Arcana Unearthed – preparing for the Plague of Dreams

(2014 note: this piece originally had a ton of links to both the other games I talk about and design diaries and such on Monte Cook’s site. I was surprised to find that after 9 years, I could not find a single live link – not just product pages for all the moribund RPGs which went by the wayside or whose licenses expired or companies went bust, but for the Arcana Evolved and Monte Cook content also. I’ve updated links where I could and removed the rest. You can find the games on rpggeek.com if you like. A few dead links are still here where required to maintain the integrity of the piece. And by the way, Arcana Evolved is still awesome).

I have been promising (sort of) more roleplaying content for a while, but it has not been forthcoming despite my monthly-ish ongoing D&D game.

This is due in significant part to my rising levels of frustration with D&D. This should be held distinct from my feelings for d20/OGL, which is not a bad system inherently. Sure, it’s overcomplicated – attacks of opportunity, for example, are needlessly opaque and a common rules complaint. Why do you think they need a D&D For Dummies book? But the real problem with D&D is not the d20 core, but the world that the class, skills, and spells of D&D describe, which is not always very coherent. At the risk of revealing the ending of this particular story, rather than subject you to my own rantings I’ll refer you to a couple of Monte Cook’s columns that clearly encapsulate a few of my issues. So while I enjoy the D&D off and on, I didn’t want to just write posts that were going to be me ranting about the broken rule/feat/item/prestige class du jour, or how the oddities of D&D often seems to inhibit the roleplaying experience.

So I went looking for an alternative to D&D. I’ll need to run it, so given my inexperience as a GM, there was a hard requirement that it had to have a good off-the-shelf introductory adventure. And being d20/OGL helped a lot. The candidates were …

Star Wars d20: This is a much better system than D&D, but the feel of the game is more Extended Universe Star Wars than George Lucas Star Wars, which – regardless of what you think of the prequels – is not good. Despite the appeal of the theme, my feeling is that the storytelling options here are somewhat constrained and the cheesiness which is such an endearing part of the genre might grow old in an ongoing RPG. I would be more than happy to play in an occasional one-off Star Wars game, but can’t get excited about putting the effort required into running it, especially given the serious dearth of published adventures. Next!

Babylon 5 d20 is an interesting and promising universe, and the system is well-supported by Mongoose with some good sourcebooks (along with a couple very poor ones) and a few reasonable pre-made adventures. But the system has a whiff of inadequate playtesting and lack of concern for game balance, and mini-maxer fodder is one of the things I’m trying to avoid here. Next!

Lord of the Rings RPG (Decipher) is very thematic and has a lot of really good stuff, but it is also clearly underdeveloped and has significant problem elements and rules holes, and I just don’t know that I’m up for filling in all the gaps at this time. I also don’t know that I want to compete with Tolkien, and the downloadable adventures on the Decipher website are almost indescribably lame. It also appears to be dead. Next!

Fireborn looks very, very cool. But even though it’s significantly simpler in the end than d20, it’s also absolutely nothing like d20 and has higher startup costs in terms of learning, and so is a tough sell. Plus, the published “intro” adventure has some issues, and of course there are persistent questions as to whether Fantasy Flight actually knows how to develop a game of any kind. Very high on my list to try, but not this time. Next!

Paranoia XP looks like a lot of fun, it’s vaguely d20, and knowing the rules is treason for the players anyway. But it’s the sort of game you run as a one-off. There are a couple of short adventures in the Crash Priority book that look great and I’d like to run them sometime, but I was looking for something with a bit more meat. Paranoia is also a demanding (if particularly entertaining) game for the GM.

So … we come to Arcana Unearthed (or Arcana Evolved; they’re the same game).

Rather than tell you why AU is so appealing to me, I’m going to just suggest you read Monte Cook’s design diaries (start at the bottom and work your way up), which are a good read. Much of what I could say would simply duplicate what he’s already said more clearly. In my opinion, AU is a significant improvement in terms of game design over D&D in virtually every way. Crucially, though, AU is, at its core, D&D done right. So if you know how to play D&D, and are familiar with the concepts, moving to AU is almost (almost) painless – it’s just that the abusive feats and spells have been eliminated, many elements have been brought into better balance, things have been streamlined, and characters have been given more, and more interesting, options. Spellcasters in particular have vastly more interesting options than in core D&D, even the lesser spellcasters. The setting is richer, more interesting, and makes sense. D&D leans heavily towards combat (if I wanted to play a tactical war game, I have better options), and while AU certainly retains those roots, it was also designed with a great deal of thought towards encouraging interesting roleplaying. And the game clearly was not burdened by the needs of a somewhat reactionary fan base.

Now, AU is not perfect. Being OGL it is still a bit over-complicated, and you need to get familiar with the setting. There is still the issue with balance amongst the various skills; there is too much of a range, from the broad and very useful Diplomacy and Sneak to the highly specialized and rarely-useful things like Use Rope and Innuendo – they all cost the same, so where do you think the players are going to invest their relatively small number of skill points 99% of the time? But if you’re frustrated by the imbalances, inflexibility, and strange worldview of D&D, it would behoove you to check out AU.

So, with the longest intro ever out of the way, we can now get down to preparing for the actual adventure.

