Enter the Arena

And a very warm welcome to 2019 one and all. May this year bring many exciting times and of course, many games being played.

But this article is not going to be about what a new year of games might bring us. No – instead I wanted to discuss something that has become a little bit of an obsession to me. So would say counter intuitive to some of the things I probably should be concentrating on, but still one of my favourite things about less year.

In the past, I have discussed digital board gaming and some of the means by which that can be facilitated. These tools have grown over the past year or so and I have certainly become more involved with some (see The Iron Throne for playing The Game Of Thrones LCG and Vassal from pretty much anything). But when I received a notification of a request for players to enter a Closed Beta for the biggest collectable card game of all time and one I have had a lot of personal history with, I immediately submitted my e-mail to apply. And thus I started playing Magic: The Gathering Arena.

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Undoubtedly if you come from a gaming background, it is likely that you will have some fairly strident opinions in regards to whether it is one of the most important games of the past 30 years or if it is the work of devil himself. Obviously I am in the former camp having started playing at the time of the Ice Age release (back in 1995 – showing my age there), but I will not attempt to sway those of you who’s opinions may lie elsewhere. I have attempted this in the past and failed (see my attempts amongst a certain group to form a MtG league through OCTGN and the derision that ensued). However, as the game has now moved into Open Beta in September 2018 and is therefore reaching a wider audience, it seems relevant to highlight what in my opinion, may be the most important activity Wizards of the Coast have made in MtG’s most recent history.

MtG Arena is fully implemented version of the tabletop card game made for the PC. Compared to other virtual tabletop programs, it fully automates every process, such as combat damage and trigger effects – ensuring that you should never forget that activation (something I have done plenty of time during the tabletop game). Moreover it is completely free to download and play – which puts it on par with Hearthstone (for those of you unfamiliar, Hearthstone is a similar virtual CCG based around the World of Warcraft universe) and other similar turn based card games. It is pretty clear that MtG Arena is being set up as a direct competitor with Hearthstone, as WOTC are trying to ensure that it is streamed on Twitch and YouTube and involving internet celebrities such as Sean ‘Day9’ Plott in the publicity (indeed recent advertisements for MtG Arena feature Day9 and actor Danny Trejo in an Odd Couple style flatmate situation).

The concept is simple – you start MtG Arena and you are given an opportunity to play through a series of tutorial games introducing the basic rules of Magic and the colours against computer opponents. Yes this is tedious for the experienced player, but for my 11 year old son – he is immediately shown the concepts of the game in a real time fashion (visualising the concept of the spell stack and instant speed interactions is particularly useful). Once you are through these you are given a chance to play against human opponents with initially a basic set of decks, but with additional cards that unlock as you play more matches. You are also able to collect 8 card packs by achieving a certain criteria each week and are given Wildcards which let you choose certain cards to add to your collection.

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The card set is the current Standard magic set (composing of the most recent Core set and the last three expansion blocks) – which is the basis for much of the competitive MtG scene. No sets older than this have been introduced – this very much remains the realm of WOTC other digital product Magic Online which is involves the purchase of those cards for in game currency. MtG Arena does have its own currency in gold and gems (which yes – can be topped up by in app purchasing), which can be used for buying card packs, but can also be used to enter events which mirror certain types of Magic (so far we have seen Draft, Sealed, Singleton and Pauper events – and some weird and wonderful creations by Magic streamers).

My own experiences have shown that this may be the closest to competitive Magic that I have been able to recreate over a digital format. If you want to enter the Constructed ranked environment, you will find the usual murderer’s row of top decks (good God I hate Carnage Tyrants). But if you have a daft idea for a deck, you can build it and see what the end result is by just hitting the Play button.

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What MtG Arena provides is a marketer’s dream in promoting their product and one that is backed up with a solid game play engine. There were the usual warning around the death of ‘paper’ Magic, but these have gone unfounded, as retailers are reporting an uptake in people coming to their stores asking for the product. My son recently got his first Deckbuilder’s Toolkit for Christmas as a result of learning the game through Arena (I am still cross that his first pack had an Azor’s Gateway and I don’t have one).

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There are of course quibbles with the game – it’s not Open Beta for nothing. I occasionally will just get kicked from a game for no real reason and it will record a game loss. That’s incredibly frustrating when you might be going through a competitive run (in these events 2 or 3 losses and your run is over). But if you consider that I normally do 5 events a week, I can count the number of times this has happened to me on my hands. The bots that they have built to simulate other players on a Draft also tend to be a bit janky – my earlier experiences tended to be to ride Blue and Black to victory (they never seemed to pick them – leaving stupidly good cards such as Disinformation Campaign lying around).

I feel I must also mention the Vault. Originally the Vault was a reward for getting open packs of cards and for duplicate cards over the basic 4 to which you are use. Every time it opened the game gave you a bundle of 1 Mythic, 2 Rare and 3 Uncommon Wildcards. Regrettably, the designers removed the card park, which gave you 3.3% progress towards the Vault opening. Considering that every fifth Common card you get (which is the most likely duplicate) gives you 0.1% progression, this has slowed down the progress somewhat. Since the Open Beta launched I have yet to unlock the Vault, despite doing it at least 4 times when closed. Furthermore, you cannot actually see the Vault progression without going into the game log files. One cannot help but feel that this is a retrograde step and makes the grind of progression more tedious.

Some people will be put off by the lack of older cards and game types. WOTC of announced a Standard Plus game type, that will allow for older sets that rotate out of Standard play (which happens at in Autumn each year). And based on the Closed Beta, they have the codes for the Kaladesh and Amonkhet sets available for use (whether or not that is a good thing, is open to interpretation – I was not a fan of Kaladesh at all). However, those players seeking Modern, Vintage or multiplayer games will not get what they want here. Whilst I would personally enjoy the opportunity to games of Commander (which is probably my favourite form of MtG), I cannot see how this could realistically be created for Arena based on the number of cards that you would want to produce a series of varied decks.

