High Frontier Colonization

High Frontier is one of my very favorite games of the last 5 years, and I realize that somehow I’ve never written anything about in my blog. With the expansion out, it’s time to rectify that.

Four of us sat down to play the Colonization for the first time. It begins much the same as the classic game, with players starting on Earth with a bit of money and grand ambitions, trying to acquire the exotic speculative technology required to explore and economically exploit the solar system. Some of the most esoteric pieces of tech available are the game’s two solar sail thrusters: lightweight and requiring neither fuel nor propellant, but slow-ish and unable to carry much mass in a game that’s mostly about hauling around heavy robotic prospectors and refineries. Also, a major premise of the game is that on-site water is key to exoglobalization. The solar sails are primarily useful for exploring sunwards; as you may have noticed, the sun is hot and so there isn’t much water to be found in the inner system. For all these legitimate reasons, everyone else usually rolls their eyes when these come up, but me, I’m a sucker for a challenge. I snap up the Photon Kite Sail nobody wants, attach it to a Solar-pumped MHD Excimer Laser orbital prospector and start putting together a mission to Mercury. While   proximity to the sun makes most the planet brutally hot, Mercury is believed to have significant amounts of water near the poles, where the Sun’s rays never reach due to quirks in its orbit and axial tilt.

The problems with Mercury, like most things in this game, all revolved around gravity. The sun is massive, which makes maneuvering so close to it very difficult. Mercury is also large (on the scale of the asteroids that are the typical targets in High Frontier anyway), so it requires a lot of thrust to land on and take off from. The solar sail solves the problem of getting there by harnessing the solar wind for thrust, but is unable to move that much mass and the tech required to do prospecting is heavy. So it requires two missions – one to put a prospector in orbit, and a second to bring a refinery (I was lucky and got the CVD Molding refinery, a relatively light one). Then you’re presented with a new problem that the sail doesn’t help with at all: getting all that onto the surface. Unlike Mars or Venus, Mercury has no atmosphere to assist by allowing aerobraking. The only thing for it is to bring a powerful thruster or a lot of propellant (i.e., water). Mercury has too much gravity for any of the basic thrusters to land on without the ESA beamed power, and the ESA isn’t in the game, so I’ll need to bring 200,000kg of water to use as propellant for landers instead. So that’s a third trip in and of itself. This is all hugely expensive – I estimate the trips took 4 years each and a total weight of roughly 500,000kg of equipment, fuel, and propellant with a total investment of 20 WT (water tanks), the game’s unit of currency. Each WT represents 40 metric tons of water in LEO. Assuming the cost of the water itself is basically zero, the cost of this mission is roughly that of getting 800,000kg into LEO. By way of comparison, the ISS is about 450,000kg. Wikipedia estimates the cost of the ISS at $150 billion. There is probably a lot of politically-driven waste in there, but nonetheless, it gives you a sense of what these missions would cost given the current technology for lifting mass into LEO. It’s hard to imagine my Mercury mission coming in at less than $200-250 billion, all with no prospect of any return at all for 20 years. It’s outside the realm of possibility in the immediate future, but it’s not unimaginable. Apple alone almost had that in cash lying around at one point.

Anyway, despite a solar flare wreaking havoc with one mission and pushing the total duration out to about 15 years and causing a 20% cost overrun (yet another hazard of operating so close to the Sun), I got a factory set up on Mercury. This is now where the magic starts to happen. Mercury is a comparatively rare V (Vestoid)-type world, and the metals you can find there can be used to build some fancy high-technology thrusters and refineries. I finally dip into the expansion technology to pick up a Levitated Dipole ^6Li-H Fusion reactor to power an incredibly efficient thruster capable of reaching the outer planets (I’m eying Jupiter) at relatively low cost; its rate of fuel and propellant usage in game terms rounds to zero, although the amount of thrust generated is relatively low (making journeys longer and landing on large bodies difficult). My Mercury factory can also produce a Biophytolytic Algae Farm refinery, so I’m in good shape – only the prospecting tech needs to be manufactured and lifted from Earth.

One of the cool things about High Frontier is that it really gives you a sense of just how vast our solar system is, and how difficult it is to get to many places (and conversely, where the comparatively low-hanging fruit might be). As you look at Jupiter or Saturn and start counting burns and orbital transfers and how much propellant you need to get there and how much thrust it takes to land, you really feel just how difficult interplanetary travel would be with any technology that is currently at all plausible. Then, once you get your hands on one of the powerful reactors/thrusters in the much more highly speculative expansion,  you can feel the options opening up, that maybe, just maybe, you could set up on a moon of Uranus or Neptune, or make the fantastic voyage to the TNOs – things that seemed utterly impossible with the basic tech.

Anyway, once you get a high-efficiency thruster, you fully enter the Colonization phase of the game. The extraterrestrial manufacturing premise of the classic game requires a leap of faith, but not a huge one. It’s much harder to figure out a near-future scenario in which sending people into space makes any sense at all, given the truly enormous costs and risks and the fact that robots are so highly capable. So we need to do some satisfactorily plausible handwaving. The handwaving High Frontier Colonization does is to speculate that there is research that you could do at an extraterrestrial lab that you couldn’t do on Earth for whatever reason – either due to local conditions (vacuum, microgravity, something cool about Io), politics on Earth, or the fact that you’re screwing around trying to create a black hole or a massive fusion explosion and people get nervous when you try do that on or near to the only human habitation in the universe. Given how speculative the game becomes at this point, and the possible political and long-term technological benefits of having off-planet colonies, this works well enough. So the goal becomes setting up a personed lab at a remote science site, typically an exotic moon of Saturn or Jupiter or a comet. People require water, so places like Europa are attractive, but if you really want to support lots of people you’ll want to get to fantastically remote TNO’s where water is plentiful. The Bernals in which people live are heavy and hard to move – at about 600 tons (with needed generators and radiators) far heavier than anything in the classic game – so in most cases to even start to think about this you’ll need one of the gigawatt thrusters from the expansion.

Which, thankfully, I’ve now got. Like the base game, Colonization opens up a lot once you get a decent exofactory. Planning a mission to Europa is easier now I have a stepping stone on Mercury; the thruster and refinery fuel up and boost off from the factory there and rendezvous in LEO with a prospector built on Earth. The bernal itself has a mass driver, so it can make its own way for a little bit stopping off at tiny but accessible rocks like 65803 Didymos and loading up on dirt for the next “short” hop. On arrival at the Sol-Jupiter Lagrange point, the fusion thruster takes over navigating the gravitational complexities of the Jovian moons, parking the Bernal in orbit around Europa and landing a factory in the Conamara Chaos.

