Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Quick Board Game Notes and Lyceum Aegis Session Summary

Quick Board-game Notes

On Saturday we tried a three player game of To Court the King. It is a small game-- one of the Yahtzee model games. I have the Alhambra Dice Game which also uses the same mechanic. Essentially you have a pool of dice and over the course of several rolls try to assemble sets. Alhambra works on simple matching sets on the dice. It then complicates that with an interesting scoring and placement mechanism. It also adds wild-card bonus abilities and multiple scoring rounds that have cumulative competition. It special dice for the game with different buildings on each side of the dice. We really enjoy the game, but it has a couple of problems. The game has some fairly strategic choices and newbie players often don't see those. That can lead to a runaway game. It also takes a little longer than your usual dice game.

On the other hand, To Court the King uses the standard d6 and is really like Yahtzee on steroids. You're trying to put together sets, straights, pairs and so on. On each turn you spend what you roll to pick up a character card. Each card has a different cost (two pairs, total value greater than 30, full house) and provides a different ability on your turn (add extra dice of a particular number, move pips between dice, rerolls). You can only have one of any role and each one can only be used once per turn. The end goal is to get seven of a kind, which allows the activation of a final round where players battle for the best end roll.

We generally liked the game-- it has a lot of bits and rules to be a true filler game. Our set had a couple of misprints (a couple of card backs and, strangely, one of the dice which had two 3's and no 2). It does take some getting used to the mechanics because it focuses on language independent icons for mechanics...and they aren't immediately clear. It also took some getting used to the idea of Active Dice versus Set-Aside dice, and that you can keep rolling so long as at least one die gets set aside. We also screwed up passing the starting player piece which made for some weirdness at the end. Overall we liked it, but it is one of those games that will play substantially better on the second attempt.

On Friday we played a six-player game of Arkham Horror. I've talked about this game before and I'm pleased it stands up to repeated plays. I'd added in the short-box expansion for Curse of the Dark Pharaoh. On BGG some suggested taking out some of the original cards so that the flavor of this set comes through, but I left the decks relatively intact. I might try that on a later run. As it was, we did manage to have some of the new cards come up and they were interesting. I don't think this set makes the game any more difficult, in fact, I suspect it makes it a little easier. The expansion cards are marked so that you can remove them easily enough.

Even with six players and half of them new to the game, it went pretty fast. That many players means both that you spawn more monsters than normal and that there's a real risk the Terror Track will get away from you. We didn't have that happen-- in part because I'd misremembered a house rule as a standard rule. When you shut a gate, you remove all those monsters with identical icons on the board. I'd also assumed that you removed any monsters in the same location as the gate, which isn't the case. We had Azathoth as the GOO, which works for an introductory game. I think he's actually one of the easiest to play against. You have a large Doom Track to work with and the specter of just plain losing if it gets too high to motivate people. Between Elder Signs and solid teamwork, we managed to win by shutting all the gates with his track no more than half-way filled.

Will and Shari generously gifted me with the Kingsport expansion, which is one of the big box ones. I suspect I'll have the next couple of plays just use the CotDP expansion, but I'll bring over the new characters, new GOO and new monsters from that set. Eventually I'll mix everything together. Of course the real question now is how to handle storage and separation. I like Arkham Horror and will definitely play it again-- there's a great deal of fun to be had with the interaction and self story-telling...and I think that's the real draw of the game.

Finally last night I had the chance to play Heads of State, the new big box game from Z-Man. First, I should say it is $70-- which is insane. As Mark pointed out, for that kind of money you expect all of the chrome and bits of a Fantasy Flight or Days of Wonder game-- Starcraft, Arkham Horror or Pirate's Cove. This game doesn't have that-- it has bits, but those bits have real problems.

Oddly it has almost the exact opposite problem of the last Z-Man game I tried, Wasabi. There we had a brilliantly produced game with gorgeous pieces, clever graphic design, and high-quality materials. However the game itself had some real problems that would take major house rules to straighten out. Heads of State, on the other hand, has a decent game buried under really poor graphic and production decisions.

1) The components, while intended to be of high quality to match the price point, simply aren't. The cardboard chits are flimsy, the reference sheets of thinner stock, and the cards themselves feel light.

2) The game's art is ugly. I'd read some complaints about this on BGG and put it down to the usual griping. However, man, it is really ugly. They use photo-shopped real people for the character cards combined with garish colors where you don't need them for visibility and muted colors where you would. The art is bad enough that it gets in the way of the game.

3) The game duplicate colors in different mechanisms. This feels like a basic concept easily avoided in design. If you have different colors to represent the players (as is the norm) then those colors shouldn't be used as a major separation point within another set of mechanics in the game. In this game the same set of player colors is also used to represent the countries and the scoring markers. That leads to confusion.

4) You have scoring tokens and a scoring track which duplicate one another. That bothered me, especially since you don't have scoring tokens for everything, but when you get a token you're supposed to advance your marker on the track. I did discover at the end they were necessary to cross check scores since we found it easy to mess up that scoring. So six of one...

5) One of the most important factors is being able to see who has what on the board. However the markers designed for this purpose actually obscure this. They should easily show two things: what rank a noble is and who owns it. You can't really tell that at a glance. That ought to be crucial to the game. It really bothers me that other considerations screwed up something so vital to real play.