Plague of Dreams is an introductory adventure for AU, published by Fiery Dragon. It serves a couple of purposes. Firstly, it’s an introduction to the world and history of AU, as the PCs interact with all the AU races in Gahanis, a typical small town, and explore some ruins with a connection to the major event in the recent history of the AU world (the war between the Giants and Dramojh). Secondly, it’s a low-power and low-complexity adventure that can serve as an intro to roleplaying in general, with opportunities for some combat and roleplaying. Normally I wouldn’t start PCs off at 1st level, as I think the options are too limited, but in this case it works. The town of Gahanis is a small one, so there are no 8th level Warmain Sheriffs or retired 10th level Unfettered to overshadow (or serve as a crutch, or raise awkward questions) for the PCs. And Gahanis is well spec’d out by the book, so the characters are pretty free to go “off the grid” and explore, although the main mission is fairly straightforward and as the GM it’s hard to imagine even the most ornery PCs going too badly astray (although one thing I do know, as a GM, never underestimate the ability of your players to wander off in some bizarre and unexpected direction if you give them a chance. Things often seem quite different from the other side of the screen).

The first thing I did in preparing the adventure was to sit down and, with Kim’s help, come up with pre-generated characters along with some simple backgrounds. In my experience, generating characters is a chicken-and-the-egg problem. Players like to generate their own PCs; but they don’t know what skills will be useful, what will be interesting story-wise, or nearly as much about the world as the GM does. In the past, I’ve always wanted to come up with some cool background for my PC as a player, but then have run into the wall of not knowing enough about the world or the mission to do anything sensible. When combined with the fact that most of our players had last done pen and pencil roleplaying sometime between never and high school, and at any rate I wasn’t going to ask them to spring for a $50 sourcebook (or $24 for a PDF), I figured it was best to take control of the situation and do it myself. In retrospect, I wish I had developed these a little more, but on balance I was reasonably happy.

Secondly, I dug up some Avery inkjet-printable perforated index cards and made up an encounter template. Having adversary stats handy is a huge advantage in running combats, which have to be run briskly or the game bogs down. Entering the stats into the template also had the side benefit of giving me a chance to consider each opponent in turn, getting familiar with their abilities and thinking a bit about their tactics. Plague of Dreams has a couple cool encounters, and my experience was it’s a very good idea to prep these thoroughly. You can always read off the descriptions of an area from the book if you forget; but if you’re inexperienced like me, the combats can really bog the game down if you aren’t prepared.

Thirdly, rather than tackle the whole module, I realized that we were only going to be able to play the first half in one weeknight. The first half is fairly well self-contained, and just the right length for a weeknight session, so this actually worked out all right. I just read it over several times, and made some overall notes of locations I thought it was highly likely the players would visit (the library to do some research, the apothecary, etc). I focussed on the one most important NPC and tried to work out how I would play him. There is one major location with an interesting architectural layout that I wanted to make sure I had a clear image of in my mind. I then made photocopies of all the important illustrations in the book so I could give them out as visual aids. The goal, of course, was not to memorize everything – there is a lot there – but to be ready to look things up in case the players visited them.

Lastly, I came up with an intro section about how the players came together. The old “you all randomly meet in a tavern …” thing is a staple, but it’s lame and gets the module off on the wrong foot; I have found that getting the party together in a sensible way with some basic but rational motivations and reasons for being there gives excellent bang for the roleplaying buck. As you can see from the background snippets, I knew why everyone was in the town of Gahanis, so I just figured out exactly where they were staying and what had happened at the time they were contacted by their new prospective employer.

That’s it. It was a bit of work, but really not too bad, less than I expected, and a lot less than if I had tried to roll my own (and the adventure is better that what I could have done to boot). Next time, we’ll see how the first half actually played out.

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Shadows over Camelot

At its core, Shadows over Camelot is a very close sibling to Lord of the Rings (if you haven’t played or know nothing about Lord of the Rings, this review will ultimately make more sense if you read that piece at some point). Each player is a different Knight of the Round Table (Arthur, Galahad, Kay, Gawain, even Bedeviere if you download him from the Days of Wonder site … but, shockingly, no Lancelot, depriving us of some of the best jokes). You have a hand of cards, which you spend to accomplish quests. These can be numeric fight cards, useful for defeating the Black Knight, Picts, Saxons, finding Sir Lancelot (where is he anyway? Only his armor shows up), or defeating the Dragon. There are also Grail cards, which – shockingly – help in finding the Holy Grail. The grail in the game looks more like the sort of cup that would get you disintegrated if you drank from it; if you should ever run into the sort of situation in which this kind of knowledge would be useful, remember to choose more wisely. Maybe that’s why they had such a hard time finding it. And there are also special cards, which allow various sorts of actions.

The Knights all begin at Camelot. But rather than all progressing together through linear adventures, as is the case in Lord of the Rings, they now are able to split up and pursue quests as individuals or smaller teams. Some may choose to stay in Camelot gathering more cards. One may go to face off with the Black Knight in a tournament. Or one or more Knights take on a larger quest, heading off in search of the Holy Grail or Excalibur. Once you’ve made your way to your quest, each turn you may play a card: if it’s a fighting quest, you play a numbered fight card to try to get high scores in various patterns (the Black Knight requests two pair, the quest for Lancelot a full house, the Picts and Saxons a straight). For the Grail quest, each Grail card simply advances a track. Once you run out of useful cards to play on a quest, you may move about amongst these available quests, although if you abandon an individual quest, you have to lose one of the played cards for your faintheartedness.

