Droids, Midichlorians, and Orcs: Dealing with problematic canon

If you run an RPG, whether it’s a licensed property or not, there are bound to be elements of the canon that you don’t like or disagree with. In general, my recommendation is to suck it up and stick to the canon, if for no other reason than just not to confuse your players. Every so often, though, you run into a truly a gigantic issue that compels some sort of resolution.

I ran into this in my Star Wars: Age of Rebellion game. I had a player who had chosen a droid PC with “Droid Rights” as her motivation. This is cool because it’s a theme the movies raise but don’t explore: droids obviously have some degree of sentience, but are treated as property, which seems wrong. As I started playing with the idea of droid sentience in my own arc, I came across the long-standing rules prohibition against Force-sensitive droids in Star Wars games and wondered why this should be, exactly. If a droid should achieve a degree of sentience comparable with humans somehow – as is generally assumed for droid player characters in these games – why couldn’t they access the Force? The Force is a spiritual energy, a reflection of the soul made manifest, and who are we to say that biological beings have souls but self-aware droids don’t? And what possible narrative purpose could it serve to do so?

The ostensible reason of course is the biggest WTF moment in Star Wars movies: midichlorians. Those symbiotic organisms that, according to Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace, serve as receptors for the Force. Organic beings have them. Cyborgs have them. Droids don’t. Possibly the Horta doesn’t either, I’m guessing.

I think the introduction of midichlorians broke a lot of Star Wars fans, and had them questioning George Lucas’ sanity and/or intelligence. I admit I had a similar reaction, but my bias was that I knew that Lucas was a smart guy. He had, after all, written and made the original trilogy. The difference between Lucas and J J Abrams is that when Lucas does things, he does them for reasons that make sense. There was probably a reason for the midichlorians, just not one that was apparent to me at the time.

My personal understanding of that reason didn’t come into focus until a few years after Revenge of the Sith came out, and they had become just a small weird background element in the larger trilogy. It went like this: the very first real scene of the trilogy, with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan on the Trade Federation ship, seems quite revealing to me. It starts with a callback to the original trilogy (Obi-Wan saying he has a bad feeling about this), but then immediately stakes out some new territory. Obi-Wan talks about how Yoda has told him he should be mindful of the future, something that Episode V Yoda would probably warn against. Qui-Gon then tells Obi-Wan to be mindful not of the “Force”, but of the “Living Force”, an expression we haven’t heard before. This seems to be staking out a position: how the Jedi understand the Force was different in the past, and this is not exactly the same Yoda we see later. I remember when I watched that scene the first time, it clearly signaled to me that things are going to be different.

This then feeds into questions about the reliability of Qui-Gon and his idea of the “Living Force”. He’s often at odds with the Jedi Council and Jedi orthodoxy. We’ll learn later that he was Count Dooku’s padawan. When he talks about the prophecy that Anakin is supposed to be fulfilling, the rest of the council appears skeptical. His talk of midichlorians doesn’t sway the Jedi Council when he’s trying to get Anakin trained. Even Obi-Wan senses the danger Anakin presents which Qui-Gon seems blind to, and – given how things turn out – insisting on training Anakin may not have been the best call. It’s entirely possible that Qui-Gon is not part of the Jedi mainstream and his understanding of the Living Force and  midichlorians is not, in fact, widely shared. Midichlorians clearly exist, and can be measured – the Council seems to acknowledge this, at least – but it’s possible that not everyone agrees about their function.

Then throw in the fact that after Qui-Gon’s death, nobody brings up midichlorians again. The films tell us several times, mainly in Attack of the Clones, that the state of Jedi knowledge and scholarship is calcified. The Jedi Council, over the course of the films, reveals itself to be a terrible, ineffective organization. All this adds up, for me, to the idea that the Jedi in the timeframe of the prequels may not really have known what they were doing – the results speak for themselves on that count – and that midichlorians were simply a quirk of Qui-Gon’s philosophy of the Living Force, and one that you don’t need to worry about in your games.

The problem, of course, is that this is not actually the correct interpretation, according to George Lucas (bearing in mind that creators are surprisingly often wrong about their own works). I had read a lot of the background history of the creation of the prequels, but never remembered hearing or reading anything that explained Lucas’ thinking behind the midichlorians. In doing background for this piece, I remembered I hadn’t listened to Lucas’ commentary tracks on the prequels in a long time, so I popped in The Phantom Menace and checked out the scenes where midichlorians are mentioned. Lo and behold, there it is, behind the scene where Qui-Gon draws Anakin’s blood to test. And the answer is inextricably tied up with the original sin of the classic trilogy – the single fact that makes Star Wars so hard to game and explains why, even though I respect the classic trilogy more, I actually find it easier as a whole to engage with the people in the prequels.

In the classic trilogy, it is established there is sort of a royal family of the Force, the Skywalkers. They are far more sensitive to the Force than anyone else, to the point that Luke can use his native talent to accomplish almost miraculous feats (blocking blaster bolts with his lightsaber while blindfolded) with only the most minimal training while virtually everyone else remains Force-blind. In The Empire Strikes Back, it’s established by Yoda that, amongst the trillions upon trillions of beings in the galaxy, there is literally nobody who is not a descendant of Skywalker who can be trained to defeat Darth Vader – and Vader, as a reconstructed cyborg, has only a fraction of the power he had as Anakin Skywalker.

