Saturday, 28 February 2015

Cthulhu Gloom - a playtest review

The daughter and I sat down to give Cthulhu Gloom from Atlas Games a test drive. She likes card games, and it is always worth having a few that can be slotted in at the start or indeed end of a gaming evening. Something not too demanding, which can be played in an hour or less. Gloom, or rather, Cthulhu Gloom, fits the bill.

I've owned Gloom for some time, and recently bought its Cthulhu Mythos love child without even having played the original. Gloom is about trying to bring misery and disaster down on the heads of your otherwise happy family (each player has a family of five characters with a distinctly gothic timbre reminiscent of Tim Burton's films). The objective is to firstly play as many disasters on your own family members as you can, and then hopefully eliminate them in some exotic manner, thereby allowing you to lock in your score - the worse the disaster that befalls them, the better for you! Meantime, there are nice cards to play on your opponents.

The game uses transparent cards that are laid on top of the character, thereby keeping track of their dismal progress, and also recording whether they have died or not. Once one family has become totally extinct, the game ends, and the points for deceased characters are totted up. You can't kill off happy family members, nor can you score characters still alive at the end of the game.

Cthulhu Gloom is a very similar game to Gloom, but uses the Cthulhu Mythos as its theme. I believe there is also a Dreamlands expansion. Characters are selected from the pages of H. P. Lovecraft's stories, and my opponent gleefully recognised Herbert West, but only because he also appears in Cthulhu Fluxx! My family was the Charles Dexter Ward.

Cthulhu Gloom features an additional element called story cards, which you can claim if you have enough symbols on your cards pertaining to a particular theme  e.g. Madness or Monsters or Investigation. As events are played, some of these symbols will begin to crop up. I was able to claim Friends of the Feds as a story theme, for example. This is as nice twist, and something the core Gloom set does not possess, although it may be covered off in other ways in one of the Gloom expansions.

At some point I will attempt to chronicle some of the tales a typical game of Gloom seems to throw up. My two dancers from the King in Yellow play were locked up in a sanatorium and later chased down tunnels by flying polyps. While they were interned it became very hard to do anything with them. A clever play of the asylum card by my youthful opponent.
A story card from the game

One of my characters (Randolph Carter) fell in love with a librarian, who encouraged him to go to university, keeping him well inside positive territory for most of the game. It was only after viewing some Pickman paintings and perusing a diary, that he finally decided to join an expedition to the Mountains of Madness. By that stage, however, the game was close to conclusion, and I was unable to kill him off, although my alienist character did manage to die screaming when he met Nyarlathotep and my cat got eaten by ghouls.

Still, the scores on the doors were 168 - 94, so I was thrashed, fairly and squarely.

I did actually really enjoy Cthulhu Gloom, and it does neatly fill the niche of not too demanding to play, and also possible to finish well inside 60 minutes. I have yet to give the original a go, but am sure I will find takers. I am also casting my eye over the expansions to see if there is anything worth acquiring to increase the scope of the game. Gloom, for example only comes with four families, and sometimes were are five or six, so an extra family would not go amiss. The designers advise against going beyond five players, however, presumably because this will slow the game down too much.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Dead of Winter - a play test review

I finally succumbed and stumped up for a copy of Dead of Winter by Plaid Hat, and my what a beast this is. I was already sold on the concept of survivors in a zombie infested ecological nightmare, struggling against the cold, food shortages AND the undead (not to mention each other on occasion). It is an epic game which combines so many elements I enjoy under a single roof, and also seems to be selling like hot cakes at time of writing.

What, then, do we like about it?

Survival horror

This game is an ode to the survival horror genre. Players take on the roles of small groups of survivors, working together from their fortified base, the Colony, to gather fuel, food and other supplies from locations in a small town beset by an Arctic winter. In some respects, it does remind me a bit of Silent Hill, 28 Days Later and 30 Days of Night, all rolled into one.

The objective of the game can change, as there are several different missions. In the version we played, we had to keep the fuel coming every turn. Miss one delivery, and it was curtains. At the same time, however, you have to keep the Colony's overall morale up, and this can be eroded by a variety of factors, but most particularly, by food shortages, and the deaths of survivors. Every time a survivor ventures out of the Colony, he/she is taking their life in their hands, and there is a dreadful red fate dice which can decide what happens to you.