While you are doing this, each turn you (generally) draw one card from a black deck. These will usually make one quest harder, by canceling progress, upping the target total of fight cards required, or by counting down a clock.

As each quest ends, either because the Knights played enough cards, the bad guys maxed out their strength, or the clock counted down, you figure out who won. Some quests – the Saxons, Picts, the Grail, Excalibur – end in failure as soon as the clock counts down, or success if the good guys play all the required cards first. Combat quests, like the Black Knight, involve counting up the total card values played when the quests ends one way or another. Regardless, the major side effect of ended quests is Swords, which can be black or white, which are victory points. If, at the end of the game, there are more White than Black swords, the good guys win. If not, they lose.

If this was all there was to the game, I could write its obituary right now and save a lot of time: “A less thematic, less challenging, less well-balanced, and less interesting Lord of the Rings that has noticeably more down time. The only thing it has more of is, arguably, complexity. Oh, and the endgame can be tedious”. Fortunately, there is one more detail which really makes the game: the Traitor. The Traitor plays as a normal Knight, but with different goals: he is trying to both a) keep his identity concealed and b) make sure the loyal Knights lose. You can throw around accusations of treason, which will score a white sword if accurate or convert white swords to black swords if not (very nasty). If the traitor is still unrevealed at the end of the game, two white swords will be converted, which will make it harder for the good guys to win (whether this will actually be hard is still an open question in my mind). The doubt and suspicion engendered by there being a traitor in the player’s midst is fun, and amusingly out of proportion to the traitor’s actual ability to slow the other players down, which is not that considerable. At the beginning of the game, each player is dealt a loyalty card – either Loyal or Traitor. I recommend in the strongest possible terms the optional rule which includes as many Loyal cards as there are players, plus the Traitor, instead of always including all 7 Loyal cards. As I say, the Traitor makes the game; if the odds of having one are too low, the game loses substantially in flavor, challenge, and interest. This variant will ensure that there is usually a traitor, but keep open the small but entertaining possibility that there isn’t.

Although we are still a little ways from the end of this piece, I will now give you my bottom line. I enjoyed Shadows over Camelot. There are more cooperative games out there than you might think, but almost none are in this somewhat heavier weight class, or at the level of sophistication and professionalism of good German games. It’s certainly not on the same level as Lord of the Rings, but the Traitor adds a very nice twist, with each player’s moves being analyzed for possible disloyalty (hmmm … I can sense some sort of comedic, Soviet-era spinoff coming. Maybe Paranoia: The Board Game). If this is the analysis you want to hear, you might want to stop reading now.

Because even with those strengths, and even though I’m ultimately giving it a thumbs up, Shadows over Camelot has a number of problems, some potentially rather significant. The two most obviously problematic are a) a suspect endgame, and b) clear replayability questions. Another has to do with game balance. To take them in order, then …

The Endgame: Games should, cooperative or not, ratchet up tension towards a climax. This is why many Battle of the Bulge games end at the German high-water mark rather than after the Allied counterattacks despite the appeal of symmetry. Once the Germans have succeeded or failed in reaching their objectives, most of the tension has drained out of the game. In Lord of the Rings, you have the agonizing struggle over the last board to the final goal of Mount Doom as your resources dwindle to almost nothing. In Shadows over Camelot things are not driven to conclusion adequately and there is sometimes not a clear finish line to strive for, and the game does not carry its own momentum to the end. The Knights sometimes seem to get into a holding pattern, where they are trying to not lose the major quests like the Holy Grail while they wait for some minor quest, like the Black Knight, to fill up so they can lose it, thus filling up the Round Table with swords, ending the game, and winning (because there are ultimately more White than Black swords). If there is a Traitor out there it can add a little tension, but I found the endgame ultimately unsatisfying. There is also a mechanic of Catapults outside Camelot: once 12 show up, the good guys lose. Unlike Sauron’s implacable advance, though, Knights can dedicate their turn to the elimination of catapults. So as the threat grows, more and more Knights are just sitting around rolling dice to blow up catapults, which is a drag and not fun … so the game actually develops more inertia and becomes more plodding towards the end, just when it should be accelerating, cranking the tension up to painful levels.

Replayability: A game tends to be replayable if it has decent variability, which is usually tied up in a well-done theme. Even though Lord of the Rings is linear, the challenges presented by the wide variety of different events, rewards, and penalties are hugely varied, as is the flavor of the game depending on the rate at which event tiles come out. This gives it thematic depth as well as guaranteeing no two games will be alike. Shadows over Camelot is clearly a far less rich game. You’re just trying to rack up various poker hands (what is it with poker these days?), and the event cards on both sides of the table are limited in numbers and fairly bland. There is some pacing with the different quests, but the rewards and penalties are very abstract, homogenous, and not not very thrilling either thematically or in terms of generating compelling choices or game play. Also, the special powers of the various Knights are neat, but with the exception of the clever card-trading power of King Arthur, and perhaps Gawain and Galahad, most are not so different that playing different ones would lead to a significantly different game experience. A couple Knights will, in fact, never use their special powers. Virtually without fail in the eurogame genre, a lack of fundamental variability translates into a lack of replay value.

