Archive for the '50 Games in 50 Weeks' Category

50 Games in 50 Weeks: Seven Dragons

Sep 14 2011 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Miscellaneous

Just finished playing a game of Seven Dragons, a strategy card game by Looney Labs. It manages to find an excellent middle ground between ease of comprehension and strategic options.

Seven Dragons card game

Seven Dragons © Looney Labs

The rules can be easily explained in 10 minutes (though I botched one of the rules’ aspects). After you begin playing and once you hit the game’s midpoint, your strategic options become complex and interesting.

It’s something of a pattern-matching game. A silver dragon card is placed in the center of the table, then each player draws 3 dragon cards and one goal card (all kept secret from other players). The dragon cards have differently-colored dragon panels on them, and the goal card has one colored dragon. Each turn, each player draws a card into their hand, then lays down a card next to an existing card on the table, with the goal of connecting seven panels that all have the same color as the player’s goal card.

The draw pile also contains action cards that let players swap goals, swap hands, move a card on the table, etc. This makes the latter half of the game particularly intense, as chains built earlier are abandoned for new goals and precise placement becomes much more important to prevent other players from completing chains.

It’s not Risk, of course, but for a US $12-$15 game that you can teach quickly and get through in 30 to 60 minutes, I’m impressed at its depth. Bonus: elements of the system can be easily dropped to make the game easier for kids to understand.

You can buy Seven Dragons directly from Looney Labs.

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50 Games in 50 Weeks: Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple

Sep 07 2011 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Role-playing

Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple

Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple

Do simulates a specific fantasy trope: adolescent temple iplgrims who travel the world, helping people and getting into trouble. As limiting as this may appear, it’s easy for folks to grasp and use to tell stories.

The system is much more simple than the length of this review implies, and highly story-focused. Your character is represented by two words: an adjective or verb “banner” and a noun “avatar.” The banner represents how your character gets into trouble, and the avatar represents how she helps people.

That’s it for character creation. There’s no GM, and no combat system. Intrigued yet?

Each story begins with the pilgrims’ receipt of a letter from some community outside their temple. The letter describes some big problem that the community faces (though the letter writer may not be telling the whole truth). From that letter, a set of key words called “goal words” (10 for an easy adventure; 20 for a normal one) have been extracted. The book provides a bunch of sample letters, with goal words pre-extracted.

The system uses no dice; instead, several dozen stones are placed inside a pouch. Black and white go stones are ideal; we simulated them using coin tosses.

Once the pilgrims fly off towards the source of the letter, play begins with the oldest player, then continues to the left in a circle. The current player is the “storyteller,” while the other players are “troublemakers.”

The storyteller removes three stones from the pouch, and decides whether to take the white or the black stones. Taking the larger number lets you help people and get out of trouble while fewer stones get you into trouble, but once any player collects 8 or more stones, the story is over and the group fails.

Practically speaking, if you take as many stones as possible each turn, you’ll collect too many stones. So, there’s a built-in incentive to get in trouble.

The only part of the system that can’t be quickly memorized is the table that tells you what you do depending on how many stones you take.

That table determines what the storyteller or the troublemakers do next, and it’s determined by how many stones you take and whether you are or aren’t in trouble (a total of 8 scenarios). The storyteller may be able to help someone–perhaps another pilgrim who’s in trouble, or perhaps someone in the world they’re visiting–or the troublemakers may be directed to get the storyteller into trouble. Either (or both) may involve crossing off goal words.

Crossing off goal words is how you get a happy ending: if you cross off all the goal words before any pilgrim gets 8 stones, the pilgrims succeed.

After a few rounds, it becomes clear that the pilgrims are regularly getting into trouble, and each player must, while storyteller, balance helping her friends and moving the story along towards its goal.

There’s a bit more complexity involving the stones you take and how your character changes at the end of the story, which appears lovely but I wasn’t able to test.

