Betrayal at the House on Hill update

I was forwarded this update on Betrayal at the House on Hill from my regular gaming buddy Rich, which I thought was pretty funny and would share with you all:

Re: House on the Hill of Betrayal

(or whatever it’s name is …)

So, I think we may have been on to something when we posited that, maybe, you know, perhaps, this game had not been sufficiently playtested. You know, or at all.

Avalon Hill has put up a FAQ.

It’s only about 15 pages long. OK, more like 20. And, apparently, only 30 of the 50 scenarios are broken.

Just as a sample, here’s the errata for the Haunt we wound up playing:

16) The Phantom’s Embrace

Q. Both the Survival and Traitor’s books mention the Phantom showing up in rooms with the event symbol, but then they show the omen symbol. Which is it?
A. The books should show an event symbol.

Q. The rules state heroes can win by escaping from the house. How do we escape?
A. The escape rules got left out of this Haunt. You can attempt a Knowledge roll (picking the lock) or a Might roll (breaking the lock) of 6+ to open the front door in the Entrance Hall. If you succeed, draw an event card and end your turn. On subsequent turns all explorers can move out the front door to escape.

Oops. The scary thing is that regarding question #1 above, when this came up in our game I had analyzed the situation and came to the the conclusion that it had to be the omen symbol, not the event, that triggered the Phantom – otherwise the Phantom player was totally screwed, as opposed to just being majorly screwed. Almost makes me want to try the game again to see … then again, maybe not.

It always impressive to me when a company with the resources and reputation of a Wizards of the Coast apparently takes so little professional pride in the quality of their product. Did they do any internal review or playtesting on this game? Or are there processes just incredibly screwed up? Or, most disturbingly of all, do they know that for their market, it just doesn’t matter?

New Essen Games

Each year I buy a couple fewer games from Essen. This year there were quite a few that were tempting, but I didn’t buy too many in my first round of direct-from-Europe orders (and I should say that with the dollar worth so much less than it was just 3-4 years ago, things are not the deal they used to be). There was an interesting bit on record collecting on NPR (“Lost in the Grooves”) Wednesday in which one of the guests mentioned that in order to keep her collection under control and keep from buying everything, she had to have three reasons to buy a random record that she came across (they don’t necessarily have to be good reasons – cool cover art or an intriguing track name were OK – just reasons). We can now see if I can retroactively come up with 3 reasons why I bought these:

  • Reef Encounter: Appealing theme, Richard Breese is reasonably reliable for functioning game, limited edition which will probably represent a reasonable investment. Richard Breese self-published games are reliably decent but never great, so as a designer he’s right on the bubble – if this had been another “Key” game, I probably would have passed, but the reef theme sucked me in.
  • Ys: Well-produced, derivative from Aladdin’s Dragons which is a personal favorite, limited edition again. Really only one of those reasons counts for anything, but it’s a major one. This is one that I have genuine optimism for (i.e., it might end up hitting 10 plays).
  • Garten Zwerge e B – Truly bizzare theme, new company with an interesting lineup, bidding game. The game design itself is actually not unusual, but it’ll be interesting to see if the theme (breeding garden gnomes) is too weird for people. Game number two that I have genuine optimism for, actually.
  • Metallurgie – small (I need more good small card games in my collection), cool graphics & theme, by the same company (Argentum) that did the above and another interesting-looking game. This was a throw-in.
  • Telebohn – Wierd, I own all the other Bohnanza stuff, and, uh, it was cheap. I think that third reason doesn’t really count. But once you own 8 Bohnanza expansions, and the the last couple (Bohnaparte/Dschingis Bohn) were good, you feel sort of compelled to keep picking them up.
  • Sole Mio! – Again, small and cheap; and I was a fan of Mamma Mia! for quite a while before it just hit the end of the road and I never played again. I was hoping this might give me some enjoyment out of the game again, but it was probably a borderline call.
  • Revolution – I have great respect for Francis Tresham’s designs. I still play 1825, and even Civilization occasionally, so while this wasn’t a no-brainer – his best stuff is no less than 10 years old – I wasn’t going to pass on this. Unless it turns out to be terrible (very unlikely), it’ll be a decent investment.
  • Out of Africa – It’s a bidding game, cool graphics, and Phalanx is improving somewhat although I’d still like their games to be better than they are. I’ll give Ted Racier’s upcoming WWI game a shot, but these probably represent Phalanx’s last chance with me. If one of the three doesn’t hit 10 plays, I will approach their stuff with much more skepticism in future. I’ve cut them a lot of slack for games that just weren’t as good as they should have been, because the graphics are excellent, the games certainly haven’t been bad, and their hearts are in the right place. But that only goes so far.

