Archive for the '50 Games in 50 Weeks' Category

50 Games in 50 Weeks: Once Upon a Time

Jul 10 2012 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Reviews

This is a weird game.

It’s a storytelling card game. Each player has a hand full of fairy tale story elements (swords, siblings, dark places, etc.) and a single ending (“And she was happy the rest of her days,” “And he never saw her again,” etc.). One player begins telling a story, laying down story elements as they appear in the story. However, if another player’s story element appears in the story, then that player may play that card and take over the story. The losing player must then draw an extra story card and stew as the new player continues the story. Similarly, the other players can challenge a player whose story has ceased to make sense, or who has paused for more than a few seconds in telling the story.

The game continues until one player has played all of his or her story elements, and plays his or her ending.

That’s about all of the rules. Sounds chaotic and easy to “game,” right? It is, to begin with. But let me tell you a story.

My favorite session of Once Upon a Time occurred during Guy’s Night Out. Imagine half a dozen college-age guys (and me) sitting around a table, and I pull out this card game. The guys lean forward, intrigued. I deal out the cards. I begin a story.

At first, players slam through their story elements, trying to tell a complete story in two sentences. This behavior is challenged, the relevant players are chastised, and everyone realizes that that tactic just isn’t much fun.

Then, things get interesting, as people realize that they have to tell a good story. On the fly.

Good storytellers are rewarded for weaving a sensible story. One has to weave a story. Give the plot elements room to breathe and grow.

We told stories, laughed, and grew entranced by each others’ stories.

How awesome is that?

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My Board Game: Zeppelins vs. Pterodactyls

Jul 02 2012 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Miscellaneous

Months ago, I watched a bizarre short film called Zeppelins vs. Pterodactyls which threw together clips from various cartoons and space opera serials of the 1930’s. The film didn’t do much for me, but the name stuck.

I mentioned that name to Michael R, and we fantasized a competitive board game in which zeppelins fly over a lost world, descending for treasure as their crews fight off pterodactyls.

Today, after much play-testingthat game is officially born:

Zeppelins vs. Pterodactyls action shot

Zeppelins vs. Pterodactyls action shot

I spent several months play-testing the concept, discovering confusing rules and improving gameplay. It’s always had the same basic concept: the players lay out terrain cards to form a lost world, then each player controls a zeppelin. On your turn, you move your zeppelin to an adjacent card or attempt to steal the loot on the terrain card below you. If you move onto an unexplored card, flip it over to reveal its loot: extra cannon balls, extra armor, or a treasure. You can also fire a cannon ball at one of the pterodactyls flying around. Separately, all the players move pterodactyls and cause them to attack nearby zeppelins.

A lot has changed. The terrain cards were initially square (hexes get around the question of diagonal movement and look cool). Early iterations had a lot of empty terrain cards; now there are no empty terrain cards, but some with minimal rewards. Controlling pterodactyls went through many iterations before I hit on the current system that involves flipping over a pterodactyl card on your turn to control that pterodactyl. I also tried several ways for players to track armor and cannon balls, from setting a 20-sided die to the current number, to placing stones on a paper track, to the current system of tokens.

As with my 50 Games in 50 Weeks challenge (and this counted as one of the games!), I learned a lot:

  • Rules must be airtight, written without ambiguity.
    • Much play-testing experience is needed to learn which phrases people find ambiguous.
  • Players benefit from a summary of the rules that can be used during play. Ideally, this summary fits on a card or one side of a sheet of paper.
  • A game will not appeal to everyone.
    • Better to create multiple versions of a game to appeal to different demographics than to attempt one game for everyone.
  • We now live in a world where I can upload a bunch of images and text to The Game Crafter, and within a few minutes, anyone in the U.S. can buy my game.

Zeppelins vs. Pterodactyls is a family game for 1–6 players that plays in 30–60 minutes. If you’d like a copy, it’s US$30 on The Game Crafter.

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50 Games in 50 Weeks: Shadowrun 4E

Jul 02 2012 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Reviews,Role-playing

Shadowrun on My Mind by John McKenna

Shadowrun on My Mind by John McKenna

I’d heard bad things about Shadowrun, that the world was much more fun than the system.

Fortunately, I played 4th Edition, which made complete sense. Character sheets were heavy-laden with skills and stats, but easy to understand.

