Thursday, December 27, 2012

Dioramas & Dragons

Years before I got into D&D I was completely bespelled by the following ad that appeared in the December 1982 edition of Starlog magazine (Number 65):


I can barely find any information about these things online.  Did anyone out there own one?  Or both?  Does some lucky jobber out there still have these "Action Scenes" tucked away in a basement or attic?

What monsters, characters and props were included?  Did it take a long time to assemble?  Did you paint it?  Did you *gasp!* actually use it in a game?  If so, how did that go?

Sorry for all the questions, I'm just super-intrigued. 

Comments, photos and related links are more then welcome... 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Tales From The MurderMaze

 
I pretty much single-handidly owe my current level of interest in RPG's to Zak Smith.

I first became aware of the visual artist / adult performer / RPG impresario back in April of last year after I wrote a blog series about my formative experiences playing Dungeons & Dragons.  I called the series "I Hit It With My Axe" because that's exactly what my buddy Mark said every time our DM Joe asked: "Okay, Mark, it's your turn.  What do you want to do?"

One day, when I wanted to quickly locate my first post, I 'Googled' "I Hit It With My Axe" and this quizzical vid popped up instead:


To be brutally honest, I had no idea what the fuck it was.  The version of D&D they were playing obviously wasn't Fourth Edition.  Indeed, it seemed to be a Frankensteinian patchwork of Basic D&D and AD&D with a large dollop of 3.5 thrown in for good measure.  I was also wondering why the show's camerawork was so shaky and murky and also humored the possibility that the show had been edited with a Slap-Chop.

But back then the concept of watching adults (especially interesting and intelligent adults) playing Dungeons & Dragons in a streaming video was a pretty novel concept.  By Episode Five the show had found its stride.  Zak's creativity as a DM was obvious.  Mandy was obviously a gifted tactician.  Satine was clearly a wily veteran of the game.  Connie played with a deft mixture of passion and avarice.  Laboring under an albatross-like weight of horrendous luck, Frankie was constantly trying to Jedi Mind Trick Zak into exempting her from Sneak rolls.  And although Kimberly Kane was clearly the "Mark" of Zak's group, she also had the ability to come up with some truly inspired schemes.      

In Episode Sixteen, PC death struck the group after a gross tactical error.  By this time, I was completely and totally hooked.  "I Hit It With My Axe" was turning out to be more compulsive viewing to me then anything on prime time T.V.  The campaign's admirable and sandboxian qualities held me completely rapt and, like many fans of the show, I was crushed to see that there were no new shows beyond Episode 36.  To this day, I still hope to see Satine and Connie deal with the Temple of Tittivilla, Bobbi and Kimberly escape from the gnolls and Mandy mount a rescue attempt with a metric shit-ton of female mercs in tow.

I Hit It With My Axe invariably led me to Zak's blog "D&D With Pornstars".  After systematically devouring every single entry I was left with two conclusions:
  1. Zak's brain is clearly operating on a different tier then most human beings.  Being creative is one thing but being wildly fucking innovative is another story.  In other words, when most people describe themselves as three-dimensional thinkers, you officially have my permission to laugh in their faces. 
  2. The concept that you're somehow playing an RPG "wrong" just because you're not using its current iteration is downright laughable.
Now this last thing might seems like common sense to most folks but to me it was a real revelation.  For years, I was convinced that in order to play D&D "properly" I had to graduate from my Mentzer BECM sets, move into AD&D, and then dutifully pick up Third Edition and 3.5 as they were released.  Mercifully just as I was becoming completely disillusioned with Fourth Edition, Zak and other proponents of the OSR (Old School Renaissance for those not in the know) were there to reassure me that not only was it perfectly acceptable to spot-weld a simple, home-brew skill system onto my 3.5 Character Classes, it was actually preferable.

Even though the OSR movement can arguably be traced back to Ryan Dancey at the vanguard of the Open Gaming Licence, I Hit It With My Axe and D&D With Pornstars provided my first exposure to this philosophy.  Via his blog, I began to follow Zak on Google + and after he shared an RPG Circle with me I quickly saw that this fledgling social media site had a full-blooded gaming community that was alive and kicking.  It didn't take me long to see that these folks were very passionate about certain incarnations of their favorite game, to the point that they were willing to engage in some pretty robust dialogue (I.E.: argue with equally willful people until they flirted with carpel tunnel syndrome).   

All of a sudden the efforts of OSR retro clone designers like Matt Finch, Chris Gonnerman, Stuart Marshall  and Daniel Proctor as well as the creatively unfettered bloggage of Jeff Rients and Mike Moscrip became known to me.  For someone who had very nearly given up on the beloved hobby of my yoots, this was my first invitation to step back into a smaller yet more familiar and comfortable world.  So armed, I decided to galvanize a pool of local peeps into a formal RPG gaming circle, which I really intend to exploit in the coming year.      

Google + had even more surprises in store.  After model, actress, illustrator, and hardcore D&D nut Satine Phoenix drew Zak's attention to the free, multi-person video chat on Google +, they started playing games online.  As Zak recants more efficiently in his original blog post:

"...the gentleman known in gaming circles as Calithena had this idea and he told me and Jeff (Rients):

'Why not use these hangout games like the old games at the very beginning of the RPG hobby, when players carried their characters from game to game, wherever they could find a Dungeon Master?'

So we got together and talked about it and I came up with a stupid acronym and FLAILSNAILS was born."


Although he continues to insist that F.L.A.I.L.S.N.A.I.L.S. is an acronym for Free Location And Inclusion Laws Supporting New And Interesting Leisure Situations, we all know that this just a way for Zak to pimp out his all-time favorite D&D monster


Regardless of such underhanded motivations, the idea quickly took root and pretty soon entire online campaigns were springing up everywhere.  Zak was running games as well and after rabidly absorbing Vornheim: The Complete City Kit I became bound and determined to have one of my brittle little Level One characters horribly mangled by him in a Hangout game.

Unfortunately, damnable and persistent reality had other ideas.  Since Zak's based in Los Angeles and I'm in Nova Scotia there's the obvious issue of a four-hour time differential.  If he starts a game at 9 PM his time, that's 1 AM here and quite often these games can sometimes run for three or four hours.  Now, originally I was set to play Wolverine amongst a motley crew of seemingly random supers taking on MODOK in Zak's gleefully unpredictable S.H.I.E.L.D. High-Priority FASERIP series but wires got crossed and it never happened.  In fact, things didn't align for me until December 12'th, 2012.

By the time this happened, Zak had produced yet another new idea.  This time out he'd preside over a mano-a-mano, sci-fi style Murdermaze Deathmatch, kinda like The Running Man but with less Maria Conchita Alonso.  The original post details can be peeped right hur.     

Although I missed the first match on the 11'th (which saw Joe Dimech's sneaky Elf triumph in the six-person battle royale) I was quickly confirmed for the follow-up rumble on the 12'th.

Now that I was in, I started getting kinda nervous.  This would be my very first Google + game and I was pretty sure that every person I'd be battling against had a helluva lot more Hangout experience then me.  The one encouraging thing was that Zak's scenario had only been run once before, ensuring that no one player would be totally familiar with the geography of the Maze.

Coming up with a character that adhered to Zak's instructions became my immediate task.  Since I wasn't limited to traditional fantasy races, I wanted to go with something classically sci-fi.  I've always had an irrational fetish for humanoid reptilian aliens so at first I envisioned Bossk from The Empire Strikes Back or Cayman from Battle Beyond the Stars.  But I didn't want the character to be too competent so I went completely Olde Skool and picked the Gorn from the classic Star Trek episode "Arena".


"MUST...FIND...SEAM...!"

So after rolling a few dice and scratching out some details on a piece of loose-leaf piece paper I eventually sent this off to Zak for his review:

Hey, Zak.

I cobbled together something that vaguely resembles a character.  Let me know if I need to change anything:

Name: Klysssk  Class: Gorn Warrior

STR 15  INT 6 WIS 13 DEX 9 CON 17 REG 13 (Regenerate...roll a REG check to heal CON modifier after a Hit Point loss)

HP: Rolled 7 + 3 = 10         AC: 9 (?)

