Origins: How We Became Human

I first played Origins: How We Became Human not long after it came out, back in 2008 (if you’re unfamiliar with the game, you might want to take a moment to skim that older writeup). Although I found the ideas and science behind it fascinating, I ultimately had to admit the game basically didn’t work. While the core systems were streamlined and playable, the list of grievances was long and serious: climate change die rolls that wipe you out in an instant of bad luck; development bottlenecks around increasing your energy capacity that had you rolling dice forever trying to get a 6 or endlessly digging through the card deck for the one or two cards that would unblock you; and the less said about the horror that was Acculturation, the better.

Still, recent Sierra Madre games have usually required a little tweaking, either in the form of “living rules” style updates from the publisher or home-grown house rules. Even High Frontier – a terrific game – needs to be played with slightly more sensible auction rules and tweaks for Deimos and one of the thrusters (the Salt Water Zubrin in the basic game). With Origins, there was and is clearly an interesting game in there. It just wasn’t clear what the rules tweaks needed to be to get at that game. Everyone I played Origins with disliked it enough (and the game takes long enough to play) that I never was able to get a handle on what the fixes needed to be.

Until now! Phil Eklund has done most of the heavy lifting through the optional rules now in the Origins rulebook. The absolutely critical ones are: Livestock Raids, Counterespionage, No Final Chaos, and Domestication in Uninhabitable Hexes. Without these rules the game basically doesn’t work: mainly, you can get futilely stuck in Age 1 forever spinning your wheels if you blow your domestication die rolls, or climate change can deny you the resources you need to make progress in the game. All the optional rules are definitely recommended and help the game, but these ones are critical. The original rules are clearly more faithful to the thematic ideas behind the game, but compromises have to made to the form to make it enjoyable to play.

Still, this wasn’t quite enough. The Acculturation action is still terrible and can completely ruin the fun. If your empire has an advantage in Culture advances, you’re allowed to Acculturate your neighbors: you steal one of their elders and add it to your pool. Since elders are otherwise expensive to acquire and critical to doing interesting things in the game, being acculturated to death by your neighbor is completely paralyzing and makes your game experience an exercise in frustration and futility. Fortunately, Morgan Dontanville suggested this fix: just have the Acculturation action steal a cube of the target players’ choice instead of an elder. This seems to be the answer. From the session reports I’ve read of players who made it into Era IV, the very late game – when players’ civilizations are well-established – might play better with the original rule, but in the early game when empires are small and there are few Culture cards available, being Acculturated to death without recourse is a horrible, game-ruining experience.

The last thing to worry about is how to finish the game in a reasonable amount of time, given that it’s fairly chaotic. Individual player turns are usually quick, but there is a lot of stuff to get through and until players achieve some mastery it can take 4-5 hours with 5 players, which I think is 1-2 hours longer than it wants to be. I think the answer is just to play with fewer players. Most Sierra Madre Games suffer from a downtime problem with more players – I recommend sticking to 3, maybe 4 players for High Frontier, High Frontier Colonization really wants just 3, and Pax Porfiriana is better with 4 than with 5, and better with 5 than 6. At least in High Frontier, there is plenty of planning you can do when it’s not your turn, but Origins is constantly in a state of flux and it’s hard to think that far ahead. I don’t have enough plays to know for sure, but my guess is the sweet spot is probably 3, maybe 4 players. Leave out the Cro-Magnons; they have a small but not zero chance of being totally screwed by climate change die rolls (the Hobbits can be in trouble too, but the Water Buffalo makes their situation less dire).

The final touch I’d add is to not have animals go extinct on domestication die rolls of 2 or 3 – at least not until players are familiar with the game. A bad combination of extinctions and climate change can leave a player well and truly stuck. It’s not as terrible as the other issues, and experienced players will know the risks, but it’s probably best avoided until you have better coping skills.

So in summary:

  • Use all the optional rules in the Living Rules.
  • Acculturation steals a cube of the victim’s choice, not necessarily an elder (it still goes back to the population track when lost).
  • Don’t play with 5 players; stick to 3 or 4.
  • Unless you know what you’re doing, animals never go extinct even with smaller numbers of players.
  • And, I should mention, don’t mess with Age IV.