The book’s cover claims that it’s aimed at players 12 or older, but I think it’s ideal for kids as young as 8. It’s basically Avatar: The Last Airbender, without the heavy long-term story arc.

Moreover, the system is supported by beautiful artwork that evokes child-like wonder and fantasy awesomeness. This is a book worth owning just for the art; combined with the system it was well worth every penny.

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50 Games in 50 Weeks: Fortune & Glory

Aug 24 2011 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Miscellaneous

Fortune & Glory board game coverFortune & Glory is a new board game of pulp adventure. Each player is an Indiana Jones-style adventurer, traveling the world, looking for treasure, fighting Nazis and mob bosses.

The board shows the world, split up into maybe two dozen zones for major countries and areas.

Each player gets a specific character card to play, each of which has a couple of stats. The game includes a bunch of different card types, several of which are used to generate treasure and place them in locations around the world board. Each character starts out in his or her home city.

The mechanics are all based on cards and six-sided dice. Each turn, all players roll dice for initiative, then roll dice for the number of countries they can travel through.

If one or more characters are in a country that has a treasure, they each start going through dangers. Each treasure lists the number of dangers required to acquire the treasure, and the amount of glory points you get for successfully going through all the dangers.

Fortune & Glory play sampleEach danger card lists the challenge (rock slides, pit traps, thugs, plane crash, hostile natives, etc.), and the abilities that can be used to overcome it. I love the notation for this:

Lore (5+) • •

This means you need to roll the number of dice you  have in your Lore attribute. Any rolls of 5 or above are successes, and you need 2 successes (the dots). Clean and clear.

If you succeed, you can stop for this turn or push forward with another danger. If you fail, you may take damage, or you may fail the entire challenge, in which case you flip the danger card over to reveal the Cliffhanger you must face next turn. No matter what happens on the Cliffhanger, you must start the challenge over again.

Collect enough damage and you’re sent back to your home city (which may not be a bad thing, depending on where the treasures are on the board).

You get glory points for completing each danger, and for collecting treasure. You can travel to any of the cities on the world board to transmute your glory points into fortune points. Whoever gets 15 fortune first wins.

There are a bunch of other twists, too. Some dangers will spawn Villains, who are tough to beat, and may claim the treasure instead of you. When your character enters a city, you draw a City card, which may have its own dangerous conflict or may be helpful. You can spend fortune in a city to get gear and allies that help you in your adventures.

The pieces are beautiful: high quality, vibrant, with a good hand feel. Glory points and fortune points are represented with plastic coins.

I was lucky enough to play this with a group of RPG and game experts, so it almost had to be fun. I had my typical bad luck with board games, and was very close to last place, but the game was a blast.

It is expensive, though: US $65 or so. You can buy it at Boards & Bits.

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50 Games in 50 Weeks: Searchers of the Unknown

Aug 17 2011 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Role-playing

Books, a public domain imageAs part of RyvenCon, I decided to stretch myself a little and run a game in a system I’d never tried before: Searchers of the Unknown.

Some background is in order: No edition of Dungeons & Dragons has ever been released for free. Moreover, copies of early versions of the game are increasingly impossible to find, except at sky-high prices.

Searchers of the Unknown is one of several projects aimed at releasing a free version of the mechanics of early D&D, in this case 1st Edition. While other systems aim at completeness, SotU aims for brevity: the entire system fits on one side of one page of paper.

Many things are missing from that system, of course, including spell lists and monster lists. But it contains all the basics, and you can easily create spells and monsters with a little imagination. Indeed, there are several free supplements, including Spellcasters of the Unknown, which follow the same format and provide options for wizards and such.

Why would you want to play 1st Edition D&D? Simplicity. Your character sheet consists of 5 numbers, total. And one of those numbers is derived from another.

How does it work, in practice? Surprisingly well.

For one thing, the minimal mechanics practically force role-playing. When you always use the same attack roll, and each weapon is differentiated at most by the die you roll, a slugfest becomes boring within 5 minutes. You have to leap and parry and swing from the rafters or you’ll die of boredom.