Attack Bonus (+1 for class):  Melee +3 Ranged +0

Objects:  Gorn Combat Knife:  d4+3
               Net Gauntlet:  (fires 6 rounds, Range 15-65 feet) Otherwise operates like a net in 3.5    

               Players Handbook  

Other chrome:  Poor Manual Dexterity:  -6 to Open Locks...etc
                         Infrared Vision:  20' range 


Let me know if this is alright.


After giving it the once over he wrote back:
  • Knife does d6. 
  • Net Gun has 3 shots and will cause the foe to lose one turn on a successful hit and then roll to escape on subsequent rounds. 
  • AC 10 like everyone else 
  • Regeneration will heal d4 hp but not crits 
  • Infravision will work on a successful racial check
Done!  Now all I had to do was play the waiting game until 11 pm my time, which was no small feat since I was pretty anxious to get started.  During this seemingly endless spate of time, I wondered what my opponents (Reece Carter, Tim Razler, Logan Smith, Isaac Murphy, Zach Marx Weber and returning champ Joe Dimech) had in store for me.  Going into the match I had only one goal in mind: don't be the first one to die! 

Just prior to 11 pm I heard my computer chime out an invite.  I hopped on, and after solving a niggling  feedback issue, Zak immediately plunged us into the Murdermaze.

Mercifully, the other guys were doing a live commentary of the action during the match, which was great for posterity.  I was way too busy trying to stay alive. 