Now we’re cooking with gas, as they say. The Bernal around Europa becomes a lab, and the Islamic Refugee colonists in residence there (really, you probably don’t want to ask) can upgrade my gigawatt thruster into a Dusty Plasma terawatt thruster which is even lighter, more efficient, and faster, putting impossibly remote sites in range of exploitation. More importantly, it activates a Future, one of the victory conditions that makes Colonization quite different from the classic game: the Mass Beam Future. I honestly have no idea what this is beyond something that beams potentially a lot of power, but it requires factories on Mercury, Venus, and Io as “push factories” that can send power to remote spacecraft and outposts. Fortunately I’ve already got Mercury, and Io is reasonably accessible to Europa where I can build the technology (a Quantum Cascade Laser) to prospect and industrialize the waterless Venus.

Fulfilling this future and its very large chunk of VPs (12) is well within reach, but after 4½ hours it becomes apparent that Colonization has added a lot of time to High Frontier, and we are done. In fairness, the time required to play classic High Frontier is brought down dramatically with only a little bit of experience; my first game with just the basic rules was 4-5 hours, but after only a few games it settled in for us at about 2 hours or so for the 3-player game even with most of the advanced rules. We were a bit rusty on even the basic High Frontier rules after not having played in maybe 6 months, and I would expect experienced Colonization players could do the game in 4-5 hours, which is honestly pretty good given its vast scope (one of the other players was working on the Footfall future, which involves attaching a terawatt thruster to a synodic comet and pointing it at Earth, forcing the other players to turn their orbital prospectors into laser platforms and put warheads on their missile prospectors). But given the time commitment involved in learning the game, how many people are going to be able to become experienced players?

I love High Frontier, but after playing it about 20 times between the classic basic and advanced games, it had gotten a little bit tired. As strategies were explored and played out, it developed that asteroid exploration (usually Ceres or Vesta) was the way to win – consistent with the premise of the game, but it meant it ultimately lacked variety. Anything that would open things up again would be welcome.

So for me, playing Colonization was incredibly entertaining. No longer do you have to just get a couple factories to win, but you probably need to work with Bernals, colonists, high-power and high-efficiency thrusters, and transports, all of which have very different tech requirements from the traditional “cheap exploration-blitz” strategies. Moons of the outer planets, with their lab potential and rarer spectral types, become central to development in the midgame. In the classic game an early factory on a small, common C-type rock might be enough to bootstrap you to victory; now, although the game has become longer, its tableau is also vastly larger and encompasses a much wider variety of legitimate infrastructure bases.

It also does a few key bits of streamlining to the core game system, including an automated way to cycle the technology cards, less restrictive and much easier-to-play rules for factory products, and doubling the value of the income operation. While seemingly minor, these significantly improve the playability of the game.

Also worth mentioning, High Frontier Colonization will probably – like many Sierra Madre Games – benefit from a little bit of seasoning to taste with house rules. While I like the new event model and the politics rules now seem to work much better than they did in the original expansion, I’m not a huge fan of the occasional glitches and pad explosions and we may house-rule those particular events out at some point. In the classic game we ignored the combat and politics rules, and I think you could do that in Colonization also, although a couple futures may require combat. Shimzu’s and the PRC’s faction powers can be a little bit annoying, and tweaking them very slightly is unlikely to hurt (we play that you can only jump a if you immediately industrialize it, and I’m thinking about making Shimzu’s hand size larger but not unlimited). We also disallow tie bids for anyone except the auctioneer. Anyway, High Frontier is a game that supports modifying a little bit to adapt to your group’s tastes and play style, but – as always – you do want to make sure you know what you’re doing before you fiddle too much.

All in all, I felt like High Frontier Colonization is very successful at doing what it sets out to do. It’s longer and more complicated, and there is absolutely no way you should try to tackle this without a number of games of classic High Frontier under your belt (if you have a friend who absolutely insists on throwing you into the deep end, play the solitaire scenarios a few times first). But for fans of the original, Colonization is  worth it and, if you’re like me, it will help renew this endlessly fascinating game.

You can get the High Frontier Colonization expansion here. The base game sadly appears to be out of print, although I hear there may be another printing in the works.

Numenera: The Beale of Boregal

I finally got to play some Numenera. Kim had played an intro module at BigBadCon last October and really enjoyed it, so it wasn’t too hard to talk her into GMing a few sessions for us. She decided to run The Beale of Boregal, the first module from the core book, mixed up a little bit to both more fit her personal style and to be a jumping-off point for a longer arc.

My character is In Gwen Said (thanks, random name generator!), a Graceful Jack who Explores Dark Places. Ousted from the Explorers Guild by a rival and ostracized, Gwen is on the Wandering Walk – a mystical pilgrimage route through the Ninth World with no clear beginning or ending – as a sort of walkabout. Gwen links up with fellow-travellers: Kal, a swift jack trying to escape the consequences of the tragic accident that gave him a halo of fire; Vehm, a swift nano who fuses flesh and steel, who found it more convenient to leave town after he killed a high-profile criminal; Millord, the rugged glaive who howls at the moon and is on a quest to restore his family’s fortune; and Meck, the mystical nano who controls beasts and as yet has no backstory despite the best efforts of the character creation system.

The story starts off on the Wandering Walk with the standard meet-and-greet. Gwen and Kal are friends who did some artifact-hunting together in the past; all the other characters turn out, conveniently, to know each other in some way, so that helps. With pleasantries disposed of, the group sights a scutimorph on the horizon, with riders! On the off chance you aren’t familiar with scutimorphs, they are 6 foot high, 12 foot long millipede-like creatures that, as far as anyone knows, are untamable. So that’s kind of odd. The riders turn out to be a teenage boy and his badly wounded younger sister who, it seems, is telepathic or at least empathic. It develops that the two are fleeing a raid on their village, and looking for aid and healing. We don’t have the healing the girl needs, so we arrange for an escort to the spa town down the road while we trudge off to see what we can do for their village.

Said village is in the False Woods, so named (as quickly becomes apparent) because what looks like an orchard from a distance is actually a bunch of identical tubes, all hovering about 2′ off the ground, arrayed in neat rows and columns and supporting a net of some kind. And also, with scutimoprhs wrapped around them. As the villagers are trying to homestead on top of numenera they don’t understand, weird stuff has been happening: villagers are having bad dreams, animals in the vicinity are becoming unusually erratic and/or homicidal, stuff life that. After the nanos in the party spend a little time deciphering the numenera, to everyone’s general amusement, we follow the signs off towards the village of Embered Peaks which we suspect to be the source of the psychic disruption.

On the way we are ambushed by some Stratherian War Moths (because, if I’m a warped high-level nano wanting to bioengineer some killing machines, the first thing that occurs to me is to start with a moth). These would have been nastier if Kal had not remembered he had a cypher that could produce a large Wall of Cold, turning a highly dangerous encounter into a manageable one. Gwen shows off some archery skills, along with fast defensive maneuvering which leaves the moths blasting their heat rays at shadows.