Balance: One of the great strengths of Lord of the Rings is that Knizia understood that players were going to start from a low baseline, and then learn and improve fairly quickly. So the 15-level game is interesting for newbies, but provisions are included to take you up to the 10-level game, which is a finely-balanced game where players will almost always be challenged. It is not clear that the same level of attention to detail in terms of balance has been put into Shadows over Camelot. My first early games had comfortable and relatively non-challenging wins for the Knights (even with a Traitor), which was worrisome. The reports I had heard indicated a substantial win edge for the Knights. For this game to work, I feel that the pressure really has to be on the cooperative side. If the good guys win too easily, or are not feeling constant pressure, the game lacks interest and staying power. I’ve heard that in the Sauron expansion for Lord of the Rings, Knizia aimed for a 50/50 win split between Sauron and the good guys, and this feels right to me – not in terms of fairness necessarily, but in terms of keeping the game compelling.

Subsequently, I started hearing of a few Traitor wins, and witnessed one myself. However, my worries in this respect have not really been mitigated. The Traitor win I saw was explicable mainly in terms of bad luck. There is enormous variance in the power of the black cards – several Morgan cards are extremely nasty (with all Knights losing cards, life, or forcing the immediate draw of three new black cards), so seeing these early and often (after a reshuffle) will really whack the Knights. So my perception has shifted a bit … the question is still “is the game balanced?”, but not so much in terms of win/loss but whether or not player skill will dominate the chaos of the game.

Regardless, I find it hard to imagine that any serious, minimally-cooperative group will be significantly challenged by the basic game, that is, playing without a Traitor – even on their first game. Given average luck, I really don’t think the Traitor is going to win anywhere close to half the games of Shadows over Camelot, although it’s also true that I think the game could work with a lower ratio. My games have been enjoyable, but I (as a Knight) simply have not felt under the gun to nearly the degree that we do in Lord of the Rings, with dire things closing in from all sides and – critically – feeling like I have the options to deal with them. In Lord of the Rings, when things start to get tense, you still have a lot of options, and even when things start to snowball, you can aim for a respectable score (or at least not having to enter one of the lowest scores on the high-score sheet) or cut your losses on the current board and try to better on the next one. In Shadows over Camelot, it seems like once things start to snowball your options become extremely constrained for the rest of the game (and so it feels more like you just got hosed by the cards) and you can’t even play for an honorable loss because there is no scoring, so you have to play longer with no real hope “winning”, and nothing else to shoot for.

It is also worrisome that the designers have not clearly staked out a path from inexperience to experience in the rules, with just some various wishy-washy suggestions about how to increase the difficulty, which indicates to me that they haven’t thought that much about this important detail or paid enough attention to the overall game balance, instead hoping that the players will work it out for themselves, or “solving” the problem with a big chunk of randomness (and I should mention that one of the difficulty options, the Squire’s Game, where players start without a Knight card and must earn one is almost totally uninteresting to me since the special power of your Knight card is a decent chunk of what flavor the game has). This is the difference (or one of the differences, anyway) between Knizia and the rest; Knizia has the attention to detail to identify and nail down these things.

This leads in to my ultimate frustration with Shadows over Camelot, I think, even though I like the game well enough in the short run. That is that Knizia has clearly shown the way on this. Lord of the Rings will not be for everyone, but given what it is trying to be and the theme and the inherent limitations of the genre, I feel it is an example of a game that has almost achieved perfection, a game that after dozens of plays it’s hard to imagine any significant way in which it could be improved. Shadows over Camelot is highly derivative from Lord of the Rings (you could argue – perhaps not entirely successfully, but still – that Shadows is little more than a Lord of the Rings where you have to spend a turn moving between the quest lines, and with a Traitor), and yet it simply seems not to have grasped the important fundamental lessons illuminated by the prior game: the importance of randomness and variability, pacing, short-, medium-, and long-term planning, balance, player experience, flavor, and tension, and how these challenges can be successfully tackled. With more attention to detail, Shadows over Camelot could have been a top-tier game. As it is, it’s a decent game, and it’ll be fun for a while, but its unlikely to be one I’ll be playing in six months – never mind 5 years hence.

ConsimWorld Expo 5.0 – Part 3 of 3 – Europe Engulfed

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am a big Europe Engulfed fan; it was my top pick of the wargames of 2004(ish), and has made it on to my Top 20 All-Time list. But I’ve never played the full campaign game, 1939-45; I’ve always started in ’41 or ’42. Part of this is practical; I’ve played a lot of games with inexperienced players, and in that case, ’42 is the place to start. Also, if you start in ’41 or ’42, everyone gets to play in a 3-player game; if you start in ’39, the Soviet player may just sit around for 2 hours before Britain is conquered (or the German player massively chokes Poland & France), and he hasn’t exactly gotten a great return on his time investment. Part of it is also aesthetic; how much fun is it, really, to clobber the French, Poles, Yugoslavians, etc.? Better to start just as the clash of titans is kicking off. And, of course, EE is a long game, so trimming off 10 turns or so makes it more managable.

At CSW Expo, though, time is not a major concern. Rick Young wanted to show me that the whole thing could be done in one day, assuming the German player knows what he’s doing. And after a bit of an EE drought, I realized I’d been missing it and was eager to get back in. I was the US/UK.

