D&D: Dragonslayers Needed, part 2

When we left off last time, we had just driven off an ambush directed at us by a couple centaurs who ran away before we could “detain” them. The bear-like mutants who ambushed us where not terribly helpful on interrogation, so we pressed on through the jungle, following the track of the large creature who we firmly believe is not a dragon.

We were then intercepted by another centaur, who blocked our away across a small clearing. We weren’t sure whether this was a centaur involved in the previous ambush or not, but she seemed up for a parley; so we tried to chat. She accused us of being from the fort, and being one of those barbaric humans who were enslaving the elves; we protested our innocence. She accused us of being from the fort; we pointed out that one of us was an Elf, so that seemed monumentally unlikely. She accused us of being from the fort, we asked what we could do to convince here we weren’t. She accused us of being from the fort, so we got tired of this and backed up into the jungle. We decided to just go around her. This kicked of a series of events that was a bit problematic.

Our detour to avoid the annoying centaur involved about a quarter to half-mile off-track trek through the jungle. We figured this would be no problem for Kala the +14 Survival Druid; “tough” tasks are DC 15, so we figured that a short trek through the jungle and then finding 3-day old tracks of a 2-ton monster that we knew roughly were they were would be something Kala really couldn’t fail. Somehow, though, we did both get lost in the jungle, then miss the tracks (that Kala could have missed these seemed wildly improbable). OK, well, so far all we’ve lost is time, so we dig in to camp for the night.

In the middle of the night, Kala’s wolf companion is out hunting, and is attacked; he comes back lightly wounded. Kala and Inapo decide to try to track down the hunter. Makai and Trinki are not sold on this idea, and with their lack of Survival skill they decide to stay back and watch the camp. It turns out that the wolf was attacked by a tiger, and the GM had misunderstood some of the tiger’s abilities when attacking the Wolf. When the tiger actually attacked Inapo & Kala, he had figured things out and it was far more dangerous. In fact, it did over 46 hit points of damage to Kala before she could do anything at all, which left her below -10 hit points and dead. This was unfortunate – one character has been killed off 90 minutes into a 7 hour session, under slightly awkward circumstances. (Kim & I were trying to recall the exact sequence of events here, because there was surprise round in which the Tiger did 35 points of damage to Kala, then in the initiative round Kala rolled very poorly, but Inapo rolled well – we remembered that Inapo heavily damaged the Tiger, but couldn’t remember if he did that before or after the Tiger finished off Kala).

Continuing along, Inapo is no slacker when it comes to tracking, so we pick up the trail again. We run into the same female centaur again, when she says something along the lines of “I see you ran into my friends”, at which point Makai has had it with her senseless hostility and takes off after her with the intention of beating her senseless. Unfortunately, the centaur is a druid and so is able to move swiftly through the jungle, and is able to escape – but on the way out she says something like “we shouldn’t be fighting, we’re on the same side!”. Yeah, right, a little late to realize that.

Having chased her off, we continue down the tracks. Soon we find out that the dragon is, as expected, not in fact a dragon but a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Right near the T-Rex there is also a temple-like structure guarded my more centaurs. This is where things get confusing. After some talking with various people, we find that we’re caught in the middle of a mult-way conflict. The female centaur is named Cerra and an outcast, while the tribe is now led by a centaur named Lucien (her son). There is a power-struggle underway between the two, which Cerra has lost and been ousted. Lucien, while certainly a questionable character, is at war with the humans in the stockade, and our main goal in life is to take down the stockade at this point. However, we are suspicious that the temple is the Dragon Fall we’re also looking for, because a) this adventure apparently involves a Dragon Fall and b) we haven’t seen anything else that looks even remotely promising.

There follows some convoluted negotiation and deception in which we gain access to the temple. Sure enough, it appears to be the Dragon Fall, but accessing it seems to require solving a riddle. We struggle with the riddle for a while, then give up and call it a session.