Moreover, the system is easy to teach and learn. I and my 2 merry players were playing within 15 minutes, and that’s including a full explanation of all the rules.

The players did point out that the various weapons are differentiated only by die size, meaning there’s no reason to carry a d8 weapon when you could carry a d12 one. We agreed that a rock-paper-scissors mechanic would alleviate this: medium weapons get a +1 on attacks against enemies wielding small weapons, large weapons get a +1 against medium, and small ones get a +1 against large (representing the ability to dodge in and around a big, heavy weapon). But that’s a quibble.

Contrasted to later editions of D&D, in which the rules focus on combat, SotU isn’t about combat. It’s about exploration and adventure. It felt much easier to focus on the larger story, and let the mechanics step in only when needed to resolve a question.

(That may also have been caused by my awesome players.)

SotU is not for everyone, obviously; it requires more imagination from the players and the GM than more mechanics-heavy editions like D&D 4E. That’s nothing against those systems; it’s just a different approach, one well worth exploring.

Download Searchers of the Unknown and Spellcasters of the Unknown for free.

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50 Games in 50 Weeks: Hollowpoint

Aug 09 2011 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Role-playing

Hollowpoint coverWhen my first game of Hollowpoint ended, one player burst out, “That was awesome!” and the others agreed that they’d like to run Hollowpoint again a bunch of times, trying different setups every time.

So, yes, this is a fun system.

Hollowpoint is built to tell stories about Agents on a Mission. These are the kinds of stories where everyone wears a black suit and a narrow tie, and carries a gun. Quentin Tarantino movies are perfect examples, though the system’s flexible enough to handle cop stories, hard sci-fi, etc.

The System, In Brief

Each character has a name, six skills, and five traits. The six skills are KILL, CON (conniving/tricking others), DIG (research), TAKE (stealing), TERROR, and COOL. Each player ranks these skills from 0 to 5 for their character, 5 being best. Each trait is a freeform description of some special ability, focus, or talent that a character can “burn” for extra dice.

Quick basics of conflict resolution: Each player chooses a skill, and rolls that many dice. The ref (GM) gets 8 dice in the first conflict, and more in later ones. Dice are pulled into sets by matching number, so if you roll a 1, 3, 3, 5, 5, you have two sets: two 3’s and two 5’s. At this point, you can burn as many traits as you want to roll 2 more dice and slide them into sets as appropriate.

Whoever has the longest set (and within that, the highest-numbered set) goes first, and can knock a die out of someone else’s sets. Remove one die in a set of two, and that set is completely knocked out. Attack someone with no sets left, and they take a first-stage effect. Attack with the same skill again, and they take a second-stage effect and are out of the fight.

There’s more to it–particularly regarding teamwork and introducing new characters–but that’s the basic flow. Characters are easily built and described, and the system encourages a more abstract ebb-and-flow to conflicts, rather than the “trading blows” mechanics of a system like D&D or Pathfinder. More significantly, it allows characters who suck at combat to be useful within it, as long as they can justify the use of their skills.

How We Set Up

I ran this game online via Skype, with every player’s video cameras on. I made two Google documents: one text document with blank character sheets, and one drawing to represent the dice on the table. In the drawing, I created five text boxes: one for my die rolls, three for the players’, and one for the teamwork pool (though we ended up ignoring the teamwork rules):

Hollowpoint table

Hollowpoint table

When we rolled dice, we’d group like-numbered dice together as shown in the screenshot, so we could easily see each others’ sets.

It took us about 45 minutes to decide on the era, the agency, and to create the player-characters.

How It Went Down

"Suit Day" by JuditK on Flickr

"Suit Day" by JuditK on Flickr

We decided to set our game in the future, but with a 1960’s heist vibe. The characters were all mercenaries working for a crime syndicate, who were hired by The Dragon (a heavy-drinking little person in a white suit) to steal an unnamed object being kept in the central vault of the Night Shadow, a casino/hotel ship orbiting Ganymede.

