Friday, February 22, 2013

Making A Wreck Out Of "Rex: Final Days Of The Empire"

Besides TSR, the other olde skool game company that I really miss is Avalon Hill. 

BTW, if anyone out there reads that and says "Hey, wait a minute!  Avalon Hill still exists!" I would kindly like to invite these very same people to chow down on a big, heaping bowlful of Penis™ brand cereal.  When Hasborg, er...Hasbro bought out Avalon Hill back in 1998 the venerable wargaming company became a shadow of their former selves, kinda like the equivalent of a pod person from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  

Avalon Hill was responsible for releasing some of the most historically-accurate, well-mounted and mind-bendingly complicated wargames ever produced.  For close to four decades, grognards happily immersed themselves in such "casual" fare as The Siege of Jerusalem, Wooden Ships and Iron Men, Empires in Arms, PanzerLeader, Rise and Decline of the Third Reich, and Advanced Squad Leader.  Having said that, I don't want readers to go away thinking that the only people into wargaming during this Golden Age were all coke-bottle bespectabled, neck-bearded military history types.

By providing simpler fare such as We The People, Afrika Korps, D-Day, and Anzio a pretty broad cross-section of humanity got into the hobby.  Rumor has it that President Kennedy staged epic games of Diplomacy at the White House, presumably with Henry Kissinger playing as Germany.  At the height of the wargaming craze, it wasn't outside the realm of possibility for Avalon Hill to sell more then twenty-thousand copies of a single title.  Some folks even credit da Hill for uncovering and fostering a market for adult games which thrives to this very day.

But over time, wargames would be assailed by a veritable conveyor belt of shiny new diversions.  This included role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and Traveler, collectible card games such as Magic: the Gathering, computer games like Panzer General, Eurogames like The Settlers of Catan and so-called "Ameritrash" titles in the vein of Axis & Allies.  This last game, for example, managed to boil the length and breadth of World War II down to what amounts to a grand strategic game of Yahtzee.  Realistic?  No.  Compulsively playable and relatively easy to round up players who don't have a month to spare in order to play Campaign for North Africa all the way to completion?  Definitely

In their bid for survival, Avalon Hill tried to lure in as many different gamers as possible.  They snapped up role-playing settings like RuneQuest and James Bond.  They produced movie tie-ins like Starship Troopers: Prepare for Battle!  They provided embryonic Euro-like options such as Acquire, Rail Baron and the Reiner Knizia-designed Colossal Arena (nee Titan: the Arena).  They printed up innocuous party games like Slang, Showbiz, Auction and Sex Quest (?).   They proffered sports games like Football Strategy and even a goofy card game called Wrasslin'.

Towards the end of its existence, Avalon Hill produced some forward-thinking wargames like Age of Renaissance, Brittania, History of the World and Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage.  All of these titles were less about Combat Results Tables and more about innovative mechanics.  They even took a genuine stab at Ameritrash with games like Merchant of Venus, Titan, Stellar Conquest and Princess Ryan's Star Marines.  Unfortunately all of these progressive efforts would be for naught.

I'm not going to go into what ultimately killed Avalon Hill, just suffice to say that their legal team probably deserves a swift boot in the arse.  Many, many years before its demise, Avalon Hill produced a title that, in my humble opinion, single-handedly foreshadowed the evolution of modern boardgames.  It was part area control, part auction.  It had leaders and treachery.  It had an almost Eurogamey method of conflict resolution.  Best of all, it was thematically rich and featured a host of cool variable powers that nicely simulated the different races featured in the classic novel of the same name.

The game I speak of is, of course, Dune


An immediate hit upon initial release, the game was re-packaged in 1984 as a tie-in for the floppish David Lynch film and features a bizarre Sting look-alike on the box cover.  Presumably because the cost of the Dune license became exorbitant, the game became cost prohibitive to produce and eventually went out of print.  Needless to say, it didn't take very long before Dune became one of the most valuable boardgaming "holy grails" with some copies selling for hundreds of dollars a pop on Ebay.     

Knowing damned well that the game was a bona fide classic and hordes of fans were waiting in the wings for a reprint like a pack of slavering dogs, Fantasy Flight acquired the rights to re-publish it back in 2007.  Unfortunately, they also failed to secure the Dune license.  Way to go, Herbert estate.  I mean, seriously?  Do you really think that Dune is so predominant in the zeitgeist of pop culture that you can pick and choose quality licensing opportunities like this?  I'm tellin' ya, if I ever, ever see a roll-n'-move Dune board game sittin' on the shelf at Calendar Club, I'm sending Brian and the rest of the Herbert clan a box of poo labeled "FEDERALLY INSPECTED 100% U.S.D.A. GRADE-A MELANGE".  

As a consolation prize, the good folks at Fantasy Flight took the game's hallowed mechanics and boiler-plated the Twilight Imperium universe onto it.  Although the game has lost some of its flavor in the transition, the spirit of the original title is still, by all accounts, largely intact.

So what's so durned special about this game?  Here's Fantasy Flight's opening argument:

"Rex: Final Days of an Empire, a reimagined version of Dune set in Fantasy Flight's Twilight Imperium universe, is a board game of negotiation, betrayal, and warfare in which 3-6 players take control of great interstellar civilizations, competing for dominance of the galaxy's crumbling imperial city. Set 3,000 years before the events of Twilight Imperium, Rex tells the story of the last days of the Lazax empire, while presenting players with compelling asymmetrical racial abilities and exciting opportunities for diplomacy, deception, and tactical mastery.

"In
Rex: Final Days of an Empire, players vie for control of vital locations across a sprawling map of the continent-sized Mecatol City. Only by securing three key locations (or more, when allied with other factions) can a player assert dominance over the heart of a dying empire.

"Unfortunately, mustering troops in the face of an ongoing Sol blockade is difficult at best (unless, of course, you are the Federation of Sol or its faithless ally, the Hacan, who supply the blockading fleet). Savvy leaders must gather support from the local populace, uncover hidden weapon caches, and acquire control over key institutions. Mechanically, this means players must lay claim to areas that provide influence, which is then 'spent' to (among other things) smuggle military forces through the orbiting Sol blockade. Those forces will be needed to seize the key areas of the city required to win the game. From the moment the first shot is fired, players must aggressively seek the means by which to turn the conflict to their own advantage.

