Friday, May 24, 2013

"The Story So Far" - Part Four - "The Magic Statue"

"The Story So Far" is an ongoing series recanting the details of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign that I've been running on and off since 2002.  Links to the previous entries can be found here:  

Prologue                           Part I                                        Part II                                    Part III

I've "fictionalized" the session reports in a vague attempt to make them more "entertaining".  

And now, our story continues...

Solstice 22, 1492

Using familiar landmarks and the crude map etching from the back of the shield, the group tried to pinpoint the relative position of the mysterious cave.  After hiking northeast along the path towards the dwarven hall for several hours, they finally saw the cavern's uninviting, dark maw in the distance.

Even worse, the entrance to the den was absolutely swarming with bats.  Even after they managed to navigate past them, the group then encountered a considerably more dangerous threat: a massive ogre fast asleep in the next chamber.

Unfortunately their attempt to sneak past the slumbering brute was undone by Pol’s clanking armor, but she quickly made amends by going toe-to-toe with the thing.  As the two exchanged brutal blows, Roman kept the amazon on her feet with some well-timed healing spells.  In a last tactical gamble, Pol managed to clip the ogre in the neck, inflicting a serious wound.  Frustrated with her own stalled sorcery, Lorelei through caution to the wind, jumped into the fray and delivered the coup de grâce with her staff.

After recovering from this vicious scrap, the Fellowship ventured further into the cave only to discover that Erelos had already beaten them to the punch!  After successfully sneaking past the dozing ogre the lone thief was now attempting to breach a locked door leading to the next room.  Despite some tense parley that nearly resulted in an all-out brawl, Bria managed to convince her peers that a temporary alliance with the rogue made sense.  Now united, the two thieves quickly worked together to defeat the lock.

When the heavy iron door was finally pushed open, the Fellowship craned their collective necks to see what was inside.  The room was dominated by the odd sight of a ten-foot high statue of a red frog with green gems for eyes right in the middle of the room.  As the group slowly inched their way into the room they suddenly heard the disconcerting sound of chains dragging on the ground.  A huge dog with red, glowing eyes emerged from behind the statue, growling menacingly and testing the limits of its metal tether.  Each time it exhaled, a puff of smoke could be seen issuing from its cruel-looking muzzle.

Noting a sizable treasure chest lying in the far corner of the room, the Fellowship set about getting past the ogre's incendiary pet.  Fortunately they managed to avoid a fracas this time by tapping into the magical powers of the statue to defeat the beast.  After recovering the frog statue's bulbous ruby peepers, the Fellowship attempted to overcome a fiendishly difficult trap / lock combination on the treasure chest.  When this was accomplished, they opened the chest to find a slew of gold crowns and some Gauntlets of Ogre Power.  Encouraged by his de facto leadership thus far, the group decided to award this fabulous new discovery to Roman!

Overconfidence almost led to ruin, however, when the team was ambushed by a goblin patrol returning to the cave.  Despite being exhausted and mystically tapped-out, the crusaders managed to rally and  overcome the unexpected threat.  After the dust settled, the group gave Erelos his share of the loot and the rogue departed on good terms.

Later that evening the Fellowship arrived back in Castebridge.  Although it was raining, the temperature was mild and the group was in genuinely good spirits.

Unfortunately, this good karma was short-lived.  Just as soon as they cleared the north gate, the group was intercepted by the town guard who were under orders to escort them directly to the Mayor's office.  Although clearly under a gag order, Lorelei's former bodyguard Barant couldn't resist leaking a few details to his friends:

"Where have you been?!?" he whispered under is breath.  "We've been scouring the town all day long looking for you people!  The Mayor's furious!"

"What happened?" Lorelei quizzed.

"A platoon of ten town guard led by Edward’s son William were sent out to escort a merchant caravan from Footholde into town.  Apparently a hoard of orcs were lying in wait just outside the mouth of Cragmore canyon.  They ambushed the caravan, killed all of the guards and pillaged the wagons."

Just as Barant had warned, Denneth practically flew into the group on sight.

"You’ve been retained by the town of Castebridge to be available whenever your needed!  It isn’t your place to go gallivanting off whenever it suits you!  If you'd been around, that caravan would probably be safe within our walls right now!"