George Lucas felt this needed some explaining – which it does – and so he introduced midichlorians in a way that he thought would work, and mesh with the themes of Episode I. Midichlorians are described only vaguely, no actual mechanism is ever proposed, and the symbiotic relationship plays into the themes of Star Wars. But midichlorians are wholly unsatisfactory as an explanation because the thing they have to explain is wholly unsatisfactory – that some people have vastly greater potential based solely on genetics. Without that fact you you can’t have big chunks of the original trilogy. Maybe you can live with the galaxy as the playground of the Skywalkers, but once you expand the story into the prequels – or onto your gaming table – you kind of need to deal with it somehow.

To the credit of the prequels, a lot less is made of Anakin’s genes than is made of Luke’s in the originals. Luke ultimately has to face Vader because it is his “destiny” – The Empire Strikes Back’s favorite word. Anakin’s path is, to me, more nuanced and interesting: he makes his own choices, but is also influenced by his situation and by the people around him. His destiny is his to make, but but also for others to influence; the fact that he may or may not be “the chosen one” is not nearly as significant as who he is and who the people around him are. Another intriguing fact that the prequels introduce is that the fact that the Sith don’t pass on their powers by heredity, apparently. They “adopt” their apprentices from the best available candidates. While the Sith are unpleasant, they do a pretty good job of passing on power from generation to generation. Did I mention that Qui-Gon Jinn was Count Dooku’s padawan, before he became Darth Tyranus?

So what is the Star Wars game master to make of all this? One answer is simply to run a campaign without the Force, which is sort of the route taken by Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. This is fine as far as it goes, but the Force is such a central part of the Star Wars mythology it’s hard to ignore forever. In order to get best results – even if you’re going to draw solely on material from the classic trilogy – you need to wrestle with these issues and figure out what you think of them.

The facts established by the classic trilogy – the importance of your parents to your destiny – are definitely not working for me. Neither, obviously, is the fact that your midichlorian levels dictate your Force potential, since the latter explains the former.

Even if you hate the prequels, the good news is that they provide more than enough cover to simply discard the whole lot of it. I feel there is enough to make the case that Qui-Gon, while right about many things, was wrong about midichlorians. And if that’s true, it’s only a very small step to also argue that Obi-Wan and Yoda were wrong when they believed only Anakin’s children had the Force potential to overcome him and the Emperor. In the context of the classic trilogy, we have no reason to believe that Yoda is anything other than he appears to be, the wise mentor who we have no reason to doubt. But throw in the prequels, and now Yoda was a key member of the Jedi Council that so abjectly failed the first time; a person who feels the choices he made were so wrong that in at least one important case, he strongly councils Luke to do the exact opposite of what he did under the same circumstances. Obi-Wan was a product of the last, failing generation of Jedi and as Anakin’s former master, he could easily be too emotionally involved in this case. He’s also got a track record of playing a little fast and loose with facts. The power of the Empire at this point would have made finding and training another candidate difficult in any event, so the reason Luke and Leia were their last hopes may, in truth, have owed much more to practicalities than genetics.

To be fair to Lucas, he obviously wrestles with these contradictions, which have deep roots and you could probably get a Master’s thesis out of. There are plenty of times in The Empire Strikes Back where we don’t particularly believe Luke is special, and Yoda gives the impression that more or less anyone could be a Jedi, with the right discipline and training. But the core of the drama in Empire and Jedi is the father-son dynamic (with the daughter shorted, as usual), and that drives other elements of the story. This dynamic is unlikely to be something you want to replicate in your game, and now the prequels give you enough ammunition to completely jettison the single most problematic aspect of the Star Wars canon – Force power that is innate and primarily heritable – and I think you should. Not only does it make for better gaming, it also makes the Star Wars universe more morally just. It’s Star Wars, from the vantage point of Ahsoka Tano – for me, the most relatable Jedi in the franchise.

So even though it’s apparently not what Lucas intended, I’ve become attached to my interpretation of midichlorians: that they are a wrong idea that fell out of fashion, and furthermore that the idea that receptivity to the Force is measurable and heritable is the product of the failing generations of the Jedi, which the prequels show as conflicted, reactionary, and ultimately not up to the challenge they faced.

The Force model I’ve gone with in my game, following my interpretation of the movies, is that being able to use the Force is a skill, just a very difficult one. I think of it as analogous to the skill required to play classical music at a very high level: it’s extremely difficult to master, some people clearly have an aptitude for it, but most anyone can do it if they have the concentration, discipline, and a good mentor. Being from a family of classical musicians clearly helps, but pre-eminent performers surprisingly often emerge from families with no notable musical history (Hilary Hahn, Sharon Kam). Genetics make a difference – Yuja Wang’s long fingers or Paganini’s freakishly flexible joints are clearly assets (in the case of Paganini, an asset with a high cost) – but not as much as you might think. Even for those with aptitude, it’s a lot of work. Without situational or genetic advantages you may never become the best in the world, but with commitment and the right training and barring disability you can usually become very, very good.

We run into a similar, although possibly less problematic, question when gaming Tolkien: where exactly did the orcs come from, and why are they apparently all evil? Somewhat similarly to midichlorians, orcs are creatures that the story Tolkien is telling requires, but which his philosophy cannot explain. Since in fiction the requirements of story trump the requirements of logic, orcs exist; troublesome questions remain. Within the context of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, you don’t need to worry about it too much, but once you write a prequel (The Silmarillion) or design an RPG arc, the question may become more urgent. In Tolkien’s worldview, evil can only corrupt, not create; so in the version of the Silmarillion that Christopher Tolkien published, Melkor capture some Elves and corrupt them into orcs (it’s not clear that Tolkien himself thought this was the answer to the conundrum). But this just doesn’t make a lot of sense and raises more questions than it answers. The problem is that, much like George Lucas, Tolkien is trying to weave modern values into a medieval story structure, and there ends up being conflicts. Those conflicts are, in fact, often what brings life to the stories and give them depth. Every so often, though, they create problems for those of us who come later.