I really like this whole “three reasons” concept, but obviously I’m still working on what it means to me. Either that, or I shouldn’t have bought a couple of those.

Stuff I would have picked up in previous years but didn’t:

  • Antiquity – Splotter is just too unreliable. Roads & Boats was great for a very niche game, but so much of their other stuff has been great concepts that they couldn’t take the last bit to a decent game. So this is a wait-and-see.
  • Im Shcatten des Kaisers, Mall World – I’ll wait for the English versions.
  • Candamir – Tempted. Mayfair hasn’t announced an English version, and it sounds reasonably internationalized except for the flavor text (but don’t quote me on that). I’ll hang on and see if an English version is announced sometime soon, but this will be a must-buy eventually.
  • Carcassone schlock – I’ve got The Castle and Hunters and Gatherers. How much more does one need?
  • Sea Sim – Again, Cwali disappointed with Logistico so they are no longer on my must-buy list. Another wait-and-see.
  • Razzia, Geschenkt, die Weinhandler – In my never-ending search for small-box games that last more than a couple plays, I’ll pick these up eventually I think.

Anyway, looking forward to giving a bunch of these a try (especially Garten Zwerge, Ys, and Revolution). I’ll let you know how it goes.

Poll Close

Obviously the poll was, shall we say, somewhat short of the DSP in credibility. But still, I expected it in aggregate to more or less mirror my opinions, since I expect the only people who seriously read this blog are people who more or less agree with me.

Given this, a number of the results were unsurprising. Goa was the “winner”, although by a slender margin. I like Goa quite a lot, and it might have gotten my vote, but it is long, and as a result infrequently played, and I wonder if it would hold up to as many games as I’d like to give it?

That Runebound did poorly was also not a shocker, since I think that it is simply aimed at a different audience.

Some of the games placed much lower than I would have rated them, though. Fifth Avenue did very poorly, and I wonder how much this is due to a simple lack of play. It would have made the top handful for me. After a strong early showing, Maharaja tailed off rather badly in the poll, and while I wouldn’t have given it any awards, I like it. But the real surprise was San Juan. For me, San Juan is comfortably the #1 or #2 eurogame of the year so far. You seemed to agree with me that it’s better than the DSP winning Saint Petersberg, but I would say it’s in fact much better than that. Better too than Ticket to Ride; I would have rated Ticket a bit lower than you did – a solid “B” game, perhaps, as for me it has a certain lack of flair.

The big winners that I would have rated significantly lower were Memoir ’44 and Power Grid. Memoir ’44 is a fun game which I do like, but it’s a bit too light to really excite me. The scenarios also seem almost unplaytested in their extreme imbalance at times, and they take long enough to play that it’s not amusing to find out that you were playing the side that was basically doomed. I like Blue Moon, the game that slipped my mind when making the list, significantly better.

Power Grid is a game that has taken a real hit in my mind after the first 5 or so plays. It’s another decent enough game, one that will stay on my shelf, but it seems to have problems with pacing in the middle game and a somewhat unsatisfying endgame (due to the possibility of resource exhaustion and therefore somewhat arbitrary hoseage and kingmaking). I think there are some configurations of board and number of players that work a lot better than others, but I haven’t yet figured out which is which. While I like Power Grid, I’ve been playing some 1825 recently, and Power Grid is having a hard time holding up to that classic. Of this year’s “big” games, I easily like Goa, Fifth Avenue, and Maharaja better.

Saint Petersburg did pretty well in the poll, but for me it has completely collapsed. I liked it for around 8-10 games, but it crashed like a drunk driver after that. It’s still a decent enough game that I’ll play, but no better than a run-of-the-mill decent game in my opinion, and it has potential to fall further. I think it’s the lack of player interaction, forced early moves, a not exactly Knizia-esque level of balance between Buildings and Aristocrats, and a general lack of subtlety once you’ve worked out the overall tenor of the game. Again, not a bad game, but the first time in recent memory that I think the DSP has out-and-out blown it, although their later picks still came through in the end.

Wings of War is a game I like a lot, but it’s the oddball of the group, and its low showing wasn’t entirely surprising.

D&D: Sidrea 8 – The Ghostwoods

There has been a break in my coverage of our D&D games, for various reasons. So I’ll keep the transitionary update simple:

It appears vast forces of evil are conspiring to dominate the world. Ancient powers of dubious reputation are marshalling. They seem to be mostly snakes, or at least reptiles. This evil has cursed the party with a disease that will eventually turn us into Yuan-Ti, reptile-like servants of an evil god. That’s bad.