After receiving some hasty apologies, Denneth finally calmed down enough to continue.

"The orcs sent one guard back alive with a message," he said.  "They're demanding almost a year’s harvest as ransom.  I'm telling your right now, if we accept those terms we might as well condemn our people to starvation this winter."

He then fixed the group with a sober stare.

"I need you to find their warren, rescue the caravan, and defeat those mongrels.  Against my better judgement, I’m prepared to offer each of you two-hundred and twenty-five gold crowns for the successful completion of this mission.

"Nearly half the town's militia was been wiped out, so you’ll be on your own.  Moira at the parish has graciously offered to donate five healing elixirs to aid in your efforts."

The Mayor gestured for the group to approach his desk, where a large parchment map of the area was laid out.  Denneth wearily began to gesture towards relevant points on the map as he continued his lecture.

"The orc lair is somewhere here, deep in Cragmore canyon southwest of town.  The lone guard who came back alive believes that the orcs will be overconfident after their victory and won’t be expecting a counter-attack.  But in order to achieve the element of surprise, you'll have to leave immediately."

Battered, tired and low on resources, the Fellowship had been expecting nothing more taxing then a good night's sleep.  Instead they were now being asked to venture out again and tangle with a bloodthirsty band of orcs.  Needless to say, it took some time before our intrepid heroes could come to grips with the enormity of their task and venture back out again.

To be continued...

Photo credits:

Cave entrance:




Tuesday, May 21, 2013

♩♬ Mike Likes To Push The Pram-A-Lot! ♪♫ : "Shadows Over Camelot"

As I've mentioned before, my discovery of Settlers of Catan back in 1997 led to an adult board gaming Renaissance that continues to this very day.  Although Euros played a major part in this revelatory experience, it was the new wave of super-thematic thematic "Ameritrash" that really ignited my obsession.

One of those pivotal early titles was Shadows Over Camelot, a highly-evocative, Arthurian quest game that brought quality components and stunning graphic design to a whole new level.  Even more innovative were the game's unique mechanics.  Instead of competing against one another, players tried to work together as Knights of the Round Table in order to defeat the game itself.  As if that wasn't challenging enough, designers Bruno Cathala and Serge Laget also added a highly original "Traitor" component which allowed one of the players to achieve victory through deceit.  

Kinda sparks the old yen for adventure, huh?  Your quest, should you chose to accept it, is clearly delineated in this here blurb from Days of Wonder:

"As the incarnation of the Knights of the Round Table, you join forces against the game itself in an attempt to protect Camelot.

"Your victory hinges on the successful completion of legendary Quests, such as the search for Excalibur, the Holy Grail, or Lancelot's Armor; the tournament against the Black Knight; and numerous wars against the Saxons and Picts.

"But beware... all is not as it seems among these noble Knights. One of your number might yet turn out to be a traitor-in-waiting, biding his time while sowing havoc and destruction from the Shadows!"

Lookin' to get all Thomas Malory up in this be-yatch?  Then click on thine link to view the full Morte d'Arthur.


To save Mike some babysitting expenses we took our weekly board gaming night on the road to his place this past week.  After Mike expedited the bed-time process by giving his kids some Dramamine-laced Cheerios, we set of on our path of adventure.


Andrew...Sir Galahad - Yellow
Me...King Arthur - Red
Dean...Sir Palamedes - Black
Mike...Sir Gawain - Green

In order to take advantage of Arthur's special ability to exchange cards, I lingered in Camelot in order to pick up as many helpful White Cards as possible.  Unfortunately, Excalibur quickly started to drift away and I was forced to take the field in an effort to recover it.

The biggest challenge in Shadows Over Camelot is that you really have to pick and choose your battles carefully.  Indeed, unless your playing with a full contingent of knights, there's really no way to win every single challenge.  For example, in our game it didn't take very long for the Black Knight to get ahead of us and pretty soon we were forced to abandon it as a lost cause.  Instead, Andrew decided that Galahad's time was better served in recovering Lancelot's Armor.  

As Sir Palamedes, Dean tried to prevent the Holy Grail from slipping away into oblivion.  Unfortunately, the game's quest is just as challenging as its fictional namesake.  By rights, it really needs to be tackled by several knights at once.  As a solo quest, Dean really had his work cut out for him.  

