Friday, September 28, 2007

Fate: Dark and Stormy report #6

Having dispatched the noggits in the rain-dripping room, the party searched the next hallway. At the end of this hallway was another dark, dusty room. Rwake stepped in first to examine the room. Hidden among the dust were tiny sparkles of gold, strewn all about the floor. In the center of the room was a large stone table - the resting place of an ancient dagwir (big beastly humanoid) knight. Elros and Leo came up to join Rwake just as the dagwir rose up as a zombie, ready to defend his tomb. He prepared to attack Rwake, javelin in hand, spiked mace at his belt. Below you can see the party heading into the room. J forgot his LEGO dude, so for this session he borrowed a little mini from AC - a mini that well represented J's little Lufan character.

Rwake is always first initiative-wise because he has the highest alertness. He immediately used his "Vital Spot" stunt to give himself a free +2 to his next attack. Elros, having just entered the room used his Empathy skill to assess the dagwir's motives, but failed. We had a laugh because the dagwir's motives were pretty clear - javelin ready to throw and all. On the other hand, AC is really skilled at doing the unexpected, which makes the roleplaying experience better for everyone.

Leo ran past the others, quickly pulling out and launching two daggers at the dagwir zombie. The dagwir rolled a -1, but used a fate point to invoke one of his aspects, giving him a reroll, which came up even. He took 4 stress from Leo's daggers grazing him.

The dagwir let his javelin fly at Rwake, who took a meager 1 stress. Rwake quickly pounced onto the dagwir hoping to get a knife in him, engaging the dead knight in a grapple. The dagwir took 2 stress from Rwake's knife. Careful to avoid hitting Rwake in the low light, Elros stepped forward and lunged a stab at the dagwir's knee - Elros rolled 8, Dagwir rolled 4: the dagwir took 4 stress, which rolled up to 5 since he already had taken 4 stress earlier.

Leo took this time to run around to the opposite side of the room for a new vantage point. I hadn't decided on a difficulty, but he rolled a +2 ("Fair" in Fate terms), so I called it a success.

The dagwir, with Rwake in his grip, rolled using his zombie melee skill, achieving a -2. Using another aspect (and spending a fate point) to reroll, he came up with a +1 on the dice, which added to his Average (+1) skill and his Acid Spit stunt (+2) gave him a +4 total. He opened his mouth and spewed a vile stream of acid aimed at Rwake's head. Fortunately for the tribesman, he also rolled a +4, barely managing to get his head out of the way, avoiding the acid attack.

Rwake spent his next turn successfully swiveling around, effectively placing the dagwir between himself and Elros. From his new angle, Elros slid his sword blade under the leather straps on the zombie's shield and sliced them, with 7 shifts on his roll. This was a good experience for us because had had so few opportunities to resolve maneuvers. Elros used his shifts to kick the shield aside and place a 1-round aspect on the dagwir: "Where's my shield?" For those learning the SotC system, this is called a "fragile" aspect - it wears off rather quickly. Temporary aspects that hang around longer are called "sticky".

Now that the dagwir had an aspect on him, the first tag of it was free, which Leo took. After a poor initial roll, Leo used his "Trained by Sporren" aspect to reroll the dice. (Sporren was the character played by Llama in our first ever Fate adventure - he was a knife throwing master. J wove that character into Leo's backstory, which was very cool.) The dagwir struggled against Rwake, trying to secure his now shield-less side, but Leo's sidearm knife throw was perfectly aimed, causing the dagwir knight another 6 stress.

The dagwir then broke free of Rwake's grasp and swung at him with his large spiked mace. Rwake rolled, adding +2 using his "Oratune, King of the Jungle" aspect to boost his defense. After all, Rwake would have avoided animal attacks several times in his days as a jungle master. That gave him enough to avoid taking damage from the dagwir's blow.

Rwake then thrusted his knife in, causing 2 stress to the dagwir. Elros, the quick and ready swordsman managed a successful stab at the dagwir's chest, causing him 3 more stress. Leo, seeing another window of opportunity threw another knife sinking it into the dagwir's abdomen, causing 4 stress, which rolled up to 8. And the dagwir just kept fighting, as the undead are wont to do.

The dagwir now turned his attention to the Laani swordfighter, Elros, who easily blocked his swinging mace, achieving defensive Overflow. This Overflow will apply as a +1 to Leo's action when we begin next week's session.

AC played his role very well in this session, thinking outside the box, and testing various aspects of the game, giving us some laughs along the way. For this reason, I rewarded him with a fate point.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Lost Valley: the importance of mountain gold

Over the weekend, my wife and I found time to fit in one game of Lost Valley.

Both of us have a preference for games where you can work on your own position to a large degree - especially my wife. Lost Valley is not this type of game; one of the primary strategies for doing well is in taking advantage of other people's work. But when we play together, we try to play so that each of us stays on our own side of the river. The only time we played on the same side, the river had curved straight down on my side, seriously hindering me from doing anything useful. In that case, we agreed to both play on her side.

In our weekend play, we stuck with our own sides. This time around, many things worked to her advantage. She gained forest land (necessary for acquiring timber) on her side earlier than I did. But her greatest advantage was that she had 3 mining sites to work with for most of the game. On the other hand, my side was plentiful with river gold. Those who have played Lost Valley will know that mountain gold (gained by mining) is much more valuable that river gold.

Her mines were making me nervous. I was afraid I would never be able to make enough gold to compete. I only had one mine on my side. Once I had tapped that single mine out of its gold, I new it was time to work at that river gold. I already had a fishing pole, but I wanted to gain food more rapidly, so I also purchased a fish trap from the trading lodge. The downside with river gold, on top of its low value, is that you have to build canals to it. So, using my ax, I chopped enough timber to build all the necessary canals to reach all of my river gold locations. At that point, my only option was to hurry and fish, then pan for river gold, and repeat. Meanwhile, she was pulling chunk after chunk out of her mines.

