Posted on April 9, 2015
New Boardgames and Hybrid Board Games.
Last Friday Carol reported a bonanza of legit board games that came through Goodwill and after calling me up and letting me know what was there, I directed her to buy as much of it as I thought she could carry. I was dubious that the games would be complete/good condition, but everything looks practically virginal, and every playing piece was present and correct.
My haul was $407 off-the-shelf worth of boardgames, for a lot less than that. Not silly money cheap, Goodwill isn’t stupid, but less than a quarter of that. Below are my initial thoughts, having played none of them, but also the thoughts that made me go out and buy another game…
Is a four-player game where you build a hospital, try to cure patients and deal with a outbreak of a virulent disease. Thematically, whatever. It looks like a pretty easy game to pick up and probably doesn’t take long to play. The rules as written are on the tangled side, but I suspect with play that would iron itself out.
Of the boardgames, M&M is the game I’m probably most excited to play. I mean, look at that dude, look how fucking excited he is!
This is a prop heavy boardgame, with ships of 5 different kinds and in 6 different colours. You play a totally legitimate seafarer, with your choice of a fast Sloop or a cargo hauling Flute and you venture out into the Caribbean to seek Glory, which is a thing, but also a mechanism to tell who wins the game. The ways to get Glory are numerous, meaning there are many different ways to play the game – stay a legitimate cargo hauler and become filthy rich, plunder the shit out of everyone, take up a letter of marque on behalf of one of the four nations involved in the area or zip around combining any of these things with various errands and missions. The time given on the box for a game is a three hour game. But look at this – miniature ships, cardboard chests to store your money!
Play is easy enough, I’ve whipped through a few turns. Trading and pirating both make sense. What’s a bit trickier is that the situation around you changes – other pirates appear to prey on you and the colonial nations stick their navy in every once in a while. While you play a pirate of Dutch, French, Spanish or *ahem* “English” origins, you aren’t automatically working for that nation. In fact, you can work for whoever you want. Each Captain has a different skill though, often tied to their nationality of origin, so it behooves some Captains to be played a certain way.
Once your ship is on the seas, the game is very fast, where it slows a bit is the Port option. In port you can do a multitude of things, all still taking up one action of the three you are allotted. This could mean you spend most of your time in port, but I didn’t find it to be burdensome.
I can’t tell what to think about Kings of Artifice. It’s a 2-4 player on a fixed map, but a lot of it seems like the mechanics of Carcassone. You build walls, houses, castles and what not, with special pieces that let you build or do certain things. I can’t really tell if this’d be fun or not. It certainly doesn’t look too difficult.
The consensus seemed to be that as card games went the original Doomtown, set in the Weird West of Deadlands, was the bees knees. They’ve reissued the game with some changes and people seem enthusiastic. The game comes with enough for four players to play, although there are expansion decks you can buy. The mechanics currently elude me, so I’m going to watch an instructional review after I get done typing this up. But I know that the cards are almost everything I liked about Deadlands (not enough Undead) and that the combat (duels) end up being about drawing decent Poker hands, so I’m on board with that. As to how expandable it is and must be, I’ll wait to figure out. I do know that the old Doomtown followed a sort of story arc – with new releases creating a narrative that seemed suitably Deadlandsy. Presumably the same will be attempted with this , but it hasn’t actually bee out for too long.
The other boardgame is Provincia Romana. I haven’t checked this out too much – it’s the type of board game I love, but rarely ever play. “Let’s play a game about administration of Roman Gaul” doesn’t get anyone else’s blood pumping like it does mine. I’ll run through it when I have the time.
Okay, those are the boardgame things out of the way, even though Doomtown is clearly less of a boardgame than Descent is… but Descent is something that has caused me to think pretty hard about new directions in gaming. Not my direction necessarily, but just enough to get my head out a Dungeon Master’s Guide (figuratively).
Descent is a hybrid boardgame-roleplaying game. In fact, it is a board version of what computer games consider roleplaying games. The locations are fixed and as a player you control your character’s moves, combat rolls, skill rolls and in the campaign versions, what new skills and equipment they pick up as they go. You don’t have paper-and-pen roleplaying game freedom and no-one cares about your character, least of all you, because you didn’t make them up, you choose from a stack of (basic game) 8 adventurers.
There is a place in the world for completely open, occasionally improvised roleplaying games. I’ve run/played and loved/hated them. But that wasn’t really what I wanted when I started the Pathfinder campaign, I wanted an extended dungeon bash where the goals of the players were pretty clear and players could put as little or as much effort into making their characters interesting as they wanted. Cyrus, played by Rolland in this current campaign is a good example of someone who has an agenda and finds interesting ways to achieve that agenda without derailing the plot. That’s work that Rolland did, not me and it’s one of the things that I love about rpgs. That kind of stuff is tossed to the wayside with Descent and the focus is on action play.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. In fact, such tight control and such limited options make for in many ways an easier game than the constant content creep of Pathfinder and other paper and pen RPGs. When a game is substantially complex enough for there to be ‘builds’ of which there are superior and inferior versions, something of it is ruined for me. I like having choices in character development, but I don’t like there to be choices which are required… that stops really being a choice.