There is also an updated poster map on Zazzle. While it’s not an essential addition to the game, there are a number of small tweaks that are helpful.

Finally, get Rick Heli’s summary of the deck compositions. Knowing how many of what types of cards are where is important to sensible play.

This still leaves plenty to not like about the game, if you are so inclined. Climate change can be frustrating. The game is unforgiving if you get your innovation track clogged. Like all Sierra Madre Games, you have to understand it has a distinctive aesthetic and you have to appreciate it by starting with figuring out what the game is trying to say (I talked about this in my Pax Porfiriana review). You don’t have to read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel  or Julien Jaynes  The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind to appreciate Origins: How We Became Human, but hey, those are important books, you should probably read them (well, definitely the Diamond anyway), and it helps. But you should certainly read the Designer’s Notes. Just don’t be put off by Eklund’s Objectivism. Yes, there is some Ayn Rand-style crazy in the Age IV deck; Phil doesn’t think much of public education apparently. But otherwise, he talks a better Libertarian talk than he actually walks. I have absolutely zero time for true Libertarians, and I found nothing philosophically objectionable in Origins. At least, not until the Age IV deck.

Last time I wrote about the game, I offered some play tips. Here are some of my updated thoughts:

Climate Change is the number one thing I hear people complain about, and it can feel capricious. I think you just need to go into the game knowing that the board is never going to look better than it does at start. There are three climate change cards in the Era 1 deck, and you need to realize that the most likely outcome is that one or both of the Jungle and Desert spots are going to become uninhabitable. So you need to play defensively, trying to make sure you don’t get hemmed in and have access to animals and metropolises until you have enough tech to cope with difficult terrain. This is sometimes easier said than done, especially for the Hobbits and Cro-Magnon. The worst-case scenario (Jungles and Deserts, plus the icecaps melt) is quite unlikely, but not impossible. There are two more climate changes in Age II and one in Age III, which are not to be ignored, but by that time you should have the technology and mobility to avoid disaster. Anyway, climate change is one of the key elements in the game so you need to be aware of the risks which can be large, especially early. Hopefully awareness will help you cope with them.

Population Actions are hard to know what to do with for a lot of the game. For the most part, a strategy of staying small with few pieces on the board and only adding metropolises and migratory tokens as you need to expand your elder pool is a smart strategy. However, an absolutely crucial technique for coping with a low innovation number is to park one of your units outside neighbors’ cities and using the Sabine Raid action to ransack her discard pile. Just co-existing is enough to qualify as a “siege” even if you never have any intent to attack the city. In general, larger-scale military operations are rarely worth the trouble, although occasionally knocking over an opponents city (to gain a guest worker) can be worth it. Just keep your eyes on the important things: high innovation and big elder pools. Enslaving your neighbors may be gratifying in the short term, but it rarely actually helps you that much and may actually be of some benefit to your victim. Population actions can be a stopgap substitute for Innovation actions, but it’s at best a risky and short-term fix, so use them to focus on getting cards that decrease your fecundity and increase your elder pool so you can go back to relying on Innovation actions and elder expenditures.

Getting enslaved is a bummer, and never something you would voluntarily make part of your game strategy outside of some very extreme situations. You should definitely do what you can to avoid it. It’s a chaotic game though, and if it should happen to you (which is more likely with a full compliment of players) don’t fail your personal morale check. One of the things that makes Origins work for me is that it’s a very dynamic game, with lots of ups and downs, unlike other modern civ-builders which only go relentlessly forward and where getting behind early means you’re dead. The inability to build metropolises while enslaved and therefore have more than one elder is clearly quite bad, but not worse than things were just before you were enslaved. There are some upsides; you get free infrastructure advances from time to time and a bunch of free units when your masters go into chaos. Bide your time, do what you can, build your innovation up, and get back in it later.