"While the great races struggle for supremacy in the power vacuum of a dead emperor, massive Sol warships execute their devastating bombardments of the city below. Moving systematically, the Federation of Sol's fleet of warships wreaks havoc on the planet's surface, targeting great swaths of the game board with their destructive capabilities. Only the Sol's own ground forces have forewarning of the fleet's wrath; all others must seek shelter in the few locations with working defensive shields...or be obliterated in the resulting firestorm.

"Although open diplomacy and back-door dealmaking can often mitigate the need for bloodshed, direct combat may prove inevitable. When two or more opposing forces occupy the same area, a battle results. Each player's military strength is based on the sum total of troops he is willing to expend, along with the strength rating of his chosen leader. A faction's leaders can therefore be vitally important in combat...but beware! One or more of your Leaders may secretly be in the employ of an enemy, and if your forces in combat are commanded by such a traitor, defeat is all but assured. So whether on the field of battle or the floor of the Galactic Council, be careful in whom you place your trust.

"All this, along with a host of optional rules and additional variants, means that no two games of Rex: Final Days of an Empire will play exactly alike. Contributing further to replayability is the game's asymmetrical faction abilities, each of which offer a unique play experience."
  


Seeking the omniscience of a Paul Atreid...uh, sorry...seeking the all-encompassing wisdom of the Jol-Nar?  Then enclickify the following link to read the full rules for Rex: Final Days Of The Empire.   



So, anyway, six of us got together back on the 13'th to give this game a whirl.  Unfortunately Dean's masturbation-aggravated carpel tunnel syndrome flared up and he was forced to take the role of spectator.  Which isn't all that bad 'cuz Dean really, really likes to watch.     


THE ROLES


Andrew...Federation of Sol (Blue)
Chad...Xxcha Kingdom (Green)
Me...Emirates of Hacan (Yellow)
Mac...Universities of Jol-Nar (Purple)
Mike...Lazak Empire (Red)

Here's how the board looked upon initial set-up.  

As a relatively weak military power I had only five Units to start, all safely nestled under the shielded dome of Adminus Imperialis.  

Andrew's Federation of Sol were scattered all over the map: six in the Imperial Palace, three in the Sai Morgai Industrial Sector and one in the Thezin Commerce Region.  

Meanwhile, all ten of Mac's troops were stuck huddling under the Civilian Spaceport's Shields thanks to the unfortunate initial placement of the bombarding Dreadnought Fleet.  

Chad's Xxcha refused to turtle with five Units brazenly displayed right in open view of the Galactic Council.  

And for all of Mike's highly-vaunted military might he was forced to keep all fifteen of his regular Units (as well as his dreaded Mechanized forces) all in reserve.  



ROUND ONE 

Mac was forced to hold his position as the Dreadnought Fleet passed overhead.  

I expanded my influence by Recruiting four new Units and then moving three troops into the equally-sheltered Sai Sallai Residential district.  

Mike lowered the properly values by dropping two scary-looking Mechanized Units into the Vel Hamech Financial District, which was my neck of the woods.

Fearing a high movement from the Dreadnought Fleet, Andrew pulled his lone Unit out of the Thezin Commerce Region.  After a rousing Recruitment Phase, Andrew went on to divert troops from the Imperial Palace to the Influence-rich Adminus Mecatol as well as the Hirzall Industrial Region.  

For a bunch of space turtles, Chad's Xxcha made some pretty quick moves.  He pulled four Units from reserve and then promptly swarmed the Influence-rich Hall of Records and the Imperial Navy Base.  This last acquisition was a particularly good coup since it counted as a victory-conditional Stronghold and as a long range attack-launchin' Spaceport!   




ROUND TWO

Mike's two Mechanized Units in the Vel Hamech Financial District got annihilated when the Dreadnought Fleet passed overhead, allowing me to breathe a bit easier.  This was in contrast to Chad's forces in the Galactic Council who were completely immune to the barrage.  Stung by the arbitrary loss, Mike rebounded by requisitioning three Mechanized Units and one regular troop in Mecatol Power South.  This instantly gave him a Stronghold to horde as well as a Shielded region to consolidate his forces under.

After the Fleet passed safely overhead, I was anxious to exploit the Hacan's ability to move Units anywhere on the game board.  Unfortunately this also prevented me from levying any new troops so I constantly felt as if I was leaving the Adminus Imperialis Stronghold undefended.  Even after doubling my presence in that sector I still felt paranoid about shifting half of my numbers to the far side of the game board.

With a four-point Influence Token luring him in like a Scooby Snack, Mac moved two of his Units to the Sector Incarcatorum.

Chad decided to play to it safe, consolidating his hold over the Imperial Navy Base by engaging in some rigorous Recruitment and then pulling in reserves from both the Galactic Council and the Hall of Records.

After draining Adminus Mecatol of all of its Influence, Andrew pulled those three Units back to re-enforce the Imperial Palace and the Hirzall Industrial region.  In a blatantly aggressive move, he also decided to park three divisions in Mecatol Power North, right next door to Mac's Civilian Space headquarters.      

Already in possession of three out of the five Strongholds, Andrew, Chad and Mike began to coalesce into an unholy alliance.  As if their combined military might wasn't daunting enough, they began to exploit a particularly nasty combination.  Fueled by the Lazak's Racial Trait to receive Influence for purchased Strategy Cards and Mike's ability to give Influence to Chad and Andrew via his Ally Advantage Card, this new arrangement threatened to outbid the rest of us in every single future auction. Disturbed by these nasty turn of events, Mac and I hastily formed a quick partnership to oppose this newly-minted Axis of Evil.


ROUND THREE

With allegiances formed and battle lines drawn, the fur really began to fly.  After annexing the Influence-rich Holonet Central with five troops, my paranoia was justified when Lazak troops attacked my forces stationed at the Adminus Imperialis.  I managed to successfully repel the sudden assault by killing Mike's leader with a Strategy Card.  In addition to the loss of his two-point commander, Mike saw five units hauled off to the dead pile, including several Mechanized Units.  With four of my own Units killed in action, victory certainly didn't come cheap.

