Thursday, September 27, 2012

Epic Adventuring Without Epic Playtime: "Descent: Second Edition"

As a huge fan of fantasy RPG's I've been trying since the late 80's to find a board game that replicates that awesome Dungeons & Dragons experience.  The first edition of Descent: Journeys in the Dark by Kevin Wilson came close but it still had some pretty hefty issues, namely:
  • The quests often boiled down to an endless rinse, wash and repeat cycle of monster ganking, treasure filching and dungeon escapery.  C'mon, game designers, where's the sense of adventure?  
  • Fighting endless waves of enemies made it feel as if you were playing Gauntlet: The Board Game.
  • The only "exploration" in the game came from whipping open doors and taking inventory of things that want to rip your face off.  Traps were arbitrarily dropped by the Overlord and you really couldn't search for them or detect them ahead of time.  Worst still, there really wasn't anything at all in the way of puzzles or problem solving.  
  • The play time was obscenely long.  Look, if I'm gonna sit around a table for four or five hours pretending to inch my way through a lethal dungeon then I wanna roll up my own damned character from scratch.  Then I wanna beat up on Orcs, Goblins and Trolls, not generic losers like "Razorwings" and "Beastmen".   
  • The "Terrinoth" setting was 50% puerility and 50% creative fatigue.  Most of the characters reeked of unintentionally funny bad-assery or pitifully desperate T&A.  It really gave the impression that Fantasy Flight's art department was staffed by a handful of pathetically horny fourteen year old boys.  
For an example, here's the character card for "Varikas the Dead":

Seriously, this guy's supposed to be a hero?!?!  He looks like a cross between Iron Maiden mascot Eddie and General Kael from Willow, fer fuck's sake.  

Oh, and here's "Red Scorpion":

Okay, clearly Ms. Scorpion's boobs were drawn by someone who's NEVER ACTUALLY SEEN REAL BOOBS.  Fucking pathetic.  

Okay, so I'm being a bit hard on the game.  The original Descent was released over seven years ago and Fantasy Flight has since streamlined their game mechanics and improved their art style, as evidenced by such slick titles as DungeonQuest (3rd Edition), Rune Age and Runewars.  There's also been a metric shit-ton of play testing, player feedback and board game evolution in the past seven years.  As such, Descent: Journeys in the Dark (Second Edition) actually makes a lot of sense to me.     

Here's Fantasy Flight's pitch for their new iteration, straight from the barghest's maw:

"Descent: Journeys in the Dark (Second Edition) is a board game in which one player takes on the role of the treacherous overlord, and up to four other players take on the roles of courageous heroes.  During each game, the heroes embark on quests and venture into dangerous caves, ancient ruins, dark dungeons, and cursed forests to battle monsters, earn riches, and attempt to stop the overlord from carrying out his vile plot.

With danger lurking in every shadow, combat is a necessity.  For such times, Descent: Journeys in the Dark (Second Edition) uses a unique dice-based system.  Players build their dice pools according to their character's abilities and weapons, and each die in the pool contributes to an attack in different ways.  Surges, special symbols that appear on most dice, also let you trigger special effects to make the most of your attacks.  And with the horrors awaiting you beneath the surface, you'll need every advantage you can take...

Featuring double-sided modular board pieces, countless hero and skill combinations, and an immersive story-driven campaign, Descent: Journeys in the Dark (Second Edition) transports heroes to a vibrant fantasy realm where they must stand together against an ancient evil."

Want more concrete info before you buy or upgrade?  You can read the rule-book in its entirety right here.  

So, has the game really been improved?  We sat down to play the introductory scenario two Wednesdays ago to try and answer that burning question.  


Dean selected spell-flinger Leoric of the Book, modified by the "Necromancer" Class.  As such, he came pre-loaded with a Reaper's Scythe and the handy ability to Raise the Dead.  

Andrew was elven fighter Syndrael, augmented by the incongruous "Berserker" trait and decked out with a Chipped Greataxe and the ability to Rage at will.

And I played the part of the nasty, dirty Overlord.  


In this introductory scenario, the heroes need to defeat The Mauler, a juiced-up two-headed Ettin.  The Overlord player can claim victory if they successfully move five intact Goblin Archers off the game board.


Syndrael found a Stamina Potion while Leoric conjured up an anorexic play-pal.  My Goblin Archers attempted to pincushion the wizard, meting out two damage in the first attack but missing with the second arrow.  The Ettin couldn't reach Leoric so he settled for lashing out at the Reanimate, but missed.  

Leoric performed his Heroic Feat, killing two Goblins and badly wounding one Lieutenant.  Even more annoying: the Reaper's Scythe allowed him to heal up completely.  Grrrrr!!!  To add insult to injury, Leoric's Reanimate handily polished off my wounded Goblin Archer.  As Syndrael rushed up on the undefended Mauler he ran afoul of a hidden Trip Wire.  After spending Fatigue to extricate himself from the trap, he got up into the Mauler's grill and inflicted a point of damage.  

Now wounded, the Mauler went into a Frenzy.  Leoric managed to duck the first blow but took a whopping seven points of damage on the Ettin's back-swing.  A new Goblin Lieutenant then appeared on my behalf.  

Seeing his companion grievously injured, Syndrael flew into a Rage.  On his first wild swing, only one point of damage got through.  Reckless with blind fury, his follow-up attack was a complete miss.  Leoric's magical attack fizzled just shy of my newly-minted Goblin and his undead Familiar also failed to connect with the Mauler.  