The question of when to kill off characters is a tough one. On the one hand, as the GM you do obviously have to kill off characters every so often so that your world seems dangerous, to keep the sense of threat going. On the other hand, this is a game, and it’s definitely not so good to kill off characters somewhat arbitrarily, or early on in long sessions. I don’t think Kala’s death was arbitrary per se, but it required an long run of extremely bad luck to occur (missing the huge T-Rex tracks, having the Wolf companion escape miraculously lightly-wounded so Kala and Inapo would underestimate the tiger, the tiger being able to avoid detection until Kala is within 5 feet even though she knows it’s out there somewhere and her Spot and Listen significantly exceeds the Hiding and Stalking ability of the tiger, then the tiger hitting on every attack and almost maxing out his damage, then Kala and Inapo botching their initiative roll).

I dunno what the right thing is. I’m not one to advocate fudging die rolls as the GM, but on the other hand, unless the characters were being stupid (which I don’t think was the case here), you can usually find ways to cut them enough slack so they just get mauled and have to waste time, expend resources, etc., instead of killing them if the timing is bad. On the other hand, in the couple games I’ve GM’d recently, and in the Traveller and D&D games I ran in college and high school, I don’t think I’ve ever killed off a character which probably isn’t so good either.

Regardless of all this, at the end of the day I do think this is an interesting module … but probably not well-suited to our party. It seemed to involve a lot of negotiation and discussions with various different organizations and people in the area, and our party simply doesn’t have any Diplomacy skill. Not counting Dan’s character Kernighan, who was basically an NPC and so not the best candidate, the highest Diplomacy was Makai’s +4 (everyone else is, I think, -1). Converting the various people who I can only assume are Hostile even just to Indifferent involves a DC 25 diplomacy check (which generally can’t be retried), obviously not one we are likely to succeed at.

Game Night

First out of the box this week is the classic Modern Art. Kim is very good at this game, and when she let me win a few weeks back I figured I better enjoy it, because it doesn’t happen often. Sure enough, Kim won again – despite the fact that she never played a single ‘=’ card (some have leveled the complaint that the double-auctions can be a bit powerful). I did poorly, finishing last, despite selling a pair of Christin P’s for 150 in the last round, as much as I can ever remember getting from a single auction. The bidding was overall a bit conservative as it turns out (although we did have a new player who egregiously overbid a couple times), so it was a buyer’s game generally and I just didn’t acquire enough art in the middle game. Art is good, because it provides both money and power.

Milton had acquired a copy of Magna Grecia at the Wizard’s fire sale, and this was one I was interested in trying so I got into that while the others moved on to Was Sitcht?. This is a game by Leo Colovini, a designer I’ve cooled on after his first two games (Carolus Magnus and Cartegena, both of which I liked). He seems a bit over-exposed these days, and his designs to me are often dry and unengaging (Doge, Clans). But, I had heard some good stuff about Magna Grecia.

Basically, it’s a railroad game. You’re trying to build networks of cities, and you score points for having markets in cities that are connected to lots of other cities. There are also points for Oracles, which are won by founding cities connected to lots of other cities, also connected to the Oracle. Each turn, a card is turned up which specifies the turn order and gives all the players a choice from three actions, of which you can choose two – building some number of roads, cities, or increasing your El Grande-esque reserve of pieces. There are two versions of the game, 8 and 12 turns. We played the 8-turn version.

I found it a bit hard to engage on this game, I must admit. Part of it is theme (or lack thereof), I’m sure – Knizia takes flak for weak themes, but this is ridiculous; Magna Grecia is very dry. Part of it is the analysis paralysis issue – there is nothing to do between turns, and the board situation usually changes too much between moves as you have a great deal of freedom in where to play. Part of it is also that the game is very incremental, so you spend a lot of time agonizing over plays that really have little to differentiate them. As a result of this, I am suspicious it may be far too “damped”, with little ability for the players to really get ahead. And although it doesn’t generally bother me that much, the graphic design on this product really is appalling. The pieces and map are ugly, and the turn-order chits are very confusing.

Now all this having been said, despite all the issues I actually thought the game wasn’t bad. You’ve got to plan a bit, managing your reserve stocks. There are obviously different strategies to be pursued. It presents you with tough choices. There are significant tensions on the scarce resources. All things that I like, generally. Due to the downtime issues and my suspicions about the game balance, I’m in no hurry to go out and get a copy, even at 40% off – and it certainly doesn’t compare very favorably to either Stephenson’s Rocket or Morisi, two games it has more than a passing resemblance to. But the acid test is that it has enough good stuff that I would definitely play again; I am certain my opinion would go either up or down significantly with another playing or two.