This military action left Mike's garrison in Mecatol Power South temptingly reduced.  Mac and I tried in entreat Mike into joining us, but we really didn't have a lot to offer at the time.  Besides, Mike seemed perfectly content to play the part of economic engine for his alliance partners, who were all still playing  Strategy Card keep-away with Mac and I.  

Swayed by the promise of two free Influence Tokens, Mac diverted four division to the Thezin Commerce Region.  Unfortunately this left him spread pretty thin and susceptible to a nasty one-two punch from Chad and Andrew.

After a redeployment which saw the Hall of Records undefended, Chad launched a full-scale assault on   Mac's Civilian Spaceport.  This turned out to be a vicious battle of attrition which resulted in both sides getting totally wiped out, including Mac's five-point leader.  Although he'd failed to secure the Stronghold and had only lost three units in the exchange, Chad seemed pretty pleased by this result.  In fact, his only regret was using a Strategy Card to permanently destroy the Spaceport's Shields;  a decision that would go on to haunt him later in the game.

Having bled the Hirzall Industrial Region dry of its Influence, Andrew combined these forces with the garrison at Mecatol Power North to conduct a surprise offensive against Mac's Sector Incarcatorum.  With only two Units there to defend with, Mac's forces were annihilated.  Between both prongsof the attack, Mac ended up losing about five units.  He did manage to inflict a few casualties on Andrew, however.  Between this and an unexpectedly swift bombing run by the Dreadnought Fleet, nine of Andrew's Units were summarily disintegrated.   



ROUND FOUR

At this stage in the game, Andrew, Chad and Mike's near-monopoly on the Strategy Card deck began to feel kind vaguely abusive.  We took a second look at the Lazax Ally Advantage Card and realized, to our horror, that Mike could only give influence to Chad and Andrew once per turn and it had to given up front and prior to the auction.   Up to this point in time he'd been giving his allies Influence  every single time the bidding came back around to them!



(I.E. BIGGEST FUCKING ASTERISK EVAR)

In spite of this colossal ballz-up we decided to forge on.

After taking great pains to guard Mecatol Power South with two Mech and one Regular unit, Mike decided to anchor a Mech and six standard divisions right off my port bow in the Vel Hamech Financial District again.  It's mainly because of this that I didn't launch a major offensive against Andrew's Imperial Palace on my turn.  

After snapping up the Cultural Sector with a single dude I began the painful process of rebuilding.  Thanks to the Emirate's clutch racial ability to earn Influence from the Deployment of other players, I was able to conscript eight fresh recruits for the Adminus Imperialis.  Unfortunately, Andrew responded by handing me my first military defeat at Holonet Central.  After forcing my four-point Leader to turn traitor, he sent five of my Units stationed there to the graveyard.  At least I managed to give him a bloody nose by destroying his four-chit invasion force, leaving Holonet Central devoid of life.

Meanwhile poor Mac just couldn't get any traction.  In addition to seeing his Thezin Commerce Region defenders get whittled down from four to one, he also indulged in a costly campaign to try and recapture the Civilian Spaceport.  Despite the demise of his four point Leader and the loss of another two Units, Mac just couldn't retake his spiritual capital.  At the end of the round it was left as vacant as a Jennifer Lopez concert.

And then the unthinkable happened.  With the value of the Mike's Ally Advantage card now significantly reduced, Andrew and Chad offered to drop him from their alliance and take me in his stead.  Unwilling to reward their duplicity and thinking (foolishly) that I still had a shot at achieving an individual or group victory, I refused their offer and promptly welcomed Mike into the fold.

Just moments after turfing him from the Alliance, Andrew attacked Mike's Stronghold in the Mecatol Power South region.  Even after he pulled the single unit from Sector Incarcatorum and two troops from the Sai Morgai Industrial Sector, Andrew could only manage to field four Units against Mike's GIANT MOUND 'O MECHS.  In a decision that still defies explanation to this day, Mike decided to commit only a tiny fraction of his army to the battle.  Despite being outnumbered almost three to one, Andrew managed to win the contest and capture this pivotal Stronghold.

Hoping to spring upon the still-undefended-but-susceptible-to-Bombardment Civilian Spaceport, Chad requisitioned a slew of new Units in the Galactic Council.


Still smarting from Andrew's ass-whippery from the previous turn, I spent this round embroiled in damage control, staving off potential intrusions and bolstering the Cultural Sector garrison by Deploying four divisions there.

Mike spent that particular turn trying to figure out what the fuck happened in his previous turn.

With his sights set firmly on Mecatol Power South, Mac made a last-minute surge by occupying Sector Incarcatorum and then drafting five Units to liberate the Trauma And Physiology Zone from Andrew.  Unfortunately Chad's next turn brought a swift end to Mac's valiant "Hail Mary" offensive.

Indeed, Chad timed his last move perfectly.  To ensure that there was no hope of us ever capturing the Imperial Navy Base Stronghold, he concentrated every single one of his units there.  Then, using this region as a highly effective launch pad, he sent a single division in to secure the Civilian Spaceport.   To insulate Chad's skeleton crew from bombardment, Andrew had already made a brilliant strategic card play which prevented the Dreadnought Fleet from moving that turn.

In the face of this flawless co-ordinated effort, Chad and Andrew collected the last Stronghold required for the joint win!  


POST-GAME ANAL-SIS

Screwing up Mike's Ally Advantage Card might have been pivotal to our loss but I'd be a lot quicker to blame our own inexplicably poor collective showing.  Beyond his questionable fortune in combat, Mac's actions might have been a tad too hasty.  On the flip side, my own actions were far too timid.  As for Mike, I'm hoping that he was just really drunk at the time and has no memory of any of this.  

Under normal circumstances, Andrew and Chad are usually at each other's throats.  This is actually kind of a good thing since both of them seem to possess a preternatural ability to absorb rules and sniff out winning strategies.  Allied together they're an obnoxiously unstoppable force.  


Although Andrew was precicely agressive and Chad was constantly dialed into the game's myriad of win conditions, I can't help but wonder what might of happened if Mike had posted a better defense in that last fight.  Or any defense at all for that matter.