I finally decided to start paying attention to the Victory Conditions and sent a Goblin bolting for the exit.  In an effort to avoid any double-attacks, the Mauler stepped back a space and then went all Frenzy on Syndrael.  The creature's first blow was easily parried by the elf's greataxe but the follow-up swing got through his defenses.  Another Goblin then emerged from the Wild Garden. 

Just as Syndrael moved to press his attack in the Ettin's lair, he side-stepped an anomaly underfoot.  Narrowly avoiding the now-exposed Pit Trap, he charged at the Mauler and dealt two damage.  He then followed up with a vicious Rage attack, but the two-headed monstrosity steered the powerful blow aside with his club.  From the flank, Leoric hurled a magical bolt and scored a point of damage.  His Reanimate wasn't so lucky, completely fumbling its own attack.  

My Goblin Lieutenant managed to escape the map, netting me a Victory Point while the Goblin that appeared last round also tried to make a break for it.  The Mauler continued to perform a fighting withdrawal, inching back towards the Fire Pit and leveling a Reach swing at Syndrael.  He scored a Critical Blow dealing four points of damage, two of which got through.  Yet another Goblin Archer dropped into the map.     

Syndrael managed to duck and weave through a flurry of wild swings to strike a three-point surgical strike on the Mauler.  Meanwhile, Leoric's reanimated corpse continues to flail away uselessly.  The magician himself maneuvered to get a clear shot, narrowly avoiding a Trip Wire.  His follow-up attack turned out to be a blatant miss.

Another Goblin ran off the board just as another popped up.  The Mauler, now backed into a corner, swung wildly, using a spot of Dark Fortune to render Syndrael unconscious.  This left Leoric with a tough decision: should he try to revive his partner or attempt to take the Mauler down once and for all?


Since we flew through that introductory battle in just over thirty minutes, we decided to press on and complete the other two segments of the quest.


In this encounter, Goblin Archers attempt to steal crops from a local farm in order to feed their mysterious master.  Meanwhile, the heroes attempt to fight through hordes of marauding Cave Spiders in an effort to intercept the thieves.  


Still wounded, Syndrael used her Heroic Feat to move both adventurers right up into the thick of battle.  She also found a Health Potion, which she immediately guzzled.  Leoric burned his own Heroic Action to try and area attack the Cave Spiders that are already beginning to surround them.  One arachnid took two points of damage, the largest suffered three and the third creature was killed outright.  To make up for his poor showing during the last encounter, Leoric's Reanimate handily put the kibosh on the wounded master Spider.  

A new Spider dropped into the Grasslands and lashed out at Leoric, causing a point of damage and  inflicting a Poisonous bite.  "Word of Misery" was also played to pile on the Fatigue.  The three Goblin Archers on the Exit tile began sprinting for the Farm.  

Syndrael killed the wounded Spider in a Rage and then delivered one point against a second target.  After failing his Might check and taking a point of Poison damage, Leoric failed to snipe the encroaching Goblins with a long distance pot shot.  To make matters worse, his skeletal friend also whiffed on his (her?) attack.

On the Overlord turn, a Goblin popped up on the Exit tile and another Spider came out of the woodwork in the Grasslands.  Two of the Goblins gathered up crops and started to backtrack while the third made a mad dash for the far end of the field.  A new Spider attempted to block Syndrael's advance, biting her for a point of damage and injecting a spot o' Poison.  The second Spider pounced on the same target, inflicting an even more serious wound. 

Leoric's reanimated ally fell upon one of the Spiders attacking Syndrael, nearly killing it.  Leoric failed another Might test, took yet another point of Poison Damage and then could only scare up a single point of ranged damage against a thieving Goblin.  After shaking off the effects of the Poison, Syndrael tried to free herself from the tangle of webs.  She killed an already-wounded Spider and then rushed towards the Farm in a desperate bid to interdict the marauding Goblins.  

A fresh Goblin and Spider appeared in their respective entry points.  One of the Goblins ran six spaces and cleared the Exit with a load of crops in tow.  Two more Goblins moved ten spaces apiece and found themselves just shy of the finish line.  Two Spiders gave chase after the heroes.  One pounced on Syndrael from behind, inflicting three points of damage with its venomous bite.  The second flew into Leoric's gamey familiar, ripping its putrefied head off.           

Leoric was finally felled by the effects of the Poison.  Sensing that all may be lost, Syndrael managed to catch her breath, fight off the Poison and then rummage around the battlefield for a Fire Flask.      

As two more Goblins dragged their ill-begotten booty across the threshold, it all came down to one final bundle of crops.  Could the heroes succeed in denying the Goblins a perfect victory?  


In Encounter Two, the heroes must prevent a fortified Goblin Overlord from torturing a captured farmer for information and then escaping with the prisoner.


The adventure started with Syndrael kicking in the dungeon's front door and then hurling a Fire Flask at a clutch of Cave Spiders.  One of them nimbly jumped out of the way, one took two points of fire damage and the third was barely inconvenienced.  Leoric spent his turn diligently re-animating a nearby corpse and efficiently dying of Poison.

Syndrael passed a Willpower check and avoided the effects of a Dark Charm.  One of the Cave Spiders dropped onto Leoric from the ceiling, rendering him unconscious.  

After reviving her fallen companion, the elven berserker rushed to stem the tide of the incoming arachnid assault.  Leoric felled a wounded Spider with sorcery while his Reanimate dealt three points of damage to another.  He also did a quick search of the surrounding area and found a very handy Curse Doll, which allows a hero to discard pesky Conditions.  

One of the wounded Spiders attacked Syndrael, delivering two points of damage and a Poison card.  Augmented by Dark Might, the remaining Spider pounced on the elf and took her down.  A Goblin Archer Dashed to the Prison and unlocked the main door.  This allowed another one of Splig's peons to Dash inside, scoop up a hostage and drag him back to the Torture Chamber.  