WOTC are clearly going all in with Arena. They have already committed to it as part of the competitive Magic Pro league, with their salaried 32 professionals expected to play match ups via Arena and part of their funding dependent upon streaming obligations. Furthermore, they are promising Invitational events by which regular Arena players can win the opportunity to play against these professionals – the next such event occurring at PAX East convention (taking place in Boston on 28-31 March 2019) with a substantial prize pool attached.

Obviously the competitive element will only be of interest to certain people. I am not arrogant enough to suggest that you are going to see me playing top level Magic anytime soon (or indeed ever). But it does send out an indication of how seriously the designers are taking Arena that they are making it such a crucial part of their organised play environmental. And moreover it got me thinking – would I want to try streaming some of my own Arena games? Would anyone even be interested? Would I be able to communicate my own passion for this game and product to others in a meaningful way?

That may be me letting my enthusiasm run away with me – I am aware it happens from time to time (my wife will look at another one of my half-finished gaming projects and roll her eyes at this comment). But I will absolutely back up what I have said earlier – this is a huge leap forward for WOTC. And yes – it may be motivated the product awareness and profit, but say that about any company. You get out of Arena as much as you want to put into it. And if you want to plunge head first into the madness, go for it. Or if you just want to easy way to be reintroduced to an old friend, its therefore you as well. Just give it a try.

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Gaming the Show

One of these days, I will stick to my promises. Specifically my promise to actually keep this blog updated. It’s always with the best of intentions and then real life gets in the way. The next thing you know several months have passed and your poor old neglected blog sits unloved and un appreciated.

Well no more!

At least until the next time I get distracted …

But onwards and upwards.

As with many of my articles, this is inspired by my family – mainly my wife. She has been mentioned a few times her in various contexts, but this time she can take full credit for my wittering. It all starts with her going mad in a charity shop and walking out with a bundle of games. It’s not an unusual occurrence and has seen her emerge with products that have entered into our regular gaming rotation. But this time she appeared to have themed her purchases around boxed games of TV game shows.

It always seems to be around Christmas that these get particular attention – I assume that it is an easy gift for fans of the show. But having played (or in some cases endured) a number of these games, it got me thinking. Upon your receipt (or purchase) of a game show tie-in, how much do they actually reflect the show itself? Moreover, are they all lazy cash grabs, or is there something worth playing here.

So as a public service to you, my dear readers, I wanted to go through some of our home versions of gameshows and let you know my thoughts. And in the spirit of season, how likely you are to be still speaking to your family following the post-turkey gaming period (the so call Monopoly Factor).

QI

QI

There comes a problem in replicating the panel show in board game format. In that there are not actually about playing of a game and are instead an opportunity for a group of comedians (and other celebrities) to entertain us. Which brings us to the huge problem with QI – it cannot ever replicate the experiences of either Stephen Fry or Sandi Toksvig gently guiding us through obscure general knowledge or commonly held, but often incorrect, facts.

Instead you get a generic if sometimes difficult, general knowledge quiz. And as much as I love the show, this game is not going to cause me to engage in a bit of whimsical banter to the delight of my fellow players. Instead it will cause me to furrow my brow a lot and probably get a bit cross when the inevitable ‘klaxon’ answer is hit.

Quality of game: Do you want to answer some questions? Knock yourself out. Literally do it. It will be more entertaining.

Like the show?: How good is your Stephen Fry impression? Mine’s rubbish, so not all

Monopoly Factor: The only person I have ever seen get annoyed playing QI is David Mitchell. And he’s not my family. So you should be fine …

Pointless

Pointless

An afternoon TV institution in the UK and sharing the love of obscure knowledge with QI, Pointless challenges you to find the right answer that no one else thought of. All the questions have multiple answers and have previously been given to 100 people to try and recall as many answers as possible within a time limit. The aim is to match your answer with that which the fewest people gave. It’s like golf – lowest wins!

Here the fact that this is a game show over a panel show immediately ensure that there is more of a game here and the designers have attempted to replicate the round structure of the show. They’ve even included a Pointless trophy (admittedly made of card). However, they’ve done it in a really clunky way. A television quiz show should feel intuitive – and this one needs intensive interrogation of the rulebook each round to ensure you are playing right. Which I am still not convinced I am.

Still, it’s actually pretty fun – and feels much more like the show than our previous effort. Consider the rulebook consultations as breaks in filming.

Quality of game: Woeful design, but enough of a game to make it worth your while.

Like the show?: Pretty decent stab at it. You have to slide the token down the 100 track just like the TV show. Which is a bit silly. But not without its charms …

Monopoly Factor: Depends whether you are find people who can remember countries like Vanuatu Tuvalu clever or know-it-alls. It’s the later isn’t it? Then maybe stay for the extra helping of Christmas pudding.

Would I Lie to You?

WILTY

Oh look – another panel show. And this time it is about lying and bluffing. I’m great at bluffing (which is a lie). The show take a selection of celebrities who tell a series of facts about themselves, that the other team tries to determine whether it or a fact or a lie.

In reality this game should say ‘inspired by’ on the cover, because nothing here bears any relation to the personal claims of the various players. However, here you test your player improvisational skills. The cards ask you to describe a picture or repeat a fact, but where those cards are a lie, you have to make up the picture or fact by filling in the blanks having been provided by a topic or title.

And to my absolute surprise, this actually works. To which you have to give some kudos to the designers that must have been given the unenviable brief of turning the product into a game. Some of the question topics give more scope for conversation, invention and embellishment – the ‘This Is My’ cards are clearly the most fun to play with. And if you know the facts – which happened with one question I was confronted with – it makes the lying part of the game irrelevant. But you have to take your hates off to a fairly good translation (by which you discard almost everything to do with the TV show).

Quality of game: I was really surprised by this one. It’s a bluffing game dressed up in a TV license that’s actually pretty good.

Like the show?: Both have involve lying. Does that count?

Monopoly Factor: Sometime you have to applaud a great liar with good cheer. This is that occasion.

Family Fortunes

FF

Yes –the classic Saturday night family viewing in a board game format with all the daft guessing and the ‘did they really give that answer’ fun of the television show. Provided you chuck away the rules it wants you to play under.