Here's what my side looked like:

Here's what her side looked like:

Looking at her face-down gold stash compared to my own told me early on who would win. Nevertheless I kept grabbing that river gold. The problem was, each time I expectantly flipped over another river gold tile, I only dug up a single piece of gold. Again, and again, and again. Where were all the 2-gold pieces?!!

Once she had 10 pieces in her gold stash, she rushed to the trading lodge and ended the game. I counted my meager gatherings - 20 gold. 7 of my 11 pieces were a single piece of gold. This, on the other hand, was her card at the end of the game:

She had brought in 33 gold. Stacked on top of her skill at Lost Valley, she had managed to explore the good half of the land, bringing her a hefty win. Once again, I was reminded that, to win this game, you must be a collector of mountain gold.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Fate: Dark and Stormy report #5

Another Friday, and another session of Fate. This week our goal was to finish this scene in which the PCs have been battling two noggit raiders.

When we left off last week, Leo had tripped and subdued the enemy we've been calling Noggit A. I spoke online with some other Fate GMs and they told me this block action (reactive tripping) really isn't allowed in the rules. Since I didn't want to look it up at the time, I had simply ruled that Leo could trip the retreating noggit. So, the noggit conceded, throwing down his weapon, as Leo jumped on his chest to hold him down. The noggit spoke to Leo in his native tongue, which sounded to Leo like just a bunch of growly nonsense. Leo didn't bother trying to communicate with the noggit. Instead, he tied his arms up so he couldn't pull anything fancy. Here you can see Leo sitting on the surrendered noggit (miniatures not to scale...):

Rwake was the first to make an attack. He had to pick up and load his blowgun, which I counted as a supplemental action, giving him a -1 to his attack roll. *THWIP*! He blasted a poisoned wooden dart across the room, connecting with Noggit B's hand. We spent the next few minutes as a group discussing how the poison ought to play out. A couple players went flipping through the SotC book looking for how poison works, and others talked about how it could realistically play out. In the end, we did what the book made it sound like we ought to do, but we still weren't sure. So, the potency of Rwake's poison beat the Endurance of the noggit. He took no stress, but did take a moderate consequence of "Poisoned". You may remember, he already had a minor consequence of "Slow movement". Discussing it later, Llama and I now have a better idea of how this should play out in the future. Below, Rwake shoots his blow dart across the room at Noggit B, who is engaged in combat with Elros. By the way, that miniature of Rwake was designed by Llama himself. Whenever we roleplay, he designs his own minis out of clay, which is very cool. After all, the more everyone invests in the game, the more fun it is for the group.

Elros took this window of time to pull a tricky sword stroke, rolling a nice +6 total, disarming Noggit B. The javelin the noggit was holding flew through the air, its tip landing in a hole in the grate in the middle of the room. After a couple seconds, the javelin had slipped all the way down the drainage shaft, out of sight. Having taken two consequences, Noggit B was now ready to join his raiding buddy in surrender. He threw his shortsword on the ground and dropped his arms, offering concession to Elros with empty hands. Elros borrowed a length of rope to tie the hands of this noggit as well. Below, Elros launches his disarming move against the now poisoned noggit. You also get a nice close-up view of some official Fudge dice (Fate is built on Fudge). Another tasty photograph taken by J (Leo's player).

Having both noggits now tied up, the PCs spent a few moments debating how they ought to deal with their prisoners. Rwake, uninterested in the negotiations, left through the northern door to scout out the next hall, from which the noggits had entered.

Leo and Elros took time to search the noggits for valuables. Over his armor, Noggit A wore a standard belt. On top of that belt, he wore another belt, loosely placed - clearly not intended to be practical. Leo decided this must be a valuable item and took it from the noggit.

Before this adventure, I created some little treasure cards. I drew some sketches of the items, scanned them, then added text in Photoshop. The belt that Leo acquired now was called the "Belt of Lifting". It allows the wearer to gain a +1 to rolls when lifting or carrying weight. I'll have to post an item card for you to see at some point. I'm really into little things like that. In our last game, the GM had a map for us that he had created, as well as drawings of places we went. He also had some other items he gave us that were images printed on paper. I'm a very visual person, so I like seeing pictures of things like items, just to see how cool they are. I always loved looking at the pro sketch art in the D&D manuals.

Leo went down the hall to follow Rwake (who had also gone and fetched the magical orb of light from the southern hallway). Elros was left with both noggits in the dripping room. Noggit A got to his feet and ran down the southern passage. Noggit B looked as if he wanted to do the same. Elros, acting on his good side (which fits the character's goals), sliced the ropes on the noggit's hands and bid him leave. AC explained to the rest of us that he figured he ought to leave the noggit on somewhat friendly terms just in case "the whole noggit army was waiting in the next room". A series of jokes and laughter ensued over the situation and we decided to end the session. Next week, the PCs have the choice to examine the next room at the end of the hall, and another narrow passage heading to the east.

One final photo J took - his bag of dice all spilled out. You can see a variety of dice, including a Magic: The Gathering countdown die, some Fate point counters on the left (Go pieces), and two sets of Fudge dice in the background. Thanks to AC for sharing his stash of Fudge dice with the group each week.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Lunch session: Maelstrom

Today, Jack and I got together for a 45 minute game of Maelstrom during lunch. This typically isn't enough time to finish a whole game, in my experience. But we went at it anyway and had a great time playing.

For those of you who are familiar with Maelstrom (aka Vortex), we've been using 15-tile forces. The reason for this is that we thought it would make for shorter games. I still haven't tested larger forces to see if this is true. Opinions?

Jack played the Brood and I played the Draconis.

Rather than recount the entire session for you, I'll mention the highlights.