Leoric surged ahead and roused his downed comrade just as his skull-faced Familiar was polishing off one of the wounded Spiders.  A reconstituted Syndrael immediately lashed out at the remaining Spider, dealing two points of damage to it.  Although it wasn't quite enough to kill it, the warrior's follow-up strike made for an effective deathblow.  

As more captives were rousted from their cells, Splig tortured a prisoner who turned out not to be Frederick.     

Wisely, Leoric got Skeletor to open the door to the Ettin's chamber, effectively circumnavigating an evil trap that I was planning to spring on the heroes.  Nonplussed by the sight of a hulking, two-headed, club-wielding monstrosity just behind the door, Leoric quickly leveled a one-point ranged attack at the creature with his Reaper's Scythe.  Syndrael also saw an opening and charged in, hewing down the startled Ettin with one mighty blow of her axe.  

One of the Goblin Archers unceremoniously dumped a prisoner at his master's feet.  Splig then proceeded to torture the bejesus out of him, revealing that it was Frederick!  Delighted by his success, the self-styled "King of Goblins" tucked the beleaguered farmer underneath his arm and then started moving towards the entrance!   Splig then ordered one of his drones to clear a path for him by running ahead, opening any doors and generally acting like a meat-shield.  Man, I hope these Goblins have a good Dental and Medical plan, 'cuz their job kinda sucks.    

Syndrael used her Heroic Feat to get both heroes up into the thick of battle.  She swung her Greataxe at the face of a Goblin Archer and even Dark Fortune couldn't save his life.  The follow-up three point damage swing was just narrowly avoided.  Skelly went off the deep end, viciously mauling another opponent.  Meanwhile, Leoric got tagged by a Poison Dart while searching for a Health Potion.  Groggy and disoriented, he still managed to pivot and blast a Veteran Goblin right in the mush with a lethal long-distance magic attack.

The Goblins all moved together in a rush.  One of the Archers flew into a Frenzy, perforating Leoric for two points of damage and then putting him in the dirt with his follow-up attack.  

Leoric staggered to his feet while the magic-user's pet zombie went after "Fat Pete" (NOTE: this was Andrew's descriptor).  Splig's "Not Me!" ability failed miserably and he ended up taking four points of damage right in the kisser.  Like an ant attacking a fat, slow-moving grub, Syndrael pounced on the Goblin King, scoring four more damage!  

Now squealing like Ned Beaty in Deliverance, Splig ran six spaces towards the exit.  Meanwhile, his bodyguard tried to keep pace while simultaneously taking a two damage pot-shot at Syndrael with a Dark Magic bow attack.  

In one last desperate bid to prevent Splig from crossing over the threshold, Syndrael launched herself at the Goblin tyrant, striking him with a vicious seven point two-handed axe blow right between the shoulder blades.  With his bodyguard lagging behind and nothing left to save him but a weak-assed brown die, it wasn't looking good for ol' Spligy!

* <-----------This Is The World's Biggest Asterisk!      

During the post-game commentary Andrew was heard to inquire: "Do you feel that we did everything right?"  Although I'm pretty sure that we didn't seriously cock up any of the rules proper, we certainly screwed up a critical detail in the scenario.  In fact, I'm pretty sure that the fuck up probably cost me a win.  

With two opposing heroes, Splig normally has only seven Health points but each crop the Goblins steal in Encounter One is supposed to boost this up.  Problem is, I thought that Splig only got one bonus Health point per stolen crop but Splig's actually supposed to get "one additional Health per hero for each bundle of crops the overlord stole during Encounter One".  Which means that Splig should have had six additional Health Points, not three!       


Notwithstanding this colossal fuck up, I really enjoyed playing Descent: Journeys in the Dark (Second Edition) for all the following reasons:     
  • Setting up scenarios is super-quick.  
  • It's fun to pick a Hero and then augment them with a "class".  
  • Playing the Overlord is simpler and a lot more dynamic.
  • Breaking things down to individual Encounters really makes the game less "sloggy".  
  • Combat is more tense and interesting thanks to the Defense Dice.  Now and  previously untouchable targets are now "hittable".  
  • The cards have a superior layout and are packed with useful information.
  • Varying Quest objectives makes the game feel much more like an RPG experience.  
  • The game's graphics and miniatures are vastly superior.
  • We actually managed to play out a full quest in under two hours!    
All told, these are all major improvements.  I heartily recommend Descent: Journeys in the Dark (Second Edition) and award it five pips outta six!

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Monday, September 17, 2012

Everything Went to Baktag: "Star Trek Fleet Captains"

I always wanted to play a space exploration game in which you start out with a small handful of ships and send them across the uncharted reaches of galaxy to settle planets, build bases, complete missions and eventually get scrap with your opponent.  Along the way, you could improve your ship's capabilities and staff every vessel with a unique mix of captains, officers, and specialists.  The game would end up being part Civilization, part Traveller and part, well...Star Trek.    

So keen was I to play a game like this that I bought a Chessex Reversible Megamat a few years ago in the hopes of designing my own game.  But before I could get into it, Wizkids and designers Mike Elliott, Bryan Kinsella, and Ethan Pasternack came along and did all the heavy lifting for me.  Even better, they added the glorious thematic overlay of Star Trek, which I've been a fan of ever since a re-run of "The Corbomite Maneuver" in the late Seventies scared the fertilizer out of me as a child.