Zombies

Apart from the weather conditions, the town also has a zombie problem. Infections and zombie 'surges' tend to kill more characters than anything else. The game comes with many, many stand up card zombies of a very high quality to keep track of where the zombies are gathering. They are also surprisingly big and do a good job of representing the zombies wandering around town and lurking in buildings, not to mention massing outside the fences of the Colony.

Co-operative

This is a co-op game: you have an overall objective to meet, as well as your own private objectives. Ultimately, to win you need to make sure that the Colony goal is achieved and also ensure you meet your own goal. It means you are playing together but at the same time, you have one eye on your private objectives. Ultimately, it seems likely that only one player can win, but as your personal mission is secret, it is harder to stop other players.

Traitors

However it is also possible, although not likely, that one player is a traitor. In our game none were, but a traitor will be working to stop the Colony from meeting its objectives. If enough players become suspicious of you, they can vote to exile you from the Colony. This is similar to the discovery of Cylons in Battlestar Galactica, but there is scope for an innocent party to be exiled. It will be interesting to see if this ever happens.

Action Dice

The game uses an innovative dice activation system for characters that limits what they can do, based on the rolls you have at the start of the round. This reminds me very much of Song of Blades and Heroes, except you are rolling your pool first and then deciding which characters under your command act. Dice are allocated to various actions, some of which require a specific result or higher (e.g. searching a building for supplies) and some of which require you to simply sacrifice one die (building a barricade). Many characters also bring particular skill proficiencies to the game, like killing zombies, searching particular locales (the school principal knows his way round the school, for example) or healing people (the town doctor).



There is a strong story-driven element to the game which is generated by so-called Crossroads cards. These are drawn by the player next to you on your turn but only read out if certain conditions exist, often if a particular character is in play. Many of these deal with the back stories of the survivor characters, but they can also introduce new characters to the story or change the plot. Crossroads cards require players to vote on an outcome or present the individual player with difficult choices. The whole game experience feels like you're playing through a series of the Walking Dead - there are strong RPG undertones which might attract some gaming groups to it.

Favourite moment? There were so many, but certainly having the weather close in, trapping our foragers away from the Colony and forcing them to fend for themselves was a great moment. Or Kelvin's joy at a ninja joining his group, only to find that the ninja was infected, turning into a zombie and infecting his gypsy fortune teller as well (forcing the Colony to shoot her)! This was just the tip of the iceberg - the fireman going into his parents' old home, to be attacked by his undead father, or the sheriff screaming in the basement of the police station and bringing more zombies down on him, or the park ranger sitting on top of the hospital and sniping away at zombies in the snow. The atmosphere is constant and the tension never lets up.

Dead of Winter has plenty of depth: the variable mission structure, both for the Colony and for individual players means that no game is ever going to be like the last one. I'm certainly keen to give this one another go, and soon, and for anyone still dithering about whether to buy their own, go out and get one now, as they seem to be selling out as fast as retailers can stock them!

You can see Dead of Winter played by Will Wheaton et al on Table Top -


Monday, 23 February 2015

I'm Spartacus!

Well, actually, I wasn't, and indeed, once he turned up, I was going to give him a wide berth.

What am I jibbering about? The excellent Spartacus board game from Gale Force 9 of course. While my copy of the Firefly game remains firmly in its shrink wrap, I have had the opportunity to play a couple of sessions with Spartacus, which Kelvin has wisely procured, and it is very nice too.

The game draws its inspiration from the television series, but unlike, say, Battlestar Galactica, I don't think you need to have watched it for the game to make sense. Everyone is pretty familiar with the lives and priorities of Roman gladiators, after all.

Each player in the game takes on the role of a domus, a Roman family that has invested in the gladiatorial games as a means of raising their political status. Each domus has a slightly different starting line up of gladiators, slaves, guards and other assets. Your objective is to reach and hold an influence level of 12. Starting influence varies depending on how long a game you want. We found we could finished a game with starting influence of 4 in an evening, which is ideal for us.