On arrival at Embered Peaks, we find the small village in chaos. People are running around in madness. Houses are on fire. Millord detects a survivor in one burning building, and Gwen runs in along with Kal to try to effect rescue. Things start to go wrong when Kal decides throwing a small child out a second story window to safety is probably fine, and ends with Kal clinging to the other survivor and a Reality Spike mounted to nothing 20 feet off the ground while the house collapses around him and Gwen dances back out the front door.

Undeterred, at the heart of town we find a strange cult fiddling while things burn. Embered Peak’s claim to tourist fame is an oracle that supposedly lets people talk with the dead if they are in possession of the corpse, but in a way that a) only allows them to ask one question, and b) the answers are always lies. Gwen thinks this sounds not particularly productive, but whatever. It turns out to be trickier than you might think to formulate a couple of questions to ask that might ascertain the truth of the situation. This turns out to be important, as the numenera that powers this feat (and as a byproduct seems to be driving people in the vicinity to madness) is what looks like a person who has been hooked via tubes and wires to a giant artifact of some kind. The person has probably been there for a very, very long time. It’s really unclear to the party whether the person wants to be disconnected, put out of his misery, or what exactly and whether any of it would put an end to the ongoing situation. The local cultists are (perhaps unsurprisingly) not that helpful. After some back and forth in which Kal is revealed to have a complicated ethical framework, we try disconnecting. This gets awkward when the artifact itself seems reluctant to let its captive/host/symbiote go, and the party must fend off encroaching cables and tubes trying to capture them while disconnecting the captive. Eventually the captive is released! He seems to be a powerful fusion of flesh and numenera, so that’s a little scary, but he also seems grateful and non-homicidal! So that was probably the right answer. Problem solved. What’s next?

I’m a big fan of Monte Cook’s work – my favorite d20-style RPG by far was Arcana Unearthed/Evolved – so I came into Numenera with some confidence, even though the “billion years in the future” and “technology or magic – you decide!” hook didn’t immediately grab me. In the end, the game easily exceeded expectations and I enjoyed it as much as I have enjoyed any RPG I’ve ever played. The character creation process is genius (and easy), the system of GM intrusions is fantastic, and the rest of the system is very lightweight and extremely efficient. The game world of Numenera is rich and engaging. At a high level it has a similar aesthetic to Ashen Stars: take something familiar (the fantasy d20 tradition), and then “reboot” it by introducing a few quirky, disruptive elements to make it novel. Numenera has gone a lot farther down this path than Ashen Stars did, though. It has (like Arcana Evolved before it) jettisoned all the elves, dwarves, gnomes, orcs, and other baggage and completely replaced it with an entirely new, thoroughly-developed world designed both as a compelling fictional setting and to support the peculiar storytelling requirements of the  roleplaying genre. The amount of creative effort that has gone into the setting is impressive: from all the strange creatures and races to the cyphers, oddities, and artifacts, there is a ton of depth here and it steadfastly refuses to fall back on cliches. There is a lot to like and I hope to be playing it for quite a while. I highly recommend it.

WW2: Barbarossa to Berlin – Nobody ever invades Sweden

I finally broke out my totally tricked-out copy of WW2: Barbarossa to Berlin: the deluxe map, new cards, plus – and this is the cool part – my new C3i-supplied extra bonus Wermacht infantry corps that was accidentally not included in the base game but which nobody ever needs anyway. I like Barbarossa to Berlin a lot – more than Paths of Glory, actually – but the amount of errata had gotten seriously out of hand, especially card errata. It was to the point that the game was more or less unplayable, which is probably why I hadn’t actually played it in a long time.

I have to say, the new map (in either its Deluxe edition, or in the new second edition of the base game) is a huge improvement over the original, first-edition map. The river crossings are much clearer, and having the terrain symbols in circles outside the actual spaces (where they won’t be covered by unit counters and you can actually see them) both enhance playability significantly, and there are a number of other more minor, but still useful, improvements.

Having not played Barbarossa to Berlin probably in a couple years, we were rusty. As we pulled out the counters to set up, we noticed the Swedes and Turks and commented about how these just seemed like wasted space on the countersheet. Who ever invades Sweden? Or Turkey? We mulled over scenarios. For Sweden, all we could come up with was going after the Ore. For Turkey … nothing. We couldn’t come up with a single plausible situation in which Turkey would be worth invading by either side.

Anyway, Matt kicked off the game with Von Paulus Pause, and pushed the offensive very hard in 1941 in Russia. He sacrificed all to ops, trying to surround Moscow. He even forwent playing PanzerArmee Afrika or making any effort at all in North Africa. This used to be a winning strategy (or so the internet says, anyway), but it seems like the new Yellow cards for the Allies (including the critical Industrial Evacuation) and the rules allowing the Allied player to fish for Soviet reinforcement cards make this a really tough row to hoe now. The Germans did well in terms of VPs, taking Leningrad and comfortably exceeding their Eastern Front objectives, but there were a lot of eliminated and depleted units, and Moscow was never seriously endangered. This made ’42 a tough year, and one mostly of repairing the Wermacht.

In the meantime, I had cleared out North Africa. With only token Axis resistance, I realized I had no need to launch Torch. The American units were not needed in North Africa, and Vichy would ultimately switch side when Casablanca came out, even if the conference wouldn’t really be in Casablanca. So I thought “sure, let’s go for Sledgehammer instead. I’ve never done this, and Norway would be a lot more threatening than invading an already-liberated North Africa”.

This theory is not quite as solid is it sounds. There is no supply source in Scandinavia, so you’ve got your Allied Beachhead locked down in perpetuity, which means you can only launch subsequent invasions that use separate British and Allied beachheads: that’s Husky, Overlord, the always rather dicey Roundup, and that’s it. The smaller but still threatening Shingle and Avalanche (given Italian weakness, and when combined with US Reinforcements) are ruled out, as is Anvil-Dragoon. This is a problem. A related issue is that all your serious battles are going to be fought from Limited Supply, making activating units up there incredibly expensive (you’ll most likely need spend a 4 or 5 ops just to try to force the straights in Denmark).

Plus, you’re pretty much forced to invade Sweden. There are two links from Scandinavia to Denmark, one through Norway (which is across a body of water that, for game purposes, is a river) and one through Sweden (which isn’t). You’re going to need that second approach. Which means invading Sweden.

(A small aside at this point on Sweden: I was operating under a misunderstanding about the Ore rules in Barbarossa to Berlin. The Swedes have an Ore space in this game. In every WWII game ever made with any detail, there is a rule about the now-famous Swedish Ore; usually, as long as the Germans can trace supply to Sweden, they get some production advantage. I was sure there was a similar rule here, but after scouring the rulebook, I believe there is not – the Ore space in Norway is the critical one. The Swedish Ore is just another space in another neutral country, and if the Germans want it, they need to invade. Which will happen about the same time that GMT decides to start including an index in their rulebooks so it doesn’t take 20 minutes to figure these things out. So, invading Norway is enough to knock the Axis hand down to 6).

