Monday, 20 July 2015

Beer, burgers and ninjutsu

I played a couple of games of Ninja - Legend of the Scorpion Clan this weekend, to punctuate a weekend largely spent drinking beer and eating red meat in the sunshine, which I really can't complain about, especially as the weather has closed in over the Sussex downs again.

Ninja comes out of the AEG board games stable, and makes plenty of use of hidden movement. I love hidden movement games. Readers are referred to Nuns On The Run (Mayfair) or Fury of Dracula (Games Workshop / Fantasy Flight) for other examples of the genre.

I've written on this blog about Ninja before, so won't be going into depth on how it plays. Suffice to say, consider this an after action report and nothing more.

In the first game I elected to play the guards. My opponent was learning the rules and made an early error, searching part of the grounds outside the core castle target locale, and thereby betraying the presence of the traitor samurai. All missions in Ninja can only be completed in one of the two castles in the complex, not the surrounding estate. I exploited said error, sending a sentry to search for the traitor. I wounded him with a kenjutsu card, but the traitor retaliated with kenjutsu, killing my sentry and diving into the moat before a nearby patrol of spearmen could respond.

The wounded traitor got into the castle with a rope, despite efforts by one of the castle samurai to find him, and stumbled on the castle well almost immediately, allowing him to fulfil his mission of poisoning the well. He then managed to sneak out again, and escape to freedom.

By this stage the ninja had revealed he was searching the other castle. I closed on him too, waking more samurai and sending a patrol into the castle to look for him. But he again struck lucky almost immediately, finding and killing the honoured guest and then escaping via the secret passage!

Down 0-1 I set up for the second game, this time taking the ninja and the traitor. In this case the traitor swam the moat and roped his way into one castle, stumbling onto some secret war plans which he realised were the objective of the ninja. He got out the way he came, circling around through the estate to the other castle, and drawing off a patrol from the main entrance. This allowed the ninja to shadow walk into the first castle to retrieve the plans, shadow walk out and escape via the secret passage.

The traitor used the drunk samurai ploy to get into the second castle through a side gate. He then used the 'It's Only A Cat' card to escape notice from one sentry, killed a second hidden sentry with his katana, and completed his mission (I think it was another well poisoning incident), and then escaped via the secret passage. Except he didn't. My opponent deduced where the entrance was by process of elimination, using a listening sentry, and then sent a patrol around the side of the castle - they found the entrance and went into the passage, discovered the traitor before he could get out, and killed him.

We were on turn nine, which meant it was possible to activate a second, inferior traitor in the castle grounds (a junior samurai or somesuch) and provided him with a new mission (house rule this, as otherwise it is possible to place samurai around the well and make it near impossible to succeed). The traitor got into the other castle using a drunken samurai card, killed the honoured guest (his new mission), but made the error of sneaking too close to the secret passage. I forgot there were still two samurai in there, cleaning their swords having just butchered one traitor. They suddenly emerged from the passage and did the same to the new traitor. Lucky break for the guards, not so good for the traitor.

Oh well...we called this a draw, leaving me 0-1-1, and it was time for supper.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Why Destiny disappoints

I was quite excited about Destiny. The trailers spoke to us of awesome graphics. The marketing patter heralded an online game that would combine adventure gaming, sandbox, first person shooter and social network. Destiny achieves all this but somehow it still ends up being lame.

In Destiny you build a character and can travel from planet to planet in your little fighter, doing one of two things. The first is running around a particular level, taking out the bad guys, and achieving missions which then unlock other levels and provide you with the ability to buy new kit. Nothing particularly new there.

The other is simply dropping into a level where you take part in a team-based skirmish with other players. Again, nothing new there. Games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Red Dead Redemption offer something markedly similar.

Sandbox-wise, again, the game really does not offer an experience that is vastly better than Oblivion or Fall Out 3. Indeed, I'd say Fall Out is a more impressive game at the end of the day, even though it is older. I could wax lyrical on the sub-culture of Fall Out here, but that's not what this post is about.

I just feel as if the computer gaming industry is running out of steam, at least on the console level of the market. There seem to be far more interesting things happening for tablets and mobile phones, in terms of creativity, imagination and sheer innovation.

I suppose you could argue I'm comparing apples with pears here. A console game, especially a high profile release like Destiny, is like a big summer blockbuster movie. A great deal of money is spent in its development, and hence a studio is simply not prepared to take any large risks that might alienate the customer base and potentially lead to a loss-making project. This does, however, stifle innovation.