Family Fortunes highlights one of the major problems of TV show to board game translations. We want to play the gameshow – that’s what we like. So when you present us with a version of the game and say here are some slightly different rules to play under, we will just ignore them and do what we want.

The game works when you have two teams and a quiz master. And ignore the frankly daft way they do the final round that make the entire scoring system to date irrelevant.

And yes – you do get a button that makes the ‘uh-oh’ sound effect.

Quality of game: Ignore the rulebook. Play it how you want to. Play it the right way.

Like the show?: Did you not hear what I said about the button?

Monopoly Factor: In America this game is called Family Feud. This tells you about how it will ruin your relationship with the idiot that gave that answer …

Countdown

Countdown

My wife claims that in many ways, I am middle aged before my time. I try to argue otherwise, but then I catch an episode of Countdown and am embraced by its comforting mid-afternoon niceness. Countdown is gentle entertainment and as soothing as a nice pair of slippers. And then I realise that I am not middle aged before my time, but mentally approaching retirement. Which will be nice, because I can watch more Countdown.

Do you like rearranging random letters to make words? Do you like doing maths to make randomly generated letters? Do you like anagrams? Do you like dramatic music over a clock’s hand moving?

The only way this game could better reflect the TV show was if Susie Dent popped into your living room and set up Dictionary Corner with a random celebrity of a certain age. A simply concept well executed.

Quality of game: I love Countdown. I accept that make me uncool. Which is fine. Absolutely fine …

Like the show?: Letters and numbers. Is there anything else to Countdown?

Monopoly Factor: No one getting upset at Countdown. Everyone is far too nice.

Clueless?

I’ve already discussed my love of Dixit. My family adore Dixit (except for my eldest who is going through his ‘I’m too cool for all of this’ stage of life). From some very circumspect first steps, everyone soon got on board with the pictures and storytelling – and of course the bunny meeples. But I appreciate that abstract games are not for everyone and some people want a bit of meat behind their gaming – a motivation as it were. I guess we should be thankful that Libellud decided to give us Mysterium.

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Mysterium, designed by Oleksander Nevskiy and Oleg Sidorenko, who re-implemented their original design, Tajemnicze Domostwo, by bringing their game of murder, ghosts and psychics to a wider audience in 2015. The game features the haunting of a manor house in the 1920s and the gathering of the world’s finest mediums in an attempt to solve an old mystery within. A restless spirit has been detected within and the only way to put the ghost to rest is to solve its untimely murder. But the spirit’s recollection of events is hazy at best and can only remember snatches of people, places and objects. The mediums must over the course of a single night, help the ghost sort through its shattered memories, piece them back together again and hopefully solve the historic murder.

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The game takes the interpretive nature of Dixit; the suspect-location-weapon element from Cluedo (or Clue as some of you may know it from outside the British Isles) and adds in an asymmetrical co-operative element to make Mysterium a unique proposition. One player must be the ghost and the others each take a psychic character card (which has little impact upon the game experience aside from having a nice portrait and a different colour associated with it). The mystery is then assembled from a collection of cards.

Dependant on the number of players and difficulty you wish to play at, a number of random suspect, locations and item cards are dealt out in front of the psychics. Then from behind their screen (which old school Dungeon Masters will get a kick from) the ghost player takes a corresponding set of cards and randomly assigns one to each player in the game (there are convenient pockets on the back of the screen for such a purpose). As a result, each player now has a different suspect, place and item assigned to them against their knowledge. The ghost now has seven turns to try to get each player to identify their cards.

This is done through a series of dream cards which is where the connection to Dixit lies. Each dream card is a surrealist image designed to never truly point at one particular card, but can evoke associations. The ghost player draws 7 cards at the start of the game. Then the ghost provided 1 to 3 of these cards to each player, trying to point them towards the suspect they have been paired with – drawing back up to 7 after this. Once all the dream cards have been given out for a round, an egg timer is turned and psychic players are able to openly discuss their dream cards with the others, trying to guess who their intended target is. The ghost is not allowed to speak during this process and must remain stoically quiet throughout, particularly difficult if one of the players is managing to persuade another away from the correct choice …

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If when the timer runs out the player has correctly guessed their required suspect, they discard their dream cards; take the suspect card into their possession and move onto the next stage of guessing the location. If they are incorrect, they must have another attempt next round, with the ghost player providing them with additional dream cards to try and get a better guess.

As said earlier, they psychics have seven turns to ensure they have correctly identified their suspect, location and item (representing seven hours of the séance). If all the players don’t identify their cards within time, then the séance fails and the ghost is forced into further torment – at least until the next time the psychics can have a go. However, if they have all been successful , then there is a final round played.

Each player lays out their respective group of cards, so they have a collection of a suspect, location and item – this represents the psychics having ordered the spirit’s memories sufficiently that it can now remember who were their killer and the means of their untimely demise. The ghost player plays three final dream cards – one corresponding to each of the suspect, location and weapon cards. The players then vote by means of a secret ballot as to which set they believe the ghost player is trying to get them to guess. The votes are tallied up and hopefully the players have guessed the correct cards – the spirit is finally put to rest!

If only it were that simple …

Throughout the game, the players are also voting on their other players guesses – indicating if they think they are right or wrong. They are given 6 tokens at the start of the game (3 correct and 3 wrong), which they can use once on other players guesses (although they are refreshed upon the fourth hour). Each correct token use moves the player up a track which determines when solving the final mystery, how many cards they are allowed to see when they vote. The track is also boosted by how quickly players solve their individual clues. Take a long time and be poor with your hunches and you will only get to see one card. Prove a shrewd judge and sail through your own cards, you get to have a look at all three.

Visually Mysterium is a triumph – just look at that box art, it’s stunning. What most impressed me was the consistency of the art. The gloomy, gothic design carries over from the exterior and inhabits every component within – but without become overpowering. The broken clock that counts down the hours of the séance. The location cards are crammed full of atmosphere. The dream cards, I would arge, are actually better than the cards from Dixit. I would pay particular praise to the suspect cards – each is a character study that achieves so much without any writing or description upon them – everything is a treat for the eyes.