The problems here are easier to resolve simply because The Silmarillion was published posthumously and so I’ve never considered it truly “canon” in the Tolkien universe, at least not to the same degree as the stories Tolkien actually published himself during his lifetime. So I can just discard the orc’s origin story as given in The Silmarillion (which somewhat surprisingly make it into Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Rings adaptation), and simply choose in favor Tolkien’s dominant modern values: like Gollum, the orcs are not irredeemably evil, they are just slaves to Sauron’s will. Knowing their origin story then becomes unnecessary or a subject of speculation, and not a glaring inconsistency in the universe. Having made this decision, as storytellers themes open up to us and we can use orcs more intelligently as adversaries and not simply as mindless cannon fodder which the players are free to wantonly kill without compunction.

I think my biggest take-away from this whole run-around on the issue of droids and the Force was the importance of spending some time thinking about these things. If there are points of inconsistency or contradiction, you don’t have to tap-dance around them, you can make a philosophical call that is supportable and consistent with the setting and not worry about supporting all possible interpretations, or even supporting things that the artist said at one time which may, in fact, have been wrong! When these questions arise, coming to your own conclusions based on your own values, finding a way to make it clear to your players, and sticking with them will make your own creations better.

For the record: in my Star Wars games, intelligent droids will be able to access the Force.

The One Ring RPG

I threw in the towel on D&D (3, 3.5 and 4, plus Pathfinder) a couple years ago and switched my roleplaying energies to Gumshoe, a decision I’m quite happy with. But, as is usual with these things, I didn’t bring along all the friends I game with. For players who like the tactical combat, detailed character building, and the die-rolling of D&D or Pathfinder, Gumshoe is not going to be in their wheelhouse.

So I’m always on the lookout for somewhere we can meet in the middle. A game, probably a fantasy game, that has interesting combat with plenty of die-rolling but doesn’t get bogged down in minutia and can be enjoyed more in the quick-playing, systems-light style. Something that has plenty of skills and feat-like-things, but that still taps into the more improvisational RPG aesthetic.The One Ring looked perfect.

Not that I came to that conclusion right away though. I picked it up after it got some buzz from GenCon 2011 despite the fact that Tolkien roleplaying games in general have a rather sorry history, mainly because of my Tolkien fandom and because it was through Sophisticated Games, which has a good track record with licensed products. Unfortunately, The One Ring’s two core books are incoherent: rules presented in almost random order, topics split between sections and between both books and fully explained nowhere, paragraphs that give up their meaning only after intense textual analysis – it’s really terrible. After doing my initial read I shelved it feeling like it was making the right noises, but having little idea what the game was trying to do. It was only once I picked it up again six months later and plowed through it on a mission that I figured out what the game was about.

It’s a nice blend of ideas. The skill check system is straightforward: you roll against target numbers with a single d12 Fate die, plus one regular d6 for each rank you have in the skill. There are a few nuances built in to the custom dice: the d6s have a Tengwar rune for an exceptional success on the 6, and the 1-3 faces are shaded and count for zero if you are weary. The big variance on the Fate die makes it possible for more or less anyone to succeed (albeit rarely) at many things, but it takes skill to get the exceptional successes that trigger bonuses. The probability curve is rather nice and gives you real flexibility as the GM with target numbers; there are big differences between how characters with various ranks in skills will feel about targets of 10, 12, 14, or 16. The rules for Weariness, zeroing out your d6 rolls of 1 through 3, are very clean but impactful, and make tasks a lot harder but don’t make impossible anything you could accomplish when well-rested.

This solid skill check system then works quite well in combat, which is abstract but has good texture. Each combat round you choose how closely you are going to engage, which affects both how easy it will be for you to hit the enemy as well as how easily they hit you. Each range bracket has a special action associated with it (intimidate, rally, protect, aim), and there are other standard combat options (called shots, accepting knockback) which provide some choices and are thematic. Additionally, it’s nice to see attention to workable rules for disengaging and fleeing from combat, a common occurrence in the books. Also nice is that enemies have a Hate rating which both powers their special abilities and is a proxy for morale, giving the GM an explicit cue for when the bad guys break and run away themselves. Still, despite the solid mechanical support here, combat is still pretty abstract and nowhere near as tactically detailed as many would probably like. Gumshoe has always relied on the players to be a little more imaginative than just saying “I shoot him. I’ll spend 2 shooting points. I hit. I do 6 points of damage”. You don’t need involved narration for every combat roll, but it’s in the hands of the players to bring the action to life. The One Ring gives players much more support than Gumshoe does in terms of structure to hang some narration on, but it will still get repetitive and feel flat unless players can engage with it and flesh it out through colorful description.

This is all good and well-designed, but where does the players’ real narrative authority kick in? Characters in The One Ring have Traits (which can be Specialties, which are like backgrounds, or Distinctive Features, which are more like personality traits), which serve some of the same game functions as FATE’s Aspects or Gumshoe’s investigative skills. They are little bits of description that if you can integrate in to what you’re trying to accomplish with a skill, you get a significant bonus – sometimes an auto-success, sometimes an extra experience point. There is no token economy backing this up as in FATE – you can earn the bonus as often as you can do it – and neither is as integral to the system as Trail of Cthulhu’s Drives which have a hard link to a character’s Sanity. It’s more akin to the Technothriller Monologue and similar cherries in Night’s Black Agents. Give a little narration that invokes your trait and pleases the GM and the other players, and you get a bonus. My only complaint is that I think a number of The One Ring’s pre-packaged Traits can be problematic. Some of them are just hard to work into adventuring sorts of actions without straining something (Fishing?). Others, while perhaps thematic, are problematic from a game perspective as they can feed bad group dynamics (Secretive, Suspicious, or Wilful will be grabbed immediately by your player who enjoys hosing the party or abusing the gaming social contract).