Oh well, that just gives me more incentive to try it again real soon!  


REVIEW

I quite liked Rex: Final Days of an Empire.  I can understand why people were so anxious to see it back in print.  For an area control game the momentum is actually pretty flexible.  Given the Hacan's far-flung movement abilities and the freedom that every player has to deploy new recruits anywhere in Mecatol City, the Strongholds would tend to change hands rather frequently.

Each race has its own flair and they feel distinctly different from one another.  I appreciate the fact that every race isn't perfectly balanced, forcing players to innovate and exploit whatever traits they've inherited to the best of their ability.  I also have to salute any game which offers such creatively cock-eyed victory conditions.


The Alliances are also well-realized.  I like how you gain a semblance of your Ally's special abilities for the duration of your agreement.  I also like how these treaties actually feel like a formal pact.  Although Alliances often come up for review in a turn or two, there's also a chance that you can get stuck together for the long haul.  As such, a wise player should plan accordingly.  

But Combat is the real revelation here.  The Battle Dial really simulates the high price of wanting to win at all costs.  If you try and bluff an opponent by committing fewer troops, then you'd damned well better have a competent Leader in the mix and a few choice Strategy Cards to play.  Since every Unit that you commit to battle is destined to die, you're constantly trying to low-ball the amount of resources needed to win.  This plethora of considerations makes combat in Rex one of the most elegant, luck-independent systems that I've ever encountered.      


As great as the mechanics are, I personally miss the absence of the original license.  I still think Dune is one of the greatest sci-fi novels ever written so it's tough for me to divorce the mechanics from such a rich theme.  In contrast I haven't read any of the Twilight Imperium racial backgrounds and I don't feel particularly compelled to so so, mainly because they seem so generic and blah in comparison.  It's kinda like my feelings about Fantasy Flight's "Terrinoth" setting.  If I could give Descent a Dungeons & Dragons makeover, I'd be ecstatic.

 
Make no mistake about it, Rex: Final Days of an Empire is truly a stellar game.  I just can't help but think that a healthy dollop of sandworms, dust storms and spice would have made it even better.


Tilt: up.  

Looking to improve the hideous percentage of board game alliances that end up in divorce?  Click on the image below to pick up a copy of Rex: Final Days of an Empire from Amazon.com and help support this blog!

      

Saturday, February 9, 2013

"The Story So Far" - Part Two - "Unwanted Neighbors"

"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.  After establishing the campaign setting in the ProloguePart I delved into character creation and the very first adventure that my players experienced together.  I've "fictionalized" the session reports in a likely-vain attempt to make them more "entertaining".   

And now, our story continues...  

After liberating the wayward unicorn from the goblin horde, the group returned to their home base at the Rambling Rogue tavern.  To their surprise, a new arrival was there waiting for them:

Pol the Fighter 
played by Claudia

Age: none of your damned business
Height: 5'10"
Weight: 150 lbs.
Eyes: Green
Hair: Red
Distinguishing features: none that she'd ever admit to you, ya scrub. 


This fierce fighter from Alamein is the daughter of two aspiring mages.  Pol was a disappointment to her parents because she was born without a spark of magic in her.  Her diminuitive stature as a child forced her to toughen up quickly and when adulthood granted her amazonian height, she quickly realized her calling.  She soon took up sword craft partly to hone her combat skills and partly to irk her parents.  To complete her rebellion she initiated a relationship with an older warrior who taught her a host of melee and ranged combat techniques.  She traveled extensively with him until his recent demise and to this day she refuses to talk about the mysterious circumstances surrounding the loss of her beloved mentor.  Pol is striking in both physical appearance and in battle.  Although confident in her own abilities she does harbor a nagging fear that she will someday fail in her duty to protect those she cares about.

Pol arrived a day late for the job.  During a nasty skirmish she broke her sword, forcing her to sneak along the rocky banks of the River Swift in order to avoid detection from a veritable gauntlet of orc scouts.  Impressed by her imposing physique and knowing that she would be a fine asset to the Fellowship, the heroes began to lobby Denneth to add her to the payroll.  The Mayor refused outright, explaining that council had already retained one more person than they originally intended.

Meanwhile, Barant began to make time with an attractive but incredibly bitchy barmaid named Veronique, who seemed impressed by the fighter's battle scars and tales of "heroism".  At some point during the revelry that evening they disappeared together, which set tongues a-wagging and made Lorelei stew in anger.


Solstice 19, 1492

The heroes spent the better part of Sunday exploring the town of Castebridge.  Pol, feeling rudderless, tagged along, taking the opportunity to replace her damaged weapon.  Later that same day, Roman knocked on Barant’s door, intent on setting up a group meeting.  A tussled-looking Veronique answered instead and, after telling the cleric to shove off in no uncertain terms, she quickly added: 

"He’s still recovering from the injuries you rabble are responsible for!  Do not trouble us!"

So it came to be that, mere days after it was forged, the Fellowship found itself fractured!

Solstice 20, 1492

Two days after the group's inaugural victory, Denneth marched into the Rambling Rogue with Durand, two town guards, and a dwarf in sooty clothes.  The Mayor let the diminutive visitor explain the dillema:

"My name is Rurik and I work in the mines up in the mountains to the north.  My crew was digging a new tunnel yesterday when we hit a hollow spot underground.  Two big hobgoblins crawled out of the hole and grabbed my friend Durgal, who was unlucky enough to be standing closer to the hole.  We haven’t seen or heard from him since."

Denneth, keen to keep the valuable dwarven mines in operation, quickly offered the group fifty gold Crowns apiece to clear it out.

Energized by their new assignment, the group went to rouse Barant.  When pressed, the fighter was forced to tell his allies that he was quitting the group because Veronique didn't want him needlessly risking his life anymore as an adventurer.  Her father Roland, a Captain in the Castebridge garrison, had already found him a nice, cushy job as a town guard.  Begrudgingly, the other members of the Fellowship were forced to respect his decision, even though Lorelei was clearly hurt by these turn of events.

Even after Barant's departure, Denneth refused to let Pol take his place, saying that the group was" finally down to the number of members we originally wanted to retain".  In fact, he flat-out told the amazonian warrior to "go back home to Alamein".  Unwilling to let their most promising new recruit walk away, the Fellowship decided to ignore the Mayor’s advice and ventured forth in their new incarnation.