The system features a straightforward core mechanic: assemble a die pool out of your abilities and roll it against a target number. If you roll a lot of 1s, something really bad happens.

The system benefits from many years of evolution. I felt like the system started with a heavy emphasis on crunch, then over time the more complex parts were re-factored out and storytelling elements were worked in. The current incarnation can handle crunch-heavy and crunch-light games with ease.

I also had the good fortune to play under an awesome GM. He knew the system, he knew the adventure, and he was completely open to player actions. He listened.

We finished in about two hours, which was half of our four-hour slot at Origins. The GM apologized, and offered to throw other stuff into the adventure; we players thanked him and politely declined. We were happy to have some extra time at the con, especially after a fantastic, memorable session. Much better to play a great two-hour session than a four-hour slog.

I don’t actually remember much of the system; I mostly remember having a great time. Isn’t that awesome?

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50 Games in 50 Weeks, Complete

Jul 01 2012 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Miscellaneous

'Game closet' by lkbm on Flickr

‘Game closet’ by lkbm on Flickr

In July of last year, I took stock of myself as a gamer. I wanted to understand games better, and eventually design games. I realized that I suffered from a deficiency: I could play a few games well, but I knew only a few of them.

I decided to fix this by setting myself an impossible-sounding challenge: 50 Games in 50 Weeks. I would play 50 games that I had never played before, all within the next 50 weeks.

Last night, at the stroke of midnight on the last day in June, I finished my fiftieth game: Houses of the Blooded.

Looking back on the past year, I’m struck by a few things:

  • There’s a huge variety of games and mechanics. I feel like I’ve plunged two feet into the ocean.
  • I have learned a lot. I’ve discovered many different mechanics and rule approaches. The challenge worked.
  • In a “bad” game, the mechanics don’t fit the kinds of actions the players want to take. Indeed, the mechanics are often the same generic mechanics used in popular games. “Good” game design involves finding appropriate mechanics and fitting them together in ways that fit the game’s concept and offer the players interesting choices.

I do realize that I’ve fallen behind in posting my game summaries; I’ll write and post those in the coming months.


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50 Games in 50 Weeks: The Play’s The Thing

Apr 23 2012 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Reviews,Role-playing

'Shakespeare' by mariateresaadalid on Flickr

'Shakespeare' by mariateresaadalid on Flickr

If you can imagine a Shakespearean role-playing game that’s riotously fun even for those not steeped in Shakespeare, you’d be imagining The Play’s The Thing.

The players take on the roles of small-time Shakespearean actors in a play that changes underneath their feet. That, indeed, is the fun: not only can the director interrupt and tell you to do the rest of the scene in Japanese accents, but all the other players can bid to have their own suggestions implemented, using Story Points that act much like Fate Points in FATE.

Each player has two main things to keep track of: his actor and his character. There are several different archetypes of actors available, from the Ham to the Ingenue. And, of course, each actor is playing one of the characters in the Shakespeare play.

As part of setup, each player chooses an actor archetype, then there’s a round-robin mechanism wherein each player is offered the option to either choose a character, or to add some plot point to that character and pass to another player. So, the GM might offer you the role of Macbeth; you can accept or decide that Macbeth, say, has a secret with three witches, and pass to the next player.

Actual gameplay is split into five acts, each of which is introduced by the GM. This is why the game works for those unfamiliar with Shakespeare: the GM tells you what’s supposed to happen before you start the act. The plot changes drastically anyway, so you don’t need to even have seen or read the original play to play the game.

Oddly, given the subject matter, The Play’s The Thing quickly turns into a beer-and-pretzels game. Players stumble through scenes as others suggest changes serious and silly. You don’t even have to improv, but you are working to incorporate some really fun material.

Moreover, there’s a built-in incentive to keep the story on track: you have to play your own character, too, and the sillier the plot, the harder that is.

I had a blast with The Play’s The Thing. The players quickly got over their Shakespeare jitters (most of us barely remembered the vaguest outline of the plot) and just dove into our story: Macbeth. We soon had Jewish Witches, the world’s shortest soliloquy (“Och!”), and a plot so focused on Macduff that we renamed the play after him.

The system’s still a little rough around the edges. Players get Story Points to influence the story, but it wasn’t clear when we could or couldn’t use them. However, the problems were minor, and never kept us from enjoying ourselves. It helped that we had a fantastic GM, Tom Cadorette, who knew exactly when to go deeper and when to move on.