In practice, while Traits are simple, work, and I like them, nonetheless they didn’t exert much pull on the imaginations of my fellow-players. Perhaps the off-the-shelf ones were too vague and not generally useful enough, or the benefits of using them are not as crisp and clear as FATE’s Fate points. I suspect a combination. If you have a group that likes and has some experience with these sorts of player narrative hooks I’m sure it’ll be fine, but I suspect for groups trying to make the switch form D&D, GURPS, or Call of Cthulhu there might not be enough direction here.

More practical and useful I think are a few conventions and pointers for GMs. One key bit is that skill checks are resolved in a somewhat non-traditional way: first, as a player state what you are trying to accomplish; second, roll the dice; and finally, narrate your character’s actions and the outcome, maybe with the help of the GM. This is a simple thing but makes for a much more satisfactory narrative, especially for social skills. How often have you framed, say, a Diplomacy check by narrating a suave approach and a persuasive argument only to fumble the die roll? It becomes hard to climb down at that point and narrate an interesting and plausible failure. This is a good habit to get into with any game I think, but The One Ring’s easy skill check details for extraordinary successes and fumbles supports it especially well. It also allows the characters more narrative control over both how they succeed and how they fail, which can be fun. Watch out though for the players who are too possessive and have a hard time narrating failure for their characters, instead trying to twist a failed die roll into an uncomplicated narrative success, but I suspect we can agree not to blame the system for that.

Beyond these core ideas, The One Ring provides a lot of mechanical support for adventuring in Tolkien’s world. There is a nice journeying sub-game for long trips which folds into the weariness system and provides a good way to hook in “random” encounters along the way when players blow rolls. Hope gives a way for characters to boost rolls, but spend too much Hope and you may gain a Shadow-Weaknesses, a Trait that works more to your disadvantage. The mix of wounds, weariness, and loss of hope inflicted by combat is much more thematic and interesting than just tracking hit points. The advancement system is point-buy, but the way experience points are awarded is quite clever – you get them for skill checks, but you can’t rack them up for using a single strong skill, you need to use a range of skills of different types. While the game is definitely what I’d consider lightweight, there is some detail to it. Unfortunately, I have to come back to the wretched books which make the game seem far more complicated than it really is. The first time we played, we were frequently flipping pages (and thrashing with the useless index) to find simple concepts. I ended up having to read both books cover to cover a third time, taking notes, to build up a reference card with a summary of all the systems just to make the game playable. It was only one page front and back in a large-ish font – this is a simple game with a truly terrible ruleset.

The last thing to talk about is the inherent difficulty associated with gaming in the worlds of J R R Tolkien. I think The One Ring has done a good job in hewing to the feel of the books, and I think focusing on the period and style of The Hobbit more than The Lord of the Rings is the right choice. The Hobbit makes more fertile ground for lighter, fun, action-adventure games, while The Lord of the Rings is complicated by its truly epic scale and the fact that anything you might do is vastly less important than whatever the Fellowship is up to. Still, even focusing on The Hobbit, the problem is that like the Cthulhu Mythos every reader finds something different in Tolkien and decades of bad knock-offs have polluted the environment, so it can be hard for everyone to be on the same page style-wise. How many battles do the heroes of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings actually initiate? None as far as I can remember – they’re all defensive engagements, or running battles with the heroes trying to escape. But a million D&D set-pieces where dwarves and elves and men take the battle to the bad guys (and loot their stuff) makes balancing expectations complicated. I really enjoy reading the parts of the Ashen Stars and Night’s Black Agents rules where Robin Laws and Kenneth Hite talk quite specifically about how stories are structured in their game worlds, what the themes are and how to keep the characters moving. Something along these lines for The One Ring would have been hugely helpful, as the modules provided in the rulebook and the Tales from Wilderland sourcebook are mediocre. Tolkien is not about escorting hapless two-bit merchants through Mirkwood for a flat fee. Perhaps an equivalent of the Cthulhu Mythos’ “purist” vs. “pulp” would be helpful here.

Bottom line for me: as a person intrigued by game systems and how they tweak players and enable different play styles, I liked The One Ring a lot and it overcame my inherent skepticism about the gameability of Tolkien. The dice system is terrific, the combat system is light-ish but thematic and interesting and with some subtlety, and the game is faithful to the books. Unfortunately the supports for the good game mechanics are not very good. The books are atrociously put together. The adventures are at best OK. The vital Traits are a mixed bag. There is little help for the GM in terms of the nitty-gritty of designing adventures, and crucially little practical guidance on the complicated questions of style and how to game Tolkien in a way that’s fun. As good as the game system is, and as I much as I hope The One Ring can find a niche in my roleplaying rotation, these practical obstacles are significant and I fear I need to keep looking for something reliable to fill the gap between D&D and Gumshoe. Maybe 13th Age will fill the bill.

Games, Theme, Lord of the Rings, and Lost Cities

So, a hypothetical question: Let’s say you’re a gamer, and you’re trying to decide whether you like a game or not (I know, I know, what are the odds?). Let’s also assume for the moment that games can be cleanly divided into two parts, theme and game-play. Which of these two halves is easier to get one’s head around?

The answer I would have given, prior to last year anyway, was that theme is easier. You can easily tell if a game is evoking a certain feel just from playing it, right? What’s so hard about that? It’s almost not even worth thinking too much about. Most game discussions seem to me to spend far, far more ink on game-play than on theme.

