera.

I was on the side of the good guys, and our strategy was straightforward … link up the relieving and besieged forces, and then simply try to slice through the hordes of Uruks. Man, there were a lot of them, almost wall-to-wall (20 Sword, 20 Pike, 20 Crossbow, 10 Berserker). Note to self: it’s best when you actually learn from previous playings. Having used the Uruk-Hai pikemen to such devastating effect on Wednesday, you would think I would have gone into this game with a little more respect for them. But no. Gandalf was in the van of the first charge, which went hearteningly well – Uruks scattered by the Ultimate Sorcerous Blast, a couple forward deployments obliterated … but then we had a somewhat adversarial relationship with the Priority and Heroic Move rolls, and the Riders just got swamped in a sea of Uruks. Two heroes ended up getting killed (Theodin and Eomer, I think – Gandalf was in bad shape but still alive) and that was enough to lose.

Lessons Learned: The good guys have some tough choices in this one. It seems they more or less have to link up the Relief force with Theodin’s group, but doing so denies them the mobility advantage of the cavalry; you really want to try to do an end run, stretch the Uruk line to the point that they can’t form those devastating “hedgehogs”. These are directly contradictory objectives, so balancing them is tough. The main mistake I made, though, was to move Gandalf too aggressively. He has reasonable stats, so it’s tempting try to get him into melee when you can, but if he’s up in the fray he’s not using his far more powerful Ultimate Sorcerous Blast. The string of bad luck we had on the Priority/Heroic Move die rolls would not have hurt nearly as badly had Gandalf been able to do some blasting instead of being tied down so much. The game was actually reasonably close, so I imagine this misuse could have been a significant factor.

I enjoyed playing this scenario a great deal, and look forward to trying it again. You really need 4 people to play it, though, and more wouldn’t hurt.

Theodred Falls, Attika

This was my second play of the Theodred Falls scenario from the War of Saruman booklet, which features a group of Riders of Rohan trying to delay a very large force of Uruk-Hai from breaking through, without losing Theodred (Theodin’s son, for those who may not recall). Today’s lesson: Uruk-Hai backed up by pikes in a tight formation are an almost-unstoppable force. It’s bad enough they have a higher fight, higher strength, higher defense … then when they can fight 3 ranks deep, well, it’s not good. The Riders have a huge problem too with their larger base size, which makes it harder to concentrate your firepower. Also makes it a lot easer when you roll well. The only good news is that the Uruk-Hai have only 6 turns to break through. Anyway, the Riders were slaughtered, which was not unanticipated, but also lost Theodred, so a bad guy victory. Although not a truly great scenario, it is interesting and plays quickly, and there actually aren’t that many scenarios in which the Uruk-Hai really get to use those pikes so that’s kind of cool.

Attika was then a bit of filler after the minis was over. The choices for our one boardgame were Global Power, Attika, and ad acta. ad acta was discarded as being too much of a brain-burner, and in the end we went with Attika based on the fact that almost everyone I’ve taught it to so far has quite liked it. I’m now about 5 plays in myself and I must admit I’m cooling a bit. It’s a good game, but it definitely has downtime/analysis paralysis issues that seem out of line with the amount of fun or real control in the game, sort of like Carcassonne. Definitely better than Carcassonne in my opinion, but still has a bit of that “hurry up and wait” feeling.

Hammer of the Scots, Rommel in the Desert

Carl came by again for one of our occasional Columbia game sessions.

First was Hammer of the Scots. The Scots have actually been on quite the roll recently with the new “South First” strategy. Wallace moves out of Fife and into Mentieth to secure the center of the board to link up with Bruce in the south, who hopefully never falls. Wallace then turns the whole south of Scotland into a quagmire for the English while Moray slowly cleans up the north over many years. Well, I was now the first to lose with this strategy (in games I’ve been involved in, anyway). Part of this was two serious tactical errors: firstly, I was entirely too anxious to link up with Bruce, and bypassed a significant English force in Argyll, which combined with a sea move snuck back to retake the critical Mentieth area leaving Wallace cut off at a very bad time. Secondly was pushing too hard in the north too early. Moray and the infantry block in the north assaulted Buchan and were bloodily repulsed through very bad luck. This wasn’t the bad move; the bad move was then trying again before building up enough, which when he lost again resulted in Moray being too weak and he was attacked, surrounded, and eliminated. The English nobles up there can’t do too much, but they can still be potent if given the chance to gang up and kill someone who can’t retreat.

I must admit that I feel I can blame at least some small part of this 2-turn fiasco on the dice … Wallace was egregiously incompetent in this game, managing to score some 2 hits in his first 20 or so shots. This was huge I felt, because Wallace and his A3 is desperately needed to actually inflict some casualties on the English nobles early, otherwise they just retreat before you come to grips with them. The other problem was that for the two turns and change we played, my hand was remarkably homogenous – all 2s and one 3. This sounds cool, but the Scots really don’t need that many activations – they really want to be moving last, and as it worked out I was often moving first, which actually caused a lot of problems.

My opinion of Hammer has been fluctuating a bit. I was down on it somewhat for a while when it seemed there was an optimal Scottish strategy. I still think there is (the South First is the only thing that seems remotely plausible, every other alternative has failed spectacularly), but it’s certainly not a script the Scots can follow. There are still tough operational and tactical choices, and sloppy play is punished. This is good, and I’m feeling better about playing the game again, although it still ranks only about 5th on my list of favorite Columbia games.