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I wish I could say the same about the rulebook …

The rulebook is not great – not because it is a jumbled mess, but because it is so word heavy. It feels as though because there is a complete absence of language on the cards, they decided to use as many of them as possible in the rules. You could probably half as much text and the game would make more sense to your average player – it is not a massively hard system to understand, so why feel like you need a encyclopaedic level detail of how to play?

Once you get past that and into the game, it just flows beautifully. It game is much more social than Dixit, encouraging conversation and discussion over its various interpretations and no-one should dominate by demanding where people cast their votes. You may think you friend is stupid for choosing the governess, when it is clearly the blacksmith – but the other way you can express your displeasure is by putting down your wrong token next to their vote. And then looking very daft when the ghost tells you of course it is the governess.

Okay – the ghost player doesn’t get to join in this social element – but as I have probably been that player more than a psychic, let me tell you that it is extremely rewarding and a bit of a brain teaser at times. You never get that card you perfectly want, so trying to think very laterally is a skill. The room may have picture of a boat in it and you have a dream card that may imply the ocean to you. But what about its other interpretations? Might someone pick upon on the colour blue and tie this to a different room. Or another object you never picked out and make that the source of their obsession. The role can be both a source of great delight and great frustration, but never in a way that made me grow tired of the role.

Unfortunately, I find revealing the final mystery to be a bit of an anti-climax. The arbitrary nature of solving the final riddle just doesn’t grab me as much as the journey of getting there. I am pleased that the majority of the game is more involved than this, but I can’t help but feel slightly let down at the end – and I know I am not the only person to have experienced this.

I must also remark on the number of players for this game. Whilst it says 2-7 this is a lie. Mysterium should never be played with fewer than 4 players. The game rules do provide for how the game should be played with less than 4 players, but this is a diminished experience, as you are forced to play the game as a hollowed out version missing some of the rules of the full game. Two players also loses that social experience that I described earlier. I’m afraid that the 2 and 3 player rules for Mysterium feel tacked on in an attempt to get more copies out of the door.

I have saved Mysterium’s greatest strength for the end – the atmosphere it creates. There are very few games that positively funnel every component and experience towards a common feeling. There is even a soundtrack that can be downloaded and played alongside the game. I have to give this game massive props of how fully committed it is towards its theme – from seeing the original pictures of Tajemnicze Domostwo you can tell how much the designers have worked and refined the game to this current point.

I have heard Mysterium being referred to as “Dixit+” which just seems a little unfair to me. Mysterium does give those players, to whom abstract gaming is an anathema, a reason to enjoy a similar experience. But I think both explore different sides of a similar coin and certainly both are in regular gaming rotation in my house.

So prepare for psychic investigation and summon up your mind powers.  This murder will not solve itself …

And Here is the News …

So it has been a while.  Regrettably due to the various combinations of work, family and Christmas, my time to ruminate upon my most recent tabletopping exploits has been somewhat limited.  That doesn’t mean that I have been idle in the time being, but I thought that those of you who have consideration for my blog (whomever you might be), deserve at least a little attention.  I mean it is only fair, isn’t it?

Dead

So before normal service is resumed (and I am working on an article about a game that I have recently got off the shelf after a fair time of it being neglected and remembered how much I enjoy it), I thought I would give you a little run down of what I have been enjoying; what may have concerned me and where all my precious time appears to have melted away to.

 

Firstly, for those of you that share my experiences across here and Who Dares Rolls, may remember my article on Games Workshop giving us the new Warhammer 40,000.  Well this has been taking up a fair amount of my time and whilst GW are coming thick and fast with the releases, they haven’t damped my enjoyment for the game.  Previously the desire to get something new and shiny to the table seems to have resulted in overpowered and expensive miniatures.  The new miniatures product have the usual hallmarks of GW quality and some are just bloody amazing (I have no love of the Nurgle range but the Sloppity Bilepiper a piece of art – and no, I did not make that name up).  What’s more, they are actively “patching” the game as they go.  Already flyer armies, psychic weapons batteries and deep striking daemon bomb armies have come under the withering gaze of their FAQ system.  It genuinely a joy to sit down to play a game of 40k again – which is something I have been unable to say for a while.

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PC gamers of a certain age will remember the Star Wars flight simulator TIE Fighter.  Yes – we were actively encouraged to be the bad guys and fly in the knowledge that a single volley of fire was likely to kill your ship.  So it came as a great relief when later in the campaign you were given the Assault Gunboat – a ship designed entirely for the game to be a slower (and shielded) ordinance carrier.  God – did I love that ship.  Which is just as well, because Fantasy Flight Games gave us some new X-Wing Miniatures content!  And the Assault Gunboat is both in it and really good.

 

I know X-Wing had been getting a bit of bad press lately as it hit a period when it appeared to moving away from its roots, which were as a dog fighting game.  The prevalence of turrets and bombs appeared to be crippling the iconic ships from the original trilogy.  A combination of the new miniatures and some FAQ changes to certain cards has given the game a bit of a shot in the arm.  I’m not claiming that all problems have been instantly fixed (we are not seeing a swarm of TIE Fighters back on the table – at least not at competitive events).  But I did play a game using X-Wings and Darth Vader the other day, so it appears to be going in the right direction.  Furthermore, the Assault Gunboat is the most 90s ship design of all time – so hurray for my misplaced youth.

gunboat

Christmas has come and gone and with it the love of new games under the tree.  I was fortunate enough to pick up a couple of new ones – the DC Deckbuilder Game and a little known one called Starfighter.  I have found both to have their merits which will undoubtedly result in a review either here or on WDR.  I will briefly remark that if its only two of you playing, I’d go for a different deckbuilder than the DC game, which appears to come into its own in a larger group.  Starfighter I am still working out.  It’s clearly a game that reward careful planning and forethought, which I have yet to master.  My wife has already developed more nous than I and is merrily wrecking my ships whilst I try to work out what has gone wrong.  My eldest son has also joined me in the tabletop hobby in getting his own copy of Magic The Gathering: Arena of the Planeswalkers.  I was pleasantly surprised by this one – it has a combat system gleefully borrowed (or stolen) from Heroquest and seems to be a good little skirmish game to introduce new players.  However, it does suffer from some incredibly ugly pre-painted models.