Or is it really as obvious as all that?

If you step back a bit and think about it, it seems otherwise everywhere else. Literature, for example. Take the Lord of the Rings, a perennial favorite of mine and, it seems, of many gamers. It’s easy to appreciate these books for their obvious craft: the use of language, the narrative flow, the easy and economical but exceptionally vivid characterization, the incredible attention to detail, the visceral struggle between good and evil. But to understand and appreciate the themes that run through the books requires digging deeper. What is the nature of the evil Tolkien is portraying? Is the Ring in itself a force of evil, or is it simply the power of it that corrupts even the stoutest of hearts? Tolkien uses the language of both, and that ambiguity in exploring the theme of good vs evil is what makes thinking about the book deeply rewarding, and gives the theme strength and subtlety beyond the Manichaeism traditional to fantasy. This is just one of the themes of the book that can be understood more fully only after appreciating the simple excitement of a well-told story.

And so it sometimes is with games, I’ve come to understand.

Take Reiner Knizia’s classic Lost Cities. For the couple readers who may not have played this game, here is a game-play summary: Lost Cities is played with what is essentially a 5-suited but otherwise standard deck of cards. On your turn, you must play a card on your side of the table, onto one of five columns, one for each suit. You can only play cards in ascending order; once you’ve played the 6, you can’t go back and play a 5. If you want to get that 5 out of your hand, you have to play it to the discard pile, but then your opponent can pick it up instead of drawing from the deck. At the end of the game your score is simply the sum of all the cards you’ve played in a column, minus 20. The face cards are not numeric, but are doublers: you have to play them before you play a numeric card, and they double your score for that suit (not always a good thing!).

Most players will be immediately struck by the constant, wrenching choices the game throws at you. There are rarely obvious plays; you might have a 2 to start an expedition with, but nothing to back it up, or a couple high cards and you have to decide whether to play them or hold them waiting to fill in some lower-valued cards. Figuring out where and what to play is never easy.

But is the game thematic? I think most players (including myself) would instinctively say no, it’s just another basically-abstract Knizia game with a theme of pretty pictures and nice presentation. The game gives you no sense of exploration or adventure. You’re just playing cards.

Well, maybe. But if you take a deeper look at the choices that drive the play of those cards, you discover that Lost Cities is a game of risk management. How risky is it to double an expedition given what you know about it so far, i.e., what cards you have in hand? Is it worth it to set out early and leave drawing the rest of the cards you need to chance, or do you want to wait and do more research, see what the draw deck gives you? Do you want to start an expedition which you know has a small risk of a negative score, but no chance of a big positive score, or do you take a risk on an expedition with a greater upside but also a greater downside?

Although I’ve never put together an expedition to a lost city personally, in my mind I imagine that it would be primarily an exercise in managing and mitigating risks – knowing when you’ve done all the preparation you can expect to do and it’s time to get going, or when there are too many unknowns and more preparation is required. Knowing which expeditions have good prospects and which don’t. And in the sense of getting right at that idea – of planning and managing risk – Lost Cities does, in fact, carry the theme wonderfully. And almost by definition this thematic success simply cannot be appreciated until you have fully grasped not just the rules, but all the subtle nuances of the game-play, and not just how to play but how to win.

So now I consider Lost Cities, along with a number of other Knizia games I hadn’t fully appreciated before, thematically compelling. It’s a different way of presenting a theme – not as visceral as being shot at in Battlestations or dodging incoming asteroids in Galaxy Trucker – but to me arguably every bit as successful.

This all came up recently because I played one of Knizia’s latest releases, Keltis. This is basically Lost Cities with room for 3 or 4 players, and a few additional touches – there are now bonus points for reaching certain checkpoints in the expeditions before the other players, which introduces a race element and makes the game-play even more exciting and interesting. Alas, we’ve lost the theme of expedition, replaced with generic Celtic art and no plausible thematic tie-in that I can discern. The game-play is still there, maybe even more interesting than it used to be, but I don’t see any theme to strengthen the story. Perhaps it’ll take another 6 or 7 years for me to have the aha! insight that illuminates this one. For the moment, though, if such things matter to you, you might want to wait for Rio Grande’s version of the game (Lost Cities: The Boardgame) which  sticks with the original expedition theme and hews more faithfully to the original card game.

War of the Ring: Battles of the Third Age, Times Square

Unlike most people I suspect, what ultimately enabled me to pull the trigger on buying the new War of the Ring expansion was not to get at the new bits for the main War of the Ring game, but the new “operational” game they included using many of the same bits as the core game. Sure, I’m glad to have the upgrades for the core game, but since I wasn’t a huge War of the Ring fan I figured the maximum upside for me was modest: it would get War of the Ring onto the table for a few more plays. If there was any way the expansion was going to justify its non-trivial price tag for me, it was with the operational game.

First, let me say that anyone out there who was hoping that Nexus might have learned from the many graphic design foul-ups in War of the Ring (indistinguishable sculpts, ridiculously tiny font sizes, indistinct icons) will be disappointed. The design here is every bit as breathtaking in its blithe disregard for functionality or reason. Icons are tinier, less illuminating, and even more indistinguishable. For reasons that defy all logic recruitment counters specific to good guys and bad guys are all the same color. Relevant terrain on the board is still indistinct. The rulebook manages to make a game of just modest complexity almost completely incoherent. It all really is an amazing sight to behold, especially since the actual look of the board and many of the illustrations is so well-done. All that can be said is that the board itself is much more useable than War of the Ring’s, with spaces that are large enough for the units that will occupy them.