Not long after our hallowed land was overrun by a bunch of, Picts.  Fortunately, Mike's Sir Gawain got down there post haste and started kickin' ass and takin' names.  By exerting Gawain, Mike managed to beat them all off (!), giving us a quick edge in the race for White Swords.   

In an effort to stem the incessant tide of Black Cards, we ended up plunking down some really early Siege Engines.  Most of the Black Cards we did turn up were pretty heinous.  After suffering through Morgan's blight, we were then forced to ditch a set of Merlin Cards in order to avoid the siren call of Guinevere.  Although it seems like an extreme reaction, getting dragged back to Camelot in the middle of a Quest can really screw things up.  

Although it was a hard-fought contest, Andrew secured the bridge and won the right to don Sir Lancelot's Armor.  This was a particularly valuable acquisition, since it gave Andrew the ability to banish some of the nastier Black cards to the bottom of the deck.   After this major triumph, Sir Galahad celebrated by popping back to Camelot to replenish his cards and ponder his next move.  

Meanwhile, I kept plugging away at the Excalibur Quest which turned out to be the epitome of frustration.  Just as I managed to get the legendary sword to within a few spaces, a damnable Black Card would come along and tear it out of my grasp!  After musing over my trials and tribulations, Andrew decided to come to my rescue.  I'm sure his motivations were entirely honorable and had nothing to do with his ability to waltz in and 'yoink' the sword away after I did all the heavy lifting.  Jerk.      

Dean also kept slogging through the Grail Quest but without any back-up all he could do was maintain the status quo.  With the rest of us occupied by our own endeavors, it was pretty clear that Dean had no prayer of completing this Quest.  Instead he set out to create as much "defeat insulation" as he could.  Despite the fact that I kept feeding Grail cards to him like Pez, eventually he was forced to turn his attention to some more immediate fires which were breaking out all over the board. 

Chief among these was the Dragon.  Although Sir Gawain was able to make some serious strides against the deadly wyrm, he exhausted his cards and had to bail out before sealing the deal.   

True to his questionable form, Sir Galahad appeared in the nick of time and helped to recover Excalibur.  In addition to scoring two White Swords for the forces of good, this freed us up to help out elsewhere.  Given the fact that every Black Excalibur card would now add a new Siege Engine to Camelot, it wasn't difficult to see where we were needed the most.  

Things got even more dire when those blasphemous Saxons, led by Mordred, swarmed over the land and added even more firepower to attack on Camelot.  Just two catapults shy of defeat, Dean whiffed on his initial attack but his second strike was true.  I also managed to destroy a few of the marauding trebuchets and with the crisis temporarily averted, I went off to help Andrew slay a Dragon.

After proving victorious in that titanic contest, we found ourselves with a significant White Sword lead.  In fact, we were so far ahead that we completely ignored the Black Knight's second challenge.  Even when the Picts turned up again like a bad case of the clap, their initial numbers were insignificant.  Better yet, Dean's hard work on the Grail Quest really paid off, keeping that particular issue in limbo for the rest of the game.  In fact, only the Camelot Catapult Crisis seemed pressing.  

Although our loyalties occasionally came into question towards the end of the game, it's didn't result in any serious Accusations.  In fact, I was pretty sure that we'd beaten the odds and no-one around the table was a dirty, filthy Traitor.  Andrew, on the other hand, was completely convinced that I was the rat bastard, probably because I gave a Fight Cards to Mike when I could have used it on my own turn.  For the record, that wasn't evil, just stupid.  

We were so confident of victory that we tried to end the game as quickly as possible.  While I remained on catapult-smashing duty, Dean and Andrew polished off the Pict Quest once more in order to garner the last Sword and trigger the finale.

And with that, we'd achieved a decisive victory with eight White Swords to two Black!  

That is, until the Traitor was revealed...  

Unbeknownst to the rest of us, Andrew had deliberately snuck a bad apple in amongst the Loyalty Cards.  The Quisling role fell to Mike, who actually turned out to be the perfect villain!  Since he wasn't 100% clear on the abilities of the Traitor, he ended up playing things very, very tight.  In fact the only outwardly sneaky thing he did was abandon a few Quests prematurely under the guise of "running out of cards".  Brilliant!