So, without further ado, here's a play-by-play report of the action:
  • Joe's sneaky Elf, who I'll just call Hidey McBlastalot, quickly found a Smoke Bomb.  After adding this to his starting equipment (an Armored Vest and Lasergun), I couldn't help but think that my own chosen load-out was pretty crap in comparison.  After this, Joe passed by a Couch sitting on the hallway and probably wondered if he could use the cushions to asphyxiate his rivals with the smell of ass. 
  • My unanswered prayers were quickly answered after I ventured into the first room and found a Teleportation Globe, which would allow me to switch places with anyone in the Maze.  Instantly my brain began to percolate some new strategies.  
  • As it turns out, it was a damned good thing that I found that Globe!  Almost immediately I barged into a room where Zach Marx Weber's Murderhobo was running around with his innocuous-sounding Spool Of Monofilament Wire.  His initial attack on me proved ineffectual as did my attempt to snare him with my Net Gun.  
  • As this battle raged on, Isaac Murphy's Philosophical Zombie got into a scrap with Logan Smith's Purple Ooze / Gelatinous Dude.  The Ooze quickly got the upper hand and started filling his opponent's undead mush with a surfeit of arm-goo.  
  • Meanwhile, Tim Razler's Otterman  found a laptop which, as far as I can tell, he only used to bookmark www.freehototterbitches.com.         
  • In the next round, Zach Marx Weber managed to snag my arm in the Wire forcing me to drop my precious Net Gun.  Just as I was about to go out like a chump, I remembered the Teleportation Globe and switched places with Joe's Elf!  As per Joe's testimony: "Just passed the Couch (and) skipped the redecoration.  Then another guy (Yours Truly!) who found the Globe teleported me into his place and he into mine, and now I am being grappled by Zach, so I just shot him in his Hobo face."
  • In another part of the complex, Logan's Purple Ooze Dude had very nearly rendered Isaac's Zombie completely unconscious (?).  Just before he was about to put the kibosh on him, my Gorn approached the battle with all the stealth of a charging bull moose.  Logan offered a truce but being stubbornly reptilian I hissed back "I'M IN THE SSSSSS-ZONE" and kept attacking him.  Referee Zak said that this was exactly what the Gorn was hissing to Kirk over and over again during their battle in "Arena". 
  • After "treating" us all to an incredibly surreal otter impersonation, Zak continued to adjudicate Zach Marx Weber's life and death struggle against Joe's Elf.  Now completely entangled in the Monofilament Wire, Joe is soon reduced to zero Hit Points. 
  • Once again, my crap die rolling caused me to loose the Initiative and Logan started using his blobby forearm as an offensive choking hazard.  Isaac's Zombie came to his senses long enough to heave an Existentialism Grenade, which depressed the shit out of our immediate surroundings and caused everyone to flee.            
  • Cursed with "the aim of a stormtrooper", Joe failed to blast the Monofilament Wire not once, but twice!  As per Zak's customized rule set, now that Joe was at zero Hit Points, any subsequent damage would be considered a "Critical Hit".  Sure enough, on the next round, the constricting Wire managed to Resident Evil one of his eyeballs!  Just before Joe got turned into stewing beef, Tim threw a Plasma Grenade into the room, stunning both combatants, springing Joe from his bonds and destroying my late, lamented Net Gun. 
  • Joe tried to do some impromptu laser eye surgery on Zach, evoking shades of Ricardo Gonzalo Pedro Montalbán in the process.  I was both amazed and just a tad frightened when Joe and Zak suddenly tag-teamed Khan's entire rant right off the top of their heads: "He tasks me. He tasks me and I shall have him! I'll chase him 'round the moons of Nibia and 'round the Antares Maelstrom and 'round Perdition's flames before I give him up!"   
  • Zak promptly followed this up with an original quote which I'll inevitably use on my own players in the future: "Your character knows what you know.  If you know nothing then it's not my fault."           
  • No sooner had the Wrath of Khan quote left his lips, Joe snuck off, found an appropriate hidey-hole and started to lick his wounds.  He then sat there skulking, waiting for the chance to snipe someone in the ballz as they passed by.  Zach also crawled off and found a flash bomb in the next room. 
  • Wisely, Tim kept hitting and running.  After chucking his Plasma Grenade he made an expeditious  retreat but then promptly triggered a Proximity Mine which someone had glued onto a door earlier in the match.  Just like that he was reduced to zero Hit Points and became a ripe target for Critical Strikes!
  • My Gorn continued to fellate Logan's Ooze-pendage.  In an effort to sever the connection I tried to pick him up and shot put him away from me, but I couldn't lift him or chuck him very far.  Mercifully my racial Healing Factor kept off-setting the corrosive damage an we appeared to be at a stalemate for the time being.
  • Meanwhile, Murderhobo Zach Marx Weber opened the door and just so happened to witness this bizarre scene, which probably made the average Tool video look like an episode of Wonderpets.  Both Logan and I saw him setting up a trap for us and this time I was the one to propose a truce.  Thinking that we'd have a difficult time offing one another, we formed a hasty detente and then went right after Zach.  Unfortunately, Logan doesn't notice the Murderhobo's hastily-assembled trip-wire and sliced off his own leg!  
  • Isaac's poor, mouth-raped zombie tried to crawl away but he was promptly jumped by Tim "Smells Like Burnt Fur" Otterman.  Unbeknownst to both of them, Joe's reconstituted Elf was nearby, waiting for one of them to murdify the other so he could reward the victor with a laser massage to the spine.
  • Zach tried to make a fighting withdrawal and I instantly fell into mindless pursuit.  During this, perhaps the most lethargic foot chase in gaming history, Zach picked up a microwave (as Murderhobos are want to do), and drifted it at my head as I came around the corner.  Mercifully it missed me by a scale and I promptly started stalking him down another corridor.  Unfortunately this gave Zach an opportunity to jury-rig a quick Monofilament Wire trap.  Refusing to metagame, I charged around the blind turn, failed my Spot check and then stumbled right into Zach's metallic snare.  
  • Seeing that Zach and I were intent on killing each other to death, Logan wisely stood back, popped some popcorn and watched the tilt from afar. 
  • Zombie Isaac tried to dive at Tim Otterman's neck with a bite but ended up face-planting himself into the floor.  Tim's flak vest protected him against a subsequent pistol whipping and the Otter brought things full-circle by munching the Zombie's eye right from out of his skull.  As adorably as possible, of course. 
  • I finally managed to knife my way out of the Monofiliment Wire.  Just as I got free, Logan decided to huck a Thermal Detonator down the corridor.  It landed at Zach's feet and without further ado, the illustrious Murderhobo was blown to unwashed, foul-smelling bits.  "Never trust an ooze!" Zach lamented.   
  • Just as the scrap was reaching a fever pitch, Joe's clearly bored Elf broke cover, calmly waded into the scrap and popped a cap right in Otterman's eye.  "An Eye For An Eye," game master Zak mused.  
  • Isaac followed this up by bludgeoning Monsieur Otterman to death with his "Gyrojet", whatever the fuck that thing was.  Without missing a beat, Joe promptly took a bead on the Zombie but missed his over-ripe melon at point blank range!    
  • After taking four four points of damage from the Frag Grenade my Gorn soldier shambled out of the corridor, doing his best Wolverine impersonation and regenerating along the way.  Speak of the devil, after lobbing the Thermal Detonator Logan clearly had the foresight to leave the scene of the crime.    
  •  In a simultaneous assault, the Zombie blew off Joe the Elf's one good arm and Joe immediately returned the favor.  For the record, both combatants were now mostly 'armless.  BA-dum *TSSSH*.
  • Meanwhile, Zach Marx Weber brought in the game's first re-enforcement: a Mini-Beholder flanked by a pair of Guardian Weasels.  Isaac pretty much spoke for all of us when he typed: "Man, I wish I'd thought of that."    
  • Zombie Isaac managed to grab the Otter's discarded Pistol but he was still trying to cope with the loss of his primary arm.  Given -7 to hit, the mutilated ghoul completely telegraphed the shot.  Knowing that he was outgunned, Joe threw down a Smoke Bomb effectively obscuring everything in the room and then beat a hasty retreat...
  • ...right through the very same door that my Gorn was about to open!  We stood there and blinked at each other for a second before I grabbed Joe by the throat with my free hand.  The Elf responded by blasting me in the chest at point blank range, breaking the death-grip on his neck. 
  • Tim re-entered the game, this time re-incarnated as a Squid Cowboy.   Or a Robot Cowboy.  Or a Robot Squid Cowboy; I never did figure that one out.
  • It didn't take very long before the two newcomers bumped into each other.  The petite Eye Tyrant failed to Charm the Mechanoid Cephalopod Cowpoke, but his twin Weasels dealt out some pretty hefty damage. Savaged by the two critters, Tim decided to slide down the nearby elevator shaft.  Zach's All-Seeing Floaty Eyeball blasted Tim's Calamari Android Cowboy at the bottom of the shaft with an uninspired but rather effective Magic Missile.  Although no "Darkness" was harmed during the attack, the Magic Missile totally annihilated Tim's Healing Potion.
  • After I was given a second opportunity to cut Joe, I decided not to leave anything to chance.  I hurled myself bodily at the Elf, cleanly impaling him and instantly dethroning the current champ!
  • Apparently pissed that he'd just lost his Family Heirloom Healing Potion, Squidward Tim fired up at Beholder Zach from the bottom of the elevator shaft and managed to ventilate one of his "air bladders".  *snort* 
  • At that exact same moment, Isaac's decrepit Zombie shambled into the room.  Although he manged to pistol-whip Zach's listing Beholder, Weasels invariably ripped his flesh and Isaac's Zombie died.  For the second time, presumably, since he had to die once before in order to come back as a Zombie in the first place.  Sorry.
  • Isaac quickly composed a new avatar: Spider-Man's non-union, Mexican equivalent, El Sorprendente Hombre Araña.  Brilliant!
  • The Beholder barely had time to pick up the Zombie's discarded gun in his mouth before South-of-the-Border-Spidey showed up and webbed the creature's gob shut, preventing him from issuing any Weasel-related commands.  Ol' Telaraña-Cabeza followed this up with a punch to the Eye Tyrant's dome, breaking one of his eye-stalks.  
  • My Gorn faced off against Logan's Ooze for the last time.  So it was in The Beginning, now it is in The End.     
  • Given the Mini-Beholder's puny Dexterity and Strength of 6, he had a terrible time trying to tear himself free of the spider-webs. 
  • Going into the final battle, my Gorn still had a few Hit Points left thanks to Regeneration and Logan's Blob was on the verge of taking Critical Hits.  The Ooze got the jump on me and shot me dead to rights. With that, Zak declared that I could no longer Regenerate, which quickly evened the odds!  
  • Zach's Tooth Balloon finally managed to escape from the webbing and ordered his two Weasely bodyguards to attacks his opponent.  Mexican Spidey reacted by sticking to the ceiling, away from their tiny claws and teeth.  From this vantage point he had absolutely no problem webbing the Weasels to the floor! 
  • In an absolutely brilliant move, Logan cast a Grease spell on the steps as I was closing in on him.  That instantly put my Gorn warrior flat on his scaly face.  Naturally, I failed in my first attempt to stand up and Logan decided to pile on by delivering a Critical Hit which fucked up my right leg.
  • The Sphere of Many Eyes attempted to masticate our wily hero, but it was a clean miss.  Señor Spidey responded by punching out the Beholder's second air bladder like Doc Pulpo (Google it).  The once-proud creature was reduced to the ultimate indignity: lolling around on the floor like a half-inflated beach ball.  Sad.  
  • Meanwhile, my luck went from bad to worse.  After failing to stand up on my second attempt, Mechana-Squid Cowpoke Tim appeared at the opposite end of the very same corridor where Logan and I were fighting.  At first he wanted to target the duplicitous Ooze but Logan was clearly in cover at the top of the steps.  So Tim settled on roasting an eyeball right outta my skull.  It ain't lookin' good, folks.
  • Knowing that it was now virtually impossible to stand up, I flipped over onto my back, luged down to the bottom of the steps and attempted to punch Tim square in his Squiddy knutz.  Even though I missed on the swing, it was worth it just to hear DM Zak heave a sign and say "Okay, roll to hit Tim in the nards".   
  • Since Tim's Invertebrate Replicant Gunslinger was a second string character, Zak ruled that Tim would have to kill both me and Logan at the same time in order to win!  In order to clip both of us with a bullet, he tried a ricochet trick shot but the punishing -10 penalty completely sunk his chances.  
  • Isaac's Luchador Spidey tucked the now-helpless Beholder (who was by now patronizingly singing the Spider-Man theme song) under his arm and web-swung right into the main fracas!  He impulsively webbed Tim's...Whatever The Hell He Was just seconds after he scored a Critical Hit on my other leg!  He also snagged the Ooze, leaving the entire corridor looking like an arachnid bukkake session.
  • The Ooze fired off his last shot in an attempt to perforate me, but the extreme enwebification resulted in a miss.  
  • Tired of being tucked under Spidey's arm like a personnel file, the Beholder tried to gum his host right in the flank.  With a paltry roll of "4" the "attack" was considered an unmitigated miss.  
  • Spidey then attempted to fling the duplicitous Beholder at Tim's...Dude, but that attack roll was whiffed as well.  As you might well imagine, it was getting really difficult to read our die results by then because we were all laughing so hard.
  • Now completely out of ammo, the Ooze "petulantly" (as per Zak's description) threw his gun at my Gorn's face but missed.  Shit was gettin' real, yo.  
  • Disarmed, crippled, blinded and robbed of my to ability Regenerate, I knew then that I had only one last chance to win.  In typical Gorn-style slow-motion I snatched Tim's gun out of his hand, slowly turned around, took a bead at the Ooze standing at the top of the steps, squeezed off a shot...and then rolled a fucking "4".  A cool plan completely undone by a shite roll!   Damn!!!
  • El Tarantella spiked the Beholder, crawled across the ceiling and webbed my Gorn into place.  His goal: to get his webby mitts on the Ooze!  
  • Looking to polish me off, the Ooze tried to pick his way carefully down the Greased steps but slipped, caromed down the stairs and, according to Zak, "spread out at the bottom like pancake batter."  
  • Zach Marx Weber plaintively asked DM Zak if he could bite both Logan and I at the same time.  All of us cracked up when he was told in no uncertain terms that "your jaw isn't wide enough".  That's what she said.      
  • I got another point-blank opportunity to blast Logan with Tim's pistol but this time I rolled a gorramed  "3".  FUUUUUUUUUCK!!!
  • As per Isaac's final update:  "ZOPHAR (he had a name?) THE OOZE BREAKS FREE AND PUNCHES THE GORN ONE LAST TIME, FINALLY FELLING HIM AND BECOMING THE CHAMPION!!!!"
And with that the Murdermaze Match came to an end with Logan declared the victor.  If I'd only remembered to Regenerate more often and could produce a few decent die rolls I might have won!  Admittedly, Logan's "Grease" spell was pure genius and ultimately, he really deserved the win.

