Tuesday, February 27, 2024

More monsters please: Free League’s Dragonbane Bestiary

 The Dragonbane core set includes an entire multipart campaign, much more adventure content than many roleplaying games offer right out of the gate. But what is a voracious gaming group to do once they’ve played through the campaign? The game has been a success so further published adventures seem more than likely, but for now, the Dragonbane Bestiary provides not only a ton of suggestions for encounters with the monsters detailed within, but the potential to adapt adventures from any number of other games – all you really need is substitute monsters.

One of Dragonbane’s greatest features is the system that it uses to handle monsters. Rather than a block of statistics that require already overworked gamemasters to run them as though they were player characters, Dragonbane instead gives minimal information on movement and defense, and a random table of possible attacks and other options – interesting, descriptive things for the monster to do on its turn. It’s a great system that makes things easy for the gamemaster, but if an encounter you have in mind requires a new monster, it will require some heavy lifting to create a new table of actions.

The core rules detail a handful of basic fantasy creatures, a selection that is rounded out nicely by the Bestiary. which adds over 50 new creatures to the mix, and includes most of the monsters from the core rules in order to be a one-stop guide. Each monster entry includes an adventure seed describing a scenario where the players might encounter the monster, which the gamemaster can incorporate into an existing adventure or flesh out into a full-fledged encounter.

Dragonbane already has a wide variety of species for players to choose from for their characters, from the routine elves, dwarves and halflings to the more unusual Wolfkin and Mallard (yes, you can play a duck). The Bestiary adds many of the more humanoid monsters such as goblins or ogres as playable characters. It’s a simple addition, often no more than an extra paragraph per entry, that adds a ton of value to the book.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) A great resource for Dragonbane players and gamemasters, offering more than you usually get from a monster manual.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Leaping and evading in Star Wars: Shatterpoint

Over the past 10 years or so there have been several new Star Wars miniature games, but for the most part I've avoided them, owing to what I must admit is a cognitive bias known as the "sunken cost fallacy." I invested heavily in, and have a large collection of, the pre-painted collectible Star Wars Miniatures Game published by Wizards of the Coast between 2005 and 2010, and was irrationally resentful of any new game that dared to suggest I should have to buy new versions of miniatures I already had. As a result I avoided getting into Imperial Assault or Star Wars: Legion (X-Wing wasn't a problem because I never bought into the WotC starship game).

So when Star Wars: Shatterpoint was announced, I didn't really pay much attention. At least, not right away. A few weeks into the release I started seeing images of the miniatures, which are gorgeous but done at a much larger scale than any of the other miniatures games I play, except for maybe Knight Models' Batman. Most of the terrain I already have would be too small, and I wouldn't be able to mix and match them with any of my older Star Wars miniatures. But wait! The core set for Shatterpoint comes with its own set of great looking plastic terrain! I started looking into the rules, and it looked like the game played differently from any other games I have. And those large miniatures were growing on me...

All my objections to the game seemed to be melting away, so I bought the core set and a few expansion packs, and sat down to start assembling and painting. Normally I don't really like putting together miniatures -- like most people I can't seem to open a tube of superglue without getting it all over my fingers, and assembling gaming models is usually an exercise in patience, small motor skills, and figuring things out without the benefit of instructions. Not so much with the Shatterpoint models. I actually found myself enjoying the assembly process, no doubt thanks to the larger size and especially the helpful step-by-step assembly guides.

I don't mind assembling terrain, but normally I don't really enjoy painting it. Again, the Shatterpoint pieces defied expectation by providing a nice surface with a lot of interesting details for the paintbrush to pick out. Even if I never got the game to the table, I was having a lot of fun with the model kit aspect of it all.

The Shatterpoint rules are...interesting. It was clearly designed to be a competitive tournament game. The rules are written in a bizarre legalese that understandably wants to be consistent and clear but often ends up explaining the simplest concepts in the most complicated way possible. However, there is a good game design in there, and after a few games we did manage to find it.

Most skirmish-level miniatures games (games where each side usually has between 5 and maybe 15 models that represent individual characters) tend to follow a familiar pattern of "everybody run to the middle and fight" -- players spend the first few turns moving their models into position, and the rest of the game rolling dice to see if they can hit each other. Additionally, most games tend to focus on eliminating your opponent's models as the primary path to victory, which makes sense but at the same time can be demoralizing once you start losing, as you watch your forces slowly dwindle away.