First note: if you are the Germans, build those subs. In the ’41 game, Germany does not start with a huge U-Boat fleet (only 22), so your options are somewhat limited in this regard. If you start in ’39, though, you can get the subs up to 60 in fairly short order, and this is absolutely murder on the British. It’s hard to get anything done on 5 (or fewer) WERPS a turn. My general rustiness did not help things here, but the biggest problem I’ve run into in defending Germany in the late war is the US/UK running amok. If you combine the subs with the optional US production rule, this makes things much tougher on the Western Allies. This is a good thing, I think.

Second note: It’s interesting the level to which having just played EuroFront lead me astray. In the Front games, you can run an offensive and make progress, even decisive progress, without substantial overall force superiority. With an appropriately pointy spear and judicious blitzing, you can rip apart front lines and force back a defender that outnumbers you, if you’ve got tanks and mech. This is not the case in EE; if you want to win here, mainly you just need a larger club, and defensive positions like river lines and entrenchments are very tough. Obvious, you might say, but I’m often an instinctive player, and my instincts needed some recalibration here. We ended up having an almost identical situation in the desert war in my EuroFront and Europe Engulfed games: equal numbers of Axis and British blocks staring at each other across the Nile. In EuroFront, I could run a British offensive under these conditions and win. In EE, such an attempt resulted in disaster.

Digression: It’s very interesting to compare the order of battle for the US in EuroFront vs. Europe Engulfed. Both are roughly the same scale – a block is a Corps. But their portrayal of the US is radically different. In EuroFront, US units trickle in: one block in October ’42, one in November ’42, the Paratroopers in April ’43, then half-a-dozen units in the first half of ’44, then another 8 or so through the end of ’44. By comparison, in EE the US can be launching Torch in late ’42 and easily fighting in North Africa with half-a-dozen or more blocks. EuroFront’s buildup schedule is obviously a lot more realistic; the US could never have deployed as much force as EE allows them regardless of how much cash they were not spending on convoy escorts or bombers. On the other hand, in a game, having more options is rarely less appealing and the US budget will be stretched thin early if you play with the recommended optionals.

We played through early ’45 – almost, but not quite, to the end in 14 hours. Part of this was because my Soviet ally vehemently vetoed using the chart that allows you to substitue a 3d6 roll for various multiples of 12d6. As my friend Rich once said, “it’s that chart that makes the game playable” (or something like that) given the colossal numbers of dice sometimes involved on the eastern front and in France. Get some dice with pointy corners (so they don’t twirl endlessly) and use the chart and you can probably trim at least an hour off the game’s playtime. Seriously. Part of it was also that we had some intersted onlookers to whom we were explaining bits of the game as we played. But overall, this result was not unexpected … unless you’re the designer or otherwise have mastered playing the Axis, this isn’t a game you’re going to finish in a day. Two reasonable-length sessions should do, though, and the game is not hard to record. What can I say? There aren’t very many games, wargames or otherwise, that I could sit down and play for 14 hours more-or-less straight in one day anymore; EuroFront and Europe Engulfed are both compelling and playable enough to enjoy for such a long time. It helped too that Rick, as you might expect from his dedicated, helpful, and friendly support for his game in the various online forums, is a great guy to game with.

Was playing ’39-’41 worth the extra couple hours? At the end of the day, I’m ambivalent. It lets the Germans go into Russia with the forces they want instead of the ones that were historically built; they can juggle the composition of the army, or put more emphasis on U-Boats and air defense. I’m not sure the effort really pays off though, especially if you have 3 players. If you have only two players, I think it’s somewhat more compelling, simply because oddball but fun-to-contemplate German strategies (Sea Lion, Spain/Gibralter, or Malta/North Africa) aren’t going to potentially leave one player twiddling his thumbs for an extended period and/or feeling like he only partially participated at the end. Overall, the early war years are handled well by the system, they do play quickly, and can give you more of a sense of scope and ultimate closure. But to my mind, they simply aren’t as fun as ’41-’44. Given the overall length of the game, I think cutting an hour or two off the beginning is a good deal. But try it once if you get the chance.

And build those U-Boats.

Consimworld Expo 5.0 – Part 2 of 3 – EuroFront II

P6090005Craig Besinque (he’s the one on the far lower left) was kind enough to bring 2 pre-production copies of the EuroFront map set and North/MidEast Front expansion to MonsterCon, and I was excited to give them a try. I’ve never actually played an entire game of EuroFront – I’ve done the 42/43 scenario once at ConQuest, and I’ve played a bunch of East and WestFront. EuroFront is a monster, but it’s a playable monster; I think you could do the whole war, 1939-45, in under 35 hours. That may sound like a lot, but compare to World in Flames and it’s a walk in the park, and while it’s definitely longer than A World at War, it’s not vastly longer, and it does have a quite a lot fewer rules than either. While it’s true that there are a lot of details for the various standard political issues (if you ever run into a game with clean rules for the Vichy French, let me know), on the other hand the core EastFront system is quite clean, and the diplomatic event rules for things like bringing in the Axis minors, unrest in the Middle East, and reforming the Soviet Army all work simply and cleanly.

I played the Western Allies. For me personally, the good news was how comparatively easy it was to go from being quite comfortable with EastFront to playing EuroFront. The MasterFront rules are scarily longer than EastFront, and while there are more details to track, it’s no worse than you might expect and not overwhelming. It’s a lot of “look-up” rules that you check out when relevant: when the MedFront opens up, you read about allocating production and shipping losses and it’s pretty straightforward. When things are grim in France, you look up the surrender rules. The same tactical techniques you learn in the East apply pretty well to defending France and fighting the Desert War, and while the margin for error for the Brits in 40-41 and the Soviets in 41 is small, it’s also not so exacting a game that you can’t just play. Since you don’t deal with U-Boats or other strategic warfare, it’s not the nightmare that playing the Brits can be in Europe Engulfed in the ’40 timeframe. Despite very limited experience with the Desert War and no experience with the Fall of France, I was able to slip into the game quite comfortably.