Next day I posted the following status update on Google +:

"Thanks to +Reece Carter, +Joe Dimech, +Tim Razler, +Logan Smith, +Isaac Murphy, +Zach Marx Weber and referee extraordinaire +Zak Smith my very first G+ RPG Hangout game was rife with brutality, surreal set-pieces and slapstick humor."

Indeed.  It's encouraging to know that I can still have a truly memorable gaming experience, even after twenty-five solid years in the hobby.  That Murdermaze Match represents exactly why I love RPG's and the basic ones in particular.  As players that night, we certainly weren't min-maxing weapon yields, justifying how a certain race can be used as a PC or pondering the range of our missile weapons.  We were just trying to push our thumbs into each other's orbital sockets.  I.E. good, clean, unadulterated fun.  

As if this format wasn't cool enough, two days later Zak came up with "Warlords of Vornheim", a "king of the hill" type match in which one team attempts to defend a structure from an attacking team.  Apparently this also went over like gangbusters and although I had a chance to join in, this time of year is just a bit too busy for me.

Hopefully when I get home after Christmas, life will eventually return to normal and I'll be able to venture into the "arena" once again.  Or maybe - *gasp!* - I'll run something over Google + myself!

So, thanks again, Zak.  Your videos, blog posts, books and Hangout Games have done wonders for my re-discovery of this consistently surprising hobby.  I can't wait to kick-start my own Old School Renaissance, just to see where it leads me...

 



          

    Friday, December 14, 2012

    The Force Is Strong With This One: "X-Wing"

    First, A Long-Winded Preamble...

    When The Phantom Menace came out in 1999 I went to the theater three times to try and convince myself that the movie was good.  During this period of denial I bought several prequel-flavored Star Wars board games.  They included, but weren't limited to...









    and God help me...the Star Wars Game of Life


    Eventually I joined the rest of humanity in its appraisal of the prequels and subsequently back-lashed pretty hard against them.  So, even though I collected and enjoyed the "Rebel Storm" Star Wars Miniatures set, I flat-out refused to invest in the "Clone Strike" expansion or anything else involving Phantasmal Menaci, Attacking Clones, or Vengeful Sith.

    Until I saw this stupid thing:


    Fuck you, Genndy Tartakovsky for making something I loathed seem cool for awhile.  

    Anyway, long story slightly less long, I invested pretty heavily in every Star Wars Miniatures set up until "Champions of the Force" came out.  Eventually I grew weary of "chasing the collectible dragon" and gave up in frustration.        

    A Quick Flashback...

    Back in the late 80's, when there was the Holy Trilogy and nothing else, the Star Wars Roleplaying Game really helped keep Star Wars fandom simmering at a low boil:


    Included in this product line was a stellar star fighter combat table-top game called Star Warriors


    Beyond the amazing cover art by Ralph McQuarrie, the game let players pilot every major starship in the Star Wars universe.  Not only could it be played as a stand-alone board game, it was perfectly compatible with the RPG, which meant that your characters could hop into an X-Wing and blast the bejesus out of Advanced, Interceptor, Bomber and pain ol' vanilla category TIE fighters whenever they wanted to.  

    As great as the game was, it used a wargame-era paper hex-based starfield map and cardboard chits to represent the starships.  Although we had an absolute blast playing Star Warriors at the time, I always longed for real miniatures and a less grognardian rule set. 

    Back To The Future... 

    Towards the end of the Star Wars Miniatures line they produced a series of ships for their Starship Battles game.  Unfortunately the rules were extremely flyweight, the quality of the minis were bend-a-licious and the scale for the ships was completely and totally wonky.  Just check this out:

    Okay, so that TIE bomber looks like it's about the same size as the Rebel Blockade Runner.  What kinda horse shit is that?  Unimpressed, I involvement with the game was fleeting at best.

    My moratorium on buying Star Wars games continued until I saw an add for this thing:

      
    At face value X-Wing looked as if it had it all.  High-quality minis forged precisely to scale.  Excellent components.  A core game engine similar to the highly thematic yet imminently playable Wings of War. I knew right away that I had little hope of avoiding this one, especially after reading the borderline pornographic description of the game provided by publisher Fantasy Flight: 

    Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game is a tactical ship-to-ship combat game in which players take control of powerful Rebel X-wings and nimble Imperial TIE fighters, facing them against each other in fast-paced space combat. Featuring stunningly detailed and painted miniatures, the X-Wing Miniatures Game recreates exciting Star Wars space combat throughout its several included scenarios. Select your crew, plan your maneuvers, and complete your mission!

    Whatever your chosen vessel, the rules of X-Wing facilitate fast and visceral gameplay that puts you in the middle of Star Wars fiercest firefights. Each ship type has its own unique piloting dial, which is used to secretly select a speed and maneuver each turn. After planning maneuvers, each ship's dial is revealed and executed (starting with the lowest skilled pilot). So whether you rush headlong toward your enemy showering his forward deflectors in laser fire, or dance away from him as you attempt to acquire a targeting lock, you'll be in total control throughout all the tense dogfighting action.

    Star Wars: X-Wing features (three) unique missions, and each has its own set of victory conditions and special rules; with such a broad selection of missions, only clever and versatile pilots employing a range of tactics will emerge victorious. What's more, no mission will ever play the same way twice, thanks to a range of customization options, varied maneuvers, and possible combat outcomes. Damage, for example, is determined through dice and applied in the form of a shuffled Damage Deck. For some hits your fighter sustains, you'll draw a card that assigns a special handicap. Was your targeting computer damaged, affecting your ability to acquire a lock on the enemy? Perhaps an ill-timed weapon malfunction will limit your offensive capabilities. Or worse yet, your pilot could be injured, compromising his ability to focus on the life-and-death struggle in which he is engaged...

    The Star Wars: X-Wing starter set includes everything you need to begin your battles, such as scenarios, cards, and fully assembled and painted ships. What's more, Star Wars: X-Wing's quick-to-learn ruleset establishes the foundation for a system that can be expanded with your favorite ships and characters from the Star Wars universe.      

    And so, on my first day at Hal-Con this year, I decided to bite the bullet and drop forty beans on the core game.  After procuring an additional TIE Advanced and a Y-Wing to round out the assortment, I began the process of digesting the rules.  Which, as it turns out, was a fairly easy task thanks to slick instructional vids like this:


    Looking to explore the true nature of the Force?  Well, in the famous words of a certain laconic smuggler: "Kid, I've flown from one side of this galaxy to the other, and I've seen a lot of strange stuff, but I've never seen anything to make me believe that there's one all-powerful Force controlling everything."

    What is real, however, is Fantasy Flight's support for the game.  You can even read X-Wing's entire rulebook right here.  
      
