Monday, June 30, 2014

The Warlock's (Double) Review: Zombicide and Ghost Stories

I've made no bones about the fact that, because of my work on demoing Cold Steel Wardens, my time at gaming conventions has significantly changed.  At the big shows like GenCon and Origins, I really have to budget my time, making sure to have enough time for travel, food, a bit of play-time and time to troll the dealer halls.  Given that, my time in the dealer halls has become much more focused:  I'll actively hunt down deals on the items that I'm looking for, rather than simply wander around aimlessly and see what I stumble upon.

This time around at Origins, I had two items in my sights, both of them cooperative board games in very different millieus:  Ghost Stories by Repos Productions (distributed by Asmodee), and Zombicide by Cool Mini or Not.  While I only found Ghost Stories at Origins, the PlatinumChick was kind enough to pick me up a copy of Zombicide for my birthday, so we spent the past Saturday giving a run through each!

Ghost Stories

Ghost Stories takes on an area of mythology that I'll readily admit, I'm not particularly familiar with.  In Ghost Stories, players take on the role of Taoist kung-fu monks, defending a tiny village from an onslaught of ghosts, brought forth by Wu-Feng, lord of the Chinese Hells.  And, when the game's in full swing?  There are a ton of ghosts invading that tiny little village!  At times, the feeling of hopelessness and dread is palpable around the table while the ghosts are marching in, haunting village tiles and slowly eroding your defenses.

Ghost Stories
Created by Antoine Bauza (Repos Productions)
Distributed by Asmodee.
Gameplay proceeds in two phases:  a Yin phase, where ghosts enter the board, use their special abilities, and attempt to haunt village tiles, and a Yang phase, where the monks can move, exorcise ghosts, or utilize the special abilities of the native villagers.  It's an easy game to lose, truth be told:  if the monks are reduced to 0 Qi, if three of the nine village tiles are haunted, or if the deck of ghosts runs out, the players lose!  Only by confronting Wu-Feng's avatar and defeating him before the ghost deck runs out can the monks save the day!

Luckily, the monks aren't chumps at defeating ghosts.  Each monk has its own special abilities, providing an edge against Wu-Feng's army.  The red monk, for instance, is the master of movement:  he can either grant extra movement to other monks or (as an alternate ability; you don't get both!) teleport anywhere in the village as needed.  The green monk is best at manipulating dice and can potentially outright ignore the dreaded "curse" die, which certain ghosts inflict when being exorcised.  Further, each village tile has its own unique abilities, which the monks can use instead of directly exorcising a ghost.  The Sorcerer's Hut can instantly kill any ghost on the board...if the monk is willing to sacrifice the Qi for it.  The Night Watchmen's Beat pushes back "haunter" ghosts, buying the monks a little extra time before losing some precious ground.

The components for Ghost Stories aren't much to speak of--the minis that are present are fairly nice, particularly the "haunter" miniatures, which appear as creepy, lurching robed figures, advancing on the village.  The art, however, screams theme at maximum volume.  Each ghost is lavishly illustrated with horrific details, and even mechanically identical ghosts have unique art on each card.  It's a great detail that significantly improves the game quality.  I will admit, the copy that I purchased at Origins did not come with all of its complete components, though a quick email to Asmodee had the missing tiles in my hands within a week--definitely points in their favor!

Overall, Ghost Stories is a great, if punishingly hard, game that really tests your ability to work cooperatively around the table.  At times, Ghost Stories almost feels puzzle-y, with the group trying to figure out, "Okay, we can't give up that tile, but we lose it on Green's turn.  Red, can you move Blue over to the Pavilion of Heavenly Winds, so that he can attack and use the tile to move Yellow into position to take on Green's ghost?"  That's some intense gameplay, but the puzzle nature takes you out of the kung-fu theme of the game a little bit.  However, the art puts you right back into the fray very quickly and the game itself is fabulously fun.  If there's one true knock I have against Ghost Stories, it's that it only hosts a maximum of 4 players.  With our game table usually filling up to 7 or 8, 4 just doesn't cut it!  Aside from that, though?  Give it a run--Ghost Stories is a blast!