During the wild ride that followed, the adventurers were forced to battle though waves of dire rats, negotiate though deadly traps and contend with the a major melee with a pack of savage hobgoblins.  Easily making amends for his previous gaffe, Rincewind single-handedly felled half of their opponents by creatively using a mirror to cast a clandestine 'Sleep' spell!

Once again, the day belonged to our heroes!  Under considerably fanfare, they returned to town to claim their reward.  With this second victory under their belt, the team felt fortified enough to play hardball with Denneth, refusing to do anything else for the council until Pol was officially added to their roster.  Eventually Denneth was forced to capitulate and the Fellowship was reforged anew!

Later that same evening, Rincewind was approached by Marlak, the erstaz leader of the local mage’s guild.  Clearly impressed by the group’s success thus far, he asked if Rincewind and his allies would undertake a special task for him.  He invited the Fellowship to visit Legacy Tower the following morning to discuss the particulars.

When pressed for details, Marlak would only say that it had something to do with Andred, one of the recently-expelled members of their guild.  Excited by the prospects of a new challenge (and the promise of another rich reward!), Rincewind was forced to cast a 'Sleep' spell on himself in order to get some shut eye!

Next time on 'The Story So Far': the group tries to gain access to one of town's forbidden crypts in a desperate bid to stop a necromancer from recovering a priceless artifact.  

Photo credits: Pol ,Veronique, hobgoblin

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

OMG! Did "Martian Dice" Just Abduct "Zombie Dice"? A-Yup.

On the same night that we played Puerto Rico, we also gave Martian Dice a whirl.


It's a damned good sight that you can't easily copyright a game mechanic.  Every single time a designer comes up with some cool mechanic or innovative ruleset you can rest assured that some jobber will come along, steal it outright, refine it and then release it to much fanfare.

Don't believe me?  Then how 'bout Thunderstone from Dominion?  Stone Age trumping Pillars of the Earth?  Kingsburg begetting Alien Frontiers?  Battlestar Galactica springing from the loins of Shadows Over Camelot?  Cash n' Guns improving on Bang!?  Defenders of the Realm giving a less icky theme to Pandemic?  Dixit and Cards Against Humanity curb-stomping Apples to Apples into oblivion?  Space Alert nicking the programming feature from RoboRally and then adding so much more?  Upwords making Scrabble more...um...vertical?

And so it is with Martian Dice and Zombie Dice.  See if this explanation rings any bells:

Your mission, Martians, is to swoop down on the pathetic denizens of the primitive planet Earth and scoop up as many of the inhabitants as you can manage.  We are interested in samples of the Chicken, Cow, and Human populations so that we can determine which of them is actually in charge.  The Earthlings might manage to put up a feeble defense, but surely nothing that a small taste of your Death Rays can't handle.  Make Mars proud – be the first Martian to fill your abduction quota!

In Martian Dice you will roll 13 custom dice in an effort to set aside ("abduct") Humans, Chickens, and Cows.  With each roll you must first set aside any Tanks, representing the human military coming to fend off your alien invasion.  Then you may choose one type of die to set aside as well - one of the earthlings to abduct, or Death Rays to combat the military.  At the end of your turn, if you have at least as many Death Rays as Tanks, then you may abduct the earthlings you've been setting aside. You can't pick any type of Earthling twice in one turn, but if you manage to abduct at least one of each you'll score a bonus!

Wanna know the full truth behind this alien conspiracy?  Then look no further then the full online game rules.      

***

I started reasonably strong in Game One by scoring an average of four points in the first three rounds. Mike got shut out on his first throw of the dice but successfully pushed his luck in the second round by taking home eight big points.  Andrew lagged behind me by a point at the end of the third turn.

We all hit a stretch of abysmal luck around mid-game.  Andrew managed to rustle up three points, I earned two and Mike could only score a single, measly abduction.

Everybody's luck improved in the home stretch except for mine.  While I could only conjure up four more abductions for a grand total of 18, Andrew set the bar pretty high by scoring five points in each of the last three rounds!  His final total of 29 looked to be insurmountable until Mike came along and scored eight points in one go!  Unfortunately, his next two scores were only "1" and then "0", so Andrew was left with the win.


Final Scores:   Andrew...29   Mike...22   Me...18

Game Two saw us generating points a lot faster then Game One, suggesting either better luck or the successful navigation of an honest-to-goodness learning curve.  I thought that I was doing pretty good for myself with fourteen points in three rounds, but then Mike had to come along and score twenty-one in the same increment of time, including nine points in a single round via a successful set collection!  This time it was Andrew's turn to struggle.  Although he managed to pick up eight points in single round his other two turns were a bust.

After Mike started to press his luck a bit too far his dice went cold.  Although he wiped out twice in a row I was unable to capitalize on this, securing only two abductions over a similar amount of rounds.  Andrew, meanwhile, began the laborious process of clawing his way back, netting a respectable four and then five points in quick succession.

After adjusting the horseshoe jammed firmly up his rectum, Mike finished the game off with two stellar turns, including the highest single-round score of the game (ten points!).  Regardless of the daunting task ahead of me, I grabbed the dice and went to work.  Unfortunately, "going to work" translated into a pathetic two point round and then a big fat hairy goose egg.  Andrew was similarly hosed by Lady Luck, crapping out in his first toss and then scoring only two points in his final bid to beat Mike's insane score.

In the end I was left cursing Andrew's ability to warp game reality to his will since the little wiener managed to beat my own score by one point.      


Final Scores:  Mike...33 (!!!)  Andrew 19   Me...18

***

So, does Martian Dice make Zombie Dice obsolete?  Well, to be brutally honest: yes!  Even though there's the same count of dice included with both games (thirteen), Martian Dice generates more variables and strategy just by adding additional faces.  In Zombie Dice you can only get Brains, Shotgun Blasts or Escapes but in Martian Dice you can get Humans, Cows, Chickens, Death Rays and Tanks.  These added factors virtually demand more interesting choices from players.