ugly

Speaking of my children, I have been making some very deliberate attempts to get back to playing games a as family.  Whilst my children are devotees of the church of FIFA and Minecraft, playing games together has always been something that defines our relationship.  And as the boys get older, I have been able to bring out more complicated and varied games for them to enjoy.  Only last night we put away our dinner plates and pulled Forbidden Desert off the shelf.  And whilst we failed in our quest one square away from success (we ran out of sand tiles – we have never run out of sand tiles …), it was a good time to talk and do something we all enjoy.

 

Christmas also brought further delight in a copy of Cities In Ruin for Eldritch Horror.  Motivated by this, I invited several friends over for an evening of world spanning adventure.  When the numbers were totalled up, it appeared that we had seven of us to try and tackle the ancient evil of Azathoth.  I had warnings that games with this volume of players became bloated things that were bound to drag on.  However, I am delighted to report that whilst we took our time, the game did not become a chore at any point.  I am already busy devising which horror we tackle next (the Masks Of Nyarlathotep expansion is calling to me).

 

I have also been notified that Airecon is coming back around on 9th to 11th March 2018 in Harrogate.  Long time readers of the blog will remember my review piece from last year in which I described my adventures amongst the visitors, exhibitors, other bloggers and distributers last year and it is my aim to go again to try and bring you more news of the latest in new games and accessories.

airecon-copy

Like last year, we will be seeing Travelling Man bringing their extensive games library for you to pick a title from (which gave me my first introduction to the splendid Inis).  There will be 20 RPG tables for players to get involved in run by experienced GMs.  The Bring and Buy sale was a big success and currently 26 exhibitors are confirmed for the event.  You may even get to see me (I cannot guarantee you won’t be disappointed).  Tickets are available from their website – just don’t forget your AireCup which proved to be a godsend over the course of last weekend.

 

So that’s in a rather waffley trip round my most recent weeks.  Expect normal service to be resumed soon with another entry in my classic game countdown soon.  In the meantime, play games and enjoy your start to 2018.

We Need to Talk About Agency

 

 

Most of you will have read to title of this article and wondered what the hell I am blathering on about. Although that could probably be said for many of my articles, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised.

 

I should just stop waffling and get on with it, shouldn’t I?

agent

It has only been in the last few months that I have heard the term ‘agency’ being used in reference a few games. It caught me out. So naturally I did what I normally do in such situations. Completely forget about the term and think about other things. But as with all such matters, you hear it once and you start hearing it again and again. So naturally I did some digging.

 

A very simplified definition of the term is how much control a player has over what happens to them. It has frequent use in the video game industry, where the concept of control can sometime be an illusion. The Call Of Duty games are an example of where there is very low levels of player agency. Whilst you are given a concept of a bigger world and bigger level around you by the impressive visuals, you are railroaded into very specific routes that take you from one set piece to the next. Compare to the Grand Theft Auto games where players have got lots of choices to make (although the individual missions may cut that choice down to more defined parameters). By their very nature, video game agency will always take players to the same place – the end screen (although there maybe multiple endings depending on choices the players make during the game).

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So how does this translate into tabletop games?

 

Like video gaming, you know what you are getting into when you start a game. You cannot argue that you have any influence upon the game’s outcome with Snakes and Ladders (unless you load the dice – but then what sort of person are you?). Having read and reread the rules, you will have an idea of the choices that are open to you. Furthermore, you will have a concept of how your role in the game can influence both the experience and the outcome. Perhaps you won’t appreciate every little detail at this stage, but already you have at least a rough understanding of how much agency the game affords you.

 

Of course, you will never get truly free reign – even in the most open of game rules, as the game has to provide you with a challenge. Of course in Pandemic I could travel to New York, but that isn’t really going to be of much use if an outbreak on Bogotá is going to cause us to lose the game. In those firefighting situations, your agency goes flying out of the window.

 

However, in a competitive game there is another variable you need to consider – that of your opponent (or opponents). Any game which involves conflict means that your choices and influence are going to be limited by what the other players do. It may be fairly minimal – a game of Rummy in which players are collecting similar numbers for example. Or very deliberate where you will lose playing pieces, cards or positions on the board. The drama of the game is created by this clash for control. Returning to my earlier statement, you must expect this when you sit down to start the game. It is precious little use to complain about what your opponent is doing to you if you know that possibility exists in the first place.

 

So if there is nothing that can be done about agency, why am I talking about it?

 

Say you and I were to play Blackjack with one another. However, whilst you are playing the game normally, I am allowed to search through the deck on the occasion I decide to hit. What is going to happen on that occasion? You have complete choice and control over your actions. But neither action is necessarily the better option, as you ideal situation is a draw (or a very unlikely win should you get a natural 21 on two cards). By one change to the basic rules, I have removed your agency from the game. And the only option is therefore not to play …

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Of course this is a very silly example and any casino doing this would rapidly find themselves with customers. But my point is this – there becomes a point where denial of an opponent’s agency moves beyond a game’s conflict and turns instead to a negative play experience. And I would argue that there are two reasons for this denial of agency – poor game design or an intentional player strategy.

 

We do have to accept that game designers are not perfect – they are only human after all. So it stands to reason that sometimes a circumstance will just slip through the design process and play testing. It’s not a perfect situation but it happens. I have found games that feature a rare situation that creates a “feedback loop” of cause and effect. This essentially strands a player whilst their opponent can happily carry on to their hearts content to win the game unimpeded. This can happen quite by accident, although players upon finding this solution can attempt to manufacture it for following turns …

 

Less forgivable than these corner cases are where an element of a game is designed that someone in the process clearly believes is a good idea at the time, but fails to think through the consequences of their actions. Never has this been more pronounced or memorable to me, than during the heady days of 2nd Edition Warhammer 40,000’s Dark Millennium supplement. Players were each dealt a hand of strategy cards at the game’s beginning and one of these was titled Virus Outbreak.