After the first couple rounds, the board looked like this:

If you haven't played Maelstrom, the red swirly thing in the middle is the vortex. Our goal as players is to summon minions and strongholds to control sides of the vortex. Controlling more sides is the key to victory. Early in the game, each player will typically control 3 sides each. During the game, we attempt to destroy each other's tiles and put our own tiles adjacent to the vortex. After 3 turns of having fewer tiles adjacent to the vortex than your opponent, you lose.

To the far right, you can see that Jack played a Thlotas Worm Tower. None of my minions with 1 Combat (attack power) may move next to it. That was problematic because my stronghold on that side was only able to bring in small guys. My other two strongholds were used to bring in my big guys. So that Worm Tower was a good placement for Jack. It kept me from wrapping around that side of the board (called the "mass") with my small minions.

Before long, I pulled out a really tough minion - the Draconoid Battlelord. Typically, something this powerful is very useful if you can get him our early in the game. That was my plan, but I made a big blunder on one of my turns. I should have moved my Battlelord in and started destroying things. I wasn't looking ahead at his potential because I forgot that he could use two minions to attack at one time.It started like this:

Here, Jack is moving his Gallag K'rol adjacent to my sweet little setup of tough guys. Soon after, he also brought his Gallag T'ral, who is quite powerful. Before I knew what was happening, he attacked my mighty Battlelord with both of his Gallag minions. Fortunately, I got to counterattack and take down his Gallag K'rol. The aftermath looked like this:

So I was bummed to have lost my Battlelord that quickly, having never pulled off any damage. Grrrr.

To my benefit, all the necessary components of my best combo became available to me. Once I had saved up enough energy counters, I put my plan into action. The was my only hope of recovery. So, I played an event called Waking the Ancients, giving a -2 to the cost of summoning dragon minions for that turn. I used a combined total of 3 output from two adjacent strongholds, and added 3 energy counters for a total of 6 output. That was enough to bring out this guy:

This badboy is an 8-cost Legendary minion called Dnotai Battlemaster. He is a dragon minion with Flying, Overpower, and Attack Mastery. In other words, this dude is hard to stop. See those stats? The 3s on the left and right are high stats. You want 3s on a minion- they are very good. Had I not achieved this lucky combo (Waking the Ancients + Dnotai Battlemaster), I may not have lasted much longer. Jack was making good decisions, especially on the other side of the mass.

Jack was chipping away at one of my Fiery Peaks. He soon destroyed it, consumed the energy it left, and summoned his own Thlartaras Tangler in that space.

This is one messed-up creature. Looking at his numbers, he's nothing special, but there's a reason he costs 3 output to summon. Look at that ability: "Adjacent enemy minions have zero combat". This means he can only be destroyed by minions with a ranged attack, or by some other form of non-combat damage. Ranged units are very rare in Maelstrom, and I have none in the Draconis force I was using. So this guy was invulnerable. Jack had guaranteed himself a nice position on the vortex. I was now down to 2 tiles on the vortex. At the end of my turn, I lost an essence counter - the first of the game.

I soon got another Draconoid Battlelord out on the table and was able to use a my minions on that side of the mass to regain a slot on the vortex. When our time was up, the board looked like this:

We were tied in terms of slots on the vortex - 3 and 3. I had lost one essence counter; Jack had lost none. Since we were both almost out of tiles, we decided to mark out what we would have done in subsequent turns to see how the game would have panned out.

With my Dnotai Battlemaster, I had destroyed his most powerful unit - Soul Captor. Because of the Battlemaster's Overpower ability, I had taken no damage in the exchange. I thought Jack had a strong hold on the vortex with his Tangler, but he felt like he was out of options. With the huge Battlemaster out there, it was only a matter of time before the Draconis minions would ravage the lands and take control of the vortex. Either way, we had fun. Now, we're looking forward to designing 25-tile forces and seeing how those play out!

If you haven't played Maelstrom, but are interested, I'm sorry to tell you that the game is out of print. The good news is, there are still a few boxes floating around out there. I got mine on Amazon, believe it or not. There are also people on BGG who have copies for trade. Expansions might be harder to find. The expansions contained all the "rare" tiles, including Relics and Events. If you look hard enough, you could probably round up enough stuff to have a playable collection. It's really a bummer the game went out of print because it's fun, unique, and has many good features from other games jammed into one. I would link you to sites but it seems most of them are shut down now. If you're interested in this game at all, nab it while you can because it's getting harder and harder to find!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

BG Wednesday: Masons

Today, we had 5 people show up for BG Wednesday. This tends to be an awkward number because our preference is to split into smaller groups. This week the games which were voted for were Masons and Camelot Legends. No one had any good 5-player games, so we did a 2-3 split. The guy who owns Camelot Legends accidentally forgot to bring it, so three people ended up playing Spree, while Jack and I went 2P on Masons.

I had voted for Masons this week. I've noticed that I'm pretty much always in the mood to play it. I've tried to put a finger on what it is about the game that I like so much, but haven't fully figured out what that "vibe" is that makes it always appealing. I won't mention all the reasons I like it here because it's not a review, but I'll at least mention that the game tends to be light, simple, and has a nice balance of luck and strategy. I would give it a similar weight to Carcassonne.

I haven't played many games by Leo Colovini. In fact, Masons and Cartagena are the only two I can think of right now. If you know of other games I might like by Colovini, please comment to let me know!

The game started out with both of us building in the middle of the board. I had a really crummy hand in the beginning. Fortunately, it wasn't long before Jack passed me up and I was able to swap 5 of my 7 cards out (switching out cards is a benefit of being in last place - yes, it's an official rule. It's a great balancing feature.). About midway through the game, we found ourselves tied at 38 points.

Soon, I completed a city, initiating scoring, and I scored two of the "1 point for each freestanding tower" cards. There were 12 freestanding towers at the time, so I moved ahead 24 points which is pretty tasty for one turn.