    Anyway, a couple Wednesdays ago, me and Mike had a chance to through down in a mano-a-mano dogfight to the death.  Here's how our two forces stacked up:

    IMPERIALS (ME)

    Darth Vader...29 points
    "Mauler" Mithel...17 points
    Black Squadron Pilot...14 points
    Concussion Missiles Upgrade for Advanced TIE...4 points
    "Swarm Tactics" Upgrade for "Mauler" Mithel...2 points
    "Squad Leader" Card for Darth Vader...2 points
    "Expert Handling" Card for Black Squadron Pilot...2 points

    Total Squad Point Cost: 70

    REBELS (MIKE)

    Luke Skywalker...28 points
    Horton Salm...25 points
    Ion Cannon Upgrade for Y-Wing...5 points
    R2-D2 Upgrade for X-Wing...4 points
    Proton Torpedo Upgrade for both X-Wing and Y-Wing...4 x 2 = 8 

    Total Squad Point Cost: 70

    ***

    As the two squadrons closed the gap with one another, Vader Targeted the Y-Wing and managed to hit it at long range, damaging two of its Shields.  Luke returned fire at the Sith Lord, but Vader avoided the effect with a primed Focus.  Unfortunately, this put him right into the sights of Tim Horton's...er...Horton Salm's Y-Wing, which managed to graze Vader at long range for a point of damage!


    During the subsequent pass, Vader took another pot-shot, this time at Luke.  Mike conjured up two Evade die results, nullifying the one hit.  Luke fired back with three dice, scoring a Critical and a regular hit on his pappy.  Not a good start for the Empire!    


    As the two squadrons flew through one another and broke up, only the Y-Wing's 360° Ion Cannon had the capacity to fire.  The subsequent zap ionized the Black Squadron TIE, scoring three solid hits and sending it spiralling out of control!  


    After the fighters come hard about, "Mauler" Mithel attempted to fire back at the Y-Wing but it managed to Evade.  Meanwhile, Vader scored two hits on Luke, bringing down his Shields.


    Horton Salm lit up his twin Taim & Bak IX4 forward-mounted laser cannons, threatening "Mauler" Mithel with two hits.  The Imperial ace performed a quick slip maneuver, avoiding one point of the damage.


    Salm kept peppering Mithel with a tenacious hail of close-range laser-fire but the wily veteran continued to duck and weave.  Two potential hits fell by the wayside.    


    After the last lethal fly-by, the fighters spent a tense turn jockeying for position.  Both "Mauler" Mithel and the Black Squadron Pilot were forced to incur some major G's while performing hairpin turns.


    Setting himself up as a nominee for the "Galaxy's Worst Father", Vader drilled down on his son's X-Wing.  After rolling only a single hit, I spent a Focus token and dialed up another.  Luke responded with a flurry of evasive moves, shaking off his Dad's withering attack.

    Looking to take advantage of Vader's preoccupation, Horton Salm opened up, scoring one potential hit and upgrading a Focus result into another.  At the last second, the Sith Lord rolled two Evade results and pulled up out of the crossfire.

    Intent on blasting Vader into atoms, Horton Salm didn't notice the Black Squadron TIE bearing down on him like a shark.  After the Imperial pilot scored one Crit and another regular hit, Mike rolled two blanks, forcing him to deduct his Y-Wings's last Shield marker and take a point of hull damage.  


    On the verge of flying off the battlefield, Luke invested a turn flipping around.  Unfortunately, this did precious little to throw off Darth Vader's Target Lock and he was soon forced to contend with two incoming blaster bolts.  Luke managed to Evade one hit and his Shield soaked up the second.  Stressed by the extreme maneuver and the hail of laser fire, Luke's counterattack on Vader was a stone cold miss.         

    "Mauler" Mithel took a bead on Horton Salm's Y-Wing.  Mike rolled two blanks on his Defense Dice and got blasted right in the exhaust nacelle ("I hate when that happens!") for two points of damage. Sensing blood in the water, the Black Squadron Pilot trowelled another point of damage onto the Y-Wing. 


    Luke served up three potential hits on the Black Squadron TIE but the wily pilot avoided two of them with a proficient Evade roll.  He tried to counter-attack but Luke effortlessly avoided the single strike like Neo in The Matrix.  Now officially in the zone, "Mauler" Mither blasted away at the close-range Y-Wing.  After nailing him for a point of damage, Mike fumbled his defense roll and Horton Salm was instantly reduced to fine-grain space dust.      


    Not long after, both Vader and the Black Squadron Pilot were forced to pull a u-turn in order to get Luke back in their sights. 


    Lord Vader tried to laser lance Luke (wow, try saying that five time real quick) but the cagy young Rebel handily avoided it.  In order to get back into contention, he was forced to pull a 180° Koiogran maneuver, putting him under Stress and turning his X-Wing into the equivalent of a space piñata.  He managed to dodge one in-bound Crit from the Black Squadron Pilot and then frustrated him even further by cleanly Evading two follow-up hits.  He wasn't so lucky against his pops, however, who dealt out a solid smack.  Despite the extreme range, "Mauler" Mithel also conjured up one regular hit and a Crit against Luke who's Defense Dice could only assuage half of the pain.   

    Vader sniped Luke for two points of long range damage but half of that was turfed by Luke's defense.  The young Jedi switched on his targeting computer and took a bead on the inbound Imperial ace "Mauler" Mithel.  Mithel proved his mettle by evading two points of potential damage and then lobbed back two in return.  Thrown by his rival's ferocity, the Rebel pilot whiffed his defense roll and was forced to eat twin bolts from the TIE's SFS L-S1 laser cannon.  Luke managed to recover just in time to roll away from two more promising strikes courtesy of the Black Squadron Pilot. 


    As the remaining four pilots closed to within lethal distance of one another, the dogfight suddenly turned into a knife-fight.  Vader clobbered Luke with twin Crits, causing three points of damage in total!  At this close range, "Maulter" Mithel became a sitting dianoga and Luke was more then happy to blast him into oblivion with a whopping four points of damage!  As Luke flew through the resulting cloud of debris, the Black Squadron Pilot tried to avenge his wing man.  Ever the consummate pilot, Luke managed to shuck and jive, taking only one point of damage on three big hits.    


    The three ships blew by one another, resulting in a near-collision.  The agile TIE's managed to quickly come hard about, intent on polishing off the lone Rebel pilot.  


    After a great deal of tricky piloting the two Imperial ships managed to get Luke back into  their cross-hairs.  Vader squeezed off a few shots but his two hits were quickly countered by a great Evade roll. The Black Squadron Pilot was similarly frustrated after Luke succeeded in juking his attack.


    Vader pelted away but his three hits were very nearly shrugged off with pair of  Evades.  One hit got through, however, chipping away at Luke's incessantly regenerating Shields!  The Black Squadron Pilot piled on the abuse by scoring two hits and temporarily eliminating the Rebel pilot's Shields.  


    Luke just couldn't seem to shake his pursuers.  Once again, R2-D2 managed to patch up the T-65's Shields and stave off certain doom.  Curse those plucky little astro-droids!  Sensing weakness, Vader scored two hits on his spawn, but Luke managed to Evade a point of the damage.  This left him open to a follow-up strike from the Black Squadron Pilot, who also scored a hit.  

    Now firing away at point blank range, Vader scored three hits including a Critical.  Mike rolled his Defense Dice and got one blank and two Focus results.  The first hit was nullified by an Evade result, the second blew out Luke's last Shield and the final shot managed to find its mark.  Red Five's fuselage was instantly ruptured, resulting in a massive internal explosion.


    With the budding Jedi Knight killed in the resulting ball of fire the only hope for the Rebellion was destroyed!  The Empire stood triumphant! 

    ***
    Although X-Wing doesn't have all the chrome of Star Warriors it's a perfect example of just how much board games have evolved over the past twenty-five years.  Indeed, after reading the rulebook for X-Wing I was afraid that the game's face-value simplicity wouldn't "feel" like starfighter combat. Mercifully the Maneuver Templates, Barrel Rolls, Target Locks, Pilot Stress Tokens, Critical Hit Damage Cards, Focus Die Results and the secret Movement Dials all add up to a reasonably authentic experience.  

    In other words: where Star Warriors tried to sim starfighter combat with an admittedly evolved wargaming ruleset,  X-Wing succeeds in filtering just enough of the same elements through a simpler and more intuitive design.  Granted, it doesn't feel as "real" as it's predecessor, but it's a helluva lot more playable.  In fact, the ability to throw the game down on any available surface (instead of a crappy paper hex-map) is awesome enough.