What we're left with is seemingly an array of releases that retain the same old gameplay and functionality I could expect from PS2 releases like Judge Dredd and Star Wars Battlefront 2, except that these latter games are STILL more innovative than Destiny. What they lose in graphical presentation is made up for! I idled away hours of my time playing Dredd on the PS2, and still enjoy Army of Two (PS3)for its over the top macho humour (nearly finished this, by the way).

By contrast, I'm downloading new and fresh games to my iPad on an almost weekly basis, for a fraction of the cost of Destiny (which is selling for less than £10 in second hand stores in the UK, unsurprisingly).

So, we will continue to keep our eyes peeled for interesting new games on the PSN, while spending more and more time on the iPad. Because that's where the creativity seems to lie these days.

Friday, 10 July 2015

One hundred thousand!

"Me? An IRA man? Mixed up in WW2? Preposterous!"
Three big things happened this week. One, the Chinese stock market and the New York stock market both almost fell over within 24 hours of each other, for different reasons. Secondly, this blog passed 100,000 visits, which has to be a major milestone (I'll be celebrating with a glass of prosecco this evening). Finally, we concluded our World War Cthulhu story arc most unexpectedly.

I'm really only going to focus on the third of these, the conclusion of our current World War Cthulhu campaign, at least for the time being. My RPG group tends to disappear over August, hence making it useful for any current campaign to wrap up before that happens. Regular readers will know we've been playing World War Cthulhu for a while now, and a more detailed exposition of events can be found over on our GM's blog.

Suffice to say, from a player's perspective, we'd reached a point where we felt our cover had been compromised. Our SOE team had hijacked another SOE team's mission in Vichy France in order to hunt for a missing German occultist. At the same time we were trying to breathe some much-needed life into a local resistance cell, although the presence of a copper mine nearby, and the interest of the German army in said mine, were making things increasingly difficult. That's before you factor in the presence of some kind of cult in the valley we were operating in, and the general level of incompetence and tomfoolery displayed by the resistance cell.

Following the visit by a Mythos entity to the cottage where three of our team were staying, resulting in the detonation of our entire supply of C4, and the destruction of the house, it was felt that we needed to move quickly to find the missing German occultist and get out of town. A close encounter of the Gestapo kind eventually deteriorated into a midnight gun battle which resulted in the deaths of two Gestapo men. This, we felt, was not going to be ignored by the Germans, and we concluded there would be too much heat coming down on us.

Don't let the pan pipes fool you - these things are lethal.
We thought the missing occultist might be held in some tunnels we'd discovered under the village. We decided to break into them through the orchard of a resistance member we suspected of being a cultist (we had found the exit from the tunnels previously and detected signs of people coming and going on his land). Before we could get into the tunnels, we were ambushed by Mythos creatures (see picture) and fought them off with some well-applied gunfire, including once again demonstrating the sheer lethality of fully automatic weapons in Call of Cthulhu. While we survived, we knew the entire German garrison would be coming down on our heads.

It was a necessarily brief debate. I was for gambling all to go down the tunnels, but the bulk of the team was for fleeing the village in a stolen Gestapo car, with Gestapo badges, and making for the Spanish border. This we succeeded in doing, living to fight another day. We had, however, failed in most of our objectives.

It is entirely possible we'll be revisiting this setting with the same characters later. However, I myself am tempted to retire my PC, Pierre-Yves Bertrand, as he was simply  too much of a liability. Although a local national, his knowledge of the country and people didn't come in that handy, and his skill as a trained pilot was never called on. Coupled with horrendous interpersonal skills and lack of any stealth, he became more of a liability than an asset!

Friday, 3 July 2015

Black Sails

The cast of Black Sails having a moody moment.
It is not often we write about televisual entertainment on this blog, but Black Sails is enough of an exception to warrant it. Part of the brave new generation of programmes that have been ushered into being by the advent of internet delivered digital entertainment, Black Sails is the creation of Jonathan Steinberg and Robert Levine, and chronicles the bloody careers of pirates on New Providence Island in the Bahamas in the first quarter of the 18th century.

Black Sails hit small screens in January 2014, and had some air time on YouTube as well. IIRC, I watched it on Netflix here in the UK. I have just finished watching the second series, and understand that funding has been made available for a third. The show certainly still has plenty of momentum.

It reminds me a little of a James Clavell novel, if Clavell had thought to write about pirates in the Caribbean. There is something of Tai Pan in this saga, which keeps track of multiple characters, all with their own treacherous foibles and ambitions, all trying to make a fast buck, while those with wider vision seek to protect Nassau from what they see as the inevitable retribution of the British.