Jack had been working on the center of the board for a while, but then shifted over and starting laying loose walls, towers, and houses all over the west border. This led me to the assumption that he must have a card for scoring that guild's region - the red, white and blue guild. I happened to be building on the opposite side, loading up the east with black towers. Once I completed this big city, I scored a "2 points for every black tower in the city" card and a "1 point for every tower in the city" card. There were 7 black towers and 11 total towers, which gave me 24 points, boosting me from 62 points to 86 points. Jack took this opportunity to score his western region. He played two "red, white, and blue guild" cards, bringing in 32 points, launching him from 38 to 70 points.

At this point, the supply stacks were down to: 3 towers, 5 walls, 6 palaces, and a bunch of houses. The board was loaded, pieces everywhere.

I scored a two-triangle card, bringing in 7 points. So did Jack. On top of that, he scored a "2 points for every freestanding gray tower" card. There were 6 gray towers - another 12 points. We were now at 94 and 89 - a narrow lead in my favor.

I joined two large cities, going for the classic Masons "mega city". My hand was full of lameness, so I was trying to score for individually colored palaces (3 points each). This move left us with only 2 palaces in the supply - both yellow. I played the "1 point for every palace" card (8 for 8 points) and a "3 points for rose palaces, 1 point for rose houses" card for 8 more points. I was up to 110 points now, with only 4 cards left in my hand. Jack did nothing more than discard and draw two.

We each scored 6 points on a single triangle city, then Jack joined a mega city. Unfortunately for him, he chose to roll after he had combined cities. He rolled two yellow houses. Joined with the other yellow houses in the city, this used up the last two yellow palaces, initiating the end game. Jack got 12 points for gray towers and 10 points for palaces. I snagged 9 points for yellow palaces and 5 points for green houses in the city.

The final scores: Jack - 117, me - 130. It was a close game. Jack technically had the opportunity to take back that last move and roll before joining the mega city. But because we were running low on time, he stuck with his original move. Had he taken it back, the two yellow palaces wouldn't have been used up, and Jack could have scored more cards for lots of points - likely bringing him the win. Jack's always a good sport.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The most successful game in my collection

In my time as a game collector and game teacher, there is one game that has gained the most popularity among players. Since teaching this game to various groups, four people have purchased the game, and others have purchased the game through those people. Still others have said, “I'd definitely buy this game” or “I need to get this game.”

The game is the 2004 Spiel des Jahres winner: Ticket to Ride, by Alan Moon.

Spiel des Jahres (SDJ) is the prestigious German Game of the Year award. Typically the winners are family-oriented games with interesting themes, somewhat innovative mechanics, approximately 60-minute play time, and fairly simple rules.

Ticket to Ride is a game where players place train pieces on various colored routes to connect routes from city to city. The purpose of this post is to state why I think this game has been so popular with everyone I've taught, including non-gamers (NG).
  1. It's easy to grasp what you need to do. A very brief summary might be something like:“Collect destination tickets and try to complete them by placing routes. Longer routes count as more points.” Most players quickly understand the goal of the game.

  2. Limited options. You choose from one of three things to do on your turn. Draw train cards, draw destination tickets, or place a route. That's it. Pick one.

  3. Low downtime. Turns are simple, with only one action per person, so they go tend to be short. Often, by the time you've decided what you want to do next, it's already your turn again. This really keeps the interest up. When playing with experienced players, this game can go very rapidly.

  4. Neutral theme. Almost everyone has equal experience with trains. As opposed to something like pirates or fantasy adventure, trains are a neutral theme that everyone seems to connect with equally. I can't think of anyone I've played with who is uninterested in, or bothered by, the train theme.

  5. Familiar territory. For Americans, the map of the USA on the game board is already familiar. They know the states and are immediately comfortable with the layout. They know what trains are, they understand all the game vocab. In some eurogames, one must learn new terminology, or gain understanding of an unfamiliar theme or mechanic. In Ticket to Ride, this is not the case. It requires very little, or no, education in terms of theme and setting.

  6. Integration of theme and mechanics. Many people, including myself, most enjoy games where the theme and mechanics are well integrated, as opposed to a “pasted on” theme, which is present in many eurogames. In Ticket to Ride, the mechanics really feel like they are relevant to placing trains and completing routes. Everything about the game involves the theme - the theme is necessary to the game.

  7. Comfortable play time. Most NGs, and many gamers, don't like games to go longer than an hour. I am included in this group. After an hour, a game starts to feel too long for me, especially if any players have analysis paralysis (AP). But with Ticket to Ride, 2-3 experienced players can finish a game in 45 minutes or less. A 5 player game with unexperienced players will take an hour or just slightly longer. But even then, the game doesn't feel too long. Ticket to Ride tends to always feel just right in terms of length.

  8. Good production. Ticket to Ride is published by Days of Wonder. This company typically produces games with very high-quality components - board, cards, and other bits. Ticket to Ride is immediately pleasing to the eye with a variety of colors, and very nice artwork. On top of that, each player has a bag full of little plastic train pieces which look very cool when placed on the board to form routes. The production quality was taken up another notch with the release of the 3rd game in the series, Ticket to Ride: Märklin. This installment introduced new train cards, each depicting a unique model train.
Now, this is not a review of the game, but you may wonder what my personal opinion is of the game. I like it - quite a bit. Perhaps what I like most of all is how easy the game is to play and teach. I know I will please new groups by introducing this one. And the game is really fun for me in terms of gameplay.

With Ticket to Ride, Alan Moon has created an ingenious blend of mechanics and theme that seems to appeal to every person I introduce to the game.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Fate: Dark and Stormy report #4

Picking up from last week, it was Leo's turn. The PCs were still engaged in combat against two noggit tomb raiders. Last session, Noggit A had thrown the magical glowing orb down the hall to extinguish all remaining light.