    We did have to pause and sort out some rules ambiguities a bit more often then I expected, but that's probably more my fault then the game's.  Admittedly, I only breezed through the rules earlier that day and I'm confident that the next time I revisit them the answers to the following questions will be made apparent:
    • Stressed pilots can't take actions but is firing a weapon included in this ban?
    • Does a successful Ion Cannon Attack Die roll completely negate a Defense Die roll?
    • If a ship is under Stress can R2 still repair its Shields?
    Regardless of these lingering questions, I really enjoyed X-Wing and I'm really looking forward to adding more expansions.  Needless to say I'm positively drooling at the prospects of getting my hands on an A-Wing, TIE Interceptor, Slave I and the mother-fuckin' Millennium Falcon, yo.

    X-Wing scores five pips out of six.      



    ***

    Wanna cram a Photon Torpedo up your friend's Thermal Exhaust Port?  Click on the pic below to order X-Wing from Amazon and help support this here blog...                


    Wednesday, December 5, 2012

    Give Me "Steam"

    The big problem with a lot of board games is that the cover art and subject matter gives people the impression that the box is filled with meeple-shaped Dramamine tablets.  Case in point:

     
    Sorry, but I've never had a train fetish.  This might as well be a picture of a paper clip sitting on a white tablecloth for all I care.  This is a real pity since this bland exterior does absolute nothing to sell the truly stellar game contained within.

    Here's an overview right from the conductor's mouth:

    "In Steam you build railroads and deliver goods along an ever-changing network of tracks and stations.  You build the tracks, upgrade towns, improve your train, and grab the right goods to make the longest, most profitable deliveries.  Score your deliveries and add to your income or victory points, balancing your need to invest against your quest to win the game.

    "
    Steam contains a beautiful, double-sided game board.  The map on each side depicts terrain, towns, and cities at the start of the railway age.  The map of the northeastern USA and neighboring Canada is ideal for 3 or 4 players.  Use the map of Europe's lower Rhine and Ruhr region when playing a 4 or 5 player game.  You can play Steam on any number of current and future variant and expansion maps, so we include pieces for 6 players.

    "
    Steam is the culmination of Martin Wallace's classic railroad game series.  It contains a brilliantly balanced standard game, and a very rich, elegant basic game.  Both offer you unparalleled flavor and fun."    

    Looking to run train on yourself?  You can read the game's full rule book by choo-choo-choosing the following link.  

    Color Selection

    Andrew...White
    Chad...Orange
    Me...Black
    Mike...Green

    Here's how the board looked upon initial set-up, just prior to us screwing around with its Zen-like simplicity.  Oh, and for the sake of full disclosure, we played the Basic Game and not the uber-auctiony Standard game.  


    Right off the bat, Andrew seemed to realize the importance of an upgraded locomotive.  By the end of Round Two, his trains had the ability to move across three rail segments.  This served him very well in the construction between Philadelphia, New York, Albany and a refurbished Amsterdam.

    I tried to create a circuitous route between Scranton, Philadelphia and New York but high-spending Andrew plunged himself into debt in order to to snatch up the line between the Big Apple and the home of Philly Cheesesteaks.  After noticing that I had the potential to score three big Veeps by delivering a blue shipment along the same route, I started to upgrade my locomotives.  Around the same time I also realized that the two purple cubes sitting in Scranton were probably going to collect dust for a little while.  

    Chad also was quick to invest in speedier locomotives.  This allowed him to envision and then exploit a three-segment track running from Albany to Boston via Hartford.  

    For the longest time, Mike resisted the temptation to spruce up his locomotives.  Unfortunately, this kept him limited to purple and blue single point cube deliveries along one-track routes like Albany to Hartford and Boston to Maine.  Indeed, Mike seemed pretty leery about burying himself in debt, which meant that his northern route between Ottawa and Valleyfield went incomplete for awhile.  


    By the time the fourth round was over, Andrew had transformed his locomotives into five-track crusin' Maseratis.  He also weaseled his way back onto my turf by constructing a two-segment route from Amsterdam to Syracuse via Utica!  As a second affront, he also began laying a length of track from Syracuse to Kingston!  Jerk!  Although this put him into serious debt, he managed to dig himself out somewhat by transporting one blue cube from Amsterdam to Philadelphia for four big points and then  smuggling one of my yellow cubes out of Philadelphia to Albany for three.  Even after all of this clandestine shipping, he was still -2 in the hole.  

    Although it cost him a bundle, Chad managed to keep up with Andrew in the locomotive upgrade race.  A single, inexpensive segment laid between Albany and Amsterdam immediately gave him the ability to transport one red cube all the way from Amsterdam to New York for four points.  Chad also started to build a track towards Plymouth but didn't want to sink lower then -1 in debt so he stopped two hexes short.

    Frustrated that three cubes (two yellow and one purple) were virtually stranded in Maine, Mike turned his attentions up north.  Instead of investing in expensive locomotives, Mike funneled all of his profits into building abbreviated tracks.  He started by completing the route between Ottawa, Valleyfield and Montreal, which eventually allowed him to deliver two red cubes for four points.  After working on some tentative routes between Montreal, Burlington and an Urbanized Sherbrooke, Mike somehow managed to claw his way back out of debt.  

    Unlike Mike, I really thought that long-range locomotives would be the key to victory.  As such, I put priority into getting mine up to four speed, just one behind Chad and Andrew.  But like Mike, I was also playing the game w-a-a-a-a-y too passively.  My first crime was building railroad tracks without deviations.  Although this tactic was relatively inexpensive it also prevented me from branching out to new towns and cities with ease.  My second goof was allowing Andrew to box me in.  After that, all I could really do was make tracks along the only route still available to me: Scranton to Syracuse via Binghamton.  Eventually this allowed me to stay out of debt by shipping a blue cube from Syracuse to Philadelphia for four points and a purple cube from Philly to Scranton for two. 

                              
    Over the next two rounds, Andrew continued to spend money to make money.  First off, he drove himself into six points worth of debt in order to attain the highest possible locomotive speed.  Then he  completed a major line from Kingston, Smiths, Ogdensberg and Ottawa, wisely leaving one junction open to create an inevitable circuit.  To pay for all of this, Andrew horked one of my red cubes and sent it off to New York for five points!  

    Now completely painted into a corner, I did what I could to eke out some space.  At first I tried to branch out from a completely different location (specifically Amsterdam) but Mike threw me a curveball by diverting his northern line from Burlington towards Rutland and erasing my sole entry into the town.  I tried to bounce back by building a three-segment route from Scranton to Harrisburg and a two point track from Binghamton to Towanda, but without any resources to ship it was all for nought.  To generate some fresh resources, I upgraded Binghamton with a Gray City Tile and then stocked it with purple and yellow cubes.  Andrew had already performed City Growth on Philadelphia, which gave me an opportunity to move the lone gray cube there up to Binghamton for three points.  Because I had very little payoff after all of that frantic development I ended up being two points in the hole.       

    Chad kept up his furious pace with Andrew, scoring six-movement-point bullet trains as well.  Even though he completed a three-segment rail line to Plymouth and a two-track route to Bridgeport this didn't translate into a lot of shipped goods at first.  But at least he accomplished something that I'd failed to do, which was create some jumping off points in far-flung corners of the board.  First off he placed a one-tile track in my territory between Syracuse and "New Binghamton" effectively blocking Andrew's intended access to the city.  Then he curb-stomped Andrew right in the knutz by linking Ottawa with Smiths using a single tile.  Unfortunately, Chad's lack of income hit him pretty hard, leaving him at -4 on the Debt-O-Meter. 

    After defending his sole access into Rutland, Mike concentrated on linking Sherbrooke to Maine via Rumford.  Even though he had access to more uncontested resources then Andrew or myself, Mike's lack of mobility was beginning to hamstring him.  After producing more goods in Maine, Mike was still limited to only one or two point shipments.  Thus, one yellow cube went from Maine to Sherbrooke and a blue cube came back the opposite way for two points apiece.  There was also a shipment of one yellow cube from Montreal to Sherbrooke.  Although this only gave Mike a total of five points, it also buoyed him back up to -2 monies and kept him out of financial ruin.