 

The card would cause virus to erupt from a point on the table and models within a certain distance would be removed on a certain dice roll. However, a removed model would trigger the process anew. Stories were told of entire armies dropping dead at the start of the game. The game designers later told players to remove this card from their strategy decks, realising that perhaps it wasn’t a very good idea.

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Sometime, as the writer William Faulkner suggested, it is best to ‘kill your darlings.’

 

And this brings us onto a very salient point. It is important to remember that a game’s designer or manufacturer always has the capacity to do something about these situations that find a player’s agency negatively impacted. It is only recently that several rules changes were announced for the X-Wing Miniatures Game, which altered or neutered play styles that were seen as counter intuitive to a player’s agency (A few months ago when playing against one of these ships, I found myself in a situation that wherever I moved my own piece, I would be getting a bomb dropped right on my face). It is crucial, not just for a player’s enjoyment, but also for the game’s sales, that designers are able to keep abreast of such situations and have the opportunity to remove anything that they see as damaging (although responding a bit quicker might be nice …).

 

The second situation is more problematic, as players can clearly have a difference of opinion over what is negative play. From personal experience, it emerges from where players have an opportunity to design their own play style before the game – usually in a miniatures or a collectable card game environment.

 

Take Magic: The Gathering for example. All of my friends who play this are aware of my style. I am a dyed in the wool control player (for the uninitiated control play is designed around preventing your opponent from using their better cards against you). Give me two untapped islands and a hand of Counterspells any day. Yet in doing so, I am deliberately targeting a player’s agency. I am stopping them playing their game the way they want to. Someone would argue that I am creating a negative play experience for my opponent as a result. I would refute this as by the nature of the game, I cannot have more counters than they have spells. So I am forcing them to be more strategic in how they play. Someone may enjoy that challenge. Another would find it a grind. Who is right? Who can judge?

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I have seen plenty of wargamers design lists solely to select the best elements of a force. The primary motivation is to win and does not consider the experience of the other gamer. But producing a “top tier” list in itself does not always negatively impact an opponent’s agency. There has to be an element that renders the other side’s choices ultimately meaningless. So a model that can only be dealt with in a very specific or lucky set of circumstances. A card combination that shuts down an opponent’s play options.

 

I would propose that we as players have a duty towards one another, but this duty is a two way street. We should be looking at our intentions when we are playing games and whether these intentions are going to ruin the game for another person. But on the other side, when the chips are down and things are not going our way, we need to accept that often this is down to luck or skill, rather than some inherent weakness in the game or extreme agency negation by our opponent. We all want to enjoy our play experience. And we all want players to sit down to a game with us again.

 

Interfering with agency is an unavoidable consequence of playing a game. But our intention must ultimately be to ensure both people enjoy the experience whatever the outcome. And provided we can honestly say we went into a game with those intentions, then we can be happy that we have played our part.

Proper Grown Up Gaming

When I first started with roleplaying games, they were almost all exclusively fantasy based. Create a character, get some equipment and find the nearest cave/monster lair/wizard’s tower to ransack. It was dungeon crawls a-go-go and my collection of game reflected this. It started with Advanced Fighting Fantasy; then Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and finally onto the granddaddy of them all – Dungeons and Dragons. Being a young teenager, I wasn’t really interested in imbuing my characters with life, goals or motivations. In fact characterisation was a bit of a dirty word. I was all about the monster slaying and the looting.

There were probably two things that changed the way I looked at roleplaying games. One was the magazine Arcane that ran for 20 issues in the mid-1990s. It reviewed new gaming products, provided gaming scenarios and ran several thought-provoking and motivational articles on how to be a better roleplayer. Damn I loved that magazine …

The second was when a friend of mine returned from his holiday with a brand new roleplaying game for us to try out. He told us a story of finding it in a small bookshop in Scotland (I am probably adding more mystique to the story than when it was actually told – but that’s how memory works) and he purchased it after briefly flicking through its pages. Once my other friends and I had a chance to go over it, we were similarly enamoured. The game wasn’t fantasy as we knew it. It was set in modern times. But not the modern times as we knew them. And there wasn’t a single dungeon in sight. We were being introduced to a new world – A World Of Darkness. And the first look at this world was through Vampire: The Masquerade.

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Designed in 1991 by Mark Rein Hagen, Vampire: The Masquerade (or VtM) was the first book that detailed a dark world beyond our own where monsters truly did exist. Vampire, werewolves, wizards, ghosts and the Fae were all part of the original five book source books that detailed the hidden societies running in parallel – or sometime dominating our own. The games all operated under the Storyteller System, the title of which probably gives you the clearest direction of the designer’s intent. This is a mature game that wants to craft narratives, beyond ‘how much treasure can I get out of this place.’

The Storyteller System has a very simply mechanic at its core. Characters are designed by allocating skill points to Attributes and Abilities. Attributes are like other games’ statistics and are broken down into three classifications – Physical, Social and Mental. Abilities also have three groupings – Talents, Skills and Knowledges. Each of these is scored out of five.

Whenever a character is required to roll dice to try to do something, the Storyteller (the name for the GM in this game) will tell them which Attribute and Ability to combine. The player collects a number of ten sided dice equal to this. The Storyteller will also give a difficulty number. The player must roll the dice and counts each dice roll that equals or beats that number as a success. The number of successes equals the degree to which the task is accomplished. One success is barely succeeding. Five is succeeding beyond your wildest dreams. However, any dice that comes up as a 1 removes a success from you. Roll more 1s than successes and you have ‘botched’. This is usually when the Storyteller plots something very bad happening.