The party has also gained and lost some of the various NPC hangers-on that have been following us around. Tadira, the researcher who hired us in the first adventure, met a grisly death along with her dwarf hireling Honier. On the other hand, we’ve picked up Larkel, an Elven noble from the Isle of the Rose, who seems to be insane. Or at least somewhat nuts.

Lastly, Amathyya, half-elf and major NPC hanger-on, has been revealed to be the hier to the throne of Rondor and the Isle of the Rose. In Sidrea, the Elves have a long history of oppression at the hands of the Humans, so my character (Haethyr, an Elf) doesn’t have much enthusiasm for uniting Rondor, a very large human kingdom currently in Civil War after the death of Amathyya’s father, a brutal despot, with the Isle of the Rose, a peaceful stable, and small kingdom dominated by Elves, and the only place in Sidrea where Elves aren’t oppressed.

Anyway. None of this bears much on the adventure we are about to embark on, but I offer it up as background.

In order to escape the last adventure, the party needed to make a deal with Larkel to help him get to the heart of the Ghostwoods, the ruins of an ancient Elven city. So off we go.

The forest is protected by Ent-like living trees. Fortunately, on a tip from Larkel, the party coats themselves with some living-tree-repellant root, which prevents them from detecting us. The pursuing guards are not so fortunate, and get whomped. I guess that’s why this area has been largely undisturbed.

The second tier of guardians are a batch of Shades. Zerkestor, mighty cleric of Zerthunor, blasts them. I’ve always had a fundamental dislike of almost everything about the cleric class in D&D, which after committing to including religion in the game then turns around and reduces it to cure spells and whacking stuff with a mace, but the whole turning undead thing is particularly annoying. It’s got its own lookup chart, it’s incredibly inelegant, and it tends to reduce encounters to an either/or of rolling high enough to blow them away, or rolling poorly and having little effect. It’s just not interesting, and it’s also thematically weak, a holdover from the cross vs. vampires thing, which makes little sense anymore.

Continuing along, we meet some friendly pixies. They warn of traps. We add it to the checklist. Berek sings them a Dwarven drinking song, and So’yoko tells them a joke: “A dwarf, and elf, and a pixie go into a bar …”. They are amused by this and give us a gift. This was a nice roleplaying encounter.

Somewhere in here there was an encounter with some more guardians – air elementals of some kind, ancient guardians of the city – that wasn’t particularly memorable.

We finally make it to the Elven city. It appears that long ago they were assaulted by a plague created by someone or something to destroy the elves. Three sisters, high-ranking in the city, tried to perform a magic ritual to cleanse the city, but two of the sisters subverted the ritual for reasons unknown and fled to the swamp north of here. We are told that Amathyya has the power to undo this damage, and cure our own curse-related issues into the bargain, if we can retrieve a magical harp from the swamps to the north.

That sounds like a good idea.

So off we go again. The swaps are large, so we’re trying to figure out how we are going to search them all. Haethyr sends his Owl familiar up to have a look, and the DM tells us there are caves. Caves you say? OK, we’ll check them out. They turn out to be inhabited by Trolls. 4 Trolls, actually.

Trolls are really nasty. They’re big, they’re strong, the regenerate. Haethyr is only packing one fireball today. As they come charging out of the cave to engage us, Berek – valiant fighter he is – blocks the corridor. With subsequent enhancement by Enlarge, Haste, Circle of Protection from Evil, and Shield of Faith, then his own Combat Expertise, he turns into an Armor Class 30 monster. Despite Haethyr’s screams that we should retreat and regroup until tomorrow, when he can take 3 Fireballs and make comparatively short work of them, Berek continues to hack his way through the Trolls. Assisted by Scorching Rays from Haethyr and So’yoko, and plenty of cures from Zerkestor, Berek just barely manages to hang in there as the last Troll is felled, albeit not without being knocked unconscious a couple times and bailed out by Zerkestor.

Hopefully the harp is in there. We’ll find out next time.