I mentioned this is my previous pieces, but try to acquire any Public Cards that you can, and don’t worry about scoring until you’re in your final Golden Age. The strategic advantages of all the public cards are so strong that you should always bid them up and try to get them. Administration lets you expand the size of your civilization which increases survivability, gives you more population actions, and allows you to increase your number of metropolises and therefore the size of your elder pool. Information effectively allows you to multiply your available elders by making the Economic Stimulation action much more efficient and gives you a lot more control by increasing your hand size. Culture gives you a much easier way to expand your elder pool through Acculturation and guest workers. And if that wasn’t enough, many cards give you early access to important actions, particularly Trade and Urbanization. Finally, there is the Revolution action which allows you to swap your victory card with another player or the cards in the box. While this is much more limited than it might first appear, you can be vulnerable until you are in the last Golden Age of the game. At that point you can lock in your victory conditions (including possibly using the Revolution action yourself to look for a better fit if you get there first) and factor that into your bidding. The Revolution action and its ability to move the goalposts bugs a lot of players when they first read it, but it’s actually not as chaotic as it seems and is an important part of the game. Through the early ages the key is to stay flexible and acquire what you can, so don’t get attached to your scoring card. It’s only the final age (or possibly ages if you’re playing with Age IV) where you’re going to focus on scoring, and Revolution gives the game some flexibility.

Origins: How We Became Human has always been in an odd spot for me. It clearly shares a lot of DNA with the modern (i.e., post-Origins), very successful Sierra Madre Games, but it never seemed to delver on its potential. So I was quite happy to find a configuration that allowed me to finally really enjoy the game and recommend it alongside High Frontier, Bios: Megafauna, and Pax Porfiriana.

A Distant Plain

The area around Kabul gets a lot of action

The area around Kabul gets a lot of action

Although I wasn’t very impressed by Andean Abyss, I’m still intrigued by the idea of GMT’s COIN game system, so I went up to EndGame in Oakland to join in their biweekly(ish) wargaming group to try to give A Distant Plain a fair shot.

I’d actually played the game once previously in a near-final playtest version, and hadn’t been very impressed. It’s sill unconscionably long when payed to 5 propaganda cards, easily 6+ hours if the game goes the distance (today we played to the 3rd propaganda cards of a 4-card “short” game in 4 hours). The green faction (the Warlords here) is still pretty boring and basically just doing the one or two things that they do and praying nobody notices; however unlike the Cartels in Andean Abyss, the Warlords in A Distant Plain face extremely daunting victory conditions. The pacing is still pretty slow unless players make a conscious effort to move the game quickly. It’s still completely bewildering the first time you try to play it as each faction has its own set of actions available, and there is a proliferation of different levels players are competing on. The Government wants to control population and pad their Swiss bank accounts but doesn’t care whether their citizens are actually happy; the Coalition wants people to support the government at low cost but doesn’t care about military control; the Warlords want to keep the the state destabilized; and the Taliban just wants everyone to be unhappy.

The magic in A Distant Plain is the relationship between the (Afghan Central) Government and the (US-led) Coalition. Broadly speaking, the idea of the game is that there are two fronts in the war: the military battle for control of territory, and the battle for the hearts and minds of the population. The Government’s  goal is to physically control territory; they are only interested in hearts and minds to the extent that it allows them to engage in graft without the population immediately going over to the Taliban. The Coalition is interested only in hearts and minds, but you can only win hearts and minds by first militarily controlling territory. The two players don’t trust each other, but do have to share a checkbook and have some joint military command. Only one can win. Cue endless and entertaining bickering. This is the soul of the game and does capture the incredibly fraught relationship between the US and Hamid Karzai.

By contrast the positions of the Taliban is fine but far less interesting, and probably not going to keep you going for 4+ hours. The Warlords probably only have about 2 hours in them. So play the short game.