Shatterpoint gets away from both of these clichés by using area control as its primary focus. Rather than eliminating your opponent's pieces, the goal of the game is to gather your models around Objective tokens which are placed on the board in a simple grid pattern. Controlling an objective at the end of your turn gains you momentum, in the form of a marker which moves back and forth along a track like a tug-of-war. If you move the marker close enough to your end of the track, you win that struggle and the momentum tracker resets. If you win two out of three struggles, you win the game.

The trick is that as each new struggle begins, the objectives you need to control move, and after the first struggle their position randomly changes every turn. You can predict where they might be, but you can't know for sure where your models need to be at any given time. The game encourages a lot more movement than you normally see in skirmish games, and this is reinforced by the terrain that comes with the game -- it takes the form of small buildings and gantries that create a multi-level playing field that forces a lot of interesting tactical choices and looks great on the table.

The game's combat resolution system supports the idea of fluid action as well. Like most of Asmodee's Star Wars games, Shatterpoint uses proprietary dice -- the attacker rolls, looking for a number of "hit" results, and the defender rolls, looking for results that will cancel the hits. It's a very common system that many skirmish games use, but Shatterpoint adds what on first glance looks like a flowchart. For each successful "hit," the attacker is given a choice of results that can include damage to the opposing model, but also more dynamic results like pushing the target away or allowing the attacker to move or reposition. It makes combat more interesting, and further supports the idea that the game is about movement and position more than it is about inflicting damage on the enemy.

Shatterpoint does a great job of emulating the high-energy action of the Clone Wars animated series, no mean feat for a turn-based strategy game. Players who are used to more traditional skirmish games will need to adjust their expectations (and their tactics) a bit, but if they can, they'll find a unique and refreshing game.

Rating 5 (out of 5) From assembling and painting the models to actually playing the game, Shatterpoint has been a joy from start to finish.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

An underrated gem: Iki, a game of Edo artisans

Iki is a beautiful, lavishly designed game about wandering through a marketplace in historical Edo-era Japan, with an interesting spin on the tried-and-true worker placement mechanism. Normally in worker placement games, players start with a handful of workers and they compete to place them on the board in the spaces that will benefit them the most, usually by giving them a resource they need in order to buy assets that will in turn generate victory points. Iki more or less does that too, but in this case, players are only placing one worker on a turn.

Each player has two primary game pieces: an Oyakata and an Ikizama. Rather than being picked up and placed somehere new each turn (as with most worker placement games), the Oyakata remains on the board moving in a linear loop from turn to turn. Each space offers actions such as buying or selling rice and wood, buying fish, or building up firefighting ability (apparently fires were a huge problem in the crowded marketplaces of old), which among other things determines who goes first each round. Additionally, players will place cards on the representing artisans who add additional options to the space where they are placed. So the position of a player's Oyakata is important, and controlling how far it moves each turn is critical.

The Ikizama behaves more like a traditional worker placement piece. At the start of each round, players place their Ikizama piece on one of five possible spaces. These spaces determine how far that player's Oyakata will move on this round, either 1, 2, 3, or 4 spaces, with a fifth choice that allows the Oyakata to move anywhere from 1 to 4 spaces. These numbers indicate exactly how far that player will move their Oyakata, and only one player may place their Ikizama on each space -- this is where we see the normal worker placement competition. The fifth space allows a player to move their Oyakata anywhere from one to four spaces, but at the cost of forfeiting part of their turn -- they won't be able to place a new artisan card. Players can collect Sandal tokens from various sources that can be spent to add to their Oyakata's movement, which allows for a little wiggle room.

It's an interesting combination of elements because it gives the player different things to think about when planning their turn: how far do I need to move to accomplish the task I want to for this turn, and how can I make the most of my turn if I can't get to the market space I wanted? These are common conundrums in worker placement games, but Iki offers some different mechanisms for getting there, and as a result the game feels a little fresher than more traditional fare like Lords of Waterdeep or DinoGenics.

Players score victory points by collecting sets of retired artisans, which points to another interesting element of the game. Each round, players have the option to hire artisans, strategically placing them to make board spaces more useful to land on. These artisan cards also provide resources to their owners during an income phase that happens once every three turns. Each time an opponent uses one of your artisans, they gain experience which changes the income they give but also gets them closer to retirement -- after a certain amount of experience, the artisan card leaves the board for its owner's player area, where it continues to generate income and also contributes towards victory points based on the number of different types of artisan cards a player collects.

In addition to collecting retirees, players can score bonus points by purchasing fish, pipes and tobacco (an oddly specific collection of cultural items) and also by spending resources to add building cards to the board. Buildings take up artisan spaces, but instead of offering an action they generally give end-of-game bonus points, so they're a trade-off but give players something to work towards. As if that weren't enough to keep track of, buildings and artisans are vulnerable to the dreaded fire, which is the game's way of occasionally clearing the board to keep things from getting stale.