The player-characters were Lord Trap V, a mysterious masked man; Face, a social manipulator who was owed a lot of favors, and Mike, a squirrely hacker.

The players boarded under false identities and, upon casing the casino, discovered that the grown daughter of Ganymede’s President was hanging off the arm of the most dangerous-looking man in the place. Said man was an enormously obese man throwing vast sums of money away at the craps tables. The players used one PC’s poison needles to stun the girl, then in their first conflict, talked their way past security (“These are friends of mine; she’s just feeling a little faint”) to get her to her room.

Her room had been completely ransacked. A quick check of her computer terminal revealed that her system had also been compromised, and it was an inside job. Security burst in, led by the fearsome Security Chief Garibaldi, and the PCs again managed to talk their way out of it in conflict 2. They went to the Fat Man’s suite, where he managed to get security uniforms for them and swapped out their records for an incoming group of security personnel. They made their way to Security HQ, where they were led to an interrogation room. The door slammed shut behind them. They had been betrayed by The Fat Man!

Their third conflict was against an interrogation team, which the players lost. They revealed most everything. They were left in the interrogation room, at which point they used various mobile hacking skills to create a distraction (Face called in a favor), get out of the room, and sneak their way to the central vault. They used some ingenious tricks to unlock the vault, at which point they heard ironic clapping. The Fat Man stood in the doorway, flanked by two security guards!

The final conflict began. As the ref, I had a lot of dice, and while the PCs did well, The Fat Man eventually managed to shoot one PC until he was bleeding out, hit another, and rattle the third before the hacker was able to jack into The Fat Man’s cyber-brain and burn him out. Security backed off, and the player-characters made away with their goods.

What I Learned

"Dayton" by rmatthendrick on Flickr

"Dayton" by rmatthendrick on Flickr

Hollowpoint perfectly modeled complex, intense conflicts with a variety of different character types, and can be easily extended or changed to handle others (for a Mage-like game, one might swap out the TAKE skill for MAGIC).

It also models those stories well. The book provides a structure for the overall story, with certain conflicts involving the big bad guy, and retaliation scenes. The ref also gets extra dice in future conflicts, ratcheting up the tension and making later battles tougher.

One player made the point that the game really felt like an “Us versus the world” story; the characters were backed into corners constantly.

I also love the rule (and, yes, it’s a rule) that everyone must narrate every use of the mechanics. It got my players thinking about how to role-play, and how the numbers on the sheet corresponded to their actual actions.

To sweeten the deal, the paperback of Hollowpoint is currently available at Lulu for US $19.99. A PDF is coming soon, at a significantly lower price.

Hollowpoint was developed by the always-helpful Brad Murray and the other folks at VSCA, developers of Diaspora.

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50 Games in 50 Weeks: Freemarket

Jul 25 2011 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Reviews,Role-playing

Freemarket cover

Freemarket © 2009 Luke Crane and Jared Sorensen

As part of RyvenCon, the online gaming con, I played a quick game of Freemarket.

Freemarket’s a fascinating system and world, which I honestly had trouble wrapping my brain around. That’s not a complaint or a suggestion that either system or world are deficient; they’re just sufficiently unusual for me to feel lost on mechanics and their consequences.

Freemarket is set on a space station, in a post-capital society of plenty. Everyone has enough food and clothing. Matter printers can regenerate your body, so you can’t die. There’s no money. You create things, and if people like what you create, they give you “flow,” which can be redeemed for access to more space and certain station resources.

So, you can set up a coffee shop in your tiny living space, and make coffee for people, and do it all for free. You can operate that for years without having to spend money (there isn’t any). But hopefully, folks will appreciate your coffee by donating flow, which you can trade in for a larger space somewhere else on the station.

