Monday, June 30, 2014

The thrill of the chase

Over the years, collectible games like Magic: the Gathering have gotten a bit of a bad rap for what is perceived as the "scam" of selling cards or miniatures in randomized booster packs, thus "forcing" players to spend a ton of money in order to get the cards or miniatures they need to play. I take issue with that idea for two reasons. First of all, no one can force you to buy something you don't want. But more importantly, building up a collection of game pieces with which to customize your deck of cards or army of miniatures is a huge part of the experience of these games.

I think the thing that has soured a lot of players on the idea of chasing cards by buying booster packs is simply the rising cost of those packs. The cost of a pack of 15 Magic: the Gathering cards has risen from $2.25 in 1993 to $4.00 today, and a Heroclix booster pack, $8 for four figures in 2002, is now $15 for five figures. In fairness, the average cost of a movie ticket or a comic book has more than doubled since 1993, but I can see where the thrill of collecting might diminish a bit when players are shelling out $100 or more every few months to maintain their collections.

All of which brings us to Marvel Dice Masters, a collectible dice game that combines elements of card games like Magic with colorful, custom-printed dice featuring characters from Marvel Comics. The game is sold in a starter set that includes all the basic dice needed for two players, plus dice representing Marvel characters such as Iron Man, Captain America and the X-Men, and booster packs containing two random dice with their accompanying cards that explain their abilities in the game. The booster packs retail for a mere 99 cents, substantially cheaper than a pack of Magic or Pokemon cards.

Since its release in April the game has been incredibly popular, so much so that the publisher is struggling to keep up with demand. The game's success seems to prove my point that maybe it's not the collectible format that players have grown weary of, but the amount of money they're talking themselves into spending on it.

The game itself is very similar to Wizkids' earlier Quarriors. Players begin with a bag full of basic dice that represent energy, which is spent acquiring more and better dice that represent characters who do battle with the opponent's dice. But Quarriors takes its game structure from deck building games like Dominion, with players all choosing from a common pool of dice, and their characters never staying in play for more than one round. Dice Masters uses the the collectible game model, with each player bringing their own "team" of dice, using combinations and strategies that have been thought out before coming to the table.

Each player begins with 8 "sidekick" dice in their bag, and an assortment of dice with corresponding cards representing Marvel characters (as well as iconic items such as Captain America's shield and Thor's hammer) on the table in front of him. There are also an assortment of action dice in the center of the table, that both players have access to. On his turn, a player draws and rolls 4 dice from his bag. These dice can come up as either one of four types of energy, or a generic sidekick character. The energy is used to add character dice to the player's bag from among those he's brought to the game. When the character dice are eventually drawn and rolled, they can come up as energy to spend, but also as characters that are used to attack the opponent's dice, or the opponent directly if he has no defenders available. The goal is to reduce your opponent's life total to zero from a starting value of 10-20, depending on the scale of the game.

Marvel Dice Masters is a lot of fun, with entertaining game play to back up the great looking dice. I find myself less interested in the more competitive team building aspect of the game; when we play, we always just take turns choosing the dice we're going to use. I must admit that I wouldn't mind at all if it were sold in a boxed set like Quarriors, but I really don't mind the collectible aspect of the game. I still enjoy the thrill of the chase.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) There's not quite enough depth to this game to warrant a 5, but it is a lot of fun, and definitely offers more strategy than the more random Quarriors.

Date played: May 3, 2014

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Instant role playing game

I am a big fan of the immersive nature of gaming. I like to lose myself in the world of the game, and to me exploring is more fun than simply winning. It's why I tend to favor adventure games like Fortune and Glory or Runebound over abstract strategy games, and it's why I love collectible card games but don't really like playing them at a competitive tournament level.