As soon as Star Trek Fleet Captains was released back in September 2011, I began to troll Board Game Geek for some early feedback.  Reading a small handful of positive reviews was all the incentive I needed to pick up a copy and start exploring the Final Frontier.  So impressed was I by the game that it inspired me shoot the pilot episode for a board game video series which I hope to continue one of these days.

Last Wednesday night, while Dean and Andrew played out their next game in our Blood Bowl league, Mike and I had a chance to throw down.  

Choosing Sides

Mike opted to play the Federation, which was fine by me since I really wanted to see what it was like to roll with the considerably more aggressive Klingons.  

Initial Set-Up

We decided to play to ten Victory Points and randomly assembled the standard five-hex-by-five-hex game board.      

Fleet Mustering

Mike went first, drawing the Enterprise-E (six points) and the U.S.S. Reliant (two points).  After exceeding the ten-point Fleet Limit on several draws he finally came across the Equinox and the Yosemite for one point apiece.  

My first three draws (the Bortas, Somraw and Kronos One) worked out perfectly.  Curiously enough, it would be one of the last things to work out well for me during the entire game.

Command Deck Assembly 

Mike chose the "Flagship Fleet Deck", the "Main Engineering Deck", the "Captain Picard Deck" and the "Heavy Security Deck".

Being a sucker for thematic shit, I made my selections based entirely on the characters contained therein.  As such, I ended up with the "House of Mogh", "Code of Honor", "Klingon High Council", and "Battleship" decks.  

Opening Moves

After boldly charting a Class T Nebula (purely for navigational purposes, of course), the Raptor-class scout ship I.K.S. Somraw fell afoul of a perilous Black Hole (which the Federation had somehow managed to seed just two sectors away from Qo'noS).  The brave little vessel suffered moderate damage and was forced to send out a distress call.  Please note that this plea for help was very honorably accomplished and in no way resembled the pathetic bleating of a bunch of shortbus-riding dipshit losers like the Pakled.

Officer Klag made his presence felt aboard the K't'inga-class battle cruiser I.K.S. Kronos One emerging from relative obscurity after his superior officer mysteriously turned up dead from thirty-seven distinct d'k tahg stab wounds.  After beaming back from an uninhabitable Class T planet (which would really benefit from inclusion in the Klingon Empire, BTW) an odd "Transporter Malfunction" delivered two notorious Federation war-criminals to us: Admiral Cartwright and Lieutenant Commander Geordi LaForge.

In addition to sporting rakishly handsome goatees, all three "guests" seemed oddly at home aboard the Kronos.  LaForge even went so far as to kill a mess hall worker with a metal lunch tray after he'd been given too much ice in his blood wine.  Within twelve hours of the "malfunction", Cartwright somehow managed to assume command of the entire ship.  Given the former Federation Admiral's propensity to fly into a rage and beat ass even during the slightest provocation, everyone else in the crew just kinda went with the unconventional self-appointment.      

   Three Klingon War Heroes

As a counter-measure to the aggressive actions of the Starfleet Slime-Devils™, the Vor'cha-class attack cruiser I.K.S. Bortas began to strike deep into enemy territory.  After charting a habitable Class M planet (which would make for a lovely summer home, BTW), she passed through an Inversion Nebula and eventually charted a Hypergiant Star at close range.  Purely for scientific reasons, natch.

Meanwhile, the Federation was up to its usual underhanded tricks.  The Miranda-class "survey" ship U.S.S. Reliant (under the clearly-fraudulent guise of an "exploration mission") coldly annexed two once-autonomous sectors of Empty Space.  Long-range Klingon, monitoring teams clearly  overheard the Reliant make reference to some sort of "Curious Lifeform".  The Klingon High Command has since interpreted this as a code word for a secret Federation super-weapon, which they immediately used it to destroy a perfectly benign ancient defense satellite that had supposedly trapped one of their cargo ships.  And if you believe that, I have great deal on twenty bars of gold pressed latinum for you!

In a further example of Federation imperialism, the Oberth-class "science" vessel U.S.S. Yosemite supposedly discovered a conveniently "abandoned" Colony base just floating around in a Class 11 Nebula.  After discovering that all of the colony's escape pods had been recently jettisoned, Klingon High Command came to the logical conclusion that the Yosemite somehow managed to irradiate the peaceful settlement and drive off its original inhabitants.  Another piece of evidence came in the form of a half-garbled transmission we intercepted in which the Captain of the Yosemite was clearly heard to proclaim "ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US"!

The notorious Nova-class science vessel U.S.S. Equinox subjugated a Class D planet for its own nefarious purposes, thus clearing the way for the Sovereign-class starship USS Enterprise-E (the "E", by the way, stands for "EVIL").  This deceitful garbage scow of legendary proportions blew past her fleet-sister and began to drop her own brand of hippy-dippy, Liberal Socialist clap-trap on a poor, defenseless Class J Planet.  It didn't even seem to matter to them that the place was completely uninhabited.

Back in civilized space, the Kronos One was about to intervene in a Class J Nebula's "Civil War" when she received the distress call from the Somraw.  Thanks to the Federation's treachery, Admiral Cartwright (?) was forced to abandon this humanitarian mission and rush in to rescue his fleet mate (??).  In venturing so close to the Black Hole, the Kronos One suffered moderate damage but still managed to tow the Somraw back away from the brink.

Meanwhile, the illustrious flagship Bortas traversed a void of Empty Space and scanned the path ahead, keeping a close eye on those treacherous Federation Ha'DIbaH's.