          
    The last few turns of the game were all about delivering goods for "Hail Mary" points and dropping one and two-hex railroad tokens like leftover Scrabble tiles.  Andrew got five points for shipping a gray cube all the way from New York City to Syracuse.  I also got a small windfall out of the deal when Andrew snubbed Chad and used my Syracuse to Binghamton line instead of his.  The rancor between Chad and Andrew at that point was so toxic that neither of them were willing to concede so much as an inch to one another.  

    Exiled in my own little corner of the world, I couldn't lay down any new routes even if I wanted to.  After my proposed track from Amsterdam to Rutland got scrapped, I knew that my only hope to generate points now was through Urbanization.  But even after I upgraded Harrisburg to a purple city my earning potential was still pretty anemic.  I did manage to sneak a lone grey cube out of New York and send it to Binghamton, but this was via Scranton and it only resulted in two measly points.  After shifting one purple cube from Scranton to Philadelphia for two points and another from Binghamton to Scranton for one I realized that I was taking three moves to accomplish what Chad and Andrew were doing in one.  

    Chad might not have earned a lot of points during the last few rounds, but certainly set himself up for a killer endgame.  First up, he did me one better by constructing a last-minute route from Amsterdam to Rutland by refashioning the latter into a red city.  He then scored three points with a blue cube transported from Hartford to Amsterdam, four points with a similarly-colored cube sent from Plymouth to Albany and a whopping five points via a gray cube that went from Bean Town to Plymouth Rock.  

    Stuck behind the Appalachian Mountains with no branching tracks to work with or towns to link up to, Mike did what he could to score a few 11'th hour points.  But since his range was still stuck at three, even this was a challenge.  Rewards came to him piecemeal: Sherbrooke and Montreal traded red and yellow cubes for one point apiece, Maine sent a red cube to Boston for a point and Sherbrooke got a yellow cube from Maine for two points.  Without any matching destinations nearby, several of Mike's gray and purple cubes ended up going unclaimed.  


    At game's end we added all of the Income and completed rail link bonuses to our Victory Point tracks.  Here was the final result:
       
    FINAL SCORES
    Andrew...36
    Chad...36
    Me...28
    Mike...24


    The player with the highest income value broke the tie.  As a result, Andrew was declared the winner with a +2 income!    

    ***
    I was actually quite impressed by Steam; the mechanics of the Basic Game are simple yet thematic.  For example I really like how turn order was determined by the actions you take.  Even though some of the options are clearly more powerful then others, this is offset nicely by putting players who pick them at the back of the turn order.  As a result, the odds of any player getting to use one of these powerful actions twice in a row is pretty slim.   

    I also dug the spacial relations challenge provided by the railway track tiles.  During this first game, I was constantly buying straight-away tracks just because they're cheap.  In retrospect, this was pretty myopic since branch-off tiles give you the chance to strike off towards new towns without re-starting a track from scratch.  Although going into debt feels appropriately scary such boldness is a prerequisite to victory.  The economic system really drives home the theme that heavy investment in infrastructure is key to securing those precious end-game returns.        

    Several strategies become evident as you play the game.  Are you going to put yourself in hock to crisscross the map with far-reaching rail lines?  Or will you eke out a small yet resource-heavy region of the country and concentrate on developing the area's commercial potential?  Whatever tactics you decide on, there's a genuine sense of evolution during the game.  I love watching the rail lines, cities and production routes develop.  The board, Railway Track hexes and Action Tiles all contribute to the sensation that players are olde tyme rail barons out to make a fast buck.  

    Unfortunately, the rest of the components do very little to enhance this theme.  The cute l'il train tokens featured in the sessions photographs are a misnomer since Andrew had to buy them separately.  In fact, the "trains" included with the game are small, round, flat, lame-looking colored wooden discs.  Also a tad weak-sauce are the nondescript "Goods Cubes" which are supposed to represent the vagaries of "long term delivery contracts".  *YAWN!*  If the designers had opted to use representations of "real" raw materials instead, this would have been a lot more evocative.

    Regardless of my issues with the components, this is still a rich, immersive gaming experience that will have you chomping at the bit for your turn to come back around.  In fact, when it comes to jacking up your opponents with New City tiles or heading someone off at the pass with a series of deviously-played track segments I get the impression that we've only begun to scratch the strategic surface.        

    While you're playing it, Steam certainly builds up a head of its namesake and I'm pleased to award the game five pips out of six on the ol' Die-O-Meter!


    Want an excuse to dress up like a conductor and throw your friends out of a second story window after they fail to produce their "ticket" on demand?  Well, right now you're shit outta luck 'cuz Steam appears to be out of print.  Keep watching this space for an update! 


            


    Wednesday, November 28, 2012

    "Infiltration": It Sneaks Up On You

    Being a huge fan of all things cyberpunk, Mike picked up a copy of Infiltration at Hal-Con this year.  Needless to say, there wasn't much doubt as to what Mike was gonna pick when his game turn rolled around last Wednesday night.


    Before we dive into the session report, here's Fantasy Flight's elevator pitch for the game:

    "It is the future, and beneath the flickering glow of the sprawling New Angeles skyline, immense corporations seek every advantage in the burgeoning field of synthetic humanoid technology. On the brink of a revolutionary innovation, CyberSolutions Inc. is poised to become the next global powerhouse, threatening the profits of well-established conglomerates Haas-Bioroid and Jinteki – but unfortunately for CyberSolutions, security at their New Angeles branch has just been compromised.

    "Set in the dystopian future of
    Android, Infiltration is a tense card game of futuristic larceny in which two to six players take the roles of thieves, competing to steal valuable secrets from a highly secured corporate facility.

    "The most vital information lies deep within the complex, but each step inward takes you farther from escape. Worse yet, corporate mercenaries are closing in! How long will you push your luck as you avoid security patrols, surpass rival thieves, and try to download the most data before the building is locked down?
    "

    Still looking to hack into the rules mainframe?  You can take the red pill by clicking on the following link

    The Roles

    Andrew...John "Animal" McEvoy - The Honey Badger
    Chad...Gabriel Correa Santiago - Nerd Prototype
    Me...Hugo Cash - Bearded Fat Man
    Mike...Mr. White - Evil Obama

    GAME ONE

    We all started in the entrance to the complex, which turned out to be the Locker Room.


    In a protest against THE MAN, Mike set off a Semtex Charge in the Executive Meeting Room (destroying all the Tech Locks in the adjacent Hazmat Depot and the Infirmary).  After the dust settled,  I eventually joined him there.  Andrew elbowed past us and probed deeper into the facility, eventually locating the Infirmary.  Chad decided to lower the property values by hanging out in the Locker Room for awhile.


    In addition to chain-smoking, John "Animal" McEvoy's other hobby appeared to be throwing rocks at hornet's nests.  Here he is pissing off Officer Ballbuster in the Security Station:


    Meanwhile, Chad broke the Hazmat Depot's Tech Lock, springing six Data files.  Lured by all that cheddar, I decided to use my Qianju PT mobility scooter to backtrack to the Depot.  Unfortunately, Chad also released some kind of weird Sludge thing into the room which glued us like pennies to a theater floor.  Meanwhile, Mike casually strolled around and picked up Meeting Room Data Files like E.T. yoinking Reese's Pieces.


    Then Mike was kind enough to come to Andrew's aid, blowing Officer Dickwad away with his unregistered Gauss Pistol.  Fight the power!  