So anyway. I invaded Sweden. We got to use those two blue pieces. It wasn’t that exciting. I had to destroy the Swedish units, which was annoying, and seemed unrealistic – I have a hard time seeing the Swedes taking up arms against the Allies in 1943, especially with several powerful armies hanging out next door in Norway.

At the end of the day, I think the deck is stacked against doing Sledgehammer instead of Torch. It’s just too hard with so little supply, and it constrains your options too much by depriving you of the ability to reuse that Allied Beachhead and severely limiting your options in the Mediterranean. You just can’t drain off enough German units, and it’s too close to German replacement centers. Italy seems a much better way to go. Norway does knock the Germans down to 6 cards by depriving them of Ore, which is definitely something, but I just don’t think it’s enough given the risks to subsequent invasion possibilities. If you invade Norway, and then get Husky or Roundup or Overlord in a timely manner, maybe it’s OK; but if an invasion of mainland Europe is delayed a turn or two because you couldn’t do Shingle or Avalanche, I just don’t know. I’d have to think really, really hard about doing it again. I think you would need not just to clear North Africa early, but also enter Total War as early as possible (Summer ’42) in order to minimize your risk of not seeing a follow-up invasion in a timely manner. A Sledgehammer invasion will put you more at risk of a strange card distribution situation.

We haven’t finished yet; we’re to ’44, but will need one more session to finish the game. After blunting the initial invasion of the Soviet Union, and clearing North Africa, I was feeling pretty good about my prospects; but I think the whole Scandinavian campaign has been too much of an expensive sideshow, and I fear I’ve lost ground. We’ll see.

In the end, I really like this game. It’s not perfect – I wish it had more latitude for different strategic approaches – but every game has to make trade-offs, and of this style of card driven games, I find Barbarossa to Berlin to be one of the most successful. The trade-offs between events and operations generally make sense, a (generally) good selection of events has been chosen, and the tactical game is rich but not too fiddly. I really like how the offensive power of armor drives events on the Eastern Front, with both players always having a strong incentive to attack, and it feels nicely historical. The complexity is quite manageable. The only real complaint is the game length, but it’s not hard to record and re-set-up, so we usually play over a couple sessions.

I still don’t have a plausible scenario in which Turkey would enter play though…

Origins ’06

Boardgames

My boardgaming was done mostly in the Rio Grande booth, where I played a number of new games:

Thurn & Taxis: This one I liked. It’s similar in feel to Ticket to Ride, but it’s more subtle, more nuanced, and more directly competitive as everyone is competing to fulfill the same goals, and late-comers get fewer points in general. It’s a second-tier type game for me, but it’s fun, compact, and short and gives you lots of decisions. I actually ended up playing this a few times. A buy, although it’s doubtful that it’ll still be played in a year, or even 6 months. There was some discussion over whether Blue Moon City or Thurn and Taxis will win the Spiel des Jahre, and certainly it would be unjust in my opinion if Blue Moon City were passed over in favor of T&T. But there seemed to be some consensus that T&T will prevail, because there is apparently a clause in the SdJ charter barring Reiner Knizia from ever winning. Me, I like to remain optimistic.

Rum & Pirates: Yes, it’s light, and absolutely nothing like earlier alea big-box games like Ra or Taj Mahal. But I enjoyed it. It’s a risk management game, as most things you do will get you points, but you’re making choices about whether to go for more, risker points, or fewer, more reliable points, as well as a variety of resources (gold, rum, and pirates). There is also a tactical game of moving pirates around (which affects which risks are available), and various risks have different synergies, or not. It’s not a taxing game, and thus really needs to be played at a brisk pace, but I found it fun for a light game, and light games usually are not my thing. There is plenty of chaos, but on each turn you feel like you have real choices and what you are doing is going to make a difference; and the large amount of die-rolling is fine with me because there are a variety of different (and fun) dice competitions and you can affect them all with rum tokens. Easily a buy. In all honesty, I think many readers will probably enjoy this one less than I did, but for me it was a throwback to the days of fun games like Merchant of Venus or Gangsters, albeit in a somewhat sanitized, scaled-back, somewhat less-thematic (but less-complicated) German package; but I’ve gotten a kick out of it each time I played it. It would have killed in 1993.

One caveat on the game, though: your first game is very likely to be a touch (at least) on the long side, especially with 5 players. It’s also a game where the playing time will drop off considerably once everyone is familiar with all the options. So if you want your friends to like it, the first time you play it might be wise to play only 4 rounds (or even 3 with 5 players) instead of the normal 5 rounds. Then once everyone has the hang of the game, you can play the “full” game. Otherwise the late game may feel protracted, and in my experience nothing will kill the desire to play again like a protracted endgame.

Masons: I had heard this was a possible win for people who don’t usually like Colovini games, a market segment of which I am a part. It doesn’t have the occasional Colovini contradiction of being a light game with almost unlimited opportunity for analysis paralysis … but nonetheless it did almost nothing for me. I think the bottom line here is that Masons is about managing chaos. Dice determine most everything that happens, and you are trying to use your couple of decision points to gently massage the board to match the scoring cards in your hand, scoring cards which rapidly cycle. I often like managed chaos games, but to work for me they have to have at least a minimally functioning theme for me to engage on (see, say … Rum and Pirates). Masons either has no theme at all, or where it has theme, it makes no sense. Not even close to a buy.

Robber Knights: Since I just anointed Rüdiger Dorn one of my most-reliable designers in my Geek of the Week thread, I figured I better check this one out – even though it was from Queen, which is a hit-and-miss label for me personally (mostly the latter). It was a bit disappointing. It’s a highly tactical, basically abstract game. You lay tiles to a build up a world sort of like Carcassonne (although there are no edge types, so you can play anywhere), but when you play a Castle tile, you can pour Knights onto the board to take control of nearby tiles. It’s a very clean, simple, smoothly-playing game which is not bad, and I’d play again … but it wasn’t really fully engaging either, and was not a buy. Nowhere close to being in the same league as Dorn’s previous games, in large part due to the thematic deficit. Not dissimilar in feel to Domaine, including being about the same length, which is a much more textured and interesting game. It also has a substantial bit of hidden complexity because the tile mix, which you are not likely to have a firm grasp on the first game or two, drives a significant chunk of the game’s tactics.