Starfleet continued to exhibit the luck of the Fek'lhr.  While poking it's saucer section into a place where it didn't belong, the Reliant was hit by a "Displacement Wave".  They still managed to make a successful Level 12 Engines check to break through the wave and escape the sector.  On the Honor scale of one to ten, this would certainly rate no higher then a "2".   Now, if they'd managed to escape from the crushing grip of a Black fucking Hole, I might have been impressed...

Similarly, the Equinox stumbled upon a "Particle Fountain", which was flooding that region of space with dangerous subatomic particles.  Just in time, the crew managed to pass its Level 12 Sensors Test to maintain a minimum safe distance and study the unique phenomenon.  

So, just by sheer luck, the treacherous Federation had already managed to weasel four Victory Points!

After breaking away from the deadly grip of the collapsed star, the plucky Somraw continued to sift through the immediate area, looking for additional Starfleet-brand booby-traps.  Eventually she followed his sister ship back back to Qo'noS to affect repairs.           

Incensed by the Socialist drivel leaking out of the Enterprise-E's com channel, a small band of working-class, blue-collar inhabitants of a Class J planetary system contacted the Klingon Empire for assistance.  The Bortas was quick to respond, dropping off copies of Araxa Shrugged by the celebrated Klingon objectivist philosopher Eyn Rannic as well as full-length episodes of the O'Revulac Factor with Boral O'Revulac.  This allowed the glorious Empire to complete the "Disrupt Influence" mission!

In response, the Federation callously attacked the Bortas with no less then three ships!  Grossly outnumbered, the Bortas was heavily damaged but managed to activate her cloaking device and make a strategic fighting withdrawal.  Qa’pla!!!

After this cowardly assault, the Federation armada broke up.  The Yosemite barged into a Class 1 Nebula and immediately began constructing secret research facilities, which they attempted to pass of as an "Outpost".  This eventually allowed them to falsely claim the "Foothold" mission.

The Equinox scanned a Class J Planet and likely made off with a small fortune of precious stones and minerals.  Clearly oblivious to the events depicted in The Wrath of Khan, the Reliant decided to recklessly poke around in the Mutara Nebula.  Meanwhile the Enterprise-E just did doughnuts in a Class K Nebula, generally acting like a bunch of dicks.

End Game

After pondering revenge against the unsuspecting Reliant, cooler heads prevailed and the captain of the damaged Bortas set course for Qo'noS.  Still cloaked, the battered ship managed to maneuver through a veritable gauntlet of hostile Federation vessels and eventually managed to reach friendly territory.

The re-constituted Somrow returned to the nearby Class J Nebula in an attempt to quell the Civil War that was still raging there.  C'mon, someone's gotta have a conscience in this cruel and violent galaxy!  

With the loathsome Enterprise-E now brazenly intruding on Klingon territory, the Kronos One was dispatched to confront her.  Thanks in part to his "insider knowledge", Admiral Cartwright and company proved victorious, inflicting a point of damage on Starfleet's Golden Child.  Despite the glorious triumph, Cartwright decided to spare the Enterprise-E and seek out a worthier foe.  Please note that this decision had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the Kronos One was still completely and totally outgunned and her crew was collectively baktagging themselves during the fight.

After this humbling defeat, the Enterprise-E fled the scene, looking for easier pickings.  She tried to intervene against the Somraw in the Class J Nebula "Civil War" but decided against it after the wayward Bortas suddenly de-cloaked in the same system!  Once again the little sissy Enterprise had to slink away with her tail firmly tucked between her nacelles.  After driving off Starfleet's paper champion, the Bortas and the Somraw joined forces to finally bring peace and prosperity to this humble little corner of the galaxy, earning a hard-fought Victory Point!   

Meanwhile, the Yosemite and the Equinox combined forces to spread their filthy Starfleet propaganda leaflets over no less then four unsuspecting star systems (a Class H Planet, a Class Y Planet, a Class One Nebula and a region of Empty Space), instantly transforming their inhabitants into a bunch of shoeless, drum-beating, patchouli-scented, space hippies.



(NOTE: photos may not be accurate)

This allowed the Starfleet menace to complete its "Establish A Hold" Influence Mission for yet another Victory Point!  

But this would be the last beautifully-regimented mind that the Equinox(ious) would ever warp with its pall of independent thought.  The Class Four Kronos One bravely attacked the Class One science vessel, inflicting a point of damage.  The Kronos One would then go on to bravely attack the Equinox two more times, eventually destroying the vitriol-spewing, hate machine just one sector shy of Earth.  This would earn our glorious Empire the colorfully-named mission "Death Blow", giving us a much-needed Victory Point!  

Unfortunately those Federation dogs would have the last laugh.  The Reliant and the Yosemite paired up to explore an O-Type Star and complete some kind of "Stellar Research" bullshit.  It's much more likely that they were trying to collapse the star and beam it right next to Qo'noS for yet another one of their patently hilarious "Black Hole Death Traps".  

To make matters worse, the duplicitous Enterprise-E snuck by our defenses and infiltrated a Class M Planet adjacent to our Command Post.  Junior Communications expert Lieutenant Rachel Maddow helped spread Starfleet's noxious influence there, allowing them to complete the presumptive mission "Morale Blow" for two more Victory Points and walk away with a tainted win!          


So, as it turned out, I made for a pretty piss-poor Klingon.  Having both he Somrow and the Kronos One immediately damaged by the Black Hole was something that I never quite recovered from.  To make sure I was on equal footing with Mike, I really felt compelled to send both ships back to my Command Post for repairs.  During those pivotal early turns, Mike did an excellent job getting Victory Points from Encounters and setting himself up with some fairly straightforward Missions.