The joy of the system is that it allows many different combinations of abilities to cover a multitude of situations. So climbing a wall is almost always going to be a combination of Strength and Athletics. But what if you need to spend five hours programming without a break? Well with the Storyteller system you can roll a combination of Stamina and Computers. Trying to impress someone by pretending to be a doctor? Charisma plus Medicine. The system activity encourages you to come up with unique ways to use your character’s strong points.

However, VtM wants you to go beyond the statistics in order to create your character. It encourages you to start with a concept for your character and build around that. It could be a very simple one – ex-cop for example. Or you can go into more depth – one of my favourite characterswas Victor, who had been orphaned in the Blitz and his need to steal to survive had then developed into full blown kleptomania. The Storyteller as a result was able to play with this – dangling items in front of him he may be compelled to steal. Presenting me with a German character who would have fought on the other side of the war to see how he’d react.

Accompanied to this was giving characters Natures and Demeanours that encouraged you to play the character rather than a manifestation of yourself. Playing according to your characters Nature gave you a way to recover statistics. Also added into this were backgrounds – that could add allies, finances or mentors to your character’s make up.

The game even went so far as to encourage the players to go through a one on one session with the Storyteller prior to starting the full game. The characters were given an opportunity to explore various facets of their human life before becoming a vampire and their eventual turning to the undead (known as the Embrace). Whilst we initially ignored this (being the stupid kids we were), eventually I came to realise how key this was in building a character.

The background for VtM is the concept of an organised undead society living amongst humanity. Vampires learnt long ago that whilst individually they are superior to humans, the sheer numbers of mortals and their very real (and widely known) weakness to sunlight meant that they could not continue to do what they wanted and lord it over humanity in plain sight. So a plan was hatched to ensure mankind believed vampires to be myths and remain hidden from them (referred to as the Masquerade – not just a clever title).

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As a result, the vampires (or Kindred as they refer to themselves) have developed a feudal government amongst the modern day cities. Each city has a Prince who rules it and a number of advisors and lackeys to ensure their will is enforced. The vampires themselves are organised into a number of clans, each of which exhibits characteristics of various vampire myths or powers. So there are the noble Ventrue; the hideous Nosferatu; the hedonistic Toreador and the loners with animal powers, known as the Gangrel. As a result, Kindred occupy positions within much of the society and are able to control elements to suit their own end.

Of course no roleplaying game is without its antagonists. And VtM makes its antagonists both external and internal. The threats to the Kindred consist of the Sabbat (those vampires opposed to the Masquerade); vampire hunters; numerous other supernatural beings and even those ‘friendly’ vampires jockeying for position within the current political structures. Each vampire also fights an internal struggle against their most primal urges –known as the Beast. Vampires exposed to extreme stresses or short of blood run the risk of giving into their being and going in a state called frenzy, when they are only governed by two needs – to feed or to survive.

Every vampire needs to beware the Beast, as they all have a statistic called Humanity. Going into frenzy often leads to acts that cost a vampire part of their Humanity. And as Humanity is lost, the vampire gradually becomes more and more animalistic. Like Sanity in Call of Cthulhu , the loss of all of one’s Humanity sees a character’s end.

White Wolf described this setting as Gothic-punk – think Tim Burton’s Batman for a concept of the aesthetics. Dark brooding buildings covered in gargoyles interspersed with flickering neon signs. A sense of urban decay (both physically and metaphorical) where humanity’s worst traits are exemplified. To an impressionable teen in the 1990s, this reflected a part of youth culture and the sense of rebellion against authority that came with it.

VtM was a personal game – indeed it advertised itself as a ‘game of personal horror’. It was all too willing to look at morality and corruption. It explored the meaning of what it was to be human on an individual scale. However, the story going on in background looked at the wider themes. The creator, Mark Rein Hagen admitted that ‘The game and the world became about religion and belief’ when the decision was made that Cain (he that slew Abel) was cursed by God and became the first vampire. Moreover, the grand power struggle between the eldest of vampires (called the Jyhad), brought in to question the concepts of governance and free will. Much of this was left to the individual will of the Storyteller, so each chronicle became much more personal.

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In being introduced to VtM, it felt like a lift of the veil. There was much more to roleplaying than I had previously perceived. In Dungeons and Dragons the game felt it was a series of combat sessions linked by connecting scenes. In VtM combat could happen, but it was the exception rather than the rule. We were moving within a society – one where those with the most to lose and gain frequently had centuries of practice to ensure they got where they wanted. Picking a fight was often a one way trip towards True Death. Once our Storytellers had experience of this new way of playing, the drama intensified and we were much more dedicated towards in interested in our characters than we had with the cookie cutter dungeon plunderers of older times. VtM had such a lasting effect on my roleplaying, that the echoes of it still affect me today. Each of my characters has a backstory and a motivation that I actively want my GM/DM/Storyteller/guy with a screen and dice to explore with me in collaboration.

VtM was well received by the gaming press. Upon release it won the Origin award for best roleplaying rules. It even spawned two video games – the ambitious Redemption and the flawed masterpiece that was Bloodlines (a game that if had been released finished, would probably have been regarded as one of the greatest RPGs of all time). It was eventually discontinued in 2004 following the Gehenna events (ie. we are blowing the world up – decide what happens). In its place came the new Chronicles Of Darkness setting and the source book Vampire: The Requiem. It overhauled the system and changed the background, whilst borrowing some elements from the old books. However, it never captured my imagination as the original VtM did. Thankfully, in 2011 the original was released on DriveThruRPG and White Wolf have this year provided us with the first look at a new VtM (although you may want to have look at the thoughts of Charlie on WDR before deciding that this is a good thing …).

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Looking back at VtM (and my teenage years), there was a realisation of how much I value that time and what this game gave to me. It wasn’t the perfect system and it needed full buy in and effort from its participants to make it work. But when it did, it demonstrated something to me. It showed me that what people had described as a childish pastime, had both intelligence and depth. It treated me like an adult and trusted me to play in that fashion. And most of all, I wanted to repay that trust.

Thank you Vampire: The Masquerade. Thank you for everything.