Okay, so this one's not quite fair.  I've actually played Zombicide before, at one of the Wittenberg Game Nights.  But, having received my own copy, it's quite a bit easier to review!

Created by Cool Mini or Not
Zombicide is probably *the* minis-based, tactical zombie-apocalypse board game.  Let's get that out of the way at the start.  Produced by Cool Mini or Not, Zombicide is full of great components:  fantastic tiles, thematic (and not overly gory) art, and absolutely spectacular miniatures.  The zombies aren't just carbon copy clones of one mold; rather, there are numerous zombies in various poses, genders, and clothing.  From a sheer component point, this game justifies its hefty price point.

But as a game?  It's still fairly solid.  Survivors walk that balance between feeling like epic heroes (mowing down droves of zombies with a chainsaw is not only possible in this game, but encouraged!), but are simultaneously fragile, only able to absorb two wounds before succumbing to the zombie hordes.  Melee weapons seem to have a slight edge over ranged weapons in the base game, though they come with the disadvantage of having to actually get close to the zombies!  Further, the game has an in-built mechanic that escalates the zombie threat as the survivors gain experience.

Zombicide does have few odd rules that just don't seem to make sense in the context of the game.  Cars, for instance, provide no actual cover or protection against zombies.  Further, while they're typically a welcome sight--allowing a driver to run down numerous zombies in but a single action--cars are almost a bit too common.  The scenario we played had four, just sitting in the street!  In addition, there's no way to shoot zombies that lurk in the same square as another survivor.  Unless you have the "Scoped Rifle"--an item that you have to actually assemble during the course of the game from a "Scope" card and a "Rifle" card--any shot into a mixed area automatically targets survivors first!  That's a fiddly rule that really tears down the fun of the game and doesn't make sense, outside of giving melee weapons another edge (you can choose your targets with melee weapons).

That said, there's a ton of replay value to be had in Zombicide.  In addition to the numerous scenarios in the rulebook (and the possibility of entirely random scenarios, based on simply throwing down tiles and the like), there are a plethora of free missions and promo survivors ready to be printed on the Zombicide website.  Further, Zombicide already has two major expansions out, centered on a mall (echoing Romero's Night of the Living Dead movies) and a prison (echoing The Walking Dead).  A fourth expansion is actually being Kickstarted right now, centering on player-vs-player combat within a ruined hospital.  I'm on the fence about this expansion--the prior two instituted zombies that felt "cheat-y", such as ones that were just outright immune to melee or ranged attacks--though this one does have some appeal.

With a few house rules and mechanical tweaks, Zombicide is absolutely the best, most thematic, most tactical zombie miniatures game on the market today.  That said, it does need those few tweaks for playability, and a would-be collector should be well aware of power creep (both on the survivor and zombie sides) as the expansions go on.  But, the replay value alone should keep you mowing down the hordes for months to come.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Warlock's Origins 2014 Recap!

Sweet zombie Gandhi, readers; it's been a while!  Real life has, as you might imagine, prevented me from keeping up with my weekly blogging.  However, having just made it back from this year's Origins Game Fair, it's high time to toss another entry into the pot!  So, without further a-do, here's a look back at this year's show!

Firstly, HUGE news!  After some delay, Cold Steel Wardens: Roleplaying in the Iron Age is finally on sale!  The PDF went live on the Chronicle City web-store the Tuesday before Origins, just in time for all those lovely gamers to get their hands on a copy of my first game.  Let me tell you, this has been a long time coming, and I'm still somewhat in shock that I'm a "real" published game designer.

The con itself was an absolute whirlwind for me this year.  Between the PlatinumChick and myself, we ran 52 hours of CSW.  For me, it was literally a full-time job for the week:  8 hours of games a day!  On the plus side, these games were a great mix of previous CSW players, some long-distance friends, and new players to the system.  Nearly every one of the WittGuild's games went off, with Friday and Saturday filling up the Union room we were in!