Next time I'll exploit my ability Cloak to get into position, score some Combat Mission Victory Points and then press the advantage if the odds are in my favor.  I'll also cycle through my Missions a lot better, dumping more complicated fare like "Valiant Pursuit".  Since I was convinced that Mike was going to crush the Bortas during the gang-up I held onto conditional Missions like "Vengeance" ("Destroy in battle an enemy ship that destroyed one of your ships") for waaaaay too long.  I was also pretty pissed to draw "Battle Scar" ("Take at least one damage from an enemy ship in combat without being destroyed") after my little run-in with Mike's triumvirate of terror.  

Regardless of my crap luck and lackluster gameplay, I still loved playing Star Trek Fleet Captains.  The game is so fun and thematic that I can have a blast even whilst being shit-hammered by my opponent.  I love the Heroclix ships, the variable Locations, the familiar crew cards, the evocative Encounters and all of those fun and flavorful Missions.  Above all, I love the System Tests and Opposed Combats, both of which really simulate the spirit of Star Trek.  It's pretty awesome when your opponent attacks you with a Command Deck crisis but between the efforts of your stalwart crew and a well-played Interrupt, your ship narrowly avoids certain disaster!  

The game isn't quite perfect.  Some of the components (like the Location "tiles") are frustratingly chintzy.  Some of the ships are a tad fragile.  The rule book, although well-illustrated and loaded with examples, can inspire "chicken or the egg" debates about certain mechanics.  In the past I've been tripped up by Command Deck timing issues and when exactly you get to refresh your hand.

All told, however, this is one of the most thematically rich titles that I've ever played.  Given my RPG background I positively lurve board games that end up telling a cool narrative.  Star Trek Fleet Captains plays out like a classic episode of the T.V. show(s) or like one of the good, even-numbered movies.  It's an absolute classic that will hopefully be augmented soon by a very-welcome Romulan expansion!

Star Trek Fleet Captains easily nets five pips outta six!      


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Monday, September 10, 2012

The Wheaton Effect Part Three: "Elder Sign"

Previous iterations of this series have come about because a game featured on Wil Wheaton's Tabletop looked so awesome (namely Zombie Dice and Tsuro) that one of us immediately rushed out and bought it.  In the interest of full disclosure, Elder Sign was already in Andrew's game collection prior it being feted by THE WHEATON, but after watching Wil and company indulge in this Lovecraftian die-chucker we really felt compelled to give it another bash ourselves.

Before we strike out on our eldritch adventures, here's our video muse:


Set in the world of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, Elder Sign takes place in an atmospheric New England town in the 1920's.  Players select from one of eight different investigators and set them loose inside a museum stocked with dangerous arcane artifacts.  These relics are so powerful that they begin to erode the barrier between our realm and darker planes of existence which are home to a litany of unspeakable horrors.  As these inter-dimensional doorways begin to crack open, loathsome beasts of varying power and influence begin to wriggle into our realm.  Aware of the impending threat,  a small handful of fragile, illuminated souls attempt to close these gateways through the use of magical sigils called Elder Signs.  Can they prevent the Great Old Ones from overwhelming our reality, bringing madness and destruction with them?

Elder Sign is a cooperative dice game of supernatural horror for one to eight players which can be played out in about ninety minutes.  It was designed by Richard Launius and Kevin Wilson, who brought us the dense and ludicrously thematic Lovecraftian board game Arkham Horror.  Players take on the roles of investigators who are trying to prevent the Elder Gods infiltrating our dimension, thus laying waste to everything.  During the course of the game, players try to improve their odds by gathering items, spells, allies and weapons.  In their quest to procure Elder Signs and thus barricade our reality against the Ancient Ones, players will see their character's Sanity and Stamina values pushed to the limit.

To gather Elder Signs, investigators must explore the museum and its grounds, hoping to successfully navigate their way through various perilous Adventures.  A simple and fun dice-rolling mechanic (augmented with yellow and red bones which represent equipment) helps to play out the increasingly-tense endeavor.  If the Investigators should tarry, a substantial-looking cardboard clock inexorably counts down to an inevitable and nigh-insurmountable encounter with one randomly-selected Ancient One.

Of course, that's just a simple overview.  Those Investigators looking to unlock all the secrets of the cosmos are welcome to read the entire rulebook right here.  Just don't lose yer marbles.

The Roles

Andrew assumed the role of Bob Jenkins, Vacume Cleaner Salesman.
I turned up Mandy Thompson, Researcher / Busybody / Professional Nosy Parker.
Dean pulled Amanda Sharpe, Sociology Major and Girls Gone Wild ingenue.
Mike drew Joe Diamond, Private Dick and all-around Hard-Boiled Gumshoe.

The game kicked off in style when Mike randomly drew Cthulhu as our arch villain.  Like I always say: go big or stay home! 

Turn One

The first Mythos card we drew ("Be Prepared") was immediately nullified because some of us actually started with Common Items.  Could this be a good omen or a bad ottoman?  Yarrrr, I don't know what I'm talkin' about...

Mike completed his first Adventure by Focusing a Peril Die result and then rolling a Terror on his third attempt.  After placing a Monster on the "Something Has Broken Free" Adventure Card he helped himself to his reward: a Clue token, a Unique Item and our first Elder Sign.  Woot!!!

While trying to navigate through an "Unnatural Habitat", I was forced to burn my starting Clue token to re-roll.  I finally succeeded on my fourth attempt, losing one Stamina from a Terror Result but acquiring a helpful new Spell in exchange.

Andrew decided to take a casual stroll down "The Hallway of Fire", which turned out to be just as inviting as it sounds.  His first and second rolls did yield the required Peril results, but the dangerous Adventure drained off two of his Stamina points in the process.  At least he managed to crawl out of there with two Unique Items as a reward!