Close Encounters of the Board Kind

Yes – the title of this article is a terrible pun. I apologise for such misdemeanours. But it’s got your attention, right? Then it has succeeded in its aim …

I am fairly late coming to this game, despite it being 40 years old. Thankfully I have recently rectified this mistake and found what appears to be a simple ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ style game, with a lot of depth and strategy. Designers such as Steve Jackson and Richard Garfield have stated how this has influence their own games – and if you consider they are referring to Illuminati and Magic: The Gathering respectively that is indeed high praise. It has gone through several publishers over its life time and has won the 1991 Origins Award for Best Fantasy Or Sci-Fi game.

By now, several of you are telling me to get on with it, because you already know as to what I am referring. To those of you who are newer to the board gaming hobby, I speak of the seminal Cosmic Encounter.

Cosmic Encounter was designed by Peter Olotka, Jack Kittredge

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, Bill Eberle and Bill Norton. Originally published by Eon Products, the latest version is has been in print with Fantasy Flight Games for the past 9 years – with 6 expansions currently available allowing additional players and variants on the basic game.

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Each player in Cosmic Encounter represents an alien race chosen at random from a wide selection at the game’s start. The players start by setting up twenty tokens on five planets that start under their control. These tokens represent basees when on planets and star ships when used to attack other players. They are also given a hand of cards which are a mixture of Attack, Negotiate, Reinforcement and Artifact cards (in previous versions of the game Negotiate and Artifact were known as Compromise and Edicts respectively).

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The aim of the game is to establish colonies on five planets outside your starting system. Of course the problem with this is that all the other planets have colonies upon them belonging to other players. So you have to find a way to get your tokens there – by fair means or foul.

Each turn a player draws a card from the Destiny deck which will state which enemy they need to attack (or if they draw a card that is their own faction, they get to choose). The player choses a planet with tokens of that players on it and commits up to four of his own tokens to attack. Both players then have an opportunity to invite other players in as allies in the attack (who can also add up to four tokens of their own to assist either side). It is at this point, players will play one of their cards secretly into the combat. Attack cards add a fixed number to the number of tokens in the combat (so attack card 9 and 3 tokens gives a combined total of 12). The side with the highest score wins. The losers tokens are sent to the warp (a dead zone from which the tokens are gradually released back to players). A successful defence gives the player a bonus encounter card. If the attackers are successful, all tokens in the attack are immediately placed on the planet and that player is one closer to victory.

I mentioned the prisoner’s dilemma earlier and the introduction of the Negotiation cards is what facilitates a modified version of this. Players can convince one another that an agreement between them may be the better option and can play these cards instead of attack cards. However, players are under no obligation to honour this and can instead put down attack cards in response to Negotiation cards. Where this happens, the negotiator and their allies are wiped out, but is allowed to take a card from the other side’s hand in recompense. Where both sides agree to negotiate, the players have a minute to reach an agreement over the exchange of bases or cards. If they fail to do so, both players end up losing tokens to the warp as punishment for their dithering.

Whilst the game’s strategy appears simple at first, it is complicated by the addition of the Artifact cards and the individual Alien abilities. Each of these allows players to bend the games rules in certain ways. Artifacts have a number of different abilities – some of which include the capacity to release all ships from the warp; cancel other alien abilities; or block allies from being involved in a challenge. Careful marshalling of these cards can leverage a crucial advantage for you at an important point in the game.

The Alien cards give players a persistent means to influence the game and often substantially change the play style for the players. The titles of each alien is more of a generic description of their style of player – so titles such as Magician, Healer and Ghoul give you a concept about how each race plays. The abilities can be situational; a different victory conditions or a standard change to the basic rules. An example of the later is the Virus who counts the combat score by multiplying the number of ships they have by the encounter card played rather than adding. The Genius is able to draw cards rather than establishing colonies – and can win the game by having 20 encounter cards in their hand. Some of these powers appear serious, although there are a number of races that have “jokey” abilities (although not necessarily to the extent that it makes the game unwinnable). The Sniveler is the most well-known of these, where players in a losing position can whine about it and other players must give them ships, colonies or cards or suffer penalties of their own.

So what is it that makes Cosmic Encounter so good in my opinion, especially when I in the past I have found games with such a long history to have failed to sufficiently evolve. I think the point about Cosmic Encounter is that it does not have to evolve, as the game has always managed to feel fresh in its player interactions. If you consider that the basic game contains over 50 aliens and each expansion adds even more to the mix, there are so many different combinations of abilities that could occur.

Unlike other 4X style games, the destiny deck ensures that there is no fortressing in your home systems and trying to build an impenetrable defence before venturing out. There is an immediacy which ensures that the game plays much quicker than others. Some may dislike the artificial nature of creating conflicts and the lack of choice, but I find it adds tension and prevents conservative play. Moreover, due to the number of cards in the destiny deck, it prevents players ganging up too much on one individual and brings the game to a conclusion usually within the hour.

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I also like how the galactic civilisations theme is does not feel integral to the game’s design, but neither does it feel tacked on. For those individual for whom anything sci-fi is no go, I feel there is an opportunity to bring them into this game and I am pretty certain they will forget about it in the bedlam that erupts from the word go. Furthermore, it works as a great introduction game – no dithering over turns and players having an opportunity to get involved at all times through the alliances that emerge.

Moreover this game is as much as anything a framework for the social interactions that are carrying out between the players. There are threats, agreements, pleadings and back stabbing that makes an episode of Game Of Thrones look like a family picnic. But most of all, there is laughter. The game does not take itself too seriously and it does not want you to do so either. This is not a po-faced space opera. This is a sci-fi game that thrives on immediate and repeated chaos. It may knock you down, but you sure as hell want to get back up again and re-enter the fray again.

Despite being late to the party, I adore Cosmic Encounter. I can get it on the table with little fuss, explain most of the rules within a few minutes and then crack on with being honest, thoughtful, deceitful or whatever way I feel with going to the job done. As so many of my games are co-operative, it’s nice to know that at times you can just be looking out for number one. And in doing so, dominate a small corner of the infinite cosmos.