Back to mechanics. Character creation took about 2 hours. Characters have genelines (a family that suggests their tendencies), experiences (skills), interfaces (internal tech), technologies (physical possessions), short-term memories, long-term memories, a generation, and more. It’s overwhelming.

At the end, though, you have a well-defined personality for your character. Moreover, the character creation process defines the group that the PCs are part of (the “MRCZ”), so once you’re done creating your characters, you know why they’re all together, and you have some hooks for the story.

The conflict resolution mechanic involves cards, risking tokens, using cards based on tags on your abilities, and a poker-style decision to “call.”

Each player begins with a couple of cards (based on their abilities), then draws cards each turn. Some cards give you points towards winning the conflict, while others can be used to sabotage or otherwise affect others’ cards. At any time after the first round, anyone can “call,” which ends the conflict. The cards laid out determine the winner(s), loser(s), and effects of the conflict.

This allows for a more nuanced conclusion to a conflict than “I won,” at the expense of a much more abstract, weird process. I couldn’t map the drawing of two cards on my turn to anything in the actual conflict. Granted, that’s probably part of the point.

The system and the setting fit together like a glove, and I love what I saw, but it’s clear this is not a pick-up game. I think I’d have enjoyed it more if I’d played a couple of sessions around a physical table. This is nothing against our wonderful GM Dan; this was caused by Freemarket’s fundamental weirdness as both a system and a setting.

Thanks to Dan Clery the GM, and fellow players Ryven Cedrylle and Adam Minnie.

Purchase Freemarket. More information on the game.

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50 Games in 50 Weeks: #1, Hive

Jul 18 2011 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Reviews

Years ago, I designed a territory-building game, one in which players lay down territory cards, then spawn monsters on them in an attempt to capture another players’ castle. Never went anywhere; turns out that game design is hard.

But as I sat down with a co-worker to play Hive over lunch last week, memories of my territory-building game floated to my mind. This had a similar concept, beautifully realized as a chess-like pure strategy game.

Each player has a set of bakelite hexagonal pieces, each representing an insect. Each player sets down a piece next to each other, then take turns either laying down another piece or moving an existing piece. By the fourth turn, each player must put down their bee, which corresponds somewhat to the king in chess. The object of the game is to surround your opponent’s bee with pieces.

Each piece has its own style of movement. Grasshoppers can jump over any number of continuous pieces to land in an empty position, while beetles can climb on top of other pieces.

There are other rules, but you see the overall shape of the game: the hive grows as the game continues, and the pieces shift based on each player’s strategy. One has to be careful about what piece one moves. What are you leaving vulnerable, and what pieces can take advantage of your new position?

Very young children would probably have a tough time remembering how all the pieces move, but tweens should have no problem playing. Better, the game comes in a vinyl carrying case the size of a hardback book, so it’s easy to take anywhere.

Despite the simplicity of the rules, there are a lot of complexities that arise from gameplay. Because there’s no random element, beginners are at a massive disadvantage against expert players. So be nice if you’re teaching!

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50 Games in 50 Weeks: Introduction

Jul 17 2011 Published by under 50 Games in 50 Weeks,Role-playing

"Dice" by ellasdad on Flickr

"Dice" by ellasdad on Flickr

I want to be a better game player, a better GM, and a better game designer.

I’m poor at playing. I just don’t get deeply into my characters, and I don’t remember the system well.

I’m a pretty effective GM, I think, but my narrations are often bland and I hesitate often. I don’t prove a smooth play experience.

I need exposure to a lot more games to have a sufficiently large toolbox of mechanics to use when designing games.

One of the best ways to improve is through experience, so I’ve set myself a challenge:

By the end of July 2012, I will play 50 games that I’ve never played before. They can be card games, board games, or role-playing games, but because I’m most interested in RPGs, I’ll focus on those.

I’ll write about each game I play. RPG posts will be posted on The New Haul, while board/card game articles will be posted back on my regular blog. I hope you’ll follow me on my journey.

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