Leo quickly pulled out some random shards of metal from his pockets and launched them at Noggit A. Since it was dark, I made a quick decision to add a -1 to Leo's attack roll. Leo's adjusted outcome for his attack was 4, which became a 3 in the dark. Noggit A got a total of +1, so he took 2 damage (stress).

Quickly following this exchange, Rwake jumped down from the table behind Noggit A in an attempt to tackle him. Unfortunately, he got a total of 1 for this attempt. Dissatisfied, Llama (Rwake's player) passed me a Fate point to invoke his "With this knife I have killed lion and dragon" aspect. We decided this would be fair because Rwake, having accomplished several stunning feats in the past, would know a way to make good out of his weak tackle attempt. Llama used the aspect for a reroll of all 4 dice. This time his adjusted total was 4. Noggit A got lucky and matched Rwake's 4, effectively sidestepping the attack.

For those of you who haven't used the Fate system, you may wonder what Fate points are. Fate points allow you to do really cool things. They can be used to invoke or tag aspects, or they can be used for color, say, to conveniently have an item you need at the right time. Each player in SotC starts with 10 Fate points. When you use one, you pass a token to the GM. You can use any kind of counters for Fate points. They are nice to have so that you can keep track of your Fate point usage. The Fate 3.0 mechanics (as used in SotC) encourage the frequent use of Fate points - much more so than in Fate 2e.

While Rwake was diving through the dark at Noggit A, Elros was casting a spell using Illusory Magic to create a floating light so the PCs could see again. To make a long story short, he succeeded with 2 shifts. I had decided before his casting that the difficulty of creating a light for a short time would require a roll of Average (+1). I allowed him to use his 2-shift success to keep the light going for the rest of the scene.

This was the first of a couple areas where I felt like I failed somewhat as the GM. SotC has no built in magic system. GMs in the Fate community have come up with various ideas for using magic in SotC, but I wasn't satisfied with any of them and decided to create my own. It had been a while since I had read through my own magic system, so when Elros was casting his spell I was fumbling around trying to open the magic document on my laptop, and
AC (Elros' player) was a bit confused about some workings of my magic system. So the other players were sitting there waiting for us to decide how casting this spell would work. It was, after all, the first time Elros had attempted to cast a spell. My goal, and the goal of Fate's creators, is to keep the game fun and fast-moving, so I felt like my unfamiliarity with my own magic system was bad form. Were I Captain James Hook, I'd be berating myself.

Following Elros' spell, both noggits attacked. Noggit B attempted to heft his rope-wrapped javelin shaft up into Elros' chin, while Noggit A launched a backwards elbow slam at Rwake using his Fists skill. The PCs blocked well enough to take no damage from the attacks. In my imagination, the noggits were slightly confused as Elros' magical light suddenly filled the room, throwing them off balance temporarily.

Leo used a supplemental action to quickly reach down and gather the two knives he'd thrown earlier. He then threw them both at Noggit B, but slipped in the process and missed the noggit.

Rwake, avoiding the elbow slam from Noggit A, slashed out with his knife fighting skill getting a +3 against the noggit's +1: 2 shifts. Looking at Noggit A's health track, I realized that he already had boxes 2 through 5 crossed off. So this 2 damage rolled up and caused him a "Minor" consequence. This means that Rwake was given the opportunity to place a temporary aspect on the Noggit which would last for the scene. Llama explained that Rwake's knife sliced the noggit's forehead, causing blood to run down over his eyes. So we gave him the "Bloody Face" aspect. This aspect could now be tagged by anyone for the duration of the scene.

Elros followed this by stabbing at Noggit B while Leo's knives flew by. Using the noggit's temporary distraction, Elros took a clear shot at the noggit's knee (which also sounds like the name of a disreputable tavern). Elros managed a +6 on this attack, giving the noggit a minor consequence and placing a temporary "Slow Moving" aspect on him.

Noggit A turned to flee the battle out the door behind Leo. I allowed Leo to attempt a block because it made sense as a preventive action. So, Leo stuck his foot out, tripping the noggit and tagging his Bloody Face aspect, successfully bringing the noggit to the stone floor. At this point, Noggit A threw his javelin aside and put his arms out as a sign of surrender. Concessions such as this are common in SotC. AC, the most experienced roleplayer of the group, appreciated this feature, having played many other systems where you simply kill every enemy.

Seeing the noggit laying helplessly, Leo quicky sat atop him, weapons pointed at him, just to make sure he didn't try to pull anything.

Next week we should be able to finish this combat session and move on.

This scene may seem like it's taking a while to finish. Keep in mind that each session is 50-60 minutes because we're playing on our lunch hour.

In closing, let me mention my other blunder, which partly includes the other players as well. Earlier in the week I had sent an email to all players requesting they read specific pages of the SotC book to refresh themselves on the workings of guessing aspects, making assessments and declarations, and resolving maneuvers. Today we ran into an issue where we were trying to remember exactly how to use the free tag you get after placing an aspect on an person or scene. Because none of us had done our homework (including me), we had to waste time trying to decide when to use free tags. I had looked up the topic recently, but hadn't discovered
at that time the exact timing of this feature. This evening I looked it up and it was fairly simple, but I should have known before the session. Aspects are one of the fun and useful features that make Fate what it is, and I think all players should know how to use them. But even more so, I, as the GM, should know all the ins and outs. The players should be able to count on me to know some of these basic things.

To be fair to all of us, some of the principles of aspect usage in SotC can be confusing. There are many facets and possibilities involved, and not all of them are explained in the book as thoroughly as a detailed person (like me) would like. My hope from the beginning was that this short adventure would give us the chance to trudge through the process of learning SotC in practice. So far, that's exactly what's happening. Hopefully, actual play will continue to refine our ability to use the system well as a group.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Portobello Market - now available!

A few days ago, Portobello Market , a board game designed by Thomas Odenhoven, was finally made available for purchase at online U.S. game stores.