18Scan: We usually get together with our friend Mark from college sometime over the Origins weekend, and we have often played an 18xx game (since 18xx games were a staple back then). I have a new resolution on this point: no more gamekits. If I’m going to play 18xx, I’ll play 1825, or 1830, or 1853, or 1829 Mainline, but I’m not playing the gamekits anymore. The crux of the problem: the initial auctions. Starting back with 1870, I think that designers gave up entirely on even trying to make the baseline prices of the privates, minors, or whatever else is up for grabs in the start packet auction align with reality, instead relying on the players to properly price them themselves. So in order to make sensible bids, you have to either a) be prescient, or b) have played a couple times. Otherwise you end up with a game that is dumb, as players who get weak offerings are effectively knocked out 5-7 minutes into a 4 hour game. This happened to me, as I was consigned to last early and literally made not a single decision for the last 90 minutes of the game. I am not exaggerating here. Now, I’m not going to tell you that all the 18xx gamekits are bad – while it’s true that none I’ve played have been even close to professional design standards, this is not really surprising, and maybe not even relevant for their market niche. I actually think 18Scan would be appealing to those who play 18xx a lot. But unless you’re going to play it at least 3-5 times, forget it.

That was about it for boardgaming. I wanted to play Cleopatra and the Society of Ancient Architects; despite the negative buzz, I was somewhat optimistic I might like it well enough … but not optimistic enough to buy before trying. For some reason known only to Days of Wonder, however, they had only a single demo copy available of their big new release, and I was never able to get into a game. Confidence was not inspired. I wanted to try Bison from Phalanx/Mayfair, but didn’t find the time. I did end up buying the Paranoia Mandatory Bonus Fun Card Game though, even though I didn’t play it, because I like Paranoia and I thought it sounded cool. It looks like they’ve done a good job, and I’m reasonably optimistic.

I don’t do wargames at Origins anymore, but I picked up my copy of Shifting Sands and the new WW2: Barbarossa to Berlin updated card decks. Shifting Sands looks great, and I look forward to playing. Having the somewhat unhealthy amount of errata for Barbarossa to Berlin incorporated into the cards will almost certainly help that game hit the table more often. I also bought the new MMP reprint of Afrika because it was so cheap ($24), but I wonder if that was a mistake. The supply rules, while simple, are head-scratchingly bizarre. Why even have supply points when letting everyone sit around doing nothing costs exactly the same amount of supply as a full-on offensive? And the use of the rounding rule here is very, very strange (why say that one point can supply a group of ten units, then point out that you can use the rounding rule to round a group of 14 units down to 10, thus meaning that one point can really supply 14 units?). Perhaps play will clarify, or a fan will fill me in in the comments section.

RPGs

I played two RPGs at Origins: Paranoia and Call of Cthulhu. I had signed up for some Star Wars d20 which was a highly-anticipated event for me … but sadly, it was cancelled.

Paranoia: We played a modified version of the first part of Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues, a classic adventure from Paranoia Flashbacks. It was fun, and the GM did a good job. But it reminded me that Paranoia is actually tough to do well; you can’t just give people lasers and trust them to generate some fun when they point them at each other. For example, in the traditional hose-job on the way to the briefing room, you can’t just tell them to report to a nonexistent briefing room, you need to also give them some avenues of approach that look promising (although they all are, of course, dead ends), and you also need to make it clear that they will be terminated if they don’t get there on time and don’t have a scapegoat. The scapegoat bit is important. It’ll help if the Computer calls them up frequently to ask how they’re doing. The Paranoia mantra is fear and ignorance, but that means what it says: you need both. Ignorance alone is not that interesting.

It also helps if you can use the opening scenes for players to contact their secret societies to get their own personal missions, which traditionally involve killing or otherwise behaving in an unfriendly manner towards other players. It’s good for the players to have achievable objectives they can set up while being screwed on the way to the briefing room. Things got a little messed up here because we had so many players (9, I think), so the starting 6-pack of pregen characters got duplicated and had all their names changed, so when my secret society missions says “you might want to kill Tex-Y-DBF”, and you look around the table and Tex doesn’t exist, the game has lost something.

Anyway, the first third or so of our adventure (the briefing room hose-job) didn’t work so well and wasn’t terribly entertaining, but after that things got rolling and it was a lot of fun. Clones were terminated; computer property was destroyed, sometimes in spectacular style; Communists were eliminated; treason was committed. Nobody escaped unscathed.

Call of Cthulhu: Call of Cthulhu was cool to play because it’s so different from the usual roleplaying games. It’s not about problem-solving or character-building in the traditional sense. It’s all about playing the role of an investigator in an interesting story who is going insane in hopefully entertaining ways, sometimes slowly, sometimes more quickly. Like all RPGs, I assume Call of Cthulhu comes in many different flavors – more or less distant from the original inspiration – but the genre seems much more about the flavor and ambiance than the usual D&D hack-fest. We had a great group, a very good GM, and a story that was very true to the Lovecraftian spirit. I enjoyed this a lot, and it was my favorite non-CCG event of the con.

A lot of the RPG events at Origins were overbooked both last year and this year, and as a consequence the games Kim and I played in averaged 7+ players. Paranoia had 9, CoC had 7, and Kim’s two D&D events both had 7. If I may venture an opinion, 7 players is too many for any RPG, even Paranoia. Fortunately, it sounds like Amorphous Blob (who runs the RPG events I primarily aim for) agrees and is going to be more strict about capping their games at 6 players, even if Origins over-sells them.

CCGs

Middle-Earth: the Wizards: What more can I say on this game? The one or two sealed-deck Middle Earth events are usually the highlights of Origins for me for a few reasons: a) MECCG is one of my all-time favorite games; b) I enjoy the sealed deck format because I think it really challenges players used to constructed deck, and because I can win reliably; c) the company at these events is usually (not always, but usually) of very high quality; and d) it plays into my fond memories of the tournaments ICE used to run in the mid-90s, which I enjoyed immensely.

True to form, the event was still great fun, and probably even better than it has been in recent years because the numbers of players was respectable, the quality of play was good, and we were avoiding the bizzaro formats (Balrog and Fallen-Wizard sealed deck) of previous years, formats that were good for a go but ultimately too weird. It was ironic that my one and only problematic game at Origins (excessively whining opponent) was in MECCG – but it wasn’t enough to put a damper on the overall experience.

Origins Overall

As for overall impressions of Origins?

Well, for one thing, the dealer room felt flat. Wizards, Decipher, Eagle, Reaper, Games Workshop – none were present, and there were several big holes in the hall where a big vendor would have been in the past. The Fantasy Flight and Days of Wonder demo areas were tiny. Columbia, GMT, and MMP were there, but had no demos. This all is not good. Mayfair and Rio Grande did have respectable areas, though, and it looked like Fantasy Flight might have been running more games in the main boardgame hall.

The CCG hall felt almost vacant. While in previous years it had been teeming with Magic and Lord of the Rings (Decipher) players, this year it was Pokemon and that was about it. That’s still a good number of people, but just a fraction of what it’s been in the past.