The other important thing I think A Distant Plain improves over Andean Abyss is that it amps up the power of the event card deck. In Andean Abyss, players seemed to quickly figure out that most of the events were really hard to justify taking given the opportunity cost (i.e., not moving pieces on the board). More powerful events mean more get used, which means more flavor, more tension, and quicker play – all good. One player felt like it might have gone too far, but I feel that’s unlikely. Whether it’s hit the sweet spot is hard to tell for sure obviously – this is a rather involved game – but it’s clearly closer.

Like Andean Abyss, A Distant Plain is a complete-information whack-the-leader and be-ahead-at-the-end game with simple and open scores. It’s not great, but at least at this point you should know what you’re in for. You need to be able to enjoy the journey here more than the destination.

Also like Andean Abyss, I remain somewhat frustrated by how superficially A Distant Plain treats the subject matter. For example, A Distant Plain portrays the Government as corrupt by making its endgame victory condition goal being corrupt (each time they take a Govern action, they convert support for the government into patronage, and win on a combination of military control and patronage, not support). There is no sense of or examination of why the Government is so corrupt, or the fact that the only way the US or the Afghan Government actually win this thing (or even establish the foundations for legitimate counter-insurgency) is by hacking away at that corruption. As long as that corruption is a fact of the game, the Coalition might as well go home. The  government was and is so weak because the real power outside of Kabul resides with warlords, which drives corruption at the center. But in A Distant Plain, the Warlords are just a warmed over version of the Drug Cartels from Andean Abyss. A Distant Plain would have been more interesting and authentic – at least if it’s really attempting to be a game about COIN – if it had not been satisfied with just having a great Coalition-Afghan Government relationship, but had attacked the relationship between the Warlords and the Afghan Government and the Warlords and the Taliban with the same vigor.

I also have to say I find the area control mechanics of the cubes-and-cylinders game not very evocative of the violence that has wracked Afghanistan. You’ll get some sense of the human cost inflicted on the Taliban as those cylinders routinely get wiped out by Government and Coalition offensives and airstrikes, and Government cubes are unreliable and will go home or be infiltrated or suborned. But the Taliban doesn’t seem to have the incentive or means to inflict damage on Coalition or even Government cubes. “Good guys” going to the casualty box will be a rare occurrence unless the Taliban can snag a good set of capabilities cards, and should not tax your conscience.

If you’re interested in the topic of counterinsurgency in general and Afghanistan in particular, I recommend Max Boot’s Invisible Armies, which is a solid survey history of insurgency and counter-insurgency. Also Fred Kaplan’s The Insurgents (not those insurgents) and Daydream Believers, as well as his many columns for War Stories over at Slate, in which he has discussed the surges and the complicated relationships between Washington and Kabul at some length. While I think A Distant Plain does an interesting job of tackling elements of the war, to me it relates the stories of the battles but not the actual fundamentals of counter-insurgency. Perhaps due to the currency and rawness of the topic it couldn’t do any more, but if that’s the case, why make it?

I’ve saved the worst for last, mostly because it’s the least interesting, but the design of the action cards which are central (and crucial) to the game is truly awful. The pictures are small and busy and you often have to squint at them to make out what’s going on. The text size is small and low-contrast and hard to read even when you have excellent light and are looking right at it, which of course you almost never are because it’s right across the board. The sandy background further disrupts the already terrible readability. It’s unforgivably bad and is a significant obstacle to enjoying actual face-to-face play (does all playtesting take place over VASSAL these days?). These needed to be either on larger cards with bigger fonts, or the pictures needed to be ditched, or something, because a crucial element of the game is borderline unusable.

So I won’t deny there are a number of things about the game that bug me, some of them pretty significant. I’m trying to decide if the fact that it has one really great thing plus a generally more nuanced and interesting texture than Andean Abyss makes it worth playing. I don’t have a definitive answer, but I do think it has a lot more going for it than the previous game did. Even if it’s not a panacea, the central driver of the US-Afghanistan relationship gives the game a soul that Andean Abyss lacked. The better and more interesting event mix gives the game a bit more energy and motion. I think if you know what you’re getting into and set expectations appropriately it’s worth a shot, although some experience with the much shorter Cuba Libre will be valuable in making it less daunting. Just stick to the short game, and make sure the pace moves.