Descent’s forbears are Heroquest and the like. The game provides generous amounts of board tiles that are put together to form small dungeons. The playing pieces in this game are really pretty rad and I was surprised by the number of them. The quality of the pieces are the usual excellent Fantasy Flight quality. If you are feeling bored, the video series Watch It Played can show you what it is all aboot and it does so in the least smarmy of all the board games video reviews that I’ve seen so far. Constantly smiling Canadian guy Rodney Smith does a really nice job of running through everything.
You can play the dungeons as stand alones, but the campaign mode seems more rewarding. One booo factor for Fantasy Flight is that the Lieutenants (the Overlord’s Bosses for climactic fights) don’t come in the box as miniatures, you have to buy those big bad guys separately (they come as tokens). And the minis are on the pricey side. Fortunately almost everyone I know has a metric shitton of miniatures, so I don’t feel like this is a problem for me, but still… boooo Fantasy Flight, that’s a gouge and you know it.
Setup is pretty straightforward. As part of setup, someone is the Overlord (bad guy) while anyone else (1-4 people) are adventurers. The Overlord isn’t the GM/DM/Referee, there are no adjudications for that player to make, other than what the monsters do. Setting up variables on the board (where a the quest treasure is hidden, for example) is random. As are the types of treasure. The Overlord is there as the opposition, not game-runner. While the Overlord doesn’t get to buy equipment between episodes, they do have a hand of Overlord Cards which are basically spanners in the works of a smooth dungeon raid by the players and add a bit of randomness to encounters.
The setup for players is a bit more involved. You chose your dude, which is one of the four classic classes of RPG, but then you choose a deck to go with it. The Warrior class for example can go with the Knight Deck or the Berserker Deck. Initially this deck gives you your starting gear and a special ability to combine with the special abilities unique to each character. In a campaign, as you accrue XP, you can add more of these cards from the deck to your character, in addition to gear you find/buy along the way.
Game play is simple enough, you get actions, then the Overlord gets actions. The dice initially seem complicated because they are game specific not d6s. But you basically still end up adding up your damage against an opponent’s armour and seeing if any get through. Each little dungeon raid resolves either in the Adventurer’s favour or the Overlord’s favour which can then influence the next dungeon. In between dungeons, there’s some book-keeping in the campaign mode as you travel from place to place, buy and sell gear and what not. Nothing that takes a long time.
Eventually, you’ll start running into the same old dungeon corridors and denizens, which is where Fantasy Flight’s relentless support of their stuff comes in. The expansions add a few more rules, more characters, more miniatures and more tiles, making for a more varied experience. The expansion I have adds two new adventurers, a new condition (being on fire), two new Overlord monsters (a demon knight and Imps), along with ways to introduce new areas as sort of side quests to the main campaign.
In addition to these ways of keeping things fresh, if someone isn’t into being Overlord for the long haul (the Overlord can win the Campaign too) there’d be no difficulty in switching things up and having people rotate bad guy duty.
All of this seems like it would be a really good entry into roleplaying games, which had me pondering whether it was a good game for me. I think it probably still would be. As much like a computer RPG as this might be, you can’t underestimate the value of sitting around a table together and taking the piss out of each other. RPGing is almost just a framework for trashtalk and dick jokes and this game crucially does nothing to detract from that. In fact by divesting itself of some of the loftier, creative parts of paper-and-pen RPGs, it’s maybe better suited to that tabletalk magic that I love so much.
Descent, as a fantasy game, however, isn’t going to scratch an itch I can’t get scratched from lots of other places – from paper and pen to console gaming, to the bloody iPhone, for goodness sake. Dudes in dungeons are ten a penny. But when I thought about the benefits of this type of hybrid game (quick immersion, high quality physical elements to the game as well as the speed of play) my thoughts turned to Mansions of Madness, Fantasy Flight’s Call of Cthulhu version of the same Hybrid RPG-boardgame concept. Call of Cthulhu isn’t a combat based game, but that’s an itch that’s not getting scratched and is much harder to find on computers and iPhones. And the idea of skipping straight to the climactic investigation of the old house bristling with terrors appeals.
So I bought that, like 10 minutes ago. The bummer – for our game group – is that it is a 5 player game. Which means three people have to recuse themselves for us to be able to play it on a normal Thursday night. But for a weekend diversion, this seems like a good one and one we could play with less frequent gamers… Bryce. We could play this with Bryce.
Mansions should be here soonish. And I’d be interested in going through a campaign of that. But I’d be fine with testing the concept with a few games of Descent too.
So many games to try out…