This game was released in February of 2007, published by Schmidt Spiele for the European crowd. The game caught the eye of Playroom Entertainment who published it state-side this summer. I have been watching and researching this game for a few months, wondering how good it was and if it was worth buying. Thoughthammer was showing “Pre-Order - August” for a long time. August came and went, and then it finally arrived in early September. By the time I saw this, the game was sold out. So in pre-order phase, it must have been fairly popular.

What piqued my interest?

This game has art by Michael Menzel. He's probably my favorite game artist - every game he paints for ends up looking great. For an example, look at pictures of the game board for Pillars of the Earth. I love realism in art, and Menzel uses it well. He also has a wonderful sense of lighting and shadows. To look at his art for various games, check out his website.

So, in the case of Portobello Market, the art was admittedly the main draw for me. It just looked fun to play. In addition, there are colorful wooden bits, which are also quite attractive to me, even down to the pattern in which they're placed on the board.

Next, I read some reviews and comments from early owners of the game, which were generally positive. One reviewer called Portobello Market “a gem of a game,” which caught my attention.

And so, I decided to keep my eye on the game, watching for new reviews and comments once the English version was released. That's where I am now. But...

What diminished my interest?

Whenever I'm considering a new game buy, I consult my wife. After all, if she doesn't like the game, who will I ever play with? Sure, I play with the guys at work, but my wife is my primary gaming partner. So, I typically try to get her to show interest before a buy. She researches the game on BGG, reading reviews, and looking at personal comments and pictures.

After looking at Portobello Market, her interest was low. She read that the game was similar to Ticket to Ride and Masons - two games we already own. Other people say that the game is nothing like Ticket to Ride, so that just creates confusion. At the end of the day, my wife just didn't see anything that stood out to her. The game looked boring.

As I continued reading through comments, I was turned off by phrases like “abstract” and “brain-burner” and “no luck”. I tend to avoid brain-burning games because they require more energy and competition than I like investing. If I'm going to play an abstract game, I like it to be light, with somewhat easy decisions (like Through the Desert or Hey! That's My Fish!). The game looked like it had a fun theme, but it started to sound as if it's not necessarily important to the game. I am trying to buy mostly games with clever or seamless theme integration because those seem to be the games we play most, and the type other people request.

So, I'm not going to buy the game for now. But I'll keep looking for reviews and hoping for a chance to try the game someday. It still looks attractive, and I wouldn't pass up a chance to get down all close to the board and admire the detail in Menzel's artwork.

BG Wednesday: Captain Treasure Boots

Today only 4 players showed up. This low number of players has been the case for a few weeks. I work at a university. At the end of the last semester, we had 8-9 regular attendees for each BG Wednesday. Since then we've had one person leave, other players' schedules have kept them from playing with us, and it has been a busy several weeks.

So, despite three games being voted for this week, only one got played - Captain Treasure Boots. This one was voted for by Adam, who owns the game.

The game consists of a few cardstock flats which look like an overhead view of the ocean with some little islands scattered on various squares of a grid. Each island bears a number which helps you determine where to place new treasures. During the game, you travel around and pick up these treasures and then cash them in at various ports to earn points.

We didn't choose a point limit. Rather, we just played until the hour was up, making sure everyone had an equal number of turns.

Everyone uses their own marker for this game. I chose to use one of my little ships from the Pirates CSG. From the beginning, the dice had it in for me. I was consistently rolling 1s, which brought me pearls, but didn't allow me to move very far. While the other three players sailed around, attacking, pillaging, and cashing in treasures, I struggled to get anywhere. Eventually, I collected a little hoard of loot and managed to safely trade it in for points at a port. That was the first and last time.

Jack was sailing around with the apparent strategy to steal guns from everyone else to keep them from attacking him. Adam and Vernal managed to stock up on good loads of treasure, each of them cashing in 3 times during the game. Jack only cashed in once.

Toward the end, I had treasures of all 4 colors (5 total pieces) on board, eager to head for port. My lousy luck continued as I struggled to get a good enough movement roll to get me home. It wasn't long before Jack had swept in to block my passage to the nearest port, attacking me himself, and with a privateer as well!

Jack wanted to drop his treasure off at the same port, but Adam landed there, ruining Jack's chance of a final drop-off.

There is a lot of luck in this game. You're rolling dice for almost everything. Then, once you've rolled the dice, you can strategize to some degree as you move your ship around, seeking treasure and battle. As such, the final scores were a pretty good spread: Vernal - 17, Adam - 14, Jack - 7, me - 6.

We were wishing it was International Talk Like a Pirate Day, but alas, we must continue to wait until September 19th. Don't forget to mark the day on your calendar!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

On the fence with To Court the King

To Court the King, by Thomas Lehmann, was a game I was eyeing on BGG for a long time. The two features that attracted me were:

1. Sweet, high-quality art
2. Character roles with abilities

Those features will cause me to consider almost any game. The image that had the biggest draw for me was the Sorcerer with his long white hair and beard, green robe, and high-backed chair. He's holding his staff and poring over a large volume, presumably filled with arcane knowledge. He's sitting in a dark, featureless room with light glowing down from the upper left. Realistic art like this is an immediate draw for me.

I am a fan of character abilities and roles. This is best exemplified in Citadels, by Bruno Faidutti. I think abilities and character stats are a great mechanic for strategy. The workings of unique abilities are just fun to me. To Court the King gives you a line-up of 20 unique characters. These characters all have an advantageous affect on your dice rolling. Using these abilities is where I find enjoyment in the game. You get to use every character's ability once per turn. There's something fun about rolling the dice, then going through your characters and using their abilities one by one to make your final roll increasingly better.

As much as I like this game, I can't bring myself to buy it. Here are the reasons:

1. For what the game is, fairly short and simple, it's not worth the price for me. I can appreciate the high production values, but even Thoughthammer's unbeatable price ($17.97) is too much for me. If the game had more to it than cards and dice, it might be more worth it. As of now, I just can't bring myself to pay the price to own a copy. So I play for free on Brettspielwelt (BSW).