Silicon Valley Boardgamers: Global Powers, Wizard Kings

It’s been ages since I’ve been to SVB for a variety of reasons, but I think it’s time I started making an effort to go more regularly, even if not at the every-week thing it used to be.

First up was Global Powers. I had played this once before, and while the reception was not great, it seemed to have enough there to intrigue me to play. So I made up some english cards and made an effort to haul it out again, which I was finally able to do tonight. I must admit, that after the effort I went to in order to play this game, it actually angered me.

Why? Well, for one, the action cards are outrageously unbalanced. The idea is to build up your politicians to control areas, but the politicians are a very scarce commodity – in the 5-player game, under good circumstances, you are bringing on 2, 3, maybe 4 a turn on a good turn. Then someone turns around and plays Riots or Revolution, which can sweep 12-15 or more politicians off of the table quite easily. When Revolution was first played virtually everyone at the table’s jaw dropped, and bickering started immediately over how this couldn’t possibly be right. It was though, at least according to the translation on BoardGameGeek. Plus the cards are incredibly uneven, with several being just this side of worthless and others being the equivalent of a large nuclear device. This was deeply unsettling.

Add in a playing time that is way too much – the box says 2 hours, but for the first couple games there is no way you are going to get a turn in much less than 60-90 minutes, and the game will probably go 3-4 turns. And finally, it’s just way too much work. You’ve got to form coalitions to do virtually anything, and usually these decisions don’t rise to a level of importance to get you to care.

We actually packed the entire game in after less than a turn; unusual for me, but this game just wasn’t working. In fairness, part of it was that this is a big, meatier game and it just wasn’t the right game for one or two of our players, I think; I also am guessing that some of us would have liked to continue, just to see it out. But the bottom line is, as I say, it just wasn’t working.

The shame of it is, there is some neat stuff in here and some interesting ideas. But it’s just too klunky, too long, and those cards are brutally unbalanced. I think it says something that this is actually quite a unique game – usually enough for me to cut a game a lot of slack – but it just didn’t do it for me at all. I suspect this is a game that the designer and his friends quite enjoyed, and if you have the same mindset as they do, you might like it. I did not. These small-press games are always a bit dicey; I think I had been lulled into a false sense of security by recent success with Bewitched, Cwali, and Splotter (well, with Roads and Boats anyway for the latter).

Anyway, after that deep disappointment, Rich & I went on to the far superior Wizard Kings (interestingly, there were two guys playing Hammer of the Scots right next door – good to see Columbia getting some play). This was the Surprise Attack scenario from my web site, this time I played the Undead attackers vs. Rich’s Elven Defenders. Having now played this variant twice, I think the Undead may require a minor boost. They’ve lost some important advantages the Dwarves have (better spells, the ability to maneuver around in the mountains near the board edge), and not replaced it with much. Although, I would also play quite differently next time. When playing the Dwarves, I usually use a two-pronged attack, one from the northeast driving into the heart of board 1, while the other enters on the west edge and either drives towards the center of board 4, or pivots and turns left into board 1 to link up with the second prong. This, however, is a very poor strategy for the Undead who just can’t deal with the terrain in the northeast. I think they need to drive all-out for board 4, bypassing most of the Elven at-start units; use their big, fast flyers coupled with the cavalry to threaten almost the whole south board. I should probably try this approach before fiddling the balance any, generally I’ve been extremely happy with this scenario, I’ve played it at least a dozen times in its various formats. Anyway, an awesome system, great game, one of Columbia’s best – as I’ve said before, I need to find time to finish out some scenarios I’ve been toying with.

Trendy, Tongiaki, El Grande, Samurai

It seems odd to me that wargames have so dominated my gaming of late; maybe it’s just that last year’s eurogames were modestly disappointing, while the new wave from Nürnburg is just starting to arrive. Anyway, Kim & I finally got a solid afternoon of eurogaming in.