After this disaster, we broke out Rommel in the Desert, the Crusader scenario (it’s short – only 3 turns, and due to the supply situation it plays more like 1.5). Now we’re talking. The dice that had abandoned me in the first game came back with a vengeance in this time. Carl attacked 3 hexes, all of which contained a single recon unit (I felt proud of this), all of whom retreated without loss. My German reserves then proceeded to crush one intrusion, obliterating 5 British units at the cost of one (double) step. For Carl, it was downhill from this point. This is a tough game to play the first time, and my experience was decidedly more recent than Carl’s, so I’m sure he’ll return the favor next time. Plus, the Brits are tough to play in this particular scenario I think – forced to attack with a supply advantage but a decidedly inferior army. And those dice … I would have preferred a little more balance, but you take what you can get. Every time I play this game I tell myself I gotta play it more often. This is an awesome game, really, really tense – even after mauling these British units, I was always worried about the amount of supply I had spent to do it and was scared I had not kept enough in reserve to counter British threats – the German supply situation is very tight. At one point I was down to 2 supply while Carl had 6 cards in hand, but he didn’t have enough.

Games Day XXXI

Is Bay Area Games Day really up to 31 already? That seems like a lot. It seems like just last year it was in single digits.

Anyway, lots of stuff this time, as I stayed from 10AM to almost 10PM and played quite a variety of games.

First out of the gates was Battlelines: The Stalingrad Campaign, the Operation Uranus mission. This was high on my play list because my first few plays have been promising, it seems like a neat game, and they have new modules coming out soon, so I need to decide if this is really something I want to stick with and keep buying or if it’s one to pass on. Even after playing again today, I remain oddly undecided – engaged enough to not discard it, yet not compelled enough to be sure I want to keep buying. It does have some neat stuff, I love the game concept … and yet somehow the game itself doesn’t quite move me. Part of it may be that the Romanian armored division I played was very weak in troop strength, so the board always felt a bit empty. Part of it also seemed that the campaign didn’t really develop – 100 points was only two hands, so losses never really stacked up. Part of it is that I’m still exploring the game and (to some degree) struggling with how to play, even though it’s not a hard game. I still do want to like this game, it still shows good promise, but I still need to play some more to be sure. At least I do still want to play, though. This is not going to be a game I’ll “schedule” play of, though, more something I’ll sucker an opponent into playing as a closer after a game of OCS or GCACW or something.

Next up was the ever-popular Attika, which went over very well again. In fact, after our four player game, the three other players went on to immediately play two more games while I went off to play Anno 1503. Yes, I still like the game, but yes, I also remain somewhat concerned about the downtime/analysis issue.

And, then, Anno 1503 again. If you recall the first time I played it, I had vaguely good things to say about it. Well, I am reconsidering slightly. I do like a lot of things about the game, the tough choices, the fact that it’s a friendlier game … but the length concerns me. We played 4 players, and I think the game went at least 25% past its expiration date. Given the lack of interaction, and the fact it’s a pretty simple, straightforward game, I really think it might just have to be shorter. Comparisons to Starfarers, which had a length problem at first, spring to mind – but Anno 1503 is no Starfarers, that’s for sure.

Ra is, well, Ra, what I’ve come to believe is one of the best boardgames going. It certainly helps that I’ve come to an understanding of it and have gotten pretty good; I think I’ve won 8 of my last 10 games, despite the fact that I am actually fairly poor at most other alea games with the exception of Taj Mahal and Chinatown (I think I have won maybe 2 of the 25+ games of Puerto Rico I’ve played). It’ll be interesting to see if I like Ra as much once things inevitably turn :). Part of this recent success is also almost certainly that I haven’t played that many games with Kim of late somehow.

Napoleon is one of the block games that I like in principle but have never managed to play as much as it seemed to deserve. This time I played the Columbia edition, while most of my playing time has actually been on the AH version. One of the things that I like a lot about the new version is that the tactical balance between infantry, artillery, and cavalry seems to be closer. We never used the “squares” rule in the AH edition, and now there is real incentive to do so and combined-arms tactics make real sense; while nominally Cavalry is double-fire and infantry is single-fire, I often found myself wanting for more infantry. The whole charge-countercharge flow seems more realistic. On balance, the block density seems a bit high, there seem fewer actual constraints on movement than in the AH edition which had some really tough choices, and it seems just a touch too easy to marshal your forces. And I think I’ll take the mapboard to Kinkos and get it blown up by at least 125%, because it’s just too small given the drastically increased number of blocks. Anyway, I enjoyed this game quite a bit and I’d definitely play it again. My first few plays of the new edition a couple years ago had been lukewarm, but apparently I learned enough from those games to apply the third time that I enjoyed it. This game was incredibly close, I was one eliminated Prussian block away from victory before getting buried in the final battle. Even then I had a chance due to some absolutely miserable anglo-allied die rolling.

The game that didn’t happen: My copy of Global Power arrived today, and if Funagain had remembered to include a copy of the rules, I would have almost certainly played. It looks really cool. But they didn’t, I didn’t, and it’ll have to wait for a little bit.

Game Night

Attika has proven very popular with everyone I’ve introduced it to – to me, surprisingly popular in fact. We played twice tonight, once with 3 and once with 4. Both games went to the connectivity victory, although the second game was very close and could have gone to the 30 buildings because we had gotten much more aggressive in using the extra map tiles as blockers. Very nice game, my only complaint is that it is very dry and analytical so it can be subject to the lock-up problem. So not perfect, but quite good. Better than the two previous favorites for Chris’ Game of the Year (Domaine and Amun-Re)? Tough call, probably not, but I like Amun-Re a bit better than most people seem to.

Wizard was pretty much the same old same old, but a good closer and with 6 players not too long. I’m getting back into the zone with this one, I was in third but not a distant third. I blame this partially on weak hands, I think I never bid above one and I was not being excessively conservative; I only had one Wizard all game. Never one of my strongest games, but it’s survived a lot of play and I still enjoy it.