RPGs are more or less what they’ve always been since I’ve been watching, and all the games I’ve been in were over-subscribed. I wish there were more “other” games – there were no Iron Heroes or Arcana Evolved games, for instance, Star Wars d20 games were very thin, and I have no great enthusiasm for RPGA – but Kim and I have had no trouble at all getting into high-quality, well-run roleplaying events with excellent fellow players in recent years, and they remain the high points of the con for us.

The Puffing Billy area in the main boardgame room was well-attended, with probably 100 players. Richard Borg had a good slug of folks going with Memoir ’44 for a while, and Mayfair’s Settlers tournament drew well. The miniatures area seemed about as well-attended as always.

CABS’ war room and board room were decently attended, at least by recent historical standards. The board room (for general boardgame play) was up to maybe 50 people when I was stopping by; not bad, but for reference I doubt they out-drew our local Bay Area Games Day (Origins is, after all, supposed to be one of the premier gaming con in the nation). The war room probably had a similar or maybe slightly smaller number, with less fluctuation due to the longer games being played. In a sign of the times, I don’t think I ever saw more than two copies of any individual title being played at once, and many games were left out set up but unplayed, a wargaming ritual I could live without. The splintered nature of boardgames at Origins (the vendor demo areas, the “tabletop” gaming hall, and the CABS area) is a recipe for some confusion.

As an avid boardgamer, I’m not quite sure what to make of the boardgame situation. It seems to me that boardgames at Origins have been holding at a fairly modest level the past 7-8 years, at the same time that boardgaming in general has seen apparently explosive growth. Part of this seems to be the disinterest on the part of the companies themselves in organized play, perhaps because while games are more plentiful now, they also in general seem to be thought of as more disposable? Back in the late 90s, before they got bought out, Avalon Hill would make some effort to put together good events for their games, and as a result I have very fond memories of playing Acquire, Hannibal, and Successors in well-organized events. The CCG folks have always recognized good, well-organized events at cons as their life-blood, and Iron Crown and Wizards always invested a lot of effort in them. For boardgames today, things are left in the hands of fans and independent organizations for the most part (Mayfair being the notable exception), and it seems to me that there is inadequate leadership and the incentives are either nonexistent or have gotten too far out of whack. The clubs are just individuals who don’t always have interests that are well-aligned with either those of the game companies or the attendees, so the results are predictably chaotic, and there is a lack of any accountability. If GMT had been using Avalon Hill’s playbook, they would have had a 2-hour tournament scenario available for Barabarossa to Berlin and run an event to publicize the new release, along with a pre-game teaching session. I would have made time for that event. But they weren’t. Instead, GMT just had one unpunched copy of the new edition lying around, and I didn’t see a single game of Barbarossa to Berlin being played.

I’m not sure what this means, ultimately, other than that I enjoyed the old situation (in which boardgames were more about scheduled, organized events and not just pick-up games) more, and this shift is primarily responsible for the fact that Origins is no longer a boardgame con for me. However, I may be more sensitive to these things because of both the much greater distance I travel to attend, and my more varied interests. I enjoyed playing Thurn and Taxis and Masons and Rum and Pirates and Robber Knights, but for me there is no reason to travel to Origins to play pick-up games. I go to cons to play something interesting, something unusual, something more competitive, something I couldn’t or don’t get to play at home. Origins currently is falling well short of providing this in the euro and wargame area, and is comfortably succeeding only in the area of RPGs and my favorite Middle-Earth CCG events.

ConsimWorld Expo, Part 2 of 3 – EastFront

Having gotten my fill of EuroFront on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, I split off on Friday afternoon to play a good, old-fashioned game of straight EastFront. When I play one of the Front games at home, what I’d usually do is play a 6-month scenario – I like Summer ’42, Winter ’42, and Summer ’43, about in that order. These are pretty manageable to play (4 hours or so), are fairly well-balanced, and are all good situations which present both sides with interesting opportunities. They also tend to be pretty stable, in that barring all but the most egregious errors, an interesting game should result.

But this is MonsterCon and time to try something different. In casual play, I’ve always avoided the Summer ’41 scenario, the initial invasion of Russia, because it’s so unbalanced. By this, I mean that the Germans are brutalizing the Soviet armies, and the Soviets will win by escaping complete catastrophe. This just doesn’t seem that appealing. But I’ve now played enough EastFront that the fact that I had never (before yesterday) played Summer ’41 seemed like a hole in my experience of the game, and if you want to play EuroFront in all its grandeur, you need to how to deal with that initial invasion. So we played EastFront starting in Summer ’41, and instead of just playing 6 months, we decided to go until a decision was reached one way or the other.

I ended up enjoying the ’41 scenario more than I expected. It is a much more exacting game than the later scenarios – forgetting to cover a critical hex two spaces behind the front lines can have bad consequences for the Soviets – but it’s not as unforgiving as, say, The Russian Campaign. There is a substantial tactical element, but it’s not as hyper-tactical as most hex-n-counter games. Heck, it’s not even as hyper-tactical as Caylus. It’s still mostly about picking your spots, making sure your headquarters are in the right place at the right time, and using your rail capabilities to get your critical units (tanks and shock armies) where they are needed.

Still, that said, Summer ’41 is still largely driven by the Germans. They will pick objectives (Leningrad, Moscow, the Ukraine) and try to take them. The Soviets will desperately try to oppose them where possible, but mostly just try not to get wiped out. But when you link Summer ’41 to Winter ’41, things get interesting, because in Winter, the Germans are hosed. In Winter ’41, the Germans are especially hosed. Their headquarters are all disrupted and cost extra to build, all their units are slowed to the speed of tanks in mud, and their offensive capabilities are near-zero. Meanwhile, the Soviets are virtually unaffected, and receive an influx of fully-built Shock Armies. For all the abuse the Germans dished out during the Summer, they are now set for a hammering. I’m not sure I’d play either Summer ’41 or Winter ’41 as a standalone, but as a pair, I think they have a nice symmetry, and were pretty entertaining.

In the event, the Germans weren’t able to make decisive progress in ’41, and the winter counter-attack was pretty brutal – not in terms of ground, but in terms of casualties. My big lesson learned was that, as the Germans, nothing you can do in ’41 will be worth it if your tank arm gets mauled. Make sure to keep them safe and mobile over the winter, which means not letting them get tied down in battles. You need to be inflicting enough casualties on the Soviets to keep them off-balance in ’42, but you can’t do that at the cost of suffering too many casualties yourself. Those 70-ish production points won’t go nearly as far as it looked like they would from the safety of Poland, and you cannot afford massive tank replacements.

We called it a game in Summer ’43, when things had cascaded to make things very rough on the Germans. Playing the long game was cool, but in future, I’d recommend using the standard semi-annual scenarios as checkpoints. Each six-month season has a handicap, and you can see who is winning at that point. If one player is ahead by, say, 10 points, I think it’s time to call it and move on to another game. EastFront is a game where small advantages accrue from season to season to become big advantages, and if you start ’43 significantly behind the historical pace, it’s going to be exceptionally hard to win. So rather than sitting down and deciding to play the “whole war”, I think checking every 6 months of every year against the victory conditions until someone gets ahead makes a lot more sense.