Trendy is a game I haven’t played in ages, but I remember as being pretty weak, especially given it’s a Knizia. But it’s short, so I gave it a try again … I wasn’t wrong. Now, it’s far from hideous and it does work, but it’s sort of Modern Art without the auctions. With a pitch like that for a game Spiel Spass did publish, I’d hate to see the rejects. Now, it’s not going to make it to Chris’ banned list just because it is so short and simple, but it’s no For Sale, that’s for sure.

Tongiaki is the new Schmidt Spiele/Überplay title that just hit stores a couple days ago. It’s by Thomas Rauscher, his first game in the strategy game area that I’m aware of. My first instinct is to say that it reminds me vaguely of Carcassone, but I think that’s not actually true. Each player plays a tribe of native Polynesians, setting sale on dangerous voyages to distant islands. You can direct the expansion of the board through the directions in which you set out, but there really isn’t much choice in the tile play. Where the game is, is in the direction of your colonization efforts. As explorers reach each island, they are placed on beaches; when those beaches fill up, the explorers are forced to move on, either on previously-charted routes to existing islands, or into the unknown. Trips into the unknown can usually only be successful when multiple players work together; just how many is dictated by the route turned over. You can find a fuller review here.

While the game isn’t mind-blowing, I rather liked it. It’s got interesting choices – you have to decide where and how much to explore. It’s nicely strategic; getting your boats from where they are to where you want them is often a rather involved process. It’s got a nice element of risk – it’s good to explore the unknown, but if you don’t bring people along the boats can be lost – but bringing people along shares the wealth. Then again, if you set it up right you can hose other people by sending their boats off on doomed expeditions. All good fun; in the end, it falls comfortably into the compete-for-areas genre but it’s unique enough that it doesn’t feel like a standard compete-for-areas games, so that scores lots of points with me. And though it does have a potential analysis paralysis problem in the wrong hands, assuming you can get around that it comes in at a quite sensible playing time, around 45 minutes. All in all, I thought it was a very solid game, and one I’ll be happy to play some more.

Next up was El Grande. This has been coming out more in recent weeks, and I’d just like to point out once again what an amazing game this is. But more on this later.

Last game of the afternoon for Kim & I was Reiner Knizia’s Samurai, a game which I actually haven’t played in quite some time. I remember when it first came out, it was perceived as being the last entry in a “tile laying” trilogy along with Through the Desert, Tigris & Euphrates. At the time, it was the general consensus (with which I concurred) that it was the weakest of the three. While that may be true, I’m not sure I’d say it unequivocally. It’s a very simple game – the simplest of the three – yet it has a lot of depth. It’s a very attractive game. And it has stood the test of time very well; taking it off the shelf again today, I was no less impressed with Samurai than I was when it first came out.

Which worries me a little at some level. While others are agog with Puerto Rico, or Age of Steam, or Carcassone, for me it seems like eurogaming is now past it’s prime, at least for the serious gamer. From Modern Art through Taj Mahal and Aladdin’s Dragons, the mid-to-late 90s were a veritable flood of incredible games. While the quantity of releases was substantial, it wasn’t as much as it is today, and yet whenever I break out El Grande or Ra or Union Pacific or Modern Art or Settlers I am always impressed by the coherence, the streamlined and sleek designs that seem to me to have great elegance. While some of the recent stuff is quite good, it always seems much more disposable to me.

Now, as Mike Siggins once said about a previous Nürnburg, what we may have here is just a problem of timing. These things go in cycles, and while the last really great year for eurogames was 2000, the next one could be just right around the corner. The German economy is having problems these days; maybe that’s it. Who knows. But for me anyway, despite a solid flow of decent enough games, it still seems like the lean years are becoming a bit extended.

Hammer of the Scots, Part II

Carl had me on the ropes after Tuesday’s session, with the Scottish King holed up in the north with a few loyal nobles. But, having solidified the base after the shudder induced by defecting nobles due to Comyn’s coronation, the Scots were ready to take the fight to the English again.