P6090008The new NorthFront map allows you to play out the invasions of Finland and Norway that are abstracted by Diplomatic Events in basic EuroFront. These are almost micro-games within the main game, as players decide how many units to commit (typically no more than a handful) and then send them off. I actually decided not to intervene in the Norway campaign, but it was a nearly-run thing. As always with the British, everything is a trade-off: you can keep the lend-lease routes open and harass the Germans, or you can save your guys for the desert. The desert seemed a more critical area to me, so I saved. But Norway offers some cheap options for making the German’s life rather difficult, mainly by interdicting the Swedish ore, and if you can actually keep the Germans from conquering it, you will gain permanent Naval Supremacy, a huge albeit rather unlikely win. I thought NorthFront was a nice and interesting little expansion, and since the Germans are more or less obliged to invade Norway, it’ll always see play and present the Allied player with options, while the Diplomatic Event route of the basic games seems to make things a little pointless for the Allies. Nothing earthshattering, but as I say, a nice micro-game, and if I was going to go the effort of playing EuroFront, I’d want to have it. Plus, it gives the Soviets some blocks to push around in the early war as they fight the Finns instead of just waiting and waiting for the Germans to invade. I should say too it was nice to see all the far northern locations included in the game – you can actually walk from Oslo to Archangel through hexes and transit boxes. It’s so far away it even feels cold.

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I was able to hold out in France through mid-1940, which was a bonus, and was able to do so while keeping the BEF basically intact. This bode well for the Desert War. A lot of that work was undone, however, by the fickle dice. The Desert War is a wacky business. First, you have to pre-allocate your limited production to the theatre. The Brits have about 24PP total. They have to decide how many of these (usually 10 or 15) to allocate to the Desert, an allocation that can then be changed only at intervals and/or with some pain. Secondly, that production doesn’t even automatically arrive: shipping losses mean you only get to roll one die per 5 points sent, and that’s how much you get (not to exceed the amount sent). This, combined with the greatly increased costs of building and maintaining guys there, makes for a fluid situation (I should say, I think all this is a good thing). A little bit more fluid than I would have liked, because I proceeded to get absolutely hammered on my shipping losses for the first few turns, while the Axis rolled quite well. As a consequence, the Western Desert Force was pushed back to the Nile. There they stayed, however, as the fact that British losses in France had been so light began to tell. I think there was an opportunity early for the Germans to push on to Cairo if they had been willing to commit heavily (including, crucially, more armor) and take some risks, but once it passed the rapid British build-up made things tough. Eventually, my counterattack devastated the Afrika Corps.

P6100030Meanwhile, things were not going so well in the East. I don’t know if I can take any credit – if it was ultimately the large amount of cash sucked down by the desert for little purpose that made the difference – but the German push into Russia was not strong enough in ’41. The Winter ’41 counterattack was nasty, but nothing compared to the encirclements of German units that occurred the following Summer. I think the Germans made the mistake of spreading their effort to broadly instead of packing their armor into one powerful stroke. Regardless, things did not end well for the Wermacht, and it went south pretty quickly. Like in Europe Engulfed, the Germans have to have a laser-like focus to get stuff done.

Our game did not see any action on the NearEast front board, but I was tantalized by the possibilities. Now, unless the Germans try a Mediterranean strategy, the board won’t see play. On the other hand, the options down there are rather tempting. You can foment revolt in the British and French colonies, go after the big oil points, and potentially bring in Turkey and take a shot at the Soviet “back door”. None of this is going to happen a lot, but if you really focus on it, it seems like you could make a serious game of it. I think our German player had some of these options in mind, but if you’re going to go this way, you can’t mess around – you’ve got to go all out, taking out the Balkans right away to enable the various near-east diplomatic events (I should mention as an aside here, I like how the Greek events work – as happened historically, the Axis are likely to be forced to deal with Greece, rather than the elective conquest they work out to be in most games).

Although our game was a bit short, ending in German collapse in ’42, I enjoyed it. The action is a bit less dense than in Europe Engulfed; you spend more time waiting for your turn or waiting for your front to open, and EuroFront really requires 3 players (and 4 would be ideal in 43-45) – one of whom is not going to be fully engaged for chunks of time in the early war. But the win is that you get a much more interesting set of political events, somewhat greater latitude to try different things, and of course the Front system is to me tactically and operationally much richer. Due to the time investment, Europe Engulfed is a game I can at least play semi-regularly while EuroFront is always going to be an occasional indulgence. Luckily, the component games are tremendous and playable games in their own right, so you can play EuroFront only occasionally and still play competantly. Having now played once, I’m looking forward to trying it again.

I should say too, it was a great pleasure to meet Craig Besinque. A nicer guy you could not ask to game with. In a hobby that seems to draw more than its fair share of wingnuts, it’s always great to run into the genuinely nice guys. In fact, it was in general a very good crowd for EuroFront, and this was by far the most successful monster game I’ve played at MonsterCon. I’ve been only an every-other-year attendee, in large part just because of the great difficulties in pulling off such huge and involved games. Now, though, I’m pretty sure I’ll be back next year.