Since we'd failed to out Mike as a baddie, two White Swords were flipped to the Black side, resulting in a tie.  And since Evil always wins ties because Good is dumb, Mike (and the board) walked away with a shockingly unexpected win!  



I really can't believe that this game is almost ten friggin' years old.  Even though superior titles like Battlestar Galactica have since come down the pike, nothing will ever supplant the love I have for Shadows Over Camelot.  

How much do I love thee, SOC?  Let me count the ways:

  • Ludicrously gorgeous figures, board, cards and artwork.
  • Straightforward, follow-the-bouncing-ball turn flow makes getting into the game super-easy.
  • The Quest resolution rules are pretty straightforward.  
  • Special Abilities insure that every Knight is distinct.  
  • One of the earliest co-operative games and still one of the best.
  • The game pioneered the awesome Traitor mechanic, which insures that the game doesn't suffer from overt B.V.S. (Bossy Veteran Syndrome).   
  • Evocative theme bleeds through every aspect of the game.  
  • Some of the Quest protocols a bit fuzzy.  For example, can the three, three-of-a-kinds played during the Dragon Quest be the exact same Fight Card value?  We assumed that they can't be, but this isn't clearly explained in the rules.  


Shadows Over Camelot will always have a home in my collection.  If there are some sensitive folks in your gaming circle that aren't keen on cut-throat competition, I highly recommend adding this one to your game shelf.

I'm giving Shadows Over Camelot a noble five pips outta six!


Looking for excuse to plane down the corners of your dinner table?  Click on the link below to snag a copy of Shadows Over Camelot and help support my board gaming crusade!   

Thursday, May 9, 2013

I'm (Not) Batman! : "Batman: Gotham City Strategy Game"

Continuing their tradition of producing highly-thematic diversions à la Star Trek Fleet Captains, WizKids recently released the evocative new superhero title Batman: Gotham City Strategy Game.  

Here's the game's attractive splash page, torn right from the headlines of the WizKid's website:

"The Batman: Gotham City Strategy Game is a game for 2—4 players who will each take the role of one of Batman’s iconic Villains— The Joker, The Penguin, Two-Face or Killer Croc.  Players collect resources of Information, Money and Threat.  Threat is used to exert your rule over blocks in Gotham City— control of blocks will allow you to collect an income on these blocks of either Information or Money.  Money is used for leveling (see below) and to hire henchmen who will not only help you exert rule in blocks but also help you in fights against other Villains and Batman.  Information is used for leveling (see below) and moving your Villain and henchmen through the blocks of Gotham City.

"Each turn a player will play a Criminal Plot card which will either produce an income for the ruler of a certain block or it will trigger the Bat Signal— calling in Batman!  When Batman moves into a block with a Villain, a fight occurs using the two custom Batman dice included with the game.  If Batman wins, the Villain and their henchmen must flee back to their Hideout and Batman restores order in that block of Gotham City.  If the Villain wins, they have defeated Batman…for the time being…Batman returns to the Batcave, increasing his combat effectiveness as he plans for the next encounter.

"Each Villain has a combat dial with 10 levels.  Each click of the dial shows a requirement that you will need to advance to the next level—Information, Money, Henchmen, Blocks Controlled.  The first player to reach Level 10 with their Villain wins.  On every even number level, players will acquire special abilities that are unique to their Villain.

Batman: Gotham City Strategy Game is a unique combination of Euro-style sensibility combined with the best elements of Ameri-trash theme and design.  The core game mechanic is worker placement— placing your Villain, henchmen and Threat tokens to control blocks of Gotham City so as to produce the most income possible—overlaid with thematic elements that bring the stories and the characters of DC Comics Batman to life.  't feeling it. 

"The struggles by players for control of blocks— through resource placement or through face offs between Villains— make for a high level of player interaction.  Each Villain has their own strengths and weaknesses and play much differently from one another significantly adding to the replay value of the game.  We are confident that fans of DC Comics Batman and fans of tabletop and strategy gaming alike will both appreciate and enjoy the Batman: Gotham City Strategy Game."  

Looking to analyze the game's deets on your very own Batcomputer?  Click on yonder link for the full dossier...