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50 Games in 50 Weeks: Munchkin

Apr 09 2012 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Reviews

The Munchkin card game models dungeon crawlers who are only interested in killing things and taking their stuff. The game has two decks; the Door Deck contains monsters to fight, while the Treasure Deck contains stuff: a race (elf, dwarf, etc.), a class (cleric, fighter, wizard, etc.), a weapon, or an event.

You start the game with a few Treasure cards. On your turn, you draw a Door card. If you draw a monster you can defeat, you kill it and gain a level, then draw a Treasure card.

Those are the basics. Various cards give you bonuses, or let you hold back the progress of other players. The first player to reach level 10 wins.

Munchkin is clearly a beer-and-pretzels game. The mechanics seem to favor building your own character instead of screwing others, so games needn’t turn too competitive. It’s pretty swingy, too; you’re likely to lose levels at least a few times.

Discworld-style zaniness infuses the game. The art and item descriptions keep the mood light, from the Big Honkin’ Sword of Character Whupping to the Boots of Running Really Fast.

After hearing only good things about Munchkin, my first attempt at the game ended poorly. We had trouble grasping the game’s metaphors, and we drew poor cards, rendering us unable to move forward in the game. But a second attempt worked much better.

Overall, it’s a fun, light game that takes a little time to get used to, but has enough variations to stay fresh for quite a while.

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50 Games in 50 Weeks: A Game of Thrones: The Card Game

Apr 02 2012 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Reviews

This is a tough review, because I simply didn’t like the Game of Thrones card game. It’s not my kind of game. However, I’d like to play it again at least once, because it has interesting strategy implications.

And that is both the positive and negative of the Game of Thrones card game. Imagine Magic: The Gathering with 50% more rules. It’s deep and complex. This can be good or bad, depending on your temperament.

Each player represents a faction, and gets a deck of cards to represent that. The deck include characters, locations, events, and various enhancements (weapon, armor, etc.).

The deck also includes seven special Plot cards. Those are set aside; more on those later.

Play does not proceed in any normal order. To begin, you set up a little board that contains six plastic tokens. Starting clockwise (but in a different order in later rounds), each player chooses one of the tokens. Each token confers a specific benefit; more on those later.

Each player then chooses and reveals a Plot card. This card confers its own special benefit or drawback, such as making certain cards easier or harder to field.

Plot cards also include an initiative value. The player with the highest initiative doesn’t go first, though! The player with the highest initiative chooses who goes first.

Each player in turn (proceeding clockwise) then gets money based on a money value printed on the Plot cards. Each card in the deck has a cost, and the player can only play as many cards as he can afford. He places the cards he can afford face-up in front of him, and they remain there until killed.

Characters and Locations are placed normally, while enhancements must go on a character.

Then, each player in turn can attack other players. But wait! There are three different kinds of attacks, each represented by a special icon. Some characters can only perform some of these attacks.

Game of Thrones card game

This is pretty much what we looked like (from this review)

Make sense so far? Just wait!

Getting back to those plastic tokens: Each one gives you a bonus (more gold, an extra few points of power when performing a certain attack, etc.), and some tokens prevent you from attacking a player holding another token. It’s different for each token. Of course.

And all this can be modified by certain cards in play. There are even cards that kill the enemy, even if you’re not performing a killing attack.

It blew my mind. Information overload, and I don’t know how much I’d enjoy it even after playing it a few times. So many things can affect your strategy that I feel I’d always be gasping for air.

But that’s just me. The game does provide a huge range of options and tactics, and is sure to appeal to gamers who relish that sort of complexity.

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50 Games in 50 Weeks: Ticket to Ride

Mar 26 2012 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Reviews

Ticket to Ride game board

Ticket to Ride game board

Ticket to Ride is one of the classic Eurogames. This intimidated me; Eurogames are known for their relative complexity. I’ve only played Ticket to Ride once, and I learned it quickly and had fun.

The game is played on a board showing major American cities (there are other versions for other countries, naturally), and colored potential train lines running between them. At any given time, four colored train cards are revealed from a deck, and on your turn, you can choose up to two of them (or up to two from the deck). If you have enough train cards of a certain color, you can place train tokens on a train line of that color.