Consimworld Expo 5.0 – Part 1 of 3

Consimworld Expo is an annual wargame convention run by John Kranz in Tempe, Arizona (that’s Phoenix to most of us). As one might expect from its more familiar moniker of MonsterCon or MonsterGame.con, the emphasis tends to be on big games. Really big games. Freaking huge games, in fact. In addition to the classic monster games like OCS, Wacht Am Rhein, or the run of questionable old SPI titles, many designers make an appearance with prototypes or playtest games.

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If I had to flag a single trend about MonsterCon, it would be a general migration from the unplayable to the playable. The first year I was there (the first year the con existed, 2001), the emphasis seemed to be on nostalgia games, old games like Korsun Pocket, a few of which are arguably playable. As the years have gone by, these old games (which I tend to hold in very low esteem) have fallen away and been replaced by games like EuroFront and Europe Engulfed, both extremely popular this year and amongst the best-subscribed (I played both). The only other game that was comparable in terms of sign-ups was Wacht Am Rhein, but I didn’t see as many people playing it as were signed up, while both EE and EuroFront ended up drawing more. Other solid performers included the comparatively playable OCS (two tables of DAK, one of Korea, one of a Case Blue playtest) and the excellent and highly playable Great Campaigns of the American Civil War which had a huge setup (with all the maps and half-a-dozen players going at it all weekend. Empires in Arms had one table that was going strong for a while, although I guess they had players swapping in and out. Vance vonBorries was there, and his EFS game had a decent contingent (including a playtest map of th

e gap between the disjoint Army Group South maps), if somewhat diminished from previous years. Alesia had a couple boards playing. Ardennes ’44 always had a couple players, although Ukraine ’43 didn’t get any play this year that I could tell. There were even a few ASL die-hards playing what looked like a completely insane D-Day game; ASL has never drawn that well at MonsterCon, I assume because it is so well-served by other events, so that was nice to see. If they did a Kampfgruppe Pieper campaign some year, I might actually be tempted.
Mark Simonitch and Rick Young

P6100017There were a few games in various states of playtest: Rick Young had brought a new quick(ish)-playing block game of the Battle of the Bulge, MMP had their Devil’s Cauldron (apparently the rules are still a moving target, so I wouldn’t expect it anytime in 2005), the aforementioned OCS Case Blue playtest, and the D-Day expansion for The Killing Ground (I really, really need to play that game sometime) all seemed to be getting some playtime. Many of the other playtest games looked a little sad as they sat there unplayed though.

But the biggest swing was towards open gaming, with probably a third of the attendees doing non-monster and/or pickup gaming. Empire of the Sun was quite popular, and I must have seen at least half a dozen games. Every time I had a chance to talk to someone who had played, I quizzed them on what they thought of it. No raves, although most people liked it well enough – but most had not played to the end. I only got one vote for “broken”. Sword of Rome also had quite a few games played, and I saw Wray Ferrell had brought a prototype of the Carthage expansion, although I didn’t talk to anyone who had played it. Friedrich got a couple plays. Wilderness War came out, as did For the People and Paths of Glory. Rommel in the Desert made an appearance. Down in Flames had folks playing all weekend.

Consimworld is not a game-release kind of convention, but there were a few companies hawking their wares: Fiery Dragon was pushing their line of Microgame reprints in tins (while I have no interest in those games, it was an amusing coincidence that I am in the midst of prepping Plague of Dreams, one of their Arcana Unearthed RPG products, for play. I didn’t mention this to any of the other attendees). What looked like the just-released Lightning: War on Terror was also there, and I have to say, that sounded to me like just about the most unappealing game concept imaginable. Maybe they’re trying to take advantage of the Homeland Security Bubble. Regardless, Lightning War: Midway has gotten some fairly poor reviews from my friends who have played, so I remain unmoved in terms of trying it out. Rdoxx, Inc (you know, the counter sled guys – if you can find a live link, let me know) finally have 5/8″ counter sleds, so I will be sorely tempted to give them a try with Paths of Glory. It might re-energize that very fine but played-out game. L2 had a great convention discount, so I picked up a copy of Russia Besieged, and Pacific Rim Games had copies of the Terran Games edition of The Legend Begins, an old Mark Simonitch game I was unable to resist. There is also a flea market table, but there were few deals to be had – I bought a comparatively cheap copy of Caesar in Alexandria to fill out my GBOH collection, but there was nothing else even remotely tempting.

Next up, Part II: The new maps for EuroFront, including NorthFront and MideastFront. Does EuroFront really work? Do the expansion modules add anything? How playable is a monster Front game? And how does it compare to Europe Engulfed?

Mermaid Rail, Medina, Smarty Party

Mermaid Rain: This is a Japanese game from a couple years back that I passed on at the time because it was kind of expensive (~$60) and I knew nothing about it. Now copies are basically unavailable, and I wish I had bought one! It was described to me as Elfenland crossed with Poker, and, surprisingly, I’d say that’s about right.