During play you intrigue against the other domus (domi?) in an effort to promote your own interests, ideally using your guards to stop other players from shafting you. There is an excellent bidding phase where players bid for slaves, gladiators and equipment, like the deadly trident, as well as the right to host the next games.

The arena phase is a stripped down miniatures combat game, but manages to make a man on man duel exciting and unlikely to be samey, which is essential for a gladiator game IMHO. Two warriors facing off in the rather two dimensional confines of an arena could get boring quite quickly, but Spartacus uses a dice pool mechanic (attack, defence and speed pools) that measures combat effectiveness and damage flawlessly to produce exciting - and sometimes comic - results.



Spartcus is good fun, even when you're losing. There is nothing boring here, and each phase of the game has something to keep your interest, even when other players are taking their turns. Do I have enough guards to protect my domus? Should I bribe the tax officials, or do I need to conserve my financial resources for bidding for slaves? Is my wounded gladiator going to recover in time for the next games?

Gale Force 9 have obviously found an interesting niche here, combining licenses from popular TV series (their Sons of Anarchy game came out last year, IIRC) with solid game mechanics and components. Feedback on the Firefly game has been very positive. Although Spartacus is the first of their games I've actually played, it bodes well for the others.

Caveat emptor - the game does have a 16+ age rating because of some of the cards involved. The original series, I hear, was fairly fruity and some of this has been ported across into the game, so it may not be one for playing with the kids, even if they are studying Roman history at school!

Friday, 13 February 2015

February update

It's been a little quiet on this blog of late, so I thought I'd simply publish a quick update on what I've been up to on the gaming front in recent weeks.

First off, we finally managed to complete our D&D 5e campaign arc, taking our little party of hardened adventurers to 4th level. DM Kelvin moved the adventure from the Forgotten Realms to Allansia, the venerable setting of the Fighting Fantasy game books, which was a welcome trip down memory lane. I think it is fair to say we all enjoyed 5e, although I'm not sure whether it would be my choice of game to run fantasy adventures with these days.

I'm Spartacus!

More recently, we played the excellent Spartacus board game from Gale Force Nine. This is a superb gladiator game that has been inspired by the TV series Spartacus, which sadly I've not watched yet. It is easy to play and frankly enormous fun. Each player is the manager of a domus, effectively a training camp for gladiators, competing against each other to acquire the most Influence in Rome. It is a long time since I have literally cried with laughter while playing a board game, but Spartacus does that for me somehow. Maybe I'm a little warped.

I am a Kickstarter backer of 13th Age Glorantha, by Rob Heinsoo, and a play test pack for this has bee released recently. I'm obliged not to discuss it publicly, but with any luck we'll get a chance to play this in the near future, and provide Rob with some feedback. I've never run a game in Glorantha before and have been keen to do so for some time. I've always imagined RuneQuest would be the chosen system for this, as it is the rules system historically most closely associated with Glorantha, but I did enjoy playing vanilla 13th Age last year, and you know what, I think it could work quite well in Glorantha.

The return of Conan

I was also very excited to hear that Conan will be returning as an RPG, hopefully before the end of this year, with the announcement from Modiphius that they  have the license. I have run Conan games before using d20 / OGL, and quite enjoyed the richness of the Hyborian setting. I wrote my own adventure for starting characters that drew some of its inspiration from Robert E. Howard's story The Frost Giant's Daughter. The PCs met as members of an Aesir warband on a raid into Hyperborea in mid winter. It featured an excellent battle when their camp was attacked by Hyperboreans, including a war mammoth. At 2nd level they then ventured south to Zamora for one of the published Mongoose adventures. Awesome fun.

Sikh Wars

I am currently trying to paint some Sikh troops to oppose my 28mm East India Company army. I'm still dithering as to which rules to use. I'm currently painting a couple of units of irregulars, which could just as easily turn up in an Afghan army, and a big unit of Sikh regular infantry.

The Sikh khalsa began its military life in the early 18th century when the Sikhs took up arms against the Mughal emperor Jehangir, and while it began life constituted along the lines of many other Indian principality armies, the Sikhs realised that they needed a European style army if they were going to stand a chance of protecting themselves from the interloping British. Hence, European military advisors, many of them veterans of the Napoleonic wars, were brought in to train the khalsa into a formidable military machine that enjoyed significant victories against the neighbouring Afghans.