Given my recent diet of Batman comic books and video games, I've been itching to play this ever since Andrew busted it out at Davecon back 'round the middle of April.  On that particular occasion, the arseholes started into it before I had the chance to extricate myself from all of my self-inflicted red tape so unfortunately I was relegated to the role of spectator.

By the same token, Marvel Heroes has been on deck for my game turn for the past several weeks but we've been having a devil of a time securing the four-player sweet spot, what with Chad out and Mike tentative.  Since B:GCSG was still fresh in Andrew's brain, it was the perfect fallback plan if Mike couldn't make it.  Unfortunately, when Dean also had to bail out a few times, this was no longer an option.  Andrew proposed a couple of two-player games but I just wasn't feeling it.  For me, it was Batman or bust.

Finally the stars aligned last Wednesday night.  After gathering in Dean's Batcave it fell upon me to randomly select our villains.  I pulled The Penguin for myself, which was kinda funny since I'd just written a blog entry accusing him of being a "sad fuck".  I selected Two-Face for Dean.  Initially I drew Killer Croc for Andrew but when he started whinging about having played him already, we let him take The Joker.

Immediately a turf war erupted between Dean and I over the Miller Harbor section of the board, which I needed to secure in order to play a lucrative Criminal Plot card for a big Money windfall.  For some odd reason, Dean took this as a personal affront so we battled back and forth for the privilege of occupying this same space.  Meanwhile, Andrew took advantage of our preoccupation by using The Joker's three starting Threat to control three Blocks and garner a critical first-turn Level Up.

Batman made for a pretty scary presence early on, putting all of our villains into traction at various points in time.  Then something interesting happened around mid-game.  A series of nigh-identical card plays resulted in the Caped Crusader barricading himself in the Batcave for several turns, presumably to sit around, watch Bat-television, eat Bat-corn chips and Batsturbate™.  During his self-imposed exile, Gotham City began to slide further and further into irredeemable chaos.

As we got three or four turns in, the game began to reveal its thematic flair.  Andrew played The Joker as a chaos-intoxicated aggressor, Dean's very-balanced Two-Face slowly began to bend the game's rules in his favor and The Penguin reveled himself as the ultimate mobster, specialized in criminal economics.  Even though Dean and I were thrown by Andrew's quick advancement, the unique capabilities of our own villains quickly became apparent.            

Dean's Influence allowed Two-Face to procure three Blocks, facilitating his first Level Up.  Not long after, both Andrew and Dean got the scratch together to hire their first Henchman, leaving me in the dust.  But then, all of a sudden, the Penguin's resource acquisition kicked in.  After securing my third Block I suddenly realized that I had more then enough moola to hire a goon and drop the required six cash for my third Level Up.  In just one turn I'd managed to take the lead!

Of course, this resulted in a giant target being painted on my rotund gut.  Just as I managed to secure both Ace Chemicals and Miller Harbor to facilitate a key Plot Card card play, Andrew's Joker bombed in and whipped my ass.  I know that it was probably bad luck more then anything else, but The Penguin proved to be woefully inadequate in hand-to-hand combat.  Realizing that I was never going to hold on to both of these locations until the start of my next turn, I begrudgingly abandoned my scheme.

Around this time, The Joker managed to subjugate five Blocks for yet another Level Up.  While he was efficiently stockpiling ten cash for the next upgrade, Andrew made a point of keeping Dean and I mired at four locations.  At this stage in the game, frustration really began to set in for me.  Even with the help of my hired goon and Emperor Penguin, every turn seemed to end the same.  I'd claim my fifth territory, psyche myself up for a Level Up next turn and then either Batman or the Joker would crash in and fuck everything up.  Assholes.    

But Andrew couldn't keep both of us down.  Two-Face managed to wriggle out from underneath the Joker's crazed auspices and go on a minor tear.  In quick succession, he skipped past me by gathering six Information, locking down five city Blocks and hoarding a Scrooge McDuck pile of 10 Monies.  Pretty soon both Two-Face and The Joker were in a Human Resources bidding war to retain their fourth Henchman.  Although the Joker was the first to reach this milestone, Two-Face quickly followed suit, helped by his trademark Coin which allowed him to generate additional Threat.