Dean used "The King in Yellow" to add a much-needed Red Die to his pool.  While "In The Hidden Passage", Dean turned up three Investigation die facings.  After failing to get what he needed on the second toss, he tried to Focus a three-point Investigation result to improve his chances.  But on the third and forth attempt, he still failed to generate a Peril result, resulting in a loss of two Stamina.

Turn Two 
Mike tried to avenge Dean on the same Adventure.  On his first throw he got a three-point Investigation result and put a much-needed Peril into Focus.  After ditching a Clue token to re-roll, he managed to score a Lore result and beat the challenge!

The clock struck Midnight, ushering in a new Mythos condition.  Thanks to the last minute 'Fuck You' effect from "Be Prepared", two new monsters appeared in the museum.  Normally when "The Stars Align" it's a good thing, but since we're in Lovecraft territory, it isn't in our favor.  Two new Doom Tokens were added to the Doom Track!

I used "The Voice of Ra" while perusing the "Mysterious Tome".  I managed to dice up a three point Investigation result and a Terror on my first roll.  Although my second roll was a complete and total bust I still managed to pull out an eleventh hour miracle by conjuring up two scroll symbols, thus covering my Lore requirements!  The resulting triumph earned me a desperately needed Clue Token and a Spell.  The first Other Worldly Adventure of the game also turned up!

Andrew attended a "Gala in the Great Hall".  He produced a three-point Investigation result but lost one Sanity due to the Adventure's Terror Effect.  On the second roll, he tried to focus a skull-faced Terror result but it was all for nought since his next two attempts were a complete and total washout.

Dean also decided to brave the gruesome "Gala".  He rolled up a single Investigation result, just enough to reduce his Sanity.  He decided to Focus a Terror but then rolled two more of the same thing!  His third roll (two Investigation, one Lore and one Peril) was pure money, allowing him to complete the Adventure with gusto!

Turn Three       

Undaunted by the innocuous-sounding but heavily-guardeded "Storage Closet", Mike managed to shiv the monster-cum-bouncer standing by the door on his very first throw!   On his second toss he conjured up a tidy sum of three Investigation points.  On his third go-round he employed the "Blue Watcher of the Pyramid" to dial up two Lore results and finish the Adventure with panache!  After claiming one Unique Item and one Clue for his bravery, Mike turned up a second Other Worldly Adventure Card.

At Midnight another Monster appeared and yet another token got added to the Doom Track!

In the "sucks to be me" category I started having "Horrible Visions".  Instead of panicking however, I just concentrated on rolling up a Peril and a Terror result.  My second toss of a Peril and a Lore was even more fortuitous.  Just like that, I managed to complete the Adventure in two economic rolls!  This gave me a valuable Unique Item as well as a precious Elder Sign!

Trying to give himself some insurance, Andrew armed himself with a Gun for his next Adventure: "Did You Hear That?"  Although he managed to roll two Peril on his first cast, he completely whiffed his next two attempts.  It was at this moment when we began to suspect that poor Andrew's had inherited Wil Wheaton's shit-tacular Elder Sign luck.  

Still on clean-up duty, Dean tackled the very same mission.  It didn't start well and he was forced to burn two Clues to re-roll twice.  Although he managed to kill the guardian Monster with two Peril, he fell short on his final roll.  At least he managed to free up the captive Red Die for later use.

Turn Four

In lemming-like fashion, Mike decided to try his luck in the same challenge!  After using his Shotgun to blast up a Peril he was forced to burn though no less then six re-rolls in order to finally beat the Adventure.

Midnight saw the introduction of the "Keep Friends Close" condition.  Since none of us had any Allies, we were forced to add a fresh Doom counter to Cthulhu's card.  

In my next mission I used the "Ruby of R'Lyeh" to give me a bonus Red Die and then spent the "Voice of Ra" to scare up a second Terror result.  I managed to polish off the challenge on my second roll, winning a Clue token and a Spell in the process.  

Having been burned so many times before, Andrew lowered the bar and tried to take on an easier mission.  He used his Dynamite to get a Red Die but still crapped out on his first roll.  Despite Focusing a Lore, he also choked on his next two throws.  Only on his Fourth attempt did he manage to pull a Peril and the required amount of Investigation out of his anus.  This garnered him two Clues and also added yet another Elder Sign to our trophy case!  

Dean nipped back to the Lobby and healed Amanda's Stamina with a winning combination of Jager-bombs and prescription codeine.        

Turn Five

Although suddenly it was "Lights Out!", Mike forged on nonetheless.  He bolstered his first roll with a Red Die courtesy of the "Cultes des Goules" and came away with three Investigation.  After failing his second roll he tried to pull a Hail Mary by focusing a Wildcard.  Unfortunately he whiffed the final toss, ran out of dice and was forced to eat two damage as well as his fair share of trans-dimensional penis.  We were also forced to tack another Doom Token to ye olde Doom Track.

After taking on "When Night Falls" I rustled up two Peril and two Lore on my inaugural roll.  On my second die toss I managed to will a Terror result into existence, beat the Adventure and walk away with a Clue, a Unique Item and an Elder Sign.

Andrew ran afoul of the "Vermin In The Pipes".  To try and tilt the odds in his favor, he helped himself to Mike's locked Red Wildcard die and rolled a Lore.  On his second throw he used the Red Terror die sitting idle on my "Red Sign of Shudde M'ell" card to polish off the Adventure and snap up one Spell, one Clue and one Unique Item.