Anyway, the Front games remain amongst my very favorites, and playing them intensively for 4 days mainly made me want to get them out more regularly.

ConsimWorld Expo, Part 1 of 3 – EuroFront

You can see my Flickr album of ConsimWorld Expo photos (and some commentary) here.

I got involved with monster games sometime in 2000 with The Gamer’s OCS series, starting with Burma (well, actually, I had played campaign games of ASL’s Red Barricades and Kampfgruppe Peiper well before that, but for some reason they don’t count in my mind as true monster games, perhaps because they seem so clearly within the bounds of sanity). I am not naturally a monster gamer. I like playing lots of different games, and so the huge time commitments required for monster games is generally not avaiable. But I like monster games in theory. To experience the continuity of a whole campaign played out over a long period of time is attractive. And OCS specifically is a great game system.

When this theory ventured out into the cold, harsh world of reality, however, I found my attraction to the “real” monster games to be unworkable in practice. There are just too many obstacles to be overcome: finding the time, finding the players, finding the players you can stand to spend that much time with, and finding the game situation that can plausibly stand up to the amount of attention you are planning to lavish on it. That last one is a particularly tricky bit, considering that one game of Guderian’s Blitzkrieg or Enemy at the Gates, played to completion, would theoretically consume more time than all the games of Puerto Rico I’ve played, ever. By at least a factor of two. This was driven home to me when I played Guderian’s Blitzkrieg at MonsterCon 3 years ago: the game is so freaking huge, you need 6 players just to manage all the counters. But the Germans have only enough supply to keep maybe 1.5 of these players active and engaged. So you end up with a couple folks sitting around most of the weekend with little to do. This is clearly not acceptable. I’m still quite fond of OCS, but when I play anymore I play Burma, Korea, or DAK, the entries in the system which need only two players and have a wealth of good shorter scenarios.

These difficulties were why I was only a sporadic attendee for the first few MonsterCons (I went to 1, 3, and 5). I would get excited about the concept, go, have a mixed experience, take a year off, get excited again… but then last year I felt that enough was enough, I was going to play something practical. So I went with EuroFront, which is one of my all-time favorite games (EastFront) taken to its logical extreme. Arguably, beyond its logical extreme, I suppose. Plus, I got in a side of Europe Engulfed, another tremendous (and playable) game. For the first time, I really had fun at MonsterCon, so I broke my odd-numbered-year tradition and went back again this year.

The con started a day earlier this time, on Tuesday, so the early arrivals (Craig Besinque, the designer, and Tom) started in 1939 without us. When I showed up a day later, on Wednesday, I gave them a hard time for not starting with the Spanish Civil War scenario from MedFront. They seemed unmoved. Joining the game in-progress was fine with me; I don’t find the 1939-40 situation all that interesting to game, so I was happy to take over the east front Germans just as Spring ’41 was kicking off. That said, the game did see some wild and crazy early-war stuff up north: when Germany invaded Denmark, they chose not to invade Norway immediately. This prompted the British to pre-empt them by invading Norway themselves. This, then, resulted in a catastrophic but highly-improbable series of diplomatic die rolls which ended up with Sweden and Finland becoming full-fledged Axis allies, which allowed us to both secure the legendary Swedish Ore and seriously threaten the Murmansk and Archangel lend-lease routes. As I mentioned in last year’s write-up, I really like the NorthFront extension. The battle up there isn’t a lot of blocks, but it can consume significant resources, it makes a real difference in the EuroFront game, and there are meaningful decisions. I’ll be curious to see if the extra map areas adds anything to EastFront or WestFront when played standalone.

After cleaning up Yugoslavia, the make-or-break season for the Germans comes up: Summer ’41. In order to have a legitimate shot at winning the game, the Germans have to have a successful Summer ’41 campaign. If Summer ’41 is a bust, no amount of beating up on the British is going to help you. I decided to go for the full-bore Moscow strategy, pounding down the traditional Napoleonic invasion route and making just a token effort in the Ukraine.

The problem with this strategy, which I realized afterwards, is that is really has to work. If you fail to take Moscow in Summer ’41 (a definite possibility even with good German play), you have little to show for your efforts – just the 1PP in Minsk and Riga. The choice industrial areas are in the south. And the terrain in front of Moscow, a lot of forests and swamps, is lousy for your panzers.

In the end, I came very, very close. I got adjacent to Moscow in the west. Powerful German spearheads occupies Yaroslavl to the northeast of Moscow with the intention of cutting it off. But the landsers never actually entered the historic city, and with the early onset of winter, we simply ran out of time.

What then followed was the most burtal winter counter-attack I’ve ever been subjected to. The Winter ’41 rules for snow weather are very tough on the Germans, as they should be, and the historic winter was, I’m told, particularly bitter. That was definitely my experience. On the random weather turns, we saw the absolute maximum of snow turns, and the German army got beaten remorselessly. I was not pushed that far back, in the end, but the casualties suffered had been prohibitive. In my drive to get Moscow, I had been exposing my panzers to a fair amount of risk, leading with them almost exclusively to get as much punch as possible on the front lines in my headlong dash. This meant that when the bill came due that winter, I just didn’t have enough tanks to make a credible push in Summer ’42. I gamely tried, and took over much of the Ukraine, but it was a losing battle.

The difference-maker here could have been our allies in the north, and in retrospect if I had used the Finns and a German expeditionary force more effectively, things could have been very different. The forces were certainly available to take Leningrad, Murmansk, and Archangel, and this would have been a big chunk of Russian production – comparable in total to completely clearing the Ukraine – but I was never able to marshal and coordinate them, partially at least just because of inexperience with the NorthFront. It probably wouldn’t have been enough to compensate for the tactical error of my somewhat over-aggressive use of the expensive panzers, but it would have made the whole Moscow-first strategy more plausible and the game a lot closer.

By contrast, the MideastFront additions (Turkey, Persia, Syria, etc.) really didn’t seem to make that much difference. I don’t know if there is a plausible MedFront strategy for the Axis which involves bringing in Turkey in ’41 maybe and doing Barbarossa in ’42, or going straight for the oilfields, but in the two EuroFront games I’ve played this year and last, the Mideast has been a non-factor. If I play the axis again next time, maybe I’ll give it a try. If not then, then maybe in 2008.