2. Another reason the game isn't worth it for me is something I learned while reading the forums on BGG. Chris Norwood posted an excellent review of the game in which he expressed mixed feelings on the game. He writes:
“Since it was first introduced at our weekly BoardGame Night, To Court the King has been one of our most-played and most-enjoyed games. My initial impression, like most other players I've talked with, was that it provided an interesting way to introduce strategy and control into a dice game, a setting usually dominated by blind luck.”
This is how the game feels when you first learn it. He later goes on to explain that his opinion started to change after more plays. He started noticing that the game had more luck than he had recognized at first.

In response to this review, Joseph Rodenbeck posts what I think was a very good insight, and perhaps the best post in the thread.
“The problem is that the game is solved.

The cards that add dice are way better than the cards that manipulate dice. You really only need one manipulator -- the astronomer. Otherwise, just go for the highest value die-adder that you can get. Thus leaving at least 7 of the cards worthless.

If you don't believe me, just try this strategy against anyone who doesn't use it. Nine times of out ten (unofficial estimate) you'll win.”
After reading this, I tested this theory in my many plays on BSW. I won almost every game unless the luck was just really bad for me, or if the other player followed the same strategy. This bothered me. I don't want to win every time by following a formula. That takes away the fun of using your abilities. After testing this theory, I started to feel like I was only tricking myself into thinking I was strategizing. Was I actually coming up with good uses of my character abilities? Or was I actually strategizing well?

The truth is, there is lots of luck in this game. But having lots of extra dice really improves your chances of winning - a lot. Especially if you get the General.

And yet, I still enjoy the game every time. It is a really fun game despite the fact that it does seem to be solved, in a way. If it was less expensive, I'd probably get it. I also think that, as long as every player knows this theory - lots of die-adders, 1 manipulator - then everyone is on the same page, and then there might be a little more strategy to the game. Or maybe then everyone is doing no more than applying the same strategy in a luck-based dicefest. I don't know.

At the end of the day, I like this game and would play it anytime. It is short, the art is great, the abilities are fun to use. Rolling, adding, and modding tons of dice is just cool. So if you have a copy you want to send me for free, I'd take it. Until then, I'll just keep playing on BSW when I have the time.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Fate: Dark and Stormy report #3

Yesterday, we had our third session in our current Fate adventure through the tor called Hightower.

Last session we had ended having just engaged in a skirmish against two noggit raiders. Equipped with shortswords and javelins, these noggits had charged the PCs. Rwake and Elros were on tables, and Leo was about to take action. This is where yesterday's session began. As a reminder, Leo had an automatic +1 to his action because Rwake had earned spin (3 shifts or more) on his block action.

In SotC, every character starts with 5 stunts. Stunts are really cool ways to guarantee an advantage for your character in certain situations. Leo has two cool stunts which he pulled directly from the SotC book. His Close at Hand stunt allows him to draw his weapon(s) as a free action. This allows him to immediately attack whenever he wants to without suffering the penalty (-1 to his action) of a normal supplemental action (like drawing a weapon). His other useful stunt is called Anything Goes. This allows him to use pretty much anything as a weapon. The way we're using this is that, as long as it makes sense for the scene and he colors it well, he can always have weapons handy. This fits the character anyway, who has little pockets containing gadgets and throwing weapons all over his person.

This is a situation where Leo could have drawn and immediately attacked. But, J, his player, informed me that Leo had had his weapons drawn all along, so it didn't matter. But his stunts would matter later, as you'll see. For this action, he threw two knives at the noggit who was engaged in combat with Rwake (we called him noggit A). He rolled a 2, added 4 for his thrown weapons skill and 1 for the bonus given by Rwake's previous defensive spin. This gave him a total of 7 against the noggit's combined total of 3. So Leo was successful with 4 shifts which were applied to the noggit's health. So I looked on my noggit stats sheet and marked off box 4 on his stress track.

All participants had taken actions and we were back to Rwake. Llama (Rwake's player) had created a stunt for Rwake called The Vital Spot which allows him to give an enemy a temporary aspect of "Vulnerable to Rwake" for one round. On Rwake's next action, he gets to tag that aspect for free. After that, the aspect is gone. So Rwake used this stunt to spot a small opening in the noggit's armor and prepared to deal some damage on his next turn.

Elros, rope in hand, then swung across the room to attack the second noggit with his sword. This counted as a supplemental action which gave him a -1 to his attack roll, which came up a 3. These 2 points, plus 5 for his Swordsmanship skill, plus 1 for his Weapon of Destiny stunt gave him a total of 8 for this action. The noggit blocked with his javelin for a total of 5 (roll of 3 + 2 for Weapons skill). Elros' 3 shifts caused 3 health stress to the noggit (we called him noggit B).

Still eager to make the room dark, noggit B grabbed another bucket of water nearby and threw it across the floor, extinguishing all remaining torches. Leo possessed the only remaining light - a magical orb of light which he had been given by a Cavern Laani PC (played by me) in our last adventure. This orb was laying on the ground in front of Leo. The room now had an aspect of "dimly lit". Meanwhile, noggit A attacked Rwake, successfully dealing 2 stress. (If you haven't picked up on it yet, "stress" is the term used for any damage taken, either physically, mentally, or socially, in SotC.)

Rwake now attacked noggit A, tagging the noggit's "vulnerable to Rwake" aspect to help him achieve 4 stress. Because noggit A had already received 4 damage earlier from Leo, he was now forced to roll him damage up and mark off box 5 on his stress track.

Elros once again attacked noggit B, rolling a -2. Using his Never Good Enough aspect, he rerolled, achieving an adjusted outcome of 6. Unfortunately, noggit B also achieved a 6 on his block.