Anyway, enough with that already, how does the game play?

With possibly one big honking exception*, I rather like the core system of the Battles of the Third age game. In the main, the game plays very similarly to the core War of the Ring game (and for that reason if no other I think fans of the base game will find something to like here): you roll dice to see what actions are available to you (move, muster, draw cards, attack, etc.), combat involves rolling up to 5 dice with leader re-rolls, you’ve got some flavor provided by various dual-use event cards, you’ve got characters, armies, and so on. A number of complexities of the full game (Diplomacy, mainly) are gone, replaced by some more tactical concerns: the different types of units now have different flavors (finally!), damage in battle is more nuanced and can be repaired through rallying before units are actually lost, and the Shadow Player can select his “attitude”, from build-up (which allows recruitment and slows the pace of the “fate” clock which times the game) to a neutral position through all-out-offensive (which enables more troop movement but accelerates the clock).

Sounds interesting, right? Sure! Unfortunately, in actual play, this mix of stuff turns out to be bewildering, because there is almost no way for you to get any intuitive sense of what you should be doing. Should I be building up? Attacking right away? Trying to mix recruitment and offense? Who is going to be more effective, the Isengarders, Dunlendings, or Mordor Orcs? What is going on here, exactly? So much of the landscape of the game is hidden by the decks of event and action cards, the mix in the muster chits, and the expected mix of die rolls and fate tile draws, that it’s impossible to formulate a reasonable approach to the game without knowing the exact mix of cards and having a detailed knowledge of complex probabilities.

As a result, our games saw the Shadow Player soundly thrashed. These were not just garden-variety beatings, but total stuffings. Not just once, but back-to-back. Imagine ending a game of Settlers of Catan with 3 points, and that showing would feel more emotionally satisfying than what the Shadow Player has gone through in our games. The problem with a beating that bad is that it often leaves you with no comprehension of what has gone wrong, and that was the case here.

In the end, War of the Ring: Battles of the Third Age felt like a lot of American-style games: while there are lot of different options presented to the player, there is really only one way to play the game.** You need to figure out what that one way to play it is. Then it boils down to who can execute the pat strategies the most efficiently. The War of the Ring base game had similar issues, but it seemed less extreme: if you pursued some avenue other than what the game designer intended (or what the game design demanded) you would lose, but it at least it wouldn’t be the humiliating experience we have here.

As a result, this is one of the most incomprehensible and opaque games I’ve played in some time. I don’t think it’s exactly a bad game – I find many of the individual elements interesting in and of themselves, and many of the tactical decisions have some tension when viewed in isolation – but when taken as a whole the game is simply far too confusing for what you’re likely to get out of it. For what should be a fun roll-the-dice and mix-it-up game with obviously limited replayability, I don’t want to have to spend my first 3 games (at 3 hours or so each) just figuring out what the heck is going on. To me, it’s just not that interesting.

Now, War of the Ring: Battles of the Third Age may be incomprehensible and opaque, but designing such a game is child’s play when you’re willing to use 24+ pages of rules not written in the designer’s first language, a hundred cards, and one metric ton of plastic. Designing an incomprehensible and opaque game with one page of rules, a small board, and a simple deck of cards with no text is the work of a true master.

I admit to having no idea of what’s going on, game-wise, with Reiner Knizia’s Times Square. The basic idea is that you have various figures on the board: Sue and her two Bodyguards, Hal, and Deb. The pieces all have a matching suit of cards which move them in different ways and with different restrictions and have various effects on the other pieces. You’re trying to get them into your (sort of sleazy-looking) bar. You play through the deck twice, some stuff happens, and the game ends.

I can only imagine it’s Reiner’s further experiments in theories of game theme, as demonstrated dramatically by Beowulf. These characters actually have slightly more descriptive names, and they sort of behave in appropriate ways: Sauced, er, Saucy Sue staggers back and forth between the two bars, always surrounded by her bodyguards; Dancin’ Deb flits back and forth and allows the player who’s bar she is closest to to influence the motions of all the other pieces; and Handsome Hal moves in a more leisurely manner, and can attract other individual pieces to him. It all sort of makes sense in a thematic way that is sort of interesting, if still a little bit too abstract to be actually engaging.

The underlying game-play itself though is very strange, and I have yet to determine if there is any tension, any resource management, or any tactics. I’ve played about half-a-dozen times and I am suspicious that there is not – you just play whatever cards you’ve got and pick up some new ones. But, I say to myself, this is Reiner Knizia, not Michael Schacht. There must be something there. It’s rated as a “12 and up” game, for heaven’s sake!

As I say, bewildering.

* So what is that exception anyway? I’ve come to the conclusion that the real weak link in War of the Ring (and, by extension, the Battles of the Third Age expansion) is the action dice system itself. It is a fairly clever in concept, and I usually like dice, but when viewed in a holistic way I think they are ineffective here. They serve to constrain rather than enable. You have some idea of a strategy you want to pursue, but tactically you are too straightjacketed by what you end up rolling. Combinations of dice don’t suddenly open up interesting options that weren’t available before, although many combinations will prevent you from doing what you want. If they enabled uncertainty or excitement or an ability to bluff, that might be something – but they don’t, all dice rolls are open and can be seen by both players, so your opponent knows exactly when you have a lousy roll and how to hammer you for it. The Fellowship knows how dangerous it is to move, and can calculate the odds exactly, which seems very, very wrong.

In a large part because of this core system, both War of the Ring and Battles of the Third Age end up feeling to me like you’re wrestling with the game system, not with your opponent, which for me is not a good thing.