Confusion

One of the things I find cool about Stronhold’s recent game Confusion: Espionage and Deception in the Cold War is how it develops interesting and severe information asymmetry as the game goes on. When you’re making the final push to get the briefcase to your opponent’s baseline, you get into a situation where you’re using just a few pieces about which you know a lot because you’ve had to move them frequently to get them into that position. Meanwhile, your opponent is likely defending with a number of pieces about which he knows almost nothing, but you know everything. This makes for interesting opportunities to bluff and makes the situation very tense for the defender.

I like this particularly because Confusion goes through these very different game phases – development, dueling for control of the briefcase, endgame push – completely organically, without any explicit or coercive rules. While I like some 18xx games (1825 is my favorite these days), I’ve come to dislike the way it does phasing, with lots of rules and explicit game parameter changes as the trains are bought through. It’s a fair bit of rules complexity which trips up new players. Power Grid is similar, although less severe. I now much prefer it when a game can go though its phases organically, as with Confusion, Diplomacy, Container, or Rivals of Catan.

Tales of the Arabian Nights

I’ve been really enjoying this new game from Z-Man. You get to wander the world of the Thousand and One Nights, encounter strange people and customs, and try to make your fortune. There is a whole genre of what I think of as “experience games”, games where you play to watch the stories unfold as much as anything else. Games like Arkham Horror, American Megafauna, maybe Britannia and Republic of Rome. A surprisingly large number of wargames, like Paths of Glory or Successors, and arguably a lot of games which are too huge to realistically play to actual conclusion, like Case Blue or Guderian’s Blitzkrieg. I also feel many of GMT’s games where you wrestle far more with rules and processes than you do with actual decisions fall into this category; Fields of Fire certainly, and games from The Burning Blue to 1805: Sea of Glory and PQ-17 also feel to me like they get filed here.

So anyway, back to the topic. I think what appeals to me so much about Tales of the Arabian Nights, apart from the great flavor, is that it is an experience game which actually works. Yes, the stories it generates as you have your adventures are usually great fun and the real reward of playing. But you also have to actually play the game. You can’t just do stuff because it sounds cool or you want to see what happens; you have to play to your character’s strengths, trying to use the skills you’ve been given or have earned to their best advantage. Courting the Wealthy Princess may sound cool, but if you don’t have the Courtly Graces or Seduction skills, it’s probably not a percentages play, either from the point of view of winning or generating an interesting story. You have to play to your strengths.

With this in mind, I think a key to enjoying the game is the right attitude. You can’t come at it either trying to “generate cool stories” or getting too hung up on winning. I think you have to realize that the game is pretty random, and even if you play the best game possible you may well get hosed. On the other hand, if you don’t play to win, you aren’t going to generate the most (or even any) interesting stories. So take Knizia’s advice to heart, and realize that you do have to play the game to win, but the actual winning itself isn’t the important thing.

I’ll finish with a couple more concrete tips and observations.

Firstly, on the question of how to choose your victory conditions of story points vs. destiny points: This is a tough call and it’s unfortunate that the rules don’t give you a little guidance on this, since it’s an important decision that you make up-front with little to no information. My sense has been that Story points are a little easier to come by than Destiny, so that argues for favoring Story a little bit. A possibly more important factor, though, is that there is a fairly common status, Scorned, which turns all your Destiny points into Story points. There are also a few other fairly common Statuses that allow you spend Destiny for some effect, and Crippled (which doesn’t seem that common) doubles your Story points. On the flip side, Story Point losses, spends, or conversion to Destiny seem very rare (I haven’t seen any, but they could be out there). It’s still a bit of a shot in the dark, but I think it pays to favor Story points. Scorned seems to come up a lot, and if your objective points are split close to 50/50, it can be a real back-breaker.