At three points throughout the game, a fire starts in a random corner of the board, removing building and artisan cards unless the card's owner has sufficiently built up their firefighting ability, which they do mainly by playing artisan cards to the board and by visiting certain board spaces. A player's firefighting number also determines where they go in the turn order each round, so they have extra incentive to keep this number moving forward over the course of the game.

Akebono, an expansion that appears to have been unfortunately underprinted and is a little difficult to find, adds a riverfront where players can build boats that act similarly to the artisan cards, providing resources to any player that cares to use them and letting their owners rack up a "trade score" that provides bonuses at various points in the game. It also adds a board to better keep track of which artisans and buildings are available.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) Like the best games of this type, Iki combines a few different game mechanisms, gives them a new spin, and straddles that fine like between complex and complicated.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Old school roleplaying with a modern sensibility: Dragonbane

Thanks to the very successful relaunch of Dungeons and Dragons in 2000, and the even more successful re-relaunch of 5th Edition in 2014, we are in the middle of a roleplaying renaissance. There are more, and better, roleplaying games on the market now than there have ever been, and the discerning roleplayer is overwhelmingly spoiled for choice – our roleplaying group is only half joking when we say that we’re scheduled out to 2026 or later with all the games we want to try.

Dragonbane is a “re-imagining” of Drakar och Demoner, a Swedish roleplaying game that was in turn based on Worlds of Wonder, an early rival to Dungeons and Dragons originally published by Chaosium (of Call of Cthulhu fame) in 1982. Drakar och Demoner ran through several editions before eventually landing at Fria Ligan (AKA Free League Publishing) who successfully crowdfunded a new edition, dubbed Dragonbane for the English language market, that had been redesigned from the ground up, combining the basic rules system from the original game with several new innovations pulled from their stable of well-received games.

The Dragonbane boxed set is an incredible value, with a complete rulebook and an 11-chapter adventure book, both lavishly illustrated by noted Swedish artist Johan Egerkrans, along with a poster-sized map of the game’s setting, a smaller gridded map and cardboard standees for playing out battles, character sheets, dice, cards to randomize treasure and improvised weapons, and even a solo adventure to help teach the game system. It’s a great introductory set for anyone new to roleplaying, but there’s plenty to interest experienced roleplayers too.

The game system is smooth and easy to play, without a lot of the superfluous rules and options that can lead to analysis paralysis in other games. Each character gets one action and one move on their turn – the action can be used to attack, defend, or do something else that requires a skill roll like picking a lock or looting a corpse for its valuables. Skill rolls (including attack rolls) are made by rolling under a target skill number, with no pesky adding up of bonuses to slow down play.

One of my favorite innovations is the way monsters are handled in the game. Most modern roleplaying games have the gamemaster running monsters as if they were player characters, with a complete set of statistics and options, but I’ve never liked this approach. It adds unnecessary detail and complication where the only thing that should matter is how the monster’s presence affects the players and their story. Dragonbane borrows its monster concept from other Free League games such as Forbidden Lands and Alien – each monster has some very basic information like movement and defense, and a randomized table detailing different things the monster might do on its turn. It’s a great approach that makes running the game a lot easier and more fun.

Probably the best value in the Dragonbane core set is the Adventure book. Most roleplaying game rule books give you a single introductory adventure (if you’re lucky), so unless the publisher follows up with additional adventure modules (or you have the creative energy to write your own adventures), you’re out of material after a game or two. Dragonbane gives you an entire multipart campaign with eleven fully developed locations to explore in a linked story that builds to an epic conclusion.

That brings up one other element about Dragonbane that I find especially appealing: rather than inserting the players into complicated plots and drama, the adventures are primarily based on exploring locations, mainly underground tunnel systems that might feel familiar to old school Dungeons and Dragons players. But there are still plenty of interesting characters and plot twists to satisfy players who like a more story-driven approach to their roleplaying.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) The combination of gorgeous visuals and solid game play, plus the large number of fully developed adventures in the core set, makes Dragonbane an incredible value for new or experienced roleplayers.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Maybe just a short walk: Tokaido Duo

Tokaido is one of our favorite games. We've found it to be especially good for engaging our non-gamer friends and relatives, thanks to the uncomplicated game play and stunning graphics. This is great, but honestly, we don't have very many non-gamer friends. The vast majority of our board gaming time is spent with just the two of us, and Tokaido (like most worker-placement games) is a much better game with three or more players, to the point that if you play it with only two you have to use a third "dummy" player to maintain the competition for optimal spaces on the board.