The far north is awfully difficult for the English to campaign in, absent Sea Moves and big hands; so the knockout blow is difficult to administer, and the English can’t be complacent just because they’re up 9 nobles to 5 and have the remainder penned in. In this case, I think Carl really only made one mistake – he had the King and 4 powerful blocks all the way up north, with the Scots on the ropes, but decided not to winter there and return home. This gave Comyn the breathing space he needed to survive and turn things around. The next year, the English King again made it all the way up north, but the Scots managed to sneak behind him and secure the “neck” of the country, with the help of the Norse (usually, I find the Norse a waste because they’re so expensive to activate – but when you’re against the wall and don’t have much to spend your activations on anyway, they can be a tremendous nuisance).

Things were downhill from this point for the English, as Carl didn’t get many good levies or good cards from here on out, and I ended up pulling it back from the brink of disaster to squeak by with the win.

This was probably the most enjoyable and all-around best-played game of Hammer I’ve seen, and the only one that has gone the distance. After an early run of decisive English victories, followed by a run of decisive Scottish victories, we finally had a good, close, interesting game. Although I do think it’s quite a good game, nonetheless my opinion of and enthusiasm for Hammer has fluctuated a bit over time – but it won’t take too many more exciting games like this for it to move up significantly in my opinion.

My only qualm is that in the last couple games I’ve played, the Scots have always been foiled by first-turn Sea Moves into Mentieth that block Wallace from joining up with Bruce. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next time the Scottish “south first” strategy isn’t thwarted in this way; without that blocking play, this strategy has dominated recent games.

Leros

Just a few quick comments for a quick session in which we only finished 3-4 turns:

This is, I think, where things are starting to look pretty grim for the Germans. Most of a fresh British battalion landed just outside Leros to close the noose around the Germans holed up there, just remnants of two battalions that have taken very heavy casualties in the infantry arm. The Luftwaffe field battalion holding south of Leros was completely overrun (not a shocker given their 5 morale, but still). The Fallschrimjaegers, who have held on but who were badly depleted after a dicey initial landing were pushed out of their blocking positions in a confused melee. And both British battalions encircling Leros got their attack orders rolling. Not good.

While I fully expect it will be a tough fight, in all honesty these Germans are not very good troops; except for the excellent Fallschrimjaegers, platoon-for-platoon the German OOB is not a match for the British. We need those heavy weapons that land in the second wave. Unfortunately, it looks like the reinforcements will land just a few turns too late; the pier is not very secure and a concerted British effort will likely push us off of it, in which case we are doomed.

I thought the central landing area would work out, but in retrospect it was too big of a gamble. It’s no longer 1941, and these Germans just aren’t tough enough to tangle with Brits; plus, we had some rather bad luck on the initial landings, which our position couldn’t afford.

At the end of the day, though, I choose to blame it all on the Luftwaffe. While our air support has achieved a few results, given we get 3-4 planes every single turn the lack of any real significant contribution from them has been pretty impressive. I’ll have to run the numbers some time, see what you can actually expect, but after all the hype as to how the Luftwaffe was the decisive element of this campaign, I certainly expected a bit more.

Anyway, I expect 2-3 more sessions should wrap it up.

Hammer of the Scots

Carl recently moved so we haven’t had a chance to have one of our occasional rounds of Columbia games; we took the opportunity now, Hammer of the Scots again. Same sides as lat time, when I lost as the Scots after they had been on an impressive winning streak.

The game stated out as a rerun of last time – Wallace heads south, but the English play a Sea Move to fortify Mentieth before he can link up with Bruce. This makes the Scottish player’s job much harder. Wallace does make it to the south, but the Scots control of center of the board is shaky. After turn 2, I made a slightly gutsy decision to winter Wallace in Selkirk Forest to keep a 4-factor Infantry block alive that would otherwise have had wintering issues … but Carl has the 3 card required to take a shot at him, gets lucky, and is able to kill him. Losing Wallace is always disheartening early, but remembering that Columbia games are often games of player morale, I pull back into the north and crown Comyn king. This is bad, as it takes my strength down to near-zero – just the King, Comyn, Moray, maybe two other nobles, and two infantry blocks.

Things would still get worse before they got better; the two infantry blocks are eliminated before we have to call it a night, but the Scots are still hanging on, the King is a strong block, those rather pesky Norse show up, and northern Scotland is a long ways from Hadrian’s Wall. To be continued …