When this was combined with disaster in North Africa (not my fault!), we called the game an Allied Victory in Spring ’43, and tore things down and set it up again using the historical Summer ’43 start lines, which was a good plan I felt. The Germans got their ’41 offensive, the Allies got some good counter-punches in, the Germans were not going to win at this point, so re-starting in ’43 gave everyone a chance to play an interesting game again. By this point a few more players had arrived, so Tom and I set up our own game of EastFront, while everyone else (most of whom had not played much, if any, of the Front games) played EuroFront. This worked out quite well; I enjoyed my EastFront game (more on this in the next installment), and the new guys had what looked like a really exciting and enjoyable game.

We got to play our game on a pre-production copy of the new versions of the games, and I have to say I like them. The new maps are crisper, cleaner, and significantly clearer (no more puzzling out the terrain in Georgia). I think the new higher-contrast labels are slightly less aesthetic than the originals, but definitely more functional. But the good news for existing EastFront players is that there is no reason to feel forced to upgrade if you don’t want to. The game appears fundamentally unaltered (the only change I noticed is that anomolous mountain hex near Moscow has been replaced with “hills”, a new terrain type), and while you’ll get Finland, most of the VolgaFront map, and an overall functionally superior product if you upgrade, you’ll still be playing the same game as everyone else if you don’t. Anyone who has any aspiration to eventually play EuroFront will probably want to get the new package, though.

All in all, I have very much enjoyed my games of EuroFront these past two years, and this is the sort of monster game I can actually do. It’s playable, there is little downtime, and the whole war can be completed over the long weekend by reasonable players. There are plenty of checkpionts in the game where you can look and call it if things are not going well, and the fact that the game gives you starting points for every summer of the war gives you a wide range of options, and I really liked that we could quit a lost game in ’43, restart with the historical deployments, and still get to experience the whole war without having to start from scratch. The ’42 and ’43 scenarios are quite interesting in and of themselves, and the late-war plays very well with 4 players. And of course the component parts (EastFront, WestFront, and MedFront) are all tremendous games in their own right, and highly playable.

Arcana Unearthed: Plague of Dreams, Part II

After the excursion into Battlehome in Part I, which ultimately yielded not the object they sought, but a clue to its location, the party is off … for another dungeon crawl! This time, into the bandit’s lair itself, and a confrontation with the mysterious Blue Knight.

[Warning! Spoilers for the module ahead.]

After picking up the bandits Merill Yanis and Den Rudiger, the party heads back to Gahanis to collect on the first installment of the reward. The Jaren reluctantly pay up, but remind the characters that what they’re really after is the book, the Inmagus Libellum, so get out there and retrieve it! The items in the bandit lair point towards a base at the Lake of Lost Voices.

Some basic information gathering in Gahanis regarding the Lake reveals that a) it’s haunted, and b) you’re nuts if you want to go there. With that, the party heads out.

It turns out that the lake really is haunted, it’s not just a rumor set up by the bandits to protect their lair. On the other hand, it’s not that haunted, so there might be some of that too. Charn, the Litorian Totem Warrior (Wolverine) of little willpower, is almost convinced by the voices speaking to him in his head to take a permanent swim in the lake, but resists.

The party scopes out the place… Lake? Check. Beckoning yet foreboding opening on the far side? Check. Raft? Check. Taking some minor preparations to avoid the siren call of the lake, they head out.

It turns out that the opening on the other side is the entrance to an ancient temple used by the former residents of the city in this location, which came to be suddenly and sadly located at the bottom of the lake, much to the inconvenience of its residents at the time. They seem to be a bit bitter about this situation but, being dead, have little they can do about it other than being annoying. The party wanders through an ancient temple in the lower floors, dealing with a few assorted dungeon staples (giant spiders, dire rats), before coming to the stairs up to the main area used by the bandits. This is where the real adventure begins.

The party comes up with a clever plan to draw out and ambush the single guard watching the back door, which works to perfection (despite a botched sneak roll by the Verrik Magister Sfiri, which is matched by an equally incompetent Listen roll by the guard). Sfiri then makes amends by immolating a bunch of guards playing cards in a giant hall (for reference: Bandits have about 7 hit points. 1st level D&D Wizard: Magic Missile, 1d4+1 vs. one target. 1st level AU Magister: Fireburst + Fire template + 20gp Gem component give you a 3d6 blast in a 5′ radius. One of the features of AU that I like is that it’s “smoothed the power curve”; in D&D, 1st-4th level Wizards are almost completely worthless, but 10th+ level Wizards are overwhelmingly powerful. In AU, 1st level Magisters, while still not as powerful as fighter types, are at least respectable, and their power doesn’t get as ridiculous later either).

There then followed a cool chase scene in which the party ran headlong after the fleeing bandits, rolling up their upper defenses one outpost at a time as the bandits retreated in confusion. Lito the Champion of Freedom used his Burst of Speed feat at absolutely the perfect moment to trip the fleeing bandit lieutenant before the upper defenses could get organized. The final showdown with the Litorian Warmain leader is not without some pain (Lito, always on the pointy edge at this point, gets knocked out), but the party is victorious.

It turns out, of course, that the ending is not quite as the Jaren made it out to be. There is the book, yes, but there is also another artifact related to it … whose nature is unclear. Should the party keep it? Destroy it? Return it to the Jaren? And why is the Blue Knight after it? To find out more, you’ll have to play the adventure yourself.

This half of the adventure went more smoothly than the first, as I picked up a bit of steam with my DMing. As mentioned last time, I did away with most of the drawing of maps, and played a more descriptive and abstract style, with only a few critical combats being played out on a battle mat. I ran the combats in a much more rapid-fire style, which certainly befitted the chase scene at the end (this was unplanned, but worked out quite well).

The module itself is pretty nice, but I ended up cutting out large swathes of the second part. There is a lot of exploring the temple that the party could have done, but they didn’t seem to be getting into that stuff, so I deleted almost two-thirds of the very dungeon-crawly lower level of the temple on-the-fly. I’m happy with this decision, as it takes a lot of time to play and none of it was that relevant to the adventure in my opinion, it’s just some weird stuff for the party to play with (unlike some of the cool ambiance in the Giant fortress in part one, which helped to set the background of the world). I’d also suggest that the Blue Knight probably needs to be souped up just a bit unless she’s taking the party on under very favorable circumstances (for her, anyway). I don’t consider my party to be heavily mini-maxed for combat, and still they just didn’t have much trouble with her. I’d suggest making her a level or two higher. I had intended to have her escape using an item she had, but a critical hit at an awkward time meant she couldn’t. She’s an interesting enough villain that keeping her alive would be good for the health of the campaign. If she were two levels higher, I think the party would still have been able to take her on, but she would almost certainly have been able to escape barring appalling luck.

All in all, it worked out well, and now we’ll be moving on to Siege on Ebonring Keep, by Mystic Eye Games. It’s designed to be run back-to-back with Plague of Dreams. Plague was cool, but a bit combat heavy, so I hope to mix things up a bit more in the next module. Siege is much more customizable, and now that I’m getting more comfortable with the DMing thing, I hope to put more of my own stamp on it.