You also get three destination cards, each of which lists two cities and a score. At the end of the game, if you have an unbroken chain of train lines between those two cities, you’ll win that score at the end–but if not, that score will be deducted from your total. You also get points for each train line, longer ones being worth more points.

That’s just about the entire game. You play against a couple of other players, of course, and the game gets really interesting when folks are all going after the same area of the country. Some cities can be connected by two different lines, but that’s the max, so you may need to route around a full connection.

There’s just enough strategy to keep the mind occupied, but few options at any given time. It fits well into that middle ground of games that are neither casual nor ruthless, and even tweens can play.

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50 Games in 50 Weeks: Dominion

Mar 19 2012 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Reviews

Dominion card gameDominion came out of nowhere a few years ago to become a hugely popular game. Folks just adore this game.

I decided to just straight out buy it, based on all the praise I’d heard for it. When I opened the game box, I was taken aback. The base game includes hundreds of cards, and they all seem different.

In play, the game makes sense. There are only a few main card types: coins, victories, and resources. You use coins to buy resources and victories, you use resources to affect the other players and gain more victories, and you win by having more victories than the other players once the largest pile of victory cards is depleted.

It’s the draw mechanic that makes the game sing. Each player starts with a couple of coin cards and victory cards. On your turn, you draw a couple of cards from your deck, use any coins you have in your hand to buy more cards, play one or more resources, then discard everything. Because your deck starts small, you quickly get to the bottom of your deck, then shuffle your discard pile back into your deck.

This is a brilliant mechanic that feels very weird. Players reach the bottom of their decks by the end of their second turns. When I first played, this seemed like a frustrating, artificial constraint, then I realized: I know what’s in my deck. I know what I’m likely to draw, but I don’t have total control over it.

This adds just enough randomness to keep experienced players from completely dominating the game.

Also, the game comes with 20 different types of resource cards, but each game can only use 10 different types. They’re put out in piles, and the game ends when any 3 resource piles are depleted. Thus, you may develop a killer strategy for one set of piles, but start a new game with a different set, and your strategy must change.

Every type of resource card has some effect on the game: they give you more coins, force other players to discard cards, prevent other players from attacking you, provide more actions per turn, etc. But no card stays in your hand; it’s either used or discarded, every turn. So the game moves quickly, and players can’t amass power.

Dominion features a beautifully balanced set of mechanics that are simple enough for a tween to understand, but offer enough complexity to satisfy an adult. I’m stunned.

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50 Games in 50 Weeks: Marvel Heroic Roleplaying

Mar 12 2012 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Reviews,Role-playing

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying cover

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying © 2012 Marvel, Margaret Weiss Productions

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is a new tabletop role-playing game that’s garnered a lot of interest lately, partly due to its impressive roster of designers and developers: Cam Banks (Smallville and Leverage RPGs), Rob Donoghue (Spirit of the CenturyDresden Files RPG), Matt Forbeck (Lord of the Rings RPG, Deadlands RPG), Will Hindmarch, and Philippe-Antoine Menard (The Chatty DM).

MHR takes an interesting mechanical approach: to perform an action, build a set of dice (a “dice pool”) from elements on your character sheet. Almost every rule centers around building that dice pool.

Contrast this with, say, Dungeons & Dragons, which has at least three different dice-rolling mechanics: attack rolls, saving throws, and skill checks. This means there’s a lot to remember, and many potential effects, but at least they all point to the same place.

The Core Mechanic

In Marvel, the dice pool is built out of four areas on your character’s sheet:

  1. Affiliations — How well you work solo, with a buddy, or in a team
  2. Distinctions — Three taglines that define your character. If a distinction applies to the situation, you can grab a d8, or use it at a disadvantage by grabbing a d4 and getting an extra Plot Point (more on those later). You can use several of these, if they apply.
  3. Power Sets — Your powers, like claws or energy blasts. You can use several of these, if they apply.
  4. Specialties — Skills, like medicine or acrobatics. You can only use one of these per dice pool.

You choose your dice out of each of these areas. If you have Plot Points, you can spend them for extra dice (and other things, but more on that later). You roll all your dice, and here’s where things get interesting:

You add two rolled dice together for your result (bigger is better). You then choose another die for the effect, but it’s the number of sides on that die that are important, not what you roll on it. So, if you roll poorly on a many-sided die, you’ll probably use that as your effect die.