The dummy player is fine, and it doesn't interfere with our enjoyment of the game, but what if there were a version of Tokaido that was designed for two players? Enter Tokaido Duo, the game we didn't know we needed.

Having recently played Tokaido's sequel game Namiji and rejected it for being too similar to Tokaido, we were naturally a little wary of introducing yet another variation on the theme. But in this case, we found the game to be different enough from the original to keep us interested. It has too many small parts to be Travel Tokaido, but it is a version that works well for two players and can be played in a shorter period of time and on a smaller table.

Rather than each player choosing a single character with a unique ability, Tokaido Duo gives each player the same three characters: an Artist, a Pilgrim, and a Merchant, each of whom uses a different part of the board. The Pilgrims travel around the perimeter of the board, which works in much the same way as in the original game, with each space offering a particular benefit that usually racks up points exponentially, so the more often you move your Pilgrim to the same type of space, the better. The Merchants travel the paths between mountain villages, where they buy items, and coastal towns, where they sell them, with each town only interested in a specific item.

The paths between the mountain villages and the coastal towns also form the borders to the different areas of the board where each player can move their Artist. The more other character pawns there are in spaces next to the area the Artist ends up in, the better, introducing a more tactical level of movement than the more single-minded race of the original game.

Who gets to move when is determined by three dice, one for each type of character. At the start of a round, one player rolls the dice and chooses one, indicating which character moves and how many spaces. Then the other player chooses one, and so on. After the third dice is chosen, the other player rolls them and chooses one, becoming the first player. The game ends when any of the characters of either player complete their task: either the Artist gives away all their paintings, the Merchant fills their board with gold, or the Pilgrim visits a temple or garden a certain number of times. This adds another layer of strategy to the game, as players will want to try to manipulate things so that the game ends when it is to their best advantage.

Even though it's meant to be a two-player version of a game that we already have, Tokaido Duo feels like a new game, and will be great for those times when we don't have enough players, enough time, or enough space on the table for the full version.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) Tokaido Duo has all the flavor of the original game but provides a different set of interesting game play challenges.

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Starship Captains: reporting for duty

For the most part, the point of publishing a game based on a licensed property such as a book or television series is to take advantage of brand recognition and a pre-existing fan base. They present fully realized characters and worlds that game designers can assume the audience is already familiar with, and thus don't need to be explained the way they would if the game took place in a new setting. Star Trek presents an interesting case: its tropes are so well known and ingrained in our culture that it's possible (even fairly easy) to do Star Trek without doing Star Trek. It's what makes it possible for Seth MacFarlane to do his own spin on Trek, or for the jokes in Galaxy Quest to be easily understood, even by an audience of non-Trekkies.

All of which brings us to Starship Captains. This is easily my favorite new game of 2023 (although it came out at the end of 2022), and possibly my favorite Star Trek board game of all time. Of course it's not an official Star Trek game, but it's close enough in terms of the world it describes and even in terms of the gameplay structure. In particular it very strongly evokes the tone and story structure of the brilliant Star Trek: Lower Decks animated series -- it's a game about assigning cadets and ensigns to do menial tasks aboard the ship, and occasionally sending them on missions where they're sure to be out of their depth.

Each player takes on the role of the captain of a starship which starts out in a state of disrepair. You start with a small crew of ensigns and cadets who need to be assigned tasks, ranging from repairing and upgrading the ship, to moving the ship to new locations in order to solve missions. Solving missions (and fighting pirates) awards medals and other benefits, which allow you to train your crew so that they are better and more efficient at their tasks. Whoever scores the most points after four rounds wins.

One of the things I really like about the game is the lack of randomness. Tasks are performed by assigning crew of the appropriate color to them, who then go into a queue that determines which crew will be available on the following round. Each round players get a new cadet, who starts out grey but can be upgraded. Additionally, crew can be promoted, which allows them to do two tasks in a turn, or pull another crew out of the queue so they're available for use sooner.

The range of tasks in the game covers the Star Trek gamut, from fighting (or maybe just outsmarting) pirates using diplomacy to get in good with other cultures, another way to score points and other bonuses that will make future turns more effective. The rules are deceptively simple but there are a lot of interesting decisions to be made, and a little but of forward planning is needed, as the order in which you assign your crew determines which ones will be available later.

The components are as good as they need to be, and the cartoony artwork keeps the tone of the game friendly and fun. If I have any complaints, it's that games tend to end a little abruptly -- I often feel like I'm just getting started when the final round is over.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) A well designed, well presented game that evokes the feel of a certain beloved franchise in a way that many "official" games don't always seem to manage.