The constant threat posed by the Tanks also makes for an interesting dynamic.  If you only throw a coupla Tanks on your first toss, then it's very tempting to bank one requirement and then re-roll everything else.  If you get a lot of Tanks right off the bat, then it's probably wise to start setting aside Death Rays right away before you risking anything else.  It gets really interesting when you roll a lot of Tanks and, say, six or seven Chickens.  At face value, it might make sense to bank that poultry surplus but you'll find yourself with considerably less dice to defend yourself with for the rest of the turn.

I also like how you can score bonus points for "being the first alien on the block to collect 'em all".  On a couple of occasions, Mike had the good fortune of abducting a full house: I.E. a Human, a Cow and a Chicken.  The extra points that you can earn for pulling this off is a compulsive temptation even under the constant threat of a Tank blitzkrieg.  All of this makes for a "press your luck" game that truly lives up to its name!      


Given the option to play Zombie Dice or Martian Dice I'd have to go with the latter.  It definitely gives players more options and a chance to apply a modicum of strategy against the admittedly frequent occurrence of blind luck.  After casting that mittful of dice, the choices you make are not always patently obvious.

On the flip-side, I also can't justify rating Martian Dice higher then Zombie Dice on the d6 scale.  It just not innovative nor detailed enough for me to put it on par with some other "5"-score games.

So here's my compromise: Martian Dice scores four pips outta six with a healthy tilt up!


***

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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

"The Story So Far" - Part One - "The Abduction"



After cobbling together the formative details of a new campaign I got my guinea pi...er, players set up with their characters.  Since, for many of these folks, it was their first experience playing a fantasy role-playing game, I decided to skip the character creation process and let them select one of the pregens included in the Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Game.  After making their selection, they went off and customized their new avatars with names, physical descriptions and some brief back-stories.

Here, then, is what they came up with:

Bria the Rogue 
played by Sabina

Age: 23
Height: "Medium"  
Weight: "Slim" 
Eyes: Blue/Green  
Hair: Reddish-Gold 
Distinguishing features: Bria has a crescent moon tattoo burned into her right shoulder blade.    


Bria was rescued at age five by a group of traveling merchants who found her lying next to the bodies of her parents just outside the village of Castebridge.  She traveled all over the mainland with her nomadic foster family, learning a host of practical skills both clandestine and deadly.  After making her mark as a skilled burglar in Footholde, Bria left her adoptive family and recently returned to Castebridge.  Here she intends to solve the mystery of her true heritage and track down the villains who murdered her parents.  Despite the fact that she's quite seasoned and street-wise, Bria sometimes betrays her young age through a lack of self-confidence.

Roman the Cleric 
played by Dean

Age: 24
Height: 5' 11"
Weight: 175 lbs.
Eyes: Gray
Hair: Black
Distinguishing features: Roman has the name "Claudia" tattooed in a sensitive area, courtesy of a night of hypothetical passion that he barely remembers.  



Roman was orphaned at a very young age and grew up on the mean streets of Footholde until he was  twelve.  After he was caught stealing from a church collection plate, a gruff old cleric named Regis took Roman in and put him to work as an acolyte.  This stern guidance eventually had an effect on young Roman who eventually devoted his life to the church after experiencing a vision of Pelor.  When Castebridge was settled, Regis went north on missionary work and his young ward went with him.  When Regis returned to Footholde, Roman decided to remain in Castebridge after accepting a high-ranking position with the local parish.  When asked what motivates him to risk his life, Roman will always say that it comes from a genuine desire to help his fellow townspeople.  If pressed, however, Roman will also confess that he has an insatiable yen for adventure.  His only fear is that he will lapse in his devotion to the Church of Pelor, which he credits for saving his life.

Lorelei the Druid 
played by Cheryl


Age: unknown
Height: 5' 5"
Weight: "Slim"
Eyes: Green
Hair: Black
Distinguishing features: None that anyone has found and then lived to boast about.  





Mysterious traveler from Alamein who’s exotic good looks are presumed to be a gift from her homeland.  Unlike her fellow adventurer Rincewind, Lorelei is a natural spell-caster who seems to possess an in-born aptitude for all things mystical.  Coupled with a keen tactical mind, she is an opponent not to be trifled with.  When asked to talk about herself she usually tells people to mind their own business and quickly changes the subject.  Lorelei may seem ill-tempered and overly driven to some, but occasionally she comes across as haunted by some unknown tragedy.  Although she's clearly a stranger in a strange land, she often displays an eerie affinity and familiarity with this new continent.  For whatever reason, this seems to give her little personal comfort.  When challenged, even her sworn bodyguard Barant is at a loss to explain why she's here and what her motivations are.

Rincewind the "WIZZARD" 
played by Tom 
(with apologies to Terry Pratchett) 


Age: unknown
Height: "Average"
Weight: "Lanky"
Eyes: Hazel
Hair: Brown
Distinguishing features: If Rincewind has any distinguishing features, he's not aware of it.  Then again, he's also barely aware of what town he's in.  






Ever since he can remember, all Rincewind ever wanted to be was a mage.  As soon as he was old enough, he applied to study at a school for mages in Footholde.  Unfortunately, it soon became glaringly obvious that he had absolutely no aptitude for sorcery whatsoever.  Desspite his best efforts, Rince's reputation for incompetence grew to nigh-legendary proportions and eventually he was kicked out under a cloud of scandal and ridicule.  Rincewind then ventured to Castebridge to seek solitude, hoping to learn magic on his own terms.  Despite his questionable level of bravery, Rincewind is starting to show promise as a wizard, probably because he's now free from the scrutiny of academia.  Although his appearance could best be described as "odd", he's also a creative thinker who’s three dimensional plans often extricate him from sticky situations after his magic has fizzled.

After sizing up this motley crew I decided to beef up their ranks with a meat-shield NPC:

Barant des Apres the Fighter


A charismatic scoundrel that was kicked out of the Footholde town guard for laziness, cowardice and impudence.  He just so happened to be in a drunken stupor when he pledged to escort the fetching Lorelei to Castebridge on her quest of self-discovery.  Although his promise to Lorelei was made under questionable circumstances, he continues to stand by her, perhaps hoping that it will lend his life some meaning and guidance.  At face value, Barant appears to be a foppish dandy, which often serves to lull his opponents into overconfidence.  Whenever his lady is threatened, however, Barant is quick to reveal himself as a fierce warrior and a skilled swordsman.  Despite his outwardly carefree attitude, he seems genuinely concerned that his life thus far has had no meaning and he may end with little or nothing to show for it.