Secondly, some folks I’ve played with have griped a little bit about the early game, a gripe with which I am not unsympathetic. The first phase of the game seems to involve wandering around a bit a trying to make something happen, looking for a break. You’re comparatively unskilled at that point, so it doesn’t feel like you are able to exert that much control until you’ve gained some experience. Thematic, but it can make the early game a little unsatisfying. We were pondering minor variants you could use to tweak things a bit, and I think we hit on a good one: just allow the players to pick 4, or even 5 skills at start instead of 3. It seems like it would do no fundamental violence to the game and it would give you a better shot at managing the encounters in the early game, and would let you fit more action in to the same game length. We had a discussion about whether you could get one starting skill at Master level for the cost of two skills, but were undecided. Master level skills are a significant advantage in terms of guiding your destiny, and it seemed like something that should have to be earned. Regardless, personally I don’t mind the early game of wandering in the wilderness, but I can see that overall this might improve the game for a lot of folks.

Lastly, keep the player count on this game down. The box advertises up to 6, but that just seems nuts. I’d say you should cap it at 4, and 3 is probably preferable. While you aren’t the current player or the reader, Tales of the Arabian Nights is almost pure downtime. There is only so much fun to be had listening to other players’ stories. Some, certainly – enough for a 4-player game, I think – but add more players and it gets pretty attenuated.

Triumph of Chaos, Part 2

If you recall my report from the first half of our game, I was reasonably impressed. My main nervousness about Triumph of Chaos was always the complexity, with the long rulebook plus a supplement with lots of faction special rules, but my fears had been abated somewhat in actual play.

By the time we finished our second session with the game, though, the chrome and faction special rules combined with a lack of any acceptable player aids had started to weigh on us. None of the rules are tricky in and of themselves, but a combination of quantity and often-unclear presentation was a problem. Figuring out some of the setup charts for the Ukraine and Poland seemed to degenerate to guesswork at times. While playing the early game, with smaller and peripheral factions, was fine, entering the later game with larger and more complex factions (Ukraine, Poland, Mahkno), and where the victory conditions had become somewhat opaque, was definitely less satisfying. A game with this quantity of special-case rules really, really needs a decent reference sheet. How many games with potential have been sunk by the lack of a single well-thought-out, 1-page (front and back) reference sheet? Too many.

Another element of the game that seemed decent at first but wore thin with more play was the political phase. While I think the rules for politics are quite clever, I also think that from a game perspective, they just don’t work very well. Each turn, players select action cards to commit to three political arenas, generically labeled “red”, “white”, and “other”. Based on the amount of strength committed to each arena, a certain number of political cards will be selected, with the player who committed the most strength choosing a few from the pile, and the rest being selected randomly. Each card then has an effect on the allegiance of each political entity in the game.

This in theory sounds good. But each card, despite a thematic title, is essentially just an abstract collection of modifiers (“+1 White”, “+2 Red”), often for 10 or more individual factions. Figuring out which cards to pick, especially if you get to pick a couple, is a mind-bending exercise in matrix manipulation. Even figuring out which arena to allocate to was opaque. And all of it was an exercise that doesn’t offer much entertainment or interesting challenge.

I still think Triumph of Chaos does a lot of clever stuff, and while the second session with the game was tough, I like the design of the card decks a lot. I like the leader rules. I like the situation, with a combination of linear fronts and far-flung operations. I like the graphical presentation of the game, even if it’s noisy in spots. But Matt showed little enthusiasm to play again, and in practice I have to admit that I do think it’s over the complexity line of what most gamers are going to want to deal with, and, more to the point, the level of fiddly complexity presents a big barrier to feeling competent with the game in a reasonable amount of time. Paths of Glory and WWII: Barbarossa to Berlin are classics because they can be learned fairly thoroughly in an hour or so of play. Triumph of Chaos, it seems, cannot. There are just too many special cases. Wargaming is a very crowded field these days, and games have to be played with other people, who have to be convinced to sit down and learn the rules; and then the rules have to be grasped and the merits of the game have to be strongly apparent in the first couple hours of play. The complexity of Triumph of Chaos seems, unfortunately, to be just on the wrong side of manageable. It seems the effort to keep all the rules in your head requires playing more and more often than what the game grabs you for.