Naturally I like role playing games, where the entire point is to let your imagination run wild, and the setting and story are far more important than "winning." What I don't like about role playing games, however, is the sometimes large amount of prep time involved. When it's my turn to be game master of our bi-weekly role playing group I tend to favor pre-written adventures set in recognizable worlds. As a player, I don't particularly enjoy creating characters to play, and most of mine tend to be thinly disguised versions of characters from media, history or literature.

Mansions of Madness is what Wil Wheaton calls a "role playing game in a box." It combines the immersive, story-driven experience of a role playing game with the structure of a board game, using H. P. Lovecraft's 1920s based Cthulhu Mythos for its setting.

One player takes the role of the Keeper, and is responsible for setting up the game and controlling the Lovecraftian cultists and monsters that serve as the game's antagonists. The Keeper's role is similar to the game master in a traditional role playing game except that in Mansions of Madness the Keeper has his own set of strict rules to follow, and he can play to win.

The Keeper chooses a scenario and the board is set up, using tiles that represent the different rooms and surrounding grounds of a rickety old 1920s building. Each scenario has multiple story options for the keeper to choose from, so they can be played multiple times without the players knowing what's going to happen. These story determine the contents of different stacks of encounter cards that are placed in the various rooms on the board. Encounter cards can be useful items, obstructions that must be passed, or vital clues to the plot of the scenario being played.

The rest of the players take on the roles of investigators, choosing from a roster of suitably Lovecraftian characters such as tweedy professors, society debutantes and hapless scientists. Over the course of the game, the players explore the board searching for clues to the resolution of the scenario. Meanwhile, the Keeper has a specific set of action cards that he uses to place and move monsters on the board, with the intention of fulfilling the nefarious purpose of the scenario's villain.

The game is weighted in favor of the Keeper: he knows what's going on long before the players do, and the monsters and cultists he controls tend to be more powerful than the investigators. But, like other Lovecraft-based games such as Arkham Horror, the sense of doom-laden near-futility is appropriate to the setting and source material.

With its 1920s Lovecraftian setting, well-made components, and emphasis on story over competition, Mansions of Madness hits so many of my touchstones that I can't really give it an objective review, but it's a near perfect game for me.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) It really is role playing without all the extra work, which is exactly my cup of tea.

Date played: May 3, 2014

Monday, June 23, 2014

Finding the score

If you've read my reviews of Fortune and Glory or the Indiana Jones DVD Adventure Game, you'll know that I am a great fan of the pulp adventure genre, especially the Indiana Jones series. That theme is what initially attracted me to Lost Cities when I first picked it up way back in 1999.

The theme is certainly rooted in the search for the relics of lost civilizations, but it takes its inspiration from the ponderous nature of an archaeological expedition rather than the fast-paced thrill ride of an Indiana Jones movie. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as the game play is interesting, and the slow pace gives players time to look at the beautiful artwork on the cards.

Lost Cities was our introduction to the games of German mathematician and game designer Reiner Knizia. Knizia has created over 400 games, and in many cases he doesn't design games so much as he designs elaborate scoring systems. The actual game is often just a way for the players to interact with the scoring system, but to me, Knizia's genius is in finding the right theme for each system he comes up with, and I think he does that pretty well with Lost Cities.

It's a two-player card game that consists of five different sets of cards numbered 2-10, each set representing a different expedition to find a lost city. Each set of cards also includes three "investment" cards, which represent the various universities and governments that might back an expedition.

Players play cards from their hands to different stacks in front of them, one for each expedition. There are discard for piles each expedition in the center of the table, and players have the option to discard to these stacks or take the top card from one of them instead of drawing from the deck. At the end of the game, players score points based on the numerical values of the cards they've played into each of their expeditions, and any investment cards played into a stack will double, triple, or quadruple the score for that stack, depending on how many investment cards were played.