***

I then proceeded to tempt this pack of misfits with the following invitation posted around town:


T'was this cryptic proclamation that compelled these hardy souls to visit the Rambling Rogue tavern on that fateful day.  The gathering itself was hosted by Lord Denneth the Mayor of Castebridge, Valais the Petty Alderman, Baron Gilles de Vrais (former Mayor and now Baron of Terecassé  in Alamein), Chief Bailiff Durant de Montfort as well as the tavern owner Falstaff.  After some intense discussion with the Baron, Denneth finally called the meeting to order.

"Greetings!  I thank you all for coming out.  I'd expected a larger turnout, but with your lot becoming increasingly endangered in these parts nowadays, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.  It’ll just make my job a spot easier, eh?"

For an endless moment everyone in the pub could hear crickets chirping.  As the Baron massaged his temples in obvious pain, Denneth chuckled awkwardly and then plowed on. 

"I suppose you’d like to know why we've asked you here.  Well, to state the obvious in no uncertain terms, Castebridge is a town besieged by savagery.  Initially we'd hoped that our brave men town militia could be called upon to bring order to the surrounding countryside but this proved to be rather...impractical.  Ideally, we want our town guard to remain committed to their primary role, that of defenders of our proud hamlet.  Besides, we've since discovered that they were lacking in certain specialized 'skills' required to succeed in these ventures.  Which brings me to you.

"At the behest of town council, you'll be tasked to perform certain...missions.  In addition to being paid a flat fee for your efforts, you will also retain salvage rights for any recovered sundries that have no claim of ownership.  As an added bonus, our illustrious host, Falstaff has agreed to let you all stay at the Strongholde Inn for free tonight and at half the regular rate each subsequent night.  All of your meals will be included in this fee."

After a brief Q&A, Denneth offered his congratulations to the successful candidates.  The celebration was short-lived however, as a wild, burly-looking fellow burst into the tavern, shouting for the Mayor.  Denneth took him aside, but quickly grew impatient with the interloper.  Eventually he turned back to address the group, leaving the panicked visitor standing around looking dejected and frustrated.  The Mayor quickly apologized for the interruption, but the flurry of questions that followed derailed any chance of ignoring the intruder.

Denneth rolled his eyes as he explained:

"Please, I beseech you, pay him no heed," he said dismissively.  "He claims that some sort of creature roams the woods near the lumber camp to the east.  The locals attribute healing powers to it..."

"Tis true!" hollered the woodsmen, who's name was Beren. "It healed Elron right up that one time when he nearly cut his own peck..."

"It’s not important," Denneth interrupted, dismissing Beren with a wave and leaning in to address the adventurers in hushed tones. "He's probably drunk out his gourd on flaxberry wine..."

When he was finally allowed to speak, Beren went on to say that he witnessed a war party of goblins capture this creature of legend: an ivory unicorn.  He explained that the goblins make their home in the catacombs underneath the ancient ruins of a long-abandoned house to the north-east.


Much to Denneth’s chagrin, the newly-forged Fellowship collectively decided to venture forth and confront the goblins.

"Well, if you decide to do this then you will do so by your own accord," sniffed Denneth.  "You'll receive no compensation from us."

After much consternation, the Baron called Denneth back to his table.  Clearly incensed, the Mayor soon returned with an offer of twenty Gold Crowns apiece to make the woodsmen happy.  Although the newly-minted alliance had its first assignment, everyone was left chomping at the bit when they were told that the city gates were locked up tight for the evening.

Their first expedition would have to wait until morning.

Solstice 18, 1492

The group left in good spirits early the following morning, taking care to stay well clear of Tanglewood Forest and its rumored denizens.  Bria used her lock-picking skills to get the jump on the goblin wardens, but Rincewind’s curiosity got the better of him.  He was knocked into mystical unconsciousness while opening a treasure chest when all of the others were preoccupied by battle.


Despite this minor setback, the noble unicorn was liberated and, with their first humble victory under their belts, the Fellowship returned to town in triumph!

***

Next time out: a founding member of the group gets Yoko Ono'ed and a new arrival becomes his secret replacement!  Plus...the challenges get a lot harder and the group has an increasingly difficult time distinguishing friend from foe.  



PHOTO CREDITSBriaRomanLorelei, RincewindBarant, unicorn, goblin.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Protectorate Of Game Night: "Puerto Rico"

Even though Chad was on tour this past week with his fellow Chippendale dancers, Andrew still wanted to proceed with a four-player game of Rex.  Unfortunately, Dean was also forced to drop out at the last minute when his syphilitic blindness flared up.  Now with only three players left, we were forced to scramble around in order to keep game night intact.

Andrew volunteered to host, but since my place was in a semblance of order, I suggested that he and Mike come to my place.  While I was waiting for them to arrive, I thought about games that were good for three-players that would take a minimum amount of effort to table.  I already had Descent: Second Edition set up, so I immediately threw that out as an option.

But when Mike mentioned that he'd never played Puerto Rico and he really wanted to try it, we quickly switched focus to that city-building Andreas Seyfarth Euro-classic.  This turned out to be a wise move, since my infinitely better half Cheryl decided to join in, making it a four way.  Game!  A four-way player...game...thing.  *Ahem*, you know what I mean.


I'd characterize my strategy this time out as "completely devoid of strategy".  I started the game with a random Indigo Plantation and then snagged some Coffee, because fuck you, that's why.  Hey, it was  either Coffee, Tobacco or Sugar so I just went with the thing that I can't live without in real life.  This, of course, necessitated the construction of a Coffee Roaster and an Indigo Plant.  I was also quick to take the Captain Role early on.  This gave me some quick Victory Points, but certainly not enough to outpace my rivals.