That said, I did manage to sneak away in the mornings for a while to get in some non-CSW gaming.  I threw down some ICONS on Thursday morning, a Venture Brothers-themed Paranoia game on Friday, a Cartoon Action Hour version of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe on Saturday, and a Justice League themed game using Mutants and Masterminds on Sunday before shipping out.  Also, I was sure to keep my evenings free to indulge in some of the great food found in Columbus' Short North neighborhood.

The ICONS game was an utter blast.  The first in a three part JSA storyline, the game ran quick around the table, even with 8 players sporting characters.  The GM was clearly enthusiastic about both the system and the source material, pulling out some fantastic villains to counter our Golden Age heroes.  On an awesome note, ICONS author Steve Kenson had offered the GM some prize support; a really stand-up gesture on his part!

Unfortunately, I can't really say the same about the M&M game.  The scenario felt poorly written, with little investigation or even interaction with NPCs.  We simply drifted from fight scene to fight scene with some nonsensical narration in between.  In one instance, we ended a fight scene by watching a huge portal open, only to return to play having been captured aboard a Thanagarian starship.  Worse, the GM insisted on splitting the table into separate groups for three of those four scenes, running one side's combat, completing that combat, then starting the other.  I literally spent over an hour and twenty minutes at the table before even finding out where my character (Green Lantern John Stewart) was!  While the table banter was great between the players, the scenario itself was dismal and the game definitely suffered from the typical problems with M&M:  overly complex characters with inflated (and incorrect!) numbers that don't really represent the idiom well.

However, the He-Man game more than made up for that disappointment.  Full of absolute fans of the iconic 1983 series, the game began with the classic theme song and didn't let off the gas for a moment.  While the scenario was simple, it perfectly fit in with the plotlines of the old show, while showing off the new rules for CAH splendidly.  Our game came complete with commercial breaks, breakfast cereal (it was Saturday morning after all!), and even a post-show moral delivered by yours truly!

Y'know, after coming to Origins for 7 consecutive years, you'd figure that I'd be an old hat at this thing, but really?  I find myself learning new things all the time...

  • The Happy Greek in the Short North?  Absolutely fantastic.  Even better?  It was utterly deserted on a Thursday night and our table of 8 was seated immediately.  Can't beat it with a gyro stick!
  • Speaking of food, I'm giving up on Flavors of India at North Market.  The last two times I've been there, the curry's been watery and lacking flavor.  So many better options are right there!
  • Wow, am I ever glad that we arrive on Tuesday evening.  Being able to pick up our badges the evening before the show starts really frees you up!  Those lines are hateful!
  • Best way to start the convention?  A free breakfast and a morning soak in the Drury hot tub. 
  • I think I'm done with Paranoia.  While I always have a good time playing it--and did this time, too!  Our GM was fantastic and the sheer idea of combining The Venture Brothers with Paranoia is mind-blowingly hilarious--Paranoia tends to play very 'samey' to me:  get mission, begin wacky hijinks, get terminated over and over.  It's just a touch repetitive for my taste.  Maybe I'll come back to it after a while.
  • Same thing with Mutants and Masterminds.  I'm not sure why it gets the acclaim it does, outside of being a huge part of the d20 boom.  While I love Steve Kenson as a designer, ICONS is such a superior game to M&M:  it's easier to GM, play, and generate characters in.  There are just other, better systems I'd rather play than Mutants and Masterminds.
  • Next year?  No occult themes in the CSW games.  Not that they're bad, really--CSW does low-level occult mystery games beautifully--but I want to be able to show off a new kind of scenario.  The gangs and crime families are so integral to New Corinth, it's high time I show them the spotlight.
  • Also?  No more 2 hour demos.  They don't fill out enough to justify running them.  The four hour games fill better.
  • For that matter, the Chew games didn't fill.  Very sad, considering how awesome the comic is!
  • I have no idea how I managed to stay awake during this year's Origins.  Literally every day from Wednesday on, I was awake at 7am or earlier, running game from 1pm till 11pm, then hitting the bar until at least 2am.  In the words of Lieutenant Murtaugh...
  • A tablet makes running game *so* much easier.  Great investment on my part.
  • Forgetting your camera sucks.  Obviously, no pics this year!
  • Always check a used game before buying it!  I picked up a copy of Ghost Stories on the cheap, having been told by the booth staff that he had "just checked it" an hour or two prior for another customer.  However, upon opening the game at home and popping out the tokens, I found that I was missing three vital pieces!  Hopefully my email to the creators will remedy the situation.
All in all?  I love Origins...can't wait till next year!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Warlock's Review: Sentinels of the Multiverse--Vengeance!