    Now free to move, Andrew located the Secret Brain Scan Station via the Halo Conference Room.  This gave him exclusive access to eight big Data Files as well as the ability to Interface with the room and cherry pick from the Item Deck.  I can't be one-hundred percent positive, but I'm pretty sure that Andrew touched himself inappropriately at that moment.











































                                                                                               
    Unfortunately Andrew's secret transit ramped up the already-inflated Proximity Dial by 10 points.  Things got even more frantic after I played "Secretaries" for the option to either increase or decrease the alarm dial by two points.  Naturally I opted for the former just because I wanted to "see what happens".  This would prove to be an unpopular decision.         

    Meanwhile, Mike kept running around, decapitated chicken-style, picking up Data Files like Easter eggs.  As Chad began to wring the last vestiges of value out of the Security Station, I played Sub-Dermal Data Drive and mowed his digital lawn.  I'm pretty sure that he appreciated the assistance!  


    Oblivious to how quickly the Proximity Dial was going up (and apparently suffering from a case of the "greedies"), Chad and I kept pressing our luck in an effort to snatch up the last of Mike's table scraps.  Mike was the first to read the writing on the wall and began hauling ass back to the Entry Room.  After languishing in the Brain Scan Station for w-a-a-a-a-y too long, Andrew realized that he was proper fucked, so he decided to spend the rest of his limited time exploring the upper floor.  In his travels he stumbled upon the Neural Interface Workshop, which drove the Alarm Dial up by another two points.  To make amends he quickly broke the room's Tech Lock and dropped it back down to four again, but this was akin to patching up a hull rupture on the space shuttle with masking tape.


    With the Alarm Dial now set at four, we knew that we were gonna run out of time really friggin' fast.  Mike and I tried to make a mad dash for the exit while Chad and Andrew made peace with their maker.  


    The only person vaguely close to the exit was Mike, but even he got mired in the persistent Sludge of the Hazmat Depot.  Ignoring the gravy in his veins, Hugo strapped on a pair of "Frictionless Slippers" and frantically skated towards the Locker Room.  Cool as musicians aboard the Titanic, Chad and Andrew serenely explored the top floor, revealing the VP's Office and professional whistle blower Leah Bailey, who promptly ran screaming for the exit.


    In a move likely designed to punish me for fucking with the Alarm Dial, Mike played "Sub-Sonic Emitter", driving me back a room and negating the headway I'd achieved with my "Slippers".  I'm pretty sure that if a quick poll was taken around the table, everyone would have said that no court in the land would have convicted him for this petty but justifiable act of revenge.


    Even though none of us technically got out of the facility, Chad and Andrew still managed to map the entire upper floor, Mike got all the way back to the Locker Room and I got "Sludged" in the Hazmat Depot.  Everybody's happy, right?  Right?  No?

    Man, I am such a tool.  

    During the game, Andrew had collected 27 Data Files, Chad and I were tied with 14 and Mike had scored 6.  Pity that this fact is completely and utterly moot.  


    Since Game One only took about an hour or so to play, we quickly reset things and had another crack at it.  Duly warned about the snowball-rolling-downhill-effect of an Alarm-inflated Proximity Dial, we tried to play it a bit more conservative this time.

    Everybody except for Andrew, of course.

    GAME TWO

    The Brain Mapping Lab served as our communal Entry Room, but it turned out to be occupied by the rogue data evacuee Tyrone Kent.  Even though he would have harmlessly moved off the board on the next turn, I decided to blow him away with a Flechette Pistol just for shits and / or giggles.

        
    Mike and Andrew picked up some Data Files in the Research Admin Office.  In addition to cranking up the Alarm Dial, their discovery also revealed a path to the Secret Room.  Chad bypassed all of this to investigate the Showroom where he pondered the benefits of switching on the CSX-13 drone.  After reading the NPC's uber-violent text, we quickly came to the conclusion that this robot has the exact same disposition as the Killbots in Chopping Mall.  Meanwhile, I decided to Interface with the Brain Scanning Lab to try and steal Data Files from Mike and Andrew which was a dog dumb idea since they didn't fucking have any!  And with that, I was off to a brilliant start!


    Mike surged ahead and discovered the Motion Performance Testing Area.  After helping himself to some of Data Files there, he performed an Interface Action and propelled himself three rooms ahead to the Research Station.  Unfortunately this resulted in a three point bump in the Alarm Dial.  Meanwhile, Chad and Andrew decided to play rock, paper, scissors for the remaining Data in the Testing Area while I stumbled into the Research Admin Office and soaked up the few remaining Data Files there.

       
    It was at this point when I began to wonder why no one else had opted to use the Admin Officer's entrance to the Secret Room.  Did they know something about it that I didn't?  In the end I decided to throw caution to the wind and squeezed my fat bloated carcass into the Secret Prototype Lab.  


    Meanwhile, Chad opted to linger back at the Showroom to unlock and then plunder a few stray Data Files.  Andrew chose not to use the Testing Area's turbo option, choosing to explore the facility the old-fashioned way.  Although he wisely kept that pesky Hazmat Room Sludge contained, his disappointment was palpable after leaving behind some Data Files in lieu of uncovering the boring ol' Locker Room.  Finally, Mike rushed through the upper floor, first revealing the Chassis Assembly Line (cranking the Alarm Dial up to an ungodly seven in the process!) and then stumbling into the Data File-laden Server Farm!


    Without any rivals to contest me, I began the slow, methodical process of draining the Prototype Lab of every single Data File in there.  When it came time to decide whether or not I should Interface the Lab for a Prototype I was immediately torn.  Even though my escape route (via the Research Admin Office) was only two spaces away from the exit, I could also see that the Proximity Dial was accelerating very quickly.  Mercifully, Mike was courteous enough to pop into the Transformer Hub and decrease the Proximity Dial by ten.  This gave be just enough incentive to stick around for one final turn, score a Prototype Card for ten more points and then waddle my ass outta there.

    Meanwhile, Chad gambled that the rest of us would get stuck inside the complex and got out while he could, taking eight Data Files with him.  Taking the opposite approach, John "Animal" McEvoy took off all his clothes and started rolling around naked in the Server Room's Vault o' Data.  Just like Honey Badger, "Animal" don't care.  "Animal" don't give a shit.

    Elsewhere, Mr. White finally managed to reach the top floor window which was revealed as the Computer Lab.  En route, he poked around in the Prototype Storage room and inadvertently tripped the Alarm Dial up by one.


    Laden down with my spoils, I wheezed towards the exit and eventually joined Chad outside for a smoke.


    With his escape route secured, "Magic" Mike spent his last few turns hastily stuffing some last-minute Data Files into his pants.  The accelerated Proximity Clock pretty much signaled the death knell for Andrew but, as previously mentioned, like a certain mustelid native to Africa not a single fuck was given.  He just kept sucking up Data Files like King Cobra blood.


    With the Proximity Clock now at ninety freakin' seven, Mike jumped out of the second story window (presumably landing in a dumpster).  Seconds later a final Security Phase roll of "6" put the clock over the top and ended the match.  Even while he was being clubbed to death by goons armed with truncheons, Andrew kept slurping up Data Files like Mellivora Capensis chowing down on a hive full of bee larvae.

      
    FINAL SCORES

    Me...35
    Mike...24
    Chad...8
    Andrew...Arrested and presumably sodomized daily in prison
      
    ***

    Infiltration turned out to be a surprise hit.  It takes the "press your luck" mechanic of an Incan Gold and marries it with a create-your-own-map-with-random-cards-function of Elder Sign.  The components are great, the rules are crystal clear and the multitude of Item Cards and Room options really boosts the theme and the sense of adventure.  The ingenious Proximity / Alarm Clock countdown mechanism also makes for an intense and frantic end game.  

    The only demerit I can think of is that the characters don't have any innate special abilities to set them apart from one another.  Sure, you can pimp 'em out with the optional "Specialist" equipment but it really would have been cool to give each character a unique skill.

    Granted, designer Donald X. Vaccarino hasn't created a completely new genre of game here like he did with Dominion.  Instead he's took some appropriate pre-existing mechanics, tweaked them and ended up serving the game's theme very well.  Overall, Infiltration isn't earth-shatteringly awesome but it certainly does its job very well.    

    Infiltration scores four pips out of six!   



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