I think it’s a shame, because Triumph of Chaos – even though I think it came out OK – did not need to be this way. I think there is clearly chaff here that could have been cut out, and if a harder line could had been taken on complexity, and if what remained could have been encapsulated in some good reference sheets, Triumph of Chaos could have been much more than the niche game it turned out to be.

Triumph of Chaos

The last two new wargames I’ve played, Grand Illusion and Empire of the Sun, left me feeling respectively slightly underwhelmed and extremely frustrated. So it was with some trepidation that I embarked on Triumph of Chaos, the new card-driven game from Clash of Arms based on the Paths of Glory engine. It’s set during the Russian Civil War of 1918-1921, a confused affair involving almost anyone who could hitch a ride to the vicinity – not just Ukrainians and Finns and Cossaks and Tajiks, but French, Poles, Americans, Czechs, Japanese … you name it. Anyway, the game looked quite cool, but the rulebook had typos. Some fairly serious ones. As I always say, if you can’t use a spell-checker, what are the odds you have the attention to detail required to get all the details of a complex game design right? But in the end, I’m glad I tried it, and after an admittedly brief play it seems like the most promising new game of this type since Paths of Glory. It might even be able to cash in on the promise that even Paths of Glory itself couldn’t quite fulfill …

Triumph of Chaos can be described fairly easily, for the Paths of Glory fan: it uses the basic Paths of Glory engine, with some minor touch-ups for the time period (like planes, tanks, and cavalry), then adds a bunch of special rules for all the various factions for what should probably be a 4 or 5-player game. Of course, if you played with 4 or 5 players, most would have little to do most of the time, so for practical reasons you need a 2-player game … which means keeping in your head a number of special rules for the Poles, Ukrainians, Finns, Central Powers, and so on. These rules daunted me and were my main reservation going into the game. They still do, and I still do have some reservations … but they were not so bad once you sat down to play. It’s just a fair amount of look-up when they come up. It’s compensated for somewhat by the fact that the actual moving about of counters should be very familiar to Paths of Glory fans.

I think the coolest thing about Triumph of Chaos (other than the situation, which is inherently interesting and undergamed – Reds! is probably the best recent attempt, but I found that game underwhelming) is the tweaks that have been made to the card deck. Not only do you have both historical and hypothetical events, something I’ve always wanted in these games, but also many of the single-shot cards present you with a choice. For example, several White cards offer reinforcements, but you must choose whether to bring in (say) Czechs, Poles, or Brits. Once made, the card is removed, and the other options are lost for the game. Or you have to choose between troops and political events. Several cards enable one future event but prevent others. This added level of decision-making allows for interesting choices, and also allows the game to develop in more varied ways than Paths of Glory. This is a simple, rules-free upgrade and I like it a lot. Perhaps after a ton of play it will become clear which options are best, but for the moment it’s fun to choose.

My only complaints about the game are functional. First, the map, while nicely done and on heavy paper stock, is going to wear rapidly just folding it and unfolding it. The heavy card used by Columbia, or by GMT in Europe Engulfed and their new “deluxe” maps is a vastly better solution. For a game that’s potentially a real winner, I’d much prefer a durable heavy card map. Secondly, the faction reference sheets are a little weak. They are large and with a fair amount of wasted space, and keeping track of the faction special powers is critical. I’d much rather have had smaller, index-card sized reference sheets so you could keep in front of you just the ones you control.

Anyway, I liked Triumph of Chaos, and look forward to playing some more.

Arcana Unearthed: Plague of Dreams, part I

After having finished my preparations, and getting the party together, we begin.

[Warning! Spoilers ahead.]

The adventure begins in the small town of Gahanis, roughly in the middle of Dor-Erthenos, or the lands of the Diamond Throne. Gahanis is a mining and commercial town in the foothills, know for the quality of their ore. But it seems they are having problems with bandits.