As I've mentioned in the past, I've become a huge Sentinels of the Multiverse fanboy.  Board games are typically an exclusively social activity for me, though I find myself playing SotM by myself when bored, taking down minions and defeating bad guys all on my lonesome, then turning around and dealing out the cards on our Friday night game nights.  SotM has become our go-to game, with its relatively quick play time and near-infinite replay value.

Sentinels of the Multiverse:
As you might imagine, I was more than excited to see when Greater Than Games announced a "mega-expansion" as part of their Shattered Timelines Kickstarter:  Vengeance.  And, while I wasn't able to back either Shattered Timelines or Vengeance, I've since picked up both expansions thanks to my Friendly Local Game Store.

The three prior SotM expansions each had something of a limited scope, focusing on a particular area or genre of comics.  Rook City emulated the Iron Age of Comics, with heroes like Expatriette (a gun-toting vigilante) and Mister Fixer (a mechanic-themed homage to Iron Fist) and villains like The Chairman and Spite, aping The Kingpin and Bane, respectively.  Infernal Relics focused on the mystic end of things, complete with homages to Dormammu and the Lovecraft mythos.  Shattered Timelines represented the 'possible futures' of the SotM universe, with heroes and villains that acted as dark reflections of their normal selves.

Vengeance, however, represents a turning point in the SotM world.  Tired of being foiled by the heroes, the nefarious Baron Blade recruits an army of minor supervillains and recurring foes to assault the heroes en masse.  Comics-wise, Vengeance most closely reflects the Marvel Comics' "Acts of Vengeance" storyline or any number of clashes between the Justice League and the Legion of Doom.  Within each of the Vengeance villain decks, numerous mini-nemeses lurk, complete with additional pain for a group containing a hated hero.

Mechanically, however, the Vengeance concept falls somewhat flat.  Rather than taking a single villain turn at the start of a round, each "major" Vengeance villain gets their own turn, requiring players to alternate Villain-Hero-Villain-Hero constantly.  This alternation makes the game significantly more complex, if only for sheer number of villain targets and ongoings out on the battlefield.  This says nothing of the additional time involved, particularly considering that the Vengeance villains are hard.  If a normal SotM game takes our group about 30-45 minutes to play, a Vengeance game easily takes twice that time due to the increases in challenge and in bookkeeping.

Four of the Vengeance heroes:
Setback, Parse, The Naturalist, and KNYFE.
If it sounds like I'm really down on Vengeance, let me clarify:  I like this expansion.  The heroes are varied and interesting, providing new and flavorful riffs on classic comics archetypes.  The Naturalist, for example, apes Beast Boy and can perform different roles based on which animal form he's in at the time.  Parse feels like something of a mash-up of Hawkeye and Oracle, able to alternate arrow shots with deck controlling abilities and able to buff herself and her allies through discards.  My favorite hero, KNYFE, mashes together Psylocke and Black Widow into a lethal damage machine who can chain card plays together for massive damage turns.  While still adhering to the core SotM mechanics, all three of these heroes provide new ways to play the game, new strategies and synergies to invoke, and solid homages to SotM's comics-born roots.

The environments, as well, provide flavorful and creative tweaks to the SotM formula.  The Freedom Five Tower is a generally beneficial environment, though numerous "Entry Point" cards can drastically increase villain damage if not controlled.  The Mobile Defense Platform makes for a great villain hideaway, complete with an alternate loss condition:  if the engines go down, the platform crashes and everyone loses!

