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!