The result is compared against the opponent’s result to determine if you succeed. If you do, the size of the effect die is the size of the damage dealt.


Here’s where things get weird if you haven’t played, say, Savage Worlds. Each character has three stress tracks: physical, mental, and emotional. Each stress track is tracked by die size. If you’ve never experienced this, imagine a stress track with five slots labeled 4, 6, 8, 10, or 12. If you choose a d6 as your effect die, then the opponent would shade in the 6 slot on his or her stress track, and would have “6” (or, in Marvel‘s parlance, “d6”) of stress.

An example: Cyclops is facing off against Venom. Cyclops’s player builds his dice pool, using Cyclops’s Optic Beam power, and ends up with a result of 15, with a d8 effect die. Venom rolls a result of 12, so Cyclops blasts Venom with his optic beam. Venom now has d8 of physical stress.

If a character goes above d12 stress on any track, he or she is knocked out.

Plot Points, Opportunities, and The Doom Pool

There are three other major elements to the system: Plot Points, Opportunities, and the Doom Pool.

Plot Points are player resources that can be used in many ways to build up a character’s dice pool. Plot Points can be used to add a d8 to a power, activate a special effect on a power, add more effect dice, etc. The “cheat sheet” that comes with Marvel lists 12 things players can do with Plot Points.

Opportunities are triggered whenever anyone rolls a 1 on any die. If a player rolls a 1, the Watcher (GM) can offer the player a Plot Point. If the player accepts the Plot Point, the Watcher adds a d6 to the Watcher’s Doom Pool (or swaps an existing Doom Pool die for a larger die). On the other hand, if the Watcher rolls a 1, a player can spend a Plot Point to get various bonuses: an extra d8 for the next dice pool, a larger effect die, etc.

The Doom Pool is kept by the Watcher (the Game Master). The Doom Pool starts with two d6s, and increase as the players roll 1s and accept Plot Points. In practice, the Doom Pool grows rapidly. The Watcher can add Doom Pool dice to any of his dice pools as desired.

Marvel Heroes

© Marvel

How Well It Works

There’s a lot more to the system than this, and that’s the primary thing to know about Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: you’re not going to grok the system in one session. There are too many rules and exceptions, all of which affect the construction of dice pools. Everything modifies the one core mechanic.

However, you will absolutely be able to play Marvel in one session. It simulates American superheroes beautifully, and within an hour you’ll be constructing dice pools with ease.

During my first game, I had a grand time. I ran a modified version of the “Breakout” event listed in the book. The players were able to use their characters effectively. The mechanics supported play of the characters.


The basic rule book provides an event called “Breakout.” It’s a two-part story intended to be told over two sessions, but each part can also be run solo.

The event structure provided in Marvel is better than anything else I’ve seen.

Each event has several Milestones. Side explanation: Each hero has two character-specific Milestones that he or she can pursue. Performing certain actions that fall within the Milestone gets the character Experience Points (XP). Each event has its own Milestones, and characters can choose to pursue those Milestones instead of their own.

Moreover, each event has “unlockables” which can be “bought” for XP. So, if a character gains 5 XP, he or she can unlock extra help or information to further the story along.

From there, the book describes various locations involved in the story, and Scene Distinctions (another element that you can use to add dice to your dice pools) that apply to those locations.

The book then lists suggested starting places for various heroes. In this case, the action centers around a prison for super-villains in New York’s East River, so Matt Murdock is visiting as a lawyer, Captain America is flying overhead on his way to a security conference, Peter Parker and Tony Stark are on business in New York, the X-Men are on a pier investigating a tip, etc.

The book goes on to describe the action of the event, along with stat blocks for each villain. It’s basically a series of encounters, but only the final encounter is required. All the others are treated as optional encounters, with plenty of options and ideas to power the conflict up or down (such as extra villains, innocent bystanders, or additional environmental problems).

It’s beautiful. It provides so many options that it’s easy to pick a direction, but none of it kills the game. The book assumes that the Watcher is smart enough to adjust if the game’s going poorly.


I love this system. It’s easy to play and easy to run. The rules provide enough complexity to let smart players gain significant advantages, but it’s not so complex as to be inscrutable or confusing. It takes a while to fully understand all the bonuses and effects, but you can have great fun with even a basic understanding of the system.

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