** For the record, the way to win as Saruman in the Rohan scenario appears to be the hyper-aggressive one. Use the “buildup” attitude for one turn, maybe two if you want to push things, then go all-out. locking into the “attack” attitude and never shifting. Any other approach appears to be dead on arrival, as we discovered.

*** Sorry for stealing your gimmick, Joe.

Beowulf: The Legend

So… Beowulf.

This is a big-box, 12 and up game from Reiner Knizia. It’s published by Kosmos and Sophisticated Games, the folks who brought us Knizia’s classic Lord of the Rings game back in 2000. It’s illustrated by legendary Tolkien artist John Howe. All fairly promising indicators.

The players take on the roles of companions to Beowulf. The goal is to support him as he whacks Grendel, hunts for and takes down the Sea Hag, performs various and sundry activities of ruling Geatland, and faces off with a Dragon. At the end of the day, the companion who gained the most fame at Beowulf’s side will prevail and succeed him.

Beowulf is both superficially and fundamental similar to and different from Lord of the Rings. Like Lord of the Rings, it’s episodic; the players encounter episodes from the story in order, and have to deal with them by playing cards that represent travelling, fighting, guile, and so on. But the game is not cooperative; players commit to, profit from, and/or get hammered by events individually. Beowulf, like Lord of the Rings, is fundamentally about card and risk management – like Lord of the Rings, you want the right resources available at the right time to succeed, sometimes taking a risk now to conserve resources for later, or spending heavily now to avoid an immediate risk. Unlike Lord of the Rings, the risks and benefits are to you personally, not the group, and Beowulf is never in danger of not making it past Grendel, and can never survive the encounter Dragon – you are just in danger of personal failure. Have a nice day.

So how does this card and risk management play out? Your hand of cards is in 5 suits, each representing the aforementioned personal abilities. The episode track is, in the main, a series of auctions, each in one or two of these suits – so defeating Grendel requires Fighting and Valor, for example. Players bid cards from their hand for the rewards available; it can be either open bidding or hidden, simultaneous bids. Then, in decending order of bids, players choose their rewards – the high bidders get fame, treasure, more cards, or special powers, among other things. Low bidders may get either less of these things, or they may get the always popular flesh wound, or even better a severe blow to the head. These auctions are then interspersed with more fixed opportunities, where everyone can heal, draw more cards, acquire various resources, and so on.

The neat thing that throws a monkey wrench into the auctions are risks. Don’t have what you need to get the job done? Facing down the Sea Hag without an axe? You can always throw your body into it. Pick two cards from the deck; if they are valid bid cards, you play them, and may get to stay in the auction. Fail, and you are out of the auction (and so may be lined up for more penalties), and take a scratch in the bargain. The scratch is not in and of itself painful. Three scratches, though, and they convert to a wound, and you’re out 5 points. Three wounds, and you’re looking down an immense end-of-game penalty that will effectively take you out of the game. There are many opportunities to heal scratches, but wounds are much harder to get rid of.

This whole push-your-luck mechanism is what makes the game, and keeps it from being “just another” Knizia auction game. Firstly, flipping cards knowing the risks and with the auction on the line is fun. Secondly, it adds a lot of interesting tactical risk management decisions to the auctions. This is classic Knizia – it seems so simple when you first look at it, and seems like just a random element, and yet without fanfare it adds a lot of depth and interest to the game. Do you risk early in the bidding, knowing you’ll need to pick up a few symbols to get the result you want, and so conserve your cards if you fail, but risk getting kicked out of the auction early and scoring 5th place? Or do you try hanging in there by playing cards for as long as possible, thereby limiting the risk you’ll come in last, but perhaps spending a lot of cards inefficiently for a middling place? Is it worth it at all to risk now for this auction, or should you just bail? How important is it to get 2 Fame instead of 2 Gold?

To win, you’re going to have to do a fair amount of risking. The key is to risk when the downsides are low, and avoid finding yourself in the position of being forced to risk when you can’t afford to. Risk early, at non-critical auctions, and you quickly pick up a couple scratches. With two scratches, your options become badly constrained until you can heal, because a wound will likely costs you points and be hard to get rid of. On the other hand, at the end of the game, when you’re facing down the Dragon, you don’t want to be forced to risk to pick up the fight cards you need to avoid the brutal double-wound for last place – you want to have the cards in hand, to have done your risking earlier, when the downsides were smaller and could have been mitigated.

If I were to evaluate this solely as an auction game, Beowulf would get very high marks. Like in Ra, you’re doing all this bidding with stuff that has no inherent value – 5 different types of cards plus the occasional cash auction. Each auction is very different, with both different things up for auctions and different spreads, with some offering modest upsides for everyone but no downsides, and some having major upsides and major penalties. Additionally you have risks, which are probabilistic. You’re bidding for Fame sometimes, but most of the time you’re bidding some resources to pick up other resources, and to avoid penalties. Almost nothing in the game can be easily or concretely evaluated, so you’re making constant judgement calls about what is worth how much, how much extra it’s worth spending to get 5VP instead of the “negate one failed risk” card, and how far to push your luck. Even in Ra, which I consider a masterpiece, you can sometimes run the numbers to see exactly how many points a set of tiles is worth to various players; in Beowulf, everything is a judgment call.

But Beowulf goes beyond Ra by adding strategic planning. You know what’s coming up, generally. You know you’re going to have to fight the Dragon at some point; this both adds even more difficulty to figuring out how much a fight card is worth, and also gives you a chance to make trade-offs (should I bid it now or chance a risk and save it for later?) and plan ahead. In this sense it’s very similar in feel to Taj Mahal; but while Taj Mahal is a personal favorite, it can be a bit opaque and unforgiving, while Beowulf is much more intuitive.