This was an interesting and fun module, with some nice roleplaying encounters (the pixies, the elves), and the knock-down drag-out fight with the Trolls at the end; but it still was a classic railroad job – players go to point A. NPC gives them some information, tells them to go to point B. At point B, another NPC tells them to go to point C and do D, then return to point B. The players don’t get any real feeling of freedom. It’s not bad to have some more straightforward adventures occasionally, but in the main you want at least the illusion of control. The GM has said a number of times that this series is inspired by Babylon 5, and I think this is a critical hazard when using books or movies or TV shows as your primary inspiration for RPGs. Stories have their own set of narrative rules, which are driven by drama, while a game has very different requirements. When Tolkien wrote the riddle at Moria’s East Gate in Fellowship of the Ring, he didn’t have to worry about what would happen if the characters blew their Lore skill checks and failed, or if the players didn’t quite understand something, perhaps because the GM forgot or didn’t present it clearly, and so the players didn’t get it. In a game, the players have to have the freedom to make choices, even poor ones, and even to fail sometimes; in Sidrea, it’s often been obvious that anything but complete success simply isn’t an option, because if we didn’t succeed the whole story arc would be over. Telling an interesting story is a critically important element of RPGs of course, but it has to be balanced against the needs of the game. Since these goals are often contradictory, that’s obviously tough.

Our GM also keeps a blog on our game, in which he covers events in much more detail. If you’re interested, you can find it here.

Classic Games

Inspired somewhat by my recent appearance on GeekSpeak, I’ve been going back to some classics of late.

Tigris & Euphrates is a game I’ve always thought well of, but perhaps not as highly as others. I liked Joe Gola’s perspective on the game here (and for completeness, here is the Siggins review). After a long break from the game, and coming back to it with a fresh perspective, and playing with experienced players, it impressed me more than my memory of it. I’ve always thought of Tigris & Euphrates as pretty much a short-term optimization game, but today I really felt in the zone – I was visualizing what I needed to do this turn, and the next, and next, and how to set myself up for points, and how to manage the strategic board position. It helped then that I won. For me, the criticism of Tigris & Euphrates is that I have found it a somewhat chaotic game for its weight class. So it’s possible that either this particular instance of the game everything was just falling into place for me. It’s also possible that I after all this time, it just took a break from playing it for a while for me to have the clarity to really understand the game. Either way, I’m looking forward to playing it some more.

In another blast from the past, we broke out the Settlers of Catan – plain vanilla basic Settlers – which hadn’t seen play in quite a while. Actually, I had never played on this copy, which is the new German version featuring plastic pieces, and which is possibly the nicest of all the incarnations of the game (although still in German – why couldn’t they use iconography on the Discovery/Entwicklung cards?). Unlike Tigris & Euphrates, Settlers is a game for me whose brilliance is fairly obvious. It’s amazing how experienced you can be and still make mistakes and generally play poorly if you take the game too lightly, or don’t stay alert and flexible, as was my fate in this game. I made a rather basic error in my initial placement, then went on to not trade very well. But what the heck, it’s a 45 minute game. Once again, this just whetted my appetite for another game, always the mark of the true classics – and I must have played Settlers well in excess of a hundred times, even if not recently.

Lord of the Rings is more recent than either Settlers or Tigris & Euphrates, so it is still in circulation to some degree – this was my third or fourth playing this year. This is, for me, a game that is just a lot of fun. We started Sauron on 10, and then got absolutely hammered in Moria with both Frodo and Fatty moving up to corruption 8 almost right away. But we hung in there, scraping by each board and constantly fighting off disaster. Frodo and Fatty both bought it in Shelob’s Lair after hanging on by their fingernails for a surprisingly long time. Sam got whacked early in Mordor, but Pippin and Merry held out right to the end, with Pippin fatally absorbing the final die roll so that Merry could coast to the Cracks of Doom and fairly comfortably pass the final corruption check.

Because of all the randomness in the system, Lord of the Rings certainly is a game that sometimes works out and sometimes doesn’t, like Settlers at some level. Sometimes you get completely toasted by the system, and sometimes you waltz to Mount Doom quite easily, even starting Sauron at level 10 (being toasted can be entertaining; the cake-walk usually isn’t, which is why I so strongly recommend starting Sauron on 10 after you’ve won once or twice on each of the previous levels). Much more often, though, the game produces a tough, tense game with lots of wrenching choices, which is a lot of fun for a change of pace from the usual euro fare. I enjoyed this game, and while it didn’t leave me craving another play the way Tigris & Euphrates did (admittedly I’ve played Lord of the Rings more recently), it did leave me with a desire to break out the expansions, Sauron and Friends and Foes, which I never got to play as much as I would have liked.

GMT West 2004 – Wrapup & Game Purchases

I enjoyed GMT West this year as much as I have enjoyed any wargame event in recent times, with the possible exception of MonsterCon. The War Room at Origins, and ConQuest and KublaCon’s wargame areas do not exactly provide stiff competition admittedly, but still. I think I can credit this mainly to Roger MacGowan’s hosting skills and general friendliness, as he was bouncing around making sure people had games, but also to the general friendliness of the attendees – this was one of the best wargame crowds I’ve gamed with. I’d still ideally have liked to see Roger doing more, but the fact that there was somebody there at all helping people to get organized was, for me, a big deal.