Really, the only two decks I have yet to discuss somewhat sum up my Vengeance experience:  the heroes known as The Sentinels and Setback.  The Sentinels tweak the typical hero formula in that you play as a Fantastic Four-esque family of heroes simultaneously, while Setback utilizes an "unlucky pool" of tokens to represent his current karmatic state.  In both cases, the result is flavorful, interesting, and intricate.  In both cases, they provide a unique play style to SotM which hasn't been done before.  But are they necessary?  Do they add to the experience of playing SotM?  I can't say that they do, at least any more than a 'normal' hero might have done so.  They're fun, but they seem somewhat needlessly complex and can slow down the game significantly.

In the end, if you're a SotM fan, you've probably already bought Vengeance.  While I wouldn't say it's the strongest expansion--that's probably Infernal Relics or Shattered Timelines--it's a quality addition to the line with some unique tweaks on the existing SotM mechanics.  If you're new to the game, I'd definitely recommend picking up some of the other expansions before you start eyeing up Vengeance.

Friday, January 31, 2014

In Which The Warlock Updates...

No, friends and neighbors, I haven't totally discontinued this blog.  Obviously, entries are somewhat slow to come by in recent weeks, but I owe you an update at the very least.

In the past month, I've actually found some gainful employment, if not quite what I'd like to be doing:  I'm currently in training with Kaplan to become an SAT/ACT prep coach.  It's on a part-time basis, which isn't ideal, but coupled with my regular freelancing gigs and my (hopefully soon incoming) profits from Cold Steel Wardens, I'll be able to continue searching for a full-time position.

Speaking of CSW, we've hit another delay--this time, on the publication end.  Ideally, we'll head to press before the end of February and the PDF will be on sale before that.

I am, however, still intending on representing Blackfall Press on the convention circuit.  I've been hard at work on a new series of adventures, including ones based on DC Comics' Birds of Prey and Image Comics' Chew.  Ideally, I'll have my 2014 convention schedule up within the next few days.

Hopefully, I will have a few more entries as I get back into the swing of things and back into a 'normal-ish' routine.  Thanks again for your patience!

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

In Which The Warlock Rattles Off Reviews...

With the massive "30 Days of Gamemastering" behind us, I feel like I've somewhat fallen behind on my geekly duty of reviewing the assorted nerdity that's come out in the last few weeks.  It's time we remedied that!  So, let's take a quick, encapsulated view of some of the comics-based items that have been out in the past few months:

Better than the first one, but not flawless.
I'm holding out more hope for Captain America 2.
Thor: The Dark World:  While I enjoyed the first Thor movie, it played something of a weak sister to Iron Man and Captain America: The First Avenger, settling on a bog-standard "hero learns humility" arc.  The movie was serviceable, but the sequel's promotion promised raised stakes and a more nuanced plot.  Really, Thor: The Dark World didn't disappoint.  While Chris Hemworth's Thor is solid, Tom Hiddleston's Loki is the again the real star, chewing the scenery with aplomb.  Unfortunate, Christopher Eccleston is utterly wasted as dark elf villain Malekith the Accursed, whose motivations are enigmatic at best and whose lines are few and far between.  Seriously.  Darth Maul got more face time than Malekith

Overall, I really enjoyed Thor: The Dark World, but I left the movie feeling that certain character beats were just missing.  I really look forward to seeing the Blu-ray/DVD release, as I wouldn't be surprised to see extended versions of certain dialogue scenes, particularly between Thor and Loki.  It's not a perfect movie, but it's a great addition to the Marvel Cinematic stable.