The characters are contacted by the Jaren, a highly secretive trade guild, with a proposal to kill two birds with one stone: the bandits have stolen a book that is of value to the Jaren. However, the bandits left a survivor in the raid that took the book, and that survivor identified two bandits as local residents of Gahanis who must have been feeding the raiders information. The Jaren believe they are currently hiding out in Battlehome, an old, abandoned Giant fortress a couple hours hike outside of town. If the characters could capture the bandits, retrieve the book, and keep the whole thing hush-hush, they would be well rewarded.

A cursory background check into the two bandits turns up the fact that one is a warrior and one might be a low-level Runethane, so it would be best to watch for traps. With that out of the way, it’s off to the Keep.

Battlehome turns out to be part dungeon crawl, part background spiel. The main historical event in the Arcana Unearthed setting is the war between the Giants and Dramojh, which lasted 200 years and ended about 350 years ago. Prior to that, most of the races of AU (with the exception of the Mojh, who didn’t exist, and the Verrik) had been enslaved by the Dramojh for over a thousand years; even the Dragons had fled before their power. But the Giants fought them, eventually exterminating them and then taking on the role of Stewards of the Land.

Battlehome is a Giant fortress from the time of these battles, so it has lots of interesting background flavor – an intricate and interesting defensive network, as well as Giantish living quarters. There are also a few fairly low-level adversaries, including some flying dire bat things and some Goblins. While none of these seriously threaten the party (and they actually avoided the most serious encounter), the damage adds up, and by the time they are facing down the two bandits, things are a little tight. But they manage to beat them over the head with saps and take them prisoner. While they find some maps and accounting records implicating the prisoners in the bandit raids, they fail to find the critical book – only a hint that it has been removed to the Lake of Lost Voices, a place of dire reputation to which no reasonable people from Gahanis travel.

This was my second attempt at actually running a game since college, and I was a bit anxious since my most recent attempt to do a D&D session was not, I felt, particularly successful. I felt it went OK overall, although I think the party missed some of more interesting stuff in the module by not doing much background research in Gahanis before heading out to the Keep, and then once in the Battlehome things got a bit bogged down at times. I took away a few lessons from this:

It’s good to give the party a little bit of meta-game information up front. If people are expecting a classic D&D-style dungeon crawl (which this does appear to be on first inspection), of course they aren’t going to bother with doing a background check on the Jaren, asking around for what people know on the Keep, etc. – they’re just going to head out and start killing stuff. I think it’s OK to let people know ahead of time what to expect from the module in terms of the meta-game.

In our D&D group, we do a lot of drawing. When the party enters a room, we tend to draw stuff out on a battlemap and play out all the battles as tactical games. When the party is in a dungeon-like setting, we tend to draw everything. I think doing this was a mistake for this module. In most of Battlehome, there is a lot of ambiance but not much real danger – except for the couple high-end encounters, there are only some minor skirmishes, but not much that’s worth actually pushing around metal. In order to keep the pace moving, I think it would have been better to just describe everything as the party explored it, allowing the party to give meta-commands (like, “we’d like to explore the central tower”), and then just running it as a narrative if there wasn’t anything threatening in the central tower instead of the classic: “You see a door. What do you want to do?” “We listen at the door.” “Nothing” “We open the door” “There’s a room with some stuff in it, and another door”. This is unnecessarily time consuming. I could have instead just given a running narrative, with the characters interjecting stuff as they had additional questions or more things they wanted to do, and that would have made the whole thing run more smoothly. And several of the skirmishes could have been run abstractly rather than getting out the grid.

The other thing I wish I had done was to provide all the characters with some basic personality sketches. I don’t know what they would have been exactly – maybe something along the lines of “Lito is a lighthearted guy who enjoys telling tall tales and taunting his enemies” – but given that many in the group were basically new to roleplaying games, I think it would have helped. They wouldn’t have to be long; something simple and specific would do. I know when I go to Origins, the characters I get usually have these background sketches, but sometimes it’s hard to know what to do with it when it’s more of a rambling background piece instead of talking about the character’s actual personality.

Still, though, all things considered, I think it went well; people seemed to have fun, and most have signed up to continue playing. I learned a lot of good stuff too.