I also bought a Small Market mainly because I had few Doubloons that were burning a hole on my coin purse.  Around mid-game I requisitioned a Small Warehouse to serve as storage.  In an arguably ill-conceived plan to diversify, I also added Tobacco and Corn to the production mix, which inspired the construction of a Tobacco Storage facility.  Even with the Warehouse, I lost several bushels of 'Baccy to dockside spoilage after Mike picked the Captain role at a time that was optimal for him but considerably less so for me.  In the immortal words of Jar Jar Binks: "How 'wude!"

During the end game, I was forced to settle for a Residence after Mike snapped up my first choice: the Fortress.  This left me scrambling for some desperate, last-minute, Hail Mary pointage which came in the form of a vacant Sugar Mill and an afterthought Quarry.


For his first game, Mike acquitted himself very nicely.  As with any new player to the game, it took him a few turns to absorb the unique flow of this brilliant game.  After grasping the whole one-for-one *slash* occupied-Plantation-to-occupied-matching-facility dynamic he was soon knockin' out a nice spectrum of raw materials including Indigo, Corn and a metric shit-ton of Sugar.

Because he'd produced such a wide variety of stuff at such a quick rate, he got burned pretty badly by some early spoilage.  He quickly compensated by building a Large Warehouse.  An early Quarry also paid dividends, reducing Mike's tentative building expenses to something more manageable.

Although one might be tempted to discount his success as beginners luck, Mike's a very quick study who can switch strategies on a dime if required.  The first time he saw me clock some extra Doubloons via the Small Market, he immediately did me one better by building the Larger variety.  He was also quick to see the value inherent in the highly lucrative Factory.  Pretty soon my boy was swimmin' in cash, Scrooge McDuck style.  

With his building expenses reduced to virtually nothing and coin rolling in from a multitude of sources, Mike could buy ten point Buildings as if they were penny candy.  His first acquisition was the Fortress, giving him a Victory Point for every three Colonists.  Even though he didn't have enough time to occupy the City Hall he procured n his very last turn, he did get four last minute Victory Points out of the deal.


Andrew's strategy was the complete opposite of mine in the sense that he actually had a strategy.  It started early with a Monsanto-like run on Corn, which requires no refinery.  Right off the bat, this gave him some shippable product to net some early Victory Points.

He continued to diversify with some valuable Coffee and Tobacco and a pair of matching production facilities.  Andrew's timing with shipping goods via the Captain was considerably more adept then mine.  Often I'd catch him glancing around the table, trying to determine how to best to ensure a ship-board monopoly.  He was so busy doing deliveries that he didn't even bother to invest in any spoilage insurance.  

One of his more astute early moves was to buy a Factory, giving him a kick-ass cash bonus for producing different types of goods.  This gave him plenty of capitol to realize his strategy, which eventually saw him secure a private ship via the Wharf and a Victory Point bump for deliveries courtesy of the Harbor.

Although Cheryl sniped the only Large Building that could have helped helped him in the end, Andrew had already amassed so many in-game Victory Points that there was a shortage of five-point denominations.


Cheryl took the same zen-like, leaf-in-the-river, "whatever happens, happens" approach to the game as I did.  She quickly set up a stellar Coffee, Indigo and Corn enterprise and but lost a bit to spoilage before constructing a Small Warehouse.

Although quick to establish a Large Market, Cheryl was habitually denied some early lucrative sales when her persistently annoying opponents kept selling to the Trading House before she could.  She tried to rectify this by building not one but two Offices, but this was fairly late in the game and she only managed to get one of them staffed.

She did manage to play the part of spoiler, however, by "yoink"-ing the Customs House (one bonus Victory Point for every four chips already earned) right out from underneath Andrew.  Both Mike and I voiced our approval for this since in almost called into question Andrew's one-sided dominance of the game thus far.



At the end of the game, the pickin's on the main Game Board were lookin' frightful slim.  

GAME END

Victory Point Chips

Cheryl...19
Mike...20
Me...26
Andrew...35 (!!!)

Buildings

Me...15
Cheryl...16
Andrew...17
Mike...23  

Bonus Victory points from Large Buildings

Andrew...0
Cheryl...4
Me...5
Mike...7

FINAL SCORING

Cheryl...39
Me...46
Mike...50
Andrew...52

I've already raved at length about Puerto Rico so I won't presume to do it here again.  It's even fun to play the game unfocused and experiment with avenues as they appear.  

Here are a few Puerto Rico tips from yer humble author:
  1. Have a strategy.
  2. To ensure that the Buildings you procure dovetail with your emerging tactics review their special abilities constantly.
  3. Corn can give you a quick Victory Point jump since it doesn't need to be processed.  Just ask your digestive system.  
  4. Don't underestimate the potential cost reduction that comes from the occupation of Quarries.
  5. Before you pick a Role, make sure that your opponents won't benefit from its selection more then you will.
  6. If you can time the Craftsman and the Captain properly a Warehouse is superfluous and spoilage will be rare.  If you lean on this heavy shipping strategy, having access to your own private vessel via the Wharf is a no-brainer.    
  7. Remember, money in Puerto Rico is only a means to an ends.  Setting up more then one income bonus might be overkill.
  8. To wit, expensive commodities like Coffee might earn you more cheddar in the Trading house, but in the end it's worth the same same amount of Victory Points as the lowly Corn cob.  
  9. Pick the Prospector only when it's buried under a mound of Doubloons.
  10. It's good to diversify but don't feel the need to produce every single type of good.  If you opt for the later approach, a Large Warehouse is advisable and the Factory is a must-buy.   
Addendum: while doing research for this post I came across some recently-minted rules which are meant to address game balance issues that I wasn't even aware of.  Both of them actually make sense to me and I may institute them on future plays...
  1. The prices of the Factory and University buildings should be swapped so that the Factory costs 8 doubloons and the University costs 7 doubloons.  The designer Andreas Seyfarth has said he would make this change if he were creating the game today.
  2. Any players that start with a Corn Plantation should start with one Doubloon less than the players that start with an Indigo Plantation.
Both of these kinda make sense to me and I may give 'em a whirl next time out...

***

Looking for an excuse to say "In America, first you get the Sugar, then you get the power, then you get the weemen" in a social setting?  Pick up a copy of Puerto Rico from Amazon.com by clicking on the picture below and help support this here blog!