There were GMT games for sale, and I acquired a copy of The Devil’s Horsemen (which I had ordered via P500) and Alexander the Great (deluxe). Why? I dunno. I am not Richard Berg’s biggest fan, and the Great Battles of History games are, at best, a decidedly mixed bag. But I genuinely liked Cataphract, and The Devil’s Horsemen seemed a game which had more in common with that than with the earlier, more unwieldy games – if nothing else, Cataphract has no skirmishers, which in SPQR seem to be more of a time-wasting device than a game mechanism. Anyway, it’s a neat period and I’d like to give it a go. Alexander was a less defensible choice. It’s the only game in the series I’m missing, but how entertaining is it to see the brilliantly-armed and led Macedonian armies slice through their opponents? I’d say “we shall see”, but this is likely a game that will sit on the shelf for a long time, so we may not. I’m already wondering what I was thinking.

I also picked up the new, deluxe, Paths of Glory map, which is great and finally dispenses with need to tote around plexiglass. I just wish it had come out 4-5 years ago, when I was still playing the game regularly. I suspect I’ll get back to it sometime, because it is a great game, but as it is I haven’t played in well over a year.

Anyway, all in all, I quite enjoyed the event, and can heartily recommend it to fans of GMT’s games. The hotel is a bit overpriced, but I’m told that you can find other better deals within walking distance, so that’s what I’ll do next year myself. If it’s still around next year, I’ll be there.

GMT West – Day 4

After playing a full day of Europe Engulfed yesterday, today I went in for a play of the one-year, one-map tournament scenario (you can find it on BoardGameGeek). This is a great learning and quick-playing scenario.

I played the Soviets. To be honest, I have not yet figured this one out as the Germans. Taking two objectives is extremely difficult, but so is holding the front line – although you have an initial tank advantage, the Soviets out-produce you. You need to strike hard and early to have any chance at all, but between the rivers and heavy fortifications, this is easier said than done. My German opponent was comparatively inexperienced and had a very tough time – he attacked on turn one but made little headway, and had to shift to a defensive posture right away. After that, it was only a matter of time before the shock armies started moving on the Ukraine.

I’m going to have to solitaire the first few turns of 1942 as the Germans to figure out how to do it right.

After this, I went on to chat with some folks playing The Napoleonic Wars. This game is still going quite well, with some 6 or 7 games played over the weekend, second only to Sword of Rome probably. The guys were having a blast with it, and it convinced me to give the game another look sometime, although you have to get the right crowd I think (and I do somewhat suspect I might not be a member of that crowd). The game does have some crippling problems, of course, which haven’t gone away – but there is a certain fun factor to it also.

Clash of Giants is Ted Racier’s World War I “operational”-level game, covering the pivotal battles of Tannenberg and The Marne. The game is quite low-complexity, and has been something I’ve been wanting to try since it first came out, but have never gotten around to (being partly deterred by Mr Racier’s contemporary and not quite successful Reds!, perhaps). So I was happy to give it a spin. We played Tannenberg.

At it’s core, this is basically a classic, low-complexity, hex-ZOC-CRT game, with some interesting chrome for movement (Russian movement allowances are highly variable – you roll a die for each Army to see how far its component units can move – and reflect the uncertain nature of the Russian command). It was interesting to go back to classic “sticky” (movement-halting) ZOCs, because they felt surprisingly klunky. After playing a fair amount of Ardennes ’44 (which has ZOC bonds, unintuitive at first but rather clever and they’ve grown on me a lot) and The Gamer’s OCS games (which have very weak ZOCs that really only affect trucks), Clash of Giants’ rules felt somehow inelegant.

The combat resolution is rather clever, though. Each unit effectively has a strength and saving throw number, representing tactical skill. Combat is resolved by each unit involved making a saving throw. Those that fail get step-reduced. Odds give modifiers to the saving throws, and in extreme cases, limit the number of units that have to save. I’m not sure it quite works for me, but it is interesting and different, and definitely a big improvement over the classic straight d6 CRTs of the old days.

All in all, I liked Clash of Giants well enough. I was easily able to resist buying a copy after playing, but I’m still glad I was able to give it a try, and Rick B was a good opponent so I enjoyed the game. But at this level of complexity, I have to admit I like the block games, Wizard Kings, Gettysburg, Liberty, or Worthington Games’ Victoria Cross. The hex and counter stuff seems to not quite make it for me until you get into the moderate level of complexity of an Ardennes ’44 or OCS Korea or Burma, when it starts becoming semi-reasonable simulations.