Beowulf also goes beyond Ra in giving us a good theme. Sure, maybe auctions don’t really reflect how Beowulf’s companions were thinking, but as you go down the track, and have to spend appropriate resources for appropriate rewards, the theme works. It’s not Republic of Rome or Dune, but by the standards of euro games, it’s rather good.

Beowulf is Knizia doing what he does best – an auction game, but one with depth, and variety, and fun, and like Lord of the Rings, wedded to a good theme (ably assisted by some wonderful John Howe artwork). You’re faced with constant, real decisions. There is no downtime to speak of. Player skill is very important, but it has just the right amount of randomness to be fun, to mix things up a bit, and to give the game a sense of risk. Hacienda and Elasund were both quite good, but Beowulf is comfortably my pick for the best of Essen.

Siege of Gondor, Prologue: Osgiliath

This scenario is the first from the Siege of Gondor book, and covers the events surrounding Boromir’s battles in Osgiliath, which happen off-screen in Lord of the Rings (but on-screen in the movies). The format of this scenario is essentially a multi-way king of the hill game. 5 objectives are scattered in the middle of the board, 3 closer to the good guys, 2 to the bad guys. Whoever controls the most objectives at game end wins. The scenario features a bit of everything: we have the face-off between the major heroes Boromir and Gothmog (an Orc in Peter Jackson and GW’s imagination). You’ve got the Citadel Guard up against the heavily armed and armored Morannon Orcs, Mordor’s shock troops. And you’ve got a chunk of mobile cavalry on both sides, some Knights of Gondor and Warg Riders.

Kim, Jeff, and I were the good guys. Milton, Rich, and Richard were the bad guys. There are a lot of models.

The twist to the scenario is that half your models start on the board while the other half arrive randomly – maybe on a friendly board edge, but maybe on the flanks, and maybe in a spot chosen by your opponent. Our attack started out well – Boromir the tank charging down the middle, while the Knights and some archers screened the flanks. Things started to go awry when a bunch of Wargs showed up on Jeff’s flank. He rapidly found himself outnumbered, outflanked, and trapped in the street with nowhere to retreat. As you might imagine, this did not end well.

Meanwhile Kim and Richard were staring at each other across neutral territory on the left flank. After a few turn, Kim decided to try her luck with a charge, as we were feeling like the crumbling right flank was forcing our hand. It started out looking promising, but the Orcs were driven to a Fury by their shaman, and repelled the charge.

Meanwhile, in the center, Boromir was making progress … but not fast enough. The Orcs were simply falling back under the wily leadership of Gothmog as Boromir pressed on, and he and his Citadel Guard just couldn’t come to grips with them and couldn’t reach the objectives.

The collapsing flanks then led to bad news for the good guys.

This was a pretty good scenario, and played quickly for one so big (more than 100 figures on the table); we finished it in under 3 hours. It’s a fluid battle with so many objectives, which I think is good, and the players have a lot of freedom in making choices. My only complaint is the system for determining where and when the reinforcing units show up, which involves a lot of die rolling but should be played strictly instead of taking shortcuts (that is, roll a die for a model, make the decision where he shows up, go on to the next one, rather than doing them in chunks) for best effect.

War of the Ring

OK, so most followers of the blog will know that I am not as smitten with War of the Ring as most. I think it’s just OK. I wish there was more flexibility; really, once you know what you’re doing, there just are not that many choices (push the Ring for the good guys, or Gondor/Rohan/Lorien for the bad guys), and too few of the event cards are interesting.

After slogging our way through some 4-player Doom these issues hardly seem worth mentioning, really.

Anyway.

We played with 3 players. Rich & I were the bad guys, Kim the good guys. Rich & I stared at the board. We tried to make the math work so that going after Dale, Woodland Realm, etc. – anything but the usual southern stuff – made sense. We couldn’t do it, and we didn’t have any cards that helped things. So we went with the standard rotation: Saruman beats the snot out of Rohan. Sauron then crushes Gondor. The Southrons go after Dol Amroth. Remnants finish off Lorien.

I’ve been told that there are some advantages to going after Erebor and such first. But every game I’ve played, Saruman has rolled over Rohan in no time flat. Without special cards (and that risk exists with any strategy), there is absolutlely no way Rohan can muster the guys in time. The Fellowship won’t even be much past Moria by the time Saruman has taken up residence in Helm’s Deep. Without perfect cards, I just can’t see any way in which a northern strategy is remotely competitive.

Anyway, this game turned out to be very close. Saruman took Rohan early, and Sauron then took Minas Tirith. Meanwhile bad hunt luck meant the Fellowship skated pretty much unscathed through Amon Hen, with the standard lack of any detachments except for Gandalf. Lorien fell in short order, and then there was the long, fairly dull trek of the Southron army up to Dol Amroth. It was a race against time; would Dol Amroth fall before the Ring was dunked? There was some appaling bad luck on both sides: the Fellowship got virtually no character or Will of the West dice for the last three turns, and so couldn’t make progress. On the other hand, when they did move, they managed to exclusively pick fairly benign hunt tiles from the bag even though we had loaded it up with every nasty bonus hunt tile in the deck. Apparently, the inability to move was worse, and Dol Amroth fell in a very close game.

I enjoyed this game, which was fun, and not too long (3 hours and a bit). Some of my fears about the 3-player game were abated as this was an interesting and close game. It’s still not hard to wish War of the Ring were better – maybe even a lot better – but it seems to be settling down into the “solidly OK” range, despite a distressing lack of variety in how the games play out, and it’s something I’ll likely keep playing as long as I’ve got friends who want to play.