Unlike Pirates of the Caribbean, this series is a far more brutal affair. There is also plenty of sexual adventuring across all sorts of boundaries, plus the expected beaches and palm trees to make it all look good. The special effects, particularly around the sea battles, are fantastic and convincing.

But it is really the characters that stand out, including Captain Flint (yes, that Captain Flint) played by Toby Stephens, the beautiful fence, Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), the whore with ambitions (Jessica Parker Kennedy with a pretty decent French accent) and the mad-dog working class pirate captain in search of acceptance, Charles Vane (Tom Hopper).

L to R: Vane, Rackham and Anne Bonnie, pirates all!

Some of the characters in Black Sails are real personalities from history, like "Calico" Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz), and the aforementioned Charles Vane, who were both pirates active in the Caribbean at the same time. In addition, fictional characters have been added, including people who show up later in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, amongst them Long John Silver himself (Luke Arnold, who almost convinces us Silver was Australian) and Billy Bones Manderley (Tom Hopper). Just how much Stevenson mined from history himself bears some investigation.

Captain Flint and friends seeking Spanish gold...

I've now watched both series of Black Sails currently extant, and heartily recommend, although be warned, there is plenty of blood and swash in this one, making Pirates of the Caribbean seem tame by comparison. Apparently, filming has begun on series three, although we aren't likely to see that until 2016 at the earliest. How are we going to be able to wait?

Thursday, 2 July 2015

The Return of Supremacy

When I was at university, when the Cold War was winding up and the smell of perestroika was in the air, a friend and I went looking for a board game to play on Oxford Street in London. In the end, we bought two, Imperium Romanum II, by West End Games, which I still have but think I've only played the once, and Supremacy. This latter went on to dominate much of our board gaming over the next six or seven years.

Supremacy feels like it has grown out of Risk, but is a much more sophisticated animal. Each player takes one of six global powers - e.g. USA, European Union, China, Soviet Union. There are also South American and African factions. There is a strong economic component in this game - players manage corporations which produce minerals, oil and grain, which they can either sell to the market or use to power the expansion and movement of their own armed forces (moving a fleet one space takes one oil, for example).

Supremacy forces you to focus on the size of your armies, as players have to pay maintenance fees to keep their units in the field, a similar mechanic to Blood Royale. I've seen players forced to resort to issuing bonds to continue to maintain their sprawling forces.

The market in Supremacy was a great mechanic, as it provided a major source of income, if you could time your sales correctly. If a commodity was very cheap, it could be obtained to power your war machine, but conversely, if expensive, there was a temptation to off-load commodities from warehouses to make a quick buck.

Each player committed to only three actions per turn from an extensive list, and buying or selling in the market was one of these. Moving troops and fighting constituted other actions. Hence, if you were committed to a war for too long, such as I was once in South America, you could end up neglecting your economy.

The other interesting aspect was the capability to develop nuclear weapons. There was a nuclear winter rule - once 12 nukes were used in anger, the game ended in nuclear winter, and everyone lost. Things start without WMDs and it is shocking how fast nuclear weapons proliferate, followed by the infamous L-stars (a satellite defence system against nuclear weapons, although this could also to used to provide an additional intelligence edge to conventional forces). Nuclear forces added an additional dimension to the game, as did the deployment of boomers (nuclear-armed submarines) which could move around the board in secret mode.

A nuclear missile goes off in Kazakhstan as China invades Siberia.

Hours of fun. Expansion packs included submarines and land-based bombers, spies, saboteurs, biological and chemical weapons, and options for warlords. These latter were the neutral forces that occupied the grey zones in between the major powers, and could vary substantially in strength. They acted partly as an obstacle for overseas expansion, but could also be buffed up with weapons sales if you needed them as an ally.

I recall my controversial decision to sell chemical weapons to Saudi Arabia in order to stop Africa from getting into the Middle East. The African player was pulling his hair out, as Saudi already had five army corps, making it an expensive proposition as he started massing troops in Egypt. The weapons deal made the whole Saudi project that bit more costly for him and in the end he shelved his invasion plan.

We played this game extensively between about 1990 and 1998. In the end, we ran out of time and people available to commit a whole day to the thing. I sold my 50% share in the game to my friend, who then moved to the north of England. I've since tried to see if second hand copies were available for sale, but sadly it looks like gamers hang onto this one. It was one of my favourite games to play in the 1990s.

The big news is that Command Post games has announced they are re-launching the game as Supremacy 2020, taking into consideration feedback from the large and loyal player base. Expected publication date is the end of this year. I am supremely excited about this, even though the likely price tag will be close to £100. Whether I ever get to play it is an open question, but like Ogre GEV, at least I'll have a copy of it.