Give it time.  It's getting better.
Plus, Tahiti is a magical place...
Marvel's Agents of SHIELD:  I've really had high hopes for this show, hoping that it'd provide the "connective tissue" linking some of the Marvel movies and hinting towards an ever-expanding universe.  So far?  Ehhh.  Individual episodes have been somewhat hit or miss, with real winners like "The Girl in the Flower Dress" and "F.Z.Z.T." but also several mediocre filler episodes.  While Clark Gregg's Phil Coulson is still an inspiration--particularly as he slowly uncovers what really happened to him following his "death" in The Avengers--the remainder of the characters feel like they've been ripped straight from TVTropes.

But, there's promise.  Victoria Hand, played by an inspired Saffron Burrows, provides a unique glimpse at a darker, more covert SHIELD, seeming to point to the turmoil upcoming in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  An upcoming episode features the Extremis-enhanced Mike Peterson (J. August Richards) joining the core group, implying a greater focus on the superheroic universe.  This is a show that, more than many others, has been suffering from "First Season Syndrome".  Once it finds its niche?  It's going to roll on all cylinders.  I'll keep watching.

Poor animation, a middling plot, and
unnecessary gore keep this one under par.
Justice League:  The Flashpoint Paradox:  Ouch.  Just ouch.  While the DC Animated Universe has trounced Marvel's handily for the past decade--probably the only multimedia arena that DC has unequivocally won--this one left me utterly disappointed.  Based on a Geoff Johns plotline which led into the "New 52", the Flash's nemesis, Professor Zoom, alters the timeline such that the world sits on the brink of war between Atlantis and Themyscira.  Thomas Wayne has become Batman, following the death of his wife and son.  The Flash is left to navigate the chaos, track down Zoom, and find a way to restore the original timeline.

While the voice acting in Flashpoint Paradox is quality, the character designs and animations are clunky and ill-formed.  Many of the masculine characters are overly muscled and veiny; Aquaman, at times, appears to have no neck whatsoever.  Female characters, notably Wonder Woman and Lois Lane, are given "anime eyes" that look almost detached from the rest of the character model.  The art here simply is not of the same high quality that the DC Animated Universe has established thusfar.

Worse, though?  The level of violence in The Flashpoint Paradox is utterly deplorable, particularly for a film rated PG-13.  While I'm not averse to violent comics or the like--I enjoy Sin City, The Boys, and pretty much anything else by Frank Miller or Garth Ennis--this film is marketed to a younger audience, for whom it is utterly inappropriate.  Aquaman flat-out executes individuals on screen.  Dismemberment is rife.  Justice League mainstay Cyborg is literally ripped apart in one of the final fight scenes, while another scene shows Batman use a pistol to shoot another character...through the bloody hole in that character's skull.  The violence in The Flashpoint Paradox is gratuitous, distracting, needlessly gory, and totally unnecessary for the plot.  I can't recommend it.

Mechanics and theme clash drastically
in this disappointing board game.
City of Remnants:  I had high hopes for this game, after being given the elevator pitch by Sean while we were up in Columbus for a game night.  Imprisoned by an oppressive alien force, players took on the role of gang leaders, attempting to carve out a niche for themselves beneath the noses of their alien overlords.  The game promised cutthroat conflict, conniving, backstabbing, and underworld dealings.

What I got?  A Euro-style worker placement game with elements of "Dominion"-style deckbuilding.  Unless the players actively engage one another in player-vs-player combat--generally a bad idea for both factions involved, due to the clunky mechanics of combat--there are few ways to even influence another player's actions, much less backstab or even interact with other players.  After losing a key piece of territory--I made a calculated risk that didn't work out--my influence on the game was utterly nullified.  The game went on for over an hour more, with no meaningful contributions on my part.

City of Remnants could have been a tactical, backstabbing good time, but its Eurogame elements really hold it back.  Rather than achieving victory by accumulating wealth or territory--items that would thematically be fitting for an organized crime game--the game insists on using a nebulous victory point system.  Instead of being able to interfere with others' operations--shaking down a casino, tipping off cops to others' activities--players have no real interaction unless they directly confront one another, which is almost universally a bad proposition.  The theme and mechanics of City of Remnants are utterly dissonant, leading to a misshapen, poorly designed game.  Give this one a pass.