But there's a catch. Actually, there are several:
  • Each player deducts 20 from their score for each stack. So if you can't score at least 20 points from a stack, your score will quickly go into negative numbers.
  • Investment cards must be played before any cards with numerical value. So you have to decide whether you're going to try to multiply your score before you really know whether you're going to make it out of the 20 point hole. The multiplier is applied after the 20 points are deducted, so if you have 2 investment cards on an expedition that only scored 10 points, you are looking at a final score of -30.
  • Numbered cards must be played into expeditions in numerical order, from lowest to highest. So if you draw a 7 for the desert expedition after you played the 8, you are out of luck and have to decide whether to discard the 7 or hold it in your hand to keep it away from your opponent. This is where the game's theme really shines: each card illustrates a progression on the path to one of the lost cities, so as you play each successive card, it is as if you are moving farther into the jungle, deeper into the ocean, or higher into the snow-capped mountains.
Meanwhile, your opponent is playing cards into his own expedition stacks, so you have to be careful about which cards you discard. Each player is required to either play or discard a card every turn, so a good deal of the strategy is in anticipating what your opponent is doing, so you don't give him too many cards he can use.

It's a simple game, but with a lot of strategic decisions to make. The random nature of the cards means that every game is different, so it has a lot of replay value. Plus, it comes in a relatively small box and doesn't have any tiny, easy-to-lose pieces, so it makes a great travel game, which is appropriate for a game about exploring lost ruins.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) Not an overly compelling game, but easy to play with enough strategy to keep it interesting.

Date played: May 3, 2014

UPDATE July 20, 2015: Another look at Mystery Rummy, Lost Cities, and Camelot Legends

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

You had to be there

The Lord of the Rings Trading Card Game came out in late 2002 in what I can only describe as a perfect storm of circumstances. Trading card games had been around long enough to be a proven format, but the post-Magic glut of games had faded to the point where only the strongest contenders were still in the marketplace. The economy was riding the tail end of the late '90s dot com boom, so the target audience had plenty of disposable income.

The game was based on Peter Jackson's film adaptations of the Lord of the Rings books, which were wildly popular but strangely lacking in an overabundance of merchandise, at least at the beginning. The publisher, Decipher Inc, was at the absolute top of their game at the time, having gone from success to success with their Star Trek and Star Wars games. They had built up a fiercely loyal following of in-store tournament players around the world, and it was these players that the game was mainly designed for.

It's an incredibly elegant game design. It gets past the problem of whether to play good or evil by having players do both: a player's customized deck consists of an equal number of Free Peoples and Shadow cards so that on each player's turn, that player plays his Free Peoples cards and his opponents play their Shadow cards in opposition. The competition lies in which player can move his party of characters through an unfolding line of locations more quickly, or alternatively, keep them alive long enough to destroy his opponent's ringbearer and seize the Ring.

The cards are divided into the various cultures of Middle-earth depicted in the films, both good and evil. Deciding whether to play Elves or Dwarves, goblins of Moria or minions of Saruman, or some combination of cultures was the basis of the game's deck-building strategy, and it gave players in the tournament community banners to rally behind.

The in-store community of players was where the game really thrived. It was competitive but very well balanced, to a point that there was never one deck type that dominated tournament play for more than a few months. The publishers kept a close eye on the tournament community and worked to eliminate what they referred to as "negative play experiences," situations that might come up in the game as a result of unforeseen strategies or card combinations. For an unfortunately brief time, they were able to foster a gaming environment that was challenging and competitive but still enjoyable.

When we dug our Lord of the Rings cards out of storage to play for the first time in several years, we found that the rules came back to us quickly, the cards looked just as good as we remembered, and all the game's brilliant mechanics were still there, but ... something was missing. With just the two of us playing, with decks we had built over 10 years ago, we were missing the environment that we used to play in, the community of players who kept the game fresh and challenging by bringing a variety of deck designs, strategies and personalities to the table.

The game was definitely poorer without them.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) It would be a 5 out of 5 for the game design, but we're rating it lower to reflect our lessened enjoyment of the game outside of the community we used to play it with.

Date played: April 27, 2014