I traveled to Pakistan in 1998 and was able to visit the tomb of Jehangir Khan, then in a sadly derelict state, which was used by the Sikhs as a stable for their cavalry. I don't think the Sikhs and Jehangir had got on when he was alive.

I'm painting a mix of Wargames Foundry and Studio figures and it is noticeable that the Studio Sikhs are much better proportioned although perhaps not as dynamic or characterful as the Foundry models. I have a lot of figures to paint, and will be experimenting, as ever, with different techniques to see what looks best. The tricky point will be the flags, as I've never done flags before myself, and the Sikh and Afghan armies of this period boasted some very ornate and detailed banners. I'm using octagonal bases from Warbases for the irregular troops, and they do look excellent. More on this as I make progress.

Vietnam: Charlie Company

 I'm also painting some 28mm Vietnam War US troops from The Assault Group. I got these as a deal one year at Colours in Newbury with a view to building a platoon for games of Charlie Company by RAFM as well as for the Tour of Darkness RPG. I'm approaching these from two different process routes: some have been primed in black, and some in green. The green ones are very easy to paint, as you only need to worry about flesh, webbing and equipment, and then can focus on inking and highlights. With any luck I'll get to actually use them at some point. This is a project I'm dipping in and out of when time allows.

I've recently taken delivery of a 6' x 4' battle mat from Cigar Box Battles. They produce battlefields printed on fleece, including roads, fields, steams and woodland. Up until now I've been using large sheets of vinyl of appropriate colour and texture for my larger games which you can view elsewhere on this blog. The new mat looks absolutely superb. I have opted for a generic European battlefield, although I note they have also started producing some specific American Civil War battlefields. I'd like to use this for a couple of skirmish games, perhaps some WW2 and some Lord of the Rings, and see what it looks like in action. But I've already got my eye on their grassland and desert mats as well. They are washable in a washing machine (wet dry) and fold up very neatly indeed. I think this is a great product and one that will become ubiquitous in the wargaming fraternity in very short order. Hopefully they will find a UK distributor soon. More on this once I actually manage to get a game set up.

King of Dragon Pass

I've just started playing King of Dragon Pass on the iOS, which will help with filling in some gaps for me in Gloranthan mythology. Glorantha has a very deep and sophisticated cultural background which has been in constant development over the past 30+ years. KODP is a very handy little strategy game for the iPhone and great for the train. It is reminiscent of a PBM game I used to play way back in the late 1980s, called Explorers of Orion. It is a tribal management game where you play the role of the chief, directing the activities of your tribe over the course of the seasons.

Dead Space

I've also delved into Dead Space on the PS3. It has been a while since I played anything on the PS3. Having watched Prometheus recently, I thought I'd dust off Dead Space. This is a great survival horror game inside a derelict mining ship in deep space. There are echoes of the original Resident Evil and Silent Hill here, but now you're in space. It was released by EA Redwood Shores in 2008, so is a more venerable game, but I'm not noticing that. My character has already been eviscerated three times, as I have a tendency to panic when an alien beastie assails me, but then perhaps that's the point. I'm currently only equipped with some laser bolt cutters, and as with Resident Evil, you need to manage your resources carefully in case you hit a dry spot.

At some point I'm also going back to Steam to download my beta edition of Shadowrun Online, which I backed on Kickstarter, IIRC.

Monday, 2 February 2015

5th ed Dungeons and Dragons - first impressions

We've been playing the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons for the best part of six months, and I thought that now we have completed not one, but two mini campaigns, the time has arrived to deliver some opinions on the rules. I won't make comment on the actual campaigns, which were both published products from Wizards of the Coast (Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Lost Mine of Phandelver) as I feel our real reason for playing these was to get a handle on the new system.

By way of background, I have been playing D&D regularly since 1983, when I started with the TSR Red Box edition, before being side-tracked into Call of Cthulhu in 1989. I returned to D&D when I moved to Sussex, shortly after 3.0 was released and have really been playing this more than any other game ever since. Overall, my experience has been broadly positive, and I can see the good bits of 4.0, even if it failed to meet my expectations (I wanted a game that resembled Burning Wheel but got something that looked more like Warhammer Fantasy Battle).