Players are mermaids competing for the attention of the prince. To do this, you have to collect treasures scattered around the board on islands. Each turn, you have a hand of 8 or so transport cards, which come in three suits (Dolphins, Seagulls, and Turtles). You use these both for bidding for turn order and then for moving around on the map. To bid for turn order, you use combinations of cards very similar to poker hands – a pair beats two random cards, two pair beats three of a kind, four of a kind beats full house, etc. Your bid will dictate turn order as well as giving you some special power – a couple victory points for a low hand, or big points, extra sea lane plays, or random extra treasure tiles for big hands. On your turn, you play one available sea lane, and then can move around on the map, playing a matching transport card for every island and sea lane visited. At the end of the turn, some of the sea lanes will stick around, and some will disappear. After 5 turns, each category of treasures collected will pay off based on place order.

This was a really clever game I thought, pretty simple but with lots of opportunity for planning and some very nice tensions in the bidding. You have to balance going first, which may get you to the good treasures and cooler special powers, with the fact that every card you bid is one you aren’t spending collecting treasures, and later players in the turn order get to take advantage of sea lanes built up by earlier players. Also, some powers are worth more in some situations, and this affects your bidding. The game is quite straightforward once you get going, and it doesn’t go on too long (60-90 minutes, although the rules took us a while to get through). I’d definitely play this again, and it almost makes me wish I had a copy so I could ditch Elfenland, a game which I sorta like and which is filling a niche, but has always ultimately been disappointing every time I’ve actually played it.

Medina: Just out of curiosity, I looked up my comment on BoardGameGeek for this game: “A little dry, has sort of a “Dorra does Dürch die Wuste” feel.” Wow, that’s not very informative (and, on reflection, not very accurate). I remember I played this a fair bit when it first came out, at least partially because the Nürnburg crop of 2001 wasn’t all that strong. I’ve played this a couple more times recently (it’s been sitting on the shelf, unplayed, for probably 3 years), and I have to say, I was pretty impressed. It has the flavor of a dutch auction game, in that each turn you have to either make the unclaimed assets on the board richer, or claim some for yourself, so things will slowly ratchet up until someone cracks. This makes for a tense game in and of itself, but it’s combined with a very interesting tactical game, as you try to cut off palaces, force the pedestrians where you want them to go, and finagle the wall points. All good stuff. Now, it is a little dry and somewhat analytical, but it’s short and moves along pretty well, and the pieces are attractive, so it doesn’t bother me too much. As a consequence, I kicked up by rating from a 7 to an 8. I’ll play this again soon, I think. Maybe I’ll do an all-Dorra, all-Mideastern theme night by doing this and Marracash.

Smarty Party: The last time I played this game was one of the very first entries in my blog. I disliked it because I thought the lists were lame; if you didn’t watch the lousy American television shows that popped up with irritating regularity, you were hosed. The good news is that the expansion is a distinct improvement. I still ran into the buzz-saw of Three’s Company (and was disturbed by how much some of my fellow-players knew about the show), but for the most part we were talking landmarks, countries, buildings, and other general-knowledge topics which made for more satisfying gaming. I’m still not exactly dying to break it out again (I’d much rather do Thingamajig), but I would play again with the expansion, which is more than I would say for the original.

Viktory

Viktory is not a game I would play of my own volition, for better or for worse. If a game is basically home-brewed by an unknown, small-time game designer/publisher, it’s got to have a simple marketing hook that tells me why this is worth trying. Like Burn Rate did. Viktory’s website is a bit of a mess and doesn’t tell me why I should want to play if I’m past the Risk stage of my life, and it takes a long time and a lot of bolding to not say it.

But I guess they have an awesome associates program if you put a banner ad on your site. A friend got a free promo copy for this purpose. We checked it out.

Viktory is vaguely Risk meets Diplomacy, with a (very) light spicing of Settlers of Catan. Cities on the hexagonal tile based map support units, with the type of territory they are in dictating the types of units (infantry, artillery, cavalry, ships). As in Diplomacy, these units never permanently die; at the end of the turn, if you are below your quota, you just add enough back to get to your limit. You then trek around in the tried and true fashion, bashing your neighbors over the head with lots of dice.

I didn’t hate Viktory (which was definitely a possibility). There are some interesting choices on where to build your cities. Judging how much force to send where is modestly interesting. The dice generate some tension.

Then again, I didn’t much like it either. The big problem with this class of games is that the first person to attack usually throws the game to a third, uninvolved player who will scoop up whatever is left of the combatant parties when it’s done. Viktory has tackled this problem admirably by making units recycle quickly. But, this has now generated a huge amount of inertia: because of the generally low numbers of units, if you mass the guys to take one of my cities, as a result your guys are now out of position to defend your own territory and I just take back one of your other cities. All the units lost in such an exchange now just pop back up. You sit there doing tit-for-tat stuff for ages (we ended up quitting our game, because it appeared that it could, in fact, go on forever). Unfortunately, this is then compounded by the fact that it is likely that in a 3- or 4-player game, one or two of the players will be eliminated pretty quickly, and then the last two will slug it out for ages.

Bottom line, I wouldn’t play it again. In this particular genre, I liked Targui better – it at least has some flavor, while Viktory is pretty dry. If you just want to beat up on your friends for a while in good fun, it’s certainly a lot less entertaining than Clash of the Gladiators or Nuclear War. It’s possible that it actually isn’t that much an improvement over Risk, although I will leave a definitive judgment on that count to someone who has played Risk sometime in the last 17 years. This whole category – low- complexity die-rolling empire-building multi-player free-form battle-games – is one that just doesn’t have a whole lot of potential for the discriminating gamer.