6) One of the selling points are the nice wood markers. However, they're completely unnecessary. The same task could have been handled with cardboard tokens or cards. In fact, they're kind of awkward and feel like a cheap sop to try to justify the cost of the game. You also have to put stickers on them, which ruins any elegance that might have come from having simple, iconic shapes.

This could easily have been a $40 game. Play-wise, I could see us enjoying it in a less eye-burning version. We ended up with a close game. But once the actual look of the game starts to interfere with play, that's where I get bothered.

Quick Role-Playing Notes

My niece Kali came over this weekend and we had another brief session of the Lyceum Aegis game. I introduced the new arrival character at breakfast-- with a reminder to Kali that she'd had a vision of him destroying the world. I also tried to reinforce Mr. Friday's personality and that this had come out of sequence. The NPC Sarah talked with Sherri about calling dibs on various boys-- that also gave me the chance to make explicit my parallel of two of the NPC boys with Kyo and Yuki from Fruits Basket.

I introduced Ms. Wednesday, who seemed more solid and real-world centered than the other instructors. For her lecture she talked about Microeconomics. That gave me the chance as a GM to spin off on a riff about Supply, Demand, Elasticity and so on. My main point, however, was an extended discussion about the idea of Opportunity Costs-- the concept that making a choice has consequences in terms of other choices closed off. I think that's one of the key concepts of Microecon and also has a nice application to the idea of a “reality war” and the existence of multiple worlds. Sherri followed that up by taunting NPC Sarah with the idea of the opportunity costs of calling dibs on one boy over another.

I gave them free time after dinner, with the idea that the instructors kind of expected them to explore the house a little, though they wouldn't say that. The PCs decided, however, to explore outside-- looking around the grounds. They found some strange flashlights and began-- after debating whether to hit the old Sanitarium-Schoolhouse or the Greenhouse. They settled on the latter, but realized quickly they were being followed.

I should note at this point that I knew there was a groundskeeper or at least a person patrolling the grounds. I also had in the back of my head Gene's odd description of the strange account fellow watching people in their sleep. I hadn't really solidified anything, but I improvised with the aim of actually getting some weirdness on the table. I realized I had two directions I could go: either the school maintaining the facade of being normal or else tearing that away rather quickly. Going with the former would have meant more time devoted to covering up and hiding things. If this were a regular game, with more narrative space to work in, I might have gone that route. But since I knew we'd have shorter sessions on an irregular basis, I thought it best to plunge right into things.

So the groundskeeper, who of course snuck up on them, became a Caliban-like character. They spoke with him, noting (through Sherri's sewing-skill observation) that the inner lining of his coat was composed of chains. He answered their questions-- but avoided those which might have had him directing the girls to anywhere on campus. He made it clear that while he'd be glad to talk to them he didn't want to get pinned for perhaps putting them in the line of danger. He did refer to the school as the Watchtower of the East and mentioned very deliberately the war going on, but left those points at that. So I managed to get across so more of the background flavor, and perhaps the more sinister purposes of the school without giving too much away. He vanished after talking to them, confirming his otherworldly strangeness. I should note I decided to call him Hawthorne-- a good single name with several resonances.

The girls headed on to the Greenhouse under cover of darkness. Drawing closer, they realized it was much larger than they'd first thought. They entered into the visible classic long-house and saw that the woods behind obscured the rest of the building. Everything in this first section had been damaged by time, but through a door at the end they found the center-dome of the building which appeared completely intact. They realized the whole thing had a cross-shape, with four wings and the center-dome. That had living plants, not overgrown and yet not tended. From an obscured grove in the center they could hear water. They checked the other three wings, finding nothing except in the last. There they could see that the building seemed to terminate in a dark cave entrance. They opted not to go down there.

Instead they explored the grove in the center. There they found a pool with a strange fountain of water bubbling within it. They could see coins of various shapes and sizes at the bottom of the pool. They also noted a carefully place ring of stones surrounding it. While they argued about throwing a coin in, they heard a slam. They hid and then listened, now picking up the sounds of enormous breathing and footfalls. The grass at the entrance to the grove they hid in rustled, and they heard a gravelly voice:

“Little Pigs, Let Me In...”

They continued to hide and remain silent, and eventually the sound died down. However, they could tell that whatever it was still sat outside. Kali voted for waiting until morning, but Sherri decided to throw a coin in-- and wish for the Huntsman to come. This seemed to have no effect immediately, but then she felt a sudden impulse, paired with a flaring of her persona, to throw in her flashlight. That, of course, made a big splash, alerting The Wolf outside. However a figure coalesced in the fountain, carrying Sherri's flashlight in one hand, and an axe in the other. It asked which they'd dropped in. They said the axe and Kali grabbed it up. Apparently The Wolf could tell they were thusly armed and, after making some threats for the future, he withdrew. However then the foliage rattled again and Kali swung at the new intruder-- burying the axe in Hawthorne's shoulder. He expressed irritation at having been called and pulled the axe out-- driving them out ahead of him and sending them quietly back to the house. And that's where we stopped.

Last thing-- my sister had an interview with the author Dan Simmons published on The OnionAV Club-- I'm just now reading his new book.