As The Joker's influence spread across the face of Gotham like a multi-hued fungus, Dean and I had to admit that Andrew's victory seemed inevitable.  I tried to get into an Influence war with him in Tricorner Yards and Black Gate Penitentiary but he kept outpacing me.  We also tried to sic Batman on him several times but ended up rolling miserably.  Every time Andrew sent a tenderized Dork Knight packing back to the Batcave, he won additional Influence to shore up his criminal empire.

Even when we did succeed in getting the Clown Price of Crime off the board for a little bit, we couldn't overcome the tide of purple Threat that had washed across the city.  Despite the fact that both Dean and I were now openly working in conjunction with one another, we still couldn't prevent The Joker from claiming his seventh district for the big win!


Although you don't actually get to play as Batman in the Batman: Gotham City Strategy Game I honestly think that designer Paolo Mori made a good call by having the players take on the role of the Villains.  Thanks to a series of elegant and efficient Euro-esque mechanics, it really does feel as if you're building a criminal empire and spreading your dark influence across the city.  Besides, you can still get your Bat-fix whenever you send him crashing down on one of your rivals.  Although he wasn't an insurmountable force in this particular game, I can definitely see how Batman's appearance on your turf can suddenly make you feel both "cowardly" and "superstitious".

The game's components are appropriately colorful, tacky and comic-booky.  I really dig the olde-skool Batman imagery provided by artist Chris Raimo.  The cards are nicely laminated and made of a decent stock.  Despite the fact that the game board is even more featureless then Marvel Heroes, it's both functional and flashy.  Although I really like the lurid art, rules summary and iconography on the Privacy Screens, the damn things fall over whenever you look at 'em funny.  This led to a running joke whereby we all screamed "I CAN SEE EVERYTHING!!!" whenever someone's screen tipped forward ever four minutes.

The figures included in the game are stupendous.  Even though the Henchmen dudes are wee, they have a slew of little details that make them look like a bunch of teeny Joe Chills.  But it's the Heroclix figures that really take the cake.  Although the sculpts are pretty pedestrian (save for Bats), they're incredibly detailed and very well-painted.  Whenever you drop your Big Bad into a Block it really feels as if something major is going down.

The game does have few niggling issues that cut into the fun.  Even after orchestrating a wildly successful turn that sets you up for a new level, it's really easy for rivals to gank you before the start of your next turn.  The funny thing is, I'm actually kinda loathe to complain about this, since the phrase "Curses, foiled again!" should be the mantra of every super-villain.

When I was leading the game early on, Andrew wisely used this strategy to impede my progress and catch up.  Although it made perfect sense for him to do this, my own inability to control my advancement made for a pretty frustrating experience.  Taking advantage of Andrew's preoccupation with me, Dean managed to wriggle though the Joker's dragnet and surpass me.  Even after Andrew decided to abandon OPERATION PENGUIN SCREW, I had a devil of a time playing catch up.

Which brings me to my second issue with the game: its tendency to drag ass in the final quarter.  Even though we were playing with a house rule which made resource acquisition a bit more flexible, it's not easy to procure twelve Information or hold onto seven Blocks when every other full-flight Villain is gunning for you.  The ability to play spoiler reminds me of Zombies!!! when the helicopter comes out close to one player who immediately finds themselves buried under a stack of screw-you cards.  I can only imagine how protracted and frustrating this would be with four players.

Mercifully Paolo Mori has already addressed these concerns and the next time we play we might incorporate some of these tweaks.  My only concern is that some of these ideas feel like overcompensation and might end up watering down the thematic flavor of the game quite a bit.
Some folks have also raised concerns about game balance, but frankly, I don't give a damn.  At face value, The Penguin might seem like a dud compared to Killer Croc, but if you play to the character's strengths the differences are negligible.  All I care about is that the Villains are distinct from one another and each one promises a different game experience.  Croc is a scrapper, Joker is a wild-card, Two-Face is all about balance and The Penguin is a dedicated professional criminal.

Despite a few minor flaws, I really like this game.  Imma gonna give the Batman: Gotham City Strategy Game four Bat-pips outta six with a Bat-grapple up.

Wanna force-feed your opponent a Bat-knuckle sandwich?  Click on the link below to pick up a copy of the game from Amazon and help support this blog!