Meanwhile, Dean got caught up in a "Riot in the Streets".  After his first toss he decided to Focus a three Investigation die result.  He nailed all the requirements in the second roll, conjuring up no less then nine Investigation!  This gave him one Unique and one Common Item apiece, but more importantly, it gave us yet another Elder Sign!

Turn Six                   

Mike tackled the eponymous "Elder Sign" Adventure and scored a valuable Lore result on his second toss.  Unfortunately the quest's Terror Effect cost him one Sanity and one Stamina in the process.  He tried to focus a three-point Investigation result but just couldn't produce another Lore on his final throw of the dice.

At Midnight the Lingering Effect of the previous card discarded our Spells!  Thanks to "Strange Sights", Something Wicked This Way Came and a new Monster was added to the museum's environs.  

I doubled back to the Lobby to cash in ten Reward Points for an Elder Sign.  Hey, it's a small price to pay for the deliverance of the human race.

Andrew tried to exterminate the "Vermin in the Pipes"...again.  His wretched luck finally began to turn around somewhat after he produced three Investigation and one Peril in his first roll.  He then conjured up three more Investigation with two dice.  Despite the good fortune, he still has to spend two Clue tokens on a pair of re-rolls in order to secure the last three required Investigation points.  After his narrow victory, Boooooooooob Ah-Jeeeennnnnkiiiiiiins hauls off a Clue token and no less then three Common Items.

Despite the danger of chafing, Dean feverishly rubbed the "Lamp of Al'Hazrad" for good luck before analyzing the "Blood on the Floor".  The tactic seemed to work and he managed to dice up two, three-point Investigation results, a Terror and a Wildcard!  With a single roll, the Adventure was done and Dean brought home a Clue, a Common item and yet another Elder Sign!

Turn Seven     
Mike went back to the Lobby to bake up a fresh batch of healin' muffins, which put his Stamina value back up to max.

The clock struck Midnight yet again, making me wonder just how long we'd been trapped in this furshlugginer museum.  "A Warning" threatened to ramp up all of our Sanity costs and losses by one!  Yikes!

I crept down the "Great Hall of Celeano" and managed to slay the guardian Monster with a scroll symbol.  I was then forced to re-roll my second toss in order to acquire a second Lore result.  After investing yet another re-roll I was finally managed to produce three Investigation dice for a total of six points!  The successful completion of this Adventure gave me a Spell, but it also added one token each to the Elder Sign pool and (curiously) the Doom Track.

Andrew rescued a puppy named Duke from the animal shelter, which was inexplicably located right across the hall from the museum gift shop.

Dean took on the "Lights Out!" Adventure, busting out an "Axe" to add a handy Yellow Die.  His first throw was a disaster and he was forced to spend a Clue to re-roll, which only ended up giving him three Investigation.  His next roll was a double Peril, prompting two more re-rolls!  In a last ditch effort he tried to focus a Lore but even his last attempt turned out to be a dud.  He was forced to turf a Food card in order to minimize his Stamina loss by one.  

Turn Eight

Mike employed an "Alien Statue" (?) to try and get through a "Guided Tour" in one piece.  He rolled two Investigation in a failed attempt, Focused one Lore and then came up with four Investigation thanks to his Red Die.  On the next chuck he totally nailed his final Lore requirement and collected two Clues and a Common item.

"A Warning" rang out at Midnight as two pulpy, new unnamable horrors squirmed their way into the museum!

It was "Light's Out" for me as well and my initial response was a virtually useless three-Lore die roll.  My next two throws weren't that much better and, being completely devoid of Clue tokens, I had no other choice but to take my lumps.  This came in the form of a two-point Stamina loss and the addition of a new Doom Token.  Although it's a bitter defeat, I'm assuaged somewhat knowing that this is my first cock-up of the entire game.

Although the "Koi Pond" sounded tranquil and inviting, it was virtually quarantined since it was rife with Monsters and insane Adventure requirements.   Embracing the philosophy that fortune favors the bold (or the brain damaged), Andrew decided to kick off his shoes and wade in with some feeder pellets.  His rendition of 'Mandy' on the "Flute of the Outer Gods" apparently inspired the loathsome horror guarding the gate to suicide.  After a harrowing re-roll he used the reserve die provided by my "Enchanted Weapon" to roll up two Peril and a Terror to complete the task!

In order to nab the final Elder Sign, Dean logically tackled "The Elder Sign".  He failed his first roll, focusing an Investigation result for the future.  Two more failed attempts followed, but out of the blue he suddenly produced two Lore on his fourth toss.  Thanks to Amanda's "Studious" ability, Dean could complete the first two tasks of the Adventure all at once!  On his very last roll, Dean pulled out a final scroll symbol, overcoming the challenge and winning us the game!

Suck it, you bat-winged, tentacle-faced, skull-heady pussy!


Now don't get me wrong: I like Elder Sign but I don't loooooove it.  Mainly because there seems to be a tremendous amount of luck involved.

And while the die-rolling mechanic might be novel, it feels less like an "Adventure" to me and more like a thematic re-upholstering of Yahtzee.  Even though I also have issues with the sometimes-frustrating Arkham Horror at least that game really makes you feel as if you're traversing the oppressive, lethal environs of Lovecraft's realm.  In any Cthulhu Mythos game, players should either feel as if their characters are on the verge of going nuts or having their skulls popped open like an over-ripe zit.        

Still, Elder Sign is a slick and evocative little package that can serve up some genuinely tense moments.  The game's production values are top-notch and, hey, who doesn't enjoy chucking a massive mitt-full of bizarre-looking dice?

As such, I give Elder Sign four pips out of six.