Noggit B returned the favor, striking out at Elros with his javelin, which Elros blocked. With his shifts, he colored his action by wrapping the end of the rope quickly around the end of the javelin, hoping to stall the noggit.

Noggit A quickly grabbed the orb of light at Leo's feet and threw it down the long hallway as far as he could, leaving the room totally dark.

Next week, we pick up, once again, with Leo's turn.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Lunch session: Jambo

Today, my good friend Jack and I sat down for a lunchtime session. When we get together for 2-player sessions, we trade off who picks the game. Today, I picked Jambo. This was a learning session for Jack, so I gave him the manual to read beforehand, as is his preference.

Not surprisingly, Jack came into the game like a pro. He was throwing down cards like he owned the game.

The highlight of this session, though, was this: I had to look in the rulebook two times for answers I didn't know. The reason this was interesting to me is that I've played the game a lot. Jambo is easily my favorite 2-player game, and my wife and I play it pretty frequently. The game is among my wife's favorites, which adds extra value for me as well. And despite our several sessions of blasting through the game, I had to consult the manual twice today.

The first time, it was in response to something Jack had spotted in reading the manual that I didn't remember myself: you may skip your card drawing phase (Phase 1) if you want to. This is not a very likely occurrence, I think, since that is your only chance to get a card without paying money or using a utility card. But, I can see this feature being useful if you had a large hand of cards which contained many useful cards. If, in your hand, you saw five potential actions for one turn, you might want to skip Phase 1 to guarantee the completion of those five actions.

The second time I hit the manual was to answer a question of my own: are you allowed to have more than one of the same utility card? It turned out the answer was Yes. I had a Leopard Statue and a Well at the time, and drew another Well. I thought this might be useful. So after looking in the rules and finding my answer, I played that second Well. This opened up the opportunity for me to draw plenty of cards per turn, as long as I had enough gold to spare.

I also ended up with a second Leopard Statue (I love that card) but never played it. Instead, I put Weapons in place of the second Well, and later replaced Weapons with Drums, and later replaced Drums with Boat (my favorite utility card). This fortunate utility card line-up was very advantageous to me. I had lots of cards in hand that I wasn't using. Weapons, Drums, and Boat enabled me to ditch some of those cards to my benefit.

Eventually (after a long spell) I finally drew enough ware cards to make some money, utilizing Boat and Leopard Statue.

During this time, Jack was investing in extra storage tables, trying to gain enough space for all his wares. He bought 9 wares (3 cards) at once, but sold only one. He didn't have time to recover from this spell of heavy spending. My lucky setup pulled me ahead and put me at 68 gold. Jack ended his first (well-played) game with 45 gold. Had he saved a little more money, it would have been closer. At the time, his actions made sense, but only if he'd had more time to execute all his plans.

The beauty of this session was that teaching the game to someone new forced me to reexamine the game, revealing cool features I hadn't been using all this time. Thanks, Jack!

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

BG Wednesday: Carcassonne

As I've mentioned before, my coworkers and I have an organized session every Wednesday which we call BG Wednesday. People can vote, there is a ladder of successful plays per vote, records of wins, session logs, etc. My buddy Jack and I organize it.

Today, I had voted to play Pillars of the Earth (would have been my second play), and Jack voted for Carcassonne, his favorite game of all time (and he's played a lot of games).

Only one of us (out of 5) hadn't played. So after teaching him briefly, we started laying down tiles. Jack and Jeff are both Carcassonne pros, owning several expansions. The general trend during this game was:
  • Adam was cursed by the luck of the draw, accusing the game of being "broken" (a classic joke at our table).
  • Jack made sound plays each turn, maximizing his potential as always.
  • Jeff played wisely and solidly, always feeling the bag to gauge how much time remained.
  • Leif, the Carc noob, was instantly playing like a veteran, as is his knack. He can always compete with the best right off the bat.
  • I was just drawing and laying. On the flip side of Adam's coin, I think I was getting all the lucky draws, and had good places to play.
Now, I'm not a big fan of Carcassonne. I'm willing to play, and enjoy it more against bots online than against human opponents because of the incredibly short playtime with bots. The design and mechanics of Carcassonne are original and very well-crafted, with quality art and nice components. I certainly think Klaus-Jürgen Wrede did a great job with this game. It has rightfully earned its fame. And yet, I'm just not wild about the game. Jack and I have analyzed this preference of mine to some extent, but I still haven't landed on a good reason for not appreciating the game on a higher level.

So, when I play, I tend to just lay tiles wherever seems immediately best, trying to avoid AP. Today, my draw must have been good because I won, which was not expected against Jack and Jeff. But I think that is a feature I like in a game: noobs and non-pros (casual players) have a shot at winning.

Final scores: Timothy - 121, Jeff - 117, Leif - 80, Jack - 76, Adam - 66.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Brief Overview Series Ep. 1: Oltre Mare

A few months ago, I acquired a new boardgame called Oltre Mare. “Oltre Mare” is a term that means something like “over the sea” in Italian. Each player plays a merchant on the Mediterranean sea , buying and trading wares. You will also have to avoid pirates, and carefully manage your inventory.

After learning the game and playing a few times with my wife, I was ready to introduce it to my gaming group at work. Having taught a large number of games to the group, I am always thinking of ways to teach new games as painlessly as possible. Let's face it: sometimes learning a new eurogame can be daunting. They always seem to have more rules than they actually do.

So this time, I created a short video overview for all players to watch before the learning session. My goal was to introduce the components, the theme, the terms, and a brief description of the gameplay. I thought that perhaps they would feel more comfortable learning the game having already seen it and learned how it works.

I figured I might as well share it on the Internet since it wasn't going to do any good just sitting on my hard drive forever. So I posted it to YouTube. Since posting a link on BGG, I have received good feedback. If you are considering purchasing Oltre Mare, or are simply interested in a short video about this game you've never heard of, watch the vid below!