We had dabbled a little with the play test version of D&D Next, as it was then called, but Hoard was really our first serious attempt at the new game with first level characters, and that with no Monster Manual or Dungeon Master's Guide to speak of, as they had yet to be published. As a group we had been playing a great deal of Pathfinder, having become disenchanted with 4.0, but were struggling with the vast corpus of additional crunch that Pathfinder brings to the table, and the exponential curve in character power past 12th level. That's not to say that we don't like Pathfinder, and I am still ruminating about using it for a mini-campaign in D. M. Cornish's Half Continent setting, but that is a tale for another post (not to mention the fact that it would require an entirely new magic system).

5.0 retains much of what we love about D&D, and is less of the combat monster that its predecessor wanted to be. There are actual role playing mechanics here. I know, shocking, isn't it? There is more focus on character background and profession, and you can use role playing to earn inspiration points to aid your comrades. We didn't spend too much time on this side of the game, to be honest, and seem largely to have ignored it as we focused on fighting and killing, although we did have some intriguing character back stories on a par with those we created for our 13th Age campaign, which bodes well for the future. Role playing mechanics were a much-needed addition to the game, and I hope future Wizards releases will support this trend, rather than focusing on loot and monsters.

Combat has been simplified, and it can be hard, as Pathfinder veterans, to wean ourselves off the more complex, grid-based mechanics of a Pathfinder battlefield. Still, the combat system has yet to attain the cinematic dynamics that Iron Heroes achieved, which IMHO still stands as the best d20 combat system yet devised. I like the advantage / disadvantage mechanic 5.0 offers, which replaces + / - adjustments in 3.0/Pathfinder, and battles seem speedier to resolve, which is no bad thing.

Characters strike me as generally not as powerful as their Pathfinder or 4.0 equivalents. A 3rd or 4th level party is simply not as muscular, and encounters seem that bit deadlier. A pack of orcs can be more challenging, even at 4th level, while in Pathfinder orcs and gnolls can increasingly become cannon fodder if not reinforced by some character level officers, spell casters, or a few bigger monsters. I also like the way each character class is sub-divided into different sub-careers, allowing players to choose which path they want to take their persona - e.g. for Rogues, they could focus more on the cat burglar aspects, or on the stealth / assassin elements.

As a group, we are often presented with situations where we are missing one or more players, so having the scope to be able to run another player's character as well as your own, without becoming weighed down with the complexities of a particular character class' sub-game, is a boon, and is probably where 5.0 outscores something like 13th Age. Whether this will still work as smoothly at higher levels - e.g. 10+ - is an open question.

There are numerous other elements that tended to be game breaking in Pathfinder that don't exist here - you can't seemingly summon hordes of monsters to fight by your side, and the ability to buy or mass produce magic items has been curtailed (although potions of healing seem to be very common). It is also harder for spell casters to have multiple continuous effect spells in play. There are many points in the last campaign where I would have loved to have my Pathfinder Gloves of Navigation to hand, but appreciate the game breaking capabilities they introduced.

There is nothing here in 5.0 that I could say I actively dislike. It is a good, competent offering and should be able to hold its own against previous editions and the various pretenders to the throne. Mechanically, it does not have the 'wow' factor that some other games still offer, but the likes of 13th Age can afford to take risks in ways that I think D&D, as the industry benchmark, cannot. My kids, who have spent a long time playing Pathfinder, still seem to be wedded to the Paizo offering, but they have younger, fresher brains!

Like Warhammer 40,000, I think D&D can still be a great entry point to the hobby, and can still add enormous value in helping to recruit new blood. The only problem for D&D now is that there really are so many other variants out there (e.g. Labyrinth Lord, Fantasy Craft), all with their own selling points, and that the community it once served has become somewhat fragmented. Wizards will be able to add more value by re-launching some of their much-loved campaign settings, and winning back players that way (e.g. Planescape, Dark Sun, Eberron), a strategy I sincerely hope they adopt.